Friday, July 30, 2010

Vox Populi (2010)

Vox Populi (Dennis Marasigan, 2010)

Dennis Marasigan’s Vox Populi begins on the last day of the elections campaign. San Cristobal mayoralty candidate Connie de Gracia (Irma Adlawan) is hearing mass, in the hopes that her fealty with the Catholic God translates to votes. After all, the voice of the people is the voice of God. If one is assured of God’s undying support because of her utmost religiosity and sincerity, then the votes will simply follow. However, politics in the Philippines is not as divinely blessed as one would wish. As soon as Connie steps out of the church, a female churchgoer, severely troubled after being terminated by the town’s biggest employer, is introduced to her and squeezes from her a promise to provide a suitable solution to her labor issue. There is no escape to the very human realities that she has to confront and compromise with within her campaign. God can only do so much.

Marasigan stubbornly and sometimes humorously follows Connie through the troughs and crests of that final campaign day. Accompanied by her trusted assistant (Suzette Ranillo), her younger brother (Bobby Andrews), and campaign manager (Julio Diaz), Connie goes around town in a poster-plastered white van to attend sorties and visit influential personalities to amass enough sure votes to win her the mayoralty seat. What initially feels like a derivative of all the “day-in-the-life-of” dramas that have populated Philippine cinema as of late matures into something else, something more akin to a taut and thorough political comedy that demystifies the intricacies and particularities of Philippine politics in one entertaining package. Early on, the film insists on pandering on the obvious. The mechanics of the campaign, from the banal physical exertions like being tired and hungry to the seemingly didactic proclamations of Connie on providing better futures for everyone, is laid out in a straightforward fashion, unadorned of any embellishments or subjectivity.

The plot thickens. Connie makes deals left and right whether or not they’re incongruent with promises thrown left and right. There is no doubt Connie believes in her platform. Compared to the outright sleaze of her closest opponent, the incumbent town mayor, and the unseen third force, a youth leader who backs out from the race at the last minute, Connie, given the transparency that Marasigan grants the character, seems an ideal choice, the best choice for San Cristobal. The film however is not as interested in Connie’s electoral success as it is interested in her subtly orchestrated descent. Each deal she seals, whether it be with a devious religious leader or the town’s local crime lord (Jose Mari Avellana, who is utterly brilliant in the role), makes her position less ideal and her promises less realizable. Each accruing event that places Connie closer to victory feels like a step closer to limbo.

Connie juggles the demands of her campaign with her personal details. Interestingly, rather than treating these personal identifications as extraneous or as diversions to the freely flowing narrative of the final day of her campaign, Marasigan manages to mesh Connie’s political ambitions with her personal failures as wife and parent, and her father’s unavoidable legacy, into an amply intriguing reflection on a woman’s struggle for self-identification. Connie, in that single moment in the film where she is alone in her room, she stares at herself in the mirror and rehearses the three most important words in her campaign: Connie de Gracia. Her repeated utterances of her name give rise to her numerous roles and identities she is embattled with: Connie de Gracia, mayoralty candidate; De Gracia, the daughter of a former mayor; "disgrasya" (disgraced) by a careless romance that has turned her into an ex-wife and an absentee mother. Nearly assured of victory, she utters her name one last time, this time with the authoritativeness of a victor.

Vox Populi is funny as it is scary. In the guise of fictional Connie, Marasigan creates a Filipino Faust. There is no god in the picture, seemingly no redemption. There are no demons either. Politics, cynical as it seems, is Connie’s Mephistopheles. Democracy seems to be a sham. In the end, whether or not the road to the so-called bright future is straight and not crooked, the van going there is overloaded with favors and promises, investors and constituents.

(Cross-published on Twitch.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Halaw (2010)

Halaw (Sheron Dayoc, 2010)
English Title: Ways of the Sea

Set in the southernmost and arguably the most marginalized portions of the Philippine archipelago, Sheron Dayoc's Halaw (Ways of the Sea) documents the attempts of several of its citizens to secure a better life by crossing borders via the sea that separates the hopelessness in Mindanao and the promises of Sabah. The first half of the film, set on land, gives the audiences a glimpse of the lives sought to be changed, from the recruiter (John Arcilla) who manages the goods he has to bring to Malaysia intact and untainted to the Badjao siblings who seek to be reunited with their missing mother. The latter half, set primarily on sea, maps the journey and defines the relationships, until they reach their destination.

During the film’s first half, Dayoc, gifted with the ability to tell stories through gestures instead of the giveaway expository powers of words, compiles an array of emotions from his subjects, emotions like anger and frustration from Arcilla’s persistent recruiter, resignation and sorrow from Maria Isabel Lopez’s seasoned cross-border passenger, and longing from Arnalyn Ismael’s Badjao lass.

He therefore unmasks from the broken landscape defined by makeshift shacks on rickety stilts and military men in incessant patrol a people of confused identities, to whom nationality is a non-issue, and language is not a barrier. The only constant among them aside from the fact that in the motorboat they are all equal in the sense that they all have paid the same expensive fare, is a shared humanity, as defined by their decision to forego risks and uncertainties all in the service of filling a need. This is Dayoc’s strongest suit, the ability to humanize, to hint at histories and pasts of his selected characters with only offerings of glimpses of what could be a more troubling and devastating whole. The motorboat, carrying its paid and hopeful passengers, leave port. A lullaby guides them to sea, creating a false impression of peace and comfort.

However, the journey should be anything but peaceful and comfortable. Dayoc misses the tedium and boredom of sea travel. He also misses the possible dangers, the probable escalating dramas, and the budding connections between the characters. It seems that Dayoc envisions the sea as refuge from the ills caused by the deficiencies and excesses of society. Thus, when the motor boat ends up in Mamanok Island, the final station where the boat replenishes its supplies before arriving at their supposed destination, the passengers, more specifically the recruiter and his single ward, are again exposed to the same dangers they are trying to escape from. It seems that as long as corrupted man-made social structures, there can be no hope, no hope. The film’s most poignant moment, a scene where the recruiter and his ward are in equal terms in terms of being hopeless and helpless, involves a predicament where these social structures have broken down to reveal humanity in its basest and most repugnant.

Halaw is admittedly not a faultless film. The ending, whose abruptness can be read as ambiguity or a metaphor for the supposed endlessness of these cross-border tragedies, is ultimately a betrayal of Dayoc’s sincere appreciation of the passengers’ disparate yet connected conditions. However, amidst these technical and narrative issues, the film most importantly exists as an indictment of the failures of these man-made institutions, of the suffocating implications of poverty, intolerance, corruption and other by-products of abused and misused social structures, and borders, boundaries, and other instruments that primarily seek to protect these social structures but in truth, only propagate exploitation wherever and whenever such issues exist.

(Cross-published on Twitch.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Movie Experience I Can't Forget

"Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino" ("Evolution of a Filipino Family"), 2004
Cine Adarna, Diliman, Quezon City, Philippines

It was Dec. 17, 2004, an hour before midnight. The sun seemed like a distant memory. The black-and-white images on-screen — images of the families of a farmer and a miner struggling through the torturous passage of languorous time — felt more immediate, more real. The nearly 12 hours I spent inside the aging Cine Adarna theater at the University of the Philippines, watching "Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino" felt like a lifetime. The theater is named after the mythical, elusive Adarna bird, a creature whose songs can cure many illnesses and induce anyone to sleep. As director Lav Diaz painstakingly created a cinematic universe with a heartbreaking resemblance to reality, there were times when the movie had an Adarna-like effect, even lulling me to sleep...

(Read more of the movie experience from Matt Zoller Seitz's Slideshow: The movie experience I can't forget in

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (2010)

Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (Mario O'Hara, 2010)
English Title: The Trial of Andres Bonifacio

When a film is described as poetic, it is often taken as a compliment. However, when a film is described as theatrical, it is seen as a critique, scathing at that. What makes poetry the better spouse to cinema? Isn’t cinema but a visual and aural interplay of poetry and theater to begin with? Theater provides the cornerstones: the narrative, the milieu, the setting and the characters. Poetry, on the other hand, more than the façade and the flourishes, provides the requisite subtlety in the execution --- the minute gestures that accentuate a character, that last five seconds of absolute silence before a cut, the symbols, the verses, the rhymes, and rhythms. This is purely hypothetical. But if films are judged based on a balance where theatricality is measured with poetry, and the former outweighs the latter by a large margin, does it mean that the film is better off staged than filmed?

Of course, cinema, contrary to common misconception, is vaster than the trite and absolutely baseless hypothesis that was just forwarded. For that reason, cinema should and cannot be caged to what is merely “cinematic” because the term “cinematic” itself is already enigmatic, subjective in its very definition and has something more to do with how the recorded moving pictures are treated and utilized to express rather than how these pictures are moved and later on recorded. That being said, for all the accusations of supposed theatricality, Mario O’Hara’s flawed yet masterful Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio) is truly cinematic, probably the most important and cinematic creation that the Cinemalaya Film Festival ever produced in its six years of existence.

Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio starts off after the Tejeros Convention where Andres Bonifacio (Alfred Vargas), a commoner from Tondo who is the founder and regarded father of the Philippine Revolution, has lost the presidency of the Revolutionary Government to Emilio Aguinaldo (Lance Raymundo), one of the more popular generals in the province of Cavite. In the midst of the revolutionary war against the Spanish colonizers, the revolutionary government initiates a trial against Andres and his brother Procopio (Janvier Daily), for treason, when the two, along with several of their men, were captured in a town where a supposed confrontation ensued between Bonifacio and Aguinaldo’s camps. Artistic liberties aside like the ghostly narrator (Mailes Kanapi) who conveniently appears to provide present-day commentaries and reactions on the events of the past, O’Hara does not deviate from recorded history, neither adding nor deleting anything from the written accounts of the trial to depict one of the most contentious and mysterious events in Philippine history, one that has been a pointed precursor to several of the present ills that plague Filipino politics.

I agree. Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio is theatrical, but theatricality and literariness is the point. What essentially is the value of history translated into film, as is? It only glorifies and celebrates the erroneous artifice of a concrete and permanent history, as written by the few, and more damningly, by the few who are in the position to write and create history. We have seen this happen with Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal (1998), a film that attempted to film Jose Rizal’s life as fact that it only succeeded in being both glossy yet tepid, as compared to Mike De Leon’s Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 2000), a film that has experiential knowledge of the impossibility of committing history to celluloid that it resigned itself to deconstructing the hero and what it has become in the present age.

The film, self-consciously theatrical from its very first frame up to the last, eschews reverence for its depiction of history. By scripting the trial as it was recorded up to the final recount of Lazaro Macapagal who read to Andres and his brother Aguinaldo’s verdict, utilizing theater actors to play historical figures as if they were acting on stage for immediate audiences and hence enunciating words, expanding bodily gestures, and utilizing exaggerated acting styles, and employing several theatrical and literary devices, O’Hara treats history as literature and more specifically, treats the trial of Bonifacio as fiction, dramatized and romanticized. This film’s form, as described above, aptly sets the tone for the grandiose stage play that is Bonifacio’s trial, a proceeding set-up to emulate a sense of fairness and justice in the dilemma of legitimately dispatching the utmost symbol of the revolution.

It is undoubtedly inevitable that many viewers would imagine Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio as history recreated in film for the singular purpose of historical education, and I seriously fear educational institutions treating the film as such, feeding eager minds O’Hara’s clever mockery of recorded history as truth and fact. Before ending up with conclusions about historical figures whose lives and deaths are buried deep in speculations, hypotheses, and conflicting accounts, one should cognize the genius of O’Hara’s exploitation of the media he utilizes, that the Andres Bonifacio of his film is the Andres Bonifacio of the records of the biased revolutionary government, the main character of a staged play, the leading man of a film, and not the revered national hero of the Philippines.

O’Hara curiously incorporates the tale of the Ibong Adarna, also staged, in his film. Vargas, apart from playing Andres, also plays the youngest prince who in the Adarna tale, meets a hermit who gives him a knife and several lemons to keep him awake as the Adarna bird sings its lulling song. The film’s use of the Adarna tale ends mid-tale, when Andres and his brother are killed by Aguinaldo’s men. Death, more than the grand equalizer of men, is also the most effective means to silence men. Unlike the youngest prince of the Adarna tale who will be able to return to his father’s castle after being beaten up by his jealous brothers, and be acknowledged for his feat of capturing the Adarna bird and curing his father, Andres and Procopio’s deaths in the hands of his fellow Filipinos has left an incurable, lingering void in a country’s problematic history. All we can really do is investigate, speculate, and hopefully, create, and that as we do all those things, we can nurse this ailing nation to full health, with or without the help of the mysterious songs of the mythical bird.

(Cross-published on Twitch.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sampaguita, National Flower (2010)

Sampaguita, National Flower (Francis Xavier Pasion, 2010)

It is more than instructive to look at Francis Xavier Pasion’s Sampaguita, National Flower with the merits of his much-celebrated first feature Jay (2008) in mind. The first feature is essentially about eponymous Jay, a television producer who travels to Pampanga to create a TV-documentary on the life of gay teacher who was recently murdered, his family, and his close friends, is more than the immediate subject matter, it delves further into the power of media, and its abuses, all in a fine satire that is so self-aware, it reveals its own fabrication at the very end. In a very important scene in the film, the producer, having discovered that vital footage of the victim’s mother’s initial reactions upon seeing her dead son in the morgue was corrupted and rendered unusable for his program, instructs the mother to visit the morgue, reenact the grief, crying and wallowing in front of a stand-in pretending to be her dead son. In all its hilarious absurdity, the scene ponders on the very thin line between media’s role as exploiter and its duty to expose.

Sampaguita, National Flower opens with Philippine national symbols as paraded by Filipinos living in the margins of society under the proud melody and rhythm of the national anthem. The ironies are instantly and efficiently made obvious by Pasion’s cinematic irreverence. The narra, the national tree, plays private quarters to a gay man and his underage victim. The Philippine eagle, the national bird, and the bahay-kubo, the national dwelling place, are only prints on faded t-shirts worn for convenience, hardly for pride. The sampaguita, the national flower, pure in its whiteness and alluring with its distinct fragrance yet produced and peddled in the streets by the most exploited of Filipinos, is perhaps the biggest and most readily apparent irony of them all.

In Sampaguita, National Flower, Pasion puts himself in the position of Jay, utilizing the power of the moving image to expose social ills and in turn, to elicit even from the most cynical of souls some sort of guilt or pathos for the sorry state of his several subjects who are a handful of children deeply entrenched within the sampaguita trade. Thus, he fashions his film like a charity ad with the children over a white background answering questions thrown by Pasion that probe deep into their shared poverty. Bulk of the film however places the audience outside the comfortable controlled environment of the interview room. He follows the children as they walk the streets selling fragrant necklaces adorned by sampaguita buds, begging for leftover food, or just gallivanting, allowing the night to pass. Clearly, these films are directed, with the scenarios derived from children’s experiences, aspirations and fears, and the children themselves acting out their lives.

It’s effective filmmaking, to say the least. If Pasion’s intent is to emphasize the pathetic state of the country, where the moneyed middle class inhabit the same space as the poorest of the poor, with the former accepting the obvious inequity as if it were a normal part of life, then Sampaguita, National Flower is a triumph. There are more than enough images of dehumanizing suffering inflicted on the innocent to disturb the most stubborn of spectators. However, above exposition, is there anything else to be gathered from the film? If there are, they have been so overshadowed by this initial and most obvious intent.

Jay worked in so many levels: as an exposé of the murders of homosexual men; as an indictment of media as tool for exploitation; and as an earnest reminder that cinema, although harbinger of certain truths, is still a human creation. In comparison, Sampaguita, National Flower feels like an abandonment of all these themes and directions. There is a feeling that Pasion has regressed from the self-conscious and self-aware cinema of his first feature to this feature, where his function as director is disappointingly more provocateur than auteur.

(Cross-published on Twitch.)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Limbunan (2010)

Limbunan (Gutierrez Mangansakan II, 2010)
English Title: Bridal Quarter

Gutierrez Mangansakan II's Limbunan (Bridal Quarter) happens during the entire month where Ayesah (Jea Lyca Cinco), betrothed to a man she has never met, is confined within her bridal chambers, as Maguindanaoan tradition would dictate. The film's languorous pacing alludes to the glacial and oftentimes torturous passage of time, where Ayesah, inevitably volunteered to sacrifice individual pleasures as a matter of culture, struggles emotionally in the process. The bridal chamber, as opposed to the open spaces outside as seen from the point of view of Ayesah’s curious little sister (Jamie Inte), is a curtailing setting. The lone window that gives Ayesah a partial glimpse of the outside world opens to reveal the vastness of unknowable possibilities torn by the conveniences of tradition.

It is a very quiet film. Talk, although very frequent, is deliberate. Silence is an enforced practice, especially among women. Speech, like almost everything in the film, is treated with ceremonial reverence. If and when these women, by virtue of their humanity, break the veil of quietude and propriety, it is both scandalous and refreshing, as when the silence of the night is punctured by child’s play or brash talk of sex and loveless marriages invade the sanctity of the bridal chamber. The film takes its time, patiently breezing through what could be torturous days of Ayesah waiting for either fate to take its course or the courage to change her fate. The dramatic moments that sparsely accentuate the waiting only enunciate the emotional imprisonment.

Mangansakan makes it clear that while Ayesah is at the center of the narrative, she is not the only woman that was restricted or silenced by tradition. Her aunt (Tetchie Agbayani), tasked to take care of Ayesah as she is prepared to be a bride, has her very own anecdote of sacrifice in the name of family and tradition. Limbunan is a collage of women silenced, Ayesah, her aunt, her mother who has to share her husband with a Christian woman, her little sister whose own youth combats her curiosity, by traditions defined by patriarchal standards. Ayesah confides to her aunt about the possibility of escape, of marrying a Christian trader; her aunt frankly distinguishes marriage opportunities by gender, emphasizing the sad but undeniable reality that men and women are not equal in the eyes of their culture.

In a sense, Mangansakan tells the story of the land and its people via the pains of the women. The film’s beautiful final shot, where Ayesah, along with all the women in the family, accompany her from the chamber to the wedding, is not so much an ambiguous end to a story that pits the self with society as it is portrait of women, relaxed, resigned yet resilient in the midst of minimizing their selves in the context of society. The ending triumphs precisely because it is a gentle portrait of quiet acceptance, unfazed by any inner turmoil.

Despite touching these themes of repression and denial of self-actualization via the requirements of cultural identity and for all the seeming obsolescence of these restrictive traditions in a present age where democracy is preferred, freedoms are valued and gender equality is emphasized, Mangansakan admirably takes a non-judgmental stance. In fact, he grants the ritual and all the reasons and rationalities for its continued existence due respect and reverence. Moreover, he meticulously recreates a setting where cultural details, from the patterns in the cloths to the singing duels prior to the wedding proper, are preserved. Limbunan, in all its stylized storytelling and its undeniable splendor, is most importantly, a very personal ode to his often misunderstood and misrepresented cultural roots.

(Cross-published on Twitch.)

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Battery (2007)

The Battery (Yôjirô Takita, 2007)
Japanese Title: Batterî

The meaning of life, as it turns out and according to the logic of Yôjirô Takita's unapologetically sentimental The Battery, can be found in baseball. The film, which tells the story of Takumi Harada (Kento Hayashi), a talented young pitcher who relocates to a rural town for his sickly younger brother, is ostensibly directed towards the youth, with its treatment of persons of authority, from the bumbling parents to the inutile teachers, with manifest naiveté of the driving force of the youth. In that sense, Takita's function as director is nothing more than to provoke empowerment among the youth; that independent of limitations enforced by authoritarian entities yet guided by virtues exemplified in team sportsmanship, one can be triumphant in a chosen field.

That being said, The Battery is a frustratingly close-minded film, typical of the many youth-directed narratives whose singular goal is patronize the faults of the next generation in the guise of some life wisdom fetched from deep within the elusive pertinent virtues of baseball. With hardly any attempt at subtlety from Takita, the films bludgeons its audience to abide by its strange logic and morality, all for the sake of genre and market conventions. Thus, there's an abundance of emotionally manipulative techniques at use here --- from the frequent close-ups to the perpetually smiling mug of best friend Go (Kenta Yamada), who also functions as Takumi's catcher; the predictable musical orchestrations that swell at the most opportune moments in the film; the numerous sidekicks who provide diversion from the sugary best bud plot by being inanely humorous.

The Battery is middlebrow entertainment, at its most efficient, with its unwillingness to be waylaid by any form of ambiguity. Should one survive the arguably impolite and inarguably impractical sweetness that is being rammed down the throats of its audience, the film proves to be surprisingly profound in its observations about baseball. In fashioning Takumi and Go's friendship and sports partnership not unlike a domestic relationship, the film suggests a quasi-conjugal overview of the game where more than manly prowess and skills, the requisite for success is something less physical and more emotional, something more within the arena of conventionally conceived feminine traits. In a sport that is crazed with strength, muscles and steroids, the idea that the possible key to a perfect game is love and harmony is jolting. To see baseball matches where grunts and sweat are replaced with communicated smiles and sticky stares is some sort of unexpected undercurrent in a pastime that has been unduly for years, a test of manhood, at least for the cultures that regard the sport that highly.

At a purely moralistic analysis, The Battery purports to connect family, friendship and character with baseball. However and more than that, The Battery is further proof, along with the girl-y boy bands, the effeminate anime heroes, polka dot clothes, shirts a size or two smaller than normal worn by slender male bodies, and the exaggerated demand for everything bug-eyed, cute, and cuddly, that Japan has perfected the art of advertising androgyny.