Monday, December 09, 2013

Bukas na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na (2013)

Bukas na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na (Jet Leyco, 2013)
English Title: Leave it Tomorrow for Night Has Fallen

"Bukas na lang sapagkat gabi na (Leave it tomorrow for night has fallen).” It is a phrase most commonly used by doting mothers who keep secrets from inquisitive children. Jet Leyco, who has heard the phrase as a kid curious to know the fates of his two grandfathers, takes the phrase from personal memories to encompass a nation troubled by a history of institutionalized silence.

The film opens with a montage of photographs of smoke bellowing out of the land. The photographs are revealed one by one, with bits of cryptic information, such as the year presumably when the eruption happened. They do not reveal much. In fact, the figures do not pertain to anything definite or specific, but the images themselves evoke something troubling, something pertaining to events of cataclysmic proportions. The greater tragedy however is what is not revealed, that nagging impression that something important has happened but was not disclosed for whatever reason. The montage has a feel of evidence being laid out in court, pertaining to a truth masked for decades. Without the comfort of definite answers, the pictures immediately come to life, exposing both the enormity and the spectacle of a calamity.

The rest of Bukas na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na follows the same maxim of censorship, although in various degrees and for various intentions. Its first episode, an observation of a provincial wedding as captured from the camera of an amateur videographer, reveals nothing but riddles surrounding what supposedly is a celebration of love. Mystery necessarily looms as questions trickle in from guests unlucky enough to be the subject of the videographer’s impertinent mind. Nothing is definitely divulged, just bits and pieces about a priest gone missing, rebels in hiding, and in-laws quietly fuming.

The second episode, an observation of the affairs of the communist rebels that were briefly spoken of during the wedding, concentrates on a rebel soldier’s own inability to tell his father of his homosexuality, a subject that is also taboo within the armed revolution. Leyco dissects a movement that is plagued with an identity crisis. The montage of actual footage of communist rebels that closes the episode serves as both ode and elegy to a struggle that has survived through years of being quelled into the margins of both national consciousness and history by a campaign characterized by government propaganda and censorship.

While communist rebels are struggling to topple a prohibitive regime, the clergy indulge in prohibited pleasures that are kept hidden from the public. The third episode, aptly pervaded by a certain sense of godlessness, has a young sacristan witnessing the priest perform sexual acts in his private chambers. On their way to a wedding, the priest would eventually abuse his sacristan in the guise of showing him the ropes towards his sexual awakening. Wrapping up Bukas na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na is the story of the communist rebel’s father, who is hired to drive an ice delivery truck to the military camp. Little does he know that inside the truck are bodies of fallen rebels to be used as propaganda tools by government troops to cause fear in the hearts of the villagers.

Through Bukas na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na, Leyco exhaustively and compellingly dissects a nation’s culture of suppression. He even becomes his own censor, replacing drastic sounds of gunshots with innocuous noises from low-budget sci-fi laser beams. He upends the immense gravity and seriousness of his episodes with ironic turns only a repressed over-imaginative mind can cook up. The video-captured moments prior to an imperfect wedding surprisingly give way to a sequence straight out of a cheap action flick. The abusive military’s victory over rebels is interrupted by a montage of communist propaganda. The morally depraved priest peacefully passes away with an amusingly paternal parting sermon for the sacristan he victimized. Dead rebels come back to life. Leyco proposes that fantasy, in all its shapes and forms, is but a product of a vast unknown, which is but a product of curbed information.

And who else could be the most apt mascot for censorship but Ferdinand Marcos, who masterminded an entire country’s ignorance with several decades’ worth of laws and rules that suppress basic freedoms. When Leyco, in the spirit of worthwhile mischievousness, concludes his film with the famous bust of Marcos crudely animated to mouth the same words mothers tell overly-inquisitive children, the effect is both humorous and quietly disturbing. The dictator’s shadow still looms, and his legacy remains, although evidently not in the same degree as when he was in power. Still, like children forced to sleep to dream of answers to unanswered questions, the nation remains bamboozled and blinded by tall tales and fantasies, all in the name of paltry escape from a country's persisting calamity.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Call Center Girl (2013)

Don Cuaresma's Call Center Girl: Graver Than the Graveyard Shift

Don Cuaresma’s Call Center Girl was made to entertain. There is absolutely no question about it. The movie has almost all the elements of a television sitcom. It is pregnant with gags, most of which is gratingly dull and mechanical. Its idea of substance is nothing more than motherhood statements on motherhood, which would have more effect had it been written in a greeting card than in this movie. Bereft of any real substance, it aspires for nothing else but shallow giggles that quickly dissipate once the feeling of being cheated of hard earned money starts settling in.

At the center of the movie is Pokwang who turns her role of Teresa, a recently repatriated mother, into a repetitive spectacle, or worse, a ponderous anomaly. She rapidly mouths supposedly funny nonsense, automatically bursts into tears with superhuman ease, and needlessly performs splits and stunts for no apparent reason. By the middle of the movie, the curiously charismatic comedienne has turned the hapless mother into a circus act, siphoning all humanity out of an already thinly-written character.

Yet Call Center Girl actually begs for sympathy for Teresa, who as directed by Cuaresma and portrayed by Pokwang is woefully immature. She is still insisted to be presented as the pinnacle of Filipino suffering. She is an overseas worker, slaving away in a cruise ship for the survival of her family. She returns just to be widowed and to find out that her youngest daughter (Jessy Mendiola) abhors her. Just to repair her relationship with her wayward daughter, she works with her in a call center, spending her nights selling useless fitness products to depressed Americans just to earn enough money to pay for her daughter’s whims.

If the plot is familiar, it is not because it grossly resembles reality. It is because it has been told and retold, in various other films and shows that portray the Filipino mother as constantly misunderstood and mistreated. Setting the plot within the world of call centers is nothing more than a needless front. Call Center Girl says nothing relevant about the lifestyle and profession it brazenly utilizes for its own generic purposes.

Cuaresma’s only attempt at originality lies is his effort to juggle within the sordidly schizophrenic narrative his brand of inane comedy with the requirements of sappy melodrama. The attempt is evidently a failure since never once does Call Center Girl evoke anything other than uninspired silliness.

There is very little characterization elsewhere in the movie. Every character is either a stereotype or an ornament, meant to be nothing more than an ingredient to carry on a punchline. The movie is afflicted by atrociously lazy writing. The characters, instead of being shaped from concept or the logic of the story, are just reliant on the offscreen personas and charisma of the actors and actresses playing them.

Consequently, Call Center Girl hardly feels thought out. It has the feel of sterile improvisation. It is what it was set out to be, entertainment, the cheap and horrible kind.

(First published in Rappler.)

Friday, November 29, 2013

Woman of the Ruins (2013)

Keith Sicat's Woman of the Ruins: A Marriage in Ruins

In the middle of all the post-apocalyptic madness of Keith Sicat’s Woman of the Ruins is a story so painfully familiar. When a woman (Alessandra de Rossi) washes ashore in an island ruined by wars and storms, Pasyon (Art Acuna), one of the island’s resilient survivors, immediately claims her as his long-lost wife Maria. The woman, bereft of any memories from the past, hesitantly assumes the role. Her hesitation irks Pasyon, urging him to hold her captive, for him to easily claim from her marital obligations owed to him. Most of the island’s residents just ignore the atrocities, seemingly content with the religious implications of Maria’s dubious return.

Sicat claims Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Miracle, 1982) as an unconscious inspiration for his film. However, Bernal’s masterpiece is not as consciously crazed as Woman of the Ruins If there is one classic that resembles most the moods, themes and rhythms of Sicat’s allegory, it is Elwood Perez’s Silip (Daughters of Eve, 1985), the screenplay of which was also written by Himala’s writer, Ricardo Lee. Perez’s film features a parochial community, not unlike the one that lives in Sicat’s desolate ruins, that is overwhelmed with religious fervor. The arrival of a woman breaks the calm, testing collective morality amidst dogmatic dedication.

Lee served as Sicat’s creative consultant for Woman of the Ruins. Sicat however has more to say about religion than the hypocrisy that it naturally germinates, which seems to be the unifying theme of Lee’s screenplays for Himala and Silip. Where Bernal and Perez’s masterpieces pertain to communities that expose darkened hearts amidst spiritual convictions, Sicat’s film depicts a community strangled by communal norms.

In the spotlight of Sicat’s interests is Pasyon and Maria’s marriage, which essentially is just fiction arising from the community’s persevering beliefs. Immediately depicted by Sicat as grossly imperfect, the film’s central marriage persists not out of love but of pressure and necessity.

Rape and torture then become logical after-effects of a forced relationship. Forgiveness is forthcoming, given societal and religious pressures. The sins, however, are never erased. They gnaw on whatever remains of the marital union until nothing is left, except a stark desperation to escape despite the limitations society provides.

In a way, despite its obviously foreign landscapes, Woman of the Ruins reflects present-day society, where religion has a grab hold of the very concept of marriage and gender roles remain steadfast despite modernity.

In one scene, Sol (Peque Gallaga), who serves as the community’s wizened leader who keeps an almost perverse eye on the affairs of everyone, urges Sabel (Chanel Latorre) to become a mother. The exchange leads to her and Maria’s rape by unknown perpetrators, a sequence visually reminiscent of Silip’s devastating conclusion. The horrid crime eventually leads to her and Maria getting pregnant, in fulfilment of the role she should have readily accepted as reality instead of an option.

Sicat effectively captures a society crumbling not from natural or man-made disasters but from persisting norms and religion. The film’s landscape is bleak, one where reminders of an unforgotten desolation tower over empty fields and derelict forests. The ruins are themselves populated by shadows, men and women whose lives were salvaged but whose souls are permanently tainted. They desperately cling to religion, perhaps out of guilt for sins that gave way to their apocalypse. Woman of the Ruins visually captures suffocation.

In a twist laden with arresting irony, the film ends with its married couple drowning, physically suffocating. Gone are the ruins, its denizens and their pressures. There is no one else but them, enveloped by the sea and its unfamiliar sights. Dying, Pasyon and Maria embrace each other. Love exists, in another world, far and away from the society that seeks to cage it.

(First published in Rappler.)

Kabisera (2013)

Kabisera (Borgy Torre, 2013)

The bookends of Borgy Torre’s Kabisera are presented with such disarmingly romantic flair that they immediately stand out from the gritty reality that consumes most of the film. Andres (Joel Torre) sits in the head of the table, while the rest of his family are eating dinner. In both the opening and the ending, Andres is all smiles, delighted in seeing his family intact and sharing a meal together. The stark difference lies with Andres’ family, all of whom exchange their immaculate smiles in the film’s opening with the tears and gestures of resignation in the ending. Only Andres is left in a state of joy, obviously oblivious of tragedy.

Kabisera opens with a dream. It ends with a nightmare. Everything in between is a modern parable of skewed ambitions compromising traditional virtues. Torre has crafted a modern Faustian tale. The devil here is ambition, the dream that Andres wakes from in the start of the film. He realizes that dream, but at the price of his own humanity.

A humble fisherman who has contented himself to playing second fiddle to Jose (Art Acuna), his wealthy best friend, Andres is nonetheless the overly protective head of his family, controlling everything from his son’s college education to his daughter’s upcoming wedding. One morning, he finds two boxes of meth floating in the sea, opening for him an opportunity to keep his family within his watchful reach.

What happens next is nothing new in Philippine cinema, which has somewhat fetishized stories about virtuous men and women falling from grace. It comes natural in a country where class boundaries are vague, and the difference between being rich or poor is a single decision that compromises values. Torre aptly situates Andres’ dilemma within such a familiar circumstance. When Andres and his wife (Bing Pimentel) pursue the crooked path to easy riches, Torre affords no explanation, no intense characterization with a belief that their motivations are clearly spelled out by their dire straits. Morality simply takes the backseat in matters involving one’s family’s survival.

The tragedy of Kabisera is therefore not the loss of morality of Andres. He starts out as a man of ambition, dreaming only of good things for his family. Torre, both Borgy and Joel, portray him as a man with vague morals, grounded primarily by two things, his concern for his family and his loyalty to Jose. The tragedy therefore lies in the loss of Andres’ most utmost virtues. When pushed by criminal elements that he has not prepared himself for, he abandons friendship and unduly warps his position in the family.

Kabisera is inconsistently paced. Torre is gifted with creating tension out of quietude, as in Bonsai (2009), his short film about an obese man who is desperately in love with his neighbor, and prolonged conversations, as in Despedida (2010), his short film about a man and a woman who meet in a graveyard. Kabisera however feels like it lacks a certain balance, relishing in protracted moments of silence, or heated verbal exchanges between characters, before being distracted by rhythmic montages or listless sequences. It certainly drags in the middle, painstakingly addressing the process of Andres’ painful transformation via his dealings with drug dealers and corrupt cops, climaxing in the fruition of all his aggravating trespasses that is but inevitable.

Joel Torre carries the film through its lows. It is not only intensity that he brings to the role, but also a certain complexity. Andres is simply not just a stern or stubborn father or an ambitious criminal upstart, he is also a man torn between decades of accepted humility and an immediate future of being the boss. Torre inhabits Andres acknowledging that the transformation of the character is best revealed through subtle changes in gestures and behavior. Pimentel similarly inhabits the role of Andres’ wife with such surprising grace that only adds further layers to a role that could have been slight if portrayed by a less sensible actress.

Kabisera may be an imperfect film but it succeeds in dissecting the transformation of a fisherman who barters his soul with the devil for the sake not of his family but of his role in his family. Torre’s film, although deliberately bound by genre conventions, is delightfully complex. Laced with details, from the performances to Torre’s own directorial choices, the effects of its disturbing portraiture of Filipino patriarchy linger longer than the initial pleasures it immediately produces.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ang Tigmo sa Aking Pagpauli (2013)

Arnel Mardoquio's Ang Tigmo sa Aking Pagpauli: A Profound Purgatory

Arnel Mardoquio’s Ang Tigmo sa Aking Pagpauli (Riddles of My Homecoming) opens with an explanation of a Lumad belief that all souls of the departed return home to serve as guardians of the homeland. After the prologue, Mardoquio wastes no time in setting up his puzzle. Images burst and blur, giving way not to the typical logic of a story but to moods and landscapes of pain and sorrow. The film never lets go of its own confusion, enduring as an abstract mosaic of an island’s profound agony.

The souls are linked by melancholy. They aimlessly wander, probably in recurrence of something they had to do out of necessity in their previous lives. They are consumed by love, then lust, then by prejudice, by greed, and power. They are less the guardians that the Lumad belief promised and more prisoners sentenced to an eternity of sin. Their sins are not to each other, but to the land itself.

This is Mardoquio’s purgatory. It is an abstract portrait that weaves absolute beauty with pandemonium and strife. After all, his Mindanao has already gained such a reputation of being pristine despite its crisis. Its virgin forests hide rebels and soldiers engaged in decades-old battles. Its rich mountains conceal the mines that enslave them. Its rivers flow with the waste of an exploitative industry. Its people’s smiles mask a history written with suffering caused by class and faith.

Mardoquio has persistently told stories about his island’s plight. From Hunghong sa Yuta (Earth’s Whisper, 2008) to Ang Paglalakbay ng Mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (The Journey of Stars Into the Dark Night, 2012), he has been consistent in humanizing the conflicts that consume his homeland, introducing characters whose desperations are intertwined with the land’s suffering. However, the souls in Ang Tigmo sa Aking Pagpauli are as broken and fractured as the limbo they roam. Mardoquio communicates not through words or slogans, but through images.

Ang Tigmo sa Aking Pagpauli is more than a film. It is a poem. It is performance art. Some scenes even ache with the same profundity of a painting. Its elegant rhythms belie its beautiful confusion. Mardoquio himself seems to be consumed by the riddle that is his homeland. His film has the feel of a spiritual experience, a purging of guilt and sorrow by an observer who has only his art as weapon. There is pain in the film’s silence, and prayer in its score’s repetitious drone.

Death is the only thing that is certain. It unites us all, from the powerful cult leader whose feculence is manna from heaven to the baylan who has been forgotten. Mardoquio understand its power. He acknowledges its beauty. Ang Tigmo sa Aking Pagpauli appears to be his ode to it, thoroughly sincere and stirring as it comes from a heart who has observed far too many in his homeland needlessly succumbing to it.

(First published in Rappler.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Islands (2013)

Islands (Whammy Alcazaren, 2013)

The easiest thing to do is to either stop at faulting or praising Whammy Alcazaren’s ambition in mounting Islands, a deeply personal meditation on the complexities of loving. The film is hardly about the director’s ambition. It is more about his humility in communicating how imperfect he is as a person in love. The film, despite its visual elegance, has the affecting awkwardness of a juvenile poem. Like a poem, it is replete with obvious metaphors, from the solitary spacemen to the despondent hunter, that pertain to one nagging idea: the inability to communicate love.

Its stanzas are all beautifully composed. They are fragile sequences, all carefully designed to evoke a somber mood. In a forest, a hunter longs for the love of a princess he can never have. In space, two astronauts suffer the most profound of loneliness despite each other’s company. In a quiet house, a widow suffers through infrequent visits of her migrating daughter and grandson.

The three storylines, separated by time and space, are linked through signals and gestures. The grandson plays with a toy spaceship while his elders talk about the weight of quietness. He becomes the sole witness of two individuals bursting with love for each other but unable to declare it. An astronaut sings a familiar pop song out of a memory of his past, which is curiously our present. It breaks the languor of the film. It also makes the spaceman human, suddenly turning the last life in the universe into one of us.

The astronaut hurts himself just to remember emotions. The hunter hurts others to evoke emotions. He sees a dinosaur caught in his trap, and proceeds to kill it, before succumbing again to pains of alienation. The hunter’s princess weeps for him. Garbed in a wedding gown, she laments to the sea that took her lover away from her. The astronaut, newly landed on her planet, consoles her.

The episodes’ connections are at once apparent and ephemeral. They work like figures of speech, adding layers to verses. At the moment where the connection becomes real, when the spaceman finally bridges to another lonely soul, Alcazaren breaks his deceit, revealing the fiction that masks his truth. The director of the film within the film, intriguingly played by Peque Gallaga, releases words that have been aching to be released. That an entire cosmos was created to add eloquence to the simplest of words reveals Alcazaren’s impulse as a filmmaker.

Love is never uncomplicated. It should never be. Islands veils love’s complications with such immaculate beauty. It is not only about the carefully crafted imagery that the film indulges in. It is not about the poems within the poem. It is not about the film within the film, whose eventual reveal exposes, in cinematic real-time, the awkwardness of loving from the distance and absence of words. It is definitely not about its distinct parts, which essentially are all disparate gestures and mysterious codes that obscure the need of verbalizing love.

Islands is about the inability to express directly what is felt. It is about the empty spaces, the wasted eras, the torturous silence that all result from needlessly caged emotions. It is about the boy and the girl talking about everything except love when love is everything they want to talk about.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bendor (2013)

Ralston Jover's Bendor: Life as Prison

It all seems routine. Over coffee, Blondie (Vivian Velez) animatedly recounts how she caught her husband cheating. Her story is amusing, how her husband’s philandering eventually caught up with him when he ended up flirting with their own goddaughter who grew up to work as a bargirl. Her story is aborted by sounds of wailing. There is actually more to Blondie than her domestic squabbles. In another room, a woman who she assisted to have an abortion is quickly losing blood, and is screaming for help. She brings her to the hospital and leaves her there. Luck was on her side, as she was able to escape before the hospital could figure out the abortion.

At home, everything still seems routine. Blondie prepares for work, plucking the white hairs that reveal her age. She helps her granddaughter dress up for school. Her son greets her with a request for money to pay his own utilities bills. A few minutes later, her daughter starts to pontificate about how she should just forgive her husband so that things can go back to normal. She storms out of their apartment, only to be met by her drunken husband who violently pleads for forgiveness, and eventually suffers a severe heart attack. This time, routine is on her side, as she was able to escape that morning’s drama because she has to work.

Blondie detours and visits her optometrist and beautician, delaying the inevitability of old age. She then proceeds to her stalls in Quiapo Church, where she catches her vendors slacking. She then mans her own stall, selling various colored candles to women depending on their needs. Goods are sold and money is exchanged, all outside the centuries-old cathedral that feigns ignorance of all sorts of commerce. Her daughter suddenly arrives, begging for money to pay for her husband’s hospitalization. Blondie gives her daughter her day’s entire earnings, promising to look for more money to complete the payment. The money she gave is not enough. Her daughter begs for her to visit the hospital. She cannot escape for long.

In Bendor, Ralston Jover painstakingly plots the life of a woman who has been wasted to routine. As portrayed by Velez, Blondie seems to be a woman who has seen better years. She desperately clings on remnants of her fleeting youth, while also attempting to raise a family that is tittering on dysfunction. All her efforts are funded by illicit dealings with abortionists and corrupt cops. Jover offers no moral judgments. The illegal trade Blondie plies is as ordinary and routinary as her morning shouting matches with her husband.

However, the life she leads is one where risks are part and parcel of survival. There seems to be far too many close calls. She only manages to avoid them when mysterious visions of another Blondie suddenly appear, almost mocking her of the freedom she lacks. When her salvation is nothing more than hallucinations of a life that could have been, it becomes apparent that she has imprisoned herself in a life whose dire ordinariness is but symptomatic of a more profound plight. She is just one amongst many other women circling the surroundings of Quiapo’s grand cathedral and bound by fate to either buying with both money and soul another opportunity at life and freedom or being content with the damning routine of domesticity and servitude.

Jover ends the film with blunt irony. Blondie and Quiapo’s many vendors are finally set free from prison after several hours. Upon release, she is greeted with news that her husband has been released by the hospital. Her daughters merrily exit the police station. Blondie decides to stay, behind bars. She looks on, motionless, with eyes heavy with tears. That morning’s freedom, as it turns out, is nothing more than a one-way ticket back to her life’s persisting prison.

(First published in Rappler.)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Lilet (1971)

Gerardo de Leon's Lilet: Patriarchy as Nightmare

They know her. She doesn’t know them. Lilet (Celia Rodriguez) enters her family’s mansion with dread and suspicion. Each object is a trap. Each face is a mystery. A victim of severe amnesia, her only linkage to an obscured past is fear. Her mother (Paraluman) welcomes her with grave hesitation. Her grandmother (Tita Munoz), a striking woman despite her being constrained within a wheelchair, and her father (Vic Silayan), meet her with evident dismay. After a short reintroduction that evokes anonymity rather than delight, she is dismissed.

That night, she becomes a woman on the verge of insanity. She hears a familiar voice repeatedly calling out her name. A mysterious machine chugs, adding to the cacophony that seem to force demons out of her enclosed memories. A masked man with a pair of scissors suddenly appears to haunt her. She is unsafe in her own home. Screaming, she sprints away from the mansion, before a car nearly runs her over. Out of the car is her knight in shining armor, Edgar (Ronaldo Valdez), her doctor and savior from all the horrors that seem to debilitate her.

Gerardo de Leon’s Lilet is repetitive in the way it portrays its titular character as a woman on the edge, desperately clinging on the remaining shreds of lucidity while everything around her pushes her to insanity. De Leon, a medical doctor prior to becoming a director, shows a very astute understanding of mental suffering. While he exploits Rodriguez’s peculiar features when in the state of shock to visualize shock, he nevertheless utilizes logic in injecting fear into his disturbed protagonist.

The film, surprisingly produced by businessman-turned-evangelizer Mike Velarde, is astoundingly vivid in its depiction of mental torture. Set mostly within the mansion that takes the form of a cage gilded by expensive but overwhelming trappings, the film is greatly reliant on De Leon’s ability to visualize terror. He maps Lilet’s descent to madness with clarity, creating ominousness out of ordinary everyday things and noises.

Beneath Lilet’s gothic surface however is something more disturbing. Lilet is after all a film about women who despite familial ties are all too willing to inflict mental torture on fellow women all in the name of love. The love that is the center of the film’s depravity is in fact even more depraved. De Leon paints the incest that happens so often within the mansion with a certain flair that makes it even more terrifying than the triggers that force Lilet to hysterics. Subtle gestures grow into devastating revelations, exposing a very rotten core that may not be endemic to Lilet’s melodramatic family.

Although Silayan’s father figure is pathetic, the bare fact that he is the sole man in the mansion forces all the women in the household to fight for his attention. His mother lusts for him. His wife begs for his forgiveness. His daughter struggles for his attention. Every other man is competition, whether it is his son or the doctor who sways Lilet’s attention from him. Patriarchy is the original sin here. The rest are just projections of a horrifically skewed perception of a societal wrong. With Lilet, De Leon has woven a nightmare straight out of reality.

(First published in Rappler.)

Blue Bustamante (2013)

Blue Bustamante (Miko Livelo, 2013)

It is inevitable for the Philippines, a country whose economy thrives because of the inward remittances of its overseas workers, to develop a film culture that revolves specifically around the experiences of those expatriated breadwinners and the families they left behind. It is perhaps the penchant for Filipinos for melodrama that eventually shaped the unique genre into what it is now: an enduring portrait of marginalized sector that has become most famous for its selfless sacrifices. From Joel Lamangan’s The Flor Contemplacion Story (1995), a dramatization of the life and death of a domestic helper in Singapore, to Hannah Espia’s Transit (2013), about a family in Israel being threatened of deportation, overseas Filipino workers are consistently depicted in a state of physical, emotional or mental anguish.

Blue Bustamante, Miko Livelo’s awkward entry to the depressing genre, is therefore a very welcome breath of fresh air. George (Joem Bascon), Livelo’s Japan-bound family man, is not exempt from the trials that usually befall overseas workers. Early on, he is booted from his job as an engineer, and forced to don a mask and a tight body suit to play Blue Force in an ongoing sentai show, just to be able to provide his family back home with comforts. He also becomes a victim of homesickness, relying on the threat-laden letters of his loving wife (Dimples Romana) for company. Despite the very familiar issues, the film never allows itself to wallow in regret and remorse. Instead, it bursts with ingenious energy, reminiscent of the low-budget Japanese television shows it offers itself as a tribute for.

It is thoroughly and enjoyably simple. In fact, its conflict is blatantly trite. Simply put, George is embarrassed of his job, not knowing that his son (Jhiz Deocareza) for whom he sacrifices what remaining dignity he has left for is his character’s number one fan. Livelo pads the plot with unsophisticated charm. Humor is abundant, and wit, overflowing. The conversations between George and his glib roommate (Jun Sabayton) are funnily pointless, stretched indefinitely until its perfectly timed punchline.

Livelo surprisingly understands the purpose of his film’s comedy. It is its levity. It is its sincerest effort to prevent itself from taking itself seriously and turning into just another of those films that turn modern-day heroes into hapless victims of circumstance. Absent its irreverence, Blue Bustamante is nothing more than a rough-on-the-edges attempt to one-up sentai, which it is obviously not. The blatant imperfections are essential to its charm. Like the kids whose crayon-colored cardboard masks are their greatest tributes to their favorite after-school pastime, Livelo crafts the film to be his grandest compliment to nostalgia.

That is precisely why the film works, despite the obviousness of its low-budget roots, or its inconsistent plotting, or its stubbornness in its straightforward sentimentality. It never complicates the emotions it is trying to pull off. The plentiful sketches and lovely anecdotes on the sentai shows of the past decade are all effective diversions from its immediate heart, which is the father-son relationship that was sadly suspended by distance and lack of communication. When Livelo suddenly strays from his antics and diversions to concentrate on his film’s emotional core, it is just impossible not to get affected.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap? (2013)

Jose Javier Reyes' Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap?: The Colors of Forgotten Dreams

Jose Javier Reyes, for all his faults as a director, has earned his renown for one singular artistic characteristic, which is his ability to enshroud his works with a distinctly middle-class perspective. His astute interest in the clear lines that divide Philippine society into various socio-economic classes are often depicted through satire, as in Mga Mumunting Lihim (2012), where the friendship of four middle class women is abruptly tested by deceit, envy and various fleeting plights, or in Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo (2006) and its sequel Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo (2007), where the concerns of the marital life of a middle class couple are mined for comedy.

His best romances are the ones draped with class issues. May Minamahal (1993) has affluent Aga Muhlach falling in love for Aiko Melendres, the lowly daughter of a jeepney driver. Instead of depicting the cross-social class love story with fairy tale allure, Reyes injects realistic observations as to the very apparent lines that have been punctured because of the two lovers’ affectations. Kung Ako na Lang Sana (2003), on the other hand, tells the atypical love story of Aga Muhlach’s financially stable playboy and Sharon Cuneta’s hardworking entrepreneur, documenting along the way the worries and problems of a privileged generation.

Whenever Reyes decides to tackle the issues of the impoverished, such as in Live Show (2000), which is about men and women forced into performing live sex shows for survival, the perspective is evidently middle class, with depictions of oppression and struggle shrouded with pity, regret, shame and seriousness that only a repentant member of the ruling class can offer. Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap? (What are the Colors of Forgotten Dreams?), which narrates the life of a Teresa (Rustica Carpio), a domestic helper who has spent most of her life serving several generations of a middle class family, is possibly the most persuasive of Reyes’ expression of middle class guilt.

Domestic servants have become a necessity for most middle class households, who find both parents becoming breadwinners to maintain a lifestyle. The servants, instead of being regarded as typical employees, become part of the household, taking on tasks from simple cleaning to raising children in the absence of their parents.

Unfortunately, their very vague position within the family unit deprives them of certain securities. Emotional attachments become too irresistible. Monetary compensation becomes a non-issue. In the end, however, when economic circumstances are weighed alongside de facto relationships, the former takes precedence, resulting into an oppressive tradition that we can only quietly acquiesce. It is perhaps our undeniable familiarity with this oppression that makes Reyes’ film genuinely affecting.

Reyes complicates this depiction of middle class oppression by situating his tale during the twilight of Teresa’s career, when she has become close to being useless to the family she serves. The family’s remaining members, Stella (Jackie Lou Blanco), Vince (Bobby Andrews), and Andre (Ryan Agoncillo), have all migrated outside the Philippines, leaving the family mansion for sale. Amidst negotiations with brokers and buyers, they become confronted with something they have glaringly omitted: what happens to Teresa?

Reyes depicts the siblings unequally. Stella and Vince seem intent on moving on, regarding Teresa’s situation a mere diversion from the goal of disposing all of their family’s assets in the Philippines. Andrew, however, has more benevolence in his affairs with Teresa. Despite that, Reyes approaches the moral dilemma in his narrative with logic and reason. He ensures that no inherent antagonists arise, and instead, all acts and inactions are mere results of a situation that all characters find themselves trapped in.

Melodrama is Reyes’ weapon of choice. Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap? is effectively manipulative. Flashbacks are utilized to indulge in key scenes that enunciate Teresa’s sacrifice for and investment in the family. From Carpio’s resplendent performance to the howling musical score, the film immediately urges pity for the aging woman whose illusions of being part of the family she has served is about to shatter. Pity, after all, is but a by-product of guilt. It is most sincere when there is an acceptance of a wrongdoing. When it is sincere, it prods for compassion. Reyes, true to his mission of exposing either the excesses or the shrouded inhumanity of his class, aims to use his film to move for compassion.

Thus, subtlety is not an option. The film ends with Teresa, alone and on the verge of confusion, looking into the camera and at the audience. She probes for pity and for compassion. At the very least, she probes for guilt from the social class who can afford to watch her life’s sufferings but cannot afford her the humanity she deserves.

(First published in Rappler.)

Friday, November 01, 2013

She's the One (2013)

Mae Cruz's She's the One: Just One of Too Many

It’s all been done before. Jolina Magdangal, in fact, has made a very lucrative career in the 90’s by playing exaggeratedly chirpy women who harbor secret longings for unassuming best friends, usually played by erstwhile onscreen partner Marvin Agustin.

Then there is Rory B. Quintos’ Mangarap Ka (1995) had Claudine Barretto and Mark Anthony Fernandez play best friends-turned-lovers in a story set amidst competitions and ambitions that only the University of the Philippines can offer. More recent is Ruel S. Bayani’s Paano na Kaya? (2010), based on a hit song that sums up the dilemmas of being consumed by hidden affections for a best friend, where Kim Chiu quietly suffers while Gerald Andersson falls desperately out of his valued relationships. Perhaps the most impressive of the lot is Jose Javier Reyes’ Kung Ako na Lang Sana (2003), where Aga Muhlach and Sharon Cuneta play best friends who only discover they were meant for each other after living through their lives, too busy with careers or failed love stories to acknowledge the fact that they like and love each other.

There is simply something about romances blossoming out of mere friendship that is so attractive to Filipinos. It is perhaps because these love stories represent the most realistic of escapist romances, since there are no requirements of fated romantics facing glaring odds that their truest love will have to withstand. It only requires what most of us might already have: a best friend who we may have fancied as our one true love.

Thus, any expectation for innovation from Mae Cruz’s She’s the One can only lead to disappointment. It briefly delights only because it tells a story that is all too familiar and all too comforting. The film does not have any ambitions of reinventing the wheel. In fact, it is stubbornly precise in following its formula. This stubbornness, relieved only by a few attempts at placing the tired love story into the present day world that is dominated by social media, can only lead to a film with very meager charms, reliant mostly on whatever charisma its leads can muster out of playing boilerplate characters.

Cat (Bea Alonzo) has always loved Wacky (Dingdong Dantes). However, because she knows Wacky is too busy playing playboy with his many women, he relegates herself as his best friend. Little does she know, Wacky actually also has feelings for her. When David (Enrique Gil), a college student who happens to capture a video of Cat changing the tires of her car in the rain, starts expressing his inexplicable love for Cat through social media, things start to fall in place. The three become entangled in a romance that can only be set right by Cat and Wacky admitting the feelings for each other that they have hidden for so long.

Cruz does attempt to excite with only details that allow the story to stray a bit from its all-too-familiar path. Along the way, Cruz details the difficulties of maintaining a relationship that is gapped by a very wide age difference. Also, she situates the love story in a world proliferated by shallow expressions via the ease and convenience of communicating through social media, she touches the surface of how impulsive, and perhaps trivial, relationships, romantic or otherwise, have become.

Predictability, however, is still a given in these kinds of romances. Despite the attempts to color their fictional world, Cat and Wacky will end up together, leaving David, surprisingly selfless all of a sudden, giving up for the sake of a clean resolution. Absent any realistic struggle for love, the film’s easy resolution seems a tad too insincere and manufactures. It seems to be more a result of the impulsive feelings this generation represents than real yearning. Given that, Cat and Wacky may actually deserve the very hollow happy ending they get: cold and drenched in beautiful but fake rain.

(First published in Rappler.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Alagwa (2012)

Alagwa (Ian Lorenos, 2013)
English Title: Breakaway

Inspired by an urban legend about kidnappers targeting children to be turned into beggars, Ian Lorenos’ Alagwa (Breakaway) tells the story of Robert (Jericho Rosales) and Brian (Bugoy Carino), his son. The film opens with Robert and Brian shopping inside a mall. Brian wanders off, attracted by the various toys being peddled. Seeing that his son is missing, Robert searches the mall, seeing Brian playing with the toys. He pulls away his son from the toys and scolds him, warning him of the syndicates that kidnap children to use them as beggars.

The relationship between Robert and Brian is one that is far from ideal. Robert works as a salesman, struggling to survive within the normally wealthy Filipino-Chinese community with only the meager commissions he earns. Brian reaps the effects of his father’s position in their community’s pecking order. Constantly bullied in his school because of his paltry lot in life, he performs very poorly and is often disciplined for fighting his schoolmates. There seems to be a quiet understanding between them. Although seldom expressed, gestures are shown, signalling affectations both of them hesitate to openly give to each other.

Lorenos does not hide the tragedy that will befall both father and son. In between moments that subtly express the preciousness of their relationship amidst the struggles, Lorenos fast-forwards, showing scenes where Robert is seen searching the streets of Hong Kong for his missing son. The inevitability of separation is absolutely heart-breaking. The film cleverly builds up the tension, juxtaposing sequences of desperation, frustration and loneliness with ones that are bursting with the wonderful chaos of togetherness.

Midway, the film suddenly transforms from a quaint and deliberate portrait of a relationship that is doomed to woe into an unhinged descent down Manila’s secret sinful underbellies, complete with an apartment building populated with drug addicts, lowlifes, and children waiting to be exported to Hong Kong. The kidnapping happens, turning Robert’s cynical father into an impromptu action hero who, within a few nights, crosses paths with abusive pedophiles, inutile cops, and penitent pimps. The unexpected deviation, more an exploration of a father’s desperation than an inability for Lorenos to contain his imagination, only foreshadows the impeccable emotional impact of the film’s ending.

The ending is in fact the film’s starkest contrivance. It is also its crowning glory. With a prolonged embrace, sobs, tears, and an indelible look on Robert’s face that reflects a flurry of heightened emotions ranging from relief to sadness, Alagwa ends without regard to subtlety, and rightfully so. There are moments that deserve silence. The film however deserves such an impassioned bow, one that would drown all the noise and doubts with unstoppable bursts of very well-earned tears.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

La última película (2013)

La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson, 2013)

The year 2012 was for most of humanity a waiting game. The Mayans predicted the world’s end. Riots sprouted. Floods happened. Scandals erupted. It seemed the Mayans spoke true, but there was still no assurance that the world was on the verge of its own demise. Amidst the chaos produced by the world’s hesitation to die, film was quietly performing its own disappearing trick. There were debates. Self-proclaimed vanguards of the cinematic arts were busy looking forward, confident of the continuation of the business despite the business’ abandonment of its first medium. The rest, those oblivious to the business of movie-making, were subsisting on throes of nostalgia, scrambling for the last remaining reels of film and creating very personal odes to celluloid, on celluloid.

The apocalypse happened. We were there to witness it. Film cameras were no longer being made. Analog projectors were no longer being used. Raya Martin, who stubbornly made films in celluloid when his comrades were shooting in digital, and Mark Peranson, editor of Cinema Scope, had the best view of cataclysm. In La última película, an impeccable collaboration between the two very outspoken cinephiles, they are seen viewing the apocalypse. Images of rampaging meteors and fiery explosions are superimposed on a peacefully starless night sky. Despite the spectacle, the two are quite withdrawn. It’s just another show.

La última película, for all its brash self-consciousness, is neither nostalgic nor dismissive of that foregone era. It masks its melancholy with sarcasm, bleeding incessantly from the antics and bickerings of a filmmaker (Alex Ross Perry) and his Mexican guide (Gabino Rodriguez), who are in Yucatan to scout locations for what is planned to be the last film ever made.

When melancholy manages to escape the clutches of Martin and Peranson’s intellectual comedy, the pay-off is quite tremendous. The film within the film shows a woman visiting a departed loved one in the cemetery. She is singing a mournful song. What follows is a montage of random everyday oddities, all shot in celluloid, all beautifully textured. The sombre montage gives way to an abrupt change. We now see Martin and Peranson’s film crew in high definition digital, shooting the film within the film. Peranson asks Gym Lumbera, his cinematographer, a question about shooting in celluloid. Lumbera then relates how he is certain that the film camera has stopped recording. He can hear it recording. Filmmaking has become too dolefully quiet.

It all seems chaotic. La última película switches from one medium to another, seemingly without rhyme or reason. The images from the various media, edited together exposing their individual merits and faults, can either incite further or end the debate that has been hounding the film community since digital started replacing celluloid. While the film is quiet towards its biases, it nevertheless feels like film’s rightful valediction.

La última película elucidates the flurry of emotions surrounding what was the cinematic apocalypse. It is best viewed as a relic from a recent past, a foregone era, an enigmatic museum piece. It is that bewildering but very enjoyable artifact of how all the talk on the state of cinema has become so absurdly serious and seriously absurd. With a wondrous marriage of self-importance and self-irreverence, La última película succeeds in being everything it sets out to be, an often frustrating but always joyous celebration of cinema.

In La última película’s final scene, shot in red-tinted celluloid tinted, Perry’s fervent filmmaker rows a boat down an anonymous river. Martin, who has experimented with the physical aspect of film and as a result produced works of astounding and profound ingenuity like Ars Colonia (where a conquistador’s exploration of a new land literally explodes with marker pen-colored fireworks), again does with film what otherwise cannot be done with pixels. The red hue slowly consumes the entire frame, leaving only indiscernible traces of the filmmaker in a sea of crimson. What eventually surfaces is something else, something reminiscent of what Martin and Peranson were looking at in the night sky. Meteorites are falling. This is the apocalypse. And the apocalypse is just beautiful.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, October 07, 2013

Hello, World (2013)

Hello, World (Joel Ferrer, 2013)

We all were once invincible. High with puberty, we were indestructible with our first time sexual encounters, super secret crushes, and truckloads of alcohol. We talked with flair, mouthing fad words that are strange to adult ears. We walked with a peculiar bounce, carrying an imaginary heft while displaying our newly minted moustaches and Adam’s Apples. Then adulthood happened. After several years of discovering our meager places in the largely frustrating adult world, we conjured something called nostalgia. Nostalgia momentarily brought us back to that time when we all were invincible. Only now, armed with the realities of the world, the past was something as silly as a standard sitcom.

Joel Ferrer’s Hello, World is bursting with nostalgia. It examines the typical and uneventful coming-of-age of two high school graduates from the perspective of an adult who has been there and has done all that. Unabashed in its portrayal of the normal teenager’s angst and arrogance as both awkward and funny, the film seems to have a feel of being told straight out of the very selective memory of someone whose journey to being an adult is as ordinary as anybody else’s. Weeded out are the dull moments where nothing absolutely happens. What remains are the hilarious anecdotes, the brash exaggerations, the brags, and the gentle lessons in life.

Jeff (Victor Medina) and Johann (Philip Quintos) have been best friends since they were kids. After high school, both are left with decisions that would mark their lives forever. Jeff is to migrate to the United States with his mother, leaving behind all his memories of the Philippines and more importantly, Annie (Maria Francesca Lim), his secret crush and twin sister of Johann. Johann, armed with one-and-a-half sexual encounters with his more mature girlfriend (Ginny Palma), wants to skip college and relax. A summer full of wild experiences with Jeff’s comically liberated aunt (Trixie Dauz) and Johann’s too-good-to-be-true rival (Reuben Uy) for his best friend and girlfriend’s attention seems to be the only cure to their nagging dilemma.

Candidness is the film’s strength. Hello, World is undaunted by any need to be anything more than it is. It sees in its wackiness an openness to define youth as but a playground. Adolescence is therefore the final five minutes in the playground, where all reason and good behavior are quickly thrown aside for those last precious moments of fun and irresponsibility. Ferrer indulges in the absurdity that a rapidly fleeting youth can only provide. His film is consistently funny with its sketches of teenagers desperately clinging to the freedoms of childhood while slowly creeping into the seriousness of adult life.

Candidness, however, is also the film’s weakness. There is too much of it for comedy’s sake, and too little for anything else. Inconsistent crafting is actually the least of its problems. In its efforts to be unreasonably zany, it forgets to plant a heart. The spoofs are undoubtedly plenty. Most of them are genuinely effective. When Ferrer however attempts to more than funny, when he finally decides to give his waylaid teenagers a taste of being riddled with grown up problems, the weight of all the foolishness he has so cleverly and wittily written seems to be too difficult to set aside. For all the joy and laughter Ferrer brings into his portrait of teenage life, he neglects the emotional heft of leaving it. Despite sincere attempts, Hello, World seems to be unable to graduate from being anything more than a caricature of memories.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Sana Dati (2013)

Sana Dati (Jerrold Tarog, 2013)
English Title: If Only

Jerrold Tarog has been exposing the hard truths behind the Philippines’ greatest preoccupations, politics and family. Through characters whose jobs are related to cameras, Tarog destroys myths that have misled Filipinos into a distorted sense of comfort. In Confessional (2007), a documentary filmmaker accidentally stumbles upon a corrupt mayor. The mayor then confesses all his sins on video, lecturing the filmmaker of the fallacy of the Philippines so-called nationhood. In Mangatyanan (The Blood Trail, 2009), an awarded photographer struggles with the nagging influence of her father, who is also an esteemed photographer. In her attempt to take pictures of a rare ritual of a dying tribe, she learns to accept the sins her father has committed against her which effectively ripped their family apart.

Tarog caps his Camera Trilogy with Sana Dati (If Only). Love, probably the most potent diversion for Filipinos, is Tarog’s target. With an appetite for movies that extol the triumph of love and songs that glorify the sacrifices for true love, Filipinos have found the perfect escape for their everyday troubles. Amidst enduring concerns about the state of the nation and the needs of the family, love, corny as it sounds, will keep us alive. However, the love that is celebrated by Filipinos is one that has been defined by winners, by those who have found their happy endings, by those who have lived or died intoxicated by romance’s distinct pleasures. Love, in the form that most the nation appreciates it, is nothing more than a hallucinogenic drug.

The cameraman in Sana Dati is Dennis (Paulo Avelino), a novice wedding videographer serendipitously hired to cover the wedding of Andrea (Lovi Poe), the last love of his older brother Andrew (Benjamin Alves). Andrea wed Robert (TJ Trinidad), a failed politician-turned-businessman she met during an election campaign. Through Andrea, Dennis finally understands the reason behind his brother’s sudden decision to leave their family. Through Dennis, Andrea discovers another way to relive the perfect love that was abruptly terminated by fate’s cruelty.

Love has always been defined by winners. The greatest lovers are those who lived content with it or died inspired by it. Sana Dati is not a film about winners. It is not about the fictional poet, named after Spanish director Julio Medem, who wrote the most beautiful verses about the feeling of being in love prior to dying. It is not about Andrew, who like fictional Medem, died with a heart overflowing with love. The heart of Sana Dati lies with the losers, the ones we tend to forget when the most intense statements about love have already been declared. It is about Andrea, whose life goes on despite the tragedy of her one true love perishing. It is about Dennis, who is about to marry a girl who does not love him. It is about Andrew, who stirs trouble in somebody else’s romantic affairs.

Sana Dati, on its surface, is a very affecting romance. Tarog, who not only directed but also wrote, edited, and scored the film, is obviously in control. Although seemingly unburdened by any need to be relevant, Tarog nevertheless experiments with structure, not for the sake of needlessly complicating his story but to inject into the film a certain rhythm that effortlessly enunciates emotions.

Opening with an ingenious proposal by Andrew to Andrea, the film immediately cuts to the day of a wedding. Dennis is introduced, carrying into the hotel various camera equipment he barely knows how to use. He finally arrives in Andrea’s room, where he proceeds to interview her, throwing questions about her love for Robert. Andrea directly answers the questions, her eyes avoiding the camera. Dennis does the same for Robert. Robert answers the questions, with his eyes directly upon the camera. Tarog peppers Sana Dati with these details that invite interpretation.

The gestures of his characters are never empty. A cigarette butt absentmindedly thrown by Dennis from the hotel’s window lands on Robert’s collar. Andrea’s wedding vows is swept by the wind, creating a shadow for Robert to be signalled of her presence in the rooftop. Fate, the primary cause for lovers to have their happy endings in many unforgettable romances, is also an active participant here. The only difference is that in Sana Dati, fate intervenes for sobriety from what essentially is an unrealistic perspective on love.

Sana Dati ends in consolation. There are no grand tragedies, except perhaps the tragedy of having to spend a lifetime with someone you still have to learn to love. There are no dignified exclamations about the power of love, except perhaps the proclamation that moving on and settling for are also valid love stories. Tarog gently shatters the myth of love with subtle sentiment. With his completed trilogy, he sends us back to Earth, armed not with illusions and aphrodisiacs but with grounding realities, as can only be seen and recorded through the unbiased lens of a camera.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, September 30, 2013

Puti (2013)

Puti (Mike Alcazaren, 2013)
English Title: White

At the center of Mike Alcazaren’s Puti (White) is Amir (Ian Veneracion), a counterfeit painter who leads a reclusive life with his son, Jaime (Bryan Pagala). His wife died a couple of years back. Other family members are abroad. His social interactions are limited to Nika (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), a young arts student who assists him in his forgeries in exchange for some lessons, and the art dealer (Leo Rialp) who peddles his replicas to wealthy collectors. Brooding and perpetually in a state of unkempt, Amir is a man resigned to his wasted fate.

There is little joy in his life. The craft that destiny has chosen for him forces him to view the expensive works he copies upside down. He admits to Nika that the method makes it easier for him to create his immaculate replicas. It helps him to see the artwork as just a myriad of assorted brushstrokes and colors. Money is not scarce. As long as he keeps his art dealer content with the satisfactory forgeries he makes, there will always be more work for him. The morality of his job is a non-issue. Given a career that never took off and a son to properly raise, there is hardly any room for guilt, or so he thinks.

Amir figures in a car accident with his son. He wakes up, unable to see color. His doctor calls his ailment achromatopsia. It only means he has become very sensitive to light. There is no comfort in the diagnosis. He has deliverables he owes his art agent, who pulled certain strings so he can get discounts for the medical treatment of his son, who is in a coma.

Stranger things happen. The blind woman he got as art subject prior to his accident has been appearing everywhere. Her woeful tale of her eyes being gouged out by her mother lingering. At work, birds fly out of nowhere. Paintings display images that previously were not there. At the hospital, a mysterious nurse (Lauren Young) repetitively reads a storybook to his unconscious son.

What Alcazaren accomplishes in Puti is to conjure horror out of the very specific world of art. The very premise, of a painter suddenly losing the capability to discern color, is enough a nightmare to anyone who relies on visual arts to exist. Alcazaren translates those specific terrors within cinematic boundaries, creating an atmosphere of both dread and disorientation.

Alcazaren manages to sustain the deliciously quiet madness he has carefully set up through protracted visuals that are just a critical sliver off from comfortable reality. It is that very fact that Puti takes that brave step out of normal logic and overrated reality that makes it so intriguing. Absent any allegiance to reason and armed with limitless imagination, Alcazaren manages to break away from the conventions of the genre he initially proposes Puti to be part of.

Puti unfortunately decides to fall into the trap of narrative convention, of needing to explain all the chaos. Even more unfortunate is how all the style and atmosphere that Alcazaren invested are conveniently betrayed by the ruinous need to cleanly wrap Amir’s tale with a dully moralistic stance on his illicit job. The nightmare literally becomes just a nightmare, and in the process, loses its charms. Everybody becomes happy, and everything else witnessed before its overwrought conclusion become nothing more than vulgar exhibition.

There is very little difference between an expressionist masterpiece and a regrettable failure. In this case, that difference is good taste. In its final few minutes, Alcazaren abandons the film’s perversions for good taste, and as a result and despite its numerous pleasures, Puti regrettably fails.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bingoleras (2013)

Bingoleras (Ron Bryant, 2013)

Ron Bryant’s Bingoleras is a comedy of scant pleasures and even scanter insights. Sure, the jokes are plenty. However, for a film that prefers to abandon reason and logic for an overflowing stream of supposedly funny skits and sketches, it lacks any real wit. Early Almodovar is an obvious inspiration as several of Bryant’s gags rely on sexual antics, as observed from Catholic eyes. He indulges in the sudden raunchy relationship of Mimi (Charee Pineda), dressed in a nun’s habit, and Dodong (Junjun Quintana), the helper of the parish church, milking the irreverent repercussions of their very unique affair for everything its worth. Also targeted for laughs is the broken marriage of Jean (Eula Valdez), a lesbian socialite and Wally (Art Acuna), gay lawyer, with their romps with their respective same-sex partners becoming the rare highlights of Bryant’s attempt at being both funny and sensual.

Bryant confuses. His material is clearly absurd, with characters ending up in situations with just a sliver of logical explanation. However, there is restraint in the presentation. There is an overabundance of good taste, from how the entire film is shot and lighted, the decisions in music, to the obvious inability to push the envelope in depicting sexual urges. A dull failed comedy is bearable. At most, it is just a waste of time. However, a failed comedy borne out of the lack of any sensitivity is unforgiveable. It purports to be progressive with its misguided stabs at norms and conventions. Sadly, absent a believable perspective or intent, the film overindulges in its rabid caricatures, making it seem that the entire point of its blunt slapstick is shallow hilarity.

Bryant populates Bingoleras with women of token motivations. Dang (Max Eigenmann), the mastermind of the sham bingo games, simply wants to be reunited with her daughter in the United States, forcing her to earn money through unscrupulous means. Mimi, her assistant whose past in the novitiate makes her a semi-effective fake nun, dreams of love and a more comfortable future. Jean is stuck in a loveless marriage, satisfied only by Rona (Liza Dino), a cop. Bonay (Hazel Orencio) and Pinang (Mercedes Cabral) are single mothers who have been toughened by their sorry lots in life. They also loathe each other.

Instead of granting the characters with some semblance of dignity or humanity, Bryant places them in unrealistic situations, turning them into mere butts of his haphazard jokes. There is simply no room for sensitivity, no space for characterization. In the end, the characters are only memorable because of the misfortunate stereotype they represent or because of the outrageous sketch they were part of. What little connection between the characters and the rest of humanity is brought by the actresses who play them with an excitement that is woefully missing from the rest of the picture.

It is really unfortunate. The very fact that Bingoleras tackles the sudden connections between diversely motivated women gives it an opportunity to be more scathing or informative in its exploration of various women’s issues. In the hands of Bryant, everything seems false, everything seems to be a convenient attempt to portray women as strong and independent, but still within the perspective of a dominant male. Thus, the film’s supposedly progressive commentaries are all elementary, lacking any refreshing argument in feminist discourse. At this point, what Bingoleras offers are just the six odd women to laugh at, and nothing else.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Otso (2013)

Otso (Elwood Perez, 2013)

Various colorful images of Manila open Otso, Elwood Perez's first film since Lupe: A Seaman's Wife and Ssshhh... She Walks by Night ten years ago. Lex (Vince Tanada), a returning Filipino writer who is commissioned by a director to draft a script for an upcoming independent project, gives perspective to the seemingly unconnected displays of Manila's sights. Nothing has changed. The truths of the Manila that he grew up in are still the same truths that Manila grapples with. After a tour of the unchanging metropolis, Lex moves into his home for the next few months, a remarkable apartment building owned by Anita Linda, a local screen goddess. Otso suddenly switches to stark monochrome.

Otso is perhaps Perez's most impenetrable film. Perez, however, has always demonstrated a flair for experimentation, to break traditional narratives with illogical and unexpected turns. Waikiki (1980), a sordid melodrama about a mother attempting to reunite with her daughters who grew up in Hawaii, is laced with full sequences of actresses gyrating to hypnotic beats and suggestive chanting. In Silip (1985), regarded as Perez's most famous film after being distributed in foreign markets under the title Daughters of Eve precisely because of its outrageous content, he manages to induce titillation within the perspective of sex that exists under very Catholic clutches. Whether fuelled by Perez's actual creative impulses or just fits of adventurism, the films he makes have an energy that arouses curiosity, at the very least.

Otso seems to be beyond comprehension. It's a myriad of perplexing images and incongruent atmospheres. At the center of the chaos is one compelling artifact from several decades ago: Lex's apartment building. It simply could have belonged to another dimension, one that is unrestricted by real world reason and logic. Its narrow corridors are littered with stories and sleaze. Its cramped units are airtight boxes brimming with secrets. It has a solitary lift, a contraption from a forgotten era that is good enough to transport fragile Anita Linda into her private roost where she keeps an eye on each and every one of her tenants.

The building manager (Vangie Labalan), an old maid who busies herself campaigning for her political candidate, becomes impossibly infatuated with Lex. Lex, on the other hand, fancies Sabina (Monique Azerreda), the mysterious woman who is either the mistress of an incumbent congressman or the doting granddaughter of Alice Lake. Sabina may also be having an affair with Hans (Jordan Ladra), one of Lex's neighbors whose wife is severely ill, leaving their son (Gabby Bautista) to become Lex's constant companion. Elsewhere, a pimp and his hookers attempt to stage one of Jose Rizal's famous stories, and politically-motivated goons are on a rampage for votes.

Perez's motivations are defiantly unclear. There are traces of noir, of Lex's guileless writer stumbling towards a web of crime and politics. Then he steps out of the stereotypical gloom, and starts playing peeping tom, indulging in the imagined escapades of his neighbors. Madness ensues. The film escapes conventional reason, and just becomes a series of scenes tied together by a figment of an idea. It transforms with every twist it takes, never really cohering. At one point, it arrives at the climax of a mystery it so vividly paints, before abandoning all that to become an unhinged tribute to the great Anita Linda.

By its very end, Otso never really succeeds at being anything except a nagging riddle, one that begs to be solved despite the scarcity for any real answers. The film's belated revelations, coupled with what could be purposeful haphazard filmmaking and histrionic acting, point towards a message of caution from the maverick filmmaker about being drunk with too much freedom, too much truth, too much fantasy, and too much cinema. In a building where Anita Linda lords over desperate writers, amateur performers, prostitutes, and political lackeys, it is that sober grey area between cinematic fantasy and reality in which the ancient actress so comfortably lives in that is the unwonted cure to life's infectious confusion.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, September 06, 2013

On the Job (2013)

On the Job (Erik Matti, 2013)

In one scene in Erik Matti’s On the Job, Francis Coronel (Piolo Pascual), an investigator who is close to uncovering an assassination ring within the higher echelons of the Philippine government, confronts Pacheco (Leo Martinez), the retired general-turned-politician ringleader. Coronel, with a swagger reminiscent of those imperfect cops on the verge of a bloody redemption that populate the cinema of John Woo and Johnnie To, readies his handgun, oblivious to the fact that he is clearly outnumbered. There is only one of him, and Pacheco has several armed bodyguards. Pacheco, played by Martinez with the alluring charms of a villainous mastermind, lectures Coronel about learning the ropes of corruption and the timeliness of revenge, effectively talking him out of his fatalist plans, thwarting what could have been an impressive gunfight. Without a single bullet let loose, Pacheco walks away, alive and victorious. Coronel remains the jaded hero, wounded not by gunshots by his acknowledgment that he is absolutely powerless against a force of corruption so blatant that there is no more need for subtlety.

Matti’s far-reaching foray into the unchanging state of Philippine corruption is nestled not in the distant but expository tradition that drew for filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza and Jeffrey Jeturian a certain level of acclaim. Matti intelligently pulls away from Brocka’s social realism, leaving the style and purpose to the many Filipino filmmakers who mix their cinema with some level of journalistic purpose. Matti is clearly an entertainer. On the Job is thoroughly enjoyable, replete with scenes and sequences that are precisely conjured to thrill and excite. Underneath the numerous pleasures it generously serves however is an unflinching observation, aptly pessimistic and bleak, of a society that has become oblivious of the decay that has invaded the lowest of its lows and the highest of its highs.

On the Job tells the stories of several players in an elaborate scheme that enunciates the very rotten core of a government that seems to thrive in crime and intrigue. Coronel, an honest investigator who unknowingly marries into a political family with shady connections, ends up with a murder case file conveniently snatched Joaquin Acosta (Joey Marquez), a low-ranking cop who has been slaving on the case and other similar cases for years, with the help of his influential father-in-law. The perpetrators of the murder, Tatang (Joel Torre) and his overeager trainee Daniel (Gerald Anderson), are prisoners whisked away from their cells every time a target needs to be disposed of. Between Coronel and Tatang are various other personalities, loved ones and protectors, all of whom enlarge the risks and stakes.

The screenplay is written by Matti with Michiko Yamamoto, who penned Maryo J. de los Reyes’ Magnifico (2003) and Aureaus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005), all of which are films whose underlying observations on society’s ills are masked in their endearing depictions of humanity’s goodness. On the Job is similarly situated, carrying characters whose moral troubles are only reflective of their insistence on being humans despite a society that dehumanizes them. Tatang is only led to become an assassin due to that glimmer of hope he sees in his wife (Angel Aquino) and daughter (Empress), a hardworking law student. Daniel has an abruptly terminated romance to revive through the earnings and erstwhile freedom provided by his clandestine profession. Coronel, stuck in the middle of a war between good and evil, is guided by the virtues of a father who died a hero. Acosta diverts his attentions from his failed family to his unrewarded work as a police officer. Matti and Yamamoto’s characters are amply motivated. They never resemble soulless symbols, and are instead living and breathing characters driven by believable principles and aspirations.

Matti’s recent films feel like reactions towards trends in Philippine cinema. When the mainstream has caught up with Japanese-style horror, Matti release Pa-siyam (2004), a stylized ghost story that takes the best of the horror trend and properly situates it within a distinctly Philippine setting without being too obscure. When inane fantasies became popular after the successes of Peter Jackson in filming J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy, Matti teamed up with a local theme park to mount Exodus: Tales from the Enchanted Kingdom (2005), a flawed but ambitious display of Matti’s ability to create spectacle. The increase of films being made outside Manila resulted in The Arrival (2009), his personal ode to hometowns. Rigodon (2012) is Matti’s more sober and more morally complex reply to the slew of films that unduly glamorized marital infidelity.

On the Job seems to be Matti’s defiant contribution to the on-going debate between the Philippines’ commercial and artistic cinemas. With the film, he marries the merits of the two seemingly opposing camps, infusing his sharp social commentaries within a style and aesthetic that suit more mainstream intentions. Evidently, Matti’s risks have paid off. His tireless crusade in developing a filmmaking culture that equally values content and craftsmanship has finally culminated in a piece of work that douses all the doubts and suspicions hounding both sides of the tired debate. On the Job is not satisfied in what pundits consider a safe and viable middle-ground. It opts to simply just move forward, always consistent to an aesthetic that is both true to the filmmaker and not manufactured simply to please a market.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Quick Change (2013)

Quick Change (Eduardo Roy, Jr., 2013)

Dorina (Mimi Juareza) is a retired entertainer who now plies the streets offering her cheap, quick cosmetic fixes to other transgendered men. Lacking any medical experience, she is nonetheless "doc" to her grateful patients, whose faces are sculpted to look like the glittering faces of popular local celebrities. Her patients then don extravagant and colorful costumes, sashaying on makeshift stages, pretending to be beauty queens with their plastered smiles and generic retorts. At night, Dorina satisfies her boyfriend (Junjun Quintana), a performer in a pageant show that caters to foreign tourists. She then starts to satisfy herself discretely lest she incur the wrath of a boyfriend who prefers not to be reminded of her persisting masculinity.

Eduardo Roy, Jr.'s Quick Change is all about facades. It obsessively dissects the culture of transsexual women, their infatuation with youth and beauty. Seemingly aimless in its meanderings in between the redundant struggles of its fading protagonist, the film attempts to sensitively shed light on the ills of a specific repressed subculture, those that have been masked excessively with thick make-up and fake collagen.

Roy's challenge is obviously enormous. He has chosen to tackle subjects that have often been marginalized or exoticized. Roy attempts to dodge the traps, freeing himself from focusing on the usual themes of discrimination which gives him the opportunity to observe his subjects' conflicts in identity, how they struggle in between being male and female, being religious and morally compromised.

Although Roy would sometimes indulges in the humor that has been stereotyped as part and parcel of what makes transsexuals so irresistible to Philippine popular media, he would nevertheless depict them not as oppressed individuals, but as individuals who have found a certain niche that they have become comfortable to live in. Roy mostly succeeds in his endeavors, betrayed only by the need to frame his grand intentions within a narrative that only attempts a certain degree of subtlety to its obvious didactics.

Roy missteps when, midway, he shifts his focus from his transsexual muses to the actual crime of conducting clandestine cosmetic operations. Quick Change deflates into something quasi-noir, propelled mostly by Roy's compelling depictions of the horrors of makeshift cosmetic surgery than by its advocacy or its narrative force. Thankfully, the film is consistently visually fascinating, with Roy and cinematographer Dan Villegas creating morbid and ominous images out of the plain and banal.

Much of the film's perceptive style is reminiscent of Bahay Bata (Baby Factory, 2011), Roy's impressive debut about several mothers overcoming the inhumanity of giving birth in a crowded government-run maternity hospital. As in Bahay Bata, Roy, for the most part, fashions himself as a passive observer of Dorina, following her as she flies from one cheap hotel room to another to conduct her dubious cosmetic operations. He then exposes Dorina's cornered morality, constantly being splintered by both an economic necessity and her community's insistence on being defined in terms of outward appearances more than anything else. 

Avoiding labeling Dorina in terms of good or bad, black or white, Roy conceives a society for Dorina where morality has been rendered obsolete by its impracticality. After all, in a world where consumerism is god and those who are incapable of paying make do with what they have, morality can never pay for food or more prominent cheekbones.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Transit (2013)

Transit (Hannah Espia, 2013)

Hannah Espia’s Transit deals with the struggles of an extended Filipino family living and working in Tel Aviv after the Israeli government passed a law forcing children of overseas workers who are below five years old to be deported back to their homelands.

Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez), who has lived all his life in Israel, is a few months shy of his fifth birthday. Moises (Ping Medina), Joshua’s father, aware of the risk of his son being deported if caught, keeps Joshua indoors. Janet (Irma Adlawan), Moises’ sister, takes care of Joshua while Moises is out to work as a caretaker for a wealthy retiree. She also has to manage Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), her teenage daughter from an Israeli former flame who now has to grapple with neither being Filipino nor Israeli. Tina (Mercedes Cabral), freshly plucked from the Philippines and assisted by Janet to her new life as an overseas worker, witnesses a family that is in fear of being suddenly uprooted from a foreign land that they have decided to call their home.

Transit is a marvel of restraint and control. Embellished sparingly with visuals that are never too extravagant, too opulent to distract, the film is painted with delicate colors, which complements the fragile situations the characters move in.

Opening with an image of Joshua in an airport, his small frame backdropped against giants of airplanes landing from and departing to all corners of the globe, the film seems to mediate expectations, revealing the modesty of its story against a world of bigger problems. In truth, the story that Espia explores is one that seems too removed, too remote to be of moment. However, what Espia manages to do is tremendous. By dissecting the issues arising from a very specific troubled group, she navigates the blurring of cultural and national identities of individuals who are caught trapped between two countries.

The word diaspora was first used in the Bible to refer to the exile of Jews from their homeland by invading conquerors. Espia’s choice to tackle the Filipino diaspora in the land that first experienced renders some poetic effect, enunciating not the irony of the situation but the repetitions that seem to be the fate of all merging cultures. Transit is told from the various perspectives of its many characters, often repeating certain scenes to reveal facets that can only be depicted if seen through the eyes of the various participants. More than just a display of creative storytelling, the technique that Espia utilizes enunciates the necessity of understanding the contrasting motivations and interests, amplifying the emotional investment that pays off in the film’s subtle but moving conclusion.

The differences between the Filipinos and the country they adopt as their own but barely tolerates them are tremendous. Espia covers the extent of the difference, by chronicling a Philippines that seems to dissipate even more every year. Her scope is immense but she laudably concentrates on very palpable and very specific frustrations, heartaches, and triumphs, emotions that are shared by all of humanity.

Tina carries her homeland inside a worn luggage. She offers trinkets from home, packets of sour soup to remind her hosts of the Philippines they have not visited in decades. Janet and Moises speak both Filipino and Hebrew. They insist on their being Filipinos, forcing that dated idea of nationality to their children. Their children however reject the idea with reason. They do not speak Filipino, and have never been to the Philippines. Their only linkage to their parents’ homeland consists of bedtime stories repeatedly told to soothe their curiosity.

Espia paints a scenario where the characters are all confused, all tired from futilely maintaining illusions from a faraway motherland or struggling between two clashing alliances. Transit is a document of fractured identities, an essay that declares the very familiar concepts of citizenship and nationality as shallow facades that are maintained by laws and enforced by borders.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)