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.


Ed Howard said...

Great job, thanks for contributing! Rolyo sounds especially fantastic, I wish I had some way of seeing that. I love films that reflect on the nature of the film medium itself.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Ed,

Rolyo might just pop up somewhere in the net. If it does, I'll give you the link. One thing I didn't mention about Rolyo is that it can also be seen as an observation to the diminishing value of film in Philippine cinema. Poorer cinematic cultures (like the Philippines) are embracing digital, delegating the film (the symbolic negatives) to catch birds and make noises.

Anonymous said...

Ngayon ko lang naintindihan iyong Rolyo. Salamat sa review mo.
Nuon una kasi, halos isuka ko ito.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks peepee,

I'm glad I helped shedding some light to the short film.

Anonymous said...

Maraming Salamat sa iyong review sa aking short film. Ngayon ko lamang ito nabasa. Napakatagal na panahon mo na itong naisulat. Ngayon ko lamang nakita.

Maraming Salamat muli.

- Mark dela Cruz