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.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Healing (2012)

The Healing (Chito Roño, 2012)

Chito Roño’s The Healing is afflicted with a chronic case of indecision. It is viciously a horror film, one that stretches the limits of good taste with very visual and shocking depictions of violence and morbidity. In fact, the film holds the record for being the first Filipino film to be granted two different ratings by local censors, one for the trimmed version that is presumably more suited for teens and another for the version that displays all the acts of depravity Roño’s creative mind can conjure within the limited range of popular cinema.

However, Roño apparently has more ambitions for the film other than trite terror. The film is specifically designed, divided into various parts that are differentiated from one another by color schemes, beginning with white, then blue, then red, and yellow. Such designs are too obscure though. They are more puzzling than elucidating, more annoying than enlightening. The experiments only succeed in diluting the scares, bewildering the sense with what essentially are artsy indulgences that are either infuriatingly empty and shallowly motivated or too inexplicable to matter.

The film opens in a remote village where faith healer Elsa (Daria Ramirez) is busy receiving a crowd of sick people. Seth (Vilma Santos) has brought her father (Robert Arevalo), a stroke victim, for healing. Seth’s father miraculously recovers. Inspired by the miraculous recovery of Seth’s father, her sick friends and neighbors decide to take the trip to Elsa’s house to urge her to also heal them. Cookie (Kim Chiu), the daughter of Seth’s ex-husband who is desperate for a cure for her cancer, also joined the group going to Elsa. They eventually get what they wished for from the faith healer. However, one by one, they become brutal and violent, killing as many as they can before committing suicide.

The Healing spends a great deal of time needlessly attempting to make sense of the plentiful contrivances it filled its plot with. Simplicity is not one of Roño’s priorities. The film indulges in so many points that require tiring explanations and expositions, some of which seem too farfetched to be believed or to be appreciated. While the genre relies heavily on the supernatural and the unexplainable, Roño’s story seems too all over the place, forcing everything to cohere seamlessly like a completed jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, the film’s insistence on forcing the details mostly backfires, creating a story that meanders a little bit too much.

The key to good horror is not necessarily what is overtly shown and depicted but the quality and the extent of what is left to the imagination. Roño invests a lot in The Healing’s visual design. Practical effects are abandoned for computer-generated effects, allowing grislier and more deranged sequences to exist with absolute ease. Instead of heightening the tension, the computer-generated effects only deflates it, inviting humor with how closer it resembles cartoons than macabre realism instead of fear. The acting is also unnecessarily pronounced and hysterical, despite the characters’ unnatural reaction to impending amorality and death. There is just too little left for the audience.

The film is just frustratingly cluttered, serving details and elements, motivations and reactions, all of which do not necessarily fit the material they are forced to support. The Healing is commendable only for the fact that it attempted to stray from the inanities of uninspired horror cinema that has occupied Philippine cinema for far too long. It bears ideas and an execution of such ideas that evince an ambition and effort to break away from tired conventions. Sadly, everything ends up in forgettable confusion.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mga Mumunting Lihim (2012)

Those Glaring Inconsistencies in Jose Javier Reyes' Mga Mumunting Lihim (Those Little Secrets)
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Tragedy is the inspiration for Jose Javier Reyes’ Mga Mumunting Lihim (Those Little Secrets). A death of a dear friend, whose wake and eulogy revealed to Reyes certain circumstances in their friendship he may have overlooked, would urge Reyes to craft a story out of newly discovered questions and insecurities pertaining to long-term platonic relationships. The most interesting thing about Reyes’ story is that it is more reliant on witty humor than weepy dramatics, suggesting that Reyes is more fascinated in the comedic urges of social humans than he is with teary narrative contrivances. That suggestion, as it turns out, never ripens into reality.

The plot is driven primarily by the estrogen-powered histrionics of a bunch of middle-class friends who’ve gone through a lot only to have their friendship dissolved by a devious plan of the deceased to leak well-kept secrets into the consciousness of her still-living long-time pals. It starts with ad executive Carla (Iza Calzado), poised, eloquent and all too ready to show-off her mannered intellect, who surprisingly did not get the honor of giving the eulogy for her best friend and cancer victim Mariel (Judy Ann Santos). That honor went to Sandra (Agot Isidro), the crew’s infamous gold digger whose sudden rise in status saw a decline in her reputation among her very subtle friends.

However, Mariel bequeathed to Carla her private journals, which at first revealed innocuous details about her childhood insecurities. However, the more she reads through the entries, the more she discovers how little she knows about her friends and how much has been hidden from her. As she relates these new found bits of information to Sandra and Olive (Janice de Belen), she starts to weigh whether the truth is worth the eventual deterioration of their bond with each other.

Reyes takes full advantage of the opportunity to direct a film without the shackles paid for by a commercial studio. True enough, Mga Mumumunting Lihim is a confusing parade of styles. At one point, he indulges in close-ups, parading the immaculate beauty of the faces he has assembled for his film. Then, he attempts to adopt a more freewheeling aesthetic style, with the camera wafting around, capturing whatever action or dialogue. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the flipflopping between gloss and grit, except that it is fashionably free. The film’s editing is more infuriating than functional, divulging the inconsistencies with outrageous shifts in plotting instead of conveniently hiding them with brisk and clean cuts.

Reyes is not let down by his actresses, who in varying degrees give satisfyingly assured performances. Sadly, the trite portrayals of the male cast become more apparent, further exposing the film’s frustratingly rough edges.

It seems that Reyes cannot rid himself of the conventional and formulaic filmmaking which became his bread and butter for decades, remaining beholden to the melodramatic artifices in storytelling of the so-called mainstream which instantaneously tug the heartstrings of the unsuspecting audience. Mga Mumunting Lihim is more than ready to abandon the zesty irreverence the film seamlessly developed for an unsatisfying conclusion that is bludgeoned to death by conventional good taste and safe sentimentality. More than the confusing aesthetics or the very wide gap between the performances of the leads and the support, the film’s sudden movement towards sap and predictability is its most glaring undoing.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Harana (2012)

The Lost Kings of Serenade in Benito Bautista's Harana
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Nothing is ever truly obsolete. When something loses its supposed relevance because its functions have been taken over with more efficiency by another thing, it gains a different use altogether, as a product for nostalgia, a beacon for the past that is an unstable depositary of memories. Nothing is ever truly obsolete, unless forgotten. Memory, being a product of human thought, is needed to be urged to exist. Remembrance is not automatic. It requires an impetus, a switch to initiate the rollercoaster ride down experiences and emotions guarded by used time.

The harana, a traditional means of courtship where the boy would recruit a troupe consisting of a guitarist and a crooner to join him to the house of his beloved who is about to be serenaded to romantic submission, is on the verge of obsolescence. In an age past emotion-laden mixtapes, an age that is obsessed with speed, love has no more use for rustic rituals and ceremonies that enunciate what nowadays is perceived to be a dethroned and antiquated sense of romance. Filmmaker Benito Bautista and renowned guitarist Florante Aguilar, in their documentary that proudly bears the name of the courtship that is embattled by the natural course of time, intends to redeem the tradition from being completely forgotten.

Aguilar, motivated by a diaspora-charged obsession to preserve his native culture, decides to go back to the Philippines from the comforts of the United States to look for the last true remaining practitioners of the harana. Aguilar would at times play timeless melodies with his guitar to unlikely crowds in unlikely places, gaining further motivation for his search and hope that there remains an audience for whatever he is trying to find based on the resounding reactions he would garner from the most unadorned and unsophisticated of audiences.

Bautista dutifully follows Aguilar in his seemingly quixotic quest to revive the musical tradition by picking whatever remnants he can find. The film starts questionably, making it more a profile of Aguilar than anything. Thankfully, the film progresses away from Aguilar’s persona and further into his mission. Aguilar generously disappears into the background, and allows himself to play backup literally and figuratively to the long-lost troubadours he found and assembled into a charming troupe.

The old men that Aguilar deemed fit to represent the dying tradition have stories worth telling. Bautista carefully allows them their own narrative threads, emphasizing the intriguing possibility of their noble talents converging with their humble livelihoods and living conditions. It seems the sincerity that the music offers is a product of very modest circumstances, of timid gentlemen with nothing but their voices and their hearts to craft melodies from. They are unsung heroes passionately singing to save their songs’ fragile relevance. Harana marvellously allows their timeless voices to get heard and enjoyed along with memories of romances that persist or could have been had they not been rendered obsolete by the unstoppable passage of time. The best parts of the documentary are when ageless serenades are allowed to drown cinematic and narrative conceits. It is most moving when it graduates from the search and the struggle and becomes an unabashedly hopeful celebration of music.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Mga Dayo (2012)

A Quiet Diaspora in Julius Sotamayor Cena's Mga Dayo (Resident Aliens)
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Julius Sotomayor Cena’s Mga Dayo (Resident Aliens) examines the life of three Filipinos living with various statuses in Guam. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is that it situates its three stories involving the Philippine diaspora in Guam. Guam is a tiny island that is closer to the Philippines than it is to the United States. In fact, the history of the island is deeply intertwined with that of the Philippines. Filipinos comprise one fourth of the population of the island. Although English is widely spoken, the Filipinos living there converse among themselves using their native languages. The culture and location of the island is conducive to Filipinos seeking a better future. It has almost all of the benefits of America like the dollars, the abundance of employment, and the predictable living conditions, but with less of the cultural displacement.

The America of Cena’s film is therefore oddly familiar, in a sense that the already stereotypical issues of immigration, whether it is the quiet or more pronounced manifestations of racial discomfort or the sudden absence of cultural integrity in a setting that feels so foreign, are avoided. Instead, the characters cope up with carious and issues, dilemmas involving the particular processes and setups that allow or disallow certain freedoms that dictate identity, employment, and stability. Cena, without insisting on the details, creates drama out of these processes, out of the much-wanted acquisition of the titular political status and the economic stability that comes along with it.

Alex (Sue Prado) has just been laid off from work and is now due to go home because of the expiration of her working visa. To prevent her deportation, she hesitantly agrees to marry her best friend. Ella (Olga Natividad), a supervisor in a local hotel, has been living in the island for several years already. Through her determination, she was able to raise a family and bring her 88-year old mother to Guam to live with her. However, her mother has fallen ill and needs fly back to the Philippines to recuperate. She then struggles to amass enough money to cover her mother’s trip home and back. Miriam (Janela Buhain), a journalist who was also recently laid off, spends her day carousing with her friends, flirting with several men, and drowning her sorrows and insecurities with alcohol. She eventually ends her day with a bittersweet surprise from her husband.

The conflicts are very subtly played. They are barely there, manifesting only in telling trickles and occasional bursts, in moments where feelings and issues that are repressed by the routine comforts provided by the island have to be let out. That is the beauty of the film. Almost nothing happens. It simply breezes along, allowing the piled up seemingly inconsequential events of the day to erupt into an emotional climax.

The problems of diaspora Cena is interested in are more personal. It is less about the social malaise that migration provokes and more about the despair and frustration of those composing the diaspora. In the end, Guam will not stop because of the problems of a certain demographic. It will chugs along, whether or not these residents chug along with it. The hotels will fill up, its transient residents unaware of what ails the dutiful cleaners that are but phantoms in their presence. The city light up to prepare for the night. Behind closed doors, the displaced can only cry, away from the eyes and ears of those who are better off being born privileged within man-made borders.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Aparisyon (2012)

The Sins of Silence in Vincent Sandoval's Aparisyon (Apparition)
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Prior to Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law, the country was in complete disarray. The regime, dictated by a culture of corruption and violence, would have students and other activists disappear, only to be discovered as victims of torture or worse, as dispatched bodies. However, in the Adorasyon convent, nestled deep within the forests of Rizal, news of these abuses are only heard from the occasional visits of family members or smuggled newspapers and transistor radios.

Kept away and protected from the harshness and temptations of the outside world by their dutiful mother superior (Fides Cuyugan-Asesnsio), the nuns enjoy the simple pleasures of a life lead by the daily routine of work and prayer. One night, newcomer Lourdes (Jodi Sta. Maria) gets raped by bandits on her way home with other external nun, Remy (Mylene Dizon), who makes use of the time outside the convent to join activists’ meetings in town.

Vincent Sandoval, in Aparisyon (Apparition), tackles both sin and guilt in a setting that is supposed to be immune from them. The plot he conceives is simple and succinct, concerning a tragedy that would cause the secluded nuns to suffer contrition in the midst of their supposedly immaculate faith. Despite the sparseness of the narrative, Sandoval manages to examine the various sins that manifested because of the single violent act, purposely pitting the gravity of the sin’s various proponents with the perdition they respectively seek.

Remy, for example, runs for her life while the bandits succeed in capturing Lourdes. On top of that, she introduced Lourdes to the activists’ meetings which eventually led to their being unable to return to the convent before dark. Perdition for her is through Lourdes’ forgiveness. In one extremely effective scene, Sandoval quietly captures Lourdes slapping Remy, pouring whatever anger she has for both Remy’s carelessness and abandonment. Remy, aware of the extent of her sin, forces Lourdes to slap her more. The anger finally gives way to forgiveness, and the two nuns exchange a wordless but tearful embrace.

The other nuns’ trespasses are more complicated. Their acts for redemption are more desperate. As it turns out, Sandoval’s story is more complicated. The details he weaved into the plot give way to an examination of sin and guilt that exist within a grey area. There are sins of omission, of the mind. There are also sins shared by a community. Sandoval sprinkles his film with sinners suffering not from obvious guilt but questions whether decisions made for the supposed safety of all have made them co-perpetrators to a perpetually continuing wrong. Sandoval also maps the contagious quality of violence, how that one random act has caused an epidemic of wrongs. Sandoval breaks the myth by raising the humanity of those who exhibit divinity in our most imperfect world.

Fortunately, Sandoval does not gravitate mainly towards the cerebral aspect of his thesis. He adeptly communicates the consuming anguish of having fallen from grace. Sta. Maria, Dizon, and Raquel Villavicencio, who plays Sr. Vera, the mother superior’s assistant, aptly inhabit their respective roles. Cuyugan-Asensio however is particularly impressive. She portrays the sudden mastermind of the film’s biggest sin of omission with masterful clarity and expert care. In one scene, she retreats with impassioned shame when an elderly nun (Rustica Carpio) who has lost all memory mistakes her for the devil. Yet she never appears to be wholly deserving of the despair. She comes off as a hapless and pitiful victim, stripped of the pride and stature of morality her position and responsibility initially provided her.

Jay Abello’s cinematography is sublime. He pits shadows with light, creating visuals that evoke the mental and moral conflicts surrounding the characters and the suffocation they suffer from being snatched of their prized innocence. Teresa Barrozo’s music is never interruptive. It beckons only when needed, enunciating the already uneasy atmosphere dealt by Abello’s arrestingly fractured images.

Sandoval’s direction is undeniably sophisticated. He forgoes safety and ease for risks that pay off, creating a film that is also a devastating mood piece, a product of the cross between the immense possibilities of the imagination and experiences dealt by inherited history. At one point, he projects curated videos of Marcos regime strife over Sta. Maria’s face as her character confesses her abandoning her vows to take part in an activists’ meeting in town, allowing the audience to immediately understand the plight of her troubled conscience, which is now being divided between her religious vows and her responsibility for nation.

He constantly reminds the reality of the historic and political milieu, through real videos and photographs of real activists and their family that momentarily puncture the film’s well-crafted illusion. In a way, without having to rely on cheap didactics, Sandoval warns his audience of the sins of apathy, that beyond the secluded convent that is cinema and its intoxicating pleasures and erstwhile depictions of truth filtered through a filmmaker’s art is a world where people really have suffered and continue to suffer.

(Cross-published in Twitch and ABS-CBNnews.)