Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ang Panday (2009)

Ang Panday (Mac Alejandre, 2009)
English Translation: The Blacksmith

Somewhere out there, Carlo J. Caparas is beaming with a brand new dose of pride and self-confidence. Caparas, whose status as National Artist for Visual Arts and Film has been tainted because of several procedural lapses in his selection and a widespread and thoroughly convincing opinion among artists' circles that he does not deserve such honor considering that he never drew any of the comics he's most famous for and that his filmography is limited to exploitative films about sensationalized massacres and morally questionable political figures, has again gotten what his naysayers can never get, box office triumph. As it turns out, Mac Alejandre's re-do of Ang Panday (The Blacksmith), based on the very popular comic book written by Caparas and translated to film several times before, is quite a hit.

Caparas, however, cannot and should not claim sole ownership over the phenomenon that is Ang Panday. He may be credited for creating a near-empty vessel, a character that is so simplistic, so archetypal that it readily morphs into an entirely different entity depending on the actor who takes on the role. Fernando Poe, Jr., who is regarded as king of Philippine movies who was charismatic and popular enough to have actually threatened to take away the presidency from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in an election despite having no political experience prior to his presidential campaign, portrayed the role of Flavio, the blacksmith who was prophesied to rid the land of evil, in several movies in the early eighties, improving Caparas' empty character and turning it into a cultural, if not political icon, a champion of the masses who singularly wages a righteous war against the forces of evil who have enslaved the poor people of the land. Bong Revilla, Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada would later on portray derivatives of the Panday character in Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes' Dugo ng Panday (Blood of the Blacksmith, 1993), about a descendant of the original Flavio who inherits the mythical blade, and Caparas' Hiwaga ng Panday (Mystique of the Blacksmith, 1998), about a gunsmith who discovers Flavio's sword and converts it into a gun, respectively. Matinee idol Jericho Rosales adds youthful vigor to Flavio when he took on the role for the television series. Ultimately however, Poe remains to be the quintessential Flavio as his slow yet assured demeanor, his stylized poses and fighting styles, his undeniable charm, his trademark quietude that makes every word he speaks invaluable have become irreplaceable adjuncts of the character.

In Alejandre's Ang Panday, Revilla graduates from portraying a mere descendant of the legend into stepping into the shoes of the legend itself. It's a tricky proposition, one that Revilla, who is also the main financier of the film, quickly deflects by dedicating the movie to Poe (sympathetically ending the dedication with a statement about Poe being the one and only Panday). Whether or not the dedication is actually heartfelt or an automatic reiteration of what is expected from anyone touching the franchise is beyond the point. Revilla has volunteered himself to be compared against Poe, to be scrutinized for whatever he lacks, to be criticized for whatever changes or modifications he introduces. It really is a daunting task, one that Revilla accomplishes by putting in what essentially is a very safe performance, a performance that is so carefully and deliberately engineered that it is neither wondrous or obnoxious, just inexplicably dull and unoriginal. However, to expect a myth-changing performance by Revilla is close to impossible. Revilla has never been or never pretended to be an accomplished thespian. What he is is an action hero who is gifted with age-defying good looks and an unwieldy heft that makes him a logical replacement for Poe.

Alejandre manages to tie things together with a thread so loosely spun that a minor misstep can cause the entire thing to fall apart. Screenwriter R. J. Nuevas' update on the narrative is understandably simplistic, episodic and quite easy to follow and digest. There's enough room for humor, usually provided for by cameos by some comedians (John Lapus as a gay mananangal; and when a young adventurer throws an insult on his ridiculously long hair, with stoic ease, he retorts with "nakapangasawa ako ng mayaman (I married a rich man)"), but not enough to relocate the film from derivative adventure into camp territory, an experiment that I thought would have made for a far more interesting movie. Obviously, the point of the movie is not to reinvent the wheel (Panggay, veteran comic Joey De Leon's flamboyantly gay version of iconic hero is a funny although short-lived parody; while Guiller, Estrada's gun-slinging variation of the character is an imaginative but half-baked creation) but to embellish a classic with the best special effects, production design, and other technical details Philippine money can buy. It somewhat works, at least to create an experience that nearly resembles the ones offered by Hollywood's expensive epics. The visual effects (from the beautifully animated opening sequence to the computer generated effects that are generously sprinkled throughout the film), the gorgeous musical scoring, and the delightfully meticulous production design display the extent of Philippine talent given a budget that is a mere fraction of what it needs to make one of Michael Bay's bloated extravaganzas.

Alejandre's Ang Panday is, at best, a showcase of Philippine ingenuity. The movie, probably deservedly, is getting a lot of criticism for being a hodgepodge of Hollywood influences (Philip Salvador's Lizardo is an uncomfortable mix of Jack Nicholson's outwardly insane and Heath Ledger's inwardly insane Jokers; Lizardo's dreary castle seems to inspired by Sauron's tower in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings series; in fact, much the movie's mise-en-scene (Lizardo speaking to his army of goons atop his castle is a convenient copy of Saruman speaking to his army of orcs atop his tower) are borrowed from Jackson's famous epic). However, Philippine mainstream cinema can never claim originality, since the formulas used, from the slapstick to the heavy dramas, from the horrors to the romantic comedies, are patterned after those that have worked for Hollywood and other Hollywood-type markets in the world. Capitalist logic dictates that those in the entertainment business should create entertainment to survive; and when pressed against competitors that are bigger, brighter, and fancier, the tendency is to bridge the gap, not with money but with sheer craftsmanship. That said, Ang Panday is probably one of silliest films in the decade (and as an aside, Caparas, for all his intuition on what stories the masses are willing to pay to follow, should not mistake artistry with mass appeal) but it's a step forward for Philippine mainstream cinema in its ambition of finally churning out a film that can be at par with the Hollywood blockbuster. Whether that is good or bad in the long run is a different matter altogether.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2009: Highlights in Film

Raya Martin's Independencia

2009: Highlights in Film

2009 has been both kind and cruel to Philippine cinema. As we celebrate the numerous recognitions Filipino films are getting from beyond Philippine shores (Brillante Mendoza winning Best Director in Cannes for Kinatay (The Execution of P) with Raya Martin's Independencia (which is the second Filipino film, after Mendoza's Serbis (Service) in 2008, to be featured in the prestigious New York Film Festival) and Manila (co-directed with Adolfo Alix, Jr.) also premiering in the film festival; Pepe Diokno's Engkwentro (Clash) winning the Luigi de Laurentiis Award and the Orrizonti Prize in Venice, where Mendoza's Lola (Grandmother) premiered in the main competition of the film festival; Pusan and Thessaloniki putting the spotlight on Philippine cinema, concentrating on the diverse output of the new wave of directors from the vibrant independent scene; Vienna holding a retrospective of Lino Brocka's works; among many others), we mourn the untimely passing of the heroes of Philippine cinema: Alexis Tioseco, a great critic who championed Southeast Asian, and more specifically Philippine cinema, concentrating on the films of the Diaz, Martin, and John Torres, whose works he dearly loved, with endless passion; and Johnny Delgado, a great actor whose collaborations with almost all of the country's great filmmakers (Brocka, Mike De Leon, Gerry De Leon, Laurice Guillen, and Celso A. Castillo), make up a portion of this country's vibrant cinema.

2009 also saw the continuation of what ails our cinema: an unimaginative mainstream (although I must admit that Chito Rono's T2, the first half of which is quite intriguing, Olive Lamasan's In My Life, a baby step for the mainstream to embrace gay cinema (as opposed to the banal comedies of Joel Lamangan that merely re-echoed the stereotypes of homosexuality from past decades with contemporary idiocy), and Laurice Guillen's I Love You, Goodbye, a fine film except that it ended illogically, were minor delights), and local film distributors that favor brainless blockbusters (Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Chris Weitz's New Moon) to quality imports (although the latter part of the year saw the surprising commercial release of Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, James Gray's Two Lovers, Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox). Despite that, the year saw the continuation of what gives us hope in our cinema: Cinemalaya, despite my apprehensions to its raison d'etre of independence through creative compromise, had a roster of good to great products (Alvin Yapan's Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe (The Rapture of Fe), Veronica Velasco's Last Supper No. 3, Borgy Torre's charming short Bonsai); Cinemanila, apart from showcasing the best films from around the world (including Christopher Chong's Karaoke, Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan and Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In), saw the premieres of Raymond Red's Himpapawid (Manila Skies), his first film since winning the Palm D'Or for his short film Anino (Shadows), Christopher Gozum's Anacbanua (Child of the Sun), and Armando Lao's Biyaheng Lupa (Soliloquy), and CinemaOne, despite my problem with the festival's treatment of its director's property rights with regards their films, which produced its sole masterpiece, Ray Gibraltar's Wanted: Border.

One can only hope for better things for 2010: with filmmakers getting their due respect, not only in terms of recognition but also basic sustenance (it pains me to see these filmmakers struggling to pay off debts incurred for the sole reason of advancing this country's cinematic culture); with our audience actually watching the films that have garnered worldwide fanfare instead of simply reading about them from obscure press releases in several broadsheets; with more film lovers writing about our cinema, giving room to responsible discourse about our films. Now, on to the lists:


Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans

Top 10 Foreign Films Released in 2009

1) The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
2) Two Lovers (James Gray)
3) Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki)
4) Karaoke (Christopher Chong)
5) Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
6) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
7) Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
8) Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy)
9) Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
10) Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi)


Christopher Gozum's Anacbanua

Top 10 Filipino Films Released in 2009

1) Independencia (Raya Martin)
2) Kinatay (The Execution of P, Brillante Mendoza)
3) Wanted: Border (Ray Gibraltar)
4) Anacbanua (Child of the Sun, Christopher Gozum)
5) Lupang Hinarang (Hindered Land, Ditsi Carolino)
6) Himpapawid (Manila Skies, Raymond Red)
7) Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro (Butterflies Have No Memories, Lav Diaz)
8) Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe (The Rapture of Fe, Alvin Yapan)
9) Last Supper No. 3 (Veronica Velasco)
10) Kimmy Dora (Joyce Bernal)


Raymond Red's Ang Magpakailanman

Top 5 Older Filipino Films Seen for the First Time in 2009

1) Pagdating sa Dulo (At the Top, Ishmael Bernal, 1971)
2) Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahaghari? (Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?, Kidlat Tahimik, 1994)
3) Bontoc Eulogy (Marlon Fuentes, 1995)
4) Ang Magpakailanman (The Eternity, Raymond Red, 1982)
5) Kagat ng Dilim (Dark Bites, Cesar Hernando, 2006)

(Cross-published in Senses of Cinema, 2009 World Poll)