Thursday, December 31, 2009

I Love You, Goodbye (2009)

I Love You, Goodbye (Laurice Guillen, 2009)

In a film festival that showcases Philippine cinema in its most obnoxiously self-important, with festival films ranging from spectacle-filled pseudo-epics to overacted tearjerkers to undercooked slapsticks, I Love You, Goodbye, despite its own melodramatic excesses, is joyfully quiet, lyrical and close to being authentically moving. It grabs you immediately from the start, when Lizelle (Angelica Panganiban), the poor girlfriend of wealthy doctor Adrian (Gabby Concepcion), enters the house of her boyfriend's family, gets rudely ignored by her boyfriend's mother (Liza Lorena), insulted by her boyfriend's daughter Ysa (Kim Chiu), and overshadowed by her husband's ex-wife (Angel Aquino) who charmss everyone with her seeming perfection compared to Lizelle's enumeration of imperfection. Despite the onslaught of unfortunate eventualities of that night, she still ends up passionately making love with her boyfriend.

The introduction, swiftly and without need of narrative embellishments, summarizes the mess that Lizelle is trapped in. She thrives within a relationship that is solely grounded on a flimsy concept called love. The initial lovemaking scene, shot by Lee Meily in disarming close-up, exposing the uncovered bronzed skin of the lovers in intense embracing and kissing, scored by Von de Guzman who makes use of the saxophone to enhance the steamy mood, and directed with an unabashed sensuality by Guillen, is sinful to look at, not because of the abundance of flesh exposed but because it is simply an act of desperation, an act by lovers struggling amidst a reality that is against their union, a fantasy, although masked by the intoxicating feeling of romance. The plot thickens. Gary (Derek Ramsay), Lizelle's ex-boyfriend, returns, and woos Ysa so that she can get chance to win back Lizelle. Ysa eventually falls in love with Gary who can't reciprocate such adoration because he is still desperately in love with Lizelle.

Lizelle becomes the center of an intricate web of disjointed desires, misplaced adoration, and unavoidable compromise. Panganiban, whose angelic face betrays the seductive curves of her body, is quite a talented actress, gifted with an innate ability to efficiently convert emotions like restrained passion, repressed sadness, and emotional despair into heartfelt gestures, tears, and facial expressions. In one scene, where Lizelle and Gary are left alone in the beach, and allowed for the very first time since their separation to be honest with each other, Guillen aptly does away with music, allowing Panganiban to solely control the scene, puncturing the stillness of everything with a masterful display of whirlwinding emotions, of reminiscence of a lovely past and hope for an unattained future, of an unbearable loneliness and the comfort of a long-awaited release, of the utter confusion of being trapped in the middle of two equally strong loves and the happiness of being essentially exposed to one. It's a beautifully crafted scene, completely unadorned yet brimming with such delicate sadness.

I Love You, Goodbye should have been a good film and it pains me to note that it is not for the simple reason that it flaked in its ending. After meticulously mapping the exposure of a dreamy relationship for the veritable sham that it really is, it quickly abandons such directive and surrenders to the inevitable call of inane conventionalism. I Love You, Goodbye could have been the decade's anti-romance, the momentary cure (at least for the two hours that the audiences would invest on the film) to the Filipino's inherent infatuation for escape through the plasticine happiness of matinee idols and leading ladies entangled in choreographed kisses and embraces. It could have echoed the glossy melancholy of the ending of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), where two lovers who are deeply in love, after being separated by war, unexpectedly meet-up, armed only with the painful memories of that love they used to share with each other that can never be regained. It could have had the same puncturing bittersweet resolution of James Gray's Two Lovers (2008), where a dreamer of a man wakes up and realizes his dreams of a perfect romance is unattainable, and settles.

But of course, I Love You, Goodbye is a different movie altogether and to expect something else out of it is admittedly an unfair proposition. Yet, the knowledge that the happy ending is merely a product of corporate concession and not of creative impulse, complicated by the fact that the originally intended ending, an ending that is more grounded in reality and logic, has already been shot but eventually shunned by the film's producers for being ambiguously sad, alarms because it pinpoints a national commercial cinema that is obviously taken hostage by formula and what seems to be misguided appreciation of what an audience can and cannot take.

As it turns out, reality, even in something as impertinent as the romantic relationship of fictional characters, is too much of a risk for movie producers with primary capitalist sensibilities. The more lucrative option is to perpetuate the grand cinematic lie; that everything ends happily and all problems and conflicts, no matter how undeniable unresolvable they are, can be magically resolved, and all characters can achieve a state of ecstatic satisfaction and completely forgetful of all the hatred and ill will that have been exchanged between and among them before. Perhaps it is my innate cynicism that drives me to abhor the ending that was imposed upon the film by its cowardly producers. Perhaps perfect endings are actual possibilities or even if they are not, we are in such need of them that we delight in being bombarded by them no matter how misplaced, dangerously false, and illogical they are. However, when a film has a perfect ending just for the sake of having one, betraying all notions of storytelling logic and emotional consistency, it is simply bad filmmaking that is not to be faulted to the director or her cast and crew, who in my opinion have crafted a fine film save for the insulting resolution, but to the profit-oriented movie studio that is being run by a team of unimaginative businesspeople who deplorably treat art not with passion or adoration but with outright bullyism and unfair compromise.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Mano Po 6: A Mother's Love (2009)

The Mano Po Story: God Have Mercy On Us
A Review of Joel Lamangan's Mano Po 6: A Mother's Story
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

FLASHBACK: The year was 2002. Besieged by film pirates and imperialist Hollywood, film studios like Regal Entertainment look forward to the annual Metro Manila Film Festival, a two-week period during the moneyed Christmas season where all of the metropolis’ theaters are only allowed to screen festival entries, to field what supposedly are their best films. A movie, conceptualized as a film matriarch’s ode to her Chinese-Filipino roots, opened successfully. Directed by Joel Lamangan with as much opulence he can imagine and Regal can provide money for, the film received critical attention only because it feels like the best film in a year of duds.

Melinda (Sharon Cuneta, in a role that fits her like Arnold Schwarzenegger fitting into a ballerina’s tutu) is alone in her office room, deep in contemplation. Olive (ZsaZsa Padilla, in a role that has all the stereotypical traits of a villainous in-law) storms inside, shouting invectives at calm Melinda in Filipino, bastardized by a lousily obvious Chinese accent. Melinda asks Olive to leave, threatening her that if she does not do so within the five counts she generously grants her, she will wreak havoc. Olive shouts and shouts and before you know it, a catfight ensues, with Melinda slapping Olive’s face left and right, before releasing a close-fisted blow on Olive’s surprised mug. This is supposed to be the film’s crowning glory: the triumph of the underdog, the oppressed character’s sweet revenge against her frustrating oppressor. Sloppily conceived, directed with the bluntness of a troll, and terribly acted, the scene feels like it belongs in an afternoon comedy sketch than the big screen.

FLASHBACK: The year was 2003. Enthused by the buckets of cash earned by Mano Po, the matriarch decides to do a sequel. She hires Erik Matti, a maverick of a director who usually churns out handsome films for very little, and comes up with a story about a presidential daughter who ages to look like a cheated presidentiable’s wife. The film, since it was also released as an entry to the Metro Manila Film Fest, made money. While it was infinitely better than Lamangan’s film, it was essentially more of the same: convoluted plots, unnecessary characters, faked chinky eyes and bastardized Chinese.

Carol (Ciara Sotto, who looks, feels, and acts like a tree stump during the entire film), the eldest daughter of Melinda, and Stephanie (Heart Evangelista, who is so pretty I can forgive the slightness of her acting), the other daughter of Melinda who was brainwashed by evil Olive to spite her mother, are talking in a meeting room. Melinda enters and a confrontation with Stephanie ensues. Melinda pleads that Stephanie believe her, but the latter refuses. Carol, on the background, is silently crying. I feel nothing. Joel Lamangan, who industriously directs this Mano Po film notwithstanding the fact that for these kinds of stories that have innate visual potential, his films are drab, flat and plain soulless, is relentless in his mediocrity and relies primarily on a considerably witty interplay of dialogue to bring life to a scene that is otherwise as dull as an unused hollow block.

FLASHBACK: The year was 2004. Lamangan returns to helm the third installment to the series. It’s a love story between two middle-aged Chinese-Filipinos. The woman’s married and with children. The man is a widower. It’s nice to see Vilma Santos fall in love again, and that is basically the strength of the film. It’s the only Mano Po where it didn’t matter that the characters were Chinese.

Melinda is the daughter of a Chinese woman and a Filipino man and because of that, she is unlucky. She marries into a wealthy Chinese family, but since she’s only half-Chinese, the family disowns her husband (played with such unsurprising inconsequence by Christopher de Leon). Melinda, her husband, all of their children, and even Olive, who spites Melinda because of her not being a pure Chinese, all speak in broken Chinese. Daniel (Dennis Trillo), Stephanie’s fiancé who also speaks in broken Chinese despite being a pure Chinese, is an active participant in a human smuggling ring and becomes the impetus for much of the film’s blatant attempts to be current and pertinent. Lamangan doesn’t achieve pertinence but downright annoyance.

FLASHBACK: The fourth and fifth Mano Po films were blurs. Directed again by Lamangan with a lot less excitement than the first Mano Po and more of the “this is just a job” attitude of a corporate ant, the films resembled television productions because of how haphazardly they were conceived and executed. Banking primarily on star-power and the inevitable pull of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the films were moderate box-office successes, evidencing that the Filipino people have grown weary and wary of these incessant mechanisms of translating the richness of Filipino-Chinese culture as a mere fetish, a fad, an entertaining curiosity.

Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love is such a bland film. While most people would consider it a harmless piece of entertainment, its effects are actually more devastating than the unhindered spreading of a disjointed contentment for substandard filmmaking in the country. It is first and foremost advertised as a mirror of the Chinese culture. Its gorgeous poster, backgrounded by what looks like a Chinese painting, with its posing actors and actresses draped in traditional chiong sam in the center, and Chinese characters adorned everywhere, can be considered as an invitation for an immersion on the culture and history of the Filipino-Chinese community. Unfortunately, the film, or for that matter, the entire film series, is simply a parade of stereotypes that only furthers alienation instead of planting an accurate understanding of the Filipino-Chinese culture. Bad and careless populist filmmaking coupled with ruthless advertising has proven to be very dangerous. Whether or not the intentions are pure is immaterial because subversion may be unintended, and history has proven that even the most innocuous of media can be converted as harsh propaganda.

I digress. As previously stated, Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love is a bland film. It could have been more than bland but it is what it is. It is a display of Lamangan’s indubitable incapacity to tell a story since the movie’s plot, as simple as it is, is made unbearably convoluted by a stubborn reliance on flashbacks, narration, and other frustrating clichés. While Mo Zee’s cinematography had promise, it was rendered inutile by a lack of any aesthetic integrity (Lamangan is unsure whether he wants to be stately, or hip; and in one scene where Lamangan nearly succeeds in creating authentic tension with a long take that follows characters into an abandoned warehouse for an illegal deal that mutates into a shoot-out, he proves himself to be incompetent with one incoherent cut). Von De Guzman’s music sticks out as the best thing that ever came out of the film or the series (his theme to the Mano Po series, a thunderous melody of clear Chinese influence, is probably the most recognizable Filipino movie theme; it is that music that plays the string that connects the films together: grandiose, well thought-of, and rich).

Where then does the failure lie, in the film’s overworking director, because of his failure to create something fantastic out of individually potent elements; in the film’s producers, for being nothing more than a factory of subpar movie while they have all the resources to be cultural powerhouses; in the present Metro Manila Film Festival, for being a festival that caters only to capitalist sensibilities instead of actual artistic merits; in the mainstream audience, because they couldn’t care less of what’s being produced outside thus, reinforcing the notion of all these directors and producers that mediocrity is lucrative; in the so-called movie press, for either being totally dishonest and parasitic in how they promote these movies, arrogantly displaying their utter lack of taste and in turn, infecting the country with their ignominious brand of idiocy?

FLASHBACK: The date was December 20, 2009. I watched a film entitled Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love. It’s utterly miserable. It made me miserable. Nonetheless, almost everybody enjoyed it, enjoyed seeing their idols act in the big screen, enjoyed being in the same theaters as the idols who are acting in the big screen. We remain unaware of this cultural bamboozlement.

(Cross-published in ClickTheCity, 25 December 2009 and Philippine Free Press, 9 January 2010)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Arrival (2009)

A Departure
A Review of Erik Matti’s The Arrival
By Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Erik Matti has an awkward position in Philippine cinema. Unlike Joel Lamangan, Jose Javier Reyes, Mark Reyes, and the many other so-called directors who have found a niche within the artless mainstream studio system by efficiently crafting movie after movie, raking in millions of hard-earned pesos by sheer star-power and stubborn adherence to stubborn formula, satisfying themselves with utter mediocrity, Matti has always been an oddball, a description I would normally detest if suddenly hurled at me but in this case, I would consider a subtle praise. His sensibilities are so unlike his contemporaries that his movies, no matter how innately inane they are, would always have a certain quirkiness, a palatable edge that would keep you glued to your seats. More than that, Matti is a reliable craftsman. His movies would always look, sound, and feel right even if the narrative is starting to crumble and fall apart. Jumping from one genre to another, Matti has made good films (Mano Po 2: My Home (2003) is undoubtedly the best of the series; Gagamboy (2004) is a delightfully self-aware rip-off of Sam Raimi’s famous Spider-Man films; Exodus: Tales From the Enchanted Kingdom (2005) had a few grand moments; and Pa-Siyam (2004) is arguably the best mainstream horror film made the past five years) but has never really exposed himself through his films.

Thus, The Arrival, a project that kept Matti busy the past few years, is valuable despite its blatant flaws. Matti considers the film as his most personal to date, and it shows. Unchained from studio interference, The Arrival is a free-flowing rollercoaster ride from proletariat desolation to sweet freedom. Leo, the film’s protagonist, played with considerable pathos by Dwight Gaston, is a lowly bookkeeper in Manila. Unmarried, curiously content of his lonesome and anonymous existence, and consistently visited by nightly dreams of a gorgeous woman running in slow motion from her lovely little bungalow to deliver to him an abruptly terminated kiss, he, after discovering a photograph of the same lovely little bungalow pinned in the mirror of his new barber, suddenly gets a tardy urge to be curious of what’s out there. Armed with the photograph that points to the town of Murcia as his destination, some money saved from several years of not having anyone to spend it on, and a foolhardy reliance on his nightly dream, he leaves his job, his apartment, his entire life in Manila to pursue the promise of the pictured house and the girl of his dreams who resides therein.

Matti’s stylized depiction of urban working class ennui, from the forlornness of his shared office space to the stark ordinariness of his bachelor’s hovel, turns the first half of the film into an unexpected comedy of sorts. His camera is unusually reserved, settling at showcasing Gaston’s distinctly characterless mug as the center of the action, or in this film’s case, inaction. His editing here is particularly patient, allowing the humor to seep through the cracks opened by the depicted idleness and boredom. It is probably the closest thing a Filipino director has come to emulating the cold and comfortless comedies of Norwegian auteur Aki Kaurismaki, whose most popular works involve people so desolate, they barely exist. Gaston complements Matti’s careful and precise direction with a performance that is so subtle, so slight, that it feels like he’d disappear from the picture and blend into the background. That actually happens; as when he’s invited to his neighbors’ nightly drinking sprees, he becomes a silent observer while his drinking buddies converse about life and women, and Matti’s camera jumps from one intoxicated face to another, to one bottle of beer to another, to one side dish to another, before settling on his morose face. Gaston’s is selflessly un-flashy performance of a role that would have any other actor diminish with overacting.

Murcia, a town not unlike any other provincial town in the country, becomes the setting of Leo’s titular metaphoric arrival. A sequence of events, starting with his expected encounter with the house of his recurring dreams and continuing with a momentary disappointment by the fact that the house’s female resident does not look like the vixen in his dream and later on, a realization that he has fallen deeply in love, pushes him to discard decades’ worth of insecurities and reprehensions. Leo’s delayed coming-of-age could have been utterly lovely. The fact that Leo is more than your traditional late bloomer, having only fully experienced the simple charms of living only in midlife, should have turned this tale into something more than charming, something more humorous, something more than clever. This is because Leo’s story is basically my story and the story of almost everyone I know who have delayed personal passions just to be in the middle of the rat race. The Arrival should not have been personal only to Matti but also to his intended audience. It had the opportunity to break hearts and change lives but it settled with displaying pretty pictures in cadence with pretty songs and melodies and earning a few chuckles out of vapid display of Filipino machismo in the midst of an abundant supply of alcohol.

Perhaps that is exactly the problem. The film is too organic, with Matti generously indulging his actors’ every impromptu conversation, every cracked joke, and every whimsical thought, resulting in a picture that takes too long to say what it wants to say. At best, The Arrival is an intriguing patchwork. It is fun. It is hip. It is melodic and at times, touching. It is just not as tightly weaved together that it is inevitable to appreciate it better in parts than as a whole. That said, The Arrival, while a welcome departure for a director who has told too many stories under the forced guidance of moneyed producers, is hardly the masterwork one expects from an expert craftsman who has now the opportunity to stretch his creativity beyond the borders of what will sell in the market. Notwithstanding my problems with the film, I sincerely wish this one sells and proves a point. There’s a lot more to Matti and this imperfect departure is just the beginning of something I hope is wonderful.

(First published in Philippine Free Press, 26 December 2009)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Two Lovers (2008)

Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)

The opening sequence is vital. The requisite black of the opening credits gives way to a cloudy gray sky, which is partially covered by the back of a man's head. A lone gull slowly flies across the frame and it punctuates the gloomy atmosphere, an atmosphere that is predominantly supported by the deafening rhythm of an unpredictable breathing. We essentially feel what Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) feels after what seems to be an unfair turn of events. Director James Gray momentarily removes us from Leonard's perspective, and from a safe distance, we see the character, bowed down in contemplation, walk, arbitrarily drop the freshly dry-cleaned clothes he was carrying, climb the railings of the bridge, and jump into the sea. Gray brings us back to Leonard's perspective: a struggle of air bubbles in the cold seawater; a piercing memory of a perfect love that turned out to be imperfect; a glimmer of light in the distance and indistinct shouts from the surface. Leonard is eventually rescued, walks away from the crowd with hardly an expression of gratitude to his saviors.

Leonard is all at once a very familiar and unfamiliar man. From the safety of a cinematic distance, his case seems unique: a suicidal thirty-something man from Brooklyn who after another failed attempt at ending his life, suddenly falls in love with a new neighbor, who is herself in love with a married man, while entertaining possibilities of romance with her father's business partner's daughter. However, Gray insists on depicting Leonard as an everyman, a personification of our own stubborn insistence on the fantastical notion of the existence of a grand romance, a figment of what we used to be or what we refuse to believe that we are. That is why the opening is vital. It is what invites our eyes to see the world through Leonard's incongruently hopeful and jaded point of view. The opening does that as it establishes a connection: that more than being approximated how it is to live like Leonard, we are approximated how it is to nearly die like Leonard. This is a connection that is enough for us to understand him notwithstanding the novelties of his circumstance: that he lives with his parents; that he is volatile; that his current predisposition is utterly unsatisfying considering that he is loveless, lifeless, and works for his father's dry-cleaning business when he fancies himself an artist.

The dilemma that Leonard has is hardly gargantuan, although to him and probably the rest of the uncynical world, it probably is. In a curious twist of fate, he is given two avenues to repair his romantically battered soul. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of Leonard's father's business partner, is your typical girl, the type that suddenly springs in your life with hardly any fanfare, although she starts to grow on you, but never enough to personify a lifelong fantasy. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), on the other hand, the new neighbor who is troubled by her married lover's inability to fulfill his promise to leave his family for her, is that fantasy girl who, although seemingly disinterested in a romance with you because of several reasons, is far too close to ignore or forget. Gray paints Leonard's dilemma with the casualness that is striking and oftentimes, heart-wrenching. Gray's camerawork, precise in its deliberate movements, fluttering through the interiors of Leonard's apartment or in and out of the brick pillars of the building rooftop, exemplifies an earnestness, a quiet sincerity that gives the intertwining relationships an emotional resonance that is simply too palpable to discard. In that regard, the tender moments, such as Leonard's attempt to kiss Michelle while she is sleeping or the prelude to Leonard and Sandra's lovemaking as backdropped by black and white portraits of Leonard's ancestors and opera that sprung out of Leonard's frustration to win Michelle's affection, are devastatingly beautiful, ravishing brush strokes that complete a masterwork of a painfully real document of the randomness of romantic affection.

Leonard's family is a lingering presence. His familial ties, through the several generations of Kraditors hanging in the apartment, the unavoidable pull to partake in the family business, the Jewish traditions, pervade his intentions to find and gain the love of his life. His father (Moni Moshonov) and mother (Isabella Rossellini), laid-back yet utterly concerned of their son's emotional condition, insist on a hold on him, sneaking behind his locked door to get an inkling of what he is doing and manufacturing opportunities for him and their anointed girlfriend so that they can get together despite his subtle protestations. Leonard, with his indelible familial attachment and his insistence on betting everything on a fantastical appreciation of love, is essentially a man-child, a Brooklyn variation of all the adult yet childish men that have populated Hong Sang-soo's love triangles and who in their drunken and sex-desperate stupor, have dissected the basic intricacies of sexual relationships. Phoenix's Leonard however, with Gray's preference for melancholy and dolor over Hong's deadpan humor, is a particularly moving creation, a man stuck in his unevolving imagination, delighted and fanciful of the fleeting ecstasy of an undefined romance: communicating with Michelle via phone, with the added value of seeing each other through their connected window views; showing off his skills in the dance floor; and charming her friends through his stories and raps.

Thus, the film's conclusion, devastating if viewed from the perspective of a hopeless romantic, gives way to probably the film's truest moment, at least for Leonard. After reeling from a realization of his overboard folly, he returns to his family nest and quietly proposes to Sandra, the girl who represents everything he is escaping from like family, his Jewish traditions, his father's beloved dry-cleaning business, and a life of abject ordinariness. He is rewarded a tender embrace; as Gray's camera follows his face and Leonard suddenly gazes at us, discarding the supposed distance, the object of escapism that cinema was meant for. That peering gaze, laced with a tinge of guilt, an acknowledgment that he knows that we know, a surrender to a real world that consistently rids itself of confused dreamers, is not unique in the film; as Michelle, while on the rooftop after Leonard's heartfelt declaration of love to her, similarly looks directly at the camera as she surrenders herself to Leonard after her realization of the impossibility of being with her married lover.

The gaze mystifies. It bothers. It disturbs because it's just too damned honest. Two Lovers, with its illusion-breaking gazes, its deliberate pacing, its primary use of a suicidal and lovesick man's painfully hopeful perspective, and its atmosphere of colorable melancholy, is, depending on one's readiness to be abruptly made sober of the intoxicating consequences of an infatuation with romance and picture-perfect happy endings, a work of undeniable power. It will lead you on, then break you completely, before curing you back into the banal comforts of this real world.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro (2009)

Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro (Lav Diaz, 2009)
English Title: Butterflies Have No Memories

The picture that Lav Diaz paints of an island decades after a mining company that brought to the island temporary prosperity left its shores is one draped in astounding bleakness and melancholy. As Martha (Lois Goff), the daughter of the Canadian CEO of the mining company, returns to the island she regards as her home, as according to her, she was practically born and raised there and that its residents are essentially her second family, she brings with her reawakened memories of a former abundance that is all replaced by penury and idleness. The past becomes an unhealthy preoccupation as the villagers repay her fondness with shame, indifference, and bad intentions, with three of the most affected of the mine's unrepentant beneficiaries, Mang Ferding (Dante Perez), former head of security of the mine, Willy (Willy Fernandez), Martha's childhood friend who now sells salt bread for a living, and another one of the mine's former employees (Joel Ferrer) whose yearly ritual of having himself nailed to the cross is for the return of his wife, conspire to kidnap her for a hefty ransom.

The village is deceptively quaint. The villagers go about their daily chores and vices, idly gallivanting or selling their wares during the day and drowning their dilemmas with alcohol at night. There is a sheen of normalcy, one that is ready to give way to madness should it be disturbed. It is this quaintness, this suspicious quietude, that makes Martha's visit a particularly awkward one, one that is birthed from good intentions but due to the intertwining of communal and personal histories, circumstances, and a hopeless longing for a distant prosperous past, can only result in bringing out the worst from humanity.

Diaz's Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro (Butterflies Have No Memories), a short film commissioned by the Jeonju International Film Festival for the tenth edition of its annual digital project, while a mere fraction of the director's famously long films in terms of running time, is equally potent in its depiction of fractured souls struggling within a world broken by men and their acts. Diaz's depiction of a town suddenly left blighted with the departure of a lucrative mining project is reminiscent of the typhoon-ravaged provinces of Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkantos (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007); Diaz, in one sequence, surveys the ghostly town, littered with abandoned barracks and offices, and dead quiet with the trees and other growth seemingly afraid to move with the wind, and this particular sequence has the same gloomy energy of a sequence in Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Encantos where Diaz exposes the landscapes left barren by typhoon Reming.

However, the desolation in Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro, much more than physical, is psychological, deeply rooted into a community promised of certain comforts only to be betrayed and left in a state of destitution and dejection. In a way, the devastation is graver because there are no clear edifices and structures to construct and repair, as the discontent of a community that once enjoyed the benefits of the progresses promised by capitalism and free trade is far more difficult to remedy. As in Melancholia (2008), where the depression of losing loved ones and not knowing where their bodies are if ever they are already dead is only temporarily mended by traveling to a faraway town and completely transforming themselves into various characters, the mental and psychological torture of the characters in Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro seek to repair their sorry lots in life with an act that echoes the desperation that has been repressed since the mine's closing only to be awakened by Martha's visit.

Although Diaz pinpoints the mines as culprit to the village's present state, he clearly does not absolve the villagers from fault. The villagers are perpetually suffering, seemingly trapped in a constant search for redemption: with Ferding relying on memories of a former wealth and glory to provide both fleeting comfort and frustration; Willy persisting in his meager livelihood; and the third of the trio relying on religion for alleviation; and all three of them washing their sins and memories with cups of cheap brandy and idle chatter. Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro has the trio in the middle of executing their devious plans, in a sudden halt. Wearing Moriones masks, handmade headgear worn by the faithful in a yearly festival as attrition for all the sins they have committed, the trio are met by a swarm of butterflies in the middle of the forest, leading to Willy to breakdown and give up.

Diaz does not explain further nor does he need to; the event, whether or not it stems from an authentic change or heart or a mere inconvenience of human emotionality, whether or not it foils the plan or not, articulates a power far greater than the social wretchedness, the poverty, and the environmental deterioration inflicted by the mines, and the relationship humanity has with that power. A palpable entity in all of Diaz's films (as the other party in Heremias' culminating pact in Heremias (2006) and whose complete absence has transported the characters in Melancholia into an infinite limbo of madness and sadness,) this power, whether it is the same entity that forces the religious man to lie face down inside the chapel or not, does not offer instant redemption but only reminds the characters of their humanity, even in the midst of corruption.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Johnny Delgado (1948-2009)

Johnny Delgado (1948-2009)

Juan Marasigan Feleo, more popularly known as Johnny Delgado, passed away on November 19, 2009. He is a hardworking actor, keeping himself preoccupied with his art even as he is battling lymphoma. The actor's last work is with the thesis film of his youngest daughter Ina Feleo (who has also proven to be a brilliant actress, giving colorful and restrained performances in Jade Castro's Endo (2007) and Milo Sogueco's Sanglaan (The Pawnshop, 2009)) entitled Labing-Labing (You and I, 2009). Labing-Labing is a modest yet heartfelt ode to her parents' relationship with each other. You can readily observe the physical manifestations of the advanced stage of Delgado's cancer, as his skin is considerably paler, his head is completely devoid of hair, and his gestures are lacking the usual physical exuberance the actor is known for. Despite that, Delgado gives an outstanding performance, showcasing an impressively articulate grasp of both comedy and drama. Delgado's wife, Laurice Guillen, who is both a magnificent actress and a very talented director, gives a magnanimous and understated performance, complimenting Delgado's joviality in the face of the fearsome disease with contemplative restraint, as if her character is shouldering all the pains and worries (the unresponsive daughter, the regular visits to the hospital) to allow her husband the benefit of normalcy (a performing libido, certain vices).

A vastly gifted character actor, Delgado has played various characters throughout his career, all of whom he has given individual lives to separate and distinct from who he is as a person. His Macario, the domineering husband to Gina Alajar's tormented provincial wife in Laurice Guillen's Salome (1981) is a fearsome monster, a character created from the suffocating patriarchal society. Delgado, however, opens cracks of humanity and vulnerability to the seemingly impenetrable exterior of Macario, and from there, we are advised of a connection to the character. As one of the rapists in Lino Brocka's revenge thriller Angela Markado (Angela the Marked One, 1980), Delgado is unrelenting and horrific, unwavering in representing the unapologetic excesses of a male-dominated society. In Mike de Leon's Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Will Your Heart Beat Faster?, 1980), he decidedly turns a character fashioned from stereotype into a comic artifact, convincingly inflicting into the character of the grandmaster of a Japanese smuggling group with as much ridiculousness and absurdness. With his daunting frame and his expressive face, Delgado is best suited to be the quintessential macho man, portraying cruel husbands, sexual predators, crime bosses, and strict fathers with much ease and efficiency.

Gifted with both Delgado the innate physical attributes of an actor and talent, it is not surprising that he has acted for the Philippines' best filmmakers: Banaue (1975) for Gerry de Leon; Aguila (Eagle, 1980) for Eddie Romero, Init (Heat, 1979), Jaguar (1979) and Angela Markado for Lino Brocka; Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, Alpha Kappa Omega Batch '81 (1982), and Aliwan Paradise (1992) for Mike De Leon, Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan (The Legend of Julian Makabayan, 1979) for Celso Ad. Castillo; Brutal (1980) and Baby Tsina (1984) for Marilou Diaz-Abaya; Salome (1981), Tanging Yaman (A Change of Heart, 2000), and Santa-Santita (2004) for Guillen; and Balweg (1986) for Tikoy Aguiluz and Butch Perez. However, unfortunate as it may seem, Delgado is most popular for the roles he portrayed in the many recent blockbusters. Despite the lack of cinematic depth of these features, Delgado would often make most of the role, infusing an undeniable dramatic energy, an indefensible comic timing, or an integral fearsomeness to turn these meager features into watchable showcases of acting prowess. His serial killer in Cesar Montano's lackluster Ligalig (Anxiety, 2006) is a frightening. His mob boss in Mario Cornejo's First Day High (2006) is utterly fun to watch. His imposing fathers in Brillante Mendoza's gorgeously shot family drama Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006) and Rory Quintos' syrupy romance Kailangan Kita (I Need You, 2002) are so formidable that even without him onscreen, you can always feel his lingering presence. His doting father in Cathy Garcia-Molina's underwhelming You Got Me! (2007), on the other hand, is sweet, tender and in parts, quite humorous.

With the variety of roles that Delgado has played, one would expect the man to also be imposing and intimidating. However, based from the reactions and stories of his immediate family, his friends, and the many mourners who have shared little moments (I have been introduced to Delgado after the birthday concert of classical soprano Ana Feleo, Delgado's eldest daughter, and he appeared to me a very gentle man, very generous to share his smile even to people he barely knew. It is the exact opposite of the several characters that have rattled and daunted me throughout my existence as a Filipino film-consuming mortal), it appears that the actor is very well-loved and that his passing is not only a loss to the Philippine cinema which he has dedicated his life to, but also to the lives of the many people he has affected through the roles he has breathed life to and the life he has lived with much passion, dignity, and humility.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Wanted: Border (2009)

Wanted: Border (Ray Gibraltar, 2009)

Various snippets of what is to come, accompanied by a midi version of one of Johann Sebastian Bach's compositions, opens Ray Gibraltar's mysterious yet powerful Wanted: Border. The snippets, edited together in a seemingly random manner, will initially not make sense. We can hardly grasped how these sequences would fit: an old woman and her mute assistant inside their popular eatery; an obese woman running towards nowhere; the ominous facade of a centuries-old church; the same old woman being confronted by a God who is donning a fancy Hawaiian shirt and has an appetite for the old woman's mysterious soups; a drugged filmmaker dazed by pornography; and voracious sex. While the images flashing onscreen are hardly consistent with the glorious movements of Bach's religious music, it is the manner in which the music is played, with the dubious sounds of a computer that pretends to be a cathedral organ hitting the notes with both the precision only a machine can provide and the soullessness that comes with it, that creates an unsettling effect, a mood that incites suspicion of what is to come.

The nebulous plot of Wanted: Border revolves around the boarding house-cum-eatery owned and operated by Mama Saleng (Rosanna Roces). Not known to the many customers of the eatery, the sumptuous meat soup that Saleng serves is actually made from the boarders she occasionally murders. This is a practice she has developed through the years, from her traumatic childhood where she and her mother were accused of being ghouls by the townsfolk, to her experience as the girlfriend of a sadistic military man who has grown a craving for soup crafted from his tortured captives' flesh, to the present, where her untraditional cooking method is routinely done with the supposed blessing of the God (Publio Briones) she imagines. She is undoubtedly a monster, lacking the conscience that drives ordinary human beings to the socially-accepted moral standard but fueled by an obsession with her skewed devotion to a mutated mission of cleansing the world of sinners and lost souls. These sinners and lost souls include an obese neighbor (Sunshine Teodoro) whose unstoppable appetite leads her to an unexpected discovery, a documentary filmmaker (AJ Aurello) whose obsession with his art has become synonymous with his obsession for drug-derived pleasures, and a beautiful college student (Marisol Alquizar) who seeks to escape the clutches of her horny stepfather (Dennis Ascalon).

Gibraltar's dark fable may be described as sacrilegious, considering that it utilizes Catholic symbols and traditions to indict Filipinos of their boundless obsessions with almost everything, whether it be food, drugs, sex, or religion. The film's host of unlikable and obsessed characters seemingly drift in a world that is bereft of a higher being, where the only factor that controls each and every decision is a never satisfied desire that stems from an unhindered id. This makes Saleng, despite her murderous and anarchistic lifestyle, an unconventional messiah: persecuted as a child, called upon to serve, and ultimately sacrifices herself to end humanity circuitous path to violence. Roces, one of the Philippines' most popular actresses during the nineties because of her bold turns as seductresses in the decade's popular but usually forgettable titillating fare, gives the otherwise fearsome Saleng a bewitching gleam, turning her cat-like gesture of gracelessly grazing her chin with the backside of her hands into a peculiar yet beguiling mannerism, adding an erotic charge to her repulsive practice of espousing cannibalism. This is undoubtedly Roces' most captivating role to date, where what is conventionally considered as "bad acting" has granted the character a malevolence that is entertaining and intriguing to behold. Her random recitations of Jesus Christ's seven last words, declaimed with the suddenness and irreverence that do not befit the religious importance of the utterances, mirror the contorted piety and fixation that Saleng represents.

When Timawa Meets Delgado (2007), Gibraltar's hilarious yet poignant feature on the sudden spike in nursing students in the Philippines, is not just a document on the phenomenon. As the film progresses to detail the extraordinary decisions that are made to arrive at employment opportunities abroad (artists abandoning their craft to study nursing, professionals taking nursing as their second or third course, children being indoctrinated to want to take up nursing for college for the opportunity to earn dollars abroad), Gibraltar subtly pinpoints the alarming malady, the undeniable obsession Filipinos have for migrating out of the country to search for better opportunities in other countries, that gives rise to these momentary social fads and patterns. Gibraltar eschews subtlety for overtness in Wanted: Border. Laced with bleak humor, manifest symbolisms, direct affronts to a collective Filipino religiousness, the film wastes no time in puncturing what needs to be punctured, penetrating what needs to be penetrated, and exposing what needs to be exposed. In all its supposed blasphemy, contemptuous comedy, and a host of characters that are all blatant stereotypes and archetypes, fashioned with the theories of Sigmund Freud and the most repulsive of Filipino exaggerations in mind, the film offends because it simply must.

The film's striking last scene, a long take that starts with a bastardized Pieta (with Saleng in the arms of her decrepit assistant (Kristoffer Grabato), who seems to have inherited her cat-like mannerism) before zooming out extensively, passing through layers of gates, and ends with the famous tableau as a mere speck in the frame, is a faint spark of optimism and sanity in a world of unadulterated madness and amorality, minutely suggestive of a probable end to the illicit affairs and the abominable atrocities that happen behind closed doors. Gibraltar, with all the farcical cynicism he injects in his works, always has a hopeful stance in the midst of what possibly is a hopeless scenario. In When Timawa Meets Delgado, Gibraltar concludes the film with a sudden change in perspective, thus putting back the dignity of the nursing profession that is unavoidably snatched by the country's thirst for escaping the country's inherent poverty and restoring balance in a society plagued by an extraneous obsession. In Wanted: Border, Gibraltar manifests the same, although slightly muted, statement; that the solution to the ills that characterize Filipinos as a people is not the maintenance of a hypocritical outlook on life and blind reliance on empty religion for salvation or facile fantasies and addictions for pleasure and happiness but the conscious decision to simply kill the source and end the cycle.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Karaoke (2009)

Karaoke (Chris Chong, 2009)

Midway through Chris Chong's languid chronicling of a young man's homecoming, something unexpected happens. As Betik (Zahiril Adzim), a recent college graduate from Kuala Lumpur who suddenly returns to his village to help her reluctant mother tend to the karaoke bar his father left her mother, walks through perfectly lined rows of palm trees, he gets lost. The film, for around ten minutes, steps away from the narrative and meanders to expose hectares of palm trees, all perfectly lined to make the most efficient use of the earth, before pursuing the nearby oil processing plant, where tons and tons of palm lumber are being hauled by a combination of gargantuan machines and workers into conveyor belts, furnaces, dumps, and trucks, for whatever purpose. The sequence ends in a light note, with a farmer asking the security guard if his goats can graze in the soccer field while the students are away; a joke that is so subtle yet so humorous in its acidic irony.

Urban alienation has been a consistent theme in Asian cinema during the past couple of decades. The alienation depicted in these films (like Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), Tsai Ming-liang's What Time is It There? (2001), Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and The Wayward Cloud (2005), Hou Hsiao-hsien's Millennium Mambo (2001) and Cafe Lumiere (2003), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (Pulse, 2001) and Bright Future (2003)) is not so much as people do not belong to their adopted surroundings but that the consequences of the abundances of the lifestyle have turned these urban dwellers into inert beings, absent of any particular identity and have become lonesome creatures whose ideas of connection are limited to momentary glances, a hand slightly grazing a loose fabric or unraveled skin, maybe some passionless lovemaking, and at most, ambitions of intense affection shared between the two lovers that are brewed and exclusively existing inside their minds. This cinema of alienated individuals is perhaps a reaction to the continuous progress in Asia, predominantly in its large yet crowded urban centers where the proximity of people with each other have become incongruent to their capacity to relate. With the region's cities imploding as a result of the unnatural pace of economic and population growth, it is inevitable that progress and the consequences that accompany it to seep into the rural areas. Cinema has served its purpose of documenting its aftereffects. Films like Jia Zhangke's Still Life (2006) and Dennis Marasigan's Tukso (Temptation, 2007) have tackled the repercussions of this counter-migration and the encroaching of progress into the countryside, often exposing the ills of development in terms of moral, physical and cultural degradation.

Karaoke belongs to this cinematic movement. Chris Chong's first feature film however is never didactic. While it visualizes the artificiality of the hectares of man-made forest, the industry, the perks of such industry (schools, fields, employment), he never does more than alarm with the power of his images. Emphasized with a clarity and confidence that is particularly astounding for even the more experienced directors, the numbing disconnect between Betik and his palpable surroundings lingers, providing a certain degree of unease to Chong's relaxed aesthetic. In one scene, Betik readies himself for bed; his makeshift bedroom is connected to that of his mother (Mislina Mustaffa). He peeks at his mother, his eyes mirroring a desire to connect. The mother, on the other hand, continues her nightly routine, sees her son shyly communicating through his gaze, and rejects his efforts, completely separating himself from her son with a curtain. Chong observes a family whose members, as we learn later was temporarily separated from each other, have become so far removed from each other that gestures and conversations have to be timed and designed. The scene, which lasts a little less than ten minutes, is completely wordless but the information derived, from the conflicting emotions, the mysteriousness of the disconnect, the discomforting distance amidst their physical and relational closeness, is tremendous.

Various songs about love and religious faith are played in the karaoke bar. For the love songs, lovers are shown walking in picturesque locales backgrounded by lush greens or vibrant sunsets. For the religious songs, garbed men are shown singing and dancing in admirable unison. As Chong removes the focus from the kitschy videos and into the karaoke bar patrons, he breaks the illusions he momentarily concocted. From the love song and its gorgeous lovers, he then shows Betik, sitting alone and pleading to his erstwhile love interest to give him another chance at romance over the phone. From the religious song and its synchronized devout worshipers, he then displays a group of intoxicated patrons lazily wasting the night after a long day at work. There is a gargantuan gap between the life these people live and the life that they wish they could live. That these images of perfect living intertwine with a pastime that serves as a convenient and cheap avenue for escape from the hardships of living only emphasizes these illusions as part of reality, a nagging reminder of how imperfect and unsatisfactory everything else is. This is probably the impetus for unhindered development, which only furthers the gap of what was and what is, with people like Betik fantasizing about retreating to an abandoned life only to discover something entirely different, something completely foreign to him.

Betik takes a job as a model for the karaoke videos. This allows us a glimpse of the mundaneness of the production, where a ragtag crew of videographers shoot their paid models to act out the uncomplicated emotions of the songs that they are making videos of. The final few minutes of Karaoke features Betik in close up. His face is backgrounded by the calm blue sky; he seems to be in a state of contemplation as the events the happened before require that kind of meditation as he is left alone, without his mother or a loved one, in a village that he is no longer familiar with. The silence is broken by spoken directions, urging Betik to smile a bit, to move his face a little to the left, to look happy, and he follows. The ending is both funny and poignant; funny because it caps the film's central theme of film as illusion, where audiences are led to believe a certain thing only to find out that emotions are manufactured, stories are fabricated, and cinema is not real life; poignant because notwithstanding Chong's insistence on playing around with cinema as both a tool for illusion and as a tool for purging this illusion, he creates a character so real, with conflicts so palpable, that it is impossible not to feel for the utter pointlessness of his existence when his wordless soliloquy ends and we are brought back to our own respective realities.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Tulpan (2008)

Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy, 2008)

Set in the steppes of Kazakhstan, Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan details the efforts of Asa (Askat Kuchinchirekov), a young man who is relieved from his navy duty and is now living with his sister and her husband, to find a wife, and in turn, earn his flock of sheep and be a step closer to his dreams (as drawn under his navy uniform's collar; a tradition done among sailors, we are told). However, Tulpan, the only girl available for marriage within miles, does not like Asa, despite his tall tales of wrestling with octopuses and his gift of an ornament bought from one of his travels. Persistent in convincing Tulpan to marry him so that they can start their dreams, he ventures the distance to the girl's home, only to be rebuked over and over again by his most elusive prize. Asa's story however seems secondary to the palpable world the film depicts with verity usually reserved for documentaries.

The world of Tulpan is all dust and dull, that the navy blue of Asa's uniform becomes alien. Parading through the desert in a rundown tractor with a cover of The Rivers of Babylon playing in the background, Dvortsevoy's camera starts off with Asa, jubilant after what he thinks is a successful attempt to woo Tulpan. The camera slowly and painfully shifts its attention to survey the area, inflicting the irony of the reggae song that serves as soundtrack to this particular visual (the song was first used in Perry Henzell's The Harder They Come (1972), set in ocean-bound Jamaica, as opposed to the Tulpan's dry deserts). The endless sun-baked light brown of the film's setting becomes more suffocating especially when the news that Asa is to remains bride-less as Tulpan, whose only interaction with Asa is a shared short glance, according to her stern parents, does not fancy him (she thinks his ears are too big), is told with immense frustration by Ondas (Ondas Besikbasov), Asa's brother-in-law. The island music stops. The smiles are erased. Reality sinks in. There are no more prospects for Asa within miles of desolation.

Perhaps the most interesting thing Dvortsevoy commits in Tulpan is distance, that kilometers of utter nothingness separates people from each other, how it is very real and as a result, forces people to be alienated, how people actually adapt despite how debilitating it is, how it becomes both a struggle and a relief. As Dvortsevoy visualizes the hazards of the film's environs (inevitable dust storms; a tornado in the middle of the desert) and the creatures (a horde of marching camels; a flock of frazzled sheep; a mother camel chasing the veterinarian on his motorbike with an injured baby camel on the sidecar) thriving against the inhospitable terrain, the human element becomes a very pressing concern, and the few instances, mere gestures if taken within the grand portrait of desert life that Dvortsevoy paints, where he allows his characters to feel and live with the vast distance from everywhere else are priceless moments in cinema: scattered candies on the ground are picked up one by one as if they were gold; news on the government's program is heard only from the transistor radio by Ondas' son, and re-broadcasted to the family over dinner; a veterinarian takes days to check on the sheep whose young are born dead.

Dvortsevoy has a knack for ironic humor: The Rivers of Babylon as soundtrack to the desert; the pet turtle in the arid landscape; and the countless pictures of naked women in various compromising positions inside the tractor of Boni (Tulepbergen Baisakalov) in a region where women are scarce; the government's plans of being economically sound by 2020 when as of present, a portion of their population only has access to them through broken radio signals. The humor enunciates the verve against the humdrum proceedings, the subtle indications of governmental daydreaming against the overpowering effect of nature to these nomadic people, the lingering need for a woman's affection against the barrenness of everything else. More than the humor are the pervading themes that are fleshed out from the tender moments that are told under the backdrop of the sprawling landscape. Notwithstanding the immense distance that separates the characters from everywhere else, the often banal and seldom dramatic aspects of these people's lives are depicted with an immediacy and intimacy that is quite affecting. In the film's decisive moment, where Asa, after giving up on his dreams to have his own herd of sheep, walks alone in the desert and finds a sheep struggling to give birth to its baby, Dvortsevoy finally unites his stubborn depiction of the dormant dominance of nature and the story-driven plight of Asa.

The film seamlessly marries elements that seem contradictory: alienation and affection; ambition and actuality; the infiniteness of nature and the finiteness of men; reality and fiction; and documentary and drama. As a result, Tulpan is a grandiose document of these persisting ironies resulting from humanity's continuous relationship with the earth, told in simple yet effective strokes but enough to fill a canvass as expansive as the desert.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Echo (2008)

The Echo (Yam Laranas, 2008)

My biggest gripe with regards to remakes, whether they are Hollywood remakes of Asian films or the other way around, is that I simply cannot fathom the unpalatable wastage of both talent and money that is used to merely translate what supposedly is a universal narrative to suit cultural smugness. The once-lucrative business of remaking Asian horror films, those quiet and atmospheric thrillers produced and released in Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and Thailand that usually feature long-haired spooks killing people through curses (best examples of which like Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998), Kairo (Pulse, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001) and Shutter (Banjong Pisanthanakun & Parkpoom Wongpoom, 2004) are often reflections of the malaise of our consistently modern world) into Hollywood blockbusters, more often than not transporting the subject matter of the horror to suit the American landscape (with the exception of the remake to Takashi Shimizu's The Grudge (2004), where he has American expatriates being chased by Japanese ghosts in Tokyo) have produced a number of embarrassing duds. Predictably, the fad has come to its well-deserved rest. This leaves some remakes that were mounted during the tail-end of the fad without any public interest, consequently lessening its commercial viability.

Yam Laranas' The Echo, the Hollywood remake of his own Sigaw (The Echo, 2004), is sadly one of the victims of the dissipation of the fad. Instead of getting a proper run at the theaters, it was released directly to video, except in a few territories where it got a festival run or a few weeks at the theaters. It's a shame. While admittedly problematic, The Echo, assessed independently of its clever source material, is a tautly made ghost story. Laranas, a cinematographer before he ventured on directing (his masterful cinematography for Raymond Red's mysteriously enigmatic Bayani (Heroes, 1992) created for the film an atmosphere of endless possibilities within Red's alternate history milieu), manages to sustain prolonged moments of silence through an assured control of the visuals. The camera (through the film's cinematographer Matthew Irving) wafts through the hallways of the ancient apartment building, observant of each and every curiosity, from its peculiar denizens to its discomforting emptiness, that adds personality to the structure. The story unfolds at a turtle-speed pace; as if nothing is happening until the film's prolonged reliance on sullen mood and atmosphere gives way to a culminating series of shocks, chills, and panic.

Screenwriters Eric Bernt and Shintaro Shimosawa updates the screenplay of Laranas and Roy Iglesias to suit the alienating ambience of New York City. Instead of the newly independent twenty-something (played with matinée idol efficiency by Richard Gutierrez) who purchases the haunted apartment for very cheap, a paroled ex-convict (Jesse Bradford) who returns to the apartment of his mother, whom he abandoned for several years and has died mysteriously, only to be bothered by strange sounds and apparitions. It is quite an interesting update. Bradford's ex-convict is a pathetic character. Plucked from the penitentiary where he spent several years without any contact from the outside world and into the big city, he struggles to regain the life he lost when he accidentally killed a man who harassed his then-girlfriend (Amelia Warner). Just when he manages to get his act together (he lands a job in a car repair shop and somewhat wins his ex-girlfriend back), the haunting reaches a severity that becomes more threatening than occasional screeches and scratches from the apartment next door.

The machinations that lead to the character's fate of being inescapably guilt-ridden is a reminder of the web that inevitably connects all humanity despite our conscious efforts to disassociate; we are essentially bound by the evil that we create and choose to ignore. Where Sigaw was more intimate in its horror, with the ghost choosing to haunt through timelines because of a single individual's indifference (a character from the past that was thankfully completely scrapped out of the remake) to another person's pleas for help, The Echo chose to expand its horrors and becomes accusatory of humanity's inherent capacity for indifference, probably brought about by an alarming level of callousness to evil. Although preachy as placed during the film's revelatory stage, the witness from the building across talks of this undoubted connection between each and every one of us and despite that, the greatest sin this connectivity, especially in a city where people's dwellings are usually separated only by walls, is that humanity has developed a capacity to merely watch, stay connected, without choosing to get involved, probably out of fear, or worse, a general lack of concern.

The film's expansion to indict all of humanity for the sins of the murderously violent husband (Kevin Durand) against his poor wife (Iza Calzado) and kid (Jamie Bloch) seems to have given the ghosts a reason to harm and kill people, an update I thought was only done only to satisfy the requisites of the genre but did not really improve the film (except for certain exceptional scare pieces). It is more unsettling that the ghosts are just there, reminding the people they choose to haunt that they exist, and in turn, turning these people's lives into palpable nightmares (in Sigaw, the couple decides to just escape by watching a movie but even inside the comforting confines of the theater, where everyone else is enjoying themselves, they remain haunted). The several deaths become an excess, completely unnecessary because it pulls us away from the drama of the ex-convict whose life problems are only enunciated by the hauntings. Nevertheless, The Echo, with its sad fate of being lumped together with films that its producers deem unworthy to receive a chance at the box office, is actually quite good.

To Kill a Myna Bird

To Kill a Myna Bird
Musings and Realizations Triggered by a Lackluster Staging of Spring Awakening
by Francis Joseph Cruz

My not so spring awakening happened when the screeches of a bird pushed me out of a dream I can no longer remember today. My mother was very proud of her new purchase: a black and awkward-looking fowl looking deeply miserable inside its cheap cage. Later, I would learn that the bird is the mythical myna bird; the bird that my mother used to tell me about, the bird with the ability to talk, even better than the common parrot. It never talked despite the several hours my mother spent persistently teaching it, carefully pronouncing each syllable of “magandang umaga” while the clueless bird stared at her blankly before proceeding to chirp its horrendously ugly chirp. After a few weeks, the bird mysteriously died, probably strangled by my mother out of frustration for denying her the pleasure of proving the mythical qualities of the myna bird.

Ever so persistent in proving her point, my mother brought us to a zoo that housed these myna birds. I admit, my interest for the bird, while dwindling because of the disappointment our erstwhile pet inflicted on me, was rekindled. There was a crowd outside the bird’s cage and several children were happily laughing as a strange screechy voice shouted insult after insult. I joined the mob, elated at first by the proficiency of this bird to mimic human speech. After a few minutes, my elation transformed into utter boredom, realizing that all the bird can say is “pangit ka,” and no matter how hard I try to hurl an insult back, no matter how emotionally charged my playful insults were or how teary-eyed I was while shouting the insults to the black bird, it can never ever throw me back a witty retort. In that little space in the zoo, I knew that I am still the master of human speech and no bird, not even that myna bird with its legendary speech skills, can take that place away from me.

I was ten then. Lea Salonga has just won the coveted Tony Award for her turn as Kim in Miss Saigon. The national attention to Salonga’s win, reminiscent of the many successes our musical artists have been reaping in the international scene, turned me into a Broadway freak, devouring every thing that came out of Broadway that reached my cassette player, from the semi-sacrilegious rock anthems of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar to the melodramatic reworking of La Pucini, Jonathan Larson’s Rent. Thankfully, I had outgrown my craving for these musicals. Sure, I still have the melodies and lyrics of Not While I’m Around from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in my mind, but they’re safely hidden there, only awaken when it’s time to show off in the confines of a rented room in one of Makati’s KTV bars. Inevitably, I neglected everything that was created post-Rent and I turned out to be okay, with no ludicrous ambitions of making it in Broadway.

I did make it to Broadway, nearly a decade after I ended my love affair with musical theater. I was there not as a dreamer but as a tourist, and as any tourist would do, I scavenged for the cheapest tickets to any Broadway show that was performing. Aside from the restagings of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and the stagings of Disney’s popular cartoons The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, Broadway felt different, with titles I haven’t heard of. One of the titles I took a gamble on is Spring Awakening, which was proudly advertising its success at the Tony Awards. So there I was, with a New Yorker friend who was treating me to a show, entering the great unknown, revisiting the past I have completely forgotten, and admittedly, enjoying it.

Spring Awakening tackles an issue that might have been taboo in 1891, when Frank Wedekind wrote the play from which the musical would be based on, but is cliché during these modern times, when teenagers would have been sexually awakened at a very early age through the miraculous doings of modern media. The musical, like almost every other piece of literature or cinema that tackled the theme of sexual awakening against the backdrop of adult-caused repression, is unbearably angst-ridden, with its characters singing or declaiming invectives against the authorities they deem unfair. Despite the overwrought material, the musical bore an indubitable saving grace: the musical numbers that erupt out of the uneven narrative, transporting the characters from their period designations into what essentially are anachronistic subconscious musings, as characterized by a modern vocabulary and the charming ditties composed by Duncan Sheik. While I enjoyed the show tremendously while watching it, I’ve completely forgotten about it until news came out that the musical was to be staged in Manila by Atlantis Productions, the same group that brought Rent, Avenue Q, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to Manila.

Sadly, the local staging of Spring Awakening feels hugely inadequate. My utter disappointment for the local staging is grounded not on the numerous bum notes that mutated Sheik’s rousing melodies (the major culprits here were Miguel Mendoza and JC Santos, who played piano teacher-fantasizing Georg and onstage masturbating Hanschen, respectively) or the consistently inconsistent energy levels that jar the supposedly seamless transitions from scene to scene, or the generally lackluster performances (again, Mendoza, and to a certain degree, Nicco Manalo, who cannot seem to comprehend the debilitating torment his character Moritz has and therefore resorts to mere copycatting of gestures and vocal intonations of the actor who originally played the character, are the culprits here), but on the consequent wastage that these productions carry with them as they are negotiated, imported, mounted, and publicized. My proposition seems to be an unfair one, especially for the thousands of theater lovers who crave for having a piece of Broadway or West End in Metro Manila, but the proposition, under the understanding that we are a nation that is struggling with a cultural identity that is slowly but surely being dissipated by post-colonial imperialism, is sound.

However, the unfortunate local staging of Spring Awakening allowed me to realize certain matters. During my hiatus from Broadway adoration, I was able to watch several local productions that while flawed, are all products of an independent creative energy. Just recently, Dulaang U.P.’s Atang, about a movie actress who attempts to get to know the legendary Atang dela Rama for a biopic on the National Artist, bowed down to resounding praise from both its audience and theater critics. Tanghalang Ateneo, on the other hand, has staged several of William Shakespeare’s famous plays, most of which are translated to the local vernacular and the most impressive of which are completely reimagined to fit the local culture. In 2004-2005, the same university-based theater group staged JB Capino’s Lam-ang, a cleverly staged musical that transformed the Ilocano epic into a romantic tale of faith, love, and waiting. Tanghalang Pilipino’s Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah, on the other hand, moved both homosexual and heterosexual theater goers to laughter and tears. There is just so much talent in the Philippines, so much material that have remained unstaged or unwritten because of lack of attention or lack of funding, that a local staging of a hugely popular Broadway play, only to be misconstrued, misunderstood, or even ignored because of the cultural gaps that remain unremedied and unadapted because of the strict codes and regulations that have to be followed by Atlantis Productions to be allowed to stage the Broadway musical in these shores, is just wrong.

It is saddening, really. Directors become mere supervisors. Actors resort to mimicry. Undoubtedly, there is talent onstage and offstage but when the material fails to reach you because of an impenetrable sheen of cultural disconnect, you can’t help but wish that these actors just break their obviously fake accents and manufactured gestures and just interpret their characters the way they have lived their own experiences with sexual repression or wish that director Chari Arespacochaga had more guts to actually direct instead of getting directions via email, phone calls, or the strict stipulations of whatever licensing agreement that was signed between Atlantis Productions and the owners of Spring Awakening. You seriously wonder if there is artistry or any independent thought in the production, and doubt whatever notion of creative sincerity in the musical since this opulent drivel can never be representative of Philippine theater. At most, it is purely entertainment whose successes in entertaining its audiences can be argued and refuted, but whose motivation for profit is indubitable. In the end, you cannot help but ask, are they artists or are they mere myna birds?

(First Published in Philippine Free Press, 31 October 2009)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Biyaheng Lupa (2009)

Biyaheng Lupa (Armando Lao, 2009)
English Title: Soliloquy

Other than Lav Diaz, whose Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001) has become a beacon of artistic integrity and independence in the midst of a failing mainstream cinema (its running length of 5 hours makes it a chore to watch for an audience who have been fed with Hollywood films and their local variations; its powerful themes make it even more difficult for an audience who have been trained to view cinema as a tool for escape), Armando Lao can arguably be referred as one of the figureheads of the current Philippine cinema. Understanding the budgetary limitations of filmmaking in the country (a lesson painfully learned while shooting Jeffrey Jeturian's Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004), which required more money the producer was not able to recover), he devised a screenwriting manual called "real-time" that allowed several filmmakers to make films from the use of available technology and very meager resources. Probably the most famous of these "real-time" practitioners is Brillante Mendoza whose Serbis (Service, 2008) and Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), both of which were written by Lao, competed in Cannes, the latter earning Mendoza a Best Director prize from the prestigious film festival. Other "real-time" directors include Jim Libiran (Tribu (2007)), Jeffrey Jeturian (Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2005)), Francis Xavier Pasion (Jay (2008)) and Ralston Jover (Bakal Boys (Children Metal Divers, 2009) and writer of Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Foster Child (2007) and Tirador (Slingshot, 2007)). Lao, however, is more than just a screenwriter as his scripts are written with directorial vision. Instead of merely constructing the narrative and characters and leaving the rest of the creative process to the director, Lao immerses into the entire filmmaking process, stamping each and every one of the films which he had a part in with auteurial integrity.

Biyaheng Lupa (Soliloquy) is the first film where Lao attaches his name as director. The conceit is fascinating: passengers of a bus en route from Manila to Legazpi City are exposed through their thoughts, magically vocalized whenever the door closes turning the bus into a space that is insulated from the rest of the world. Despite the liberties Lao made with reality, he maintains an accurate grasp of the process of bus travel: the noticeable eccentricities of each and every stranger you are forced to breathe the same enclosed air with, the momentary connections made through shared glances, baseless annoyances with each other and the isolated idle chatter, the torturous passing of empty time, and the occasional roadblocks like a sudden flat tire or an unavoidable checkpoint. This deliberate attention to detail that encompasses not only the tangible elements but also the mood of the milieu has always been a trait of all of Lao's filmed scripts. The vast gap between the poor and the middle class in Jeturian's Pila-balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999), the underhanded exploitation of cinema in Jeturian's Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001), the transitory romances of the tourism industry in Minsan Pa, and the coinciding physical deterioration of a family-run movie theater and the moral depletion of the family running it in Serbis, these pervading concepts are adeptly translated into the screenplay, and eventually into the films, through the seemingly impertinent details and textures in the narrative that actually add more than color but thematic integrity to the filmed stories.

The conceit of immediately hearing the thoughts of the passengers of the Legazpi-bound bus is definitely fascinating. What starts out as merely an intriguing novelty transforms into an existential reference to the various characters, as their vocalized thoughts become the only vehicles for these characters to actually prevail in the world during that bus ride. Without the conceit, these passengers are completely deprived of a reason to exist within the narrative framework. It nearly feels like these characters are pleading to persist and matter in the world through Lao's graciousness to grant their hidden thoughts perpetuity through recorded sound. That even the deaf-mute character's thoughts partake the form of his voiceless means of communication; the fact that their thoughts are presented via the characters' own method of communication, complete with speech mannerisms and intonations, is a signifier that the aural manifestations of is much more than an ingenious writer's device but serves as the characters existence in the film. As their stories manifest through memories from the past and current contemplation, their histories and possible futures slowly unfold only to be abruptly terminated by the same conceit that gave them their existence.

The inevitable consequence of mounting a film that tells the stories of various characters who are only related to each other by circumstance is the inequity of quality or substance, which is of course, all a matter of taste. For example, for those who enjoy heavy-handed melodrama, the storyline of the deaf-mute (Carlo Guevarra) who escapes from his adoptive home to visit the grave of his real mother might prove to be emotionally resonant; I thought the character's storyline was superfluous and overextended. For those who require their stories spelled out in black and white, the storyline of the dissatisfied wife (Shamaine Buencamino) who takes her chances at a variety show only to end up with her fate unchanged might seem to have a difficultly ambiguous ending; I thought the scene where she alights from the bus, with all her thoughts suddenly silenced, and meets up with her husband, who she just mentally maligned, and walks home, with Lao's camera nervously lingering with the deafening silence, is one of the film's most powerful sequences. For those who are partial against preachy cinema, the vocalized thoughts of a retired court interpreter (Jose Almojuela) about the as he reaches his destination might be considered a distraction to the seamless flow of the film; I thought it was a moving juncture, one that is not only revelatory to one of the film's most guarded characters but also preparatory to the film's conclusion.

A concrete bridge, lighted and shot to maximize a sense of foreboding, breaks the comfort of formula. By film's end, we have become so accustomed to the cacophony of loud thoughts when the bus door closes and the unnerving silence when it opens that the phantasmagoric image of the bridge and the bus slowly entering the frame jars the film's staggered logic. The suddenness of the shift in aesthetic and mood allows for the unexpected termination of the remaining passengers' stories; the bus fell down a cliff, killing all of its passengers and consequently, all of their stories. It seems and probably is the easy way out for Lao's film, since the conceit has turned into a redundancy and therefore a liability, and the abundance of stories has resulted to predictability. Yet, it is also very understandable because Lao is after all, the writer, and as writer, he is god to the lives he chose to make stories out of, and just the same as the passengers who have alighted the bus and whose stories are no longer within the perspective of the film, everything must have an end. That is simply the nature of cinema. It is limited by the bounds of storytelling, and a good filmmaker, whether he is a writer, a director, or both, must make most of what exists within such bounds. With Biyaheng Lupa, Lao continues to prove to be a very good filmmaker.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Anacbanua (2009)

Anacbanua (Christopher Gozum, 2009)
English Title: Child of the Sun

Language functions primarily as a tool for communication. Thus, when roads and bridges were built to connect provinces, when ships and ports were constructed to connect islands, and when planes and airports were invented to connect continents, communication has turned into a worldwide commodity to the extent that the abundance of languages and dialects has turned into a hindrance to prosperity in this severely connected age. Several languages and dialects that have been rendered superfluous by this inevitable shift in perspective are forced to extinction. The native dialect of the province of Pangasinan, is one of the victims of this widespread epidemic. The dialect's native speakers, who naturally prioritize economic survival to cultural identity, homogenize with the rest of the country as a result of governmental policy in education, migration, assimilation and a general lack of interest by their younger generation.

However, language is not a mere tool. It emphasizes a cultural soul, a facet of an intertwined populace that connects them to the land, their history, their livelihood and themselves. The deliberate extinction of Pangalatok, a dialect that has evolved a vast literature throughout the centuries of its existence, is especially painful because along with it disappears a legacy, the thread that attaches a person with a proud people but has eventually been rendered into a mere facade, a regional label, a curiosity in the midst of a language that encroaches on virtually everything in the name of globalization.

Christopher Gozum's Anacbanua (Child of the Sun), advertised as the first full-length feature in Pangasinense dialect, does more than make use of the language to communicate dialogue in the service of a universal narrative. By making use of poems in Pangalatok, the film explores a cultural soul struggling with the demands of modernity, national integrity, and globalization. The film literally levitates from one setting to another, transporting the a man (Lowell Conales), a poet who returns from Saudi Arabia to Pangasinan to rediscover his roots, to different places in Pangasinan. Yet more than a mere travelogue of the vibrant locales and anthropological wonders of the province, the film essays a pervading melancholy attributable to the threatening loss. The breadth of emotions fluently evoked by Gozum in his mostly motionless tableaus is breathtaking, and the fact that there's economy to his filmmaking, making use of the essentials of cinema to a constant minimum (his aesthetics is deliberate and controlled; the music he uses is hypnotic; his storytelling is astoundingly astute, making use of seemingly distant although ravishingly beautiful sequences to tell a concrete message; his mix of documentary realism, aesthetic surrealism, purpose and advocacy is effective), stretches the possibilities of what the moving image can do.

Gozum, like his film's poet, struggles with the opposing needs of making himself financially viable (by taking a contractual job as a videographer in Saudi Arabia) and of creating pertinent culture (by making films that dictate this internal struggle). His short film Surreal Random MMS para kay ed Ina, Agui tan Kaamong ya Makaiiliw ed Sika: Gurgurlis ed Banua (Surreal Random MMS for a Mother, a Sister and a Wife Who Longs for You: Landscapes with Figures, 2008) makes use of a shocking images of a human eye being punctured with interspersed images of a foreign land captured from a cellular phone that were sent by the director to his loved ones in the Philippines to tell more of the numbing disconnect of a displaced Filipino than the landscapes he so evocatively captured using his meager resources. It is this duality in Gozum's artistic personality that makes his films unbelievably fascinating. Anacbanua, as it is, is a rousing statement on a dying language. With Gozum at its helm, the film becomes a different thing altogether. From the possibility of being an inert advocacy film, Anacbanua blossoms into a grandiose canvass that is painted with something as gargantuan as the loss of an entire cultural heritage to something as intimate and personal as the multi-layered confusion that is consuming him as an artist (while he is from Pangasinan, he is also a Filipino, a Filipino who is working in Saudi Arabia; these tiers of conflicting identities make his efforts more taxing and his film more resonant).

It really is a powerful film. Emotions whirlwind as Pangasinense poetry is recited granting unreserved depth to the different landscapes, the obscure livelihoods, the unraveled historical, cultural, and religious implications that are depicted with unnerving aesthetic assuredness. As the camera lingers extensively on the monochrome dioramas of supposed rituals of rebirth set in different locations, we are eventually drawn into the imagery, feeling the flowing waters of the Agno river wash away the dregs of cultural imperialism, smelling the refreshingly pungent aroma of fish fermenting to perfection, relaxing to the warmth of bricks baking in an ancient kiln, and numbing to the unbearable cries of pain of cattle being slaughtered mercilessly. This immersive experience punctures the wall that separates the recited poetry and the fascinating visuals, forcing the viewer to not only understand the recited words through their intended and literal meanings (as facilitated by the English subtitles), but also to regard these words as significant and indispensable components of a culture. Remove the poetry from the film, and the haunting imagery will inevitably lose its soul, beautiful to look at but flat and meaningless. Remove the language from the province, and an entire people, an entire culture will lose its identity, surviving as inutile labels of a neglected ancestry.