Friday, July 03, 2009

Villa Estrella (2009)

Villa Estrella (Rico Maria Ilarde, 2009)

After Altar (2007), it would seem that Rico Maria Ilarde has mastered his craft. The film, about a titled boxer who was forced into early retirement after he killed his opponent in a match and proceeded to work in a suspicious house in a near-deserted subdivision, is in equal satisfying portions, scary, pulpy, and poignant. Ilarde knows horror. Before engaging in cheap thrills and elaborate narratives that predictably conclude in convoluted twists, acknowledges the many elements (conflicted heroes, misunderstood religions and symbols, instant myth-making) and the many influences (Browning, Tourneur, Ulmer, Gerardo de Leon, Corman, etc.) that make up the genre. Thus, his films tend to be monstrous and mutated in a way that common movie logic is conveniently disregarded and the only reason that remains is the unique and crazed captain steering the narrative, the visuals, and the characters in a direction that is so utterly fantastic, it is undoubtedly memorable. Where Ang Babaing Putik (Woman of Mud, 2000) and Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005) felt like experiments of a mad scientist, Altar is the culmination of these experiments: a delicately crafted creation where all the elements are weaved together to form a seamless whole.

It is with that note that I say that Ilarde's latest, Star Cinema-funded Villa Estrella, is an absolute disappointment. It is easy to pinpoint where the fault lies: studio interference. The multitude of writers (Joel Mercado, Adolfo Alix, Jr., and JP Abellera) assures sizable roles for the studio's stars, sacrificing singularity and integrity of vision for imagined commercial viability. Former child star turned popular soap actress Shaina Magdayao plays Ana who, in an effort by his ex-boyfriend Alex (Jake Cuenca) to rekindle their lost romance, is dragged to Villa Estrella, a dilapidated resort that houses the answers to the dreams that have been constantly haunting her. There, she is introduced to the strange inhabitants of the resort: Giselle (Maja Salvador), the daughter of one of the resort's long-time helpers (Rubi-Rubi) who seem to have a mysterious connection with Ana; Mang Gusting (Ronnie Lazaro), the restort's eccentric caretaker who has been searching for his daughter since she suddenly disappeared many years ago; and a murderous monstrosity who resides in the resort's murky swimming pool.

My biggest problem with Villa Estrella is that it is told from the perspective of Ana, who might turn out to be Ilarde's most passive protagonist. Ilarde's protagonists are decision-makers. They are perennial action heroes who would not allow the often cruel machinations of their pulp existences to take a hold of their respective destinies, whether it be escaping their accursed scenarios with the rescued damsel-in-distress or spending an eternity in sorrow or solitude. Thus, the repercussions of their decisions have more substance and weight, considering that their fates are products of their actions, as influenced by their histories and moral standings. Ana, on the other hand, is a victim, passively navigating the convoluted storyline that she finds herself in. It is not so much a personality defect that she has to overcome but a character flaw, a laziness in the part of the writers to concoct a character that is not a mere narrative or genre device. Alex, with his undying persistence in winning back his troubled ex-girlfriend to the point of spiriting her away to a suspicious resort, would have made a more interesting, effective, and consistent Ilarde protagonist.

Ana shows more resemblance to the suffering damsels of many Asian horror films who are pushed into horrific situations, tormented by ghastly wraiths, and supported by their dashing knights, than Ilarde's action heroes. Villa Ilarde, as it turns out, is a Ringu-derivative (I doubt a studio would risk funding a horror film without the token shocks, twists, and creepy ghost kid) as translated into one of Ilarde's genre-bending exercises. Before the film becomes too comfortable in convention, Ilarde starts to take risks, revealing a goo-spewing monster which seems to be a cross between the alien in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), the monster in John McTiernan's Predator (1987), and the hundreds of rubber-suited freaks that dominated many cheesy Filipino horror films of the past), have a disposable character make a self-referential, and absolutely humorous, quip ("are you an alien? a monster? or none of the above?") before being killed, have Alex and Ana's father (John Estrada) engage in a battle involving fists, axes, and other weaponry, and steer the story to something recognizably Ilarde.

The mainstream elements of the film (everything that the studio executives forced Ilarde to comply with, from the unnecessary characters and side-plots) got audiences swarming into the cineplexes. Two thirds of the audience would be satisfied because of the complementary thrills and chills. A third (those who are bamboozled enough to look for complete logic in their horror) would consider the film a total waste of time and money, considering that the film is swimming in a sea of loopholes, illogic, and disorienting sidetrips to erstwhile film genres (like the Filipino action film). Perhaps the film sends mixed messages to its audience. It's neither the seamless conventional horror like the several Chito Roño made for Star Cinema (Feng Shui (2004), Sukob (The Wedding Curse, 2006), T2 (2009)) or the always interesting earnest genre-benders of Ilarde.

As I've mentioned before, my disappointment with Villa Ilarde hinges on the fact that Ilarde has made a brilliant film previous to this. Ilarde is not new to the mainstream, having made Dugo ng Birhen (Blood of the Virgin, 1999), Ang Babaing Putik, and Aquarium (middle portion of Shake, Rattle, and Roll 2k5 (2005)) with studio funding and still managed to come up with films that bear his signature. Villa Estrella, while noticably compromised by much studio interference, comprises an aesthetic that is distinctly Ilarde's: the dreamy and rustic appearance of the resort, with the statues, the unkempt cabins and the unexplored areas, that hide something more sinister. With that note and despite its innumerable flaws, Villa Estrella is a more than satisfying studio effort.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just saw Villa Estrella and I agree with you that it's Rico Ilarde's weakest. Not because of studio interference nor the casting of big-time names, but the lack of character of the protagonist. Magdayao is too elegant and distant to achieve the tortured feature of the perennial Ilarde lead.