Monday, January 28, 2008

Keka (2003)

Keka (Quark Henares, 2003)

Nearing the end of Quark Henares' Keka, everything stops to make way for a song and dance number, reminiscent of the ones that populated popular Philippine cinema during the eighties. It's reflective of Henares' undying affection for cinematic camp, and to finally direct one, complete with the obvious dubbing, the hilarious choreography, and the signature freeze-frame that would signal the rolling of the end credits of a cheesy comedy, is probably a dream come true for the then-young director. However, above the very personal reasons behind that number's existence in the movie is the fact that it's an enjoyable and very effective cinematic device for Henares to portray the inevitable realization of the repercussions of the actions done by Keka (played quite playfully by Katya Santos). The freeze frame thaws. The dancers leave. Keka is all alone, reciting her frank monologue about how life is different from the happy endings of the corny movies she cherishes and that the story will definitely not end when the director decides to freeze the frame during that moment of extreme happiness and start rolling the end credits. Her dilemma remains. She has killed four men out of vengeance and is now deeply in love with the cop tasked to solve the murder mystery she started.

Keka remains to be Henares' lone truly satisfying effort (apart from the several wonderful shorts he made during college, most especially A Date With Jao Mapa (1999), a film that playfully pits real life matinee idol Jao Mapa with one of his obsessive fans). Previous to Keka is Gamitan (2002), an unremarkable soft core pornographic picture wherein it is obvious that Henares was wrestling his artistic integrity with the viler commercial requirements of the movie studio that hired him. After Keka, Henares would be directing the more interesting half of Wag Kang Lilingon (Don't Look Back, 2006), a plot twist-reliant ghost story that had him team up with television hack Jerry Lopez Sineneng, and Super Noypi (2006), a miscalculated sci-fi fantasy picture made for the Metro Manila Film Festival that had too many untalented teenage stars yet too little spark, an apparent mismatch of talent and studio bickering. Its indubitable that Henares has real filmmaking talent and of equal importance to that talent, a graspable and workable sense of pop culture cultivated through the years of cinephilia mixed with arguably good taste. With Keka, Henares was able to utilize everything he has in a project he wanted to do thus the very good results.

The story of Keka will inevitably invite comparisons to other films that is fueled by vengeful women in a murderous rampage like Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968), about a widow who leaves town to kill the five men who killed her husband right after their marriage, Toshiya Fujita's Lady Snowblood (1973), about a lady samurai who was born to kill the perpetrators of the massacre of her family, and Lino Brocka's Angela Markado (Angela the Marked One, 1980), about a raped woman who swears to kill every single one of her rapists, among others. The amusing thing about Henares' film is that unlike the mentioned films wherein the women are adequately burdened with psychological anguish to fuel their quest for vengeance, Keka's motivation is comparably slight, a sudden spark of extreme emotion that led her to that obsessive and illogical of ridding the world of her boyfriend's killers. The intent of Henares for Keka is for her not to be taken seriously.

The emphasis here is not the depth of pain or emotional turmoil that led Keka to become a serial killer, but the insignificance of her motivation. That insignificant motivation is something we've become consistently aware of through the many stories and movies that romanticized that blur of a feeling, love. In a sense, Keka attempts to replicate what has been done countlessly before, to romanticize the concept of love and to exaggerate the feeling of losing such love. The film approaches the romanticization in a completely different manner, by converting the traditional sweetness that accompanies the feeling into a maniacal tendency that would easily erupt upon acquisition or loss of such emotion. Remarkably, the repercussions of Henares' decision to showcase the more extreme facet of being in love is not totally alien in reality. Henares pumps humor in the quirkiness and corniness of that feeling that will drive most of us drunk with depression or elation, depending on whether you lose it or earn it: such as when the cop Jason (played charmingly by Wendell Ramos), upon being dumped by his girlfriend the night he was going to propose to her, disastrously tries to keep his tears from falling when looking at an album of pictures of them together, before completely covering the face of his girlfriend with bits of masking tape; or when he finally gets Keka to drink with him and talk for hours in a roadside canteen, he expresses his delight with wild gestures of happiness, all to be seen by those who pass through that major thoroughfare.

Does it have anything important to say? I believe not, but is saying something important really important in cinema? What Keka does so proficiently is to commit to celluloid the idiosyncrasies of Henares' generation, the generation he shares with his main character Keka, the generation that was fed with the pure escapism of eighties pop culture and its larger-than-life representations of love and losing it. It is the reason why despite its fantastic elements and the several inconsistencies with reality (like the fraternity ambush inside the school building since smarter fratmen would choose a less conspicuous location; or the careless conversations in public about murder between Keka and her best friend Bhong (Vhong Navarro)), the overall feeling never strikes you as too strange or absurd. It's still very reachable, still very watchable.

In the end, Keka becomes less a tale of revenge and more a celebration of the irrational things we do for love. Keka is correct when she said that in reality, the story does not stop when the director decides to freeze the frame but what she could not foretell is that in her story, there is another thing that might just catch her by surprise. Although already deeply entangled in the series of murders she has committed, she has learnd to move on and has in fact, fallen in love with someone and in return, that someone has fallen in love with her.

In the film's brilliantly conceived conclusion, Keka is caught red handed by Jason in her apartment while engaging in a violent brawl with Bobby Domingo (Ryan Eigenmann), the last of her boyfriend's murderers. During that scene, something miraculous happens. Instead of ending in the realistic way Keka expected it to end as she has envisioned in her post-song-and-dance monologue, or ending in the escapist way those cheesy eighties movies would cause it to end through songs and freeze frames, it goes into a totally different direction, a direction that convincingly reiterates the thesis that if the sudden loss of love can cause a woman to turn into a killer, the sudden gain of it can cause the world to spin, turning a dire situation such as where one is cornered by a horde of armed policemen into a moment of pure bliss.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

I Walk With a Zombie, director Jacques Tourneur's second collaboration with producer Val Lewton after the huge commercial success that is Cat People (1942), is laced with such enigmatic flavor that despite its B-movie roots, it begs to be seen and re-seen, understood and re-understood for beneath the overly simplistic plotting is an indiscriminate mystery, forcing varying reactions and appreciations in every viewing. From the initial scene, a long shot of the serene beach where a woman and a tall Black man are walking side by side which is accompanied by the opening credits, the film at once commands a sense of camouflaged complexity. While that scene is an obvious literal visualization of the film's title since the woman, Betsy (a lovely Frances Dee) the Canadian nurse who narrates the events that ensue, is literally walking with zombie Carrefour (Darby Jones, whose roles in films seem limited to African natives, or zombies), it doesn't dwell on the exact sensationalism the title seems to try to invoke and instead shifts the picture's direction elsewhere, somewhere calmer, possibly romantic, and infinitely open.

The film, or at least most of it, is structured like the memoir of Betsy. Told without a notion of urgency, her story formally begins with her being interviewed for a job as a nurse in the Caribbean island of St. Sebastian. She is then employed by Paul Holland (Tom Conway), the island's sugar plantation manager, to take care of his wife Jessica (Christine Gordon) who is suffering from what logically could be a mental illness. Holland, whose apparent sorrow and other Byronic qualities seem to have a desirous effect on Betsy, as she starts toying around the idea of developing love for the poetically somber manager. To complicate matters, Wesley Rand (James Ellison), Holland's half-brother, sees Betsy's arrival as a repetition of the longstanding feud he has with Holland over Jessica's affection, a feud that is suggested to be the primary cause of Jessica's current situation. Betsy gets involved in a whirlwind of familial and romantic controversies spiced up by local traditions of voodoo and a general atmosphere of blanketed island misery.

Quite interesting is how Lewton (who, though uncredited, comes up with the final draft of his films' screenplays) keeps almost the entire film within the perspective and point of view of his female protagonist. Thus, whatever intrigue or controversy the film touches upon is limited to Betsy's actual knowledge from whatever she witnesses, overhears, participates in, and remembers, which is very scarce considering that she is a newcomer to the island and not privy to the whispered conversations in the mansion or the littered gossip in the streets. This turns the film into an jigsaw puzzle with several of the key pieces missing, showcasing an incomplete yet still delectable and appreciable portrait of a story that weaves both the supernatural and the familiar, and requiring further participation and a great dose of imagination and creativity from the viewer to truly come alive. This is what essentially makes the film a towering achievement in B-movie making. Instead of covering all the corners of essential storytelling and spoon feeding the audience with what essentially is a quickly manufactured and ultimately commercial narrative, it leaves considerable spaces for mystery and intrigue thus converting the humble confines of the plot into a myriad of eternally morphing emotions and directions.

Moreover, the female perspective reinforces the essentially amorous thrust of the film despite its unglamorous title and its horror film tendencies. I Walked With a Zombie is conveyed with what feels like a quietly cognizant tendency. It is as if the film was being told through the eyes of a passive participant who gets thrown in an affair that catches her unaware and awakens her longings for the unworldly and the dreamy. This makes the exotic setting even more irresistible and alluring. Most remarkable is how Tourneur's expert use of the shadows keeps the visuals three-dimensional in a way that what happens outside the frame of the picture is also conveyed through the movements of the shadows, thus enunciating the importance of setting to the overall tone of the film.

In a rather startling although largely unobserved turn in the film, the perspective is taken away from Betsy. Wesley, troubled by the revelation of her mother (Edith Barrett) regarding Jessica being a zombie, decides to end everything by releasing her from the estate, pulling out the arrow from the figurehead (called "Ti-Misery") and piercing Jessica with it, before being forced into the shores of the island. It's a remarkable sequence, one that doesn't exactly share the consistent tone of the film, purging whatever female psychology and logic into the equation and replacing it with a cryptic and clearly mystical rationale. Apart from the suggested guilt and pity of Wesley, there is little clear motivation that would drive the deathly conclusion and to add further curiosity to the affair, Carrefour's towering presence, following Wesley in his doubtable salvaging of Jessica's soul, becomes the solitary logic in the abrupt madness. His presence, made overtly poetic and surreal with Tourneur's dramatic blocking (the scene where Carrefour's body accentuates the frame which details Wesley carrying Jessica's body in the beach is remarkably beautiful), becomes the climax's ingenious rallying point, the radical shift from Betsy's point of view to that of the island's. After all, the only witness to the portrayed sequence is Carrefour, zombie, servant of the island and quite possibly the symbol of the islanders' servile psychology.

From then, we no longer hear Betsy's ethereal voice-over which is replaced by a male one, more earthy and hardened, probably coming from one of the islanders' as the accent suggests. From dreamy and romantic, it becomes shaded with a pious dolor. It wraps up the film with a moralistic tone, accusing Wesley and Jessica with sinfulness and deserving of death and wishing the virtuous living, Holland and Betsy who is nestled in the former's close embrace and is now a subject of observation rather than an observer, a blessed life. The most interesting thing about the shifting of perspective from Betsy to the islanders is the thematic implication it suggests. Throughout the film, we are enchanted by the regales of the privileged Caucasian woman, living outside the perimeters of the culture that at first is represented by its beauty ("Palm trees," she repeats as she plays around with the idea of working in a Caribbean isle) but is then modified by the romantic entanglements that ensued. Such is aptly diluted by an ending that suggests and puts into a more palpable manner the disillusionment Holland so poetically manifests to Betsy while she was daydreaming on the ship to St. Sebastian. For a brief yet momentous instance, we get a glimpse of the natives' psychology, the simplistic morality, the faithfulness to the whims of nature and fortune, the subservient mentality that backdrops the ending's patent although slightly hopeful melancholy.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)

The delight one gains from watching Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton's film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's well-regarded stage musicale about the legendary barber who kills his clients by slitting their throats before mixing them into the meat pies of his landlady, can be summarized by the film's penultimate moment: a crimson-black hued tableau of terrible and undefinable beauty, morbid and irresistible all at the same time. The tale of the titular demon barber has evolved from news item of unverified sources to rumor-worthy grotesquery before turning into a literary work, into a film, into a fine musical play by Sondheim, and finally, this terrifyingly gorgeous movie, a product of a perfect marriage of material and artists, of the murderous barber's distorted story of human depravity set into song by Sondheim with his astounding meshing of cords, melodies and lyrics, and Burton's distinguished visual assuredness, narrative competence, and thematic consistency. Like that penultimate tableau, the entirety of Sweeney Todd dwells in the vicious, the cruel, the absurd, and the macabre yet still remains an undeniable thing of beauty.

Burton's aesthetic style willingly veers from pretty into grotesque territory as Industrial Age-London with its skies darkened with soot and smoke seems to be forever drenched in a gray and sun-deprived haze. The centerpiece of this enunciated gloom is Mrs. Lovett's building in Fleet Street with its ground level subbing as a meat pie store, characterized by an unhealthy mix of dust, questionable meat, flour, and cockroaches, and its second floor renovated to be Sweeney Todd's barbershop, with a lone chair surrounded by a bevy of glass from a ceiling of dusty windows overlooking the bleak neighborhood, to the solitary mirror, broken into dozens of pieces thus reflecting only fractured images of their faces. The fitting occupants of the decrepit building are Todd (Johnny Depp) and Ms. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter) whose appearances outdo their already stylized environment of damp and dimly colored cobblestone streets and dour living quarters. Their faces are deathly pale with shadows clinging under their seemingly empty eyes. Their manes are absurdly disheveled, Lovett's faintly copper-hued hair is in perpetual chaos while Todd's is made more prominent by a streak of white, further emphasizing the obsession that has consumed him. Their wardrobes are composed of dusty and tattered clothes colored in shades of black, white, gray and dull variations of lighter and more active hues, hinting of what they probably were in a previous life, possibly a decent barber's uniform or a lady's lavish gown. Todd and Lovett's present state however is purged of whatever remnant of humanity they once had. They are doomed and hopeless, walking monsters still among the living for their villainous objectives: for Todd, the violent deaths of his oppressors and for Lovett, the belated emotional and monetary rewards of her unrequited adoration for Todd.

Purists might prefer the powerful vocalizations of George Hearn and Angela Lansbury as more appropriate for Sondheim's music. However, the movie has Todd and Lovett conspire on their wicked plans in whispers, careful that none of their plans escape the confines of the barbershop. Similarly, they sing the same way making Depp's raspy tenor, sometimes escalating into tortured bursts of vocals, and Bonham-Carter's rickety soprano, uncomfortably resting on the fringes of Sondheim's complicated notes, surprisingly pitch-perfect for the cinematic characters Burton envisioned them to be, otherworldly semblances of their depleted humanities. As a result of such consistency, these characters maintain the tremendous burdens their little frail and near-dead souls carry as they shift from dialogue to song.

There's no question that Todd has fallen far from grace after he has been unduly exiled by his nemesis Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). His redemption is improbable most especially after his "Epiphany" where he becomes convinced of the little value of life. Todd, as Burton has visualized him, exists for one solitary purpose: to rid London of Turpin and his henchman Beadle (Timothy Spall) and the completion of such is for him his salvation. In comparison, Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), the young sailor who falls in love with Todd's daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) who opens the film with a song about his experiences traveling with his large eyes reflecting the starry London night, seems to have landed in London, crossing paths with Todd and later with his daughter fortuitously for another purpose, to rescue Johanna and find a future with her. During Anthony's opening verse of optimistic wonderment, Todd's face enters the frame to caution him. Their two faces are juxtaposed emphasizing the differences of these two men despite their similarity in goal. Anthony is wide-eyed with hope while Todd's eyes are blank with his desperate murderous objective.

Lovett on the other hand has Toby (Ed Sanders), the little boy she rescues from the clutches of Italian barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen). Both of them are exemplars of devotion: Lovett's is misguided and fueled both by greed and desire for Todd while Toby's is sourced from loyalty and innocence. In the song "Not While I'm Around," the duet where Toby pledges to protect Lovett from evil referring to Todd whom he discovers has ill motives, the differences again become apparent: Toby sings with angelic precision while Lovett, now accompanied by discordant violins, warbles the same lyrics but doesn't quite strike you as harmonious or sincere to the noble promises of the song.

These thematically-driven relationships between the characters, well above the more obvious narratively-driven ones, are just some of the further observations propelled by Burton's meticulous direction. Sweeney Todd, I believe, is a wonderful adaptation of the musicale. Burton fills the film with lifeless objects that reflect the atmosphere of hopelessness and depravity: sooty windows, broken mirrors, smoky chimneys, wet cobblestone streets. More importantly though is the fact that Burton understands that his film adaptation will be utterly worthless against the stage production without utilizing the feats of cinema. Thus, on top of the immaculate production design and Sondheim's already perfect music, Burton populates his film with faces, in close-up detailing the paleness and coldness of their manufactured features, or reflected from the broken mirror or the clear shaving blade, or seen through the dusty windows, or blurred from a distance, or morbidly covered with and turned indistinguishable by his victim's blood. Burton also puts emphasizes on his actors' eyes, sometimes putting the burden of evoking gargantuan emotions and shaded morals just through the depth of a stare.

These fine cinematic touches make the psychology much deeper than what the narrative entails. It adds a certain sexual other than maternal connection between Toby and Lovett when Toby started pledging to protect the latter. It gives you a glimpse into Todd's depraved mental state when out of frustration, he jumps into a fantasy where he starts inviting people into his barber for a shave talking of finding salvation in the fulfillment of his vendetta, before flashing back to reality where he is far from his goal and is alone with Lovett. It pumps Todd's reunion with his shaving blades with a tinge of perversity as he longingly looks, cross-eyed in concentration, at his gleaming metal "friends." The intimacy and unholy communions between Todd and Lovett, stranded in their Fleet Street building, is silently turbulent and internally troubling. Much more than maintaining allegiance with its theatrical roots (as most other movie adaptations of popular musicales) by incorporating the giant gestures (compensating for the stage's inability to transform the theater into a visual replica of the atmosphere of Todd's historic era) and the perfect singing voices as only Broadway or West End would allow, Burton stays true to his being a filmmaker and embellishes the material with just the right details like a surrealistic final tableau, hushed conversations, the imperfect yet apt singing, the dozen fountains of blood inspired by the finest of Italian gialli, eventually turning what already is great into something impressive and memorable.

This review is also published in The Oblation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

American Gangster (2007)

American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)

Compared to the enthralling experience of viewing recently released culture-specific mob movies like Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006), a remake of a popular Hong Kong movie set in Irish-dominated Boston which in my opinion surpasses the original, James Gray's We Own the Night (2007), a riveting reworking of a biblical parable set deep in the Eastern European mob scene of 80's Gotham, and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises (2007), an auteur-powered contemplation on identity in Russian mafia-infested London, watching American Gangster, this Ridley Scott-directed fictionalized account of the rise and fall of notorious African-American drug lord Frank Lucas, is such a lugubrious chore. Clocking at a hefty 157 minutes, the movie has the typical Oscar-whoring and self-important pomp of a Brian Glazer-production (think sugar-coated gargantuan productions like A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, 2005) and The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006)) which would most likely divide viewers to those who are willing to give in to the crass Hollywood-ization of a historical figure and those who are just sick of the same tired although glittered routine, repeated and re-repeated year after year.

It helps that Scott is actually a competent director, with a convincing eye for detail. Under his helm, Vietnam War-era New York City with its overpopulated housing projects and streets crowded with discontent derelicts and junkies felt like the chaotic haven that is ripe for Frank Lucas' enterprising endeavor. New York is aesthetically grimy and gloomy with adequate references to the sounds and fashion of that era and its culture, with the newly-wealthy thugs storming in and out of jazz clubs wearing vivacious outfits on their bodies and scantily-clad femmes on their limbs. However, beyond this overproduction mounted to keep the mob tale consistently placed within its proper historical perspective is virtually nothing. American Gangster moves like a lecture on that obscure and possibly forgotten moment of American history, with its lecturer persisting on telling the most insignificant of details to utmost perfection but nevertheless fails to add anything new to the discourse.

As Frank Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the role with his typical suave and charm. While this very agreeable performance by Washington could have been adequate considering that Lucas has Harlem under his control by sheer charisma and lured Miss Puerto Rico into marrying him, it lacks the hidden or apparent wickedness (which Jack Nicholson had tons of in The Departed, but is sufficiently covered by both Moni Moshonov or Armin Mueller-Stahl of We Own the Night and Eastern Promises respectively) that would have made his unscrupulous rise to the top with several murders and other criminal activities on the side entirely believable. It is unfair to put the blame to hardworking Washington as Frank Lucas seems to have been written (by screenwriter Steve Zaillian) exactly the way he portrays him, a persistent gangster with a sure heart still tucked somewhere beneath all the unlawful acts and misdeeds. For some, it is an adequate if not glorious attempt by the filmmakers to give the notorious drug lord a dose of humanity. It probably is a step away from the mob lord caricature that has been inherited since The Godfather days. For me however, it is nothing short of insipid: confusing humanity with lily livered hold on ideals and morals and exchanging underworld viciousness with gentlemanly gestures and an entrepreneur-like grasp of basic economics.

Perhaps the biggest mistake of American Gangster is to delegate a chunk of the Frank Lucas storyline on the bravura efforts of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), detective made notorious by his surrendering nearly a million dollars of unmarked bills to his superiors and would later on be instrumental in the capture of Frank. Crowe, I think, gives the role enough justice. It's an unglamorous role, of a New Jersey cop nearing the unsavory twilight of a divorce while solving the case of his career in an unkempt office with a crew of determined yet unsightly men, and Crowe manages to keep his performance within the bounds of what is required of him. My problem lies in the fact that the alloted attention given to Richie is not commensurate to what he represents in the picture. He is merely a clever plot device, a character whose story's existence in the movie is to merely parallel that of Frank's. Other than that fact, he is merely another golden-hearted copper doing the right thing whose private life is unfortunately uncooperative (and compared to the coppers of We Own the Night who are balancing duty, family and love, Richie's fear of public speaking and risk of losing his family seem utterly unfit for cinema).

There is something about the story of an African-American gangster making it to the top at a time when the higher echelons of the crime scene seem reserved for White Americans that will make you stop and think. The undercurrents of the movie's thematic course seems to envelope the idea that the persevering efforts of American civil rights heroes are not reserved wholly for the virtuous nationalists but also those who subsist in leeching off the misfortune of a nation at war for their own personal gain. However, American Gangster is too busy storytelling and lecturing to convince me of these novel merits. Moreover, stories like American Gangster have been made over the years with more creativity and originality and less of the stuffiness this film seems bent on exuding. Had this film been made decades ago or had it been crafted with a clearer directive without the unnecessary plotlines, I would have brushed off my complaints and considered it a worthwhile achievement. But since it wasn't, I'll just add this to my growing list of cinematic letdowns.

This review is also published in The Oblation.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rescue Dawn (2006)

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)

Men are insatiable beasts. It is normal for us to have an innate tendency to push our natural boundaries and reject the limitations that have been imposed on us. Filmmaker Werner Herzog is not interested in man's plain insatiability but in a more defined and refined context of such normal human characteristic. He is interested in men whose desire to break natural limitations has reached the point of obsession. Herzog's cinematic heroes and anti-heroes are not only insatiable beasts, they are also stubborn to the point of exhaustion, insanity and death. Yet despite Herzog's heroes eccentric approach to this most peculiar of human characteristics, they still remain painfully familiar, uncomfortably similar to even the most normal of us. Don Lope de Aguirre with his maddened need to penetrate the South American jungle (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972), Brian Fitzcarraldo with his self-imposed defiant task of building an opera house deep in the jungles of Peru (Fitzcarraldo, 1982), Dr. Graham Norrington with his resilient bids to build a hot-air balloon to navigate above the canopies of the Paraguayan jungles (White Diamond, 2004), and Timothy Treadwell with his foolish and fatal attempt to live with a family of grizzly bears (Grizzly Man, 2005) are only a few of Herzog's subjects that evidently stray from what is considered as norm but are still distinctly and definitely human, not mere caricatures of extreme eccentricities.

Another is Dieter Dengler, German-born pilot for the United States air force who was shot down from his plane, made prisoners-of-war, eventually escaped and rescued. Dengler is the subject of Herzog's earlier documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). Herzog's rare effort in big-budgeted Hollywood filmmaking Rescue Dawn is a fictionalized version of Dengler's plane crash and succeeding capture, torture, and imprisonment for many months by Laotian communists. The typically uncompromising director has been accused by many of his fans and critics of having succumbed to blockbuster mentality as Rescue Dawn seems to cling on tired plot conventions and indulge in what feels like pro-American yet anti-war didactics, the current fad in American cinema nowadays. I disagree with that assessment since in the grander scheme of things, Rescue Dawn is that infrequent Hollywood-funded movie that exceeds both commercial and artistic expectations.

It starts with a factoid about the American air force secretly bombing select areas in the Laos-Vietnam border before showing a clip of villages exploding from the point of view of someone in the bomber plane. It's a wonderful clip made remarkable in the context Herzog makes use of it. While the clip visually details destruction that is both brazen and atrocious especially in a post-Vietnam War context, it is used in the film to showcase the alluring grace and beauty in flight. The endless jungles and the villages that dot the green landscape are lorded over from such vantage point above. The explosions in gorgeous slow motion are like flowers blossoming against the hostilities of nature down below. With that, Herzog gives you a glimpse of rationality behind Dengler's obsession. Flight is a potent drug against the world and its malignant and often persistent hold on humankind.

So when Dengler's plane is shot, he forgoes escaping from the crashing plane as advised by his superiors, and instead crashes with it. He emerges from the fiery remains of his plane, is greeted with gunshots by the villagers and chased into the depths of the Laotian jungle. Herzog, at once, confirms Dengler's determination and stubbornness thus assuring this fictional version of Dengler a rightful place in the director's pantheon of quirky characters. Dengler then explores the jungle while trying to evade the Laotian searchers, utilizing every bit of survival tip he learned from the videos being shown to them before the mission. You get a feeling that Herzog acknowledges this new locale not merely as a hostile setting for Dengler's capture and eventual escape but also as hindrance to Dengler's unshakable object of obsession. In the jungle, he is grounded, vulnerable to nature's hold and whims. Most fascinating however is how Dengler reacts to this misfortune, with untainted optimism and a surprising hint of joviality. Dengler, as portrayed by Christian Bale in what feels like his most interesting performance wherein he doesn't have to brood or possess an aura of suffering, is immensely likable with his contagious positivism. This is the apparent delectable conceit in Herzog's Hollywood flick: a man is tortured and imprisoned in a foreign prison camp in the middle of a jungle yet he doesn't sulk in predictable misery as some of his co-prisoners do and instead survives for that glint of hope of being rescued.

Rescue Dawn is immensely watchable because of the relationships this typical Herzog hero earns from his new environment. Herzog gets most of the psychology correct: the way Dengler worries about shitting his pants while he's being tied to the ground; or the complex acquaintances he commits with his co-prisoners, all of whom are complicated individuals with various motivations and expectations in life. Herzog also acknowledges the concept of time, in a way that his characters do get thinner (most of his actors lost thirty to forty pounds during the duration of filming), and the relationships they have become more intricate (in a way that late in the movie, these prisoners would have been so emotionally attached to each other to the point of intimate physical gestures and choice of hallucinatory subject). Pitted against these factors is Dengler's initial obsession of resuming flight. Such is the rationale behind Dengler's unmatched hopefulness: that what trumps the challenges of hostile nature, the tortures of his captors, the persistence of time, the differing impulses of his companions, and Maslow's complete hierarchy of needs is this one towering endeavor, to be given back his wings and retain that human trait of insatiability, stubborn and near-insane as it is.

Perhaps, the most evident of Hollywood's influence in this distinctly Herzog work is the fact that it is undoubtedly a triumphant picture, one that ends with an inspirational speech by the rescued Dengler. In this regard, Herzog seems to have rewarded the obsession he has sufficiently explored (often with different outcomes, as in the case of the protagonists of Aguirre, the Wrath of God or most recently Grizzly Man) in his vast filmography with acceptance and a sense of heroism. It's an awkward conclusion considering that Dengler's motivation is hardly one that would merit overwhelming pontification by America's top pilots: his first mission is a failure having been shot and crashed his plane in the middle of the jungle, his allegiance to America rests primarily on the nation's ability to give him wings, and nowhere in the film did Herzog portray Dengler as sincerely nationalistic (he even jokes around the saying "to die for our country," obviously pertaining to the sense that his obsession trumps his love for America thus preferring not to die for country but to live to fly). Yet there he is in the middle of a cheering mob, delivering a speech to cap a film that details his obscene attempts to regain his undying need for flight from the temporary clutches of the Southeast Asian jungles. In that sense and awkward as it is, that final speech feels rightfully fitting. He is after all in the company of his peers, who most likely have the same insatiable passion. Among them, Dengler, survivor of a crash and months grounded by enemies, is a hero and that speech is his valedictory for being the most human, although crazed and stubborn, of them all.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Women in Cages (1971)

Women in Cages (Gerardo de Leon, 1971)

Women in Cages, made for Roger Corman and Cirio Santiago’s production outfit, seems to be an unremarkable entrant to the women-in-prison subgenre. Standing alongside Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House (1971) or Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), the film looks like a paltry offering, a mere by-the-numbers redoing of the formulaic scenario. However, beneath the unflattering production values and the very stylized visual theme is a film that is much more than an addition to the infamous subgenre of women in prison films. Women in Cages is a bleak and truly suffocating look at women’s descent to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual imprisonment.

The difficult proposition of raising Women in Cages above the confines of surface-level thrills and excitement is bolstered by the film’s final shot, its thematic coup de grace. We are given a close-up of a woman’s face, drenched with icy sweat, her lips shivering while her partner starts to make his sexual advances. It shows desolation in full unflinching view, an unguarded summation of the subgenre’s intended or unintended thesis. That final scene where the frame encages the feverish yet still beautiful face with her eyes revealing a half-awaken daze, presumably caused by the numbing effects of the drugs she takes but in reality represents everything that binds her body, mind, and soul, sums up the film where women are perpetually encaged.

Apparently, screenwriters David Osterhout and James Watkin would recycle the tired tale of innocent suspects being convicted, imprisoned, and eventually terrorized out of their sanity. It begins with a package being passed on from the passengers of the Zulu Queen, a mysterious ship which hosts a well-kept bordello, to a drug lord lounging with his girlfriend Jeff in a cockpit. Upon being signaled by his underlings of the arrival of the police, the drug lord switches the package to his girlfriend Jeff. The package turns out to contain prohibited drugs, and Jeff, overly naive and agreeable, lands in jail. Women in Cages basically tells her story, her initial interactions with her cell mates and the impossibly difficult prison matron, and her attempt to escape the penitentiary.

Jeff, (Jennifer Gan) is easy to regard as a stupid and infantile girl. Hopeful that her felonious boyfriend will bail her out, absentmindedly swims in a confused ecstasy of a non-existent romance, ignorantly grounding her survival to the person who caused her imprisonment. It’s easy to condemn the character as unrealistically too simpleminded, yet we have to understand that she is new to the terrifying circumstance. Unlike her cellmates, it is still possible to comprehend hope in her character. Probably one of the most disturbing scenes in the film is when Jeff is unjustly punished by trapping her inside a dark chasm where out of sheer hopelessness, she starts reciting children’s limericks. We literally witness all her innocence and hope deteriorate as she is further castigated, later on disclosing a woman permanently changed and scarred.

Although Jeff is the primary concern of the narrative, the film also details the misfortunes of other jailbirds of the aptly named women’s penitentiary “Carcel del Infierno.” These are all women who have suffered longer than Jeff, already hardened and turned callous by the inhumane conditions within the prison. Sandy (Judy Brown), a battered wife, was imprisoned for murdering her husband. She has developed a relationship with the police officer who is tasked with tracking down evidence to finally pin down Jeff’s boyfriend. Stoke (Roberta Collins), the girl in the aforementioned final scene, is in the prison for untold reasons. One would guess that it is due to her insufferable dependence on drugs as we first see her lying in bed, her face sparkling with cold sweat, and clearly thinking of other things other than the arrival of newcomer Jeff. She is then lured with drugs into killing Jeff by the drug traders before Jeff snaps and becomes witness against her boyfriend. These two women have ulterior motives for befriending Jeff. Both of them prisoners of their respective vices: Sandy with her incessant need for love in the person of the police chief, and Stoke with her undying itch for drugs.

Teresa (Sofia Moran, curiously uncredited despite her noteworthy performance) is the statuesque Filipina beauty who relishes in her uncomfortable relationship with prison matron Alabama (Pam Grier). She drowns in a sea of contradicting emotions, of lust and love, hatred and passion, physical imprisonment and emotional torture, all dealt upon by her one-way emotional attachment to Alabama. Alabama, on the other hand, has no room for affection having attained a status wherein she could deal to other people the suffering that she has experienced growing up. Her one motivation in life, the one stimulus that delights her, is the satisfaction of her twisted sense of retribution, not against those who have maltreated her, but against anybody she has ascendancy on. The chemistry between Teresa and Alabama is sublime, to say the least. Both are dependent females who are predicated by their respective races: Teresa is the lone Filipino in her cell (she doesn’t really fit in with her Caucasian cell mates nor the rest of the other Filipino prisoners) while Alabama laments on her sufferings as a black girl living in the ghetto. However, they are separated by their disparate needs: Teresa is longing for genuine attention and romantic companionship while Alabama merely sexual satisfaction dealt upon by her higher status. The duo’s comeuppance feels like one of the film’s campiest moments. Deep in the wilderness, Teresa comes back from safety only to violently ravage an entangled Alabama, supposedly out of spite and vengeance, only to be invaded by passion and suddenly kisses and fondles her with what seems like gripping reminiscence of a relationship and an equality that never happened. Their stubborn desires prove to be their downfall as both of them are caught, raped and killed by the marauders. It turns out that their respective fantasies of romance and dominance are quite insignificant in the face of men.

Women in Cages is significantly improved by those little details and clever touches that embellish the bland and unoriginal story. Rather than merely telling the story by going from point A to point B and adding a number of scenes with gratuitous nudity, filmmaker Gerardo de Leon infuses both depth and a distinct and effective visual style to the film, probably to the disdain of those looking for cheap thrills. Observe the ominous crimson tinge that paints Alabama’s pleasure cell. It clearly spells out a warning for fatal danger yet at the same time is tempting. Her underground dungeon offers a bevy of Gothic-inspired contraptions designed to inflict the most perverted of tortures. De Leon truly has an indubitable eye for color, compelling blocking and intuitive editing as the film, despite its limited budget and several flaws, succeeds in looking and feeling more than some cheap and one-dimensional B-movie.

In the end, we have a film that is harsh, much harsher than the typical entrants to the infamous sub-genre. Instead of focusing on the triumph against adversity and the success of escape, the film details the horrible transformations, the irreparable wounds and lesions, the vicious cycle of violence and evil that are the major points of the film’s unpalatable thesis. The scenes that purport happiness and joy, like Sandy’s reuniting with her police officer or Jeff’s daring rescue aboard the Zulu Queen are merely fleeting moments, forgettable instances that can never take us away from the film’s overbearing despair. You forget the sunlight, the smiles, the well-bred breasts, the pretty women that carry them, and of course, freedom. All that is eventually left with us are the anguish, the agony, the different afflictions and vices that imprison the women, cruel Alabama and her torturous affair with Teresa, and of course, the indurated face of Stoke signaling “The End.”

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Banal (2008)

Banal (Cesar Apolinario, 2008)
English Title: Holy

Had it been better funded, better directed and better acted, Cesar Apolinario's Banal (Holy) could have been more than a mere passable thriller. As it is, Banal is an utterly inconsistent thus disappointing film, one that attempts to tell a capably conceived story about two cops sitting on opposite ends of the moral spectrum coming to terms with their respective moralities, but failing miserably plainly because of its less-than-competent execution. Cris (Paolo Contis) and Jayson (Alfred Vargas) were classmates in SWAT training under Major Sagala (Christopher de Leon), infamous for his odd drinking habits (pouring liquor into cans of Coca Cola) and his unsavory methods in training his cadets. Cris is the incorruptible cop, often earning the ire of crooked powerful politicians. Jayson on the other hand is ambitious to the point of sacrificing his ideals for the sake of a few thousands of pesos pilfered during one of his raids. Despite their differences, the two cops form a friendship, bound to be tested when a plot to assassinate the visiting pope is discovered.

Banal is the first feature film for director Apolinario. His training as news reporter and documentarian for a local television network is both boon and bane. Not counting the several narrative liberalities made, it is quite noticeable that the film is aptly researched. There is a genuine effort in portraying the particular risks and hardships members of the SWAT go through especially in their difficult training sessions. Much more intriguing is that there are no pretenses of uprightness or nobility in the local police force in the film, unlike most other local films or shows that would always strive to put the government in a good light lest they incur the wrath of the politically-motivated censors board (Banal was actually given an X-rating before the censors changed its mind). There is always that swelling atmosphere of sickening bureaucracy and media hogging that overwhelms the quiet sacrifices of the cops in the field. Apolinario also has an eye for detail and knows where to place his camera for maximum effect, especially during key scenes. Journalism is a job that requires the keenest of attention and a good grasp of honesty. These virtues he probably learned from fervently gathering information on a certain lead or being on the field and catching sensational news as they happen. Unfortunately, these journalistic virtues aren't enough to make a good film.

It's quite obvious that Apolinario relies a lot from his actors and to give them due credit, leads Contis and Vargas render serviceable jobs. On the other hand, veteran actor De Leon, while the obvious scene stealer with his unmitigated blend of method acting and histrionics, falls short in terms of both subtlety and sincerity. Other than that one scene where his alcohol-addicted major defeatedly salutes his former cadets, De Leon's antics never really rise above plain play-acting. Supporting cast members like Paolo Paraiso as wooden comic relief and Cassandra Ponti as woodenly sobful wife fare much worse. It's a good thing that Pen Medina, who plays corrupt provincial Congressman Manalo, is allowed to liven up things a bit by converting an underwritten role into something else, a representation of everything that's gone wrong in the Philippines.

Sadly, none of Apolinario's actors are adept action stars. Contis is a child actor turned all-around thespian. Vargas started out doing sexy roles in movies before being given a break doing various roles in television. De Leon is predominantly a dramatic actor. It bears stressing that Apolinario cannot direct a decent action scene and I believe he knows this. For example, in what was supposed to be a precursor for an all-out brawl, Apolinario opts to forgo of the rumble and instead, cheatingly inserts a shot of an ambulance siren (to signify that the brawlers were probably hospitalized) before showing the aftermath of the affray. In a climactic sequence which further proves Apolinario's incompetence in directing action scenes, Major Sagala and Jayson are trying to diffuse a bomb before it reaches the pope's vehicle. Everything turns into an incomprehensible mess when Apolinario, with the help of horrendous editing, mixes archived footage of Pope John Paul's last visit to Manila (and all the while I thought this was a fictional future pope, especially since the production design hints of the present as the setting of the film), and a horribly directed and acted scene of Sagala hanging while shooting from the passenger's seat of a rapidly moving car. To add insult to injury, the action sequence ends in a computer generated explosion that is just unintentionally hilarious.

Had Apolinario the vision to get veteran action stars instead of former and present matinée idols, stars who are trained in daring stunts and could've mustered enough pulsating excitement to salvage these pitifully choreographed and visualized sequences, he could have successfully cloaked his inadequacies as director. Had Apolinario the discipline to hone his journalistic tendencies into his filmmaking without sacrificing narrative logic and had the producers the common sense not to rely on cheap computer graphics especially given their budgetary limitations and gone the traditional way of blowing up junk vehicles and using real fire or just refrain from spoon feeding their audience (like in one scene atop a building, wherein we hear the sounds of a helicopter engine. It could have stopped there but instead a badly rendered computer-generated helicopter embarrassingly emerges from nowhere, sending chills down my spine, not in a good way), Banal could have been the Filipino mainstream movie all of us have been waiting for, a fresh yet still very commercial police story that actually has something relevant and interesting to say. As it is, Banal is one overpraised blunder.

This review is also published in The Oblation.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (2007)

Hamin is nestled on her mother's lap

Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Lav Diaz, 2007)
English Title: Death in the Land of Encantos

"Great" is an adjective that is usually reserved for works of considerable degree and power, of immense import and significance. To the very few in the world who are open-minded enough to have braved sitting through Lav Diaz's latest nine-hour opus, the term "great" would be the proper and popular adjective to describe the film. I cannot disagree, Kagadanan Sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos) is simply one great film, arguably the greatest film of 2007. Allow me to complicate things further, Kagadanan is not merely a great film, it is possibly one of the greatest films about love ever made. The love that subtly illuminates Diaz's black and white visual aesthetics over acres of land ravaged by the typhoon Reming (internationally referred to as Durian, the strongest typhoon to have ever hit the Bicol region, wiping out entire families and towns) is expansive. The love here is utterly romantic, blatantly destructive, hypnotically alluring, and fascinatingly sincere.

takes its cue from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novels (like One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera), where the men and women are all hopelessly romantic scavengers, traversing the Latin American wasteland of fractured colonial and political influences with gentle caresses of native magic and coincidences. Diaz evokes Garcia Marquez by draping the return of Bicolano poet Benjamin Agusan Jr. (played by theater actor Roeder Camanag), fondly referred to by his friends as Hamin, to his now desolate home town with the same overbearing atmosphere of a country completely collapsing from the burden of colonial influence and present political inutility. Diaz furthers this contemplation with a subplot involving memories of Hamin's mother (Gemma Cuenca), suffering supposedly from insanity caused by her romantic affair with an earth spirit castled in a mound of soil in their farmland. Insanity becomes a generational ill as Hamin himself is slowly degenerating into a rabid paranoid, consumed by a similar doomed love affair. All the other characters in Kagadanan suffer a similar fate, of being swallowed completely by an indefatigable obsession, an incurable enchantment of the land that Diaz pictures as insufferably beautiful yet compulsively treacherous. This is where Diaz tops Garcia Marquez. Diaz's magic realism is more familiar, more agonizing, more a product of a collective national experience than a singular imaginative mind.

Hamin meets up with his friends, Teodoro (Perry Dizon), another poet who has retired to become a fisherman, and Catalina (Angeli Bayani), sculptor of rocks spewed by Mt. Mayon and Hamin's former flame and mother of his kid. The three would indulge in prolonged conversations about neverendingly evolving topics (an evening conversation between the three friends would begin with a question about the severe blackout evolves into a complaint about kerosene lamps which evolves into a discussion on insects and their intriguing behavioral patterns which then evolves into musings about the government, about art, about passion and mysteries) over bottles of beer. These conversations distinguish the characters. Hamin is the romantic intellectual, experienced with the ways of the world (having been to Europe and Russia), yet secretive and guarded. Teodoro, on the other hand, has the temperament of a simple provincial laborer, unflinchingly loyal and beholden to his more successful friends (upon first sight of Hamin, he devotes a persuasive recital of a fondly remembered poem, lovingly and graciously delivered), yet his restraint is his wisdom. Catalina has a worldly demeanor which shrouds her maternal inclinations to both her friends. She is supposedly the most level-headed of the three, but she is fueled by emotions. Her art, carving from volcanic boulders valuable pieces, is a derivative of her passionate hatred for Mt. Mayon.

Although the friends are very close, there's an indescribable tension that overpowers their bonds. Between Hamin and Teodoro lies an uncomfortable merging of respect, disdain, and the acknowledgment that both of them have something the other will never have (Hamin's experiences abroad and acclaim, and Teodoro's comfort and stability). Hamin and Catalina share a son and a past romantic relationship, yet both of them are not in a position to give in to the simple comforts Teodoro has retired to. Both of them are fervent artists and activists who are unable and probably will never be able to descend to lowly concerns of plebeian livelihood and family. Sacrifice, that is the affliction that pervades the nine-hour picture. It is an affliction that resembles an unhealthy obsession, an interval of insanity, essentially leading to death.

Hamin, Teodoro, and Catalina hike towards Mt. Mayon

Amalia (Sophia Aves), Hamin's lover who he abandoned when he left for Russia, is peacefully sleeping naked. Hamin's voice-over is heard "You're the most beautiful" as Diaz's camera lingers aggressively on every exposed area of Amalia's body. There's a faint echo of despair in Hamin's voice, as if he's trapped in a moment where he is deprived of fully enjoying the beauty that he is beholden to, unable to touch and embrace. In another similar scene, Svita, Hamin's lover while he was stationed in Russia, is peacefully sleeping naked. Again, Hamin's voice is heard declaring that Svita is "the most beautiful" with the same faint echo of despair while the camera peers into every exposed area of her body. These scenes (I'd think of them as vivid dream sequences that are laced with erotic motivations rather than memories of events that ensued) are always preceded or followed by visual meditations of the ruined land, of the majestic and perfectly coned Mt. Mayon and its terrible power, hinting of the indispensable connection between the love for a beautiful woman that has been left or has left, and the love for this beautiful yet wretched country that is slowly turning into a literal hell.

Within the nine-hour duration of Kagadanan are several filmed interviews (with Diaz doing the interviewing himself in a mannered and very journalistic method, eliciting answers and stories of considerable power and drama) of the survivors of the typhoon Reming. Depicted are the unthinkable horrors that ensued: of mothers persisting to dig up the bodies of their families, of entire towns being submerged in mixtures of water and volcanic mud, of both past and future livelihoods lost in a short period of time. More harrowing are the different reactions of the victims: an old woman suddenly wails when she is reminded of her uncertain future, a group of friends nonchalantly discuss friends who were buried underneath the rubble, a woman correlates the tragedy with the residents' worsening sinfulness. Diaz then plays around with form when he also interviews the three main characters as similar victims of the typhoon's catastrophe. The interviewer all of a sudden becomes part of the film, engaging in conversations and arguments with Hamin, Catalina and Teodoro. Diaz pierces the veil that divides fiction and documentary (the film got a special mention in Venice in the documentary section of the Horizons sidebar of the film festival), yet despite the use of such device, no intention of mockery or gimmickry is perceived. Instead, the blurred lines become drastic ruminations of the blatant absurdity of the very real situation: of an entire population wiped out and forced to evacuate, of a nation and government that simply does not care.

Kagadanan is possibly Diaz's most personal film. Unlike in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2001) or Heremias (2006) where static long takes have become the comforting norm of Diaz's visual aesthetics, Kagadanan is more dynamic. While the contemplative long takes are still present, Diaz frequently engages in hand held shots especially in the scenes that are supposedly from the point of view of Hamin, like the first scene where we become accustomed in the muddied desolation caused by the typhoon, the several scenes wherein Hamin reminisces on his childhood, and the dream sequences with Amalia and Svita. The peculiar thing about this change in Diaz's aesthetics is that from mere observer in Ebolusyon and Heremias, he now partakes a more involved role, becoming Hamin if necessary (this is why Hamin's gaze on the female form is so complex (lustful, eager, curious and longing), because Diaz himself becomes Hamin). The evening banters and the philosophical musings are all Diaz's; a conversation with the director would feel like the humble discussions between Hamin, Catalina and Teodoro (only in that case, it's all Diaz in different personas doing the talking). The poems made and recited by both Hamin and Teodoro are also in reality, Diaz's.

Diaz is a very generous artist, too generous perhaps. Unfortunately, the naked sincerity and generosity in Diaz's filmmaking are often mistaken for self-indulgence, mostly because of his film's ungodly lengths. The sacrifices he has made for the love of his art is unsurpassed by any Filipino filmmaker, living or dead. The reason why the heartaches, the unbridled longings, the closeted insecurities, the disregarded relationships, the incomparable dedication for art and activism, the emotional and physical desolation are so palpable in Kagadanan is because they were cultivated not from manufactured imagination but through collected experiences.

"Ang mamatay ng dahil sa iyo" (translated as "To die for you"), from the Philippine national anthem sung with a rough and insulting baritone by a mysterious military officer (played with cartoonish viciousness by Soliman Cruz) while torturing Hamin, are the last words heard in the film before the images abruptly turn to black and the end credits start appearing. The way the words were sung connotes a harsh taunting, probably from the government forces to those whose activism is similar to Hamin's (and this part is rooted from a valid concern by most artists and journalists whose works are either censored because of its political messages or they themselves are mysteriously executed). The words also candidly express the affliction of sacrifice that has become the norm in such manner of living Diaz's characters and perhaps Diaz himself live. There can be no mistress for one's unmitigated love for the land (or art) despite its frequent treacherous ways, which is why Hamin can never fulfill the desires of consummating love with his women (Amalia, whom he left; Svita, who left him; and Catalina, who can never arouse him again), or inhabiting the role of father to his estranged son in Mindanao, or to give aid to his family members who all died in fits of insanity before him. That in itself is a maddening preoccupation, and the logical although painful recourse is to escape by consummating one's mortality. In this ravaged land of both magic and extreme reality, death is a cheap comfort.

This review is also published in The Oblation, and is also my contribution to the Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon at Unspoken Cinema.