Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Philippine Cinema on the Verge of Redemption

from Sherad Sanchez's Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other)

Philippine Cinema on the Verge of Redemption
by Francis Joseph Cruz

Nine Best Digital Films

My list would have been different. Lav Diaz’s Heremias (2006; a nine-hour epic about an ox-cart driver on a spiritual journey), Dennis Marasigan’s Sa North Diversion Road (On the North Diversion Road, 2005; a road trip through the despair of a dying marriage), Ato Bautista’s Sa Aking Pagkagising Mula sa Kamulatan (My Awakening From Consciousness, 2005; a powerful yet flawed film of connected stories of angst-ridden teens), Khavn dela Cruz’s Squatterpunk (2006; a video-collage of scenes shot in the slums set into motion by the music of the aptly-named band, The Brockas), and most recently Jade Castro’s Endo (2007; a lovely romance set in a world of temporary contractual workers) would possibly make the cut.

It’s unfortunate that there’s only one documentary in the list. Raya Martin’s The Island at the End of the World (2005; a fascinating immersion on the Ivatans of Batanes as shown by juvenile inmates) and Ditsi Carolino’s Bunso (The Youngest, 2005; a brave expose on the futility of both our judicial and penal systems, as shown by the experiences of juvenile inmates) are all powerful documentaries. More surprising is the lack of genre films. Rico Ilarde’s Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon¸ 2005; a nightmarish tale of a man-on-the-run, a mysterious lass, and a monster hiding beneath a forest of tall grass), Erik Matti’s Pa-Siyam (2004; although studio-financed, it is a film shot in digital video, about siblings unraveling the mysteries behind their mother’s death) and Mario Cornejo & Monster Jimenez’s Big Time (2005; two petty crooks trapped in a scheme bigger than their ambitions) are all worthy candidates.

The nine digital films in the program, selected through a series of surveys, are all worthy entries. These are the films that do not need the oft-used and bastardized label of “indie” to legitimize their existence.

Films About Children

More than half of Filipinos are children which is probably the reason Philippine cinema has an infatuation with children’s tales. More than the statistics, films about children always focus on coming-of-age, of innocence on the verge of a sudden awakening, of the beauty of naiveté in the midst of the world’s realities.

In Mes de Guzman’s Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong (The Road to Kalimugtong, 2005), two children wake up to their daily task of walking miles to reach their school. The film unravels like a humble ode to those struggling to traverse that barricaded road to their meager ambitions. It’s brilliant in its narrative simplicity yet it carries with it a subtle indictment of the ills of an underfunded public education system.

The unlikely heroine of Brillante Mendoza’s Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), young Jonalyn, has the daunting task of teaching the members of her Aeta tribe to write in time for the presidential elections. Through her journey to find her grandfather (who is more interested in hunting for food than taking part in the elections), she awakens to the futility of modern democratic processes, especially to their tribe, a mere dot in the myriad of problems plaguing the nation.

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) sparked public consciousness on the unlimited possibilities of the digital medium by winning hordes of awards and recognition from several film festivals here and abroad. Auraeus Solito’s first feature carefully puts in the center of the film a fragile romance between an honest cop and adorable Maxie. In a sequence borrowed from Carol Reed’s The Third Man, we become witnesses of the pre-pubescent gay boy’s quickened and heartbreaking blossoming in a world as dirty as the trash-clogged canals shown in the film’s start.

Films About Poverty

Poverty is more often than not, a primary ingredient in Philippine cinema. Being poor is prima facie evidence of being the underdog and filmgoers’ hearts ache for the underdog. Lino Brocka turned poverty into his canvass; it is the impetus for the bizarre love triangle in Insiang (1976), for the Manila-bound exodus of Ligaya in Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), and for the subjugation of the men to near-nude grinding in Macho Dancer (1988). Digital cinema has embraced the decades-old trope with a fresh approach.

Riles (Life on the Tracks, 2003) is the lone documentary in the program. Ditsi Carolino’s unobtrusive camera relentlessly follows the Renomerons during their final days living in a makeshift shack a meter away from the railroad tracks. Of course, the true movers of the documentary are Carolino’s subjects: Eddie, the husband with pitch-perfect comic timing and Pen, whose consistent nagging is made charming by her fortitude against the many illnesses she is feeling. The result of Carolino’s sincere storytelling and the Renomerons’ willingness to have their lives immortalized in digital video is a moving portrait of survival and resilience in the midst of inhumane living conditions.

Like Riles, Jeffrey Jeturian’s Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006) centers on the resiliency of its main character Amy, a bet collector for an illegal numbers game. Her profession dictates that she be at the mercy of fate as her every transaction, each little mistake invites death. Always moving forward and with frequent apparitions from his dead soldier son, it takes a chance encounter with death for her to pause, and realize how close she is to the grave.

New Visions

A cinematic revolution that merely exchanges 35mm for the cheap conveniences of digital video can hardly be called as a true revolution. The conventions of narrative cinema should be broken, and new stories be told.

If cinema is terrorism, as John Torres’ Todo Todo Teros forwards, then the Philippines would be its ideal headquarters. Torres populates his film with familiar faces and places: directors Lav Diaz, Khavn dela Cruz, and Regiben Romana are artist-terrorist hybrids and pubs and concert venues their dangerous lairs. However, that’s just the brilliant backdrop of this essentially romantic tale of an artist deeply in love with Olga, his Russian tour guide, at the expense of his desperate wife. That scene where the wife weeps as footages of her husband and Olga sharing moments with each other are projected over each and every corner of that paranoid metropolis is something that will forever be etched in my cinematic consciousness.

Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other, 2006) was made with seed money provided by Cinema One, a cable network under the Lopez Family-owned conglomerate. It is the best film to ever be funded out of the pockets of Lopezes (a daunting feat since the family owns one of the biggest film studios in the country). A boy and a girl on a search, a band of Communist fighters, a camp of government troops, their neighbor, a priestess of a dying tradition --- these are the threads that are weaved to form the mysterious and magical, subversive yet lyrical tale of the marginalized.

Raya Martin’s Maicling Pelicula ng Ysang Indio Nacional (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional, 2005) presupposes a film culture that preceded the concept of nationhood. Vignettes of everyday functions (quite subversive in its subtle humor; children enchanted by an eclipse and churchgoing chores) under Spanish rule, transforming into the footholds of an impending revolution are successively shown, accompanied by live music (from a repertoire chosen personally by Martin). The clever footages are given significance by the film’s haunting first part: a woman unable to sleep wakes up her husband and begs for a story; the story alludes to the melancholy of a nation deprived of identity and history, symbolized by the woman deprived of her sleep.

Lav Diaz’s Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004) took a decade to make (it includes both 16mm and digital video footage). Clocking at eleven hours, the film is a monumental examination of two families struggling through the political and economic change brought about by history. The middle entry to his Filipino Trilogy (which includes Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2002) and Heremias), the film establishes Diaz as one of the most unique voices in contemporary cinema.

Like the fractured interconnected souls of Diaz’s Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, our cinema is on the verge of a beautiful redemption. Young filmmakers like Martin, Sanchez, Torres, and many more waiting to be discovered have taken into their hands the role of pioneers of this new Philippine cinema. Truly, we are living in exciting times.

This article was written for the 9th Cinemanila International Film Festival catalogue. Unfortunately, the program of "Nine Best Digital Films" was shelved, along with this article. It has found a new home in my blog.
The film festival runs from August 9 to 19 in the Gateway Mall in Quezon City, and August 17 to 19 in Boracay Island.

I also urge you to check Noel Vera's List of 100 Best Filipino Films.


Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the mention!

Oggs Cruz said...

No problem.

Anonymous said...

Lovely list. I will watch Kubrador and see if it is fit for my topic on social consciousness this month. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction ;)