Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010)

It is almost as if the paintings were waiting for the film to get made. The Chauvet Cave in Southern France suffered a cave-in several thousands of years ago, blocking its entrance and effectively preserving the paintings and everything else inside from deterioration caused by the elements and the natural course of time. For several decades since its discovery, the paintings have only been enjoyed through photographs and replicas, considering that entry to the cave have been limited to a few individuals. That is until Werner Herzog and his crew of three were granted unprecedented entry to film the interior of the cave. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is that result of the unlikely marriage of fate and genius.

Instead of merely treating the paintings as isolated works of art, Herzog posits that the paintings are prehistoric prototypes of cinema, explaining that the position of the paintings, the way they were painted, where they were painted, the possible sources of light in the cave allude to an illusion of movement and to a possible fantasy. Herzog’s hypothesis immediately removes the cave paintings from a position of trite curiosity into something more immediate and relevant. The paintings have turned into products of our conspirators in dreaming. They are evidence of something intrinsically shared with the prehistoric men. Herzog turns these anonymous people from the distant past into relatable characters with hearts and souls that are kindred to ours.

Herzog does not completely settle inside the cave. Instead, he frequently flies away, curiously focusing on the people around the film: their dreams, their inadequacies, quirks and past lives. Although separated by differing priorities and millenniums, there’s a connection that’s established between the subject of the film and his erstwhile subjects, and hopefully, the audience. In one scene, Herzog forces this connection, staging an ominous silence inside the cave, keeping his guides, his crew, and himself in a prayerful stance listening to a supposed communal heartbeat. Ernst Reijseger’s powerful score not so much swells but creeps into the middle of that shared contemplation, turning Herzog’s orchestrated meditation with that filament of humanity he strives to define into some sort of graceful sequence which it is ostensibly not.

The most beautiful thing that Herzog committed to in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is to expand it into something quite larger than it should be. The use of 3D for example is not for mere spectacle. Instead, it is a necessary tool to create that illusion of being inside the cave, of witnessing the actual contours of the cave walls instead of seeing a flat representation of those contours, of experiencing the movement of the painted animals instead of only imagining motion. Considering that the cave paintings and the cinema they aspire to be are all tools that utilize illusions to function as tools to approximate reality, 3D serves as a companion piece to this illusion-building by requiring the approximation of space and depth as essential to not only experience the wonders of the cave but also to understand Herzog’s claims.

That Herzog does not rely solely on hard facts and historical accuracy is what makes Cave of Forgotten Dreams so immeasurably fascinating. After all, what we see in the cave paintings are only minute facets of the immense world that the prehistoric man could have lived in and exploited. We can only watch in awe, dream connections and relations. Yet, we can never be exactly sure. We can only speak and feel from the very little that we know and the very vast that we can imagine. The documentary, as most documentaries do, places us in a comfortable position of looking at and into the subject. Thus, when the film moves into its postscript, with Herzog suddenly placing the audience as the subject for possible interpretation and interpolation of albino alligators that came from the probable future, the tables are turned, and the effect is nothing short of sublime.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Short Films of Kidlat Tahimik

Orbit 50: Letter to My Three Sons (1992)

The Short Films of Kidlat Tahimik

For the 12th edition of the Jeonju International Film Festival, the focus was on Kidlat Tahimik, a rare talent in filmmaking whose works are beacons of uncompromisable vision. While most famous for his long works like Mababangong Bangungot (1977) and Turumba (1981), he has made several short films which attest to the singularity of his creative process and the integrity of his perspective and creativity, traits which have become essential in the Philippine's burgeoning new cinema.

Ang Balikbayan (Memories of Overdevelopment, 1980-2011)

Perhaps one of the greatest films that will probably never get made is Kidlat Tahimik’s account of the first circumnavigation of the globe by Enrique, Magellan’s Filipino slave. Ang Balikbayan (Memories of Overdevelopment), a thirty minute collection of scenes from what could have been the film, is, for the moment, the closest the world will ever get to the non-existent film. Kidlat Tahimik narrates the events of Enrique’s voyage in a surprisingly straightforward fashion, more descriptive of how the final film would be than anything else, lacking the usual fanciful and humorous wit that defines most of his films. The film is a work that is too long in progress. Enrique’s circumnavigation of the globe is hardly a product of skill. It is however a mixture of many things, of skill, of ingenuity, of friendship, and of luck. The film that is in progress, as seen from this narrated version, showcases everything of those traits, except, sadly, luck.

Orbit 50: Letter to My Three Sons (1990-1992)

Made for his fiftieth birthday, Orbit 50: Letter to My Three Sons reveals the source of Kidlat Tahimik’s filmmaking powers. He is a father first, and a filmmaker second. Structured like almost all of his films where found footage are playfully edited together and provided sense and substance by his honest and often humorous narration, the short film appears to be a dedication to his three sons, Kidlat, whom he acknowledges to be his creative father considering that his filmmaking name is borrowed from his son’s birth name, Kawayan, whose artistic impulses rival his father’s, and Kabunyan, whose youthful playfulness reveals his father’s own joyous unpredictability. Seen today, the film performs as an enduring ode to the beautiful simplicity of family life in the midst of the more alluring world of arts. That he chose to honour his children instead of his career in his fiftieth orbit around the sun reflects the very unique attraction of his life’s creative work.

Celebrating the Year 2021, Today (1995)

In the year 2021, it will be the 500th anniversary of the circumnavigation of the world of Magellan’s slave, a Filipino. Starting from the Philippines where he was captured, he was brought to Portugal via the Indian Ocean, sailing off the coasts of India and Africa. When Magellan went to the Philippines from Portugal, crossing the Atlantic Ocean to South America and crossing the Pacific Ocean to the island of Mactan where he was killed by the island’s chieftain, he brought with him his Filipino slave, who at that moment, is the first person to have circumnavigated the globe. The story was supposed to have been a film by Kidlat Tahimik. However, budgetary limitations have halted the project. A few clips from the terminated project make their appearance in this short, a testament to Kidlat Tahimik’s creative resourcefulness. Undaunted by the hindrances to making his film project, he instead has planted trees in various places around the world. By 2021, the trees would have all grown, and would be steadfast testaments to Filipino ingenuity as well as markers for the historical footnote of Kidlat’s filmmaking fantasy.

Bahag Ko, Mahal Ko (Japanese Summers of a Filipino Fundoshi, 1996)

The tragic tale of the bahag, then a garment of respect and now a mere costume that is treated with ridicule and shame, is one that has colonization and its effects of extreme Western influence as antagonists. With Bahag Ko, Mahal Ko (Japanese Summers of a Filipino Fundoshi), Kidlat Tahimik takes the garment as a symbol of everything we have forgotten as a result of being the subjects of imperialist powers for more than three hundred years. The film starts as a conversation between Kidlat and his son, Kabunyan, where idle chatter about Marilyn Monroe’s immense sex appeal transforms into a discourse on the malleability of concepts of beauty. The film then transports the discourse to Japan, where the tragic tale of the bahag, or fundoshi, is shared. At that point, Kidlat Tahimik, makes the adverse effects of modernization and its requirements of cultural homogeneity, an international concern.

Our Film-grimage to Guimaras (2005)

In August of 2006, an oil tanker sank off the coast of Guimaras, an island famed for its pristine beaches and nearly untouched natural beauty. Almost immediately after, the Independent Filmmakers Cooperative of the Philippines spearheaded a project where several of its filmmakers, which include Khavn dela Cruz, Raya Martin, and Roxlee, are to make a film in reaction to the oil spill. Kidlat Tahimik’s contribution, aptly titled and brimming with the director’s trademark levity amidst the heaviness of his themes and topics, humorously starts off with his promise to his cat to bring home fish from Guimaras. The “film-grimage” is documented with hardly any frills, and fuelled primarily by Kidlat Tahimik’s unrehearsed and therefore veritable wit. The resulting film has all the marks of an impromptu project. Notwithstanding its obvious simplicity and probably all the more because of the unlikely humour that surrounds the humble production, the film resonates with a mature understanding of the gross repercussions of the oil spill.

Some More Rice (2005)

The Philippines and Japan are linked in so many ways. However, Kidlat Tahimik, ever the idiosyncratic artist, explores the connection via rice, staple food for both nations. However, what Kidlat Tahimik explores in this short documentary is hardly relegated to rice as food, but rice as a way of living. Narrated by Kidlat Tahimik from letters he wrote to a Japanese rice farmer and Akira Kurosawa, whose Seven Samurai (1954) serves as starting point of the film’s discourse and also as the source for its curious title, the film details the several similarities and differences between the two cultures. As the film goes on, as its discourse moves from the facile to the intimate, it reveals a sympathetic heart for farmers, and more importantly, a fluent understanding of the human condition. Notwithstanding physical, cultural and economic distance between the two nations, Kidlat Tahimik convinces that the connections are more real than hypothesized.

Bubong (Roofs of the World! Unite!, 2006)

Kidlat Tahimik’s always curious creativity is now focused on shelter. Starting with a hike up the Himalayas where he notices his guides carrying heavy roofs to the villages up the mountains, the film moves around the world, depicting various roofs, from the ornate bronze domes of Buddhist temples to the humble bamboo structures of Kidlat Tahimik’s Baguio home. Much more than a document on anthropological details on roof-building, the short film only makes use of the detail to forward the resilience that is shared by humanity, no matter how different in terms of culture. Although carried heavily by the utilization of the roof as a metaphor to the virtues that connect cultures, the film, like most of Kidlat Tahimik’s works, is fuelled not by a need to prove a logical flow or predictable sense. Thus, the film follows no structure and instead persists like a collage made from footage collected through the years. Despite its lack of form, the film is a masterfully conceived and joyously executed essay on the fundamentals of human living, as seen through eyes that have travelled and witnessed the world.

(The reviews in this article were commissioned for the programme of the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

In the Name of Love (2011)

In the Name of Love (Olivia Lamasan, 2011)

The first fifteen minutes of Olivia Lamasan’s In the Name of Love is that sort of uncharacteristic greatness that comes from an otherwise unspectacular director. Hinting of a narrative that is darker than what is expected from a mainstream studio, Lamasan confidently lays the pieces of her masterpiece-in-the-making. After spending seven years in a Japanese jail for being caught transporting yakuza money in the airport while on his way home to visit his son, Emman (Aga Muhlach) has become old and modest in his ambitions. However, an unlikely meet-up with Mercedes (Angel Locsin), the prostitute-turned-girlfriend of a politician’s son (Jake Cuenca), pushes him in the middle of a dangerous love triangle involving a murderous political family and a province struggling under its control.

Lamasan introduces Emman as the irreversibly old and wasted man who is fated for doom. Mercedes is the irresistible femme fatale, sexy beyond compare but seductively mysterious. The little town they live their sad lives in is clouded with discontent, with the prospect of the coming elections only exposing the town’s unmistakably rotting core. The first fifteen minutes set up a film noir that never was. After building up expectations of gloom, Lamasan succumbs to the allure of drowning the set-up with paltry romance, completely wasting whatever’s built up to confused schmaltziness.

Lamasan stages the most heartbreaking of dramatic moments in her films (such as the painful dinner scene in In My Life (2009) where the recently broken mother suddenly realizes how she destroyed the lives of her children, or the melancholic scene in Milan (2004) where an abandoned husband finally finds his wife in a worse condition than his, or the very angry scene in Sana Maulit Muli (Hopefully, Once More, 1995) where an illegal immigrant furiously bursts upon seeing the maltreatment a Filipino employer treats his employees) hinting of some sort of depth in her work within the usually shallow mainstream. In this film, she pits then matinee idol Muhlach with his inevitable old age, in one heartbreaking scene where his character, after being imprisoned for several years, stands in front of the mirror, realizing how he has wasted his youth, his life.

However, Lamasan struggles with mood, shifting from light-hearted moments to gloomy episodes and vice versa with the flimsiest of motivations. That has always been Lamasan’s biggest fault. While Muhlach’s vulnerability is commendable, he remains unconvincing as a dramatic actor, most especially when delivering lines that require some sort of sombreness, which sadly, the actor seems incapable of. His perpetually youthful looks provide some sort of visual irony, making his expected corruption and demise all the more heartbreaking. Unfortunately, expectations remain that. In the Name of Love is not as dark as it should be to be effective in depicting the crookedness of its setting. Though it aspires to be a great love story (even making use of the theme song of Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970) to communicate the gravity and grandness of the film’s romantic aspirations), it simply fails to engage, remaining limp and overly simplistic in its portrayals.

Finally, in the name of escapism and sure returns, Star Cinema, the film’s producer which is arguably the Philippines’ most commercially successful movie studio, maintains the silliest and stupidest of traditions. Their movies (with the exception of their horror films which end with cliffhangers) are riddled with unnecessarily happy conclusions, making it seem that life, despite its gargantuan problems and unexpected tragic turns, are but fairy tales with predictable endings. While there is nothing generally wrong with escapist cinema, there is something glaringly evil about how films are haphazardly tacked with these happy endings, no matter how disgustingly illogical they are in the context of the film.

In the Name of Love is an ambitious but very flawed film. It could have been passable entertainment. However, with its completely irrelevant ending, the film devolves into some sort of insulting drivel, a confused marriage between untrusting capitalists and earnest artists, with the latter in the losing end. Like a poor man’s porridge with a piece of pubic hair proudly floating, the otherwise palatable film is rendered virtually inedible with that single unforgivable compromise.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Sino'ng Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sino'ng Lumikha ng Moon Buggy? (1979)

Sino'ng Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sino'ng Lumikha ng Moon Buggy? (Kidlat Tahimik, 1979)
English Title: Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?

It’ is very tempting to acknowledge Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare, 1977) as an autobiographical account of an ambitious Filipino with a compellingly descriptive name who wakes up from his dreamy infatuation with the West.

A student leader in the University of the Philippines, a Wharton graduate and the son of his home town’s first mayor after the Philippines’ liberation from America, Eric de Guia, the real Kidlat Tahimik, although similar in curiosity and probably in destiny with the character he created, is hardly the poor and uneducated jeepney driver of his first film. Sino’ng Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sino’ng Lumikha ng Moon Buggy? (Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?) although set in fictional Yodel Ville, with Kidlat Tahimik, no longer the same jeepney driver of Mababangong Bangungot but a character that is closer to the real man, spending time with children in his mission to launch a chicken to space via a makeshift vessel.

Detouring from those humorous flights of fantasy, Kidlat Tahimik opens up, detailing his personal history and circumstance, blurring further the lines between him and the characters he has created for himself. In that sense, Sino’ng Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sino’ng Lumikha ng Moon Buggy?, more than Mababangong Bangungot or Turumba (1981), his more popular works, represents the closest precursor to the distinct autobiographical wonderments that would define his latter video works. It seems that the film, because of its lengthy title, is a promotion of the inventive qualities of Filipinos which benefitted the entire world.

Without taking away from the unique delights of seeing a grown man treating toddlers as equals in discussions that should not make sense but actually do, the film, while utilizing the often inane resourcefulness of Kidlat Tahimik’s character as a wellspring for comedy, proposes that it is that trait, arguably endemic to Filipinos, that is the secret ingredient to genius.

(This article was commissioned for the programme of the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival)

Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahaghari? (1994)

Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahaghari? (Kidlat Tahimik, 1994)
English Title: Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?

Perhaps because of its length, which is an hour more than the typical Hollywood fare that Filipinos have gotten chronically used to seeing, Kidlat Tahimik’s Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahaghari? (Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?, 1994) is criminally under-seen, and is therefore severely underrated. The film, which is effectively Kidlat Tahimik’s account of his personal life from 1981 to 1993, is perhaps the most personal work of the director whose films are intimately intertwined with him, his history, and his beliefs.

Because the film is essentially a collection of footage from various points of Kidlat Tahimik’s life during the timeline, the audience becomes openly familiar with the director’s private life: learning of the intricacies of his family, joining him in his creative and social endeavours, and reflecting with him on the political events that have been unfolding alongside his personal growth. It is perhaps the multitude of facets of an artist, all portrayed with the distinct generosity and modesty that Kidlat Tahimik is most famous for, that makes Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahaghari? such an invaluable and special film.

With the film, Kidlat Tahimik discusses alongside the difficulties of fatherhood, the birth pangs of the newly founded artists’ community he helped form in Baguio City, and the initial highs and impending disappointments of post-Ferdinand Marcos democracy. Considering the ostensible epic scope and ambition of the film, Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahaghari? never feels burdened with self-importance.

The film moves and feels like a diary that he selflessly opens to his viewers, and in that sense, it never overreaches but instead comfortably sits in the midst of what Kidlat Tahimik is most knowledgeable of. Moreover, the film is laced with tangible authenticity. Shot and presumably made sans any script or creative intervention, the film evokes a sense personal, cultural and national histories unfold through the eyes of an active participant. In a sense, the film shows history as it is being made, raw but never confrontational, tender but never cowardly.

(This article was commissioned for the programme of the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival)

Turumba (1981)

Turumba (Kidlat Tahimik, 1981)

Turumba is arguably Kidlat Tahimik’s finest work. When compared to his other films, the film is handsomely produced, tightly edited, and sleekly told. Also absent in the film is Kidlat Tahimik’s physical presence. Instead, the film is told through the eyes of young Kadu, son of a craftsman who specializes in papier-mâché products.

Kadu, similar to Kidlat Tahimik’s character in Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare, 1977), is a curious creature, well-entrenched in his community but not without questions about his town’s customs and traditions. On the day of turumba, a festival celebrating the feast day of the town’s beloved Marian image, a German capitalist chances upon the papier-mâché products he is selling, leading to ever-increasing orders, and forcing Kadu’s father to turn what used to be a livelihood that is intimately connected with the town’s customs and traditions into a lucrative business, a source of immense profit.

Turumba seems to be Mababangong Bangungot’s spiritual sequel, although it can be argued that Kidlat Tahimik has spent his entire creative career tempering the allure of modernization. In the film, foreign capital is treated with suspicion. The German capitalist, a moneyed woman whose stately appearance is betrayed by her lack of grace and finesse, seems to be portrayed for laughs, not unlike the American in Mababangong Bangungot. The country folk, from Kadu’s keen grandmother to the resourceful blacksmith, are all depicted with reverence.

In that sense, Turumba does not dwell in complications. It is told with refreshing simplicity. Thus, instead of politicizing and complicating the discourses regarding Westernization, modernization, and economics, Kidlat Tahimik focuses on what is most intelligible in the arguments, and that is what is most tangible and visible, like the death of traditions, the sudden soullessness of craftsmanship, and the dissipation of cultural integrity. Turumba, without having Kidlat Tahimik, the vastly enjoyable performer performing onscreen, has the tracks of Kidlat Tahimik’s sariling dwende from start to finish.

(This article was commissioned for the programme of the 12th Jeonju International Film Festival)