Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (2011)

Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Jade Castro, 2011)
English Title: Zombadings: Kill Remington with Fear

If there’s one thing a filmmaker needs to know about profitable filmmaking in the Philippines, it is to acknowledge that the only kind of filmmaking that actually earns money is genre filmmaking. If the film is not horror, comedy, romance, or laden with homosexual themes and titillation, it would probably not arouse enough interest to earn enough box-office rewards to at least break even. It seems that filmmakers are then left with the choice of either making a commercial but compromised film or a noble-intentioned film that nobody in the country would have seen or even hear of unless it makes waves in international film festivals.

At first glance, Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Zombadings: Kill Remington with Fear) seems to fit perfectly in the category of creative compromises. Producer and screenwriter Raymond Lee, screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto, and director and screenwriter Jade Castro ingeniously shower the film with elements from the horror, comedy, romance, and queer genres, assuring it, at least in essence, a chance at making monetary profit. However, Zombadings is more inspired than it sounds and looks. There is definitely more to the film than homosexual undead and slapstick. It is deliciously subversive, delivering a message that sadly and unfairly may not be universally accepted in the most universal of ways.

Set in a provincial town just like any other in the Philippines, Zombadings follows the story of Remington (Martin Escudero), the stereotypical macho boy next door who engages in manual labor during the day and downs shots of rum at night. Cursed to turn gay when he was a little boy by a gay man (Roderick Paulate) he angered because of his incessant insensitive teasing, Remington slowly but very surely turns gay, first with his gestures, then his language, then his sexual preference, leaving him in the middle of a love triangle involving his best friend Jigs (Kerbie Zamora) and literal girl-next-door Hannah (Lauren Young). While Remington is transforming, his mother (Janice De Belen), a police officer, is solving the case of uncovering who is responsible for the murders of the gay men in town.

Despite the having a story where crazy-looking gaydars, rollerblading widows, vengeful drag queens, homophobic serial killers and the titular gay zombies miraculously cohere, Zombadings is actually very intelligently and carefully conceived and crafted. Castro directs the film like a maverick conductor, leading an orchestra composed of traditionally jarring instruments but eventually coming up with a symphony that is not so hard to enjoy and adore.

The casting decisions are brilliant. Escudero, a teen heartthrob who has been relegated to playing supporting roles in haphazardly crafted horror films, is a revelation, hilariously portraying a straight man involuntarily turning gay, making use of all the clichés of gay-acting without looking forced or overdone. Paulate, who is instrumental in creating the sub-genre of drag queen slapsticks with films like Petrang Kabayo at ang Pilyang Kuting (Petra the Horse and the Naughty Kitten, Luciano Carlos, 1988), Bala at Lipistik (Bullet and Lipstick, Maryo J. De Los Reyes, 1994), and Ded na si Lolo (Grandpa si Dead, Soxie Topacio, 2009), generously and willingly lends his iconic stature to give Zombadings credibility within that genre, effectively making its use of homosexual stereotypes palatable within the perspective of being part of a cinematic tradition that began as far back as 1954 with Mar Torres’ Jack en Jill starring legendary Dolphy as the funny crossdresser.

On the other hand, John Regala, who starred in many action flicks of the late eighties and early nineties, Daniel Fernando, who most famously played the peeping tom in Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights (1985), and Leandro Baldemor, who bared his skin while cavorting with starlets in many of the titillating films of the nineties, lend their iconic cinematic manliness to represent the other darker side of the fence of homophobia as machismo. Their much-valued machismo however looks useless once pitted against the leadership and industry of the characters played by De Belen, Odette Khan, and Mailes Kanapi who do more for the town than throw baseless and hateful tirades against gays (that are rightfully drowned and obliterated by a marching band in one of the film’s more clever scenes).

Zombadings is undoubtedly tons of fun, and it is perfectly alright to take it as it is, a very well-made piece of populist entertainment. However, the film becomes even more rewarding if enjoyed within the context of what it was made for, as a document of empowerment, a testament to the right of choice, and a blow against intolerance. It is packaged in a way that its freedoms and excesses should not be taken literally or too seriously, yet its jabs at still-existing constipated perceptions and opinions against homosexuality are too potent to be left unnoticed. Ladies and gentlemen, gay or straight, dead or alive, this film’s a winner.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cuchera (2011)

Cuchera (Joseph Israel Laban, 2011)

Joseph Israel Laban’s Cuchera, a rightfully shocking exposé of the lives of low-rent drug mules, one of the drug mules, opens with the obligatory and totally unnecessary factoid on how there are so many Filipino drug mules who are still rotting in jail in various countries. From the seemingly lofty implications of his advocacy-heavy introduction, Laban jumps into the middle of one of Manila’s slums. His camera is attentive to the most damning of details, like a torn and discolored Philippine flag, the grime, the mud, the heaps and heaps of garbage and the shanties that dot the dump’s perimeter. From the film’s first few images, it becomes clear that Laban is not interested in subtlety, and probably rightly so. The intentions of the film seem better communicated through shock and noise than lyricism and nuance.

Laban continues by following Rosa (Isadora), a matronly woman we later find out is in charge of making the falsified passports for the drug mules, and Isabel (Maria Isabel Lopez), a retired prostitute who now masterminds the recruitment of drug mules, as they spend the day preparing for the night’s operation. He fortifies the story’s progression with various details like Rosa and Isabel’s detour to a shady faith healer, or the comedic infidelity of Isabel’s husband (Simon Ibarra), or the crazed sexual appetite of Isabel’s nephew (CJ Ramos). From there, Laban introduces the drug mules one by one, giving enough background to rationalize their decision to become literal victims of the very real horrors of international drug trade.

Cuchera is best seen as a horror film without the entertainment goals of the popular genre. While Laban sympathizes with the drug mules who find themselves transformed into receptacles for bags of cocaine, he does not shy away from depicting the violence, depravity, and atrocities of the carefully mapped out process. Through the succeeding sequences of rape, drug use, and of the drugs being hastily and carelessly inserted into the victims, Laban fervently manufactures offense, disgust, and revulsion from the images and sounds he creates, emphasizing very well the indisputable perversity of the market for drug mules and the pervading poverty that forces men and women to become drug mules.

Near the end of the film, one of the drug mules, while aboard a pick-up van en route to the airport, suddenly tells the story of a white lady that is rumored to haunt a hospital. One by one, the drug mules recite their known version of the ghost story. The drug mules’ versions of the story are alarming, all involving rape and abortion as reasons for the lady’s death and her horrid afterlife. However, the dazed storytellers recount the stories without emotions, strangely without even a tinge of fear the stories normally deserve. It is as if their collective recent experiences have desensitized them to fictional horror, rendering them unfettered and unfeeling. It is as if humanity was but a distant memory. To Laban’s credit, watching his powerful debut film produced the same results within me, even if just momentarily.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Observations from a Semi-Starry, Starry Night

Observations from a Semi-Starry, Starry Night

It was a blind item coursed through an acceptance speech. Arnel Mardoquio, director of Sheika (2010), received the Urian Best Actress trophy for Fe Gingging Hyde, who was in Dubai and was unable to receive her award. The Mindanaoan director revealed that his film was then an entry for a local independent film festival and was removed precisely because Hyde was not famous enough to rake in publicists and moviegoers to be interested in the film. For Mardoquio, the Urian prize, like the NETPAC prize he won for the same film during the local independent film festival he was referring to, is sweet retribution. For some of us, Mardoquio’s speech reveals just one of the many concerns of the supposed “indie film” scene. For the rest, which probably consists of majority of movie-going Filipinos, the speech is nothing more than an ignorable anecdote that will do nothing for their hunger only for escapist cinema, whether locally produced or imported.

Ever since the international film community started noticing so-called indie films and bestowing upon them slots in prestigious film festivals and awards, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino quickly took charge in promoting their successes by offering nominations and wins in their annual Urian Awards. It is ostensibly a worthy effort. The films needed to be seen in the Philippines. However, the sad truth is that these films’ existences are kept secret not by some grandiose conspiracy but by simple ignorance. The Manunuri and their much-coveted awards have saved up enough integrity and goodwill over the years to make their decisions a matter of public interest...

(Continue reading in Lagarista.)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Isda (2011)

Isda (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2011)
English Title: Fable of the Fish

Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Isda (Fable of the Fish) appears to be just another movie set in the overexploited slums of Manila. Lina (Cherry Pie Picache) and Miguel (Bembol Roco), a childless couple despite several years of being married who have just relocated from the province to the city to change their fate, arrive at the slums just in time to witness an unsurprising altercation between a slum dweller and the police, which is expectedly spiced by rowdy and overly involved onlookers. Unstirred by the unexpected but commonplace boisterous welcome of their new home, the couple settle in. Miguel finds a job in the nearby ice plant. Lina stays at home, taking care of the children of her neighbors if she’s not helping her husband in trying to earn money from the dumpsite. Despite the harrowing conditions of the place where they decided to live, Lina and Miguel’s new life is strangely perfect, except that they have not been blessed with a child of their own.

Then Lina gets pregnant, and gives birth, amazingly, to a fish.

Alix does not completely abandon reality in his foray into the supernatural. Picache and Roco admirably wear their roles with unquestionable conviction, blurring further the line that separates the gnawing reality of the depicted poverty and the fantasy of the couple’s situation.

Isda is also visually intriguing, with the scenes framed purposefully, either to direct humor or to forward the narrative. Cinematographer Albert Banzon ensures that the film is not too grimly lit or too bluntly framed. The music, melodies randomly conjured from a single violin, lends uneasiness to the affair.

Absurd is a word that Isda draws its power from. From the absurdity of families etching out decent lives from the indecent conditions of the slums and the dumpsite to the absurdity of Lina giving birth to a fish and attempting to be normal in an obviously abnormal family situation, Alix maintains an unwavering consistency in his depiction. The film is refreshingly mischievous, wearing a mask of seriousness amidst the hilarity of everything that is going on. The film appears to be just one big joke, the same big joke that screenwriter Jerry Gracio played on Lina and Miguel when he wrote Lina’s birthing to a fish into his screenplay. However, the film is indisputably bigger than the sum of all the chuckles the obliviousness of its characters of the blatant absurdity that they’re living could ever produce.

Beyond the absurdity and the tabloid-worthy uniqueness of the story that would most probably be the center of all discussions about the film is a very simple but very earnest portrait of a family. Alix maps the family’s story with astute tenderness, establishing relationships between each member, grounding them with logic and emotions. More importantly, Alix does not place his story within a lifeless vacuum. He concocts a community for the family to exist in and relate to. He has created a world, exaggerated it seems with people living and raising families side by side with garbage, that is ready to admit another glaring anomaly. The truths of Isda, I believe, are as weighty if not weightier than its delicious and deliriously memorable flights of fantasy.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Chris Martinez: The Man Behind the Golden Septic Tank

The Man Behind the Golden Septic Tank

If it’s from Seiko, it must be good. The tagline of the movie studio that has made for itself a reputation for churning out half-baked soft pornography with mouth-watering titles like Talong, Kangkong, and Itlog has turned into a joke. Then Bridal Shower (2004) came along. The film, written by newcomer Chris Martinez with mentor Armando Lao and directed by Jeffrey Jeturian, follows the exploits of three ad executives as they search for love in the big city. The film is ridiculously funny, but the humor, thankfully, is not grounded on slapstick or gimmick. Bridal Shower is funny because it exaggerates the realities of love and life in a metropolis that is getting more and more materialistic.

Martinez’s second film is Bikini Open (2005), also directed by Jeffrey Jeturian and also from Seiko Films. A mock-umentary that goes right in the heart of the then-popular bikini contests, the film mocks not only the men and women who parade their bodies, their life stories, and their motherhood statements for the entertainment of the sex-starved but also mass media who is quick to point fingers to the obvious wrongs of society without acknowledging its own viciousness...

(Read more on Chris Martinez's film career in the super-fantastic site on anything and everything that is Philippine cinema called Lagarista.)

Monday, August 08, 2011

I-Libings (2011)

I-Libings (Rommel Sales, 2011)
English Title: I-Funerals

Isabel (Glaiza de Castro), a promising mass communications student, has just landed an internship that none of her classmates, who are interning in television stations and film production outfits, would envy. I-Libings, a company that specializes in covering wakes and funerals for its grieving clients, does not seem to be the proper place for Isabel’s skills and talents. With only a lowly consumer-level video camera to work with, a crew of untrained technicians and a boss (Earl Ignacio) who is initially unimpressed with her capabilities to deal with, she treats her internship with the company as some cruel joke that fate has randomly dished her.

Rommel Sales’ I-Libings (I-Funerals) starts off seemingly with very little ambition. It initially concentrates on Isabel’s experiences in her internship, mining the unique nature of her work for nuggets of humor and sizable doses of irony. While somewhat entertaining, the exploits of Isabela and her workmates in and out of the funeral parlor, with camera on hand as they manage to get the most effective angles of the wakes and interments or edit the footage in the most efficient way, get tired and redundant. Thankfully, Sales does not limit the film within the confines of Isabel’s life as an intern in a funeral video coverage company.

Apart from being the talent that rots away in a company that she has deemed unworthy of her, Isabel is also a bastard daughter of a family man (Rez Cortez). Her weekends are spent with her mother (Louella de Cordova), wondering whether her father will spend the night with them and getting used to the fact that her father probably won’t. Sales depicts this area of Isabel’s life with fascinating sensitivity, expressing the insecurities, angst and anger felt by a daughter born and living under less than ideal circumstances with ample clarity and believability. Those consuming emotions are all subtly communicated, just waiting to explode, waiting to burst at that precise moment.

And burst they did at that most precise of moments when all the film’s incongruent elements converged to ground the film’s single emotional highlight. Isabel, enveloped by both grief and frustrations, stands before her tormentors, revealing with the apparent disgust the most damning truth that death has conveniently shrouded. Isabel invests in that imperfect gesture, going against tradition, manners, and etiquette. She commits to the perpetuity provided by video recording the irreverence she was constrained to do, declaring to the world the pains of her life. She’s only human, and I-Libings is better for it.

Confused whether it is a comedy, a drama, or a mixture of both, the film contains elements that do not always cohere. It is very frustrating, especially since the film has really momentous moments that are wasted by attempts at being funny that never quite work. The film’s biggest sin is that it chose to end with another lousy bid at humor, betraying the abundance of emotions of the immediately preceding scene for an ineffective punchline. I-Libings is a sorely uneven film, but for that unexpected detour from the mundane concerns of intern life to tackle humanity’s fragility within the frame provided by death and mourning, everything can forgiven.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Bahay Bata (2011)

Bahay Bata (Eduardo Roy, Jr., 2011)
English Title: Baby Factory

A pregnant woman, notably without a husband to keep her company and more notably with hardly an emotion on her face, walks to the maternity hospital. She arrives at the hospital, revealing a queue of other pregnant women, waiting for their turn to be examined by the physician who determines whether or not the mother’s are about to deliver and should be admitted into the hospital. In the delivery room of the hospital, several women are giving birth together, side by side, seemingly oblivious of privacy and other things that make that most important moment in motherhood immeasurable unique and special.

With its unflinching depiction of the brutal conditions of an overworked and overcrowded public maternity hospital, the opening sequence of Eduardo Roy, Jr.’s Bahay Bata (Baby Factory) enunciates how poverty has pervaded and probably tainted what should be sacred. It’s a literal baby factory, where mothers are herded in assembly lines, and doctors go through one mother after another, delivering babies with astounding but unfeeling efficiency that is not unlike that of a trained and skilled factory worker.

The images that Roy was able to capture within the maternity hospital are evidence of the gnawing overpopulation that strangles the country’s economy and therefore making the cycle of poverty ever more apparent and inescapable. In a country that is in the middle of a seemingly never-ending debate on overpopulation and governmental regulations to put a stop to it, what Roy has strung together is politically and socially relevant, an intelligently rendered disclosure of the failures of the status quo, and a signal of a need to graduate from a stagnant culture of useless charity and temporary solutions to something more progressive.

Fortunately, Roy does not succumb to the temptation of being overtly political. From the shocking images that Roy sets the tone and feel of his film with, he moves on, focusing on the very human stories that miraculously still exist despite the hospital’s pathetic conditions. Because of that, Bahay Bata succeeds in painting a very tender, very delicate, and beautifully non-judgmental picture of mothers at their humblest and most vulnerable.

From the nurse (Diana Zubiri, in a surprisingly heartfelt performance that is memorable not because there are big acting moments but because she was able to communicate the minute changes that happen from the first time we see her until the last) who is suddenly faced with the decision of continuing a pregnancy that is borne from an illicit relationship to the mother who is unable to lactate and breastfeed her thirteenth child, the stories that Roy and screenwriter Jerome Zamora found in their research which they wrote into the film are mostly fascinating. Masterfully weaved together by Charliebebs Gohetia’s precise editing work, those stories merge to become a penetrating film that echoes the glistening imperfections that makes motherhood such a beautiful thing, how amidst the blood, sweat and tears of childbirth, there is the truest of pleasure, however momentary, in giving life, how it incites the most pronounced of emotions, whether it be happiness, anger, love, and depression.

Bahay Bata is wonderfully subtle, a description that is rarely used for films that have poverty as a constant and continuous backdrop. While it starts seemingly exploitative of the appalling scenario that the dozens of mothers have to face, it evolves into something extremely close to sublime, a film that can be both agitating and touching, numbing and heartfelt.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, August 05, 2011

Amok (2011)

Amok (Lawrence Fajardo, 2011)

Opening with a montage of faces, scenes, and sounds of Manila scored by street children rapping about street life, Lawrence Fajardo’s Amok immediately captures opposing yet strangely coexisting facets of city life, disconnect and the scarceness of distance.

The film is set in one very specific location in Manila. The EDSA-Pasay Rotonda, situated in the middle of two of EDSA and Taft, two of the busiest streets in Manila, has the unique feature of being several levels of urban madness. The intersecting streets could barely accommodate the volume of traffic, worsened by passenger jeepneys and buses that cruise the street barely an inch from the next vehicle without crashing. The sidewalk is equally busy with pedestrians dodging other pedestrians, sidewalk vendors, their patrons, and other obstructions to walking traffic. Then there are the walkways above ground, connecting the areas in EDSA-Pasay Rotonda that are separated by two rivers of overheating automobiles and their overheating drivers. Above the walkways is the light rail track, the only fixture of predictability in that hotspot. The buildings surrounding the streets are structures providing privacy to the most private of acts.

The characters Fajardo and screenwriter John Bedia conjure probably have elaborate live stories. However, the film does not dwell too much in their stories, showing only fragments of lives limited by time and space. A father (Noni Buencamino) and his son discuss the latter’s basketball dreams while waiting for the bus. A sidewalk vendor (Patricia Ysmael) tends to both the food she’s selling to passers-by and her precocious daughter. A forgotten stuntman (Mark Gil) hangs on to the little that remains of his former action star physique and masculinity and fucks a prostitute who turns out to be both less and more than what he expected.

Stuck in horrendous traffic, a driver (Archi Adamos) tries to air his thoughts on the family affairs of his impatient employer (Lui Manansala), who is also his sister. An irate taxi driver reaches his boiling point when a gay talent scout and his ward ride his taxi. A former police official (Efren Reyes, Jr.) meets with an elderly woman (Ermie Concepcion) to plan the burning of a squatter colony nearby. In one of the sidestreets, a game of poorman’s pool (where instead of balls, bottle caps are used) played by a trio of street folks (Dido dela Paz and Gary Lim), heated by jeers, cheers, and bruised egos, is arriving at an unexpected finish, a finish that would obliterate the disconnect and any remaining distance among the thousands of people in the EDSA-Pasay Rotonda that hot afternoon.

The film is directed with meticulousness and discipline, moving from one character to another with commendable restraint in not telling too much and not showing too much, effectively teasing the audience of the predictable but still surprising havoc that is quietly being orchestrated by the elements at play in that time-bomb of a place. Fajardo peppers the film with delectable details, a bit of visual wit here and there, a nuanced shot, and those gems of subtle humor in the dialogue. Louie Quirino’s precise cinematography communicates the sweltering heat that seems to demonize humanity in the anarchic setting. The film uses the city’s noise as soundtrack, creating an uneasy atmosphere of spontaneity that complements the film’s story and theme.

Fajardo, after patiently mapping the lives of strangers with admirable clarity and technical proficiency, concludes the film, measuring the extensive scope of a random act of violence. More than the obvious tragedy, the ending encompasses various other things like comedy, anger, fear, forgiveness, and a sudden second chance at fame. Amok is without a doubt, chaos in astoundingly consummate order.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)