Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Taon Noong Ako'y Anak sa Labas (2008)

Taon Noong Ako'y Anak sa Labas
(John Torres, 2008)
English Tranlation: Years When I Was a Child Outside

“Have I made that film?” asks John Torres, reflective filmmaker and narrator to his most personal film to date. His question is addressed to his father, and indirectly to the audience. Taon Noong Ako'y Anak sa Labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside) is very humble piece, I thought. There is not an ounce of pompousness in the entire film. Torres' query refers to the Christ film the father has failed to finish, which again indirectly refers to the complete product of Torres’ follow-up to the beautiful Todo Todo Teros (2006). Taon Noong Ako'y Anak sa Labas could probably be the Christ film that the father could never have made. It aches with that eternal bond of both admiration and displeasure the son has for his father, or the several stories that similarly evoke silent suffering and sacrifices Torres’ many subjects reveal.

Torres’ film is bound by the volatile relationship the director has with his father. Like his previous effort, Voices is mostly composed of footages swimming in an almost invisible pool of repressed emotions and passive yet enunciated responses. It opens with filmmakers Khavn dela Cruz and Raya Martin as the two of them are consumed by inactivity, characterized by an uneasy mixture of boredom and homesickness. The film really begins when the narrator starts declaiming ten important points of his life, read like the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses, which strengthens my theory that Taon is a spiritual movie, although not essentially Catholic or Christian, in a way that it uses traditional religious concepts to release a much more relevant image of humanity and its so-called soul.

Torres’ camera then lingers inside a dwelling wherein bootleg VCDs are being labeled in a book-cramped storeroom, which also serves as the family’s dining room. His camera finds a subject to observe: a kid who is concentrated on his portable video game. The curiosity shifts to the kids' parents, more specifically the father, as the camera starts to examine the nooks and crannies of the father’s body. He zooms in on the aged curves, the bald spots, the hardened epidermis, and the enlarged belly. It's a very tender sequence, wherein Torres relates this very normal scenario to his extraordinary project. He divides the father into geographic regions, each relating to an unfinished business, alluding to an undelivered legacy on the verge of bursting with all its repressed hurts and pains.

Film is an art form that thrives on lies and illusions. It has survived since its creation by replicating life or completely coming up with tales that mirror life or, at least, takes away momentarily the burdens of real life through escapism. Torres seeks to revise this utilitarian philosophy of cinema. Instead of creating illusions and hallucinations to soothe the wary soul, or recreate reality which essentially binds cinema as a secondary source to actually experiencing life, he opts to use the cinematic medium as a messenger for truth, similar to a diary except that this diary is not kept private but is read in front of multitudes.

The several sections of Voices have a distinct similarity among them: they are all confessionals. The section about the banana planters and their plight against the land owners partake of a form of an expose, presumably of the little people we barely hear about in a nation more interested in the personalities that drive this wretched government. This is segued by a touching scenario about a Moro father and his prodigal son, who little by little warms up to the culture he dissents from. There is also the heartbreaking tale of the woman who betrays her boyfriend; and is then betrayed by the person she replaced her boyfriend with. This portion sits so uncomfortably close to reality that its raw emotionality is quite sublime and affecting. The casual footages of the Filipino filmmakers homesick in a foreign land is juxtaposed with the section on Joma Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, who is shown in his everyday routine while exiled in the Netherlands. The portion ends with a song that qualifies guerrillas as poets, which is a beautiful spin-off of Torres' thesis of artists as terrorists in Todo Todo Teros, capped later by the endearing tales of the overseas worker who confesses about playing with her pen pals' hearts to earn extra dollars.

Taon is a clear move to a new direction in cinema. There is no clear narrative structure, just a free-flowing evocation of personal truths and emotional burdens. The film feels like a heartfelt letter to a father he hasn't seen for years. By using the many footages, the interviews and poems, Torres has created his own confessional, which is in turn, for us, a heartbreaking elegy of an artist to the respect and affection that he once reserved for his father. It doesn't strike as deftly as the three-way terroristic romance of Torres' first film, but its enduring ache lingers and then blossoms until it is quite difficult to deny its lavish inflections.

I have to admit that I initially thought Torres can never replicate the cinematic sincerity he has professed in Todo Todo Teros, or that he can come up again with something coherent from found footages collected within a year's time. I was found wrong, very wrong. Taon is certainly a riveting personal masterwork. With its many layers that can be read or viewed in so many ways, Voices is a film that has gladly humbled this assuming viewer.

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


Anonymous said...

lighten up. I suggest you read the reviews in the NY Times by Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby all of which are in book form. Movies are supposed to entertain which is why I stopped watching Filipino movies. Sa hirap ng buhay, sayang lang ang pera ko.

Oggs Cruz said...

Watch television then, it's free and entertaining. Thanks for the suggestions though.

Anonymous said...

depends on what you term as entertainment. i find the film very engaging in a number of levels. it flows like some sort of soothing visual and existential poetry. even though there is no clear narrative, there was never a dull moment for me while watching this film. but i guess you have to be really interested in philippine culture, politics, "love", etc. to really appreciate this work.

i'd also like to think john torres, along with jerold tarrog could be may well be 2 of the most promising voices in philippine cinema in recent times.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Juan,

I completely agree with your comment. I also agree about Jerrold Tarog, very very promising director.

Anonymous said...

I love the way you write reviews (although I don't necessarily agree with all of them). But anyway, loved this review in particular. I really liked Voices more than Todo, Todo. I was in awe when I saw Todo, Todo - but when I saw Voices, I thought, I can never make films like that. It was a brilliant work, and yet I couldn't really explain why I liked it so much. After reading your review, I realized why. Haaay... ganda talaga. Buti na lang I have a copy of the film. Hehe.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks anonymous for the very kind words, and disagreement makes our world of film watching a much more interesting place, so I welcome it, with civility I hope, hehe.

I'm really envious, I want to see the film again and finally stack it against Todo Todo Teros, which I thought is more cebrebral while Voices is more emotional. One question: is Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas the final version of Voices?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think it is. It was the title John gave us when we first got his film for our festival last month, but changed it back to Voices coz I think he wasn't able to finish the final cut. Will have to clarify that with him though.