Friday, June 19, 2009

The Coffin (2008)

The Coffin (Ekechai Uekrongtham, 2008)

Ekechai Uekrongtham's The Coffin starts with a reporter narrating from inside a coffin. The camera zooms out from the enclosed space where the reporter is lying to reveal an impressive visual: thousands of coffins, all occupied by men and women, surround a statue of Buddha. An overwhelming buzz of prayers accompanies the visual, adding an otherworldly flavor to the sequence. The reporter narrates that in Thailand, thousands of men and women would flock to Buddhist temples to take part in a bizarre ritual where they would lie inside coffins to get rid of bad luck and cleanse themselves of problems and ailments. The strange ritual, as it turns out, has gained momentous popularity in these hard times. The basic rationale of the ritual is to fool fate or bad spirits into thinking that the participant has died; thus, giving him a clean slate, without all the accumulated bad karma, in his new life.

Uekrongtham mines into this rationale for his film's central conflict. His two main characters undergo the ritual to rid themselves of their respective misfortunes: Chris (Ananda Everingham) wishes that her Japanese girlfriend (Aki Shibuya) wakes up from her coma; Su (Karen Mok), who takes refuge in Bangkok a few days before her wedding to her beloved boyfriend (Andrew Lin), wishes that her lungs are cleared of cancer. True to the testimonials of those who went through the ritual, their prayers are answered. Chris' girlfriend wakes up from her coma while Su is completely healed of her cancer. Unfortunately, their good fortune does not come without a hefty price tag. Su's fiance dies of a car accident while Chris and her boyfriend are continuously haunted by the ghost of a mysterious woman. Fate cannot be fooled. The ritual only disrupts it, displacing the bad karma of the ritual's participants to the people they love.

The Coffin purports to be a horror film. Thus, littered throughout the film are sequences that are designed to scare. Some work, as when Chris is trapped inside the coffin and within the cramped and dark space that he is occupying, appears the token spectre. Most don't, as when Su is haunted by her dead fiance from the mirrors of the several closets. The Coffin musters tired horror tropes and techniques as ancient as Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) to satisfy the necessitated commercial aspirations of the film, making the effort a tad forced, if not totally inconsequential. For sure, Uekrongtham garners a few creepy moments here and there, but the overall effort is quite insignificant and redundant, especially considering that the faddish genre is currently in an extended stay in the cineplexes, sustained only by the few gems (like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's subversive Retribution (2006)) that appear every now and then.

Uekrongtham has mastered visualizing human emotions, considering the fact that his previous films Beautiful Boxer (2003), about a transexual boy forced by fate and circumstance into a manly sport and quite humorously, is good at it, and Pleasure Factory (2007), about the several denizens of the hidden red light district of Singapore, are all very human stories. You can somewhat observe his ease and comfort in emphasizing loss and guilt in The Coffin. There are several sublime moments that tend to release you from the unnecessary whittled tension that the several inserted horror sequences provide, as when Su wakes up to discover her fiance beside her, then discovering that her fiance has in fact died, and looks upon her fiance's ghost with an expression of discomforted pity and guilt. The film's denouement, where Chris reveals the mystery of the girl haunting him, is emotionally engaging, filmed with refreshing simplicity and restraint by Uekrongtham with just Chris and the ghost having an intimate conversation over a field of grass that was once the setting of a nightmare.

Had The Coffin been made as intended by Uekrongtham, an examination on death and loss, instead of the confused shapeshifter that it is now, it could have been something more memorable. Unfortunately, that's a prospect that we might never know. As it is, it is merely passable and harmless entertainment. The Coffin is something you momentarily enjoy before burying it the next day to be forgotten for the rest of your life.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Independencia (2009)

Independencia (Raya Martin, 2009)

On June 12, 1898, a group of self-proclaimed generals and their supporters declared independence for an archipelago who has been under Spanish rule for more than three centuries. Since then, the archipelago has been the colony of the Americans for more than four decades and the Japanese for around three years before being granted by the Americans who rescued the islands from the clutches of the Japanese with independence on July 4, 1946. In an effort to acknowledge the sacrifices of the revolutionaries who strove for freedom from the Spanish, the Philippine government transferred Independence day from July 4 back to June 12, notwithstanding the fact that the waving of the Philippine flag by the momentarily victorious generals was more symbolic than real, given the fact that at that moment, the Americans have bought the islands, along with Puerto Rico, from the Spanish as if it were real estate. Thus, it is not very surprising that the concept of independence has been nothing but an elusive euphamism for most Filipinos. It is easily mistaken for patriotism, love for country, or worse, radicalism. With more than a century since the Filipinos declared for themselves independence, can this nation truly consider itself independent?

Last June 12, 2009, Raya Martin came home from Cannes to screen his aptly titled film Independencia to his countrymen. Martin, who alongside several internationally acclaimed Filipino filmmakers like Lav Diaz (Melancholia (2008) and Kagadanan sa Banwaan Ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos (2007)) and Brillante Mendoza (Kinatay (Slaughtered, 2009) and Serbis (Service, 2008)) have been accused of making films for foreign audiences instead of his fellow Filipinos, is unrelenting in his art but nevertheless values truth above visual and narrative pleasures. Martin creates films about concepts that matter to him. He seeks to recreate a historic past that he, and most other Filipinos have been deprived of (Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional, 2005), where short film vignettes of ordinary Filipinos during times of peace and war; and Autohystoria (2007), where the murder of revolutionary Andres Bonifacio and his brother is reenacted as a contemporary tale of political salvage), or his own personal memories (Now Showing (2008), a film that is divided into two parts: the first part about a girl's whimsical childhood and the second part about the girl living out her life borne out of his joyous past as punctuated by a traumatic event that separates the two parts), or filmmaking (Next Attraction (2008), also a film that is divided into two parts: the first part is about a film crew making an independent production and the second part shows the film they made).

Independencia is largely composed of nuances and minute details. The story is simple. A mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and his son (Sid Lucero) retreat into the middle of the jungle as American troops start invading the towns. Mother and son lead an austere yet satisfying life away from civilization until the son finds a woman (Alessandra de Rossi), injured and presumably raped by the Americans. The mother dies of illness. The man and the woman, along with her son (Mika Aguilos) start living together peacefully in the middle of the jungle. There are no heroes, no resounding acts of patriotism, and no rousing marches or melodies. Perhaps the most conspicuous element of Independencia is the aesthetics that it borrows from early American talkies. Shot entirely inside a sound studio that is refashioned into a jungle with painted backgrounds, plants, birds, and other creatures and sound effects that realistically capture the atmosphere, the film is oftentimes breathtaking to look at, with cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie making use of artificial lighting to create haunting images that complement Lutgardo Labad's momentous score.

There's a reason behind Martin's use of borrowed aesthetics. As with Maicling Pelicula where Martin makes use of silent film aesthetics as reaction to a recorded history that is predominantly centered on the privileged instead of the masses, Independencia's aesthetics marks as both an indignation of the cinematic culture that the Philippines has been deprived of (either by ignorance or deplorable film archiving, given the fact that most pre-war Filipino films have been lost to decay) and a commentary on the hypnotizing and bamboozling effect of what seems to be America's most enduring gift to the Filipinos: the love for cinema. In the middle of Independencia, the film gives way to a fake news reel about a kid who was shot dead by an American soldier for pilfering crops from a vendor. Accompanied with humorous sarcasm and satire, the reel is nonetheless telling of the mis-education that the Americans have inflicted on the Filipinos, to the point that the latter is willing to digest the blatantly illogical and immoral to please their colonial masters.

Independencia tackles the concept of independence in its most unadulterated form, where both mother and son sacrifice the comforts of colonial living, of so-called civilization to live in the jungle. By stripping themselves of their colonial past, they become subjects of nature and the elements. Beliefs transform as pre-colonial lore, with passed-on tales of powerful talismans and golden skinned deities, become redundant conversational devotions. Their sexual impulses, left unhindered by concepts of religion and morality, occupy both their idle time and dreams. The familial unit remains. More than the familial unit are traces of their former lives made apparent in their subconscious thoughts: the mother dreams of an intense sexual encounter while the son dreams of fighting a war. Independence remains an elusive concept, even to a family who was forced to give up the comforts of colonial living and learned to love the mystic allure of the jungle. Tainted, perhaps forever, with foreign influence, death seems the inevitable freedom.

The pale-skinned boy, presumably the son of the woman with her American aggressors, is the lone character that is truly independent. Born in the jungle with only tales from his known father and mother as guidance to the world, the boy's curiosity expands as he grows older. The Americans are slowly making their way into the jungle. As the jungle becomes less of a haven for the family, their choices get slimmer. For the couple, the rationale of keeping themselves freed from colonial rule is blurred by the demands of the tough times as food is becoming more scarce and a devastating storm is brewing. For the boy, the allure of what's out there seems natural and understandable, considering that the color of his skin hardly matches the skin of both his mother and father. However, the boy chooses independence and sacrifices his life for it. Martin marks the boy's sacrifice with striking colors, meshing style and substance together in a sublime sequence of tremendous beauty and emotion.

According to this reviewer who had the pleasure of seeing Independencia in Cannes, Martin introduced the film to his audience with a wish that people would be able "to die for their country, and for cinema." Morbid as it sounds, Martin's wish proves to be a logical solution to a world where people have forgotten to be independent and cinema has forgotten its role as recorder of culture and history. If death is the only measure to gain this independence, then let us be brave enough to slit our own throats or force ourselves in exile, symbolically. Lest we actually know the pains and pleasures of living outside the mainstream, of living without the influences that mutate the virtues that bind us as human beings, then we cannot honestly consider ourselves truly independent.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)

The anatomical precision that recent torture-centered films like Eli Roth's Hostel (2005) or James Wan's Saw (2004) diligently indulges in has paved a way for a cinematic culture that equates realistic pain with commercial entertainment. Unlike the stylistic bodily inflictions that the crazed creative minds of renowned horror greats like Dario Argento, John Carpenter or David Cronenberg are known for, the present crop of torture porn flicks has none of the discipline, and none of the refreshing imaginative inflections that provide any semblance of dignity to the exercise in needless violence. With voyeurism and the subsequent delight of witnessing depravity inflicted on character-less human bodies as their primary concerns, the singularity of these films' reason for their existence gets redundant and obsolete.

Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, like Hostel and Saw, puts torture to the fore. The marked difference between Raimi's film and the indisputable junk that Hollywood has been and is still producing is that the recepient of the torture is a complete character with moral choices and suffers as repercussion of these choices, not the empty vessels of the recent torture flicks who only exist because of the available limbs that can be severed, blood that can be spilled, and eyeballs that can be gouched. Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), the subject of a wronged gypsy's merciless curse, is a loan officer whose professional career hinges on two things: the pleasure of his boss (David Paymer), and the defeat of her her brash competitor (Reggie Lee). In an effort to please her boss and outdo her officemate, she harshly turns down the pleas of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly gypsy who is asking for an extension to her loan to salvage her home from foreclosure. Her decision to override charity for her selfish ends has drastic results as she becomes the subject of the gypsy's curse that grants her three days of torment and anguish before being dragged into the fiery pits of hell.

Much of Raimi's film is concerned with the suffering Christine has to go through because of the gypsy's curse. Physical pain takes the backseat. The excrutiating pain of having one's limbs slowly mutilated is more imagined than real to most of us. Christine's suffering is much more recognizable: shame, embarrassment, discomfort, and being put in absurd situations where moral pillars are conveniently forgotten in the name of survival or gaining the upper hand. In a sense, Christine's fantastic scenario is hardly unrealistic at all. It partakes of a societal must in this capitalist world we find ourselves trapped in, where Darwin's theory is an inevitable law in a setting of inhumane rules and regulations overtaking the illogical considerations of human generosity and compassion. Yet, Raimi seems disinterested with these implications. Drag Me to Hell aims to only entertain, by pouring a bucketful of misfortunes on a beautiful but not entirely innocent woman of the world.

Drag Me to Hell succeeds because Raimi himself spares Christine not a single ounce of compassion. We root for her precisely because no one else does, and when she exposes a character defect, it doesn't make her less human and less rootable. She's alone and defenseless for the most part and while his ever-enamored boyfriend (Justin Long) provides a semblance of support in her battle against the fantastical and the unbelievable, his romance-fueled assistance proves to be inutile in the long run. Raimi cushions her torture with humor. Most of the violence here is cartoonic, with the physical abuses bearing more resemblance to the harmful escapades of Tom and Jerry rather than the one-sided exploitation of Roth or Wan's torture flicks. The psychological and mental anguish Christine carries for the most part is laced with outright silliness, as in the film's frivolous dinner scene where what Christine thought of as a perfect night turns into a nightmare with eyeballs appearing out of slices of cake and flies escaping out of coughing throats. In fact, Raimi seamlessly integrates humor with horror without sacrificing the efficacy of the well-staged shocks and scares.

Unburdened by the gargantuan task of committing the beloved Spider-man into celluloid, Raimi finally made a film that is reminiscent to the senseless yet hugely enjoyable romps (The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987), and Army of Darkness (1992)) he is most famous for, at least to those who have followed his career even before his involvement with the superhero flicks. Drag Me to Hell is simply loads of fun. It is guiltless in its portrayal of the extreme lengths a woman has to go through for sheer survival. The deliberate extinction of Christine's dignity (she spills blood, gets a healthy dose of formalin on her pretty mug, receives an old gypsy's fist on her mouth, and a whole lot more), the moral tests she both fails (pleading to the demon that her boss is to blame) and passes (where she chooses from the various customers of a local diner who deserve to be dragged into hell more than her), the sight gags, the unsubtle yet largely effective internal drama (Christine's successful battle with her weight), and a whole lot more, make for one of the most engrossing abberations of the year.