Thursday, January 16, 2014

2013: Philippine Cinema

2012: Highlights in Philippine Cinema 

It was a year that was touted by excitable pundits as one of the best years for Philippine cinema at least in terms of quantity of quality films produced and released, even rivalling 1976, which saw the releases of Lino Brocka’s Insiang, Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God), Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon… Paano Kayo Ngayon? (This is How We Were, How Are You Doing Now?) and Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara’s Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo, or 1982, which brought to the world Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Miracle) and Relasyon (Relationship), Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral and Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death). As early as May, the year to be already exhibited promise with the announcement of Lav Diaz’s Norte: Hannganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte: The End of History), Adolfo Alix’s Death March and Erik Matti’s On the Job as part of the prestigious film festival in Cannes, whose programming choices would raise expectations for either quality or extreme eccentricity. It only got better. By the end of 2013, there were so many films to rave about, all different from each other in terms of style, theme and intention. The pundits are correct.

It was also a year that saw the birth of more local film festivals, whose modus operandi is drawn from the successes of Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals. Cinefilipino, a partnership between an emerging television network and a struggling film studio, produced a handful of interesting films, most of which come from new talents. Mike Alcazaren’s Puti (White) is cool and quiet, a very fine spectacle until it unravels itself as a morality play. Randolph Longjas’ Ang Turkey Man ay Pabo Din is a hilarious look at cross-cultural marriages. Sigrid Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Anita's Last Cha-Cha) tackles very serious issues from the wide-eyed perspective of a young girl blossoming into her own sexuality. Sari and Kiri Dalena’s The Guerilla is a Poet, about the life of Communist Party of the Philippines founder Joma Sison, is best seen outside the politics it shrouds itself with. As a love letter to a man admired with such an intense passion, the film bursts with palpable earnestness, which is strange for biopics that adorn their subjects with cinematic expletives.

Quezon City, self-proclaimed City of the Stars, has finally put up their own film festival, financing the production and post-production of three films, Alvin Yapan’s Gaydar, Joel Ferrer’s Hello, World and John Torres’ Lukas Nino (Lukas the Strange). Unfortunately, Gaydar, about a woman who always falls for guys who turn out to be gay, is evidently a product from a very tired and spent director. Ferrer’s Hello, World, about a teenager who is off to spend his remaining days in the Philippines before migrating to America with his buds, on the other hand, is fresh and funny whose only problem is that its outrageous humor seems to have overtaken its heart. Lukas Nino, about a young boy who discovers his father is a half-man half-horse mythical creature, is a marvel, marrying Torres’ very personal aesthetic with the bygone cinema he evokes nostalgia for.

The Film Development Council of the Philippines, on the other hand, produced several features directed filmmakers whose careers were birthed in the 70’s or 80’s continuing up to the present but have been inevitably denied to make the films they want to make because of market forces. The film festival, referred to by the government body as the “All-Masters Edition,” featured films that would showcase immense talents primed by decades of experience. Peque Gallaga’s Sonata, about a young boy’s unlikely friendship with a faded opera star, is charming at best, a mere shadow of the director’s more daring works. Mel Chionglo’s Lauriana tells the story of a woman being victimized by her abusive lover with such exhausting and needless exuberance. Joel Lamangan’s Lihis is woefully ridiculous, a promising script mired by a lack of directorial focus. Fortunately, three directors took responsibility over being referred to as masters. Jose Javier Reyes’ Ano ang Kulay ng Mga Nakalimutang Pangarap? (What are the Colors of Forgotten Dreams?) is heartfelt in its portrayal of an old helper discarded by the family she served for years. Elwood Perez’s Otso (Eight), about a scriptwriter who gets too involved with the residents of his erstwhile apartment building, is wonderfully beguiling in both its shortages and excesses. Chito Rono’s Badil, set in a remote town a few days before the elections, is tense, taut, and terrifying, despite the fact that its focus is just small-time electoral fraud.

Cinemalaya, on the other hand, continuously produces quality, if albeit conventional, fare. Jerrold Tarog’s Sana Dati (If Only), about a wedding videographer who is perhaps the quintessential film for moving on from trauma caused by abruptly terminated romantic relationships. Adolfo Alix’s Porno features various stories strung together by a mysterious and mystical force, astounds with its creation of atmosphere out of what is traditionally considered as lewd and depraved. Jeffrey Jeturian’s Ekstra (The Bit Player), about bit players working in popular soap operas, exposes the discomforting pecking order within the entertainment industry that supplies the country with cheap escapism.

The so-called New Breed directors offer more intriguing films. Hannah Espia’s extraordinary debut, Transit, exposes political inequity through the very intimate struggle of a Filipino family living and working in Israel. Alvin Yapan’s Debosyon (Devotion), a love story between a man and a forest spirit, is an exploration of a culture where folk paganism and Catholicism co-exist with surprising ease and comfort. Mikhail Red’s Rekorder is a study on a man consumed to self-alienation by an inherently violent society. Jason Paul Laxamana’s Babagwa (The Spider's Lair) is timely in its exploration of the ins and outs of online scamming through the equally exploitative and gullible minds of lowlife opportunists. Eduardo Roy, Jr.’s Quick Change, a follow-up to the exquisitely crafted Bahay Bata (Baby Factory), propels its viewers into the distinct desires and pains of transsexuals, humanizing and exoticizing them at the same time.

Cinema One Originals separates itself from the more popular and lauded Cinemalaya by producing features that dare to experiment. Arnel Mardoquio’s Ang Tigmo sa Aking Pagpauli (Riddles of My Homecoming) is a powerful and fluent expression of the indescribable woes of an island riddles by conflict. Whammy Alcazaren’s Islands tackles the juvenilia of loving through a work that takes the emotion through vast expanses of time and space. Keith Deligero’s Iskalawags graduates from being just a coming-of-age of its band of young rascals by narrating the story from the perspective of a sentimental adult, turning the film into an ode to childhood innocence. Siege Ledesma’s Shift exposes the call center generation’s struggle for identity by telling the story of a tomboy falling for her gay co-worker. Timmy Harn’s Ang Pagbabalat ng Ahas (Reptilia in Suburbia) wears all the trappings of a low-budet, made-for-quick-profit flick from the 90’s to dissect a film culture where the gaudy mainstream and the underground alternative give birth to the monsters that we have now. Jet Leyco’s Bukas na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na (Leave It For Tomorrow For Nights Has Fallen), a lyrical and fantabulous take on the abuses of the Marcos regime, is a potent indictment of institutional censorship.

Borgy Torre’s Kabisera, about a fisherman who discovers boxes of meth in the ocean, studies the nature of greed and ambition from the perspective of a dominating family man. Miko Livelo’s Blue Bustamante, about a father who takes in the role of Blue Force in a sentai show after being terminated from his engineering work, invests on a country’s collective nostalgia and earns back a lot of heartfelt tears and chuckles. Keith Sicat’s Woman in the Ruins situates its post-apocalyptic exploration of survivors clamoring for fertility in a story of a marriage struggling to strive within societal and religious expectations. Mes de Guzman’s Sitio, about a urbanized family settling in the boondocks, criticizes privileged perceptions and expectations. Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s Ang Alamat ni China Doll (The Legend of China Doll), written by Lav Diaz, dissects the nature of truth in a society that is so infatuated by it, it is willing to distort it for its own purposes.

Outside local festival grants, filmmakers still manage to thrive to make films and exhibit them. By documenting the relationship of a Filipino man and his German boyfriend, Baby Ruth Villarama’s Jazz in Love filters typical fantasies and prejudices out of homosexual romances. Yapan’s Mga Anino ng Kahapon (Shadows of the Past) is on its surface a by-the-books description of the progress of schizophrenia. Below the surface, it is a study of a schizophrenic nation, quick to abandon the memories of the abuses of a former cruel regime. Raya Martin’s La ultima pelicula, co-directed by Canadian film critic Mark Peranson, satirizes the film world’s obsession over the death of celluloid by following a fictional filmmaker making the last film on Earth. Less celebrated but personally more powerful is Martin’s How to Disappear Completely, a frequently troubling descent into the mind of a girl terrorized by parental authority, depicted alongside a school play that discusses a harrowing event during America’s colonization of the islands.

Lav Diaz’s Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan is a tremendous portrait of a country riddled by both physical and ideological torture. Set in a region in the Philippines made famous by political clans lording over the poor, the film sees the breakdown of two families, one by injustice caused by an unreliable legal system, and one by confusion caused by conscience interfering with political convictions.

As with previous years, the story remains the same. Several of the titles previously mentioned are bound to be more foreign than a lot of the foreign blockbusters to majority of Filipino viewers. While mainstream film studios have been experimenting with their products, creating worthwhile films like Cathy Garcia Molina’s It Takes a Man and a Woman, the third entry to the protracted love story of a rich man and an ordinary girl, and Four Sisters and a Wedding, about three sisters finding ways to stop their brother’s wedding, Chito Rono’s Boy Golden, a reimagining of 1960’s Manila as glitz-and-glamour stage for the sordid squabbles of upscale gangsters, Joyce Bernal’s 10,000 Hours, an actioner whose talk on Philippine politics is more thrilling than its shootouts and chases, Veronica Velasco’s Tuhog (Skewered), about three individuals skewered by fate and a deadly steel bar, and more notably Erik Matti’s On the Job, about political assassinations executed by prisoners, there still remains no market for more imaginative fare outside the festivals that either produced them or have decided to exhibit them.

The most glaring difference between 1976 or 1982 and 2013 is the fact that the masterpieces made then were seen and enjoyed by the movie-going public. Our recent masterpieces are and will be obscure to most. Efforts were done by filmmakers to make their films more accessible, employing huge television stars who are more than willing to test their mettle with more challenging roles that only alternative films can provide. Sadly, the story of Philippine cinema remains the same. It remains only festive during festivals. Celebrations remain within internet groups, and cliques. Outside the many news articles that proclaim the triumphs of Filipino films abroad, the rest of the Philippines will remain oblivious as to why 2013 was a great year for local cinema. The only consolation for the sad parting thought is that there is still 2014 to continue working on building that elusive audience that will make these Filipino films truly for Filipinos.

Top 20 Filipino Feature Films of 2013:

1) Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte: The End of History, Lav Diaz)
2) Lukas Nino (Lukas the Strange, John Torres)
3) How to Disappear Completely (Raya Martin)
4) Iskalawags (Keith Deligero)
5) On the Job (Erik Matti)
6) Ang Pagbabalat ng Ahas (Reptilia in Suburbia, Timmy Harn)
7) Bukas na Lang Sapagkat Gabi Na (Leave it for Tomorrow for Night has Fallen, Jet Leyco)
8) La Ultima Pelicula (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson)
9) Badil (Chito Rono)
10) Transit (Hannah Espia)
11) Ang Tigmo sa Aking Pagpauli (Riddles of My Homecoming, Arnel Mardoquio)
12) Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Anita's Last Cha-Cha, Sigrid Bernardo)
13) Porno (Adolfo Alix, Jr.)
14) Mga Anino ng Kahapon (Shadows of the Past, Alvin Yapan)
15) Sana Dati (If Only, Jerrold Tarog)
16) Debosyon (Devotion, Alvin Yapan)
17) Islands (Whammy Alcazaren)
18) Rekorder (Mikhail Red)
19) Babagwa (The Spider's Lair, Jason Paul Laxamana)
20) Ang Alamat ni China Doll (The Legend of China Doll, Adolfo Alix, Jr.)

(First published in Rappler)

Monday, January 06, 2014

Boy Golden (2013)

Boy Golden (Chito Roño, 2013)

Chito Roño's Boy Golden, the third of actor-turned-politician Jeorge "E.R. Ejercito" Estregan's yearly vanity projects, is a surprisingly offbeat actioner. A fictionalized take on the life of 1960's gang leader Arturo Porcuna, the film transforms Manila into a stage where upscale criminals dance to Elvis Presley's hits while gunning down rivals. The city, reeking of the country's infatuation with anything and everything American, has streets lined with the popping neon signs of various diners, hotels, and burlesque clubs that hide the stench of many opium dens, gambling halls, and bordellos that serve as cash cows for the metropolis' many gangs.

Estregan's Arturo Porcuna is sleek and sophisticated. Although driven to bloodlust by the need to avenge the rape and murder of his sister, he does not neglect style when committing his many murders. In the film's opening, he performs a boogie right before he massacres an entire bar full of tuxedoed thugs. He is not without a sense of humor, cracking jokes while torturing his prisoner for answers or sending his muscle-bound lackeys to sing Presley's "Hound Dog" barbershop style in front of battle-ready police officers. Much like the glitzy Manila that Roño meticulously recreated from a mixture of history and high imagination, his criminals, headlined by Porcuna, hide their illicit activities with glamour and high fashion.

Porcuna's morality is thankfully not an issue. Roño, and screenwriters Guelan Luarca and Catherine Camarillo, has crafted a world of organized lowlifes whose only redeeming factor is honor and loyalty. Even Razon (John Estrada), who controls much of Manila's criminal world and has masterminded the rape and murder of Porcuna's sister, is bound by honor, repaying the turncoats who betrayed Porcuna in favor of him with death instead of the promised monetary rewards. Boy Golden, like the dynamic Hong Kong triad films it borrows from, is shrouded in lawlessness and violence, humanized by a persisting acknowledgment of the virtues of dignity and fealty.

Freed from unnecessarily being depicted as a valorous hero, as opposed to Asiong Salonga of Tikoy Aguiluz's Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story (2011) or Emilio Aguinaldo of Mark Meily's El Presidente (2012), all of whom are shady characters from history forced to suspicious heroism for Estregan's political aspirations, Porcuna is depicted without the burden of being anything other than what he is, a common criminal. He talks of carnapping without regard to the law, tortures without flinching, and kills without remorse. Estregan inhabits the role with still a ton of vanity but at least absent the self-seriousness and self-importance that plagued his recent performances. Alongside KC Concepcion, who portrays Porcuna's vengeful love interest Marla D., with an astounding physicality and apt histrionics, Estregan rounds up the charismatic grotesquerie that makes Boy Golden such an enthralling spectacle.

Boy Golden is unabashed in its blatant pageantry. From Datu Putla (Baron Geisler), Razon's powder-faced sergeant, to Mr. Ho (Leo Martinez), a Chinese briber who predictably speaks in broken English while garbed in a traditional Chinese outfit, the film's characters, borne from a wild marriage between actual ingenuity and reprehensible stereotype, are but bizarre facades of the corruption they feed from. Draped in otherworldly reds, yellows, purples, and blues by cinematographer Carlo Mendoza, the film has a feel of being set in an alternate universe where commonplace logic is replaceable with mood and energy. Boy Golden may not be the most coherent film, but it is bursting with charm and identity, a feat that justly deserves recognition especially today when most action films are unfortunately made with less verve and just more starpower.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)