Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Love You, Goodbye (2009)

I Love You, Goodbye (Laurice Guillen, 2009)

In a film festival that showcases Philippine cinema in its most obnoxiously self-important, with festival films ranging from spectacle-filled pseudo-epics to overacted tearjerkers to undercooked slapsticks, I Love You, Goodbye, despite its own melodramatic excesses, is joyfully quiet, lyrical and close to being authentically moving. It grabs you immediately from the start, when Lizelle (Angelica Panganiban), the poor girlfriend of wealthy doctor Adrian (Gabby Concepcion), enters the house of her boyfriend's family, gets rudely ignored by her boyfriend's mother (Liza Lorena), insulted by her boyfriend's daughter Ysa (Kim Chiu), and overshadowed by her husband's ex-wife (Angel Aquino) who charmss everyone with her seeming perfection compared to Lizelle's enumeration of imperfection. Despite the onslaught of unfortunate eventualities of that night, she still ends up passionately making love with her boyfriend.

The introduction, swiftly and without need of narrative embellishments, summarizes the mess that Lizelle is trapped in. She thrives within a relationship that is solely grounded on a flimsy concept called love. The initial lovemaking scene, shot by Lee Meily in disarming close-up, exposing the uncovered bronzed skin of the lovers in intense embracing and kissing, scored by Von de Guzman who makes use of the saxophone to enhance the steamy mood, and directed with an unabashed sensuality by Guillen, is sinful to look at, not because of the abundance of flesh exposed but because it is simply an act of desperation, an act by lovers struggling amidst a reality that is against their union, a fantasy, although masked by the intoxicating feeling of romance. The plot thickens. Gary (Derek Ramsay), Lizelle's ex-boyfriend, returns, and woos Ysa so that she can get chance to win back Lizelle. Ysa eventually falls in love with Gary who can't reciprocate such adoration because he is still desperately in love with Lizelle.

Lizelle becomes the center of an intricate web of disjointed desires, misplaced adoration, and unavoidable compromise. Panganiban, whose angelic face betrays the seductive curves of her body, is quite a talented actress, gifted with an innate ability to efficiently convert emotions like restrained passion, repressed sadness, and emotional despair into heartfelt gestures, tears, and facial expressions. In one scene, where Lizelle and Gary are left alone in the beach, and allowed for the very first time since their separation to be honest with each other, Guillen aptly does away with music, allowing Panganiban to solely control the scene, puncturing the stillness of everything with a masterful display of whirlwinding emotions, of reminiscence of a lovely past and hope for an unattained future, of an unbearable loneliness and the comfort of a long-awaited release, of the utter confusion of being trapped in the middle of two equally strong loves and the happiness of being essentially exposed to one. It's a beautifully crafted scene, completely unadorned yet brimming with such delicate sadness.

I Love You, Goodbye should have been a good film and it pains me to note that it is not for the simple reason that it flaked in its ending. After meticulously mapping the exposure of a dreamy relationship for the veritable sham that it really is, it quickly abandons such directive and surrenders to the inevitable call of inane conventionalism. I Love You, Goodbye could have been the decade's anti-romance, the momentary cure (at least for the two hours that the audiences would invest on the film) to the Filipino's inherent infatuation for escape through the plasticine happiness of matinee idols and leading ladies entangled in choreographed kisses and embraces. It could have echoed the glossy melancholy of the ending of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), where two lovers who are deeply in love, after being separated by war, unexpectedly meet-up, armed only with the painful memories of that love they used to share with each other that can never be regained. It could have had the same puncturing bittersweet resolution of James Gray's Two Lovers (2008), where a dreamer of a man wakes up and realizes his dreams of a perfect romance is unattainable, and settles.

But of course, I Love You, Goodbye is a different movie altogether and to expect something else out of it is admittedly an unfair proposition. Yet, the knowledge that the happy ending is merely a product of corporate concession and not of creative impulse, complicated by the fact that the originally intended ending, an ending that is more grounded in reality and logic, has already been shot but eventually shunned by the film's producers for being ambiguously sad, alarms because it pinpoints a national commercial cinema that is obviously taken hostage by formula and what seems to be misguided appreciation of what an audience can and cannot take.

As it turns out, reality, even in something as impertinent as the romantic relationship of fictional characters, is too much of a risk for movie producers with primary capitalist sensibilities. The more lucrative option is to perpetuate the grand cinematic lie; that everything ends happily and all problems and conflicts, no matter how undeniable unresolvable they are, can be magically resolved, and all characters can achieve a state of ecstatic satisfaction and completely forgetful of all the hatred and ill will that have been exchanged between and among them before. Perhaps it is my innate cynicism that drives me to abhor the ending that was imposed upon the film by its cowardly producers. Perhaps perfect endings are actual possibilities or even if they are not, we are in such need of them that we delight in being bombarded by them no matter how misplaced, dangerously false, and illogical they are. However, when a film has a perfect ending just for the sake of having one, betraying all notions of storytelling logic and emotional consistency, it is simply bad filmmaking that is not to be faulted to the director or her cast and crew, who in my opinion have crafted a fine film save for the insulting resolution, but to the profit-oriented movie studio that is being run by a team of unimaginative businesspeople who deplorably treat art not with passion or adoration but with outright bullyism and unfair compromise.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Mano Po 6: A Mother's Love (2009)

The Mano Po Story: God Have Mercy On Us
A Review of Joel Lamangan's Mano Po 6: A Mother's Story
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

FLASHBACK: The year was 2002. Besieged by film pirates and imperialist Hollywood, film studios like Regal Entertainment look forward to the annual Metro Manila Film Festival, a two-week period during the moneyed Christmas season where all of the metropolis’ theaters are only allowed to screen festival entries, to field what supposedly are their best films. A movie, conceptualized as a film matriarch’s ode to her Chinese-Filipino roots, opened successfully. Directed by Joel Lamangan with as much opulence he can imagine and Regal can provide money for, the film received critical attention only because it feels like the best film in a year of duds.

Melinda (Sharon Cuneta, in a role that fits her like Arnold Schwarzenegger fitting into a ballerina’s tutu) is alone in her office room, deep in contemplation. Olive (ZsaZsa Padilla, in a role that has all the stereotypical traits of a villainous in-law) storms inside, shouting invectives at calm Melinda in Filipino, bastardized by a lousily obvious Chinese accent. Melinda asks Olive to leave, threatening her that if she does not do so within the five counts she generously grants her, she will wreak havoc. Olive shouts and shouts and before you know it, a catfight ensues, with Melinda slapping Olive’s face left and right, before releasing a close-fisted blow on Olive’s surprised mug. This is supposed to be the film’s crowning glory: the triumph of the underdog, the oppressed character’s sweet revenge against her frustrating oppressor. Sloppily conceived, directed with the bluntness of a troll, and terribly acted, the scene feels like it belongs in an afternoon comedy sketch than the big screen.

FLASHBACK: The year was 2003. Enthused by the buckets of cash earned by Mano Po, the matriarch decides to do a sequel. She hires Erik Matti, a maverick of a director who usually churns out handsome films for very little, and comes up with a story about a presidential daughter who ages to look like a cheated presidentiable’s wife. The film, since it was also released as an entry to the Metro Manila Film Fest, made money. While it was infinitely better than Lamangan’s film, it was essentially more of the same: convoluted plots, unnecessary characters, faked chinky eyes and bastardized Chinese.

Carol (Ciara Sotto, who looks, feels, and acts like a tree stump during the entire film), the eldest daughter of Melinda, and Stephanie (Heart Evangelista, who is so pretty I can forgive the slightness of her acting), the other daughter of Melinda who was brainwashed by evil Olive to spite her mother, are talking in a meeting room. Melinda enters and a confrontation with Stephanie ensues. Melinda pleads that Stephanie believe her, but the latter refuses. Carol, on the background, is silently crying. I feel nothing. Joel Lamangan, who industriously directs this Mano Po film notwithstanding the fact that for these kinds of stories that have innate visual potential, his films are drab, flat and plain soulless, is relentless in his mediocrity and relies primarily on a considerably witty interplay of dialogue to bring life to a scene that is otherwise as dull as an unused hollow block.

FLASHBACK: The year was 2004. Lamangan returns to helm the third installment to the series. It’s a love story between two middle-aged Chinese-Filipinos. The woman’s married and with children. The man is a widower. It’s nice to see Vilma Santos fall in love again, and that is basically the strength of the film. It’s the only Mano Po where it didn’t matter that the characters were Chinese.

Melinda is the daughter of a Chinese woman and a Filipino man and because of that, she is unlucky. She marries into a wealthy Chinese family, but since she’s only half-Chinese, the family disowns her husband (played with such unsurprising inconsequence by Christopher de Leon). Melinda, her husband, all of their children, and even Olive, who spites Melinda because of her not being a pure Chinese, all speak in broken Chinese. Daniel (Dennis Trillo), Stephanie’s fiancé who also speaks in broken Chinese despite being a pure Chinese, is an active participant in a human smuggling ring and becomes the impetus for much of the film’s blatant attempts to be current and pertinent. Lamangan doesn’t achieve pertinence but downright annoyance.

FLASHBACK: The fourth and fifth Mano Po films were blurs. Directed again by Lamangan with a lot less excitement than the first Mano Po and more of the “this is just a job” attitude of a corporate ant, the films resembled television productions because of how haphazardly they were conceived and executed. Banking primarily on star-power and the inevitable pull of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the films were moderate box-office successes, evidencing that the Filipino people have grown weary and wary of these incessant mechanisms of translating the richness of Filipino-Chinese culture as a mere fetish, a fad, an entertaining curiosity.

Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love is such a bland film. While most people would consider it a harmless piece of entertainment, its effects are actually more devastating than the unhindered spreading of a disjointed contentment for substandard filmmaking in the country. It is first and foremost advertised as a mirror of the Chinese culture. Its gorgeous poster, backgrounded by what looks like a Chinese painting, with its posing actors and actresses draped in traditional chiong sam in the center, and Chinese characters adorned everywhere, can be considered as an invitation for an immersion on the culture and history of the Filipino-Chinese community. Unfortunately, the film, or for that matter, the entire film series, is simply a parade of stereotypes that only furthers alienation instead of planting an accurate understanding of the Filipino-Chinese culture. Bad and careless populist filmmaking coupled with ruthless advertising has proven to be very dangerous. Whether or not the intentions are pure is immaterial because subversion may be unintended, and history has proven that even the most innocuous of media can be converted as harsh propaganda.

I digress. As previously stated, Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love is a bland film. It could have been more than bland but it is what it is. It is a display of Lamangan’s indubitable incapacity to tell a story since the movie’s plot, as simple as it is, is made unbearably convoluted by a stubborn reliance on flashbacks, narration, and other frustrating clichés. While Mo Zee’s cinematography had promise, it was rendered inutile by a lack of any aesthetic integrity (Lamangan is unsure whether he wants to be stately, or hip; and in one scene where Lamangan nearly succeeds in creating authentic tension with a long take that follows characters into an abandoned warehouse for an illegal deal that mutates into a shoot-out, he proves himself to be incompetent with one incoherent cut). Von De Guzman’s music sticks out as the best thing that ever came out of the film or the series (his theme to the Mano Po series, a thunderous melody of clear Chinese influence, is probably the most recognizable Filipino movie theme; it is that music that plays the string that connects the films together: grandiose, well thought-of, and rich).

Where then does the failure lie, in the film’s overworking director, because of his failure to create something fantastic out of individually potent elements; in the film’s producers, for being nothing more than a factory of subpar movie while they have all the resources to be cultural powerhouses; in the present Metro Manila Film Festival, for being a festival that caters only to capitalist sensibilities instead of actual artistic merits; in the mainstream audience, because they couldn’t care less of what’s being produced outside thus, reinforcing the notion of all these directors and producers that mediocrity is lucrative; in the so-called movie press, for either being totally dishonest and parasitic in how they promote these movies, arrogantly displaying their utter lack of taste and in turn, infecting the country with their ignominious brand of idiocy?

FLASHBACK: The date was December 20, 2009. I watched a film entitled Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love. It’s utterly miserable. It made me miserable. Nonetheless, almost everybody enjoyed it, enjoyed seeing their idols act in the big screen, enjoyed being in the same theaters as the idols who are acting in the big screen. We remain unaware of this cultural bamboozlement.

(Cross-published in ClickTheCity, 25 December 2009 and Philippine Free Press, 9 January 2010)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Arrival (2009)

A Departure
A Review of Erik Matti’s The Arrival
By Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Erik Matti has an awkward position in Philippine cinema. Unlike Joel Lamangan, Jose Javier Reyes, Mark Reyes, and the many other so-called directors who have found a niche within the artless mainstream studio system by efficiently crafting movie after movie, raking in millions of hard-earned pesos by sheer star-power and stubborn adherence to stubborn formula, satisfying themselves with utter mediocrity, Matti has always been an oddball, a description I would normally detest if suddenly hurled at me but in this case, I would consider a subtle praise. His sensibilities are so unlike his contemporaries that his movies, no matter how innately inane they are, would always have a certain quirkiness, a palatable edge that would keep you glued to your seats. More than that, Matti is a reliable craftsman. His movies would always look, sound, and feel right even if the narrative is starting to crumble and fall apart. Jumping from one genre to another, Matti has made good films (Mano Po 2: My Home (2003) is undoubtedly the best of the series; Gagamboy (2004) is a delightfully self-aware rip-off of Sam Raimi’s famous Spider-Man films; Exodus: Tales From the Enchanted Kingdom (2005) had a few grand moments; and Pa-Siyam (2004) is arguably the best mainstream horror film made the past five years) but has never really exposed himself through his films.

Thus, The Arrival, a project that kept Matti busy the past few years, is valuable despite its blatant flaws. Matti considers the film as his most personal to date, and it shows. Unchained from studio interference, The Arrival is a free-flowing rollercoaster ride from proletariat desolation to sweet freedom. Leo, the film’s protagonist, played with considerable pathos by Dwight Gaston, is a lowly bookkeeper in Manila. Unmarried, curiously content of his lonesome and anonymous existence, and consistently visited by nightly dreams of a gorgeous woman running in slow motion from her lovely little bungalow to deliver to him an abruptly terminated kiss, he, after discovering a photograph of the same lovely little bungalow pinned in the mirror of his new barber, suddenly gets a tardy urge to be curious of what’s out there. Armed with the photograph that points to the town of Murcia as his destination, some money saved from several years of not having anyone to spend it on, and a foolhardy reliance on his nightly dream, he leaves his job, his apartment, his entire life in Manila to pursue the promise of the pictured house and the girl of his dreams who resides therein.

Matti’s stylized depiction of urban working class ennui, from the forlornness of his shared office space to the stark ordinariness of his bachelor’s hovel, turns the first half of the film into an unexpected comedy of sorts. His camera is unusually reserved, settling at showcasing Gaston’s distinctly characterless mug as the center of the action, or in this film’s case, inaction. His editing here is particularly patient, allowing the humor to seep through the cracks opened by the depicted idleness and boredom. It is probably the closest thing a Filipino director has come to emulating the cold and comfortless comedies of Norwegian auteur Aki Kaurismaki, whose most popular works involve people so desolate, they barely exist. Gaston complements Matti’s careful and precise direction with a performance that is so subtle, so slight, that it feels like he’d disappear from the picture and blend into the background. That actually happens; as when he’s invited to his neighbors’ nightly drinking sprees, he becomes a silent observer while his drinking buddies converse about life and women, and Matti’s camera jumps from one intoxicated face to another, to one bottle of beer to another, to one side dish to another, before settling on his morose face. Gaston’s is selflessly un-flashy performance of a role that would have any other actor diminish with overacting.

Murcia, a town not unlike any other provincial town in the country, becomes the setting of Leo’s titular metaphoric arrival. A sequence of events, starting with his expected encounter with the house of his recurring dreams and continuing with a momentary disappointment by the fact that the house’s female resident does not look like the vixen in his dream and later on, a realization that he has fallen deeply in love, pushes him to discard decades’ worth of insecurities and reprehensions. Leo’s delayed coming-of-age could have been utterly lovely. The fact that Leo is more than your traditional late bloomer, having only fully experienced the simple charms of living only in midlife, should have turned this tale into something more than charming, something more humorous, something more than clever. This is because Leo’s story is basically my story and the story of almost everyone I know who have delayed personal passions just to be in the middle of the rat race. The Arrival should not have been personal only to Matti but also to his intended audience. It had the opportunity to break hearts and change lives but it settled with displaying pretty pictures in cadence with pretty songs and melodies and earning a few chuckles out of vapid display of Filipino machismo in the midst of an abundant supply of alcohol.

Perhaps that is exactly the problem. The film is too organic, with Matti generously indulging his actors’ every impromptu conversation, every cracked joke, and every whimsical thought, resulting in a picture that takes too long to say what it wants to say. At best, The Arrival is an intriguing patchwork. It is fun. It is hip. It is melodic and at times, touching. It is just not as tightly weaved together that it is inevitable to appreciate it better in parts than as a whole. That said, The Arrival, while a welcome departure for a director who has told too many stories under the forced guidance of moneyed producers, is hardly the masterwork one expects from an expert craftsman who has now the opportunity to stretch his creativity beyond the borders of what will sell in the market. Notwithstanding my problems with the film, I sincerely wish this one sells and proves a point. There’s a lot more to Matti and this imperfect departure is just the beginning of something I hope is wonderful.

(First published in Philippine Free Press, 26 December 2009)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two Lovers (2008)

Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)

The opening sequence is vital. The requisite black of the opening credits gives way to a cloudy gray sky, which is partially covered by the back of a man's head. A lone gull slowly flies across the frame and it punctuates the gloomy atmosphere, an atmosphere that is predominantly supported by the deafening rhythm of an unpredictable breathing. We essentially feel what Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) feels after what seems to be an unfair turn of events. Director James Gray momentarily removes us from Leonard's perspective, and from a safe distance, we see the character, bowed down in contemplation, walk, arbitrarily drop the freshly dry-cleaned clothes he was carrying, climb the railings of the bridge, and jump into the sea. Gray brings us back to Leonard's perspective: a struggle of air bubbles in the cold seawater; a piercing memory of a perfect love that turned out to be imperfect; a glimmer of light in the distance and indistinct shouts from the surface. Leonard is eventually rescued, walks away from the crowd with hardly an expression of gratitude to his saviors.

Leonard is all at once a very familiar and unfamiliar man. From the safety of a cinematic distance, his case seems unique: a suicidal thirty-something man from Brooklyn who after another failed attempt at ending his life, suddenly falls in love with a new neighbor, who is herself in love with a married man, while entertaining possibilities of romance with her father's business partner's daughter. However, Gray insists on depicting Leonard as an everyman, a personification of our own stubborn insistence on the fantastical notion of the existence of a grand romance, a figment of what we used to be or what we refuse to believe that we are. That is why the opening is vital. It is what invites our eyes to see the world through Leonard's incongruently hopeful and jaded point of view. The opening does that as it establishes a connection: that more than being approximated how it is to live like Leonard, we are approximated how it is to nearly die like Leonard. This is a connection that is enough for us to understand him notwithstanding the novelties of his circumstance: that he lives with his parents; that he is volatile; that his current predisposition is utterly unsatisfying considering that he is loveless, lifeless, and works for his father's dry-cleaning business when he fancies himself an artist.

The dilemma that Leonard has is hardly gargantuan, although to him and probably the rest of the uncynical world, it probably is. In a curious twist of fate, he is given two avenues to repair his romantically battered soul. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of Leonard's father's business partner, is your typical girl, the type that suddenly springs in your life with hardly any fanfare, although she starts to grow on you, but never enough to personify a lifelong fantasy. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), on the other hand, the new neighbor who is troubled by her married lover's inability to fulfill his promise to leave his family for her, is that fantasy girl who, although seemingly disinterested in a romance with you because of several reasons, is far too close to ignore or forget. Gray paints Leonard's dilemma with the casualness that is striking and oftentimes, heart-wrenching. Gray's camerawork, precise in its deliberate movements, fluttering through the interiors of Leonard's apartment or in and out of the brick pillars of the building rooftop, exemplifies an earnestness, a quiet sincerity that gives the intertwining relationships an emotional resonance that is simply too palpable to discard. In that regard, the tender moments, such as Leonard's attempt to kiss Michelle while she is sleeping or the prelude to Leonard and Sandra's lovemaking as backdropped by black and white portraits of Leonard's ancestors and opera that sprung out of Leonard's frustration to win Michelle's affection, are devastatingly beautiful, ravishing brush strokes that complete a masterwork of a painfully real document of the randomness of romantic affection.

Leonard's family is a lingering presence. His familial ties, through the several generations of Kraditors hanging in the apartment, the unavoidable pull to partake in the family business, the Jewish traditions, pervade his intentions to find and gain the love of his life. His father (Moni Moshonov) and mother (Isabella Rossellini), laid-back yet utterly concerned of their son's emotional condition, insist on a hold on him, sneaking behind his locked door to get an inkling of what he is doing and manufacturing opportunities for him and their anointed girlfriend so that they can get together despite his subtle protestations. Leonard, with his indelible familial attachment and his insistence on betting everything on a fantastical appreciation of love, is essentially a man-child, a Brooklyn variation of all the adult yet childish men that have populated Hong Sang-soo's love triangles and who in their drunken and sex-desperate stupor, have dissected the basic intricacies of sexual relationships. Phoenix's Leonard however, with Gray's preference for melancholy and dolor over Hong's deadpan humor, is a particularly moving creation, a man stuck in his unevolving imagination, delighted and fanciful of the fleeting ecstasy of an undefined romance: communicating with Michelle via phone, with the added value of seeing each other through their connected window views; showing off his skills in the dance floor; and charming her friends through his stories and raps.

Thus, the film's conclusion, devastating if viewed from the perspective of a hopeless romantic, gives way to probably the film's truest moment, at least for Leonard. After reeling from a realization of his overboard folly, he returns to his family nest and quietly proposes to Sandra, the girl who represents everything he is escaping from like family, his Jewish traditions, his father's beloved dry-cleaning business, and a life of abject ordinariness. He is rewarded a tender embrace; as Gray's camera follows his face and Leonard suddenly gazes at us, discarding the supposed distance, the object of escapism that cinema was meant for. That peering gaze, laced with a tinge of guilt, an acknowledgment that he knows that we know, a surrender to a real world that consistently rids itself of confused dreamers, is not unique in the film; as Michelle, while on the rooftop after Leonard's heartfelt declaration of love to her, similarly looks directly at the camera as she surrenders herself to Leonard after her realization of the impossibility of being with her married lover.

The gaze mystifies. It bothers. It disturbs because it's just too damned honest. Two Lovers, with its illusion-breaking gazes, its deliberate pacing, its primary use of a suicidal and lovesick man's painfully hopeful perspective, and its atmosphere of colorable melancholy, is, depending on one's readiness to be abruptly made sober of the intoxicating consequences of an infatuation with romance and picture-perfect happy endings, a work of undeniable power. It will lead you on, then break you completely, before curing you back into the banal comforts of this real world.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro (2009)

Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro (Lav Diaz, 2009)
English Title: Butterflies Have No Memories

The picture that Lav Diaz paints of an island decades after a mining company that brought to the island temporary prosperity left its shores is one draped in astounding bleakness and melancholy. As Martha (Lois Goff), the daughter of the Canadian CEO of the mining company, returns to the island she regards as her home, as according to her, she was practically born and raised there and that its residents are essentially her second family, she brings with her reawakened memories of a former abundance that is all replaced by penury and idleness. The past becomes an unhealthy preoccupation as the villagers repay her fondness with shame, indifference, and bad intentions, with three of the most affected of the mine's unrepentant beneficiaries, Mang Ferding (Dante Perez), former head of security of the mine, Willy (Willy Fernandez), Martha's childhood friend who now sells salt bread for a living, and another one of the mine's former employees (Joel Ferrer) whose yearly ritual of having himself nailed to the cross is for the return of his wife, conspire to kidnap her for a hefty ransom.

The village is deceptively quaint. The villagers go about their daily chores and vices, idly gallivanting or selling their wares during the day and drowning their dilemmas with alcohol at night. There is a sheen of normalcy, one that is ready to give way to madness should it be disturbed. It is this quaintness, this suspicious quietude, that makes Martha's visit a particularly awkward one, one that is birthed from good intentions but due to the intertwining of communal and personal histories, circumstances, and a hopeless longing for a distant prosperous past, can only result in bringing out the worst from humanity.

Diaz's Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro (Butterflies Have No Memories), a short film commissioned by the Jeonju International Film Festival for the tenth edition of its annual digital project, while a mere fraction of the director's famously long films in terms of running time, is equally potent in its depiction of fractured souls struggling within a world broken by men and their acts. Diaz's depiction of a town suddenly left blighted with the departure of a lucrative mining project is reminiscent of the typhoon-ravaged provinces of Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkantos (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007); Diaz, in one sequence, surveys the ghostly town, littered with abandoned barracks and offices, and dead quiet with the trees and other growth seemingly afraid to move with the wind, and this particular sequence has the same gloomy energy of a sequence in Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Encantos where Diaz exposes the landscapes left barren by typhoon Reming.

However, the desolation in Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro, much more than physical, is psychological, deeply rooted into a community promised of certain comforts only to be betrayed and left in a state of destitution and dejection. In a way, the devastation is graver because there are no clear edifices and structures to construct and repair, as the discontent of a community that once enjoyed the benefits of the progresses promised by capitalism and free trade is far more difficult to remedy. As in Melancholia (2008), where the depression of losing loved ones and not knowing where their bodies are if ever they are already dead is only temporarily mended by traveling to a faraway town and completely transforming themselves into various characters, the mental and psychological torture of the characters in Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro seek to repair their sorry lots in life with an act that echoes the desperation that has been repressed since the mine's closing only to be awakened by Martha's visit.

Although Diaz pinpoints the mines as culprit to the village's present state, he clearly does not absolve the villagers from fault. The villagers are perpetually suffering, seemingly trapped in a constant search for redemption: with Ferding relying on memories of a former wealth and glory to provide both fleeting comfort and frustration; Willy persisting in his meager livelihood; and the third of the trio relying on religion for alleviation; and all three of them washing their sins and memories with cups of cheap brandy and idle chatter. Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro has the trio in the middle of executing their devious plans, in a sudden halt. Wearing Moriones masks, handmade headgear worn by the faithful in a yearly festival as attrition for all the sins they have committed, the trio are met by a swarm of butterflies in the middle of the forest, leading to Willy to breakdown and give up.

Diaz does not explain further nor does he need to; the event, whether or not it stems from an authentic change or heart or a mere inconvenience of human emotionality, whether or not it foils the plan or not, articulates a power far greater than the social wretchedness, the poverty, and the environmental deterioration inflicted by the mines, and the relationship humanity has with that power. A palpable entity in all of Diaz's films (as the other party in Heremias' culminating pact in Heremias (2006) and whose complete absence has transported the characters in Melancholia into an infinite limbo of madness and sadness,) this power, whether it is the same entity that forces the religious man to lie face down inside the chapel or not, does not offer instant redemption but only reminds the characters of their humanity, even in the midst of corruption.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Johnny Delgado (1948-2009)

Johnny Delgado (1948-2009)

Juan Marasigan Feleo, more popularly known as Johnny Delgado, passed away on November 19, 2009. He is a hardworking actor, keeping himself preoccupied with his art even as he is battling lymphoma. The actor's last work is with the thesis film of his youngest daughter Ina Feleo (who has also proven to be a brilliant actress, giving colorful and restrained performances in Jade Castro's Endo (2007) and Milo Sogueco's Sanglaan (The Pawnshop, 2009)) entitled Labing-Labing (You and I, 2009). Labing-Labing is a modest yet heartfelt ode to her parents' relationship with each other. You can readily observe the physical manifestations of the advanced stage of Delgado's cancer, as his skin is considerably paler, his head is completely devoid of hair, and his gestures are lacking the usual physical exuberance the actor is known for. Despite that, Delgado gives an outstanding performance, showcasing an impressively articulate grasp of both comedy and drama. Delgado's wife, Laurice Guillen, who is both a magnificent actress and a very talented director, gives a magnanimous and understated performance, complimenting Delgado's joviality in the face of the fearsome disease with contemplative restraint, as if her character is shouldering all the pains and worries (the unresponsive daughter, the regular visits to the hospital) to allow her husband the benefit of normalcy (a performing libido, certain vices).

A vastly gifted character actor, Delgado has played various characters throughout his career, all of whom he has given individual lives to separate and distinct from who he is as a person. His Macario, the domineering husband to Gina Alajar's tormented provincial wife in Laurice Guillen's Salome (1981) is a fearsome monster, a character created from the suffocating patriarchal society. Delgado, however, opens cracks of humanity and vulnerability to the seemingly impenetrable exterior of Macario, and from there, we are advised of a connection to the character. As one of the rapists in Lino Brocka's revenge thriller Angela Markado (Angela the Marked One, 1980), Delgado is unrelenting and horrific, unwavering in representing the unapologetic excesses of a male-dominated society. In Mike de Leon's Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Will Your Heart Beat Faster?, 1980), he decidedly turns a character fashioned from stereotype into a comic artifact, convincingly inflicting into the character of the grandmaster of a Japanese smuggling group with as much ridiculousness and absurdness. With his daunting frame and his expressive face, Delgado is best suited to be the quintessential macho man, portraying cruel husbands, sexual predators, crime bosses, and strict fathers with much ease and efficiency.

Gifted with both Delgado the innate physical attributes of an actor and talent, it is not surprising that he has acted for the Philippines' best filmmakers: Banaue (1975) for Gerry de Leon; Aguila (Eagle, 1980) for Eddie Romero, Init (Heat, 1979), Jaguar (1979) and Angela Markado for Lino Brocka; Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, Alpha Kappa Omega Batch '81 (1982), and Aliwan Paradise (1992) for Mike De Leon, Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan (The Legend of Julian Makabayan, 1979) for Celso Ad. Castillo; Brutal (1980) and Baby Tsina (1984) for Marilou Diaz-Abaya; Salome (1981), Tanging Yaman (A Change of Heart, 2000), and Santa-Santita (2004) for Guillen; and Balweg (1986) for Tikoy Aguiluz and Butch Perez. However, unfortunate as it may seem, Delgado is most popular for the roles he portrayed in the many recent blockbusters. Despite the lack of cinematic depth of these features, Delgado would often make most of the role, infusing an undeniable dramatic energy, an indefensible comic timing, or an integral fearsomeness to turn these meager features into watchable showcases of acting prowess. His serial killer in Cesar Montano's lackluster Ligalig (Anxiety, 2006) is a frightening. His mob boss in Mario Cornejo's First Day High (2006) is utterly fun to watch. His imposing fathers in Brillante Mendoza's gorgeously shot family drama Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006) and Rory Quintos' syrupy romance Kailangan Kita (I Need You, 2002) are so formidable that even without him onscreen, you can always feel his lingering presence. His doting father in Cathy Garcia-Molina's underwhelming You Got Me! (2007), on the other hand, is sweet, tender and in parts, quite humorous.

With the variety of roles that Delgado has played, one would expect the man to also be imposing and intimidating. However, based from the reactions and stories of his immediate family, his friends, and the many mourners who have shared little moments (I have been introduced to Delgado after the birthday concert of classical soprano Ana Feleo, Delgado's eldest daughter, and he appeared to me a very gentle man, very generous to share his smile even to people he barely knew. It is the exact opposite of the several characters that have rattled and daunted me throughout my existence as a Filipino film-consuming mortal), it appears that the actor is very well-loved and that his passing is not only a loss to the Philippine cinema which he has dedicated his life to, but also to the lives of the many people he has affected through the roles he has breathed life to and the life he has lived with much passion, dignity, and humility.