Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jersey Boys (2014)

Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys: From Broadway Blockbuster to Boilerplate Biopic

The road from stage to screen is almost always paved with good, although still commercial, intentions. Cinema, with its countless manners of reaching to an audience, will always be the best medium to reach the masses. Good intentions notwithstanding, films based on stage plays, more specifically musicales, are often riddled with issues on adaptation.

Directors tasked to adapt musicales to movies are often faced with the dilemma of translating elements specific to the stage to cinematic language, without sacrificing the charms that made the original material successful and popular enough to be optioned. Certain decisions often lead to disastrous results.

Chris Columbus’ take on Jonathan Larson’s Rent (2005) had the Harry Potter-director’s trademark Hollywood gloss and naiveté bastardize the rare bleakness of the material. Joel Schumacher’s version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004) concentrated more on the original play’s kitsch and aplomb rather than its world-famous musicality.

Clint Eastwood, in adapting Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys, had the good sense of understanding that the material he is faced with has all the makings of the traditional Hollywood biopic. Its being a musicale is nothing more than a stunt for better Broadway showmanship. Eastwood, whose films are often peppered with stirring heft, is clearly more interested in the story of Frankie Valli and his crew, which has themes and motivations that are right along his alley.

The narrative arc is all too familiar. Frankie, played by John Lloyd Young who is reprising the role from the musicale’s debut in Broadway, is a barber’s assistant with a uniquely beautiful shrill singing voice. With pals Tommy de Vito and Nick Massi, played by Vincent Piazza and Michael Lomenda respectively, Frankie spends most of his free time either breaking the law or breaking ladies’ hearts with his distinctive crooning.

It is only when composer Bob Gaudio, played by Erich Bergen, came into the group that things start to pick up for the group. The Four Seasons is then formed. They get the recording contract they aspired for, with a collection of hits under their belt. However, as with most American rags-to-riches, obscurity-to-fame tales, everything is undone by clashing egos and inevitable vices.

The theater elements of the source material that remain, like the characters breaking the fourth wall to narrate their internal struggles or the upbeat curtain call where close-ups of the actors replace individual bows, serve the purpose of reminding the audience of the film’s roots. They also reveal that very rare opportunity where Eastwood, rigid and straightforward to a fault, attempts at humor and experimentation.

Eastwood, who is famous first as an actor before delving into directing with Play Misty With Me (1971), is in fact also a very capable musician. He composed the scores for most of his recent films, like Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). In all of his films, music, although scarce and subtle, is always impeccably placed to draw out the emotions he requires from his viewers.

It is no different with Jersey Boys. Although Eastwood mostly does away with the musicale’s need to be constantly in a singsong state, he still manages to incorporate to make essential the various songs of the Four Seasons and Franki Valli in either moving the narrative or adding emotional weight to the scenes. A lot of the film’s dull intervals are salvaged with music.

Forget Broadway for a couple of hours. Let Eastwood do what he’s best at doing, which is to lace familiar stories with a certain kind of elegance that Hollywood has forgotten nowadays. Eastwood’s decision to filter out most of the theater elements from the material, all for the sake of being conventionally cinematic, sort of pays off.

Jersey Boys is a safe endeavor. It fulfils its intent of telling the musicale’s story to a much wider audience, although obviously with less pageantry and gaiety. That said, Jersey Boys suffers from too much earnestness, too much gravity, and too little irreverence, the same ailments that drive most biopics about musicians to eventual obscurity. Eastwood, without the benefit of the bells and whistles most musicales provide, seems to be powerless to the allure of churning out just another boilerplate drama.

(First published in Rappler.)

She's Dating the Gangster (2014)

She's Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2014)

The early 90’s was for Philippine cinema a period for transition from the hard-hitting dramas and actioners to the sugary and light romances that are still popular up to today. Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (I Will Wait for You in Heaven, 1991), the quintessential Filipino film adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights starring Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta as lovers doomed by both man and fate’s cruelty, represented what could probably be the last hurrah for mature romantic tearjerkers, paving the way for stories of teenagers and their first romances.

Cathy Garcia-Molina’s adaptation of Bianca Bernardino’s She’s Dating the Gangster, the Nicholas Spark-esque novelette about another lovesick girl falling for the coolest guy in the campus, could have gone the way all the other commercially successful teen rom-coms went before it. Bernardino’s story, which curiously ends in tragedy, has all the makings of a swoony hit, especially with all its outrageously blatant manifestations of juvenile love.

In the novelette, Athena, a normal girl in campus, is forced by Kenji, the campus’ top mischief-maker, to pretend to be his girlfriend to make his ex, who is also named Athena, jealous enough to want to come back to him. As with all love stories of this type, the pretences dissipate, giving way for what seems to be true love, which would be abruptly stopped by some mean twist of fortune, which in this very unoriginal case, is a fatal disease.

Garcia-Molina, thankfully, has more adventurism than most of her peers who would have gone the route of simply filming the novel as is, as what Andoy Ranay did in his adaptation of Diary ng Panget (2014). Garcia-Molina’s adaptation, which innovates to cover the obvious derivativeness of Bernardino’s text, is simply put, offers a stark improvement over the original material.

A variation of Bernardino’s love story between Athena (Kathryn Bernardo) and Kenji (Daniel Padilla), set in the 90’s instead of the novelette’s original 2004 timeline, is sandwiched within the beginnings of the blossoming romance between Athena’s niece and Kenji’s son, who are also played by Bernardo and Padilla. The niece and the son have been serendipitously forced into a mission to reunite middle-aged Athena and Kenji (played by Hihintayin Kita sa Langit’s Zulueta and Gomez respectively) who have been separated by mysterious circumstances.

Predictably, Athena and Kenji’s love story has more meat. The niece and the son’s romance feels more like an afterthought, a way to further capitalize the masses’ interest on Bernardo and Padilla’s popular love team. Nevertheless, Garcia-Molina drapes Athena and Kenji’s narrative with a crazed mix of kitsch and nostalgia for what the 90’s represented in Philippine pop culture. It is the era of paged messages, tie-dyed tees, gaudy bandanas, garish plaids, and denim vests, all of which are remnants of a generation fed with movies and television shows starring Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin. She’s Dating the Gangster is rightfully colorful, evoking every bit of the 90’s trademark tack.

The tragedy invented by Bernardino has been creatively subdued. Star Cinema undoubtedly protested the grim end of Athena and Kenji, as told by the book. It has to be a happy ending, for the sake of profitable escapism. Thus, instead of death as the payment for love, Garcia-Molina chose the reality of not being with the one you love, of waiting, of eventually settling. It is this ending that separates Bernardino’s juvenilia and Garcia-Molina’s masked maturity, in the midst of studio compromises. There are simply more heartaches more immense than mortality.

The film adaptation of She’s Dating the Gangster is a series of risks taken that paid off quite well. It could have been a straight adaptation and it would still have pre-teens bawling because of the tragic ending. It could have been set in the present with its characters mouthing pop culture references that are hip and relatable to the target audience. It could have been just about Bernardo and Padilla, and not Zulueta and Gomez, whose onscreen love affairs are relics. It could have been just another romantic comedy, the ones that mainstream studios have been churning out for corporate survival ever since the decline of the demand for more serious fare.

It’s good that it’s not. She’s Dating the Gangster is not art. It is still a film designed and crafted for escape, the ones Garcia-Molina, with her knack for fake hairpieces and dreamy fantasies, is so good at making. It is however entertainment that is self-aware. It knows what it is, what it is not, and where it came from. When it concluded with a throwback to one of the most iconic and memorable images from a Filipino romance, the one from Hihintayin Kita sa Langit where Gomez carries a dying Zulueta in their last try at love, it felt right. It knows exactly where it belongs in the long timeline of Filipino cinematic romances.

(First published in Twitch.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (2014)

Lav Diaz's Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon: Sorrowful Histories

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before), Lav Diaz’s follow-up to his highly acclaimed Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte: The End of History, 2013), opens with views of rolling hills and untouched landscapes. From a forest of bananas, a little boy (Reynan Abcede), carrying a large bunch of bananas, appears and walks towards the field. A voice, presumably of the invisible storyteller, breaks the peace established by the stretched minutes of Diaz’s monochrome vistas, saying that everything is but based on memory.

Memory, like history, is a malleable commodity in Diaz’s films. The memory spoken by the invisible storyteller is not the same memory that we commonly understand. In fact, the invisible storyteller may not even be the little boy, or Diaz himself, but of the film’s most prominent character, the town. Diaz has crafted a community, much like the Philippines, that aches and bleeds because of the acts and decisions of the people that comprise it.

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon works best as an allegory. The events that happen in the small town, although specified as though they have happened a couple of years prior to the Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law pronouncement, mirror the vast history of the Philippines as a nation. From the pertinent connection of the people with the land to that connection’s slow but sure dissipation because of the subtle entry of religion and politics, the town’s harrowing experiences evoke a certain sense of familiarity that is discomforting.

Diaz however does not settle for just symbolisms and representations. The stories of the town’s dwellers are by themselves worthy of their own multi-hour features. The little boy from the film’s opening, believing all his life that his parents are lepers in a colony in Palawan, has been saving money to search for them. Sito (Perry Dizon), the boy’s ward and concocter of the grand lie, acts as the film’s central figure, the only person to completely witness the village’s transformation.

Itang (Hazel Orencio) and Joselina, her cerebral palsy-afflicted sister who has the power to heal some of the villagers’ many ailments, provide the film its moral dilemma. Through the rumors spread by Heding (Mailes Kanapi), the outsider who has suddenly started to sell various knickknacks to the villagers, the sisters have become the center of suspicions as to why the town has been suffering. Tony (Roeder Camanag), the town’s winemaker, surreptitiously visits Joselina to ease his carnal longings.

The town, although far from perfect especially with its many tales of suffering and deceit, reflects the very same dilemma that plagues the Philippines. Diaz, by weaving together those tales into a single epic, has summarized a country’s painful history not with facts and dates but with impressions and emotions. Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon is sustained by evocative tableaus of human beings in various degrees of personal, spiritual and political strife.

This country is built on the sins of its citizens, Diaz seems to be proclaiming with Mula Sa Kung Ano ang Noon. Its history is carved from the lies, the duplicity, the greed, and the violence that have been constant tools for survival. Projected away from the film’s narrative and into what the country has actually experienced, it is the Philippines’ history of repeated exploitation that has allowed for certain evils to triumph. Marcos, and everything that has happened thereafter, are but products of our own inhumanity and complacency.

Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon, which deservedly won the grand prize in the ongoing World Premieres Film Festival by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, is five and a half hours long. It is short compared to Diaz’s other eight to eleven hour masterpieces. Let this not daunt you. What Diaz has done is to distil centuries of the country’s sorrows and agonies into a fascinatingly fractured narrative that will never ever leave you. This is a memory that is worth making your own.

(First published in Rappler.)

Monday, July 07, 2014

Ang Bagong Dugo (2014)

Val Iglesias' Ang Bagong Dugo: The Burden of Playing Messiah

Val Iglesias’ Ang Bagong Dugo has been eagerly touted by its makers as the film that will salvage the Filipino action film genre from obsolescence. It is quite a lofty ambition, considering that the genre has been left dying for several years by Filipino moviegoers who are quick to consume Hollywood drivel and locally-produced rom-coms at the expense of everything else.

It is this lofty ambition that becomes Ang Bagong Dugo’s undoing. As it is, the film has slivers of promise. It is wildly entertaining, but not in the way that was presumably intended. Intriguingly, it is its missteps and excesses that provide the film most of its enjoyment value.

Ang Bagong Dugo opens with an ambitious action sequence. A quiet afternoon of low-rent politicians and their powerful backers performing some sort of charity work erupts into a wild chase between gun-wielding goons and the film’s protagonist, Anong (Joem Bascon), who just attempted an assassination amidst much fanfare. The police belatedly catches up, arrests Anong, and delivers him to jail, where he becomes the right-hand man of prison lord, Herman (Mark Gil).

Much of the film involves Anong surviving in prison, either on his own, or with the help of his benefactors like Herman and the jail warden (Roi Vinzon). The prison setting allows Iglesias and screenwriter Angelito San Jose to conjure sequences that can only be described as part cliché, part ingenious. How else can you make cinematic sense of prisoners collectively stripping to force the warden to release a fellow prisoner, or a hilariously choreographed rumble morphing into an impromptu dance showdown?

Unfortunately, Iglesias has nobler ambitions which derail what could have been a humorously surreal depiction of prison life. There is more to Anong than his will to survive. Through awkwardly placed flashbacks, Iglesias telegraphs Anong’s main intent for his imprisonment. The scope of the film expands, turning itself into something far more complex than Iglesias’ straightforward yet lackluster direction can handle.

Perhaps in its ambition to spearhead a new wave of action films, Ang Bagong Dugo desperately digs for depth, which it frankly does not need. It only eventually finds itself in a hole of confusion as to what it really wants to be. The film sufficiently entertains, but when it attempts to reach for heights it can never ever attain, it stumbles quite ridiculously. This is the burden of playing messiah.

In fairness to Iglesias, he forgoes convenience in recreating the stark physicality of the action films of old. Instead of using computer-generated images which a lot of filmmakers rely on nowadays, he makes use of old-fashioned practical effects, with fake blood gushing gloriously out of wounds, and an out-dated sedan being demolished just for spectacle.

Also, with the exception of Bascon whose attempt at playing action star proves to be quite underwhelming, the cast is populated with former action heroes and stuntsmen who add much-needed brawn and rawness to the endeavour. As a result, the film’s action sequences have such palpable heft.

Ang Bagong Dugo will definitely not manage to spark a resurgence of interest on action films. What it will do is to provide an erstwhile but somewhat worthwhile diversion while giving faint glimpses of the faded glory days of Filipino macho cinema

(First published in Rappler.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My Illegal Wife (2014)

My Illegal Wife (Tony Y. Reyes, 2014)

The title My Illegal Wife gives it all away. Obviously inspired by hugely famous infidelity porn The Legal Wife which only aired around January and picked up its following a couple of months ago, the film has the feel of a production that was rushed to encash the popularity of the soap opera. The film is propelled by a singular idea of Clarise (Pokwang), a repatriated entertainer in Tokyo, who takes advantage of the plane crash-induced amnesia of Henry (Zanjoe Marudo), the hunk she meets aboard the plane bound to Manila, to trick him to believe that they are wife and husband. From that conceit, the film attempts various things, from inane comedy to gaudy family drama.

The first half of this Tony Y. Reyes is maddeningly daft. It features a lot of Pokwang doing her own brand of physical comedy, which is mostly reliant on the comedienne’s insanely flexible body and uniquely malleable face. Marudo, who hints of some semblance of comedic timing, is sadly less energetic and prevents the hilarious absurdity Reyes was trying to produce with all his illogical set-ups from really taking off. In addition, Ellen Adarna, who plays Marudo’s opportunistic fiancée, is even more static. She serves the purpose of being the film’s eye candy, and is seemingly hired in the production only to flaunt her gorgeous curves to create a wrong impression of maturity in what essentially is an immature film.

It is easy to give up on a film midway when it only provides worthless nonsense after worthless nonsense. After the nth time Pokwang gyrates just to enunciate her rabid desperation to get laid, it felt that Reyes’ film is a hopeless piece of exploitative drivel. Sure, Empoy and Joy Viado manage to force out a few authentic chuckles. However, it all feels utterly lazy. Reyes has done this so many times before, with all the films he directed for Vic Sotto and the rest of his gang. Pokwang has done this repeatedly in her shows, and even in her interviews. Marudo is simply not suited for this kind of comedy. Simply put, there is just nothing about the first half of My Illegal Wife that would urge its audience to stay for more.

Then something happens. My Illegal Wife starts making a little bit of sense. Mind you, that little bit of sense for a Tony Y. Reyes comedy is quite a big deal. The film grows a heart out of the heaps of trash it inexplicably exposed. Again, let’s put some perspective to this so-called heart. It is manipulative and obviously conjured out of formula, but still, it beats enough to affect. What is more surprising is that the film actually attempted to squeak out a political statement. Again, this is not some rousing statement on the current state of the nation but more of a satirical take on loathed national personalities, by way of Mae Paner’s genius impersonations.

Pokwang’s character graduates from being a sketch, with a tinge of novel characterization. The film’s generous servings of caricatures of scenes from other Star Cinema films are suddenly given some perspective, which sort of serves as the film’s belatedly communicated point. My Illegal Wife is not just a string of comedic sketches. It attempts to be a reflection of how the captured market of Star Cinema is completely swallowed by the escapist cinema’s shallow observations about life. Clarise’s sin is but a product of the fantasy that major studios peddle as comfort. She is a victim of both her own gullibility and Star Cinema’s domination of Filipino pop culture.

Of course, as with all Star Cinema movies, things will fall into place. Clarise gets her guy in a finale that is fashioned to celebrate the shrouded bamboozlement. Reyes may not have intended to criticize the industry he has freely committed to but My Illegal Wife projects a nation dangerously addicted to escape and conglomerates that are quick to profit from the addiction. Predictably, most of the audience will likely leave theaters fleetingly amused. Hopefully, a few will absorb this horrid point that is ingeniously veiled in awful jokes and bad filmmaking.

(First published in

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

Robert Stromberg's Maleficent: Taming the Witch, Disney-Style

Walt Disney, the spectacle-maker who made an entertainment empire out of cartoons based on fables and fairy tales in the public domain, needed a name for the magic-wielding woman that would terrorize Sleeping Beauty and her family that would represent her inexplicable malice.

Hence, maleficent, an adjective that literally means “doing evil or harm” was chosen to become the name of the villain. The character, donning a black slithering gown, a headpiece formed to look like devil horns, and the most disarmingly mischievous smile, has then represented unadulterated wickedness to kids who grew up watching Disney’s cartoons.

Disney died, to be replaced by his corporate heirs who inherited his shrewd business acumen. The commercial value of nostalgia was discovered. Hollywood was quick to grab the opportunity to earn a few more bucks off it. Now, we live in an age where myths and fairy tales enjoyed and re-enjoyed are now being retold and refashioned to suit contemporary ideologies and avaricious pockets.

Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, which reimagines Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) from the perspective of the evil witch, is thus hardly unique. It simply follows the commercialist and creative intent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man movies, and Zack Snyder’s Superman movies in attempting to redo familiar stories, by way of Winnie Holzman’s Wicked, the novel that told L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories from the perspective of the fictional universe’s misunderstood antagonist.

Modern perspectives are predictably introduced. Instead of concentrating on the prince-saves-the-princess angle that dominates the fairy tale, the film diverts into more feminist territory, where heterosexual romances are sidestepped for female solidarity. It is admittedly a fresh approach, one that produces for the film a lot of its more poignant moments where the clichéd phrase “true love” was removed from its more traditional connotation to mean something more worthwhile.

However, despite its progressive politics, Maleficent could still not escape the clutches of Disney’s happily-ever-after philosophy. The film was written to faithfully follow the story of Sleeping Beauty at least until it is still happy and harmless. It deviates only when Maleficent, played with admirable integrity by Angelina Jolie, withdraws from her temporary corruption and becomes the fairy tale’s protagonist.

Do not get me wrong. This is all good. It would have been better if Maleficent’s sudden change of heart, amidst the crime of cursing an innocent baby with eternal slumber, had more weight and had repercussions. Instead, the film simply tied things together neatly, with everybody happy in their CGI-rendered paradise. Had it not been for Jolie’s affecting performance, the witch’s deus ex machina metanoia would be utterly unbelievable and unconvincing.

It simply stinks of fakery, which sadly seems to be Disney’s current raison d’etre with all the movies it has recently produced that promote questionable optimism cloaked in token expressions of modern advocacy. Maleficent’s effect is at most, skin-deep. It does not, and could not penetrate the soul because it conveniently avoids engaging its characters with real morality and redemption.

Maleficent alludes to the concept that it is human frailty that creates villains. The film’s narrative points out that the witch’s transformation from glorious forest fairy to vengeful hag is the result of treachery that is fed by greed and ambition. Again, this is nothing novel. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), which has a human settlement disrupt nature spirits with its quest for resources, tackles the theme with more maturity and heft. Stromberg is content with surface-level rhetoric.

Maleficent imagines itself to be hip and modern. It is not. It still subscribes to Walt Disney’s archaic formula of the supremacy of happy endings, above everything else. Even a witch precisely named because she personifies all things vile and malicious deserves her happy ending. Ho hum. Wake me up when things get a little bit dirtier.

(First published in Rappler.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Maybe This Time (2014)

Maybe This Time (Jerry Lopez Sineneng, 2014)

Steph (a rather subdued Sarah Geronimo), a Manila-bred lady from a well-to-do family, met Tonyo (Coco Martin), an unsophisticated man with simple dreams and pleasures, during an outreach program in the province. What initially started as a string of flirtatious encounters over between the two developed into what could have been the perfect romance between individuals from opposite worlds. Unfortunately, fate and other realizations intervened. The love affair was aborted before it even began.

Seven years later, Steph, now a public relations professional, is given the task to groom and train her new client to fit into the world of the rich and influential. As it turns out, her new client is Tonyo, who throughout the seven years they were apart has been bequeathed with a lot of wealth and has turned Steph’s boss, Monica (Ruffa Gutierrez), into his girlfriend. Their roles have been reversed, forcing Steph and Tonyo to try their best not to rekindle the romance they have abandoned years ago.

There is absolutely nothing new to Jerry Lopez Sineneng’s Maybe This Time. It strictly follows the rom-com formula with two destined lovers pulled away from each other by fate only to be reunited by the power of love. All the elements are there, including the disposable third wheel who serves as the hindrance to the happy ending, the colorful and humorous support, and the overly concerned family, all to complete the package that would suit the film’s tried and tested market. A bit of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is sprinkled along the way in how Steph trains her rough-on-the-edges student to become more refined, only to end up falling for him throughout their lengthy sessions.

Sineneng, Star Cinema’s go-to director during the late nineties and early 2000’s for its run-of-the-mill products like Flames: The Movie (1997), Esperanza:The Movie (1999) and Otso-otso Pamela-mela Wan (2004), drapes Maybe This Time with the conventional gloss and themed music to accommodate the film’s primary intent to have its audience swoon over again at the rehashed love story. There is really nothing more to say about the production except that it is, like the plot formula, is unexcitingly predictable.

It is all recycled material, much like the driftwood that Tonyo converts into furniture, much like the romance that Steph attempts so hard to forget. There is not a single attempt for adventurism, for the film to stray too far from formula. This is not exactly a bad thing. The familiarity with the narrative arc provides a semblance of comfort to the viewers who are mostly there to follow the careers of the movie’s two stars, who actually performed rather well.

Geronimo is gifted with inherent charm. She plays the underdog with remarkable ease. Pitted against Gutierrez, who mostly channels her real life persona to inhabit a character obsessed with outward appearances and social status, Geronimo has ample space to stretch her acting muscles only for the purpose of making herself look even more deserving of a happily-ever-after.

Martin, who has already proven his acting prowess with his collaborations with Brillante Mendoza has a difficult time transitioning into becoming a matinee idol that he is being groomed by Star Cinema to become. Despite his looks which fit the part, there is a certain something in his demeanor that prevents him from portraying certain roles. In Maybe This Time however, his deficiencies, like his noticeable lisp or his boorish exterior, are melded into the narrative, eventually turning them into instruments to up the rom-com ante instead of distractions.

Maybe This Time is comfort food, the type that you eat not for the nutrients it provides your body but because it is the only thing available that won’t have you throwing up. It is the type of movie that would serve well during an afternoon when there is nothing else left to do. It is harmless, fleeting and forgettable, a veritable thing of the past, especially now when everybody else is attempting to reinvent the wheel or to track new paths within genre conventions. The movie is not exactly trash. It’s just not junk art.

(First published in

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Story of the Search for Weng Weng

The Story of the Search for Weng Weng

For a country that idolizes good looks, perfect physiques, and unblemished personalities, the surprising popularity of Ernesto de la Cruz, more famous as Weng Weng, is something of an anomaly. Weng Weng, who proudly stands at a measly eighty-three centimeters and sports the most amusing version of the apple cut, is in fact an action star, a fearless risk-taker who wins women as sexy alluring as Carmi Martin with his debonair style and oozing manliness.

Weng Weng, with movies aptly titled For Y’ur Height Only and D’Wild Wild Weng, has established himself as an indelible part of many Filipinos’ childhoods. He, of the monotonous line-reading, expressionless facial reactions, but absolutely bombastic stunts, has brought together a generation of Filipino pop culture enthusiasts who cannot help but marvel at how such an unassuming footnote in the country’s cinematic history have such a grandiose effect. The key here however is not to rationalize Weng Weng’s rise to fame but to simply celebrate it.

Andrew Leavold, like Weng Weng, is another anomaly. He, of fair complexion, dirty blond wavy hair, and unmistakably Aussie accent, has also been dramatically affected by Weng Weng. Like many of the Filipinos who can’t help erase the image of the charming midget gliding out of a building with a jetpack, he can’t help but wonder how this little man has made such an impact on his life. Permanently bugged by that question, he has set out on a quest to know Weng Weng more fully. He began by travelling to the Philippines, documenting every step of his way, until finally, he has enough footage to construct a film that reveals as much of being Filipino as the life and demise of Weng Weng.

Leavold’s struggle was immense. He travelled to the Philippines with his producer Daniel Palisa constantly, always ready to take every opportunity to get closer to the truth behind Weng Weng’s sudden disappearance. They were detectives, appreciative of the fact that every single Filipino they meet would have a link that would connect them to their desired goal. There was no science or methodology to their mystery-solving, just a lot of guts, sweat, and emptied bottles of Red Horse beer. It took the indefatigable duo several years to finish, years that would result in both frustrations and new friendships formed. They ended up becoming more Filipino than most Filipinos.

Several months ago, Leavold premiered a rough cut to many of his friends, consisting of cinephiles, action stars from decades back, and other crazies, in a bar in Makati’s red light district. The result of several years of hard work paid off. The documentary, entitled The Search for Weng Weng, was a delirious three hour journey into the madness that gave birth to the phenomenon that is Weng Weng. Throughout the film, there was always a sense of serendipity, of fate intervening for Leavold to meet the right people, whether it be former comrades of Weng Weng or infamous first lady Imelda Marcos, that would develop for the documentary a proper path towards its heartbreaking conclusion. The most amazing thing about The Search for Weng Weng was how it told a very Filipino story, one that is so familiar since it ponders on exploitation, missed opportunities, fortune and tragedy within show-business, but from foreign eyes.

A few months have passed and Leavold returned to the Philippines with a leaner version of his documentary. Gone are the fat and the extended meandering over the Philippines’ convoluted insanity. What remains is the juicy meat of Weng Weng’s life, which stretches towards the life of a once healthy and volatile film industry. Leavold has created a masterpiece out of an obsession. Along the way, he has unlocked the mystery that is Weng Weng’s charisma. There is no other way to thank the little man, who has lived his life struggling out of obscurity but tragically failing by dying beneath the shadows of a country that has conveniently forgotten him all for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

(First Published on

Monday, May 12, 2014

So It's You (2014)

So It's You (Jun Lana, 2014)

Inside a bridal car sits Lira (Carla Abellana), excitedly waiting for her groom while warding off her parents’ persistent questions as to whether or not the wedding will push through. Tony (JC de Vera), Lira’s groom, finally enters the bridal car, and looks at his soon-to-be-wife with all the seriousness he can muster. He mumbles phrases, all of which feel all-too-familiar because of how they have been repeated by tired lovers wanting to end a relationship with as little collateral damage as possible. In short, Tony wants to cancel the wedding and still be friends with Lira. Lira, in reaction, has nothing else to do but accept the decision of Tony, but rejects the offered continuation of their friendship.

The main plot of So It’s You stems from this initial and supposedly traumatic rejection that was experience by Lira. After a few months from her non-wedding, she recruits Goryo (Tom Rodriguez), a shoe designer she serendipitously befriends while returning from Baguio, to act as her boyfriend to inflict jealousy on Tony, who has then married another girl. Predictably, from Lira and Goryo’s sham relationship blossoms something real, which is prevented by all the lies they have already committed to everybody around them and of Lira’s nagging infatuation for Tony.

It is integral to dissect the movie’s opening to summarize the movie’s most prevalent failure. It is an opening that sounds grave and serious on paper, but it is portrayed with blatant ridiculousness and capped with a joke that did not work. Here we have a woman whose dream wedding has been shattered by a man who belatedly exclaims his inability to handle commitment. Here we have an opportunity for the movie to properly propose and introduce a rich emotional layer, a reliable backbone if you will, to both its comedic and more serious intentions.

Lana, who presumably feels the pressure of properly mixing drama and comedy as prescribed by the rom-com formula, has squandered the opportunity of creating something more worthwhile than fleeting escapism by sacrificing the realistic portrayal of pain and betrayal for cheap witticism and gaudy humor. So It’s You is afflicted with the same confusion that has hounded a number of rom-coms. The comedic elements frustratingly serve as mere embellishments to a romantic core. At their worst, the comedy of the movie feels completely separated from its entire point.

It is inevitable to compare So It’s You with My Amnesia Girl, the Cathy Garcia-Molina-directed movie that also has a bride left at the altar by her man. Both are romantic comedies, made specifically to entertain. The thing that My Amnesia Girl got right that So It’s You got so wrong is its depiction of emotional pain. Where Lana was content in drawing laughter out of a truly unfortunate situation, Garcia-Molina mined it for aches, which she subsequently utilized to support the entire conceit of her movie. In the end, Garcia-Molina succeeded in creating a film that sufficiently marries romance and situational comedy. On the other hand, Lana’s film just ends up being silly, with infrequent flurries of charm.

It really is unfortunate, since So It’s You is quite well-crafted. Carlo Mendoza, who has worked with Lana to create an appropriately idyllic atmosphere for the story of a cantankerous old man and his beloved dog in Bwakaw, has created a sumptuous enough look for the movie. Von de Guzman, who has scored most of Lana’s commercial efforts, has come up with delightful melodies that eagerly support the visuals.

It is frustrating that notwithstanding all the gloss and grease Lana was able to muster, it all feels empty. It is as if Lana, who has already acquired the ability to merge charm and depth in his non-studio financed films, has contented himself with something that avoids all notions of heft and complexity.

(First published in

Monday, May 05, 2014

Bunohan (2011)

Bunohan (Dain Said, 2011)
International Title: Bunohan: Return to Murder

The land holds the stories of the past. Dain Said’s Bunohan enunciates the point with an elegance that is unexpected, considering that the film opens chaotically, throwing characters with hardly any introductions into a whirlwind of confusing chases. The film finally settles when everybody lands in the titular village, a backward community whose crocodile-infested swamps hide a picturesque and pristine beach that is ripe to be developed into a tourist resort.

The three estranged brothers that the film centers on find themselves reuniting after a scurry of events and circumstances. Adil (Zahiril Adzim) is a kickboxer who was spirited away by his friends from a fight-to-the-death duel that he was about to lose. Ilham (Faizal Hussein) is a professional assassin who has been hired to hunt down and kill Adil. Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim) is a schoolteacher from the city who returns to his hometown to convince his father to sell their land to the developers.

The conflict in Bunohan is one that seems purely worldly, one that seems to be more entrenched in the sordid affairs of a disjointed brood or a country’s hurried need to develop every inch of its far-flung regions. Said however raises the stake. He populates his film with lore, lingering ghosts of histories that take place in the land in dispute. In a way, it is not only a familial legacy in the shape of an inherited plot of land that is in risk of being dissipated in the name of progress. It is history. It is culture. It is the stories that only a land that is unburdened by the expensive promises of contagious capitalism can tell. As soon as million-dollar villas are constructed, and international tourists start sunbathing, and the land just becomes another one of those advertised destinations for the tired slaves of commercialism, the stories disappear, tragically replaced by lifeless accounting of numbers and profits.

The most indelible images from Bunohan are the ones where the characters are struggling to hold onto their threatened past. Ilham, suddenly aware of the changes in his hometown which he abandoned, takes a detour from his mission, digging for the bones of his mother which were transferred to another location to make way for the development. He distraughtly sits on ruins in the beach, broken structures that resemble his own fractured personality.

The father, headstrong despite Bakar’s persistent pleas for him to give up his land, is desperately attempting to complete the shadow puppets that were supposed to be inherited by his children. Adil has his face bloodied by blows he needs to take in his desire to escape a hometown that only reminds him of his own questionable identity. Said fills his film with visual cues that enunciate the conflicts that are shared by the land and the characters that are forced to dwell there momentarily.

Southeast Asia, a region that despite centuries’ worth of being under Western colonial masters has resisted cultural infiltration, is now falling under the influence of capitalism and global wealth. The region’s recent cinema has thoroughly reacted to the dramatic losses of culture and tradition, represented by lands being converted into agents of profit and modernity, people abandoning their roots, and other injustices. Chris Chong’s Karaoke (2009) similarly traces a man’s reunion with his hometown, now dotted with plantations that have effectively changed the town’s landscape. Auraeus Solito’s Busong (Palawan Fate, 2010) is a parable that laments for an island whose identity is being molested by landgrabbers and industry. Said’s Bunohan takes its place alongside many other films that echo a common apprehension towards the sacrifices various cultures have to take to satisfy the very familiar greed of man.