Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Thank You Girls (2008)

The Thank You Girls (Charliebebs Gohetia, 2008)

The Thank You Girls is obviously an editor's film. The story is absolutely simple. A group of professional gay pageant contestants who never actually win anything (referred to sarcastically as "thank you girls," in reference to the obligatory script a pageant host would throw to losing candidates as they flock out of stage), travel by jeepney, rickety from the years of use but beautified by its passengers' sheer creativity, from a losing stint in Davao City to Cagayan de Oro City, where they would try their luck in another pageant. Charliebebs Gohetia, the oftentimes incredible editor of some of Brillante Mendoza's films like Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Pantasya (Fantasy, 2007), Foster Child (2007) and Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), fractures the straightforward narrative, successfully turning the thank you girls' colorful roadtrip into something more profound: an observation on the repetitiousness of these characters' lives.

The traveling group consists of the following colorful personalities: Bernadette (July Jimenez), the boisterous kleptomaniac, Vanette (Kit Poliquit), the cantankerous prima dona, Macario (Kim Vergara), the hopelessly terrible singer, Allyson (Gie Salonga), the loveless queen who is hoping to meet his former love, a sexy starlet who is hosting the gay beauty pageant in Cagayan de Oro, and Paola (Pidot Villocino), the group's mother hen whose maternal skills are consistently challenged by his frisky son Chris (EJ Pantujan) and his wayward lover Carlos (Ari Bancale). Erupting from the unpredictable chemistry (a delightful product of putting together six drag queens in the cramped confines of a jeepney) are several nuggets of comedic genius (atop the jeepney, the pageant contestants practice their Q&A's, often ending with spectacularly spoken declarations that sound good but make no sense at all) and melodramatic twists and turns.
As it is, The Thank You Girls is a whole lot of fun.

Digging through the often humorous and sometimes touching spectacle, you arrive at a well-covered core that might escape the viewer who becomes too enthralled with the shallow delights of the girls' misadventures. Gohetia cuts the narrative, often repeating instances, dialogues, and events, to a certain degree, to guide the story to track a character's sideplot; but more importantly, and I presume, to drive a point.

Gohetia seems to be commenting on the predictability of his characters' lives: as they parrot the same motherhood statement in response to all pageant questions; as Bernadette attempts to pilfer a cellphone, only to be chased away; as Chris participates in anonymous sexual trysts in rest-stops and restaurants; as as they travel from one pageant to another, always to lose. As it turns out, the underlying melancholy that The Thank You Girls subtly assumes is something predictable as well: stories of parents violently treating their homosexual children; stories of hopelessly romantic gay lovers abused and exploited by their objects of affection; stories these drag queens share with the rest of the country, that persistent attempt to rise above poverty, by all means possible, whether it requires a roadtrip worth a thousand miles, meals composed of hundreds of hormone-changing pills, and finales resulting in endless insults, jeers, and sometimes, adulation.

It's a lovely picture: one that utilizes cinema's infatuation with the effeminate homosexual, without exploiting them. It is slightly reminiscent of Lino Brocka's Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (My Father, My Mother, 1978), where the incomparable Dolphy plays a cross-dressing surrogate father (he also dabbles in joining beauty pageants at night) to his former lover's child. Brocka masterfully utilizes Dolphy (who is famous for playing drag queens, most often, to comedic effect) to create a well-made melodrama that forcefully explores, by pitting a gay man with the duties of fatherhood, the painful divide that daunts the homosexual man. While The Thank You Girls is much more cheerful and seemingly impertinent, it nonetheless evokes the same pressing concern: that underneath the cheap make-up, the fake boobs, and the loud costumes, are men surviving through the inescapable redundancy of living.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bontoc Eulogy (1995)

Bontoc Eulogy (Marlon Fuentes, 1995)

Cinema thrives in illusions. Its existence is predicated on the ability to manipulate the limited capacities of the human eye to view still images sprinting in quickfire succession. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed cinema as "the most beautiful fraud in the world." While cinema largely owes its endurance as an artform to its ability to sustain that primordial lie, its purpose is magnified, ranging from unabashed escapism to poetic verity. Thus, Godard also claimed that "the Cinema is truth 24 frames per second."Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's rebuttal is much more accurate. Reconciling Godard's two inconsistent quotes, he said that "film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth."

Bontoc Eulogy, directed by Filipino-American filmmaker Marlon Fuentes, is a faux documentary about an Igorot warrior who was one of the 1102 tribal Filipinos sent to the 1904 St. Louis World Fair to be exhibited to America's curious masses. Bontoc Eulogy draws its inspiration and interest on historical events, but is cleverly crafted from facts, subtle half-truths, and downright obvious falsehoods. Archival videos and images, re-staged footage, soundbites, and other elements are stitched together to create a coherent whole, seamlessly operating like a real documentary. Yet, Fuentes' goal here is clearly not to deceive (unlike Peter Jackson in Forgotten Silver (1995), his most beautiful fraud ever). Instead, he uses that portion of history he refurbished as a springboard for his discussion on his own fractured identity as a Filipino (who, according to film critic Alexis Tioseco, left the Philippines for the United States and hasn't returned since for reasons only known to him).

Bontoc Eulogy is the unnamed narrator's investigation on the fate of Markod, the narrator's grandfather who was separated from his pregnant wife to join a torturous expedition to the St. Louis World Fair. The investigation leads to several points of interest, primarily to anthropologists and historians, as the gritty details of survival against the backdrop of very drastic changes in climate and culture is deliberately told in the fashion of a personal memoir, recorded by Markod and replayed by the narrator for the benefit of quenching his haunting curiosity of his roots. While fact and imagination mix to the point of the audience not knowing where fiction starts and where it ends, the film dutifully fulfills the most apparent of its goals: to provide ample light to a footnote in Philippine history, where Filipino men and women were exported around the world for the sole purpose of exposing their supposed primitivity, thus earning America the greenlight to colonize the Philippines, in the guise of gifting the archipelago with civilizationl; exploitation in the guise of benevolence.

To be satisfied and stop there would defeat the subtle artistry behind Bontoc Eulogy. While the film concentrates mostly with Markod's experiences during the St. Louis World Fair, it is also about the narrator's own dilemma as a Filipino uprooted from the motherland and in the brink of losing his identity, which in turn, is reflective of Fuentes' own situation. The narrator rationalizes, "to survive in this new land, we had to forget." Assimilation, the ability to combine cultural traits in the process of survival, not civilization, is America's gift to the Philippines, and the Philippines has maximized this gift, ultimately forgetting itself along the way. This is the narrator and Fuentes' dilemma, acknowledging that "we must remember in order to survive," not exactly as humans, but as Filipinos with an identity and culture to hold onto.

History repeats itself. The Philippines no longer exports its citizens to be displayed in world fairs and museums. The Philippines no longer needs salvation from what its colonizers refer to as savagery. The Philippines needs salvation from anything as broad as poverty and political turmoil or any pressing matter that would force a man to cut the cord that connects himself to his nation. We never become aware what drove the narrator (or Fuentes) away from the Philippines, but their emotional thirst for a reconnection to the motherland (or at the very least, a definite explanation as to his present scenario) fuels the picture, allowing for parallelisms between the narrator's predicament and Markod's eventual descent to cultural limbo. In Bontoc Eulogy, Fuentes adamantly searches for questions to answers he himself might not be aware of, and in turn, creates a film that seems to be the literal translation of Haneke's definition of cinema.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008)

It's easy to get swept away by one's curiosity of the unique condition of Benjamin Button (played by Brad Pitt who is apt for what essentially is an iconic role, giving the character the same visual presence he contributed to Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) as the infamous criminal) and that condition's repercussion to his life, particularly to his romance with Daisy (Cate Blanchett, who infuses the picture with incandescent humanity), his childhood friend. At first, David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems to be traversing the road most travelled, concerning itself primarily with the afflicted protagonist and his fated lover to the point of melodramatic tedium (like similarly themed films like Ron Howard's treacly A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Robert Zemeckis overpraised Forrest Gump (1994)). Fortunately, Fincher uses the intriguing premise just enough to reel us into his fascinatingly detailed world, which in my opinion, is far more curiouser and far more intriguing than Benjamin Button's fantastic aging process.

As soon as we're hypnotized by the painful complexities of Benjamin Button's bizarre life and romance, Fincher posits his weighty observations on the inevitability of time's passing and the quiet majesty of singular moments in the larger expanse of time. A moment can change a lifetime. This is something Fincher belabors when he narrates the little actions, mostly insignificant moments in a parcel of time that is shared by everyone in the universe, that led to Daisy's horrific accident. Daisy's accident would then lead to her humbling, and finally into Benjamin's arms, and then into a lifetime painfully shared in waiting and anticipating.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button covers the entirety of Benjamin's lifetime. It is a lifetime that is spent on waiting. Benjamin, along with the multitude of people he meets, are mere passive components of history. They enter and exit moments in history for the sole reason of time's eventual passing, inactively anticipating until history catches up with them: as with Benjamin's sojourn in Russia where years of tugboating are interrupted by the arrival of the Second World War, and months of quiet floating in sea are ended by an encounter with an enemy submarine.

On aspects of their lives that are much more personal and intimate, there really isn't much difference in the way moments punctuate what essentially are static lives. We watch Benjamin Button as he patiently waits
to grow young, for Daisy to love him, for death. We observe the people affected by Benjamin like Daisy biding her time, who grows from curious little girl to sexual creature to regretful mother; or Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the bored wife of a British spy, whose nightly vigils inside a Russian hotel transform into passionate nightcaps with Benjamin; or Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), Benjamin's reluctant father, as he watches from afar as Benjamin grows from aged baby to a handsome man.

Life is nothing more than that interval in time separated by birth and death, a commonality that is shared by all of humanity. Fincher visualizes the end of life's interval with such poetic tenderness: Benjamin and Thomas facing the sunrise as the latter passes away, or Daisy nursing a dying Benjamin, nestled comfortably on her arms. When Fincher only suggests death, the effect is equally tremendous: as with all the deaths in the nursing home, or the death of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), Benjamin's surrogate mother, or Daisy in a New Orleans hospital as the rest of the city is anticipating Katrina's historic landfall.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button overt interest with mortality merely reinforces Fincher's curiosity with time: the way it staggers (the feeling one gets sitting through Zodiac (1997), with its fruitless decades of investigation on the identity of the Zodiac killer), the way it is stubborn and unmindful of human emotions (the little story in the beginning of the film about the clockmaker who pleads for time to move in reverse, to save those who became its hapless victims), the way it never stops, not even for moments of perfection: when Daisy and Benjamin, aging in reverse, meet up in the middle, make love, and cherish that momentary bliss. Yet it has to end, as with everything. They will succumb to dementia, to the pangs of aging, and finally, to death. Similarly, the world will have to face both triumphs and disasters as part of history's unpredictable course. All humanity needs to do is wait for time to pass.