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.)