Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ang Panday 2 (2011)

Ang Panday 2 (Mac Alejandre, 2011)
English Title: The Blacksmith 2

The malady caused by the proliferation of loud but predominantly empty Hollywood blockbusters in Philippine shores is most evident in Mac Alejandre’s Ang Panday 2 (The Blacksmith 2). The bombardment of special effects has never been this harmful to the eyes and to the mind. This sequel to the 2009 reincarnation of one of Fernando Poe, Jr.’s most beloved cinematic alter-egos is hardly a film. Its characters which are proudly advertised as based on Carlo J. Caparas’ creations actually reflect the weakness of Caparas’ imagination which seems to be fuelled only by stereotypes and derivations. In Alejandre’s hands, Flavio (played by Senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla, Jr.), who transforms into the heroic Panday with his elongating dagger that detects evil, is a hollow vessel, a tool for ambitious Revilla to transform his political ambitions into something as simple as a battle of good against evil.

Its story is nothing more than an excuse to chain together scenes that are supposed to inspire spectacle, the special effects of which are sometimes delightful to look at but are mostly just numbingly repetitive. After defeating Lizardo (Phillip Salvador), Flavio decided to settle with fiancée Maria (Iza Calzado) in a little town whose citizens are more than grateful to the hero for getting rid of their oppressor. However, Lizardo is hardly dead. Awakened by Baruha (Lorna Tolentino who braves to wear make-up that makes her look like a subpar version of Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch), who opts to wreak her brand of evil from atop an ominous looking peak, Lizardo begins his quest for world domination, first, by kidnapping the town’s female folk including Maria, second, by murdering the men folk through his many minions, and third, by attempting to disarm Flavio by stealing his magical dagger.

Along the way, he discovers that his pet dragon is in fact a foxy lady (Marian Rivera) who is a member of an ironically peaceful race of people who can transform into powerful dragons. He also meets a couple of his friends from his first adventure. All this is of course a bunch of nonsensical filler. The film has lost all ambition to entertain beyond its brainless showcase of what it intends to be as international-caliber computer-generated extravagance. Every now and then, jokes are cracked, slapstick happens, or hints of a probable darkness beneath all the fakery are exposed. However, all those attempts are quickly shelved as soon as Revilla, who seems to have lost all humanity in his exertion to be an effective action hero despite his age and his unwieldy heft, sucks all the possible fun with his mug of contagious indifference.

Alejandre horribly mistakes pageantry with aesthetics. From the small town and its colorfully costumed townsfolk to Lizardo’s grimly dressed monstrosities, the film looks like a hodgepodge of miscommunicated pegs and influences. Like a zombie in search for a living human brain to feed on, the film gnaws on your sanity. It actually forces you to wish for random calamities that would salvage you from the misfortune of sitting through a confused and disastrously taxing film.

By the film’s end, when Baruha announces that this is just the start of the reign of evil, the aches stopped with the promise that this part of Flavio’s saga will finally close. But then, Revilla, donned in his heroic garb and flicking his symbol of being macho for all the world to see and mouthing cryptic words that may or may not be his battlecry for the next elections, appears in another one of Alejandre’s painfully pretty backdrops that are too reminiscent of every torturous episode of TeleTubbies to be taken seriously. Baruha indeed has played propher. This, ladies and gentlemen, is really just the start of the reign of evil.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (2011)

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Jun Lana, 2011)

Its prologue, which briefly introduces its bouquet of characters and their curious relationships and situations, is divided into three parts, all of which are introduced by the three words of its generic title followed by sayings that would do better on greeting card than in a movie. Jun Lana’s Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow is very convinced of its complexities that it utilizes these needless storytelling devices that are in reality are just ornaments to a narrative that is as elementary and straightforward as a daytime soap, only cramped within two hours. It is a film that does not say anything about anything, except perhaps to offer a glimpse of the sort of problems a Filipino upper class family, as imagined and fictionalized to cater to the masses, would be involved in.

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow is essentially about the Montes family, owners of the country’s largest television network and a sort of hyperbolic representative of the famously wealthy and influential clans whose members’ lives we can only pretend to know. Tackling the sordid lives of the members of the Montes family and the people that are close to them, the film mines entertainment from tragedy, enjoyment from the manufactured tears of its embattled characters, and delight from the all the entanglements and estrangements brought about by the peculiarities of its very many narrative conceits.

Paraplegic Donald, the Montes patriarch, believes that he has a stable family. Agnes (Agot Isidro), his second wife who is decades younger than him, is secretly having an affair with Derek (Dennis Trillo), her personal trainer. Celine (Solenn Heussaff), Donald and Agnes’ daughter, is starting to get bored with Vince (Paulo Avelino), her clingy boyfriend. Mariel (Maricel Soriano), Donald’s eldest daughter from his first marriage and head of the family’s television network, has turned into a sad and mad woman after being separated from Gary (Gabby Concepcion), her ex-husband who is about to be wed to Charlotte (Carla Abellana). Jacob (Jericho Rosales), Donald’s son, is trying to balance the demands of being a family man and an executive for the family’s network. Lory (Lovi Poe), his bored wife, sneaks out of the house at night to sing with her band, leaving their baby with the household help.

After a disastrous earthquake, secrets are revealed, relationships are threatened, and emotions are questioned, further complicating these characters’ already complicated lives. Ex-wives are turned into mistresses. Mothers are turned into romantic rivals. Lana crafts a topsy-turvy world in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and attempts to pass it off as a glossier and noisier version of reality, dealing with feelings and circumstances that are beyond belief despite the strange circumstances that they are evoked from. This is unabashed melodrama, spending more effort in mercilessly pitting its characters against calamitous events to allow tearful montages and dramatic exchanges of dialogue than anything else. Lana’s characters seem to be there only for their eye sockets that spew off tears of depression and frustration and mouths that sound off phrases that sound devastating but actually mean nothing. Their motivations are questionable. Their existences are negligible.

Moreover, Lana does not have the eye to make Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow more visually appealing or distinctive. The cinematography, although apt in the sense that scenes are sufficiently framed and lighted, is characterless, contented to only the service the narrative without doing anything else. The result is pretty much a visually uninteresting picture, salvaged only by performances that are consistently competent although out. The film, which is essentially just an expensively mounted “move on” note, is all dull gloss and glitter. Despite the film’s many flaws, there’s satisfaction in the way Lana manages to juggle his sprawling account of a fictional family to its open-ended conclusion, the way he attempted to break away from the expectations of a neatly packaged ending with all loose ends tied together in a lovely knot. It is not all bad. It is just not all good, either.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shake, Rattle and Roll 13 (2011)

Shake, Rattle and Roll 13 (Richard Somes, Jerrold Tarog & Chris Martinez, 2011)

In Chris Martinez’s Rain, Rain, Go Away, the final episode of Shake, Rattle and Roll 13 which was touted by its producing studio as the last and the best of the horror franchise, water, more than the predictable ghosts that appear every now and then, is the main source of chills. Martinez, who is probably the cleverest writer and director actively working for the mainstream today, mines the collective paranoia of floods brought about by the horrific experiences during recent rain-related calamities the country barely survived from.

In the episode, reliable comedienne Eugene Domingo plays the wife of Jay Manalo’s businessman whose plastics business moved from its former flood-prone factory to a safer location. Brought about by experiences from the onslaught of typhoon Ondoy which caused her a miscarriage, among other traumas, the littlest instance of abnormal weather causes her to wilt in terror, forcing her to fear even the most unlikely and ordinary of objects.

Martinez’s episode is most likely to be the most relatable, considering that while it still deals with supernatural elements and relies heavily on the easy shocks of sudden apparitions of stock ghosts, it stems from a horror that is very close to home. Martinez has a knack for creating stories around very real experiences in the screenplays he writes like in Chito Roño’s Sukob (The Wedding Curse, 2006) where the sordid entanglements caused by marital infidelity is the actual curse. With Rain, Rain, Go Away, Martinez has crafted a predictable but effective ghost story that has greed and guilt in the midst of calamity as its heart.

Dealing also with greed, not by the upper-middle class businesspeople of Martinez’s morality tale but by people who are desperate for survival, is Richard Somes’ Tamawo. Somes’ episode, which opens the film with the type of otherworldly fantasy that usually dictates the franchise, is inspired from the Hiligaynon myth of elf-like creatures that inhabit strange places. Somes masterfully creates a rural landscape that serves the setting of both the coming of age of a young boy (a very expressive Bugoy Cariño) who struggles to win the affection of his stepfather (Zanjoe Marudo) while taking care of his blind mother (Maricar Reyes) and the horror tale of the titular creatures who would do anything to take back what the human occupants of their town have taken from them.

Irresistibly pretty at times, with sequences that are intelligently shot and directed, the episode shows a master craftsman at work. There are certain scenes, such as when the blind mother is being stalked in her house by the tamawo and Somes only reveals the monsters’ eerily white faces and menacing bodies partially, that emphasize the very raw horror of being absolutely vulnerable. And the episode is really about vulnerability, of the young boy who only wishes to belong to a family, of the mother whose lack of sight makes her more prone to danger, of the stepfather whose desire to provide for his family forces him to make questionable decisions, of the tamawo whose existence is being threatened by humanity’s interference.

Jerrold Tarog’s Parola (Lighthouse), the middle episode in this triptych, is also about vulnerability brought about by adolescence. Lucy (Kathryn Bernardo) and Shane (Louise de los Reyes) are best friends whose friendship is suddenly threatened when during their school trip to an abandoned lighthouse, two rival witches (Julia Clarete and Dimples Romana) decide to use their bodies to continue their feud. The plot, while admittedly convoluted, is thankfully just a frame for an otherwise atmospheric and moody exploration of teenage paranoia.

Tarog, through telling scenes that are remarkably observant of juvenile conflict, creates an atmosphere of subtle disturbance that is only enunciated by the premeditated acts of cruelty that the witches’ interference allowed the young girls to do. Tarog successfully turns what essentially is the normalcy of high school life into something seductively sinister, like a Freudian nightmare. Immature infatuations, corridor-set insults, chemistry experiments, menstruation, and friendship bracelets are fascinatingly turned into threatening objects and occurrences.

Sparingly paced and ominously quiet, Parola weaves the commercial intentions of the franchise’s shrewd producers with Tarog’s creative integrity and exquisite craftsmanship to create what possibly could be the entire franchise’s crowning achievement --- a truly harmonious mix of all the bad (the hackneyed storylines and stretches in logic) and all the good (the surprising invention some of the intrepid directors manage to sneak into their films) that Shake, Rattle and Roll is most known and loved for.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story (2011)

Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story (2011)

Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story is a film that is as hotly contested as post-war Tondo. The first film of what was hoped to be a peaceful collaboration between Laguna governor E.R. Ejercito (who uses the name Jorge Estregan, Jr. when acting in films) and acclaimed director Tikoy Aguiluz, the film quickly gained momentum when a seductively pretty trailer went viral in various social networking sites, giving an impression to most of who have seen the trailer that the Filipino action film, long dead because of the proliferation of the more lucrative romantic comedy in the market, is soon to be revived.

A month prior to its release, relationships suddenly got sour with Aguiluz insisting that his name be dropped from the credits of the film that was going to be released commercially and that he be given the opportunity to create and release his director’s cut, claiming that Ejercito shot several new scenes and re-edited the film behind his back. Ejercito, on the other hand, claimed that Aguiluz’s cut was too slow and subpar. Demand letters were sent, cases were filed in court, temporary restraining orders were issued, and eventually, Aguiluz got one half of his two wishes, and had his name stricken out of the film that he deems was bastardized by its producers. The bastardized film, actually, is not as bad as it seems.

Undoubtedly, Ejercito, who is well beyond his 40’s, is miscast as Asiong Salonga, who ruled the streets of Tondo as a benevolent gangster before being gunned down at the age of 27. Brooding alongside actors like Baron Geisler, Ketchup Eusebio and Yul Servo who are decades his junior, he sticks out like a fogey in the middle of an amusement park. Notwithstanding the very obvious attempt by Ejercito to evoke some sort of inner youth in his performance, he more or less communicates Asiong’s authoritative swagger with expert ease. Pitted against John Regala, who plays Asiong’s nemesis Totoy Golem with equal parts cunning and savageness, he impresses because of his vulnerability, his ability to ache and bleed.

Unfortunately, Asiong aches and bleeds in a story that is haphazardly told, jumping from either one action set-piece or one narrative milestone to another with hardly any rhyme or reason. Edited like a music video presumably for the sake of fast pacing, the film suffers even more. It is a film that desperately needs to breathe. Its many vivid action sequences could have been rendered more poignant with a pinch of quietude and serenity. Its documentation of lives enveloped by corruption and violence could be more meaningful with some intelligent characterization from the film’s writers. As it is, the spare and unimaginative story seems more perfunctory to the visual spectacle and the shameless grandstanding. It is definitely quite a shame because its present form shows shades of glory, traces of the film Aguiluz had in mind --- stylish but somber, brutal but human, and entertaining but artful.

Jessie Lasaten’s musical score is most of the time obtrusive. Carlo Mendoza’s cinematography, however, is quite sublime in its masterful use of monochrome. With only light and shadows to play with, Mendoza concocts images that are admirably composed and expertly framed, which lend the film that has been fractured by its disconnected storyline and lousy cutting reliable crutches to walk with. The production design is also quite notable especially with the efforts to recreate post-war Tondo from Ejercito’s hometown of Pagsanjan.

Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story is an undeniable mess of a film. Sometimes, it promises greatness. At other times, it sinks into an embarrassing slump reminiscent of the reason why action films have died in the first place. It seems to be ignorant of what it wants to be or what it wants to say about the testosterone-dominated world it vividly portrays. It is only during one vehemently illogical and anachronistic but miraculously effective sequence that the film, with all its chaotic storytelling and never-ending fistfights, knife matches, and gun battles, manages to say something coherent. Men fight men. Friends kill friends. And in the climactic, slow-motioned and revenge-fuelled orgy of sweat, blood, and bullets, it becomes apparent that the world we live in, as the glaring instrumentals of the pop song the film curiously borrows to set the scene’s action in music forces the audience to sing, is a mad world.

It’s definitely not an awful film. There are still hints of greatness in this haphazardly edited abomination to render it watchable, if not enjoyable. Now that Ejercito had shown the Philippines what he’s capable of, fairness only dictates that Aguiluz be given the opportunity to cut the film his way.

(Cross-published in Lagarista as 'The Strange Case of Asiong Salonga')

Segunda Mano (2011)

Segunda Mano (Joyce Bernal, 2011)

Joyce Bernal is more famous for the charming romances and comedies she made that took full advantage of her actors and actresses’ celebrities. For instance, in Kailangan Ko’y Ikaw (I Need You, 2000), she concocted a movie that pits Robin Padilla’s undeniably manly swagger with Regine Velasquez’s streetwise sweetness. In Booba (2001), Ruffa Mae Quinto’s voluptuous mammaries and seemingly lacking mental resources are the running gag of the movie. In Kimmy Dora (2009), Eugene Domingo’s unlikely star looks and impeccable acting skills are utilized to depict twin sisters whose personalities are as different as night and day.

Quite interestingly, Segunda Mano, Bernal’s latest and notably her first foray into horror (D’Anothers, while featuring ghosts, is more comedy than horror), has her evidently struggling with Kris Aquino, an actress who has claimed for herself the crown for having the most sellable scared face in the Philippines. Aquino plays Mabel, a simple woman who runs an antiques shop. One fateful rainy night, she runs into Ivan (Dingdong Dantes), an architect who was recently left by his philandering wife and is now left alone with his young daughter, Angel (Sofia Millares). They eventually fall in love, leading to mysterious apparitions by a bloodied woman (Angelica Panganiban) who seems to be linked to both Mabel and Ivan.

Written by Joel Mercado, who has penned or co-penned the screenplays of other horror films like Rico Ilarde’s Villa Estrella (2009), Frasco Mortiz, Enrico Santos, Ato Bautista, Nick Olanka, and Cathy Garcia-Molina’s Cinco (2010), and Dondon Santos’ Dalaw (The Visitor, 2010), the film initially tells the story of a woman who seems to have contented herself with second hand objects and persons. Ivan has been used previously by his previous wife, Angel by her absentee mother, her mother (Helen Gamboa) by her sister who drowned in the beach while she was still young. The film then sadly settles into a prolonged mystery derived from the many psycho stories told since the birth of cinema that has a twist that has been prematurely telegraphed by bad acting, predictable cinematography, unreliable editing, and uncreative writing.

The biggest problem with Segunda Mano is that there’s incongruence in Bernal and her lead star’s intentions. Obviously, Bernal, who has always been an intelligent and witty filmmaker and could not have allowed herself to be relegated into an overused genre, doesn’t take the film’s terrorizing stance seriously, what with a silly haunted designer bag, a ditzy social climber (Bangs Garcia) for an annoying sidekick, a loon for a spirit medium, and even a cameo appearance by the iconic Lilia Cuntapay as an unfortunate bag lady who meets death via a murderous hand springing forth from red patent leather.

Unfortunately, Bernal can’t seem to control Aquino. While the film erupts into a parade of self-conscious nonsense, Aquino remains drowned in boring seriousness. She is too concerned perfecting her unsubtle looks of terror to get into the joke of the film, rendering Bernal’s attempts to graduate the film from being droll derivative horror into something irreverently fresh frustratingly unsuccessful. The sorry result is this miserably confused film that at times attempts to subvert the tired genre by injecting a bit of humor into its proceedings but most of the time just satisfies itself with being just a knock-off bag full of second hand scares.

(Cross-published in Lagarista as 'Second Hand Scares.')

Monday, December 26, 2011

Magnifico (2003)

Magnifico (Maryo J. de los Reyes, 2003)

Curiously snubbed by the Metro Manila Film Festival during the same year the festival had films like Boy Vinarao’s Hula Mo... Huli Ko, Tony Reyes’ Lastikman and Enrico Quizon’s Home Along da Riber competing for the top plum, Maryo J. De los Reyes’ Magnifico was eventually released the following year to much critical recognition. Unfortunately, the film failed miserably in the box office. Nonetheless, the film, despite its very traditional filmmaking style, was way ahead of its time. In a way, it preceded the independent films of today in the sense that the story, more than the famous actors and actresses that lend their names and talent to the film, was the very vehicle that drove the film to acclaim. However, its unsuccessful local commercial run also preceded the mostly unsuccessful attempts of today’s independent films to break into mass consciousness.

Written by Michiko Yamamoto, the film is about the titular young boy (then newcomer Jiro Manio) who attempts to give his ailing grandmother (Gloria Romero) a decent funeral. Along with his best friend, he naively goes around town, talking to various personalities or finding ways to earn money, to piece together his grandmother’s funeral, from the coffin that he constructs from the extra plywood he gathered from the local crafts factory to the actual lot wherein his grandmother would be buried.

Yamamoto crafts an entire town populated with quirky individuals with realistic intentions and motivations. Gerry, Magnifico’s father (Albert Martinez) who works as a carpenter working for the local crafts factory, seems to be content with his family and their modest lifestyle. Edna (Lorna Tolentino), Magnifico’s mother who is mostly left in the house to take care of both her sick mother-in-law and her daughter (Isabella de Leon) who is suffering from cerebral palsy, takes her lot in life with a lot less of her husband’s optimism. Magnifico’s elder brother, Miong (Danilo Barrios) has just returned home from Manila after losing his scholarship and is now trying to court the daughter (Girlie Sevilla) of the factory owner (Tonton Gutierrez) in an attempt to escape his family’s fate.

Around town are a bevy of similarly complicated lives. Domeng (Mark Gil), the town’s bus driver, still morose and mourning months after his mother’s demise, is oblivious to the charms of Cristy (Cherry Pie Picache), the town’s primary source of gossip and as a result, the rival of Tessie (Amy Austria). Ka Doring (Celia Rodriguez), the owner of the town’s lone funeral parlor, has turned into the town’s laughing stock because of her seemingly incurable hoarse speaking voice.

De Los Reyes’ directs with precision, making sure that each character adds up to the emotional heft of the story. Although brimming with acting talents, he never allows any of the supporting cast to overshadow Magnifico or his younger sister, whose heart-warming interactions turn out to be the centrepiece of this finely tuned drama. Lutgardo Labad’s beautifully composed score is probably one of the very few in recent Philippine cinema that is truly memorable and hummable. It is quiet and subdued at times and swells whenever necessary, allowing the film to sink deep into the hearts of its audience. Magnifico is a masterfully orchestrated tearjerker. Each of its individual elements are weaved perfectly to create an emotionally rousing experience that never feels slight or ill-conceived.

Magnifico is that rare children’s film that tackles mortality, the inevitability of death. It buffers the seriousness of its subject matter with levity and humor, allowing the children to create for the film an atmosphere of endearing innocence amidst the drollness of the affairs of the adults.

By portraying life as a colorful tapestry of relationships affected by small acts that are fuelled by good intentions, it emphasizes its value while underlining its fragility. It is hardly an empty product that exploits Filipino sensitivity for shocks and tears, like the many melodramas that populate the Metro Manila Film Festival that unfairly neglected it because of its lack of commercial appeal. It is genuinely moving, as it makes you familiar with its characters, allowing you to understand instead of merely witness their virtues, flaws, and humble ambitions. Undoubtedly, Magnifico is a film that will be remembered far longer than any of the films that made it to that miserably misinformed film festival that year.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bring the Macho Back, etc.

Bring the Macho Back
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

We live in a country where men wear skinny jeans, sport hair done in salons, and parade skins glowing from oils and ointments one would normally find in a very kikay girl’s kikay kit. Our heroes are vulnerable matinee idols who survive through love battles with lines like “You had me at my best. She had me at my worst, but you chose to break my heart.” Instead of powerful shotguns or fists ready for a brawl, we have been thought to brandish glittering smiles and puppy dog eyes to get past conflicts.

Filipino men have grown soft, oblivious to anything but love. They are ripe for re-education and what better way to learn the olden ways of macho men, then from our burly, muscled, dignified action stars. Their words are wisdom. Arm yourself with them and face the world with confidence not even the suave ways of John Lloyd Cruz that grant.

(Continue reading in Supreme, Philippine Star, 17 December 2011.)


The Eight Greatest Action Stars in Philippine Cinema
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

There was a time when these men were kings. Sporting hairdos sculpted by cheap pomade, donning matching maong vest and pants, and parading their trademark macho poses, action stars were more famous than their romantic counterparts. The roles they portray overflow into real life, making them national heroes and defenders of the oppressed. That is why it is not surprising how these action stars, most of them with resumes filled only with movie roles rather than actual credentials, become elected public officials. Whether you like it or not, the best of them embodied the collective image of what national leaders should be — iconically tough, uncompromising, and sympathetic men of integrity who have human flaws, but are essentially virtuous.

(Continue reading in Supreme, Philippine Star, 17 December 2011.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

For Y'ur Height Only (1981)

For Y'ur Height Only (Eddie Nicart, 1981)

According to Australian film critic Andrew Leavold, during the 1981 Manila International Film Festival, a film festival established by the Marcoses to position Manila as the Cannes of Asia, where all the most daring, deep and artful Filipino films were exhibited to foreign guests, critics, and distributors, Eddie Nicart’s For Y’ur Height Only, a spy actioner that seemed to be the exact opposite of what the new film festival supposed to represent and share to the entire world, was the only film to land an international distribution deal. The success of Nicart’s film only reinforced the Philippines’ position as a hotbed of weird cinema, of cinema that intentionally or unintentionally poked fun at Western pop culture, of bad films so ingeniously bad they’re good.

See, For Y’ur Height Only is a essentially a montage of novel and not-so-novel action sequences tied together by a very simple story of an American scientist who gets kidnapped by the minions of mysterious Mr. Giant, a devious and evil crime lord who sends his dastardly instructions to his assistants through a twinkling mirror. There is absolutely nothing in the film that would consider it a good film, even within the genre it places itself in. The acting is notoriously bad. The cinematography is at best, serviceable. The music scoring also do not inspire any excitement that is more than what the story offers. In the company of Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata (1982) and other well-regarded features, the film clearly pales in comparison.

It is a film that relies mostly on its lead’s starpower, a starpower that is based not on good looks or acting prowess but on his being extremely short. Weng Weng, the two-foot nine actor who has the facial features of a seven year old kid and the flirtatious antics and libido of a dirty old man is the glue that puts everything together, from the tongue-in-cheek humor to the height-specific action set pieces. Playing the film’s debonair spy called Agent OO, he gamely fights goons three times his height and cavorts with women whose breasts are larger than his head. The film, from being a mere run-of-the-mill spy thriller, mutates into a parade of visual gags, witty references, and unbelievable stunt acts.

Paced quickly to reinforce the fact that there really isn’t much substance in the sequential turnover of showcases of Weng Weng’s physical bravura despite his evident vertical limitation, the film rarely loses steam. Whenever the diminutive hero does not karate chop his opponents’ balls or share saliva with his bevy of female friends (a bevy that includes Beth Sandoval, Anna Marie Gutierrez and the Carmi Martin), he tries on his array of spy gadgets lent to him by his commander (played by Tony Ferrer, the much famed Tony Falcon a.k.a. Agent X44). His favorite, unsurprisingly, is the ill-fitting x-ray sunglasses that gave the little rascal an enjoyable glimpse of his commanders’ sexy secretaries’ secret sexy parts, making him beam his trademark smile prior to his mission of clearing the bakery of drug dealers who attempt to make a lot of dough from dough.

For Y’ur Height Only is vastly enjoyable despite its lack of any aspiration towards being anything more than a film that exploits Weng Weng’s uniqueness for commercial purposes. In fact, the film might even overtake the Bond film from which it creatively borrowed its title in terms of guiltless and mindless fun. It is a film packed with thrills, comedy, titillation, romance, and even a little bit of tragedy right in the end. In its expected modesty, it survives the test of time simply because it precisely knows its assets and limitations and therefore does not overreach. The film, like its star, is small and terrible in every way possible, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa (2011)

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa (Mes de Guzman, 2011)
English Title: At the Corner of Heaven and Earth

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa (At the Corner of Heaven and Earth), Mes de Guzman’s elegy to childhood innocence, is relaxed in its pace and elegant in its imagery. Set in De Guzman’s native Nueva Vizcaya where continuous fields meet proud mountain ranges, the film reinforces its powerful images of rural hardship with gorgeous passages of slopes being enveloped by clouds, creating a certain lyricism to its straightforwardness. Instead of portraying children as passive victims of an unfortunate circumstance, they are shown to be more in control of their fates, capable to exist within penury without much tragedy, but handicapped by their pride and other vices.

Four children, most of whom have chosen to run away from their families, have turned an abandoned hut in the middle of an idle lot outside the border of the town of Bayombong into their home. Days are spent looking for work, or fooling around, or fighting among themselves. Nights, on the other hand, are mostly committed to rest. The predictability of their daily routine has turned their simple lives into some sort of paradise. Their concerns are minuscule. Their main goal is survival, to eat at least a few times a day and to maintain a semblance of order in their motley crew. Except for the occasional sickness, these kids seem to do well in their chosen independence.

De Guzman depicts these kid’s lives’ comfortable predictability with levity and earnestness. He avoids crossing the line towards melodrama. Instead, he admits to the subtle joys of their little lives, of sharing a piece of candy or a bottle of soda, of the pranks played, of falling hopelessly in love with an uptown girl. These little slices of the kids’ humble lives, laced more with the comedy of childhood defiance than simpleminded pity whoring, prepare the film for its belated conflict, the inevitable collision of these kids’ precious innocence with real life’s corrupting harshness.

As De Guzman morphs his film from being a document of his protagonists’ youthful antics into something darker, the seemingly innocuous landscape of Nueve Vizcaya turns more ominous, more burdensome, and more painful. He is after all a master in establishing atmosphere without crossing the borders of tasteful subtlety.

In Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong (The Road to Kalimugtong, 2005), the simple story of two children hiking their way to their school is not spiced by dramatic confrontations or grandiose turns in the narrative. The conflicts are merely suggested by gunfights overheard in the forest, or petty thievery in the name of survival for a day. Instead of working up stories to compound the dilemmas of his youthful subjects, De Guzman turns his setting, whether it be the road towards an ill-equipped public school or the impoverished margins of a rural community, into the story, allowing the place to breathe drama into the lives displayed.

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa ends supposedly in tragedy, with the kids no longer existing in the fringes of a society that neglects them but somewhere else. De Guzman crosses over to poetry, with the children, in some sort of trance, escaping from their shelter into the field to be engulfed by a conquering fog. De Guzman merges the reality of the children’s situation and the lyricism of Nueva Vizcaya’s mysterious geography in a sequence wherein the film’s little heroes confront their being in limbo, their being in the middle of life and death, in the center of hope and despair, in the corner of heaven and earth.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Alkitrang Dugo (1976)

Alkitrang Dugo (Lupita Aquina-Kashiwahara, 1976)
English Translation: Asphalt Blood

Alkitrang Dugo, the Nora Aunor-produced and Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara-directed adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, opens with a plane crash, with schoolchildren rushing out of the crash site. In the beach, Luis (Eddie Villamayor), one of the kids finds a conch shell and blows it to signal his location. This causes all the other survivors, all children, to form into the beach, where they initially start a community under the leadership of Luis.

As they figure out that coconuts and seawater cannot sustain them for long, the group venture into the jungle. They establish roles for themselves and create rules to dictate their lives. However, Luis’ self-appointment as leader does not sit well with Andy (Roderick Paulate), which leads to voting, legitimizing Luis’ leadership by a short margin. As the children become familiar with their new home, jealousies form, power struggles react, and the community disintegrates into abject chaos.

Aquino-Kashiwahara directs the film with very capable hands. Interestingly, the film depicts very male-centric relations, with struggles and conflicts resulting from the very primal need for supremacy. Yet Aquino-Kashiwahara deftly interprets these struggles and conflicts with the understanding of how a male mind works, how that primal need usually overlaps human logic.

It is a surprisingly vicious film. Its portrayal of the children trapped suddenly in that difficult demand to remain civilized under dire circumstances is never held hostage by the traditional depiction of children as innocent and naive creatures. In Alkitrang Dugo, children are forced to cheat, lie, and kill, not for survival, but more alarmingly, for power. Even more alarming is that this viciousness is not a solitary effort. Disguised as forms of community and society, it is scarily contagious.

Lutgardo Labad’s intelligent scoring rightfully deserves mention. From the Aunor-belted title song that sets the tone for the film’s slow but sure descent towards man’s innate capability for evil to the repetitive melodies that add atmosphere to the ominous forest that eclipses these children’s supposed naiveté, the film’s music becomes a character itself, growing in depth and viciousness. When the score erupts into the children’s repeated chant, calling for violence towards both nature and Luis, the film burrows straight into the dark heart of humanity, the same heart that enables us to be vile and violent.

The film follows Golding’s narrative faithfully enough to be considered a direct adaptation of the classic novel. Translated into a distinctly Filipino setting, where class differences are evident, romantic entanglements aggravate, and politics is vulnerable, the story takes a different form from what Golding intended it to be.

Golding’s clear-cut allegories become more specific. Alkitrang Dugo targets the heart of what is possibly wrong with how the Philippines is governed, how its so-called democracy is destructive because its stakeholders do not have the maturity to understand and utilize it, how the Marcos’ regime seemingly fascist society contributes to a Philippines of infantile citizenry. Aquino-Kashiwahara’s criminally underseen film is attention-calling and disturbing because despite its literary roots, it points fingers towards a gnawing reality that can no longer be ignored. It is as resonant now as it was when it was first released.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Road (2011)

The Road (Yam Laranas, 2011)

The first of the three episodes of Yam Laranas’ The Road is the most reminiscent of the atmospheric thrills of Sigaw (The Echo, 2004). One night in 2008, three teenagers (Barbie Forteza, Lexi Fernandez and Derrick Monasterio) find an abandoned dirt road to practice driving. As they move further from the junction, a suspicious red car passes by them every so often. After noticing that the red car is without a driver, they hurriedly find their way back to the junction, but to no avail. They are trapped, and continuously haunted by the mysterious red car and a woman whose bloodied head is covered by a plastic bag.

The episode, set mostly at night in an abandoned road lighted only by the moon and headlights of occasional cars, relies on mood, on the presumed danger of being alone amidst omens and apparitions, to work and Laranas, a horror stylist here more than anything, creates an atmosphere of quiet but certain hostility.

The second and third episodes, set ten years prior to each other, forgo of the phantasmagoric for the more visceral. Physical and psychological torments, as opposed to the supernatural one of the first episode, are in the forefront. In 1998, two sisters (Rhiann Ramos and Louise de los Reyes) find themselves prisoners in the house of a disturbed man (Alden Richards). In 1988, a boy (Renz Valerio) is brought up by his domineering mother (Carmina Villaroel) and his religiously zealous father (Marvin Agustin).

From the grim greys of the abandoned road, Laranas expands his palette, creating a canvas of lush and inviting colors that only downplay the depravities that are depicted. Tying the three episodes together is the informally accepted mission of a recently promoted cop (TJ Trinidad) to investigate the case of the missing sisters from 1998.

Where in Sigaw, the violent deaths of a mother and child in the hands of an overly jealous cop has transformed their apartment building into a time-trapped capsule where the tortures and the assaults are repeated forever, in The Road, the abandoned road meets the same fate, time-trapped by victims of abject cruelty. Laranas’ ghosts are not troubled spirits thirsting for revenge. They are imprints of a violent past, perpetual footmarks in a place vandalized by vile intentions.

Laranas’ ambitious mapping of the place’s history of brutality inevitably leads to loopholes in the story’s logic and perhaps in the logic of the characters involved. Questions arise and most of them are left carelessly unanswered. However, there is more to the film than its flimsily crafted narrative web. In the scope of what Laranas attempts to achieve, he more or less delivers a story that notwithstanding the multitude of its lapses, coheres with a laudable vision of violence that by its very nature and the extent of its corruption, disrespects the laws of both place and time.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Won't Last a Day Without You (2011)

Won't Last a Day Without You (Raz de la Torre, 2011)

A romantic comedy that seeks to reinforce the love team between singer-turned-actress Sarah Geronimo and Big Brother housemate-turned-matinee idol Gerald Anderson, Raz de la Torre’s Won’t Last a Day Without You does not stray far from the established story map and intention of a merchandized movie. It is feel-good, fun, funny, and extremely charming, like most of what Star Cinema has been mindlessly producing the past several years. The film is undoubtedly a product of formula, and quite surprisingly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

De la Torre is not exactly a newcomer. He wrote Cathy Garcia-Molina’s A Very Special Love (2008) and co-wrote with other writers Garcia-Molina’s You are the One (2006) and You Got Me (2007), two romances set in very distinct milieus that somehow added color and novelty to the film’s otherwise redundant storylines. In A Very Special Love, a hopelessly hopeful employee falls for her stern boss who is up to prove himself to his family by making his men’s magazine number one. In You are the One, the familiar romance is set within the world of bureaucratic red tape, an unfortunate circumstance that fortunately gives a glum American who is looking for his parents the opportunity to meet and fall for a government employee. You Got Me is essentially a love triangle between a lady cop, a nerdy officer, and a thief.

Won’t Last a Day Without You, like the rest of the films that De la Torre penned for Garcia-Molina, is set in a very specific niche of the Filipino experience. DJ Haidee (played radiantly by Geronimo) is the heartbreak guru for a late night radio show that gives love advice to romantically challenged insomniacs. At home, she sheds her screen name and becomes George Harrison Apostol, daughter to rock legend Pablo Apostol (Joey de Leon), sister to up and coming rockers, and victim to an ex-boyfriend who replaced her for her best friend. One night like all the other nights where she disparages playboys and heartbreakers on air, she advises Melissa (Megan Young), a listener who becomes fed up with the flirtatious ways of her boyfriend (Anderson), to terminate the relationship, not knowing that that night’s advice would lead her to rediscovering the pleasures of falling in love.

The world that De la Torre sets his romance in is addicted to love. This is a world of late-night workers, of students studying in the wee hours of the morning, of night-owls, all of whom spend their evenings either struggling through their current love problems or quenching their thirst for romance through the disembodied voices sharing their misery to the world. This is a world that has gone cynical because of the abundance of heartaches and heartbreaks. It is a world that is ripe and perfect for that sudden change of perspective, a miracle. The film, moving in the way like most romantic comedies of its like do which is predictably towards a happily-ever-after ending instead of a more realistic conclusion, feels apt in its both its manner and motivation. Its insistence on love’s perfection is an aberration in its milieu characterized by the advertisement of love’s pains and treacheries.

Won’t Last a Day Without You culminates in the revelation of DJ Haidee as someone as normal as the rest of the city who rely on her for certain logic in their romance. It climaxes in the revelation of love as not a private concern pertaining only to the lovers involved. It is has other stakeholders. It also involves the rest of the world who are either in love or in love with being in love, rendered into a community by the airwaves that have brought their needs and concerns in overwhelming union. Admittedly, like the Carpenters’ song from which it borrows its title, the film is more sap than substance. However, there is definitely nothing stopping anybody from being beholden to its adorable whims and charms.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (2011)

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, 2011)

Most famous for the several short films which displayed a very casual understanding of the idiosyncrasies of Filipino life without relying heavily on cheap charms, Antoinette Jadaone has been regarded by the late Alexis Tioseco as the person that is most qualified to give Filipino mainstream filmmaking that much-needed burst of novel inspiration. Tioseco’s observations are very much valid, considering that Jadaone’s shorts are all tightly packaged confections that marry the popular appeal of mainstream escapist entertainment and the unique wit of more adventurous fare. The only concern remaining is whether or not Jadaone can replicate and sustain the irresistible charms of her short films in a feature length film. Fortunately, Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay is more than enough proof that she can.

Lilia Cuntapay, the film’s endearing subject, is the perennial extra, playing nameless characters in various films. Perhaps because of her distinctly memorable features, she has been type-casted to play hags or ghosts in horror films. Cuntapay is actually most famous for having a face that is easier to recall than her name. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay springs from that unique fame of Cuntapay, opening with a montage of popular actors and directors who have all worked with Cuntapay who can’t seem to recall who Lilia Cuntapay is, until Peque Gallaga, who discovered Cuntapay while shooting one of the episodes of Shake Rattle & Roll 2 (Gallaga and Lore Reyes, 1990), breaks the name’s supposed unfamiliarity to describe Cuntapay’s strange appeal.

Set in a fictional scenario wherein Cuntapay gets a very surprising nomination as Best Supporting Actress, a filmmaker (played by Jadaone) ventures into Cuntapay’s neighborhood to document Cuntapay’s life a few days prior to the awards night. The film follows Cuntapay as she goes to work to play another nameless role for a television melodrama, or as she excitedly sets up a viewing event for her first-ever interview for a popular primetime news program, or as she tearfully recounts her memorable past few days to her stepdaughter who lives in Canada.

Despite the numerous humorous depictions of a woman who has always settled to be in the fringes of an industry whose main currency is popularity, the film remains a very human portrait of Cuntapay, who suddenly finds herself in the brink of her long-ambitioned recognition. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay succeeds not only because it seamlessly merges fact and fiction or because it manages to tackle a personality who exists in the margins of Filipino pop culture within a context of absolute familiarity but because it is genuinely touching. As the film reveals Cuntapay’s other sides, as longing mother to an absentee stepdaughter, as dutiful mentor to her patient assistant (Geraldine Villamil), as a beloved and loving neighbor, it graduates from merely being just a witty and hilarious satire into something more worthwhile, more enduring.

Jadaone may have just made the quintessential Filipino underdog movie. Cuntapay is in fact the quintessential Filipino underdog. She struggles in a world of pretty faces, supple breasts, and pleasant gestures, despite the fact that she is the epitome of the complete opposite of what her world values the most. She is someone to be rooted for, not exactly to be given the fame and fortune luckier talents would normally aim for but only to be recognized, to be given a permanent place in that world she has devoted her life and uniqueness to but cannot give the same devotion to her. Jadaone’s film, rooted in that fantasy that someone who has persisted for so long like Lilia Cuntapay may actually cross-over to be pitted against established and talented actresses in a glittery awards ceremonies, is a heartfelt tribute to each and every person who dared to dream dreams as big (and probably far-fetched) as the ones dreamt by Lilia Cuntapay.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Memories of Overdevelopment (1980-2011)

Memories of Overdevelopment (1981-2011)

At around 9 in the evening, in Vocas, a vegetarian restaurant/art space/wonderland that Nick de Ocampo aptly described as a nook straight out of Kidlat Tahimik’s mind (the place comes with a galleon and several other objects that are undoubtedly products of the artists’ sariling duwende), Kidlat Tahimik presented the latest version of his Memories of Overdevelopment, a thirty-minute version of the filmmaker’s dream project about the first man to ever circumnavigate the globe. Except for a few seconds of scenes that were inserted into the perpetually unfinished film and several minutes of footage that were restored from several generations of film decay, the film remains the same, an enduring fragment of what possibly could be the best film never made.

As it is, Memories of Overdevelopment is a lyrical ode to the ingenuity of both its subject, Enrique, a Filipino who gets sold to Ferdinand Magellan in what the film describes as history’s first buy one take one deal, and its maker, Kidlat Tahimik, who resigned to the fact that the film would require an enormous amount of money to mount started to put together scenes using whatever resources he had available and as a result, came up with the film. Utilizing relatives, friends, backpackers and expatriates who would frequent his Baguio home, Kidlat Tahimik assembled several lovely sequences that are strung together by his narration, which most of the time, resembles a storytelling session by a father to his children, and at other times, sounds like a pitch from an artist to a shrewd financier.

Enrique’s story is laced with wonderment and humor. Notwithstanding the inherent ambition of the project which would span miles of sea travel and between two diverse continents and cultures, the film never loses perspective. It remains an intimate portrait of a man of meager beginnings fated to accomplish big things by virtue of fortune, ingenuity, and a desire for home. The intended film, as can be gleaned from this most recent version, never strays from the playfulness that has defined Kidlat Tahimik’s filmography. Even during the sequences that venture towards some form of reverence or would normally require a semblance of sensitivity, Kidlat Tahimik injects an abundance of cheekiness, steering the film’s discourse from narrative seriousness or historical accuracy towards commentaries on the Filipino psyche.

Despite the nature of the film as a self-aware work-in-progress, the film actually feels oddly complete. Sure, Kidlat Tahimik himself admits that there are the sequences that the film lacks like the shipbuilding scenes in Spain, the grandiose sea voyages, the battle between Lapu-Lapu’s men and Magellan’s invaders. However, there is an endearing charm to Kidlat Tahimik’s straightforward modesty and honesty that makes the film’s inadequacies negligible. Instead of pleading for forgiveness because of the lack of those scenes, he pleads for creativity and imagination by supplying images of quaint sea travel in the Philippines and Indonesian shipbuilders to supplant the more ambitious imagery in his mind. There’s a certain sense of Kidlat Tahimik taking the place of his Enrique and the film’s audience taking the place of the curious young boy who suddenly invades his morning bath to be told stories of his adventures in the way Memories of Overdevelopment takes form.

The current version of Memories of Overdevelopment may or may not be the film’s final form. It all depends on Kidlat Tahimik and the cosmos. Part of me wants the film to get finished but part of me is also deeply satisfied with this admittedly flawed but infinitely intriguing version. It is after all that rare but persisting document of the Kidlat Tahimik, that odd but indisputably talented filmmaker whose films seem to be more beholden to unhinged imagination than monetary funding, who at one point of his illustrious career has seen himself as strangely a part of the traditional mechanics of movie-making, with its need for sizable investments, and because of that investment, certain compromises. The film shows Kidlat Tahimik to be a carefree hostage to unforgiving economics, a thankful victim of luck, and a constant dreamer.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Monday, November 28, 2011

Minsan Pa (2004)

Minsan Pa (Jeffrey Jeturian, 2004)
English Title: One Moment More

The film Sana Pag-ibig Na (Enter Love, 1998), one of the several films made under Regal Films subsidiary Good Harvest, gave birth to the collaboration between Armando Lao and Jeffrey Jeturian. Before Sana Pag-ibig Na, Lao was then the very much underrated screenwriter of arguably William Pascual and Chito Rono’s best works, Takaw Tukso (1986) and Itanong mo sa Buwan (1988) respectively. Jeturian, on the other hand, served as production designer and art director for Leroy Salvador’s Dear Killer, one of the two episodes in Dear Diary (1989) that was written by Lao (the other being Dear Partyline, directed by Lupita Aquina-Kashiwahara and written by Jose Javier Reyes) and various other films and television shows. After Sana Pag-ibig Na, Lao and Jeturian would collaborate in Pila Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water, 1999) and Tuhog (Larger than Life, 2001), both of which are also critically acclaimed films.

Minsan Pa, Lao and Jeturian’s fourth film together, is more ambitious in scope. Their previous collaborations were clearly smaller. Sana Pag-ibig Na is a family drama set within a middle-class household. Pila Balde is a set in an impoverished community that envelopes a condominium complex and explores the complicated relationship between the haves and the have-nots. Tuhog is a more conceptual affair that pits real reality and movie reality, revealing a cycle of exploitation within a primarily escapist pastime. Minsan Pa is essentially a romance between a Cebu tour guide (Jomari Yllana) and a tourist (Ara Mina). However, more than just unravelling an ordinary love story, Lao and Jeturian set out to unravel not only the lives of the lovers but also the people around them.

The film often drifts away from the central romance, depicting tender episodes of other people’s lives, like the fisherman’s daughter who marries a Japanese tourist, leaving his childhood sweetheart heartbroken in the process, or the performers in a Japanese videographers’ anonymous shoot who become beholden to erstwhile passions and the need to survive. These side stories, told admirably without a sliver of judgment as to actions of these people and how these people lead their lives, contribute to an overall picture of lives existing amidst the lack of permanence.

People come and go, leaving unresolved relationships, obligations, promises and expectations. They strive for constancy, perhaps through by building a permanent home, by finding that one person for whom they can eternally be in love with, by seeking to reunite a family that has become broken by change. The characters Lao crafted and Jeturian fleshed out live lives adjusted to the fleetingness of the world. The only thing constant is heartbreak and disappointment, as when the promise of becoming settled both in life and in love are suddenly snatched not by a stereotypical antagonist but by the very nature of life.

Minsan Pa may be Lao’s masterwork, a piece so lovingly crafted, with characters that feel like they are living and experiencing life’s difficulties with us. There is very little sense of the writer interfering with how the narrative should flow and instead, the story slowly but surely manages to complete itself without succumbing to formula. Jeturian’s job becomes limited to creating the proper mood and atmosphere to finalize the picture. Backdropped by Cebu’s gorgeous sights and vistas, Jeturian expresses the irony of characters appearing and disappearing, completely engulfed by constantly changing emotions, in places that have been there for centuries or even more.

Minsan Pa is the film is fondly remembered as an underseen gem, the film where Ara Mina and Jomari Yllana gave the performances of their careers, the unlikely Filipino romance that did not need to rely on histrionics or cheap thrills to impress. Minsan Pa, however, has an actual place in the history of Philippine cinema. The film barely made enough to recoup the investment put into its production, prompting Lao to rethink the way Filipino films are written and made. Because of the film’s box office failure, Lao would come up with a system of writing films that are apt for Filipino film producers who may not have the capital to gamble into worthwhile but expensive projects that will never be consumed by the ordinary moviegoer.

Because of Minsan Pa, Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006), a film written in the manner Lao believes Filipino films should be written, happened. Kubrador won for Jeturian several international accolades and earned for the film’s producer, Joji Alonzo, enough money for her to continue making films despite the economic disaster that was Minsan Pa. Brillante Mendoza then made Masahista (The Masseur, 2005), then Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), then Serbis (Service, 2008) and Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009). Young filmmakers followed suit, creating a school of filmmaking that positively or negatively changed the landscape of how films are written and made in the country. Who would have thought that Minsan Pa, a glossy film starring famous actors and actresses about heartaches, would stir such a change, opening the Pandora’s box of stories that require absolutely no gloss, no big names, and tackling issues that are closer to the stomach than the heart.

(Cross-published in Lagarista)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Big Boy (2011)

Big Boy (Shireen Seno, 2011)

We live in the present, for the future. The past only becomes part of the present through memories, which are but figments of the imagination, collections of reality as perceived, designed and fashioned by the creative mind. Memories are never conjured spontaneously. They are urged, perhaps, through people, objects, faces, or emotions. It is this very malleable aspect of memories that makes them infinitely fascinating. We trust them but never fully, knowing that they are hardly objective, rarely completely reliable. They are dreams dreamt while awake. They are preludes to a trance subsisting on pain, joy, and everything else that have become requisite ingredients of evoking nostalgia.

Shireen Seno’s Big Boy is a film that lives up to the feeling of being in a trance, of being transported in a place that could only exist within the boundaries of the mind. While familiar and unfamiliar episodes of somebody else’s childhood flicker on screen, its audience’s very memories are urged, eliciting emotions that are at once both daunting and comforting. Adapted from Seno’s own memories of her childhood in the province, the film’s plot details the experiences of a boy who is routinely stretched and served with fish oil by her parents so that he can be tall enough to be the poster boy for their business of selling fish oil.

True to the very element of memories that Seno attempts to replicate in the film, the plot is overtly disjointed, with points voluntarily left unseen, untold and unexplained like events consciously forgotten for whatever reason. Apparently, the film has bigger ambitions than merely telling a very personal story. In fact, the way the story was told with points consciously left out alludes to the limitations of memories, how some events, especially those done in repetition or coupled with violence or other things that would render them indelible, become ironclad memories and how some are simply forgotten.

The film attempts to replicate remembering, where sights and sounds are products of the imagination rather than of the senses. Cinema however is an art that is reliant on the senses, making it Seno’s task to create in her film sights and sounds that resemble the ones seen and heard by the mind during the act of remembering. Shot in Super8, the film persists as a lyrical artifact of a forgotten era. The soft daytime hues, the kerosene lamp-lit nights, and the timeless Mindoro town become relatable images of a collective past. Conversations are inaccurately dubbed, with conversations jumping from Tagalog to the local dialect seemingly unplanned.

Seno regards memories as imperfectly crafted episodes. She pinpoints to the idea of remembering as a very personal effort, modified in time by the vast differences, whether in morality, politics, beliefs, the language spoken and other things, of the person remembering during the time when the event happened and the time when the event is remembered. Memories, in a way, are akin to fiction. Although more grounded on actual events than ordinary imagined stories, memories are still just fragments of the reality that gave birth to them. Big Boy, in that sense, with its very intimate story of a town still enamored by its past as an American colony, weaves memories and fiction together into an intoxicating portrait of a people who are unable to forget.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Salamangkero (1986)

Salamangkero (Tata Esteban, 1986)
English Title: Magic of the Universe

Tata Esteban is a director whose films mirrored his life. More reputed for being a careless womanizer who dabbled in drugs than a consistent and reliable filmmaker, Esteban has made films that are more famous for their blatant indulgences than anything else. However, a careful glance at his earlier pictures like Alapaap (Clouds, 1984) and Hubo sa Dilim (Naked in the Dark, 1985), both of which are clearly adult fare that feature abundant nudity and sex scenes, reveals a talent of potential that is too infrequently tapped. There is undeniable technique in the way he frames and designs his shots, creating an atmosphere that intriguingly mixes sleaze and style. Unfortunately, Esteban, probably because of his recklessness or a lack of luck or for whatever reason, never made that undisputed masterpiece that would catapult him to that level of respectability most filmmakers aspire for.

Esteban’s Salamangkero, released in 1986 during the Metro Manila Film Festival alongside Mario O’Hara’s more enduring Halimaw sa Banga (Monster in the Jar), could have been that masterpiece had it not turned into a mostly forgotten foray into American-style fantasy filmmaking. There’s very little sense to the film. In fact, the film is absolutely irrelevant and impertinent, especially during its time when Lino Brocka and other directors were either getting more and more political. Yet despite this glaring lack of substance, the film exposes Esteban as a master craftsman, still reckless and undisciplined, but capable of mounting a production that delights more because of how it was made rather than for what it was made.

Admittedly, Salamangkero, viewed now where computers have replaced prosthetics and other traditional special effects, is a gravely dated affair. Yet beyond Philippine shores, the film has gained considerable fame as Magic of the Universe, a re-released, re-dubbed shadow of its former self, because of its astute bizarreness than its craftsmanship. That bizarreness, the same bizarreness that has given Elwood Perez’s Silip (1985) (re-titled as Daughters of Eve) and Celso Ad Castillo’s Snake Sisters (1984) international success, has of course been translated into cult appeal and a fistful of straight-to-video dollars. Even in that mangled form, the film is still notably Esteban: logically flawed, narratively thin, but seductive because of its undaunted excesses.

The story is simple. Jamir (Michael de Mesa) is a magician who accidentally loses both his wife (Tanya Gomez) and daughter (Sunshine Dizon). After consulting a shaman (in a scene that forces De Mesa to eat monkey brains straight out of the head of a butchered monkey) and receiving advice from the ghost of his grandfather (also played by the very versatile De Mesa), he discovers that he has to rescue his wife and daughter, who are now prisoners of Mikula (Armida Siguion-Reyna), a vengeful witch who controls an army of pig-faced monsters and other eccentrics. Along with his assistant Bojok (Tom Tom), Jamir travels to Mikula’s dimension to recover a weapon that will defeat Mikula once and for all.

The simplicity of the story may be because of the fact that Salamengkero was intended to cater to the taste of children. It is a fantasy in the same vein as Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) or Labyrinth (1986), only less extravagant considering the budgetary constraints of the local production. Thankfully, the attempts at replicating Henson’s creature designs resulted into an unexpectedly absurd charm. From Gondo, that silly-looking creature that looks like the lovechild of Bugs Bunny and one of the Teletubbies, to tribe of midgets that become entranced by Jamir’s magic tricks, the film makes most of Filipino ingenuity, creating a fantasy world that may not be as complex and believable as its Western counterparts but is still madly entertaining. More than that, the film, beyond its very elementary struggle between good and evil, feels wildly grim and disturbed, as depicted in its shadowed hues and side characters with indistinguishable motivations and goals.

Esteban may never rise beyond being just a mere footnote in Philippine cinema. The films he left behind are more riddles on whether or not he had an opportunity to greatness than actual proofs of that greatness. It is because of that dividing uncertainty as to his place in Philippine cinema that makes him and his legacy of frustratingly imperfect films aberrations that deserve second looks.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Aliwan Paradise (1992)

Aliwan Paradise (Mike de Leon, 1992)

Mike de Leon’s Aliwan Paradise, one of the four shorts featured in Southern Winds, rings truest in this present age where poverty, as explicitly depicted and as source of an unquenchable desire for escape, has turned into an embarrassing necessity in our entertainment.

De Leon’s view of the future is both hilariously fantastic and uncomfortably real. Although obviously inspired by the near-fascist regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the film’s setting can be read as a caricature of a Filipino society that is addicted to the pleasure of illusions, to the fleetingly amusing, to the ephemeral and the unreal. The Philippines is obviously in a state of grave penury. People are crowded outside the theater of the Impresario (brilliantly played by Johnny Delgado) to take their chance at impressing him and his inutile jury to land a job. The Impresario, under strict orders by her superior (a woman who appears only as a sketch that looks a lot like Imelda Marcos), is looking for a new type of entertainment, something that has not been seen before, and something that will and should sell.

Outside, Julio Madiaga (Julio Diaz) and Ligaya Paradiso (Melissa de Leon), characters from Lino Brocka’s Maynila: sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975), reunite under more heartbreaking circumstances. While Brocka uses the characters as symbols for the Filipino’s tragic search for happiness, De Leon infuses the characters with biting cynicism. Julio, although still madly in love with his former sweetheart, is more aware of the world and its inhumane devices. Ligaya, on the other hand, has totally abandoned romanticism for fatalist worldliness. Their reunion, in rebellion to Brocka’s grappling with a certain sense of hopefulness although futile, becomes more of a resolution to ideals that have become insignificant in a world where survival is the lone virtue that is worth fighting for.

And survival seems to be the only virtue worth fighting for. As a former human rights bureaucrat blows fire while lecturing on literature and eats shards of glass while teaching basic arithmetic and a nurse strips down to her underwear while taking care of an elderly man, the nobility of profession is quickly abandoned by the very basic need to earn a living. Dignity is forgotten. Ligaya’s performance, a song and dance number that fancifully narrates the downfall of the Filipino woman, sums up the distance of how far society has been corrupted by poverty. Her private dealing with the Impresario only reinforces the abject desperation.

De Leon however mixes his cynicism with timeless wit and humor. Doy del Mundo’s screenplay is essentially a satire, resting more on the ingenuity of the idea rather than the lives of its characters or the depth of the narrative. However, the film graduates from the limitations of its being merely a satire. Like its thesis as to how entertainment has lorded over the Philippines from prior to it being colonized up to the present, the film’s prophetic observations as to how entertainment has turned from being a source of respite to a parasite that lives on woe and suffering is evidenced by reality.

Willie Revillame, whose sudden rise to fame happened decades after Aliwan Paradise, has the same wile as the Impresario, acknowledging the wealth in both feeding from and feeding the poor. Star Cinema and other mainstream studios, who would never have raised funds to produce such an enlightening piece of entertainment as Aliwan Paradise, has the same muteness as the Impresario’s jury, ignorant of their being conspirators in creating an economy out of the Filipinos’ ignorance by coming up with products that are comparable to instant noodles, filling but deadly. Independent filmmakers, who subscribe to Mike de Leon’s ideals but are inevitably trapped into mining stories from the fringes of society not by the noble need to expose but by the personal need for acknowledgement, are the Julios and Ligayas of our time, aware of the gnawing injustice of it all but have become knowing parts of that awful but inescapable system.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Cartas de la Soledad: An Interview with Gutierrez Mangansakan II

Cartas de la Soledad: An Interview with Gutierrez Mangansakan II

Gutierrez Mangansakan II is first and foremost a writer who promotes the conservation of his Maguindanaoan heritage through his essays and stories. He later ventured to filmmaking, creating experimental works, video installations, and documentaries that discuss both the problems that ail his region and the culture that forces him to do what he does with utmost passion. His first feature length narrative Limbunan (2010) is an understated masterpiece about a young woman who is forced to be wed by tradition to a man he does not love. It is a film that is characterized by quietude and contemplation, a seeming anomaly to the Mindanao as depicted and exploited by traditional media. For his second feature length narrative, Mangansakan again mines his heritage for inspiration.

Hi Teng, Cartas de la Soledad is your second film after the terribly underrated Limbunan, which I thought was the strongest film in that Cinemalaya batch. Why did you choose CinemaOne instead of Cinemalaya as the vehicle for your second film?

CinemaOne allows a filmmaker for greater experimentation. They do not bother whether or not your film has a star, or too slow, or has sequences consisting only of singular long takes. CinemaOne urges filmmakers to find their own voice, and because of that, it encourages the diversity of cinematic experience.

(Continue reading in Lagarista)

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Boundary (2011)

Boundary (Benito Bautista, 2011)

Confined mostly within the very small spaces provided for by the cabs, taxi drivers live lives that are well-suited for cinema. Although they are forced to interact with people of various personalities, needs and intentions, this human interaction is limited to services being offered and stories being shared in the interim. They are constantly embattled, by drowsiness when forced to drive nights, by paranoia when a particular passenger raises suspicions, by desperation when the shift’s earnings are not enough to cover the cab owner’s quota leaving them with hardly any income to live with. Within the rigid confines of their cabs and their means of livelihood, they witness, either through the endless tirades of newscasters in the radio programs they listen to or through actual experiences, the worst of what a corrupt society can deal to a person.

Boundary starts ominously. Coke Polipata’s violin wails in the background as a dishevelled and obviously paranoia-stricken cab driver (Ronnie Lazaro) opts for a snack in what seems to be an ironically idyllic riverside park. Within the first few minutes of the film, director Benito Bautista orchestrates a view of Manila that is intriguingly unhinged. He carefully sows the seeds of suspicion, which will eventually color the atmosphere of the film. The film retreats from the temporary comforts of day as it follows the cab driver as he plies the crowded streets of Manila well into the night. At this juncture, Bautista allows a glimpse of the city from a distance and away the jaded eyes of his overworked protagonist, evoking a certain calm amidst the chaos of the city before plunging his viewers into a more intimate yet intense look of how that seemingly disconnected bigger picture finds its way into the most contained of spaces.

From then on, Bautista follows the cab driver as he picks up a well-dressed man (Raymond Bagatsing) who asks to be driven to nearby Antipolo. Beneath exteriors defined by random acts of decency and conversations marked by normalcy, both the driver and his passenger are in fact brewing plans of their own.

The action is mostly set inside the cab, with the storytelling done mostly through the conversations the cab driver has with his passenger and the characterization limited to the stories relayed, the mannerisms, gestures, and other occasional quirks. The paranoia Bautista invested in early on manages to color the prolonged sequences within the cramped interior of the cab with tremendous foreboding, carrying the film despite being constricted with its location with a sizeable portion of uneasiness and tension. From within the cab, safety from the viciousness of the street is in fact an illusion as desperation creeps into the picture, forcing the cab driver to survive amidst all odds.

Boundary falters only in narrative logic. Bautista succeeds in establishing the dangers of uncertainty in the familiar. However, the screenplay, which Bautista co-wrote with John Bedia, is peppered with holes, raising more questions of logistics and practicality rather than answering them. This, of course, is a minor and forgivable problem considering that everything else seems so masterfully orchestrated, from Bolipata and Paolo Peralta’s unsettling score to McCoy Ternate’s aptly economic cinematography to Chuck Gutierrez’s intelligent editing. In the end, Bautista has crafted a firm and suspenseful thriller whose clever twist in the end puts both perspective and pertinence to its constricting but intriguingly exciting process.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Waikiki (1980)

Waikiki (Elwood Perez, 1980)

It is undeniable that Filipinos are addicted to migration stories. In a way, despite the far-flung locations of these tales, there is always a strand in the tale that would be instantly relatable, either because immigration has been a common ambition of the ordinary Filipino or immigration has been vicariously experienced through a loved one. From Gil Portes’ masterfully lyrical ‘Merika (1984) to Lav Diaz’s slow-burning Batang West Side (2001), the Filipino diaspora is always depicted with a discontent and ennui, of a gnawing longing for the homeland, of a certain pride for being rooted in a culture despite being detached from its source for so long.

Elwood Perez’s Waikiki is different from these migration stories because its main character, Edad (Alicia Alonzo), a mother who was separated from her husband and two daughters who migrated to Hawaii, is the outside, the seeming trespasser, to the stories of the migrants that her loved ones have become. Left behind because of tuberculosis, she waits for the day when she’ll be able to be reunited with her family. When she gets to Hawaii however, she discovers her daughters (played by Rio Locsin and Lorna Tolentino) adversely changed, with morals looser than what she would’ve expected, with husbands and boyfriends whose attachment to family is less grounded than hers. She finds her husband (Raul Aragon) with a different family, putting that final nail in the coffin of her own American dream, forcing her to go back to the Philippines, with her dignity more or less intact.

Instead of dwelling into the sordid problems of migration, Perez peeks into the specific life of someone who was left behind, expectant of joyous reunions with the loved ones she knows through happy memories when they were still together but instead was greeted with indifference and alienation from loved ones obviously changed through the passage of time and the sudden shift in culture. Alonzo portrays the mother’s coming to terms to the fact that her precious family has been shattered by the American dream with believable intensity. She fights until she no longer can fight, and her eventual surrender to the realities that have literally hit her in the face is quite heartbreaking.

The mother’s story however is just one half of the film. The other half features Mikaela (Alma Moreno), Edad’s eldest daughter who decides to stay behind with her ailing mother, falling from her mother’s graces when she decides to work in a nightclub as a dancer. With the help of her doting neighbor (Bella Flores), she discovers the practical functions of her sexuality, parading in grass skirts and dancing a bastardized and overly-eroticized version of Hawaiian dances with scantily clad Ricky Belmonte to the beat of drums and suggestive chanting of the word “Wai-ki-ki,” subliminally evoking images of what is kept hidden by those strategically placed shards of dried grass.

Despite the obvious erotic undertones of the dances, Perez withholds from designing the scenes to be plainly lewd, plainly objectifying Moreno’s womanly curves in compromising rhythms. Instead, Perez injects the scenes with some sort of feminine empowerment, where men are beholden to the hypnotizing grooves of the show’s main attraction. Waikiki, despite being advertised as a sexy film in obvious reaction to Moreno’s sudden rise to fame as a sex symbol especially after her stints in Joey Gosiengfiao’s Bomba Star (1980) and Nympha (1980), is actually a film that features strong women amidst a world of men made frail by very real circumstances.

Waikiki is deceptive in a sense that it allures with exoticization of female sexuality, of a very foreign land, of the migration experience, before exposing very familiar truths of how families are pulled apart by the Filipino diaspora, how there is an immense divide between traditional mores and the virtues of progress and modernity. Perez, by adeptly juggling the commercial requirements of studio filmmaking and his own artistic impulses, has created a film that is strange because it almost always works in all its attempts to be whatever it needs to be. As a sexy film, it does not fail to arouse. As a melodrama, it does not fail to force out tears. As a portrait of the Philippines then and now, it does not fail to impress with both its astuteness and simplicity in expressing its points.

(Cross-published in Lagarista.)