Tuesday, January 29, 2013

El Presidente (2012)

El Presidente (Mark Meily, 2012)

A lot has already been said and written about the historical inaccuracies of Mark Meily’s El Presidente, how the glamour project dastardly re-portrayed historical figures to suit enlarged egos and their enlarged pockets. Andres Bonifacio (played with a notable lack of charm by Cesar Montano), the founder of the Philippine revolution who was tragically killed by his fellowmen, is depicted as a severely sore loser. Antonio Luna (played, complete with gritting teeth, by Christopher de Leon), a top-ranking general of the revolutionary government who was murdered, is shown to be cruel, despotic and deserving of his embarrassing death as a matter of narrative logic. Emilio Aguinaldo (played with uncharacteristic and unbelievable nobility by Jorge Estregan), the titular president, reaps all the rewards of Meily’s unapologetic cinematic slander, coming out as an indisputable hero as sanctioned by the motherland herself.

In fairness to Meily, he is simply a writer-director shackled by the demands of producers. He has Aguinaldo’s autobiography, a tome written by the first president late in his life to wash away the sins that have been attributed to him, as blueprint for his screenplay. It is inevitable that the film birthed from the pages of an unabashedly biased account would be sided and slanted.

Meily’s biggest fault is not the fact that it portrays a version of history that is unpopular, but the glaring ineptitude he shapes such portrayal. El Presidente is not only awfully directed, it is also intrinsically confused, unable to determine what it wants to be or what it opts to focus on. The film needlessly details decades’ worth of information within an already overgenerous running time. Such unwise ambitiousness leads it to become unreasonably episodic and absolutely laborious to sit through.

Very telling of the film’s confusion is that it utilizes two introductions. El Presidente opens with an action-packed precursor to the narrative’s turning point, featuring Aguinaldo attempting to evade his eventual capture. After the end of the much-choreographed sequence, Meily proceeds to jump several years before, where Aguinaldo, in his youth, encounters a mysterious old woman who predicts his future in terms of the three women he will be in love with.

The two introductions preview Meily’s intentions with the film. They expose his goal of creating an action-packed historical film that is framed within a storyline that is supposedly laced with romance. The film in turn features plentiful battles, embellished with gunfights and explosions, some of which are played in inexplicable slow motion. Curiously absent is the romance. The women of Aguinaldo’s life are nothing more than decorations, two-dimensional characters that are propelled to the limelight by the sole fact that they are played by famous actresses. El Presidente is just indisputably dull. It is unable to muster enough movement or excitement to be a compelling war film. More importantly, it is sorely drab, unromantic and sexless.

Instead of creating a film that either convinces or creates debates, Meily only stirs emotions because its portrayals are all too easy and convenient for such controversial pronouncements. In the end, El Presidente is nothing more than an annoyance. It does not deserve a riot.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Ad Ignorantiam (2012)

Ad Ignorantiam (Armando Lao, 2012)

Armando Lao’s Ad Ignorantiam can be divided into three unequal parts. The first part, tediously shot real time, details one afternoon in a busy city intersection where a hapless victim (Ina Feleo) of snatching, and her friend (Kimmy Maclang) confusedly scour nearby nooks and alleyways for the snatcher. They end up accusing a man (Kristoffer King), who was at the wrong place in the wrong time, of the crime.

The second part, which serves to frame the first part within the structure of a court proceeding, displays an methodical and undramatic depiction of what happens inside courtrooms, where the frazzled characters, who are now litigants, of the first part are now joined by lawyers (Raquel Villavicencio and Allan Paule), a judge (Archie Adamos), and the overwrought procedure and decorum required in legal proceedings. The third part has a Supreme Court justice (Laurice Guillen) reciting the decision of the highest court on what seems to be an appeal from the decision of the court as depicted in the second part.

The three parts are arbitrarily weaved together, creating a disjointed narrative that attempts to expose the dangerous inadequacies of the Philippines’ criminal justice system. Lao experiments with moods and textures. The first part is shot enunciating the grit and agitation of the frenzied and stressed participants of that afternoon’s unfortunate incident. The second part is handled with marked sobriety in comparison to the first part’s lack of restraint. Its additional parties, the judge and the lawyers, are depicted with emotionless professionalism, remarkably removed from the litigants’ heightened vulnerability in the first part.

The last part is framed and shot with a hint of sarcasm and irreverence. The litigants have completely disappeared, replaced within a static frame by a mighty magistrate who is reciting her final judgment with an omnipotence that is oblivious to probable truths and personal plights. Lao treads a distance, beginning with the suffocating intimacy of the streets towards the callous and stoic resolve of so-called justice. It emphasizes how much of the humanity, of the compassion, of the truth has been lost to jargon and procedure as the criminal case is passed from one forum to another.

Lao’s experiment is intellectually stimulating, at best. Like a puzzle that takes extreme patience to solve, Ad Ignorantiam is more a chore than anything else. The rewards it promises are however inadequate. It is emotionally impoverished, lacking the anger or desperation to convert its noble goals from a mere artistic springboard into potent advocacy. It exists merely as an inert showcase of a third world inefficiency and its dramatic consequences. Despite the gravity of the issue it decides to tackle, it struggles to be pertinent because it busies itself with its style and technique, no matter how noxious they are to the senses, than actual substance.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, January 04, 2013

Indelible Memories from 2012

Indelible Memories from 2012
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

There isn’t any other year in Philippine cinema where the aroma of death is as apparent and overwhelming as 2012. The year saw the untimely demise of four of the country’s film pioneers: Mario O’Hara, an amazing actor, writer, and director whose frequent collaborations with National Artist Lino Brocka are eclipsed by his very own masterworks; Marilou Diaz-Abaya, one of the country’s most beloved directors whose respect for the power of cinema manifested in her very tasteful and mannered works; Celso Ad Castillo, whose unique genius and madness reflected in the many timeless masterpieces he directed; and Dolphy, who gave several generations of Filipinos the ability to surpass life’s difficulties with laughter.

The year’s more notable independent productions also deal with death: Jun Lana’s Bwakaw, the country’s hope for the very elusive Oscar trophy, has an old gay man suffering through the unremarkable last years of his life; Dwein Baltazar’s Mamay Umeng, a striking debut, exposes ennui in a geriatric’s patient wait to cross-over to the afterlife; Loy Arcenas’ REquieme, the theater director’s follow-up to the lovely Nino, has tales of mortality humorously intertwine by fate; Emmanuel Palo’s Sta. Nina has a once dormant town burst with life when a father uncovers the incorruptible corpse of his daughter who died several years ago; Mes de Guzman’s Diablo literally has the shadow of death, or some other entity, lingering over a lonely mother.

The year’s more prominent documentaries tackle the same subject: Michael Collins’ Give Up Tomorrow has then death row convict Paco Larranaga ponder over his own mortality amidst the threat of being executed over a crime he supposedly did not commit; Benito Bautista’s Harana laments the dying art of serenade; Jay Abello’s Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar laments the impending death of a national industry and an island’s extravagant way of life.

This gnawing awareness of mortality seems to be a repercussion of this year’s much-ballyhooed doomsday. However, the country’s more prominent commercial studios, the unashamed peddlers of fairy tales and fantasies, seem unfazed by the world’s impending end, churning out films that are nothing more than temporary alleviations to the world’s pressing concerns. Their rom-coms remain predictably breezy, tweaking only certain aspects of the formula to feign edginess. Their comedies remain predictably brazen, primarily reliant on cruel wit and dull craftsmanship. Their horrors remain predictably brooding, taking each and every opportunity to shock with tricks and noises because true horror takes too much time and creativity to conjure. Then there is that rising subgenre of infidelity films like Erik Matti’s Rigodon, Olivia’s Lamasan’s The Mistress and Nuel Naval’s A Secret Affair that allow each and every bored wife and horny husband to vicariously experience through the fake stories played out by exaggeratedly attractive stars the thrills and chills of an extra-marital affair.

Despite the stubborn and fatalistic mood of this cinematic year, it is still a year marked with painful revelations, beautiful reunions and admirable persistence. It is a year that had Cinemalaya shaken and the myth of its humble grant and immense prestige challenged. It is also the year that had the long-absent Nora Aunor acting for film again and reaping accolades as a result. It is the year that had the government’s film agency try its hand in grant-giving and film-producing, had local government units take a stab in investing in the filmic arts, and ordinary film enthusiasts take an active role in filmmaking by contributing in various kickstarter campaigns.

I don’t think it is death that marks this year in Philippine cinema. It is memory. It is resilience. It is struggle. We remember the past and our fallen heroes. Film festivals like Cinemalaya and filmmakers like Emerson Reyes succeed despite adversity. Filipino cinema is as vibrant as ever. In the most indelible image from Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo CTE, one of the best films from this year, we see a woman who is afflicted with a disease that makes it hard for her to remember painfully reciting her name, her situation, her story. This year, Philippine cinema is that poor woman, struggling to tell its story, so it won’t be forgotten, not even after the end of the world.

(A shortened version was first published in Rogue, December issue as "A Year of Local Cinema.")

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

2012: Philippine Cinema

2012: Highlights in Philippine Cinema 

It was a year marked by struggles. 2012 saw many independently-produced films compete at the local box office, away from the captive audience of the many film festivals that either gave birth to them or granted them a screening. Lawrence Fajardo’s Posas (Shackled), Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala (What Isn’t There), Brillante Mendoza’s Captive, were only a few of those films that had their supporters storming Facebook and Twitter, begging everybody to give the films a chance at commerce. The audience simply wasn’t there. They weren’t falling in line, purchasing tickets, and spreading the word. Perhaps they were too busy watching trailers of the latest entry to the various Hollywood franchises, too addicted to the inanities of the local mainstream, too indifferent to care.

It was a year when Philippine cinema was attached to charity. Watch Chris Martinez’s I Do Bidoo Bidoo, Jun Lana’s Bwakaw, Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, and Brillante Mendoza’s Sinapupunan (Thy Womb) to show you care for the ailing film industry. If money is the sole barometer for the industry’s life, then let it die, I say. It’s about time we separate cinema from the industry that has been declared ailing since we allowed capitalists to have the final say on its condition. From the perspective of an observer who is ignorant of the dirty mechanics of the filmmaking industry except the merits of its various products, money is but a nagging hindrance, an obstacle to noble artistic ends.

However, capital is still a reality that needs to be addressed. It has been the cause of various conflicts of 2012. The very definition of the capital grant of Cinemalaya was questioned when the artistic integrity of Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 was threatened by the film festivals’ leaders who were only protecting the integrity of their so-called investment. Reyes successfully gave birth to his first film, not by surrendering his vision, but with the help of monetary and creative contributions from both strangers and friends. A number of other films were made with a similar approach, cognizant of the monetary requirements of filmmaking but never too beholden to it to make profit-making an immediate goal.

The best films of 2012 are characterized not by how much money they have earned or how many people have seen them but by the qualities they have that persist to exist despite the lack of money in their making, the lack of desire to make money, or the eventual lack of moneymaking attributes. Joyce Bernal’s Of All the Things is made from the same mold from which majority of the romantic comedies that pollute local cinema with unoriginality and banality are fashioned from. What sets Of All the Things apart from the rest is that it resembles more the old-fashioned romances that Bernal used to make than the ones made recently. Bernal manages to inject the film with a milieu, and make use of her actors’ off-screen personalities, the very fact that Aga Muhlach and Regine Velasquez are way past the age of being crazy in love, to benefit the film.

Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala is clearly a product of a very specific experience, one that belongs exclusively to a social class where conflicts arising from the lack of economic capability are exchanged with conflicts arising from the lack of identity. It is that quality of the film that made it extremely accessible to some and reproachable for others. Gino Santos’ The Animals comes from the same experience. While Jamora seems to be entirely comfortable with its cliquish sheen, Santos approaches it with some sort of rebellious cynicism that makes his film viscerally disturbing.

Lana’s Bwakaw is perhaps the most celebrated film on old age, considering that it was a few inches away from nabbing a slot in the Oscars best foreign film race. However, the film, despite its praiseworthy pacing and acting from Eddie Garcia, is predictably bathed in the same sentimentality that is showered to the elderly. Dwein Baltazar’s Mamay Umeng, on the other hand, makes that difficult decision to be simply about waiting. Its storytelling is amazingly measured, providing only enough to satisfy its feature length status without overreaching to be more than what it should be. Mes de Guzman’s Diablo is also leisurely in its pacing its story of an old woman who has been left alone by her boys who have become too busy fighting over their inheritance. De Guzman withholds drama and instead aptly likens the experience of the elderly to an atmospheric horror film.

Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Kalayaan (Wildlife) is also about waiting. More than waiting, it is also about man’s need to interact and relate lest he fall into self-abuse. Alix, without declaring it, touches on myths, on politics, on the larger things that affect individuals. Vincent Sandoval’s Aparisyon (Apparition) is set in a period of political turmoil, in a convent that attempts to shield itself from being penetrated by outside forces. Sandoval however valiantly focuses not on the footnote in history he has imagined and efficiently created but on the grays of morality the religious are faced with. Brillante Mendoza’s Sinapupunan has both nature and culture on the spotlight. What permeates however is the humanity of people who are fated to live ironic lives. Arnel Mardoquio’s Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (A Star’s Journey into the Dark Night) is perhaps the most honest depiction of the war in Mindanao, with perpetrators and victims trapped in a world of confusion.

Despite its many apparent imperfections, Christian Linaban’s Aberya is that kind of film that is too audacious to be ignored. It is visually and aurally dynamic, providing its four unequal parts irresistible verve. However, Pam Miras’ Pascalina, with its uniquely pixelated visuals, excites the current independent cinematic landscape that has become too concerned with fake gloss and abundance of pixels to have an authentic soul. Miras’ first feature film is full of soul, reimagining the overused aswang myth into an accurate observation of a woman whose humdrum urban life is as lo-fi as the visuals used to depict her story.

Jungle Love is perhaps Sherad Sanchez’s most accessible feature. Its loosely told story of individuals getting lost in the jungle is spiced up by its frank portrayals of longing and lust. Surprisingly, Sanchez’s unapologetic indulgences fit perfectly into his milieu of the strange and the unknown. Exploration has never been this pleasurable.

Gym Lumbera’s two experimental features, Taglish and Anak Araw (Albino), are as different from each other as night and day. Taglish is clearer in its purpose, the way it dissects colonialism through its most apparent symptom: language. By visualizing the corrupting state of the national tongue, Lumbera opens up his personal fears, since he himself is a product of that national duality. Anak Araw treads the same observation, but this time, with more visual wit, and surprisingly, a sizable dose of humor. Its intentions are also more elegantly laid out, paced as if it were a dream where vivid memories of rural life and Tagalog songs sung with American accents are weaved together with figments of remarkable poetic sense.

Michael Collins’ Give Up Tomorrow is often criticized because Marty Syjuco, the documentary’s producer, is a relative of Paco Larranaga, the documentary’s subject. I disagree. The disclosed relationship between the makers and the subject instead gives the documentary urgency and emotional energy, which then turned the documentary into one of the most important films of the year. The same urgency infects Jay Abello’s Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar while taking a look at the inevitable connection between the province’s sugar industry and dying aristocracy from a perspective of one of its participants. Benito Bautista’s Harana is a well-crafted ode to a musical and romantic tradition that is fated to die as soon as its practitioners have passed on.

Lav Diaz’s Pagsisiyasat sa Gabing Ayaw Lumimot (An Investigation on the Night that Won’t Forget) has Erwin Romulo, the late Alexis Tioseco’s best friend, recall the events after the critic and his girlfriend’s untimely death in their home in Quezon City. Diaz makes use of one long take to allow Romulo an uninterrupted narration of the events. The pain of recalling is palpable. Romulo is transformed into a classic Diaz protagonist, a man who is continuously burdened by the grave injustices of society. Like Romulo, Florentina, played beautifully by Hazel Orencio, struggles to recall, her name, her life, her history. She gazes into Diaz’s camera in the hopes that cinema can save her.

It is that single scene in Diaz’s Florentino Hubaldo, CTE that summarizes what cinema should be. It is not about the amount of money that would keep Philippine cinema, or at least the business aspect of it, surviving. It will continue to survive, as evidenced by the millions of pesos, padded or not, that have been reported as profit from the junkfood the Philippines eagerly devour. The question is who is in it and who has been eased out. I frankly don’t care. Perhaps those who have been eased out from the industry can do something better and start making real cinema, not merely products that pander to the country’s collective ignorance.

Top 20 Feature Films of 2012:

1. Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (Lav Diaz)
2. Give Up Tomorrow (Michael Collins)
3. Pagsisiyasat sa Gabing Ayaw Lumimot (An Investigation on the Night that Won't Forget, Lav Diaz)
4. Jungle Love (Sherad Anthony Sanchez)
5. Anak Araw (Albino, Gym Lumbera)
6. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (A Star’s Journey into the Dark Night, Arnel Mardoquio)
7. Pascalina (Pam Miras)
8. Kalayaan (Wild Life, Adolfo Alix, Jr.)
9. Sinapupunan (Thy Womb, Brillante Mendoza)
10. Aparisyon (Apparition, Vincent Sandoval)
11. Harana (Benito Bautista)
12. MNL 143 (Emerson Reyes)
13. Diablo (Mes de Guzman)
14. Mamay Umeng (Dwein Baltazar)
15. Aberya (Christian Linaban)
16. Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar (Jay Abello)
17. Taglish (Gym Lumbera)
18. The Animals (Gino Santos)
19. Ang Nawawala (What Isn’t There, Marie Jamora)
20. Of All the Things (Joyce Bernal)

(Cross-published in ABS-CBNNews.com)