Friday, February 28, 2014

ABNKKBSNPLAko?! the Movie (2014)

Mark Meily's ABNKKBSNPLAko?! the Movie: Fun Overtaking Depth

The pleasures of Bob Ong’s ABNKKBSNPlako?! are not hinged on its generic plot but on its unabashed appreciation of all things close to being forgotten from decades past. While the book namedrops various references to 80’s and 90’s pop culture to tickle its readers’ fancies, what really makes Ong’s first published work so memorable is its depiction of what seems to be a shared attitude towards a recent past. Sure, the book does rely on shallow nostalgia, but at least it does so with such colloquial flair that it is almost impossible not to get hooked into its

It is therefore not surprising that the book is eventually made into a movie. Directed by Mark Meily, the movie version approximates the book’s informal charms with a bit of visual inventiveness. Narrations are accompanied by quickly edited montages. Words of juvenile love letters pop out from the paper with mock elegance. Meily has quite a bag of tricks here, and he’s definitely not scrimping.

Nostalgia is much easier to translate. Meily, armed with the entire arsenal of copyrighted material of Viva at his disposal, has direct references to Maryo J. de los Reyes’ Bagets, the movie that best represents the youth of the 80’s, and Sharon Cuneta’s wispy chirping of George Canseco’s High School Life, a song that is to become an anthem for all things slight and mushy about high school. ABNKKBSNPlako?I the Movie, at least for the part of transporting its viewers to a time when Maricel Soriano and William Martinez’s surprising relationship was the butt of gossip, is quite successful.

Where the movie falters is when it tries to find relevance to its protracted reminiscence. The heart of the film’s narrative seems to be Bob Ong, played during his grade school days by Adrian Cabido and from high school to present by Jericho Rosales who does his best in a role that feels more like a caricature than a challenge, and his on and off love affair with his Special Someone, played by an unsatisfyingly static Andi Eigenmann. Their romance, depicted by Meily with obvious slightness, is tenuous at best and is very hard to root for. Considering that Bob Ong’s relationship with his two best friends, played ably by Vandolph Quizon and Meg Imperial, is given more weight, the romantic angle feels off-tangent and unnecessary.

The movie also attempts to touch on things more pertinent than long-standing crushes. Bob Ong’s journey from an ordinary grade-schooler to a high school teacher is one riddled with challenges that supposedly touch on or replicate experiences that are shared by most Filipinos. There is Bob Ong’s long-suffering mother, played wonderfully by Bing Pimentel, whose doting approach to her son’s heartaches and failures is quite touching. There is Bob Ong’s difficulty to finish college, which is the logical result of youthful uncertainty and emotional distress. There is Bob Ong’s qualms of attending his high school reunion as only a teacher with a paltry salary.

However, the movie’s insistence on evoking certain life lessons is overtaken by visual gimmickry and an overreliance on throwbacks to the past. Meily can never seem to balance nostalgia and depth. He instead throws everything into the mix and comes up with a product that confuses as much as it entertains.

The past few years have produced films that did what ABNKKBSNPLAko!? the Movie was intending to do but with better results. Aureaus Solito’s Pisay (Philippine Science, 2007), about a group of gifted high-schoolers in the Philippines’ national science school, mixes themes on young romance, ambition, defeat, and individuality in a package that is rift with humor and levity. Jerrold Tarog’s lovely Senior Year (2010), which also dealt with an underachiever returning to his high school, is less about nostalgia but about the fragility of growing up among friends and competitors in a school setting.

In the midst of the quality of what has been done before, Meily’s effort to mine on Bob Ong’s popular first book is unfortunately quite lacking in substance. It just severely pales in comparison, forcing it to make up for what it does not have with fun trivialities.

(First published in Rappler.)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mana (2014)

Mana (Gabriel Fernandez, 2014)
English Translation: Inheritance

Gabriel Fernandez’s Mana opens with complete darkness, which is accompanied by horrid sounds of pained wailing. The image of rustic mansion replaces the black screen. Drowning the incessant moaning are impassioned voices of several arguing adults, all brothers and sisters who are heirs of their dying mother. Instead of fighting tooth and nail over their inheritance, they seem to be ironically arguing their way out of it. What exactly is it that the siblings are to inherit from the dying Conchita Villareal that is threatening to break familial bonds? The answer to the question is the central conceit of Mana, one that would open for Fernandez an opportunity to explore his own native Negros and the island’s peculiar familial structures and attitudes.

Fernandez is not the first Negros filmmaker to dissect the Negros family through film. Peque Gallaga, in his World War II-set epic Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, 1982), has carefully laid down the excesses of the province’s many aristocratic families on the eve of their eventual despair. In the face of near nothingness and stark desperation, they bend and cling to an illusion of privilege their social class has imposed on them. Although it concerns a more modest family, Richard Somes’ Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008) criticizes the very concept of family by testing a patriarch’s resolute and fealty to his when his daughter arrives home a monster. Draped in genre conventions, Somes’ film utilizes local folklore to allude to more real horrors. Although their films are set far from their hometowns, Erik Matti and Borgy Torre, in Pa-Siyam (2004) and Kabisera (2013) respectively, have crafted genre works that also tackle the delicate threads that bind families.

Fernandez similarly clothes Mana with an atmosphere of mystery and waiting. Deliberately paced, embellished with a visual and aural design that is spare but effective, and delightfully unhinged, the film manages to balance its horror aspirations with what it tries to allude to. The film could have done away with some of the computer effects, which, while passable, is absolutely not really necessary.

Although it dabbles in the occult, Mana is still pretty much an ensemble piece. Fernandez thankfully understands this and has his film be carried from start to finish not by cheap shocks but by the fantastic performances of his cast. Fides Cuyugan-Asensio, who gives life to the ailing Conchita, is a continuous presence despite the very limited time that she is actually onscreen. She exudes the physical and emotional suffering that would push her sons and daughters to action despite the stakes. Cherie Gil exemplifies the desperate hesitation that consumes her character Sandra who returns to Negros from her many travels to provoke her siblings to decide quickly. Jaime Fabregas, Mark Gil, Ricky Davao, Tetchie Agbayani, Epy Quizen, all of whom play the remaining members of the Villareal clan, work together to enunciate the family dysfunction that seems to overshadow all other horrors.

Mana is far from perfect. It tends to linger longer than necessary. Its essential depictions of the supernatural are also compromised by an insistence on computer graphics instead of entrusting the same to the audience’s imagination. However, it is successful in reshaping centuries-old folklore into something that is relevant amidst more modern concerns.

(First published in

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tado Jimenez (1974-2014)

Tado Jimenez, the Off-Beat Hero

February 7, at around 7:20 in the morning, a Bontoc-bound bus fell off a ravine, immediately killing fourteen passengers. One of the fourteen victims of corporate negligence and bureaucratic incompetence is Arvin Jimenez, more popularly known as a comedian with such the unforgettable nickname of Tado.

Tado is a lot of things to the people he has had an effect on. He was one-third of the inimitable cast of Strange Brew, the pioneering indie TV show that would be fondly remembered for the eccentric humor that was during its time was novel. He has acted in several movies, including Lav Diaz’s Hesus Rebolusyonaro (Hesus the Revolutionary, 2002), Yam Laranas’ Radyo (Radio, 2001), Doy del Mundo’s Pepot Artista (Pepot Superstar, 2005), and most recently, Brillante Mendoza’s Captive (2012). He also became an erstwhile annoyance of Vice Ganda when he proudly showed off his t-shirt which proclaimed a message that did not sit well with the popular host. The t-shirt was of course a product of Tado’s entrepreneurial efforts, since the comedian has a t-shirt shop called LimiTADO in his native Marikina, where he unsuccessfully ran for city councilor.

To most of us, it was Tado’s public figure that will be missed. In any alleyway in urban Manila, anybody with Tado’s physical features and arguably abrasive demeanor would have been dime a dozen. However, in the world of mainstream show business where fair skin, bulging muscles and mestizo features are essential, Tado can only be seen as a misfit. He wore the role of misfit with pride and a certain sense of rebelliousness. The name he chose for himself exemplified the image he wanted to drape himself with. Abrasiveness was part of his act. It was the unlikely cocoon from which butterflies of wisdom and advocacy were birthed from.

To those who were close to him, Tado represented that rare artist who was fuelled not by fame or fortune but by convictions. Tado was no ordinary comedian who was content with making a bad day a little better with laughter. He was an advocate, who made use of the popularity he invested in as a tool for revolution. His entire career was engineered to change mindsets and perspectives. Whether it is by exposing mainstream media for its myopic appreciation of gender advocacy or by throwing off-kilter ideas for businesses that initially seem funny but are actually brilliant, he has made enough of a difference to be remembered with equal amounts of reverence and levity.

Tado is funny, and he is an activist. He is well-tuned to the country’s issues. If there was a rally, he was probably in it. Imagine, he is a rallyist with a sense of humor. It makes taking in life easier if you think about it,” recalled Zach Lucero, former radio jock for NU107, where Tado hosted Brewrats with Ramon Bautista and Angel Rivero.

Lungkot ang nararamdaman ko para sa isang mabuting tao at kaibigan. Sana hindi ito madagdagan pa ng galit. Isa si Tado Jimenez sa mga taong nagpapaganda ng mundo na ito. Simula sa Strange Brew hanggang sa social work niya, makikita mo ang gaan niya sa puso. Malaking kawalan ang nangyari dito (Sadness is what I am feeling for the good person and friend. I wish that it will not be coupled with anger. Tado Jimenez is one of the people who makes this world beautiful. From the Strange Brew up to his social work, you will realize the heft of his heart. What just happened is a huge loss),” lamented Ping Medina, entrepreneur and actor, who Tado collaborated with in many of his advocacy efforts.

“It is when a friend like this passes on that we are reminded of how small and insignificant our own lives and our contributions are compared to his,” expressed Gabe Mercado, fellow comedian and entrepreneur. Mercado’s words speak volumes of truth especially with the knowledge that Tado, along with Lourd de Veyra, Noel Cabangon, Buhawi Meneses, and Ronnie Lazaro, founded Dakila, an advocacy group that uses culture, from films to music, to inspire awareness and change.

Dong Abay, poet and rock musician, reveals Tado’s philosophy when it comes to his comedy. Given his untimely demise, his words evoke common wisdom that we tend to forget given the hardships of living in a country that is riddled with problems: “Nais kong pagsaluhan natin ang mga masasayang alaala. Wala man tayong pera ay hindi naman tayo mauubusan ng mga pabaong ngiti. Mas panget kasi kung gutom ka na, nakasimangot ka pa. Pag nakangiti ka na hindi halatang kulang ang iyong pamasahe. (I want us to share with each other the happy memories. We may not have any money but we shall never run out of treasured smiles. It is uglier if you are not only hungry but also forlorn. If you are smiling, nobody will notice that you don't have enough money for your journey.)”

Similarly, Quark Henares, filmmaker, shares the precious words that Tado composed as a reminder as to how he chose to shape his career and live his life: “Kung ako ang pagpipiliin, gusto ko na maalala nila ako bilang hindi isang pulitiko kundi isang rebolusyonaryo na naghahangad ng tunay at ganap na pagbabago. (If I were to choose, I want myself to be remembered not as a politician but as a revolutionary with the desire for real and palpable change)” The words quoted by Henares would have served as the perfect eulogy.

Our eyes have been trained by mainstream media to appreciate beauty that is only skin-deep. Tado, with his lanky frame, long hair, and very Filipino looks, has taught us to look beyond what is easily covered by make-up and bright lights. Whether or not Tado designed his persona precisely to counter the shallowness that is enveloping our culture, his persisting existence within pop culture proves that there is indeed hope for a positive revolution, whether it be in how we want to be entertained or in something more relevant and pertinent.

Very few of us can ever claim to have lived a life for advocacy. Fewer can claim to have died for it. Tado can carry that rare honor to the sweet hereafter.

(An edited version was published in Rappler.)

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013)

With Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho may have made that rare Hollywood-style science fiction film that does not need to take itself too seriously to provoke. As with The Host (2006), Bong acknowledges the outright ridiculousness of his film by injecting it with humor, countering the bleakness that is inherent in any post-apocalyptic tale.

Several years into the future, the earth is engulfed by ice caused by humanity attempting to reverse the effects of global warming. Except for the passengers aboard a train that perpetually chugs along a route that spans the entire world, everybody else has frozen to death. The world, as a result, has been shrunk within the confines of a luxury train.

Cinema has always maintained its love affair with trains since it utilized a steam engine rampaging towards the unsuspecting audience as the prime spectacle in The Great Train Robbery in 1903. With strangers forced to interact and socialize within limited spaces, the cramped and claustrophobic interiors of trains become apt stages for suspense and mystery, as with Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers in a Train in 1951 or the many adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Orient Express.

In 1964, John Frankenheimer, acknowledging the potential of the locomotive to evoke excitement and urgency, released The Train where Burt Lancaster attempts to save art treasures from the greedy clutches of the Nazis. Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, set on an express train from Beijing to Shanghai, envelopes its sordid tale with the exoticism of travel. In 2005, Tickets, featuring three episodes directed by Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi, emphasized the social stratification that is part and parcel of travelling by train.

With Snowpiercer, which is based on the graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Bong exposes the same fascination with trains that has consumed the many filmmakers that preceded him. The film, which concerns itself largely with the oppressive social divide that was created supposedly for the survival of the last remaining human beings that exist inside the train, has Curtis (Chris Evans), a resident of the unfortunate tail section of the train, spearheading a revolution to reach the engine where the train’s creator, the mysterious Wilford (Ed Harris), lives.

At once, Bong capitalizes on the innate inequity of the class structure that train travel subsists on. The first class passengers will eat steak and have all the amenities their first class existence naturally provides them. The passengers in the tail end, stowaways whose lives are owed supposedly to the generosity of the first class passengers, will have to satisfy themselves with dregs.

Bong begins with the concept, before enlarging it as his characters move forward, discovering that humanity does not revolve around the injustice they personally suffer but also about structures, norms and measures that have become necessary for both survival and the containment of the evils humanity is capable of. By the end of the film, inequity becomes the least of humanity’s problems, as humanity bares its fundamental monstrosity. The stakes cascade and the lines blur as the plot thickens.

Snowpiercer however is a lot more fun than it sounds. Not only does Bong capitalize on themes that are readily available because of his use of the train as a centerpiece to his tale, he also capitalizes on the physical traits of the train to create a more visceral viewing experience. He understands the mechanics of the train’s narrow space. He himself limits his camera within the finite borders of the train, and creates action sequences that have realistic depth. The brutality that bolsters the film’s themes is therefore more palpable with bodies being hacked and abused within close distances.

The perpetual movement of the train also plays a big role in Bong’s well-orchestrated spectacle. The film follows the incessant rhythm and velocity of the vehicle as it avoids being stalled unnecessarily. Even its lengthy expositions are accompanied by wit and absurd pageantry, as exemplified by Tilda Swinton’s histrionic portrayal of a high-ranking bully. Snowpiercer is precise in its intent to primarily entertain and exhilarate despite its fluent observations on the human condition.

Snowpiercer is loud and brazen. It is consistently hilarious, yet at the same time, it also never fails to inflict fear, suspense or sentiment whenever it needs to do so. Snowpiercer is Bong’s outrageous ode to trains, to their power that have always fascinated us, and to everything else they can ever represent. This is also his tribute to cinema, which has the power to turn the lowly and hardworking train into an emblem for how humanity has remained woefully unchanged despite its years of persistent existence.