Monday, October 21, 2013

Alagwa (2012)

Alagwa (Ian Lorenos, 2013)
English Title: Breakaway

Inspired by an urban legend about kidnappers targeting children to be turned into beggars, Ian Lorenos’ Alagwa (Breakaway) tells the story of Robert (Jericho Rosales) and Brian (Bugoy Carino), his son. The film opens with Robert and Brian shopping inside a mall. Brian wanders off, attracted by the various toys being peddled. Seeing that his son is missing, Robert searches the mall, seeing Brian playing with the toys. He pulls away his son from the toys and scolds him, warning him of the syndicates that kidnap children to use them as beggars.

The relationship between Robert and Brian is one that is far from ideal. Robert works as a salesman, struggling to survive within the normally wealthy Filipino-Chinese community with only the meager commissions he earns. Brian reaps the effects of his father’s position in their community’s pecking order. Constantly bullied in his school because of his paltry lot in life, he performs very poorly and is often disciplined for fighting his schoolmates. There seems to be a quiet understanding between them. Although seldom expressed, gestures are shown, signalling affectations both of them hesitate to openly give to each other.

Lorenos does not hide the tragedy that will befall both father and son. In between moments that subtly express the preciousness of their relationship amidst the struggles, Lorenos fast-forwards, showing scenes where Robert is seen searching the streets of Hong Kong for his missing son. The inevitability of separation is absolutely heart-breaking. The film cleverly builds up the tension, juxtaposing sequences of desperation, frustration and loneliness with ones that are bursting with the wonderful chaos of togetherness.

Midway, the film suddenly transforms from a quaint and deliberate portrait of a relationship that is doomed to woe into an unhinged descent down Manila’s secret sinful underbellies, complete with an apartment building populated with drug addicts, lowlifes, and children waiting to be exported to Hong Kong. The kidnapping happens, turning Robert’s cynical father into an impromptu action hero who, within a few nights, crosses paths with abusive pedophiles, inutile cops, and penitent pimps. The unexpected deviation, more an exploration of a father’s desperation than an inability for Lorenos to contain his imagination, only foreshadows the impeccable emotional impact of the film’s ending.

The ending is in fact the film’s starkest contrivance. It is also its crowning glory. With a prolonged embrace, sobs, tears, and an indelible look on Robert’s face that reflects a flurry of heightened emotions ranging from relief to sadness, Alagwa ends without regard to subtlety, and rightfully so. There are moments that deserve silence. The film however deserves such an impassioned bow, one that would drown all the noise and doubts with unstoppable bursts of very well-earned tears.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

La última película (2013)

La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson, 2013)

The year 2012 was for most of humanity a waiting game. The Mayans predicted the world’s end. Riots sprouted. Floods happened. Scandals erupted. It seemed the Mayans spoke true, but there was still no assurance that the world was on the verge of its own demise. Amidst the chaos produced by the world’s hesitation to die, film was quietly performing its own disappearing trick. There were debates. Self-proclaimed vanguards of the cinematic arts were busy looking forward, confident of the continuation of the business despite the business’ abandonment of its first medium. The rest, those oblivious to the business of movie-making, were subsisting on throes of nostalgia, scrambling for the last remaining reels of film and creating very personal odes to celluloid, on celluloid.

The apocalypse happened. We were there to witness it. Film cameras were no longer being made. Analog projectors were no longer being used. Raya Martin, who stubbornly made films in celluloid when his comrades were shooting in digital, and Mark Peranson, editor of Cinema Scope, had the best view of cataclysm. In La última película, an impeccable collaboration between the two very outspoken cinephiles, they are seen viewing the apocalypse. Images of rampaging meteors and fiery explosions are superimposed on a peacefully starless night sky. Despite the spectacle, the two are quite withdrawn. It’s just another show.

La última película, for all its brash self-consciousness, is neither nostalgic nor dismissive of that foregone era. It masks its melancholy with sarcasm, bleeding incessantly from the antics and bickerings of a filmmaker (Alex Ross Perry) and his Mexican guide (Gabino Rodriguez), who are in Yucatan to scout locations for what is planned to be the last film ever made.

When melancholy manages to escape the clutches of Martin and Peranson’s intellectual comedy, the pay-off is quite tremendous. The film within the film shows a woman visiting a departed loved one in the cemetery. She is singing a mournful song. What follows is a montage of random everyday oddities, all shot in celluloid, all beautifully textured. The sombre montage gives way to an abrupt change. We now see Martin and Peranson’s film crew in high definition digital, shooting the film within the film. Peranson asks Gym Lumbera, his cinematographer, a question about shooting in celluloid. Lumbera then relates how he is certain that the film camera has stopped recording. He can hear it recording. Filmmaking has become too dolefully quiet.

It all seems chaotic. La última película switches from one medium to another, seemingly without rhyme or reason. The images from the various media, edited together exposing their individual merits and faults, can either incite further or end the debate that has been hounding the film community since digital started replacing celluloid. While the film is quiet towards its biases, it nevertheless feels like film’s rightful valediction.

La última película elucidates the flurry of emotions surrounding what was the cinematic apocalypse. It is best viewed as a relic from a recent past, a foregone era, an enigmatic museum piece. It is that bewildering but very enjoyable artifact of how all the talk on the state of cinema has become so absurdly serious and seriously absurd. With a wondrous marriage of self-importance and self-irreverence, La última película succeeds in being everything it sets out to be, an often frustrating but always joyous celebration of cinema.

In La última película’s final scene, shot in red-tinted celluloid tinted, Perry’s fervent filmmaker rows a boat down an anonymous river. Martin, who has experimented with the physical aspect of film and as a result produced works of astounding and profound ingenuity like Ars Colonia (where a conquistador’s exploration of a new land literally explodes with marker pen-colored fireworks), again does with film what otherwise cannot be done with pixels. The red hue slowly consumes the entire frame, leaving only indiscernible traces of the filmmaker in a sea of crimson. What eventually surfaces is something else, something reminiscent of what Martin and Peranson were looking at in the night sky. Meteorites are falling. This is the apocalypse. And the apocalypse is just beautiful.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, October 07, 2013

Hello, World (2013)

Hello, World (Joel Ferrer, 2013)

We all were once invincible. High with puberty, we were indestructible with our first time sexual encounters, super secret crushes, and truckloads of alcohol. We talked with flair, mouthing fad words that are strange to adult ears. We walked with a peculiar bounce, carrying an imaginary heft while displaying our newly minted moustaches and Adam’s Apples. Then adulthood happened. After several years of discovering our meager places in the largely frustrating adult world, we conjured something called nostalgia. Nostalgia momentarily brought us back to that time when we all were invincible. Only now, armed with the realities of the world, the past was something as silly as a standard sitcom.

Joel Ferrer’s Hello, World is bursting with nostalgia. It examines the typical and uneventful coming-of-age of two high school graduates from the perspective of an adult who has been there and has done all that. Unabashed in its portrayal of the normal teenager’s angst and arrogance as both awkward and funny, the film seems to have a feel of being told straight out of the very selective memory of someone whose journey to being an adult is as ordinary as anybody else’s. Weeded out are the dull moments where nothing absolutely happens. What remains are the hilarious anecdotes, the brash exaggerations, the brags, and the gentle lessons in life.

Jeff (Victor Medina) and Johann (Philip Quintos) have been best friends since they were kids. After high school, both are left with decisions that would mark their lives forever. Jeff is to migrate to the United States with his mother, leaving behind all his memories of the Philippines and more importantly, Annie (Maria Francesca Lim), his secret crush and twin sister of Johann. Johann, armed with one-and-a-half sexual encounters with his more mature girlfriend (Ginny Palma), wants to skip college and relax. A summer full of wild experiences with Jeff’s comically liberated aunt (Trixie Dauz) and Johann’s too-good-to-be-true rival (Reuben Uy) for his best friend and girlfriend’s attention seems to be the only cure to their nagging dilemma.

Candidness is the film’s strength. Hello, World is undaunted by any need to be anything more than it is. It sees in its wackiness an openness to define youth as but a playground. Adolescence is therefore the final five minutes in the playground, where all reason and good behavior are quickly thrown aside for those last precious moments of fun and irresponsibility. Ferrer indulges in the absurdity that a rapidly fleeting youth can only provide. His film is consistently funny with its sketches of teenagers desperately clinging to the freedoms of childhood while slowly creeping into the seriousness of adult life.

Candidness, however, is also the film’s weakness. There is too much of it for comedy’s sake, and too little for anything else. Inconsistent crafting is actually the least of its problems. In its efforts to be unreasonably zany, it forgets to plant a heart. The spoofs are undoubtedly plenty. Most of them are genuinely effective. When Ferrer however attempts to more than funny, when he finally decides to give his waylaid teenagers a taste of being riddled with grown up problems, the weight of all the foolishness he has so cleverly and wittily written seems to be too difficult to set aside. For all the joy and laughter Ferrer brings into his portrait of teenage life, he neglects the emotional heft of leaving it. Despite sincere attempts, Hello, World seems to be unable to graduate from being anything more than a caricature of memories.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Sana Dati (2013)

Sana Dati (Jerrold Tarog, 2013)
English Title: If Only

Jerrold Tarog has been exposing the hard truths behind the Philippines’ greatest preoccupations, politics and family. Through characters whose jobs are related to cameras, Tarog destroys myths that have misled Filipinos into a distorted sense of comfort. In Confessional (2007), a documentary filmmaker accidentally stumbles upon a corrupt mayor. The mayor then confesses all his sins on video, lecturing the filmmaker of the fallacy of the Philippines so-called nationhood. In Mangatyanan (The Blood Trail, 2009), an awarded photographer struggles with the nagging influence of her father, who is also an esteemed photographer. In her attempt to take pictures of a rare ritual of a dying tribe, she learns to accept the sins her father has committed against her which effectively ripped their family apart.

Tarog caps his Camera Trilogy with Sana Dati (If Only). Love, probably the most potent diversion for Filipinos, is Tarog’s target. With an appetite for movies that extol the triumph of love and songs that glorify the sacrifices for true love, Filipinos have found the perfect escape for their everyday troubles. Amidst enduring concerns about the state of the nation and the needs of the family, love, corny as it sounds, will keep us alive. However, the love that is celebrated by Filipinos is one that has been defined by winners, by those who have found their happy endings, by those who have lived or died intoxicated by romance’s distinct pleasures. Love, in the form that most the nation appreciates it, is nothing more than a hallucinogenic drug.

The cameraman in Sana Dati is Dennis (Paulo Avelino), a novice wedding videographer serendipitously hired to cover the wedding of Andrea (Lovi Poe), the last love of his older brother Andrew (Benjamin Alves). Andrea wed Robert (TJ Trinidad), a failed politician-turned-businessman she met during an election campaign. Through Andrea, Dennis finally understands the reason behind his brother’s sudden decision to leave their family. Through Dennis, Andrea discovers another way to relive the perfect love that was abruptly terminated by fate’s cruelty.

Love has always been defined by winners. The greatest lovers are those who lived content with it or died inspired by it. Sana Dati is not a film about winners. It is not about the fictional poet, named after Spanish director Julio Medem, who wrote the most beautiful verses about the feeling of being in love prior to dying. It is not about Andrew, who like fictional Medem, died with a heart overflowing with love. The heart of Sana Dati lies with the losers, the ones we tend to forget when the most intense statements about love have already been declared. It is about Andrea, whose life goes on despite the tragedy of her one true love perishing. It is about Dennis, who is about to marry a girl who does not love him. It is about Andrew, who stirs trouble in somebody else’s romantic affairs.

Sana Dati, on its surface, is a very affecting romance. Tarog, who not only directed but also wrote, edited, and scored the film, is obviously in control. Although seemingly unburdened by any need to be relevant, Tarog nevertheless experiments with structure, not for the sake of needlessly complicating his story but to inject into the film a certain rhythm that effortlessly enunciates emotions.

Opening with an ingenious proposal by Andrew to Andrea, the film immediately cuts to the day of a wedding. Dennis is introduced, carrying into the hotel various camera equipment he barely knows how to use. He finally arrives in Andrea’s room, where he proceeds to interview her, throwing questions about her love for Robert. Andrea directly answers the questions, her eyes avoiding the camera. Dennis does the same for Robert. Robert answers the questions, with his eyes directly upon the camera. Tarog peppers Sana Dati with these details that invite interpretation.

The gestures of his characters are never empty. A cigarette butt absentmindedly thrown by Dennis from the hotel’s window lands on Robert’s collar. Andrea’s wedding vows is swept by the wind, creating a shadow for Robert to be signalled of her presence in the rooftop. Fate, the primary cause for lovers to have their happy endings in many unforgettable romances, is also an active participant here. The only difference is that in Sana Dati, fate intervenes for sobriety from what essentially is an unrealistic perspective on love.

Sana Dati ends in consolation. There are no grand tragedies, except perhaps the tragedy of having to spend a lifetime with someone you still have to learn to love. There are no dignified exclamations about the power of love, except perhaps the proclamation that moving on and settling for are also valid love stories. Tarog gently shatters the myth of love with subtle sentiment. With his completed trilogy, he sends us back to Earth, armed not with illusions and aphrodisiacs but with grounding realities, as can only be seen and recorded through the unbiased lens of a camera.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)