Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Philippine Cinema

John Torres' Ang Ninanais

2010: Highlights in Film

The year 2010, much more than anything, exposed the many faults of the so-called Philippine cinema that have gone unnoticed because of the deafening attention, whether good or bad, foreigners are giving individual films that showed prominently in major international film festivals like Cannes and Venice the year before. Given that there was hardly any Filipino-made film that made waves abroad this year; it certainly felt like the world has grown tired of the country’s poverty and other problems. Yet most filmmakers, starving for international attention which is not unexpected since that kind of attention is the only attention that will assure a lifetime of making films, adhere to formula: slums, social relevance, day-in-the-life, and guilt-ridding.

This year’s edition of Cinemalaya, perhaps the country’s most prominent producer of films targeted for international screening, is underwhelming not because of the poor quality of the films, but because only a few of the films showed any authorial voice. It seems that in its quest for films and filmmakers that could make it big in the international scene, it mutated into a manufacturing plant that produces films of the exact same feel and intent instead of a community that fosters independent creativity. In other words, this year’s edition of Cinemalaya, as compared to last year’s, felt like penance. The film’s that stood out are the ones that didn’t feel like they belonged to the selection: Mario O’Hara’s Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio), which features the veteran director struggling with the digital medium but nevertheless coming up with a masterpiece whose audaciousness cannot be belittled, Teng Mangansakan’s Limbunan (Bridal Quarter), a flawed yet gorgeous gem of a film that quietly observes a woman submit herself to tradition, Dennis Marasigan’s Vox Populi, a confidently helmed document of the birth of evil in politics.

CinemaOne, on the other hand, had films that were heavy on authorial voice but are either confused or lacked in technical proficiency. The clear masterpiece of the bunch is Remton Zuasola’s Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria), a very human portrait of a woman about to leave her home town and her dreams to fulfill the dreams of her family.

Thus, the Philippines’ best films mostly came from filmmakers who made their films independent of Cinemalaya or CinemaOne. Khavn dela Cruz, who finally finished the surprisingly exquisitely crafted Mondomanila, a project that has been brewing for more than a decade, also produced and directed Cameroon Love Letter (for Solo Piano) and Son of God, two films of different natures and intentions but reflected a filmmaker who is very certain of his voice. Monster Jimenez’s Kano: An American and his Harem, another project that has seen many years in production, is miraculous simply for portraying a pervert with such humanity. Jerrold Tarog’s Senior Year is entertaining, endearing, and utterly poignant for its reflection on how the promise of our youth seems so distant in our disappointing adulthood.

Perhaps the most surprising Filipino films of the year came from the unabashed churner of fragrant garbage, Star Cinema. My Amnesia Girl showed Cathy Garcia-Molina mastering the art (yes, art) of creating fluff. RPG Metanoia showed how Filipino animators, given proper attention and motivation, can create something that can be at par if not outdo their counterparts in Hollywood. Sa’yo Lamang showed Laurice Guillen creating a family melodrama that is pious but sinful, formulaic but refreshing.

If there’s anything that 2010 should remind us, it is that international appeal, while always welcome especially in the free promotion it gives locally-produced cinema to viewers in the Philippines, is not the only barometer of quality. It should never be the basis as to why one watches or makes films. Reality is becoming overrated, and filmmakers, much more than mere tellers of stories should start learning to become makers of stories, whether these stories are taken from real-life experiences or not. If one is to learn from David Fincher's The Social Network, arguably the most successful American film from 2010, truth is not the most cinematic element of true stories, it is usually what independent imagination can come up with that truth.

Now, to the list:

Top 15 Filipino Films of 2010

2) Ang Ninanais (Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song, John Torres)
5) Mondomanila (Khavn dela Cruz)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

RPG Metanoia (2010)

RPG Metanoia (Luis Suarez, 2010)

Luis Suarez’s RPG Metanoia is the first Filipino-made 3D and CG-animated feature length film. Sadly, it seems that the distinction has overshadowed the film, which, even without the label that points out its historic significance, is quite a solid endeavor and must be seen, instead of read about, to be really enjoyed.

The film opens with a lengthy action sequence where Zero, a heroic kid who is quite adept with the yoyo as a weapon, makes his way through a horde of robots and defeats a three-headed monstrosity who looks like a cross between a hydra and a jack-in-the-box, revealing a prize, a mysterious mask that is supposed to give its wearer god-like powers. The computer hangs. The mother scolds. Zero is Nico (voiced by Zaijan Jaranilla), a frail kid who spends his days and nights leveling up his character in Metanoia, an online role-playing game where he can be everything he can’t be in real life.

The story’s less of a stretch than what can be expected from animated features. When it is not concerned with the plotline of an in-game character wreaking havoc on the real world via a virus that transmits images through the computer that effectively turns humans into gaming zombies, the film spends time exploring the domestic life of Nico, his intimate dinner conversations with his mother (voiced by Eugene Domingo), his webcam communications with his father (voiced by Aga Muhlach), who is working overseas, his blossoming crush with a girl next door, his role in his gaming troop, and his inefficiencies in sports and other physical activities. A bulk of what makes RPG Metanoia so charming is how it translates these relatable elements of living into gorgeous animation.

Thus, RPG Metanoia’s greatest asset is that it satisfies itself with telling its story with refreshing simplicity. The animation, unremarkable if compared to bigger-budgeted extravaganzas produced elsewhere, is lovely in a way that its imperfections and limitedness in terms of frames per second give the film the feel of a stop-motion animated feature, which is more organic, more human than anything done by the animation factories of Hollywood. Instead of belaboring the world of Metanoia with needless spectacles and ornaments, it focuses on creating an emotionally palpable feel for the film’s “real world.” It isn’t simply the comparably polished animation that contributes to the film’s modest powers. The script, written by Suarez with Jade Castro and Tey Clamor, is both far-reaching in its attempts at science fiction and beautifully intimate in its depictions of the joys and conflicts of growing up. The voice acting, most especially by Eugene Domingo as Nico’s mother and Aga Muhlach as Nico’s father, is consistently delightful. The musical score, by Ria Osorio and Gerard Salonga, complements the visuals with fanciful melodies and exciting rhythms.

Suarez and his team peppers the world of Metanoia with details. For example, the portal where the characters of players from the Philippines is replete with fantastic creations inspired from a wellspring of Filipino traditions and artifacts, from the robotic kalesas or horse-driven carriages that roam the cobblestone streets to the Vigan-inspired exteriors of the buildings. Moreover, in keeping true with the massiveness of the multiplayer online gaming experience that Metanoia is envisioned to be, the film introduces elements and characters that establish the fictional computer game’s reach and influence beyond Philippine shores, adding a multicultural flavor to the viewing experience.

There is of course a danger in putting such a game, whose popularity is limited to a specified niche, as the point of interest in the film. The mechanics of the MMORPG or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game which could be material to the appreciation of the niceties of the film may seem foreign to the demographic it seeks to market itself to. Thankfully, the film does not drown itself with the complexities of the gaming phenomenon and limits itself to its essence, which is basically the threat of living vicariously through the near-perfect lives of computer-created amplified personalities thriving in a world where rules can be bent. Instead of functioning merely as a reflection of what could be a passing fad in video-gaming as with almost all films adapted from video games, it explores the dynamics between gamer and game, and why such relationship, hardened by some symbiosis where both benefit from each other, thrives. In that sense, RPG Metanoia has the capacity to be timeless notwithstanding the possible and probable obsolescence of its thematic source.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rosario (2010)

Rosario (Albert Martinez, 2010)

Albert Martinez’s Rosario, stripped of all its gloss, is essentially about the titular woman, played illustriously by luscious Jennlyn Mercado, whose fate seems to be dictated by her passions unleashed that during that time were severely discouraged, especially for women. Nonetheless, Rosario, presumably out of an upbringing influenced by the liberalities preached by America, the Philippines’ new colonial master, succumbs to every call of her flesh, first with her father’s trusted assistant (Yul Servo), whom she marries to the chagrin of her parents, second with her best friend’s boyfriend (Dennis Trillo), which caused her separation with her husband and her children, and third, with her landlord’s enamored nephew (Sid Lucero). As such, it holds immense promise beyond the trite melodramatics that usually accompany such material.

However, the film, like the many well-dressed and well-made up characters that populate it, is far too concerned in decorating itself to be anything more than an expensive ornament. Given that the film is mostly set in the early-1900’s where the Philippines was recently given to imperialist America by Spain, the film expectedly features costumes, sets, and details that match the period. Thankfully, the film’s artisans and craftsmen sufficiently cater to the demands of its period aspirations, making sure that even the minutest detail takes part in the momentary illusion that everything happened in a past that is best remembered through encyclopedias and history books. Yet after several minutes of being drowned by a barrage of period details, the film little by little gives off an inorganic feel that distracts from rather than complements what the film attempts to convey.

Rosario’s main problem is the abundance of good taste. Martinez makes most of the material, orchestrating what essentially is a grand production of sights and emotions. There is an attempt at some sensuality here, all glimmering and oiled up, bursting in the shadows. Artsy is the word, if we are going to be sincerely blunt about it. Prude, too. It is as if any display of overt sexuality in a film about a woman whose downfall has more to do with sexuality than anything else is taboo. The film, with all its grandiose depictions of the era where the story is supposedly situated, shies away from the grime and the dirt and polishes everything with undue gloss. The result is something definitely pleasing to the eyes but evidently soulless like an expensive commercial for an obsolete luxury cologne.

The film’s good taste seeps into its decision to pronounce its relevance. Rosario’s story is framed as a flashback by aging Hesus, played by Dolphy endearingly, who tells his mother’s story to his wealthy nephew in an attempt to prove his identity. It’s a needless framing device. First and foremost, it places the story within the grasp of being adjudged by a character in the film. When Hesus concludes the film with a theory that his revelation to his nephew has washed away the sins of his mother to the family, it reeks of moralization, belittling the story as simply a tale of caution of the ill effects of sexual expression, a panacea to the generations-old hurt that a single family has experienced because of a matriarch who has been endowed with the new liberalities of the twentieth century.

Rosario, in the end, will be seen only as well-made, arguably smartly directed, and elegantly crafted and if only for that, will be placed in a pedestal by a country that has hungered for films that could approximate those done by Hollywood. If film appreciation only stops there, then Rosario may indeed be a success. However, it does not. A film has to be stripped of its clothes and ornaments. It has to be felt, to be appreciated, to be penetrated, once, twice, thrice, and as many times as one wants, until its soul is bared to be seen by all. If it fails in that tenor, then it is nothing more than an expensive spectacle, delightful while you’re watching it and a distant blur as soon as the theater lights are up.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Amnesia Girl (2010)

The Art of Exquisite Fluff
A Review of Cathy Garcia-Molina's My Amnesia Girl
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Cathy Garcia-Molina’s My Amnesia Girl has all the trappings of detestable formula. Like all of the romantic comedies that preceded it, the ones that have given Star Cinema the ill-repute of dumbing down its followers with rehashes of the same story, the film seems to be relying solely on kitsch, on star power, on everything artificial. There is no denying the film’s use of kitsch. In fact, the film is quite unabashed with it, with characters strangely enveloped by a culture of love reigning supreme over everything else. It is adamantly unpretentious, relishing on the obvious fact that it has in its service of fun an abundance of cute and hip. It does not aspire anything more than to recharge its audience’s thirst for spritely romance, the one that is less attached to reality, the one that mines on the mysteries of fate to add magic to it. In other words, My Amnesia Girl is Grade-A fluff. It fulfills everything that a mainstream romantic comedy should do. Much more, it skirts away from genre revision or experimentation, to delight of the studio that bankrolled its existence.

Miraculously though, the film, with its refreshing lack of pretenses of achieving more than momentary delights that is expected of a romantic comedy of mainstream sensibilities, does actually more than fulfilling the basic goals of the films of its genre. Somewhere along the way, amid the near redundant exchanges of witty pick-up lines, against its need to only delight, against its fate as a tool for escape that is to be solely for enjoyment, the film develops a beautiful heart that thankfully aches, although quite subtly, more than it delights.

Apollo (John Lloyd Cruz), pick-up artist extraordinaire, met Irene (Toni Gonzaga), a photographer, in a speed-dating event. While Irene attended the event only to document it, she ended up enamored by Apollo’s undeniable charms and wit. The seemingly perfect relationship suddenly and unexpectedly ended when on their wedding day, Apollo did not show up, leaving Irene irreparably heartbroken. When the two serendipitously meet in a grocery, Irene concocts a lie and pretends to be suffering from amnesia, therefore, removing all memories of Apollo and his failure to marry her. Apollo, believing Irene’s lie, takes the supposed clean slate to undo everything he has done to her and make her fall for him like the first time. The two become inseparable again, but are now faced with the impending repercussions of their second chance at love be revealed as by-products of Irene’s vengeful grand lie.

The story, written by Jade Castro whose masterful Endo (2007) situated a poignant love story in the middle of temporary contractual employment, hinges on a ludicrous proposal that men can be so drowned in love and guilt that amnesia, which only happens in unimaginative telenovelas and is highly unlikely in reality, has become instantly believable. Garcia-Molina, however, manages to distract from the implausibility of the premise by creating a film that is as self-aware of its contrivances as the characters are self-aware of their love-addicted attitude in life. The performances by Cruz and Gonzaga are expectedly charming, especially during the film’s lighter moments. However, during the moments where the film bleeds with emotions, Cruz and Gonzaga communicate those emotions with convincing conviction that is impossible not to get swayed into their dilemma and be affected with much more than just the cheap thrills that is usually associated with Star Cinema’s star-studded romances.

The film’s last scene, made funny by the trademark exchanges of witty one-liners that extend up to the end of the end credits, is actually quite bittersweet. Sure, the lovers end up together, as expected in any romantic comedy produced by Star Cinema. However, there is no assurance, no previous revelation, that fate’s cruel retort to Irene’s crueler lie, a lie that has produced so many beautiful things that it seems more alluring than the truth, has been resolved. We only see the lovers in satisfied bliss of being together, not knowing exactly whether the memories, good and bad, are there with them in their modest celebration. Whether Garcia-Molina knows it or not, with My Amnesia Girl, she has made a film that transcended the limiting bounds of formula filmmaking without breaking them. I’m crossing my fingers, but there might be hope yet for the mainstream.

(Cross-published in Twitch. First published in Philippine Free Press.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chassis (2010)

Chassis (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2010)

Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Chassis opens with Nora (Jodi Sta. Maria) ironing the school uniform of her daughter inside a modest house. The house, perhaps a few square meters wide, consists of very few belongings, some furniture, the ironing horse, cheap ornaments hanging on the wall, one of which Alix’s camera becomes fixated on because it showcases the ideal house. Nora finishes her chore and thanks the owner for her kindness. No, this is not Nora’s house. She lives elsewhere.

Alix’s camera follows Nora as she crosses a wide cement gap that separates her neighbor’s house with the parking lot of huge container trucks. Underneath the chassis of one of the parked trucks hangs a hammock where Nora’s daughter is sleeping. Nora’s husband sleeps on the cold cement. This is Nora’s home, or at least until the truck drives off to one of its many destinations. She wakes her daughter, bathes her, helps her into her uniform, and finally sends her to school. It seems that the events of that morning have ripened into routine. Shockingly, normalcy has inevitably crept into what is obviously a situation that can only be described as both unjust and absurd.

With its opening of expertly mounted visual cues, Chassis immediately forces notice of the gravity of its oppressive milieu. Alix separates from the tattered houses of the slums, clichéd by the dozens of films that are situated there, and slides further and deeper into penury, focusing primarily on individuals who have made homes and attempt to raise families out of parked trucks. Alix overemphasizes the bleakness of his chosen setting, visualizing his setting in monochrome, effectively removing any semblance of color from the sorry lots of his characters and the place they live in.

The images Alix creates, with the help of cinematographer Gabriel Bagnas, are astoundingly austere, more stylized and carefully framed portraits of extreme poverty in the midst of what supposedly represents a bustling trade economy than anything else. Chassis, if experienced only as a series of moving pictures, feels like an album of black and white postcards of Manila in its most deplorable, most depressed and most desperate.

Alix often shows Nora’s face, suspiciously serene despite her troubling circumstance, in close-up. It is as if he commands from Nora’s the same irony as he does from his milieu. After all, both subjects, Nora and Manila as represented here by its port area, are beautiful yet tarnishing. In the frequent close-ups, Alix prompts his viewers to observe Nora, to become intimate with her, and to understand the lack of any intense emotion from her face as she goes about her daily routine that is rife with oppression, from the men who pay her a paltry sum for a quickie, from her husband who can’t provide for her and her daughter decent shelter, and from the society that fosters her dire situation. She has been calloused to the point of being deprived of truly feeling. She only expresses genuine emotions, of joy, sadness and later on anger, with events concerning her daughter.

Alix exploits both milieu and subject, creating a film that instantly grabs you by strength of both its premise and Sta. Maria’s presence. However, the film attempts to go beyond observation of the severe human condition, participating further by enveloping such observations within a story that attempts to push gender discourse. Alix basically paints a grim community where dominating males are unable to provide, forcing the stronger women to prostitute herself for mere survival. The film’s debatable conclusion portrays Nora’s revolt towards her severely iniquitous predicament, bringing the film closer to being unduly didactic if not totally academic, betraying ultimately any emotions already invested on the fate of the film’s female protagonist. Thus, Chassis persisted as a powerful piece of cinema verite until it mistakenly took that final-minute drastic turn for inexplicable shock to forward a negligible and passé statement on the state of patriarchy in the Philippines’ poorest sectors.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (2010)

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (Remton Siega Zuasola, 2010)
English Title: The Dream of Eleuteria

In To Siomai Love (2009), director Remton Zuasola tells the story of two strangers who meet in a street-side eatery and eventually fall in love. Making use of only one shot that deliberately follows the strangers in their minutest of romantic gestures and most exciting of mundane discussions, the film brings its audience into the picture as quiet observers of love being birthed from the strangest of circumstances. Perhaps the film’s biggest fault is that it succumbed to revel in its technique when it concluded with the entire film rewinding to reveal a twist that ultimately betrays the seductive honesty Zuasola masterfully sustained for several minutes.

In Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria), his debut feature length film, Zuasola also makes use of a single shot to document the Terya leaving the island where she has lived her entire life. It is very easy to either praise or criticize the film for its audacious storytelling method. The single shot especially limits the scope of the narrative, keeping it within a certain time frame and the geography that is allowed by the logistics of that single shot. Zuasola thus limits the film to the hour and a half prior to Terya’s departure, patiently capturing everything that happens from when Terya is discovered submerged in the ocean to when she embarks the pumpboat that will bring her to the airport that will ultimately bring her to faraway Germany.

So Terya, following the wishes of her mother to escape from the impoverished life her father can only provide for them, is to leave for Germany to marry an older man. Within that hour or so when the camera follows Terya and her family as they walk to the port, Zuasola deliberately unravels the pains and frustrations that are deeply hidden within the spoken ambitions of the people around Terya. Terya, on the other hand, quietly enduring the outspoken rationalizations of her mother and the submissive affirmations of her father during the first half of the film, only bursts into the picture midway, revealing what could possibly be is an irreversibly hurt heart, especially when it is her dream that was bartered for the dream of a better life for her family.

This precursor to Terya’s lifelong journey fleshes out the mismatched rationales that ultimately push Terya to commit herself to a loveless union. The masterful camerawork, the very apt music that drowns the visuals and becomes the supporting backdrop when it needs to, the courageously convincing acting of the entire cast that blurs all moral condescension, and the narrative that naturally flows without need of a single cut all, communicate the emotions that pulsate as Terya nears the demise of her very own dream. In the end, despite the mostly mundane goings-on that comprise most of Zuasola’s film, it still holds for its purposes the poignant reality that poverty has skewed the very purpose of ambitioning, pushing people to break familial ties, to dessert pained lovers, to abandon the country for the dream of a better life.

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, much more than exposing the physical state of the country because of the abject poverty that pervades it, exposes the dissipating values that are only natural repercussions of that poverty that has become cliché in the so-called national cinema. That the gorgeous vistas shown in the film hardly represent the social and economic decay that is actually thriving therein makes the film’s careful attempt to expound on the more intimate state of the nation more resonant, more resonant in fact than the films whose supposedly pertinent advocacies or themes are worn on their sleeves. Zuasola, despite the near-perfect use of the one shot which clearly establishes him as one of more talented young filmmakers nowadays, thankfully disappears and does not commit the brilliant although self-serving conclusion in To Siomai Love, allowing Terya and her indisputable pain that we’ve become familiar with to occupy the spotlight.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)