Tuesday, September 30, 2008

2008 .MOV International Digital Film Festival

Roxlee Eye.MOV

2008 .MOV International Digital Film Festival (September 20 - October 7, 2008)

I. Ultimo and Khavn De La Cruz

One of the most memorable screenings in the fourth edition of the Cinemalaya Film Festival is that of Khavn De La Cruz's Ultimo (2007). There were less than thirty people in the Tanghalang Huseng Batute, a small performance theater housed inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines. To call Ultimo a film (which it technically is not, as with all of De La Cruz's filmless films) is a disservice to De La Cruz's ambition. The film is essentially a montage of slightly related or totally unrelated shots around La Palma in the Canary Islands. The verses of Mi Ultimo Adios (My Final Farewell), the poem Jose Rizal wrote before being executed by the Spanish colonizers for his revolutionary ideals, serve as intertitles to the black and white, silent feature. While the film is screening, De La Cruz plays the piano as the words of Rizal's poem are being disarranged and repeated to serve as cadence to the performance. A dancer performs to cap the experience.

While at first, Ultimo feels hefty, disjointed, and pretentious, as the minutes fly by with the incoherent black and white images flickering onscreen with the dancer twisting her body in various shapes and words are recited in rhythm as De La Cruz's melodies become more enraged, one can't help but get swept into the hypnotic madness and enjoy the experience. Rizal's most famous poem was honored and raped at the same time and one leaves the performance in a speechless fervor, unable to describe the ultra-sensory experience that was ingeniously orchestrated by De La Cruz. De La Cruz has been described as a Renaissance Man: a filmmaker, a musician, a poet, a writer, a visual artist (and the list goes on and on). I am quite sure that the thirty of us sitting and watching intently inside the Tanghalang Huseng Batute would agree.

Khavn De La Cruz's Ultimo (2007)

II. "dot-mov" and Blinding the Eye of the Storm

De La Cruz is also a film festival director and his film festival bears the many facets of his creative personality. .MOV is only partly a film festival. It is also a celebration of music, of art, of the tightly knit community that has been ushered by the so-called digital revolution.

His .MOV (pronounced as "dot-mov") International Digital Film Festival was established in 2002, and became the springboard for some of the most talented young filmmakers of the country. Raya Martin, whose Now Showing (2008) premiered in the Cannes' Director's Fortnight this year and directed several other internationally acclaimed features like Autohystoria (2007) and Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional, 2005), debuted his short Conscientious Object-Or: The Reality of Olaf (2002) in the festival. Similarly, John Torres, director of Vancouver-winner Todo Todo Teros (2006) and Sherad Anthony Sanchez, director of CinemaOne-winner Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other, 2006), gained recognition for the shorts they premiered in .MOV, Tawid Gutom (2002) and Iyak ni Maria (2002), respectively. There is little doubt that the little known film festival took part in the growth of these filmmakers. In fact, these filmmakers, along with Lav Diaz, have become the frontrunners of the Philippines' digital revolution.

In pursuit of its slogan of blinding the eye of the storm, the 2008 edition of the film festival, set during the typhoon-frenzied week of September 30 to October 7, 2008, would have patrons braving the heavy rains to to attend the festivals following programs:

DIGITAL DEKALOGO 10X10.MOV | presents ten of the best foreign digital full-length films from the past 3 years.

1 “A Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams And The Warhol Factory” by Esther B. Robinson ( USA , 2007) [Best Gay Film in the Berlin International Film Festival]

2 “Re-Defining Video” by Kyle Canterbury ( USA , 2007) [19-year old avant-garde boy genius]

3 “Days Of The Turquoise Sky” (Kurus) by Woo Ming Jin ( Malaysia , 2008) [starring Malaysian actress Carmen Soo of “Kahit Isang Saglit” (A Time For Us)]

4 “Cinnamon” by Kevin Everson ( USA , 2006) [about drag racing in Black America]

5 “Head Trauma” by Lance Weiler ( USA , 2007) [a psycho supernatural horror flick]

6 “En La Cama” by Matias Bize ( Chile , 2005) [Spanish erotica]

7 “Honor De Cavalleria” by Albert Serra ( Barcelona , 2006) [A hauntingly serene & moving experimental take on "Don Quixote”]

8 “Yves” by Olivier Zabat ( France , 2008) [A different perspective on the mentally handicapped]

9 “The Sun and Moon” by Stephen Dwoskin (USA/UK, 2008) [A film fairy tale, a personal adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast”]

10 “A Prima Vista” by Michael Pilz ( Austria , 2008) [A meditative cinematographic journey, a poetic documentary]

This will be presented by ten of the best local filmmakers who have pushed the boundaries of cinema in their own unique ways: Ato Bautista (Blackout, 2007), Jeffrey Jeturian (Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006)), Jim Libiran (Tribu (Tribe, 2007)), Auraeus Solito (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005), Adolf Alix (Adela, 2008), Raya Martin (Now Showing, 2008), Sherad Anthony Sanchez (Ang Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other, 2006)), Ditsi Carolino (Riles (Life on the Tracks, 2003)), Manny Montelibano (Ligaw Liham (Letters of Nor, 2007)), John Torres (Todo Todo Teros, 2006).

SHORTS.MOV | features works from the two most prestigious short film festivals in the world: shortfilms from Clermont-Ferrand ( France ) and music videos from Oberhausen ( Germany ). The 3rd SILVERSHORTS Shortfilm Competition presents the new Philippine filmmakers to watch out for --- the twenty finalists from both the student and open divisions.

TRIBUTE.MOV | premieres the new films and presents the early works of local digital indie heroes: Kidlat Tahimik, Roxlee, & Lav Diaz. Roxlee’s graphic novel “Planet Of The Noses”, Kidlat Tahimik’s DVD “Perfumed Nightmare”, and Lav Diaz’s soundtrack CD “Impiyerno” will also be launched.

WORKSHOP.MOV | offers Rotterdam International Film Festival programmer Gertjan Zuilhof (“Celebrating the End of Cinema”), Slovenian film critic Nika Bohinc, Kidlat Tahimik (“Sariling Duende”), Roxlee (“Digital Animation”), and Lav Diaz (“Coffee Q&A”). The workshops will be complemented by equally inspiring facilitators such as Quark Henares, Tado Jimenez, Alexis Tioseco, Ramon Bautista, and Erwin Romulo.

FILMCONCERT. MOV | screens Pinoy classics such as Manuel Conde's Genghis Khan (1950), the first Filipino film to compete in Venice, FH Constantino's Sandata at Pangako (Arms and Promises, 1961), an actioner starring Fernando Poe, Jr., Jose Climaco's Biglang Yaman (Sudden Wealth, 1949), a comedy starring Pugo and Tugo, and Carlos Vander Tolosa's Giliw Ko (My Love, 1939), the oldest surviving Filipino film, accompanied with new live soundtracks by Pedicab, Cynthia Alexander, The Brockas, Khaven De La Cruz and Lolita Carbon & Radioactive Sago Project.

AFTERPARTY.MOV | ends each night with a bang at the indie-place- to-be Cubao X, courtesy of music and entertainment from top notch events, media organizations and talent management groups.

EXHIBIT.MOV | Paintings. Photos. Installations. No Screens.

More details on the film festival can be found here.

Woo Ming Jin's Days of the Turquoise Sky (2008)

III. Opening Night and The Shorts of Kidlat Tahimik, Roxlee, and Lav Diaz

The entrance to the cinemas of Robinson's Galleria is rearranged to accommodate a few high tables, a buffet of pasta, chicken, meatloaf, red wine and most importantly, warm San Miguel Beer (served with a glass of ice, for those who prefer their beers cold), and a horde of filmmakers, press people, friends, and enthusiasts. For the more sociable, the mood of the event is perfectly informal: a proper introduction to the eclectic festivities that will follow.

Ventriloquist Ony Ocampo and his hilariously profane wooden friend Nonong were the perfect hosts for the night, introducing the major contributors with delightful irreverence (Nonong asks Martin, "what is indie?," and the young director tells the puppet "I don't know, ask Alexis Tioseco" before finally saying "anything that is anti-Mother Lily (owner of the Philippines' oldest mainstream studio and perpetrator of the Philippine masses' continued maleducation)"). The real highlight of the night is the first in the film concerts in the series. As The Brockas (composed of Khavn De La Cruz, Lav Diaz, John Torres, Roxlee, and Earl Drilon) perform, short silent works of Kidlat Tahimik, Roxlee and Lav Diaz, the festival's three honorees, screen.

Kidlat Tahimik's Father Videomaker Meets Tatay Videomaker is essentially a video-diary of the filmmaker's meeting with a family presumably of filmmakers. Wading through the incoherent images of video cameras, feathers floating in the courtyard pool, and Tahimik in his traditional bahag and performing various roles as filmmaker, storyteller, father and icon, the short film is more of a visual invitation to discover Tahimik's generous persona than anything else.

Seeing Roxlee's shorts for the first time onscreen is a grand experience. His portion of the night opens with Son and Mama, about a mother who leaves her dog with her son only to find out that the son has poisoned the dog. Juan Gapang (Johnny Crawl) follows. The short shows the titular character, a bizarre creation with his pageboy hairdo and his body painted white, crawling around Metro Manila. Lizard intersperses images of social and political turmoil with the silhouette of a lizard and a bag-headed man walking to and fro, and bumping into the walls of his cell. Juan Gulay (Johnny Veggie) is a hilarious take on a vegetable-worshipping farmer who allows a painter to his home. Finally, we have Hatakan (Pull) which documents a Catholic procession of men pulling crosses and carriages that house statues of saints, all for repentance. Roxlee's shorts, stylish and almost animated in their visualization of chaos and madness, are satirical of the Filipino psyche. Roxlee paints the nation's obsessions, vices, and sins into the malformations, the aberrations, and bizarrities that populate his works.

The night is capped by Lav Diaz's Purgatorio (Purgatory, 2008), a haunting filmic statement on the Philippine government's unspoken rule of dispatching political enemies. The short film starts with a man (Perry Dizon) aimlessly walking by the river. The dimness, the black and white imagery, the man's unkempt appearance, assure that he remains anonymous. Diaz cuts to a woman (Angeli Bayani), her face in utter distraught, who is also wandering about by the river. Unlike the man's aimless treading, she seems entirely possessed by a goal, a hopeless search for someone or something. The two long takes of the two walkers is followed by a sequence that consists of a vehicle traveling past a mountainside road and a group of Aeta tribespeople dancing in a circle. In the center of the circle are two men, motionless and presumably dead. The short ends with the discovery of human bones in the middle of the forest, before completing the cycle with the shot of the man in his aimless walking. Diaz's short encapsulates the melancholy felt by the mothers, the communities and the entire nation of those who chose to speak and were killed for doing so.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Teach Me To Love (2008)

Teach Me To Love (Eddie Romero, 2008)

Let me get it out. Eddie Romero's Teach Me To Love is not a very good film. Romero, who at the very ripe age of 82, attempted to resurrect his directing career with Faces of Love (2007), an amiable if not totally disposable love story about a widower (Christopher De Leon) and his former nurse and lover (Angel Aquino). Teach Me To Love, as a follow-up to Faces of Love, promises to be uncompromising, touching on the subject of teacher-student relationships, that might not be as readily acceptable as two former lovers reigniting a long-dead romantic relationship. However, the film confuses courage with trite charm, and eventually turns into an indescribable mishmash of incongruous elements that is quite frankly and most infuriatingly, near-unwatchable.

Nathan Lopez, who made the world swoon as a prepubescent gay boy in the grips of love beyond his years in Aureaus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) and later on became one of the petty crooks in Brillante Mendoza's Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), is charming enough as Mark, the high school boy who falls in love with Connie (Maui Taylor), the new Physics teacher. There's an endearing facet to his unrefined and un-manufactured acting. When he strums his guitar and attempts to belt out a tune, complete with his raspy post-puberty baritone and an indifference to tonal deficiencies, you can sense a quiet sincerity that resonates very well.

Unfortunately and probably due to budgetary constraints (which prevents Romero from hiring a different actor or investing in make-up) Lopez is also forced to portray Mark, seven years after his romantic interlude with Connie. He alights from the bus, supposedly several years older with several years worth of maturity. However, save for some barely-there whiskers and a get-up that is supposedly there to make him look older, Lopez, with some of the adolescent charms intact despite the lapse of time, could not pull it off and the performance, from being genial and honest, ends up pathetic and contrived.

Taylor suffers from the same fate of making most of what essentially are haphazardly written characters. Her Connie is fueled by an invisible force, if fueled by anything at all. Her motivations are unclear or perhaps completely absent. Thus, when she offers her student a clean uniform or a few hours of free tutorials, there's an uncertainty if she is just inherently helpful or if she is pushed by some kind of narcissism and enjoys the fact that she is being adored by her students. When she desperately holds unto her relationship with her married lover (Tonton Gutierrez) despite the fact that she's being used indignantly, it is either out of sheer stupidity or by some unknown and unwritten ulterior motive. Thus, when he suddenly makes love with Mark, it comes off as a total and unexpected surprise. There are no real emotions, no logic, just a drastic sleight of hand that simply does not work.

Teach Me To Love is restricted by awful writing and unremarkable directing. The screenplay, co-written by Romero with Rica Arevalo, is both flavorless and careless, with dialogues that are burdened with an incoherent interplay of antiquated flourish and contemporary colloquialisms, and several narrative turns that push the film into the edges of bad taste with utter implausibility. Romero directs, to put it bluntly, like a man who is yet to discover the wonders of Viagra. Thus, as a romance between a lovely and charismatic teacher and her virginal student, Teach Me To Love is flaccid and as a cautionary tale of the repercussions of such romance, it is impotent.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Anak Dalita (1956)

Anak Dalita (Lamberto Avellana, 1956)
English Title: The Ruins

Before proceeding with the story, director Lamberto Avellana first allows his audience to immerse in the story's meticulously crafted setting which are the ruins of Manila Cathedral, bombed during the second World War and now temporary shelter to the several families displaced by the war and poverty. The ruins are at once an awesome and depressing sight. The remnants of the cathedral allude to a glorious past, yet the makeshift houses that dot the cathedral's steadfast walls are persistent reminders of the bleak present, where post-war crises continue to haunt the Philippines more than a decade after the second World War ended.

While survival within the walls of the ruined cathedral is daunting, it is most certainly not joyless. The cathedral is teeming with people, as we see during the first few minutes of the film, who have managed to eke a community out of the prevailing scarcity of economic resources. There's a spot for the barber whose lack of a decent stall is not hindrance in his commerce, a corner for the women who share tips and rumors while breastfeeding their babies, another corner for the drunkards who ease their pains with the temporary joys granted by alcohol. The setting provides for Avellana stable grounds to push poverty's dichotomy (the unjust absence of resources and necessities, tempered by the arising virtues of camaraderie and integrity as forced upon by their economic state), which altogether repulses and charms Vic (Tony Santos, Sr.), the war hero who returns to Manila and is forced to live within the ruined walls of the cathedral and among the people who have temporarily resided therein.

Anak Dalita (The Ruins) begins with Cita (Rosa Rosal), a prostitute residing in one of the makeshift houses in the squatter colony, strutting down the slums in carefree fashion, donning a dress that seems inappropriate in the slum's state of deprivation, revealing a bit of her cleavage and her shapely legs. the Against the overt images of extreme penury, her striking beauty and glamorous get-up seem scandalous and sinful. Everything changes when she arrives at her destination: a pitiful shanty that houses a dying old woman whose only wish is to see for the very last time her only son, a soldier who was sent to the Korean War. Vic, whose left arm was rendered useless by a war injury, returns to the Philippines a hero. His welcome is cut short when Cita's younger brother informs him of his mother's impending death. He rushes to his mother's shanty in the slums, greeted by Cita's emphatic stare and her mother's staggered breath. The mother inevitably dies, leaving Vic in the grips of despair as Cita struggles to give him hope and win his love.

Avellana stages the drama and the love story with a subtle emphasis of his carefully set-up milieu of extensive poverty and its difficult virtues. With their impending eviction from the cathedral to make way for its reconstruction, Vic is pushed to exchange sculpting statues for meager earnings for a more lucrative job under Carlo (Jose De Cordova), Vic's former war bud who has repackaged himself into a shady yet wealthy businessman. With the affronts of post-war life's hardships and Vic's hopeless situation, honest living becomes impractical. Thus, his eventual leaning towards Carlo's shady proposition of laundering money to Hong Kong by hiding it inside the statue of Mother Mary he sculpted for the parish priest (Vic Silayan) seems understandable, and his subsequent turnaround, aided by the clever and good-intentioned machinations of Cita, is laudible.

The final set-up, an action sequence where the cathedral's crumbling walls are as necessary as Vic and Carlo's gun-fighting adversaries, caps the film's moral drama with a thunderous jolt. Avellana showcases an adeptness for visualizing kinetic tension, something he'll again showcase the following year in a duel between Santos and Silayan, as Muslim combatants in pre-colonial Mindanao, in Badjao. Avellana's pencant for mixing action and romance in a suitably-characterized settings that enlarges the consequences of the simple narrative is well-pronounced here. Anak Dalita remains to be the quintessential Avellana film.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Batang West Side (2001)

Batang West Side (Lav Diaz, 2001)
English Title: West Side Avenue

Batang West Side (West Side Avenue) represents a turning point in Lav Diaz's career. Unrestricted by the demands of commercial filmmaking, Diaz was able to establish himself as an uncompromising and relentless filmmaker. He populates the film's visuals with frequent motionless and staggered shots of fractured souls framed against the desolate and artificial landscapes of New Jersey, and rare close-ups (and when Diaz does indulge in a close-up in the latter part of the film, particularly of Joel Torre as snowflakes settle and melt on his sorrowful face, the effect is utterly tremendous). Shot by cinematographer Miguel Fabie III utilizing whatever light is available over a period of eight months in New Jersey, Batang West Side looks absolutely mesmerizing. The film is elegant in its visual austerity, something that has since then defined Diaz's unique brand of aesthetics, which is always reflective of the crises that his characters seek salvation from. From the sleepy streetlamp-lit alleyways of Batang West Side's foreign cityscape that enunciate the internal turmoils of the troubled immigrants that populate them, Diaz will similarly afflict the endless roads of the Philippine countryside, the farmlands and mines, the typhoon-ravaged towns with the vast emotional weight of his embattled characters.

It's length of five hours is both famous and justified. Of course, compared to Diaz's later features like Ebolusyong ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), Heremias (2006), Kagadanan sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in Land of Encantos, 2007) and Melancholia (2008) whose running times range from nine to eleven hours, Batang West Side is very short. Diaz's editing is pitch perfect with scenes that extend to several minutes precisely to immerse the audience into the film's disparate reality. The prolonged moments, mostly draped with ominous silence and staticity, invite arduous contemplation on the matters tackled head-on by Diaz. Joey Ayala's sparingly used score has a haunting effect. His melodies are subtle reminders of the country is totally invisible in the film but perpetually lingering.

Torre plays Juan Mijares, an investigator who is tasked to solve the murder of Hanzel Harana (Yul Servo) in West Side Avenue. The investigation serves as mere backdrop. As Mijares delves deeper into Harana's murder, the film further dissolves into a meditation of the ills that burdens the Filipino. Harana dies a defeated youth, plucked from the Philippines by his mother supposedly to rescue him from the motherland's contagious deterioration only to be lured into the shabu (or crystal meth, the drug of choice, cheap and readily available, of the impoverished Filipino youth) trade and the nightly and often violent escapades of the street gangs of New Jersey.

The participants in Harana's life and death in New Jersey are similarly situated. Lolita (Gloria Diaz), Harana's mother, in order to support her family in the Philippines, travels to the United States to marry a wealthy old man, who has been left physically incapacitated by age and disease. Her husband's mansion becomes stage to a Bergmanesque chamber drama, where Lolita is held captive both by her marital affiliation with her useless husband and her asphyxiating love affair with the Filipino helper (Arthur Acuña). As her reason for leaving the Philippines and entering into a loveless marriage was rendered moot by her son's eventual reversal of ideals and demise, her story warps into an existential void where her sacrifice and suffering become pointless. Fundamentally involved are Harana's grandfather, Abdon (Ruben Pizon), and girlfriend, Dolores (Priscilla Almeda), who offer faint glints of hope to Harana's misdirected youth. Their inevitable failure further emphasizes the painful futility of change in a culture that is headstrong with regards to its vices although stubbornly persistent in its struggle for salvation.

Diaz drifts further from the investigation, as Mijares' personal conflicts become more apparent. As the investigation of Harana's murder mutates into the indictment of the Filipino psyche, his initial recurring dreams of his mother (Angel Aquino) graduate into violent nightmares, torturing him to seek redemption from the sins repressed in his self-proclaimed exile to America. Redemption arrives by the exposition of truth through an act of cinema, represented by a documentary filmmaker recording Mijares' confessions. For Diaz, cinema is not and should not merely be a means for escapism, it is also redemptive in its search for truth.

Through the film, Diaz asks a pressing question, "what has become of the Filipino?" His answer is as bleak as the atmosphere he deftly paints. The Filipino, wherever he may be, whatever he has become, is still a Filipino. The Philippine diaspora, caused by the earnest search for greener pastures, is not the panacea that will cure what aches the Philippine psyche. It is merely a temporary displacement, since the blood, the vices, and the virtues, that bind the Filipino people as dictated by its culture and history is as inescapable as the sins that individually haunt them.

More than being a turning point in Diaz's career as artist, Batang West Side also represents one of the most important junctures in Philippine Cinema, directly or indirectly heralding a new wave of filmmakers (the list includes Raya Martin, John Torres, Khavn de la Cruz) who have have pierced and continue to pierce the veil of mainstream commercial cinematographic entertainment by making films that are fueled with personal aches and visions instead of profit-centered intentions. Although there have been filmmakers like Kidlat Tahimik (Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmares, 1977), Turumba (1981)), Raymond Red (Bayani (Heroes, 1992), Anino (Shadows, 2000)), and animator Roxlee whose works have opened the floodgates long before Diaz's five-hour masterpiece, it is the epic scope, the undaunted ambition, and the artistic integrity of Batang West Side that beacons the brave and independent spirit that relentlessly ignites this new generation of Filipino filmmakers.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Milan (2004)

Milan (Olivia Lamasan, 2004)

In Sana Maulit Muli (Hopefully, Once More, 1995), director Olivia Lamasan tells the love story of Jerry (Aga Muhlach) and Agnes (Lea Salonga), whose romance was suddenly suspended by the latter's migration to California. Years later, Jerry follows Agnes to California and discovers that the latter has changed from a sweet and subservient girl to an independent career woman. In trying to woo back Agnes, Jerry abandons his promising career as an ad executive back home to become a blue collar worker and in so doing, exposes the hardships, the realities and the very common injustices of working abroad. Alas, the movie ends in a conventional note, with the two lovebirds reuniting in a busy street in Manila. Sana Maulit Muli, which momentarily captured my imagination with its portrayal of the American dream as both restrictive yet liberating, disintegrates into formulaic tedium, where man, with all his incurable weaknesses and insecurities, still gets the woman in the end, simply because that's how mainstream cinematic romances ordinarily conclude.

Years later, Lamasan, once again, sets a love story in a distant land. Milan details the attempt of Lino (Piolo Pascual) to look for Mary Grace (Iza Calzado), his missing wife who a mere week after their wedding, left the Philippines to work in Milan and since then, has not communicated with him. He deviates from his mission when he meets Jenny (Claudine Barretto), a shrewd and street-smart Filipina who has been living and working in Milan and has decided to help Lino look for his wife. Lino and Jenny become romantically entangled, as the former finds a job and finally, a direction to his once unguided life.

This time, Lamasan expands his canvass, determined to infuse the syrupy romance with authentic stories of these Filipino citizens working in Milan through the several real interviews with them that are interspersed throughout the narrative. Although the procedure is jarring, primitive and inordinate, with the sudden transition from glossy studio cinematography to documentary footage might strain the eye and not to mention the even more sudden retraction of cinematic fantasy of screenwriters' Lamasan and Raymond Lee's romantic fairy tale to the harsher and more moving portraits of real Filipinos in Milan is somewhat uncoordinated, the inclusion of these interviews give the film a more poignant feel.

As for the film itself, it's certainly nothing extraordinary. The acting suffices most of the time, with its two leads (Pascual and Barretto) complementing the picturesque scenery (shot by cinematographer Shayne Clemente like a travelogue, with the gondolas of Venice, the vineyards of the Italian countryside, and other famous tourist places framed into the drama without a hint of subtlety) with their manufactured good looks, charm and acting style. Calzado gives a quietly affecting performance as Lino's emotionally tortured wife whose life has deteriorated into total disarray.

Lamasan has improved. From the unabashed sentimentality and unsuited reliance on formulaic filmmaking of Sana Maulit Muli, she has at least taken some risks: of mixing romance with documentary filmmaking, of unmasking Milan of some of its majestic sheen by negating its illustrious reputation with real and fictional (the heartbreaking trials of Lino's wife; the pregnancy of Vangie (Ilonah Jean) with her co-boarder despite having their respective families in the Philippines; the horrifying border-crossing hike) horror stories of the Filipino workers. Milan ends with a kiss, as with most other mainstream romances that equate jovial affairs of the heart with momentary escapism from the real world's more pressing woes. I'll be more forgiving this time since Lamasan, at least, gave that penultimate kiss a bit of a bittersweet flavor. The disarming weight of those overseas workers' struggles and plights has been temporarily lifted during that postcard-worthy moment of barefaced fantastic hallucination.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

'Merika (1984)

'Merika (Gil Portes, 1984)

Mila (Nora Aunor), a Filipino who has been living and working both as nurse in a hospital and aide in a convalesecent home in New York for years, wakes up to the voice of the radio commentator announcing the weather for the day before starting with the day's biggest local news: the recall of a line of transit buses that will inevitably lead to a reduction of available transport for commuters. She goes about her morning rituals, turns on the television to watch the morning show, which promises to tackle American politics and the latest film to screen in theaters. On her way to work, she looks at the people around her, none of which look and speak like her.

Aunor, within the first few minutes of Gil Portes' 'Merika, gives us an ample glimpse of what is happening in Mila's mind. Her barren stares are reflective of the disconnect she has with New York and her gestures tells of a discontentment of her present situation. Mila is tired of her life and is on the verge of making that crucial decision to let all the financial rewards of working in America go just to be back to the Philippines where the faces, the language, the issues are familiar and pertinent to her.

'Merika does not revel in its setting. It reveals New York from the perspective of a Filipino who has resided there for years. Thus, we see New York, notwithstanding the occasional sidetrips to more famous landmarks (atop the Empire State, or the Trump Building), as plain and ordinary and at times, boring and uninspiring. On the other hand, we are never shown the Philippines but the mental images that we get are overpowering. Through the letters and calls that Mila receive from Cora, her friend who chose to stay in the Philippines, the latest showbiz rumors from tabloids imported from Manila, or the reminiscent and colorful discussions between Mila and her elderly ward (Cesar Aliparo) about the Philippines, the city becomes even more drab, the chronic disconnect Mila that experiences in America becomes even more apparent, and her longing to go home gets more persuasive.

Of course, Mila is surrounded by fellow Filipinos who, in their own ways, are struggling in the foreign land. Her roommate and best friend Violet (Marilyn Concepcion) is on her nth attempt to pass the nursing exams. Danny (Marshall Factora), the lab technician in the hospital where Mila is working, preaches about ideologies that traces back to his student activist days, but is unable to do anything more than lecture to his fellow migrant Filipinos. When push comes to shove, life in America has become too much of a redundant necessity for the Filipinos living and working there; and with families to feed back in the Philippines, a country that is in a constant state of economic and political disarray, the idea of repatriation seems ludicrous. Much more for Mon (Bembol Roco), who relocates from California to New York and eventually starts wooing Mila to marriage, partly for love but mostly for her papers.

Portes tells the story (written by Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr. and Gil Quito) of the Filipino émigré without the usual embellishments of trite melodrama or vapid sensationalism. Instead, he paints a picture of loneliness in a foreign land that is both moving and memorable. Against the autumnal-hued (cinematography by Ely Cruz, who also lensed Mike de Leon's phantasmagoric film Itim (The Rites of May, 1976)) backdrop of back-breaking work and occasional acquaintances in a foreign land, Mila's metaphoric isolation is even more affecting, even more gripping. In the end, she abandons America for whatever unassured future that awaits her in her homeland. Before concluding with a shot of Mila boarding her plane back home, Portes indulges with a montage of the people Mila has left behind, continuously struggling on amid the mundaneness and moroseness of living the American dream. 'Merika is a wonderful portrayal of that elusive American dream, absent all the fantasies and illusions that have draped it ever since.