Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In My Life (2009)

In My Life (Olivia Lamasan, 2009)

Lino Brocka's Insiang (1976), which has a lethal feud between a mother and her daughter as its centerpiece, surprisingly ends with the daughter, in an unusual display of tender affection, visiting her incarcerated mother in the women’s penitentiary. It’s a very uncharacteristic dénouement, one that does not make any sense within the film’s context given the outpouring of hatred that preceded the tearful reunion. However, it makes sense if seen in the context of a culture of expectant mothers and eternally repentant children. It is therefore unsurprising that almost every film that tackled relationships between mothers and their children, from Rory Quintos’ melodrama Anak (The Child, 2000) to Wenn Deramas’ joyously over-the-top comedy Ang Tanging Ina (The True Mother, 2003) and its countless and less effective repetitions like Ang Cute ng Ina Mo! (Your Mother is Cute!, 2007) and Ang Tanging Ina Niyong Lahat (Our True Mother, 2008), emphasizes the sacrifices mothers have done for their children and the corresponding debt of gratitude that is owed by these children to their mothers.

Vilma Santos has become the poster girl for these cinematic suffering mothers, having played the progressive mother of children from different fathers in Chito Roño’s Bata Bata Paano Ka Ginawa? (Lea’s Story, 1998), the maltreated maid from Hong Kong who returns to Manila to ungrateful children in Anak, and the indefatigable mother in Roño’s 2003 adaptation of Lualhati Bautista’s famous novel Dekada ’70, where a middle class family wades through the turbulent decade and evolves from convenient apathy to activism and awareness. In Olivia Lamasan’s In My Life, she plays Shirley Templo, an effective yet stubborn mother to openly gay Mark (Luis Manzano, Santos’ son in real life). Shirley Templo is the culmination of all the mothers that Santos has played: assured because she can pinpoint every little comfort and pleasure that she dutifully has given up for her children and because of that, feels entitled to her children’s undivided loyalty and attention. Thus, when Shirley decides to move to New York City with Mark after learning that her daughter (Dimples Romana, who does wonders in the little role she has; that scene where she laments of her dissolved dream of becoming a doctor is precious) has decided to migrate elsewhere, Noel (John Lloyd Cruz), Mark’s overly loyal boyfriend who is staying illegally in the United States, suddenly becomes the third wheel in Shirley’s belated attempt to reconnect with her son.

There is no denying that Santos is a terrific actress. Recently however, she has limited herself to roles that are quite unvaried, to the point of Santos becoming a predictable if not mechanical performer. Her Shirley Templo, while an always entertaining presence because of her amusing quirks (Santos has exquisite comedic timing) and the skill and experience that Santos gives her during the many emotional highlights in the film, feels more like a derivative of everything the actress has done in the last decade. Fortunately, Cruz, who has graduated from playing charming yet soulless boys next door in the many romantic comedies he starred in, gives formidable support to Santos. The methodical manner Cruz gives life to Noel (the extra split seconds that he has his mouth open after every word that is shouted with subtle inflection; the slight gestures that hint of the femininity underneath the masculine exterior) is complemented by the sensitivity and charisma that the actor naturally exudes. Manzano, although largely inconsistent, does quite well, even alongside more talented and more experienced actors like Santos and Cruz.

The narrative conceit of making the son a homosexual man who is deeply in love with an illegal immigrant emphasizes the extent of the humility the mother has to learn: that tolerance is different from acceptance, and that difference spells the snowballing aches that a son has to learn to accept to continue living. The screenplay by Raymond Lee and Senedy Que does not allow the homosexual relationship between Mark and Noel to overshadow Shirley's difficult struggle in accepting her self-appointed role as doting mother to an already independent son. Actually, the fact that the relationship is a homosexual one only enlarges Shirley's self-entitlement, considering that her opponent for her son's attention and affection is Noel, a man whose only stake in Mark's life is an emotional attachment that cannot be made legal or formal because of statutory constraints, and as a result, can easily be refuted as sham and manipulative, which Shirley, at several points in her stay with Mark, has raised up. It's a delight seeing Shirley viciously compete with Noel for Mark's attention, and how Noel, despite Shirley's overt cruelty, treats Shirley with the patience and adoration one usually reserves for his own mother. The often unpredictable dynamics of Shirley and Noel's relationship becomes the movie's heart, as enunciated heavily by Lamasan's efficient although sometimes charmless direction.

Filipinos, in general, are beholden to our mothers. Our bonds with our mothers outlast the most stringent of conflicts that notwithstanding damaging aches caused by strained relationships or unintentional distance, our collective identity is etched not by the experiences we gather independent of family, but by persistent reminders (whether they are lovely memories, traumatic experiences, physical traits that we unwillingly inherited) that we came from somewhere and from someone. As with everything, this unhindered maternal affiliation reflects in the movies we make and watch.In a cinematic culture of apologetic children and saintly mothers, In My Life, while still operating under a profit-oriented formula as espoused by Star Cinema's capitalist intentions, attempts to shatter cultural expectations by reversing roles, having the parent learn from her children and later on, apologize for her shortcomings and stubbornness. The attempt is of course, admirable. Had the attempt been armed with courage, with the story breaking the limits of what is allowed under the auspices of what the funding studio thinks is safe and profitable, then In My Life would have probably been a better movie and with a more pertinent title, too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Kinatay (2009)

Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza, 2009)
English Title: The Execution of P

The crowning glory of Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (The Execution of P) is the ominous van ride that Peping (Coco Martin), a recently-married criminology student, decides to take to earn a few thousands of pesos to jumpstart his family life. The van ride connects dream with nightmare. The dream, lush with colors popping out of the perpetually busy and populated alleyways and public spaces, is shot in film. Night beckons the nightmare, shot in digital video and characterized by an enveloping darkness that gives way to more alert sensibilities to sounds, sights, and feelings. The van ride has Peping in the innermost space of the vehicle cramped by his experienced companions and their hapless victim, a prostitute named Madonna (Maria Isabel Lopez) who could not pay the money she owes the gang’s leader fondly referred to as Kap (Julio Diaz), because he is in fact a captain in the city’s police force. Scant illumination is provided for by the city’s neon lights, the headlights of passing cars, or the scarce street lamps that line the highway leading to Madonna’s execution place. The perspective that Mendoza forces us to take is discomforting, for the reason that cinema thrives with stimuli, and this forced deprivation of light and logic, orchestrated by Mendoza, is suffocating.

The little we know (that there is a victim, there is a destination, and there is an atrocity that we are forced to witness) compromises our perceived humanity. However, the littler we know, the more we understand Peping and his eventual fall from grace. That Madonna is a mother, a breadwinner for her extended family, a few weeks away from amassing the money she owes Kap, are all immaterial information. Nor it is material to know the motivations behind the callous violence that primarily characterize Kap’s set of trusted thugs. It is easier to define them as one end of the moral spectrum, individuals whose experiences in debasing human life has left them to treat it routinely, with every guilt or burden the inflicted atrocity has created momentary eradicated by showering and changing to a fresh set of clothes. With the limited perspective that Mendoza provides his viewers, he was able to enunciate the ramifications of witnessing and taking part in a single act of depravity, how it engulfs us completely and changes us forever.

I understand the hatred for the film (when it premiered in Cannes where notwithstanding Mendoza’s winning the Best Director prize, the film was met with harsh critical receptionc) but I don’t necessarily subscribe to it. In Mendoza’s quest to depict reality, he tramples upon established concepts of what it is to be human. He relentlessly maps the transition of man to monster, and given the straight-line matter-of-factly process that the film explores, the transition is as easy and automatic as night turning into day. Unlike in Mendoza’s other films where poverty is a blatant motivation and a nagging visual motif, in Kinatay, while we know that Peping is poor, poverty remains a subtle omnipresent force. What is explored in the film is not how poverty destroys us, but how humanity is too fragile, that by a mere twist of fate where we succumb to merely surviving notwithstanding the repercussions of our minor and major delinquencies, we are forced to relax it and inevitably decide to lose it.

Manila is a city of blatant ironies. In a city that dazzles with high rise buildings and affluent lights, beggars roam the highways that are motionless with its nightly traffic jams. Atop building are reminders of the persisting Catholicism that characterize the population, but beneath these high and holy signs lit in the brightest of reds to make sure they are seen from the farthest distance are whores, pimps, drug peddlers, addicts, and murderers. The cops are the criminals. Humanity is as pertinent as butchered meat. These are not directorial conceits formed by of Mendoza’s mind, but pieces of realities, strung together in what essentially is a road trip to hell to dictate a choice severed by fear, desperation, the four walls of the van and the kilometers of cold concrete, that are essential in understanding the predicament that plagues Peping. Morality remains a farfetched ideal, plastered in t-shirts and slogans. When push comes to shove, the most human thing to do is to go with the flow and transform.

Mendoza is preoccupied with Martin’s face, devoting a substantial portion of the film staring at it as it transforms from jubilant hopefulness as he waits to be married to Cecille (Mercedes Cabral), the mother of his baby, in a modest but charming civil ceremony, to wretched surrender as he goes home to his family after spending the night taking part in the grisly murder of a woman he barely knew for a couple of thousands of pesos that will presumably feed his family for the next couple of days. It’s a transformation that is too damning to witness because it occupies a much too familiar territory that we are ashamed to admit; that every little infraction scratches our moral stance, which is similar to Peping‘s situation where he essentially does not take part in the actual murder and dismemberment of Madonna, but his inability to shun it, grants him a position of equal culpability in the eyes of our collective morality and in his perception of his own humanity. Mendoza’s appreciation of our corruption may be too simplistic or too outrageous to resist but that he does not shy away from exposing the frailties instead of the triumphs of out universally shared humanity surprisingly makes Kinatay a human and humane film.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa Kiyeme (2009)

Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa Kiyeme (Joyce Bernal, 2009)

Joyce Bernal's Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa Kiyeme isn't as fabulously inane as Booba (2001), a comedy that Bernal also directed where from start of the movie to its finish, the film relentlessly revolved around oversized mammaries, underperforming penises, and a sibling rivalry that rivaled Cain and Abel's in terms of intensity and extent. Right before Kimmy Dora concludes in a delightfully cheesy song number (where sisters Kimmy and Dora declare their newfound love for each other by singing the corniest ditty and sillily dancing in the middle of the road in matching garments), it grows a heart. There is nothing wrong with the heart it grew. It was right there from the start, neatly hidden underneath the movie's quick wit and efficient humor. It just should have stayed in the background while the movie pushed forward, earning chuckle after chuckle. Thus, when the heart revealed itself, expressing what is already apparent, arguably to the detriment of being one of those rare perfectly carefree screwballs that are easily taken for granted but is actually valuable in this age that has lost all authentic humor to the formula of safe and family-friendly jubilation, I was quickly removed from the hypnotic daze that Kimmy Dora rapidly got me into.

Having relayed that minor complaint, a complaint that stems out of a personal distaste for neat resolutions especially in movies that do not need them, Kimmy Dora is perhaps the most effective comedy in recent memory. Note that I specifically used the word "effective" instead of the more common "best" to express my admiration for the movie, simply because there's a difference between the two adjectives. The former connotes the ability to what it was created for and the latter; thus, an effective comedy goes straight to the point, bombarding its audience with joke after joke, even to the extent of putting logic and reality aside, just to achieve its mission. The latter is more subjective; and calls for something more than just effectivity, depending, of course, on the needs of the subjective mind. To my mind, there are better recently released local comedies like Veronica Velasco's Last Supper No. 3 (2009), Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto's Confessional (2008), Francis Xavier Pasion's Jay (2008), and Ray Gibraltar's When Timawa Meets Delgado (2007), but Kimmy Dora, with all its unabashed nonsense and guilt-free drollery, is simply deliriously hilarious.

The story, written by Chris Martinez (who also penned Jeffrey Jeturian's Bridal Shower (2004) and Bikini Open (2005), two very good satires, and directed from his own screenplay 100 (2008), a take on death with the uncharacteristic humor that it deserves) is a hoot. Kimmy (Eugene Domingo), a domineering top executive who barks at her subordinates, and Dora (also, Domingo), the nincompoop with the heart of gold, are identical twins. Kimmy, who toils for the family business, secretly envies Dora because Dora gets all the love and attention of their father (Ariel Ureta) and white collar hunk Johnson (Dingdong Dantes, who gives a surprisingly enjoyable performance), despite her imbecility. The plot thickens, with Kimmy discovering her father's bequeathing a substantial portion of his estate to Dora while she gets crumbs, and in a deliciously staged precursor to a wild case of mistaken motives and identities, unknowingly gives marching orders to kidnap Dora. The kidnappers kidnap Kimmy instead, forcing Dora, for the sake of their weak father and the hugely successful business, to pretend to be Kimmy while she's gone.

Bernal directs the comedy with a confidence that is reflected from the surefooted way the movie delivers its humor in heaps and bounds. There are questionable additions, like the Stephen Chow-esque use of computer generated effects to needlessly magnify humor (an unfortuate excess, in my honest opinion), but overall, Bernal directed the movie with a modesty that transforms the movie into an uncluttered piece of entertainment, self-aware of its . As with Booba, where Bernal's direction merely complemented her actors comedic timing instead of upstaging them, she knows very well that the movie's success hinges on the dual performance of Domingo, a thespian who has graduated from playing best friends of the lead to play both leads of Kimmy Dora.

Domingo, who proves to be both a formidable actress and a comedienne with exquisite comedic timing, should have been the movie's lone special effect. Out of playing simplistic dual roles of dominatrix and simpleton, she comes up with a performance that exceeds what is required of her. In one hilarious sequence, Domingo, playing Dora, who needs to act like Kimmy, who in her overly simplistic mind is a hotheaded monster, and starts to go back and forth being herself and Kimmy to cover up Kimmy's disappearance to their father, seamlessly handles the task, without confusing the audience and as an added bonus, furthers the built-in comedy of the sequence with her invaluable comic stylings. The sequence proves Domingo's mettle in creating two distinct personalities that notwithstanding an exercise in blurring the two personalities, she resists and manages to remain Kimmy or Dora, or Kimmy pretending to be Dora, or Dora pretending to be Kimmy, and you can't help but feel astounded by the mastery she dedicates to the movie. Simply put, nonsense has never been this satisfying.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Alexis Tioseco (1981-2009)

Alexis Tioseco with girlfriend, Nika Bohinc

Alexis Tioseco (1981-2009)

"Why is there so much sadness and too much sorrow in this world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man's pain? Are we ever going to see each other again? I'm not afraid of death. I'm more afraid that I won't see you again." - Renato in Melancholia (Lav Diaz, 2008)

A text message from Chard Bolisay woke me up. "Oggs, Alexis was murdered." "Huh?" was my reply. I thought it was a bad joke. Alexis was young. He was just a year older than me. It is that youth that drew him respect, especially in the way he expressed his ideas with the maturity and grace of an experienced diplomat. It is also that youth that most people misunderstood, such as during the time when he drafted a manifesto against the corrupting Metro Manila Film Festival or when he was interviewed in a television show with director Carlo J. Caparas and got berated by the embattled director and comic book writer for being young and inexperienced. It is that youth that led to my disbelief that he has died. This cannot be true. He was simply too young and too promising. Alas, the text messages, facebook status messages, and emails started pouring. Alexis and his girlfriend Nika Bohinc were murdered in their house in Quezon City.

I am not personally close to Alexis. Our interactions were limited mostly to the very few times that we'd bump into each other during events, screenings, and other festivals. I would often shake his hand, as he opens up to talk, mostly about the film we're about to see, the film we just saw, or the film community in general. I remember the last time we had a lengthy chat. He got word that I had written a short film for some friends who took the summer film course under Quark Henares. He joked around and said that "I had crossed over." I became embarrassed all of a sudden, not because the film I wrote which he never got to see was to be embarrassed of, but because I am aware of that unspoken rule that film critics can never be filmmakers. This is probably because once a film critic has "crossed-over" and has experienced the difficulties of giving birth to a complete film, compassion for the fellow filmmaker is created, and a film critic can never compassionate.

However, Alexis, who is perhaps the most recognizable real film critic in Manila, is probably the most compassionate person around. He only wrote about the films he loved and kept his criticisms of bad films within private discussions. And his compassion is not limited for the filmmakers he has regarded as his closest friends, but to Philippine cinema itself. Alexis was not selfish. Perhaps one of the proudest moments in my so-called career as a film critic is when he acknowledged me, Bolisay and Dodo Dayao in one of his wishes for Philippine cinema: that the three of us, all of whom wrote about films exclusively for out obscure spaces in the internet, "get space in the broadsheets, because they're far more interesting than anyone writing regularly there today." Last year, he invited me to take part in a panel for ASEACC (Annual South East Asian Cinemas Conference), where I sat along with Dino Manrique and Ben Slater to discuss writing about film in the internet to the conference's participants. This was the first time, and probably the last time, I was given the opportunity to talk about my passion in front of an audience of like-minded individuals.

I was first introduced to Nika, Alexis' beautiful girlfriend, in Mogwai in Cubao X where Alexis jokingly teases Nika about using my review of Brillante Mendoza's Manoro without my permission for the program of a film festival in Slovenia where the said film was being screened. I didn't mind, of course. I was thrilled by the fact that for the first time, my writing was published in paper instead of online, and that I was now translated to Slovenian. From then on, like my interaction with Alexis, my interaction with Nika were limited to waves, handshakes, and sometimes, simple acknowledgments of each other's presence. It was only recently wherein I got to talk to Nika more intensely, and again, about a subject that we both were passionate about: film. It was after a screening of Pepe Diokno's Engkwentro (2009) that she asked me what I thought of the film, and I was honest about my apprehensions regarding the film. She was persistent in finding out why and there, beneath the idle talk about a random film we both saw, I discovered a thirst for perspective, an insistence to create discourse, a compassion for the cinema of this country that only became hers because her boyfriend adores it with such depth, eloquence and vigor, enough to be convinced to displace herself from her homeland and move to a faraway land where household help is commonplace.

(I feel guilty for taking the opportunity to share my thoughts with these two people for granted. I feel guilty for limiting myself to waves and handshakes when there is so much more to talk about, argue about, laugh about, and discuss. I feel guilty because you two are now gone, and all I can do is cry and reminisce on the little nuggets of moments I shared with the two of you.)

Alexis' selflessness reflects in his writing. In his piece entitled The Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person, published in Rogue Magazine, he exposes himself a romantic, who openly professes his immense love for Nika in the same letter wherein he discloses his beautiful love affair with Philippine cinema. In his blog, Concentrated Nonsense, he further reveals about himself through his musings about cinema. Images from Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero's Intramuros (Walls of Hell, 1964) adorn a post entitled Leonardo. What begins as an evocative reminiscence of the underrated film starring Fernando Poe, Jr. transforms into a beautiful tribute to his late father. His writings were never bland since reading them does not only enlighten you about the particular film or filmmaker that catches his fancy, it also opens you to know him, giving you an inkling why this promising individual who can be successful in any field he chose to tackle decided to stay in Manila and be resigned to what seems to be a thankless job when he could have been elsewhere, living comfortably.

While they are predictably intelligently and beautifully written, they possess a voice that is naturally his. It is a hopeful voice, a voice makes you want to watch the films he lovingly describes in the most graceful prose. He does not stop there. Through his Fully Booked Film Series, he introduced many Filipinos to films that most probably will never be screened either in commercial cinemas or any of the popular film festivals in Metro Manila. Through Alexis' efforts, films like Marlon Fuentes' Bontoc Eulogy (1985), Kidlat Tahimik Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahag-hari (Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow, 1994), Khavn dela Cruz's Maynila sa mga Pangil ng Dilim (Manila in the Fangs of Darkness, 2008), and filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Edwin, Antoinette Jadaone have found an audience, if not a sizable following, in the Philippines. The results of his efforts may be mere trickles compared to the immense dream he has for Philippine cinema, but despite that, he adamantly and bravely persevered. As he introduced Raya Martin, Lav Diaz, and John Torres to the rest of the world who appreciated and continue to appreciate them as gigantic voices in cinema, he did not neglect the country he loved and managed and gave birth to these talented yet humble artists. Against the seeming disinterest that pervaded a seemingly moribund culture, he managed to ignite a fire within the local film community, a fire that would hopefully stay stroke and bright.

Alexis wrote about Philippine cinema as if he was writing for the many generations of Filipinos that neglected it, leaving important works to decay while gorging in formulaic films that only insulted the culture rather than enrich it. He wrote about the films he admired as if they were his own, and perhaps they are his own, knowing that he gave up so much for these films to be made, seen, and perpetuated. He wrote and that is all that mattered. He may have known that his mission would not be completed in a lifetime (which is probably why he created a lengthy wishlist for Philippine cinema, so that his legacy may be continued after his passing), but he strove forward, writing, inspiring, making sense out of a cinema that seemed to have lost all sense. The tragedy of everything is that we lost him to such incomparable senselessness. (To Alexis and Nika, from one of your most thankful admirers who grieves for you like he is grieving for his country's cinema, you will be missed.)