Monday, November 28, 2011

Minsan Pa (2004)

Minsan Pa (Jeffrey Jeturian, 2004)
English Title: One Moment More

The film Sana Pag-ibig Na (Enter Love, 1998), one of the several films made under Regal Films subsidiary Good Harvest, gave birth to the collaboration between Armando Lao and Jeffrey Jeturian. Before Sana Pag-ibig Na, Lao was then the very much underrated screenwriter of arguably William Pascual and Chito Rono’s best works, Takaw Tukso (1986) and Itanong mo sa Buwan (1988) respectively. Jeturian, on the other hand, served as production designer and art director for Leroy Salvador’s Dear Killer, one of the two episodes in Dear Diary (1989) that was written by Lao (the other being Dear Partyline, directed by Lupita Aquina-Kashiwahara and written by Jose Javier Reyes) and various other films and television shows. After Sana Pag-ibig Na, Lao and Jeturian would collaborate in Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999) and Tuhog (Larger than Life, 2001), both of which are also critically acclaimed films.

Minsan Pa, Lao and Jeturian’s fourth film together, is more ambitious in scope. Their previous collaborations were clearly smaller. Sana Pag-ibig Na is a family drama set within a middle-class household. Pila Balde is a set in an impoverished community that envelopes a condominium complex and explores the complicated relationship between the haves and the have-nots. Tuhog is a more conceptual affair that pits real reality and movie reality, revealing a cycle of exploitation within a primarily escapist pastime. Minsan Pa is essentially a romance between a Cebu tour guide (Jomari Yllana) and a tourist (Ara Mina). However, more than just unravelling an ordinary love story, Lao and Jeturian set out to unravel not only the lives of the lovers but also the people around them.

The film often drifts away from the central romance, depicting tender episodes of other people’s lives, like the fisherman’s daughter who marries a Japanese tourist, leaving his childhood sweetheart heartbroken in the process, or the performers in a Japanese videographers’ anonymous shoot who become beholden to erstwhile passions and the need to survive. These side stories, told admirably without a sliver of judgment as to actions of these people and how these people lead their lives, contribute to an overall picture of lives existing amidst the lack of permanence.

People come and go, leaving unresolved relationships, obligations, promises and expectations. They strive for constancy, perhaps through by building a permanent home, by finding that one person for whom they can eternally be in love with, by seeking to reunite a family that has become broken by change. The characters Lao crafted and Jeturian fleshed out live lives adjusted to the fleetingness of the world. The only thing constant is heartbreak and disappointment, as when the promise of becoming settled both in life and in love are suddenly snatched not by a stereotypical antagonist but by the very nature of life.

Minsan Pa may be Lao’s masterwork, a piece so lovingly crafted, with characters that feel like they are living and experiencing life’s difficulties with us. There is very little sense of the writer interfering with how the narrative should flow and instead, the story slowly but surely manages to complete itself without succumbing to formula. Jeturian’s job becomes limited to creating the proper mood and atmosphere to finalize the picture. Backdropped by Cebu’s gorgeous sights and vistas, Jeturian expresses the irony of characters appearing and disappearing, completely engulfed by constantly changing emotions, in places that have been there for centuries or even more.

Minsan Pa is the film is fondly remembered as an underseen gem, the film where Ara Mina and Jomari Yllana gave the performances of their careers, the unlikely Filipino romance that did not need to rely on histrionics or cheap thrills to impress. Minsan Pa, however, has an actual place in the history of Philippine cinema. The film barely made enough to recoup the investment put into its production, prompting Lao to rethink the way Filipino films are written and made. Because of the film’s box office failure, Lao would come up with a system of writing films that are apt for Filipino film producers who may not have the capital to gamble into worthwhile but expensive projects that will never be consumed by the ordinary moviegoer.

Because of Minsan Pa, Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006), a film written in the manner Lao believes Filipino films should be written, happened. Kubrador won for Jeturian several international accolades and earned for the film’s producer, Joji Alonzo, enough money for her to continue making films despite the economic disaster that was Minsan Pa. Brillante Mendoza then made Masahista (The Masseur, 2005), then Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), then Serbis (Service, 2008) and Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009). Young filmmakers followed suit, creating a school of filmmaking that positively or negatively changed the landscape of how films are written and made in the country. Who would have thought that Minsan Pa, a glossy film starring famous actors and actresses about heartaches, would stir such a change, opening the Pandora’s box of stories that require absolutely no gloss, no big names, and tackling issues that are closer to the stomach than the heart.

(Cross-published in Lagarista)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Big Boy (2011)

Big Boy (Shireen Seno, 2011)

We live in the present, for the future. The past only becomes part of the present through memories, which are but figments of the imagination, collections of reality as perceived, designed and fashioned by the creative mind. Memories are never conjured spontaneously. They are urged, perhaps, through people, objects, faces, or emotions. It is this very malleable aspect of memories that makes them infinitely fascinating. We trust them but never fully, knowing that they are hardly objective, rarely completely reliable. They are dreams dreamt while awake. They are preludes to a trance subsisting on pain, joy, and everything else that have become requisite ingredients of evoking nostalgia.

Shireen Seno’s Big Boy is a film that lives up to the feeling of being in a trance, of being transported in a place that could only exist within the boundaries of the mind. While familiar and unfamiliar episodes of somebody else’s childhood flicker on screen, its audience’s very memories are urged, eliciting emotions that are at once both daunting and comforting. Adapted from Seno’s own memories of her childhood in the province, the film’s plot details the experiences of a boy who is routinely stretched and served with fish oil by her parents so that he can be tall enough to be the poster boy for their business of selling fish oil.

True to the very element of memories that Seno attempts to replicate in the film, the plot is overtly disjointed, with points voluntarily left unseen, untold and unexplained like events consciously forgotten for whatever reason. Apparently, the film has bigger ambitions than merely telling a very personal story. In fact, the way the story was told with points consciously left out alludes to the limitations of memories, how some events, especially those done in repetition or coupled with violence or other things that would render them indelible, become ironclad memories and how some are simply forgotten.

The film attempts to replicate remembering, where sights and sounds are products of the imagination rather than of the senses. Cinema however is an art that is reliant on the senses, making it Seno’s task to create in her film sights and sounds that resemble the ones seen and heard by the mind during the act of remembering. Shot in Super8, the film persists as a lyrical artifact of a forgotten era. The soft daytime hues, the kerosene lamp-lit nights, and the timeless Mindoro town become relatable images of a collective past. Conversations are inaccurately dubbed, with conversations jumping from Tagalog to the local dialect seemingly unplanned.

Seno regards memories as imperfectly crafted episodes. She pinpoints to the idea of remembering as a very personal effort, modified in time by the vast differences, whether in morality, politics, beliefs, the language spoken and other things, of the person remembering during the time when the event happened and the time when the event is remembered. Memories, in a way, are akin to fiction. Although more grounded on actual events than ordinary imagined stories, memories are still just fragments of the reality that gave birth to them. Big Boy, in that sense, with its very intimate story of a town still enamored by its past as an American colony, weaves memories and fiction together into an intoxicating portrait of a people who are unable to forget.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Salamangkero (1986)

Salamangkero (Tata Esteban, 1986)
English Title: Magic of the Universe

Tata Esteban is a director whose films mirrored his life. More reputed for being a careless womanizer who dabbled in drugs than a consistent and reliable filmmaker, Esteban has made films that are more famous for their blatant indulgences than anything else. However, a careful glance at his earlier pictures like Alapaap (Clouds, 1984) and Hubo sa Dilim (Naked in the Dark, 1985), both of which are clearly adult fare that feature abundant nudity and sex scenes, reveals a talent of potential that is too infrequently tapped. There is undeniable technique in the way he frames and designs his shots, creating an atmosphere that intriguingly mixes sleaze and style. Unfortunately, Esteban, probably because of his recklessness or a lack of luck or for whatever reason, never made that undisputed masterpiece that would catapult him to that level of respectability most filmmakers aspire for.

Esteban’s Salamangkero, released in 1986 during the Metro Manila Film Festival alongside Mario O’Hara’s more enduring Halimaw sa Banga (Monster in the Jar), could have been that masterpiece had it not turned into a mostly forgotten foray into American-style fantasy filmmaking. There’s very little sense to the film. In fact, the film is absolutely irrelevant and impertinent, especially during its time when Lino Brocka and other directors were either getting more and more political. Yet despite this glaring lack of substance, the film exposes Esteban as a master craftsman, still reckless and undisciplined, but capable of mounting a production that delights more because of how it was made rather than for what it was made.

Admittedly, Salamangkero, viewed now where computers have replaced prosthetics and other traditional special effects, is a gravely dated affair. Yet beyond Philippine shores, the film has gained considerable fame as Magic of the Universe, a re-released, re-dubbed shadow of its former self, because of its astute bizarreness than its craftsmanship. That bizarreness, the same bizarreness that has given Elwood Perez’s Silip (1985) (re-titled as Daughters of Eve) and Celso Ad Castillo’s Snake Sisters (1984) international success, has of course been translated into cult appeal and a fistful of straight-to-video dollars. Even in that mangled form, the film is still notably Esteban: logically flawed, narratively thin, but seductive because of its undaunted excesses.

The story is simple. Jamir (Michael de Mesa) is a magician who accidentally loses both his wife (Tanya Gomez) and daughter (Sunshine Dizon). After consulting a shaman (in a scene that forces De Mesa to eat monkey brains straight out of the head of a butchered monkey) and receiving advice from the ghost of his grandfather (also played by the very versatile De Mesa), he discovers that he has to rescue his wife and daughter, who are now prisoners of Mikula (Armida Siguion-Reyna), a vengeful witch who controls an army of pig-faced monsters and other eccentrics. Along with his assistant Bojok (Tom Tom), Jamir travels to Mikula’s dimension to recover a weapon that will defeat Mikula once and for all.

The simplicity of the story may be because of the fact that Salamengkero was intended to cater to the taste of children. It is a fantasy in the same vein as Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) or Labyrinth (1986), only less extravagant considering the budgetary constraints of the local production. Thankfully, the attempts at replicating Henson’s creature designs resulted into an unexpectedly absurd charm. From Gondo, that silly-looking creature that looks like the lovechild of Bugs Bunny and one of the Teletubbies, to tribe of midgets that become entranced by Jamir’s magic tricks, the film makes most of Filipino ingenuity, creating a fantasy world that may not be as complex and believable as its Western counterparts but is still madly entertaining. More than that, the film, beyond its very elementary struggle between good and evil, feels wildly grim and disturbed, as depicted in its shadowed hues and side characters with indistinguishable motivations and goals.

Esteban may never rise beyond being just a mere footnote in Philippine cinema. The films he left behind are more riddles on whether or not he had an opportunity to greatness than actual proofs of that greatness. It is because of that dividing uncertainty as to his place in Philippine cinema that makes him and his legacy of frustratingly imperfect films aberrations that deserve second looks.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Aliwan Paradise (1992)

Aliwan Paradise (Mike de Leon, 1992)

Mike de Leon’s Aliwan Paradise, one of the four shorts featured in Southern Winds, rings truest in this present age where poverty, as explicitly depicted and as source of an unquenchable desire for escape, has turned into an embarrassing necessity in our entertainment.

De Leon’s view of the future is both hilariously fantastic and uncomfortably real. Although obviously inspired by the near-fascist regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the film’s setting can be read as a caricature of a Filipino society that is addicted to the pleasure of illusions, to the fleetingly amusing, to the ephemeral and the unreal. The Philippines is obviously in a state of grave penury. People are crowded outside the theater of the Impresario (brilliantly played by Johnny Delgado) to take their chance at impressing him and his inutile jury to land a job. The Impresario, under strict orders by her superior (a woman who appears only as a sketch that looks a lot like Imelda Marcos), is looking for a new type of entertainment, something that has not been seen before, and something that will and should sell.

Outside, Julio Madiaga (Julio Diaz) and Ligaya Paradiso (Melissa de Leon), characters from Lino Brocka’s Maynila: sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), reunite under more heartbreaking circumstances. While Brocka uses the characters as symbols for the Filipino’s tragic search for happiness, De Leon infuses the characters with biting cynicism. Julio, although still madly in love with his former sweetheart, is more aware of the world and its inhumane devices. Ligaya, on the other hand, has totally abandoned romanticism for fatalist worldliness. Their reunion, in rebellion to Brocka’s grappling with a certain sense of hopefulness although futile, becomes more of a resolution to ideals that have become insignificant in a world where survival is the lone virtue that is worth fighting for.

And survival seems to be the only virtue worth fighting for. As a former human rights bureaucrat blows fire while lecturing on literature and eats shards of glass while teaching basic arithmetic and a nurse strips down to her underwear while taking care of an elderly man, the nobility of profession is quickly abandoned by the very basic need to earn a living. Dignity is forgotten. Ligaya’s performance, a song and dance number that fancifully narrates the downfall of the Filipino woman, sums up the distance of how far society has been corrupted by poverty. Her private dealing with the Impresario only reinforces the abject desperation.

De Leon however mixes his cynicism with timeless wit and humor. Doy del Mundo’s screenplay is essentially a satire, resting more on the ingenuity of the idea rather than the lives of its characters or the depth of the narrative. However, the film graduates from the limitations of its being merely a satire. Like its thesis as to how entertainment has lorded over the Philippines from prior to it being colonized up to the present, the film’s prophetic observations as to how entertainment has turned from being a source of respite to a parasite that lives on woe and suffering is evidenced by reality.

Willie Revillame, whose sudden rise to fame happened decades after Aliwan Paradise, has the same wile as the Impresario, acknowledging the wealth in both feeding from and feeding the poor. Star Cinema and other mainstream studios, who would never have raised funds to produce such an enlightening piece of entertainment as Aliwan Paradise, has the same muteness as the Impresario’s jury, ignorant of their being conspirators in creating an economy out of the Filipinos’ ignorance by coming up with products that are comparable to instant noodles, filling but deadly. Independent filmmakers, who subscribe to Mike de Leon’s ideals but are inevitably trapped into mining stories from the fringes of society not by the noble need to expose but by the personal need for acknowledgement, are the Julios and Ligayas of our time, aware of the gnawing injustice of it all but have become knowing parts of that awful but inescapable system.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Cartas de la Soledad: An Interview with Gutierrez Mangansakan II

Cartas de la Soledad: An Interview with Gutierrez Mangansakan II

Gutierrez Mangansakan II is first and foremost a writer who promotes the conservation of his Maguindanaoan heritage through his essays and stories. He later ventured to filmmaking, creating experimental works, video installations, and documentaries that discuss both the problems that ail his region and the culture that forces him to do what he does with utmost passion. His first feature length narrative Limbunan (2010) is an understated masterpiece about a young woman who is forced to be wed by tradition to a man he does not love. It is a film that is characterized by quietude and contemplation, a seeming anomaly to the Mindanao as depicted and exploited by traditional media. For his second feature length narrative, Mangansakan again mines his heritage for inspiration.

Hi Teng, Cartas de la Soledad is your second film after the terribly underrated Limbunan, which I thought was the strongest film in that Cinemalaya batch. Why did you choose CinemaOne instead of Cinemalaya as the vehicle for your second film?

CinemaOne allows a filmmaker for greater experimentation. They do not bother whether or not your film has a star, or too slow, or has sequences consisting only of singular long takes. CinemaOne urges filmmakers to find their own voice, and because of that, it encourages the diversity of cinematic experience.

(Continue reading in Lagarista)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Boundary (2011)

Boundary (Benito Bautista, 2011)

Confined mostly within the very small spaces provided for by the cabs, taxi drivers live lives that are well-suited for cinema. Although they are forced to interact with people of various personalities, needs and intentions, this human interaction is limited to services being offered and stories being shared in the interim. They are constantly embattled, by drowsiness when forced to drive nights, by paranoia when a particular passenger raises suspicions, by desperation when the shift’s earnings are not enough to cover the cab owner’s quota leaving them with hardly any income to live with. Within the rigid confines of their cabs and their means of livelihood, they witness, either through the endless tirades of newscasters in the radio programs they listen to or through actual experiences, the worst of what a corrupt society can deal to a person.

Boundary starts ominously. Coke Polipata’s violin wails in the background as a dishevelled and obviously paranoia-stricken cab driver (Ronnie Lazaro) opts for a snack in what seems to be an ironically idyllic riverside park. Within the first few minutes of the film, director Benito Bautista orchestrates a view of Manila that is intriguingly unhinged. He carefully sows the seeds of suspicion, which will eventually color the atmosphere of the film. The film retreats from the temporary comforts of day as it follows the cab driver as he plies the crowded streets of Manila well into the night. At this juncture, Bautista allows a glimpse of the city from a distance and away the jaded eyes of his overworked protagonist, evoking a certain calm amidst the chaos of the city before plunging his viewers into a more intimate yet intense look of how that seemingly disconnected bigger picture finds its way into the most contained of spaces.

From then on, Bautista follows the cab driver as he picks up a well-dressed man (Raymond Bagatsing) who asks to be driven to nearby Antipolo. Beneath exteriors defined by random acts of decency and conversations marked by normalcy, both the driver and his passenger are in fact brewing plans of their own.

The action is mostly set inside the cab, with the storytelling done mostly through the conversations the cab driver has with his passenger and the characterization limited to the stories relayed, the mannerisms, gestures, and other occasional quirks. The paranoia Bautista invested in early on manages to color the prolonged sequences within the cramped interior of the cab with tremendous foreboding, carrying the film despite being constricted with its location with a sizeable portion of uneasiness and tension. From within the cab, safety from the viciousness of the street is in fact an illusion as desperation creeps into the picture, forcing the cab driver to survive amidst all odds.

Boundary falters only in narrative logic. Bautista succeeds in establishing the dangers of uncertainty in the familiar. However, the screenplay, which Bautista co-wrote with John Bedia, is peppered with holes, raising more questions of logistics and practicality rather than answering them. This, of course, is a minor and forgivable problem considering that everything else seems so masterfully orchestrated, from Bolipata and Paolo Peralta’s unsettling score to McCoy Ternate’s aptly economic cinematography to Chuck Gutierrez’s intelligent editing. In the end, Bautista has crafted a firm and suspenseful thriller whose clever twist in the end puts both perspective and pertinence to its constricting but intriguingly exciting process.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Waikiki (1980)

Waikiki (Elwood Perez, 1980)

It is undeniable that Filipinos are addicted to migration stories. In a way, despite the far-flung locations of these tales, there is always a strand in the tale that would be instantly relatable, either because immigration has been a common ambition of the ordinary Filipino or immigration has been vicariously experienced through a loved one. From Gil Portes’ masterfully lyrical ‘Merika (1984) to Lav Diaz’s slow-burning Batang West Side (2001), the Filipino diaspora is always depicted with a discontent and ennui, of a gnawing longing for the homeland, of a certain pride for being rooted in a culture despite being detached from its source for so long.

Elwood Perez’s Waikiki is different from these migration stories because its main character, Edad (Alicia Alonzo), a mother who was separated from her husband and two daughters who migrated to Hawaii, is the outside, the seeming trespasser, to the stories of the migrants that her loved ones have become. Left behind because of tuberculosis, she waits for the day when she’ll be able to be reunited with her family. When she gets to Hawaii however, she discovers her daughters (played by Rio Locsin and Lorna Tolentino) adversely changed, with morals looser than what she would’ve expected, with husbands and boyfriends whose attachment to family is less grounded than hers. She finds her husband (Raul Aragon) with a different family, putting that final nail in the coffin of her own American dream, forcing her to go back to the Philippines, with her dignity more or less intact.

Instead of dwelling into the sordid problems of migration, Perez peeks into the specific life of someone who was left behind, expectant of joyous reunions with the loved ones she knows through happy memories when they were still together but instead was greeted with indifference and alienation from loved ones obviously changed through the passage of time and the sudden shift in culture. Alonzo portrays the mother’s coming to terms to the fact that her precious family has been shattered by the American dream with believable intensity. She fights until she no longer can fight, and her eventual surrender to the realities that have literally hit her in the face is quite heartbreaking.

The mother’s story however is just one half of the film. The other half features Mikaela (Alma Moreno), Edad’s eldest daughter who decides to stay behind with her ailing mother, falling from her mother’s graces when she decides to work in a nightclub as a dancer. With the help of her doting neighbor (Bella Flores), she discovers the practical functions of her sexuality, parading in grass skirts and dancing a bastardized and overly-eroticized version of Hawaiian dances with scantily clad Ricky Belmonte to the beat of drums and suggestive chanting of the word “Wai-ki-ki,” subliminally evoking images of what is kept hidden by those strategically placed shards of dried grass.

Despite the obvious erotic undertones of the dances, Perez withholds from designing the scenes to be plainly lewd, plainly objectifying Moreno’s womanly curves in compromising rhythms. Instead, Perez injects the scenes with some sort of feminine empowerment, where men are beholden to the hypnotizing grooves of the show’s main attraction. Waikiki, despite being advertised as a sexy film in obvious reaction to Moreno’s sudden rise to fame as a sex symbol especially after her stints in Joey Gosiengfiao’s Bomba Star (1980) and Nympha (1980), is actually a film that features strong women amidst a world of men made frail by very real circumstances.

Waikiki is deceptive in a sense that it allures with exoticization of female sexuality, of a very foreign land, of the migration experience, before exposing very familiar truths of how families are pulled apart by the Filipino diaspora, how there is an immense divide between traditional mores and the virtues of progress and modernity. Perez, by adeptly juggling the commercial requirements of studio filmmaking and his own artistic impulses, has created a film that is strange because it almost always works in all its attempts to be whatever it needs to be. As a sexy film, it does not fail to arouse. As a melodrama, it does not fail to force out tears. As a portrait of the Philippines then and now, it does not fail to impress with both its astuteness and simplicity in expressing its points.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)