Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

An archived photograph of the Filipino-American war as shown
in John Gianvito's Vapor Trail (Clark)

by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

I once fancied myself a history buff, memorized all the events, the dates, the personalities, and other specifics. I was necessarily fascinated by the fact that these events, although involving unheard of elements like war, bloodshed and political intrigue, were real and that they happened in the same world that I exist in. That these events happened in the past gave me a god-like stance of observing them, studying them, memorizing them within a safety that is comforting. The immediate rewards of this fascination with history included top grades in social sciences and an infamy for being a reliable source of trivia.

Trivia. That was all history was for me and presumably most of the world’s work-a-day citizens. As soon as we participate in the seemingly grand but realistically humdrum race called life, we conveniently forget the lessons of the trivial past and replace them with a mentality of “what’s in it for me in the future.” The several EDSA Revolutions all seem like blurs, all parades of empty symbols of the color yellow, the Laban sign, and the humongous Mama Mary standing guard atop a Catholic shrine. For majority of us who are in it for the future consider these symbols as emblems of the promises that they once were and are rejuvenated as continuing promises, not necessarily as a linkage of the persistence of history as a reason for the woes of the present.

Alexis and Nika were murdered on September 1, 2009 in Alexis’ house in West Triangle. Alexis was a film critic, nay, a film activist who spread himself and whatever resources he has amassed during his lifetime for the goal of film education, whether it be to salvage whatever remains of whatever film legacy the Philippines has or to simply broaden the tastes of Filipinos to try films more complicated than the traditional offerings of Hollywood and its local counterparts. Again, all of these are just trivia, bits and pieces of information that newspapers would publish for a semblance of currency in their news-telling. Again, that’s that, a piece of history for the now-enamored-then-oblivious history buffs in high school. The truth of the matter is that their deaths have left an immense void in the advocacy that they concentrated their efforts on.

One of Alexis’ foremost projects was to set-up informal screenings right at the heart of the hangouts of the middle-class and upper-class Filipinos, presumably to bring intelligent films into the consciousness of those with the most capabilities to move and change the pitiful status quo. Thus, the Fully Booked Film Series was born. Imagine. The static shots of Lav Diaz, the beautiful experimentations of Raya Martin, the ultra-personal visual poems of John Torres, and the sensible madness of Khavn just a few meters away from Batman, Spider-man, Archie, Calvin and Hobbes. The irony of it all is just the cherry on top. The meat of the project is that these films, criticized for only being devoured by film enthusiasts outside the country, are being screened in the Philippines, for free, and with the directors and film experts present to answer or at least acknowledge hopefully sensible questions.

A few months after the deaths of Alexis and Nika, the Fully Booked Film Series re-introduced itself as the Tioseco-Bohinc Film Series in appreciation of the two film lovers’ contribution to its existence. In consonance with the recent happenings in the Philippine cinema scene, a very apt screening of John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) was held a few months ago after much prodding from Lav, one of the film’s staunchest supporters. The first part of two documentaries that tackle former United States military bases in the Philippines, the film parades itself as a document of the harrowing effects of the ghosts of these bases, from the contaminations to the water supply to the general forgetfulness of the residents of the subtle woes that the Americans have left behind in the country. The documentary perceptively masks its berating message to the Filipino populace who seem to have contented themselves in treating history as a reason to install crumbling statues in unkempt city plazas while sniffing rugby for pleasure. We are a country of people addicted to momentary flights to landscapes of illusory comforts while everything else in the world is decaying.

In Gianvito’s very personal introduction to the film, where he acknowledged the contribution of Alexis to the film but was only read to the viewers because Gianvito was in Boston and could not go to the screening, he proposes that the Philippines “was robbed of its own independence” by the Americans “at the very moment it had finally achieved liberation from the brutal yoke of Spain is yet one more example of the willful distortion of history by those who benefit from the suppression of inconvenient truths.” The crux of Vapor Trail (Clark) is not only the indictment of the Americans of its overt and subvert crimes against the Philippines but also the indictment of the Filipinos for the act of forgetting and hence, undervaluing and neglecting the gift of liberty that was delivered by our patriots and freedom fighters. The very purpose why this country exists has been overshadowed by tenuous promises of alleviation. The truth is that we are still at war with our colonizers yet there are only very few revolutionaries left fighting, very few nationalistic songs sung, very few real Filipinos left to protect. The rest are slaves to a written history that is too much about trivia and too little about us.

These ramblings are of course products of my own frustration, not anymore about how this country’s history has been morphed into a topic of quiz nights instead of discourse but by the well-founded opinion that to even entertain such an idea is so unpopular, so boring, and so unsophisticated for anyone to spend a few hours of a lazy Sunday for. Vapor Trail (Clark), powerful as it is in its content, in the fact that it is imparted by an American, in the fact that it is too scathingly true to be simply a matter of entertainment or even curiosity, ended with only four people in the audience remaining. Alas, such is the sorry fate of these films that only seek to enlighten and to change mindsets and such is the blessed fate of Christopher Nolan’s Inception that is praised to death by both critics and viewers for its ability to turn fantasy into reality, vice versa ad infinitum. Such is also the fate of those who attempted to inherit Alexis’ woes, finding solutions against all odds to instill a permanent curiosity which will hopefully evolve into a thirst for films of these sort, films whose whispers are louder than the most grandiose explosions in a Michael Bay flick. If only these things can be treated as trivialities. Unfortunately, they can’t so we simply stagger on.

(First published in Uno Magazine, September, 2010, issue)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Eskrimadors (2009)

Eskrimadors (Kerwin Go, 2009)

The action film, a genre that was synonymous with the Philippines a few decades back where the country was producing countless films with heroes waging battles with iconic villains with their pistols or sometimes with only their deep knowledge in street fighting, is near-extinct in the present cinematic climate that fosters repetitive romances and horrific horrors.

It’s not that the country has lost action heroes (Monsour del Rosario, taekwondo champion turned action star, and Ronnie Rickets, action star who also directs, have moved on to politics) or directors adept with action filmmaking (there’s Rico Maria Ilarde who embellishes his horror films with lovingly staged action sequences). I’d wager that the lack of interest has more to do with the proliferation of big-budgeted Hollywood movies in the market. Where entire buildings burst into flames and characters dodge bullets and blows in eye-popping slow motion, the typical fisticuffs and car chases, no matter how adeptly staged, of a locally-produced and hence meagerly budgeted action outing seem outmatched. This is truly unfortunate, as this general lack of interest, caused by America’s cultural imperialism, is hurting our mettle for high-octane and violent filmmaking.

Kerwin Go’s Eskrimadors is not an action film per se. It is a documentary, and a very good one at that. Go centers on eskrima, more popularly known in other parts of the Philippines as arnis, a form of martial arts that primarily makes use of rattan sticks that originated in the island of Cebu. From its anthropologic roots as a sword-fighting method among the islanders down to its present-day popularity in international circles, the documentary carefully and effectively tackles the history of the sport, allowing living legends of eskrima to relay several stories, some of which are the stuff entertaining movies are made of. It’s all interesting. Go’s point in Eskrimadors is less self-congratulatory than it is cautionary, especially when the film’s mode transposes in the end where it feels like the film is lamenting the loss of a cultural treasure to a mixture of globalization and the lack of local interest.

To the martial arts enthusiast, the documentary is something of a well-packaged tribute to a sport that has been sadly relegated locally as mere curiosity when it has actually turned into a world-wide phenomenon. To the uninitiated in the field of martial arts, the documentary is told quite imaginatively, with a distinctly solid narrative flow, and a visual flair that outwits the budgetary constraints of a local independent production. It’s simply fantastic filmmaking. Instead of merely imparting researched knowledge, Go appropriates the brisk rhythm of eskrima into the film. The editing is aptly swift. The music scoring is exhilaration. The visual effects used are never needless. Eskrimadors plays exactly like an eskrima match: fast-paced, spectacular and always entertaining.

Go’s greatest asset in the film are the eskrimadors themselves, who he shoots in action, displaying their expertise and swiftness in maneuvering their rattan sticks. Moreover, interspersed within the documentary are episodes from a fictional retelling of one of those lethal duels that were widespread during eskrima’s early years. The story isn’t so much. It’s plainly about a young man who sees his father die in the hands of a villainous eskrimador in a duel. He trains, and eventually takes vengeance on the villainous eskrimador. What’s fascinating about these short episodes is how expertly directed they are, from the sweeping cinematography, to the exciting action choreography, to the editing, the music, even the acting. These exciting episodes (one happens on top of a hill, another in a dimly lit alleyway, and another right in the middle of a busy marketplace), snuck neatly in an already terrific documentary, can only implore you to take notice of talents, from filmmakers to martial artists, that would otherwise remain unseen, talents that could change the fate of the dying action film genre.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, September 06, 2010

Cameroon Love Letter (For Solo Piano) (2010)

Cameroon Love Letter (For Solo Piano) (Khavn dela Cruz, 2010)

A Westerner (Gertjan Zuilhof, voiced by Lourd de Veyra) travels to Cameroon. The place feels foreign. The roads are littered with potholes filled to the brim with muddy water. The cityscapes and the rural towns, while seemingly familiar, are estranged. The cuisine, the nightlife, the culture, they serve no purpose greater than the various museum pieces on display. They are objects of curiosities and temporary fascination.

These are the focal points of the point-and-shoot camera that serves as vessel for memories that are insignificant enough to be discarded from the mind over some time. Cameroon becomes the third-world fantasyland, conveniently draped in alien blue to mask the foreignness of it all and all too eager to please the Westerner. The Westerner is only there to forget his life by piling the African country’s countless exotic mysteries on persisting memories of a failed love.

There are two letters. One is read. The other infrequently appears on screen. One is written by the man addressed to his woman, who left him, making him decide to end his life. As read, it echoes both the intoxicating charms of falling in love and the damned hangover of losing the intoxication to indifference. It aches with reminiscence and aches some more with the thought that a reply is not forthcoming for the letter is meant to be read when geographic distance is not the only factor that separates the former lovers but death. The other is written by the woman, presumably right before leaving her man. It reeks of rationalization for falling in love and falling out of it. Romantic and anti-romantic clichés abound, it burns like a bitch because the words resonate with only the most painful of truths.

The two letters are presented as if they were brutal exchanges in a lover’s quarrel where one adamantly wants out of the relationship while the other pleads for a second, third, fourth chance. Just by the way they are presented and the reflected dispositions of the letter-writers, it already predicts the incurable distance that plagues their love, or whatever remains of it. Clearly, these are two lovers on opposing ends. Such is the inevitability of heartbreak, and because of that, the inevitability of painful empathizing to the melancholy of love lost.

Khavn dela Cruz accompanies the film with live music from an electric piano. The mastermind conjures notes from his instrument in a succession that creates cords and melodies that emphasize the subtle and not-so-subtle emotional tones of the film. It is a score, all at once beautiful, haunting, infuriating, whimsical and lovely, that dissipates as soon as the screening ends, only to remain a memory that wafts quietly alongside the incongruence of the jovial images and the hurtful words of the two letters that make up the vaporous narrative.

Cameroon Love Letter (For Solo Piano)’s several elements seem separate. The film itself is connected only to the spoken words by a figment of association, and the spoken words to the displayed words by applied logic, and everything else to the live music by operation of innate human emotions. Like magic, like that spark that binds disparate people into a union supported only by the flimsiest yet most heralded of feelings, the elements marry during the hour or so that you allow yourself to wallow in the weakness of love. If these lovers were not far apart in terms of distance, of gravity of emotions, of everything that is important to uphold a relationship, will these love letters exist at all?

Distance is love’s greatest foe. It is love lost’s greatest companion.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, September 03, 2010

Sa'yo Lamang (2010)

Sa'yo Lamang (Laurice Guillen, 2010)

The story of Laurice Guillen’s Sa’yo Lamang (Only for You) is hardly new. An imperfect but seemingly stable family disintegrates into chaos as one by one, the family members figure serious conflicts and secrets, whether from the past or the present, conveniently unravel, threatening the sheen of normalcy that has sustained the family through the years. From Jeffrey Jeturian’s low-budgeted but elegantly staged Sana Pag-ibig Na (Enter Love, 1998), to Wenn Deramas’ lowbrow yet unpretentiously comical Ang Tanging Ina (The Only Mother, 2003), to Joel Lamangan’s middling and intolerably weepy Filipinas (2003), to Brillante Mendoza’s highbrow and provocatively stirring Serbis (Service, 2008), the Filipino family has been exposed, crumbling in the midst of dire needs or expanding generation gaps or the simple passage of time.

The family, considered as an invaluable social element, is a persisting Filipino need. In the absence of it, a typical Filipino, in his desire to find personal comfort by means of being part of a social circle, would always seek a replacement. Thus, the idea of the concept of family dissipating to irrelevance because of very-real-to-the-point-of-being-cliché eventualities like infidelity, jealousy or something as natural as death is a gold mine for cinema. The threat to the family is a fear that is always relatable, no matter how fantastically conceived. Translated to cinema, where there is always the protection of the knowledge that whatever tragedy happens onscreen dissipates as soon as the credits roll and the lights are turned on, the viewer is allowed to be emphatic to aches of the cinematic family despite the differences between his familial history to the fictional one depicted onscreen simply because he can relate.

Sa’yo Lamang, like Guillen’s Tanging Yaman (A Change of Heart, 2000), an earnestly-made soap that explores long-repressed aches among siblings as they claim their respective shares in the estate of their still-alive mother who is slowly losing herself to Alzheimer’s Disease, borrows its title from religious songs whose words, if taken away from the backdrop of Catholicism, can also play like a secular song about love. Sa’yo Lamang, as opposed to Tanging Yaman which is explicit in its religiosity in a way that God actually becomes an actual participant in the narrative, wears its religiosity within the context of a household of sinners. It’s a tricky premise that Guillen interprets deftly and without having to place judgments by sudden changes in moral perspectives and personality. In the film, faith, a concept that is as human as the moral dilemmas and sins that continue to turmoil the film’s various characters, instead of the saving power of the Catholic God, is the thematic center. Because of this utility of something as universally appreciable as faith instead of belief systems that are endemic to the Catholicism, the film’s often brushes with prayers and rituals are never obtrusive. Instead, they become rousing centerpieces of the effectively contoured ensemble drama.

Guillen intelligently frames her actors during the film’s most sublime moments to emphasize their commendable performances. When Coby (Coco Martin), frustrated that his pregnant ex-girlfriend (Shaina Magdayao) has been allowed to stay in the family home, rapes her and in the middle of the rape changes his hateful stares to looks of pity, mercy, and perhaps, love, Guillen communicates the surprising change of heart via an extremely tight close-up, allowing her actors, Martin with his invaluably expressive eyes and Magdayao with her exquisite turn as a woman who has suffered enough to accept anything as simple turns of fate, to take part in the storytelling. In another scene, Dianne (Bea Alonzo), after being sobered by her mother’s wishes that she reconcile with her father (Christopher de Leon), quietly yet achingly explains to her father why it is so difficult to do so. The room is dimly lit, and Guillen smartly makes use of the limited light and the persisting shadows to dictate the mood. From a close-up of Alonzo’s stoic face while uttering words that can only devastate her father, the camera zooms out to reveal De Leon’s profile, humbled by the revelations relayed by his daughter. All one can do is to succumb to heartaches for both the resilient daughter and the apologetic father.

Lorna Tolentino, who gives life to the character of Amanda, the mother who single-handedly raised her children for ten years, consistently delivers a tremendously moving performance. Starting out as a seemingly weak character as she is left in the background by Dianne who dominates the household, she shapeshifts, and little by little, exposing cracks to her character, some of which are reprehensible. By film’s end, without transforming inexplicably, she becomes the most human of all the characters. Inasmuch as Guillen has poured her mastery of the filmmaking craft and her personal convictions as a Catholic mother who has suffered and survived familial hardships through faith to the making of the film, she generously allows her film to also belong her actors who portray their roles with a proficiency and sensitivity that is pleasantly surprising even from the cast-members who’ve already established reputations as great actors.

Midway through the film, Guillen makes use of a flashback, awkward because of the sudden marked difference in aesthetic but awesome in the sense that it is not only a flashback for the character, but also to the film’s viewers. Illuminated differently with the faces of Tolentino and De Leon giving off a cool bluish aura instead of the warm golds and yellows, scripted in a way that every shouted word contains a powerful emotional charge, blocked in a way that recalls the most typical of melodramas, the flashback allows a glimpse of an era where dramas, despite their lack of affinity with how the real world works, always had something to say, or if it didn’t, were at least beautiful pictures that earned every tear, every sob, and every peso they asked from their viewers. The flashback felt like it was scene from Guillen’s earlier films, films where female characters were liberated from the bounds of a male-dominated society and took control of their lives resulting to shouting and crying expeditions, films that can be very good despite the commercial preconditions of their bankrolling studios.

Sa’yo Lamang gives me confidence that Star Cinema and these other mainstream studios will start respecting the genres they mine for cash. It allows me to believe that capitalist and artistic aspirations, although theoretically always at war, can also co-exist as long as integrity, instead of profit motives are the primary consideration. Star Cinema, there is hope for you yet.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)