Now Showing (Raya Martin, 2008)
One night while discussing the life, death, and rebirth of stars, a young Rita candidly asks her mother, "what if all the stars die at the same time?" Rita's mother, unable to provide a scientifically verifiable answer to her daughter's legitimate question, smiles and proceeds to her room to sleep. Raya Martin's fourth feature Now Showing, which is premiering at Cannes in the Director's Fortnight, deeply examines that void that possibly and probably happens when all the stars have died all at once. The film, epic-like in length with a running time of four hours and forty minutes, can be divided into two parts, an episodic account of Rita's childhood and her present experience as an adult working for her aunt's pirated DVD stall, divided by an intriguing interlude composed of clips from one of the few surviving Filipino pre-war films, Octavio Silos' Tunay na Ina (Real Mother, 1939).
There is an ominous air of sorrow that pervades the film. A palpable void in all the characters most essential of which is Rita, designates itself as the film's internal heartbeat. Right from the start, where animated alphabets playfully appear to complete a quotation by Rita Hayworth ("All I wanted was just what everybody else wants, you know."), the film already declares itself as a tale of outbursting longing of a myriad of needs.
It's a visually interesting film. The first half of Now Showing has the aesthetic feel of an amateur video. Artificially aged and damaged, Rita's childhood takes the appearance of a long-kept memory, an unearthed artifact of the past. Interspersed within the film are crudely stop-animated sequences. It is succeeded by similarly damaged black and white clips from Tunay na Ina, which further emphasizes the first half's role as hindsight to the pains of a near-forgotten childhood. The contrast of the first half to the latter half is apparent and striking, since the latter is visually more formally structured, shot predominantly to emphasize the social alienation and decay that intervene in the life of Rita. Like the dozens of pirated DVDs she sells that exemplify our fake culture of commodification, she dons trappings of superficial happiness and identity but in reality, is very confused and on the verge of facing the far end of the dead-ended road.
During the opening scene, we witness Rita alone in her room, singing and dancing like her namesake, in what I fathom as a private ecstatic moment. This scene is followed by Rita and her neighbors in the street, playing. She stumbles, and then assures her friends that she's alright before excusing herself from the game. She limps home and cries on her own. During her birthday party, she feigns contentment despite the fact that none of her invited friends were around; her birthday party appearing to be a family reunion rather than a celebration of the fact that she exists. A vacation to the beach concludes with her crying, probably in reflective jealousy and envy, while witnessing a family welcoming the fishermen back from the sea.
Now Showing is detailed in the way that it peeks into the private life of its main character. There's an almost voyeuristic delectation in the way we witness some personal things we tend to declare as mundane. That interest further glows as the melancholy of the character's private life becomes more apparent. That melancholy is of course tainted by the innocence and joy of childhood and growing up, but the picture swells with that incandescent burden of painful childhood memories, not necessarily traumatic in the way most coming-of-age tales are built upon but still evidently encumbering.
When Rita grows up to be a young lady, the privacy of her childhood melancholy is replaced with a pertinent social disconnect. She appears to be the typical misdirected youth, fleeting from one party to another, and wallowing in the excesses of contemporary living. She has blossomed into a tragic figure similar to her famous namesake, who died afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease, numb to the glory of her memories. Rita has succumbed to the most common of afflictions of the citizens of this contemporary world, an inability to look back, an incapacity to retrieve memories. The subtle void and emptiness that infect her life are caused by that affliction. She has forgotten the value of history.
What happens when all the stars die all at once? Rita's mother fails to provide an answer, but Martin hints at a possible outcome --- a debilitating sense of forgetfulness and a glaring inability to connect past from present. Martin furthers this theory with his brilliant intermission, a montage of flickering, deteriorating, decomposing scenes from a pre-war film made unrecognizable by time, abuse, and national neglect. Martin's metaphor of disconnect is as blatant as it is disturbing, since the nation is naively unhurdled by this cinematic void, with plenty more of its filmic treasures dying simultaneously like the heavenly bodies Rita curiously asks about. Basically, Martin mourns a nation composed of tens and millions of Ritas, unable to recall the lessons of the past simply because the memories have permanently disappeared from convenient reach.
Martin has always focused on history (or the lack of it) with his films. He laments his nation's prevailing amnesia by composing films that visualize such emptiness. In Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan) (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos), 2005), Martin recreates the Filipino war for independence this time through the eyes of the common man. With the film, he seeks to visually approximate a moment in history that has forever passed. Martin follows up Maicling Pelicula with Autohystoria (2007), more visually ominous, detailing the execution of Philippine revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio and his brother, another portion of Philippine history that has been draped with rumors and history. By placing the event in the contemporary social and political scenario, Martin succeeds in brandishing his thesis that this national amnesia is not merely a problem that exists primarily within a bubble. The problem is more deeply rooted, and connects directly to how the nation exists now. Now Showing is much more personal (little details like young Rita's uncanny resemblance with Martin, among others), especially since it is the most narratively-reliant of Martin's films. Martin masterfully places his cinematic advocacy to a clearly personal project, and the result is simply magical and Martin's most resonant, most thematically beautiful film to date.
The film concludes with a lengthy yet beautifully shot and edited sequence of travel and transition, exposing a light of hope despite the film's melancholic and wistful air. The baggages and the lessons of the past she tug as she contemplates and daydreams on her way to that undisclosed location. She sleeps, and the picture fades into white, instead of the typical black. A simple melody is heard (the first time music is ever heard from the film since Martin mutes every song for some mysterious reason). It's a compassionate gesture from Martin as he ends Rita's tale with subtle optimism, a conceivable twinkle of grace despite having witnessed Rita in her most private aching moments. With Now Showing, Martin bares himself not only as an extremely talented filmmaker (at twenty-three years old, he has made four films completely different from each other, but bare a stamp of integrity in theme and aesthetics) but as an uncompromising yet generous artist.