Friday, August 29, 2008

Tambolista (2007)

Tambolista (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2007)
English Title: Drumbeat

Fourteen year old Jason (Jiro Manio) and his older brother Billy (Coco Martin) aspire for two entirely different things. Jason is saving to buy a drum set while Billy, who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, is finding ways to earn enough for an abortion. When their friend Pablo (Sid Lucero), a hustler who was recently evicted by his landlord after being caught stealing from and having sex with his wife, stays with them for a few days while their parents are in the hospital, a plan is hatched to steal from Nanay and Tatay Trining (played by Anita Linda and Fonz Deza, respectively) who reside across their house. The money they would steal from the elderly couple will supposedly pay for Jason's drum set and Billy's girlfriend's abortion, and fix Pablo's dire financial situation. However, things don't turn out as planned, and the repercussions of their actions are far graver than what they originally imagined.

Adolfo Alix, Jr.'s Tambolista (Drumbeat) is all about Manila's urban rhythm. It is about that rhythm's comforting inconsistencies and its hypnotizing unpredictability. It is also about the dire consequences of missing a beat. The city's unique soundscape is characterized by the barrage of different noises that swell into a distinct although cacophonous drumbeat. Alix consciously laces the film with a soundtrack of frequent ambient sounds: of the loud sirens that announce the arrival of the police, of the endless blare of cars rushing down a busy highway, of the nightly barks of the neighbors' pet dog, of the repetitive nagging of Nanay Trining, of the heavy breathing and the loud moaning heard from Pablo's bootleg porn videos. Even Khavn De La Cruz's musical score, a hypnotic mix of infrequent drumbeats and short melodies, possesses the same quality and rhythm that aurally replicates Manila's uniquely delirious moods.

The screenplay, written by Regina Tayag, is by itself a tense and engaging piece of work. The characters she created are not explicit stereotypes of Manila's poor folk, and in turn, deviates from being a mere repetition of the many images and stories of the impoverished urban dwellers Philippine cinema has and continues to conjure. The characters are poor and we see their surroundings as cramped, dirty and often hostile. However, the film concentrates more on the moral deterioration that accompanies the economic and social decay that perpetually burdens the city.

Thus, Jason, Billy and Pablo do not beg for the film viewers' sympathies or understanding, nor do they seek to represent the inhumane consequences of the nation's enveloping state of poverty like the petty crooks of Brillante Mendoza's Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), with their aimless and cyclical state of destitution. In fact, they are seen as repulsive with conflicts that arise, not from their financial situation, but from their own acts and decisions. While it is true that Jason and Billy's family is poor and Pablo even more so, they are not cornered into a life of crime and penury. Their decisions are not results of lacking the basic necessities of living. Instead, these decisions are emissions of a corrupted generation that venerates money, shallow ambitions and restless fantasies of the flesh.

Alix's direction here is commendable. His visual sense, with the aid of Albert Banzon's cinematography, is sublime, choosing to shoot the film in total black and white, save for some bits in color. Tambolista may probably be Alix's most audacious work, which is saying a lot since Alix has directed a few adventurous features like Kadin (The Goat, 2007), Alix's tribute to auteur Lav Diaz which is essentially a kid's film that features Lav Diaz-esque pacing, Daybreak (2008), which details the final few hours of a gay relationship, and Adela (2008), which concentrates on an old woman on her eightieth birthday. In Tambolista, Alix experiments in storytelling as he tells his story not with chronological logic but with the same aura of unpredictability that pervades the entire production. The narrative method is not entirely novel (Mexican director Alejandro
González Iñárritu's 21 Grams (2003) is similarly structured), but Alix pulls it off with admirable ease. More importantly, the structure does not feel pretentious, since the seemingly illogical sequence of scenes of verbal and physical violence or sex is apt to the chaotic cadence of the city.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Torotot (2008)

Torotot (Maryo J. De Los Reyes, 2008)
English Title: Destierro

The Tagalog term "torotot," apart from its ordinary definition of makeshift horns made out of paper and used film strips ordinarily used during celebrations, also colloquially refers to the repeated acts of infidelity the wife commits against her husband. It is a term that has an unsavory connotation to the husband involved, especially coming from a society that takes pride in its men's innate masculinity and sexual prowesses, whether imagined or not. It is derogatory to the husband since the term implies an inability on his part to sexually satisfy his wife. Being a semantic product of the traditionally patriarchal society that pervades the Philippines, the term "torotot" eludes any attempt at finding an accurate English translation.

Maryo J. De Los Reyes' Torotot, a film that details the story of two married men whose respective wives cheat on them, is internationally released as Destierro, a term that refers to the penalty imposed on the husband who kills his wife and/or her paramour upon catching them engaged in a sexual act. In lieu of incarceration, the husband will instead be prevented from being in a certain distance from the relatives of the killed wife and/or paramour. It is essentially a get-away-from-jail card whose basis as according to Philippine jurisprudence is to safeguard the Filipino male from the humiliation of being cheated on by his wife.

Leo (Baron Geisler), a standard bearer of the metrosexual male whose idea of male bonding includes trips to salons and skin clinics, is married to Marie (Maui Taylor), a veterinarian who is too busy with her dogs to spend any quality time with Leo. The film opens with Leo catching Marie and her lover (Andrew Schimmer) having sex in Marie's veterinary clinic, and eventually killing the two of them. He is thus sentenced to destierro and evades imprisonment. When Leo's best friend Gabby (Yul Servo) suspects that his wife Rita (Precious Adona) is cheating on him, he plans to kill both his wife and his wife's lover (Anton Bernardo) while having sex, relying on the impunity that the penalty of destierro has provided Leo and inevitably will provide him.

What essentially differentiates Torotot from all the other Filipino films that tackle marital infidelity (which includes De Los Reyes' previous film A Love Story (2007), a well-made melodrama about a man who becomes romantically involved with two women) is that it consciously brings to the fore the idea that the psyche of the Filipino male is steadily changing amidst the rapid cultural and social transitions that blur gender roles and preconceptions. The film attempts to pit this movement in gender politics towards equality and whatever residue, in the form of antiquated methods of thinking and laws, of the diminishing influences of the patriarchal society in the country. Sadly, it remains an attempt, a flimsy one at that.

There is little depth to the characterizations. Leo's narcissism feels more like a plot device borne out of convenience rather than a direct attempt to examine a pertinent social phenomenon. With Geisler's one-note portrayal of Leo (angst-ridden, rough, and loud), the character becomes fatally irritating. Rita's sexual awakening (initiated by a sexual affinity with meat before culminating with a torrid affair with a butcher) is crudely portrayed and unintentionally funny. De Los Reyes' need to infuse his pic with sex (probably from the prodding of producer Viva Films, a studio that used to churn out glossy romances and melodramas before ending up as the premiere distributor of direct-to-video straight and gay erotica) forces the attention to Rita's pathetic self-discovery, giving less time and story to Gabby's plight, who up to the end, is essentially a jerk both in life and in bed. Torotot is in one word, abrasive. It is an abrasive film about abrasive characters trapped in abrasive situations.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

WALL·E (2008)

WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Andrew Stanton's WALL·E opens in outer space. The camera then zooms further, showing a familiar planet, our Earth, only this time, the emerald splendor that defined its continents has been replaced by a rusty gleam with the planet's surrounding space being dotted by useless satellites. Seven centuries into the future, our Earth has lost all of its former luster. That lasting image from outer space no longer evokes any sense of wonderment, but a foreboding query of what became of the lone planet in the galaxy that can support life? Stanton explores further, zooming in past the detritus and into Earth, giving us an aerial glimpse of the world. The view Stanton grants us is breathtaking. Advertisements showing character actor Fred Willard, playing the top honcho of global brand Buy-N-Large, perpetually air in a cityscape devoid of any of the consumers these ads once lured into buying.

Humanity has left Earth, which has been rendered uninhabitable due to the accumulation of trash and other pollutants over several centuries of unabated consumerism. The task of cleaning up Earth belongs to these robots called WALL·E, which is short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth-class. All of these WALL·E robots, save for one, have stopped from functioning, becoming permanent fixtures of the junk-filled world. Lined up with the untenanted skyscrapers are towers made from rubbish, processed into cubes and stacked to form those imposing yet majestic structures by the lone surviving WALL·E on Earth.

WALL·E is the last remnant of the humans that abandoned Earth centuries ago. His work ethic resembles that of a blue collar worker, where several centuries' worth of the routine that has characterized his daily existence. His nights are spent tending to the small human treasures like rubber duckies and other ornaments he unearthed from the rubbles, before capping his work day by viewing his favorite scene from Hello, Dolly! (Gene Kelly, 1969), where the two lovers from the movie hold hands while dreaming in singsong fashion of a world outside their little town of Yonkers.

With only an indestructible cockroach to keep him company, it is therefore unsurprising that when EVE, short for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator, lands in Earth for an undisclosed directive,
WALL·E tries his best to woo the seemingly hostile female robot into liking him, even to the point of utter desperation, as shown by the times when EVE is floating dormant causing WALL·E to patiently tend to his precious friend. When a spacecraft suddenly collects EVE from Earth, WALL·E is forced to follow her through space to Axiom, where humanity, ever since they left Earth, lived, bred, and evolved into immobile slobs who communicate with each other through computers and mindlessly travel to and from their destinations by hovercraft.

WALL·E, while essentially children's fare, contemplates on humanity, what it is, what it has become, and what it is capable of achieving. The story is deceptively simple: a love story between two robots separated by time, space, and their respective missions. The first forty minutes of the film is nearly wordless, where WALL·E, which is basically a rusty cube from which mechanized arms, wheels and a pair of binocular-like eyes jot out, traverse the rubbish-laden landscape, with the adorably curious antics inherited directly from the great Charlie Chaplin. WALL·E's Chaplin travels to Axiom, and becomes the impetus of humanity's delayed reunion with planet Earth. From that point, the film expands into a flagrant satire of the faults of modern life, with Stanton portraying the future of humanity as a severely bloated version of the present, where the excesses of contemporary living have been visualized into something that is disturbingly familiar. While WALL·E is undoubtedly a Pixar product with its dutiful mix of technical brilliance, graceful storytelling, and unabashed sentimentality, beneath that instructive use of the Pixar formula is a daring spirit, one that ultimately rewards any unassuming viewer who watches the film by sheer chance.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

My Sassy Girl (2001)

My Sassy Girl
(Kwak Jae-young, 2001)
Korean Title: Yeopgijeogin geunyeo

Kwak Jae-young's My Sassy Girl is not a great film; quite far from it, actually. The film's humor, a delightful combination of slapstick and satire, is unsustained. When the two lovers separate for their self-imposed two-year sabbatical from each other, the film succumbs to convention, capping what feels like a tireless exercise of non-stop irreverent hilarity with what essentially is a saccharine resolution. However, My Sassy Girl's acclaim is not derived from its supposed cinematic brilliance. The film is heralded by this generation of hopeless romantics who are slowly becoming suspicious of Hollywood's mass-produced and ultimately sterile romances. The fact that the film is based from a story serialized and read by millions in the internet cannot go unnoticed. If anything, the source material is attestation of the film's inherent cool, with the film being a clear product of this age of cyber-love and free internet literature.

Gyun-woo (Cha Tae-hyun), a college student who we learn was made to wear girls' clothes when he was a young boy, rescues a drunk girl (Jun Ji-hyun) from being run over by the subway train. The girl, while inside the train, pukes on an old man. Before collapsing, she looks at Gyun-woo and calls him "honey," leading everyone to believe that the two are dating and eventually forcing Gyun-woo to carry the girl on his back and take her to the nearest motel. Thus begins their atypical relationship, with the Gyun-woo servile and obedient to the girl's whims and fantasies.

The circumstances of their relationship result to an onslaught of hilarious situations which comprise the bulk of the film's running time. There's much pleasure to be derived from the film's comedy especially since Cha and Jun play their roles with endearing conviction, satisfyingly transforming the several over-the-top scenarios into funny deviations. While the humor is absolutely lowbrow with most of it revolving around shock (the girl vomiting what looks like her dinner of rice and noodles on the poor old man's toupee), violence (Gyun-woo being beaten up with a broom by his mother), and absurd scenarios (a birthday bash in a theme park turning bad when the two lovers become hostages of a renegade soldier), there's subtle sophistication amidst the slapstick and seemingly brainless sketches.

Gyun-woo and the girl's love story, while adherent to formula, is laced with musings on fate and its roles in shaping that happy ending. Part of what makes My Sassy Girl such an enduring delight is that its romance is grounded not on predictable logic but on something more mysterious, something more in line with the mystical grooves of destiny. The girl is obsesses with the idea of people from the future living in the present. This obsession reflects in her writing, the way the film treatments she insists Gyun-woo read every time they go out would most likely involve heroes from the future repairing the present. The film treatments not only mirror her obsession, it also echoes her being burdened with an immense pain for which she needs to be rescued from, presumably by Gyun-woo.

Near the end of the film, a UFO zooms past the background as the girl reads Gyun-woo's letter from two years back in their rendezvous. Before that, Gyun-woo is surprised to see a live bullfrog inside the time capsule which the two of them buried two years ago. My Sassy Girl, while not relying completely on these hints that Gyun-woo and the girl's relationship is shaped by something more fantastical than mere destiny, adds charming curiosity to the film's descent to fairy tale convention, eventually making its conclusion more magical and imaginative. Actually, My Sassy Girl is exactly that, a magical and imaginative concoction that is sure to amuse those who merely seek extrication from the idiocy of Hollywood's banal offerings. It may not be great cinema, but it surely does its job well.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Genghis Khan (1950)

Genghis Khan (Manuel Conde & Lou Salvador, 1950)

To describe Manuel Conde as merely a director is a sore misjudgment. Conde was much more than a director, he was an enterprising visionary, a man who stubbornly turned ambitions into grandiose art. Conde's Genghis Khan, the first Filipino film to screen in a prestigious international film festival (the film, re-edited with an English narration written by James Agee, competed in Venice 1952 and screened in Edinburgh in 1953), showcases Conde's intrepid spirit. Armed with only 125,000 pesos, a budget Agee described as "not even enough to open the gates of Hollywood in the morning," Conde transformed the hilly slopes outside Angono, a town just a few kilometers away from Manila, into the vast steppes where Temujin (played charmingly here by Condo) united the several opposing tribes under his rule.

Several stories have been told how Conde was able to turn his meager budget into a well-regarded historical epic. Utility men pulling wheelbarrows replaced dollies. The headlights of jeeps, trucks and other vehicles covered for the kleiglights Conde's production lacked. As wigs were expensive, a barber was hired to fashion the cast's hair into outrageous buns, ponytails, and other shapes, denoting their rank in society. Conde's wife sewed the elaborate costumes, designed by Conde's best friend and frequent collaborator, Botong Francisco, who based his detailed production design from his immensely extensive research. The most famous story behind the film production is when the film got acclaim from different foreign critics for its realism, more specifically with the small horses that supposedly were the same species of horses Temujin rode. These horses weren't the ones Conde originally intended, but because of his meager budget which prevented him from renting imported muscled horses, he was constrained to make do of the horses he gathered from Manila's Chinatown.

The film starts with the several leaders of the opposing tribes agreeing to stage a contest, the winner of which is agreed by all to rule over the land. Temujin, representing his father's tribe, naturally wins the contest, not through brute strength or skill but through intelligence. The contest showcases some of the film's funniest moments, where Conde colors the tale with some preliminary wit. When Temujin, with his lanky frame, is pitted against bigger and stronger opponents in pushing a boulder up the finish line. Instead of stubbornly dragging the boulder as all the other competitors are doing, Temujin takes the short wooden poles that divide the race paths as wheels for his boulder, outracing the rest and finishing first. When Temujin faces the other tribes' champions in a wrestling competition, he cunningly pits the other wrestlers against each other, dodging every blow until he is left with one opponent, whom he defeats by tickling him to death. Temujin wins the contest, assuring his tribe supremacy over Mongolia.

However, Birchou (Lou Salvador), leader of one of the competing tribes, follows the advices of his ambitious assistant, reneges on his promise and orders his army to attack Temujin's tribe one night, massacring many, including Temujin's father. The mood of Conde's film drastically changes, from whimsical to dark and foreboding. As Birchou's soldiers chase Temujin to the wilderness, Conde stretches his reach, staging the chase against a backdrop of treacherous mountains, where Temujin, starved, thirsty and trapped, defends himself. Conde also enlarges Temujin's personality and capabilities. From sly and cunning competitor, Temujin reveals himself an intelligent soldier and worthy leader, holding his own against Birchou's hordes, pushing boulders or shooting improvised arrows against his enemies. He is eventually captured, although he is later on released by one of Birchou's soldiers and returns to his tribe to claim his throne, defeat Birchou, and finally unite the Mongolian tribes.

More than half a century after its release, Genghis Khan still enchants. While the budgetary constraints are evident, like the fake boulders rolling and bouncing down the mountains as if they were weightless or the painted, although marvelous backdrops, the film has a timeless energy that still excites and amuses. The battle scenes have depth, with Conde's camera capturing the grassy landscape populated by
sword fighters engaged in bloody combat. The romance is playful yet unobtrusive. Princess Lei Hai (Elvira Reyes), Birchou's beautiful daughter, mixes servile femininity with characteristic courage and spunk, keeping Temujin's serious loyalty to his fated directive easefully at bay. Inspired by the sweeping adventure films of Hollywood, Conde approximates the same formula by liberally adapting a portion of history, infusing it with gleeful romance and ribald but engaging action. Conde comes up with something better, a great film borne out of undisputed talent and miraculously good fortune.

My Sassy Girl (2008)

My Sassy Girl (Yann Samuell, 2008)

Love Me If You Dare (2005), director Yann Samuell's debut film, tells the love story of Sophie and Julien, childhood sweethearts who make a pact to exchange dares. The pranks continue on, changing quite alarmingly from innocent and juvenile to serious and damaging. Samuell embellishes the psychotic romance with confectionery colors, animated sequences and other visual treats. However, the film struggles to get past the on-screen misanthropy, ending up being confused and contrived.

When Samuell was tapped to direct the American remake to Kwak Jae-young's My Sassy Girl (2001), replacing Gurinder Chadha of Bend It Like Beckham (2002) fame, I thought it was an interesting, intriguing but ultimately worrisome decision. My Sassy Girl is about a university student (Cha Tae-hyun) who lands himself in a lopsided relationship with a girl (Jun Ji-hyun) he rescued in a subway station. Like Samuell's debut feature, My Sassy Girl thrives on an extraordinary romance, one that is characterized by symptoms of sadism and masochism, if only on a truly emotional and psychological level. However, My Sassy Girl succeeds on being utterly enjoyable and genial, which explains why it became one of the most successful Korean films and why its charm crossed borders, gaining much popularity in other Asian territories.

Samuell's remake is pretty much faithful to the original film, save for a few modifications. The guy (Jesse Bradford), from being a slacking engineering student in the Korean film, becomes a business student who wishes to succeed in his endeavor, hopefully earning for himself a mid-level managerial job in a tractor company where his father worked for decades as a repairman. Thus, what we essentially get is your typical guy-next-door, whatever mischief and naughtiness the original film imparted on its leading man is given to the remake's token sidekick, Leo, a porn-addicted yet loyal philosophy student (Austin Basis). The so-called sassy girl (Elisha Cuthbert) remains practically the same, cute-as-a-button yet upfront, vicious, and violent, most especially when drunk. She's given a more exhaustive background though, including a father who does not merely disapprove of her newfound relationship (in the original film, we only see the father berate the guy over shots of wine before getting totally wasted) but gives a reason to his disagreement. Basically, the remake tries to fill in the holes the original had and make the romance more grounded on logic than in mere sleight of hand, which is a pity. Kwak's My Sassy Girl works because it is hilarious in its unabashed illogic but clever in its musings on fate and circumstance.

A lot got lost in translation apparently. While the basic storyline and some of the more famous scenes were retained, Samuell's remake lacks a certain vigor, that irreverence to societal norms that are probably endemic to Korea which made Kwak's film very watchable. In Kwak's film, when the guy carries the girl on his back, it implies a very uncharacteristic servitude over men that is only reserved for the closest of lovers; or when the girl orders the guy around culminating in having him chase her across the park wearing her stilettos, those psychotic yet seemingly innocent pranks bear an indifference, if not rebellion to the traditionally male-dominated society. Samuell loses by default. America adores equality and abhors prejudicial traditionalism. Therefore, the scenes borrowed by the remake from the original are plainly comedic and charming, but lacking any other substance than what is shown onscreen.

Samuell's remake is definitely not a bad film. Actually, it is far better than most romantic comedies that have been showing in theaters. However, as with most remakes, it is burdened with the inevitable need to justify its existence beyond being commodities for moviegoers who are allergic to subtitles. Keeping that in mind, it's quite safe to say that Samuell's My Sassy Girl is candidly an unnecessary Hollywood expense.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Can This Be Love (2005)

Can This Be Love (Jose Javier Reyes, 2005)

Ryan (Hero Angeles) is a nursing student who dreams of working abroad. To make ends meet and earn enough for tuition and his daily expenses, he starts working for Roger (Tirso Cruz III), owner of a stall that accepts typing and printing jobs. Daisy (Sandara Park), an exchange student from Korea who is studying English in Manila, submits her draft essay to Roger. Roger assigns the essay to Ryan for him to correct, type, and print. The essay, about how Daisy feels about the Philippines and Filipinos in general, irks Ryan enough to start his seemingly endless tirade against Koreans studying English in the Philippines. Through some twist of fate, Daisy turns out to be the same person Ryan is buying a second-hand cellphone from, and the same person who he has been exchanging sweet text messages with. The initial shock of knowing that the person you were falling for represents everything you hate mellows into romance.

The narrative of Jose Javier Reyes' Can This Be Love is undoubtedly a result of the exigencies of casting rather than of Reyes' sheer ingenuity. Angeles and Park were the winners of a local talent search television show. The two were matched to form a love team, the best and most cost-efficient way to market up and rising talents. To mine on the love team's sudden spike in popularity, a movie that featured them had to be produced. Perhaps Angeles and Park's love team's unique selling point is that it crosses pertinent racial and cultural boundaries, since Angeles is Filipino and Park is Korean. The Philippines, at least for the past decade or so, has become the destination for Koreans who would want to learn English. Due to this increase in the population of Koreans in the Philippines, the purely-Filipino society has been inflicted an expected change: with Korean establishments gradually dotting the city landscape and Koreans mingling in crowds becoming more and more a norm. In such a case, Angeles and Park's love team is an inevitable response to this societal change. It perhaps represents a subconscious fantasy of homogenizing the natives with the newcomers.

Reyes' movie mines predominantly on this fantasy. It is structurally and thematically formulaic, working on traditional tropes of love overcoming all hindrances, only this time, there are added elements of racial prejudice and cultural differences. The narrative follows a predictable arc, beginning with supposed incompatibility and ending in fairy tale bliss. I was hoping for the material to be handled with a little bit more intelligence. After all, Reyes has succinctly laid down his setting: of a city where racial discomfort between Filipinos and Koreans that goes both ways. Perhaps, I was, at the very least, waiting for a more convincing explanation how Ryan got past his vocalized prejudices to fall for Daisy, or how Daisy got past her adherence to tradition to get the resolve to stick with Ryan, instead of being merely force-fed the fantasy.

Reyes directs the way he wrote his screenplay, all style without much substance. Thus, we are given a film with littered MTV-like sequences that display the two lovers snuggling in slow motion, and time-trapped pieces of dialogue that sneaked into the screenplay in obvious deference to then current fads.
I guess I am asking too much from a film that is a product of a studio that thrives on public ignorance. Can This Be Love is primarily crafted as escapist mechanism for those who feed on corny love stories. It is a film that exists as merely plebeian entertainment, although it is placed in a milieu that is pregnant with far more intelligent and interesting possibilities.