Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Quick Change (2013)

Quick Change (Eduardo Roy, Jr., 2013)

Dorina (Mimi Juareza) is a retired entertainer who now plies the streets offering her cheap, quick cosmetic fixes to other transgendered men. Lacking any medical experience, she is nonetheless "doc" to her grateful patients, whose faces are sculpted to look like the glittering faces of popular local celebrities. Her patients then don extravagant and colorful costumes, sashaying on makeshift stages, pretending to be beauty queens with their plastered smiles and generic retorts. At night, Dorina satisfies her boyfriend (Junjun Quintana), a performer in a pageant show that caters to foreign tourists. She then starts to satisfy herself discretely lest she incur the wrath of a boyfriend who prefers not to be reminded of her persisting masculinity.

Eduardo Roy, Jr.'s Quick Change is all about facades. It obsessively dissects the culture of transsexual women, their infatuation with youth and beauty. Seemingly aimless in its meanderings in between the redundant struggles of its fading protagonist, the film attempts to sensitively shed light on the ills of a specific repressed subculture, those that have been masked excessively with thick make-up and fake collagen.

Roy's challenge is obviously enormous. He has chosen to tackle subjects that have often been marginalized or exoticized. Roy attempts to dodge the traps, freeing himself from focusing on the usual themes of discrimination which gives him the opportunity to observe his subjects' conflicts in identity, how they struggle in between being male and female, being religious and morally compromised.

Although Roy would sometimes indulges in the humor that has been stereotyped as part and parcel of what makes transsexuals so irresistible to Philippine popular media, he would nevertheless depict them not as oppressed individuals, but as individuals who have found a certain niche that they have become comfortable to live in. Roy mostly succeeds in his endeavors, betrayed only by the need to frame his grand intentions within a narrative that only attempts a certain degree of subtlety to its obvious didactics.

Roy missteps when, midway, he shifts his focus from his transsexual muses to the actual crime of conducting clandestine cosmetic operations. Quick Change deflates into something quasi-noir, propelled mostly by Roy's compelling depictions of the horrors of makeshift cosmetic surgery than by its advocacy or its narrative force. Thankfully, the film is consistently visually fascinating, with Roy and cinematographer Dan Villegas creating morbid and ominous images out of the plain and banal.

Much of the film's perceptive style is reminiscent of Bahay Bata (Baby Factory, 2011), Roy's impressive debut about several mothers overcoming the inhumanity of giving birth in a crowded government-run maternity hospital. As in Bahay Bata, Roy, for the most part, fashions himself as a passive observer of Dorina, following her as she flies from one cheap hotel room to another to conduct her dubious cosmetic operations. He then exposes Dorina's cornered morality, constantly being splintered by both an economic necessity and her community's insistence on being defined in terms of outward appearances more than anything else. 

Avoiding labeling Dorina in terms of good or bad, black or white, Roy conceives a society for Dorina where morality has been rendered obsolete by its impracticality. After all, in a world where consumerism is god and those who are incapable of paying make do with what they have, morality can never pay for food or more prominent cheekbones.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Transit (2013)

Transit (Hannah Espia, 2013)

Hannah Espia’s Transit deals with the struggles of an extended Filipino family living and working in Tel Aviv after the Israeli government passed a law forcing children of overseas workers who are below five years old to be deported back to their homelands.

Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez), who has lived all his life in Israel, is a few months shy of his fifth birthday. Moises (Ping Medina), Joshua’s father, aware of the risk of his son being deported if caught, keeps Joshua indoors. Janet (Irma Adlawan), Moises’ sister, takes care of Joshua while Moises is out to work as a caretaker for a wealthy retiree. She also has to manage Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), her teenage daughter from an Israeli former flame who now has to grapple with neither being Filipino nor Israeli. Tina (Mercedes Cabral), freshly plucked from the Philippines and assisted by Janet to her new life as an overseas worker, witnesses a family that is in fear of being suddenly uprooted from a foreign land that they have decided to call their home.

Transit is a marvel of restraint and control. Embellished sparingly with visuals that are never too extravagant, too opulent to distract, the film is painted with delicate colors, which complements the fragile situations the characters move in.

Opening with an image of Joshua in an airport, his small frame backdropped against giants of airplanes landing from and departing to all corners of the globe, the film seems to mediate expectations, revealing the modesty of its story against a world of bigger problems. In truth, the story that Espia explores is one that seems too removed, too remote to be of moment. However, what Espia manages to do is tremendous. By dissecting the issues arising from a very specific troubled group, she navigates the blurring of cultural and national identities of individuals who are caught trapped between two countries.

The word diaspora was first used in the Bible to refer to the exile of Jews from their homeland by invading conquerors. Espia’s choice to tackle the Filipino diaspora in the land that first experienced renders some poetic effect, enunciating not the irony of the situation but the repetitions that seem to be the fate of all merging cultures. Transit is told from the various perspectives of its many characters, often repeating certain scenes to reveal facets that can only be depicted if seen through the eyes of the various participants. More than just a display of creative storytelling, the technique that Espia utilizes enunciates the necessity of understanding the contrasting motivations and interests, amplifying the emotional investment that pays off in the film’s subtle but moving conclusion.

The differences between the Filipinos and the country they adopt as their own but barely tolerates them are tremendous. Espia covers the extent of the difference, by chronicling a Philippines that seems to dissipate even more every year. Her scope is immense but she laudably concentrates on very palpable and very specific frustrations, heartaches, and triumphs, emotions that are shared by all of humanity.

Tina carries her homeland inside a worn luggage. She offers trinkets from home, packets of sour soup to remind her hosts of the Philippines they have not visited in decades. Janet and Moises speak both Filipino and Hebrew. They insist on their being Filipinos, forcing that dated idea of nationality to their children. Their children however reject the idea with reason. They do not speak Filipino, and have never been to the Philippines. Their only linkage to their parents’ homeland consists of bedtime stories repeatedly told to soothe their curiosity.

Espia paints a scenario where the characters are all confused, all tired from futilely maintaining illusions from a faraway motherland or struggling between two clashing alliances. Transit is a document of fractured identities, an essay that declares the very familiar concepts of citizenship and nationality as shallow facades that are maintained by laws and enforced by borders.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Babagwa (2013)

Babagwa (Jason Paul Laxamana, 2013)
English Title: The Spider's Lair

Jason Paul Laxamana's Babagwa (The Spider's Lair), an exploration of the proliferation of deceit in a rapidly virtualizing world, centers on Greg (Alex Medina), who fronts himself online as Bam Bonifacio (Kiko Matos), an affluent and handsome model whose sexual orientation depends on the gender of the target victim. The ruse is the brainchild of Marney (Joey Paras), who gets a sizable portion of the money earned from the swindle. Like all of his previous victims, Daisy (Alma Concepcion), a wealthy and philanthropic middle-aged woman, easily falls for Greg's dashing alter-ego. However, caught in a web of domestic drama, a shallow and stunted romance with his girlfriend (Chanel Latorre), and a slew of unsatisfying paychecks from his illicit gigs, he suddenly finds himself falling for Daisy.

Babagwa is ingenious. Laxamana creates a believable world where fantasy and reality are immediately interchangeable. Set in Laxamana's native Pampanga, the film enunciates the nagging pains of living indolent lives. His characters are scoundrels, products of their own doing and a society that forces them to scrape the very bottom of barrels to experience a semblance of a decent life. Marney needs to uproot his parents from a house that is being threatened to be demolished by the local government. On the other hand, Greg, Marney's former talent who has allowed himself to fade alongside his dreams of fame and glory, has only his afternoon trysts with his girlfriend to remind him of what he has lost. To his annoyance, his girlfriend seems to be more interested in a vacation he cannot provide than stroking his fragile ego. Presumably, their victims certainly live similarly pathetic lives.

Laxamana conceives the world with Darwinian precepts, a bazaar where love is peddled to the loveless, and thieves and cheaters are abound. Facebook has made the marketplace smaller and has made it even more difficult to detect fact from fiction. It has allowed for the commodification of virtual lives, those products of wants and necessities multiplied exponentially by a specific moment's mood. In one's playful mind, depending on one's gullibility and specific need, a swindler sitting alone in a dark and unkempt room is a sensitive prince lying in an expensive condo unit and in need of part-time passion. Trust is a too expensive luxury if the need is desperate.

Laxamana clearly understands the foolishness of it all. Babagwa is after all still a comedy of errors, one whose humor is reliant on the very foolishness of humanity to fall for the obviously illogic all in the name of love, or lust. He doesn't take his observant musings too seriously, and instead concentrates on balancing the tension with moments of delightful levity. His actors share the same responsibility, peppering their convincing performances with playfulness. Babagwa is refreshingly balanced, its heavy themes never outweighing the need to still entertain.

It is therefore unfortunate that Laxamana chooses to give up the balancing act in favor of a neat resolution. The film's parting shot suggests Greg's comeuppance. The politics itself of such comeuppance seems questionable and misshapen. Moreover, it is a misstep that forces Babagwa to be a mere cautionary tale on the dangers of mixing virtual lives and real longing. For sure, the ending perfectly wraps Laxamana's brilliantly conceived concept, but it only does so for the purpose of completing a narrative, to satisfy the demands of tradition. In the end, Laxamana's sophomore feature feels more like an exquisitely filmed urban legend, an urban legend that has been whispered around by those unfortunate enough to be enthralled by the internet's promises of quick love only to be fooled in the end.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Rekorder (2013)

Rekorder (Mikhail Red, 2013)

Mikhail Red's Rekorder is the story of Maven (Ronnie Quizon), a tragic drifter who with his old camcorder records movies currently showing in theaters to sell the footage to pirates. The parting image shows Ronnie in the movie theater without his camcorder in hand. For the first time, he isn't asleep while the movie is playing. He is just there, sitting alone and motionless, completely engrossed by the movie he is watching. As it turns out, the movie is not the commercial features he has been recording throughout the years for the enterprising pirates, but security camera footage of a robbery that culminates in violence.

The footage plays a key role in the narrative, explaining how Maven turned into the unsettled character that he is now. Yet, viewed against Red's stubborn indulgence in depicting the overextended role of sensational acts caught on video, the image of Maven sitting in a theater, completely enthralled by a video of real and actual violence instills an observation of a society that has become so indifferent to evil that it appreciates as entertainment the recorded sight of it.

Rekorder seems to be a reiteration of themes already explored by Red's father, Raymond, whose films like Kamera Obskura (2012), Himpapawid (Manila Skies, 2009), and Anino (Shadows, 2000) feature a singular character who awakens to the ills of society. The younger Red does not hide his influences, displaying prominently the senior Red's Manila Skies as the movie Maven attempts to record in the theater. Fortunately, the younger Red, unburdened by memories of a glorious era where film was king, is less hesitant to experiment with the digital medium, exploring the varying textures and impulses of high definition video and other formats.

Maven is in fact a fallen filmmaker who has resorted to illicitly recording these movies to earn a living. He talks languidly, walks passively, and relates to other people with more than just a hint of disconnect. It almost seems that he does not belong in the same time and space as the rest of the world. He finds sanctuary only at night when he is at home, being comforted by grainy videos of his wife and daughter; relics of a foregone happier life. When he becomes an unwilling witness to a crime by following a compulsion to capture a violent rumble with his camcorder, his drab routine is disturbed, forcing him to finally participate in the same society that has betrayed him, the same society that grows noisier whenever a recorded video goes viral for the simple reason of brazen sensationalism.

The proliferation of media into the routine lives of a consistently bored and hungry populace, jolted into a mad rush by rapid advancements of technology the past few years, has quickly changed moral perceptions. What would have caused reactions of shock and disgust decades ago is now commonplace and welcomed with undivided attention. With the public's conscience being consistently pounded by random acts of depravity and violence that are captured and spread by anonymous recorders for various reasons, society has been rendered utterly callous to wrongdoings of whatever extent. Guilt has been rendered obsolete. It has been replaced by pleasure and escapism, by-products of those depraved acts whose sensationalism has turned them into convenient pieces of entertainment.

Maven, in all his exaggerated expressions of self-inflicted alienation, represents the extent of such modern apathy. It is only when the noise has become too close and near for peace and comfort that he acts, breaking down into a frenzy of self-preservation. Rekorder, even with all its fundamental excesses and obvious faults, succeeds in painting an alarming portrait of a man hesitantly living in a world that is much like ours, a world that gladly suffocates on its own filthy crap, perpetuated by our little recording gadgets for all eternity.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)