Monday, April 20, 2009

T2 (2009)

T2 (Chito Roño, 2009)

The story of T2, written by its director Chito Roño with Aloy Adlawan (whose writing credits include Topel Lee's gratingly noisy Ouija (2007) and Khavn dela Cruz's counter-horror genre 3 Days of Darkness (2007)), is coined from the many different experiences by various individuals from around the Philippines with engkantos (nature spirits that take human form) gathered by the film's researchers during the film's pre-production. To the casual cynic, these stories about encounters with engkantos may seem outrageous, if not downright ridiculous. Tales about normal men and women who are lured into the lavish dwellings of these monarchial beings or punished with severe ailments or disfigurations for rejecting these offers are out of place in this modern world of scientific and medical accuracy. However, the consistency of these stories despite geographical and social boundaries, and the cultural and social repercussions of the abundance of these experiences from all over the country despite the expanding grasp of modernity outweigh the farfetchedness of the storytellers' implausible representations.

The fact that T2 is a tapestry of various tall tales, framed into a straightforward story about Claire (Maricel Soriano), a frustrated childless wife, who escapes from the pressures of her failed marriage by volunteering to escort orphans to their adoptive homes, is telling of what to expect from a film about wraithly nature spirits. The film behooves standard logic, even more so than Roño's recent absurd horror films, Feng Shui (2004) and Sukob (The Wedding Curse, 2006)) . T2 is most effective when it piles enigma after enigma; where the chills are not derived so much from Roño's proficiency for staging visual and aural treats that shock, agitate, and momentarily perturb, but from the lingering discomfort of unexplained occurrences that despite their impossibility maintain a stranglehold over our common cultural imagination. The film's cryptic opening, where a young man who is in search for his lost goat encounters a strange apparition of an airplane descending down an airport in a metropolis that suddenly appears out of the starless night, sets the tone, although unsustained, for Roño's more inconsistent and intriguing horror film to date.

T2 is curiously concerned with travel: the airplane that zooms past the young man in the introduction; Claire working in a travel agency; her philanthropy concerning transporting orphans from one place to another; and the initial half of the film being told in various forms of travel. Roño portrays the act of traveling with such repose that allows him to infuse it with an ominous unease, inflicted by intertwining emotions like fatigue, despair, depression and hope that consume Claire after evading from her severe domestic predicament. Humanity, ungifted with any natural weapons, opts for the logic of flight when faced with crisis. Adopted in our modern world scenario, vacations remedy work-a-day stress and inter-country migration is believed to be the cure-all to the inadequacies of an incompetent government. It is this fundamentally human trait of escapism that birthed the cultural phenomenon of engkantos in the Philippines as the common denominator of these stories is the possibility of escape, being offered by these spirits, from the hardships of the real world.

Roño clearly acknowledges this by creating travel and escape a constant thematic concern, with Claire using her mission of accompanying orphans to their new homes as a distraction from her pressing marital problems; or the fantastic offerings of leisure and comfort being utilized by the engkantos to lure Angeli (Mika dela Cruz), Claire's ward, into their realm; or the little gestures that Claire does to momentarily forget or evade her troubles like turning off her cellular phone or drowning her sorrows with bottles of beer. By emphasizing the ugliness of the real world (the dilapidated and overpopulated tenement that becomes the stage to the film's climax) and the interminable troubles that hound his characters, Roño facilitates the allure of abdicating worldly affairs for the promise of painless existence with the consequence of losing the ability to feel human emotions. However, T2 never fully explores this dichotomy since the film clearly prefers simplicity over analyzing the national malaise through the horror medium, by establishing clear lines that divide good (humanity) and evil (the scary engkantos that offer empty comforts). Roño shies from portraying the gravity of the human condition, preferring to limit earthly concerns to emotional turmoil and familial inconveniences, which are not enough reasons to facilitate the blurring of moral lines and make permanent escape a feasible, if not entirely logical choice.

This is what differentiates T2 from Guillermo del Toro's far superior Pan's Labyrinth (2007), which clearly influenced Roño. Del Toro paints Fascist-era Spain with viciousness, violence, and depravity, that makes escapism the only means for the film's desperate heroine to survive. In comparison, T2 feels insignificant and petty. This brings me to Roño's biggest miscalculation, which is to filter from the stories the social element that binds these tales no matter who tells them and no matter where the storyteller comes from. By constricting the film within the melodramatic trappings of a distressed wife and a parentless little girl who is hounded by engkantos, Roño waives making a film that transcends pure commercialism. Instead of crafting a horror film that explores a grave national ache inflicted by decades of poverty, corruption and oppression to the point of causing a nationwide malady of escapism through fables, fantasies and tall tales, Roño comes up with a competent and effective horror picture, filling but will ultimately leave you wishing it were saying something more.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Big Time (2005)

Big Time (Mario Cornejo, 2005)

Danny (Winston Elizalde) and Jonas (Nor Domingo) are petty crooks whose idea of going big-time is kidnapping the only daughter of a middle-class couple for a ransom price of 50,000 pesos, which is roughly a thousand American dollars. Before even fully realizing that their kidnapping plan is not very different from the dozen little felonies they have committed through the years (the most memorable of which is their dog-napping escapade, foiled by the mutt's incessant barking), they are involuntarily pushed into shady affairs far larger than what they have imagined. Melody (Joanne Miller), the duo's target whose recurring daydreams involve her ambitions of being a famous celebrity, turns out to be the girlfriend of Wilson (Jamie Wilson), the underachieving son of mob boss Don Manolo (Michael De Mesa). Wilson sees the awkward situation as an opportunity to double-cross his father by staging his own kidnapping, using Danny, Jonas, and his starry eyed girlfriend as props in his attempt to raise enough capital to fund his proposed illegal drugs business.

Mario Cornejo's Big Time, written by Cornejo with Monster Jimenez, is easy to enjoy, blanketing its genre affiliations with its extraordinary grasp of pop culture. The film's vocabulary, composed of references to mass culture, both past and present, is used to communicate its effective brand of humor, dark yet wildly efficient, and the aptly limited scope of emotions that it utilizes (Danny thinks that Melody looks like popular actress Kristine Hermosa; and in one scene, subtly declares affection to Melody by choosing Hermosa over another celebrity in an impromptu preferences game). In truth, Big Time is deliriously morbid in its processes and notwithstanding its reliance on fantabulous narrative twists and turns, penultimately realist in its philosophies. Its narrative, despite the distractions provided for by the screenplay's reliable internal wit, actually zeroes in on a pressing social issue that is supposed to be meant to be taken seriously, but the filmmakers decide to enunciate using genre conventions and black humor.

Cornejo and Jimenez, in pitting two small-time crooks with the complications of big time criminality, reflects on the absurd situation of Philippine society, where the gap between rich and poor is undeniable in its extent, where it is not only social status or financial capability that separate them but also their needs, wants, and cultures. In Big Time, Danny and Jonas' sudden involvement in Wilson's scheme awakens them into a realization of their insignificance in the larger world, that their felonies are trivial if compared to the convolutions of organized crime, and that because of their pitiful place in the criminal world, they become nothing more than voiceless subordinates in Wilson's strategies. Even Melody's ambition of achieving stardom, an ambition that both humorously and poignantly consumes her very existence, is negligible in the midst of Wilson's immediate plans of siphoning money from his father through the sham kidnap-for-ransom ploy he concocted. The idle time conversations are written (and the pop references are selected; Wilson prefers to refer to Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather trilogy, while Danny limits his references to local entertainment) and staged to flesh out the cultural ignorance and lack of sophistication or finesse inflicted by Danny and Jonas' small time status.

Big Time, with all its overt silliness and glaring implausibility, is tons of fun. It takes cognizance of the overwhelmingly real injustice that attaches to Filipino society without employing shock tactics or drowning its artistry with revolts or laments. Instead, it dwells on the absurdity of the societal situation of big dreams, quick fixes and unfathomable repercussions. The film reaches its bloody climax outside the abandoned Film Center of the Philippines (an artifact of a building that was created to serve as nucleus of the country's film industry, but has then been converted into a haven for amorous lovers, drug addicts, and ghost searchers; the setting of the final showdown in the Film Center can be read either as a criticism against the expensive government rendered useless both by Marcos-era lavishness and negligence, or simply put, or a slogan against a dying, if not totally dead, Philippine cinema as represented by the building, only to be given life by the sudden influx of new work by young filmmakers), where double-crossings, broken promises, and revelations erupt into a survivor-less bloodbath.

The film provides no real resolution for its pitiful small-time protagonists and no satisfying comeuppance for its shady big-time villains. Except for Jonas, whose reward is survival and whose punishment is insignificance in a sea populated by small-time persons like him and dominated by only a few. In the end, he works as a janitor and like the rest of the country, struggles to survive as one of the nameless and faceless in the streets of Manila. There is bittersweet comfort for a man to know his place and be satisfied, lest he plunges himself once again in a world that is too complicated and too big for his severely wounded ambitions.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)

Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977)

There is enough story in the forty minute opening of Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony to fill up an entire month's worth of melodrama. Kishanlal (Pran) ex-convict is released from prison only to find out that Robert (Jeevan), his boss who promised to take care of his family if he takes full responsibility over a hit-and-run accident he did not commit, has broken his pledge and left his wife (Nirupa Roy) afflicted with tuberculosis and his children starving. He goes to Robert's mansion, and pleads for the support that Robert owes him, but instead of getting what he deserves, is humiliated and forced out of the mansion. He fights back by shooting Robert with a gun, but fails to kill him, and thereafter, escapes from the mansion using one of Robert's cars that contains a crate full of gold bars. He goes home and finds out through a letter that his wife has left to kill herself. He takes his three children, leaves them to safety inside a park while he is being chased by Robert's men. The three children are then separated: the youngest is adopted by a Muslim pacifist; the middle child is taken cared of by a Catholic priest; and the eldest is raised by a Hindu police officer. The mother fails to kill herself, and instead, is blinded by a freak accident. Kishanlal falls from a cliff, and is presumed dead by the police, although he actually has escaped from the accident with a crate full of gold.

In a matter of forty minutes, director Desai manages to separate the three boys from each other and their parents through narrative twists and turns that appear out of nowhere, and thereafter reunites them with their mother in a sequence that serves as the film's belated opening credits: the three children, now grown up, are all inside a hospital room, donating blood to their blind mother and all of them not knowing that they are related. Its an outrageous concept, and cinematographer Peter Pereira's camerawork matches the outrageousness of the concept, focusing on the viscuous blood flowing from the siblings' arms and into their mother, focusing and de-focusing, shifting angles to enunciate the very unique circumstance of their reunion. Amar (Vinod Khanna), the eldest brother, is now a police inspector. Anthony (Amitabh Bachchan), the middle child, manages a liquor bar, while responsibly donating half of his profits to the Catholic Church. Akbar (Rishi Kapoor), the youngest, is a performer. Desai stretches the film for another two hours or so, infusing the narrative with upbeat action sequences, syrupy romance, and catchy melodies, before arriving at its predictably happy ending.

However, despite the film's obvious leaning towards plebeian considerations, it remains to be unbelievably entertaining. Desai commits to the impossibility and implausibility of the film's convoluted affairs; when the film purports sentimentality, it not only opts for shallow tears, it requires wails, screches, and enlarged gestures; when the film flirts with kitsch, it is unsatisfied with choreographed song numbers but decides that Bachchan pop out of an Easter Egg, singing a hilarious ditty ("My Name is Anthony Gonsalvez") that starts off with a long-winded yet incomprehensible speech that sounds scholarly but doesn't really mean anything; when it describes villainy, its unsubtle manifestations of human evil, from physical characteristics (bared teeth and gorilla-like muscularity) to heartless processes (Robert, in a showcase of his malevolence, orders Kishenlal to clean his shoes using his shirt's sleeve), are more than instructive of the characters' moral predisposition, they are also downright hilarious; when it involves romance, it triplicates the cheese and the corniness, giving each of the brothers a beautiful partner to court and ultimately win over. The humor, whether intended or unintended, adds to the allure of this undeniably charming flick.

It is Desai's particular preference for simple-minded pleasures fuels the film from start to finish. Desai manages to delegate the film's more-than-obvious political commentary (the three boys being separated on India's independence day, under the statue of Gandhi, and raised by India's three largest religious factions), fresh in its hopefulness on the nation's religious dynamics, in the background, not totally indispensible in the overall enjoyment of the film, but adds a possible discourse about the cinema that Amar Akbar Anthony represents. Amar Akbar Anthony is populist in its sensibilities yet not totally lacking of a say on the world-view that is current during its time. While the film is definitely unpolished, it possesses an energy, a certain rhythm, an inarguable sincerity to simply amuse without leaving any baggage or concern, that makes one forget of its blatant inadequacies and excesses.