Monday, December 31, 2012

Sinapupunan (2012)

Sinapupunan (Brillante Mendoza, 2012)
International Title: Thy Womb

Sinapupunan (Thy Womb) opens with a woman giving birth. Shaleha (Nora Aunor), a midwife, accompanied by her husband Bangas-an (Bembol Roco), assists the soon-to-be-mother in delivering her child. Shaleha then routinely requests for the baby’s umbilical cord. She brings the keepsake from the afternoon home, hangs it alongside all the other cords she has collected from the many mothers she helped. The hanging cords in her home are ostensibly a record of her noble profession. Ironically, it also serves as a painful reminder of the one nagging imperfection of her marriage with her husband, which is her inability to bear children for him. Nature has fated her with infertility. However, her culture has given her the opportunity to remedy it. By finding another suitable wife for her husband, she is able to fulfil what for her is the most essential of her familial duties.

Mendoza strips the film of most external conflicts, concentrating instead on the nuances of infertile Shaleha’s relationship with her husband as she sets out to find a second wife for her husband to bear a child for him. Set in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost isles which have become infamous for being torn by warring government and Muslim secessionist forces, the film valiantly avoids sensationalizing war and instead delves into the human condition of a people who have grown accustomed to military presence. At one point, a wedding dance is abruptly stalled by violence. When the shock and confusion dissipates, the dance continues, almost as if nothing happened. Mendoza has effectively created a believable world wherein military conflict has weaved itself into the culture by sheer familiarity.

Sinapupunan indulges in its depiction both nature and culture. Mendoza does not hide his fascination, relentlessly breaking his storytelling to make way for gorgeous images of endless seascapes and colorful tradition. He takes time revelling at whale sharks under the sea, or turtles’ eggs hidden dearly beneath Tawi-Tawi’s remote beaches. He stages elaborate Muslim ceremonies and rituals. Surprisingly, the film never feels as if it is treading too closely to exoticizing its subject locale. The overt visualization of both nature and culture seems essential to Mendoza’s goals of exploring the interactions of culture and nature and the people who rely heavily on them for both sustenance and identity.

Henry Burgos’ screenplay is admirably spare. It is unafraid of being judged not by the lyricism of the words spoken by the depicted ordinary folk, but by the measured silence. It allows the couple’s relationship to simmer, to take root, to emotionally attach to the peering audience, before exposing the fissures that will unavoidably grow bigger. It masterfully orchestrates heartbreak, without any hint of artifice or machination. It gives Mendoza enough breathing room to scrutinize the world, which he does so without hardly any hesitation.

Aunor, who has been absent from Philippine cinema for several years despite being renowned as one of its living acting treasures, is the film’s beating heart. Her dutiful portrayal of Shaleha is both spontaneous and intelligent. She cleverly interacts with her surroundings, not as an actress inhabiting a role but as a human being naturally reacting to very real scenarios. When the film requires silence, she makes use of her eyes, which seamlessly hypnotize the audience to believe her character’s plight and sacrifice.

Sinapupunan is observably quainter, tamer, and more mannered than Mendoza’s previous works. However, it still resonates with the same removed yet still potent anger that only an artist who wants to depict truth from a distance can evoke. The film ends with more questions than answers, as it has to. The story, which is essentially the film’s element that begs for a proper ending, is but a tool for Mendoza to frame the grand ironies that afflict humanity. When Shaleha asks for that final umbilical cord, she has finally severed the tie that has severely burdened her. We can only cry because we are also human.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Melodrama Negra (2012)

Melodrama Negra (Maribel Legarda, 2012)

Like Loy Arcenas, Maribel Legarda has several years’ worth of theater experience to guide her first foray into filmmaking. Unlike Arcenas, whose first film is from an original screenplay by Rody Vera, Legarda chose to adapt for the screen an award-winning stageplay by Allan Lopez. Interestingly, Nino, Arcenas’ first film embraces theatricality, limiting most of its moments within the striking dialogues spewed by the characters with such exaggerated extravagance. Legarda’s Melodrama Negra, on the other hand, abandons theatricality in favor of gloss, spectacle and other cinematic excesses. Remnants of the material and Legarda’s stage roots linger, creating an uneasy mix of both theatrical and cinematic excesses.

Melodrama Negra opens with three wandering ghosts (Gee Canlas, Gerald Napoles and Bong Cabrera), wondering what they need to do to move on. Through flashbacks, their respective lives, all of which are typical sob stories designed primarily to grant humanity to those who are no longer human, are revealed. Their deaths are conveniently connected to the individual stories of the film’s living characters: an good-hearted thug (Gerhard Acao) who falls for a prostitute (Sheng Belmonte), a group of high school sociopaths (Nicco Manalo, Cindy Garcia, Ria Garcia) who stage the kidnapping of a congressman’s son and his girlfriend, and their respective respectable parents who have hidden monstrosities. Legarda fervently weaves the stories together, crafting a light-hearted and mostly cinematic take on the innate darkness of humanity.

Eskrimadors-director Kerwin Go turns cinematographer here, giving the material a palatable-enough look, appropriating for the material just enough polish to drown the bleakness. Myke Salomon’s musical score gives the picture a likable upbeat feel. Overall, Melodrama Negra has the tone of a genuine crowd-pleaser. Its humor is amiable. Its drama is relatively efficient.

Legarda is clearly in the business of entertaining. However, it is that eagerness to entertain that bars the film from being nothing more than a well-crafted offbeat caper. The film’s morbid impressions are nothing more than embellishments that serve the purpose of satisfying a curiosity or the need to be different. Its descent to the darkness of men feels false, unable to linger beyond the four corners of the darkened theater.

Melodrama Negra stands out when it doesn’t overreach, when it remains grounded, exploring emotions and relationships that are elementarily human. It leaps when it bares the grief of a drag queen who laments his foster son’s death through an impromptu ballad sung among friends. It flies when it exposes a sister’s concern for her younger sister who is traumatized by their sexually abusive father. It radiates when it tells the blossoming romance between a misunderstood bodyguard and his master’s favorite hooker. Unfortunately, these very human scenes are but half of the experience. The rest is enveloped in tolerable but ultimately forgettable artifice, the same artifice that can only work on stage, where the props, the acting, the lighting, and the sets are as large and as loud as the convolutions of Lopez’s theater-bound material.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Philippine Film Awards, in a Rotten Nutshell

Philippine Film Awards, in a Rotten Nutshell
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

It is quite strange that for a country whose movie industry is reportedly dying, the number of film award-giving bodies is actually growing. During the 50’s, which is considered by many as the first Golden Age of the Philippine film because of the number of films that were being produced, there was only one award that film producers were aspiring for. That was the FAMAS Award, a statue fashioned after the then immaculate figure of Rosa Rosal. Unknown to many, the FAMAS, which now populates many conversations as an idiom for anybody’s ability to cry buckets at will (“pang-FAMAS ang acting”), was actually the product of the Maria Clara Awards, then the sole award-giving body in the country, being criticized for being irrelevant, being given out only by film writers and not artisans. Even back then in the golden years, back when film was film and directors and other filmmakers were actually well-fed and well-known, there were already power struggles in the award-giving business.

Fast-forward to what is now being brashly considered as the third Golden Age of the Philippine film because of the proliferation of indies that now populate many international film festivals, FAMAS is now a mere shadow of its former glory. Other award-giving bodies have taken its place, grabbed its prestige, and shared in its controversies. FAMAS has been ridden with intrigues, beginning with the untimely revocation of its corporate papers by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which caused confusion and uncertainty in its leadership and more importantly, in the yearly ceremony.

The yearly ceremony is of immense importance for these award-giving bodies. The ceremony is their cash cow, their claim to fame, their members’ grand opportunity to hobnob with the stars. How else would they lure papaya and placenta soap companies to pay thousands of pesos to sponsor ridiculous awards whose only criterion is attendance? How else would they land a spot and perhaps a glittery black and white photo in the broadsheets and TV Patrol’s showbiz corner? How else can they claim relevance?

The Film Academy of the Philippines, an organization tasked by an actual executive order to be the umbrella organization for the various film guilds, gets into the mix with their own awards, the Luna. The Luna is of course the official counterpart of the United States’ Oscars. However, unlike the Oscars which seems to welcome and award films and filmmakers outside its sphere of influence, the Luna is predominantly an industry affair, oblivious to the achievements of the indies who are swimming in the margins of the moneymaking industry. Nominations to indie films are rare. Actual awards to indie films seem non-existent, limited to those with mainstream backing.

The Luna’s alter-ego is the Urian. If the Luna shuns independent filmmakers because they have no clout with the guilds, the Urian seems to live in an imaginary world where only indies are shown in the malls. Mainstream films are hardly ever nominated, even for the awards covering technical craftsmanship, which is admittedly the Achilles’ Heel of the indies, as professed by many write-ups circulating in the net. The Urian, however, is really a private affair and their decisions are reflective not of the pulse of the masses but of the individual politics and taste of the members. A quick look at any year’s roster of nominations would reveal surprises that would raise accusations of lack of taste and abundance of liberties. Perhaps the most glaring of the accusations would be that the members of the Manunuri have become so out of touch of what is current, they no longer watch films in the theaters and only wait for screeners to reach their lap. Despite the accusations, the Urian remains to be the country’s most believable awards. Whether or not they are now only riding on the prestige of what was a very glorious past is really another question.

The Young Critics’ Circle, the younger (although not-so-young, really) counterpart of the Manunuri, revels in the boldness of their choices. They limit their pickings to a very few films and they give out their awards to what seems to be the most obscure nominee. It is all good, considering the fact that the most satisfying role of critics is not to tell the people what should be watched but to champion a criminally ignored gem. However, very little is written and read. The awards given out by the critics’ groups are lazy counterparts to actual writing. Instead of coming out with an article explaining the merits of a little-seen film, everything is summed up in two insignificant words: Best Picture.

Then there are the awards given out by the press, the Star Awards and the Golden Screen Awards, again, a break-away group. The Star Awards gives a separate prize for indies, in their effort to bring awareness to the marginalized film sector. However, the name of those awards (Best Movie of the Year, Digital Movie Director of the Year, etc.) only exposes their cluelessness about filmmaking. Interestingly, they also have the most categories, probably in an effort to please and brush the egos of the most number of moneyed film producers, performers, and craftsmen. The awards only confirm that the press commits to what it does best: to gravitate towards the glitz and glamour and be satisfied as subservient stooges of the industry.

Just last year, the Philippines produced a number of Best Pictures. The Urian crowned Alvin Yapan’s Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (Dance of Two Left Feet). The YCC lauded Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Haruo. The Golden Screens were given to Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank) and Loy Arcenas’ Nino. The Star Awards, The FAMAS, the Luna, and the Star Awards were unanimous in awarding Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story. The Star Awards Digital Movie of the Year is Paul Soriano’s Thelma. It has become sordidly confusing, really.

In Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (which got nominated by the Urian), Peque Gallaga summarized the practical value of these awards, given the fact that they raise the artists’ value and gives them a little bit more attention, comfort and pay. However, with the various ulterior motives of the award-giving bodies themselves, and the controversies, and the accusations, the criticisms, the surprises and snobs, do these awards still matter: to the producers and employers, who are struggling to make money in a market that is fascinated with Hollywood? To the public, who are more interested who won Star of the Night, or most most-dressed, or best smile? To the historians, who will eventually think there’s just too many of these awards for them to make a dent in the timeline of Philippine cinema? There are just too many question to answer, so I suggest, we just sit back, relax, and enjoy the circus show.

(First published in Supreme, Philippine Star as "The seedy underworld of award-giving bodies," 15 September 2012.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Slumber Party (2012)

Slumber Party (Emmanuel dela Cruz, 2012)

Emmanuel dela Cruz’s Slumber Party is a film of undeniable charms. It revels in color. It delights in diversity. It sustains with mainstreamed queer wit, the type that makes use of self-referential humor for much of the laughter earned. The brand of comedy is of course a staple in the Philippines, where there is an abundance of gay entertainers who mine their experiences with intolerance for everybody’s humor. Fortunately, Slumber Party does not limit itself to the stereotypical inanity of its more commercial kin. It attempts to offer the mainstream it seduces with its approachable wit and comedy a slice of homosexual reality in the country.

Perhaps Dela Cruz’s most masterful stroke here is to cast popular straight actors as his film’s tri-beki, the trio of gay friends who find themselves both captors and guardians of a fraternity initiate they caught invading into their yearly Miss Universe vigil. Trusting first, his ability to mold his actors (commercial model RK Bagatsing, singer Markki Stroem, and comedian Archie Alemania) into homosexuals with nary a hint of falseness, and second, his actors’ untested capability to melt into the written characters, Dela Cruz adds a cinematic sheen to the exercise instead of relying on overused realism. He infuses a certain feeling that everything, despite the excellent performance of his cast, all a play, a deliberately engineered romp, a piece of entertainment.

The script, written by dela Cruz alongside gay rights advocates Philippe Salvador Palmos and Troy Espiritu, is a patchwork of inspired ideas and convenient contrivances. It struggles to make every light-hearted moment deep and relevant, pumping each hilarious scene with heavy-handed revelations involving nearly every current queer dilemma and issue. However, the film works best when its celebration is unburdened. There is enough humanity in the characters’ interactions with each other to excuse it from the need to spell out its intentions in a needlessly clear and obvious manner. In turn, Slumber Party becomes overlong, chatty, and bewilderingly redundant.

The very danger of straying from mere entertainment into the territory of advocacy is that every skit, every joke, and every plot point become more open to scrutiny. A film that begs for acceptance cannot take lightly affairs and experiences that are obnoxious as they are and can only be deemed acceptable given more sober and solemn circumstances. The story of Slumber Party already takes many liberties with mainstream sensitivities, given the fact that it essentially revolves around a straight man being denied his freedom by likable homosexuals who are written to commit dastardly deeds draped as comedy.

Dela Cruz and his scribes’ most glaring misstep is to turn an act of sexual assault against the captured straight man into a boisterous act of hilarity that becomes completely forgotten in pursuit of the film’s lofty objectives. Whatever charms and understanding earned are eventually betrayed by a scene that uncomfortably feels very wrong, most especially since its wrongness can easily be glossed over because it is staged for laughs. Slumber Party is a pleasure for the forgiving. It is disconcerting for the rest. It earns as much as it conveniently wastes away.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Taglish (2012)

Taglish (Gym Lumbera, 2012)

In response to a query as to when he felt his feature film was already finished, director Gym Lumbera replied with a statement of disarming practicality. Floodwaters have damaged the prints of Tagalog, prompting Lumbera to use them as the first part of Taglish. It is a physically excruciating watch. Eye-straining stains, scratches and shapes, caused by the untimely deterioration, turn the black and white images into odd shadows of their former forms.

At times, the eerie transformation of the images are enthralling, like when the face of an old man break and melt, turning what was once a comforting visual into something nightmarishly foreign. There is a discomforting absence of sound, further alienating the audience, accomplishing Lumbera’s goals of portraying his distrust with the rapid mutations of his mother tongue and his very own separation from the familiarity of rural life in a cinematic style that is completely his own.

The destroyed prints finally give way to the original film, Tagalog, a hypnotic elegy to provincial life which is a few minutes shy of an hour. Played by Lumbera’s own grandparents, the film’s central figures form part of the landscape of the rural world Lumbera concocts from memory. Except for its suggestions of infidelity, there is hardly a story here. Narrative is of course hardly important. By the very fact that it audaciously opens to a torturous sequence of destroyed film, Taglish does not aim to be pleasurable, at least within the standards of traditional cinema. The seemingly disparate images are linked by Lumbera by instinct, by a primal emotion, perhaps a longing for a distant past, for a quiet land where hurrying is a sin, for those whose photographs populate the ancestral home.

The muted colors of forgotten pornographic films abruptly end the run of Lumbera’s monochrome fantasy. The Caucasian characters, all of whom are parading seductively, are a break from the solitary and serene figures that populate Tagalog. The jarring change in aesthetics is hilarious. The unlikely mix of the two parts seems unlikely and sinful. However, Lumbera adventurously engages his native imaginings with borrowed footage whose rhythm, visuals and intentions are so observably contrasting to his. At once, what was previously elegant and elegiac is transformed into something lewd and lascivious. The sequence ends with a man about to reach an orgasm. The coincidental union has produced one bastard of an offspring.

The title of Lumbera’s film refers to the sub-language that intermittently mixes Tagalog and English, a result of Filipinos’ lack of mastery of either language. It reveals the extent of the country’s cultural infidelity, which manifests in the very way its people converse. With Taglish Lumbera creates, borrows, experiments, and allows to be destroyed cinematic ideas and images, all in the service of a discourse of a culture that seems to be all a result of a history of creation, appropriation, experimentation and destruction, a history that trickles down to the personal experiences of the filmmaker who finds himself torn between the hometown he left behind and the city he reluctantly now calls his home.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, December 07, 2012

Palitan (2012)

Palitan (Ato Bautista, 2012)
English Translation: Exchange

Ato Bautista’s Palitan (Exchange) opens with a business transaction. Ramiro (Mon Confiado, who gives a performance that carries the film from start to finish), the shrewd owner of an electronics shop, is convincing a client to buy his surveillance cameras. The client, troubled by his wife’s brazen infidelity, wants to build proof of her cheating. Ramiro then coolly suggests another one of his wares, a pistol, declaring that the only way for a jealous husband is to kill the cause of jealousy. Ramiro is a convincing businessman. He has a distinct way with words, delivering them with the primary objective of making a sale and enjoying the profit. His client, given the freedom of choosing the surveillance camera or the gun, is hooked and ready to let go of his cash for the peace of mind he desires.

Throughout the film, Ramiro is in the process of bartering and bargaining, to convince Nestor (Alex Medina) to give him videos of his wife (Mara Lopez) showering in exchange for the erasure of his debts, or to woo the wife into having sex with him, and later on, loving him back. Nestor is pitiful, a miserable loser who works in Ramiro’s shop to supposedly pay off his debts that only keep increasing. Nestor’s wife, newly plucked from the province and wasting away in a rundown parlor doing pedicures of horny clients, is the ultimate prize for Ramiro. When Ramiro finally wins the wife, through a marvellous display of gab and cunning, he is rewarded with an indulgently long sex scene, enunciating the near-soulless quality of the newly formed relationship. In the end, he begs to be loved by the confused wife. There is still work to be done, a deal to be closed.

Bautista admittedly pegs Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights (1985) as an inspiration for Palitan. He replicates the design of the film, setting his story within the cramped interiors of the electronics shop or Nestor’s unkempt apartment. Unfortunately, the setting of Palitan is unconvincing. Unlike the tenement in Scorpio Nights where the audience is able to physically map out the mechanics of the characters’ strange sexual affairs and establish the spaces that allow for the possibility of the connections, the setting of Palitan feel like convenient stages that only serve the purpose of approximating claustrophobia. While Gallaga painfully recreates a heightened reality, creating a festering and heat-infested environment where it becomes entirely logical for the characters to be trapped in their sexual longings, Bautista seems satisfied with merely the idea of suffocation, utilizing the most minimum of production design to convey the illusion. Palitan feels too clinical and smart, too removed from the rest of the world. The sweat seems manufactured. The violence becomes only a narrative function. The sex becomes too long and repetitive.

Fortunately, Bautista modifies something new to Gallaga’s masterpiece. He intelligently maneuvers the politics of Scorpio Nights, appropriating the role of the voyeur not to the helpless and powerless but to the moneyed and prone to be abusive. While Gallaga’s desperate voyeur, a struggling student renting the apartment directly above the home of his target, steals his sexual thrills, Bautista’s, the slickly abusive Ramiro, buys his. Despite the variation, the differently situated voyeurs become addicted to the women of their fantasies to the point of falling in love, eventually leading to tragic consequences.

Palitan could be seen as exploitative, especially with its overindulgent bed scenes that seem to overpower what essentially is a thin story. However, the exploitation is an overt part of the milieu Bautista attempts to explore. It is a milieu where everything is traded, judged with whatever commercial value they have. In the absence of love and money, even our souls have a tag price.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (2012)

Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (Arnel Mardoquio, 2012)
English Translation: The Journey of Stars Into the Dark Night

Arnel Mardoquio’s Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is essentially L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had it been set in present-day Mindanao and draped in reality instead of fantasy. Faidal (Irish Karl Monsanto) is suddenly orphaned when his parents, Muslim freedom fighters who end up becoming bandits involved in kidnapping for ransom, are killed, leaving him with a knapsack full of dollars and a band of American and local troops trailing him. He ends up with his aunt Amrayda (Fe Gingging Hyde) and Fatima (Glorypearl Dy), who decide to aid the orphan in his escape. They end up in the house of Baba Indu (Roger Gonzalez), the family patriarch, who joins them to ensure everybody’s safety in their passage away from their embattled home.

Like Dorothy’s companions, each of the characters in Mardoquio’s remarkably directed film are possessed by their individual needs and motives, which seem to align with Faidal’s quest to escape. The tedium of travel is punctuated with poignant revelations. Their military predators appear deliberately, always accompanied by an otherworldly drone that emphasize the innate violence of their mere presence in the land. Mardoquio could have easily staged rousing chases or intense gunfights. Thankfully, restraint overpowers the need to preach and burst. He tells his story with admirable confidence, showing only what needs to be shown, telling only what needs to be told, and trusting subtlety in its pursuit of accomplishing his advocacy. When he allows his characters to talk lengthily, the burden of their words are always well-earned.

Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is visually arresting. Mardoquio displays his mastery over the spaces of the vast jungles and their surrounding fields. While his camera is often still, capturing the contained drama of his travelling protagonists with hardly any intrusion from the filmmaker, he sometimes deliberately navigates his camera through a wider location, showcasing the fact that the stage of his actions are not limited by the frame of his film. His film feels vaster than what is depicted visually. In a sense, he breaks the illusion of film and keeps his audience repeatedly aware that danger lurks outside his frames.

Mardoquio directs the sequences lyrically. In one beautiful scene where the four travelers take a rest before heading to sea, he has Baba Indu dutifully look for boats for their journey and Faidal, true to his being a child who just found himself in the middle of conflict, take a leisurely swim in the sea. Amrayda and Fatima, fresh from a lover’s quarrel over the harsh realities of their forbidden and impermanent relationship, take the time alone to relish the remnants of their damaged love. Amrayda leaves, allowing Faidal to talk to Fatima, about things that concern most humanity, and not just those endangered by war. They reassure themselves. They have a bagful of money, a new love waiting out there, and a future ahead of themselves. The scene is utterly heartbreaking, summing up the entire conflict in Mindanao within terms that is closer to the heart than the ego.

They nearly reach their Oz, a sea where the horizon is littered with lights emanating from foreigners’ factories and refineries, an indication that they are utterly trapped. They look up. The sky is littered with pale stars and other heavenly objects. Mardoquio conveniently concludes his story with the end of the chase, finally signalling a political stance he has been grooming right from the charged first frame of the film. In the midst of a war that has a national history as its never-ending fuel, there are no wizards, no magic, no steadfast friends, and no easy solutions to abruptly kill the conflict. It is a dreary struggle, where each participant becomes both an unwitting victim and a quiet perpetrator.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Rigodon (2012)

Rigodon (Erik Matti, 2012)

Erik Matti’s Rigodon, unlike the many infidelity films that have plagued local theaters, eschews glamour for grit. Its sex scenes do not have the luscious lighting or the saccharine scoring of the various romantic sequences of its more audience-friendly kin. Instead, the sex is sweaty, raunchy, awkward, and set in either the most ordinary or uncomfortable of locations.

Still reeling from a failed relationship, Sarah (Yam Concepcion) is desperate for a boyfriend who would both please her and her overbearing father. She meets Riki (John James Uy), a reality show contestant who can never seem to convert his erstwhile exposure to bankable fame, in a party. The two hit it off, developing a relationship that sates both Sarah’s needs and Riki’s desire for attention. However, Riki is actually married, to severely domesticated Regine (Max Eigenmann), whose only diversion from mother duties is cupcake-baking.

The plot is hardly novel. It expectedly cautions against the entanglements caused by illicit relationships. Matti, however, does not treat infidelity as the ailment that stains perfect individuals and their perfect relationships. The infidelity in Rigodon is but a symptom of a deeper ill, of the gnawing imperfections of the contorted characters Matti concocts for inevitable tragedy.

The characters are all flawed, but never to the point of caricature. They do not beg to be laughed at and ridiculed, but to be pitied, or perhaps loathed. Yet, the characters’ flaws never feel contrived. Their flaws are but repercussions of a society that seems bereft of moral order, one that is sustained by the jaded equity displayed by Angeline Kanapi’s enigmatic and cruel loan shark, whose near-schizophrenic processes with both her clients and her paraplegic father appears to be the philosophy of the world the film is set in.

The eroticism that is unabashedly displayed in Rigodon, while admittedly a product of capitalistic forces, is not treated carelessly. It is laced with the baggage of guilt and discomfort that are evoked by the characters’ acts of sexual folly and their disastrous repercussions. Its ending, a masterfully crafted long take that exposes the fresh wounds of an embattled relationship from both the perspective of the impulsively vengeful wife and the belatedly apologetic husband, sums up the degree of maturity Matti decides to tackle the dangerously commercialized theme of infidelity with.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Secret Affair (2012)

A Secret Affair (Nuel Naval, 2012)

Nuel Naval’s A Secret Affair makes a lot of noise and drama about nothing. The story revolves around acts of infidelity committed by Anton (Derek Ramsey) against his fiancée Raffy (Anne Curtis) with Sam (Andi Eigenmann), Raffy’s friend and sorority sister. In fairness to Anton, most of his indiscretions with Sam were committed either outside the relationship, such as before he and Raffy met or during that short cool-off period after Raffy withdrew from their wedding, or at the risk of those indiscretions being exposed by obsessive Sam, who will do everything to snatch Anton away from Raffy. The film is essentially a love triangle involving the most naïve, most immature, and most psychotic of characters, made somewhat palatable by commercial film gloss and occasional spurts of wit and humor.

Naval does a good job staggering the affair, prolonging the trite story with needless scenes and lazy expositions. From the opening love song that immediately segues to a weepy engagement proposal to the lukewarm ending, the television director eagerly jumps from one style to another, showcasing techniques that more often than not do not work but at least keep the film from being absolutely uneventful.

A Secret Affair expectedly peddles sex and sensuality, what with its overly attractive leads donning near-nothings copulating extravagantly whenever and wherever. Unfortunately, the film’s concept of eroticism is too intertwined with the glamor involved in the near-perfect faces and physiques of its stars to be grounded in reality. All it offers is an erstwhile fantasy, of being involved, at least vicariously through the actions of the films’ characters, in these swoony romances and raunchy flings.

Evidently, Naval’s characters are all irritating spoiled brats, living inside a bubble of their own doing, communicating only with each other through tweets and status updates, and enjoying the very fact that their every action is being watched by everyone outside their exclusive bubble. While the description seems to match a lot of celebrities whose private affairs are now readily available because of social media, Naval only scrapes the surface of such disgusting but prevalent culture, insisting on displaying caricatures for laughs and thrills instead of delving deeper.

Without a doubt, A Secret Affair owes its existence to the commercial success of Ruel Bayani’s No Other Woman (2001), also starring Ramsey and Curtis who find themselves intertwined in an illicit relationship. Insisting on the unwieldy mix of drama and comedy that made Bayani’s film somewhat memorable, screenwriter Mel Mendoza-del Rosario peppers the film with lines, spoken with overreaching conviction by supposed members of Manila’s upper crust, that stray past the borders of good taste and proper conversational etiquette. The film’s techniques are repetitive and lowbrow, which are unfortunately the right elements of a true box office hit in the Philippines.

Sadly, A Secret Affair, even with Naval’s dynamic treatment which criss-crosses from serious to funny and back, Ramsey, Curtis and Eigenmann’s more or less convincing acting, and Mendoza-del Rosario’s forced witticism, is still gratingly dull. Its bare plot essentially revolves around the stupidity of people, but Naval still insists on conjuring obvious lessons on life and marriage out of it. It is as if morality is an afterthought by the filmmakers, who are quick to exploit the very real problem of infidelity for a quick buck.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles (2012)

Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles (Erik Matti, 2012)

The first thing one would notice in Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles is how incredibly gorgeous the computer-generated visuals are, at least compared to other Filipino productions. Opening with a shot of apologetic soon-to-be-father Makoy (Dingdong Dantes) cramped inside a tricycle with an old woman and her haul of various innards, the film immediately showcases how perfectly rendered the digitally-rendered background is, with the overloaded vehicle breezing through vast landscapes that seem to be exaggerated depictions of what is really out there. Matti dutifully maintains the spectacle throughout, struggling only when he decides to replace his actors with computer-generated monsters that are quite unimpressive. Nevertheless, Matti’s efforts to overly stylize what essentially is a redo of the classic aswang tale bring the genre closer to its comic book roots.

Filipino folklore crossed over to pop consciousness through the cheap comic books that mixed humorous sketches with more morbid and horrific tales involving ghosts, aswang, and other monsters. The aswang, which seems to be closest thing the Filipinos have to vampires considering that they both share the ability to morph to creatures and are deathly allergic to garlic and salt, is particularly notable because of its hunger for the young and the unborn.

The typical aswang story, at least the one that has been repeated in popular cinema like Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ Aswang and Richard Somes’ Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin) in Shake, Rattle and Roll 2 (1990) and Shake Rattle and Roll 2k5 (2005) respectively, involves a soon-to-be-father suddenly forced to protect his pregnant wife from an onslaught of hungry monsters. The situation the characters fall into emphasizes on the Filipino male’s ability to be more than a provider but a protector. Even the more modern takes like Topel Lee’s Yaya (Nanny) in Shake Rattle and Roll 8 (2006) and Richard Somes’ Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008) on the tale has their heroes (a young boy tasked to protect his baby brother from a nanny who turns out to be an aswang and a father who has to decide what to do with his daughter who develops into an aswang, respectively) forced to abandon traditional roles and muster up courage and conviction to protect their families.

Tiktik repeats the trope. Matti however emphasizes how domesticated and unprepared for battle the Filipino male has become, introducing, aside from Dantes’ irresponsible pretty-boy, a cowardly husband (Joey Marquez) and red-lipped manservant (Ramon Bautista), among pregnant Sonia (Lovi Poe) and her mother Fely (Janice de Belen), all dominant and controlling females. The sudden onslaught of aswang, caused predictably by the brashness and stupidity of the impertinent newcomer, is made all the more thrilling, especially since there seem to be more mishaps in their intended defense of their respective loved ones than successes. Their rapid transformations from brazen or docile men to rightful heroes seem to be the heart of Matti’s well-orchestrated madness. In the end, Matti has made a well-crafted tale wherein men do what men are supposed to do.

Like the comics that sustained the aswang from being obscure participants in regional folklore to something more mainstream, Tiktik indulges in comedy, infusing the tense and suspenseful setups with pockets of levity, whether it is a witty piece of dialogue or a visual joke that pokes fun at the macabre. There is some sort of humanity, a certain sense of cultural identity, and refreshing irreverence amidst Matti’s meticulous craftsmanship. Matti just refuses to be drab and serious, opting to charm and captivite with his impressive grasp of hilarity, horror, and visual spectacle. Tiktik comes with all the right ingredients of an unabashedly entertaining film.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

This Guy's in Love with U Mare! (2012)

This Guy's in Love with U Mare! (Wenn Deramas, 2012)

There is this one particular scene in Wenn Deramas’ This Guy’s in Love with U Mare! That sums up the film’s curious and confused take on gender politics. Lester (Vice Ganda) and Gemma (Toni Gonzaga) arrive at a comedy club. True to the culture of local comedy clubs, the trio, composed of two tactless gays and a similarly crude woman, hosting the night’s program suddenly take turns in pouncing on the club’s new guests with supposedly funny insults. Their specific target is Lester, whose fervent pretensions of being a heterosexual male are not very effective against the hosts’ especially keen senses. In unison, the hosts naughtily chant “bakla,” generating much laughter from the audience at the expense of poor Lester.

The blatantly insensitive jokes dodge imputations of political incorrectness because the perpetrators are also homosexuals and the perpetration is never done out of hate or derision but for fun. This self-referential and self-deprecating humor has been a staple in Filipino mainstream entertainment for several decades now. In a way, its existence signals a culture’s openness and acceptance of homosexuality, allowing openly gay entertainers to strut and sashay all in the name of entertaining the masses. On the other hand, it also limits the perception of homosexuals and homosexual relationships within the mainstream as mere objects of hilarity.

This Guy’s in Love with U Mare! is Deramas’ third collaboration with Vice Ganda. All of the director’s previous collaborations with the inexplicably popular gay entertainer, Petrang Kabayo (Petra the Horse, 2010), a reimagining of Luciano Carlos’ 1988 Roderick Paulate-starrer Petrang Kabayo at ang Pilyang Kuting (Petra the Horse and the Naughty Kitten), and Praybeyt Benjamin (2011), a modern restyling of the story of Mulan, instruct on very elementary gay issues such as tolerance or acceptance in what supposedly is a macho society through a narrative that relies too heavily on meandering slapstick and acerbic witticisms. This Guy’s in Love with U Mare! at least invests on some sort of story that allows Vice Ganda to do something more than rehash his tired television antics.

Mike (Luis Manzano) has just broken up with Lester, his benefactor and boyfriend for several years, to marry Gemma, a bank teller who is clueless about her beau’s past gay relationship. To win Mike back, Lester cooks up a plan to pretend to be straight and woo Gemma away from Mike, forcing Mike to return to him.

Deramas, although working with a tad more restraint, still indulges in the same tricks and gimmicks that peppered his previous works. Popular lines from other movies are still redelivered under more comedic circumstances for cheap chuckles. Action scenes are still sped up, or montaged, backgrounded by either a pop song or a forgettable melody. Despite the lazy repetition, Deramas still manages to display an ability to be truly witty. In a scene where Lester makes a move on Jemma by recruiting his equally flamboyant gay friends to hold-up Jemma so that he can save her, he stages and choreographs the entire fight, inspired by a classic fight scene by gay icon Darna as played by Vilma Santos in one of the superheroine’s movie incarnations.

It is what it is, a disposable piece of entertainment that does not have the will or courage to reinvent the wheel. As a product of commerce, the film understandably insists on being merely lightweight, parading characters that are mere two-dimensional sketches with either a skewed or an overly simplistic understanding of gender roles and morality. The film manages to do be funny within the very same framework that all comedies about self-deprecating gays are funny. Vice Ganda makes most of the role of a gay man desperately pretending to be straight, conveniently overacting at every opportunity to stretch certain stereotypes for easy hilarity. While it is apparent that there are attempts to blur the borders between genders and relationships, it unfortunately misses the opportunity to actually create discourse out of its premise, to graduate from the decades-old subgenre.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Marilou Diaz-Abaya (1955-2012)

Marilou Diaz-Abaya and the Story of my Cinephilia
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

I hate to admit it but the first Filipino film I ever paid money to see was Carlo J. Caparas’ Tirad Pass (1997). It was a school requirement, something I had to write an essay on. I remember the historical drama to be as unremarkable as my bored teacher’s unmemorable lectures. Prior to Tirad Pass, I was fed with Disney and Spielberg and I was satisfied. After Tirad Pass, I was still fed with Disney and Spielberg and I was still satisfied. Caparas’ film did not move me enough to re-think that Philippine cinema was anything but the inane slapsticks, the unrealistic melodramas, and the lewdly titled teasers that were then showing in the cinemas. Lino Brocka meant nothing to me. Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, and Mario O’Hara were names that will not draw a reaction from me. My private school education and the class insecurities that such education forced upon me and I am now so ashamed to admit I used to possess did not give me the opportunity to be at least aware of those great Filipino artists’ existence. I was ignorant, pleasantly bamboozled by the candy Hollywood has been serving me.

Then Jose Rizal (1998) screened. It was another historical drama. It was another school requirement. What differentiated Jose Rizal from Tirad Pass was the very noticeable skill in which it was mounted. There was elegance in the way the film depicted the national hero. It was elegance that was comparable to the many big-budgeted Hollywood period pieces. The next year, Muro-ami (1999) screened. The images that filled up the silver screen were not only grand and beautiful, they were indelible. Cesar Montano, who donned Spanish era-formal wear, was now in rags, readying his overused goggles before recklessly diving into the sea with an army of youngsters. A couple of years later, Bagong Buwan (New Moon, 2001) screened. This was the first time I ever saw Mindanao in the big screen. With the exotic mix of local color and wartime dangers, I was sufficiently enchanted. Those films of Marilou Diaz-Abaya gave me enough hunger to seek for more, starting with Moral.

The very first time I saw Moral was in college, during a film session handled by a Filipino professor who also dabbled in filmmaking. I was already familiar with Diaz-Abaya, having seen and enjoyed her Metro Manila Film Fest entries. Jose Rizal and Muro-ami however did not prepare me for the effect Moral (1982) would have on me. I was immediately enchanted by the palpable intimacy of the storytelling. It left me thirsting for more. I searched for Brutal (1980) and Karnal (1983), both films treading the same vein. Along the way, I caught Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981), Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Miracle, 1982) and Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975). This was the same time I was obsessing over Wong Kar-Wai and Krzysztof Kieslowski, purchasing with whatever I can save from my humble allowance each and every DVD copy of their films. This was also the first time I saw how it was so difficult to be hopelessly in love with your own cinema, with all the Hollywood flicks overpowering the local ones, most of which were commercial junk anyway, with all the readily available foreign films on the latest format and the abject lack of Filipino classics on any format.

The rest, I guess, is history. Mario O’Hara released Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003) and I, hopefully along with the five other strangers who bought tickets and saw the film with me, were swayed by the master director’s weaving of native magic, realistic poverty, and novelty songs. Mike de Leon released Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 2000) and I saw how a singular vision, absent any form of studio funding, can produce such a startling piece of work. Maryo J. de los Reyes released Magnifico (2003) and I saw how a veteran filmmaker working with a then unknown screenwriter can move hearts without traditional histrionics and ridiculous plot movements. Quark Henares released Keka (2003) and I saw how young directors can infuse new ideas and vitality to an industry that was reportedly in its deathbed. Lav Diaz released Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001) and I saw how Philippine cinema can do without boundaries set by the Hollywood monster.

I do not know Diaz-Abaya personally. I only know her from the films she has made. Ikaw ang Pag-ibig (You are Love, 2011), her swansong, is a film that I have been struggling to appreciate. It is as beautifully-acted and elegantly paced as all her previous works, despite the obvious modesty in the production. The film is very vocal about Catholic faith, to the point of being preachy. It is perhaps the mixture of that quality of the film and my current state of cynicism that left me unmoved. Looking back, I cannot help but remember the hopefulness of the film, the way Diaz-Abaya courageously depicted cancer as but a path to greater faith. In a way, one can say that she was already beyond the trivial but nagging concerns of the world and was more interested to what personally matters to her.

Diaz-Abaya left us with films that matter. Her final years teaching filmmaking in Ateneo de Manila University and her very own film school produced filmmakers of various styles and interests like Henares, Marie Jamora, Jeffrey Jeturian, Sherad Sanchez, and Gino Santos. Philippine cinema will always remember her as a stalwart pioneer and selfless teacher. I, however, will remember her as the filmmaker who chose to venture on, telling her peculiar stories with her peculiar way, in the midst of overwhelming junk.

I may have outgrown my love affair with Diaz-Abaya’s post-May Nagmamahal Sa Iyo (Madonna and Child, 1996) films with repeated viewings, but I cannot deny their role in my growth as a Filipino cinephiles. I cannot deny the fact that it is because of Diaz-Abaya’s faith in the Filipino audience that allowed her to make films like Jose Rizal, Muro-ami and Bagong Buwan despite the audience’s clamour for brainless comedies and tired dramas that I saw beyond the unfortunate tropes of a then-failing Filipino cinema. She was the motherly gatekeeper to my passion for my nation’s films. Through her ever-distinguished insistence on quality and taste, I got to know Brocka, Bernal, O’Hara, Gallaga, Guillen, De Leon, and so on. Thank you and farewell.

(First published in

Monday, October 01, 2012

Of All the Things (2012)

Of All the Things (Joyce Bernal, 2012)

Of All the Things has director Joyce Bernal reunite with Aga Muhlach and Regine Velasquez, who, once upon a time, graced her films like Dahil May Isang Ikaw (Because There’s Just You, 1999) and Pangako… Ikaw Lang (Promise… Just You, 2001) as perfect lovers. Muhlach and Velasquez have considerably aged since their last pairing, lending the characters they portray in Of All the Things a certain semblance of cynicism, frustration and desperation in both love and life. In a sense, Of All the Things, without straying too far from the overused formula of local rom-coms, infuses the genre with some sort of sobriety that supposedly comes with maturity, at least in age. That is not to say that Of All the Things is a sad and depressing picture with aging singles moping about their lack of life and love. It is not. It is as spritely and bubbly as any other rom-com, true to the genre’s escapist intentions.

Muhlach plays Umboy, a bar flunker who now drafts and notarizes documents along the crowded sidewalks surrounding the city hall. Velasquez plays Berns, a professional fixer who finds herself in a legal spat with a shrewd contractor, forcing her to employ Umboy to represent her in an informal meeting. Umboy and Berns eventually join forces, with Berns using her various connections to land Umboy a job that will make it easier for Berns to facilitate her many transactions. They inevitably fall in love with each other, with only their specific lots in life and their differences in morality and integrity playing hindrances to their fated love affair.

The romance is admittedly a bit of a bore, plotted lazily within the conventions of the genre. What makes the love story somewhat interesting is the suggestion that love was never really planned in the two would-be lovers’ lives. Unlike the idealistic and hormone-driven teens and yuppies of most conventional rom-coms, Umboy and Berns have their hearts’ desires as the least of their priorities. The so-called chemistry isn’t carefully developed through the narrative. It just happens, like a sudden nudge by their biological clocks, reminding them that their romantic and sexual urges are soon to expire and that they have to make up, kiss, and get married if they still want to be productive in the reproductive department.

It is essentially a love story between losers, between a professional failure who has resigned himself to be consistently reminded of his nagging incapacities by being a mere notary public and a chronic social climber who hides her insecurities through the connections she has established through her desperate friendliness. The fact that they are to participate in an affair that is usually reserved for the young and promising despite their age merely multiplies the pitifulness of the lives they are living. They are pathetic participants in a society where professional titles, political power, and branded purses are essential symbols of status and success. They are the underdogs that are so easy to love and root for, and the happiness they are to predictably achieve through the machinations of Mel Mendoza-del Rosario’s screenplay feels very well-deserved.

There’s an unusual but lovely tenderness in the way Bernal portrays the domestic lives of her beloved losers. Amidst the requisite jokes and wit that flavor the romance, the underlying drama of disappointed parents and shamed children is quietly beautiful. Tommy Abuel, playing Umboy’s father, a retired law professor who now reviews law graduates for the bar examinations, injects his character with nuances that add layers to the fragile father-son relationship. The vague disappointment and shame that define the relationship between Umboy and his father that is specific to a family conscious of the prestige of professional titles are mostly relegated to the background and whispered. Bernal paints Berns’ familial concerns similarly, draping the insecurities of Bern’s ex-beauty queen mother, played animatedly by Gina Pareño, with humorous histrionics.

Of All the Things clearly struggles in pacing a love story within the context of the very specific culture of hopeful bar examinees and fixers who slyly reduce bureaucratic red tape for a fee. However, the way in which Bernal and Mendoza-del Rosario depicted what could have been sordid and taxing milieu with just the right amount of levity is quite an achievement. The film is consistently delightful, which is enough considering that the film’s most blatant goal is to merely entertain. That it manages to achieve more in the way it paints a realistic and relatable portrait of parents living through the failures and successes of their children is noteworthy.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

In Defense of the Status Quo

In Defense of the Status Quo
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

If cyber-libel was a person, natural or juridical, it would have been itching to call its lawyers to discuss with them the possibilities of filing a criminal case against all the facebook, twitter, and blog users who have maligned it, proclaiming it to be violative of the Constitution, among other hurtful accusations. Thankfully, it is not a person but a reportedly surreptitiously added provision in the newly-minted Cybercrime Prevention Act and as such, is outside the scope of possible victims of the said crime and cannot sue. Before it does any damage to anybody, all its supposed illegalities have now been brought before the Supreme Court for it to decide, hopefully with certainty, whether or not the Filipinos deserve to continue enjoying its cyber-free speech.

Libel has gone a long way in its commission. During the age of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship in Rome, libel is committed by a man if he starts shouting at the top of his lungs in a public place certain profanities against a specific person. Now, specifically in the Philippines, where some sort of dictatorship is absentmindedly being formed by the powerful who deem themselves immune to public scrutiny, a quick flick of the pointer finger against the overly eager button of a mouse, which would then result in either a “share” or a “like” of a possibly offensive material is either an act of libel or an act of aiding the commission of the act of libel.

In a country where being online is slowly becoming a part of life’s routine, especially since families are now scattered all over the globe and the internet has turned into the most cost-efficient of keeping in touch, the criminalization of the so-called cyber-libel has not effectively lessened its commission by the citizenry, it only turned majority of the citizenry into criminals. It is simply too easy to commit. The habits and culture formed by several years of unguarded internet and social network usage cannot be simply undone by an edict that is questionable precisely because it is so repulsive to freedoms that should be part and parcel of the democracy we are so proud of.

If one examines all the victims of the onslaught of possible libellous remarks spread over the many social networking sites available, they are all personalities whose actions only brought to the fore certain issues that society should be discussing, like the right to be informed, artistic freedom, plagiarism, or abuses committed against traffic enforcers. Filipinos, being perpetually attracted to both fad and intrigue, have become drawn to the issues that are innately intertwined with the individuals’ sudden fame. To those who are required to maintain a respectable public image, they become accountable to actions they commit because the public is no longer beholden to traditional media and can form opinions of their own.

In a way, the sudden power the public has garnered because of the freedoms provided by the internet is essential to the country’s democratic maturity. The dangers of such power are negated by the internet itself. Unlike print media wherein the subject of the alleged libel has no other recourse to defend himself except through the courts since publication is limited and expensive, the internet provides anybody unlimited opportunities to defend oneself in the same venue. Simply put, the Filipinos who are responsible for the dissemination of those overly creative and imaginative critiques and expositions of societal ills brought about by specific individuals’ actions or inactions are the same ones who actively initiate relief and rescue drives during calamities. They do not take Constitutionally-mandated rights lightly and will exercise them to their full extent.

Should the Supreme Court maintain that the cyber-libel law is legally sound, there is a great possibility that nothing will change. Stupidity committed by leaders in the hallowed chambers of government will still be met with rabid derision in the excited and exciting walls of Facebook. When the gods of technology have finally given the people the most effective way of taking part, even indirectly, in forming national policy, a supposedly benevolent leader cannot simply take it away and expect quietude.

(Edited and published in Supreme, Philippine Star, 29 September2012 as "Of Free Speech and Cyber-Libel.)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pridyider (2012)

Pridyider (Rico Maria Ilarde, 2012)

The first few scenes of Rico Maria Ilarde’s Pridyider immediately reveal a particular milieu that is far removed from the real and the mundane. Tina Benitez (Andi Eigenmann) is first seen aboard a flight back to the Philippines. She is sleeping, dreaming a horrid dream. She immediately wakes up, prompting her seatmate, an amiable old woman who is finally returning to the Philippines from a thirty-year absence, to talk to her, mouthing cryptic statements about looking back to where you came from. She takes a cab driven ominously by Ilarde-regular and frequently used character actor Raul Morit to her new home. A heated discussion on the display of depraved violence in Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (2009) is heard from the radio. Tina, tired from her trip and unready to be bombarded by third world concerns, politely asks her cab driver to turn the radio off. There is just no room for the grime and guilt of reality in Tina’s story. Her story is one that can only happen in the twisted and more than slightly offbeat world of Ilarde.

Ilarde carefully lays the foundation of his world. Its oddball residents are all mutations of some archetype or stereotype. Tina is the damsel-in-distress, devoured by a mission to discover her family’s history. There is also her knight-in-shining armor (JM de Guzman), a former childhood sweetheart she re-establishes a romance with. The other characters are there to fill a particular role within the confines of Ilarde’s modern fable. The plot itself follows a familiar pattern.

In a way, the predictability of the film’s plot and characters is borne not out of laziness but of Ilarde’s obsession with the genre, an obsession to elevate it without breaking or betraying its time-tested rules. After all, the best of Ilarde’s works, his two indie-charmers Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005) and Altar (2007) seem to be films created from the same vein, with characters facing similar moral and physical obstructions, inching their way to some sort of redemption.

Pridyider, perhaps owing to its commercial studio backing, is more fleeting in theme, with characters that are less subjugated to moral and spiritual uncertainties. Tina’s motivations are trite at best, nothing as life-threatening or soul-shattering as Ilarde’s previous protagonists. She is mostly passive, urged only to action when it becomes apparent that her most used appliance has some murderous intent. Ilarde is clearly more enamoured by his inanimate villain, establishing a back story that involves more complex human emotions such as jealousy as vengefulness.

It is inevitable but useless to compare Ilarde’s Pridyider with Ishmael Bernal’s, the middle episode of the very first Shake, Rattle and Roll (1984) movie. Bernal’s version had a sinister refrigerator charged with sexual frustrations, feeding off the heat-drenched lustful repressions of its new victims. Ilarde’s re-imagining avoids giving the appliance human qualities. It is otherworldly and evil, a manifestation of human distortion instead of a crooked human quality, designed to be utterly reprehensible with various innards, taunting severed heads, and vicious other body parts that inflict harm without respect to relationships. If the biggest threat to the peace of the world is far from human and something innately evil, the proper remedy to that threat is not something within the grasp of human logic or reason, but something particularly Catholic, symbolic and outrageous.

Ilarde filters much of the clutter from the genre and stubbornly goes back to the basics of horror, notwithstanding the fact that his audience clamours for twists and lousy sophistication. He represents that peculiar branch of horror that never swayed to the demands of the evolving market, that refused to follow the movement towards fake subtlety and vapid seriousness, that remained true to Lovecraftian weirdness and the many possibilities of horror it provides if localized and molded to suit the Philippine setting. He and his films will predictably be misunderstood. Despite that, he’ll predictably make the same films over and over. Pridyider is proof that there’s room in this mainstreamed household of repetitive romances and schlocky shockers for his entertaining eccentricities.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Mistress (2012)

The Mistress (Olivia Lamasan, 2012)

The Mistress has a plot that feels taken straight out of one of those cheap trashy novels, the ones with tacky covers promising sleazy escapism with impossible love stories set in unbelievable milieus that enunciate pulpy passions. It is grounded on that very basic story where hapless women are made to choose between two lovers, representing either true love or elusive security. Director Olivia Lamasan and writer Vanessa Valdez overhaul the overused tale, turning the central woman into a mistress of a wealthy businessman, and her other man as that wealthy businessman’s rebellious heir. The film contributes a tad more sophistication to the tired genre, with characters struggling with love that is more the conflict rather than the resolution to the story.

When JD (John Lloyd Cruz), an architect who is wrestling with the prospect of being the heir to his despised father’s businesses, discovers that Sari (Bea Alonzo), the girl he’s been trying so hard to woo, is also the kept mistress of his father (Ronaldo Valdez), he decides to discontinue his plans of winning the girl’s heart out of disgust and disdain. He then unexpectedly gets a glimpse of Sari’s finer qualities that also lured his father to loving her. This gets him drawn further into her, making him fall desperately in love with her to the point of battling with his own father to win the undivided affections of the woman they unwillingly share.

The film only has impressions of complexity. Lamasan and Valdez are more interested in the tearful tragedies of a truncated romance rather than the more thrilling intricacies of characterization. As a result, the characters are solely motivated by amorous passions, despite the sliver and hints of darkness in their narrative arcs. The Mistress has traces of a film with more valid and realistic psychological undertones, with people acting and reacting not solely with their needy hearts but with their brains, hormones, and stomachs. With its interplay of classic archetypes interacting within a setting of familial and corporate power struggle, it could have been something more than the syrupy weeper that it is.

However, to expect more depth and sophistication than necessary from a studio film is utter folly. The Mistress mostly succeeds in delivering what it advertises --- a glossy display of heavily orchestrated romantic entanglements of the extremely rich and goodlooking as only a studio can come up with. Its efforts in glamorizing the courtship game with the leads’ unabashed delivery of bathetic declarations of love during plentiful serendipitous encounters pay off. Cruz and Alonzo play both the roles of joyous lovers and tragic victims of fate effortlessly. It is simply not difficult to get drawn to their characters’ plights, to get absorbed in their individual dramas, to get swept away in their hopeless hearts’ ambitions.

The film’s ending is delightfully ingenious, making use of a previous fantasy set-up to evoke as an impossible dream the scenario that is the happy ending a cynical realist is dreading. It is achingly realistic without being too melancholic. Despite the endeavor for realism in its conclusion, The Mistress is still not dark enough. Its characters, from the family-loving mistress to the apologetic wife, are too good-natured and amiable. Its attempts at sensuality are limited to choreographed seductions within the cramped space of a fitting room or lousily-filmed lovemaking under the spell of a Snow Patrol radio-hit. Although wrapped with a tad more grit and tragedy, the film still peddles the all too familiar fantasy of love conquers all that audiences are too willing to gobble up mindlessly. It aims to simply please. And that, I believe, is the both the film’s biggest strength and downfall.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Of Blind Items and Critics

Of Blind Items and Critics
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

You eventually get used to it --- the hate, the fear, the derision, the awkward pleas for niceness, kindness and understanding from producers, directors, and performers prior to watching. The adverse repercussions of critiquing are absolutely not commensurate to its economic rewards, which are more often than not non-existent. However, you still do it. You do it for the same reasons the makers of the works you critique hopefully do it, for the love of it.

You then rationalize the negativity towards what you do. You start imagining yourself as a parasite whose art relies on other people’s art to exist. You start hearing stories of house and car mortgages funding productions, of workers who have mouths to feed who work for reduced rates, of producers-in-sheep’s-clothing demanding artistic compromises. You begin to understand the plight. You begin to believe the littleness of your efforts compared to theirs. You begin to grow a heart. It’s definitely not a heart that is forgiving of mediocrity, but a heart that would take the bullets of anger and frustration shot back by the artists who might get affected by your exercise of your right to free speech. You understand where they are coming from.

It was Alexis Tioseco who first noticed the importance of proper film journalism in the Philippines. In his essay in his blog post entitled “Journalism vs. Criticism,” he said that “as I’ve attempted to write criticism on a more frequent basis, I’ve come to realize the importance of good film journalism as a starting point on which film criticism can stand.” See, Filipino film-criticism, unlike the much-revered Filipino film industry which observers have been claiming to be in its extended deathbed for a couple of decades now, has seen many deaths prior to maturation. The reason for this is the wrong impression that the public, and more importantly those involved in film, as to what criticism is for.

In the Philippines, where artists are as sensitive and mercurial as the weather, criticism is only valid when it has a commercial purpose. Negative criticism is worthless. It is but an irritation, an itch the filmmakers can simply ignore or repel with vicious gusto. Negative criticism in the form of random discussions among friends whether online or offline is considered even more offensive, worthy of loathing. However, when the piece of criticism has a few phrases worthy of being extracted to become blurbs in posters or DVD covers, the critic becomes the heroic champion, the saviour’s aid to the ailing national cinema. Critics are either free P.R. machines or enemies who deserve to be told off for being hindrances to the cinema’s recovery.

The irony of it all is that while critics are being lambasted for exercising a constitutionally mandated right, there exists a twisted form of film journalism that abuses the right. In fact, it not only exists, it has become an indelible detail in present pop culture. The blind item skirts the responsibilities of real journalism by blurring the lines of fact and fiction with clever misrepresentation of certain details like the names of the personalities involved. It is cowardly, since the function of its cleverly crafted sense of mystery is more as a defence against criminal libel than actual artistry or creativity. Even more than that, the intent is really not to inflict positive change by exposing faults but to entertain the masses, and to quench their need for gossip. This practice is sadly within the realm of the country’s unevolved state of film journalism. It peddles the affairs or the reputations of stars, celebrities, and other entertainment personalities as pieces of puzzles to be unlocked.

There is a real problem when a culture responds more favorably towards such irresponsible journalism over honest criticism. In a way, it makes you wonder if the real reason for the poor state of film criticism in the country is because of Filipinos are generally oversensitive and thin-skinned. There is no way a country that celebrates blind items as perpetual participants in both its written and spoken culture is populated by oversensitive and thin-skinned citizens. When one takes pleasure in the ingenuity of a piece of blind item, one celebrates the cowardice of its crafting. And all for what, for the fleeting delight of having the perception of oneself being more morally upright, more intelligent, and better than the subject of the veiled libel?

Again, commercialism is at fault here. Blind items are sellable. Serious criticism is not, unless it becomes an unwarranted part of a specific P.R. campaign. The functions of both forms of writing have been molded to suit the demands of the status quo. Blind items have dumbed down the culture, reduced it to a cross-word puzzle whose prize is in the solving rather than in the knowing. Criticism, on the other hand, will remain marginalized and in the fringes of culture, at least, until it serves the market some favors. Like in our real society, the corrupt live in palaces, those who do it for the love live in bungalows.

(First published in Supreme, Philippine Star, 15 September 2012.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Give Up Tomorrow (2011)

Give Up Tomorrow (Michael Collins, 2011)

It should have ended when the Philippines’ Supreme Court denied the several Motions for Reconsideration filed by the men who have earlier been convicted for the rape and murder of the Chiong sisters and sentenced to death. It was supposed to have been a triumph of a justice system beleaguered by accusations of being beholden to the rich and influential. For a time, it was indeed seen as a triumph. For that very little time when the media, in the guise of being one with the overwhelming majority, was celebrating the illusory end to all the questions and issues, the country had a sense that there is indeed order.

The convicted men were predictably seen as spoiled scions of the few members of the wealthy elite. The most prominent accused, Francisco “Paco” Larrañaga, is at first glance, the very personification of the country’s social divide. With his fair skin, brown eyes, and foreign features, he does not look like most Filipinos. His mother is a distant relative of a former president. His father is a Spanish citizen. His gazes are intense, almost angry. He talks with a cadence that is too assured and easily mistakable as indifference and arrogance. His eventual fall from grace, starting from his celebrated arrest to that final conviction by the highest court of the land, is therefore the logical happy ending to the escapist entertainment that the case has evolved into.

Director Michael Collins and producer Marty Syjuco’s Give Up Tomorrow presents the fatedly intertwined stories of the Chiongs and the Larrañagas from a specific perspective, that of those closer and more intimate to the perceived victimizers than the victim. At first glance, the obvious tilt to sympathize with Paco seems problematic as it clouds the documentary, pushing it further away from being a portrait of a frustratingly neglected truth into something that resembles propaganda. As it turns out, the documentary, with its skillfully presented pieces of evidence that pertains to the alleged miscarriage of justice, serves both purposes seamlessly.

The documentary’s strongest sequences are those that featured real footage from the prolonged trial, edited together with various interviews with shelved witnesses and emotional relatives, unflinchingly revealing the folly that was instantaneously believed and consumed in the heat of the moment. The film’s most sobering moments are those depicting Paco, from when he was snatched from the good life up to several years after when he is still serving a sentence for a crime he allegedly did not commit, insisting on his innocence, mouthing the mantra from which the title of the documentary was borrowed. Its portrayal of the two mothers, one whose obsession with her being a victim has allowed her to mold the system to suit her cause and the other whose trust in the system had turned herself and her family into its unsuspecting victims, is at once astounding and melancholic.

As it methodically shatters the official truth as narrated and explained by the various decisions of the trial and appellate courts, it also shatters the precious comfort and security that the processes that came up with the official truths provide. As it navigates the glaring flaws of a distinct judicial system through the experiences of Paco, it exposes the immense cracks of any system or institution tasked to retain both order and justice that is created and run by corruptible and erring men. More than swaying sympathies towards the already maligned convicts, Give Up Tomorrow espouses vigilance, especially in this age where truth is easily adaptable to the needs of the powerful.

Give Up Tomorrow acknowledges the gravity and importance of its cause, skirting away from too much style and spectacle and focusing instead on the scope and breadth of its material. Despite its very straightforward presentation, it is an admittedly difficult film to sit through. It is immensely heartbreaking, balancing the indelible pain of seeing an entire system that for years has been entrusted to set things right shamelessly crumble and being asked to accept the very possible reality that an innocent man has wasted his best years in jail, all for the benefit of keeping a tumultuous mob sated.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Headshot (2011)

Headshot (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2011)
Thai Title: Fon Tok Kuen Fah

Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot is a shape-shifter of a film. It opens like a traditional crime thriller. Draped in the ominous darkness of an obscure office kept awake by business best accomplished at night, a man prepares the files of an assassin’s next victim. A scar on the man’s weathered neck suggests a lifetime of violence. Tul, the assassin, distinguished by an assured posture made even more intimidating by his long hair deliberately worn unkempt, receives the target the next day. He brings the package to his home, a disorganized hovel with various sketches of faces posted on its walls, and prepares his next kill. He first reveals his dispassionate mug from the reflection of the mirror of his bathroom, where he ceremoniously cuts his hair.

The following sequence displays the assassin at work. Disguised as a monk making rounds for alms, Tul is welcomed to the mansion of his target. The target approaches him to give his food offering. He repays the generosity with several shots from his gun, ingeniously hidden in his food bowl and begins to escape. He ultimately gets shot in the head...

(Continue reading in Cinemas of Asia.)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Reunion (2012)

The Reunion (Frasco Mortiz, 2012)

In his episode in Cinco (Five, 2010), Star Cinema’s episodic horror that featured body parts in various morbid tales, Frasco Mortiz has a bunch of neophyte fratmen desperately pulling a severed zombie hand from another teenager’s crotch in slow motion while a popular pop song about the pleasures of romantic hand-holding plays in the background. In a matter of a minute or so, Mortiz displayed a youthful wit and a playful appreciation of pop culture that was strange and unusual within the world of commercial filmmaking for which he decided to eke out a career from. The scene was more than clever, it was actually oddly inspired. It was a sketch that merged genre conventions, generational humor, ridicule on traditional concepts of institutionalized machismo, to form something genuinely watchable.

The Reunion, Mortiz’s first feature length film, makes most of the same wit and pop culture appreciation. In fact, he mostly relies on them. The film is largely composed of jokes and gags strung together by an illogical plot about losers (Enchong Dee, Xian Lim, Enrique Gil, and Kean Cipriano) blaming their unsuccessful high school romances for their present misfortunes. It is entertaining enough, unburdened by any baggage to mean anything other than guiltless and shallow amusement. It is as harmless as morning breeze, light, fleeting, but entirely forgettable.

Perhaps Mortiz overdoes the youth bit, or at least the bit that pertains to that portion of the youth who have spent majority of the years they have lives consuming hyperactive music videos and numbing videogames. The Reunion does not have genre limitations to play around with. Youth is the genre. In diluting the film with rapid images, giddy transitions between scenes, and limitless pop culture references, Mortiz risks being vapid and redundant. The film in fact crosses that thin line between tact and tastelessness so often, it becomes confusing whether the film is nothing more than an overblown joke on the paraded promises of a truly promise-less youth.

As with any film that relies on multiple narratives, the inconsistent quality of the stories becomes a too obvious problem. The Reunion, in tackling the quest of its four losers in winning back their high school loves, exposes its inability to nurture storylines. The bit about wannabe-rocker (Cipriano) who is more than surprised to learn that her former beau has opted to model skimpy bikinis for a living is the weakest of the bunch. The most promising is perhaps the thread on the angst-ridden social climber (Lim) who belatedly finds out that he has a son with his high school sweetheart. The other two stories are largely quick plots that are recycled to frame either funny or syrupy sketches.

It is all forgivable. It fascinates with its pedestrian charms. What it does not need is the tremendous weight of being a tribute to the legendary Eraserheads, whose contribution to the local music transcended social classes and generations. The film’s appreciation of the musicality of the beloved band ranges from something as perfunctory as naming characters from the personalities that populated the lyrics of the group’s most famous anthems to something as misplaced as stolid accompaniment to the film’s many unabashedly cheesy moments.

Mortiz never graduates from the trite popularity and instant pleasures of the melodies. He does not go beyond that, neglecting to explore the depth and the darkness of the sad fate of the sweet girl he once danced the El Bimbo with, to dissect the masked poverty in the seemingly inane lyrics about the want to drive a car that one is unable to afford, to display the warped romanticism of falling deeper in love with a former innocent crush-turned-centerfold model. Simply put, The Reunion barely scraped the surface of what the music is about, what the music means to many who treasure it more for how the songs spoke to them rather than how popular they have become over the years. It is but a paltry tribute.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)