Monday, October 31, 2011

No Other Woman (2011)

No Other Woman (Ruel Bayani, 2011)

Ruel Bayani’s No Other Woman has supposedly earned for itself the distinction of being the highest grossing Filipino movie of all time, for now. It’s essentially about marital infidelity, tackling the sordid turns in a married couple’s life when another girl enters frame. The premise alone makes it an unlikely crowd-drawer. However, the movie is designed for commercial success, featuring pretty faces and sexy bodies living and breathing in places that are seemingly removed from the reality that its targeted audience should be familiar with. It’s essentially escapist fare, piling gloss upon gloss to arrive at a final product that resembles the tacky front cover of a random lousy romance novel.

Ram (Derek Ramsey) has been selected to supply furniture to a luxury resort, where he meets Kara (Anne Curtis), the daughter of the resort owner. The two start an affair. Charmaine, Ram’s wife, starts to become suspicious and eventually discovers the affair, forcing her to compete for her husband’s attention. The story’s quite thin, riddled only by extraneous complications involving the characters’ familial histories, supposedly adding depth to the characters’ convictions and motivations. Unfortunately, the characters, despite all the needless details, are nothing more than caricatures that are meant to be objectified.

Although the movie parades with the sheen of seriousness and importance it borrows from its subject matter, it sometimes resolves to treat the subject matter with disarming humor. The movie shines when it is upfront with this irreverence, such as when the movie’s internal rules of fate and circumstance connive to have the wife and the paramour meet each other in the mall while wearing outfits of the same hue, with both of them bursting in the seams with knowledge of each other’s secrets, throwing each other one-liners with irresistible double-meanings. Joey Gosiengfiao is an obvious reference. However, Bayani seems unable to completely surrender to the pleasures and sophistications of camp, making his movie an unwieldy and inconsistent romp that leads essentially to something that is best described as dull, ordinary, and ultimately offensive to the intellect.

The movie is mired by an utter lack of integrity. It is unable to decide what it wants to be, a persisting problem of movies produced by mainstream studios whose addiction with formula and morally and socially acceptable but completely illogical endings has ruined nearly most of their films. Kara, a promising character who represents the Filipino woman that is uncharacteristically not beholden to marital vows and declares herself immune to love and guilt, unfortunately drowns in remorse, betraying whatever complexity the character has. The marriage of Ram and Charmaine, in what seems like a product of the director and his writers’ chronic lack of imagination, is as good as new. Even more bizarre is the resolution wherein the married couple actually becomes civil with the woman who nearly threatened their relationship, completely forgetting all the shouting sprees and the violent catfights.

It is as if nothing happened, and the entire ordeal is simply an avenue to learn lessons in life and gain new friends. I don’t even see why Bayani bothered to tell that story of infidelity at all, if infidelity turns out to be that inconsequential, that negligible. But then again, there’s big money to be made serving junk in pretty platters.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mapang-akit (2011)

Mapang-akit (John Torres, 2011)

In 2009, directors John Torres and Frosti Runolfsson, participants in DOX:LAB which endeavors to partner Scandinavian filmmakers with Middle-Eastern, Asian or African filmmakers for a film project, ventured into rural Antique to document the hudas-hudas, a practice done in a small town in the province every Black Saturday where an effigy of Judas is hanged and burned in the town center. Mapang-akit, assembled from footage that was unused for the documentary, may be accused as a mere product of afterthought. Fortunately, it is as gorgeous as it is anomalous, an alluring and exhilarating mix of communal and personal mythology, of documentary filmmaking and fictional storytelling, and finally, of the overtly banal and the subtly sublime.

Mapang-akit owes much to Torres’ creative process in Ang Ninanais (Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song, 2010), where he made use of footage gathered while shooting in Panay Island. Everything, from people, stories, history, and language become separate components that are assembled to complete a whole that while reminiscent of its individual parts is clearly and convincingly different. Interestingly missing in the film however are Torres’ voice-over and poetry, marking a movement for Torres towards a storytelling style where he does not feature as a main element. What essentially remains is an idea that is just as personal as all the other ideas that populated all of his shorts and features, germinated from local myths and realized through astute artistry into a dazzling portrait of a woman adored and envied for her beauty and scorned for her being.

It is a lovely-looking film, relatable considering that what Torres primarily captures are random images of provincial life, but enveloped by some sort of supernatural gleam. People talk. Their discussions are kept secret, even to Torres, by the foreignness of their spoken dialect. With only the rhythms and melodies of what is heard from the villagers, Torres tells a very loose story of an alluring woman who has enchanted local men who mysteriously die through subtitles that do not correspond with what is actually being said.

Mapang-akit benefits much from the randomness of how things unfold, which seems rooted to the film’s formerly documentary intentions. The camera is curiously observant, reacting to the most delicate of details like the sudden gush of wind, the musical invites of a passing ice cream vendor, a random carabao that becomes curiously attracted to the act of being recorded on film. There is always that sense of being within the film as opposed to being mere unaffected onlookers, making the film unusually compelling despite the seeming mundaneness of everything.

While it is unavoidable that ethical questions are raised since the subjects are not actors who are portraying fictional characters, Torres never claims to tell the truth as most of the world normally sees it. Truth, after all, is sometimes overrated, especially when heartlessly removed from what should be a truly personal experience. Instead, he paints very personal dreams and visions on a canvas made from the visual and aural landscapes of hid footage, making the province’s dormancy irresistibly seductive and its unravelling mysteries oddly romantic.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Buenas Noches, España (2011)

Buenas Noches, España (Raya Martin, 2011)

What separates Earth from space? If we are to base it from what could arguably be the most famous sequence in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), it is a speedy ride along a futuristic highway. The sequence, around five minutes in length, oddly switching from black and white to color, and uses a Tokyo highway to pass for the futuristic highway, approximates the experience of travel, more specifically, space travel. Stripped of the usual pleasures of escapist science fiction where space travel is always depicted to be exciting or intriguing, Tarkovsky’s concept of space travel is more grounded, evoking a sense of displacement, awkwardness, even boredom. In a way, Tarkovsky has injected cinematic space travel with much-needed honesty, much-needed humanity.

What then separates now from then? Time travel is nothing new in cinema. Yet the actual experience of time travel has always been curiously neglected. At most, we have gotten ourselves satisfied by seeing speeding cars disappearing in the sky, or sparks and bolts of electricity appearing as kitschy contraptions are turned on. However, what actually happens to the human being that is transported back in time is left to the fringes of the imagination, unfairly blanketed by extraneous depictions of characters and things disappearing supposedly back in time. So if we are to base it from Raya Martin’s Buenas Noches, España, what separates now from then are not sparkles or random disappearances, it is reality-altering drugs and a lot of it.

The seemingly random events of Buenas Noches, España is grounded on one exposition, that on 1593, a Filipino soldier stationed in Manila suddenly vanishes and wakes up in Mexico City. Martin establishes several things through the anecdote. One, that non-traditional travel exists. Two, that there is an inherent connection between and among Spain and all of its former colonies. From those starting points, Martin places two lovers (Pilar Lopez de Ayala and Andres Gertrudix) in a trip across Spain, across time, and elsewhere. The footage of the couple are heavily processed, played and replayed in various tints of red, blue and yellow, accompanied by a perpetual droning and strategically placed sound effects from slapstick cartoons of the past.

Martin replicates the experience of being under the influence of drugs. He also replicates the feeling of being lost in time, seeing scenes played a few moments ago played again and again with various details changed, and listening to sounds that evoke reminiscence of carefree childhood. Being in the influence of drugs and time travel, although at first glance are two very different experiences, are actually interchangeable, giving Martin’s proposition logical sense, and very personal sense, too, since drug influence and time travel are both panacea to heartache, allowing a person an option to forget and to make what has been made permanent by the movement of time more or less malleable. Thus, the lovers seem to be in incomparable bliss being in that state of temporal randomness, oblivious of where they are and where they are going.

Curiously absent from the couple’s ecstatic trip is the Philippines, past or present. A visit to the museum would reveal artifacts from Spain’s past as colonial master: various paintings by Juan Luna, a Filipino artist who won various prizes for his paintings while sojourning in Europe with various other Filipino intellectuals. The sight of the paintings is sobering to both the lovers and Martin. From the vapid goofing around the museum’s various chambers, the lovers are mysteriously awestruck and emotional, as if reminded of a closeted fact in history. Martin slows down too, relaxing the editing, substituting the heavy drone with ominous silence, and settles with black and white visuals. The sudden break is strange but fitting, alluding to a shared history between countries, finally establishing that long lost thread that will finally connect present and past, and Spain and its former colony.

Buenas Noches, España is more frustrating than it is pleasurable. It is more experiential than intellectual. Just as Tarkovsky has created the most precise cinematic equivalent of space travel, Martin has created the most precise cinematic equivalent of being stuck in time, immobilized by some obsession with the past, with history, never moving forward, never moving backward.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

San Lazaro (2011)

San Lazaro (Wincy Ong, 2011)

If Wincy Ong’s San Lazaro were a student in a classroom full of recent films from the Philippines, which necessarily includes important works from Lav Diaz, Raya Martin and Brillante Mendoza, it would probably be sitting in the back, an unnoticeable weirdo among the overachievers and underachievers that fill the room. It is a film that does not seem to belong to the room, given that it is inherently oblivious to anything and everything that is supposed to be pertinent to the so-called new wave in Philippine cinema, except to the irreverence and humor that persists in the cinema even amidst its usual heft and seriousness.

It is not that the film lacks ambition or rejects relevance or that ambition and relevance are essential elements of films. San Lazaro disguises itself as horror yet it is most apparent that its primary purpose is not to shock or scare. It is intriguingly unhinged, with characters that are grounded more on humorous illogic than common sense. In a way, Ong has crafted a film that is reminiscent of David Lynch’s works, except that it is fuelled by artificial uppers instead of the usual dreams, nightmares and other insanity-induced things. There’s probably a tad more self-conscious wit and weirdness than needed, but it never crosses-over to being something that is more annoying or frustrating than entertaining.

The story’s simple enough. Sigfried (Ong), a random loser who has contented himself by learning useless skills from YouTube, is suddenly plucked from his uneventful existence by Limuel (Ramon Bautista), his previous classmate whom he has not communicated with since their school days, to bring Limuel’s brother (Nicco Manalo), who seems to be possessed by some sort of evil spirit, to his uncle (Allan Forte), a singing exorcist, in the faraway town of San Lazaro. It’s basically a road movie, peppered with details that make it delightfully off-tangent and curiously engaging.

Ong and Bautista’s odd coupling undoubtedly highlights the experience. It’s a grand balancing act they admirably commit to. Wearing sheens of fantabulous seriousness, the two prance around in the obviously made-up world where everything is not exactly topsy-turvy but deliciously creeping its way there. There is always that sense that everything is an inside joke, yet Ong and Bautista are formidable in their ploy, resulting in cautious giggles. The other characters that populate that world are mostly oddballs and other contrivances, teasing the audience of many more stories that have not been told, and seemingly conspirators with Ong and Bautista in what could either be a well-orchestrated prank or a product of tilted genius.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me (2011)

Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me (Erick Salud, 2011)
English Title: Star-Crossed Love

Philippine cinema has never been one that is deeply related with literature. Except for adaptations of Jose Rizal’s Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Francisco Baltazar’s Florante at Laura, and other revered texts of national importance, adaptations are mostly limited to popular comics and romance novels. Perhaps the reason why there is that gaping separation between cinema and literature in the country is because literature, except for the texts that are used for school and the comics and romance novels that are used for escapism, is unprofitable. Consequently, cinema based on literature is also unprofitable, catering only to the sophisticated and the learned elite and not to the general movie-going populace.

Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me (Star-Crossed Love), based on Eros Atalia’s bestselling short novel of the same title, attempts to close the gap between literature and cinema. Atalia’s novel is by no means the type of literature that would incite deep thinking or debates. It is populist in both style and intention making it the perfect text for a film adaptation that would have a semblance of commercial appeal without being just purely escapist.

Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me was obviously written to appeal to the younger generation, with Intoy (played charmingly in the film by Edgar Allan Guzman), an ordinary student who enters into a secret sexual relationship with Jenny (played in the film by Mercedes Cabral), a transferee from a private school who instantly becomes the school’s resident bombshell, representing the typical Filipino youth who is has become more open to loose sexual attitudes without losing appreciation for the necessities of a fulfilling romance.

Jerry Gracio’s screenplay is very faithful to Atalia’s novel, appropriating even the mental monologues of the main character in the novel as voice-overs. Director Erick Salud is very faithful to Gracio’s screenplay, keeping the voice-overs and the other playful excesses while managing to ably tell the story in the simplest way possible. In a sense, both Gracio and Salud become victims of undue reverence to a source material that would probably work film-wise with modifications in both storytelling and style.

It is all cute at first. Sex has never been a serious proposition for Filipinos. Sex has been quite the favorite punchline for skits and jokes. There is therefore a very wicked sense of accuracy as to how Intoy’s sexual awakening is depicted with cartoonish humor and irreverence. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know how to grow up. It never graduates from being just an effective sitcom. In fact, aside from the flourishes that infrequently adorn certain scenes, the film is mostly visually drab and almost always aurally annoying, like a hurried locally-produced television show.

When Intoy and Jenny’s relationship evolve from being simply limited within the confines of their afternoon’s motel room into something that is supposedly painfully complicated, humor gets in the way of communicating the turmoil. Their romance, the intricacies of their relationship, and the eventual ache of their inevitable separation and the hopeful reunion are drowned amidst all the needless noise and clutter, betraying the film’s attempts to convince its audience that there is something more to the seductive sex talk, to the lousily staged sex scenes, to the humorous stabs at the suddenly lopsided roles of young Filipino men and women when it comes to sex, to the never-ending supply of colloquial wit, to the endless and tedious monologues. There’s really enough to love in Ligo na Ü, Lapit na Me. Unfortunately, there’s also enough to dislike.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)