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.