Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Director Christopher Nolan, ever since he revived the franchise with Batman Begins (2005), seems bent on making his hero and his dilemmas more earthbound. There is an attempt to inject realism into the comics, pertinence into mere entertainment. So instead of donning bat-suits with rubberized nipples, Batman (Christian Bale) sports a body armor derived from millions of dollars' worth of military research; instead of a sleek and gadget-ridden bat-mobile, he has a tank-like armored vehicle that transforms into a battle-ready motorcycle and somehow fits in real-world physics; instead of battling for a city that resembles a horror-themed carnival, he risks everything to salvage a city that is more recognizable; instead of clear-cut villains and adulated heroes in reiterated struggles between good and evil, we get twisted identities and broken martyrs spiraling downwards in a world that thrives in sin and cynicism.

Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight boasts of a truly memorable opening sequence: a terrifically conceived bank heist that fits better in a Michael Mann-directed caper movie than a summer flick with a caped and masked crime-fighting billionaire as its hero. The opening somehow foreshadows the film's overall tone, which is both fascinating and distracting at the same time. The double, triple, and quadruple-crossing amongst bank robbers feels like it rightly belongs in the unlimited realities of comic book literature, and when the last crook standing reveals himself as the Joker (Heath Ledger), with a Chelsea smile miserably hidden underneath a disarray of white and red paint, we are reassured we are in Gotham and that Batman is probably nearby. The milieu is of a completely different nature however: with a shot-gun wielding bank manager screaming threatening remarks about the mafia not appreciating being robbed, or the uncharacteristic ominous daylight which feels strangely unfamiliar in almost all reincarnations of Gotham, or the over-all tone of no-nonsense criminality and terrorism that pervades the scene. Nolan's Gotham in The Dark Knight is a city operating in comic book pulp and hyperbole snugged in present-day geography and politics.

Nolan presents a situation of two extreme forces: Batman's supposed good, vigilante justice that stands for order at whatever cost, and The Joker's insatiable evil, a conviction that the world can be adjusted to suit chaos if given the right impetus. In the center are Gotham's residents, district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), police commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman), Bruce Wayne's trustworthy liaison Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), all of which have the capacity to either doing the right thing or completely failing. The Dark Knight, rather than fathoming the eccentricities of its characters, is more interested in measuring the moral climate of Gotham City. Will its citizens prefer to have a ferry full of crooks explode to survive? Will they kill a ruthless informant to save a hospital full of innocent victims? Will Fox invade upon the privacy of everyone to find the villain? Will Batman rescue his personal muse or his city's only hope? These are merely a few of the moral dilemmas Nolan injects his tale with. He pushes the viewer to introspection, to weighing which of the two goods are less evil. He muddles morality, the lines between right and wrong, heroism and villainy.

The Dark Knight insists on realism, of placing fictional Gotham in the map, of suggesting that the Joker be given the politically-loaded label of terrorist, of edifying Batman with his familiar brand of heroics as the unpopular yet indelible hero. This insistence on contemporary realism compounded with Nolan's intent on compounding morality is problematic, in the same way that rationalizing right-wing war activism or justifying any of Bush's deservedly unpopular policies are problematic. Gordon's verbose plea in edifying Batman in the end feels desperate, if not treacherous. From a perspective of nebulous morality which I would have preferred since I am indifferent to Batman's patriotic posturing, Nolan suddenly pontificates, revealing a forgiving if not totally absolving stance to abuses of power in favor of the so-called greater good. Adjusted to real world politics, Batman's untraditional extradition of shady businessman Lau (Chin Han) from Hong Kong can be equated to a justified interference of international borders; or Batman's dilemma-ridden usage of his sonar tracking gadget can be equated to a dubious use of police power in furtherance of a warrantable purpose. I can imagine countless politicians, warlords, and dictators fancying themselves as Batmans in their respective jurisdictions, breaking a few rules in furtherance of a perceived order in society.

The Dark Knight is first and foremost created to entertain and as entertainment, it's largely successful save for a few bothersome imperfections. Nolan carries over from Batman Begins his inability to direct an action sequence, the best example of this sterility is the botched and almost incoherent fight sequence in the parking lot which ends with Batman being bitten by a huge canine. It surely kept me glued to my seat for over two hours, where I was relishing Ledger's misanthropic approximations before his predictable performance is overpowered by Eckhart's more tragic creation. The Dark Knight
however has been prematurely committed a status of reverence, backed up by all the box office records it broke, all the discerning critics it wowed, not to mention the legions of dedicated fans who are willing to kill or at least threaten to kill those who dare put a dent on the film's near-immaculate early reputation. Let's keep it however has been prematurely committed a status of reverence, backed up by all the box office records it broke, all the discerning critics it wowed, not to mention the legions of dedicated fans who are willing to kill or at least threaten to kill those who dare put a dent on the film's near-immaculate early reputation. Let's keep it earthbound, a film that is to be assessed both as a product of and a reaction to these cynical times.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Brutus (2008)

Brutus (Tara Illenberger, 2008)

Arnel Mardoquio's Hunghong sa Yuta (Earth's Whisper, 2008), one of the non-competition films I caught during the Cinemalaya Film Festival, is a problematic little film. The film is allegedly shot using only one high-definition video camera and despite the veritable talent of cinematographer Egay Navarro who manages to come up with truly beautiful images, the technical deficiencies, from lackluster acting to poor editing, are apparent. However, the film's problems are much bigger than the effects of its microscopic budget. The film, about a town composed of mostly females and deaf-mute kids that is hidden deep in the forest, advocates peace in Mindanao, an island ravaged by decades of war between government forces and Muslim secessionists. Unsurprisingly, it is excessively preachy and lacks any trace of subtlety. The film ends in a tragic note, accompanied by a forgettable home-made ditty whose lyrics sit very well with the film's unabashed didactics.

I have a hard time appreciating films like Hunghong sa Yuta and other films of similar motivations, these so-called advocacy films. While I admire their staunch idealism, I detest their single-mindedness which often disservices their own motivations. For example, Hunghong sa Yuta, in its endeavor to make its viewers understand the complex repercussions of warfare, simplifies war as a battle between good and evil, the former being the unfortunate victims of warfare and those kindhearted souls that persevere to get involved, and the latter being the government, as represented by devious and corrupt politicians and their military underlings. Often, these damaging undercurrents are overwhelmed by sincere intentions. A good advocacy film is one that balances its intentions and cinematic merit, one that fully convinces through a gentle whisper, one that exists not merely to instruct. Sadly, Hunghong sa Yuta is off-balanced, unduly loud in its conviction, and will have a hard time existing outside the purpose for which it was created for.

Tara Illenberger's Brutus treads similar dangerous grounds. It's an advocacy film. In fact, it was awarded the Jury Prize in the 4th Cinemalaya Film Festival precisely for its advocacy. In the jury's own words, Brutus is awarded the Jury Prize for "for courageously and effectively drawing the audience's attention to the complex dynamics between the exploitation of cultural communities and the degradation of the environment." The film, about the journey of two Mangyan children (charmingly played by Timothy Mabalot and Rhea Medina) to the lowlands to deliver a load of illegal lumber, tackles several pertinent subjects, from the degradation of the forests by the proliferation of illegal loggers to the undue eviction of the indigenous Mangyans from the fertile lowlands to the forests.

In that regard, Brutus is unsubtle and needlessly preachy. Fortunately, it compensates by diverting some of its attention to other matters, like let's say, the budding romance between the two children who are slowly coming of age, or the ongoing tension between the military and communist rebels, both sides of which are portrayed with equal amounts of humanity. At least it doesn't make the mistake of Hunghong sa Yuta of delegating villainy to one side of an inexplicable war. Ronnie Lazaro, who plays the tree-hugging commander of the military contingent, and Yul Servo, who plays the doctor-turned-communist leader, give adequate performances, adding depth to the characters. The film is also gorgeously shot by cinematographer Jay Abello (director of the less-than-edible Namets!) and expertly scored by Joey Ayala, providing the film with visual and musical flair to lessen the effects of its several expositions.

I agree that the issues the film intends to bring to the fore are both pressing and important like the lack of medical resources for the indigenous forest dwellers or just the simple fact that despite the wealth of resources, these people are poverty-stricken. I also agree that the film manages to condense these issues very well, in a nifty package that is pretty enough to convince programmers to reserve a slot in their film festivals. Basically, my biggest gripe with Brutus is that like most other advocacy films, it tends to say too much to the point of already being deafening.

Is Brutus a good film? I'd like to think so. Films like Brutus and Hunghong sa Yuta deserve to exist, if only to say the things it wants to say, no matter how loud or unsubtle their methods are. It's just that it's not really impossible for advocacy films to transcend their motivations and become something else. The best advocacy films are those that do not direct, but incite discourse. When there are films like Ditsi Carolino's three outstanding documentaries, Minsan Lang Sila Bata (Children Only Once, 1996), Riles (Life on the Tracks, 2003) and Bunso (The Youngest, 2005), all of which dissect their subject matters without the usual sensationalism, or Brillante Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), a film that espouses literacy but ends up discussing the state of our nation's democratic processes, or Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Ang Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other, 2006), a film that tackles the communist insurgency in Mindanao but deliberately avoids taking definite stances, there's no reason why advocacy films should be content on being mere billboards for their chosen slogans.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

100 (2008)

100 (Chris Martinez, 2008)

Joyce (Mylene Dizon), weeks before her death, confides to her best friend Ruby (Eugene Domingo) her greatest worry: "What if during the moment I die, I discover that there is nothing after?" Joyce's fear is legitimate. After all, the afterlife is a creation that reinforces humanity's need to exist eternally. After death, identities live on. It eases the difficulty of acknowledging that we'll eventually die, knowing that death is not the end. Ruby, dumbfounded by Joyce's sudden query into existentialism, arrives at and casually and humorously delivers a surprisingly plain yet logical answer: "Think of it this way. When you die and there's nothing after, you wouldn't know that since you're already dead. When you die and there is something after, then be happy. Treat it like a bonus." It's a lovely scene, one that reveals a weakness in Joyce's exterior of assuredness and resolve. Despite Joyce's firm acceptance that death is a mere few weeks away for her, she is still afraid of no longer existing, of being forever forgotten. Outside that scene, Joyce dauntlessly lives life as dictated by the post-its pasted on her bedroom wall.

Director Chris Martinez acknowledges that death is tragic. Joyce acknowledges that too. Thus, she plans her remaining weeks, making her death less painful for her and her loved ones. The casual treatment she gives death is not out of strength or integrity. She is undoubtedly flawed, calling her married lover (TJ Trinidad) at the instance of an amorous itch, or the long delay in her revealing her situation to her mother (Tessie Tomas). However, she knows the feeling of losing a loved one since her father also died of cancer a few years back. She knows how hard it is for her and her mother to move on, after such prolonged agony and a sudden, unexpected mourning.

Her casual treatment of her own death is not motivated by some unrealistic emotion or characteristic but by sheer selflessness. Her initial and least difficult tasks involve taking care of the trite logistics of her death: choosing and paying for her coffin and her wardrobe, even picking the songs that would be playing at her wake. More complicated are the tasks that do not rely on her solely: making sure that the last memories of her best friend with her are happy, making her mother accept her passing as quietly and less painful as possible, and reigniting the failed romance with her ex-boyfriend (Ryan Eigenmann). The film jumps from one task to another in a near-clockwork fashion, until all the post-its stuck on the wall are gone or are replaced. The beautiful thing about it is that Martinez infuses the narrative's mechanical approach with sensitivity and affection for the characters. There is no climax, just occasional crests of heightened emotions, of fear, sorrow, happiness, that are retained up to the end.

Martinez's 100 is not exactly about death or whatever comes after, but about life, or more specifically, about living life. In the film, Joyce's impending and expected death is a mere backdrop. This allows Martinez to play around with the conceit, infusing wit and comedy into the traditionally morose subject matter. There's much value added in the mundane: as when Joyce and Ruby reminisce on their school days in their old classroom, or when they visit Hong Kong and take pictures with Mickey Mouse, Buddha and the wax statue of Brad Pitt, or when Joyce downs gallons and gallons of ice cream, or when she engages a stranger to a passionate kiss. Knowing that the activities are done out of making most of her very limited life, there's a tinge of melancholy, of overt joy, of thrilling desperation to these moments. Martinez manages to harmonize a bevy of emotions into one genuinely amiable package, and for me, that's quite an achievement.

100 opens with Joyce journeying in the wilderness until she arrives at her destination, a serene lake in the middle of the crater of a volcano. It's a striking image, one that might be interpreted as Joyce's afterlife, a prelude to heaven. It's not. We never really see Joyce die and I don't think Martinez would allow her heroine, a symbol of life's preciousness no matter how short it is, to be seen succumbing in death's acknowledged tragedy. The peaceful lake is a metaphor, a poetic rendering of the film's most sublime moment which happens in the end. The sequence is drowned in silence. Joyce wakes up and walks towards her loft's living area. There, she sees the people she will leave behind laughing, interacting, in bliss. She doesn't interrupt and remains unseen. Instead, she reveals a comforted smile; she is sure she can die both in peace and leaving peace to the ones she loves. Death and the afterlife have become mere trivialities. She has lived life.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Namets! (2008)

Namets! (Jay Abello, 2008)
Englist Translation: Yummy!

This year's edition of the Cinemalaya Film Festival has a gigantic burden placed upon it: Chris Martinez's 100 details the final few weeks of a cancer victim; Michael Cardoz's Ranchero is about a day in the life of prison cooks; Francis Pasion's Jay begins with the mysterious murder of a gay Religion teacher; Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil's Boses (Voice) is about a maltreated kid who turns out to be a violin virtuoso; Paul Morales' Concerto is set during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines; Paul Sta. Ana and Alvin Yapan's Huling Pasada (Final Stop) is about a writer struggling with the effects of a recent marital annulment; Tara Illenberger's Brutus tackles illegal logging and the treatment of indigenous people; Ned Trespeces' My Fake American Accent reflects on the repercussions of the call center phenomenon; and Joel Ruiz's Baby Angelo tries to solve a mystery revolving around an aborted baby found in the dump site near an apartment complex. Jay Abello's Namets! (Yummy!), a last-minute addition to the feature film line-up, promises to be "lighthearted" and "angst-free," something the film festival desperately needs.

Namets! is a syrupy romance between two young ex-lovers. Jacko (Christian Vasquez) is a local restauranteur who in order to pay all of his gambling debts, cedes ownership over his Italian restaurant to Dolpo (Peque Gallaga), a gluttonous businessman. Cassie (Angel Jacob), Jacko's ex-girlfriend, is recruited by Dolpo to help Jacko re-imagine the restaurant, suggesting that they specialize on local cuisine instead of Italian food. Thus, Jacko and Cassie travel around Bacolod City, trying out the different native meals as their research, twisting the preparation and the presentation a bit, making the meals more visually palatable and commercial. As the two squabble, argue, and later on agree on the direction of the restaurant, they predictably fall in love.

Namets! is set in Bacolod City, the largest city in Negros, an island that is dotted by sugar plantations owned by the wealthy, who inherited the land from their spanish-blooded ancestors. Thus, the city itself is characterized by the social stratum that exists within these sugar plantations: the rich are few but predominant, while everyone else is struggling to survive. Recent trends in economy (like globalization, making Negros' control over sugar supplies less persuasive) have downsized the wealth of the old rich, opening the gates for enterprising businessmen (the noveau riche) to lord over the city. These social dynamics have turned Bacolod into one of the few cities in the Philippines that has a distinct personality, developing for itself a vibrant culture, and more importantly to foodies, a unique cuisine, characterized by a healthy mix of Spanish and Filipino influences, sweetened up.

Notwithstanding this milieu that opens possibilities for discourse even for a lighthearted and angst-free romantic comedy, Namets! adamantly dodges every opportunity to tackle anything more pertinent than romance and food with the efficiency of a seasoned politician. The film actually acknowledges the complexities of the city's social dynamics (when the two lovers eat dinner on top of the tallest building in Bacolod, Cassie opens up on the fact that her family hasn't always been rich, unlike Jacko's), but never really treats it more than a neglected footnote. True to its promise, Namets! perseveres on limiting itself to an existence as a negligible piece of cinematic entertainment, no baggages whatsoever.

However, even with that simple-minded endeavor, Namets! fails. The film attempts to survive with sheer charm and novelty, two elements it severely lacks. The film is as charming and as novel as an afternoon soap, only in Namets!'s case, the characters speak in Ilongo and there's a ferocious affectation for food. Sadly, the dialect spoken, the delectable food, even the often hilarious intermissions (the best one stars Ronnie Lazaro as a farmer who attempts to slaughter a chicken, then a goat, then a dog; his plans are being foiled by the teary pleas of his son), are all ornamental. I was not expecting Namets! to change the course of cinema, nor was I expecting it to be anything more than a delightful one or so hours in the cinema. Namets! failed to delight me. In fact, it infuriated me because with the already lowered expectations, I was delivered a product that is half-baked and mediocre. If Namets! was food, it's the one I'd puke out immediately after swallowing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Huling Pasada (2008)

Huling Pasada (Paul Sta. Ana and Alvin Yapan, 2008)
English Title: Final Stop

The decision to set Huling Pasada (Final Stop) in Katipunan Avenue and its surrounding environs is possibly out of practicality and economy. After all, directors Paul Sta. Ana and Alvin Yapan are by day, professors in nearby Ateneo de Manila University. Thus, they squeeze out from their and their actors and staff's schedules whatever shooting time they can. The area isn't anything special. While the district is characterized by a row of colleges, universities, and student dormitories, it, like most other districts in metropolitan Manila, is a myriad of residences of both the rich and the poor, huge commercial complexes and small shops, and unsubtle indications of poverty.

Huling Pasada, whether intended or unintended, transforms the otherwise typical Katipunan area into an unfamiliar place. The film's characters are too involved in their respective real-life nightmares that the absurdity leaks into the surroundings, tinging the skies with bleak purple and the streets with jaundiced glean. Thus, the setting is colored with otherworldly hues, producing a particularly incalescent feel, a tinge of inward madness. Much of the atmosphere is due to cinematographer Dan Villegas' topnotch work, shooting from unusual locations, from very low angles in the streetside, making visible what happens below the motor vehicle's chassis, capturing the pavement and whatever limited movement from there; or from behind the glass window of a laundry shop or from across the counter, giving a sense of us spying on private conversations.

The story, written by Sta. Ana, focuses on Ruby (Agot Isidro), a novelist who along with her lone daughter, is struggling from a recent divorce. She writes about Mario (Neil Ryan Sese), a cab driver who is fervently trying to win over an ex-girlfriend (Dimples Romana), who recently returned home from abroad, and on the way, altruistically takes care of orphaned street vendor Jed (John Manalo). The plot teases on the possibility of a connection between Ruby's real life and Mario's supposed fictional life, whether on a purely psychological level or as a narrative and thematic deceit. I was definitely in it for the ride, since Sta. Ana and Yapan masterfully weave the two storylines with masterful ease, playing with ambiguous threads of direction, never hinting of a probable outcome.

At certain points of the movie, especially when the plot has become characterized by pulpy excesses, and the characters have fully realized their archetypal roles, I was immediately reminded of David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001), where atmosphere overtakes narrative logic in importance. I was even more engrossed. Huling Pasada is turning out to be either a film with an authentic literary feel of a Filipino novel etched in film, or better yet, a film set in what feels like the Filipino version of Lynchian suburbia, where taxi drivers with stalker tendencies, mothers with a psychotic love-hate appreciation of taxis, and other unlikely characters dissonantly intertwine in the roads where roadkill are given special attention.

I vastly enjoyed the mystery. I adored the vagueness in the storytelling. However, Sta. Ana and Yapan ends the film by overtly pointing at a definite connection between the storylines of Mario and Ruby, completely abandoning the thematic implications of fiction being affected by real life and vice versa, betraying the delectable ambiguity, the Lynchian attitude, for a conclusion that attempts at humanism for its mostly desperate characters but is really more of a disappointing contrivance.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Jay (2008)

Jay (Francis Xavier Pasion, 2008)

A harshly authoritative female voice booms, narrating the story behind the images of a half-naked man with several stab wounds in the back are shown onscreen. Jay, a closeted homosexual, a loving son, and a religion teacher who is waiting to leave for America to work as an English teacher, is the victim. The narrator continues to tell the story, backtracking to a seemingly peaceful morning when Jay's mother (Flor Salanga) wakes up, sees a bird, catches it and then sets it free. She doesn't take the news of her son being murdered lightly. We see her crying, orating pleas of mercy to the murderer's mother, relating stories as to how good a son Jay has been. The narrator continues, accommodating interviews from the people who are close to Jay: his siblings who are cursing and shouting "Animal!" to the unknown and unseen perpetrator out of anger and desperation, his co-teachers who are quick to out their closeted colleague on national television, his students who praise his teaching skills, and even the town mayor who quickly airs the stance of the local government. There's drama; there's suspense; there's art; there's an angle, and even a promise of a plot twist right before the end. Such is the story of Jay, as only television can tell. Reality is a different topic altogether. Jay Santiago (Baron Geisler), TV director-producer who travels to the murdered Jay's town to mold a TV-worthy story, is the mastermind behind whatever gap between the sensationalized documentary and real life.

First-time director Francis Xavier Pasion explores that gap between television and reality in Jay, his highly entertaining entry to the 4th Cinemalaya Film Festival. By carefully dissecting the documentary and detailing what really happened behind the scenes, Pasion explores sensationalist journalism: the way it twists, expands, and recreates the truth; and for what end exactly, for increased viewership, a sense of artistic fulfillment, a feeling of altruism through free exposure, or maybe that twisted delight of exploitation?

Director Jeffrey Jeturian, in both Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001) and Bikini Open (2005), has similarly indicted mass media for its excesses. Tuhog traces the story of a barrio lass who was raped by her father which was mutated into a soft core porn film entitled Hayok sa Laman (Lusting for Flesh). Bikini Open, on the other hand, details the efforts of a TV reporter who decides to feature bikini contests in her latest episode; and for the sake of increasing her program's viewership, invades into the private lives of the contestants, digging up dirt that will surely arouse the public's interest. Jeturian's films fault capitalist forces for the commodification of human lives, suspecting that the inherent motive in media's machinations for sensationalizing the truth are the monetary and market forces that dictate the viability of media products that blur the lines that divide fact from fiction.

What essentially differentiates Jay from Jeturian's filmic indictments is that Pasion is more interested in the persona of Jay the artist, rather than the rotten state of Philippine media. Pasion has surrendered to the fact that journalistic media has been and will always be about making things bigger, more dramatic, more movie-like than how they truly are, and he moves on by trivializing the differences, making them triggers for well-earned laughs and chuckles. More than the name, the similarities between the two Jays are uncanny, leading to the budding of the inevitable relationships between the living Jay and the family and friends who the murdered Jay left behind, as can be subtly seen in the moments where the mother wishes Jay a safe journey home, or where Jay flirts incessantly with the murdered Jay's ex-boyfriend (Coco Martin) and the latter sheepishly flirts back.

Possibly the most poignant moment in the film is when Jay, amidst the farce he has both crafted and condoned, expresses a mournful gaze that is hauntingly truthful. When Jay discovers that his footage of the mother crying over her son's corpse is useless, he convinces the mother to re-enact everything. The mother obliges and delivers an award-winning performance, crying over a TV crewmember who is playing dead underneath a white blanket. The soundtrack is drowned with fake wails and dramatic pleas while the camera catches Jay in the background, impatient yet discomforted. The wailing stops. The mother has ran out of lines. Persistent, Jay prods the mother to continue. Again, the scene is drowned with fabricated sorrow. Close-up to Jay's face which exudes something we have never seen before: honesty and vulnerability that is intriguing as it is humanizing.

Jay ends rather abruptly. Jay looks intently at the crotch of his hired masseur while waiting for him to drop his underwear. He laughs, which is an utter surprise, and then apologizes to the camera. Jay reverts back to Baron Geisler, who for the film's entire duration has effortlessly convinced me that he is an openly gay TV director-producer. A film staff appears, and the film abruptly ends. It is an ending that might elicit questions or, but hopefully not, disgruntled reactions. How can a film that is so technically perfect conclude in a note of error? Simple. Jay knows that it is a film, a farce, an illusion that exists for the less than two hours its audience spends with it. By acknowledging that fact and ending with the exposition of its farcical existence, director Pasion and Jay the film has exuded the same thing that Jay the character exuded: honesty and vulnerability that is intriguing as it is humanizing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Ranchero (2008)

Ranchero (Michael Christian Cardoz, 2008)

Michael Christian Cardoz's impressive debut feature film Ranchero starts on the morning of the final day in prison of Ricardo (Archi Adamos). Ricardo, or Carding as he is fondly called by his fellow inmates, is in charge of the kitchen, where he, his pal Miyong (Garry Lim), and other fortunate inmates, are tasked with turning meager ingredients into something edible for the thousands of hungry prisoners. The film opens with an astounding long take: beginning with an observant close up of Ricardo face, struggling to wake up, then the camera zooms out allowing us to see Ricardo stretching his back and arms, before going to the cell's bathroom (a pitiful space where the only thing that separates the toilet from the cots is a cement partition) where he uses up whatever water is left in a plastic jug to wash his face. He then takes a piss, carefully timing his urination to assure that it makes the least sound possible. The camera zooms out some more, revealing the state of the cell: filthy and overcrowded, with at least five or more inmates sleeping on the remaining beds or the floor.

The film's opening shot is remarkable not only because of the technical proficiency (where in a single shot, Cardoz was able to map the topography and atmosphere of a cramped prison space) displayed but because in a matter of a little bit more than five minutes, it was able to define Ricardo's character and the setting where Ricardo's story is set. It's been said that to truly know a man, one has to observe him in his sleep. Cardoz twists the trope a little bit further, implicating that a man's waking-up routine mirrors a sizable chunk of his personality. Ricardo, from the way he prolongs sleep up to that final possible second, acknowledges knows the value of sleep: a respite from the oft-painful realities and routine of prison life.

Ricardo's compassion lies in the fact that he respects his cell mates' sleep, making sure that his morning routine will not cause his cell mates to awake prematurely thus allowing them the freedoms of their sleep-time fantasies for a few more minutes. The film's compassion lies in the fact that it doesn't mine the stereotypes of prison life but instead counteracts it. The provincial jail of Ranchero is a lot sunnier than usual with inmates who are a lot friendlier than usual. One can even say that despite the rusty metal bars, the grime, and requisite bullies, prison life actually ain't that bad.

The prison setting accommodates Cardoz's tale that subtly dissects the role of fate and circumstance in a life that is forced to exist in routine and predictability. Inmates wake up at an exact time. They are served their meals as scheduled. Although they wait years to be released, there are premiums for good behavior and service, subtracted from their sentences with mathematical accuracy. However, somewhere between the cracks of habit, are instances wherein the often cruel machinations of fate step in. Habit is addictive, as we can tell from the inmates' fear of leaving prison in exchange of the freedom and unpredictability of the outside world. Ricardo is going through his last day of institutionalized routine of waking up early, of chopping vegetables into stars, of cooking meals and delivering them to the several rancheros (prison mayors) to distribute to the inmates, and of spending idle time smoking cigarettes with Miyong. He is a mere day away from joining the rest of humanity, and be swept wherever fate leads him.

However, Ricardo, although self-assured of his liberty, is not exempt from fate's final prank. That afternoon where everything seems as certain as day and night, a knife is discovered missing from the kitchen, pushing Ricardo out of the comforting monotony of knowing exactly what will happen the following day. Ranchero ends in utter ambiguity: Ricardo sits alone in the kitchen while the camera zooms out revealing the the kitchen staff in total disarray, unable to come up with something for dinner after the brawl since everything they cooked were burnt. The camera zooms out some more, revealing the posters of Jesus Christ and other saints that are plastered on the wall (a beautiful parting shot that emphasizes how small and subservient humans are to the dictates of the powers that be). Ricardo sits still and alone, obviously distraught, confused, and perhaps fearing what may happen the next day since the brawl has effectively muddled the future that has been playing in his mind since the moment he opened his eyes that fateful morning.