Sunday, January 30, 2011

Senior Year (2010)

Senior Year (Jerrold Tarog, 2010)

While Confessional (2007) and Mangatyanan (The Blood Trail, 2009) are all very well made films, introducing director Jerrold Tarog as a very able and promising filmmaker, Carpool (2006), a short film that is mostly set inside a car where friends are rambling about a recent break-up, indicated Tarog’s ability to capture youth’s virtues and vices, from its loose sense of camaraderie to its abject frivolities. Senior Year, although it is the supposed sequel to Faculty (2010), a short film that featured a debate regarding social activism in schools, shares more of its moods and devices with Carpool than any of Tarog’s previous works. The film, drowning its melancholic overview of adulthood with charm and gratifying levity, is simply irresistibly delightful.

The film is very modest in scope. Mostly limiting itself with the few months in the final year in high school of several students of a private school, the film feels like it is circling on dangerously familiar grounds, risking redundancy for the sake of convenient storytelling. However, the film, without burdening itself with pretenses of pertinence or relevance, communicates the universal truth of what really happens decades after the highs of high school, when the lows of the real world has consumed the optimism that youth can only fuel for so long.

The film starts with a man, bespectacled and in an obvious state of nervousness, sitting inside his car which is parked outside a high school where a homecoming of its alumni is about to happen. Self-deprecating quips, defensive remarks, and rationalizing witticisms prevent him from stepping out of his car, registering his name, and enjoying the homecoming. The man, several years ago, is the expected valedictorian, beaming with promise, which has not gone unnoticed by his teachers, one of whom instructs him to prepare a valedictory speech that would both inspire and incite social concern among his peers.

While it is happiness, depicted through moments of lighthearted banter and expressions of youthful love, that makes reminiscence pleasurable, it is disappointment and pleasurable that marks the past with utility to endure the banality of what lies ahead. Tarog thankfully details the high school experience with equal amounts of joy and pain. All of the film’s characters are carved from stereotype. Tarog seems to acknowledge this, but instead of relying on the narrative crutches that working with a bevy of stereotypes provides, he concocts stories that are hardly complicated but fluently communicates the simple pleasures and hardships of that stage in life.

Senior Year is most enjoyable when the stories of the characters intertwine and erupt into a chorus of emotions that seem so distant now that we’ve preoccupied ourselves with more pertinent matters. Tarog, much more than delighting by reveling in the affairs of the youth, processes such delights to elicit a more spirited sense of nostalgia, one that is not only concerned with the past but as to how the past relates to the present. While the film is brimming with poignant moments, it is the unseen but certainly felt sense of regret that the alumni express, through casual jokes and remarks, while reminiscing that carries the film from being just another high school flick into a heartfelt portrait of our inevitable ordinariness in the midst of a world that is far bigger than any high school campus.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Shake Rattle and Roll 12 (2010)

Shake Rattle and Roll 12 (Zoren Legaspi, Topel Lee & Jerrold Tarog, 2010)

Something has to be said about how Regal Films treats its films. Shot digitally, the films are haphazardly transferred to film to be projected in theaters. As seen in theaters, the films look absolutely abominable, with its already muted colors bleeding into each other and digital artifacts scattered throughout the unsatisfactory images. In other words, far from the usual gloss that has been part and parcel of mainstream filmmaking, all the recent films of the historic film studio, in its attempt to churn out movies within a budget by utilizing digital filmmaking, are horrid manifestations of the ills of technology in the service of filmmaking for convenience and profit rather than artistry and integrity.

Shake Rattle and Roll 12 exemplifies this blatant bastardization of film that seemed to have ripened into practice for Regal. The fact that it is the twelfth in the series of three-part horror/horror-comedy anthologies that started in 1984 is enough proof that these films exist as cash-cows and that any artistic merit that can be derived from them are mere byproducts of their commercial goals. The series has never been a bastion of originality. However, either by sheer luck or actual inspiration, several episodes like Ishmael Bernal’s Fridyider (1984), Richard Somes’ Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (2005), and Topel Lee’s Yaya (2006) have surpassed their borrowed beginnings and can be regarded as contemporary classics in Filipino horror filmmaking. That said, the fact that included in the series’ twelfth installment is an episode that justifies the series’ continuing existence despite the strong evidence that the series is nearing creative depletion makes the aforementioned lack of respect by Regal for its filmmakers and their films more painful.

Shake Rattle and Roll 12’s first two episodes, Mamanyika (Mama Doll), directed by Zoren Legaspi, about a murderous doll that purports to be the mother of a little kid who lost her mother, and Topel Lee’s Isla Engkanto (Enchanted Island), directed by Topel Lee, about a group of friends who become victims of engkantos in an island, are slightly entertaining but hardly memorable additions to the franchise. Jerrold Tarog’s Punerarya (Funeral Parlor), however, is something else. It is that rare deliberately graceful horror short that is made even more special by the fact that it seems to be a piece of treasure in a sea of junk.

Punerarya starts inside a funeral parlor where a young teacher (Carla Abellana, who magnificently avoids all clichés in horror film acting to deliver a refreshingly relaxed but intense performance) is introduced by the funeral parlor’s owner (Sid Lucero) to her children, her new students --- a morose girl and her friendly brother who are curiously sensitive to light. What follows is a slow yet delicious unraveling of mysteries closeted within the confines of a morbid but otherwise normal business operation.

Tarog has mastery over the time and thematic limitations of his medium. He withholds telling too much plot to the disservice of creating an atmosphere that accommodates the episode’s mix of the real and the bizarre. The episode seamlessly shifts tones and modes, incorporating Tarog’s own musical score that delights in what is overtly fanciful and subtly sinister, making most of the carefully mapped visuals.

Punerarya is a near-perfect use of the thirty-or-so minutes of its running time. Like Bernal before him who in Fridyider created a wildly horrific view of Philippine suburbia with his newly relocated family who gets terrorized by a murderous refrigerator, Tarog eschews the built-in thrills of his already strange subject matter, a family of aswangs who hide behind their business for survival, to create something more intelligent, something more horrifying. Sadly, the episode exists as a washed-out and perhaps shortened version of what it should have been, thanks solely to the indomitable power of the purse who regard what could be a future masterpiece as just another Christmastime commodity.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Son of God (2010)

The Gospel According to a Weng Weng-Wannabe
A Confession as to How Son of God Restored My Faith on Faith
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

An aerial view of Manila, dull and dreary with its sea of tin roofs and tangled electric lines, opens Khavn dela Cruz and Michael Noer’s Son of God. This is not Mondomanila, a garbage-filled metropolis populated with overjoyed nobodies living in the most depressed of situations as can only be composed by Khavn. This is Manila, the same city where the stories of fatedly sorrowful migrants of Lino Brocka’s films are set, the same city where the stories of the corrupted and corruptible men of Brillante Mendoza’s cinema verite are situated.

However, Khavn and Noer, a Danish filmmaker, instead of similarly dwelling in the hopelessness of the severely impoverished, focuses on their crazed hopefulness. From the high heavens, they bring down their vision to an annual event, the Feast of the Black Nazarene, where the most faithful, who are also arguably the poorest, in Manila converge in the grounds of the Quiapo Church to relay their innermost desires and needs to a supposedly ancient replica of Jesus Christ, darkened by time and circumstance.

To call this disorganized gathering of the cluelessly good, the predatory bad, and the inexplicably ugly carnivalesque is an understatement. Son of God, carried in an ornate throne, is paraded into the Feast grounds by two bulky men wearing ceremonial masks. The image is too ridiculous to be believed, but in a buffet table of Jesus-wannabes presented to desperate men and women whose hunger for miracles can only be matched by their hunger for actual food, he fits right in, gaining for himself a bevy of followers.

He has also gained a critic, a documentary filmmaker (superbly played by Noer) whose disbelief prompts him to follow the self-proclaimed miracle worker to ultimately reveal the fraud he thinks is happening. He asks Son of God questions; all leading to the answer he is looking for, that Son of God is doing his act for money. Yet Son of God answers them with creepy reverence, dodging any implication of ill motive. He documents the miracles that occur too. A mother presents her unconscious sick baby. The moment Son of God touches the baby, the baby bursts in motion. The lines are blurred. Faith on faithlessness is tested. Is Son of God the son of God?

That question is of course only a dilemma to the faithless filmmaker. Khavn and Noer’s viewers are saved from deliberating on the merits of Son of God. He is fake, an actor plucked from somewhere in the city to be part of one of the biggest pranks in Philippine Cinema. Khavn and Noer emphasizes the word “mock” in mock-umentary, and colors the film, from start to finish, with an impish attitude, a discernible notion that the entire film is fueled not by a desire to be seriously sacrilegious but by a desire to have fun in poking holes at both the faithful and the faithless.

The film is actually favored by the overt bad taste that functions as its cornerstones. The film’s most hilarious moments occur when all pretenses of approximating truth and reality are thrown out the window, such as when an actual heart a glass jar inside is brought to Son of God’s attention to have him question his own faith, leading him on a quest, where he dons robes that could have been a costume in George Lucas’ Star Wars, to climb a mountain to regain both his faith and his healing powers. Shot in the same style as Brillante Mendoza’s real-time dramas, the images gain further comedic prominence, the same way Terry Gilliam’s Life of Brian was utterly funny not just because of the jokes played but also because it was shot and executed like an extravagant Zifferelli Christ-pageant.

Son of God, more than just functioning as a humorous yet shallow satire on the ludicrousness of being overly faithful, proposes the mechanics why poor Filipinos and faith are not strange bedfellows. Faith exists here because there is a need for it in the absence of everything else. Faith equates to hope and hope equates to happiness despite having nothing. In the eyes of a foreigner filmmaker who has everything, this immense faith is strange especially when there is no showing for its presence. What else is faith for then when the world provides in abundance? The miracle of the film is that in their exercise of mockery of the faith, Khavn and Noer, whether intentionally or not, has preached truth.

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