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)