Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: Philippine Cinema

John Torres' Ang Ninanais

2010: Highlights in Film

The year 2010, much more than anything, exposed the many faults of the so-called Philippine cinema that have gone unnoticed because of the deafening attention, whether good or bad, foreigners are giving individual films that showed prominently in major international film festivals like Cannes and Venice the year before. Given that there was hardly any Filipino-made film that made waves abroad this year; it certainly felt like the world has grown tired of the country’s poverty and other problems. Yet most filmmakers, starving for international attention which is not unexpected since that kind of attention is the only attention that will assure a lifetime of making films, adhere to formula: slums, social relevance, day-in-the-life, and guilt-ridding.

This year’s edition of Cinemalaya, perhaps the country’s most prominent producer of films targeted for international screening, is underwhelming not because of the poor quality of the films, but because only a few of the films showed any authorial voice. It seems that in its quest for films and filmmakers that could make it big in the international scene, it mutated into a manufacturing plant that produces films of the exact same feel and intent instead of a community that fosters independent creativity. In other words, this year’s edition of Cinemalaya, as compared to last year’s, felt like penance. The film’s that stood out are the ones that didn’t feel like they belonged to the selection: Mario O’Hara’s Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio), which features the veteran director struggling with the digital medium but nevertheless coming up with a masterpiece whose audaciousness cannot be belittled, Teng Mangansakan’s Limbunan (Bridal Quarter), a flawed yet gorgeous gem of a film that quietly observes a woman submit herself to tradition, Dennis Marasigan’s Vox Populi, a confidently helmed document of the birth of evil in politics.

CinemaOne, on the other hand, had films that were heavy on authorial voice but are either confused or lacked in technical proficiency. The clear masterpiece of the bunch is Remton Zuasola’s Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria), a very human portrait of a woman about to leave her home town and her dreams to fulfill the dreams of her family.

Thus, the Philippines’ best films mostly came from filmmakers who made their films independent of Cinemalaya or CinemaOne. Khavn dela Cruz, who finally finished the surprisingly exquisitely crafted Mondomanila, a project that has been brewing for more than a decade, also produced and directed Cameroon Love Letter (for Solo Piano) and Son of God, two films of different natures and intentions but reflected a filmmaker who is very certain of his voice. Monster Jimenez’s Kano: An American and his Harem, another project that has seen many years in production, is miraculous simply for portraying a pervert with such humanity. Jerrold Tarog’s Senior Year is entertaining, endearing, and utterly poignant for its reflection on how the promise of our youth seems so distant in our disappointing adulthood.

Perhaps the most surprising Filipino films of the year came from the unabashed churner of fragrant garbage, Star Cinema. My Amnesia Girl showed Cathy Garcia-Molina mastering the art (yes, art) of creating fluff. RPG Metanoia showed how Filipino animators, given proper attention and motivation, can create something that can be at par if not outdo their counterparts in Hollywood. Sa’yo Lamang showed Laurice Guillen creating a family melodrama that is pious but sinful, formulaic but refreshing.

If there’s anything that 2010 should remind us, it is that international appeal, while always welcome especially in the free promotion it gives locally-produced cinema to viewers in the Philippines, is not the only barometer of quality. It should never be the basis as to why one watches or makes films. Reality is becoming overrated, and filmmakers, much more than mere tellers of stories should start learning to become makers of stories, whether these stories are taken from real-life experiences or not. If one is to learn from David Fincher's The Social Network, arguably the most successful American film from 2010, truth is not the most cinematic element of true stories, it is usually what independent imagination can come up with that truth.

Now, to the list:

Top 15 Filipino Films of 2010

2) Ang Ninanais (Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song, John Torres)
5) Mondomanila (Khavn dela Cruz)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

RPG Metanoia (2010)

RPG Metanoia (Luis Suarez, 2010)

Luis Suarez’s RPG Metanoia is the first Filipino-made 3D and CG-animated feature length film. Sadly, it seems that the distinction has overshadowed the film, which, even without the label that points out its historic significance, is quite a solid endeavor and must be seen, instead of read about, to be really enjoyed.

The film opens with a lengthy action sequence where Zero, a heroic kid who is quite adept with the yoyo as a weapon, makes his way through a horde of robots and defeats a three-headed monstrosity who looks like a cross between a hydra and a jack-in-the-box, revealing a prize, a mysterious mask that is supposed to give its wearer god-like powers. The computer hangs. The mother scolds. Zero is Nico (voiced by Zaijan Jaranilla), a frail kid who spends his days and nights leveling up his character in Metanoia, an online role-playing game where he can be everything he can’t be in real life.

The story’s less of a stretch than what can be expected from animated features. When it is not concerned with the plotline of an in-game character wreaking havoc on the real world via a virus that transmits images through the computer that effectively turns humans into gaming zombies, the film spends time exploring the domestic life of Nico, his intimate dinner conversations with his mother (voiced by Eugene Domingo), his webcam communications with his father (voiced by Aga Muhlach), who is working overseas, his blossoming crush with a girl next door, his role in his gaming troop, and his inefficiencies in sports and other physical activities. A bulk of what makes RPG Metanoia so charming is how it translates these relatable elements of living into gorgeous animation.

Thus, RPG Metanoia’s greatest asset is that it satisfies itself with telling its story with refreshing simplicity. The animation, unremarkable if compared to bigger-budgeted extravaganzas produced elsewhere, is lovely in a way that its imperfections and limitedness in terms of frames per second give the film the feel of a stop-motion animated feature, which is more organic, more human than anything done by the animation factories of Hollywood. Instead of belaboring the world of Metanoia with needless spectacles and ornaments, it focuses on creating an emotionally palpable feel for the film’s “real world.” It isn’t simply the comparably polished animation that contributes to the film’s modest powers. The script, written by Suarez with Jade Castro and Tey Clamor, is both far-reaching in its attempts at science fiction and beautifully intimate in its depictions of the joys and conflicts of growing up. The voice acting, most especially by Eugene Domingo as Nico’s mother and Aga Muhlach as Nico’s father, is consistently delightful. The musical score, by Ria Osorio and Gerard Salonga, complements the visuals with fanciful melodies and exciting rhythms.

Suarez and his team peppers the world of Metanoia with details. For example, the portal where the characters of players from the Philippines is replete with fantastic creations inspired from a wellspring of Filipino traditions and artifacts, from the robotic kalesas or horse-driven carriages that roam the cobblestone streets to the Vigan-inspired exteriors of the buildings. Moreover, in keeping true with the massiveness of the multiplayer online gaming experience that Metanoia is envisioned to be, the film introduces elements and characters that establish the fictional computer game’s reach and influence beyond Philippine shores, adding a multicultural flavor to the viewing experience.

There is of course a danger in putting such a game, whose popularity is limited to a specified niche, as the point of interest in the film. The mechanics of the MMORPG or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game which could be material to the appreciation of the niceties of the film may seem foreign to the demographic it seeks to market itself to. Thankfully, the film does not drown itself with the complexities of the gaming phenomenon and limits itself to its essence, which is basically the threat of living vicariously through the near-perfect lives of computer-created amplified personalities thriving in a world where rules can be bent. Instead of functioning merely as a reflection of what could be a passing fad in video-gaming as with almost all films adapted from video games, it explores the dynamics between gamer and game, and why such relationship, hardened by some symbiosis where both benefit from each other, thrives. In that sense, RPG Metanoia has the capacity to be timeless notwithstanding the possible and probable obsolescence of its thematic source.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rosario (2010)

Rosario (Albert Martinez, 2010)

Albert Martinez’s Rosario, stripped of all its gloss, is essentially about the titular woman, played illustriously by luscious Jennlyn Mercado, whose fate seems to be dictated by her passions unleashed that during that time were severely discouraged, especially for women. Nonetheless, Rosario, presumably out of an upbringing influenced by the liberalities preached by America, the Philippines’ new colonial master, succumbs to every call of her flesh, first with her father’s trusted assistant (Yul Servo), whom she marries to the chagrin of her parents, second with her best friend’s boyfriend (Dennis Trillo), which caused her separation with her husband and her children, and third, with her landlord’s enamored nephew (Sid Lucero). As such, it holds immense promise beyond the trite melodramatics that usually accompany such material.

However, the film, like the many well-dressed and well-made up characters that populate it, is far too concerned in decorating itself to be anything more than an expensive ornament. Given that the film is mostly set in the early-1900’s where the Philippines was recently given to imperialist America by Spain, the film expectedly features costumes, sets, and details that match the period. Thankfully, the film’s artisans and craftsmen sufficiently cater to the demands of its period aspirations, making sure that even the minutest detail takes part in the momentary illusion that everything happened in a past that is best remembered through encyclopedias and history books. Yet after several minutes of being drowned by a barrage of period details, the film little by little gives off an inorganic feel that distracts from rather than complements what the film attempts to convey.

Rosario’s main problem is the abundance of good taste. Martinez makes most of the material, orchestrating what essentially is a grand production of sights and emotions. There is an attempt at some sensuality here, all glimmering and oiled up, bursting in the shadows. Artsy is the word, if we are going to be sincerely blunt about it. Prude, too. It is as if any display of overt sexuality in a film about a woman whose downfall has more to do with sexuality than anything else is taboo. The film, with all its grandiose depictions of the era where the story is supposedly situated, shies away from the grime and the dirt and polishes everything with undue gloss. The result is something definitely pleasing to the eyes but evidently soulless like an expensive commercial for an obsolete luxury cologne.

The film’s good taste seeps into its decision to pronounce its relevance. Rosario’s story is framed as a flashback by aging Hesus, played by Dolphy endearingly, who tells his mother’s story to his wealthy nephew in an attempt to prove his identity. It’s a needless framing device. First and foremost, it places the story within the grasp of being adjudged by a character in the film. When Hesus concludes the film with a theory that his revelation to his nephew has washed away the sins of his mother to the family, it reeks of moralization, belittling the story as simply a tale of caution of the ill effects of sexual expression, a panacea to the generations-old hurt that a single family has experienced because of a matriarch who has been endowed with the new liberalities of the twentieth century.

Rosario, in the end, will be seen only as well-made, arguably smartly directed, and elegantly crafted and if only for that, will be placed in a pedestal by a country that has hungered for films that could approximate those done by Hollywood. If film appreciation only stops there, then Rosario may indeed be a success. However, it does not. A film has to be stripped of its clothes and ornaments. It has to be felt, to be appreciated, to be penetrated, once, twice, thrice, and as many times as one wants, until its soul is bared to be seen by all. If it fails in that tenor, then it is nothing more than an expensive spectacle, delightful while you’re watching it and a distant blur as soon as the theater lights are up.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Amnesia Girl (2010)

The Art of Exquisite Fluff
A Review of Cathy Garcia-Molina's My Amnesia Girl
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Cathy Garcia-Molina’s My Amnesia Girl has all the trappings of detestable formula. Like all of the romantic comedies that preceded it, the ones that have given Star Cinema the ill-repute of dumbing down its followers with rehashes of the same story, the film seems to be relying solely on kitsch, on star power, on everything artificial. There is no denying the film’s use of kitsch. In fact, the film is quite unabashed with it, with characters strangely enveloped by a culture of love reigning supreme over everything else. It is adamantly unpretentious, relishing on the obvious fact that it has in its service of fun an abundance of cute and hip. It does not aspire anything more than to recharge its audience’s thirst for spritely romance, the one that is less attached to reality, the one that mines on the mysteries of fate to add magic to it. In other words, My Amnesia Girl is Grade-A fluff. It fulfills everything that a mainstream romantic comedy should do. Much more, it skirts away from genre revision or experimentation, to delight of the studio that bankrolled its existence.

Miraculously though, the film, with its refreshing lack of pretenses of achieving more than momentary delights that is expected of a romantic comedy of mainstream sensibilities, does actually more than fulfilling the basic goals of the films of its genre. Somewhere along the way, amid the near redundant exchanges of witty pick-up lines, against its need to only delight, against its fate as a tool for escape that is to be solely for enjoyment, the film develops a beautiful heart that thankfully aches, although quite subtly, more than it delights.

Apollo (John Lloyd Cruz), pick-up artist extraordinaire, met Irene (Toni Gonzaga), a photographer, in a speed-dating event. While Irene attended the event only to document it, she ended up enamored by Apollo’s undeniable charms and wit. The seemingly perfect relationship suddenly and unexpectedly ended when on their wedding day, Apollo did not show up, leaving Irene irreparably heartbroken. When the two serendipitously meet in a grocery, Irene concocts a lie and pretends to be suffering from amnesia, therefore, removing all memories of Apollo and his failure to marry her. Apollo, believing Irene’s lie, takes the supposed clean slate to undo everything he has done to her and make her fall for him like the first time. The two become inseparable again, but are now faced with the impending repercussions of their second chance at love be revealed as by-products of Irene’s vengeful grand lie.

The story, written by Jade Castro whose masterful Endo (2007) situated a poignant love story in the middle of temporary contractual employment, hinges on a ludicrous proposal that men can be so drowned in love and guilt that amnesia, which only happens in unimaginative telenovelas and is highly unlikely in reality, has become instantly believable. Garcia-Molina, however, manages to distract from the implausibility of the premise by creating a film that is as self-aware of its contrivances as the characters are self-aware of their love-addicted attitude in life. The performances by Cruz and Gonzaga are expectedly charming, especially during the film’s lighter moments. However, during the moments where the film bleeds with emotions, Cruz and Gonzaga communicate those emotions with convincing conviction that is impossible not to get swayed into their dilemma and be affected with much more than just the cheap thrills that is usually associated with Star Cinema’s star-studded romances.

The film’s last scene, made funny by the trademark exchanges of witty one-liners that extend up to the end of the end credits, is actually quite bittersweet. Sure, the lovers end up together, as expected in any romantic comedy produced by Star Cinema. However, there is no assurance, no previous revelation, that fate’s cruel retort to Irene’s crueler lie, a lie that has produced so many beautiful things that it seems more alluring than the truth, has been resolved. We only see the lovers in satisfied bliss of being together, not knowing exactly whether the memories, good and bad, are there with them in their modest celebration. Whether Garcia-Molina knows it or not, with My Amnesia Girl, she has made a film that transcended the limiting bounds of formula filmmaking without breaking them. I’m crossing my fingers, but there might be hope yet for the mainstream.

(Cross-published in Twitch. First published in Philippine Free Press.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Chassis (2010)

Chassis (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2010)

Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Chassis opens with Nora (Jodi Sta. Maria) ironing the school uniform of her daughter inside a modest house. The house, perhaps a few square meters wide, consists of very few belongings, some furniture, the ironing horse, cheap ornaments hanging on the wall, one of which Alix’s camera becomes fixated on because it showcases the ideal house. Nora finishes her chore and thanks the owner for her kindness. No, this is not Nora’s house. She lives elsewhere.

Alix’s camera follows Nora as she crosses a wide cement gap that separates her neighbor’s house with the parking lot of huge container trucks. Underneath the chassis of one of the parked trucks hangs a hammock where Nora’s daughter is sleeping. Nora’s husband sleeps on the cold cement. This is Nora’s home, or at least until the truck drives off to one of its many destinations. She wakes her daughter, bathes her, helps her into her uniform, and finally sends her to school. It seems that the events of that morning have ripened into routine. Shockingly, normalcy has inevitably crept into what is obviously a situation that can only be described as both unjust and absurd.

With its opening of expertly mounted visual cues, Chassis immediately forces notice of the gravity of its oppressive milieu. Alix separates from the tattered houses of the slums, clichéd by the dozens of films that are situated there, and slides further and deeper into penury, focusing primarily on individuals who have made homes and attempt to raise families out of parked trucks. Alix overemphasizes the bleakness of his chosen setting, visualizing his setting in monochrome, effectively removing any semblance of color from the sorry lots of his characters and the place they live in.

The images Alix creates, with the help of cinematographer Gabriel Bagnas, are astoundingly austere, more stylized and carefully framed portraits of extreme poverty in the midst of what supposedly represents a bustling trade economy than anything else. Chassis, if experienced only as a series of moving pictures, feels like an album of black and white postcards of Manila in its most deplorable, most depressed and most desperate.

Alix often shows Nora’s face, suspiciously serene despite her troubling circumstance, in close-up. It is as if he commands from Nora’s the same irony as he does from his milieu. After all, both subjects, Nora and Manila as represented here by its port area, are beautiful yet tarnishing. In the frequent close-ups, Alix prompts his viewers to observe Nora, to become intimate with her, and to understand the lack of any intense emotion from her face as she goes about her daily routine that is rife with oppression, from the men who pay her a paltry sum for a quickie, from her husband who can’t provide for her and her daughter decent shelter, and from the society that fosters her dire situation. She has been calloused to the point of being deprived of truly feeling. She only expresses genuine emotions, of joy, sadness and later on anger, with events concerning her daughter.

Alix exploits both milieu and subject, creating a film that instantly grabs you by strength of both its premise and Sta. Maria’s presence. However, the film attempts to go beyond observation of the severe human condition, participating further by enveloping such observations within a story that attempts to push gender discourse. Alix basically paints a grim community where dominating males are unable to provide, forcing the stronger women to prostitute herself for mere survival. The film’s debatable conclusion portrays Nora’s revolt towards her severely iniquitous predicament, bringing the film closer to being unduly didactic if not totally academic, betraying ultimately any emotions already invested on the fate of the film’s female protagonist. Thus, Chassis persisted as a powerful piece of cinema verite until it mistakenly took that final-minute drastic turn for inexplicable shock to forward a negligible and passé statement on the state of patriarchy in the Philippines’ poorest sectors.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (2010)

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (Remton Siega Zuasola, 2010)
English Title: The Dream of Eleuteria

In To Siomai Love (2009), director Remton Zuasola tells the story of two strangers who meet in a street-side eatery and eventually fall in love. Making use of only one shot that deliberately follows the strangers in their minutest of romantic gestures and most exciting of mundane discussions, the film brings its audience into the picture as quiet observers of love being birthed from the strangest of circumstances. Perhaps the film’s biggest fault is that it succumbed to revel in its technique when it concluded with the entire film rewinding to reveal a twist that ultimately betrays the seductive honesty Zuasola masterfully sustained for several minutes.

In Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria), his debut feature length film, Zuasola also makes use of a single shot to document the Terya leaving the island where she has lived her entire life. It is very easy to either praise or criticize the film for its audacious storytelling method. The single shot especially limits the scope of the narrative, keeping it within a certain time frame and the geography that is allowed by the logistics of that single shot. Zuasola thus limits the film to the hour and a half prior to Terya’s departure, patiently capturing everything that happens from when Terya is discovered submerged in the ocean to when she embarks the pumpboat that will bring her to the airport that will ultimately bring her to faraway Germany.

So Terya, following the wishes of her mother to escape from the impoverished life her father can only provide for them, is to leave for Germany to marry an older man. Within that hour or so when the camera follows Terya and her family as they walk to the port, Zuasola deliberately unravels the pains and frustrations that are deeply hidden within the spoken ambitions of the people around Terya. Terya, on the other hand, quietly enduring the outspoken rationalizations of her mother and the submissive affirmations of her father during the first half of the film, only bursts into the picture midway, revealing what could possibly be is an irreversibly hurt heart, especially when it is her dream that was bartered for the dream of a better life for her family.

This precursor to Terya’s lifelong journey fleshes out the mismatched rationales that ultimately push Terya to commit herself to a loveless union. The masterful camerawork, the very apt music that drowns the visuals and becomes the supporting backdrop when it needs to, the courageously convincing acting of the entire cast that blurs all moral condescension, and the narrative that naturally flows without need of a single cut all, communicate the emotions that pulsate as Terya nears the demise of her very own dream. In the end, despite the mostly mundane goings-on that comprise most of Zuasola’s film, it still holds for its purposes the poignant reality that poverty has skewed the very purpose of ambitioning, pushing people to break familial ties, to dessert pained lovers, to abandon the country for the dream of a better life.

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, much more than exposing the physical state of the country because of the abject poverty that pervades it, exposes the dissipating values that are only natural repercussions of that poverty that has become cliché in the so-called national cinema. That the gorgeous vistas shown in the film hardly represent the social and economic decay that is actually thriving therein makes the film’s careful attempt to expound on the more intimate state of the nation more resonant, more resonant in fact than the films whose supposedly pertinent advocacies or themes are worn on their sleeves. Zuasola, despite the near-perfect use of the one shot which clearly establishes him as one of more talented young filmmakers nowadays, thankfully disappears and does not commit the brilliant although self-serving conclusion in To Siomai Love, allowing Terya and her indisputable pain that we’ve become familiar with to occupy the spotlight.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Layang Bilanggo (2010)

Layang Bilanggo (Michael Angelo Dagñalan, 2010)
English Title: Life Sentence

An illusion is brilliantly hatched. Playing alongside each other are two storylines, seemingly separated by time and an immense change in the character of Pol (Pen Medina), a jailed convict who doubles as an assassin for the jail warden (Archi Adamos). The illusion is cleverly maintained, at least up until the cleverness wears off and the need for exposition becomes imminent. The film opens with Pol’s unflinching assassination of a man, briskly revealing in a sequence so judiciously executed Pol as a man of hollow virtues. Yet, Pol, noticeably aged, is also seen communing with a group of other retirees, revealing a character that is opposite the ruthless man of the opening sequence. The gargantuan distinctions between the two Pols of the supposed two storylines of Michael Angelo Dagñalan’s Layang Bilanggo (Life Sentence) are so gargantuan, that it is impossible not to be intrigued by what could have converted Pol the obedient killer into Pol the gentle geriatric.

Given that the two storylines differ in mood and style, since the storyline involving Pol the killer is unabashed in its use of violence and portrayal of reform institutions as ridden with corruption and exploitation while the storyline involving Pol the elderly seems to be a quiet portraiture of people living out the twilight of their lives, the film naturally shifts pacing, requiring a bit of diligence and skill from the director. Thankfully, Dagñalan mostly juggles the two storylines with understated efficiency. Yet when Dagñalan lets go of the conceit, revealing that Pol’s peaceful and reformed presence in the home for the elderly is but a sham for his next mission as an assassin, the film loses a vital piece of what makes it momentarily poignant, the endearing sincerity and simplicity of a life redeemed from what seems to be an inescapable hell.

Layang Bilanggo suffers ultimately because it is told with that conceit in mind. It cheapens the emotions sought to be fleshed out, putting focus more on the ingenuity of the storytelling than the story itself. The story itself though is not as notable as it thinks it is. It’s primarily a tale of redemption of a father who left his wife and daughter decades ago and now attempts to reconnect with her without revealing himself while waiting to eliminate his next target, a journalist who is researching about corruption within the prison system. There are certainly moments where the emotional heft that is being carried by Pol is exposed for some onscreen poignancy. With the help of the consistently believable portrayals of Medina and Miriam Quiambao as the criminal father and his daughter, respectively, Dagñalan manages to sustain a breath of the familiar in a story that wraps itself in blatant contrivances.

The attempts at familiarity, however, are nowhere near noble or novel, because they are based incidentally on melodramatic turns and character motivations that are often used to the point of garnering cliché status. The perfunctory anecdotes in the home for the aged make up for all the film’s many faults, puncturing the convoluted main storyline with much-needed humanity. Jaime Fabregas, who plays a retired Metrocom officer who ironically becomes Pol’s best friend in the home for the aged and later in the film, dons a grandmother’s garb while wielding a high-powered armament, adds much-needed levity to the mostly serious and moribund affair. Thus, despite the plentiful excesses in Dagñalan’s scripting and directing, one cannot simply take away the fact that Layang Bilanggo works, even if only as a random curiosity.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Astro Mayabang (2010)

Astro Mayabang (Jason Paul Laxamana, 2010)

Jason Paul Laxamana’s satire Astro Mayabang is about titular Astro (Arron Villaflor, who very ably inhabits the role with equal parts arrogance and vulnerability), an Angeles City local who literally wears his nationalism with shirts, jackets, caps, and rubber shoes bearing Philippine emblems, who it seems is the film’s singular joke. His oft-mouthed mantra is a not-so-accurate list of Filipinos or men and women with Filipino blood, no matter how little, who have made an impact, no matter how little, on the world. He berates a Caucasian tourist for not giving alms to one of the many mendicants in the city when the United States has colonized the Philippines for several decades leading to its very visible poverty, only to be told off by the tourist that he is not American, but British. He is supposedly supportive of locally produced music but buys his music from pirates. Simply put, he is a package of inconsistencies.

The film’s most oddly beautiful moment involves Astro and Dawn (Megan Young), a Filipino-American lady who wants to discover more of her Filipino lineage, alone in the latter’s house. Angry at Dawn for not wearing the nationalistic clothes he bought for her in the dinner with her friends that she invited him to, Astro scolds Dawn for being ashamed of her roots. Dawn, initially taken aback by Astro’s accusations, starts seducing him, pointing to him how each flag-adorned article of clothing which she is removing from his body, means nothing to what she feels for him. Just before Dawn gets her way with him, Astro rejects her advances, pleading for her to wait for him as he rushes to the city to scour for the cure for his embarrassing impotence.

From then on, the film, in a way that shows a director whose confidence in his material is unassailable, ties all the seemingly incoherent parts of the film together to reveal a portrait of a country far too engrossed in outside appearances to cure its embarrassingly decaying core. That night before the Pacquiao fight that almost surely rejuvenates nationalistic pride to all Filipinos, the proudest one of them resigns to the pointlessness especially amid the malady that pervades the culture, as exemplified by the people surrounding Astro, from his hedonistic employer to his good-for-nothing parents. In the end, he abandons his obsession with everything and anything Filipino in exchange for faith in the Church. The film’s end however notes not salvation but repetition, arguing that impotence within can only exude impotence outside.

In sum, Astro, at least during the initial parts of the film, when his nationalistic angst is in full irresponsible display, is a walking hysterical satire, representing the absurd ironies of the kind of nationalism that is pervading the country: loud, proud and unabashedly branded nationalism. Like a fake Louis Vuitton bag to a shameless social climber, Astro’s clothes, slogans, and unmitigated anger against anything and everything foreign supposedly expresses the abundance of his national pride. As the satire and humor wear off, the film plods into seriousness, reveling in its statement on the values the misdirected youth of this country has skewed, mostly because such values have been intertwined with commercialism and fanaticism, all of which are by-products of the nation’s past as colony to various world powers.

Yet, the character of Astro, the biggest asset of both the entertainment and substantial value of Astro Mayabang, seems to be also the film’s most telling liability. As soon as his novelty wears off and he is unclothed of the momentary charms of his humorous psychosis, Astro is revealed to be rather unlikeable to the point of utter annoyance. That is probably Laxamana’s intent to begin with, to slowly but surely dissipate the artifices of the character until what’s left is nothing but the emptiness of what the artifices represent. It is supposed to chafe, to repel, to frustrate. It is supposed to rock you to your core, push you to evaluate whatever nationalism, whether it is as little or as ridiculously grand as Astro’s, and determine if it stems from the right place or if it is only there to cover up embarrassing shame. If only for that, Astro Mayabang, though it could be more abrasive than funny, is a more than worthwhile comedy.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tsardyer (2010)

Tsardyer (Sigfried Barros-Sanchez, 2010)
English Title: Charger

Supposedly inspired by the news of the kidnapping of a famous journalist by the Abu Sayyaf, Sigfried Barros-Sanchez’s Tsardyer (Charger) tells the story of Shihab (Martin delos Santos), a young boy who is recruited into the group to run back and forth from the kidnappers’ den to the nearest house to charge the cellular phones used by the kidnappers to communicate their demands for the release of their captives. Barros-Sanchez, unsatisfied with the already promising premise of the boy who gets caught right in the middle of the war, needlessly expands his reach, tackling without benefit of any clear direction everything from corruption within the military and the role of media in the troubles in Mindanao. The film, already hurt by an ambition that is supported mainly by convoluted storylines that only reveal empty aspirations of social relevance, is rendered further unwatchable by stale and tasteless filmmaking.

The film’s cast, composed of mostly reliable thespians like Neil Ryan Sese, who plays Shihab’s pacifist father, Dimples Romana, who plays the reporter who was kidnapped, and Shamaine Buencamino, who plays the media executive tasked to negotiate with the kidnappers, sift through a screenplay that is a patchwork of atrociously stilted dialogue and confused approximations of what is happening in Mindanao. Perhaps the biggest perpetrator of the dangerously one-dimensional acting that contributes to the film’s abominable one-sided appreciation of the conflicts in Mindanao among the actors involved in the film is Pipo Alfad, who plays the kidnapping band’s high-strung leader with unadulterated and detestable villainy, reciting his hammed up lines with mismatched conviction, and filling the screen with probably well-intentioned but inevitably vulgar gesticulations.

The musical score, if one can consider the unimaginative and annoying repetitions of trite melodies music, lazily cues the mood, the setting, the intended emotion. Even more unjustified is the film’s ridiculous utilization of various songs, all made more abominable by how they are tacked on to specific scenes to manipulate emotions. Visually, the film is frustratingly flat, with cinematography that seems to function only to record what is happening within the frame, nothing more. It’s not just the acting, the music, or the visuals. Barros-Sanchez seems oblivious to subtlety. The production is crippled by bluntness. Tsardyer attempts far too hard to be socially relevant, yet it fails more than miserably. What Barros-Sanchez achieves is exactly the opposite of his intentions, inadvertently revealing the pitfalls of using social relevance and advocacy to justify bad filmmaking, or any filmmaking at all, which seems to be a fad for Filipino filmmakers nowadays because of its allure to organizers of film festivals from all over.

The evident bad filmmaking, however, is not the only problem of Tsardyer. The film obnoxiously packages the important and sensitive issues it intends to shed light on within a story that swims in clichés and stereotypes. Moreover, Barros-Sanchez pussyfoots, trapping himself with his righteous advocacy for peace while telling a story wherein the Muslim rebels are deranged antagonists and the media are the poor victims. While he reserves a musical montage displaying the undiscovered beauty of battle-torn Sulu and its people, he nevertheless pushes the limits of taste as he presents a portrayal of the problems of the region that seems to irresponsibly turn the pressing issues into a massive caricature that is thankfully not funny at all. To make matters worse, Barros-Sanchez seems clueless to his very own incoherence and inconsistency as he champions peace with a sensationalized dramatization of the war.

Tsardyer is one of the most insulting films I have had to suffer through. The insults stem more from the film’s irresponsible oversimplification of the grave complexities of the Mindanao problem than the indubitable fact that it is terribly made. For me, it would have been better if the film was forgettable since forgetting it seems to be the only cure to the agony this carelessly mounted film has caused me, yet it is not. Thus, my only hope is that the film, charmless asit is yet persisting like some memory of a traumatic experience, will prove me wrong and be really instrumental in its goal, though questionably communicated, of peace. That's what we all want, anyway.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dagim (2010)

Dagim (Joaquin Valdes, 2010)
English Title: Raincloud

There is no denying that Joaquin Valdes’ Dagim (Raincloud) is a visually exceptional film. Despite the film’s preoccupation with grime and gore, the film manages to sustain an aesthetic style that is hardly obnoxious but is more often than not quite alluring. The film’s visualizations of desolation that we can only surmise from what Valdes hints at as a product of the heavy military presence in the area attempt to complement the angst-ridden mood of the story of two brothers (Martin del Rosario and Samuel Quintana) who discover a suspicious band of individuals whose anarchist ideology is more than telling of their peculiar lifestyle. Stylized almost to the point of confusion, the film can be best described as a collage of striking images stitched together to service a story that could have worked better with more restraint, more meaningful simplicity.

Dagim feels superficial. It’s unfortunate, really. What the film is trying to say or at least from what could be gathered from the several snippets of beautified ugliness is intriguing. Its revisionist interpretation of the aswang, relating monstrosity to a philosophy of abandoning the false trappings of civilization and order to reveal humans as true monsters, has potential for something more enduring and more troubling than the posturing that the film has heavily invested on. Other than its curiously sympathetic leader (Marc Abaya) and maybe the band’s mysteriously captivating belle (Rita Iringan), the band is composed of members who are nothing more than loud and attention-grabbing eccentrics and punks. They are hardly individuals whose belief in a skewed philosophy has forced them to abandon the comforts of normal existence for a monstrous lifestyle. Their anachronistic fashion sense and tacked-on attitude add more to the superficiality of the entire exercise than to the merits of the film’s attempts at horror.

Of course, Dagim’s horror is of course more conceptual than functional. Although there are overt attempts at utilizing gore and atmospheric mood-setting to scare or at least unsettle, Valdes relies mostly on his concept to ground his horror, depending on the idea that the terrorizing monsters of myth and folklore are as real and palpable as any ordinary person who has completely lost hope on social institutions. Sadly, the film’s fictional setting, a nowhereland whose geography and history is sorely unexplained, filters any inkling of connection between viewer and film. Thus, the film, unlike Richard Somes’ Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008), another revisionist tale of the aswang mythos whose use of the Ilonggo language and whose careful depictions of local culture enhance the horror by grounding it on some semblance of reality, locates itself in an under-realized approximation of any existing Filipino setting.

Valdes peppers his film with little details, that of the little brother and his habit of lighting his flashlight in the middle of the night, or the eccentricities of the mysterious girl during the siblings’ initial encounter with her, or the madwoman wildly mourning outside the siblings’ humble hut one morning. These details are supposed to logically create the apt atmosphere for the intended horror, just enough of the quirk and the strangeness to skew the seemingly normal to produce unease. These details unfortunately fail to cohere with everything else.

Despite all these reservations, the promise of the talent involved in the film cannot be ignored. Perhaps it is that promise that preempted the film’s incoherence. Dagim certainly feels like a work of a director that is trying too hard, trying too much. While Valdes cannot seem to unify style with substance, creating a product that is grossly uneven, he persists as a very efficient orchestrator of the capabilities and proficiencies of the several talented craftsmen and artists under his control. Maybe, given time, given experience, given focus, Valdes can make the film where his lofty technical ambitions add to instead of deviate from his loftier intentions.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Zamboanga (1937)

Zamboanga (Eduardo de Castro, 1937)

Made for American audiences by actor-turned-director Eduardo de Castro in 1937 and considered to be lost until its accidental discovery by film historian Nick Deocampo and screening in 2004, Zamboanga has the distinction of being the oldest surviving Filipino film. That distinction on a 1937 film, although very much welcome considering that the Philippines’ filmic heritage is dissipating every hour a film goes undiscovered somewhere in the world, is telling of how much the country, nay, the world, has lost because of ignorance, lack of interest, and to moneyed foreign film archivists, a stubborn insistence on concentrating valuable resources on so-called film canon and canonized directors and film cultures. Hope is thinning. Understandably, these films that have been rescued from permanently fading are viewed today with biased perceptions, like injured soldiers heroically returning from a battle.

Zamboanga is a severely outdated film. The first ten minutes function to introduce the moviegoers to the land that becomes setting to the story that feels only secondary to the showcase of the exotic culture that has thrived there for centuries. It is perhaps the unbridled display of cultural superiority in the film’s jading journalistic approach to the Tausogs, imputing barbarism to the Tausogs because of the custom of raiding villages for women that is the center of the plot of the film, which points to its obsolescence in these modern times where acceptance of cultural diversity is the enforced norm.

Interestingly, the film’s attempts to portray its setting in a more leveled light, showcasing its inhabitants in their day-to-day affairs in a singsong manner, belittles the culture simply because it lacks the sophistication and urbanity that the Americans pride themselves with. Thus, the details that differentiate the cultures of the film’s market and the film’s subject are treated with either sensationalism or singsong silliness.

Fernando Poe, who plays the pearl fisher whose fiancée (Rosa del Rosario) was kidnapped by the chief of a neighboring tribe, mostly takes control of the film. He is that rare performer whose screen presence functions very well as both romantic lead, with his matinee idol looks, and action star, with his chiseled physique, and De Castro knows this very well. He exploits his charismatic and virile star, allowing Poe his way with his leading lady, charming her with his undeniable suave and manliness. After this romantic interlude, he makes Poe prove his mettle in the wild, battling a terrorizing shark under the sea, before discovering his lady love kidnapped and in need of a heroic rescue that becomes the venue for Poe to display his fighting prowess.

De Castro’s direction is hardly noteworthy, although the usage, both graceful and exhilarating, of underwater photography is astounding, especially for its time, All that said, Zamboanga, despite the obnoxious intent of using the obvious foreignness of a given culture for profit in the guise of skewed education, is more than a well-made film.

Of course, to expect cultural sensitivity and journalistic responsibility from a film that was made for commercial purposes and marketed as spectacles of the danger and romance of these far-flung places for entertainment’s sake during the height of American imperialism is a folly. In other words, the logic of the film being revered today is mostly grounded on the fact that its discovery can be regarded as a ray of hope in the seemingly hopeless cause of Philippine film preservation. If only for that, the film, with all its intentioned inaccuracies, is noteworthy.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Till My Heartaches End (2010)

Till My Heartaches End (Jose Javier Reyes, 2010)

The young lovers in Jose Javier Reyes’ Till My Heartaches End have the easiest of romances. Unfettered by meddling family members, poverty, or other problems that stall the relationships of their counterparts in other movies, Powie (Gerald Anderson), a young man who ambitions to make his own name and wealth, and Agnes (Kim Chiu), a nursing graduate from the province who relocates to Manila to review for the board exams, get into a relationship without any issue.

After an encounter in a coffee shop where Powie was working and a fateful meeting in the heart of Manila that led to a lunch of cheap soft-boiled eggs covered in orange batter in the middle of a busy street, the two become inseparable. When Powie starts to earn more money as a real estate agent, the relationship starts to crack and reveal its weaknesses, starting with the impression that maybe Powie, whose ambition seems to precede everything else, and Agnes, whose naiveté in the affairs of the heart has rendered her vulnerable to the inevitable heartaches of being in a relationship, are not exactly compatible.

Reyes’ aim is to filter fantasy from the romantic film. In that sense, Till My Heartaches End plays like an account of an ordinary relationship, starting with the joys of falling in love for the first time and ending with the gnawing aches of expecting the inevitable conclusion to what used to be a perfect love affair. The only difference is that this account banks heavily on the individual charms of Anderson and Chiu and the chemistry that was manufactured specifically for their duo. Unfortunately, the moroseness of the material overwhelms the possible charms of Anderson and Chiu’s tandem.

The film, despite Reyes’ earnest attempts in recreating a love affair that started perfect but was not really meant to be and despite the momentary pleasures of Reyes’ consistently pleasant writing, is just very dull. Reyes’ film fails primarily for the very simple reason that the romance that is at its center so torturously tedious and its participants so obnoxiously obsessed with whatever they’re obsessed with that caring for the couple and their relationship, as the movie moves along, gradually evolves to be a chore. Beyond the requisite gloss of the typical mainstream production, Till My Heartaches End pushes the boundaries of monotonous commercial filmmaking. Having Powie and Agnes’ love story unfold through the curiosity-triggered conversations of people around the couple seems to be an expendable storytelling conceit. With or without it, the film still struggles to make magic out of the mundane facets of what it believes to be the realities of falling in and out of love.

Its attempts in demystifying cinematic romance, derivative of the anti-romantic charmers from Hollywood like Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer (2009), is hurt by its own indecisiveness in whether or not it wants to map the life and death of a romantic relationship or it wants to betray that completely by hinting of the possibility of still a romantic happily-ever-after for the beleaguered and tortured lovers, as exemplified by the anti-climactic buss in the forehead that precedes not one but two telling instances where the girl looks back at her ex before singer Carol Banawa belts out a song about loving so stubbornly, it hurts.

Believe me, this hurts.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Laruang Lalake (2010)

Laruang Lalake (Joselito Altarejos, 2010)
English Title: Boy Toys

In an age in Philippine cinema where filmmakers and their films are thirsting for a local market at the risk of solely relying on the international film festival circuit for an audience, a genre of films persisted, with a captive market that was loyal to it no matter how technically inept and creatively insipid the films were. Queer cinema took over the space the titillating films of the nineties outgrew. Initiated by Cris Pablo’s ultra-low budget meditations on the gay lifestyle that were shot on digital video, these queer films were mostly independently produced, a quality that separated it from the sex-oriented films of the nineties which were heavily supported by the country’s profit-hungry mainstream film studios. As a result of the genre’s indisputable profitability, which in turn opened it to exploitation by more enterprising producers who opt to concentrate on what drew viewers to pay and watch, which is the nudity and the sex, instead of artistic integrity, it earned ill repute among film circles who saw the genre’s domination in both numbers and earnings of the entire independent film industry, if ever such a thing exists, as an affront to what independence in filmmaking really meant.

Yet queer cinema in the Philippines per se is not exactly an evil thing. Sex, the element that is easiest to target as indulgent and needless, is essential to genre. After all, it is sex and the differences in sexual preferences between homosexuals and heterosexuals that birthed the genre in the first place, and any pretense of purity in the genre is misaligned. Perhaps the only fault of the country’s queer cinema is that its target audience is so loyal, so willing to part ways with their hard-earned money to vicariously live their sexual fantasies through the fictionalized lives of the gay men appearing in these films that there’s a tendency to be unforgivably lax in the actual process of filmmaking, with filmmakers churning out films at a pace that renders the products questionable.

Joselito Altarejos, whose career as filmmaker is a product of the recent boom in queer cinema, has made seven features in the span of only three years. His staggering output as a director is a testament to the undying demand for the films that follow the formula that breathe economic viability to that particular genre. With Laruang Lalake (Boy Toys), Altarejos offers an insider’s look as to how these films are made, starting from when an aspiring actor (Arjay Carreon) from the province is pushed to audition for an upcoming gay feature by his ambitions of stardom and dire financial needs to when the film gets made but its life hinges on the hands of the members of the censors board.

It’s clearly and understandably a non-judgmental portrayal of what happens behind the scenes. The characters, from Carreon’s timid neophyte and his motherly manager to the admirably honorable director (Richard Quan), lack that certain darkness in their personalities that could have caused the requisite conflict in this film about filmmaking. Instead, the film focuses on the mechanics of making a gay film, concentrating on moments that are by themselves banal, but as a whole, is a statement on how gay films, despite their assured profitability, are still subject to all the rules of independent filmmaking in the Philippines, which include making most of shoestring budgets, putting up with unprofessional upstarts and being at the mercy of established ones, personal loans for the sake of the craft, and censorship.

Altarejos dutifully mounts scene after scene, attempting to approximate the tedium that goes with the filmmaking, coloring the tedium with bits of comedy and drama. Despite the effort however, Altarejos fails to engage primarily because the film is not consistent in its aim, struggling to initiate its audience with the familiar story of an upstart getting into a profession that will predictably eat his soul before completely changing course to focus on the fate of the film. The problem stems from the fact that neither the upstart nor the fictional film is interesting enough to carry a film about them. Carreon plays his character with hardly any charm to pull away the fact that the character is severely thinly written. Fortunately, Quan and Mon Confiado, who plays a strip club owner who is venturing to produce gay films, are believable in their respective parts. The fictional film, showed in bits and pieces as being filmed and as shot, seems to be the typical gay film, defended righteously by the director as an exploration of gay sexuality, but as portrayed in the partial pieces that Altarejos shows, is more of a montage of naked male bodies in various simulated sexual acts.

Despite all its faults, Laruang Lalake contains a sequence that makes it worth anybody’s time. The director faces the censors board for a second time, pleading for his film to be given a go-signal to be screened commercially. As the censors rip his film apart and tackles each objectionable scene and explaining why it can’t be screened to the public, the film morphs into something else. Sure, ostensibly, the scene laments a film culture that bows down to individuals whose senses and tastes have become obsolete (as deliciously displayed when the censors themselves are unable to turn a cellular phone in silent mode). However, much more than a statement as to the dangerous inutility of the censors board, the scene, in the way the director defends first the scenes and later on, the homosexual acts depicted in the scenes, begs for acceptance of the genre that exists primarily because there exists sexual differences. To disparage the genre itself is akin to intolerance, and in a way, just like all the members of the board that condescend on the elements that are essential to both gay cinema and being gay, we’re all suspects.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Urian Anthology 1990-1999

Redemption of a Decade in Philippine Cinema
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

We are a sentimental people. We thrive in captured memories: photographs of ourselves backdropped by famous locations in lands we’ve visited, memorabilia from baptisms, weddings, and anniversaries, essential souvenirs from personally important events in our lives. We are constantly nagged by a fear that lest we have tangible representation of points of reminiscence, we tend to forget. And we do forget.

Our country’s history is haunted constantly by recurring themes of failures, followed by great victories, followed by forgetting, followed by failures, and so on. We establish monuments, statues, and shrines. We name schools, streets and bridges by events or people that would supposedly inspire us to remember.

We are a nation of forgetful people who constantly scrounge for objects to remember. That is our fault. That is also our virtue.

Perhaps the biggest representation of this irony is our cinema. We are proud of it, sure. We rejoice when a Filipino film wins awards overseas. Unfortunately, jubilation is fleeting, if not totally hypocritical. We only recognize our cinema when it receives foreign accolades. Without them and quite horrifically, with them sometimes, our cinema is treated like junk – both symbolically and literally – thrown in un-airconditioned basements and warehouses to burn or rot.

We remember the greats – the films of Brocka, Bernal, the two De Leons, and Conde – yet we are completely unaware that almost all of their films are inexistent in their original formats, most of their films are available in substandard digital copies, and some of their films are completely lost.

What we have left are descriptions, perhaps two or three paragraphs at most, to have us remember these films which we absolutely have no memories of.

Inasmuch as preserving films are important, the act of chronicling films, whether analytically or journalistically, is essential in recreating memories out of nothing, caused by the failure of a people that views cinema as a disposable thing of the present instead of a cultural stronghold.

It is for this reason that Dr. Nicanor Tiongson should be commended for coming up with The Urian Anthology 1990-1999, a handsome yet heavyset tome containing memories – mostly good with sprinklings of some bad – of a contestable decade in Philippine cinema.

It is an elegant book. Its cover, a sepia-hued collage of several scenes from films, mostly historical and involving national heroes portrayed by different actors and actresses, seduces the onlooker to reminisce the decade when glamorous historical epics apologized for the numerous titillating showcases and brash comedies that populated movie houses.

The decade, described by Tiongson as the “best of times, the worst of times,” saw Philippine commercial cinema at its lowest, where studios literally and figuratively prostituted itself and its talents to battle imports. Yet the decade also showed glimmers of excellence, where filmmakers and even studios experimented and, in turn, paved the way for the seeds of what was to come the next decade.

A quick skim through the pages reflects the differing facets that defined the decade. Stills from the numerous films adorn the margins of the book, detailing the highs and lows of cinema, where the same actors played national heroes and rapists, the same actresses portrayed dignified women and prostitutes.

The reviews, selected by Tiongson from the Manunuri’s own roster of critics ranging from the enlightening like Hammy Sotto to the populists like Butch Francisco, are important because most of them reflect the critical reaction during the time of the film’s release, approximating, at least to the current reader, how a film was over-appraised or under-appraised.

The various articles, academically rationalizing the pleasant and unpleasant movements and genres that emerged out of the dire economic circumstance of the industry, are springboards for discourse.

The interviews of the decade’s defining filmmakers are also interesting, especially those of filmmakers who continue to work today who might have sacrificed some of the artistry they preach about to survive the dehumanizing rigors of present-day commercial filmmaking.

For whatever its worth, for however critics and filmmakers acknowledge it now, the decade that Tiongson’s indispensible labor of love gives focus to, as exemplified by the collection of articles that seeks not to blindly honor but only to document the decade that passed, is an amalgam of colors, themes, moralities, and levels of artistry that Philippine cinema is evolving into.

Little by little, as a subtle thread of a narrative develops as Tiongson’s carefully conceived book closes to a finish with filmographies of the decade, we acknowledge that Philippine cinema lives – through the good times and the bad.

Personalities pass. Directors retire. Studios fold. Cinema continues, constantly reinventing itself, constantly changing. The Urian Anthology 1990-1991 is the suitable memoir for this nation of forgetful filmgoers to remember that cinema is of value and should be valued.

I just hope that we do not become content with articles and pictures, and start watching these films, and if they are unavailable because of reasons beyond our control, start clamoring the government for a film archive to save us from the dangers of forgetting.

(First published in Starweek Magazine, 24 October 2010)

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Social Network (2010)

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

David Fincher’s The Social Network opens inside a bar where Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenburg), future billionaire and inventor of Facebook, and Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), Zuckerberg’s very-near-future ex-girlfriend and inspiration for a chauvinistic blog post and website Facemash, are in the middle of a rather lopsided conversation with Zuckerberg leading in amount of words and ideas blabbered in a minute and Albright obviously trailing behind. The setting, although not very long ago, harkens to an era when face-to-face relations have not been threatened with obsolescence. The bar is packed. Talk is lively. That is pre-Facebook, pre-the era of living both real and cyber lives with equal importance, pre-breakups via change in the relationship status in profile pages.

If the internet has made the world smaller, Facebook has turned the inhabitants of that shrunk world into codes and scripts that are all interconnected and worse, predictable. Facebook is not addictive because it was made to be addictive. It is addictive because it simulates the social aspect of modern human living. What Facebook members do in the website resembles, with hardly any artificial intervention, how we act and speak in real life. The fact that the inspirations for Facebook are ignited from the social systems of a university campus reflects the probable lapse in the so-called human free will that the success of the social networking website feeds from.

All this is of course touched upon by Fincher tangentially. What The Social Network is more concerned with is Zuckerberg’s story, how a seemingly unlikable Harvard student turned billionaire in a span of a few years and changed the world. It is a story that plays very much like a corporate thriller, except that the characters, instead of being motivated primarily by the greed that consumes adults, are all twenty-something dreamers whose wealth and greatness are mere byproducts of wrestling with their own immaturities and lack of world-readiness. Thus, sprinkled in between plot-forwarding scenes and dialogue are the portraits that are not always patronizing of Zuckerberg’s character but enunciates his humanity, such as when his new-found fame got him a first stab at sex, or what results right after, when he sees his ex-girlfriend and attempts to utilize his fame to undo the insults resulting from his foolish brashness and insensitivity in the film’s opening scene.

At the same time though, The Social Network does not attempt accuracy. In fact, the characters that Fincher and Sorkin created for the film are only stereotypes of who these personalities could be in real life. It is as if these characters are seen not through a biographer’s precise inquisitiveness or a journalist’s adherence to codes of ethics, but through their very own Facebook profiles, where tagged photos, albums, hobbies, interests, likes and relationship statuses are enough to create an idea of who the person behind the profile could be. In a way, the film relishes in the idea of seeing the characters, which are essentially film-friendly sketches of more complex personalities the audience might never have the privilege of knowing, interact as such, extended sketches of what these people were in Harvard: competitive jocks, unsociable nerds, negligible sidekicks, and objects of desire. Fantastically too, this is primarily how Facebook works, by encapsulating people in a few web pages consisting of pictures, basic information and relations, and allowing the casual onlooker a pre-conceived notion of the person via his profile, and thus, giving him the opportunity to judge via his response to the random Add Friend request.

Despite its liberal interpretation of the Facebook founding story, turning what in my mind is a monotonous and maybe sometimes exciting amalgamation of boring lawsuits, endless nights in computer gibberish and mental masturbation, and utter lack of sexy sex, Fincher and Sorkin succeeds in romanticizing the unromantic, cinematizing the un-cinematic, and humanizing the potentially dehumanizing website that has turned Zuckerberg into an icon of this generation of millionaires and billionaires who’ve reached their economic peaks at the same time they’re discovering their own maturities. It’s a generation, as exemplified in one of the scenes where Zuckerberg is asked a question by an elderly lawyer but his mind is elsewhere and when scolded by the elderly lawyer delivers a witty retort that is impossible to deflect without sounding foolish, that cannot by manhandled by dinosaurs of a disappearing era. The speed of change is indisputable in the film which details the pre-Facebook and post-Facebook eras with satisfying details, although blanketed with the familiar dramas of Zuckerberg and company.

The ending, where Zuckerberg ends up alone after a full day of depositions and argumentations in the conference room, toying with his Facebook page, adding Erica Albright as one of his friends in the networking site, and refreshing his internet browser every few seconds to see if his ex-girlfriend responds to his request, is a very potent portrait of creator succumbing to his creation. It details the very mechanism of human interaction that Facebook or any other high technology simulator of human behavior can never replicate, and that is the ability to feel and the free will to act on that feeling. A billionaire in his early twenties, the founder of the most popular website in the planet, a ruthless and conniving businessman, Zuckerberg, at that moment, is without what he wants and needs the most. It is the fact that it is the mechanical and a little bit humorous redundancy that his creation inevitably lured him into mindlessly committing that exposes his biggest failure amidst his famous successes that makes the scene, and the entire film, a worthwhile, if not enlightening journey into what kind of social creatures our human race is transforming into.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Lav Diaz

On Lav Diaz

Lav Diaz, considered by many as the figurehead of what Philippine independent cinema should be, started his career as filmmaker under the auspices of Regal, one of the biggest and most prolific film studios in the country. The films he made for Regal and its subsidiaries, from Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo, Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998) to Hesus Rebolusyonaro (Hesus the Revolutionary, 2002), bear a voice that can’t simply be relegated in a passé concept of cinema as entertainment and commodity. As expected, none of the films he made for the commercial film studio made money, but it earned for the country a true artist, uncompromising even in the face of capitalist demands.

Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), about a Filipino-American investigator who wrestles with personal demons while examining the murder of another Filipino-American in New Jersey, unshackled Diaz from the restraints of commercial filmmaking. Clocking at five hours, the film pursued an aesthetic that is like no other in Philippine cinema, where the camera, mostly unmoving, demands patience and contemplation, because the film itself requires it. Diaz’s next films, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), Heremias (2006), Kagadanan sa banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007), and Melancholia (2008), whose running times ranges from nine to twelve hours and themes explore a spectrum that begins with the very personal and ends with the political or the philosophical, reinforces Diaz’s role in cinema. He is indeed one of the most essential filmmakers to have ever come out of the Philippines.

It is indisputable that Diaz is talented. He has an innate ability of sustaining even the most stubborn of interests with just one unmoving and monochromatic image. Take any of the staggered shots in any of his post-Batang West Side films, where depth, detail, and drama are encompassed with economy of aesthetics, and one would immediately notice that Diaz’s reflexes as a filmmaker is not bound by the limitations of what can be capture onscreen. Perhaps what drives Diaz’s cinema to go beyond the cursory demands of why cinema was invented in the first place, is his faith in it, that cinema is not twenty four lies per second, as Jean-Luc Godard would put it, but is actually twenty four or more not-so-convenient truths per second. If Diaz’s faith in cinema is unburdened by cynicism, why then can’t he demand the same faith from his audience? Truth be told, Diaz’s film may be bleak and therefore taxing to Hollywood-fed sensibilities, but the reward of not just sitting through his cinema, but taking part in his cinema, is priceless.

(Written for Lav Diaz's profile as fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

I Do (2010)

I Do (Veronica Velasco, 2010)

Sometimes a kiss is just not enough. After the redundancy and tedium of romancing, fighting, and forgiving that has been the standard storyline of most if not all recent romantic comedies, the pay-off of seeing the onscreen lovers lock lips in slow motion has been quite unrewarding. Tradition demands that the only acceptable conclusion to any romance is a wedding. Veronica Velasco’s I Do endeavors to innovate on traditions by telling the tale, which according to her and co-writer Jinky Laurel is based on a true story, of a couple whose attempts at being wed are often foiled.

Yumi (Erich Gonzalez) is a hopeless romantic whose mission in life is to find the one to tie the knot with in the dream wedding that she has been obsessing over since her younger years. Lance (Enchong Dee), her Chinese boyfriend, is suddenly faced with the decision of marrying her to the chagrin of her strictly traditional Chinese family, when she discovers that their seemingly innocent romance has produced for them an offspring. Amidst cultural differences, financial un-readiness, overbearing families, and the incoherent advices of close friends, they struggle, stumble, and carelessly rush to the finish line, the dream wedding Yumi has been longing for.

Gonzalez and Dee do make a charming couple. It helps that their performances here are grounded on romantic naiveté and youthful cluelessness, making their fated scenario and their sometimes incredulous reactions to that scenario more believable. The supports, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. The performances of veteran comedians Dennis Padilla and Pokwang infuse Yumi’s humble but earnest parents an amiable sheen. The tacked-on friends, with the exception of Janus del Prado’s pathetically enamored best friend who spurts pessimistic love quotes to hide his feelings for Yumi, are more annoying than alluring, adding more to the unnecessary clunk of the film.

Velasco acknowledges the comedy in the obsession with weddings. As the apt conclusion to any love story, the ceremony represents a collective desire of any lover to cap the uncertainties of pre-marital romantic relationships with something that resembles a fairy tale ending. I Do both flourishes and wallows in its overt comedic intent. Although very careful not to tread past the boundaries of what formula dictates, the writing is mostly witty. However, there seems to be an overabundance of wit and a redundancy of some of the comedic efforts, to the point that the dramatic parts, the portions that feel like the soul of the film, are pushed to the margins. It’s not that the film is not funny. With Dennis Padilla and Pokwang lending their comedic mettle to the already absurd situations conjured by Velasco and Laurel, it’s impossible not to be swayed to at least chuckle at some of the gags. Yet the comedy or perhaps the brand of humor utilized that hinders the film from being anything more than a joyous although momentary diversion.

I Do ends not with a kiss, not with a wedding, but in a heartfelt portrait of familial acceptance. It’s the romantic comedy graduating from the romance and the comedy, bursting the bubble that the lovers created for themselves and realizing that the world is not all about them and the exploits they have encountered in the name of their infallible romance. It is also about other people: the parents that can only long to see their daughter happy, the parents that believe they solely know what’s best for their child, the friends, and the dejected lover. Romances should never end with a kiss, or a wedding, or the promise of love for the rest of their now united lives. I Do, for all its faults and indulgences, invested in an ending that feels like a truly happily ever after.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

An archived photograph of the Filipino-American war as shown
in John Gianvito's Vapor Trail (Clark)

by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

I once fancied myself a history buff, memorized all the events, the dates, the personalities, and other specifics. I was necessarily fascinated by the fact that these events, although involving unheard of elements like war, bloodshed and political intrigue, were real and that they happened in the same world that I exist in. That these events happened in the past gave me a god-like stance of observing them, studying them, memorizing them within a safety that is comforting. The immediate rewards of this fascination with history included top grades in social sciences and an infamy for being a reliable source of trivia.

Trivia. That was all history was for me and presumably most of the world’s work-a-day citizens. As soon as we participate in the seemingly grand but realistically humdrum race called life, we conveniently forget the lessons of the trivial past and replace them with a mentality of “what’s in it for me in the future.” The several EDSA Revolutions all seem like blurs, all parades of empty symbols of the color yellow, the Laban sign, and the humongous Mama Mary standing guard atop a Catholic shrine. For majority of us who are in it for the future consider these symbols as emblems of the promises that they once were and are rejuvenated as continuing promises, not necessarily as a linkage of the persistence of history as a reason for the woes of the present.

Alexis and Nika were murdered on September 1, 2009 in Alexis’ house in West Triangle. Alexis was a film critic, nay, a film activist who spread himself and whatever resources he has amassed during his lifetime for the goal of film education, whether it be to salvage whatever remains of whatever film legacy the Philippines has or to simply broaden the tastes of Filipinos to try films more complicated than the traditional offerings of Hollywood and its local counterparts. Again, all of these are just trivia, bits and pieces of information that newspapers would publish for a semblance of currency in their news-telling. Again, that’s that, a piece of history for the now-enamored-then-oblivious history buffs in high school. The truth of the matter is that their deaths have left an immense void in the advocacy that they concentrated their efforts on.

One of Alexis’ foremost projects was to set-up informal screenings right at the heart of the hangouts of the middle-class and upper-class Filipinos, presumably to bring intelligent films into the consciousness of those with the most capabilities to move and change the pitiful status quo. Thus, the Fully Booked Film Series was born. Imagine. The static shots of Lav Diaz, the beautiful experimentations of Raya Martin, the ultra-personal visual poems of John Torres, and the sensible madness of Khavn just a few meters away from Batman, Spider-man, Archie, Calvin and Hobbes. The irony of it all is just the cherry on top. The meat of the project is that these films, criticized for only being devoured by film enthusiasts outside the country, are being screened in the Philippines, for free, and with the directors and film experts present to answer or at least acknowledge hopefully sensible questions.

A few months after the deaths of Alexis and Nika, the Fully Booked Film Series re-introduced itself as the Tioseco-Bohinc Film Series in appreciation of the two film lovers’ contribution to its existence. In consonance with the recent happenings in the Philippine cinema scene, a very apt screening of John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) was held a few months ago after much prodding from Lav, one of the film’s staunchest supporters. The first part of two documentaries that tackle former United States military bases in the Philippines, the film parades itself as a document of the harrowing effects of the ghosts of these bases, from the contaminations to the water supply to the general forgetfulness of the residents of the subtle woes that the Americans have left behind in the country. The documentary perceptively masks its berating message to the Filipino populace who seem to have contented themselves in treating history as a reason to install crumbling statues in unkempt city plazas while sniffing rugby for pleasure. We are a country of people addicted to momentary flights to landscapes of illusory comforts while everything else in the world is decaying.

In Gianvito’s very personal introduction to the film, where he acknowledged the contribution of Alexis to the film but was only read to the viewers because Gianvito was in Boston and could not go to the screening, he proposes that the Philippines “was robbed of its own independence” by the Americans “at the very moment it had finally achieved liberation from the brutal yoke of Spain is yet one more example of the willful distortion of history by those who benefit from the suppression of inconvenient truths.” The crux of Vapor Trail (Clark) is not only the indictment of the Americans of its overt and subvert crimes against the Philippines but also the indictment of the Filipinos for the act of forgetting and hence, undervaluing and neglecting the gift of liberty that was delivered by our patriots and freedom fighters. The very purpose why this country exists has been overshadowed by tenuous promises of alleviation. The truth is that we are still at war with our colonizers yet there are only very few revolutionaries left fighting, very few nationalistic songs sung, very few real Filipinos left to protect. The rest are slaves to a written history that is too much about trivia and too little about us.

These ramblings are of course products of my own frustration, not anymore about how this country’s history has been morphed into a topic of quiz nights instead of discourse but by the well-founded opinion that to even entertain such an idea is so unpopular, so boring, and so unsophisticated for anyone to spend a few hours of a lazy Sunday for. Vapor Trail (Clark), powerful as it is in its content, in the fact that it is imparted by an American, in the fact that it is too scathingly true to be simply a matter of entertainment or even curiosity, ended with only four people in the audience remaining. Alas, such is the sorry fate of these films that only seek to enlighten and to change mindsets and such is the blessed fate of Christopher Nolan’s Inception that is praised to death by both critics and viewers for its ability to turn fantasy into reality, vice versa ad infinitum. Such is also the fate of those who attempted to inherit Alexis’ woes, finding solutions against all odds to instill a permanent curiosity which will hopefully evolve into a thirst for films of these sort, films whose whispers are louder than the most grandiose explosions in a Michael Bay flick. If only these things can be treated as trivialities. Unfortunately, they can’t so we simply stagger on.

(First published in Uno Magazine, September, 2010, issue)