Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Handumanan (2009)

Handumanan (Seymour Barros-Sanchez, 2009)
English Title: Remembrance

Let's cut to the chase. Seymour Barros-Sanchez's Handumanan (Remembrance) is a terrible film. It's a pity, really. There are faint glory notes, traces of the film that could have been, in the final film; and while these glory notes are very few and far apart, it dictates of the sincere endeavor, although muddled by a graceless execution, that should have been the moving force to push the film from mediocrity. As it is however, not even the immeasurable amount of collaborative talent, effort, and passion involved in the film can salvage it from being an inert, impotent and ignorable artifact of missed chances and wasted opportunities.

The film's failure showcases how directorial ineptitude can fully filter whatever magic or charm from the decently conceived story (written by director Barros-Sanchez and Richard Legaspi) of three disparate lives that fatedly connect in Dumaguete, a city famous for its writers. Sol Biglete (Chin-chin Gutierrez), who is more famous as Soledad Miranda, author of several popular romance novels, retreats to Dumaguete to recuperate after quitting her job in a publishing house that decided to abandon publishing romance novels for more lucrative erotica. Carlos Silva (Akihiro Sato), a model who is searching for his roots, sees his picture in one of Sol's romance novels, prompting him to search for her through the internet. Lean Tan (Jason Abalos), a government auditor who is temporarily stationed in Dumaguete, is an avid reader of Sol's works, and as he and Sol fatedly meet in the beach in front of her Dumaguete home, becomes inspired to write.

A film that relies on the miraculous machinations of destiny to have three distinct individuals meet and from there, evolve a life-changing bond requires a certain degree of cleverness, a dash of finesse, and probably a sprinkle of romantic energy to at least work. It is obvious that the goal of Handumanan is not only for the connections to work, but for its audience to care, if not to totally get involved in the lingering aches that these characters seek to cure through their shared furlough. Unfortunately, Barros-Sanchez tackles the film with the ardor of a chronically depressed paraplegic. Shackled by an unremarkable aesthetic and even more unremarkable performances from its leads (sure, Gutierrez and Abalos make most of the constricted roles they portray, but Sato suffers from an acting range that is limited to having his handsome mug on visual display), the film is grossly unsuccessful in driving its point. From start to finish, the film has been struggling to no avail to make visual, narrative, and emotional sense.

Moreover, Handumanan is paced like a tortoise gallivanting on the side of an empty road. I am aware Barros-Sanchez's minimalist intentions (the drooping pace, unspectacular visuals, monotonous musical score; the film is quite an array of minimalist clichés that it ceases to be minimalist) and commend the consistent restraint he professes yet the efforts are for naught since his minimalism translates as torpidness. While I admittedly have a fascination for stories that slowly unfold to reveal a quietly powerful tenderness that cannot be adequately expressed with hurried strokes, it is not merely the deliberate pacing that captures my attention and punctures my heart but the fluency in translating emotions into the cinematic medium, as done previously by Jeffrey Jeturian in Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004), or Jade Castro in Endo (2007). Harsh as it may seem, viewing the film in its entirety is a torturous endeavor. It miserably fails to reward the viewer with either logic to its languidness or a culminating sparkle in its staggered dullness.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Colorum (2009)

Colorum (Jobin Ballesteros, 2009)

After spending thirty years in prison, Pedro (Lou Veloso), aging and obviously clueless as to what has become of the world outside the penitentiary, is finally freed. Young and promising cop Simon (Alfred Vargas), who is being groomed for a promotion by his godfather (Archie Adamos), a colonel, drives a colorum FX (a public utility vehicle that does not have the necessary governmental permits to carry around paying passengers), owned by his godfather, for extra income in preparation for his marriage to his long-time girlfriend who works as a nurse abroad. Destiny brings Simon and Pedro together. One night, Simon, out of his generosity and goodwill, offers to bring Pedro to the bus terminal that will bring him to Leyte, his only son's last known address. While arguing over directions to the terminal, Simon accidentally bumps a stranger (who turns out to be an American citizen, causing further attention to the accident), and instead of bringing the victim to the hospital, drives away. Instructed by his godfather who does not want his name dragged into the mess being the owner of the vehicle, Simon is forced to drive to Ormoc in Leyte to stay there and allow the attention wane. He drags along unwilling Pedro, the accident's lone witness, to his undisclosed fate.

Simon and Pedro's sudden road trip to Ormoc becomes the centerpiece to Jobin Ballesteros' Colorum. Curious to this trip is that the odd couple is transported to several landmarks, whether physical or emotional, that are pertinent to Philippine history. The rented room of the suicidal writer whom Pedro rescues from a suicide attempt by sheer chance is decorated with pictures of martyrs and writers during the Spanish occupation. While in Leyte, they spend some time in the monument commemorating the landing of General McArthur to redeem the Philippines from the Japanese, before spending the night inside the palatial mansion of Imelda Marcos. The road trip, from a mere journey to select geographic points in the country, becomes a chronological pilgrimage of reminiscence into the history of the nation.

Colorum is also ostensibly a story of redemption. Redemption awaits not only the film's two troubled leads (Simon is wrestling with a moral dilemma; while Pedro, having already paid for his sins, attempts to win a semblance of his former life by reuniting with his son), but also for the people they encounter during their trip, such as the suicidal writer who is inflicted with a chronic writer's block, the teenager who is contemplating on getting an abortion, and the religious leader who is aching with guilt resulting from years of fooling his many followers into believing his fabricated piousness. Given that the road trip metaphors as a travelogue through the Philippine's whirlwinding history, perdition, in the form of a grand second chance at righteousness, seems not to be limited to the individual characters that desperately seek it, but also pertains to the nation itself.

There is little subtlety to the allegory. Ballesteros confronts his audience with his metaphor with the overtness of a political cartoon, and while such overtness diminishes the poignancy of the actual story, it nevertheless provokes his audience to ponder about the bigger picture without ostracizing those who prefer to be stuck within the film's human drama. It helps that the film is a very well-acted one. The performance of Veloso, who ably weaves together his dramatic finesse and comedic timing to portray Pedro who is broken yet dignified, is quite affecting. Vargas, on the other hand, is an adequate support, granting Simon the enviable naivete that his character initially possesses without overshadowing the same capacity to be corrupted for good.

The film's finale is eerily reminiscent of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, a senator whose death sparked the flames that would cause the collapse of Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship. In true melodramatic fashion, Pedro's sacrifice is attended with affectations of despair, anger, pathos, and passion. Ballesteros pumps the finale with every directorial excess he can grab from his bag: slow motion, cross cuts, heavy music, and rabid acting. Ballesteros confirms this visual tribute to Ninoy Aquino by inserting an actual frame of Aquino's assassination before rolling the end credits. It's an ending that intrigues more than it resolves. The journey ends with Pedro's sacrifice, granting Simon a second chance at redemption. The ending, under the light of the journey as metaphor to the nation's history, posits Aquino's assassination as also the nation's second chance at redemption, coming from decades of toiling under unjust colonizers and a corrupt dictator.

Aquino was assassinated in 1983. Marcos' dictatorship was toppled in a peaceful revolution valiantly headed by Aquino's wife, Corazon, in 1986. More than a decade after (with three presidents, Ramos, Estrada, and Arroyo, succeeding Corazon Aquino's administration), the country is still drowning in an ocean of corruption and penury. How then did this nation spend its invaluable second chance, purchased with the tears, blood, and lives of our patriots and martyrs? That is the bigger picture, and if we translate the bigger picture to match what happens when the end credits start rolling, knowing fully well that Simon gets a second chance, purchased for him by Pedro, to uphold morality the way he confidently spoke of in the beginning of the film while being interviewed by his superiors for his promotion, we might as well surrender hope and consider Pedro's sacrifice for naught. As it seems second chances, no matter how elusive or expensive, cannot defeat the eallure of comfort and corruption. Such is the sad fact that history has taught us.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dinig Sana Kita (2009)

Dinig Sana Kita (Mike Sandejas, 2009)
English Title: If I Knew What You Said

Mike Sandejas' Dinig Sana Kita (If I Knew What You Said) is crafted from the same mold that birthed the slew of romances coming out of the bigger film studios. It will not be inaccurate to declare Sandejas' second feature film formulaic. Two souls from different backgrounds (the girl is a wealthy troublemaker, while the boy is a deaf-mute orphan), with different passions (the girl is the lead singer of a rock band, while the boy is a dancer), and with different personal issues (the girl is disconnected from her family, while the boy is desperately searching for his mother) serendipitously meet in a police precinct (after the two of them found themselves entangled in separate brawls), before finally geting to know each other better in a deaf-mute camp in Baguio. The two souls eventually fall in love, solve their respective problems, and presumably live happily ever after, full of wholesome love, in true modern fairy tale fashion.

Dinig Sana Kita cannot be faulted for its reliance to formula. The film possesses an earnestness that is quite refreshing in an age where the romances that the major film studios produce, while oftentimes impeccably made and indulgent in pomp and sparkle, are often lacking in that department. The emotions felt from these escapist trifles are predominantly skin-deep, attributable to the fact that these films are often primarily star-driven, with its teen actors and actresses play-acting roles instead of portraying actual characters. Thus, while we get the occasional tingle from watching these films (or in some rare cases where the studio machinery miraculously works, be left with a elatedly amorous aftertaste), the lack of investment will inevitably take its toll. When the hallucinogens emitted by stars and starlets directed to artificially swoon for each other and commit lines of undying love start to fade, we are left with nothing else but stale air.

Dinig Sana Kita is gifted with two precious leads. Zoe Sandejas, the director's own daughter who is gifted with a camera-friendly aura, infuses Niña, the film's trouble-making rocker chick, with an effortless mix of angst and pain. Romalito Mallari, who we learn in the film's end is really a deaf-mute and is actually, like the character he is playing, is searching for his real father, plays Kiko, the film's dancing deaf-mute leading man, with a wholeheartedness that is absolutely affecting. Together, their onscreen charm is undeniable, carrying the film throughout, making its low points palatable and its high points stirring. In other words, sheer charm, provided in excessive quantaties by the two leads' charismatic performances, holds the romance together and more. However, romance is not enough for Sandejas. Dinig Sana Kita attempts to mix advocacy with romance, causing confusion as to whether the advocacy is there to facilitate the romance, or the romance is there to provide a framework to the advocacy.

Sandejas is a wily filmmaker. Tulad ng Dati (Just Like Before, 2006), while intriguing with its premise of a real life band member waking up from a coma and unable to recall anything that happened after 1988, relies heavily on the popularity of its subject, The Dawn, a popular band that continues to evolve since its creation in the 80's, the death of its guitarist, its decline in fame, and its return to the limelight, up to the present. Dinig Sana Kita showcases Sandejas improved as a craftsman, since the film is more visually and aurally pleasing. However, a glaring problem remains with that prevents Sandejas from being a filmmaker to be reckoned with, and that is a lack of a distinct purpose.

Sure, his films are pleasant, with Dinig Sana Kita proving to be quite the crowd pleaser. With two films under his belt, Sandejas has proven to be a director that has become too comfortable working with crutches (the band in Tulad ng Dati, and the deaf-mute angle in Dinig Sana Kita). Apart from an undying affinity with music and a proven desire to stay within his comfort zone, Sandejas seems to be either of the following: an irrelevant figure in a filmmaking scene that thirsts for new voices; or a pertinent talent that is bridging the imaginary divide between the masses that are continuously delighted despite the redundancy in escapist cinema and the informed minority who perceive the proliferation of escapist cinema as an unnecessary cultural excess.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sanglaan (2009)

Sanglaan (Milo Sogueco, 2009)
English Title: The Pawnshop

The characters of Sanglaan (The Pawnshop) seems to exist inside a bubble created from writer-director Milo Sogueco's conceit. The family-owned pawnshop, failing because of the worldwide recession and the proliferation of more popular chains, becomes the crossroads for the various waiting lives that Sogueco lovingly observes. Olivia (Tessie Tomas), a widow of several years, prefers the predictability of managing the pawnshop her husband left her to migrating to the United States to take care of her grandchildren. Amy (Ina Feleo), Olivia's starry-eyed ward who works as the pawnshop's appraiser, is delightfully stuck in a fantasy created from childhood crushes and romance novels. David (Joem Bascon), a transient awaiting the next ship to sail out of port, is too beholden to the material demands of the times to realize Amy's silent longing. Kanor (Jess Evardone), the security guard of the pawnshop, and Esing (Flor Salanga), who runs a small catering service to contribute to her husband's wages, rent the apartment above the pawnshop and opens their humble home to David while their son, a soldier fighting rebels in Mindanao, is away.

Their stories unfold deliberately. The film's unhurried pace might prove difficult to penetrate, especially for the chronically impatient. However, clearly emphasized is the uneventful phenomenon of waiting. It is not only the audience that waits since Sogueco painstakingly paints various waiting lives who are seemingly stuck in an uncomfortable stasis caused by the routine, hopelessness, hopefulness, and expectations that blanket their lives. Sanglaan's pensive mood is sometimes broken by moments of intense emotionality, such as when a quiet birthday dinner is prematurely adjourned by news of the death of a loved one, or when Amy pleads to break free from Olivia's extended influence on her life and love, or when Olivia discovers that her pawnshop is robbed just before the auction that might save her business from completely closing. As such, these characters are first, gently nudged, before being violently pushed back to existing outside the confines of the lives they have gotten used to.

The characters share a common predicament, although their needs vary. They are all nearing their deadlines, yet they lack the income to redeem whatever they have pledged for what essentially are illusory comforts of their humdrum lives. Olivia is fast approaching obsolescence. Her business is failing. Her ward is ready to leave her for a man. Nearing the end of her twenties and being threatened with a lifetime of dreaming love without actually living it, Amy finally experiences romance. However, David, the man of Amy's affections since her schoolgirl days, is too preoccupied looking for work to realize the niceties of his experience as a transient under the wing of Kanor and Esing. Kanor and Esing, on the other hand, are simply struggling for sheer survival. The film ends without resolving their predicaments. It leaves them and the audience in a state of perpetual pondering as to when their deadlines will arrive and what other valuable item, whether it be a material thing or something in the realm of sentiment, can they pledge to extend their lives in complacent waiting.

Sogueco's portrayal of these lives in waiting is too subtle and too tender to instantly move hearts. Their stories linger first like a gentle breeze, before finally aching, but only with the nuance of a needle prick. The calmness is numbing, to the point that when Sogueco starts to prod us to care, as when he stages beautiful quiet moments (like the wordless dinner of hot noodle soup between Amy and David, where their gestures speak of a mismatch between Amy's indefatigable romance and David's impenetrable ambition, or during the evening where Olivia expresses her care and forgiveness for her ward through a hot bowl of home-made porridge), we can't wholeheartedly commit to the emotionality of what we see onscreen, not immediately at least. Left with only the sincerity of its portraits, Sanglaan takes time to ripen. And when it ripens, the film suddenly evokes a beautiful melancholy, knowing that life can be both simple and complicated, relieving and agonizing as the many transactions that happen daily in the pawnshop.

Pawnshops thrive because it peddles the fantasy of being able to escape pressing problems with the efficiency of a quick transaction in a counter. As long as one has a valuable item that he is willing to pledge, he can purchase reprieve from his worldly concerns. The key element here is time. The escape has a deadline. One has to realize that the reprieve is temporary, and acknowledge that there exists inescapable dilemmas that are now compounded by the fact that the valuable item pledged is at risk of being lost forever and transformed into a soulless ornament or luxury. The trade knows no sentiment or emotion. The items are appraised absent the memories they represents, whether they symbolize a son who left home to fight a war, or a mother who simply wishes that her son finds a loving wife, or the legacy of a husband who has died years ago. It is callous, but it only emphasizes the hold of the tangible hardships of life over the intangible elements that make us human. Sanglaan, while a film that seemingly swims in an ocean of inconsequence, reflects that painful truth.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Engkwentro (2009)

Engkwentro (Pepe Diokno, 2009)
English Title: Clash

That Jim Libiran makes an appearance as a hitman in the latter portion of Pepe Diokno's Engkwentro (Clash), further reinforces the nagging feeling that Diokno's film is an unnecessary revisit to the themes fluently tackled by Libiran in Tribu (Tribe, 2007), his acclaimed film about rapping gangsters in Tondo, a depressed Manila district. The similarities are uncanny: urban squalor, domestic quarrels, an antagonistic attitude towards authority, a climactic square off between two rival gangs, the overall pessimistic atmosphere that pervades the pictures. However, there are marked differences between the two films. Where Tribu has a heart and a soul (the best portions of the film are when the gangsters rap their hearts out), Engkwentro has a political agenda (even before the film starts, the audience is already barraged with information about state-sponsored killings in the South). Where Tribu makes use of Tondo and its residents to tell his story (with O.G. Sacred revealing himself as a very able performer), Engkwentro makes use of a set constructed in the outskirts of the metropolis, and actors to pass off as slum dwellers.

Perhaps the most glaring difference is style. While Libiran sometimes indulges in long takes (there's a particularly lovely scene where Libiran's camera follows a utilities man who is mobbed by Tondo residents who are complaining about their electricity bills), Diokno attempts to tell his story in one long take. He failed at that attempt but achieves something close. Engkwentro is composed of a couple of takes, seemingly seamlessly edited together by Miko Araneta. Diokno's camera is constantly in motion: candidly shaking as it treads the labyrinthine passageways of his makeshift slums; following the characters as they hatch their plans, negotiate, orate and fight; and document the goings-on with the efficiency of an inconspicuous voyeur.

Authenticity becomes the problem that Diokno has to grapple with. By filming Engkwentro the way he did, Diokno forces upon his audience an expectation of realism. The film's documentary-like style (real-time, if you want to be more accurate about parlance), where the camera, like a predator searching for its prey, pounces on private conversations or hidden dealings, is more distracting than pertinent, emphasizing not the urgency or gravity of the situation but the widening disconnect between style and substance, where the former seems to overshadow the latter. It's a pity, really. Diokno's message is something that is required to be said clearly. Draped in a Cain and Abel narrative that focuses on Richard (Felix Roco), leader of the Bagong Buwan gang who is being hunted by city-sponsored hitmen and is planning to run off to Manila with his girlfriend Jenny-Jane (Eda Nolan), and his brother Raymond (Daniel Medrana), a new initiate of Bagong Buwan's rival gang called Batang Dilim who is tasked by his superior (Zyrus Desamparado) to kill his brother, Engkwentro focuses on these slum dwellers' petty affairs to show the absurdity of the bigger picture.

Mayor Suarez, an omnipresent voice (of director Celso Ad Castillo) that haunts the slums with repetitive denials of vigilantism yet proud announcements of his accomplishments, is the nagging representation of the bigger picture, that they are under constant threat of extermination, not because of their felonies (bag-snatching, theft, and small-time drug-peddling: all of which are annoyances rather than threats to national security) but because they are disposable. That the mayor remains unseen throughout the picture enlarges both his authoritarian, if not fascistic, grip over the city and the absurdity of such immense influence despite his absolute physical absence and the ignorance of reality precisely because of his absence. It is this inspired layering that prevents me from dismissing Engkwentro as just another third-world film, peddling our nation's poverty for perceived art.

Its grimy surface, its attention-grabbing realist style, and Diokno's overwrought screenplay function to provide a human element. No matter how suffocating these slum dwellers' stories of survival can be, they provide ample framework for Diokno's agenda. The disembodied authoritarian voice of Mayor Suarez gets louder as the narrative nears its climax. The film then erupts into a cacophony. This is Diokno's edgy protest against these government-sponsored killings, a practice that can be best described as an alarming offshoot of an unjust and inhumane system that has nurtured crooks and criminals (only to dispose of them like unnecessary garbage). I may not find Engkwentro completely effective, but there is nothing stopping me from respecting Diokno's visual and noise barrage and allowing it to gain its rightful momentum.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Last Supper No. 3 (2009)

Last Supper No. 3 (Veronica Velasco, 2009)

Schadenfreude is the pleasure one derives out of the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude is probably the reason why Veronica Velasco's Last Supper No. 3, written by Velasco and Jinky Laurel from the actual court records and experiences of Wilson Acuyong who spent two and a half years and thousands of pesos to rid himself of two nuisance suits, is such a pleasurable experience. The film explores, with an adroit grasp of comedy, the suffering of Winston Nañawa (wonderfully played by charismatic Joey Paras), Mr. Acuyong's film persona, under a bizarrely inefficient, absurdly impertinent, grossly corrupt, and atrociously dawdling justice system in the Philippines.

Wilson is an assistant production designer who was tasked to locate a specific prop for a commercial shoot. The prop, an image of Jesus Christ's last supper (a token ornament in any Filipino dining room), was to be chosen out of the many residents of his lower class neighborhood who auditioned their last suppers (the residents lining up, clutching their last suppers, different in make, size, and quality, is a hilarious sight) for the chance of earning a thousand pesos. Three of the dozens of last suppers became finalists. One was chosen and its owner was paid the promised amount. Last supper no. 3, an unremarkable rug with tassels along its edges, owned by Gareth (Jojit Lorenzo) and his mother (Beverly Salviejo), suddenly disappears. Because of that, Wilson, along with his assistant Andoy (JM de Guzman), is charged with estafa (swindling) and serious physical injuries (an offshoot of the main case that resulted from an incident after an unsuccessful attempt at reconciling, where Gareth tries to hit Wilson and Andoy with his belt, and Andoy hitting Gareth in revenge, breaking his nose and leading him to come back with and threaten to kill with a replica samurai). Thus begins Wilson's calvary.

Velasco, one half of the directing team (the other half is Pablo Biglangawa) behind Inang Yaya (Mother Nanny, 2007), a lovingly crafted tale about a nanny who divides her time between her daughter and her ward, and Maling Akala (Mistaken Assumption, 2008), a subtle comedy between a pregnant woman and a mysterious man-on-the-run who serendipitously meet in a bus, conceives a movie that out-humors everything she has done. Despite Velasco piling absurdities upon absurdities, made brazen by a conscious insistence on extending Wilson's suffering for comedic effect (schadenfreude: when Wilson takes the public transportation from a shoot in the province to the court in Manila, he is splashed with mud, marathons to follow a cab, gets his shirt stuck to the cab door as he alights thus dragging him along, and all this, holding an oversized pink headdress, only to discover that the hearing was suspended because of the judge's untimely death, we are thoroughly amused), the film does not remain within the realm of comedy and slapstick.

Subtly, it matures. Despite the unfairness of the system and his fate, Wilson still pushes through his case with diligence and a bizarre belief that justice might prevail (or maybe he has just developed a callousness to the exploitation of the system characterized by impersonal lawyers, rabid litigants, and dilapidated courtrooms). At this point of the film, Wilson graduates from being an object of amusement into a tragic figure, everyman's martyr. He has known the system enough to empathize with his opponents, knowing very well that the months and years spent being immersed in the legal stand-off (which he himself experienced, envisioning the legal battle as an acting competition, rehearsing his direct examination script not as if his freedom depended on it, but as if an acting award depended on it), would lead you to believe that what you're fighting for, no matter how petty or skewed, is right and moral. He has come to acknowledge the bamboozlement inflicted by the unapologetically unjust justice system to him, both to him and his opponents. At this point, the amusement dealt by his misfortune transforms into respect. He has survived the journey, with battle scars, eyebags, and a mug mellowed by trials and tribulations.

This is Velasco's outstanding feat. She decides to expose a rotten system through humor yet instead of completely fabricating the story, she allows the case to speak for itself, making the absurdity several notches more alarming. In an inspired decision, she made use (surprisingly with the permission of the Supreme Court) of Manila's Hall of Justice, a building ripe for condemnation that houses the fiscal's offices and trial courts that service an ever-expanding population. The architecture of the building, several floors (connected by stairs because the elevator is usually out of service) of spaces that encircle a useless and unkempt courtyard, further emphasize the system that has been rendered inutile by red tape and bureaucratic complications. Thus, Last Supper No. 3 is funny not only because it centers on a man who was showered with a downpour of misfortune but also because we know it is very real, and the only plausible thing we can do about it is laugh.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe (2009)

Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe (Alvin Yapan, 2009)
English Title: The Rapture of Fe

According to writer-director Alvin Yapan, Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe (The Rapture of Fe) is a "poetic and allegorical narrative of a woman's will to survive in an oppressive environment. The woman here, the titular Fe (masterfully played by Irma Adlawan), is an overseas worker, repatriated by the bleak global economy, and is welcomed home by Dante (Noni Buencamino), her violent and barren husband, and Arturo (TJ Trinidad), her young lover who manages the basket factory that employs her and her husband. Amidst the abuses of her husband and the amorous declarations of her young lover, Fe would regularly receive a basket full of fruits from a mysterious suitor. Dante is unable to provide for her economically, while Arturo is unable to abandon both his paralytic father (Jerry Respeto) and the basket factory. Trapped in between two inutile men, Fe is reduced to desperation to the point of making a drastic decision to escape her asphyxiating predicament.

The simplicity of its narrative is seductive. The sharp observations that its narrative bears are instructive. Yapan explains the allegory with the efficiency of a literature professor, which he really is. His characters symbolize the different players that struggle within the patriarchal Filipino society, beholden to foreign forces because its agricultural sector (symbolized by Dante, whose farmland is mortgaged to Arturo and is left untilled) can no longer provide and its industry (symbolized by Arturo whose factory, while earning, is not profitable) has never matured to be self-sufficient. Within the context of Yapan's allegory, Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe blossoms into an academic but pertinent commentary on the state of the nation given its unique history and culture, as presented in the form of a literary tale where hints of the supernatural are weaved into overly familiar experiences of domestic violence and infidelity.

Yapan is not only a brilliant writer of stories that operate well given the differing depths, motivations, and perspectives of his audience. He is also a very effective director, understated in his aesthetics yet able to marry the ambition of his story with the cinematic medium. Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe works even without its allegorical aspirations. The film is gripping in its depiction of domestic violence, particularly in one scene where Dante castigates Fe out of jealousy, hitting and pushing her before finally raping her. Yapan's camera is conscious of the violence, still yet observant, determined to merely document the supposedly private atrocities and allow the emotions and Fe's undeserved victimization to be the only spectacle onscreen. It is this unhindered fluency of Yapan in visually portraying domestic violence that allows him room to move further, further away from reality and into that delicate borderline where reality, insanity, and fantasy meet.

When Fe offers the fruits that she mistakenly believes to be her husband's peace offering (possibly out of shame for hitting her the night before) to her husband, you cannot help but feel pity for the woman who is simply pleading for the respect and affirmation that she deserves from her husband. Knowing that the expectations she has of her marriage are futile renders her efforts that are not only unreciprocated but irrationally punished more wrenching. When we discover Arturo's repressed longing for Fe, we understand and accept it because despite her physical and economic modesty, she exudes a sensuality that seduces. Thus, It is simply unwise to ignore the performance of Adlawan, who transforms Fe from Yapan's literary device into a character you sympathize, you care for, even lust for. If Yapan's visual frankness is admirable, his decision to cast Adlawan, in a role that allows the criminally underused actress to explore the several facets of womanhood (as victim, object of desire, breadwinner, and prize) without compromising the integrity of the character, is simply inspired.

The baskets of fruit appear, unaccompanied by spectacle. Innocent-looking at first, but when blended with the repercussions of her husband's jealousy and the discovery of her young lover's inability to provide, the baskets evolve into something more suspect. As with Rolyo (Film Roll, 2007), Yapan's well-awarded short film about a farmer and his daughter who travels to the town and back to their farm, the film roll is given layers of importance to arrive at a concluding poignant scene where poverty is playfully depicted with the little girl watching a movie using the film roll used to make a horn, unrolled, and illuminated by candlelight before being turned into a perimeter fence the next morning to ward off birds from their farm, Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe layers the basket of fruits with escalating meanings, thus escaping the object's mundane existence to become first, Fe's temporary reprieve, then, Fe's inescapable punishment, and ultimately, Fe's costly salvation.

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.