Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Magkakapatid (2010)

Magkakapatid (Kim Homer Garcia, 2010)
English Title: Blood Ties

Kim Homer Garcia’s Magkakapatid (Blood Ties) opens in a shack, disheveled and ominously in disarray from a previous bloody incident. Clues and remnants of what happened are littered everywhere. A bowl of dinuguan, a stew made of pig’s blood, meat and innards, is being feasted on by flies whose distinct buzzing complements the hurried reporting from the disembodied voice coming from the transistor radio. Human blood decorates the lowly walls and other furnishings in the house. A bloodied blade, presumably the weapon used in the hinted violence, menacingly rests on a tree stump.

Garcia, in the tightly conceived opening sequence previews the near-comical grandiosity of his film’s central encounter with the most of absurd of the realities persisting in the Philippines. The previewed violence, a murder of Cane and Abel proportions that sadly does not have the biblical story’s deeply rooted hate since the film’s murder stems from the bowl of blood stew that wasn’t meant to be shared, inspired by an actual news account of a man hacking his own brother, becomes the springboard for Garcia’s critical assessment of a society that is defined by the paradox that it is as closely knit by familial ties as it is separated by economic status and other variables. From the murder between siblings (Nico Antonio and Jerald Napoles), Garcia widens his reach and starts to detail the extended families of the victim and murderer, mapping the underlying frivolity and overt injustice of the grossly differing fates of their impoverished and sickly mother (Ces Quesada), their middle-class uncle (Julio Diaz), and their wealthy aunt-in-law (Racquel Villavicencio).

Magkakapatid fashions itself as dark comedy, one that mines humor from circumstances, however unlikely especially in a civilized society, that simply happen because of the long lingering perversities of capitalism and democracy. Through the quips exclusively delivered by the film’s two clowns, a chauffer (Archie Adamos) and a man-Friday (Soliman Cruz) who witness the overlapping tragedies right from the getgo, the film manifests its partiality for humor, no matter how heavy and persistent the drama onscreen are. It’s undoubtedly off-putting. Garcia seems unable to properly weave his intention of making apparent the hilariousness of the ludicrousness of the country’s sad reality into his picture with what is seen and heard in the movie. The result is both confused and confusing, an exhilarating mess that shape-shifts too often, too soon.

It’s a premise that shines with promise, a promise that Garcia manages to sustain during the first half of the film, where relationships, along with their unexposed angst and aches, carefully unravel. Halfway though, when all the characters’ stories have intertwined leading to what essentially is a staggered comedy of errors, Garcia suddenly loses control, forgetting entirely the very mannered way he teased his audience to going through the convolutions of his labyrinthine plot via the potent sounds and sights of his opening sequence. Frequent overacting from the reliable cast weakens the film’s stranglehold on reality, pushing the film closer outside the boundaries of good taste.

Watching Magkakapatid is truly a tricky affair. So much of it is good yet also; so much of it is bad. While it succeeds in depicting the crisscrossing paths of humor and drama, absurdity and reality, and family and society, it ultimately fails the balancing act that makes its well-meaninged depictions tolerable to the audience it seeks to communicate to.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mayohan (2010)

Mayohan (Dan Villegas, 2010)
English Title: Maytime

I remember that afternoon where I first fell in love. This love is not the same as the shallow crushes I had for my dainty homeroom advisor in kindergarten or Alice Dixon from Okay Ka Fairy Ko (You're Ok, My Fairy, 1987-1991) in grade school. This love was, at least during those times, very real especially in terms that she was tangible and the possibility of me being in love with her morphing into us being in love with each other is good. I was just a year past puberty, a dweeb from high school, when I met her. I can recall the details very clearly. She glided down from the third floor of the mall to where she greeted me with the most distinct of smiles. It was a lovely smile, a smile that delicately curves to shape like a tired crescent moon, wrinkling a bit a very special portion of the cheek that is just below her perfectly shaped eyes. She was, at that moment where logic took a backseat and infatuation had me completely intoxicated, a vision of perfection.

Looking back with the jaded and cynical eyes that were developed out of all those loveless years I had to live through, it’s most certain that that afternoon isn’t very special at all. She probably didn’t glide down from the third floor to where I was, but just rode the escalator like everybody else does. Her smile that afternoon most probably wasn’t lovely in that unique way because it held a special meaning, although I insist that her smile up to now has always been lovely, but was just one of the many smiles she would show to new acquaintances. Basically, it was my heart, novice in the enchantments of romantic elation, made everything more than perfect when they were hardly that.

Dan Villegas’s Mayohan (Maytime) tells the story of Nino (Elijah Castillo), a city boy who retreats to the provincial town of Infanta for summer with his aunt. There, he meets a Lilibeth (Lovi Poe), a pretty lass who is soliciting money from the town’s male populace for the mayohan, a unique ball that happens in the end of the month of May where the town’s single ladies are lined up for the men who will invite them for a night of dancing and other merriment. Nino, whose parents were killed in a vehicular accident that left him with a noticeable limp, aside from adjusting to the laidback lifestyle the province which usually involves daily strolls and nightly prayer sessions has to adjust to his own coming-of-age. Enamored by Lilibeth, Nino readies himself for the ball where he, along with the rest of the town’s male populace, would have to compete for a chance at igniting a summer romance.

Sta. Ana’s screenplay shines in its simplicity. Unhampered by lofty aspirations and ambitions of social relevance, Sta. Ana manufactures a plot that pits the admirably innocent admiration of a first-time lover to his loved one with the tainted reputation of that loved one. Lilibeth, reputed to have the same propensity for indiscretions as her mother who became the town mayor’s part-time fling, is depicted by Sta. Ana and Villegas with dual intentions: as the object of desire for young Nino and as a troubled individual, unmindful of and carefree with her morals and on the verge of escape. Notwithstanding the seeming incompatibility of the two natures of Lilibeth that Villegas and Sta. Ana explore, the film still upholds her stature as an indisputable beauty, a prize. Villegas, who started out as a cinematographer with the propensity for romanticism in the way he lights, frames and color-grades his visuals, provides Lilibeth an immaculate sheen, a luster that is equal to the allure of the town’s seaside vistas and other remote locations. It is impossible not to sympathize or at least understand Nino’s persistent and undaunted infatuation.

Thus, Mayohan, much more than a love story between a post-pubescent city boy and a provincial beauty is a portrait of un-jaded love as only youth and lack of worldly experience can produce. Despite its trappings of mining an obscure festivity for cinematic color, the film speaks a universal language, one that has been spoken or is being spoken by anybody who has treaded the path of blindly loving against all odds and against all warnings. It is a love that seems more suited in that stage of our lives where we haven’t found ourselves weary and wary of reality and the cynicism it inflicts. Mayohan, in all its unabashed and unaffected depictions of stubborn youth and his stubborn love, is a lovely little film that knows its limitations, works within them, and as a result, charms more than I thought it could.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Donor (2010)

Donor (Mark Meily, 2010)

There is no doubt that Mark Meily is a proficient observer of the absurdities of Philippine society. His first two films, Crying Ladies (2003) and La Visa Loca (2005), eschew the phenomena of women being paid to mourn for a recently deceased Chinese businessman and a man getting nailed to a cross to get a U.S. Visa respectively of any serious implications for drama and comedy. Baler (2008), a period piece set during the war for independence where several Spanish soldiers are trapped inside a church as Filipino revolutionaries surround the church, is sadly an unsuccessful turn for Meily, who replaces his gift for finding humor in the deepest darkest recesses of society with trite and unconvincing romance. Fortunately, free from the restrictive clutches of a commercial studio, Meily returns to form with Donor, a hard-hitting black comedy that ostensibly tackles the kidney trade and the ridiculousness of the statutes that attempt to prevent it and in turn before criticizing traditional male domination in a society where breadwinner status in the family is steadily shifting to females.

Stuck in a marriage-less relationship with perennial bum Danny (Baron Geisler), Lizette (Meryll Soriano) is barely able to make ends meet with the very little that she gets peddling pirated DVDs. A recent police raid leaves her jobless. She attempts to apply for work abroad but eventually discovers that the simple act of job application will cost her a fortune. Back at home, Danny requests that she fund his gun acquisition. Strapped for cash, she is forced to sell a kidney to a Jordanian businessman for a hundred thousand pesos. One of the conditions of the deal however is for her to marry the Jordanian, in compliance with a law that prohibits the donation of organs to a stranger. The result, surprisingly, is more funny than imminently disarming and troubling, which is, quite frankly, a breath of fresh air in the overdone genre of poverty films that has been far too serious far too long.

Donor is an astoundingly sleek production. From the crisp digital lensing by cinematographer Jay Abello to the believable production design, the film adamantly refuses to surrender glossiness to the demands of grittiness. Indulgences, as with most of Meily’s previous films, are abundant with the overused fade-outs, whatever the supposed intent for such editorial trickery, as the most apparent. Fortunately, these ostentatious displays of directorial know-how hardly function to dissuade the viewer from being enamored by the novelty of Meily’s carefully crafted tale. Also, Soriano, with her subtle but commanding turn, Geisler, with his ability to make stubborn inutility intriguingly entertaining, and the film’s very able support, keep the film rooted despite several instances where the persisting fades and the grating musical score have become too cumbersome to ignore.

Probably the biggest achievement of Meily in Donor is that he manages to invoke a lively amount of levity for its comedic aspirations despite the film’s very grim topic. Of course, it might seem that the film is making a mockery out of the inescapable quagmire of social and domestic inequity that the poor are dwelling in but the film really goes beyond the sheen of insensitivity it seems to portray. Donor, by means of melding stark realism and caricature, manifests the compounding failures of society’s pillars, from moral norms to statutory concepts, to salvage the poor from being poorer. As Lizette goes through the rigors of putting up with Danny, of marrying a stranger, of selling her kidney, and later on, of suffering through the consequences of all the unavoidable staples of her hopeless existence, she still manages to wiggle her way out, not totally unscathed but still able to live and probably hope for another day. Focusing primarily on Lizette’s undeniable survival skills, it seems that it is this inscrutable capacity or stubbornness of the Filipino woman for woe and pain rather than the frivolity of the poor that Meily seems to center on.

The film’s ending, a spectacle of blood and gore that presumably ends Lizette’s tribulations at least for now, shocks primarily because the film has been so mannered and so quaint despite the possible grisliness of its topic. Whether or not Lizette can still wiggle away from the remnants of Danny’s influence and the grip of being moneyless in an age where everything is for sale is a non-issue. As she has learnt with the one hundred thousand pesos that simply dissipated in a matter of days, life and the occasional reprieves it offers are only temporary. Death, on the other hand, is permanent. Nevertheless, as long as we are living, survival, and whatever is needed for it are priceless, nay, price-worthy commodities.

(Cross-published on Twitch.)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Possible Lovers (2008)

Possible Lovers (Raya Martin, 2008)

Raya Martin’s Possible Lovers, a ninety five minute film introduced by five minutes of silent vignettes of Manila in 1919 segueing to around ninety minutes of a ridiculously long take of a man watching another man sitting on a couch and ending with a self-referential stab at itself, could be anything. The title suggests a romance. The screen suggests a one-sided romance, from the gazer (JK Anicoche) and the subject of his gaze (Abner Delina), a sleeping man wearing a coat and a top hat. The man’s gaze towards the sleeping man, considering that nothing could attract such long a gaze except what could be the beauty of a face or the possible intrigue of what is happening within the sleep, is an act of selfless adoration. Nothing else happens. They remain only possible lovers within the scope of Martin’s film, a film that is far too short to appreciate beyond the possibility of that possible love.

“They made movies in 1919,” states the intertitles that separate the vignettes of old Manila from the extended shot of the two men. The clips are deteriorated, made overtly imperfect by the decay of the film source over time and the effects of digitalization. Hardly the movie that the intertitles speak of, the clips are but phantoms of an existence or the possibility of the existence of such movies. Given that what’s left is a mere reminder of what was or what could have been a cinematic past, the cinephilic adoration morphs into what essentially is a fetishistic attachment for the dead or the near-dead. Is the man wearing a top-hat really a man but a ghost of the unobtainable past? Is the gaze really a romantic gaze of affection or a suffering gaze of patience, longing, regret and psychotic expectancy for specter wearing the top hat to wake up from what seems to be an eternal slumber?

Teresa Barrozo’s sound design accompanies the near-static image with the promise of movement and action. Sounds of horses galloping, of motor vehicles on the move, of men making passage through grass, create an atmosphere of unrest that is discordant with the steady visual. Are these the sounds from the movie that the audience supposed to be watching? Are these the sounds from the movie that the man is watching?

“We were two possible lovers, waiting for the film to end,” concludes the film. At first glance and probably at second, third, and fourth to viewers who cannot get over the fact that they were just watching a man watching another man, the coda seems to play like the punch-line to the film’s overextended practical joke. However, the coda succinctly summarizes the subtle anguish that Martin bares in the film. It is anguish attributable to an unfulfilled need, like a love affair infinitely stalled because of the utter impossibility of the receiver to reciprocate a fervent love being offered. As the man with the undying gaze is in the middle of a possible love affair, the audience is also stuck staring on a possible cinema, only to be reminded by the abrupt coda that there is actually no end, no conclusion. We all remain waiting, possible lovers of that possible film.

For Martin, love and cinema, both of which are for him indisputably personal as all of his films, where both are interchangeable themes, can attest to, are perpetually connected. Possible Lovers, within the span of ninety five minutes, majority of which is spent in teaching the audience the art of the expectant gaze, articulates a pain common to both those who are hopelessly romantic and those hopelessly in love with cinema.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Pink Halo-Halo (2010)

Pink Halo-Halo (Joselito Altarejos, 2010)

I cannot imagine Pink Halo-Halo being directed by anyone but Joselito Altarejos. Altarejos, who has made a name for himself in Philippine cinema as one of headliners of the burgeoning and bursting gay genre with such films like Ang Lalake sa Parola (The Man in the Lighthouse, 2007), Ang Lihim ni Antonio (Antonio’s Secret, 2008) and Ang Laro ng Buhay ni Juan (The Game of Juan’s Life, 2009). The film, about a boy (Paolo Constantino) whose father (Allen Dizon), a soldier, is detailed to war-torn Mindanao to keep the peace during a special elections, is inspired from Altarejos’ own childhood, one that has been marked by the loss of a father, also a soldier, who was killed in the service of the country.

Set in Altarejos’ native Masbate, Pink Halo-Halo opens with a row of soldiers jogging amidst a serene backdrop of the province. Several boys, running and carrying toy guns, follow suit. As the jogging soldiers leave the frame, Altarejos’ camera follows the boys playing. Altarejos’ gaze, from then on, is focused on the boy. Adult affairs, from domestic issues like the tenuous relationship between the boy’s mother (Angeli Bayani) and her in-laws to more serious matters like the war in Mandanao, are kept in the background, overheard rather than outright dictated. Seemingly uninterested in the world of the adults and therefore free from any discussion of poverty, politics, and other unpopular issue, the tone is consistently and refreshingly light like child’s play.

Life is strictly observed from the boy’s perspective, a perspective that is intriguingly shaped by a blossoming affinity for feminine interests. This intentionally limited point of view that Altarejos insists on enunciates the sheen of safety and tenderness that is rightfully reserved for the boy. Given that, when these adult matters forcibly invade the boy’s innocent world, such as when the boy finds out the fatal predicament of his father in Mindanao on television and discovers firsthand the immediate dangers of the real world, the effect is indisputably heartbreaking. Even in detailing the specifics of personal and familial grief, Altarejos does so with admirable restraint and control. That Altarejos was able to handle the pain and heartbreak with hardly any artifice or flair is a testament to both his passion for the subject matter and his maturity as filmmaker.

Much of the film is fueled not necessarily by spectacle or technical knowhow but by a more appreciable earnestness and simplicity that is quite rare in cinema nowadays. As a matter of fact, Pink Halo-Halo is hardly a perfect film. The film’s infrequent indulgences, from the gratingly saccharine musical score to the occasional directorial hiccups (a far-too-obvious cue here and there), are too apparent to be left unnoticed. However, on the sole basis of poignancy by way of its inherent honesty and sincerity in telling a story that is based on the director’s childhood experiences, the film is a marked revelation of what Altarejos, whose previous works’ merits seem to be limited to queer interests and nothing else, can do with the medium without necessarily losing himself in the process of expanding his artistic horizons. Pink Halo-Halo, notwithstanding its homosexual undertones and its distinct local color, speaks a universal language that is indifferent to gender, creed, and nationality.

(Cross-published on Twitch.)