Monday, December 31, 2007

Cinematic Highlights of 2007

Lav Diaz's Death in the Land of Encantos

Cinematic Highlights of 2007

What better way for a film lover to celebrate the coming of 2008 than to give due recognition to the brilliant films that were released the past year. Living in the Philippines, where the censors are both cruel and stupid and the distributors are tardy or entirely negligent in releasing their gems (like P. T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, among other widely released favorites), has made it very difficult to make a comprehensive list of cinematic highlights. More obscure titles (like Eric Rohmer's Romance of Astrea and Celadon or Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light, again, among many other arthouse favorites) will most likely never reach these shores.

The ones that were shown here (through commercial runs, or the several film festivals, or DVD's) were weeded out, and to my surprise, there were very few disappointments (like Zack Snyder's culturally callous 300, Michael Bay's overlong and overly jerky Transformers, and David Slade's witless 30 Days of Night) and numerous pleasant surprises (like Sam Raimi's whimsical Spider-Man 3, Kevin Lima's enchantingly romantic Enchanted, Bard Bird's deliciously wonderful Ratatouille, Judd Apatow's touching Knocked Up and Greg Mottola's hilarious Superbad). The crop of films from the Cinemanila International Film Festival (Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, Julie Delpy's 2 Days in Paris, Anton Corbijn's Control, and the grindhouse flicks from Quentin Tarantino's personal collection (Eddie Romero's The Ravagers (1965), a Pacific war flick in dire need of a reassessment and Cirio Santiago's The Muthers (1976), the quintessential female pirates cum women-in-prison exploitation flick)) do not disappoint.

On the other hand, there was definitely no shortage in quality when it came to local filmmaking talents. While the mainstream is still struggling in its self-imposed quagmire of uninspired moviemaking, the independent scene is brimming with talent, releasing various films that arouse intellectual discourse wherever and whenever they are shown (like Jim Libiran's Tribu, a valiant although imperfect effort in documenting the gang subculture evolving in Tondo, Dennis Marasigan's Tukso (Temptation), a Rashomon-like whodunit that subtly tackles the moral corruption that accompanies the real estate boom, Rico Maria Ilarde's Altar, a definite step-forward for horror auteur Ilarde, Brillante Mendoza's Foster Child, a lazilly crafted but still engrossing docu-drama on the state of foster parenting in the country, and Khavn dela Cruz's 3 Days of Darkness, the director's personal "fuck you" to the brainless horror films the mainstream is thriving on).

For my yearender list, I thought it best to separate Filipino and foreign films. As with all other lists, mine doesn't have the pretense of being comprehensive or peerless (and will most likely be a work in progress). It is also highly personal, subjective and will obviously lack the films that I have not seen (thus, if you don't find the film you love here, it is either I have not seen it or I don't find it noteworthy). And now the lists:

Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar

Jade Castro's Endo


Friday, December 28, 2007

No Country For Old Men (2007)

No Country For Old Men (Ethan & Joel Coen, 2007)

The Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men opens with shots of the parched Western landscape. What makes the shots peculiar is that the landscapes are blanketed by a creeping darkness. The shadows that prominently distinguish the depressed vista manifest a sense of gradual calamity. It's a tremendous opening sequence, and serves a dual purpose. First, it grabs the audience and forces them to immediately get accustomed to the film's very bleak atmosphere, of some metaphoric sparseness and desolation that somehow overlaps with the desert-like topography. Second, it puts a sensible and epic imagery to the melancholic voiceover of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (an infectiously mournful Tommy Lee Jones), reminiscing the old times when his folks, also sheriffs, never needed a gun to do their jobs as compared to the disheartening level of evil that is has grown and is so pronounced during his time. The shots of ageless geography put an intimidating historic grasp to his narrated despair, that the ancient purity of the world is now tainted beyond redemption. His defeated tone forebodes a cataclysmic evil force that is sweeping the land, seamlessly segueing to the arrest of Anton Chigurh (played with delicious ruthlessness by Javier Bardem), the film's unstoppable and very palpable personification of that force of evil.

Chigurh is introduced as a mere shadow, a silhouette and an ordinary concern for the unfortunate sheriff who arrested him. Through a point of view from the ceiling (or if one gets imaginative, from the sky and the heavens), we get our first glimpse of his face. Perfectly situated against the floor etched by a violent struggle, Chigurh's face is horrendous and characterized by eyes that are unnaturally blank and enlarged, evoking both his disquietingly unfeeling ease amidst the pain of strangling the sheriff with his handcuffs and a condescending execration of forces opposite of his. The first crime we witness him commit is an affront to the so-called forces of order. Dragging an oxygen tank connected to a tube that is attached to a gun, Chigurh travels the locality, desperately searching for the tracked bag full of cash, killing anybody adverse to his motive, including Llewelyn Moss (a terrific Josh Brolin), a Vietnam war veteran-turned-mouse in Chigurh's cat-and-mouse chase, a gang of Mexican drug traders and their corporate clients.

It is very tempting to see Chigurh as an otherworldly creature, a symbol rather than a human character. He fashions himself with that frame of thought by discreetly invading spaces secured by locked doors through a forceful shot from his unique weapon or inflecting malevolent verbosity, further defined by his hostile baritone and indistinguishable accent, in all his conversations completely freezing these moments with oppressive questions on life and death. He inhabits both a self-proclaimed and reputed role, that of a harbinger of misfortune and servant of doom. That is the wellspring of his amorality. His inherent lack of guilt for the atrocities he commits against humanity is based on the fact that what he does are mere assigns of a fate. As precursor to his unmotivated murders, he forces his victims to bet on a game of toss coin (as with the gas station manager and Moss' wife (Kelly McDonald)) or asks a question answerable by a yes or no (as with the accountant), giving a fifty percent chance, granted supposedly by fate, of survival. An incorrect bet or answer gives Chigurh a ministerial task to execute, as delegated by fate.

On the other side of the fence is Jones' embattled sheriff, Bell. He is a predestined lawman, originating from a long line of lawmen. Intriguingly, Bell is an inutile sheriff. In the entire duration of the film, he never truly inches close to defeating evil or at least encountering evil to be granted a one-on-one face-off. In one particular scene, Bell investigates the motel where a previous massacre happened, a massacre that would raise doubts his perceived role in the world. Chigurh hides in the shadows and we can only expect the two to finally meet, but when Bell enters the room, there is no confrontation, only an assurance of the resulting drastic void, an acknowledgement of his diminishing significance in a world that has been overwhelmed by darkness.

He proceeds to a relative, also a lawman. There, his melancholy is apparent and overwhelming. The elder lawman asks him about his impending retirement, and he replies about his inevitable aging and unmet expectations of God reaching to him during the peak of his age. Yet there he is, defeated and basking under the subtle and gentle reprimand of his senior. Bell is obviously disappointed of the absence of God and resolute in his passing from his predestined role, vain as in harshly defined by the words of his wheelchaired senior, and as expressed by the final moments of the film where he recounts two dreams to his wife, haunted by the collapse of the world's virtues, the conquest of what he, and all the lawmen previous to him, stood for. His last words "and then I woke up," followed by the blank look of his wife and his own disconsolate stare reinforces the merging of nightmare and reality: both worlds are cold, bleak, hopeless. No Country For Old Men ends in that dour note.

Despite his being representative of the faltering good, Bell's humanity is in exhibit. His failures, frailty, and imperfections are evident. Chigurh, on the other hand, operates in graceful near-perfection, a one-man assassin with the cruel machinations of fate on his side. Less discernible are the glitches in his operation, signaling the surfacing of whatever semblance of his humanity that remains. In one scene, Chigurh forces Moss' wife to bet on a coin toss, which she declines by telling Chigurh that her fate is inevitable. The wife's adamant refusal to play Chigurh's game puts the burden of murder entirely to Chigurh, without the shared responsibility with fate or any other motivation (all of his murders except for this is motivated by greed).

We go back to Bell's voice-over in the beginning, where he narrates the story of a boy who killed a fourteen year old girl and the papers consider it a crime of passion but the boy confirms that there's a blunt intention to kill and that if he ever got out, he'd kill again. An unmotivated murder shows an unfathomable disdain for humankind, and at that moment wherein Chigurh kills the wife (shown offscreen), he inhabits that lower depth of evil wherein he no longer is an agent of fate or of his greed. Traces of probable guilt and regret invade his thoughts on his drive away from the house, leading to the accident. He is no longer a force of evil, no longer a symbol of the invading shadows that is sweeping the land. He is as human as Bell, resigned to the fate of the world and haunted by dreams of his own insignificance, as Moss, who would pay border-crossing teens money for a used jacket. He is embattled by the recent realization that fate is not on his side (definitely not, especially when the roaring vehicle crashes into his), and that he is still a member of this network of mercurial human beings (as when he likewise pays a neighborhood kid for his shirt) who are tiptoeing frequently or infrequently from one side of the border to the other.

Humanity, as I can see from the Coen Brothers' No Country For Old Men are on neither ends of the spectrum. The shadows are neither invading or conquering the land as they are as timeless as the land itself. The newcomers in the land is humanity (the wooden fences or that solitary windmill that jot out of the geography), and from there, it takes sides, to dwell underneath the dark or to bask in the light. However, morality is balanced by forces of fate and fortune and there is no clear border separating good and evil. The most painful thing in the world is realizing just that.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Resiklo (2007)

Resiklo (Mark Reyes, 2007)
English Title: Recycle

Mark Reyes' Resiklo (Recycle) is set in the near future, where Earth will be dominated by invading aliens (the film's computer manufactured prologue begins with a space-bound asteroid breaking apart to reveal a triangular shaped aircraft, supposedly carrying the evil invaders out to wreak havoc on planet Earth). The remnants of the human race will spend years evading death, capture or being transformed into pale and emotionless minions (referred to as Mutanos, probably derived from "mutant"). In the Philippines particularly, the survivors of the invasion found a walled and hidden community called Paraiso (Tagalog for "Paradise"), thriving in the midst of depletion of natural resources and constant threats from the roving Mutanos (out to collect humans to accomplish their so-called quotas) by foraging for food and recycling materials for further use.

It sounds like a compelling scenario for what could have been a good science fiction movie, something Philippine cinema has been deprived of, unless you count Lav Diaz's poetic sojourn into the hauntingly familiar near-future in Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Hesus the Revolutionary, 2002). Several foreign films have successfully exploited the idea of a future where the theme of survival against a grave scarcity of resources resounds (like George Miller's Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981), and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), or L. Q. Jones' A Boy and His Dog (1975), a low-budget post-apocalyptic and trippy journey of a man and his telepathic dog). Unfortunately, Resiklo has none of the innovativeness or the overt campiness both Miller and Jones infused to their films, nor does it require the prerequisite contemplation Diaz demands of his audience. What director Mark Reyes sought to achieve is idiotically simple: to sustain the audience for one and a half hours with what essentially is an utterly mindless exercise of visual and aural spectacle passing off as cinematic art. Even with that very shallow goal, he barely succeeds.

Resiklo is one expensive spectacle. Millions of pesos, well above the normal budget of a local mainstream movie (but still a fraction of the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster) were spent on post-production and special effects. The results of the hefty investment are apparent as Resiklo is riddled with special effects-heavy sequences (including the already mentioned prologue, a fight off between a robot and an alien, a battle scene featuring robots and aliens; the effects are not really at par with current Hollywood standards, but is a step forward in local cinema) and features state-of-the-art sound mixing. Unfortunately, jazzing up lifelessly directed scenes featuring soullessly portrayed characters eschewing badly written lines with computer-generated visuals and eardrum-pumping sound effects is not the panacea for bad cinema. Sure, Hollywood may have ignited an illusion that digital effects can pass off as great cinema and it seems that local mainstream studios are trying to apply that that illusion, substituting traditional directing and storytelling methods with an influx of cheaply-rendered special effects thus producing recent junk of varying degrees like this film, Mulawin: The Movie (Mark Reyes & Dominic Zapata, 2005), the entire Enteng Kabisote franchise (Tony Reyes, 2004-2007), Super Noypi (Quark Henares, 2006), and Exodus: Tales From the Enchanted Kingdom (Erik Matti, 2005), all of which were entries to the Metro Manila Film Festival.

Then there are those gems that surprisingly emerge from the Hollywood imposed illusion of special effects as barometer for cinematic excellence. Erik Matti's Gagamboy (Spider-Boy, 2004), for example, is a studio-financed effects-laden spectacle with Matti creating a living and breathing slum city in an ordinary sound studio. Underneath the eye candy however is a hilarious parody on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies; the film nevertheless tangentially comments and pokes fun on the Filipinos' incurable fascination with Hollywood. Instead of merely entertaining and aping Hollywood, Matti crafted something more worthwhile: a deliciously entertaining satire.

Resiklo, on the other hand, took itself too seriously, stealing from a multitude of Hollywood flicks (mostly from Michael Bay's Bad Boys 2 (2003) and Transformers (2007) and George Lucas' Star Wars franchise, among many others (I had more fun pointing out which movie Reyes stole from, than actually watching the movie). I was actually surprised that Reyes took sole writing and directing credits, when all he did was stitch together a story that utilized the various styles he can imitate from recent Hollywood imports. It's one truly promising concept, that of Filipinos crafting Japanese type mecha from what essentially are junk materials (something which is very likely, considering the Filipinos' knack of turning garbage into functional items), is wasted by simply turning it into an opportunity to show off the expensive special effects.

is buried in its own self-importance. There's a nauseating hodgepodge of virtues the movie wants to instill in its viewers: unity, the importance of family, nationalism, environmentalism, camaraderie and a healthy dose of Yuletide cheers (yes, we are entreated to an entire sequence that felt like it was plucked from a television Christmas commercial, complete with a lethally syrupy jingle). Aside from that, the movie also desperately tries to reach the younger (perhaps middle-class) audience by incorporating extreme sports and hobbies (a chase sequence features biking and skateboarding, with the characters donning Airsoft uniform). Resiklo wants to be at par with Hollywood; it wants to be the harbinger of Filipino virtues (as well as the proper vanity project of its main star, Senator Ramon "Bong" Revilla, Jr.); it wants to be the it-movie that can reach out to both the masses and the snotty middle class; it wants to be properly entertaining but without sacrificing its moral core. Resiklo wants to be so many things but only ends up being a yawn-inducing bore.

This review is also published in The Oblation.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Shake, Rattle and Roll 9 (2007)

Shake, Rattle and Roll 9 (Paul Daza, Mike Tuviera & Topel Lee, 2007)

When Regal Studios decided to revive the Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise (a franchise that temporarily ended in 1997 with its 6th reincarnation) for the 2005 Metro Manila Film Festival (a yearly festival which starts on Christmas Day where all movie theaters in the country are blocked in favor of the nine or so entries, all of which are products of the mainstream, with fairly big budgets and riddled with big-name stars), it was met, mostly by more discerning film viewers, with a disapproving groan. Has the mainstream lost all originality that it needed to dig its dusty archives to capitalize on the two week-long film festival? The cornered audience however mindlessly bought the idea and gorged on the three horror episodes like Christmas fruitcake, prompting Regal to turn the franchise into a yearly film festival tradition, and earning tons of money in doing so.

I thought the revival of the Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise was a great idea. The mainstream film industry is too old-fashioned and shrewd to invest on new filmmaking talents that it seems like the industry was never going to grow up (and every Metro Manila Film Festival looked like a reunion of fossilized commercial directors like Joel Lamangan, Jose Javier Reyes and Gil Portes, most of which are directing more than a single film in the roster of entries, turning the event into a bland, uncreative, and very exploitative event). The Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise provided cheap entry points for new filmmakers to penetrate the mainstream, and more often than not, their short film contributions to the horror triptych turned out to be the best films in the festival (like Richard Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin) in Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 (2005) or Topel Lee's Yaya (Nanny) and Mike Tuviera's LRT in Shake, Rattle and Roll 8 (2006)). I have to admit that I was quite satisfied with the resurgence of the horror franchise. Sadly, Shake, Rattle and Roll 9 finally broke this satisfaction. The latest addition to the franchise is an indubitable disappointment, each of the episodes evoking a frigid creative energy from start to finish.

The first episode entitled Christmas Tree is directed by newcomer Paul Daza, his credits include co-writing the screenplay for Mike Tuviera's Txt (2006). It's essentially about the titular Yuletide ornament, which we find out early on as having been imported from the heart of the Amazon jungle, who has an appetite for human beings. It's a humdrum affair. The hero of the picture is a little kid (played by Nash Aguas, terrific child actor who impressed me in Topel Lee's Yaya but here, has nothing else to do but wallow in shallow and mechanical line reading and cued crying), traumatized by the death of his father (underutilized Tonton Gutierrez) and is now tasked to be the sole man in their family, which includes his mom (Gina Alajar) and two sisters (Lovi Poe and Sophia Baars). Half of the short is spent on trite characterization and repetitive montages of holiday cheers, before engaging us with the final showdown between the extended family (now including grandmother (Boots Anson-Roa) and uncle (John Prats)) and the silly-looking Christmas Tree monster, an evident letdown considering that Daza had to bore us to death first before torturing us with this cheap special effects spectacle. It must be noted that in the first Shake, Rattle & Roll (Emmanuel Borlaza, Ishmael Bernal & Peque Gallaga, 1984), Bernal crafted a horror short entitled Pridyider about another inanimate object, a refrigerator, that rapes and murders. Bernal's short was scary, funny and inspired while Daza's is just annoying.

Bangungot (Nightmare), the Mike Tuviera-directed middle portion, is much better. He tells the story of Marionne (Roxanne Guinoo) who is in love with her employee Jerome (Dennis Trillo). Unfortunately, Jerome is already engaged to another girl Florence (Pauline Luna), signaling Marionne to light a candle one night and recite Latin incantations that would magically have both her and Jerome dream about each other. Of course, things go awry when a mysterious being robed in red starts haunting both of them in their dreams, threatening to suck the life out of them (with effects clearly stolen from the Dementors of the Harry Potter franchise).The story again relies on a twist to complete the dread, and it's a good thing that the twist, more than being a story cliche, adds depth, teeth and danger to Marionne's chronic obsession. It's all good and clever I thought, but it barely compares to Tuviera's own LRT, a monster flick that fed on the very plebeian necessity of commuting before transforming into an allegory on the callousness and selfishness of the powers that be.

Finally, Topel Lee's Engkanto (Enchantress) is about a band (think teenage amateurs complete with facial make-up, tattered faux goth clothes, and an abundance of shallow angst, all played by local television's teen stars --- Melissa Ricks, Mart Escudero, Jewel Mische, Felix Roco and Matt Evans (as the band's roadie with a distracting afro)) on their way to a provincial gig. They get lost on the road, spends the night in an abandoned resort which also turns out to be the home of an engkanto (an Earth spirit which takes the form of a lovely enchantress, played by a very dull and surprisingly un-seductive Katrina Halili). I had very high hopes for this episode despite the fact that Lee seems incompatible with the mainstream (the two feature films he made for Regal after Yaya were disasters of different degrees --- Ouija (2007), a ghost story with some good ideas sullied by the absolute lack of subtlety; and My Kuya's Wedding (My Brother's Wedding, 2007), a genuinely likable rom-com that had serious storytelling and originality problems). Since the would-be victims are all walking stereotypes (even the emotional tension that supposedly exists among them feels unreasonably banal, a worthless attempt to put personality into what essentially are fodder), a gargantuan weight falls upon the shoulders of the engkanto to redeem the short. Unfortunately, she's a confused creation, a seductress who is barely seducing, a monster who is barely terrifying (she controls a horde of frenzied zombies; sadly, all they do is run and grab). Lee seems to be banking on Halili's sexual stature, but she's hardly sensual with a virginal white dress wrapped all over her. In Peque Gallaga's Manananggal (Monster), final portion of the first Shake, Rattle and Roll film, sexy actress Irma Alegre is both seductive and horrifying as the titular creature; and she only needed half a body to be an effective onscreen monster.

Alas, it seems that the franchise has finally lost its steam. Instead of being the vehicle for pumping young blood into the decaying mainstream, it has removed all pretenses of being anything other than a shameless cash cow. If Shake, Rattle and Roll 9 is a barometer for the state of Philippine mainstream cinema, I am quite saddened to say that it's moribund beyond any type of salvage.

This review is also published in The Oblation.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Maling Akala (2007)

Maling Akala (Pablo Biglangawa & Veronica Velasco, 2007)
English Title: Mistaken Assumption

A man tries to balance himself in the middle of a rickety wooden bridge. He does the same inside a boat. He also loses grip of a glass which falls and breaks into several shards. An abandoned hut sits in the middle of a picturesquely constructed frame, and on the window sill of the hut is a bowl uncomfortably maintaining its balance against the humping movements of the hut's occupants. Pablo Biglangawa and Veronica Velasco's Maling Akala (Mistaken Assumption) has an almost obsessive interest on balance, whether it be on a bridge, a boat, a window sill, or the camera's frame. It somehow matches the film's inherent theme of the discomfort in living in the middle when one is assured that he sways further on the side, as what JP (a frustratingly flat Victor Basa, ) tries but fails to do in the movie (which is also the theme of Biglangawa and Veronica Velasco's first feature film Inang Yaya (Mother Nanny, 2006), where Maricel Soriano's character struggles to maintain a balance between being a loving mother to her lone daughter and affectionate nanny to her ward).

Like JP, Maling Akala is a film that continuously morphs. It starts out with a chance encounter between the two lead characters, JP and Teta (Jodi Santamaria), aboard a passenger bus to the province. JP, we are hinted by the recurring hazy flashbacks and the little details that Biglangawa and Velasco provide like the tiny blood stain in his branded shirt, his shady get-up that somewhat provides anonymity, and his aversion for the police, is on the run while Teta, as obviously evidenced by the rotundness of her belly, is on the brink of labor. While in the rest stop, Teta goes into labor and caught in an unexpected scenario, JP lends a hand by bringing her to the hospital and paying for her hospital bills. The doctor and the hospital staff mistakenly refer to JP as Teta's husband, and the two adopt the erroneous belief, introducing themselves as a married couple to Teta's parents (for different reasons: JP, to acquire a suitable hiding place in the parents' provincial house; and Teta, to give her childbirth a semblance of propriety in the eyes of her parents, which would later on evolve into a desire to turn the temporary ruse into reality).

It's the prime set-up for a timeless love story, at least in the eyes of Teta and the rest of us who, like her, still believe that love makes the world go round. The fortuitousness of their meeting, the gentleness and non-obligatory kindness of JP, and the seeming perfectness of it all would cloud any hopeless romantic's senses of what is real and not, what is possible and not. On the other hand, the set-up can also be perceived as the beginnings of a crime thriller, a daring mystery, a Filipino noir. In JP's mind, the present world revolves around the crime he has committed and is seeking absolution from to the point that his connivance with Teta becomes nothing more than a procedure for him to buy more time from justice, any attribution of emotion is utterly impossible.

Sadly, the film seems to be less deliberate and subtle than I would have wanted (Biglangawa and Velasco have a tendency for trite sentimentality, and mawkish visual and musical cues, as with Inang Yaya; that is something they probably learned while working in advertising, where every second paid by a client for must be loaded with emotions and information, thus the tendency to overexpand gestures and abandon subtlety). The film would often indulge in prolonged moments of solitary bliss (as when JP first wakes up in the provincial house, enjoying the surrounding, his body frame one with the beautiful surroundings, enough to be understood as commercial for tourism), cheesy dialogue, and a visual style that is not well-suited for the type of film they are intending to make. I prefer more somber visuals (like the ones Tsai Ming-liang or Apichatpong Weerasethakul use in their thinking-men's comedies), indicative of an unapparent yet slowly surfacing humorous core instead of Maling Akala's candy-colored commercial hues and overly-scenic framing, that pay too much attention to itself.

What Biglangawa and Velasco try to achieve in Maling Akala is a risky feat, contemplating the differing motivations of the two characters within the movie without necessarily harmonizing them. The film is not a romantic thriller, or any other mixed genre critics love throwing around. Maling Akala is essentially a comedy of errors that transforms, if necessary, into romance or mystery, but never both at the same time. It seems that the film is structured in a way that would allude to the main conflict of JP: a person cannot have two jarring personalities, two different roles, have two conflicting attractions at the same time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)

In one scene in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Nikolai (played masterfully by Viggo Mortensen) is standing naked, wearing only a pair of black boxers, in front of a group of old men, pointing and discussing the different tattoos that adorn Nikolai's body. It is the film's ultimate Cronenbergian moment, where the organic body is blurred to have a synthetic purpose and in that moment's case, the recording and retelling of Nikolai's life through the tattoos to the senior members of vor v zakone ("thief in law") before he is accepted to the exclusive brotherhood. The centuries-old practice of etching figures in the epidermis (like proto-men etching drawings of their daily lives in caves) serves less an aesthetic purpose here and more a functional or mechanical motive, quite similar to the vagina-shaped cavity in James Woods' abdomen that hides his firearm in Videodrome (1983), the wounds that elicit sexual satisfaction in Crash (1996), or the hideous scarring in Ed Harris' eye that foretells his moral positioning in A History of Violence (2005), among others.

When Nikolai is deemed worthy of the brotherhood, his skin is etched once more with the stars that represent his affiliation and rank. This represents his point of no return, the moment wherein he can no longer claim his moral ambivalence by declaring himself as mere chaffeur because now as the permanent stars on his chest and knees show, he is a ranking member of vor v zakone. In the film's most famous sequence, Nikolai is caught naked inside the sauna, the inked markings in his body revealing to his assassins what he is (Russian mob) and who he is purported to be (Kirill (Vincent Cassel), only son of the mob boss Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), which the latter saves from vengeful Chechens by turning Nikolai into bait). The bloody showdown between the two leather-jacketed killers and Nikolai may very well be remembered as example of Cronenberg's exercise in efficient directorial economics, where the editing is judicious, the cinematography is unflaunting yet purposeful, and the action choreography is astute and prudent, wisely foregoing of the cheap instancy of gunfights for the subliminal eroticism of knife-fighting. However, beneath this showing of Cronenberg's unquestionable directorial flair are the consequences of the lopsided sauna fight-off to the blurred parameters that frame Nikolai's ambivalent identity: Nikolai can no longer be blanketed the anonymity of undercover agent, yet he burrows himself deeper into the core of the Russian mob. The film's final frame (presumably after overthrowing Semyon as head of the mob, Nikolai is sitting in contemplative and punished mood with Kirill beside him) merely strengthens the notion of moral ambiguity that befell him after he is rewarded the certainty of identity when he finally becomes one with the vor v zakone.

While Nikolai is the obvious centerpiece of Eastern Promises, the characters around him are also enveloped with the same warped senses of identity and morality. Even Anna (too pleasantly portrayed by Naomi Watts that any depth of her character overpowered by the more sinister characters around her), the midwife whose supposed motivation in the film is to decipher the identity of Tatiana, the fourteen year old girl who dies while giving birth to her baby, from the diary she has left behind so that she can deliver her baby to the nearest of kin, is introduced a backstory that shrouds her personality with a hint of personal and possibly selfish motive --- to replace the baby lost with Tatiana's. In a way, Anna can be seen as a much tamer version of Nola Carveth from The Brood (1979); both go through extreme lengths (dedicated research for Anna, and a horde of cancerous humanoids that partake the appearance of her child for Nola) to fill their respective maternal voids.

Kirill's relationship with Nikolai alludes to many things. First, it contemplates a simple relational scenario of boss and employee, where Nikolai, as self-declared chauffeur succumbs to Kirill's several arbitrary requests, including a rather suspiciously motivated order to have Nikolai fuck one of the girls in the family's den of imported prostitutes. This immediately establishes that there is something beyond the professional relation that links the two, possibly one that hints of simple camaraderie, fraternal affection, and maybe and most probably, a homosexual attraction to the reserved yet unassumingly very sexual Nikolai. Cronenberg is careful not to make Kirill's homosexual tendencies obvious and apparent, instead he conceives Kirill as utterly troubled and divided: supposedly convinced that he is straight, in accordance with the necessity of continuing the familial machismo that is inherited from Russia, but internal and external factors pull him towards the fractured sexuality which Nikolai apparently exploits. Cronenberg never discloses whether the homosexual tension between Nikolai and Kirill become consummated but the atmosphere of ever-changing stances in identity overpowers, especially nearing the end of the film when Kirill finally breaks from his moral and sexual gray area and surrenders to Nikolai's moral and sexual ascendancy over him (as exemplified by the uncomfortably close embrace with Nikolai after deciding to turn over the baby to Anna) in the concrete banks of the Thames River.

Place and geography seem to play a very vital role in Cronenberg's examination of conflicted identities in several of his films. In M. Butterfly (1993), Cronenberg touched on the role of the exotic locale of colonial China to skew the supposed certain sexual identity of Jeremy Irons' character who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer who turns out to be a man. In Spider (2002), Ralph Fiennes' character's schizophrenic tendencies again ripen when he is transferred from the asylum to the halfway house. In A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen's character's identity seems to be very well-entrenched within the locale that he associates himself with in such a way that when the memory of his former life in a different locality attempts to wake him up, he retaliates and once again assimilates an identity not different from his previous life.

In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg is again examining the role of geography in his theme of identity. When Semyon gains knowledge of his son's supposed homosexuality, he blames London as the primary cause for the sudden and alarming shift in gender preference within his family line. In one pertinent scene where Anna, her aunt and uncle, are discussing the diary of Tatiana over dinner, Anna berates her uncle regarding a grammatical error he made. In the same scene, Anna opts to have the diary translated since her knowledge of the Russian language is non-existent, despite the fact that her family is from Russia. Language becomes the apparent discrepancy and source of disconnect that the change in geography has resulted in. Cultural identity has fizzled into a near non-existence because of the deliberate emigration of Russians to England. Even the sentimental central point of the screenplay (written by Steven Knight, scribe of Steven Frears' Dirty Pretty Things (2002), a film which also discusses the plight of an immigrant in England) of underage Russian girls being transported to England for prostitution is overpowered by this suggestion of Cronenberg of a deterioration and corruption of identity (physical, moral, sexual and cultural) through geographical dislocation.

Many have regarded Eastern Promises as inferior to its supposed companion piece, A History of Violence. I disagree. Although Knight's screenplay is oftentimes problematic in its blatancy in forwarding its melodramatic motivations, Cronenberg successfully floats an atmosphere of fleeting then freezing fractured identities which the characters dolorously inhabit. A History of Violence successfully details the conflicts that arise when a morally assured man suddenly discovers a forgotten past that is inconsistent with his present life. Eastern Promises follows the same thematic course that Cronenberg seems bent on pursuing and takes it a step further, forwarding characters with issues that overflow past relational, generational and geographic borders.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

3 Days of Darkness (2007)

3 Days of Darkness (Khavn dela Cruz, 2007)
Tagalog Title: Tatlong Araw ng Kadiliman

A solitary house is enveloped by an ominously dark morning sky. Inside, captured in a state of disturbing motionlessness hinting of the house's state of emptiness for years, are the typical Filipino accessories: framed ornaments, Catholic paraphernalia and other personal effects. The stillness is particularly heavy and discomforting. When a silent breeze causes a minute movement from the curtains, it evokes an uncanny displeasure. Horror is all about the little details, the deprivation of the usual comforts that the senses provide. Filmmaker Khavn dela Cruz is definitely conscious of the mechanics of horror, but is more interested in deconstructing the genre to offend the unintelligent and facile horrors with distinct commercial sensibilities and to showcase what heights in subtle social commentary the genre is capable of.

We meet the characters a day before the three days of darkness. A blonde-haired lady Kimberly (Katya Santos), hurrying up a flight of stairs to confess a well-guarded secret to a priest. The blonde-haired Asian is as apt a metaphor here as it is in Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, where the blonde hair represents an Eastern-Western psycho-cultural conundrum. She confesses of a sexual affair with a married man ultimately resulting in her pregnancy, half-thinking that a solution will be afforded by the priest hiding on the other side of the confessional booth. When the priest gives a suggestion (to have the pregnancy terminated), she is surprised by the absurdity of two things: first, a Catholic priest suggesting an abortion and second, the answer that is much different from the traditional prayers that beg for forgiveness. The safety of Catholic penance has been skewed, something strange is afoot.

Two friends, Michiko (Gwen Garci) and Isabel (Precious Adona) make their way to a bar where a band is playing a bastardized "Our Father" set into discordant music as pagan rituals (of men butchering a chicken in a seemingly ceremonial fashion) are being committed in the background. It overtly spells out a rampage of hedonistic, sacrilegious, and blasphemous activities, supposedly enough to characterize a populace deserving of the biblical apocalpyse. However, the sequence is more telling of a chronic agitation that characterizes the nation --- an ungodly mixture of several confounding elements: of bleak social alienation, sexual experimentation and the constant prodding of a mere inherited faith.

The unholy marriage of dela Cruz, staunch supporter of the underground independent film movement, and Viva Entertainment, commercial film studio and manager of Santos, Garci and Adona, members of the so-called Viva Hot Babes, can only result in a film this bizarre. 3 Days of Darkness is really an experimental film sold as a marketable endeavor. It harkens to the decades-old practice of mixing horror with sex, only executed with a near-frustrating personal style that viewers may or may not appreciate. This time, dela Cruz stages a three-day apocalyptic nightmare set in a house where three friends live. The doomsday scenario seems to release the three-way homosexual tension among the survivors, allowing for the film's much-extended money scene --- a darkly lit yet oddly arousing love scene between ex-lovers: swollen breast upon swollen breast, sweat and saliva glistening in the scarce light, as the rest of the world is wallowing in hellish pandemonium.

Dela Cruz injects the picture with enough enigmas to keep the brain working while he indulges in prolonged moments of unapologetic darkness entangled with aural indications of pain and punishment. The three main characters, Isabel, Kimberly and Michiko, seem to allude to the Philippines' three colonizing influences, Spain, the United States and Japan, respectively. However, much more than allusions, the three characters seem to be less than representations the colonizers and more of symbols of reactions to colonial influences. The trio's individual fractured personal lives reflect an internal confusion: of sex and sexuality, pleasure and faith, hedonism and religion. Together, they point out to the dilemmas of a conflicted nation, simmering in a mixture of Catholic guilt, a lack of objective identity, and a misdirected youth; possibly on the brink of its own internal doomsday.

This review is also published in The Oblation.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Confessional (2007)

Confessional (Jerrold Tarog & Ruel Dahis Antipuesto, 2007)
(Spoiler Alert: Please be warned that the plot is discussed in detail)

"We're not a country. We are scattered tribes of insecure liars, except for me," proudly declares Lito Caliso (Publio Briones III), ex-mayor of an unnamed Mindanao town who relocates to Cebu, as he guides Ryan Pastor (David Barril), editor-turned-documentary filmmaker who is obsessed with the truth, to an undisclosed location where he will be taught how to do his craft. Lito is of course referring to the Philippines, an uneasy group of islands glued together by a flimsy sense of nationalism. Lito prides himself of seeing through the colonially-established concept (or fiction, a more-suited word) of nationhood, and declares himself the most truthful of these so-called "Filipinos." Truth, we find out by then, is a virtue that cannot be equated with goodness. The harbinger of truth in the film is an overweight, hedonistic and unflinchingly murderous politician. Through the conversations and the encounters, Ryan finds out that truth is in fact very overrated, if not a totally negligible and worthless idealism.

Confessional is Jerrold Tarog (an acclaimed music scorer, who also writes, edits, and directs) and Ruel Antipuesto's first try in directing a full feature film. Interestingly though, the film does not show any sign of first-time jitters, whether it be in the technical or the creative side (eventually winning for its makers the top prize in CinemaOne's film festival). For a film budgeted at around one million pesos (or around $23,000) sourced from CinemaOne's yearly grants to deserving independent features, it is handsomely made, surprisingly sleek and very entertaining. Considering that the story spans from Manila to Cebu City (with a pertinent sideplot set in Mindanao) and involves currently sensitive topics such as government corruption, election fraud, and almost everything that continue to ail the nation, the film does not belabor (except for the occasional breaks to social-and-political-philosophical oratorical suggestions) but instead functions sufficiently with a very informal structure of an amateur documentary, complete with pseudo-realistic sequences depicting relationship quips (girlfriend-boyfriend jealousies) and sudden breaks to computer-animated visual embellishments (like in the lopsided badminton game between Ryan and his girlfriend).

Confessional is of course a mockumentary; or more accurately, fictional character Ryan Pastor's documentary on the Sinulog Festival that fortuitously morphs into an extended video-opportunity for a politico to confess his sins to humanity before he is sent to the afterlife by opponents who want him dead. Because of its genre and structure, the film, all at the same time, mocks, criticizes, and also celebrates cinema as messenger of truth. Ryan, as editor for films, has mastered the medium as a means of twisting reality, as expressed in a way he edits a wedding video where emotions are emphasized by incorporating a scene not originally part of; it's a mere white lie in the arena of cinematographic lie-crafting (as opposed to Michael Moore and other documentary filmmaker's guiltless provocations crafted from expertly edited footages) but builds into a frustration and a blind of obsession for truth.

"Lies + Lies = Truth," the equation is in itself a glaring fallacy but the thesis statement summarizes the film's rollercoasting barrage of small and large inconsistencies, from the innocent lies made to save a volatile romantic relationship to a history built upon on piles and piles of inaccuracies (like the Sinulog, which evolved from its Christian-colonial roots into a very commercial endeavor, forever twisting the event's meaning). It is no longer surprising that when Ryan is faced with truth, his reaction reeks of uncertainty and discomfort, like truth has a reputation of a mere urban legend or an extinct species of ideal in a country that thrives and celebrates without it.

Tarog and Antipuesto's first film has an undoubtedly cynical world-view, presented so matter-of-factly that the pessimism seems to breeze through (or perhaps, the country is such in a low point of its history that the brazen suggestions of Confessional no longer feel pressing but still very relevant). However, they not only tackle the moral depletion of Philippine society through the camera of a fictional filmmaker, they also eschew the supposed journalistic role of cinema, how such is eventually inexistent in a determination of collective corruption. Recorded in front of our eyes is a man shot in the head. Death is the truest thing in the world as one is either alive or not. How should one feel about it? Shocked, scared, or alarmed? The film ends with an answer to that question and the viewer can interpret it in any way he wants. I saw the ending as Ryan's eventual cure of his unhealthy obsession with the truth, after a coarse and chance encounter that left him dismayed.

This review is also published in The Oblation.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Altar (2007)

Altar (Rico Maria Ilarde, 2007)

Anyone who has watched Rico Maria Ilarde's more recent films would notice that all the protagonists of his bizarre tales are quintessential Filipino men, handsome, able-bodied, yet hinting of deeply rooted hesitations (may it be of an uncertain future, a criminal past, or sins of the family) that are exploited by the fantastic and often horrific circumstances they fatedly figure in. In Babaeng Putik (Woman of Mud, 2001), roughly masculine actor Carlos Morales plays Mark, a graduating medical student who spends some time in his uncle's remote property to assess his future, only to fall for a woman that emerges from a plant and be pitted against a terrifying monster. In Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005), Yul Servo plays Sam, an ex-convict being hunted by both the police and a band of criminals who ends up in an abandoned mansion which houses both a lovely damsel and a murderous mutant. Even in Aquarium, the middle segment of horror omnibus Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 (2005) which Ilarde directed, Ogie Alcasid plays a father, suspected of philandering by his wife but is really hiding a family secret, who acquires a condominium unit for his family. Included in the unit is an aquarium, with a creepy mask as its centerpiece, which mysteriously murders everyone that gets near to it.

Ilarde's men fortuitously end up in places where concepts of reality are discarded and replaced with elements more suited in sinister fairy tales and dark fables. These locations, like the men they attract, are far removed from the preoccupations of the daily grind and harbor well-guarded histories. They seem to belong to another dimension, to another world. The men step foot into these places, in an effort to momentarily rid themselves of their troubled past. These places turn out to be temporary refuge to the men they lure. However, aside from threats from the local monstrosities, there seems to be no real risk involvedr. Ilarde's films turn out to be imaginatively crafted fairy tale films.

Altar, Ilarde's latest, seems to be a mere reiteration of Ilarde and co-screenwriter Mammu Chua's tried and tested formula. The protagonist Anton (model turned reality TV star turned movie actor Zanjoe Marudo) is a professional boxer who accidentally kills an opponent in one match, forcing him to retire from the sport. Chronically unemployed, he and Erning (Nor Domingo), another jobless man he meets while in line, accept a job to fix a house located in the remote outskirts of Manila. The foreman (Dido dela Paz) warns them of the basement, which houses a mysterious altar. Moreover, stories of previous workers suddenly disappearing, nightly apparitions by a girl dressed in white and an attic with cross-shaped windows and doors adorned with carved Latin phrase indicate that the house is not an ordinary one. On a lighter note, the two find the loves of their life in the area, Angie (Dimples Romana) and Giselle (Kristalyn Engle), maids from a neighboring household. The film is shaped in the mold of an Ilarde horror: the man of deep hesitations is matched with a fantastic setting.

However, Altar takes a different, and in my opinion, more satisfying route. Anton is probably the most complicated Ilarde hero. He is undoubtedly virtuous but inhabits a simplistic moral landscape: of bad and good; and black and white. When faced with a situation wherein real world complexities of morality become apparent (he has killed a man in a match, a situation wherein his black-and-white morality cannot operate efficiently), he resigns. Impoverished, he is satisfied with jobs that will not require him to revisit the difficult questions of that life-altering dilemma. The house represents a vagueness of morality. Ilarde, of course uses both traditional Catholic and logical denominations and symbolisms that define good and evil: crosses and pagan artifacts, heaven and hell, innocence and ugliness, all respectively. As the story progresses, we, and Anton as well, become aware that the lines are not clear cut as they are actually treacherous and tricky. As it turns out, Anton is again faced with moral complexities wherein an erroneous appreciation of the vague lines that separate good and bad might cost him more than his life.

Anton never escapes from his fairy tale-location. He doesn't end up holding hands or exchanging romantic glances with the damsel he finds. Instead, he becomes one with the place, a key piece in that fantastic dimension. That final shot of Anton watching Angie and Giselle walk away from the cross-shaped window is unsettling. He knows fully well of the impossibility of happiness he most recently found in Angie. How did Anton end up in a situation of perpetual sorrow? It is due to his inability, his headstrong hesitation to morally evolve, leading to an erroneous call: of killing the man (a priest wearing ugly and devilish clothing) tasked of keeping the monster from escaping. His unseen act of heroism (sadly, Ilarde does not show the fight between Anton and the monster; Anton, being a titled boxer, I was expecting a lot of well-directed and well-choreographed fistfights given the fact that Ilarde has experience shooting action scenes) is only an avoidance of further trouble caused by his mistake.

Altar is most definitely a step-forward for Ilarde and Chua, surprising though since the film didn't cost too much and was riddled with several production quips (mostly due to the fact that the funding was sourced from CinemaOne, restricting some independence for the filmmakers). Instead of abandoning the niche for which they have grown accustomed to and comfortable with, they redefined themselves by furthering their interpretation of the genre with conflicts that details astounding depth and maturity. That said, Altar might very well be my favorite Ilarde.

This review is also published in The Oblation.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Cigarettes, Cues and Cinema: Filipino Shorts of 2007

Raymond Red's Anino (Shadow)

Over the years, there have been plenty of Filipino films that have screened in Cannes including Lino Brocka's Insiang (1976) and Jaguar (1979), Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004) and Brillante Mendoza's Foster Child (2007). However, there has only been one Filipino film that has won an award from the prestigious film festival. That film, recipient of the Palme d'Or for Short Film in 2000, is Raymond Red's Anino (Shadow, 2000), a short film that details the encounters of an unlucky photographer in Manila. The short film, then thought of as inferior to the full-length feature, has finally gained respect and attention in the country. Moreover, the advent of digital video has made it much easier for filmmakers to experiment with the medium. The result is an influx of short film works, mostly from students of the many film schools scattered around the archipelago. The problem is to separate the bad from the good and from there, pick out works that are truly excellent. The many independent film festivals like Cinemalaya and Cinemanila has made the job easier by selecting a number of short films for screening or competition. Of course, there will always be undiscovered gems floating around in cyberspace or screening in some undisclosed viewing area. The short films reviewed are the ones I have had the opportunity to watch, mostly in this year's Cinemalaya Film Festival held in the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Jerrold Tarog's Carpool won a short film competition held in the nation's cultural center in Manila. The story is mundane, perhaps inconsequential. Three girls, friends from high school up to college, are finally reuniting after an alleged boyfriend-snatching that ensued between two of them. Tarog sets his audience up with what seems like a banal in-car discussion of hurt feelings, juvenile romances and harsh betrayals. The setup is all too familiar; the reveal even more so in an off-putting, completely understandable and ultimately humorous way. The victim of the boyfriend-snatching has got everything wrong. Her fury should have been directed to the person she entrusted with her fiery private outbursts. It's classic comedy of errors, a mini-network film where characters aren't separated by cultural and geographic divides but by petty quarrels and one undisclosed yet vital information.

Tara Illenberger's Durog

The 2007 version of Cinemalaya has ten short films in competition. Included are Vic Acedillo Jr.'s Toni, a tale of a solitary boy finding unlikely friendship with a statue of the Santo Nino, Hubert Tibi's Maikling Kwento (Short Story), another tale of friendship between two kids, an enterprising Chinese and a Filipino, editor-turned-director Tara Illenberger's Durog, which details a druggie's exploration of mysterious shrooms that blur fantasy and reality, future and present, and Peque Gallaga-protege Lawrence Fajardo's Liwanag sa Dilim (Light in the Darkness), an exercise in stylistics while tackling the pitfalls of drug addiction. I was neither moved not offended by the entries. The short films were shown and ultimately forgotten. These concepts definitely looked better in paper.

Mark dela Cruz's Misteryo ng Hapis (Sorrowful Mystery) is easily the most well-made of the bunch. Set during the pa-siyam (the traditional nine days after the death of a loved one spent praying novenas), Misteryo ng Hapis is about a stage performer (Andoy Ranay) suffering through bouts of painful flashbacks of his hard life growing up as a homosexual in a strict Catholic household. Clearly, dela Cruz goes for atmosphere. Candle-lit interiors, theatric gestures, silent cries, and neverending prayers repeated with mantra-like dedication by the devout converge to detail a near-claustrophobic repression of sexuality dealt by adherence to the Catholic faith. The end, where Ranay goes on stage and performs, is a much-deserved release. Dela Cruz's sincerity is undoubtable but his embellishments could have been minimized; there's too much make-up in this gay film.

On the other hand, Tagapagligtas (Protector), Maria Solita Garcia's entry about an abortionist in Manila's most famous church district, has all the embellishments without Dela Cruz's onscreen sincerity. It's a heavyhandedly executed morality play, packing the valuable minutes with every abortion-related cliche conceivable. Emmanuel dela Cruz's Gabon (Cloud), like Misteryo ng Hapis, is set during the time of mourning. A Moro girl enters her classroom, and the rest of the students react to a mysterious stench. Two elderly Moro enter the room; one starts singing a native folk song, supposedly to appease the girl, who we find out is a spirit who continues her ambition to finish schooling despite her death. The short is heartfelt and sensitive. While it hints of politics (Dela Cruz's quaint visuals arbitrarily morph into what looks like black and white security cam footage, hinting of a connection to the government's military efforts in Mindanao pursuant to the so-called war on terrorism), the short doesn't attempt to push the envelope.

Nisha Alicer, Caren Crisologo and Nix Lañas' Doble Vista

Nisha Alicer, Caren Crisologo and Nix Lañas' Doble Vista, about a writer (Jake Macapagal) still in love with his muse (Lily Chu), is the audience award winner of the film festival. For the uninitiated, the short feels like a commercial for cigarettes (I remember one commercial where the token male lead jumps from one scene to another without any logical explanation). The filmmakers explain that the short is a serious product of their adherence to Godard's counter-cinema. The short, however, betrays their lofty ambitions. Instead of really countering the conventions of commercial contemporary Filipino cinema, the film feels like an consolidation of several popular influences (the cigarette-wielding writer is spirited away from Tony Leung's persona in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love (2000), the jazzy rhythm from early Godard (or worse, Godard's numerous inferior advocates), the video-essay on death and cigarettes from de-intellectualized Chris Marker, same actor (Art Alicer) recurring in varying roles in what seems to be an attempt at surrealism from Luis Bunuel). It's unfortunate really, as the three filmmakers are great technicians (the writing is current, the editing is precise, the cinematography is wonderful given the restrictions of the digital format) and young; they will inevitably find their own voice, and will inevitably forget the counter-cinema excuse, something I believe has lost much of its meaning especially in an international film culture that has branched into so many categories.

The most fun short film is Enrico Aragon's Nineball, winner of the jury prize. It is rude, crass, yet absolutely hilarious. It first pokes fun at the indefatigable relationship between Filipinos and the game of billiards (the success of billiards champions Efren 'Bata' Reyes, Django Bustamante and other Filipino greats has inspired jobless vagabonds to take up the pastime as supposed livelihood). The center point is an obsessed billiards aficionado, his face covered by a horrid rag (it is the mystery that opens to the punchline) and is fed with raw potatoes (his obsession extends to his turning his eating utensils into cues and the potatoes into billiards balls); the punchline is that his misfortune is a freak accident in one of his usual games. The punchline of the punchline is the cameo of Efren 'Bata' Reyes, the aficionado's savior. Aragon prolongs the comedy through the end credits: the suspect nineball passed from one cue to another in shocking yet deadpan fashion.

Alvin Yapan, awarded fiction writer and lecturer on Filipino literature in Ateneo de Manila University, enters the filmmaking arena with much humility. His short film Rolyo (Roll), which tackles a provincial family trying to earn a living, won Best Short Film in Cinemalaya and in my opinion, is the most outstanding short film of the year. The film is technically crude (the visuals feel very earthy and natural, the sound design unabridged with background noise --- provincial breeze muffling the audio --- unedited from the final product). Yapan is obviously not a trained filmmaker, but what he possesses is a gift for telling a story with layers and layers of meanings, overcoming the banality of the mundane to dish out an engaging commentary.

Alvin Yapan's Rolyo (Film Roll)

The subject of Rolyo (Film Roll) is the titular film roll, used by the family as perimeter fence of their farm to protect their crops from feeding birds. The daughter is tasked to catch the birds, which her father will later on paint with cheap watercolors. The next day, the two travel to the town church where they will sell the painted birds to other children. The money they will earn from the sale of the birds will be used to buy home-made trumpets, crafted by rolling reels into a cone. The irony of the film is that the use of these film reels is anything but cinematic or artistic; the family uses the reels for economic purposes. Cinema to them is confined within the perimeters of daily survival and is mutated into a mere tool for livelihood (the art is removed from the substance (the negatives)), far detached from common precepts of what cinema stands for. The main character, the daughter stands in front of a cineplex showing the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Her father disapproves knowing that they cannot afford to purchase tickets to the screening and they proceed to walk (there's also a sublime sequence which showcases their detachment. The daughter exchanges glances with a kid inside a fastfood chain; the two of them separated by both the glass window and financial freedom. The kid continues to play merrily while the daughter walks along with her father to the church).

The short ends with an act that showcases Filipino innovativeness amidst the lack of economic power: the daughter against the candle light "watches" the movie from the de-rolled reel sourced from the homemade trumpet, just before it is converted into an anti-avian fence. It's a nuanced scene symbolic of the daughter's trying to infuse cinema back to the reels which have been commodified by human need. Here, she finds a semblance of what the reels are really meant for (to tell stories) despite being stuck in her harsh reality which does not provide her cinema. Rolyo really is a fascinating film, sufficiently turning the film reel (one also wonders which lost Filipino classic the daughter has seen that night) as a symbol of humanism against the face of a dehumanizing work-a-day world.

This post is my contribution to the Short Film Blog-A-Thon hosted in Only the Cinema and Culture Snob.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Burlesk Queen (1977)

Burlesk Queen (Celso Ad. Castillo, 1977)
English Title: Burlesque Queen

Celso Ad. Castillo's Burlesk Queen (Burlesque Queen) is most famous for Vilma Santos' noteworthy performance. She plays Chato, daughter of crippled Roque (Leopoldo Salcedo). She works as assistant to Virgie (Rosemarie Gil), current star of the burlesque stage (the film opens with Gil gyrating to the rapid beatings of drums, to the ecstasy of her numerous patrons). Resisting the lofty wishes of her father, Chato succumbs to the lure of the stage and the money it would bring her. It really is a grand performance as Santos was able to deliver the physical requirements of the role with her innate charismatic aura (a skill that earned the actress legions of fans and eventually elected to public office). Santos' Chato is servile to the men around her (her father, Louie the theater manager (played by Joonee Gamboa in the film's other equally terrific performance) and Jessie (Rolly Quizon), her boyfriend) but when she dances onstage, it doesn't come off as merely sensual and titillating. She dances burlesque to make a statement (if there is such a thing), a statement important enough to die for.

More remarkable than Santos' portrayal of the doomed burlesque dancer, is Castillo's filmmaking. Set within the very patriarchal lower class Manila, Castillo posits the burlesque theater as not merely, as impassioned Louie points out, a place for highbrow entertainment for the masses, but also the window for the film's female lead to become superior to her male oppressors. It's a difficult metaphor to execute but Castillo successfully does so. The dancer, scantilly clad amidst the cheers and jeers of horny men, is easily regarded as the victim of exploitation. But in the film's case, the stage becomes the dancer's opportunity for leverage which is impossible in the outside world. The stage provides Chato ease from the outside world's patriarchal clutches. She becomes financially stable on her own, temporarily free from her father's influences, and powerful over thousands of men.

Interestingly, Castillo stages a poetically sequenced scene of Chato's devirginization within the theater. Jessie attempts to make love to Chato inside her dressing room, and the latter submits to the former's sexual advances. Interspersed between their lovemaking (take note of the ballad that plays in the background as the lyrics talk of love amidst the entire world's disapproval, very typical of the romantic declarations that inevitably falter over time) are scenes from the stage, a circus act of horrid penetrations: of a woman being juggled by a man, several magic acts, and more importantly, of a man hammering a nail inside his nostril, then puncturing his eye socket with a metal stick, finally commencing with him swallowing a long blade. Castillo's juxtaposing Chato's first sexual act with acts of unnatural and bizarre penetrations of the human body impart a clear message of invasion, of Chato's theater where she is the goddess (her stage name is Tsarina the goddess) and almighty over all the men who watch her. The theater is no longer the same sanctuary; in a way, the theater's magic has been tainted. She becomes pregnant and decides to stop dancing pursuant to her relationship with Jessie and pregnancy. Her devirginization within the theater becomes symbolic of her surrender to the outside patriarchal forces.

The burlesque is in its dying days. Submitting to the very same patriarchal forces that have established strict moral norms and economic systems, the government has deemed the dance to be lewd and illegal. Louis plans that the final burlesque performance be the best and we become witnesses to the plan's grand execution: a judiciously edited montage of circus acts, musical numbers, costumed dances and finally Chato's coup de grace to both the theater and to herself. In a hypnotized daze with spotlights concentrating on her rhythmic gyrations, she enchants her audience. Once more, she is a goddess, the most powerful person in that wide area full of men. Her reign is short lived for she is pregnant with Jessie's child and starts bleeding. Castillo cuts to Chato's face, sweaty and in pain and we hear as her heavy breathing joins the rapid beating of the drums. The camera pans down, and we see her belly dangerously shaking as blood continuously flows down her thighs. This is Chato's repentance, a fatal undoing of her naive betrayal of the stage to succumb to patriarchal forces. Chato reluctantly stops and presumably dies as the crowd cheers on.

A jovial and sweet melody replaces the hurried beating of the drums and the boisterous cheers. The theater is empty. The hundred or so seats have no eager men sitting on them. A dusty curtain covers the once vibrant stage. Pictures of the burlesque dancers, more prominently Chato, are on display. Outside, a couple of players, including the Filipino version of Chaplin (complete with the trademark hat and cane of The Tramp), are waiting. They stand up and leave. The film closes with them walking away from the theater, reminiscent of the bittersweet finales of Charlie Chaplin's comedies (more specifically The Circus (1928) and Modern Times (1936)). Of course, Burlesk Queen is nowhere like Chaplin's films yet the ending feels irresistibly apt, an intriguingly ironic homage. The living remnants of the theater, those bit players walking away, have no bright future. Like Chato, the theater is their sanctuary and survival. The real world, the desolate and unfair lower class Manila of which they are ultimately going to, has no place for them. The melody, the memories, and the transient burlesque queen that once charmed a thousand men with the movement of her hips have been drowned by hopelessness. They shall all remain tramps.

Burlesk Queen is much more than a gripping commercial melodrama. It is also a scathing commentary on the sexual politics that has become the atmosphere of Philippine society: of hardworking women and the good-for-nothing men they serve; of a patriarchal society gone awry. It is also a fervent reminder of the redemptive and equalizing power of art. Multi-faceted, committedly acted, and very well-directed, Burlesk Queen, I opine, is an unsung masterpiece.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Adultery (Aida Macaraeg Case No.7892) (1984)

Adultery (Aida Macaraeg Case No. 7892) (Lino Brocka, 1984)

Adultery (Aida Macaraeg Case No. 7892) is not one of filmmaker Lino Brocka's best works. It definitely cannot be lined alongside masterpieces like Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed But Found Wanting, 1974), Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), and Insiang (1976). At best, Adultery is a well-made melodrama that puts a social issue, that of marital infidelity as escape from poverty, at the center of its affairs. Jose Javier Reyes' well-crafted screenplay (the story is credited to Aida Sevilla Mendoza) is supposedly sourced from a real life account, but one wonders if convenient happy endings (which the film unfortunately struggles with) exist in these kind of cases, especially ones as emotionally charged as in the film. In the Philippines, adultery cases stretch for years and any emotion resembling marital love and concern is replaced with scorching hate, the primary ingredient that fuels litigation.

Aida (Vilma Santos giving a very mature performance) is the sole breadwinner for her family, consisting of a bedridden father, a nagging mother, a good-for-nothing brother, his unemployed wife and baby. Unable to bear the hardships of living with her family, she takes the offer of her boyfriend Carding (Phillip Salvador) to simply live together, resisting his invitation to marry him despite the possible scandal that might arise out of their living arrangement. Carding gets caught peddling prohibited drugs and gets imprisoned, leaving Aida all alone to fend for herself. Years later, Carding gets released from prison and finds Aida, now a mistress of a wealthy executive (Mario Montenegro) and mother to a child that is not his. Aida is then sued for adultery by Carding, which if she is proven guilty would separate her from her son.

There's one sequence in the film which clearly shows Brocka's mastery. Aida visits Carding in prison, telling him of her pregnancy. Carding again offers to marry her, fearing that their child would be a bastard child. Supposedly out of pity, Aida agrees. The marriage is solemnized then and there. The prison chaplain officiates the ceremony where Aida is draped in an ordinary dress while Carding wears the orange colored uniform. Around are the witnesses of their marriage, felons all donning the same orange outfit Carding is wearing. Of course, these are mere background details, emphasizing the sullenness of the event that is ordinarily jovial and lively. Brocka concentrates on Aida. He closes up on her face, worried about the uncertainty of her future: she is after all pregnant and now married to a convict with absolutely no source of income. It is Aida's point of no return and Brocka understands it as such, thus he presents it with understated elegance; no dialogue, just Lutgardo Labad's swelling music and Brocka's emphatic close-up of Vilma Santos' apprehensive face.

The film attempts to criticize marriage, which is depicted not in its traditional sense (as the key to life's bliss) but as a harrowing cage where women are left with no choices. It seems to advocate infidelity, especially when the requirements of life overtakes the facile concerns of societal and religious norms. Interestingly, Brocka does not antagonize any of his characters. Aida is a hardworking woman who we first see as the selfless sufferer who is charged with her family's survival, a mere victim of fate and circumstance. Also, one cannot doubt Carding's affection for Aida. His decisions in life may have been off, leading to his incarceration and Aida's continuing suffering, but it is clear that his love for his wife is indubitable. The blame does not go to any person but to the social institution that is marriage, its sometimes shallow roots and the unbendable veneration the law and society gives to it to the detriment of the unique needs of individuals.

I am impressed as to how Brocka directed the courtroom sequence, without the usual pomp and unnecessary drama. The courtroom sequence gives the impression as to how the justice is bookish and blind to personal plights. One lawyer asks Aida a question, and she shies away saying that the question is too personal. Of course, the judge demands that she answer the question, which she does unwillingly. In the eyes of the law, emotions, circumstance, fate, and needs are denied materiality and relevance. Under the law, Aida is guilty and deserves the penalty that would have been dealt to her. This should have been the instance wherein we'll fall for Aida's plight: that despite her being guilty for adultery, she does not deserve to be punished for she was merely forced to infidelity not by an innate evil but by circumstances that are uncontrollable in her life. However, instead of dishing out an ending that would operate as the culmination of such criticism, Brocka and Reyes decided to succumb to sentimentality. Husband forgives wife. Wife gets her son back. Everybody's satisfied. Unfortunately, reality, which the film tried so hard to emulate, isn't anything like that.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Huling Balyan ng Buhi (2006)

Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Sherad Anthony Sanchez, 2006)
English Title: Woven Stories of the Other

Film critic Alexis Tioseco calls Sherad Anthony Sanchez's first feature film Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other) the single most important Filipino film of 2006. The acclaim is both daunting and deserved: daunting because several excellent and important Filipino films were also released in 2006 (including Lav Diaz's 9 hour epic Heremias, Jeffrey Jeturian's socio-realist drama Kubrador (The Bet Collector), and John Torres' very personal Todo Todo Teros), and deserved because Huling Balyan ng Buhi is indeed a wondrous revelation of an up and coming filmmaking talent (Sanchez, who at merely 22 has made a film that is both intensely beautiful and mature) and also of the largely marginalized regions of the Philippines from which unique experiences and tales can be gathered.

Huling Balyan ng Buhi was made through a fund granted by CinemaOne, a cable channel that hosts a yearly film festival (the film festival's more prominent products include Dennis Marasigan's Sa North Diversion Road (On the North Diversion Road, 2005), an adaptation of a play that centers on marital infidelity, Sigfried Barros-Sanchez's Ang Anak ni Brocka (The Son of Brocka, 2005), a mockumentary that plays around with the idea of gay filmmaker Lino Brocka siring a child, and Connie Macatuno's Rome and Juliet (2006), a lesbian romance). Sanchez, armed with the film grant worth 700,000 pesos (around $15,000 more or less) and a definite idea of what he wants for his first film, travelled back to his native Mindanao to start production, hiring most of his production crew and several non-actors from the area, making the film feel as real as possible (and according to Tioseco, Sanchez cut out some footages with veteran actor Bembol Roco from the final film, feeling they were false).

"Sa pula, sa puti" (translated as "in red, in white," the typical call before a cockfight signalling the betters to choose the fighting cock they wish to bet on) narrates a female voice while images of red and white are flashed onscreen. This is followed by a narrated prologue telling a tale (scenes from the tale are windowboxed, evoking a sense of reminiscence or storytelling) of armed conflict between two tribes where a child, grandson of the tribe's balyan or priestess, gets injured. To preserve their heritage and the hard-earned victory against the rival tribe, the villagers ambush the balyan and several other men are carrying the injured child to the town doctor. The film then goes on to tell of the seemingly disparate tales of three groups: an ambushed crew of communists recuperating and waiting for other comrades, a battalion of government troops stationed in the village of a balyan, and two children who are lost in the jungle.

Sanchez mixes poetry and mundane reality. He bathes carefully composed and framed images with the sweeping arias composed by Matilda: waiting atop a grass covered hill becomes rhythmic and haunting, a soldier following a distressed balyan is punctured with an enigmatic and curiously sexual air, as well as in a scene where two men start wrestling amidst a pond where a naked woman mysteriously emerges from.

Huling Balyan ng Buhi is a war film, one that doesn't relish in the flagrant violence and casualties but speaks of and for the lives that are ultimately affected. Philippine cinema has shied away from discoursing war (which is very surprising since the government has been engaged in armed conflict for decades with rebels); the last film that attempted to do so, not counting those films that were merely set during wartime but not really interested in the subject, is Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Bagong Buwan (New Moon, 2001), a rather unsuccessful attempt to put into film the lasting conflict between the government and the Moro insurgents. Sanchez's film, instead of relying on the traditional narrative, crosscuts between real-time sequences that is more telling of the currency of conflict than what is manufactured by the creative mind of a screenwriter, who mostly merely rewrites personal impressions of war or what has been published in newspapers. In Huling Balyan ng Buhi, we see soldiers delighted by a videoke machine where they can sing popular songs in Manila or feasting on rows of banana leaves filled with rice, vegetables and fried fish; or hear young communist recruits being taught the evils of capitalism or singing their anthem while exchanging longing looks for each other. This is the real face of war especially one that has been staggered for years: of boredom, simple pleasures, diminished ideologies, and communities where the presence of uniformed soldiers and regular clashes have become a way of life.

Then there's the balyan, a curiously malformed (she is merely the height of a prepubescent boy, and has an abnormal gait) woman who is suffering a mysterious malady as her hands are draped in bloodied bandages. She laments of what she has become, a mere curiosity to the younger members of the village and a plaything to the transient soldiers. Where once the balyan was revered for her contributions as elder to the community, now, because of the infiltration of modern forces through the windswept tracks of warfare (soldiers from more urbanized locations and progressive ideologies have tainted the purity of culture), they are seen as living antiquities, respected not for what they are but for what they once represented. The balyan here is that very delicate element, fragile, dying and somewhat insignificant, that is struggling to continue to exist in a nation that is slowly being homogenized by modernity and armed conflict.

Then there are the two children who traverse the jungle, sometimes killing time by playing hide and seek but most of the time, aimlessly crying and walking as if looking for something or someone they lost. It is a thread totally unrelated to the struggles of the ambushed rebels or the community of soldiers. The two lost children seem to be in the film in a symbolic capacity, representative of something which is not totally clear (maybe forgotten) but still evidently familiar: of being young and lost. During the final moments of the film, the two children find who they were looking for, their mother, deep within the jungle. Sanchez's camera follows their excited faces as they run towards the yet unseen object of affection, cutting to an overhead shot of a jungle clearing nestled from the rain by foliage. The two kids lie, huddled together, in the clearing. There is no mother, no other person beside them.

The stories are finally woven together not by the common considerations of traditional narrative but by an overbearing feeling caused by prolonged warfare where no bet can ever be capable of winning. The thread that finally connects everything is inevitable loss: of a mother we'll never get to know, of a real reason to fight, of the last balyan, the final bastion of a cultural identity.

This is my contribution to the Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon at Unspoken Cinema.