Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Bwakaw (2012)

Coming Out Late in Jun Lana's Bwakaw
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Jun Lana started his career in film writing screenplays for directors Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Maryo J. de los Reyes, among others. In the several years where the country was starving for quality films, he penned films like Diaz-Abaya’s Sa Pusod ng Dagat (In the Navel of the Sea, 1998), Jose Rizal (1998), and Muro-ami (1999), tasteful alternatives to the crass titillating films that were being produced by the dozens.

Interestingly, Gigil (2006), Lana’s directorial debut, capitalized largely on babes clad in bikinis, parading both their bodies and loose morals in the beach. He then dabbled in various other genres, directing disposable horrors like Mag-ingat ka sa… Kulam (2008) and Tarot (2009) and sleazy dramas like Roxxxanne (2007) and My Neighbor’s Wife (2011) for various studios and producers. The career of Lana became a prime example of initial promise gone wrong. His latest, Bwakaw, seems to be his belated apology for the misdirection of his career.

Bwakaw is about Rene, a gay old man (Eddie Garcia) who only came out of the closet when he’s already very old and is now coping with the loneliness dealt by his delayed decision. The film is movingly sincere. Lana molds Rene not from stereotype but from accurate perceptions of how a man would be had he lived his life as a lie and decided only to admit his reality when he barely has any years left to enjoy it. Garcia understands the specific nuances of the character he’s portraying. He does not pepper his portrayal with gags and cheap imitations. Instead, he allows his performance to be subtle and low-key, resulting in what essentially is a quiet triumph in acting.

Lana smartly plays Rene’s repulsion towards his friends and acquaintances as the core of the film’s humor. He also purposefully manifests Rene’s repressed guilt with a beautiful sideplot involving a failed romance. While the film’s depiction of an old man’s loneliness is already astute and affecting, it still forces more storylines than the film’s elegant pacing can manage. The result is a screenplay that is a bit too busy and a bit too lenient to the many contrivances in plotting.

The screenplay’s excesses are thankfully grounded by Lana’s surprisingly restrained direction. Set in San Pablo, the film remarkably incorporates a very provincial laidback appreciation of time, perhaps the only thing that both tortures and gives hope to the film’s impossible protagonist. A less sensitive director would rush to forward the story, relish in the big dramatic moments, and exploit the storyline of the titular dog. Lana, on the other hand, allows the story to crawl, to stagger and earn the emotions that have been repressed by the abundance of silence and the occasional jokes.

Delightfully unhurried, Bwakaw manages to make stretches of quietude and nothingness both entertaining and meaningful. It also helps that the film’s images are composed, lighted, and framed exquisitely. The music is sparse but elaborate, starting with light strumming of a native instrument before evolving into something more hopeful, following the eventual restoration of Rene’s faith in life.

The film’s final frame, a long shot of a street where Rene is walking as a former flame drives his tricycle by totally ignoring the old man, is painfully lovely. It depicts a life where fairy tale endings do not exist especially for people who are most susceptible to melancholy yet notwithstanding that, living it still seems to be the most gratifying choice.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ang Nawawala (2012)

Mapping a Hipster's Heartbreak in Marie Jamora's Ang Nawawala (What Isn't There
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Gibson (Dominic Roco), after ten years abroad, returns to Manila for the holidays. He still opts to not talk, a decision he made after seeing his twin brother die. He arrives to a house and a family that barely changed. His mom (Dawn Zulueta) still plays stern mother hen to Promise (Sabrina Man), his youngest sister. His father (Buboy Garovillo) still dons a mask of contentment. Corey (Jenny Jamora), his elder sister, is now in a relationship with a clueless blockhead (Marc Abaya) but remains to be the overstressed overseer of the seemingly normal family.

Teddy (Alchris Galura), Gibson’s childhood friend, rescues him, introducing him to new friends, a possible romance, and a lifestyle that serves as respite from his family’s torturous tedium. Along the way, Gibson finds his greatest diversion in Enid (Annicka Dolonius) and shares with her the stories of his life, his music, his inexperience in bed.

Marie Jamora and co-writer Ramon de Veyra has carefully conjured a coming-of-age tale that withdraws from the traditions of the genre. Instead of the raging hormones of burgeoning maturity or the delightful impulses of first love, Ang Nawawala (What Isn’t There) maps the redemption of lost years spent making sense of a childhood trauma that resulted in the most enduring of heartaches.

The conceit of Gibson’s decision to be quiet is admittedly farfetched but placed in a plot where the functions of communication are confused leading to a situation where people talk but nothing is truly understood, it transforms into an apt metaphor of the pervading theme that champions the universality of music, which plays a major role in the film, how music breaks barriers of language and location in transmitting messages that matter, and how it becomes the most potent drug for forgetting such scars from the past.

A part of the film is spent exploring the more meaningful margins of the current Philippine music scene. It features songs that are kept hidden and protected from the attention of the moneyed and usually empty mainstream. The film maneuvers the story of Gibson’s eventual falling for Enid’s unique charms along a myriad of melodies that explore the complexities of affairs of the heart, providing a distinct backdrop to the initial stirrings of a possible ecstasy.

Ang Nawawala is a love letter to a Manila that barely gets featured in film. It is specific on a certain demographic, the small percentage of the youth that gets high on a peculiar new music, also on everything pop and old, on infatuations that dangerously border on love. It locates itself in the various spots in the metro that attract the demographic, like the bars and concert venues that feature indie bands in their nightly gigs, or the rare vinyl stores, or the convenience stops and their cheap treats and time-wasters, or the all-night spas and their peculiar features. The film details these various diversions, from the hipster scene to the drugs and the various methodologies of taking, which shrouds the conflicts of the youth that feed on them.

Jamora’s first feature is obviously crafted to incorporate the attributes that define the lifestyle it portrays. It is paced like a rock star, relaxed when it needs to be but quick at the edges. The visuals are absolutely lovely, revealing an angle of the city that is patterned, orderly, the absolute opposite of the maniacal chaos of the various slums and squatters’ colonies that have been featured tirelessly in other films about Manila. The acting is mostly superb, with the performers tackling the entire spectrum of the multi-faceted demographic, from the overactive jerks that stalk the concert venues for a quick lay down to those authentically serious about the music with their eyelids shut to further increase the effect of the notes and lyrics.

In the end of it all, the film’s detour to the world populated by hipsters and wannabes only exemplifies the fleeting nature of the somewhat effective departure that world provides. Everything begins at home. Naturally, everything should end there. The problems and dilemmas sparked by the lack of understanding and communication at home cannot be solved by escaping them. In the film’s sublime final few moments, Gibson literally comes of age. He does what he’s supposed to have done when his youth, adolescence and everything good and bad that came along with it were suspended over a debilitating heartbreak. He did not need the drugs, the fireworks, the first kisses, and other spectacles. All Gibson needed was to talk.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sta. Niña (2012)

The Price of Redemption in Emmanuel Palo's Sta. Niña 
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Set in the bleak plains of Pampanga, Emmanuel Palo’s Sta. Niña tells the story of Paulino (Coco Martin) who suddenly unearths the coffin of his daughter ten years after her death. Despite the length of time the coffin has been buried, her daughter remains uncorrupted, seemingly miraculously unchanged. Rumors of the marvel start to spread, causing several townspeople, including the province’s sickly governor, to flock Paulino’s house to be cured of their afflictions. More than that, the return of Paulino’s daughter again unravels his sins from the past and his unfinished efforts for redemption.

Palo’s crafting is exquisite. The film is beautifully photographed. The greys of the lahar-covered landscape evoke the very emptiness that confounds the people that manage to make a living despite the sudden desolation brought about by Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption. When the film finally adopts colors, they are quiet and muted, very telling of the despair and the secrets that are supressed by circumstance.

The music is aptly spare and haunting. The film’s pace is unhurried, allowing stretched moments of silence that allow for a clearer communication of many of the film’s more nuanced emotions. The performances of the actors, more specifically Martin, Anita Linda as Paulino’s dementia-afflicted grandmother, and Irma Adlawan as the unforgiving mother of Paulino’s former lover, are especially fine.

However, the biggest triumph of the film is how it clearly portrayed a land and a people wanting of salvation despite the abundance of religion. Palo paints the Pampanga of his film as ridden with fake prophets and empty symbols, where statues and icons are peddled to the ignorantly faithful and every instance of the supernatural would be considered an act of God. He portrays his characters as especially burdened by the weight of religious zeal, more than willing to ride the wave of popular faith to be salvaged from the gravity of errors of the past.

There is actually more to the film than to pinpoint the blatant hypocrisies of the self-proclaimed religious. There is more to it than the overused dynamics of act and practice as displayed in various other films that criticize traditional Catholic rituals because they do not reflect the real religiosity of the people practicing them. The film is made from a perspective that does not hold judgment towards these beliefs and practices. It finds humanity in the very reason why these beliefs and practices exist and persist. Instead, it connects the outward and perhaps sham religiosity of these people with their inward insecurities because of their very own acknowledgment of their own sinful ways.

Sta. Niña depicts sinners suffering so much in such a judgmental world that the sudden appearance of the titular incorruptible saint becomes the only viable escape, and the price they would have to pay for a much-ambitioned redemption. Nothing is more human than survival in a society that is quick to pass guilt and slow to forgive and forget.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Kamera Obskura (2012)

Out of the Camera, into the World in Raymond Red's Kamera Obskura 
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

There are a lot of great ideas swimming in a pool of confusion in Raymond Red’s Kamera Obskura. The film is conceptually sophisticated, more so than the bunch of films like Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist that merely borrowed stereotypical silent film aesthetics for trite nostalgia. Red, in recreating a silent film and dressing that recreated silent film within a storyline of a celebrated discovery of an obscure lost film in an abandoned warehouse, already tackles several very current issues that deserve to be put in the forefront of cultural discourse.

In the first few minutes of the film, Red has legendary archivists Teddy Co, Cesar Hernando and Ricky Orellana debating on the import of their discovery in front of the media. In their excited discussions, they traverse a gamut of intelligent topics from Philippine film history to the dilemmas of film preservation, preserving in the film what would have been limited in private conversations over beer or coffee.

The film concludes with the same kind of discussion by the same people, although this time, their discussions are shielded from the eyes and ears of media. The three scholars, in a darkened screening room where their discovery just finished screening without the missing final reel, begin debating the merits of what they saw and the repercussions of the missing final reel. Hypotheses, educated guesses and opinions are thrown around. Despite that, everything deliciously ends in more confusion than when they began, cinephiles lost in cinematographic concerns. The film’s lack of resolution is remarkable. It expresses the very state of discourse in Philippine cinema, how it is honestly just a lot of babble and issues discussed and re-discussed ad infinitum.

The most painful part of this is that Red’s film is utterly brilliant, at least in concept. It is just that the middle and most important part --- the silent film that urged those three wise men of Philippine cinema to debate endlessly --- is wanting.

The film is tainted by Diwa de Leon’s ludicrous and tyrannical score that both limits and betrays the possibilities of emotions of Red’s undeniably dynamic visuals. The very existence of the musical score betrays the nature of the silent film where music is played live during screenings. The film’s bookends, where the projection of the so-called rediscovered lost film is featured as the framing device for the silent middle part, further negates the need for the scoring. The logical guffaw could just be ignored had De Leon’s score been a mere background, an ornament. However, the score is more damaging than that as it supplants interpretation and emotions with its inherent lack of imagination and subtlety.

Absent the score, the very silent film part itself, shot in digital and made to look like it was shot in film during post, is a mixed bag. The filmmaking process seems to be a brash betrayal of the core concept, but arguments can be raised supporting Red’s choice of filmmaking, especially in this age where film is quickly entering obsolescence.

There are arresting moments, particularly in the opening where Juan (Pen Medina) finds himself trapped in a cell where a single ray of light reveals the world outside, with an imposing building and flying machines all over, upside down, like inside the titular camera obscura. The very idea of that silent film within the film is astounding. By telling the story of Juan who upon his escape from the cell becomes some sort of political hero when a movie camera assimilates with his arm, Red expresses the power of cinema, how it can be used and abused, in the name of money, advocacy or, as the post-credit sequence reveals, the filmmaker himself. Unfortunately, most of the message gets lost in the spectacle and the noise.

Perhaps Red could have spent several more months or years perfecting the crafting of the film. The final product reveals the many compromises Red had to make in order to reach the wide audience that Cinemalaya has earned for itself. These compromises may very well be the culprit of all the disappointments and frustrations with the film. These compromises Red had to make expose the deficiencies of the film festival’s rules and mechanics that surround its film’s production, how its obsolete grants and inhumane deadlines create a culture of hurried filmmaking, turning filmmakers like Red and his compatriots into factories for the admittedly lofty goal of reaching to the festival’s captive market that promises the possibility of an audience for the their films once freed from the constrictions of a film festival.

A question appears. “Is that lofty goal really worth all the compromises?” Well, only the filmmakers can sincerely answer that.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

The Animals (2012)

Sex, Lies and DSLR in Gino Santos' The Animals 
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

The Animals is a film of many influences, from Boyle to Brillante. Its director, Gino Santos, is after all a fresh film grad who interned for Captive (2012). His eagerness shows. Every trick is bared like there is no tomorrow, or in this particular case, like he has so much to prove. The film risks being stereotypically style over substance. Fortunately, it’s not. While the needless abundance of style turns out to be more of a liability, there’s more to the film than the spectacles that fail to hide the undisciplined editing and incongruent cinematography. With the film, Santos reveals himself to be a filmmaker with a lot of both promise and room to improve on.

Santos opens the film with an awkward aerial view of a posh gated subdivision. He then introduces his crew of upper class brats: enterprising but emotionally inert Jake (Albie Casino, who gives a surprisingly believable performance), his kleptomaniac girlfriend Trina (Dawn Balagot), and her angsty brother Alex (Patrick Sugui). In the midst of excitement over college entrance results, random issues bubble to the surface. Lovers’ quarrels erupt when Jake forgets to inform Trina his admission to all the top universities, causing the confused girl to raise questions about their future when they both graduate from their private high school. For Jake however, the future he’s concerned about is more immediate. He is throwing a party tonight.

The beauty of The Animals lies in the accuracy it depicts a generation. Santos and co-writer Jeff Stelton sprinkle the film with the usual suspects of the troubled youth: the inexplicable consumption of alcohol, the drug use, the violence, the sex, and the betrayals. Then, they lace it with what makes this generation’s conflicts unique: the impatience brought about by the convenience technology offers, the insensitivity to promise brought about by the unabashed display of the adults’ propensity to corruption the growing immensity of the class divide. A click of the mouse fulfils the duties of advertisement. A father casually and jokingly talks of his political dealings over family breakfast. A group of household drivers gang up to gossip about their employers’ embarrassing hedonism.

The most harrowing part of it is that these ills fit within the film’s timeline of just a day without being put-on or too coincidental. It only expresses the extent of how rotten society has gotten, and how the future seems to be hopeless as well.

The Animals is hardly unique in world cinema. Several filmmakers have expressed their concern for the future with works that detail generational divide. Fellini has I Vitelloni. Truffaut has The400 Blows. Kiyoshi Kurosawa has Bright Future. It seems to be a staple for every national cinema to have film that expresses society’s worries about the next generation. What sets Santos’ film apart is that it is not made from the standpoint of the previous generation but from the perspective of somebody who was or is still there.

The Animals is more a confessional than a cautionary tale from an artist who is removed from the milieu he tackles. It was made from both the pleasures and sins of recent memory. That probably fuels the film’s familiarity and energy. The shallowness of the youth masks the very insecurity they naturally possess. Santos bravely expresses the carpe diem John Keating had no guts to warn his students of. Its parting shot, an overburdened glance of the possible repercussions of this youth’s wild abandon, could perhaps be Santos’ harsh farewell to an evolving lifestyle that welcomes ninja parties, drunken nipples over DSLR-improved pixels, and careless ecstasy. In that case, the film is that fitting graduation.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Posas (2012)

Irony-Crafted Shackles in Lawrence Fajardo's Posas (Shackled)
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Lawrence Fajardo’s Posas (Shackled) opens with shots of slogan-bearing stickers tackily pasted on a police van. “To serve and protect,” the weathered sticker boldly declares. A cop, finished from cleaning the van, cheerfully walks into the station to do his rounds, randomly throwing jokes to his fellow cops, readying himself for another day of crime-fighting. The station’s jail is filled to the brim with criminals and other lowlifes, all of whom casually greet their erstwhile nemesis either a good morning or witty retort. It certainly appears the police are doing their job very well.

However, Fajardo’s film does not seek to revere the police. It does the opposite. It attempts to break the propagated myth of the police. It makes use of the most obvious of ironies, juxtaposing slogans and symbols with acts that blatantly betray those symbols’ meanings. In a way, Posas can be considered a brave film. By tackling issues that are normally and traditionally shared through whispered blind items and urban legends, it exposes corruption in the very center of the institution that seeks to eradicate it.

Fajardo manages to craft truly engaging moments in the film. The chase scene between the cops and the pickpocket that has Fajardo’s camera rushing along busy alleyways and tight corridors of rundown buildings is a showcase of formidable directing and editing. In the film’s climax, Fajardo drowns his visuals with a cacophony of sighs, pleas, and other animal sounds, heightening the suspense and terror, and more importantly, breaking the tyranny of real time with something both imaginative and cinematic.

Unfortunately, the film is wanting of the very ingredient that could have rendered its intentions effective. Despite its efforts to viscerally depict the harrowing experiences of petty crooks under the unforgiving hands of their uniformed captors, it still lacks the requisite emotions to complete the circle and to deliver the message fully. While there is anger and frustration, it is only perfunctory to what is happening onscreen. The emotions are limited to the drama that is depicted, reserved only for the characters that get victimized. As a fictionalized exposé, it gets shackled by its narrative method, trapped within the term of the story, unable to break-out, to scream, to raise fists in fury. There is only so much one can witness and experience within a day in the life, no matter how conveniently plotted that day is.

That particular day Posas is set in would have a pickpocket (Nico Antonio), uncharacteristically naïve in the police system despite being very crafty in his thievery, steal an expensive cellular phone, get chased in the crowd, suffer police brutality, tearfully plead with his mother, get dragged through the initial stages of criminal prosecution, get educated about the loopholes of the country’s criminal laws that would allow him to be released but with particularly terrifying repercussions. The story is designed specifically to pinpoint the wrongs of the system. There is simply no room for subtlety. Yet, with all its intentions to shock and alarm, the film still feels timid, inert and benign. There is just that inexplicable disconnect that prevents the material from transcending the boundaries set by its chosen form and framework.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dolphy's Last Hurrahs

Dolphy's Last Hurrahs
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

In 2000, Dolphy played Walter Dempster, Jr., more popularly known as Walterina Markova, as an old man in Gil Portes’ Markova: Comfort Gay. His sons, Jeffrey and Eric, played Markova in his younger years. It is a lovely performance, one that I thought quenched the film’s chronic thirst for levity. What is most striking about Dolphy’s turn as the elder Markova, still fabulous despite or probably because of his being holed up in a retirement home designed for geriatric gays, is that it signalled the comedian’s twilight.

He was no longer Facifica Falayfay, the exuberant crossdresser who caused parades of laughter. He was no longer John, the hardworking husband of Marsha, who represented every Filipino’s humorous struggle to survive honourably. He was no longer Kevin Cosme, the proud father of Bill, Bob, Bing and Baldo, who kept his family intact despite the daily threats of the rampaging train, and the hourly problems every family man has to face. The impossible has happened. Dolphy has gotten old. He now has a lifetime of lessons to impart. He has turned into the Philippines’ favourite grandfather.

Sure, He did a couple more sitcoms and shows for ABS-CBN. There was Home Along the Airport, an attempt to revive the Kevin Cosme franchise. There’s also John and Shirley, an attempt to revive the John Paruntong franchise. However, it seems the market has changed. The barrage of fantaseryes, telenovelas, and reality-based television shows has nurtured an audience that did not respond to comedies and sitcoms that very well. Comedies were best served in tiny morsels, in the form of sketches and occasional jokes. Sadly, the shorter, the safer, the more profitable.

Because of that and his health, Dolphy worked less. He became more of a beacon than the celebrity in its traditional sense. He symbolized pure entertainment. Each and every ad of ABS-CBN would have Dolphy smiling relentlessly and invitingly, almost certifying the nobility of the network, no matter what the public may think. He just had so much goodwill, he was willing to share it, to networks, to friends who ventured into politics, to whoever may need it. The generosity he was known for throughout the prime of his career extended even further. He quietly fostered charitable foundations, providing more than smiles but sustenance to the masses who supported him the most.

Dolphy made five films after Markova: Comfort Gay. In 2002, he starred in Home Along the Riber, directed by his son, Eric. The title obviously mined the popularity of one of his most famous sitcoms. Home Along the Riber had Dolphy partnered with the last of his many loves, ZsaZsa Padilla. In the film, Dolphy played a variant of Kevin Cosme, only this time, he advocated environmental protection, telling his usual jokes while brandishing audience-friendly lessons on how to keep the surroundings clean for future generations.

In 2008, Dolphy played guru to Vic Sotto in Dobol Trobol: Let’s Get Redi 2 Rambol (2008), directed by Sotto’s favourite director, Tony Y. Reyes. While Sotto is a formidable comedian himself, the film makes apparent the ease Dolphy does his comedy. Dolphy makes replayed old jokes fresh. It’s a sloppy film but there’s something truly memorable in the way Dolphy shares his stage, never overextending his humor to overshadow the talents of his partner. One can only reminisce on the numerous duos Dolphy was part of.

Perhaps the most ambitious of Dolphy’s later works is Eric Quizon’s Nobody Nobody but Juan (2009). The title references to the Korean dance song that became so popular during the film’s release. The film, unlike many of Dolphy’s films, was not a series of jokes weaved together by a flimsy plot. It actually had a brilliant idea in its core. Dolphy played a patient in an American convalescent home whose only connection with the Philippines is Willie Revillame’s noontime gameshow. Through his clever machinations, he finds himself back in the Philippines, desirous to be part of his favorite show. However, he bumps into pals from a very distant past, played by Eddie Garcia and Pokwang, which forces him to resurrect a former romance. Unfortunately, the film’s execution was less ambitious, resulting in a film that again relied too heavily on the goodwill of Dolphy to succeed.

Father Jejemon (2010) is Dolphy’s final starrer. It also gave Dolphy his final controversy. In the film, the comedian plays a parish priest who finds himself at odds with a local land baron. Like most of Dolphy’s comedies, the plot only serves as a frame for the legendary funnyman’s antics, the best of which involving Fr. Jejemon’s clumsy hands, a host, and a pair of bountiful breasts had humorless Catholics rabidly denouncing the film as sacrilegious. However, one cannot deny that this is truly Dolphy, finding humor in the most unlikely of places and to resist it is simply to resist humanity.

Simply put, no matter what one thinks of these final films of Dolphy, no matter what one declares the films as ludicrous, ridiculous, and haphazardly done, one cannot simply deny that they were mounted to make people laugh, and they did.

In Albert Martinez’s Rosario (2010), Dolphy goes back to his being a beacon, a totem of respect and awe. He plays Hesus, the titular character’s son, who serves as narrator of the film. The comedian retires to tell history, to tell stories of the past, to connect the youngest generation to the ones we may opt to forget. Like children eager for adventures and love stories, we surround Dolphy, waiting to laugh, to cry, to imagine a world back then when all that mattered was happiness.

No, Rodolfo Vera Quizon was not only husband to his various loves, father to the many children he supported, and grandfather to the children of his children, he was the nation’s spouse, father, and grandfather. We can only mourn for him the way we mourn for the closest of our relatives. Through his art and his nature, he has become that much part of us.

(First published in Supreme, Philippine Star, 14 July 2012..)

Thursday, July 05, 2012

MNL 143 (2012)

MNL 143 (Emerson Reyes, 2012)

Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 is not a film one would consider ambitious in the ordinary sense of the term. It does not feature a sprawling story that is set in places that promise pomp and wonderment. At first glance, it can be seen as slight and inconsequential, especially to a film-going generation that is as addicted to social and political issues as a junkie is to crystal meth. It mostly details the random experiences and encounters of Ramil (perfectly played by Allan Paule), a minivan driver on his final trip before leaving Manila to become one of the millions of overseas workers in the Middle East.

The failed romance of its plebeian protagonist, who plies the streets of Manila in the hope that the ex he has been searching for several years would end up as a passenger of his taxi, is the nearly-not-there plot. Much of the film relies on the various little stories, the ones suddenly initiated as passengers hop into Ramil’s overworked minivan and abruptly ended as they alight and head out wherever.

Reyes is a filmmaker who is constantly intrigued by space, by the lack of it, and by that lack’s effects on the space’s occupiers. In Walang Katapusang Kwarto (An The Endless Room, 2011), he shoots his characters, a couple enjoying a post-coitus conversation, in extreme close-up, his actors’ faces filling up the entire frame. Through their consistently humorous discussions and the brilliantly executed sound device, the very limited space that Reyes visualizes is expanded, giving an overview the private lives of their neighbors that are both exhilarating and sinful to indulge in. With the short, Reyes has created a voyeuristic work that craftily portrays voyeurs.

MNL 143 expands that endless room of his earlier short, covering the cramped space of Ramil’s van as it travels the impossibly wide space that is Manila. His aptly suffocating visuals approximates the experience of the daily Manila commute, where one temporarily sacrifices his personal and private spaces for the ease of transportation. The commuters more than bump body parts, they actually involuntarily share their own life stories, although fleetingly, through the not-so-hidden text messages they compose and send to their loved ones or the gestures or the futilely whispered conversations, to strangers. Reyes’ film summarizes that tyranny of urban living, the forced social interactions, the scarceness of privacy, the paradoxes, and the ironies, that exist because of the precious conveniences of the city.

The film rightfully lacks urgency. It is relaxed and bathed with levity. Traditionally important issues that have become the stereotyped topics of the so-called Filipino indie like corruption in the government, extreme poverty or religious hypocrisy are portrayed by Reyes as unavoidable everyday matters, as necessary parts of the daily grind. They are not the sensationalized spectacles or soulless theses of the film’s more didactic counterparts. Yet Reyes, through this very observant portraiture of the typical Manila commute, exposes a social ill. He reveals either society’s festering insensitivity to institutional evils, allowing them to freely exist in public with only outward hints of disapproval, or the Filipino’s tendency to adapt to grime and dirt with smiles and humor.

MNL 143 is courageous in a way that it abandons traditional storytelling, allowing only the fragile mood of Ramil’s quixotic quest to resurrect a romance to thread things together. It is a picture enveloped by hope. It skirts big moments for subtlety and suggestions. The drama it offers is limited to the occasional surges of emotions that a man on the brink of giving up expresses, like in the arrestingly honest scene where Ramil reacts with a wordless but tearful confessional after hearing a love song on the radio. The roughness of the film, the ambient noise and the glaring imperfections serendipitously meld with the chaos of the city that becomes Reyes’ canvass for his heartfelt snapshot of city life.

MNL 143 betrays that very voyeuristic aspect of cinema; of allowing us viewers to invade spectate on the lives of fictional or real characters to quench our thirst for escape. Instead, its fractions of stories are but glimpses of the people we may never understand and whose stories will never conveniently unravel in front of us. Ramil’s love story may have begun again or it may have finally found its closure. We will never know, but Reyes at least allows us to be hopeful. In the end however, like Ramil, like the lover he wishes to be reunited with, like the foul-mouthed Catholic, like the amateur filmmakers who are all victims and perpetrators of the forced vices of the Manila commute, we can only be left delightfully in the dark of the lives of the characters outside the taxi. The film closes in an optimistic but still enigmatic note, leaving behind abandoned punch lines, lovely ambiguities, and meaningful mysteries.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Mario O'Hara (1946-2012)

The Great O'Hara
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

He was seated in front of us, inside one of the many rooms in the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Mario O’Hara, respected writer of most of Lino Brocka’s greatest works, inimitable director of such classics like Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years without God, 1976) and Fatima Buen Story (1994), outstanding thespian, and arguably one of the most important figures in Philippine cinema, was there in front of us, convincing us to greenlight his next film entitled Henerala. I was then part of the committee that gave grants to filmmakers wanting to make films, and I was ashamed to be in the unjust position of listening to the great O’Hara explain why his proposal would make a good film. I was already convinced then. Henerala could have been a masterpiece, the one film that painted heroic Gabriela Silang, always seen angry while mounted on her even angrier steed, as a sensual human being who was horny for and madly in love with Diego. Still, there I was, listening to him as he animatedly serenaded us of what the film that would now never be made could have been.

The great O’Hara was taken from us too soon. At age 68, while the entire country was steadfastly praying for Dolphy, he quietly said farewell. It is quite amazing how he died the same way he magnanimously lived his life, just there, quiet in the background. While Lino Brocka was being praised everywhere, while Nora Aunor was amassing legions of fans, O’Hara, an Adamson drop-out in a country that was dazzled by the liberal geniuses of the State University and the conservative wisdom of Ateneo, was just humbly working, churning out masterpieces after masterpieces without hardly a sense of the acclaim those masterpieces could have garnered for him. Sure, he was championed and earned the respect that he deserved. However, he never became a celebrity, or even a figurehead. He did not need it. He only needed to work.

His films are never personal visions. They never felt trapped in a world that he and the people who knew him inhabited. His films were either artful crowd-pleasers or relatable art pieces. They evolved whenever the audience or the market evolved. In the 70’s and 80’s, when the Philippines was busy struggling under the dictatorship, he wrote Insiang (1976) and directed Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) that showed a world of characters that struggled even harder. In the 90’s, when the only films that could compete with Hollywood were children’s fantasies and soft pornography, he gave us Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty (1994), Manananggal in Manila (Monster in Manila, 1997), and Sisa (1999), which featured a Sisa who had breasts the size of melons.

He made Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003), which brought the Philippines again to Cannes after decades of absence. Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, 2010) had him experimenting with digital cinematography and the result was more than exhilarating. When the country decided to leave the cinemas for the comforts of their homes, he directed Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011), a television series that not only heralded Aunor’s return to Philippine showbusiness but also showcased the artistic capabilities of Philippine television most local networks could ever imagine because they are too busy being pandering to the stupidity they have cultivated.

The characters that O’Hara wrote and gave life to are never heroes or villains, they were imperfect human beings victimized by circumstance. The Japanese soldier who raped a village girl of Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is capable of real love. The baby-faced killer of Bagong Hari graduates from his violent encounters as a hero. The leper he played in Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You were Weighed but Found Wanting, 1974) is the film’s most tragically human figure. The unfortunate dwellers of the Breakwater in Babae sa Breakwater had joie de vivre the most fortunate of us can't never even imagine. The courageous founder of the Katipunan in Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio had the humanity to cry and beg for his life.

O’Hara’s astute understanding of our collective imperfections is laudable. He had no qualms in breaking perceptions, in defying conventions, in shocking conservative sensibilities, to point out that the weaknesses that are only part and parcel of our being only made in the likeness of God are not something to be masked or hidden but exposed and expressed in film and fiction.

After his pitch, O’Hara said his farewell and uneventfully exited the room. I could not help it. I had to excuse myself. Like a rabid fan, I rushed towards O’Hara and awkwardly attempted to start a conversation. “Hi Mario, I am a big fan. I thought Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio is absolutely great.” That was all I could say. In my mind, I wanted to probe his creative processes, I wanted to ask so many questions, I wanted to die out of sheer embarrassment of being put in a position a few minutes ago that I could never imagine I deserve, but sadly, those short and uncreatively constructed sentences were all that my brain could process to deliver to my mouth. He embarrassedly laughed and politely said thank you. He then asked me where the nearest restroom was. I pointed him towards the one beside the gift shop. He again smiled at me and whisked towards the restroom. I excitedly returned to the one of the many rooms in the Cultural Center of the Philippines, ready to hear out a dozen more pitches. Henerala would eventually get the greenlight, but because of lack of investors, he could not make it. I guess we just live in such an unjust, unfair world.

Mario O’Hara had to pee. He also had to die. He was human after all. In fact, there was so much humanity in him, his works radiate with it.

(First published in Supreme, Philippine Star, 30 June 2012..)