Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Kimmy Dora and the Temple of Kiyeme (2012)

Kimmy Dora and the Temple of Kiyeme (Joyce Bernal, 2012)

Joyce Bernal’s Kimmy Dora and the Temple of Kiyeme misses the entire point. It is just one humongous mistake that sadly betrays whatever hope the success of Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa Kiyeme (2009) created for the Philippine film industry. Perhaps the first Kimmy Dora offering was simply a tad overrated. It has everything going for it. It featured Eugene Domingo, then an underdog, an actress who has worked her way to the top as its lead. It was also the only film that had guts to take them on, armed only with faith on the untested charms of its lead and its guiltless humor In a market that only welcomed the repetitive romances and inane horrors of the country’s mainstream studios.

It peddled nothing more but nonsense. However, it took that nonsense seriously. From the crafty screenplay that sought to stretch Domingo’s capabilities as both an actress and a comedienne, the film evolved into something that was sincere in its objectives, which was to introduce something new, whether it be the unbounded faith on a talented artist or the emancipated manner of making a commercial film, to the very tired system. Surely, Kambal sa Kiyeme was not overrated. It deserved the rewards it reaped, the acclaim and the several millions of pesos it earned from weeks of filling up local theaters.

Kambal sa Kiyeme’s hyperbolic appreciation of Philippine life, bolstered by Domingo’s equally hyperbolic performances as both Kimmy, the short-tempered and extravagant CEO of her family’s conglomerate, and Dora, her immaculately sweet but mentally retarded twin sister, elevates it from being just a string of gags to something more relatable, something whose humor is more grounded on what was then current. Frustratingly, The Temple of Kiyeme replaces that pleasant hyperbole with unoriginal gimmickry. It abandoned the high-strung realism of the first film with inglorious fantasy, allowing needless ornaments and effects to overshadow Domingo’s earnest efforts to elevate the entire thing.

From the high-stress offices and the posh suburbs of Manila, The Temple of Kiyeme relocates its comedy to the temples of Korea, continuing the story of the twins as they discover their roots and become aware of their duty to be wed to the hideous heir of their family’s business partners in order to eradicate a curse that all of sudden plagued their semi-serene way of life. Horror creeps into the picture through frequent hauntings of a drum-beating ghost, filmed by Bernal like a third-rate J-horror upstart who got into the craze ten years too late. The story, both convoluted and confused plods along painfully, burdened by the futile attempts to both scare and amuse. The jokes, farted out half-heartedly, are surprisingly underwritten, overplayed, and mostly middling.

If The Temple of Kiyeme is what pure entertainment is, then I believe the film’s makers have adopted a skewed sense of what pleasure is. The film is a near torturous event, weighed down further by how it feels like the moral and artistic opposite of Kambal sa Kiyeme. Coming from the same makers with suspicious new economic and creative partners, one can't help but feel that this latest endeavor reeks of plain treachery

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Three Decades of Philippine Shorts

Three Decades of Philippine Shorts

Perhaps the most exciting entry to the Philippine New Wave program of the 66th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival is “Three Decades of Philippine Shorts,” a collection, curated by Khavn dela Cruz, of vastly diverse but intriguing short works from some of the greatest talents that emerged during the waning years of Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, and Mike de Leon. If one is to carefully pinpoint a running theme from selected films, one can sense that all of the films resonate a strong affinity for Kidlat Tahimik’s brand of experimental but deeply personal oeuvre.

There seems to be something in the no-budget, guerrilla, and largely impromptu style of filmmaking that Kidlat Tahimik committed to in response to the overblown and star-filled spectacles that his contemporaries were dabbling in that arouses depth in creativity. All of the films in the program are but seeds of the ingenuity and the resilience of the filmmakers, then disenfranchised by capitalist studios and their bamboozled mobs, who are now marking their roles in the nation’s cinema as both old and new pioneers of the ongoing Philippine new wave.

Jet Leyco’s Patlang (Blank, 2011) starts seemingly as a run-of-the-mill melodrama, covering what possibly is a young girl’s heartbreak. From there, it jumps into a wormhole, transporting the film to various places. The short’s both an exercise of style and rhythm, and a mystifying document of the personal and the political converging in the most intriguing of ways. Jon Lazam’s Nang Gabing Maging Singlaki ng Puso ang Bato ni Darna (Darna: A Stone is a Heart You Can’t Swallow, 2012) was made for a short film competition that focused on works that lament the sorrowful state of film preservation. In the film, Lazam weaves together his penchant for pop culture via the understated romances of Filipino Wonder Woman Darna and her boy-toy Nardo and his concern for the rapid disappearance of such pop culture because of film decay. In one of the short’s most memorable scenes, Nardo rides his boat from the imperfections of decades-old film to high definition, a connection was sparked, elusive but real, just like love.

Like a Murakami fiction, John Torres’ Hai, They Recycle Heartbreaks in Tokyo so Nothing’s Wasted (2009) treats Tokyo with both a resident’s familiarity and a foreigner’s curiosity, displaying outdoors bathed in warmth and indoors of strange shapes and sizes. He eventually tells a story, and allows us a view from what seems to be the nostrils of a father, peeking into the beauty of a concerned loved one, into forgotten regrets, and perpetual memories. The genius of Renei Patricia Dimla’s Anomie (2008) does not lie in the social ills it attempts to expose but in the way they are exposed. Animated in a way that belongs more in children’s shows than social commentaries, the film enunciates the absurdity of the Philippine situation, where the rich and poor are both miles apart in the human condition and inches close when interacting with each other.

Antoinette Jadaone has an adman’s efficiency, an indie filmmaker’s resourcefulness, and an artist’s wit and advocacy. In Saling Pusa (Tag-along, 2006), she displays all three traits with fascinating finesse. A young girl plays cards and gambles with neighbourhood thugs. As the stakes get higher from random change to the tools of their trade, the little girl becomes more like young Jadaone, a severely talented newbie in an industry of big guns and cutthroats. In Apple (2005), Sherad Sanchez’s crafts his very own version of purgatory that is pretty much close to home. Prayers and novenas are heard in the background, ultimately drowned by the ominous noises of the night. An atrocious scene happens behind closed doors, cementing the depravity that’s draped in Catholic faithfulness. Everything else is just a faint and flimsy excuse to escape the ironies of a compromised humanity.

R. A. Rivera’s Chicken Soup II (1999) is a treasure trove of the weird and the strange that only becomes artful and meaningful after severe bouts of the laidback boredom that’s shared by the jobless and dormitory students. There’s wistful wisdom and hapless humor to Rivera’s sometimes impenetrable methods for those willing to swim with his madness. A satire on the past and present state of Philippine politics where the power players are quick to swear on lightning striking them from above should they be caught lying, Joey Agbayani’s Kidlat (Lightning, 1989) is replete with visual metaphors and wry humor that make the film relevant beyond the peaceful 1986 Manila revolution that inspired it.

Like an ungodly chant, the words “botika,” or drugstore, and “bituka,” or stomach, are spoken over and over again while images of food and drugs in overpopulated Manila are rapidly displayed in Cesar Hernando’s inimitable Botika Bituka (1985). As the sounds and visuals eventually meld, the connections and disconnections are established, evoking a social irony that is so apparent in the Philippines, it is even observable in its people’s everyday vocabulary. The Great Smoke (1984), Roxlee’s anti-atomic bomb agitprop, both shocks and tickles at the same time. While the juxtaposition of the realities of the dangers of nuclear war and the director’s animated sketches and cartoons can be seen as insensitive and uncalled for, it can also be regarded as bold and brash as it is the same marriage of the very real and the very absurd that drives the point of abject stupidity in some nations’ maintenance of these weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, there’s Raymond Red’s masterpiece, Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity, 1982), which at first glance seems to be the authentic thing, a Filipino silent film salvaged from decay. However, the film’s more modern sensibilities betray its borrowed form. Its concern for history and the present, its self-conscious dictates in its aesthetics, the abundance of style, all of these point towards an art that is more grounded on the anti-establishment and truly independent sentiments that drove the Mowelfund filmakers where Red was a very prominent figure and some of the present independent filmmakers where Red remains to be a consistent source of inspiration.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Captive (2012)

Captive (Brillante Mendoza, 2012)

Captive is Brillante’s most political to date, interpreting the kidnapping of several vacationers by Abu Sayyaf members from their resort in Palawan and their months-long hostage deep within the jungles of Basilan. Mendoza has always used the Philippines’ ills as backdrop for his sometimes heart-wrenching but mostly gut-wrenching films. Masahista (The Masseur, 2005), Foster Child (2007), Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), Serbis (Service, 2008), Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009) and Lola (Grandmother, 2009) are all set against decay and poverty, with Mendoza exploring the intertwinement of such deplorable situations with human behavior, how it forces social norms and morals either temporarily or permanently out of the framework of survival.

Like Lino Brocka before him, Mendoza is being revered not for how he sincerely depicts humanity, with all its faults and misgivings, but for the more convenient of his traits, which is to expose cinematically the base conditions of Philippine society. I believe this has led Mendoza into the same trap which Brocka found himself in when he ventured into more blatantly political fare like Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (My Own Country, 1985) and Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989), exposing to the world, through the prestigious film festivals, the inutility of local institutions that inevitably create the dilemmas their cinematic characters face.

There seems to an abandonment of the profound examinations of human struggle in exchange the convenience of plain reportage. More alarming is that Mendoza seems to believe that it is his advocacy as a filmmaker to thresh out reality from the escapist limitations of celluloid, forcing him to push the envelope further from merely glossing over the graveness of the Philippine social condition through his delicate human stories to putting the social condition to the forefront.

Captive prominently displays this movement by Mendoza to mistake his weakness as an inert but brash advocate as his strength, eclipsing his real strength as a director, which is his ability to observe and portray our very fickle humanity. The film’s best parts are when the outside world, the world Mendoza so excitedly depicts through visual slogans delivering religious hate and military ineptitude, are forgotten and the captives and their kidnappers are depicted away from the circumstance that they have found themselves trapped in. In those scenes, Mendoza weaves little stories, tales that are not unfamiliar because notwithstanding the strangeness of their settings, these stories are so deeply entrenched to what the most ordinary of humans are capable of. The tiniest of gestures, the surprising exchanges of biting dialogue, both the urgent and non-urgent interactions among and between the victims and their victimizers add lightness to Mendoza’s lofty but misplaced endeavor.

Absent the propagandizing, the film finally allows its actors, most importantly Isabelle Huppert, who plays one of the kidnapped victims, the flexibility to flesh out their characters, who on the grander scale of Mendoza’s vision, seem to be just pawns in the overextended network of corruption that is the Philippines. However, Mendoza is also able to showcase his mettle as a director in those quieter moments. Where in the scenes where war is shown, violence is paraded, and intolerance is brandished, Mendoza seems to be channelling a desire for charmless grandiosity, especially with his armaments of explosions and spectacular gunfights, all of which are almost always absent in cash-strapped Philippine filmmaking, in the quieter scenes, he displays his capacity for compassion and understanding of the capacity of men and women to be both kind and depraved.

While Captive clearly ambitions discourse on the troubles of Mindanao, it only succeeds in forwarding a concept of the conflict that is problematic in the way it is depicted and from which perspective it is depicted from. Mendoza’s take on the conflict is undoubtedly taken from an outsider’s point of view. The film’s politics is hard to pinpoint precisely because it is draped in inconsistencies and ornamented with cues that are meant to agitate. Bibles are thrown into the sea. Christian icons are destroyed. Muslim captors scream their lungs out, praising Allah, as the news about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center are reported from their transistor radio, unmindful of the queries about the number of people who perished. It paints a picture of a religion that is either the proponent of intolerance or a harsh misunderstanding of a people. The problem lies in the fact that this black and white approach in portraying the conflict is ultimately dangerous, as it disenfranchises an entire ideology that deserves more than the token shades of fair humanity that Mendoza gives its champions.

In the end, Captive is a film only proves Mendoza’s ability to mount productions that are bigger than what he usually does. It still manages to astound as there are some gems of scenes, mostly involving Huppert struggling physically and emotionally through her dire situation, that succeed in mesmerizing and bewildering. Unfortunately, the bad taste of the film’s erratic and possibly damaging posturing counters most of its merits.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar (2012)

Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar (Jay Abello, 2012)

Jay Abello’s Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar astounds with its scope. In its attempt to answer the thesis question of what the real price of sugar is, the documentary explores and investigates the magnitude of what is ailing the local sugar industry, from the seeming ignorance and insensitivity that continue to plague governmental intrusion to the culture of entitlement that was cultivated by centuries worth of luxuries that the money crop has provided. It mostly succeeds in making a gloomy galaxy out of a spoonful of sugar one normally puts in his morning coffee to sweeten his day and condensing that galaxy into less than two hours of consistently interesting and sometimes entertaining conjectures, challenges, and fault-finding.

Abello’s approach is academic. The dense narration, delivered with curious seriousness by Abello not without a suspicious air of unfeeling detachment, expresses the immensity of the research. There is always that feeling that the narration was constructed to contain as much information within the least amount of words, unfortunately making the entire documentary not a little bit rushed and cluttered. Abello does manage to organize everything by dividing his research into chapters, providing some sort of comfort in his overeager lecture. He also adds some playfulness into the complexity of his subject matter, throwing into his thesis more than a bit of familiar history which conveniently criss-crosses with the very specific events that shaped the Philippine sugar industry, depicted as a stylized mini-feature composed of delightful re-enactments that temporarily divert from the moroseness of the present condition.

Abello sprinkles some personal anecdotes, grounding his bookish research with actual experiences. Although the documentary is grounded mostly by research-based facts and opinions of experts who were invited to weigh in on the subject, its heart lies in the fact that the endeavor for the documentary’s existence is drawn not from mere circumstance or curiosity but from the closeness of such material to the director’s heart.

Abello, being a member of the Negros elite, those who were in the receiving end of most of the benefits of the successes of the industry, was able to churn out the most intriguing interviews from his subjects, most of whom are probably relatives, friends or business acquaintances. He frames his interviews peculiarly. A prominent sugar baroness would details how sugar has spoiled the populace, laughing to her heart’s content while draped over an expensive but minimalist sofa. While an owner of a milling company discusses the future troubles of the already ailing industry, one can’t help but notice the immensity of his estate that features prominently in the background. There’s both sincerity and levity in Abello’s concern for the sugar industry. He understands the root of the problem enough to ridicule it, to harvest jokes out of it, and to produce a few earned chuckles from it.

Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar avoids the pitfalls of being too localized and too inert to be of interest to the casual moviegoer by its earnestness, by the skillfulness in which Abello shapes his arguments, by the sporadic instances when the experiences of the Negros sugar industry evolves into a universal instigation of the caprices of government, the imperfection of economics, and the shallowness of humanity. It is hardly a perfect picture, but it does serve the purpose of education to the uninformed and re-education to the misinformed.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, June 04, 2012

Born to Love You (2012)

Born to Love You (Jerome Pobocan, 2012)

Jerome Pobocan’s Born to Love You is hardly anything special. A weepy romance with bits of comedy sprinkled sparingly all throughout, the film aspires nothing but mediocrity. It is plotted awkwardly. The story, about an angst-ridden photographer (Coco Martin) who suddenly falls for a tour guide (Angeline Quinto) while wrestling with issues regarding his family, is stretched via convolutions and coincidences that both arrive out of and lead to nowhere. The pleasures it provides are but momentary, barely enough to repay the superhuman endurance that it asks to be invested.

As just another one of those run-of-the-mill romances that Star Cinema churns out for a quick buck, it bears the same problems as those that came before it that left no dent on the genre they represent or the market they aspire to exploit. It lacks any real sense of imagination or ambition, confident that its captured audience made up of the collected fans of its recently glammed leads would rush to spend their money to watch their idols in the big screen. It is utterly formulaic, moving from one scene to another like the daily turnover of episodes of a rushed melodrama.

The film’s predictable offenses are only compounded by its use of tasteless music, mostly repetitive rearrangements of the karaoke hit I Just Fall in Love Again, that succeeds only to annoy instead of to provide the necessary dramatic push that the film tries so hard to sell. Born to Love You utilizes every trick known in the trade, every trope that has been used and reused. Despite that, the film only succeeds to reveal how tired the genre is, how burdened each and every film that spurts out of the tried and tested formula to bring something new.

Martin makes most of his role. The actor, whose successful transition from being the aptly anonymous face of most of Brillante Mendoza’s portraits of Philippine poverty into the capable darling of the mainstream has compromised his craft, succeeds in exuding an imagined depth to a depthless character, especially in the quieter moments as opposed to where he is forced to deliver dialogue. Quinto, on the other hand, provides much-needed levity to Martin’s trademark brooding with infrequent self-deprecating jokes coupled with shrill side remarks. Still, despite the attempt at balancing seriousness and comedy with the casting, the proposed chemistry fails.

Pobocan and the film’s team of writers are at fault here. The stage and story they built for the love team are drab and ridiculous, respectively. The film forgoes both logic and lyricism for cheap romantic conclusions that seek to tie loose ends with the least amount of creativity. The film’s soap opera mentality is more problematic because it forwards a brand of romance, one that is dangerously intertwined with familial dilemmas, that exists within a vacuum, within a universe where acts of God and misfortunes exist only to dictate lessons and inflict changes for the supposed better.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, June 01, 2012

Every Breath U Take (2012)

Every Breath U Take (Mae Czarina Cruz, 2012)

One fateful Valentine’s night, virginal Majoy (Angelica Panganiban), whose time-bound ovaries are severely in need of a suitable sperm donor lest they never be used again, meets Leo (Piolo Pascual), a bigshot real estate broker whose skill in wooing women can only be matched by his aversion to serious relationships, in the restaurant where she was supposed to meet her Valentine’s date. Majoy’s absentee date is Ji-soon (Ryan Bang), a hopelessly romantic Korean man whose long-awaited and probably well-deserved opportunity to prove his love to Majoy was foiled when on the night of their first date, his car crashes into another car, which just so happens to be driven by the eldest brother (Smokey Manoloto) of Leo’s latest scorned sexual conquest (Wendy Valdez), who, in a streak of post-break-up insanity, contracts the rest of his male siblings (Joross Gamboa and Carlos Agassi) to do everything they can to force Leo back so that they can be wed.

Every Breath U Take is more a carefree screwball than a careless rom-com. Since Star Cinema has cornered the Philippine market with its generic romances that offer a dash of humor and a sliver of drama, it has always been careful in maintaining the formula of unbelievably pretty protagonists, played by actors and actresses who are marketed as love teams, with particular backstories suddenly confronted with the utmost dilemma of falling in love with each other. Thankfully, the film courageously skips key elements of the formula to inject an internal logic of well-timed guffaws and out-of-this world coincidences that are not only unbelievable and farfetched but also fittingly entertaining.

In the film, the characters do fall in love, yet that brand of love they profess is hardly the noble and idealistic type that the mainstream studio repeatedly espouses in its products. The film’s brand of love is not befuddled by weepy needs for fulfilment, whether it comes from the self, parents, or society, but is simply more straightforward, or if we are to be blunt about it, more shallow. Majoy simply wants to find her fated prince charming before her ovaries stop producing eggs. Leo simply wants that diversion where his land-selling skills can also be applied. The other characters are similarly situated. Yet despite the unabashed lack of motivation for their respective romantic endeavors, Mae Czarina Cruz was successful to maintain the same swooning sheen that it shares with Star Cinema’s other romances.

Even the casting of Panganiban and Pascual seems to be unburdened with the ulterior motive of establishing a love duo that would hopefully earn for themselves a few more films together and for the studio several more millions of pesos worth of sold tickets. It feels like Panganiban and Pascual were casted not because their pairing can sell the most tickets and can usher in another lucrative pairing involving very bankable celebrities but simply because they fit their roles. The lack of chemistry between the leads is made up mostly by their willingness to take part in the experimentation.

Panganiban, for example, becomes the antithesis of the Star Cinema heroine, which is simply a character that is so written to be played by any actress because that character is simply a vessel of whatever trait that is forwarded by the usually thin narratives of the typical Star Cinema rom-com. The character of Majoy seems to be precisely a Panganiban vehicle. Although not in the same vein as the ones that are usually lauded by critics and the press in their yearly acting ceremonies, Majoy’s character is an acting piece that requires Panganiban’s fascinating ability to mix the unassuming naiveté of a sexual first-timer and the desperation of a libidinous nympho to great comedic effect. Pascual, on the other hand, gamely allows himself to be objectified.

In reality, Every Breath U Take is nothing to be excited for. It is also nothing to be ashamed of. It is what it is, a well-produced, amply directed, and satisfactorily acted romp. In a climate where the well-fed and patronized mainstream producers have gotten used to the comfort of using less and less imagination and more and more reliance on the elementary parts of a sure-fire hit, a film like this, with all its exaggerations and unforgivably apparent lapses in reality in exchange for laughs and wonderment is as invaluable as a breath of fresh air.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)