Monday, April 05, 2010

Ateneo Video Open 11: Short Narrative Finalists

Abijoyce Padilla's Pigil Hininga (Bated Breath, 2009)

Ateneo Video Open 11: Short Narrative Finalists

Abijoyce Padilla's Pigil Hininga (roughly translated as Bated Breath, 2009), the winner of the Short Narrative competition in the 11th edition of the Ateneo Video Open, is an undeniably witty piece of work. Imagine television hit Heroes without the end-of-days scenario, or the conspiracy theories, or the complex relationships, or the convoluted character arcs. Just leave one character, the Japanese time stopper, and demote that character from unremarkable salaryman to an even more unremarkable deliveryman, replacing his suit and tie with a dull blue jumpsuit. Relocate that character in an impossibly busy Manila-like metropolis that is populated by employees who thrive within an informal and incomplex caste system --- with the unseen capitalists safely tucked inside their offices on top of the grey concrete buildings; below them, their employees, like the stern receptionist and the gorgeous yet indifferent secretary; and even below these employees are the deliverymen, whose never-ending need to rush to catch deadlines leave keep them separated from everybody else.

It is indubitably a grand premise. However, the tale that springs from that grand premise feels lacking and inconsequential. It is as if the premise and the story were all in the service of the production details, which is quite spectacular considering that Pigil Hininga is a student film, whose budget was raised, I infer, from generous sponsorships from relatives and friends of Padilla. The film looks coolly beautiful --- muted shades of grey, blue, green, black and white in constant movement. When the main character uses his power and freezes time, the special effect is exquisitely applied, with everything, except for the main character, is at a sudden stop. Pigil Hininga feels it can use another hour just to completely flesh out what it is attempting to say. At its current length, it feels incomplete, more like a portfolio of spectacles and other visual treats that Padilla can do with very little rather than an actual workable film.

Sheen Seeckts's Baranggay Maligaya (2009) is lovely to look at. Each frame is delicately detailed, from the production design, the lighting, to the color grading, to please the eyes. Unfortunately, its story, a sort-of Coraline derivative, where a young boy, discontent with the unpredictability of his life, accidentally walks into the mirror of the local wizard he befriended, and discovers an alternate life where there is only happiness, betrays its consistently pitch-perfect aesthetics. There is hardly any hint of mischief, nary any sense of danger. The result is quite uninteresting, something that feels better suited in daytime children's television than anywhere else.

Bianka Bernabe's Promo Girl(2009) , about a little girl whose dream of getting rich afflicts her with an unhealthy compulsion to purchase shampoo sachets, on the other hand, fares worse. In the guise of characterization, it indulges in needless special effects, narrative clichés, and an ending, borne out of the desire to romanticize the little girl's ambition, that is both predictable and unremarkable.

Mackoy Adriano's Taguan (Hide and Seek, 2009)

On the other hand, the surprise ending of Mackoy Adriano's Taguan (Hide and Seek, 2009), about a young gigolo who unwittingly discovers something distressing about his beloved father, is entertainingly overwrought. The purposely hammy acting of its two leads (Bor Ocampo and Bembol Roco) fills the frame for a few minutes, lending over-the-top credibility to the incredible affair. Clint Mansell's Lux Aeterna (from the soundtrack of Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000)), most probably used without the composer's permission in true no-budget filmmaking fashion, aptly backdrops the more-than-operatic revelation. To top off the already incredible surprise, Adriano piles another damning surprise to this gender-bending and incestuous pseudo-melodrama, turning his modest short film into a tasteless yet utterly memorable guilty pleasure.

If Taguan is deliciously malicious in its lack of limitations, Louella Suque's Sapatos (Shoes, 2009) is commendable for telling so much within the limits of its introverted character, played by a clearly restrained Ping Medina. Suque has interesting concept: a photographer that tells other people’s stories through their shoes. My only complaint with the short film is that the photographer, as a character and probably because of Suque's abstained treatment, seems to be an empty shell, if not totally devoid of any true human motivation, is too opaque to convey any identifiable emotion. Ping Medina can only do so much to occupy a character that is really only an idea. Moreover, that final scene, with the photographer going home with his walls full of photographs of shoes, is quite inconsequential, and is therefore, a bit of an indulgence.

Much of what is currently known as Philippine cinema in film festivals abroad is predominantly composed of handheld long takes that last more than a couple of minutes. Brillante Mendoza, Jeffrey Jeturian, Pepe Diokno have used the handheld long take to immerse their viewers to the reality of the environments that they seek to depict. Charlie Coralejo's Assignment (2009) makes use of the same technique to tackle the very current issue of government-allowed killings of journalists.

Charlie Coralejo's Assignment (2009)

Assignment is directed seamlessly, allowing you a clear view by using the point of view of one of the unfortunate journalists as the audience's. However, for a film that insists on showcasing the grisly truths of government-sponsored murders of journalists, it lacks any drama, that somewhat withholds me from buying the supposed immediacy of the real-time filmmaking. Other than showing you the abject horror (which is actually unfelt since what you actually witness is quite tame compared to what you would have imagined reading the newspapers) of the practice, there is nothing else to be gained from the film. Mendoza, Jeturian, and to a certain degree, Diokno proposes and utilizes immersion, yet much more than immersion, there is lyric and poetry to their filmmaking. That is what is lacking or absolutely absent here. Definitely a good start, though.

Of all the finalists of the competition, Whammy Alcazaren's Masidhing Kaligayahan (Intense Joy, 2009), in my opinion, had the most to tell and is the most fluent in its manner of telling. The film plays like a murder mystery. There is clearly a death. The clues about the death are then carefully laid out: a man, a woman, a blunt weapon, and sex. Much more than the identity of the perpetrator, which becomes very obvious early on, it is the motive for the murder that is most elusive.

Yet, Alcazaren only suggests a motive, again, carefully putting up various clues: the rosary hanging on the rear-view mirror of the car, the various Catholic icons, the incessant ramblings of the radio evangelist that serves as discomforting soundtrack to the film. Yet, despite the clues, you are left with no motive, just a slight inclination to point fingers at the asphyxiating atmosphere of dogmatic religiousness, an atmosphere that tends to, if not always, twists and warps moral hierarchies. By film's end, nothing is actually solved, except that a certain distaste to the numbing badgering of faith is made apparent. Masidhing Kaligayahan insists on not only entertaining via its ingenious ways of storytelling. Like religion which relies on icons, sounds, and other visual and aural representations for its propagation, Alcazaren relies on images (the dimly lit interiors of a car on its way to nowhere; the man and woman in intense embrace as rice pours from the sky, etc.) and sounds (as mentioned, the radio evangelist and his impassioned lectures) to provoke discourse, a much-needed element in this year's batch of short film finalists.

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