Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Debosyon (2013)

Debosyon (Alvin Yapan, 2013)
English Title: Devotion

Alvin Yapan’s films have always been influenced by his being both a literature professor and a writer of short stories. They are never empty vessels of creatively plotted stories that are heavily embellished by cinematic techniques and visuals. His films’ charm relies heavily on the fact that the stories are never just stories. They are intelligent observations on gender politics, as in Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (Dance of Two Left Feet, 2011), where a gay love story houses feminist intentions, or in Gayuma (Pilgrim Lovers, 2010), a romance whose two halves articulate love and longing from the perspectives of both genders, and on economic history and Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe (The Rapture of Fe, 2009), a supernatural tale where the various inadequacies of the Philippines’ economic growth are represented by various inadequate male characters.

Debosyon (Devotion) is Yapan’s visually sumptuous observation on cultural and religious phenomena. In the film, he frames his explorations within the strangest of romance, one between a young man and a creature of mythology. Mando (Paulo Avelino) is a fervent devotee of the Lady of Penafrancia, a wooden Marian statue that is famed for the miracles it grants to its devotees. While searching the forest for orchids, he chances upon a solitary flower on top of a tree. He falls while attempting to get the flower. He wakes up to Salome (Mara Lopez), a mysterious woman who lives alone inside a hut in the middle of the forest, who nurses him back to health. They fall in love, only to be hindered by Salome’s revelation, one that shakes Mando’s religious devotion to its core.

Yapan tells the story with admirable patience, allowing his story to really take root in the landscape that features very heavily in his elegant visuals. The forest where Mando meets Salome is a character itself. Its trees bleed when axed. Deep in its heart is a pond pristine enough to wash the gravest of doubts. From its hills, one can see the perfect but solitary Mayon volcano, an image of absolute beauty and loneliness amidst plains and farmlands. Yapan understands the topography of Bicol. His narrative makes use of it in a way that it is intertwined with the romance and the mysticism. The beauty of the film is not intended to simply be pleasurable to tired eyes. It is meant to enamour, to give a semblance of the irresistible allure of the land. It is meant to make one fall desperately in love.

From the geography comes the native songs, the lyrics of which speak of loving desperation or pained longing. Mando sings one of the love songs Salome learns from a previous love as an act of courtship. Struggling to learn the song with only a guitar at hand and Salome’s memory for guidance, the song may very well be an expression of devotion, a pleasant tribute from a mortal to a woman whose beauty is venerated. At another point, Mando is warned by roving rebels of the forest witch that eats the souls of the men who are beholden by her charms. He desperately races to find Salome, presumably to see if the rebels’ warnings are true. In the background, another song is heard, lamenting of the hurts one bears for love. Yapan intelligently places the various songs in the vital points of courtship, directing the viewer to understand and digest the familiar lyrics along and melody within very specific contexts ranging from absolute adoration to enduring doubt.

More than just a love story, Debosyon seems to be an ode to Yapan’s native Bicol. It dissects a psyche that has been cultivated by a distinct landscape and the history that has taken place in it. Its mythologies, its songs, its undying devotion to the image of the Penafrancia idol, are to Yapan’s mind, products of a love affair between its people and the mystical land they live in. Religion hardly matters in the film. It is simply not its point, but just a starting to point to uncover a cultural feature. Yapan seems to be more interested in the psyche that resulted in the religiosity that is as intense and involving as romantic passion. Debosyon is profound allegory, a story that puts in a clear perspective a culture of devotion that is more rooted in a people’s pre-colonial conscience than the actual charms of Catholicism.

Yapan ends Debosyon with a summation of both the love story and the allegory. The lovers make passionate love, Mando heavily caressing the serpentine figure of his unlikely partner. People express their love to the Marian image, their little candlelit boats floating along the banks of a serpentine river. Despite the differences, the two images sit comfortably alongside each other. The country’s unique Catholic practices are but reiterations of a cultural devotion that has been shaped by the forests, the mountains, the rivers. “I saw your eyes in the eyes of the Virgin of Penafrancia,” whispers Mando when asked by Salome about his desire that seems defiant of reason and logic. In a few words, Yapan commits the impossible and marries religious fervor with the most primal of human urges.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Jazz in Love (2013)

Jazz in Love (Baby Ruth Villarama, 2013)

A telephone conversation between Ernesto “Jazz” Tigaldao and his German boyfriend Theo Rutkowski opens Baby Ruth Villarama’s Jazz in Love. As excited words are exchanged, Villarama’s camera lingers heavily on Jazz’s face, examining its longing lines and careful contours, forcing familiarity within the few minutes that are spent to introduce us to a same-sex and Facebook-initiated long distance love affair. By the time the two lovers give each other their respective parting kisses over the phone, Jazz has already become a fully-formed character, a hopelessly enamoured romantic who is on his way to Germany to wed his foreign prince and live his happily-ever-after.

It is not as if adorably optimistic Jazz does not deserve his fairy tale ending. He has studied and learned enough German to pass the required language examinations that would hopefully lead to a fiancé visa. He has survived the whispered curiosities and suspicions of his community, one that endures radio talk shows that disparage homosexual unions in the name of religion and morality. He has suffered through his father’s alcohol-induced coldness and frustrations. Despite the countless challenges, Jazz remains perpetually smiling, seemingly oblivious of the gravity of his love’s challenges.

Jazz in Love has all the makings of a perfect love story. Villarama has carefully placed and presented the foundations of her found fairy tale. She has an overly charming lead with a story marked with conflicts and issues that are relevant in a world of constantly shifting norms and migrations. Early on, Jazz’s route to happiness seems already predestined. He simply needs to pass his German examination, wait for Theo’s arrival, and be brought to Germany to live their expected perfect lives. However, as bits and pieces of Jazz’s life are revealed through impressions and anecdotes from his friends and relatives, it becomes apparent that there is something else quietly simmering beneath the infectious smiles and flirtatious retorts.

Theo does arrive. However, Jazz seems to be more in love than his partner, a rather pragmatic fifty-plus year old military staff who admits to surrendering to a life of being single. Their conversations, creatively framed by Villarama and co-cinematographer Dexter dela Pena to maximize available lighting to sentimental effect, are made lively mostly by Jazz’s undeniable attraction to Theo. The sparks though are momentary, replaced almost immediately by doubts and suspicions. In the midst of all their plans to legitimize their union, Jazz’s father is still cold and frustrated, drowning himself with liquor if and when the opportunity passes. His relatives, who are quick to blame their Filipino upbringing for their traditional morality, are more tolerant of the upcoming wedding than actually happy. Moreover, Theo seems to be more pragmatic than in love in entering into the marriage.

Of course, all these are just inferences and conclusions based on the subtle gestures and dialogues as captured and pieced together by Villarama. An entire relationship, despite its cyber beginnings and the haziness of its end, cannot truly be summarized within the scope of a documentary that also takes into consideration the filmmaker’s leanings and biases. Villarama has probably started Jazz in Love as something sweeter, something that will showcase love beyond borders, languages, and outdated prejudices. The limitations of documenting simply what unreliable fate chooses to do with Jazz’s life within a very short span has given her footage that showcases exactly the opposite, that despite the numerous pleasures that love can give, it forces us to be both blind and numb to its faults and deficiencies. Villarama, sensitive but unflinching in her presentation of the realities she has uncovered, gives impassioned Jazz both the respect and adoration to grant him that sheen of fantasy to his objectively imperfect romance.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tuhog (2013)

Tuhog (Veronica Velasco, 2013)
English Translation: Skewered

Veronica Velasco has always found humor in the cruelty of fate. Her films have always been grounded on premises where an act of fate results in absurd and sometimes torturous scenarios that test the limits of humanity.

In I Do (2010), the dream wedding of two teens is constantly delayed by occurrences beyond their control, pitting their youthful love against youthful impatience. In Last Supper No. 3 (2009), a props-man turns into the butt of an overextended joke when he misplaces a wall décor he borrowed from an opportunistic family for an ad campaign, forcing him to experience the frustrating inanities of the Philippine judicial system. In Maling Akala (2007), which Velasco co-directed with Pablo Biglangawa, a chance meeting between two strangers results in a set-up that would hint of a budding romance that turns out to be nothing but an erroneous assumption. Velsaco and Biglangawa’s first feature, Inang Yaya (Mother Nanny, 2006), an emergency forces a nanny to choose between being a mother to her estranged daughter and a nanny to her ward.

Tuhog is spawned from that same obsession with fate’s cruelty. This time, the cruelty approaches the macabre, with three random strangers getting impaled by a steel pole when their passenger bus figures in a freak accident. The absurd situation the three find themselves in is that they are now faced with an even crueller responsibility of choosing who among them would have to perish to save the lives of the other two. The rationale for the need to choose is borne out of writer’s conceit: there are only two operating rooms in the hospital, leaving the unlucky unattended victim to simply bleed and suffer to death.

Velasco and co-writer Laurel quickly abandon the morbid image of skewered strangers in an ill-equipped emergency room to explore the three lives that through a twist of fate have become the subjects of a debate of life’s worth. Tonio (Leo Martinez) is a recent retiree who now finds himself either arguing endlessly with his adult children or reminiscing youth with his best friends over games of cards. His only hope from what seems to be a deadened existence is his sudden dream to put up a bakery. Fiesta (Eugene Domingo) is the toughened conductor of a passenger bus. Her hardened front, a result of having live with her alcoholic and suicidal father, is softened when Nato (Jake Cuenca), her replacement driver who has just recovered from a recent break-up, expresses his love for her. Caloy (Enchong Dee), a student who is far too concerned with his hormones to take his studies seriously, is in a long distance relationship his girlfriend. Having contented himself with the passing pleasures of daydreaming and online flirting in an effort to preserve his virginity for their upcoming anniversary, he now has to face the possibility that his girlfriend has already been sleeping around behind his back.

Beyond the mostly clever writing that rarely feels false or forced, there is also something humorously brutal in the way Velasco and Laurel fashion the three stories with linings of hope and forgiveness only to have them be abruptly suspended with the impalement. There is always that threat that death or some sort of sudden conclusion is just looming around, waiting to foil a life plan, to block a resolution, or to douse a passion.

Unfortunately and perhaps because there are limitations as to what is tolerable in commercial filmmaking, Tuhog never really embraces the darkness that could have complemented its gruesome center-piece. There is very little interaction among the suddenly conjoined victims, considering that their dilemma is one that would naturally excite the demons of self-preservation. Instead, it settles for obvious life lessons, as bluntly mouthed in the film's hurried end by its unnecessary mascot, a destitute drummer boy who every now and then appears in the film to vengefully predict death.

Still, Tuhog is something to behold within the context of a mainstream cinema that shuns experimentation and adventurism. Through convictions and compromises, Velasco and Laurel have come up with a film that successfully bridges the gap between smart and sentimental, eccentric and emotional, quirky and conventional.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Four Sisters and a Wedding (2013)

Four Sisters and a Wedding (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2013)

Predictably, Four Sisters and a Wedding is plagued with all the deficiencies and excesses of a movie that caters to the masses. It suffers from an identity crisis, but that identity crisis is its biggest selling point especially in a country where being all-in-one is a virtue and a movie that offers tears, laughs, and lessons is a prized commodity. Four Sisters and a Wedding is adamantly a comedy, one that uses in unbridled exaggerations and popular wit to earn chuckles. Along the way, it suddenly transforms itself into a drama, with each of the movie’s multiple characters getting their fair share of profusely teary expositions. At the end of the movie, everything is wrapped up almost too neatly and easily with just mouthfuls of motherhood statements that render all issues and conflicts resolved.

Also predictably, it is that trait of Four Sisters and a Wedding that would be targeted by detractors. The movie’s insistence to remain within the borders of a cinema that is stubbornly safe for the purpose of commercialism is considered its downfall. Because it aspires to appeal to the majority, its story clunks with unnecessary heft and it confuses with its inconsistent mood and temperament. However, to simply dismiss the movie for its intention to comfortably exist in a market that knows fully well what it wants is short-sighted.

The Salazar sisters (Toni Gonzaga, Bea Alonzo, Angel Locsin and Shaina Magdayao) have been living their lives, connected only by occasional phone calls, until the sudden upcoming wedding of their youngest brother (Enchong Dee) forces them to reunite and join forces for what they think is the good of their family. As it turns out, the Bayags, the family which the youngest Salazar is marrying into, are as tactless as they are wealthy, convincing the sisters to plan together to dissuade their beloved brother from continuing the wedding. From a story by Jose Javier Reyes, whose works are almost always inspired by his sharp commentaries on Filipino middle class faults and aspirations, the screenplay written by Vanessa Valdez manages to simplify and meld various Filipino experiences into a package that is amiable enough.

For what it’s worth, within what may be considered a genre of Philippine escapist cinema that is mostly produced by mainstream studios, Four Sisters and a Wedding is actually quite remarkable. Its indulgent comedy parts are mostly hilarious, its extensively dramatic climax, moving. Director Cathy Garcia-Molina fulfills the requirements of commercial movie-making, balancing the vulgarity and tactlessness that draws laughter and tears with some semblance of predictability with some elegance and restraint, as may become necessary.

It is the movie’s disarming earnestness that is truly admirable. At one point, the sisters suddenly tearfully expose their failures and insecurities, probably in defense of their mostly despicable demeanor throughout the movie. Garcia-Molina forgets all notion of subtlety, allowing her actresses, all of whom are brilliant, to emotionally verbalize regrets and apprehensions that most of us would never dare expose. There are simply no pretensions of depth or insight as it specifically targets the heart, coursing its way to it through its familiar tale whose threads and strands seem to be plucked straight from the sometimes joyful and sometimes painful eccentricities of being Filipino.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, July 12, 2013

Before Midnight (2013)

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)

“Still there, still there, still there,” Celine announces while waiting for the sun to disappear behind the mountains. Jesse, her boyfriend for several years after their serendipitous reunion in Paris, is intimately sitting beside her, also waiting for the sun to disappear. Celine speaks the phrases like a prayer. It is as if the phrases were not observations of the sun’s setting, but a fervent wish that something else is still there and has not been lost to the cynicism that familiarity breeds.

In 1995, Richard Linklater conjured a romantic fantasy by having American backpacker Jesse take a stab at spontaneous love by inviting French tourist Celine to an impromptu excursion in Vienna that has to end before sunrise. The night was magical. There were no ridiculous plot devices or grandiose musical themes, just those once-in-a-lifetime conversations about random facets of life as observed through different eyes that glued them together, at least for those few special hours. They ended their love affair with a promise.

In 2004, Linklater visited the couple separated by geography and broken promises. Jesse has just released his book based on the events that took place that fateful night in 1995, and is now in Paris to sign copies. Celine’s in town as well. Their reunion doesn’t have the exhilarating spontaneity of their initial encounter in the train, but the reminiscence of what has happened and what could have happened is too alluring to ignore. They end up in Celine’s humble hovel, listening to music, surrendering to the fairy tale that was a decade in the making.

Less than a decade after, Jesse, as unkempt as he is ancient, finds himself in a Greek airport, saying his farewell to another what-could-have-been. After hopelessly waiting for perhaps a reassuring hand gesture or eye contact from his son, he leaves the building. Romantic music deceptively plays in the background. Celine, also visibly older, is waiting outside the car. Inside, twins, we presume to be the fruits of the decision they made several years back, are sleeping. Linklater is back at his game. The ride from the airport back to their Grecian home is a treasure trove of banter and insight, of clues as to what has happened within the nine years we left the couple to plot their love story.

However, things are different now. In 1995 and 2004, Jesse and Celine are strangers, excitedly learning about each other. They scrape their lives for whatever secret story or piece of trivia they have left. Bubbling underneath an exterior of flirtatious jokes and other pleasantries are regrets and other things a life already half spent unceremoniously offers. For the first time, Linklater invites us to witness the couple interacting with others --- young lovers discovering the exhilaration of romance in a quickly virtualizing world, a working-class couple who has learned to love the idea of settling for each other’s pleasures and displeasures, and two elderly intellectuals whose varying perceptions on relationships provide both comfort and pain. In the midst of their conversations, Jesse and Celine’s romance loses their uniqueness. It is as if Linklater is preparing the film-viewing world he has molded into believing a fantasy of happily-ever-afters that exists in a cynical world to swallow the pains of seeing the perfect love be rendered imperfect.

The sun disappears. Jesse and Celine end up trapped in a boutique hotel room that forces them to confront each other, without the safety of their twins, their hosts, and the time and distance that used to separate them. The fissures of their discontent were all subtly depicted within that single day. Celine throws a knowing look at Jesse over lunch when certain sensitive topics are touched. Jesse retreats to his accented amorous and humorous declarations of sexual longing when cornered by Celine’s relentless questions. Their expected fight, which is as impassioned as the sweeping promises they used to tell each other, is the heart-breaking evidence that the beloved love story has opened itself to the biting cynicism of our current world.

Linklater has grown up. Jesse and Celine too. The way they see the world has been molded by age and regret. In a country made famous by its ruined edifices that constantly remind the greatness of its past as opposed to the uncertainty of its future, Jesse and Celine are in the brink of seeing their great love be reduced into a piece of history. Great wars of nations have been waged for principles and religion. Jesse and Celine’s war, however, is one that is waged by differences of personalities, of sex, of culture, of everything that was the subject of their laugh-filled debate over a sumptuous Grecian feast. The inevitable truth that is too bitter to swallow is that the heartbreak of seeing the romance fall apart reverberates greater than the sweet promises and expectations that got us drawn to them in the first place.

Jesse makes a last-ditch effort to save everything. In that same seaside café where Celine repeatedly said “still there, still there, still there,” she finds the heart to find truth in the mantra despite the fact that the sun is nowhere to be found. Jesse’s attempt to revive the romance, despite the adorable but passing creativity, is obviously patchwork. There are issues unresolved. From those issues, more fights, probably more vicious than the last one, will be fought. They are now engulfed by reality, just as we all are, with our mercurial moods and relationships. By being brought down to Earth, their love story has taken one big step towards immortality.