Friday, July 17, 2009

Manila (2009)

Manila (Adolfo Alix, Jr. & Raya Martin, 2009)

Adolfo Alix, Jr. takes the experiment seriously. The latter half of Manila, a modern reiteration of Lino Brocka's Jaguar (1979), tackles Philip (heartthrob Piolo Pascual, artificially darkened to match his character's lower income roots), the personal bodyguard of an ambitious although reckless scion (Jay Manalo) of a big-time politician. After shooting and killing a man in defense of his boss, Philip is suddenly left on his own when his boss abandons him for fear of getting involved in the murder. Alix directs with admirable restraint and his portion of the film operates with the same energy and rhythm that Tambolista (Drumbeat, 2007) possesses which gave his visualizations of urban squalor a treacherous personality. Albert Banzon's black and white cinematography, jerky when necessary but never disorienting, contributes to the prevailing unease. While adeptly filmed, Alix's portion is more repetition than anything else. He does not even attempt to stray from what every Brocka disciple, from Joel Lamangan (Bulaklak ng Maynila (Flower of Manila, 1999) and Hubog (Wretched Lives, 2001)) to Mel Chionglo (Sibak (Midnight Dancers, 1994)), have made careers out of.

A belated colored credit sequence, which separates Raya Martin's first half and Alix's latter half, showcases something bizarre: Lav Diaz, director of films whose average running time is seven hours, is filming a romance starring Iza Calzado and Jon Avila, both of whom are popular television stars. It's an unlikely scenario (especially since Diaz seems to be quite comfortable in the set where he has klieglights, a sizable crew, and teen idols, at his disposal), both improbable and impossible. The credit sequence, funny, ironic and bursting with subtle sarcasm, gives an adequate outlook point to view Martin's portion. It begs to ask the question "do we simply believe the images as projected in the big screen, no matter how improbable and impossible they are?"

There is something subtly subversive in Martin’s portion, which opens the film. Seductively immaculate in the way he captures the city as atmospheric backdrop to the tale of William (Pascual, with whitened hair), perpetual drug addict who we first see escaping a police raid, the day portion of the film, loosely based on the characters of Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980), is driven not by narrative or a set of written characters but by an indescribable force that fuels the titular metropolis. Martin’s Manila is formless, like a nebula of rustic landmarks thinly connected by a shared motif. As with its first few minutes where Martin economically introduces his characters as cued by a jazzy soundtrack, the film exists primarily as a montage of exquisitely photographed (again by cinematographer Banzon) sequences that celebrate the allure of the city despite the thematic corruption that pervades its citizenry.

Pascual walks around a park only to lie down the grass. Martin cuts to his face. He cuts to show the sun. Martin cuts back to Pascual's face, now glowing with the sunlight, slowly being illuminated and fading to divine white. In an earlier sequence, Martin features Pascual being chased by the police after the raid of the massage parlor Pascual's character frequents. Out of the darkness, Pascual's worried but still very handsome mug appears. The subversion lies not with how expertly crafted these sequences are but by how his camera lovingly lingers to catch Pascual's face, to the point of utter ridiculousness. The visual satire of Pascual's celebrity reaches a climax during the confrontation between his character and Charito (Rosanna Roces), where an onslaught of maternal violence, tears, screams, and pleas, is captured in slow motion and extended much longer than necessary. It is supposed to be Pascual's moment to showcase his acting chops after being plastered as ornament to Manila's landmarks but Martin steals the show and creates a sequence so cinematically absurd and enthralling, that everything else, including Pascual who struggles to be convincing in slow motion, is overshadowed. Hitchcock once said "all actors should be treated like cattle." Thus, if you only have one cow and it is a goodlooking cow, you put it on display, and when it tries to do something it cannot convincingly do, you do something spectacular so attention is diverted somewhere else.

We actually never get a feel that Bernal is the driving force of his portion, except for the characters and the slow motion sequence in the hospital, all borrowed from Manila by Night. Given that Pascual seems to be a permanent fixture in Manila's seductive beauty, Martin's portion is more a hilariously surreptitious sabotage of a mainstream icon than a tribute. Pascual is the sole driving force, and Martin acknowledges it and to my mind, creatively pokes fun at it. Pascual, who after being groomed by the country's biggest television station, has turned into an insanely lucrative commodity. Pascual is not only a matinee idol, he is also a singer, a commercial model (Alix and Martin shares credits with Bench, a clothing line, Sanmig Coffee, a brand of instant coffee, Centrum, a brand of multivitamins, and a few other brands which Pascual endorses), and now, a film producer. Manila, more than a tribute to Brocka and Bernal, two of the Philippines' most prized filmmakers, is a vanity project for Pascual, and I suspect, whether it is voluntary or subconscious for Martin, is not satisfied with keeping it at that.


Douglas Racso said...

saw this one too in cinemalaya. i was bored. i slapped myself to keep me awake

Oggs Cruz said...

I know some other people who are also slapping themselves because of this film.

Alice said...

This is as close to an ego-bruising review towards Pascual as it could get. I love it.