Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Biyaheng Lupa (2009)

Biyaheng Lupa (Armando Lao, 2009)
English Title: Soliloquy

Other than Lav Diaz, whose Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001) has become a beacon of artistic integrity and independence in the midst of a failing mainstream cinema (its running length of 5 hours makes it a chore to watch for an audience who have been fed with Hollywood films and their local variations; its powerful themes make it even more difficult for an audience who have been trained to view cinema as a tool for escape), Armando Lao can arguably be referred as one of the figureheads of the current Philippine cinema. Understanding the budgetary limitations of filmmaking in the country (a lesson painfully learned while shooting Jeffrey Jeturian's Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004), which required more money the producer was not able to recover), he devised a screenwriting manual called "real-time" that allowed several filmmakers to make films from the use of available technology and very meager resources. Probably the most famous of these "real-time" practitioners is Brillante Mendoza whose Serbis (Service, 2008) and Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), both of which were written by Lao, competed in Cannes, the latter earning Mendoza a Best Director prize from the prestigious film festival. Other "real-time" directors include Jim Libiran (Tribu (2007)), Jeffrey Jeturian (Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2005)), Francis Xavier Pasion (Jay (2008)) and Ralston Jover (Bakal Boys (Children Metal Divers, 2009) and writer of Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Foster Child (2007) and Tirador (Slingshot, 2007)). Lao, however, is more than just a screenwriter as his scripts are written with directorial vision. Instead of merely constructing the narrative and characters and leaving the rest of the creative process to the director, Lao immerses into the entire filmmaking process, stamping each and every one of the films which he had a part in with auteurial integrity.

Biyaheng Lupa (Soliloquy) is the first film where Lao attaches his name as director. The conceit is fascinating: passengers of a bus en route from Manila to Legazpi City are exposed through their thoughts, magically vocalized whenever the door closes turning the bus into a space that is insulated from the rest of the world. Despite the liberties Lao made with reality, he maintains an accurate grasp of the process of bus travel: the noticeable eccentricities of each and every stranger you are forced to breathe the same enclosed air with, the momentary connections made through shared glances, baseless annoyances with each other and the isolated idle chatter, the torturous passing of empty time, and the occasional roadblocks like a sudden flat tire or an unavoidable checkpoint. This deliberate attention to detail that encompasses not only the tangible elements but also the mood of the milieu has always been a trait of all of Lao's filmed scripts. The vast gap between the poor and the middle class in Jeturian's Pila-balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999), the underhanded exploitation of cinema in Jeturian's Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001), the transitory romances of the tourism industry in Minsan Pa, and the coinciding physical deterioration of a family-run movie theater and the moral depletion of the family running it in Serbis, these pervading concepts are adeptly translated into the screenplay, and eventually into the films, through the seemingly impertinent details and textures in the narrative that actually add more than color but thematic integrity to the filmed stories.

The conceit of immediately hearing the thoughts of the passengers of the Legazpi-bound bus is definitely fascinating. What starts out as merely an intriguing novelty transforms into an existential reference to the various characters, as their vocalized thoughts become the only vehicles for these characters to actually prevail in the world during that bus ride. Without the conceit, these passengers are completely deprived of a reason to exist within the narrative framework. It nearly feels like these characters are pleading to persist and matter in the world through Lao's graciousness to grant their hidden thoughts perpetuity through recorded sound. That even the deaf-mute character's thoughts partake the form of his voiceless means of communication; the fact that their thoughts are presented via the characters' own method of communication, complete with speech mannerisms and intonations, is a signifier that the aural manifestations of is much more than an ingenious writer's device but serves as the characters existence in the film. As their stories manifest through memories from the past and current contemplation, their histories and possible futures slowly unfold only to be abruptly terminated by the same conceit that gave them their existence.

The inevitable consequence of mounting a film that tells the stories of various characters who are only related to each other by circumstance is the inequity of quality or substance, which is of course, all a matter of taste. For example, for those who enjoy heavy-handed melodrama, the storyline of the deaf-mute (Carlo Guevarra) who escapes from his adoptive home to visit the grave of his real mother might prove to be emotionally resonant; I thought the character's storyline was superfluous and overextended. For those who require their stories spelled out in black and white, the storyline of the dissatisfied wife (Shamaine Buencamino) who takes her chances at a variety show only to end up with her fate unchanged might seem to have a difficultly ambiguous ending; I thought the scene where she alights from the bus, with all her thoughts suddenly silenced, and meets up with her husband, who she just mentally maligned, and walks home, with Lao's camera nervously lingering with the deafening silence, is one of the film's most powerful sequences. For those who are partial against preachy cinema, the vocalized thoughts of a retired court interpreter (Jose Almojuela) about the as he reaches his destination might be considered a distraction to the seamless flow of the film; I thought it was a moving juncture, one that is not only revelatory to one of the film's most guarded characters but also preparatory to the film's conclusion.

A concrete bridge, lighted and shot to maximize a sense of foreboding, breaks the comfort of formula. By film's end, we have become so accustomed to the cacophony of loud thoughts when the bus door closes and the unnerving silence when it opens that the phantasmagoric image of the bridge and the bus slowly entering the frame jars the film's staggered logic. The suddenness of the shift in aesthetic and mood allows for the unexpected termination of the remaining passengers' stories; the bus fell down a cliff, killing all of its passengers and consequently, all of their stories. It seems and probably is the easy way out for Lao's film, since the conceit has turned into a redundancy and therefore a liability, and the abundance of stories has resulted to predictability. Yet, it is also very understandable because Lao is after all, the writer, and as writer, he is god to the lives he chose to make stories out of, and just the same as the passengers who have alighted the bus and whose stories are no longer within the perspective of the film, everything must have an end. That is simply the nature of cinema. It is limited by the bounds of storytelling, and a good filmmaker, whether he is a writer, a director, or both, must make most of what exists within such bounds. With Biyaheng Lupa, Lao continues to prove to be a very good filmmaker.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Anacbanua (2009)

Anacbanua (Christopher Gozum, 2009)
English Title: Child of the Sun

Language functions primarily as a tool for communication. Thus, when roads and bridges were built to connect provinces, when ships and ports were constructed to connect islands, and when planes and airports were invented to connect continents, communication has turned into a worldwide commodity to the extent that the abundance of languages and dialects has turned into a hindrance to prosperity in this severely connected age. Several languages and dialects that have been rendered superfluous by this inevitable shift in perspective are forced to extinction. The native dialect of the province of Pangasinan, is one of the victims of this widespread epidemic. The dialect's native speakers, who naturally prioritize economic survival to cultural identity, homogenize with the rest of the country as a result of governmental policy in education, migration, assimilation and a general lack of interest by their younger generation.

However, language is not a mere tool. It emphasizes a cultural soul, a facet of an intertwined populace that connects them to the land, their history, their livelihood and themselves. The deliberate extinction of Pangalatok, a dialect that has evolved a vast literature throughout the centuries of its existence, is especially painful because along with it disappears a legacy, the thread that attaches a person with a proud people but has eventually been rendered into a mere facade, a regional label, a curiosity in the midst of a language that encroaches on virtually everything in the name of globalization.

Christopher Gozum's Anacbanua (Child of the Sun), advertised as the first full-length feature in Pangasinense dialect, does more than make use of the language to communicate dialogue in the service of a universal narrative. By making use of poems in Pangalatok, the film explores a cultural soul struggling with the demands of modernity, national integrity, and globalization. The film literally levitates from one setting to another, transporting the a man (Lowell Conales), a poet who returns from Saudi Arabia to Pangasinan to rediscover his roots, to different places in Pangasinan. Yet more than a mere travelogue of the vibrant locales and anthropological wonders of the province, the film essays a pervading melancholy attributable to the threatening loss. The breadth of emotions fluently evoked by Gozum in his mostly motionless tableaus is breathtaking, and the fact that there's economy to his filmmaking, making use of the essentials of cinema to a constant minimum (his aesthetics is deliberate and controlled; the music he uses is hypnotic; his storytelling is astoundingly astute, making use of seemingly distant although ravishingly beautiful sequences to tell a concrete message; his mix of documentary realism, aesthetic surrealism, purpose and advocacy is effective), stretches the possibilities of what the moving image can do.

Gozum, like his film's poet, struggles with the opposing needs of making himself financially viable (by taking a contractual job as a videographer in Saudi Arabia) and of creating pertinent culture (by making films that dictate this internal struggle). His short film Surreal Random MMS para kay ed Ina, Agui tan Kaamong ya Makaiiliw ed Sika: Gurgurlis ed Banua (Surreal Random MMS for a Mother, a Sister and a Wife Who Longs for You: Landscapes with Figures, 2008) makes use of a shocking images of a human eye being punctured with interspersed images of a foreign land captured from a cellular phone that were sent by the director to his loved ones in the Philippines to tell more of the numbing disconnect of a displaced Filipino than the landscapes he so evocatively captured using his meager resources. It is this duality in Gozum's artistic personality that makes his films unbelievably fascinating. Anacbanua, as it is, is a rousing statement on a dying language. With Gozum at its helm, the film becomes a different thing altogether. From the possibility of being an inert advocacy film, Anacbanua blossoms into a grandiose canvass that is painted with something as gargantuan as the loss of an entire cultural heritage to something as intimate and personal as the multi-layered confusion that is consuming him as an artist (while he is from Pangasinan, he is also a Filipino, a Filipino who is working in Saudi Arabia; these tiers of conflicting identities make his efforts more taxing and his film more resonant).

It really is a powerful film. Emotions whirlwind as Pangasinense poetry is recited granting unreserved depth to the different landscapes, the obscure livelihoods, the unraveled historical, cultural, and religious implications that are depicted with unnerving aesthetic assuredness. As the camera lingers extensively on the monochrome dioramas of supposed rituals of rebirth set in different locations, we are eventually drawn into the imagery, feeling the flowing waters of the Agno river wash away the dregs of cultural imperialism, smelling the refreshingly pungent aroma of fish fermenting to perfection, relaxing to the warmth of bricks baking in an ancient kiln, and numbing to the unbearable cries of pain of cattle being slaughtered mercilessly. This immersive experience punctures the wall that separates the recited poetry and the fascinating visuals, forcing the viewer to not only understand the recited words through their intended and literal meanings (as facilitated by the English subtitles), but also to regard these words as significant and indispensable components of a culture. Remove the poetry from the film, and the haunting imagery will inevitably lose its soul, beautiful to look at but flat and meaningless. Remove the language from the province, and an entire people, an entire culture will lose its identity, surviving as inutile labels of a neglected ancestry.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Boy (2009)

Boy (Auraeus Solito, 2009)

A boy (Aeious Asin) enters a gay nightclub one lazy Sunday night. The nightclub is empty except for its usual denizens: the overzealous yet mysteriously wise floor manager, his gang of overdressed transvestite performers, and the club's featured attractions, a harem of near-naked macho dancers gyrating to songs that echo everlasting love. The boy is a newbie to these affairs, unaware of the codes of the trade inside the dimly lit halls of the club, and needy of a an elementary guide into a lifestyle that he was born to live with, which the floor manager is more than willing to provide. Another love song sets the mood as an eighteen year old performer stage-named Aries (Aries Pena), clad only in suggestive underwear, dances on stage. The boy is clearly beholden. Is it love that explains why the way his gaze seems to only long for this macho dancer, to the exclusion of the club's other performers? Is it lust that rationalizes why his loving gaze results in his uncontrollable hard-on? Is there really a difference, or the two are so intertwined that it is frankly impossible to discern?

After the success of Lino Brocka's Macho Dancer (1988), a genre of the macho dancer film was born. These films were created in a society that while tolerant to the gay community, is unforgiving toward its presumably hedonistic characteristics. In fact, Brocka's Macho Dancer, Mel Chionglo's Sibak (Midnight Dancers, 1994), Burlesk King (1999), and Twilight Dancers (2006), and Joel Lamangan's Walang Kawala (No Way Out, 2008) and Heavenly Touch (2009), and all the other features that have exploited the overused narrative angle of the poor straight macho dancer exploited by their rich gay patrons, are all borne out of a heterosexual mindset. These films, while careless in its exposition of male flesh, are too careful to suggest even a slightest tinge of love among its superfluous invitations for carnal indulgence. This is perhaps to protect certain antiquated codes: that homosexual love and lovemaking is abnormal and the only way a man can engage in it is by abusing the victims of the most abnormal yet prevalent of occurrences in the Philippine setting: poverty.

Aureaus Solito's Boy is the ideal macho dancer film, one that maintains the unhindered erotic possibilities of gazing at naked bodies in the safety and privacy of a darkened cinema, without the implicated guilt of doing so and more importantly, absent the always useless and hypocritical social pedagogy that has become synonymous with the abused genre. Boy refuses to apologize for all the homoerotic images on display. It does not urge you to develop pity or even sympathy on Aries despite his unflattering profession. In one scene, as the boy feels through the poverty of Aries' meager shanty in the heart of the slums, Aries suddenly starts gyrating in front of the boy, declaring that he dances because he loves the attention he gets while performing. The social gap between the boy and Aries, while apparent, is not exploited to push an antiquated post-Brocka advocacy. Instead, the film only points out the gap to emphasize that in the affairs of the heart and other burgeoning emotions, capitalist conditions such as wealth and social status have no pertinence. There are no exploiters or victims, just lovers on the verge of a beautiful self-discovery.

Absent any forced social implication, the film focuses on exploring the gay psyche, lyrically exposing the mysteries of homosexual attraction and the path to self-discovery. Solito lays down the fundamentals of gay love, picturing it with the normalcy that is attributed to heterosexual love: the way the two are fueled by exactly the same elements, only marked by the gargantuan difference in the way society regards or tolerates gay relationships as opposed to straight ones. Solito satisfyingly keeps the narrative within the intimate circumstances of the boy's path to self-discovery, limiting the characters to those who actually matter in their lives: the boy's mother (Madeleine Nicolas), a heartfelt creation who is lovingly mum about his son's homosexuality while struggling with her husband's lack of time for them; and Aries' father (Noni Buencamino), who is similarly situated with the boy's mother in silently tolerating his son's sexual affinity (as defined by his profession) while desperately clinging to being a father figure despite unbearable financial hardships. While Solito makes use of poetry recited throughout the film, gay attraction is still defined by an indubitable normalcy in the way that it is humanized not by the intoxicating poetic recitations but by the simplicity of its unfrazzled existence in the lives of the boy and his macho dancer, whose attraction to each other is derived from interacting pheromones and sweat, the primal stuff that drives them to first lust then love.

When the boy and Aries make love in the boy's room, Solito's camera captures them through the glass, the water, and the floating silt of the aquarium that the boy collects in his room. He talks of his collection of aquariums as approximations of his fish's natural ecosystem. Cinema has been to tasked to approximate truth with filmmakers struggling to create an illusion of reality with stories that partake a semblance of living. In a way, cinema, more specifically Philippine cinema, has betrayed its homosexual patrons, portraying them as voracious predators whose concept of love is always intertwined with capitalist oppression or a sinful lifestyle that is exclusively driven by hedonistic and animalistic tendencies. As we watch the boy and Aries in passionate lovemaking through the aquarium, we come to understand what essentially gives life to homosexual love. Without any pretenses of having the two characters find that perfect love (a concept that the film consciously avoided) or pushing the boundaries of such love to touch on socio-political worries, the film arrives at the core of homosexuality: that the two boys make love simply because they are at that point of their lives, in love.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pagdating sa Dulo (1971)

Pagdating sa Dulo (Ishmael Bernal, 1971)
English Title: At the Top

In Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959), a film director, played with piercing sensitivity by Dutt, sees his career flounder as the career of his muse, a beggar he discovers while shooting a scene in his adaptation of Devdas and subsequently grooms to become a very successful actress, blossoms. The painful downfall of the director who at one time was celebrated by crowds of adoring fans after a very successful run of one of his films and at a later time is seen alone, walking the paved ways of his former studio in tattered rags, unrecognizable by his friends and peers, destroys the very core of these double lives that are forced to exist to suit the inflicted fantasies of working in cinema notwithstanding the need to endure the realities of living. Amidst the several musical interludes, the film lyrically reflects on the gargantuan gap that separates the facile glamour of the silver screen and the material, spiritual and emotional poverty of everything else.

Ishmael Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (At the Top) ends with a striking sequence that consummates the hypocrisy that was portrayed in the carnivalesque affairs of the film. Ching (Rita Gomez), scandalously tipsy after a day of lonesome drinking, and Pinggoy (Vic Vargas), who attempts to salvage Ching from further embarrassing herself in public, see a mob of adoring fans, separated from their fantasy world by a metal gate and obviously oblivious to the excesses of their fleeting limelight. Their faces transform. The once self-absorbed alcohol-glazed gestures of Ching and the guarded yet clearly affectionate concern of Pinggoy suddenly breaking to give way to faces jolted by a sudden but timely awareness, of how far they have gone up and how far they have fallen. As with Dutt’s immortal masterpiece, Bernal, by mapping an actress’ deliberate and painful rise to the top, reflects on the disconnect between the realities of life and the quasi-realities of cinema that debilitates the men and women who chose to indulge in its promising allures.

The film opens with Ching, then a stripper, performing to the lustful stares of her patrons. She arrives home, slowly climbing the stairs, with every step turning into a gargantuan struggle as she carries herself and all her life’s worries up to her room. There, she breaks into a silent yet tearful soliloquy until Pinggoy arrives, attempting to woo her into bed only to be rebuked. Bernal finally breaks the several minutes of quiet yet persuasive storytelling with the first of the many arguments between the eternally incongruous lovers, with Ching’s vocal frankness overpowering Pinggoy’s contained machismo, to the point of the latter attempting to wrestle Ching’s dominance with violence, only to end in conciliation and lovemaking. In that initial sequence, Bernal adequately summarizes Ching and Pinggoy’s relationship. By portraying with painstaking detail the overbearing imperfections of their life together, characterized by the graveness of Ching’s discontent with her current state in life as afflicted by Pinggoy’s paralyzing satisfaction over his existence as a cab driver, Bernal sets the stage not only for the couple’s surprising reversal of fortune, initiated first by Ching’s discovery by an idealistic film director (Eddie Garcia), and later on, the forced entry of Pinggoy to showbusiness (he figuratively and literally penetrates his way to fame and fortune), but also the accompanying transformation of their less than ideal but honest union into a publicized and sensationalized sham.

Pagdating sa Dulo is an impressive first feature. It confirms Bernal, very early in his career as a filmmaker, as a director who fully comprehends the value of the moving image. There are very impressively directed sequences, perfectly composed with every minute gesture or piercing gaze from the actors timed and orchestrated to evoke a subtle sensibility that is all at once strange and fascinating. The opening sequence, with its several minutes of quiet assuredness that unpredictably erupts in domestic cacophony, arrests in the way it portrays the couple’s weariness of their meager existence. Nearing the film’s conclusion, Bernal revisits the pensive mood of the opening sequence in the gorgeously shot sequence right before the film’s culminating summation, only this time with the two lovers in the heat of their careers yet suffering from a different malady, one that is caused by the callousness of the professions chosen for them by fate. The intoxicated air slows seems to slow down the sequence, which is further elaborated by the film’s recurring musical scoring. Ching, wearing a glamorous gown yet clearly under the influence of alcohol, flutters down the stairs as Pinggoy climbs up to fetch his former lover and current onscreen partner. You wait, even wish for an emotional outburst, a torrid embrace, a crazed kiss, even an exchange of harsh insults, yet nothing happens. The silence unsettles.

The director, presumably patterned by Bernal after legendary filmmaker Lamberto Avellana (director of well-regarded films like Anak Dalita (The Ruins, 1956), Badjao (1957) and Kundiman ng Lahi (Song of the Race, 1959)), becomes Bernal’s mouthpiece for his aches and hopes for Philippine cinema. Bernal has made startlingly accurate observations, pertinent up to this day. The dichotomy in Philippine cinema, as characterized by two existing and seemingly irreconcilable halves that form it (one half is a capitalist creature, more interested in profit-making than culture-creation; the other half is the problematic so-called independent film scene, where most of the interesting works hail from but is largely ignored by the populace), becomes the wellspring of his woes and frustrations. Kalapati, the film he made with Ching as lead actress, is a flop at the box office, to the ire of his producer, which will eventually lead to his voluntary decision to dedicate himself to making artful yet unseen documentaries. The director represents the consummate Filipino artist who is unfairly pushed outside the expanding bubble of public consciousness despite a veritable grasp in his artistry simply because integrity is not bankable. One of Bernal's most understated tragic figures, the director persists despite living a life of unfulfilled ambitions: his marriage is a failure, his film that sought to marry truth and cinema is a failure, his unpronounced affection for Ching is also a failure.

Pagdating sa Dulo opens with Ching exploited by the several men who paid money to see her dance and strip. It ends with Ching similarly exploited by her adoring audience who await the screening of her movie, a titillating feature that promises only to sexually arouse. At the top, everything is the same except that their sacrifices are bigger, their risks are greater, and the money and fame they reap only entrench them deeper into the system, changing them completely. It's a tremendous film; probably ranks right up there with Dutt's Kaagaz Ke Phool as one of the best films about filmmaking ever made.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Lola (2009)

(Brillante Mendoza, 2009)
English Title: Grandmother

Lola (Grandmother), made only a few months after director Brillante Mendoza was awarded the Best Director prize in the 63rd edition of the Cannes Film Festival for his unfairly maligned Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), struggles with its geriatric pacing. Scenes are stretched, sometimes to the point of tedium. The film opens with one of these staggered sequences of seeming pointlessness, as we observe Sepa (Anita Linda), along with grandson, walk the streets of Manila, from a church to the foot of a steel bridge where she ceremoniously lights a candle despite the disagreeing wind. She rides a passenger jeepney (where she temporarily becomes background to a woman who is on her way to a job interview only to be derailed by a cellphone snatcher who eventually meets his unfortunate fate under the hands of a street mob) to meet her daughter in a funeral parlor, whose manager is too eager to the point of callousness to her mourning and penury to show his expensive coffins. We learn that her grandson just died, and that she needs to raise money to pay up the expenses of the funeral. Sepa’s demeanor, seemingly stoic from the endless travel, changes as she accidentally glances at her dead grandson in the funeral parlor’s morgue, revealing repressed pain and infinite confusion in an otherwise irrepressible exterior.

Mendoza continues to deliberately and patiently unfold his tale. When Sepa arrives at her grandson’s employer to collect donations, we learn that her grandson did not die naturally. The seemingly unrelated crests (the candle-lighting ritual, the attempted snatching of the woman’s cellphone, the look of pain and confusion in Sepa’s face) in Sepa’s seemingly monotonous trip start to make sense: Sepa’s grandson was killed while trying to stop a thief from snatching his phone. The cellphone thief is Mateo (Ketchup Eusebio), the grandson of sidewalk vegetable vendor Puring (Rustica Carpio). The tale seamlessly shifts attention from Sepa to Puring, as she persists on against the heavy rains at night with her other grandson (Jhong Hilario) to plead her community leader to help her grandson. They end up unrewarded, as they arrive at the leader's home only to be rebuked and ordered to come back the next day, when the leader has waken up from his night's slumber. Despite the evident impossibility of her self-imposed task, she indefatigably finds ways to earn the money, both mischievous (like cheating one of her customers the few pesos of change) and noble (like mortgaging her house as collateral to a hefty loan), just to complete the settlement amount and rescue his beloved grandson from rotting in jail.

Mendoza explores repercussions of the crime on the families of both the offender and the offended. That the film manages to stagger its insistence on the evident dullness of living even after an event as momentous as the death or the incarceration of a loved one makes the individual instances of resilience notwithstanding a suffocating backdrop of obvious poverty and oppression more resonant. In one scene that recalls the same harrowing display of human desperation as staged by Akira Kurosawa in Seven Samurai (1954) where the villagers from a bandit-invested hamlet pick up the individual grains of rice that they are offering to their prospective samurai protectors from the wooden floor panels, Puring scampers to pick up the coins that were scattered on the grime-filled street when the police suddenly violently chased the sidewalk vendors away. In another scene Sepa, riding a makeshift boat that will transport her through the perpetually flooded streets of Malabon, begs for donations from her neighbors. These subtle but clearly cinematically motivated sequences become more emotionally laden and more pertinent in the film, especially considering that Mendoza’s consistently mundane and unadorned handling of the narrative conceit pushes these very few instances of overt sentimentality as his beacons of humanity in an arguably inhumane world.

Lola’s insistence on centering on the stories of the often marginalized elderly enunciates the often incompassionate and soulless bureaucracy and inefficiency of the Philippines’ criminal justice system. Sepa’s unfortunately embarrassing experience in court, where her futile search for a working comfort room leads to her wetting herself, pushes the irony that the courts, the symbol of civilization because it supposedly humanely provides a semblance of justice and order in society, is without the very basic necessities of human living: a working comfort room. That painful irony as vividly pointed out in that scene, ludicrous if you think about it from the perspective of one who has all the comforts in the world but very real, is a consistent theme throughout Mendoza’s filmography. Mendoza has consistently examined, to the point of being accused of peddling his nation’s overt poverty to foreigners, the recurring ironies that exist in a country that is supposedly Catholic (but as in the unapologetically filthy interiors of the aging movie house in Serbis (Service, 2008) is just an imagined moral concept), democratic (but as the conclusions of Tirador (Slingshot, 2007) and Manoro (The Teacher, 2006) dictate, is a futile concept), law-abiding and civilized (but as the hellish horrors of Kinatay explicate, is easily discarded). Lola’s depiction of abject poverty is more than just an instrument to draw sympathy for its two struggling grandmothers, since it stresses the sheer severity of the human condition that masquerades its shortcomings with establishments of order and equity.

By differentiating the two grandmothers with their respective struggles and experiences after the murder, Mendoza creates a palpable distance between the two, characterized by the anonymity Sepa has for Puring’s incessant pleas for settlement. However, underneath their conflicting positions is a shared responsibility, and from that responsibility, a shared tenacity to achieve their respective goals, and from there, a meeting ground. The two meet in a restaurant; and quite unexpectedly, instead of discussing in detail the specifics of their planned settlement, they chatter about their age, aching backs, arthritis, unhealthy food and finally, their stubborn husbands. The scene, shot by cinematographer Odyssey Flores with the same inconspicuous manner as the rest of the film, recalls the facet of humanity that Mendoza has fluently explored over and over again. In a world that has been consumed by an unbelievable brand of reality as imposed by poverty, it is not the very few triumphs that would inevitably connect us, but our common ability to first accept, and then survive pain and suffering, and still push on and just exist.