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.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Triangle (2007)

Triangle (Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam & Johnnie To, 2007)
Cantonese Title: Tie saam gok

The concept is to die for. Three of Hong Kong's best directors (Tsui Hark, prime mover of the Hong Kong new wave; Ringo Lam, whose City on Fire (1987) practically initiated the overrated career of Quentin Tarantino with his American version, Reservoir Dogs (1992); and Johnnie To, one of the most consistent and most exciting genre directors around) agree to make one feature film but unlike the usual triptychs (like Three (Kim Ji-woon, Nonzee Nimibutr, and Peter Chan, 2002), Three: Extremes (Park Chan-wook, Takashi Miike, and Fruit Chan, 2004) and Eros (Michaelangelo Antonioni, Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai, 2004)) where the helmers would create short films merely connected by a thematic or some other flimsier thread, the trio would make one continuous narrative laid down by Tsui, pumped up by Lam, and wrapped up by To.

Aptly titled Triangle, the film starts off with three friends: blond-haired mama's boy and taxi driver Fai (Louis Koo), antiques dealer Mok (Sun Honglei), and nearly bankrupt husband Bo (Simon Yam) to an unfaithful psychotic wife Ling (Kelly Lin). The three, while discussing a possible heist that would instantly give them much-needed big bucks, is given a tip by a mysterious man of a treasure hidden inside the legislative building. The three head off to retrieve the treasure as the triad members they conned and the renegade cop (Lam Ka-tung), who is having an affair with Ling, hunt them down.

Despite all the contrivances, the inconsistencies, and the confusion, everything works. The film isn't divided into portions but it's quite obvious who directs which part. The frenetically edited first third of the film, where the characters are introduced and the basic conceit of the narrative is put into the table (quite delirious in the amount of information that is let out of the pandora's box), is obviously Tsui's doing (the same director of manic fantasy fests Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), its disappointing sequel Zu Warriors (2001), and Seven Swords (2005), and riveting actioner Time and Tide (2000)). The madness is then grounded by Lam, putting some teeth and psychology to Tsui's hard lucked protagonists, while setting up connections that would lead to To's grand finale, where the director merges his knack for comedy and his exquisite eye for bullet ballets in a near-operatic shootout in a grass and scarecrow covered field.

There's a consonant flow to the trio directors' predicated chaos. Each director is responsible for his segment in the film, with only the previous director's final output as guidance and cue for their part. Despite the freedom, the film didn't end up as a flagrant mess, which is not very surprising. Tsui, Lam and To, along with Hong Kong's other legendary directors (like John Woo, Wilson Yip, even Wong Kar-wai), have established the running themes, the prominent styles, and the basic narrative framework that define the former British colony's mainstream cinema. The three directors have decades of films and common experiences to make sure that Triangle falls within the borders of convention (and thus, render it commercially viable and extremely watchable). At most, it is To who takes the most risks, and comes out contributing the most to the narrative, without sacrificing his trademark quips. He basically uses every bit of conceit initiated by Tsui, incorporates the surfacing themes by Lam, and completes the picture with a surprising turn and a loud and flaunting bang, thus, turning Triangle into one memorable romp.

You'd think that with the differing productions (separated by months, depending on the actors' schedules) and directing styles, Triangle will end up as a merely entertaining experiment without any real depth to chew on. Actually, the film pretty much rehashes the well-entrenched theme of honor and loyalty in Hong Kong cinema. In the midst of the clinging temptations of a multimillion-dollar treasure, three men with varying motivations (the final goal is the big bucks but: Fai is trapped in the middle of various obligations from his dissonant relationships with the cops, the gangsters, and his two partners in crime; Bo is struggling with his wife's love affair with a cop dealt upon by his insolvency while reminiscing his abruptly ended marriage with his first wife; Mok is contemplating between his financial crisis and his precious moral stance) manage to overcome the hindrances and the odds that differentiate them, and retain or salvage what they value the most.

It also doesn't hurt that the oft-told parable, which the film really is, is overflowing with the three directors' distinct styles. Triangle leaves you throbbing and satisfied, hooked by the idiosyncratic small time would-be crooks Tsui introduces and weaves together, moved by the romantic dance inside an abandoned factory provided for by Lam's instinctive designs, and finally swept by hilariously extended switch-ups and the over-the-top moonlit gun play To gambled around with.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Great Yokai War (2005)

The Great Yokai War (Takashi Miike, 2005)
Japanese Title: Yôkai daisensô

The plot of Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War is generic: scrawny and frequently bullied little boy finds the courage to battle it out with an apocalyptic force thus saving the world. The little boy is Tadashi (girly boy Ryunosuke Kamiki), a Tokyo-bred kid who is spirited away to his mom's provincial village after his parents' divorce. In one village festival, he gets chosen to be the kirin rider, supposedly the nominal keeper of the peace. The apocalyptic force is Kato (Etsushi Tokokawa) and his dastardly plan is to merge the discarded junk of the city (these metallic trash is said to have a negative energy supposedly out of being thrown away and forgotten) with the so-called yokai or traditional spirits, creating metal monsters that would wreak havoc wherever they go.

Miike obviously has a bigger budget (not nearly as big as the normal budget of a Hollywood flick, though) than usual to play with as The Great Yokai War is mostly a string of spectacles tied together by a flimsy and random plot. The problem is that the film is seldom spectacular. The metal monsters are obviously CGI creations; the yokai are a mixture of puppets, animatronics, or actors in heavy make-up and prosthetics. The computer generated effects aren't very impressive. The puppetry and the make-up, on the other hand, are quite charming in all their cheesy glory. The turtle-like yokai, for example, wears a green-hued rubber suit. His face is made up to include the beak-like choppers of a tortoise, and his extremities bear similar modifications. The rest of the yokai are all delightful creations including a one-eyed, one-legged umbrella, a walking wall, a long-necked woman, and several others. Visually, it's a mixed bag; the CGI doesn't merge well with the prosthetics and the puppetry. Oftentimes, you'd wish Miike had just stuck with traditional effects, had trusted his zany sensibilities, and had given us something that doesn't look half-baked as this.

The themes are unsubtly laid down. It's basically a tale of good versus evil. The good guys are the traditional spirits led to defend their existence by the unlikely hero who is himself a victim of divorce and bullying. The bad guys are the mechanical hybrids, produced from smoke belching factories using depletable resources: yokai tortured and collected by Kato's henchmachines and one yokai desperately in love with the evil mastermind named Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill fame). Modernity and the unnecessary wastage that it produces are the causes of the impending apocalypse; they are the underlying evils that we are warned against as opposed to the giddy and often amusing antics of the yokai (who are too busy partying to actually wage a war against impending doom). There's also an anti-war message in the end from what seems to be a yokai leader, uncomfortably as an afterthought.

Hayao Miyazaki is a clear inspiration with his works that appropriate the same theme and style (like Nausicaa and the Valley of the Winds (1984), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2005)). In one scene, Tadashi rides a mysterious bus (reminiscent of Mei and Satsuki's ride on the Cat Bus in My Neighbor Totoro (1988)) where after breezing through a tunnel (brings to mind Chihiro's entry to the spirit world in Spirited Away), the yokai (mostly the creepy-looking ones) start appearing outside the bus windows. Unlike the famous Japanese animator however, you don't feel any real passion or sincerity. Miike is after all a mere hired gun (reminiscent although in this case, he surprisingly shares screenwriter credits), a director with enough international reputation and a bit of talent to bring about a picture bizarre enough to arouse interests worldwide (especially to the many Miike fans) and still be commercially viable domestically (mostly to the children and those who made Miyazaki's Spirited Away a box office hit).

What he lacks in passion and sincerity, he makes up with irreverence, half-hearted and careful though. There are scenes that border being sexually provocative like when the river nymph rescues Tadashi from drowning, we are given a close-up of the kid's hand subtly caressing the nymph's thigh, or when Agi suddenly removes her top (and this is promoted as a children's film), or when Tadashi starts wearing his armor in a bizarre montage (a startling butt crack makes an appearance, totally unwarranted). Miike is quite good when he puts his heart in his work (like in Audition (1999), the film that established Miike as a relentless director of torture porn, or Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006), a homoerotic and far more successful reworking of Lars von Trier's production experiment in Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005)). Sadly, Miike dons mercenary clothes with The Great Yokai War, and the result is far less fruitful than it aims to be.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra, 1995)
English Title: The Brave Heart Will Take the Bride

Only in Bollywood do you have films that stretch past the three-hour mark and still manage to be authentically engrossing. Only in Bollywood films do you have plotlines (sometimes borrowed from Hollywood or elsewhere) that are rehashed to death, choreographed show-stopping musical numbers that pop out suddenly, actors and actresses that practice histrionics in their method of acting and still remain enjoyable and surprisingly refreshing. Only in India would you have a film like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (The Brave Heart Will Take the Bride), a well-made but rather conventional romantic melodrama, have commercial public screenings for untiring patrons years after its initial release.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is the first feature film of Aditya Chopra, son of legendary Yash Chopra, prolific director of such movies like Dhool Ka Phool (Blossom of Dust, 1959), Deewaar (The Wall, 1975), and most recently Veer-Zaara (2004), and even more prolific producer to several other well-loved hits. At the young age of 24, Aditya Chopra has crafted what would become one of the most successful Bollywood film of all time. It is not a great film, merely a pleasant one. Evidence of Chopra's inexperience is abundant, like the frequent flatness of his visuals (those unaccompanied by majestic geographic backdrops or loud colors, such as when the sequences happen indoors, are relatively plain-looking). However, the film's success is of course not surprising as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge has all the elements of a Bollywood hit in near-perfect mix: an unchallenging thus extremely watchable and rewatchable plot, doses of enjoyable musical numbers, bits of lowbrow comedy (slapstick, witty one-liners, and other unembarrassed attempts for laughter), some action including a sequence featuring thunderous slaps on the face and a brawl scene, and most importantly, one big and unsubtle heart.

The film tells the story of two London-bred Indians, Simran (Kajol, a lovely actress with perfectly shaped eyes), who is engaged to marry the son of her father's best bud back in India, and Raj (Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan), happy-go-lucky son of a doting millionaire. The two meet during their one-month long excursion in Europe, a rather lengthy affair that predictably begins with the two exchanging looks of annoyance and ends with them magically falling in love. This love-hate struggle for that romantic link that would sustain the challenges to come comprises half of the film. The father's plan to have Simran wed his friend's son pushes through forcing Raj to relocate to India, assimilate into the household of the groom-to-be, and hopefully or magically convince Simran's family to have Simran marry him instead.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is mostly interesting because it strikes a balance between two conflicting values, that of tradition and progress. "Habits left unchanged tend to become necessity-like," explains Simran's younger sister when she joked about her mother's insistence on calling his father every morning just to find out if he reached work safely. That phrase seems to be the film's starting point in its goal to ease the challenging strictness of Hindi culture. The traditions, considered by Simran's father as his family's only linkages to the homeland they left two decades ago, are guarded from being tainted by foreign influences, which is exactly how Raj is portrayed: brash, careless, and wasteful Hindi-European hybrid. Following tradition, he keeps true the promise made to a friend to have their children marry, compromising love and affection from the marital bonds.

The film puts that tradition in the spotlight but tangentially criticizes the necessities produced by the habits forged by tradition. In one touching scene, the mother placates Simran, weeping because of her inescapable misfortune. She tells her of how she was told of the equality between men and women, and how all her life she was deprived of that so-called equality leading her to promise Simran when she was a baby to assure her a life of happiness. She recants her promise, surrendering that women do not even have the right to give such promises. In that scene, we see how a strict appraisal of tradition is tantamount to a deprivation of some facets of humanity. That scene is sad, uncharacteristically so in a movie that bursts with such mirthful energy.

Despite that, the film relishes in tradition where it matters. Raj, supposedly the Indian who was lured to the liberalities of the West, exemplifies tradition and progress in harmony. Faced with the dilemma of losing her love to the whims of an agreement made decades ago, he still chooses to have the father give his blessings instead of whisking Simran away with him. He grounds his belief with object rationality, as explained in his impassioned speech to Simran and her family, that to elope with Simran is tantamount to severing treasured ties with the family. Even during the final suspenseful moment, Raj keeps his well-tempered adherence to tradition with absolutely no clue whether his gamble will pay off or cause him to spend a lifetime of heartache and regret. Whatever happens, the conclusion remains sumptuous, truly deserving of the three hours spent arriving to it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The King of Masks (1996)

The King of Masks (Wu Tian-ming, 1996)
Mandarin Title: Bian Lian

"We're just actors, both of us. We don't count for much in society," Master Liang tells a sobbing little girl. Liang (Zhao Zhigang) is an opera star, known as the living Bodhisatva, the deity that grants wishing parents sons. Doggie, the little girl (Zhou Renying) once pretended to be a boy, succeeding in deceiving Wang Bianlian (Zhu Xu), the so-called King of Masks who needs a male heir to inherit his craft, into buying her. The society Liang is talking about is 1930's China, a society that is irrationally divided by the have's and the have not's, the males and the females. It is a society that is so consumed by its traditions and culture, that it unknowingly or knowingly places a portion of the populace to the margins. Liang talks about himself literally, that his stature in the arts is not enough to save Doggie's adoptive grandfather, but talks about Doggie figuratively, thet her being born a girl has left her an insignificant part of society, undeserving of the simple pleasures of family and dignity.

The King of Masks comments on society's fascination with replaceable facades. Wang's craft consists of a performance wherein he changes masks in a swift sway of his hands, predictably enchanting his many viewers some of which would bribe him to reveal his secrets. Liang has garnered a legendary reputation by impersonating a revered god, earning for him several influential patrons and a bevy of friends. These are shallow acts obviously, acts that constitute momentary pleasures for the working man or signifiers that heaven has graced the earth with a likely semblance of itself. Once that fascination is used to point out an injustice in a system that has functioned over the years, as let's say, a girl, abused and abandoned for the plain reason of her not having a penis, dons boys' clothing to simply be loved, it is met with scathing disapproval or scant attention. China, at that time, is prolonging a tradition that should have died a long time ago: little boys are being kidnapped, little girls are being sold or given away. An entire black market has emerged taking advantage of this as a result.

I'm making it sound like the film as one of those unentertaining yet oddly compelling films that stretch on and on for minutes just to drive a point. It's not. The King of Masks is fashioned like an amiable melodrama. You could just take it as it is, a genuinely likable tearjerker.

All of the performances are wonderful. Zhu Xu inhabits the role of the masks master with striking sincerity. Here we have a headstrong old man grabbing on that little bit of dignity by not sharing his obscure craft, not to the kindly Liang, not to those willing to pay handsomely, not even to the girl (the craft should be passed on to a male heir, supposedly to carry on the family legacy) who has come to call him her grandfather, but Zhu keeps the character grounded not by his insistence on antiquated social norms but by his basic humanity, his inherent ability to have his stony exterior thaw to genuine emotions. Zhou Renying, like all of cinema's kids trying to penetrate through the shells of crusty old folks (the children of Kolya (1996), Life is Beautiful (1997), and Central Station (1998), for example), is adorable. More importantly is how Zhou commands not only for pity but also for your compassion and even adulation. Her character is crafted as someone who's been through hell, to the point that life is no longer as precious to gamble with when push comes to shove, which is the reason why her final showcase of bravery (clearly emulated from an opera she and the masks king previously saw) is believable and admittedly heartbreaking.

Wu Tian-ming, producer of The Horse Thief (1986) and Red Sorghum (1987), Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang Yimou's breakthrough films (you can claim that he jump started the careers of both directors), directs the film. Wu doesn't have Tian's striking simplicity or Zhang's visual verve. He does wear his heart on his sleeve though, and The King of Masks is unabashedly melodramatic. The music swells perfectly on emotional cue and the close-ups are right on the target, just to catch the girl's comfortlessly face at the moment of pleading with raging tears. The film begs for your tears with the subtlety, not necessarily the efficiency, of a sledgehammer but whether you finish the film dry-eyed or not, you can appreciate the effort. At least, there lies a resonant message for all beneath its facade of being pure entertainment for the entire family.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Yellow Earth (1984)

Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige, 1984)
Mandarin Title: Huang tu di

The parched landscape, so prominently displayed and magnificently shot by cinematographer Zhang Yimou in Chen Kaige's film adaptation of a novel entitled Echo in the Deep Valley, is more than just a setting for the tale of a Communist officer who lives with an impoverished farming family. The arid valleys paint an accurate picture of a people where poverty and misfortune has been so ingrained, it has seeped into their culture as their songs are melancholic and woeful, and their traditions (wooden fishes are served during weddings since they cannot afford real fishes) have been etched to exemplify the extreme austerity they have been accustomed to.

Chen's Yellow Earth, regarded by many as the quintessential film of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (it also voted as the fourth best in a list of the best one hundred Chinese films ever made), speaks through these images of dried-up lands and cloudless skies and painfully wailful songs. It speaks of a people who despite their mournful situation has come to be contented of that fact of life, that there will be times that the sky will withhold precious rain and the crops will stop growing. It's a cyclical truth they have, for so many years, endured. The solutions they have crafted for the ingrained poverty are hardly novel, like marrying off their daughters to wealthier even if older villagers, or for dire situations, performing a rain ritual to appease pagan gods. Despite the seemingly inhumane and unmodernized facilities that make living somewhat more bearable, it has become a way of life that is accepted, undisturbed and somewhat satisfying for its resulting ironic bliss knowing that their fate is beyond their paltry will.

Gu (Wang Xueyin) is an idealistic Communist officer. He beams with pride of the task he carries, to collect folk songs for the army fighting off the Japanese invaders. His exuberance is uncharacteristic of the pitiful and dry locale, who politely exchange his queries with respectful smiles and answers. The family he lives with consists of a widowered farmer (Tan Tuo), his fourteen year old daughter Cuiqiao (Xue Bai), dreadful of her impending wedding to a wealthier man, and his son Hanhan (Liu Quiang), selectively quiet. They are at first cautious and careful with Gu, hospitably preparing his foot bath and other amenities inasmuch as they can but Gu's enthusiasm breaks the barriers of forced politeness, and the family opens up to his detailed stories of the Communist campaign: of the equal opportunities for men and women in the army, of the primitivity of the longstanding traditions that the poor village have accustomed to (especially of the forced marriages), and of modernity of thought. These ideals spark something within Cuiqiao: a chance for escape, a rekindled hope that there is life beyond the desert-like land that is ironically entangled by the Yellow River.

Bitingly ironic, Cuiqiao drowns while rowing against the currents of the river on her way to the capital to join the army, singing and barely finishing the verse "It's communists who save the people." Despite the political undertones (the film is very strongly critical of the government), it was never banned in China unlike Chen or Zhang's later films; perhaps the message was so subtly enveloped by the wailing songs of the villagers, the panoramic vistas of the desolate land, and the hopeful enthusiasm of officer Gu's stories that the film felt more like propaganda than anything. The film is set during the Japanese invasion, but the living standards of rural China when the film was made haven't changed, making the promises of Gu and his government even more severe. It is that hope rekindled by the promise, ultimately betrayed, that is destructive disturbance that Yellow Earth so eloquently tells us of.

The promises are drowned along with the girl who banked her future on them as the rest of the villagers succumb to what they know best and stay put and pray to their gods to cure their land of that infernal drought. It's a fitting conclusion, instead of wrapping the film with Cuiqiao's depressing demise. It puts a closure to the harmful disturbance Gu has introduced to the village's consciousness, very volatile to any semblance of hope. That to rely on the promises of a government whose only presence is an officer who siphons songs to boost army morale is utter futility, and that reliance on that traditions that have been carried on from one poor generation to another to merely survive the cruelty of the land is comparably not all that bad.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Superbad (2007)

Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)

Superbad, the latest entrant to the Apatovian canon (films which are written, directed, or produced by the current it-director Judd Apatow), is advertised exactly as such, leeching off the successes of Apatow's previous efforts. That's quite unfortunate though, since I thought Superbad is the superior film among the more acclaimed features which Apatow helped create (such as The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007)). It is the only film that works without a whiff of hesitation in what it wants to be, a humorous farce from start to end.

It is unflinchingly obnoxious. The film features more than one hundred fifty mentions of the word fuck, more than a dozen variations of the human penis in various costumes and scenarios (and a few more if you stay put for the end credits), and three helpless and hopeless high school seniors adventuring for a few bottles of liquor so that they be awarded that elusive final fuck before they move on to college.

The screenplay is written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (supposedly started during their early teenage years) and directed by Greg Mottola, Apatow is connected as producer. It is about Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera), alteregoes of the two collaborating writers, who have been invited to a pre-grad party, tasked to bring the booze, and expectant that when they enter the party with their paper bags full of alcohol, they would get their just rewards, a blowjob here or a cherry popped there. The third member of their loser gang, scrawny four-eyed Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the type of kid who drives away girls like an erupting pimple, happens to have acquired a fake ID. The plan is set, seemingly flawless until it turns out the ID says infantile Fogell as twenty five with the name of McLovin (suspiciously and hilariously without any first name), the liquor store where they wish to has been fortuitously robbed, and the two cops (Bill Hader and Seth Rogen) assigned to investigate spirits McLovin away to a trip down police misdemeanors, while Seth and Evan move on to find other sources of booze, all for the sake of drunken sex.

Mottola does a fine job directing the screenplay; he isn't flashy, preferring the actors (Hill as the angry curly-haired fatso, assuming leadership from his heft; Cera as the timid suffering creature; Mintz-Plasse as the token geeky jerk, aftershock of the popularity of Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004) and spelling bees being aired on ESPN; Hader and Rogen as overaged high school seniors dressed in cop clothes, perhaps telling of the futures of the two best friends if they didn't get the rewards of their day's work) to carry on the job which is helped by the fact that Apatow's crew is a solid bunch, a group of suddenly successful twenty-something year old geeks who understand each other, there's no real room for dissent.

Rogen and Goldberg's screenplay is the real heart of the film. It's a mixture of late-teen fantasies (of hooking up with the finest ladies in school, and being proud of a massive boner) and a quarter life approximation of what these late-teen fantasies are (pulp versions of pre-college memories). It works mostly (aside from the token jokes: the menstruation marks on the jeans, the recurring car bumps, among others) because it is both accurate and inaccurate: the pre-graduating anxiety, sexual and otherwise, are palpable but Rogen and Goldberg's version, most probably elevated to fit cinematic standards of today, makes everything palatable through exaggeration.

Late in the film, Seth and Evan, within the safety of a sleeping bag for two, say "I love you" to each other. It's the film's penultimate punchline: that after going through the arduous challenges for booze, they end up with each other (not with their respective female targets) declaring their affirmations of affection to each other, finally sleeping with each other. The humor is of course derived from the idea that it's so gay, especially coming from a film that is so concerned with satisfying heterosexual sexual urges and celebrates penile supremacy. However, it is also the film's emotional moment, a surprising turn in an hour or so of utter nonsense; that once notions of homosexual undertones are buried by the many seconds of agreeing laughter, you discover the veracity of their affirmations and the inevitability of moving on, being separated from the only person in the world who understands unconditionally, and it starts to get sad, starts to get painfully real. Superbad starts to make sense, even more so than middle aged virgins having their first taste of sex or pot-smoking losers impregnating television hosts. It is in fact an ode to something as common as those carefree years and carefree friends gone by.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

We Own the Night (2007)

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)

James Gray's We Own the Night is so deceivingly simple that it is very easy to dismiss it, which is what most of the mainstream critics who have seen it did (the film got scathing disapprovals in Cannes where it held its premiere). Those who approved of the film liked it, but didn't like it enough to round up a resounding admiration for the film. There are a few, now including me, who thinks its a tremendous film, a triumphant feature for Gray (his third film, previous efforts include Little Odessa (1994) and The Yards (2000), in more than a dozen years) and probably one of the year's best.

Gray greets us with a photo montage set into motion by a very laidback yet alluring jazz score. Against the rippling chords performed by the virtuosic trumpet, sepia-toned photographs of New York's police are displayed: a discreetly placed revolver, a violent arrest, money and drugs seized, and a proudly displayed cop badge, beaming with its elusive yet very real power, truly seductive.

The next scene is even sexier: Amada (a dazzling Eva Mendes who surprises with her ability to play such a very strong female in what essentially is a guy flick) lying in a couch, her body partially covered by a few pillows and a revealing outfit, and her fingers on her crotch, subliminally inviting her boyfriend Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix, who is always good) to dig in, which he does. He foreplays with her for a bit before he is called to his work. Bobby is living the life as manager of the El Caribe, an infamous haven for the nightstalkers of the eighties and the Russian drug mob. It turns out that he's son to the police chief (Robert Duvall as Burt Grusinsky) and brother to a newly appointed captain (Mark Wahlberg as Joseph Grusinsky); his true identity is unknown to his shadier friends as he has long abandoned his paternal family name, Grusinsky to adopt his mother's maiden name, Green, a common last name that would erase any possibility of tracking down his pedigree. It would be logical for him to follow the path laid to him by his family and enjoy the jazzy allure of cop life, but between that and Amada's crotch accompanied by that fascinating life within the fringes between the law and the underground, he chooses the more enticing of the two, obviously the latter.

We Own the Night, its title derived from the New York police's slogan during the eighties, is set during the height of the police's ongoing war against illegal drug trade. Gray's gritty period piece, complete with anti-gravity hairdos for the ladies and loose nightclubbing outfits for the guys backgrounded by leftover disco hits from the late seventies and the early eighties, is faulted for its screenplay written also by Gray, an ordinary cop tale supposedly mired by inconsistencies, implausibilities and contrivances. I don't buy it. Gray's script harkens to a Hollywood that believes in classic stories of men, oft-repeated but never replicated, where the inherent psychological and moral turmoils overtake the purported importance of originality and realism. In the middle of the bigger backdrop of cops chasing drug dealers is a soothing and subtle emotional parable of two brothers, long divided by separate paternal figures (Bobby has ever since adopted his Russian club owner as surrogate father) and a gargantuan difference in their worlds (in one sequence during Joseph's promotion, Bobby enters the function hall, lackluster compared to the dance halls of the El Caribe; the enormity of their separation is evidenced by that sequence's final moments when Joseph gives out a speech on his comrades' heroics, and Bobby and Amada walk through the darkened staircase, and drowns the speech with a torrid kissing session).

Fate, or that force that would stretch New York's moral spectrum (the worsening drug trade which starts to use the clubs as starting points for their operation, pinning Bobby in the middle) is thinning the fringes that separate the law and the underworld, making it impossible for Bobby to remain satisfied in the middle. This would force the brothers closer.

Gray's screenplay commends that inherent familial duty, that blood bond that has kept Russian emigres consolidated whether they are on either side of the moral spectrum, as the impetus for Bobby's rapid change; as can be seen when his brother becomes the target of the Russian mob causing him to blur the once-permanent lines that allow him a semblance of comfort and stability or when his father sacrifices himself to save him (in a masterful car sequence; dutifully edited with the sound of the swiped sweeping off the rain from the windshield as pulse to the fluidly directed car chase), dictating him to abandon the gray zone, he is far too in it (the gray zone can no longer provide the safety and comfort it once so easily provides, he either has to be a sitting duck or an active participant) too remain in the middle, and as his father predicted before, he would have to choose whether he is with them or with the law. Amada, a figurehead of the past but is also very human and stays on with Bobby not for anything else but for that sheer hope that love can pull them out of their present rut, is also faced with that choice, to either push through or separate.

Gray paints the picture so boldly with several instances of blatant masterstrokes (the car chase in the rain, the shootout in the coke house, the final showdown in the grassy fields), probably confusing people to consider such hurried decisions as plot contrivances rather than complex psychological touches; but there are compelling bases, these are as irresistible and uncontrollable as the grooves of destiny and familial ties. We Own the Night is a brilliant piece of work, perfectly controlled and defiantly against popular notions of how cinema should move and feel. Despite its somewhat rebellious tone, it flaunts a classic scenario so dauntlessly and effortlessly told its hard to deny that it's good, really good.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Booba (2001)

Booba (Joyce Bernal, 2001)

The title is a combination of two words, obviously boobs (or breasts, for the prudent minded) and boba (which is Tagalog for stupid). The titular character (played by gifted comedienne Rufa Mae Quinto), bears both traits, prominent melon-sized breasts and an absurd state of heightened ignorance. Booba's mission is to find her twin sister, the evil kidnapping mastermind Madame X (played by a very hilarious Ai-Ai de las Alas), as promised by her to her dying grandmother (Gina Pareño, who is clearly having fun with her role as guardian ghost with streaks of chronic horniness).

The plot, conceived and written by director Joyce Bernal and prolific screenwriter Mel Mendoza-del Rosario, is absolutely non-sensical. Booba, newly arrived in the bustling metropolis (her choice of transportation from her farflung province, where her family owns a profitable fruit stand, should be seen to be believed), moves from an all-male dormitory (with its hole-infested bathroom door, for better peeping of course) where she worked the nights as a go-go dancer, to a Filipino-Chinese household where she worked as a nanny to an overfed eight year old, before ending up as the police's top secret agent. Poli (an enjoyably uncomfortable Gary Estrada), Booba's partner who has a very unfortunate problem holding an erection, is the obvious love interest, or if we're going to follow the descriptions during the opening credits, the sex object.

The rest of the plot is a series of inane sketches: Booba finally catches up with her evil sister only to throw pails and buckets of water at each other, or when Madame X successfully disposes of her husband, takes over the crime group, and shoots a member for simply looking stupid, or when Booba reveals to Poli that she's a virgin but suddenly rides him like an Olympic-trained rower in probably one of the most bizarrely uncomfortable sex scenes committed on celluloid, or when asked by the president in a press conference of one wish he can grant her, she declares that she wants to be the star of the night, immediately removing her dress to reveal her naked body covered by two glittering stars where her nipples should be, and a whole lot more to fill up its running time.

Following the conventional standards of judging cinematic creations, Bernal's Booba is undoubtedly a bad film. However, it is precisely because of this unabashed badness that makes the movie so watchable (and I believe I am not alone in this one since the movie made tons of money making Quinto an instant star). Bernal, Mendoza-del Rosario, heck, even film studio Viva Entertainment (most famous for their well-made dramas and romantic comedies) have conspired to make a film purely to ridicule anyone and anything they can poke their fingers on and make everyone who dares to sit through the lampoon laugh. It feels like a product of whim where most of the dialogue and the situations were sourced from drunken sessions or sober conversations with colleagues, heterosexual but most probably homosexual (some of the jokes and hilarious banter onscreen are distinctly attributable to the very colorful humor of the Philippines' third sex). Booba doesn't have a moral lesson (actually, the club of Catholic bishops condemned it for patronizing premarital sex, murder, among others in its movie review) and it doesn't need one. It is one circus act from start to finish.

Whim, lively brainstorming and creative sessions, and fortune are not the only reasons why Booba works. A big chunk of the credit belongs to comediennes Quinto and De Las Alas. Quinto is the perfect Booba; she is the Filipino variation of Anna Nicole Smith, adorably clueless but has the ability to invoke anyone's innermost sexual desires. Unlike the famous American blond though, Quinto is intelligent in her comedy, has precise comic timing and her seemingly dimwitted inflection (which apparently is not acted, merely exaggerated) is irresistible. De Las Alas, who has much more experience making Filipinos laugh mostly due to her physical appearance (she is gifted with a prominent chin), is deliciously evil as Madame X. She is vulgar, demented, loud, and kinky, exactly the perfect recipe for the memorable villain.

The success of Booba has been met with further tries to replicate that brand of humor. Rufe Mae Quinto has gone on to portray similarly huge-chested and light-headed characters like in Radyo (Radio, Yam Laranas, 2001), as a radio DJ victimized by a deranged fan, Super B (Joyce Bernal, 2002), as a superheroine, Masikip sa Dibdib (Tight in the Chest, Joyce Bernal, 2004), as a girl whose inability to comprehend English causes her nose to bleed, and Apat Dapat, Dapat Apat (Four in One, Wenn Deramas, 2007), as a domestic helper in Hong Kong. Ai-Ai De Las Alas follows up Booba with films like Ang Tanging Ina (The True Mother, Wenn Deramas, 2003), where she plays suffering mother to several children, Volta (Wenn Deramas, 2004), where she plays a superheroine with the power to control electricity, and Ang Cute ng Ina Mo (Your Mother is Cute, Wenn Deramas, 2007), again, as a mother with problems with her two children.

Joyce Bernal has made several more films, mostly comedies and light dramas; Mel Mendoza-del Rosario has written several more screenplay; while Viva Entertainment, the worst hit of the big studios, is content in producing soft-core pornographic straight-to-video films, limiting their glossy pictures to one or two per year. The very successful comedy of Booba was never replicated and probably will never be replicated. While sometimes funny, the several films that tried didn't have or maintained that natural energy or gleeful abandon Booba balanced. It is for this reason that I return to Booba for a dose of much-needed chuckles during my most stress filled days.

This post is my contribution to M.A. Peel's Comedy Blog-A-Thon at Newcritics.

Monday, November 05, 2007

30 Days of Night (2007)

30 Days of Night (David Slade, 2007)

Finally, a vampire film that is actually scary. Those were the excited words of the bespectacled teenager who saw David Slade's 30 Days of Night along with his pals, not mine. In this modern age wherein horror has lost all sophistication and eroticism and its greatness is measured by the intensity of the gore depicted, Bela Lugosi's iconic turn as the famed fanged count in Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) or Christopher Lee's eloquent bloodsucker in the many versions of the tale produced by Hammer Films would seem too dull and mannered. I disagree, the vampire is not only a blood-starved creature of the night, they are also sex or love-starved, preferring the long and gorgeous necks of females and merely puncturing two holes for elegant feeding. They are masters of seduction. They are scary precisely because of that; they not only want to prey on you for your blood, but would also want to woo you, lure you, and eventually, transform you.

The vampires in 30 Days of Night are hideous creatures. They either howl, scream or speak in an unidentifiable dialect (subtitled by our most gracious director) through a mouth crowded with razor-sharp teeth, primarily used for ripping open necks of anybody warmblooded who comes their way. Adapted from the graphic novel written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Ben Templesmith, the film details the sad tale of Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States which suffers around thirty days without sunlight, and its hundred or so citizens who are struggling to survive amidst the invasion of these ugly and ravenous vampires. Leading the townspeople is sherriff Eben (a miserable-looking Josh Hartnett) and his estranged wife Stella (Melissa George); they are not exactly the type of people you'd entrust your life with (marital distress would most likely skew their logical priorities), but the rest of the survivors includes a teenager, a grizzly man, a demented old fogey, and a bunch of other characters I can barely recall, so you're left with no real choice.

Slade, a music video director who breakthroughed with Hard Candy (2005), torture porn about a pedophilic internet lurker who literally gets what he deserves when he meets up with one of his supposed victims, struggles through the narrative. Burnt cellular phones, murdered sled dogs, trashed helicopters, a mysterious man suddenly appearing out of nowhere, and thirty days of absolutely no sunlight seem to be the proper circumstance for a perfect vampiric feast. It is a conceit that is to die for, and the possibilities of playing around with the concept of darkness and claustrophobia would seem utterly easy for any director to take advantage of. Sadly, that's not the case. Slade betrays the darkness, misconstruing night with drab, grey and blue to absolutely no effect; everything's in clear sight with hardly no opportunity for the mind to play its nasty tricks on you. It's just not scary; and to make matters worse, Slade uses the shaky cam for all the supposedly scary and violent parts, making the sequences unbearably confusing.

Richard Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin, 2005), a horror short about a town of aswang, the Filipino version of the vampire, who starts to prey on the newly arrived couple, came to mind while I was watching Slade's misdirected film. Somes' short, costing barely a fraction of 30 Days of Night's budget, also has a very simple story, mostly a concept, but expands its measly resources by being sophisticated, educated, and creative. The vampires in Somes' short are hungry too, but they never lose their inherent lust (amidst the filth and primitivity of the town, the monsters manage to turn their nightly coven into a circus-like, eerily seductive haven with the sumptuous Elizabeth Oropesa as their queen), their transformation wherein they pour mud all over their bodies can be likened to an obscene orgy. In comparison, Slade's vampires seem castrated, like a pack of rabid coyotes out for a piece of warm meat; not very terrifying, really.

Slade's vampires are more like zombies than bloodsucking predators. They have no will, no singular intelligence in their prowling (even delegating the duty of assuring the town's being trapped to a dirty bum), no memorable sophistication in their terrorizing. Yet, zombies, more specifically George Romero's zombies, are poetic monsters. Their slow and staggered marching represent an unstoppable impending doom, which makes them, with all their dimwitted hunger, very frightening (you can run, you can fight, but you're just delaying certain death). The vamps of 30 Days of Night are a silly and lifeless lot, they're in the bottom of the hierarchy of movie monsters (way below the classic vampires and the rotting zombies). Moreover, there's always safety knowing that the terror ends in thirty days, so (this question is directed to teenager who thinks 30 Days of Night is the messiah of all vampire films, or to anyone who feels the same way) why is it scary?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Sigaw (2004)

Sigaw (Yam Laranas, 2004)
English Title: The Echo

Yam Laranas' Sigaw was released during the yearly Metro Manila Film Festival, a two week-long affair wherein all of the country's big studios release their big-budgeted features. The festival that year had a very poor line-up (the three best pictures that year were Joel Lamangan's Mano Po 3: My Love, a tiring continuation of the pint-sized tales of Filipino-Chinese romantics, Cesar Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba (The Call of the River), another sappy tale of patriotism and romance during the Pacific War, and Lamangan's Aishite Imasu (Mahal Kita) 1941 (I Love You 1941), about a transvestite spy falling in love with a Japanese general and a sorry wife who wages her own war against the Japanese invaders. Despite the poor line-up of films, Sigaw didn't get much critical attention aside from a few citations on its production merits. Years later and with much help from Laranas' marketing ingenuity, the film is up for a Hollywood remake (also to be directed by Yaranas) and is now regarded as a classic in the genre.

Does it deserve its current status or is it one of those films whose reputation precedes its actual merits? I'd like to think that it does. Laranas is a gifted cinematographer. I believe he is one of the reason why Raymond Red's Bayani (Heroes, 1992) has that distinct look which turns the film from being simply a film about patriots into an intriguingly surreal version of a well-known portion of Filipino history. His previous films (Balahibong Pusa (Cat Hairs, 2001), Radyo (Radio, 2001), Hibla (Thread, 2002)), not exactly masterpieces in storytelling, are all very alluring to look at. Laranas, who is also cinematographer for Sigaw, feeds the feature with tons of mood and atmosphere; during the first few frames of the film, we are entreated to foreboding views of a concrete building and its interiors tinged with otherworldly hues.

The set-up is excellent, reminiscent of Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (2002) where a decrepit apartment building becomes the fitting setting of a ghost story. In Sigaw, the building is home to a couple, a violent cop (Jomari Yllana) and his pitiful wife (Iza Calzado), and their daughter (Ella Guevara). Their nightly fights and the wife's constant pleas for help disturb Marvin (Richard Gutierrez), a newbie to the building who just acquired his unit for a steal. The story, conceived by Laranas and Roy Iglesias, unfolds succinctly. We first witness one of the couple's more violent episodes. The abusive dialogue, the threats of physical harm accompanied by loud noises of bangings and gunshots are repeated throughout the feature; apart from the conventional shocks and scares (quite effectively done --- Marvin wakes up to blood dripping on his face revealing a bloodied ghost floating above him, or when Marvin and his girlfriend (Angel Locsin) are inside a movie theater and the same ghost starts gliding to them), it is the inauspicious air of domestic violence that makes Sigaw truly terrifying.

Sigaw zeroes in on brutality against women and children, a theme fascinatingly weaved into the film. The repetitiveness, which encompasses both the nightly aural and visual hauntings and the time-enduring manifestations which is against the real and logical assertions of our temporal concept, alludes to the violent act itself. Such brutality is cyclical in its nature. In its most afflictive, its symptoms consist of a vicious circle of physical, mental and emotional violence followed by moments of tenderness, repeated over and over again, trapping the victim perpetually until she tries to escape herself. The ghost story in Sigaw is intertwined with the concept and the effects of such physical and psychological abuse; that these traumatic murders caused by severe beatings and verbal abuse is a logical enough reason to commit the hauntings (mostly the most violent episodes recurring ad infinitum) permanently, at least until a drastic change happens.

This brings me to one of the film's more glaring flaws, the casting of Jomari Yllana as the savage husband. He isn't phsyically apt for the role nor is his acting impressive enough for us to forego his physical deficiencies. Alongside statuesque actress Iza Calzado, he doesn't seem imposing or daunting enough to elicit actual fear. He broods too much and his drunken ruthlessness and brutality is too mannered to be dire. If the role were given to someone more physically terrifying (an ugly, monstrous brute) or someone who can transform tremendously beyond his physical frame (perhaps Ronnie Lazaro, who plays the drunken caretaker of the apartment building), the effect would be much clearer and the distress will be more palpable and believable.

Sigaw is not great horror (although its admittedly a good one), and the fact of its being remade by Hollywood is not reason enough to delegate it the status of a classic. However, it is satisfyingly moody and atmospheric, and beneath all the jumps, scares, and celluloid-committed dread is a convincing subtext. Hopefully, that doesn't get lost in translation.