Friday, April 29, 2011

Bagong Hari (1986)

Bagong Hari (Mario O'Hara, 1986)
English Title: New King

With the possible exception of Fernando Poe, Jr., no other actor who made a career as an action star can evoke that very rare mix of gravitas and ruthlessness in his characters as Dan Alvaro. Alvaro has a very pleasant and handsome mug, more befitting a matinee idol than a wronged crusader. Perhaps it is because of the incongruence of his angelic face, his stuntman’s body, and the diverse roles that the then unpredictable Filipino film industry has given him that turns Alvaro into such a wildly intriguing and probably underexplored screen personality.

In Mario O’Hara’s Bagong Hari (The New King), Alvaro plays Addon, the quintessential Filipino anti-hero, the bastard son of a corrupt police officer who purposely meddles in the very dirty political war between the governor (Elvira Manahan) and a town mayor (Celso Ad Castillo) in an unnamed province. Made for the 1985 Metro Manila Film Festival but only released the following year, the film left its producers, who were more used to producing comedies that are sure hits especially in a time when escapist entertainment was prime commodity, unable to recoup the capital put into the film.

The film has been lost for several decades, with the wild rumor of the remaining print of the film being thrown into the Pasig River by its frustrated producers surfacing every now and then, until a VHS copy was discovered by New York-based Filipino film preservationist Jojo de Vera, and through the efforts of the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA), was recently screened after a couple of decades worth of absence.

Bagong Hari benefits the most from Alvaro’s distinctly curious presence. Addon, previous to being forced into being deeply involved in the corrupting political state, exists within some sort of modest and humble paradise, where his conflicts are mostly personal and his pleasures are absolutely simple. O’Hara fluently paints that quaint existence, making use of the most sensual of visual and aural stylizations to enunciate sexual fantasies and other modest delights of Addon’s erstwhile peace. The marked difference between that seemingly idyllic life and the violent and bleak existence that he suddenly finds himself in punctuates the harshness of O’Hara’s not-so-fictional version of the Philippines. That the bearer of that entire world’s physical and emotional turmoil is a man of boyish features makes the bleakness of O’Hara’s vision even more poignant, more heartbreaking.

Deaths are so commonplace and only made momentarily significant by the strange sentimentality that the characters who seem to be enamoured with the pretence that there is something more to their lives than the hell that they have been living have reserved for them. Violence, on the other hand, becomes more than a requirement for survival. It is the way of life. The capacity to both resist and inflict violence becomes the barometer for one’s value. The country itself is moved by violence. The quiet decision-makers engage in gambles that involve brutal fights to the death. The struggle to the top political post is ridden with not only dirty dealings but also mindless massacres.

Bagong Hari, timely resurrected from a demise caused by both fate and neglect, proves to be a still potent portrait of a country wallowing in despair and hopelessness.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Kano: An American and His Harem (2010)

Kano: An American and His Harem (Monster Jimenez, 2010)

The easiest thing to do is to inform. What Monster Jimenez does in Kano: An American and His Harem may be the hardest thing to accomplish. She first informs, of the life of Victor Pearson, an American war veteran who relocates to the Philippines and establishes a household that is composed of him and several wives and paramours, of the criminal suit for rape, of his eventual image as sexual deviant and monster. Jimenez then opens a window for Pearson, who has been adjudged by all who knew him solely as a character in the newspaper headlines as an indefatigable pervert, to prove his humanity, and opens a bigger window for Pearson to display his undeniable charms and wit.

Pearson looks like a thoroughly unkempt Harvey Keitel and talks like a reflective but drunken Edward G. Robinson. He is an inevitable screen personality. His backstory, with the possible barrage of psychological torture from a hinted torturous childhood and Vietnam War experiences, could have been a Kubrick thriller. His present story, as embattled villain in a legal battle against all odds, could have been a clever Lumet court drama.

His harem, on the other hand, is composed of an eclectic mix of looks and ages. Probably the only uniting factor for the women is poverty, which leads supposedly to their attachment and dependence on Pearson’s sizable veteran’s pension. However, to simply regard their intertwined relationships as primarily economic is to disregard the complexity of human nature. Jimenez explores not only the cycle of financial dependency but also the continuously evolving emotions, no matter how misplaced, mutated and immoral they seem to be. She treats the relationships between Pearson and his women and among the women with light-hearted sensitivity, with a careful but delicious mix of humor and seriousness.

Kano: An American and His Harem is ostensibly about the most curious of domestic arrangements, where one man plays benefactor, lover, victimizer, and a whole lot of other roles to the women who are voluntarily or involuntarily under his wing. Yet, the documentary also pushes perception despite the norms and moral boundaries that have set in place how we normally perceive what is human and what is not. Pearson, through Jimenez’s peerless and very involved investigation, has become the perfect example of the most misunderstood man, considering that his much-publicized and now legendary devious acts are too glaring to gloss over. And despite the initial disgust, the momentary fascination, and the lingering intrigue with Pearson, he becomes familiar, perhaps overly familiar to the point of discomfort.

Yet, Jimenez does not flinch. In fact, she confronts Pearson with only some apprehension, maybe some suspicion too, but never with disdain or an already made-up objective as to how the documentary will move. Instead, the documentary takes a life of its own, rollercoasting on emotions ranging from anger to amusement, and frustration to delight. It moves seemingly without direction because the director itself is moved by her subject, gravitating only to the business of exhibiting Pearson’s life and dilemma. As willing companions of Jimenez in her creatively crafted and deliciously enjoyable attempt to simplify the complexities of Pearson and his women’s unique situation, it is best to enter Kano: An American and His Harem with an open mind, totally unresisting of the probable charms of Pearson and his bountiful love.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Deadline (The Reign of Impunity) (2011)

Deadline (The Reign of Impunity) (Joel Lamangan, 2011)

In the morning of November 23, 2009, a local politician who was on his way to town to file his certificate of candidacy for the upcoming elections, his family, his supporters, lawyers, and several journalists were ambushed and cruelly murdered. The massacre, more popularly referred to as the Ampatuan Massacre not only because it happened in the town of Ampatuan but because the suspected perpetrators bear the same name, became the much-needed signal that would alert the public of the systematic murder of journalists, a practice that has long gone unnoticed. Joel Lamangan’s Deadline (The Reign of Impunity) clearly takes its cue from these recent events that shocked the Philippines.

Ross Rivera (TJ Trinidad), a writer whose cynicism has converted him into a government apologist, is suddenly forced to reassess his role as journalist when he finds himself right in the middle of unearthing a conspiracy linking Muntazir Ghazi (Tirso Cruz III), a local warlord, with election fraud and the sporadic killing of journalists in various parts of the country. While Ross wrestles with his conscience and attempts to convince Greta Manarang (Lovi Poe), television newscaster and grieving girlfriend of a recently murdered journalist, of his newfound integrity in Manila, Azad (Allen Dizon) and Claire (Ina Feleo), local journalists who are deep into the tracks of Ghazi, are hunted down by Ghazi’s henchmen. Their stories eventually intertwine, revealing a more frustrated than concerned outlook of the state of free speech in a country that supposedly fosters democracy.

The film is obviously fuelled by anger and alarm, necessary emotions when the government itself, through its inaction and inattention, perpetuates these heinous activities. Lamangan’s activism however seems more reactionary. The film, instead of gnawing deeper into the cultural defect only dramatizes, probably for the sake of infecting viewers with the same disgust over the current corrupted state of the country, the social malaise.

There are attempts at exploration, as when Ross converses with a peasant walking along the dirt road where his vehicle stopped and gets told of the promises of the government of bountiful land in Mindanao that are broken for the sole reason of the fact that the lands promised weren’t the government’s to be given away. Unfortunately, the narrative cannot afford any time for idle talk that is only tangentially related to Lamangan’s agenda. The film moves on, interrupting possibilities of depth with the furtherance of its heavy-handed agitprop.

Lamangan, when impassioned by political themes, tends to substitute subtlety with forceful slogans and unsavoury didactics. Fortunately, in Deadline (The Reign of Impunity), the bluntness seems called for. Lamangan paces the film evenly, imbuing the briskly-told story with the same sense of immediacy that the still unresolved issues of media-related murders deserve. The film, armed with a rousing musical score and other commendable technical values, communicates its advocacy without necessarily surrendering the requirements of entertaining and intelligible cinema. Deadline (The Reign of Impunity), with its unrelenting thirst to display only the most dramatic of scenarios, has the same appeal as primetime sensationalized news.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Kommander Kulas (2011)

Kommander Kulas: Ang Kaisa-isang Konsiyerto ng Kagila-gilalas na Kombo ni Kommander Kulas at ng Kanyang Kawawang Kalabaw sa Walang Katapusang Kalsada ng Kamyas (Khavn de la Cruz, 2011)
English Title: Kommander Kulas: The One and Only Concert of the Amazing Combo of Kommander Kulas and His Poor Carabao in the Long and Unwinding Road of Kamyas

Khavn de la Cruz's Kommander Kulas: Ang Kaisa-isang Konsiyerto ng Kagila-gilalas na Kombo ni Kommander Kulas at ng Kanyang Kawawang Kalabaw sa Walang Katapusang Kalsada ng Kamyas (The One and Only Concert of the Amazing Combo of Kommander Kulas and his Poor Carabao in the Long and Unwinding Road of Kamyas), or Kommander Kulas for much-needed brevity, relies strongly on pattern. After a prologue which details the existential account of the titular character's death in storybook fashion, Khavn spends little time to force his audience into a near-torturous cycle of depraved art, from spoken poetry of varying degrees of menace and perversion serving as soundtrack to several images (the most shocking of which has a heavyset woman sitting on a plate as if defecating), to long takes of Kommander Kulas riding his carabao in lush landscapes, to public domain Tagalog love songs serenading images of a makeshift grand piano stationed in different decrepit locations in the city.

Khavn has done the same patterned film before. In Paalam Aking Bulalakaw (Goodbye My Shooting Star, 2006), he documents a date with a girl (Meryll Soriano) while cycling through love poems and love songs. Where the pattern in Paalam Aking Bulalakaw complemented the Khavn's unabashed meanderings on romantic love, in Kommander Kulas, the pattern only adds to the burden of the film, weighing the already weighty subject matter with the malady of predictability.

However, Khavn is not concerned with providing surprises or shocking twists. Right from the start, he duly warns his audience of Kommander Kulas' demise leading from his unresolved search for his heart which led to his meet-ups with various loves and their human representations. It seems that Khavn's goal is to wear his audience off, to make them feel the exhausting repercussions of a hopeless search for a hopeless heart. In that sense, perspective and agenda, he more than succeeds.

Khavn is much more than a prolific filmmaker who makes three to four feature length films and even more short films per year. He is also very unpredictable. His films, most of which bear the signature of being sensible and sometimes logical despite the palpable chaos of their creation, attempt to dignify the common vices of the inevitable ease of digital filmmaking and are most of the time, very successful at it. Mostly unplanned with only an idea that is probably germinated from random discussions over rounds of San Miguel beer in one of Manila's artists' nooks and probably a day or two to shoot and materialize the idea, Khavn's films, despite the obviousness of the probable ease and welcomed carelessness in their production, range from absolutely fun to curiously profound. Interestingly, with Kommander Kulas, it seems the hardworking director has unwittingly chosen profundity over fun.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)