Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Life is such a peculiar thing. It is regarded as the most precious of things by humanity. However, it is also the one thing that humanity shares with other creatures, from the tiniest bacteria to the largest whale. That exact same life that humans and the rest of nature partake in equal portions however becomes vastly differentiated with the sudden absence of it. For the rest of the universe, death is just an act of nature. For humanity, death is something else, something that dwells, something sacred, something spiritual, something religious.

“Was he bad? Where were you, to let a boy die, to let anything happen? Why should I be good, if you aren’t,” a boy asks God after witnessing another boy drown in a public swimming pool. The death of a fellow human elicits such a response from another human. It is as if a great injustice has been done by God. Death is treated as punishment instead and should only be merited when one has been evil.

Naturally, the initial emotion that The Tree of Life communicates is one brought about by death, grief. A mother opens her home to the news of her teenage son’s death. Moments of piercing silence, probably out of doubt or disbelief, ensue. Then she lets out a defeated wail, short-lived though as Malick immediately cuts to the next scene of the father who learns of the death of his son through a phone call. Sequences of grief follow: neighbours and friends attempting to placate the mother, the father wanting to grieve in privacy.

Fast-forward to several decades after, a man, seemingly aloof from his wife and the world, remembers the death of his brother. He lights a candle, apologizes to his father about something about his dead brother, and goes about his work-a-day life with evident distance. As these visualizations of grief, both fresh and carried over through the years, flicker onscreen, whispered prayers are heard. The mother looks up to the sky. “That’s where God lives,” she once told her son. The scene cuts to a cloud of light over darkness, the same image that begins and ends the film and recurs every so often. “Lord, why? Where were you? Did you know? Who are we to you? Answer me,” she pleads.

At that juncture, Malick tells the story of the universe, from when it was just nebulous formations of light and darkness up to the appearance of life. Awe is an overwhelming emotion derived from a position of subordination. The images that Malick conjures in non-stop fashion are ones that can only elicit awe. From something as epic as galaxies being formed to something as minuscule as the moment a sperm enters an egg, the images are always sublime and powerful. In the midst of such breadth and brilliance, everything else, even death and grief, seems insignificant.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth,” quoted by Malick from the book of Job, could be God’s response to the mother’s chain of questions. Religion has trained humanity to regard itself as the center of the universe, but the history of the universe, it seems, points out to the exact opposite: that humanity is but a dot in the journey from beginning to end.

Malick goes back from mapping the formation of the universe to mapping the evolution of a man, from the time when the father and mother fell in love, to his birth, to the early stages of his maturity. Told in fragments instead of a linear narrative, the film takes the shape of a montage of memories kept that inevitably molds adulthood. It is also a medley of emotions that ground the experience back to familiarity. A boy looks jealously of his baby brother. The father plays a few notes of his piano to accompany his son who is strumming his guitar as the older son enviously looks from afar. A boy throws a piece of lingerie to the river because of the guilt of an emerging sexuality. A son wishes for the death of his father. The same son imagines his mother flying in the air, an angel.

Malick explores the supposed opposing concepts of nature and grace. Ostensibly, the father, strict and dictatorial in the rearing of his children and the management of his household, represents the path of nature. On the other hand, the mother, kind, gentle, and immaculate, represents the path of grace. Childhood becomes the setting of these clashing forces. The boy struggles from innocence to worldliness, treading the path to nature. “I’m as bad as you are. I’m more like you than her,” the son tells his father.

To absorb these characters are mere symbols of some cosmic tug-of-war between nature and grace is to belittle the complexities of their humanity, which Malick laid down with such meticulousness that it can only come from somewhere intimate and personal. The father, the mother, the three children, all fall from grace, rebound, and just exist notwithstanding the greater forces that lord over the universe. It is that innate ability to exist and the knowledge of existence that separates humanity from the universe. In a way, that ability and knowledge allows humanity to distance itself from the evolution of the universe and create for itself a history of its own choosing, a beginning of its own choosing, and an end of its own choosing.

To exist is to choose. Rather than representations of a philosophical notion, the characters exist, deciding to jump from domination, such as when death results in a collapse of faith, to acceptance, such as when the father’s financial collapse brings all of them together to leave their perfect suburban home, and so on.

“I give him to you,” the mother whispers as she is caressed by angelic beings. Images of the dead son leaving their suburban house towards the horizon, of the adult eldest son seeing his father, mother, brothers, all in ageless form, converge in a beach teeming with people from memories both close and distant, of birth, of death, and of life mingle onscreen.

Grace, as Malick seems to elucidate, is neither the opposite of nature, nor an elementary appropriation of the mother’s maternal qualities, nor an adjunct of religion’s concept of morality. It is simply acceptance of the movement of the universe, that people die to form part of the story of the world, that humanity, despite its capacity to choose, can choose to be again part of the universe it has always attempted to sever itself from in its quest for dominance over creation. Grace is a moment of peace, that secluded smile the adult son lets off because of and despite the world.

The Tree of Life is a priceless work that is astoundingly majestic, sublimely spectacular, but never alienating. In its search for deeper truths, it positions itself not from the vantage point of a pompous philosopher, looking in from the outside, but as an everyman, looking out from the inside. In that sense, the film is far more generous than it looks. In its beautiful abstractions are fissures that allow for the entry of varying interpretations that are inevitable given the infinite number of disciplines, faith, and experiences that are around.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Forever and a Day (2011)

Forever and a Day (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2011)

Their love’s on a rush. Eugene (Sam Milby), a shoe designer who insists on always being on top of his game, is always on the go. Raffy (KC Concepcion), on the other hand, is making what remains of her life count. They meet in an adventure camp. They fall in love, forcing Eugene to finally admit defeat and allowing Raffy to touch one more life before her predictable demise.

Cathy Garcia-Molina’s Forever and a Day suffers from a bad case of extreme tastefulness. It is unfortunate that Garcia-Molina, who almost always supplants the mainstream imprints of her films with subtle inventiveness and distinctive charm, seems powerless to the dullness of the film’s unfortunate script. It is a dullness that is only worsened by dialogue that seems to belittle the complexities of the human condition. Everything, from something as banal as white water rafting to something as sensitive as cancer and death, is utilized to neatly wrap a narrative that trivializes life for commercial purposes.

Despite being overindulgent in parts with certain sequences feeling longer than they should be, the film is fortunately well-made. The film waddles through with beautifully shot passages, convincingly acted exchanges, and adeptly directed scenes. Milby makes up for his stilted line delivery with consistency. Concepcion, on the other hand, gives an adequately affecting performance, as she conveys a vulnerability that is quite pleasantly surprising, especially since it comes from her. Sadly, the film overflows with needless support, effectively turning the film into a messy ensemble instead of something more intimate, something more sincere.

Ultimately, there’s not enough humor to add levity to the drama. There’s not enough honesty to temper the bad taste having the pain of death be reduced into a gimmick of an ending. Love, sprinkled with a bit of class struggle, of growing-up angst, of amnesia, used to be the lone resource for these manufactured escapist trifles. Now, death, with its appurtenant emotions filtered from it, is utilized and as a result, cheapened to cater to market demands. The resulting drama is so neatly concluded, so courteous and gregarious to its audiences that it defeats the entire purpose of expanding the grasp of the mainstream to tackle the most real and most certain of the many realities and certainties of life.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Basal Banar (2002)

Basal Banar (Auraeus Solito, 2002)
English Title: Sacred Ritual of Truth

The most unique of sunsets opens Auraeus Solito’s Basal Banar (Sacred Ritual of Truth). The distant coast and the clouds are but shadows to the mysterious red, blue, and white of the darkening sky. There can never be a more appropriate introduction. In a single visual, Solito introduces Palawan as this land that is mysterious, grandiose, and sadly, much burdened by problems any paradise may expect but should never deserve. From that otherworldly view of Palawan from the sea and through rivers and thick jungles, the film elegantly takes its viewers into the heart of the land, its people.

Solito has the advantage of capturing Palawan not from the vantage point of an absolute stranger but of a returning son. Instead of depicting Palawan’s people with the coldness and distance of an uninvolved documentarian, he positions himself as equally affected, giving the documentary a sense of reverence when depicting the more intimate details of the island’s culture and urgency when forwarding an advocacy.

Solito, schooled in Manila, prides himself of his Palaw’an heritage, a heritage that would guide him through several of his narrative features, all of which would give ample light to the unknown and marginalized, from the gay youths of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005) and Boy (2009) to the rare geniuses of Pisay (Philippine Science, 2007). It is only with Busong (Palawan Fate, 2011) that Solito was able to give his beloved Palawan undivided attention. In the film, he drapes his adulation with high definition images of a timeless paradise that curiously mingles with the very real and the infinitely current, creating something of a beautiful anachronism that is a more than apt summary of the situation in Palawan.

Basal Banar is an essential precursor and companion piece to Busong. Where Busong is dreamlike and artistic in its imagery, Basal Banar is organic and unrehearsed. Its aesthetics is borrowed directly from nature and the people that partake of nature.

Even the music and the sound design are essential facets of what is seen. The songs sung by the natives are little stories by themselves, tackling everything from sacred rituals to mundane domestic dilemmas. There are also songs heard from the radio, transmitted straight from Malaysia, the closest neighbor to the island. The songs heard in the film are essential to the story it tells, efficiently painting the island’s demographic as not comprised solely of the natives who have resided first in the island but also the newcomers. Solito, by encompassing the entire wealth of humanity that resides in Palawan, enlarges the scope of the struggle, deepens the pains caused by modernization and the inequity of the concept of property, a concept that is incongruous to the concept of community that has kept peace in the island, a concept that has displaced an entire people from a land they and their ancestors have considered home for centuries.

The documentary climaxes with a journey by Solito and other men and women to plot the ancestral domain that is supposedly protected by law. Hundreds of kilometers and several hours of arduous travel are reduced to several key minutes through time lapse. The effect is tremendous. It is in equal portions a campaign that would supposedly end the injustices caused by government-sponsored land-grabbing and a celebration of unity among people of various ethnic groups, educational attainments, professions, and personal histories. Basal Banar, in turn, becomes that rare documentary that forgoes dwelling in the evils humanity can be capable of by concluding in a note of triumphant hope.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Manananggal in Manila (1997)

Manananggal in Manila (Mario O'Hara, 1997)
English Title: Monster in Manila

Mario O’Hara’s Manananggal in Manila (Monster in Manila) takes its cue from Roman Polanski who has mined domestic paranoia for dread in films like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). Terry (Angelika dela Cruz), who is living in a condominium building with her sister (Aiza Seguerra), is pregnant. Unfortunately, the father of her baby has abandoned her. Beatriz (Alma Concepcion), a model, has moved in next door and starts to befriend her. Right after Beatriz's move, mysterious deaths are reported, with the bodies of the victims disemboweled, giving rise to conclusions that a manananggal (a monster that looks like an ordinary woman except that the upper part of her body separates from the lower part when it hunts for its prey) is responsible for the several murders.

Manananggal in Manila is essentially two separate movies melded into one out of convenience and commercial viability. The first one’s the attempt to update Peque Gallaga’s Manananggal episode in the first Shake, Rattle and Roll (1984). This is where O’Hara stumbles. Given the meager budget and the time constraints O’Hara has to work with, the film ultimately suffers, bearing all the evidence of its lack of ample financing. The wings of the manananggal are obviously assembled from plastic. The animated sequences (where the winged monster flies into the sky against the full moon and the parting scene where an ominous full moon slowly appears in the night) are pathetically executed. Sometimes, O’Hara does away with special effects by communicating terror through editing, nuanced and resourceful cinematography, or inventive sound effects.

The other film is far more interesting. O’Hara, more than just depicting evil through a monster sourced from myths and ghost stories, explores the nuances of that evil. Concepcion, sans the prosthetics she dons in the film’s climactic scenes, inhabits the role with astounding ease. There’s urgency in her attempts to seduce Terry to befriend her, to ease her out of the comfort of living the life of a single mother who consciously fantasizes about a boyfriend who cares about her instead of simply accepting the fact the he has left her, and finally, to slowly be liberated from the clutches of morality and be angry and vengeful, making her the proper vessel for herself. The film is most successful when it aspires for this kind of internal dread, more introspective and conceptual rather than the cheap scares and unintended humor of low-rent visual effects.

O’Hara’s Manila fronts a facade of normalcy. However, underneath the concrete of its many high-rise residential towers and the cautious demeanours of its denizens lies an unspoken fear, a shared understanding that the supernatural exists alongside ordinary problems. It is a city that bears the same haunted quality of Dario Argento’s Freiburg, New York City and Rome in Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), and The Mother of Tears (2007), respectively. The city becomes an apt dwelling place for the evil monster, who other than its look and its craving for human innards and babies has been transformed from a random mythological monster into an embodiment of evil, which is not necessarily defined by violent and destructive acts but by characteristics that are more human in nature, such as greed, lust and guiltless vindictiveness.

Manananggal in Manila is low-budget, high-concept horror. At first glance and especially with its crude and laughable special effects, the film seems to be nothing more than a hodgepodge of incongruent elements struggling to make logical sense. It is easily dismissible as nothing more than an attempt by its producers to rake in the most profit out of the littlest of capital. However, there is certainly something more to the film than its numerous glaringly bad parts. Unfortunately, the patience and persistence to see through the mess are traits that are rarely found in moviegoers fed with the seamless but empty spectacles Hollywood provides.