Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)
French Title: Le scaphandre et le papillon

Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), editor of the French Elle magazine, suffered a stroke while driving his son. He wakes up, completely immobile except for his left eye. His condition, aptly called "locked-in syndrome," makes it extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, for him to communicate to other people. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the novel Jean-Do (Bauby's nickname) authored and released a few days prior to his death, proves otherwise. Jean-Do dictates by blinking his left eye as his assistant (Anne Consigny) patiently connects the dots through the process, involving the complete alphabet organized and spoken in the order of frequency of use, Jean-Do's speech therapist (Marie-Josee Croze) devised.

Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly opens in overt absurdity, with Jean-Do waking up to the flurried questionings of the doctors around him, for which he has legible answers for but is unable to vocalize due to his locked-in condition. Jean-Do's inherent wit and personality is reflected by his internal monologues while his initial confusion and later on, other emotions which cannot be enunciated effectively by his immense wit and vocabulary, are communicated through Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, which exquisitely approximates Jean-Do's limited visual perspective. Amidst the atmosphere of prevailing excitement, the camera swings back and forth the faces of the doctors, though limited in reach and motion causing the frame to be composed of incomplete figures and visages. When he blinks, the camera blinks with him. When he cries, the camera moistens, blurring the frame and turning the figures into indecipherable clouds of emotions repressed and covered by his physical paralysis.

Jean-Do sees his reflection from the metallic walls of his hospital as he is moved from his room to the balcony. His internal monologue provides ample humor to the travail of seeing himself in a sorry state, his face carries a permanent grimace while pasted in a head that is nestled uncomfortably by his static shoulder. Previously, Schnabel visualizes a portion of Jean-Do's memory, where he dashingly blasts through a photoshoot for his fashion magazine, with the studio teeming with half-naked female models and photographers, all of whom worship beauty. Schnabel fathoms the unpredictable and cruel nature of fate, prompting Jean-Do's internal and external torture with memories of the past that painfully connect to his present situation.

Schnabel further enunciates the irony of Jean-Do's fate, diverting the narrative to another of Jean-Do's bittersweet memories, where he shaves his father (Max Von Sydow, in a performance that is quietly spectacular, especially in one scene where he attempts to talk to his son by phone but gets irked by the unavoidable mechanicality of their communication) and they talk about their respective lives and ex-wives. Jean-Do returns to his miserable present, still surrounded by beautiful females and caring companions, yet burdened by his fated incapacity and diminished existence, altogether banished by his astounding feat of completing his novel.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly could have gone the road of typical underdog stories (glamorizing psychological afflictions the way Ron Howard did in the abysmally syrupy A Beautiful Mind (2001)). Instead, Schnabel withdrew from convention, knowing fully well that the a one-sentence synopsis of Jean Dominique Bauby's triumph is enough to inspire and that the tale does not require further amplifications and embellishments to elicit inspiration, and did something remarkable. He crafted a film that is fueled not by the uniqueness of the human story it intends to tell, but by the mostly internal procedures that dominate Jean-Do's struggles, from the gloominess of his stagnant predicament to the life-saving expanses of his vast imagination. Schnabel weaves into Jean-Do's story threads that direct the attention from the inspiring underdog tale to the intricacies of Jean-Do's persistence in maintaining his humanity. Schnabel succeeded not only in telling the story in a manner that is both visually alluring in a way that is technically intriguing but also penetrated the surface melodrama, examining the mechanism that drove Jean-Do from lavish Earth to dismal Hell and finally, into immortality.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

United Red Army (2007)

United Red Army (Kôji Wakamatsu, 2007)
Japanese Title: Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi

Kôji Wakamatsu's United Red Army is a docu-drama (or if you prefer to be academic about it, jitsuroku eiga, the Japanese term for films that mix documentary and fiction elements, prevalent in the seventies, and often about the yakuza and other gangs) about the titular Japanese extremist leftist paramilitary group. In a span of more than three hours, Wakamatsu details several decades of the group's existence. While he breezes through the early history of the group during the first thirty minutes of the film, barraging his viewers with names, faces, and events too plenty and rapidly relayed to realistically remember, there remains a sense of awe as to how dedicatedly all the information has been stringed together and dramatized, all in the rhythm of Jim O'Rourke's catchy music. The prelude sets the stage for what's to happen next, a tensely intimate excursion up the Japanese Alps where the members of the army are mutated by their fundamentalist political beliefs, warped by extreme fanaticism and the lack of human encounter.

Wakamatsu is a former member of the United Red Army (where his links with the terrorist group has prevented him from entering the United States and other territories). His personal dedication to the film is reflected by the mastery and accuracy for which he tells the story. Most intriguing is how he, despite his actual experiences supporting the group and its activities, directs the film with a cool detachedness: unwilling to take any sides, persistent in portraying the events with as much objectivity as possible. The gamble pays off because United Red Army's investment in factual consistency, mixed with Wakamatsu's purposeful emotional ambivalence towards his subject matter and the multitude of characters, creates an atmosphere of alluring unsteadiness, which the film banks on to carry its audience through the three hours.

Atop the mountains, the army, torn apart by political intrigue only to be reformed with a primary objective of strengthening its membership for warfare, holes up in different makeshift bases where the members undergo rigorous training and indoctrination. Prompted probably by their self-imposed alienation from society, among other factors like psychological impulses and human imperfection, the political struggle becomes warped and twisted, with the members being forced into self-assessment, first through demanding physical exertions then through violent punishments, almost often leading to death. Fascism creeps into the group's communist principles, creating an atmosphere of unease and suffocation, which Wakamatsu paints so vividly yet with little or no emotional attachment to his subjects. Wakamatsu objective and journalistic approach relays judgment from filmmaker to the audience, creating a discomforting and challenging burden to the viewers, as humanity is further trivialized to serve the confused, irrational, and often impromptu purposes of their cause.

The film's finale, where a mountain lodge (which in reality is Wakamatsu's own house, which he used and later on demolished for the film) is seized by some desperate members of the group and is later on seized by the police, caps the cinematic madness that Wakamatsu so carefully weaves into an astounding frenzy. The hours of joyless pain and suffering culminate in a subtle revelation of the driving force of both the group's successes and excesses. As the youngest of the group starts exclaiming the most rational piece of dialogue in the film, an awareness arises that a single element brought out this irrationality and their predicament: youth.

Youth, which translates to the adventurism, gullibility, instability, cowardice, open-mindedness and strength they inherently possess, is the prime mover of the group and becomes the rousing centerpiece of Wakamatsu's effort. The film, from being a mere reiteration (although visually and emotionally stirring) of dates, characters, and events, turns into a something else: a compelling and daring commentary of the intrinsic power and the accompanying danger of the youth.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (2008)

The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (Olaf de Fleur Johannesson, 2008)

In the latter part of Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela, the titular ladyboy recounts the history of her name. In a distant kingdom, a princess named Raquela was banished by her jealous stepmother and was forced to live humbly as the daughter of poor farmers. Upon the discovery of her royal roots, she starts aspiring to recover the life that was stolen from her and does everything to fulfill her aspirations. Raquela Rios' life, as recreated by Johannesson's deliciously crafted quasi-documentary (or according to the director, visionmentary), seems to be akin to the Anastasia-like fairy tale she lovingly narrates, but in essence, defines the invisible yet unmistakable gap between fantasy and reality.

Raquela dreams of walking the streets of Paris, garbed in fabulous dresses, inviting the attention of everyone who chances upon her. Her life in Cebu City, however, is drastically different. Although she is gifted with a family that accepts her completely, she lives on the edge. Her nights consist of plying the alleys for paid quickies from horny cab drivers and other customers. She delights in her profession, preferring to service her clients unprotected, thinking that each man that fucks her makes her more of a woman. Her mornings and afternoons, if not spent inside an internet cafe chatting with men from around the world or in the airport waiting in vain for the arrival of the foreigners who promised to rescue her from her unexciting life in Cebu, are spent daydreaming with her friends.

Johannesson does not avoid stereotypes. In fact, he exploits these stereotypes to great effect. Much of the film's charm and humor comes from Raquela's innate amiability, a healthy mix of different personality elements, including her forced falsetto (although irritating at first, it certainly grows on you), impressive wit, and unabashed flamboyance. In addition to Raquela, Johannesson adds to the film a roster of characters that seem to sprout out of the cliche bin, including Michael (Stefan Schaefer), the internet pimp who subs as Raquela's imagined "knight in shining armor," giving her the opportunity to fly out of Cebu and fulfill her dreams. It certainly seems that Johannesson is really bent on making a transsexual fairy tale.

As the film progresses and Raquela finally escapes the Philippines and closer to the realization of her dreams, Johannesson's fairy tale takes a drastic turn. Raquela's fairy tale, from the rainbow-colored dreams of her expanded imagination, transforms into something else: drab, mundane, and ordinary. There's a quiet poignancy in the way Raquela revives her fantasy: the way she livens the fish factory in Iceland with her unabridged commentaries with her co-workers, the way she turns second-hand apparel bought in a Reykjavik flea market into fashionable items, the way she attempts to save the final remnants of her Parisian romantic getaway with Michael, who turns out to be an asshole, through the little gestures that are quickly forgotten by Michael's arrogance and egotism. In the end, Raquela returns to the Philippines, undoubtedly better from her experiences overseas, but still a dreamer, still the princess of her fairy tale who dreams of returning to her kingdom.

Raquela's story is a beautiful story, one that attempts to capture the realities of being a transsexual individual in a third world country without succumbing into the usual pitfalls of these kind of story. I am guessing that Johannesson's first world perspective is important here: he acknowledges without pitying (although the initial introduction where the film talks of ladyboys being lured into prostitution feels a bit preachy) and often scoffs at the antiquated concept of the first world being saviors of the third world. Filtering from the film the often requisite element of self-pity of third world cinema (while I hate the label, I have to acknowledge that such cinema exists where poverty and its harsh repercussions are the allure), The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela becomes a refreshing concoction: a film that delights and moves at the same time.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Invisible City (2007)

Invisible City (Tan Pin Pin, 2007)

The only thing that is constant in this world is change. Singaporean documentary filmmaker Tan Pin Pin acknowledges the wisdom of the saying and from that understanding, crafts an engaging examination of the victims of this ever-constant change. In Invisible City, Tan focuses on her home base Singapore, a city-state which in the early fifties, is home to mangroves and fishermen, in the mid-sixties, has transformed into a bustling port where varying cultures repel and attract, in the seventies through the new millennium, has evolved into a formidable economy. At present, Singapore is the model modern city: a city that is made of glass, steel, and concrete, and functions with the precision of a clockwork machine. It seems that the city-state has forgotten its tremulous childhood, and Tan reconstructs from the relics of the past: a ruined fort in Sentosa, archived colored footage of Singapore in the fifties, a survivor of the horrors of the Japanese invasion, and stocked photographs of turbulent times.

Memory is a scarce and diminishing resource. Tan acknowledges this and uses it to add a very poignant dimension to her documentary. It is the fragility of human memory that becomes the heart of Invisible City. When Tan suddenly removes the visuals save for an uncomfortable black screen, leaving the commentary of Ivan Polunin, an elderly man whose final work is to preserve the invaluable footage of Singapore in the fifties which he recorded while in a medical mission. In the midst of complete darkness, it is his voice, oftentimes faltering when his delicate memory fails him, that provides the only stimulus, enough to elicit a bevy of emotions: overpowering melancholy, comforting reminiscence, harsh frustration, and faint joy.

Memory, being impermanent, needs a repository to outlive change. This is the reason why Polunin insists that his treasure be re-recorded with his commentary in it. This is the reason why Han Sanyuan, a Chinese-Singaporean who vividly recalls the abuses dealt to him and his fellow Chinese during his student activist days, keeps the photographs that show these abuses as proof of what already seems to have been forgotten. This is the reason why a tree was planted by the Japanese royal family to commemorate their visit in Singapore decades ago.

A semblance of immortality is erected when memory is etched into timeless relics, like the ancient fort that is being excavated by the local archaeologist who observe mundane details (like coke bottles and other pieces of garbage) to discover the manner of living decades ago. Tan branches from the archaeologist's historic endeavor and spends time with the graffiti on the walls of the site: all of which are signals of man's insistence for immortality.

Memory, more than being impermanent, is personal. There is no assurance that our memories would have any impact except to the wall, the footage, or the photographs that contain them. Tan's documentary concludes with Han giving a lecture to a class of Chinese-Singaporean students. Tan's camera observes the faces of the youth: sometimes amused although overtly disinterested. Han exclaims his disappointed. There is no longer an audience for his memories. He along with all of Tan's subjects are living in a city that has changed too fast, not only physically but spiritually. With Invisible City, Tan lyrically mourns with them.

Melancholia (2008)

Melancholia (Lav Diaz, 2008)

Lav Diaz's Melancholia is an eight-hour meditation of sorts on the maddening persistence of sadness in this world, can logically be divided into three parts and an epilogue. The first part details the experiences in Sagada of Julian (Perry Dizon), Alberta (Angeli Bayani) and Rina (Malaya Cruz) as they refashion themselves into different drastic identities as part of the radical process that Julian created in order for them to cope with the losses of their loved ones. The second part is set in Manila, with Julian and Alberta living their real lives and addressing the scenarios and situations that accompany their melancholic predicament. The third part is the prologue to Julian, Alberta and Rina's prolonged tale of sadness, where deep within the forests of Mindoro, a band of leftist fighters, which includes Alberta's husband Renato (Roeder Camanag), is struggling with the psychological and spiritual torture of both practical and existential defeat while being hunted down by military operatives.

Melancholia is most probably Diaz's most difficult film for the lone reason that Diaz affords little or no comfort to his viewers. There is very little humor to the film and the story, grounded by philosophies and ideas that might be too personal or hard to grasp, branches into different and sometimes convoluted directions. However, as with most of Diaz's films, the reward of completing one is not in the pleasure of sitting through eight hours of his trademark black and white aesthetics and seemingly endless ramblings and conversations, but in the lingering and often valid points that Diaz would have you digesting and exploring for a far longer period of time.

I. Transformations and Transgressions in Sagada

Julian lets Alberta and Rina watch his sex performers

Alberta becomes Jenine, a prostitute who does massages for 300 pesos and other services for more. Julian turns into a pimp who for the right price can stage live sex shows within the privacy of a hotel room. Rina is a Catholic nun who wanders around town with her charity basket, begging for money for charity. They would bump into each other on occasions: with Jenine handily getting some change to put into the nun's charity basket before fleeting away to her destination, or the pimp taking photographs of the nun before mouthing slogans about the futility of living in a country and a world that is practically hell, or Jenine being courted by the pimp to do business for him. In Sagada, they do not know each other. Though in reality, they are all survivors who have subscribed to the extremist idea that in order to cope with the fact of having a loved one disappear and be presumed dead, they should shed their identities and see the world through the eyes of another.

The three would eventually meet at the same time as the three of them seek shelter from the rain inside an abandoned building in the middle of the town. The line that separates truth and fiction are blurred, as Jenine and the pimp recount their respective histories as if the personalities they inhabited are real. It may be argued that fictionalizing one's life story may be an easy feat. However, it is the disturbing direction of their conversation when the nun arrives in the abandoned building that gives the prolonged scene a harrowing distinction. The pimp starts cornering the nun, berating her of the futility of her efforts within the spectrum of evil that has consumed the world. In the background, Jenine is amused at the lopsided confrontation, wherein the nun coyly mutters meaningless quotes while the pimp expounds on the the world's state of hopelessness. Defeated, the nun escapes the scene as the two admitted sinners rejoice in their triumph.

The nun is the only one to surrender and give up. It seems that in a world that has been enveloped by sadness, it is the meek, and pure that fall first as victims. In Rina's transformation as a nun, she has seen the world from the vantage point of innocence, and the continuing acts of evildoing, apathy, and madness may have dealt upon her despair and hopelessness. Her transformation seems easiest as compared to being a whore or a pimp, since it seems less taxing to roam the streets begging for alms. However, the transgression in her existence, upon seeing the state of the world through the eyes of a person who was tasked to save it or at least ease its pain and being unable to do anything, is far more damaging. Her transformation deviates the most from the world. Her assumed identity is an aberration, especially in a landscape that has forgotten virtues.

Diaz posits an intriguing concept: that survival is earned by those who swear allegiance with truth, and truth is what we see in this world: melancholia, death, amorality, and atheism. There is truth in sex, the way the pimp's sex performers copulate in the total absence of love, hate, or any other emotion. There is truth in prostitution, the way our bodies have turned into mere commodities and stripped of any religion-labeled value. The nun, at one point of the segment, visits a widowed mother she had the opportunity to converse with while begging for alms. Inside the church, the mother sings a melody while the nun observes in the background before leaving. Outside, she walks away, answers her phone and tells her friend that she is okay. During that moment, upon being exposed the utter futility of faith, she finds a semblance of comfort, although temporary since later, she would take her own life in a final act of despair.

II. Patricia's Song

Patricia sings of searching

Diaz forwards the story further, detailing the lives of Julian and Alberta weeks after their stints as pimp and whore, respectively, in Sagada. Julian is a publisher in Manila who often dreams of her dead wife Patricia (Cooky Chua). Alberta, on the other hand, is a school principal who while coping with the disappearance of her husband, has to take care of her ward Hannah (Yanyan Taa), a teenager who was rendered parentless when both her parents were abducted and killed by government officials. Hannah, to address her situation, repels Alberta's acts of kindness by repeatedly escaping from her protection and prostituting herself.

Julian chats with an old friend (Bodjie Pascua), an author who pitches his manuscript for publication. In their conversation about the story of Julian's friend's book, Diaz expounds his passion for cinema, correlating his philosophies on truth with art. According to the friend (whose language is not dissimilar to Diaz's), our basic concept of Philippine cinema has been grounded on lies and escapism. The only way to dispel this harmful imposition against culture is through a drastic change, fueled by pain and passion as the main character of the book, a famed director who after losing his lover, reforms into a producer of independent films while acknowledging his homosexuality, has gone through.

In Julian's dream, Patricia sings of her endless search against the backdrop of coldness and pain in the world. The song sets the mood and tone of the film. In a sense, the song summarizes the characters' need to search: for their lost loved ones, for a reason behind the sadness and the madness of the world, an impossible happiness or contentment, for Hannah, for truth. Melancholia's landscape is familiar (city streets, humble abodes, riverside parks), but its characters are placed in a situation where they have turned into desperate searchers, fueled at first by grief and longing and then by some other force or motivation that is as elusive as their targets. The repercussions of their exercise in Sagada are faint (although Rina's suicide becomes the trigger of Julian's deep contemplation) if not damaging as opposed to being the cure to their collective sadness. Even the discovery of the remains of some victims of political killings failed to release them from their collective burdens. In the end, they are still looking for sense and direction and all at once, the familiar places start to look like alien landscapes, enunciated by the violence of the rain or the discomfort of the night. These places convert into limbo.

This persistent searching is true to the theme of Diaz's cinema, which would often allude to some kind of redemption or release in the conclusion, whether it be in the form of Juan Mijares' acceptance of his and his nation's past in Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), or the wayward oxcart-driver's deal with God in Heremias (2006), or Hamin's release from the world's madness through death in Kagadanan sa Banwaan Ning Mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007). However, in Melancholia, the characters are trapped in limbo (in fact, an offshoot of Melancholia which makes use of some footage made for the film is aptly entitled Purgatorio (2008), referring to the eternal state of being neither here or there of the family left behind by the victims of political killings) and are seemingly in a directionless search for something that can never be found.

III. No Redemption for the Poet-Warrior

Renato is chased into the forest

Renato writes in his diary "Why is there so much sadness and too much sorrow in this world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man's pain? Are we ever going to see each other again? I'm not afraid of death. I'm more afraid that I won't see you again.'" Renato, a leftist activist who left his wife to fight a war of principles, is now being chased into the forest by military operatives who want him and his comrades silenced.

Diaz painstakingly details the final few days of this band of men who are merely prolonging their assured demise under their enemies. Some of them start to falter, giving way to insanity and defeat, enveloped by the lurking senselessness of their struggle amidst a world drowned by indifference and apathy. He writes further "I now realized the lyrical madness to this struggle. It is all about sadness. It is about my sadness. It is about the sorrow of my people. I cannot romanticize the futility of it all. Even the majestic beauty of this island could not provide an answer to this hell. There is no cure to this sadness."

Renato writes words of despair. Strangled by his impending capture and death, he starts to rationalize the bitter truth that beneath the illusions and promises dealt by momentous beauty, emotions, and moments of fleeting happiness, is a world that is barren and replete of hope. His and his comrades' deaths come swiftly in a moment where one of them, in an act of desperation, expresses surrender. Their deaths did not release them from purgatory. Instead, as we have learned from the film's previous scenes in Sagada and Manila, their deaths are black holes that pull loved ones into a void, a metaphoric limbo where they undergo futile searches for logic and reason, goals that have been rendered implausible by the realities of pain and suffering in this world .

The sequence in the forest does not provide redemption for Alberta either. She still does not know where her husband's remains were left. She has not read the words Renato has written in his diary. All she knows is that her husband is gone and most probably dead. There is yet no closure for the victims, only closure in Diaz's circle of melancholia, where the man-made, or more accurately, governmental act of depravity and cowardice has caused the never-ending cycle of sadness and madness to begin.

IV. Epilogue

Alberta and Julian meet again

The riverside park at nighttime, dimly lit by streetlamps that scarcely dot the walkpath, serves as Diaz's stage for his confounding finale. Alberta searches for Julian among the men and women (performance artists who contort their bodies into unusual shapes and positions) that populate the park's spaces. Cryptic phrases, recited in hypnotic cadence, are thrown in reply to Alberta's fervent questioning. She finally locates Julian, alone and seated in the dark, dissheveled in appearance and obviously in the same trance-like state of the park's curious residents. From Alberta and Julian's conversation, we can glean that Julian has turned into a monster, consumed by his own search for the truth, eaten up by the pain and sadness that he has tried to cope with, and ironically, embraced it to create. Julian has become God, the personification of the melancholy and insanity of the world, the only things that can be labeled as definite truths in a world that deceives us with illusions of joy and beauty. He walks away, claiming that he is no longer Julian. Alberta is left alone.

Although the film can be seen as Diaz's definitive statement (and it probably is, Diaz being very vocal on politics) on the desaparecidos, the numbers of which have risen during Macapagal-Arroyo's term as president, and the families they have left in stasis, there is definitely something deeper: a philosophical or existential query that Diaz throws to his viewers on the basis of the world's current status. Melancholia aims to expound on truth by distorting it (where Julian, Alberta and Rina assume fake identities in Sagada as coping mechanism to battle their sadness), disrespecting it (where the trio start living and believing their assumed identities), mutating it (where the trio can no longer discern the line that divides reality and illusion), and finally, spiting it (where truth, as personified by Julian, shows itself as pitiful and pathetic).

Monday, October 13, 2008

Mag-Ingat Ka Sa... Kulam (2008)

Mag-Ingat Ka Sa... Kulam (Jun Lana, 2008)
English Translation: Be Careful of... Witchcraft

After surviving a car accident, Mira (Judy Ann Santos) awakens not remembering anything from before her accident. She starts to reconstruct her memories from scratch with the help of her doting husband (Dennis Trillo). As fragments of her pre-accident life start pouring in, she becomes aware of the complexities of her life, including her stagnant relationship with her blind daughter, her decisive love affair with her office-mate (TJ Trinidad), and her incompletely forgotten twin sister Maria (also played by Santos), a witch who she took away to the mental hospital. A ghost resembling her twin sister and remnants of her hidden childhood spent learning the occult start haunting her as she struggles with her memories.

Jun Lana's
Mag-Ingat Ka Sa... Kulam (Be Careful of... Witchcraft) is proof that the allure of Ringu's Sadako hasn't entirely faded. Lana's film is nothing more than a derivative of a foregone genre, an attempt to squeeze some profit from an overused formula. Above the staple elements of the genre, the film manages to include a plot twist, two of the biggest stars in the country as leads, and ample technical values. These tactics of the film's unscrupulous producers seem to have worked. Mag-Ingat Ka Sa... Kulam is doing good business, notwithstanding stiff competition from imports from Hollywood. It earned an "A" rating from the local film evaluation board, which is equivalent to a 100% rebate from taxes.

Unfortunately, notwithstanding the audience reception and the stamp of approval of the film evaluation board, Lana's horror flick is really not very good. It is a mishmash of elements from different Asian horror film. The plot twist feels like an imperfect modification of
Alone (Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom, 2007). The occult references has already been used in a similar manner in Iain Softley's The Skeleton Key (2005). Some of the scares are repetitions of what has been done countless times before and there's a scene that seems borrowed from the Pang Brothers' The Eye (2002). Whether the similarities are intended or not, the result is unsatisfactory because the execution feels unduly cheap, obviously uninspired, and sometimes, downright idiotic.

I have no idea why it is insisted that the film include computer-generated effects (seriously, is it more expensive to have a real glass break?). Moreover, this insistence on including computer generated effects provide unintended humor (the "evil spirit" coming out of the car airconditioner is reminiscent of a Nickolodeon cartoon fart joke; Santos' make-up as a witch looks like a second-rate Halloween costume). The acting is pretty much flat and uninteresting, even from Santos or Trillo who have done decent work before. Moises Zee's cinematography is too glossy, too calculated to provide the right atmosphere for a horror feature. Von de Guzman, who seems to understand the nuances of horror, creates a musical score that seems to be the only thing correct in the film.
Mag-Ingat Ka Sa... Kulam is an abomination. The film is an idiot's guide on how not to make a horror film.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (2008)

Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (Daniel Lee, 2008)

The voice of Luo Ping-an (Sammo Hung), a recruiter for the army of Liu, greets us in Daniel Lee's Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, an imperfectly executed but altogether interesting take on Luo Guanzhong's 14th century The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a revered piece of Chinese literature that details the power struggles between the warring successors of the Han Dynasty. Luo Ping-an recalls the first time he met Zhao Zilong (Andy Lau), an ordinary foot soldier whose only ambition is to provide for his future family, a modest ambition compared to Luo's dreams of returning to his hometown a celebrated city. As Zhao Zilong starts to showcase his fighting prowess rise from the ranks to become one of the Liu army's generals, Luo Ping-an remains a low-ranking soldier.

It is this perspective from Luo Ping-an's forgotten onlooker that makes Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon a worthwhile film. He becomes the film's unsteady heart. As an adaptation of The Romace of the Three Kingdoms, the film feels hurried and truncated. As an ode to heroism and bonds of brotherhood, it is actually quite engaging, if not moving. During one of the film's final moments, Luo Ping-an and Zhao Zilong share a scene where both become defenseless to each other, with Luo Ping-an's admission of his repressed envy and Zhao Zilong's revelation of his weakness. It is a beautifully directed and composed scene, where heroes and icons are unmasked and become human. Ready for their final battle, Luo Ping-an beats the war gong, announcing to the invading forces that Zhao Zilong, the undefeated hero of Liu's army, is ready for his attack. Given that momentary but enduring glint of humanity, Zhao Zilong's final battle, its aftermath we can only guess from the film's end notes, becomes laced with an emotional depth that has been absent in the film's numerous battle scenes.

The film struggles through its initial sequences, accommodated by some stunningly choreographed (by Sammo Hung) although haphazardly shot and edited action sequences, before being fast-forwarded decades past Zhao Zilong's rise to the top, with several other characters (the four other generals and Zhao Zilong's transitory love interest) of little importance to the film's narrative being introduced only to be killed off or totally forgotten in the next ten minutes. The narrative and emotional bulk of the film happens during Zhao Zilong's final expedition. With Luo Ping-an at his side and his favorite lieutenants (all of whom are given little or no characterization) behind him, Zhao Zilong faces the army headed by Cao Ying (Maggie Q), the graceful yet ruthless general of Cao's superior army.

Here, the film starts to take a different cue and becomes a grounded observation of fleeting heroism and both the necessity and expenses of warfare. Lee makes an effort to equalize both factions, characterizing Cao Ying as cunning yet noble, in a careful step to blur the lines between good and evil in the battleground. Lee decreases the tempo, allows his camera to fully linger and capture the vast plains and deserts, and gives ample room for his audience to understand the conflicts boiling within Zhao Zilong's aging hero and Luo Ping-an's pathetic onlooker. Like one of Sergio Leone's grand Westerns where genre conventions and characters are maintained yet enlarged to encapsulate a bevy of themes, Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon almost succeeded in doing the same with the genre, if not for the film's clunky storytelling and its need to placate commercial forces.

While Lee clearly has the vision and the ambition to mount a film adaptation of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the film seems adequately justified as a whole, the film feels problematic on many fronts. The technical aspects of the film mirror Lee's grand ambition: the armies are fortified with thousands of extras, the production is littered with astounding details, the music is reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's memorable melodies for Leone's famous spaghetti westerns, the art direction is both apt and astounding, the cinematography is breathtaking, especially when Lee's camera covers the almost endless expanse of the country that is being fought for. However, amidst the luster of the film's production values, Lee seems unable to cohere the elements into a clearly flowing narrative. The film ultimately suffers from inconsistent plotting and incongruous action filmmaking.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Room 213 (2008)

Room 213 (Keith Sicat, 2008)

The story of Keith Sicat's Room 213 is essentially about an architect (Allen Dizon) who in an attempt to infuse a bit of excitement into his marriage, introduces his wife (Gwen Garci), a photographer, to the titular room of the decrepit building he was commissioned to restore. The building has a rich history, related by the architect to his wife. From a South American millionaire's gift to his wife, the building was transformed into a hotel by an enterprising Chinese businessman. The suspect room, a luxurious suite, holds many many mysteries including a suggestion that evil spirits may be lurking within. The wife becomes attached to the room as she starts to flavor her life with sexual exploits with the personalities she meets in the vicinity of the building, including a dogmatic woman (Maricar dela Fuente) who is quick both to the allures of the flesh and the hurdles of Catholic guilt, and an enigmatic male hustler (Tyron Perez) who becomes the wife's source of both marital disdain and temporary respite.

To appreciate Room 213 with its visual stylization and narrative ingenuity, it might be noteworthy to look into Rigodon (2005), Sicat's first feature film which he co-directed with Sari Lluch Dalena. Rigodon loftily tackles the plight of Filipino immigrants in New York. Structured in a way that deviates from traditional storytelling (with visually-stylized sequences littered in between fractured scenes), the film works like a poem about the disjointed Philippine nation, abstract in its individual portions but coherent as a whole.

Sicat attempts to do the same in Room 213, covering a less ambitious theme (that of the intricacies of marriage), but fails to come up with a lucid whole. Told from the point of view of the wife who supposedly guides the disconnected scenes through a narration that sounds like second-rate poetry, the film is confused as to what it thinks it is.

To my mind, Room 213 is erotica posturing as serious art, a film genre that proliferated in Europe in the late sixties through the eighties with films like Walerian Borowczyk's Immoral Tales (1974) and The Beast (1975) and Shuji Terayama's Fruits of Passion (1981). Unfortunately, Sicat's film fails to register as good erotica. It's too beautiful to actually arouse and its attempts at cinematic sensuality is hindered by its so-called good taste. While Room 213 features a parade of naked bodies, copulating in different forms and manners, there seems to be no real substance underneath the spectacle. Thus, the sex in the film feels like a misdirected effort, incongruous to Sicat's attempt to forward anything pertinent.

Sicat gives us a perspective to view the events that ensue from, most probably to elicit some sort of emotional resonance to his stylized depictions of non-traditional sex. While the marriage, through the narrative twists and turns orchestrated by Sicat's incredulous screenplay, seems to be hopeless, loveless, and suffocating one as the wife consistently points out in her narration, we never really understand what motivates the wife to stay, hope, and upon the film's conclusion, get hurt tremendously. There are no authentic emotional or psychological investments, just spoonfed assertations of thoughts and feelings gathered from thin air. It's simply not very amusing or interesting to sit through pretentious stylings of sexual activity, if they are neither erotic nor sensible.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Days of the Turquoise Sky (2008)

Days of the Turquoise Sky (Woo Ming Jin, 2008)
Malaysian Title: Kurus

Woo Ming Jin's Days of the Turquoise Sky possesses a gorgeous simplicity that is quietly arresting. Woo's film shows a remarkable affinity with Hou Hsiao Hsien's A Summer at Grandpa's (1984), a meditative ode to childhood innocence which details one summer spent by two city-bred siblings in their grandpa's countryside home. Adult concerns are dealt with but mostly with subtle brushstrokes, like in the suggestive discussions about the father's incurable gambling problem in Woo's film or the parental concerns in the backdrop of Hou's film. Attention is given to the concerns of the youth, through their quaint interactions they share with each other, reflecting on their volatility in the midst of slow and steady change.

Days of the Turquois Sky is a collection of familiar facets of growing up, nuanced but never to the point of them calling attention to themselves. Woo keeps the narrative minimalist, skirting away from drama and histrionics and instead, maintaining an observant, if not reminiscent, stance on these commonplace eventualities. The story centers on Ali (Arshad Zamir), who lives with his father (Namron), a public servant left inutile and impoverished by his gambling debts and partially salvaged from being a parental embarrassment by his nextdoor neighbor (Mislina Mustapha). At school, Ali and his best friend Hassan (Ahmad Muzhaffar Mustapha) are constantly bullied by a pair of their classmates, Eli (Muhammad Fadhirul Anuar) and his heavyset pal, Iqa (Nursyafiqa Izzaty). Romance comes into the lives of Ali and Hassan through their new English teacher Miss Carol (Carmen Soo) and a new student Nora (Anis Nadia Jilid), respectively.

A conversation between Eli and Iqa reveals an alluring semblance of purity to the bullies despite their brutish ways. Iqa relates to Eli about her being stung by a bee, which made her thinner. The effect of the bee sting is merely temporary for she reverts back to her heavyset self after a short while. Eli, out of friendship or concern to her bud or some other emotion Woo is clever enough to withhold, scourges the nearby surroundings for bees that could sting Iqa, hoping that his action might make her friend thinner. Woo carefully draws his characters with impassioned whispers instead of loud and clear dictations: coloring Hassan's growing affection for Nora with the joys of young love and the light pains of separation, or the longing Ali has for Miss Carol repressed by the former's own youth and the latter's relationship with her boyfriend, a lowly wage-earner posing as a rich businessman. Ali's repressed estimation for his teacher flees as fits of heightened feelings recur, expressed through the way he religiously reads through the books his teacher assigns, the moments wherein he makes the brash decision to come back for his teacher and offer to bring her home, and finally to reveal the boyfriend's ruse.

These teenagers' conflicts seem insignificant to the rest of us, but it is this shroud of seeming insignificance that makes the film so beautiful in its familiarity. Days of the Turquoise Sky shows adult concerns through the point of view of one in the grips of adulthood. In another beautiful scene, Ali sees his father cleaning the sole of his shoe in the streetside. The father just stepped on cow dung left by the loan sharks who have been looking for him. Ali naively asks his father why they're poor. The father replies wisely, giving an answer that maintains both conviction and honesty. He says that they are poor because they are not greedy like most other people, or probably because of his gambling.

The conversation evinces the mechanics of Woo's lamentation to the passing of fragile youth and his ode to whatever is left of it. Ali expresses indifference to his father's wise answer, and throws a reply that is both comforting to the father and expressive of his innocence. His mind is elsewhere: in school, in the exact spot where Miss Carol waits for her boyfriend, in the fishing pond where he and Hassan test their fishbombs. He finally reminds his father that he no longer has Milo. Woo deviates from adult concerns, and keeps the film in the realm of that unsteady stage of puberty, where the youthful mind and heart are slowly being introduced to the hardships of reality but is allowed to relish in youth's purity. The film laments on how adulthood would eventually mutate our humanity, how it is natural for us to trade our invaluable innocence. At fifteen, we worry about empty cans of Milo and transient crushes. At fifty, we worry about the world.