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.)