Thursday, February 25, 2010

Himpapawid (2009)

Himpapawid (Raymond Red, 2009)
English Title: Manila Skies

More than three decades after Lino Brocka's Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), Filipino filmmakers are still busy depicting the treacherous allure of Manila. The styles and methods may have changed, with today's directors and story-writers eschewing melodrama for documentary-like realism, but the intent is just the same: to unmask the city of its glittering neon lights and expose the asphyxiating poverty that pervades it. Raymond Red, in Himpapawid (Manila Skies), goes further than trite exposition. He knows that we know that our dire situation, how the nation is always at the mercy of moneyed capitalists, how the masses are suffocated by an inept bureaucracy, how the poor are so impoverished that the only currency they acknowledge is hope. It is that hope that drives them to strive for a better future, relocate to the metropolis where opportunities are peddled left and right, and patiently persist despite the astute oppression and marginalization.

However, Himpapawid is hardly a film about hope. It is about the loss of all hope, about how this frustration rapidly morphs into desperation. The film is not simply about poverty, but about the absurdity of this nation's poverty; how despite two celebrated peaceful revolutions toppling corrupt presidents, and despite yearly reports of advances in the nation's economy, the poor remain poor, if not getting poorer. It is an angry picture. The anger, fluently communicated through the film's main character Raul (Raul Arellano), an ordinary laborer who we first see pleading, begging and finally, threatening for a day off to apply for an overseas job, is so palpable and pronounced, it frightens you immensely. Raul's story, enlarged by Red from a piece of news about a peculiar hijacking incident in 2000 where the hijacker, after collecting money and jewelry from the passengers and crew of the flight, jumps out of the plane and dies in the process, represents the ridiculous lengths the poor have to commit to in order to escape from an inescapable fate of what seems to be a cycle of tremendous hope leading on to tremendous disappointments.

A bag of cash and jewels falls from the sky. It just lands there in the middle of an undeveloped provincial farmland, almost magically. A farmer (Ronnie Lazaro) walks by, picks up the fortune, and runs home, promises his son he'll send him to Manila to study with a specific condition that he never returns to the province. The shot of the dreamy little boy carrying the baskets he and her mother sell for extra income fades (which cleverly gives an impression of a few decades passing by) to give way to Raul, crossing the street in crowded Manila, carrying a sack of goods on his back. From Raul's woeful experiences that we witness, from his unpalatable adventures in the middle of Philippine bureaucracy to his participation in his pals' botched attempt to steal from their shady recruiter the money that was stolen from them, the allure of the big city is exposed for the dangerous sham that it really is; that Manila, which is for the millions of Filipinos in the province, the place that holds for them the elusive promise of escape from the unbearable humdrum of their respective impoverished lives, is nothing more than a nightmare perfumed with neon-lighted billboards that display fantasies of prosperity. Yet, the sight of families of five, seven and ten crowding inside a makeshift shanty, a whiff of the pungent air from the hundreds of overly crowded squatter colonies that dot the city, and a survey of the plenty yet similar sob stories from these slums, all relating to their collective misfortune of leaving all their belongings in the province for the promised job in the city only to be left unemployed and without any money to go back, expose the sad and difficult reality in Red's outrageous fiction.

Red's play on the timelines, where he blurs the boundaries of past and present with the use of clever editing, cinematography, and production design, is more than just cinematic sleight-of-hand. In the 70's, audiences were horrified by the tragic fate of Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag's Julio Madiaga, who was plucked from the provinces, exploited in the city, killed by his fellowmen in a mob. In the 80's, audiences were again confronted by Brocka with Macho Dancer (1988) the same story of a man who flees the province for Manila, then works as a stripper in one of the seedy gay bars in the city, and ends up with the same fate as Julio. The 90's saw several variations of the same story, the most memorable of which is Carlos Siguion-Reyna's fantastically melodramatic Abot Kamay ang Pangarap (Elena's Redemption, 1996), about a barrio lass turned maltreated maid. The new millennium saw Maryo J. De Los Reyes' Laman (Flesh, 2002), and Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004). Himpapawid, I believe, is not the last of its kind.

bears the purely cinematic sheen (the luscious cinematography, its genre aspirations, its traditional screenplay) of its predecessors. There is a marked difference between Red's feature and the several low-to-no budget features being produced by many intrepid Filipino filmmakers; as Red's film has an elegant pace and a clear and consistent mise-en-scene, recalling the disciplined artistry of studio filmmaking, before it was cheapened by the need to break-even in a cutthroat market. More than self-indulgence, the purpose of making Himpapawid such a consciously polished film, reminiscent of Brocka, Mike De Leon, and Ishmael Bernal, is, in my opinion, to enunciate the absurdity of the fact that things, whether in reality or in what defines this nation's cinema, are still criminally unchanged. There is no difference between today and forty years ago. Manila remains to be hell; perhaps glittered and gilded to the unassuming provincial dreamer, but definitely still hell. Cinema, reacting to such unchanging reality, can only either exploit it or be angry about it. Red thankfully does the latter.


Anonymous said...

congratulations to the makers of Himpapawid for garnering 10 nominations in this year's Gawad Urian!

what a great comeback for Red. :)

- anna

Levis said...

Hi Oggs,

My name is Leonardo and I'm producing a showcase of the "New Philippine Cinema" in Brazil. We're going to show films by Raya Martin, Lav Diaz, John Torres, Khavn de la Cruz, etc. Along with those films, we'd like to bring some older filipino films, predecessors and influential to this new generation (such as Lino Brocka's, Ishmael Bernal's, Mike de Leon's, etc).

Do you have a list of the most important films that can be connected to this new generation? Also, do you know where I can find 35mm copies of them?

It would be a huge help for us!

Best Regards,

Leonardo Levis

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the Urian has already lost its credibility and relevance. Seriously, do you remember any credible international cinema publication soliciting their opinion? Or any of the established festivals hosting any of their members as part of the festival’s jury? More often than not, their choices often elicit a “WTF?” This is especially pronounced in their technical categories. It clearly bears out their total lack of knowledge regarding the technical or craft aspects of film-making. The smarter set already know that if you want the real skinny about local cinema, the blogs are your best bet. A note to the Urian: go stick to your day jobs and bring in some new blood instead to make yourself relevant again. Besides, talagang guguho na mundo kapag nakita mo na pangalan ni Butch Francisco sa Film Comment or sa Sight and Sound.

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Leonardo,

Thank you very much for the comment and the special attention to Philippine Cinema.

For a list of important films that can be connected to this generation of Filipino filmmakers, I suggest you browse through Noel Vera's 100 Best Filipino Films here:

The filmmakers you have mentioned might have personal favorites (I personally think Kidlat Tahimik's Bakit Yellow ang Gitna ng Bahaghari could have influenced John Torres, and the early films of Nepomuceno could have influenced Raya; but those are all guesswork) not listed in Noel's list but I believe the list pretty much sums up what should represent quality cinema from this country.

The availability of 35mm print however is a different topic altogether since I believe most of the films in the list no longer have 35mm prints available, or if they are, they are in such fragile condition that transporting them to your country will prove to be expensive, difficult, and logistically impossible. The safest route to go if you really want to screen this films is to obtain a DVD copy (the quality of which would be dependent on the surviving prints' condition) of the films.

Good luck and I apologize if I wasn't of much help.


Oggs Cruz said...

Regarding the Urian,

Awarding films, by the sheer idea of placing these films alongside each other and picking which one is the best, is already questionable. Awarding films by a collegial body, considering that the awarding has become open to compromise, diverse tastes, ignorance, bias, politicking, and other extraneous circumstances, even more so. Yet by sheer practice and excitement, we continue doing it.

Do we punish Urian for it, I don't think so. With its conscious decision of rewarding lesser known films despite the backlash that they would get out of that decision (less stars in their awarding ceremonies means less advertisements) is already commendable. However, the Urian is still burdened, something I think they will never escape from, with questions regarding their very composition and their relevance now.

Let's just take these awards, as with all "The Best of" lists including mine, as they are, a subjective list of good films we ought to watch. They are only suggestions, and its up to you to agree or disagree.

Levis said...

Hi Oggs,

I'm working with a list of philippine films and want to know if I can talk to you thru email, to know if you think anything is missing or if some choices are not suitable.

Is it possible? What's your email?

Sorry for all the questions, but you are giving us a great help!

Best Regards,

Leonardo Levis

Noel Vera said...

Is it so grim? I suppose it's grim. I do think Red puts a lot of black humor in this, with what may be one of the most inept break-in gang ever put on screen, and the sight of those legs sticking up in the air. But it's a comedy laced with pathos and despair.

Oggs Cruz said...

It isn't as grim as I make it seem to be. I agree, it's a lot of fun. However, it is a grim and very real situation that Red ironically laces with humor. It's a symbolic "fuck you" sign to the ridiculousness of the situation of this nation's poor. It's Red saying enough of the self-pity, let's just show how absurd our situation really is. It is funny, angry, frustrating, beautiful, ugly, riveting, intelligent, and simple at the same time. It's one heck of a movie.

ken said...

Hi Oggs,

Totally agree with your last comment. Great article btw, the best of what I've read bout the movie so far. Sabi nga sa Pearl Jam song "everything has chains, absolutely nothing's changed..

This film has lots of things that it could almost pass for an escapist movie. When I saw it, everyones' laughing at Lav Diaz "wasak" cameo. Actually, the ending got me thinking Red did a "12 Monskeys" at first...but that would mean time-travel using make-shift parachute. x)

Oggs Cruz said...

Leonardo, my email is I'll try to help as much as I can.

Ken, Thanks for the comment. I really thought the ending was a deft touch. Quite brilliant. I'd love to see it again, and I hope Red keeps on making films.