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.)