Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 4) August 22, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Children’s Show (Roderick Cabrido)
The strength of Children’s Show lies in its interesting focal point—children and teenagers, their youth and poverty exploited, trying to make ends meet for their families by participating in brutal underground fights—and it’s a hook that gets thinner as the story progresses. Director Roderick Cabrido deviates from it to favor a drama that is, by all means, engaging and worthy to look at, but he fails to consider that the viewer itches to learn more about these gruesome matches and discover details and nuances, how these arrangements have come to pass, what allows this terrible system to continue, and in what way does it implicate the failure of many social institutions to be on the side of the poor and help them lead better lives. It could have been illuminating, bent as it is on presenting this culture, the corners that trap its characters and observe them make life-changing decisions, but it offers only flashes and flickers of discernment, owing mostly to writer Ralston Jover’s quirks. In the grand scheme of things, what it is carries the same weight as what it isn’t, and unknowingly Children’s Show tends to emphasize what it lacks. Cabrido, like his first narrative feature, has something in him that his contemporaries don’t have—the frenetic keenness, the eye for grub and grit, the excesses that display his personality—but it will probably take time before he fully realizes it. C+
The Janitor (Michael Tuviera)
A dirty mind is quick to consider that The Janitor may have been initially conceived as a gay movie, what with its diligence to have mouth-wateringly attractive actors play lead, supporting, and even minor roles, their presence serving as its main currency. Those scenes in which Dennis Trillo works out and shows off his shapely muscles, sex cuts, and tattoos, exuding this masculinity that makes the female and gay spectator shudder in gratefulness, feel unnecessary but justified on the basis of carnal pleasure, director Michael Tuviera aware of how cinema is about gaze and the gratification gained from it. Within this context, especially when the audience has come to a point where it looks forward to the next hot guy to appear onscreen, The Janitor works so well—there is brisk dynamics in its tease and homoeroticism—but even outside it, even in the framework of an action genre, it satisfies. A distinct current keeps moving it to the fore, unafraid whether it comes across as laughable or incredulous. The comparison with On the Job is valid, and Tuviera, concerned only about delivering a twist and polishing the surface on which it happens, doesn’t care. Whenever he is in doubt, all he has to do is show his boys and engage them in a physical activity. How cunning. B+
Kasal (Joselito Altarejos)
Director Joselito Altajeros’s preferred English title of Kasal is The Commitment, and native speakers all know that this is not a faithful translation but one that provides depth and wisdom to the idea of wedding or marriage. This kind of gesture pervades the film, whose composure is tame compared with his early works, to the point that even at its most tender and touching moment, that long take of Arnold Reyes and Oliver Aquino having sex, Altajeros chooses to have one of his movies projected on the wall as it happens. There is consciousness to overplay things, to make issues go out of hand and be settled or neglected in a manner that requires a stretch, and these concerns may happen in real life but in film they appear flimsy, almost like a wordy afterthought. Kasal rubs in such a way that it feels somewhat obliged to speak for the gay community, putting its couple not only in relatable circumstances but also in crucial ones, the most obvious of which puts forward their conflicting ideas on gay marriage in the Philippines: one is hopeful (and quite naive) while the other is doubtful (and obviously cynical). It’s a film that gays of all sensibilities would be so open to love—for it deliberates a pertinent subject at a time when discussions like this deserve attention, boasting a pool of skilled actors devoted to its beliefs and driven by a desire to approach things from a sober perspective—but it is weakened by the tendency to overexplain and repeat its arguments, and as the narrative comes to an end it’s hard to tell whether the reaction evoked is sympathy or tolerance. C+
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 3) August 17, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Hari ng Tondo (Carlos Siguion-Reyna)
There is this priceless scene in Hari ng Tondo in which an emotional Cris Villonco, running away from home, trips and falls on the ground with her hastily collected clothes. She is in such a hurry to leave that she blurts out to the young girl in front of her, “Tawagin mo akong taxi! Tawagin mo akong taxi!”—to which the child replies, “Taxi ka! Taxi ka!”—and it happens so fast, ending as suddenly as it starts, that the laughter comes only after realizing that the joke is over. That brief moment alone captures the energy of the film, enthusiastic and raring to go, spontaneous and careless, hardly insightful but downright amusing, driven by this pleasure from making fun of the rich and poor and sparing neither of them from the prank. It seems to be built on a series of setups, playing with the stereotypes of the community but not so much reflecting the actual—the drama resting on one’s preconceived notions of Tondo but refusing to show them deliberately, only bits and pieces, random stink here and there, superficial chaos and disagreements for the sake of spectacle. This is not, after all, about poverty and suffering but the humor that comes along with sentimentalizing them, sometimes risking being insensitive in exchange for laughs. Whenever a large crack in the narrative shows or an uncomfortable stereotype lingers, the film is quick to expose it further or make necessary distractions: the audience will always be reminded how unserious it is. But what makes it all the more interesting is that Hari ng Tondo marks the return of Carlos Siguion-Reyna, whose prominent movies are notable for being affectingly contrived, and his confidence to push things over is still there, only now he’s unsympathetic and relaxed. It may not be an ideal comeback, but it’s delightfully enough. B+
Sundalong Kanin (Janice O’Hara)
It’s cruel to put down something earnest and unpretentious as Sundalong Kanin, especially in a festival that is now populated by big names and ambitious productions, but despite the potential of its story and the unwavering will to deliver, the film is hardly convincing. The crudeness is understandable, leaving this air of innocence and inexperience suited to its gruesome coming-of-age story, but the moment the kids talk about the imminence of war and take reckless actions during the Japanese occupation, it turns into a disappointing high school production where efforts are rewarded based on tolerance, the viewer predisposed to allow its good intentions eclipse the obvious flaws of execution. The atrocity of war couldn’t be any clearer—almost every scene is a reminder of how terrible it is, and every dialogue comes across as something lifted from a textbook—except that there’s something amiss in the way it consistently presents this perspective, as though appropriating these historical events only for show, for a passing grade. C
Hustisya (Joel Lamangan)
Nora Aunor’s sinister laugh at the end of Hustisya is a fitting closure to a film that has its share of extremely bad and unexpectedly good moments, the hysteria no longer confined to the narrative but seeming to extend to her personal life, as though Ricky Lee and Joel Lamangan staged this scene alone as an opportunity for her to speak her mind about the National Artist issue, and Ate Guy, the superstar, possibly the most fascinating figure in Philippine cinema, for the lack of better gesture, cracks up after hearing some words whispered to her, aware of the absurdity of it all but allowing herself to be carried along. One can easily feel that despite her humble presence, she is much bigger than the material: all it does is make room for predictable dramatic scenes and catch up on her, unable to provide her with what she deserves. Granted, Ate Guy blends perfectly into the milieu, but Manila seems so designed to welcome her—political rallies, vandalism, disappearance of activists, and religious feasts happen when she’s around—and Lamangan is eager to show her reaction to these realities, may it be a casual look or an emotional reflection. Hustisya is too concerned about accommodating her that the drama, out of convenience, jumps from one outrageous sequence to another, and she just keeps doing what she is told. From time to time, most especially in that scene where she repeats “Akin na ang notebook ko!” in such iconic delivery that audience members find themselves clapping with pleasure, the flashiness is forgivable. But more often than not, when the story is forced to move, one gets used to laughing with pain. C+
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 2) August 11, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Ronda (Nick Olanka)
Sticking out like a sore thumb is how Ronda concludes deliberately, the systematic and calculated way it pulls the story in that direction, and how, in its resolve to follow the troubles of a passive main character whose life is occupied by circumstances that come along with her police work and her difficult relationship with her son, hinges on this strong emotional bookend only to take advantage of the given impression made by goodbyes, the final sequence showing the peak of her grief. There is nothing wrong with this choice, of course, except that it makes the viewer feel that director Nick Olanka is keen on favoring the foreseeable and makes it a point to focus intensely on the swelling instead of the burst, choosing the cinematic over the eloquent, captivated more by conventional tricks than character analysis. Extending the story would entail showing Ai-Ai delas Alas sink in despair, and that would mean a different kind of movie, but Ronda, as it is, bares too much skin but has nothing much to show underneath. Rather than running and reaching many areas, it is just content jogging in place. C
S6parados (GB Sampedro)
There appears to be a consensus among serious festival moviegoers that S6parados is a terrible film, and this is obviously a blind alley, but seldom admitted is that, for all its laughable self-awareness and mind-blowing sentiments on male misery, its awfulness is enjoyable. Watching it is like listening to six guys too full of themselves talk about their shitty love problems over cases of beer, and instead of raising arguments or being fair to both parties concerned, one just nods or grins and waits for interesting anecdotes and ridiculous punch lines. The moment they get drunk, they can barely respond with logic. So they start blabbering: a husband finally comes out to his wife, a restaurant owner finds another woman to love after his breakup, an alcoholic tries to help himself for a change, a seaman out of work turns to womanizing, a junkie car salesman wants to start anew by leaving his wife, a battered husband tries to man up—basically men who, according to their stories, receive the shorter ends of the stick and admit being losers. Poor dudes! Manly tears! What makes it even funnier is that they don’t actually and necessarily hate their wives: they are too kind and understanding to think ill of them. They are not male chauvinist pigs: they are just male and chauvinist. S6parados is a pure cavalier movie, written and directed to parade the sacrifices and sufferings of men just to keep their precious dignity intact, and without a doubt only a guy can come up with that inspired title. C
Bwaya (Francis Xavier Pasion)
Bwaya doesn’t seem to be a work motivated by sincerity. The story is heartbreaking enough—on her way to school, a student is attacked by a crocodile lurking in the water, and consequently her family grieves her loss—but director Francis Pasion is not satisfied with simply telling it. He is eager to leave his self-serving stamp on the movie, the device he has already employed in Jay and Sampaguita, and make it larger than life, more relevant to his personal interests, and better suited to fulfill the qualities of a festival-friendly entry, one that challenges viewership and gives a semblance of elevated understanding of sociopolitical issues. But what he does in Bwaya is waste the exceptional performances of Angeli Bayani and Karl Medina and debase the powerful depiction of a helpless community trying its best to deal with the shit of everyday life all for the sake of having a statement, for that itch to yelp a protest against media exploitation to which he also contributes. What is sick about it is not the film, which, removing the meta elements, is in fact a persuasive look into the various layers of violence experienced by being born and raised poor, but the filmmaking—the insistence on pointing a finger, the tenacity to draw attention to oneself and appear bright and thoughtful in the midst of anguish, and the nerve to make the audience feel such disproportioned terror, showing the infinity of excuses that comes with freedom of expression. There is clearly offense meant and given, and if this is Pasion’s idea of responsible filmmaking—and if this is the Filipino movie that gets recognized locally and overseas for its worth—one can only hope for a more discerning voice to stand against it, and better films to sink it. D
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 1) August 8, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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K’na, the Dreamweaver (Ida Anita del Mundo)
A friend calls it admirable, but another way of describing K’na is that it’s an exercise in wastefulness, squandering opportunities to produce a meaningful picture of life down south where people take pride in leading disciplined lives, where communities caught in decades-long armed conflict nurture wives trapped in unhappy relationships and husbands killed in bloody encounters, where a colorful history and culture is both an identity and contradiction; and the film, instead of treating its subject with maturity and wisdom, settles for the dull kind of picturesque, dipping its toes into several sociopolitical issues just to enliven its core but failing to leave any remarkable impression, capturing only the unexciting luster of complexities and preferring blindness to insight. K’na keeps mentioning the importance of design, but its own is not even worth a second look. C–
1st ko si 3rd (Real Florido)
The title of Real Florido’s debut film rings distinctly, the symmetry and insinuation of its words giving way to juvenile thoughts—precise, succinct, and catchy without overplaying its quirks—and even without having read the synopsis or seen the trailer, one can easily assume what it is about. Fortunately when it comes to elaborating the story, Florido is driven by this liveliness that cloaks its many lapses, and what stands out amid the flourishes and indulgence is his sincerity, a flawed display of intention, the mix of excitement and excess that comes with youth. 1st ko si 3rd depicts old age with boredom and regret, but it is filled with numerous blinks of joy that couples in their senior years experience with heightened effect (chatting on Facebook, fixing an old car, receiving an invitation, talking to a seamstress, constant daydreaming), their lives finding this instant where time keeps inflating and pulling their leg. The film brims with humor that doesn’t care whether it succeeds or not—its comic moments are either hit or miss—achieving a lightheartedness that may be strained but not phony, its modesty both its weakness and strength. All along it prepares the viewer for this long-awaited meeting of Nova Villa and Freddie Webb, building up to what seems to be the movie’s climax, the present trying to overreach its hands to the past, but once it arrives at that point, no magic ever occurs, no sparks, no touching revelations, not even a glimmer of kilig, peaking where it’s dry and detached, cold and clinical, and one can only feel sorry for her that the person she has always cherished in her thoughts is just a beautiful idea that died a long time ago, a mere shadow of a big mistake, a figment of the sadness that occupies every space of her life. B
Asintado (Louie Ignacio)
At some point in Asintado, most likely after the first fifteen minutes, the viewer gives up on the idea that it is going to be good. One can only scowl at how proud it is of its stale stereotypes and trite plot turns, but Louie Ignacio is disposed to make things worse, revealing one rotten cliché after another, until it reaches this laughable conclusion and embarrassing postscript. It’s funny how people are led to believe that this is a story worth telling and filming, because from start to finish it is aware only of how it can pander to the basest emotions in the most preposterous way, and Ignacio is so fluent, his despicable language flowing as a stream, making the shameless dramatic excuses float and their stink linger, that it’s just fitting how it ends in a music video, with Aiko Melendez looking up, as though she were asking for help amid this whole mess. D+
She’s Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2014) July 30, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written by Carmi Raymundo
Directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina
Cast: Kathryn Bernardo, Daniel Padilla, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Ian Veneracion
There is something curious about this tendency of a certain portion of the moviegoing public to wish for smarter commercial films. Although their conventional nature has long been established and accepted, local genre movies, for them to be considered deserving of attention and praise, are expected to bend rules and display cleverness. The lack of originality is justifiable, but when this degree of smartness (or coolness) is not met, it becomes easier and more convenient to find fault and notice particular areas in which the film could have been better, further encouraging this school of criticism that strives to be objective, pointing out the good and the bad and weighing these elements together as though worth could be gauged through basic enumeration of qualities and attainment of balance. But objectivity is sometimes as unhelpful as dismissal, and often taken for granted is the fact that studio releases don’t need to be smart to be successful—commercially and artistically—and some of them are actually successful on both terms because they have no intention to appear smart.
Star Cinema understands this play of principles, for its main currency is context. When its writers and directors are in top form, they manage to come up with wonderful pieces of fluff that make a larger impression than those independent movies acclaimed at festivals abroad, an impact that self-serving snobs are keen on invalidating. Although these commercial films cannot compete as far as novelty, depth, and breadth of subjects are concerned, they touch on specific aspects of Filipino sensibility, which may be trifling and negligible to some but in fact more genuine and persuasive than many attempts at social relevance.
In the case of Star Cinema’s romantic comedies, which have been its consistent breadwinner since the mid-2000s, the most striking effort is the proliferation of love teams, continuing the tradition of fanaticism that has made audiences of various generations swoon over Rogelio dela Rosa and Carmen Rosales, Tita Duran and Pancho Magalona, Nida Blanca and Nestor de Villa, Nora Aunor and Tirso Cruz III, Vilma Santos and Bobot Mortiz, Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin, Piolo Pascual and Judy Ann Santos, and John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo—a few of those pairs whose chemistry onscreen has the ability to create sparks and induce spasms, celebrities whose private and social lives at the peak of their careers were owned by the public.
Frankly, no volume of Hollywood movies can match the experience of seeing the middleclass and the masses lose their heads over these reel lovers—an infatuation whose plain existence is its reason—and this is an identity to be proud of: an instance when emotions become exclusive but not dismissive, when certain feelings (generally thought to be universal) are fully comprehensible only to the film’s target audience, and when enjoyment rests comfortably on a skillful suspension of disbelief. When it comes down to the wire, the virtues, peculiarities, and nuances of kilig are hardly possible to interpret, translate, or subtitle.
The release of She’s Dating the Gangster is crucial not only in ascertaining the intense popularity of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla, whose phenomenal rise to fame is describable only through exaggeration, but also in attesting to the power of cinema to hold magic: that ability to affect and make sweeping gestures that bring about irrational, foolish, and ridiculous reactions. There is nothing groundbreaking about this, of course, but it’s pointless to overlook the fact that the KathNiel fever, as far as action is concerned, is growing, advancing, and overpowering. One can only smirk at audience members responding with rowdiness upon the mere sight of the actors’ names in the opening credits, shrieking and stomping their feet, losing it every time Daniel and Kathryn appear onscreen. Midway through the film, the noise becomes part of the viewing experience, a series of occasions on which a simple close-up signals a rumpus; and making a sober assessment, which takes into account both milieu and material, becomes trickier and more challenging.
At some point, though, a line can be drawn, and a few things can be articulated. For instance, Kathryn’s loveliness is intoxicating: she glows with delight, lights up every corner of the screen, and acts without drawing too much attention to herself or her quirks. Her Athena and Kelay can easily exude the qualities of a manic pixie dream girl despite not being one, but she is able to kill any sense of mystery and irony in her characters, her weak moments outshined by her strong ones. There is something regal about her overall appearance—how her clear skin, perfect teeth, and bright eyes convey such warm and pleasant feeling. Only she can temper Daniel’s smugness with grace, and people identify with her openly: she who falls for someone seemingly unattainable, someone who can be so cruelly distant and difficult. Kathryn is obviously a more convincing actor than Daniel, and she does it without overreaching or stealing his thunder, capturing those conflicting youthful emotions that people her age usually experience.
Daniel, on the other hand, knows how to work his charm with ease, the laziness and overconfidence strangely coming off rather endearing, and this owes not only to his genes but also to his awareness of them. The bad boy image fits him like a glove, and although it’s hard for him to adjust when it comes to softer scenes, he makes an effort to humanize his characters. Whenever he crumples his forehead and furrows his eyebrows ostentatiously to express despair, or when he consciously does that knee-bending grin to win Kathryn over, he gets away with it deftly—he is so used to being forgiven. As Kenji and Kenneth, Daniel is able to substantiate his matinée idol status, something which Rico Yan or Piolo Pascual has once experienced, and live up to a considerable measure of the adulation heaped on him. Those scenes that show him dancing prove that he understands it: silliness is not only part the game—it also completes it.
She’s Dating the Gangster is based on a book written by Bianca Bernardino, first published on Wattpad in 2006. A certain demographic has taken it pretty seriously, encouraging Summit Media to pick it up and put it out under its Pop Fiction series. To some extent, this type of young adult novels seems to differentiate itself consciously from those romance pocketbooks with daring covers that quite a number of people find too crude (the consumption of which often associated condescendingly with house helpers and folks from the province). Their themes and narratives have glaring similarities, particularly with the heavily female point of view and abuse of lengthy voiceovers, but the difference lies in the target readership. She’s Dating the Gangster caters more to high school and college students, millenials whose everyday interactions are dedicated mostly to the joys and thrills of online friendship, hinged on the comfort provided by social media and its placebo effect. Several of these readers, for some reason, have also found the eccentricities of Korean dramas (and culture, subsequently) amusing and worth emulating: the lightheartedness, the gentle approach to things, and the attractive routes to escape they offer. Although Bernardino’s book confronts serious subjects (illness, death, suicide), the sensibility is constricted and juvenile, and the decisions of its characters just seem bent on providing shamelessly emotional plot turns.
In short, the original material may have an appeal, but it’s neither literary nor cinematic enough. Screenwriter Carmi Raymundo and director Cathy Garcia-Molina have seen these limitations and decided to work around them with Kathryn and Daniel in mind, because once their faces are pressed on the roles, the narrative is sure to find its own direction. It’s hilarious how some people decry the use of “gangster,” which represents the childish and irresponsible codenames that students come up with when they are angry or annoyed—names whose meanings matter only in that phase of their lives and are gradually forgotten after it—but it is something that the film itself does not even take seriously. “Gangster” is a hook that gets played over and over to the point of annoyance, but its only purpose is to stay in one’s memory.
The riskiest change is setting the bulk of the story in the 90s, which Garcia-Molina carries too far to achieve something downright silly and out-and-out artificial. There’s no point being realistic in both the look and details—from the use of beepers and playing billiards to the awful get-up of students and the design of the school, the phoniness actually persuades the viewer to make fun of them. The film is too conscious about establishing the era, clumsily incorporating that Eraserheads song, those AC/DC and Nirvana T-shirts, and those embarrassing classroom details into a story whose characters do not even display any smidgen of interest in them. Wigs remain a Star Cinema curse, and seeing them on Kathryn and Daniel is like watching them fully submit to a terrible initiation rite. Cinematographer Dan Villegas enjoys filling the screen with bright light and vivid colors, and despite moving repeatedly from past to present, he maintains this glossy texture that is easy on the eyes, keeping that surface busy but almost weightless, as though he were tempered by love himself.
This tacky 90s imitation, however, rarely feels dishonest. The many decorations in the film only serve to surround Kenji and Athena and are not there to define them. Their love story does not depend on where they are and who they are with—for clichéd as it may sound, it depends on the choices they make based on the circumstances. When those options are laid down, the movie bares its flaws and gives in to crappy turns of plot. Undoubtedly the most prominent of these is the strained detailing of their separation, the deathbed drama, the wasted Rio Locsin monologue, the utter forcedness of it all that doesn’t seem to jibe with the hollow surroundings—since as far as attachment to the story is concerned, their romance has been real and convincing, and this breakup (or its barely credible motivation) sticks out too proudly.
Another concern is the decision to let the pair play both roles, and perhaps the only way to answer it is to imagine it the other way around. Again, commercial films are after the effect, and they are allowed to have these implausible situations as long as they accomplish larger-than-life consequences. And She’s Dating the Gangster, aware may it seem of its folly, hangs onto this device that lets the viewer feel that since Kenji and Athena have not been able to reach their happily ever after because of timing, Kenneth and Kelay, in a preposterous twist of fate as Kenji’s son and Athena’s niece, are there to fulfill those years of longing and distance, allowing them to meet by chance and become close to each other. How else can the audience feel the pain (of the past) and the excitement (of the present) if it weren’t for Kathryn and Daniel acting as reminders of fate and doom? The ending may be a cop-out, the same way that most Star Cinema endings have always been inadequate and disappointing, but it is intended for no one but the fans, those who will watch the film more than once just to have that feeling again, those who understand that love is not for everyone but would rather see it received by deserving people.
After two dull feature-length movies (Must Be… Love and Pagpag) and two remarkable television shows (Princess and I and Got to Believe), Kathryn and Daniel are already well-acquainted with the body language that drives their fans mad, gestures and actions that can set off incredible reactions. Garcia-Molina takes advantage of this, but she also challenges them. By putting them in two backdrops, it feels as though she wanted them to relearn the basics of kilig, stretching their boundaries to discover finer distinctions that can be explored and new flirty tricks that can be carried out to maximum effect. She is a director that can easily be dismissed or overrated, but after more than a decade of sticking to her method and style, appropriating them to a number of love teams whether tried or new, it just seems fair to recognize that she is an indispensable filmmaker, as vital to this industry as Lav Diaz and Wenn Deramas, for only she can deliver romantic comedies that are entertaining, insightful, and sensitive, with flair and skill, with hardly an unpleasant aftertaste.
In fact, it owes to her that the single most memorable scene in She’s Dating the Gangster is not between Kathryn and Daniel but between Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta, showing their heartrending final (and brief) encounter in slow motion, as though as a director she were doing her part to extend their time together and give them a closure they deserve, and with Angeline Quinto’s powerful singing in the background, Kenji lights up as he sees her, snatched by the most overwhelming kind of happiness, the most unexpected surprise of his life, the only bright cloud in his empty sky, and Athena, now in a wheelchair, frail but cheerful, resigned to dying but content just to have this one moment, looks up to him and smiles; he exclaims “Hi” and she replies “Gangster,” and by now everything seems to float on tears, sinking the inconsistencies and emphasizing only the unforgettable: Athena’s crazy cheerleading, Kenji’s dance moves, that wedding promise witnessed by Mayon, Athena touching her chest and Kenji oblivious of her sickness, and his words before she dies—”All the years of waiting, it’s all worth it just to see you today”—the pain alluding to Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, their intimacy transcending circumstances, the ability of love to travel and come back in different form but remaining pure and intact, and time, as always, the unkindest villain of them all, being a bitch.
Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Lav Diaz, 2013) March 29, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written by Rody Vera and Lav Diaz
Directed by Lav Diaz
Cast: Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania, Hazel Orencio, Angelina Kanapi, Soliman Cruz
Sometime in 2004, in a roomful of undergraduate students, a lecturer started his class by sneering at Lav Diaz. That time there was a lot of talk about the release of Ebolusyon ng isang Pamilyang Pilipino, a work filled with characters steeped in many shades of anguish not far from the despair experienced by those who took part in making it. This lecturer, who also happened to have established a name for himself as a film critic, was aghast by the idea of a ten-hour movie being conceived and received, let alone being programmed at international festivals, and this made Ebolusyon an easier target of his ridicule.
There was no way of remembering the exact words, for it was his self-aggrandizing tone and highly inspired provocation that caught the students’ attention, specifically the manner in which he delighted in his attack, condemning the film solely for its length, the peak of which came when he pointed out, one by one and systematically, the various activities that could be accomplished in ten hours, from the mundane to the outrageous, from washing clothes and waiting for them to dry to the slow formation of stalactites and stalagmites, and his filibustering went on for three hours until it was already time for the students to leave. Judging by the looks on their faces, sitting through that class was either absolute pain or absolute pleasure, and thanks to this lecturer, who hadn’t seen a second of Ebolusyon yet already making permanent impressions, some of them had reconsidered pursuing their film degrees, inadvertently allowing this minor incident to cut through several facets of their academic experience.
It is a useless memory with negligible consequences—an instructor’s display of ferocious absurdity seems nothing compared with the news of a student committing suicide several years later, whose passing has shaken the spirit of numerous film majors, some of whom are present in that class—but it is a known fact that useless memories cling forever; and these bits of impractical and hollow details, always there but seldom acknowledged, only become well-defined in the most inopportune moment, confirming that even meaningless things resonate deeply given the right time and vulnerability. This violent act of dissing and dismissing films without having seen them, bringing to light the brutally bitter side of criticism driven for the most part by self-importance, recalls the dynamics of quiet viciousness that persists in Diaz’s body of work.
Even as early as Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, he has demonstrated the ability to inflict wounds that feel painful only after they heal, and in his much longer movies this fixation has grown bleaker and more threatening, for between the projected image and the audience a bridge is being built for the burden to cross. The length of his movies has always been a source of discouragement, but experiencing the passage of time is crucial in looking into his work, especially with how such proceeding changes and erodes the lives of his characters, how it observes their gentle descent into oblivion. The concepts that Diaz is so keen on exploring film after film hardly feel abstract or theoretical: they are made specific by his anger and frustration, by the seeming futility of struggle, and by the aggression inculcated in small and large systems, begun and exacerbated during colonial rule, and present up to now on various levels of society, continuing to oppress and eliminate the weak and the poor, to whom he has frequently dedicated his stories.
Diaz has always been on the periphery of the industry, and this position, away from the rewards and restrictions of popular digital cinema, the development of which has given way to a much-desired golden age, has made his films even more distant from the public. Almost a decade after Ebolusyon, he directs Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, which bears resemblance to Batang Westside not only in length and use of color but also in tautness and precision. With the searing clarity of its vision and the measure of significance that lies in its fullness, Norte is likely to be mentioned constantly as proof of his brilliance. It has come at a time when the current political climate is beset with prospects of having another Marcos as president and the alarming emergence of young minds defending his dictatorial regime. In his interviews, Diaz is vocal about the character of Fabian being molded from Ferdinand Marcos—the brightest law student in his class, the young murderer dodging his punishment, the intellectual wrestling with his demons, the man gifted with good looks, wealth, and freedom but struggling for peace of mind and contentment, the leader enlivened by his keenness to destroy—and he has made it a point to set Norte in Marcos’s hometown in Ilocos, the land where the roots of despotism are anchored until present, lending the film not only its title but also its past.
The guise of a linear structure does not prevent Diaz from telling a compelling narrative, but whenever he takes the liberty of sidestepping—lingering over sceneries, pursuing dead-end characters, inserting plots that can stand on their own outside the film, or conjuring dream sequences that raise the narrative to overwhelming heights—the emotions that have once been firm and unyielding suddenly soften, escaping the confines of cinema and connecting themselves with larger aspects of human condition. It takes a while before Norte arrives at a point of levelheaded tranquility, before the bad taste left by the uncomfortable bursts of philosophizing turns into a reminder of horrible things to come, but when it does, when the narrative arcs of Fabian and Joaquin become closer by moving away from each other, all possible exits lead to tragedy.
The weight carried by the film owes a lot to Diaz’s understanding of grief, which allows him to orchestrate big and small pieces of heartbreaking incidents to form a whole that touches every moral surface, no matter how far and deep. Adding to the throb of pain, which takes its time before making its absence felt, is the parchedness of dramatic highlights, especially in those sequences with Joaquin and Eliza, who bear the film’s soul and spirit, the couple whose days and nights alternate between looking back and looking forward, always waiting to avert the misfortune lying ahead of them. The most painful and powerful moments in Norte are those that show their need to live for each other, all the time refusing to succumb to bad luck, only to end up in an unconditional state of desolation in which all their hopes settle as dust.
Joaquin’s story—an unremarkable man whose dream of setting up a small livelihood for his family is shattered by an accident; an unremarkable man who, in an unreasonable turn of events, becomes the fall guy prosecuted for double murder; an unremarkable man who, after seeing Eliza for the first time in several years and exchanging with her a future built only on optimism, unguarded from the certainties of disappointment, is likely to hear the news of her death in a cruel accident (the kind that happens so frequently in the country it hardly feels impossible)—is a story that keeps repeating itself among the masses, among the people who have grown tired of fighting for their rights and are now simply taking it all in, their paths worsened by the paths before them, their fates dictated not by god but by man.
A poor man can weather as many bad accidents as possible—being born into an impoverished family, having to go through life in the most abject of circumstances, being disgraced on account of his social position, trying all means to survive only to be buried deeper in debt and penury—but one severe incident, the reason for which will never be discovered, is enough to efface all his tremendous displays of fortitude, forcing him to give up. Norte openly overstates the goodness of Joaquin, the way he responds to evil by showing incredible compassion, and the culmination of which happens as he reaches a spiritual peak. But even Diaz, who has invested in Joaquin the warmest affection possible between an author and a creation, cannot bring himself to face Joaquin’s reaction to Eliza’s demise, and the audience feels this sorrow in the final scene where Ading and the two children walk funereally, looking numb and emptied, impossible to be comforted.
In almost every review of Norte there seems to be a fulsome need to mention Diaz’s admiration for Dostoevsky, the parallelism and differences between Raskolnikov and Fabian, the hopelessness of their tormented existence and the context in which their actions (and inactions) produce harsh consequences. While this is clearly a remarkable way of examining his work, unfortunately it also limits the perspective appropriate for a much more illuminating appreciation of his position as a filmmaker from the third world, as a narrator of his countrymen’s inexhaustible suffering, and as a Filipino who tries to alleviate the centuries-old struggle for equal opportunity by keeping its memories alive. Extrapolating Dostoevsky’s influence on his films creates an attractive distraction, one that asserts Diaz’s accessibility because of the themes he engages in, but it does not exactly offer the most persuasive reason for his importance. The patriotism that permeates in his films has always been exact and uncompromising—the identity of the characters is unmistakably Filipino, made more distinct by their ambiguities and contradictions—and in this regard, it is only rational to suggest that the artists with whom Diaz can be comfortably associated are his fellow writers with strong roots in social realism, specifically Rogelio Sicat and Edgardo Reyes, authors whose short stories, novels, and essays confront the elaborate cycle of violence experienced by the poor and their great efforts to contend with this terrible reality.
In two of his most celebrated stories, “Impeng Negro” and “Tata Selo,” both written in the early sixties, Sicat brings to life characters pushed to the extremes by people who abuse them, forcing them to break and fight back. Constantly bullied by his neighbor for his skin color, Impen can no longer contain the scorn and loathing hurled at him, so after feeling the blood in his cheeks, after being hit and kicked repeatedly despite his defenselessness, and after being ridiculed for his sorry condition, he gets up and pummels the face of his adversary as madly as he can, using only what he has: his hands and the sheer urge to defend his dignity. Tata Selo, on the other hand, is an old man imprisoned for killing the owner of the land he tills, who, according to him, has terminated him from work unfairly; but as the subtle details of the story reveal, the reason for the crime is the rape committed to his daughter. Holding the cold steel bars and looking far away, he mutters, in an expression of grief that intimates his inability to resist madness, that everything (his land, his daughter, his honor, and his life) has been taken away from him.
Impen and Tata Selo are nowhere to be found in Norte—it’s no surprise that the likes of them are dead by now, in real life and in fiction—but the distinct qualities that have made them unforgettable characters in Philippine literature are in Joaquin and Eliza, who get by through their heroic patience and belief that life, until and unless it ends, will always have a chance to be better. Prizewinning playwright Rody Vera, with the help of Raymond Lee and Michiko Yamamoto, shapes them (as well as Fabian, whose antagonism and cunningness provide the film a livid state of grace) and plants their stories deeply in a fertile soil, enabling Diaz to cultivate it on his own terms. The freedom given by Vera is a wonderful gift, for Diaz, perhaps even without knowing it, is able to pay tribute to Mga Agos sa Disyerto, a seminal anthology first published in the sixties that renders the subject of poverty with emphasis on radical form and content, linking the traditional and the progressive. Fifty years have passed since then and the can of worms, passed from one destitute generation to another, is still there. Diaz captures in Norte the passage of time and change of values in these people, their struggle being the only invariable element, and imparts the imposing scale of adversity committed to them.
One particular scene springs to mind, which, when taken into consideration with the film’s finer details, can easily go unnoticed: Tired after spending the entire day pushing her cart of produce around town, Eliza returns home with a plastic bag of bread for her children and sister. They invite her to eat, but Eliza, who has probably forgotten in the long years of hard work what hunger means, declines and goes to bed. The film moves to another scene, but for some reason, perhaps due to the way it evokes the plainness of life absent from the city or how Angeli Bayani leaves the viewer unsteady by making simple gestures, it’s difficult to shake off the ache of witnessing that short moment fade away without imagining how it has come about—exhausted, Eliza remembers her loved ones as she walks home, stops by a store to buy something for them, and smiles as she pictures the look of happiness on their faces. But she won’t take a piece of her present. She would rather offer it pure and untouched. She’s too drained to even think of this, so she decides it’s better to turn in so she can wake up early next morning for work. It’s hard to believe that this is the same mother who, out of distress and desperation, has once contemplated killing herself and her children, and in the end is betrayed by the very faith she has protected painstakingly, but selflessness, at its most heartbreaking, identifies itself better with thoughts of tragedy.
It’s unfair that there’s only so much a writer can talk about in the presence of great art, but the inability to express and explain every aspect of its finery simply confirms its worth. Every attempt to assess Norte reflects the failure to cover countless areas of discussion it cracks open—the most striking of which, arguably, is the nature of Fabian’s crimes; how the first murder is totally uncalled for and how it is necessitated only by an exercise of will and a mania to satisfy himself; how the second murder substantiates this nihilism and how, instead of surrendering himself, his idea of making amends by helping Joaquin’s family through his connections is even sicker; how the succeeding crimes (raping his sister, killing a dog) are corollary; and most importantly, how human experience boils down to all questions of how. The life and times of Juan dela Cruz roll on this Möbius strip, continuous and one-sided, all ends joined. The film’s title, in what seems to be Diaz’s harshest assertion, does not refer only to a province but also to a direction, the cardinal point of a compass, the traveler’s guide to reaching a destination, and the force that pulls a person to a grand purpose. What Norte ascertains is that all debates on the current state of Philippine cinema must end: It answers everything. And sadly it is enough.
Rekorder (Mikhail Red, 2013) March 1, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Mikhail Red and Ian Victoriano
Directed by Mikhail Red
Cast: Ronnie Quizon, Mile Lloren, Buboy Villar
The past year has been considered a high point of Philippine cinema, yet in hindsight, in a reflection that may occur to moviegoers who often find themselves confounded by tiring pronouncements, validating this assertion does not rest on the consensus that, indeed, a number of distinguishingly well-made films have been released in 2013, emphasized further by year-end lists put together by local critics and cineastes. A more convincing argument for the previous year’s greatness, if one must be drawn to such monotonous debate, is the rarely pointed out but curiously remarkable fact that a string of overlooked films, those who have suffered from groupthink and inattention, provide better material for telling discussions, and should titles be named, these include Rekorder by Mikhail Red, Amor y Muerte by Cesar Evangelista, Puti by Mike Alcazaren, Babagwa by Jason Paul Laxamana, and Four Sisters and A Wedding by Cathy Garcia-Molina. All these movies are obviously flawed, but the mix of newness and charm, not to mention excesses and lapses, that their directors bring to the screen is a welcoming change from the usual subjects of admiration.
Rekorder, for instance, is drowned out by the brimming compliments for Transit by Hannah Espia, the darling of the crowd at Cinemalaya and the country’s entry to the Oscars, accolades that seem to have made it invulnerable. Both in their twenties, Espia and Red have directed acclaimed short films prior to their first features and represent a good crop of young filmmakers who have taken a chance on grant-giving festivals and come out with a finished product—not an easy feat these days considering that the seed money is wrapped in a foil of concessions and compliance. After Cinemalaya, however, Espia and Red have come to be defined by the reception to their debuts. She is able to screen her film in various cities across the world, encouraged by the eagerness for her follow-up; he, on the other hand, is happy just to be able to show his work to a handful of viewers, in Manila or in Tokyo, most of whom may actually enter and leave the theater carrying the same feeling. But to the few who have been moved by the rawness and sincerity of Rekorder, particularly by its failed attempts at polishing its perspective, it only feels right to admit that, with the benefit of hindsight, the small consideration given to it matches its smallness, and that Red, supposing he is willing to be on the suffering side of the art form for which his father has labored for decades, can offer something that his contemporaries cannot.
Although it’s shot in different formats, the changes in tone, texture, and frame sizes complement the atmosphere of internal and external deterioration, from the demons that keep hovering over the principal character to the glitches in his surroundings that he is forced to confront, actions and distractions that Red sets up to make him move. Rekorder’s experimental quality, instead of presenting new ideas, falls into the trap of engaging in stale metaphors and hackneyed juxtapositions, visuals that feel compelled to say something, plots that tend to put things out of focus, and elements that build down rather than up to a conclusion, particularly with the effect of those shots of buildings and skies at night, highlighting the verves perceptible only among the nocturnal. But this is Red’s youth speaking for him, which is an acceptable display of flimsiness; and it’s good that he hasn’t lost it, for the moment the film attends to a crucial turning point, when the protagonist bears witness to a crime and is able to record it on video, the narrative suddenly finds a backbone, and what has started out as messy becomes messier, and its echoes sound clearer and more resonant.
What several viewers regard as “dragging” is basically an effort to establish coherence between things from the past and present, how these items, whether material (camcorder, movie posters, theaters, reels) or conceptual (violence, media, ethics, freedom, progress), are changed and devalued over time, and the people who own and consume them—those who fail to adjust and carry on, those who choose to stop at one moment and realize it’s better to stay there—end up battered and haunted. Ronnie Quizon, in a career-defining performance, embodies a man who wanders between reason and madness, and one by one the objects and thoughts keeping him steady are being taken away from him, Red capturing his weariness and struggle by submitting to Quizon’s delightful moments of self-indulgence. A commanding presence onscreen, he exudes the soul of a lazy, tormented hero, one who’s difficult to hate and frown upon, and one whose frequent plunges into despair are inevitable.
A huge chunk of Rekorder tugs at movie piracy and the glory days of Philippine cinema, but oddly these matters feel negligible as the story moves forward. They provide the backdrop in which the lead character situates his life (or lack thereof) and fixations, but as soon as the routine of his work and his past are established, they wilt and fade. For some reason they come across as distant, lacking the immediacy to make the viewer feel involved. May this be attributed to Red’s weakness as a writer and director or is indifference a prevailing attitude as far as these subjects are concerned? How come when Earl Ignacio, the moment he is being carried away by the police during a raid, shouts about the sorry state of Filipino films, in a tone that is somehow similar to being slapped in the face, the tendency to cringe and look away from the screen is so tempting? How is it possible not to be affected by the nuances of these contradictions?
Nevertheless, the reveal at the end makes an uncanny impression, for, unexpectedly, the long walks and empty gazes begin to add up, the trembling and stuttering, the look of fright and longing, the melancholy of a single man, the detachment from society and from himself, the obscenity of simply being alive. Eclipsing the pain of nostalgia and the ordinariness of violence is this throb of personal preoccupation, and Rekorder, in its efforts to create a complex and rounded milieu for its protagonist, understands the need to collapse, and in a world that continues to pull unpleasant surprises, where humanity rusts for want of use, it seems to be the only fitting end.
*Published in the second issue of Kino Punch, UP Cinema’s film magazine
Best Reads of 2013 December 31, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Books.
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Reading a book: happiness, like peeling an apple, warming a slice of pizza, chewing a sweet piece of gum, seeing a shooting star a second before it disappears, entering a library, breathing that familiar smell of dust, sitting in a corner, admiring the silence, looking up a word, looking out the window, going down an endless flight of stairs with no sense of hurry, finding a place to sit, lying down on the grass, resting your gaze on the sky, seeing the clouds move, closing your eyes, losing it, recovering, finally losing it.
Following are the finest books I read in the past year.
45. EVERYMAN, Philip Roth, 2006
“Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t understand the complete unadultness—the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers. No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us. If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for himself, that was it—he’d come upon it early and intuitively, and however elemental, that was the whole of it.”
44. WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK
Nathan Englander, 2012
“They were all heroes to us, every single one of Russia’s oppressed. We’d seen Gulag on cable television, and learned that for escapes across vast snowy tundras, two prisoners would invite a third to join, so that they could eat him along the way. We were moved by this as boys, and fantasized about sacrifice, wondering which of our classmates we’d devour.”
43. MONKEY GRIP, Helen Garner, 1977
“At last,” he said, “I’ve found someone who fucks soft.”
42. SELECTED STORIES, Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, 1994
“Getting off at College Station, he had the impression that people were staring at him. He was going to continue on his way but then thought that to imagine people were looking at him strangely was in itself a symptom of insanity.”
41. A BREATH OF LIFE (PULSATIONS), Clarice Lispector, 1978
Translated by Johnny Lorenz, 2012
“Last night I had a dream within a dream. I dreamed that I was calmly watching actors working on a stage. And through a door that was not locked men came in with machine guns and killed all the actors. I began to cry: I didn’t want them to be dead. So the actors got up off the ground and said: we aren’t dead in real life, just as actors, the massacre was part of the show. Then I dreamed such a good dream: I dreamed this: in life we are actors in an absurd play written by an absurd God. We are all participants in this theater: in truth we never shall die when death happens. We only die as actors. Could that be eternity?”
40. ALMOST NO MEMORY, Lydia Davis, 1997
“An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.”
39. CRONOPIOS AND FAMAS, Juilo Cortázar, 1962
Translated by Paul Blackburn, 1969
“It happened that a gentleman dropped his glasses on the floor, which, when they hit the tiles, made a terrible noise. The gentleman stoops down to pick them up, very dejected, as the lenses are very expensive, but he discovers with astonishment that by some miracle he hasn’t broken them.
“Now this gentleman feels profoundly thankful and understands that what has happened amounts to a friendly warning, in such a way that he walks down to an optician’s shop and immediately acquires a leather glasses case, padded and double-protected, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of, etc. An hour later the case falls, and stooping down to recover it without any great anxiety, he discovers that the glasses are in smithereens. It takes this gentleman a while to understand that the designs of Providence are inscrutable, and that in reality the miracle has just now occurred.”
38. SELECTED STORIES, Robert Walser
Translated by Christopher Middleton and others, 1982
“I am thrilled to be writing a report on such a delicate subject as trousers, and thus to be licensed to plunge into meditation upon them; even as I write, a desirous grin, I can feel it, is spreading over my face.”
37. DARK HOURS, Conchitina Cruz, 2005
“I missed the train right away. I despised the return to the road, the chaos of buses, the cops on the lookout for bribes. We became believers in the rule of elimination: every place became a potential target; the safest spots were those that had already been bombed. We ignored the warnings and kissed on the steps to the train.”
36. THE DUEL, Anton Chekhov, 1891
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2004
“Trust me, I won’t deceive you, and I won’t conceal a single truth from the eyes of your soul. Listen to me, then, dearest. . . God marks great sinners, and you have been marked. Remember, your dresses have always been awful!”
35. ÁGUA VIVA, Clarice Lispector, 1973
Translated by Stefan Tobler, 2012
“. . . suddenly I saw him and he was such an extraordinarily handsome and virile man that I felt a joy of creation. Not that I wanted him for myself just as I don’t want for myself the boy I saw with the hair of an archangel running after a ball. I just wanted to look. The man looked at me for an instant and smiled calmly: he knew how beautiful he was and I know that he knew that I didn’t want him for myself. He smiled because he felt no threat at all. Because beings exceptional in any way are subject to more dangers than your average person. I crossed the street and took a taxi. The breeze made the hairs on my neck stand up. And I was so happy that I huddled in the corner of the taxi out of fear because happiness hurts. And all that caused by having seen the handsome man. I still didn’t want him for myself—what I like are people who are a little ugly and at the same time harmonious, but he somehow had given me a lot with his smile of camaraderie among people who understand each other. I didn’t understand any of this.”
34. TRAIN DREAMS, Denis Johnson, 2011
“All his life Robert Grainier would remember vividly the burned valley at sundown, the most dreamlike business he’d ever witnessed waking—the brilliant pastels of the last light overhead, some clouds high and white, catching daylight from beyond the valley, others ribbed and gray and pink, the lowest of them rubbing the peaks of Bussard and Queen mountains; and beneath this wondrous sky the black valley, utterly still, the train moving through it making a great noise but unable to wake this dead world.”
33. MONSIEUR PAIN, Roberto Bolaño, 1999
Translated by Chris Andrews, 2010
“This is the strangest bribe I’ve ever heard of,” I murmured. Of course they didn’t understand.
32. DANCING LESSONS FOR THE ADVANCED IN AGE
Bohumil Hrabal, 1964
Translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1995
“. . .my cousin was a twin and real card, he was christened Vincek and his brother was christened Ludvíček, and when they were a year old their mother was bathing them in a tub and popped out to see a neighbor, and when she got back half an hour later one of them had drowned, and they were so much alike nobody could tell which one, Ludvíček or Vincek, so they flipped a coin, heads for Ludvíček, tails for Vincek, and it came up Ludvíček, but when my cousin Vincek grew up he began to wonder—and he had plenty of time for it, he was always out of a job—he began to wonder who really did drown, whether the person walking around on Earth wasn’t really Ludvíček, and he, Vincek, was up in heaven, which led him to drink and to wander along the water’s edge and go in swimming, testing the waters, so to speak, till at last he drowned, by way of proof that he hadn’t been the one to drown back then. . .”
31. PEDRO PÁRAMO, Juan Rulfo, 1955
Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 1994
“I had expected to see the town of my mother’s memories, of her nostalgia—nostalgia laced with sighs. She had lived her lifetime sighing about Comala, about going back. But she never had. Now I had come in her place. I was seeing things through her eyes, as she had seen them. She had given me her eyes to see.”
30. THE LOVER, Marguerite Duras, 1984
Translated by Barbara Bray, 1985
“One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, ‘I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”
29. INNOCENT ERÉNDIRA AND OTHER STORIES
Gabriel García Márquez
Translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1978
“We had been seeing each other for several years. Sometimes, when we were already together, somebody would drop a spoon outside and we would wake up. Little by little we’d been coming to understand that our friendship was subordinated to things, to the simplest of happenings. Our meetings always ended that way, with the fall of a spoon early in the morning.”
28. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, Joan Didion, 2005
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
27. ON THE YANKEE STATION, William Boyd, 1981
“People, it seems, want to give me things—for some reason known only to them. No matter what I do or how I behave, unprompted and unsought the gifts come. And they will keep on coming. Naked photos, cold pizza, their girls, their wives, their breasts to see, even their grief. I feel a growing confidence about my stay in Nice. It will be all right now, I feel sure. It will work out. I think about all the gifts that lie waiting for me. I think about the Swedish girls at the Centre. I think about spring and the days when the sun will be out. . .”
26. THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH, Michael Chabon, 1988
“When I remember that dizzy summer, that dull, stupid, lovely, dire summer, it seems that in those days I ate my lunches, smelled another’s skin, noticed a shade of yellow, even simply sat, with greater lust and hopefulness—and that I lusted with greater faith, hoped with greater abandon. The people I loved were celebrities, surrounded by rumor and fanfare; the places I sat with them, movie lots and monuments. No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.”
25. THE RAIN BEFORE IT FALLS, Jonathan Coe, 2007
“There is nothing one can say, I suppose, about happiness that has no flaws, no blemishes, no fault lines: none, that is, except the certain knowledge that it will have to come to an end.”
24. A VERY EASY DEATH, Simone de Beauvoir, 1964
Translated by Patrick O’Brian, 1965
“I did not particularly want to see Maman again before her death; but I could not bear the idea that she should not see me again.”
23. THE OPTIMIST’S DAUGHTER, Eudora Welty, 1972
“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much, Laurel thought.”
22. THE APPLE IN THE DARK, Clarice Lispector, 1961
Translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1967
“ … ‘I am I!’ she begged Him, not as a privilege, but to make it easier for Him to grant the tremendous exception. ‘Oh God, let me always have a body!’ The tears were running down her still happy face which, startled, had not had time to change its expression. ‘My God,’ she finally confessed, feeling that with it she was confessing a great sin—‘I never want to see You! She felt horror for God and His sweetness and His stability and His perfume; she felt horror for the birds that He had sent as messenger of peace. ‘I don’t want to die because I don’t understand death!’ the girl said to God. ‘Please don’t judge me so superior to the point that You will send me death! I don’t deserve it! Sneer at me because I am inferior, any life is enough for me! And I’m not intelligent, I was always backward in school, why give me so much importance now, then? It’s enough to put me aside and forget about me, who am I to die! Only privileged people should die! Whom are You asking the truth from! You can give it to anyone who asks for it!’”
21. THE DAY OF THE OWL, Leonardo Sciascia, 1961
Translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Arthur Oliver, 1963
“Truth is at the bottom of a well: look into it and you see the sun or the moon; but if you throw yourself in, there’s no more sun or moon: just truth.”
20. BY NIGHT IN CHILE, Roberto Bolaño, 2000
Translated by Chris Andrews, 2003
“One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them, and only God understands and judges them, so one must be very careful with one’s silences.”
19. LIFE & TIMES OF MICHAEL K, J. M. Coetzee, 1983
“He is like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand. A hard little stone, barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself and its interior life. He passes through these institutions and camps and hospitals and God knows what else like a stone. Through the intestines of war. An unbearing, unborn creature.”
18. THE INVENTION OF MOREL, Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1940
Translated by Ruth L. C. Simms, 1964
So I was dead! The thought delighted me, (I felt proud, I felt as if I were a character in a novel!)
17. LET US COMPARE MYTHOLOGIES, Leonard Cohen, 1956
In his black armour
the house-fly marched the field
of Freia’s sleeping thighs,
undisturbed by the soft hand
which vaguely moved
to end his exercise.
And it ruined my day—
this fly which never planned
to charm her or to please
should walk boldly on that ground
I tried so hard
to lay my trembling knees.
16. THE FAT MAN IN HISTORY, Peter Carey, 1993
“I don’t believe in god,” my father said. “Humanity is god. Humanity is the only god I know. If humanity doesn’t need something it will disappear. People who are not loved will disappear. Everything that is not loved will disappear from the face of the earth. We only exist through the love of others and that’s what it’s all about.”
15. NIGHT, Elie Wiesel, 1958
Translated by Marion Wiesel, 2006
“I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps . . . Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books . . .”
14. THE DREAM OF HEROES, Adolfo Bioy Casares, 1954
Translated by Diana Thorold, 1987
“As Gauna was getting ready to go out that same evening, just as it was beginning to get dark, there was a downpour of rain. He waited in the entrance hall for it to stop, and he noticed how all the usual colours of the neighbourhood—the green of the trees, lighter in the case of the eucalyptus whose leaves were quivering beyond the waste ground in the distance, darker in the case of the paradise trees on the pavements, the browns and greys of the doors and windows, the white of the houses, the ochre of the draper’s on the corner, the red of the posters still vainly announcing the sale of plots of land, the blue of the glass sign opposite—all these had taken on the boundless intensity of living things, as if some frenzied exaltation had reached them from the depths of the earth.”
13. ROGUE MALE, Geoffrey Household, 1939
“I distrust patriotism; the reasonable man can find little in these days that is worth dying for. But dying against—there’s enough iniquity in Europe to carry the most urbane or decadent into battle.”
12. ALL FIRES THE FIRE AND OTHER STORIES, Julio Cortázar, 1966
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine, 2005
“There were several weeks—it’s so hard to be precise with happiness—when everything made us laugh.”
11. WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, J. M. Coetzee, 1980
“All that I want now is to live out my life in ease in a familiar world, to die in my own bed and be followed to the grave by old friends.”
10. CHESS, Stefan Zweig, 1942
Translated by Anthea Bell, 2006
“I had always realized that such a unique, brilliant game must create its own matadors, but how difficult and indeed impossible it is to imagine the life of an intellectually active human being whose world is reduced entirely to the narrow one-way traffic between black and white, who seeks the triumphs of his life in the mere movement to and fro, forward and back of thirty-two chessmen, someone to whom a new opening, moving knight rather than pawn, is a great deed, and his little corner of immortality is tucked away in a book about chess—a human being, an intellectual human being who constantly bends the entire force of his mind on the ridiculous task of forcing a wooden king into the corner of a wooden board, and does it without going mad!”
9. NEAR TO THE WILD HEART, Clarice Lispector, 1943
Translated by Alison Entrekin, 2012
“. . .goodness makes me want to be sick. Goodness was lukewarm and light. It smelled of raw meat kept for too long. Without entirely rotting in spite of everything. It was freshened up from time to time, seasoned a little, enough to keep it a piece of lukewarm, quiet meat.”
8. THE SPARE ROOM, Helen Garner, 2008
“The most beautiful things,” he remarked to her in a German-tinged drawl, “happen secretly and privately.”
7. CIVILWARLAND IN BAD DECLINE, George Saunders, 1996
“The fight started when I accused her of flirting with our neighbor Len Kobb by bending low on purpose. I was angry and implied that she couldn’t keep her boobs in her top to save her life. If I could see her one last time I’d say: Thanks very much for dying at the worst possible moment and leaving me holding the bag of guilt. I’d say: if you had to die, couldn’t you have done it when we were getting along?”
6. BERLIN STORIES, Robert Walser
Translated by Susan Bernofsky, 2012
“I am poor, and I am steeling myself for even more poverty,” I wrote, as I recall, to delightful Auguste, who had been my sweet little lady friend, “and you will probably never again respond to a letter containing such doleful confessions. I understand you womenfolk; you are only lovely, good, and kind to those who visibly enjoy good fortune in this world. Penury, indigence, and misfortune repulse you. Forgive the anguish that is not ashamed to write such things. What am I capable of offering you when I am scarcely able to keep my own head above water? Clearly things are over between us, no?, for you will surely find it excellent to shun me. This I can understand. And I as well am joyfully taking leave of you today, because now it is time for me to invest what strength I possess in fighting an all too unlovely struggle for survival. Oh, all those rose scenes, that divine, gay exuberance you bestowed on me, that laughter! I shall always be prepared to think back on a happiness whose mischievous originator you were. Let me kiss you once more in thought, tenderly, as if we were still entitled to dally thus. No doubt you have already begun to forget me. And so adieu forever.”
5. UNREASONABLE HOURS, Julio Cortázar, 1983
Translated by Alberto Manguel, 1995
“… Mecha’s hands climbing softly to her waist, sliding upwards to join at her breast, the body shaking in a spasm because now her ears could maybe hear the multiplying sirens, the knocking on the door that made the whole house tremble, the commanding shouts and the crunch of the wood breaking, and then the spray of the machine-gun, the screams of Mrs Luisa, the lurch of the pack of bodies bursting in, everything as if timed for Mecha’s awakening, everything on schedule for the nightmare to end and for Mecha to return to reality at last, to the beauty of life.”
4. DISGRACE, J. M. Coetzee, 1999
“What the dog will not be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays! he thinks), what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone. It will be beyond him, this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.”
3. THE TRIAL, Franz Kafka, 1925
Translated by Breon Mitchell, 1998
“No,” said the priest, “you don’t have to consider everything true, you just have to consider it necessary.” “A depressing opinion,” said K. “Lies are made into a universal system.”
2. 2666, Roberto Bolaño, 2004
Translated by Natasha Wimmer, 2008
“Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
1. THE PASSION ACCORDING TO G.H., Clarice Lispector, 1964
Translated by Idra Novey, 2012
“And if we foresee it, it’s also because we feel uneasily used by God, we feel uneasily that we are being used with an intense and uninterrupted pleasure—moreover our salvation for now has been that of at least being used, we are not useless, we are intensely taken advantage of by God; body and soul and life are for just that: for the interchange and ecstasy of someone. Uneasy, we feel that we are being used every instant—but that awakens within us the uneasy desire to use as well.
“And He not only allows us, but He needs to be used, being used is a way of being understood.”
You are Beautiful and You are Alone: The Top Albums of 2013 December 30, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearend.
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Omission or overstatement is always a possibility, and year-end lists thrive in risks, in flaws and fallacies, in misjudgment and misplacement. They exist for these reasons. They conclude a year the same way desserts complete a meal, hence at first they must capture one’s attention, and when eaten must be satisfying, must be gone in only a matter of seconds, leaving the plate and the spoon clean. Well, at least, that’s the idea. And the ideal.
This personal list tries and fails, but it has always believed in trying.
II, Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Carrier, The Dodos
Faint Hearted, Miles
Field of Reeds, These New Puritans
The Flower Lane, Ducktails
Hummingbird, Local Natives
In Focus?, Shugo Tokumaru
MCII, Mikal Cronin
The Messenger, Johnny Marr
Push the Sky Away, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Season of Your Day, Mazzy Star
Slow Focus, Fuck Buttons
Stories Don’t End, Dawes
We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic, Foxygen
Atoms for Peace
Contrary to speculations, Thom Yorke has friends. Outside Radiohead the music he makes may not be totally different but it gives way to his lighter side, the gentler and warmer side of his that blooms when he’s not around his usual band mates. Amok is the first LP of Atoms for Peace, but it’s a record so sure of itself, so strong and steady that there’s something humorous in calling it a debut, especially since the people involved in making it are industry heavyweights. The sleekness of it is far from overpowering. One after another, the tracks move with seeming complicity and make sweeping gestures through minimal use of elements. Although it boasts a deftly polished surface, Amok also holds surprises for those who listen closely.
Recommended: “Default,” “Ingenue,” “Judge, Jury and Executioner”
9. The Hurry and the Harm
City and Colour
Although The Hurry and The Harm sounds more refined than Dallas Green’s previous records, to an extent due to the sophistication of its production, one thing hasn’t changed: his ace songwriting. This gift for lyrical flourishes is coupled with melodies that burst at the seams, turning melancholy fears into personal realizations, opening all doors and windows to let the air in. At one moment he sings, “I don’t wanna be revolutionary / No, I’m just looking for the sweetest melody,” and it sums up neatly what he has been doing all these years.
Recommended: “Harder than Stone,” “The Lonely Life,” “Commentators”
8. Hesitation Marks
Nine Inch Nails
The surprise on Hesitation Marks is not its arresting quality, which is expected from almost every Trent Reznor release, but the reason for it. Yes, it’s an album heavy with textures and atmospheres, and its starkness is breathtaking, but there’s less force and fewer demons, less brutality and more tenderness, as shown on its softer rhythms and looser tunes that feel like musical fondues: tasty and scrumptious, forcing the listener to dance in glee. Older but definitely wiser, Reznor has so much more to give.
Recommended: “Copy of A,” “Came Back Haunted,” “Satellite”
7. The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
“This record was really autobiographical because my mind didn’t have room for anything else,” says Neko Case, referring to her latest album. And The Worse Things Get…, driven by the unforgiving power of her voice, the cruelty of its tone, and the burning clarity of her words, swells with the need to be let out, to be remembered less for its stories than for the emotional rawness they carry. Case is many things (a man, a tornado, a murderer) and shows many things (love, aggression, anger, loneliness, fear), and this record presents her at her most vulnerable, which is also her most beautiful.
Recommended: “Night Still Comes,” “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” “Afraid”
6. …Like Clockwork
Queens of the Stone Age
The recording of …Like Clockwork is marked by difficulties: the departure of drummer Joey Castillo, Josh Homme’s near-death experience at hospital, and a slew of distractions that have found the band members in a state of ennui, trying to figure things out after several years of not being at the studio together. But there have also been welcoming changes and additions, namely the contributions of former members Nick Oliveri, Dave Grohl, and Mark Lanegan, and the collaborations with Trent Reznor, Alex Turner, and Elton John, among others. All these make it feel like it’s a colossal, mind-blowing record, but it isn’t, for it is propelled by confident restraint and resolve to focus on the music, which remains intense and crunchy without losing that boldness to tread on uneven terrains. Truth be told, there’s not much to say about …Like Clockwork, except that every second of it drips with goodness.
Recommended: “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” “If I Had A Tail,” “Smooth Sailing”
5. Julia With Blue Jeans On
It’s sad that Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, arguably two of the finest rock bands from the 2000s, are no longer around. But Spencer Krug—an overly gifted songwriter and crazy singer; a sufferer, a poet of immense talent, and a storyteller of mad predilections—always finds a way to free his work from himself, to find an avenue for his compositions. Leaving Canada for Finland, he continues making records as Moonface, and this year, having gone through many changes like the characters in his songs, releases Julia With Blue Jeans On, a tempered work compared with his previous records. Accompanied only by the piano, this album also happens to be his most heartbreaking: his excesses, instead of acting as flourishes, create a haunting effect, and his voice remains compelling, beer-friendly. The moment the album reaches its final seconds, the listener feels completely heavy, skeptic of playing it again, and that’s how it is with everyone.
Recommended: “Barbarian,” “Dreamy Summer,” “Julia With Blue Jeans On”
4. m b v
My Bloody Valentine
Who would have fucking thought? After 22 years, there’s no way that a fan, possibly in his teens or twenties when Loveless came out, can confront m b v without eagerness, without looking forward to basking in its shoegazing glory, without hoping to place his hands in its embers. Its mere presence is enough to move him to tears. And thankfully m b v leaves no room for disappointment—it’s a constellation that keeps on twinkling, a record so generous that it gives its listeners plenty of reasons to press repeat. It’s an album with a long and rewarding life, with a soul that never leaves. Once people get past the comparisons with Loveless, all that’s left is this huge gratitude to a band that has suffered a lot to deliver this astonishing piece of work.
Recommended: “She Found Now,” “Who Sees You,” “New You”
Record after record, Arctic Monkeys prove one important thing: their growth is never tiring. Suck It and See finds them in a difficult situation as it sets down what seems to be their total strengths as songwriters and musicians, and what comes next may pale in comparison. AM, however, doesn’t, and this is a noteworthy feat that owes to their willingness to develop their sound without losing the verve and vibe that have made listeners cling to them over the years. Driven by the band’s captivating personality and tracks that are too irresistible to ignore, AM simmers after every spin, and the whistle it makes is a reminder that good things may come to an end but that end sometimes connects with better things.
Recommended: “Do I Wanna Know?” “R U Mine?” “Knee Socks”
2. The Next Day
While listening to The Next Day one is tempted to find a moment when it wavers, when David Bowie, a pop icon who’s had many fits of inconsistencies in his career, loses grip and indulges pointlessly, but there isn’t any. It sounds so brisk, spontaneous, and spirited that it doesn’t feel like a comeback record, it doesn’t feel that Bowie has been gone for long, it doesn’t feel that words will do justice to its seeming lightheartedness, to its exhilarating moments. Bowie’s well never runs out of interesting ideas, and every time the bucket emerges, it brims with pleasant surprises. The Next Day stands as proof of this.
Recommended: “Valentine’s Day,” “I’d Rather Be High,” “Dancing Out in Space”
1. Trouble Will Find Me
What the members of The National have been consistently doing since 2005’s Alligator is shape their experiences into beguiling pieces of music, and though most of them teem with anxieties and forebodings of fathers in their thirties and forties, they are likely to strike a chord with any listener who revels in exquisite descriptions of dark feelings, who sees humor in the mundane, and who has always imagined rock music mixed with gentle poetry. High Violet may be a tough record to follow, but Trouble Will Find Me, in its searing moments of inscrutable joy, marks an achievement that is impossible to overstate, a record that only confirms The National’s intolerable kindness, their unbearable and stubborn greatness.
Recommended: “Sea of Love,” “Graceless,” “Pink Rabbits”
February 16, 2013
March 22, 2013
World Trade Center
July 30, 2013
August 19, 2013
Hard Rock Cafe
Explosions in the Sky
Heart Locked Tight: The Top Tracks of 2013 December 29, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearend.
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Let’s begin with a confession: the finest pop song of the year is not on this list. Haim’s “The Wire,” which blends exquisite songwriting and an oddly fantastic fusion of simple melodies, boasts a frenetic cadence that has a life of its own, a sumptuous tune that feels as natural as air, as carefree as a walk in the park. It wears the crown before this countdown starts.
But the Haim sisters exist on a different list, a list that I won’t even bother to make because that kind of list is already done by many. I believe the point of doing juvenile things like this is to let out a voice that would represent a person and not a collective, and that way it becomes less immature and more consequential, the meaning is carried from ears to fingers, from musical notes to descriptive words, seemingly intact.
So I’ve tried to come up with an equivalent list, one without “The Wire” but still satisfies me, a list guided by a familiar tone, and here it is.
20. “People Like Us”
There’s always something iffy about songs of empowerment, for they have a tendency to simplify and give too much credit to themselves. But perhaps the only important point is to make the sentiment believable. And Kelly Clarkson, who has been there and done that, who has been ridiculed for her size many times, who has been caught in an embarrassing situation with Beyoncé, who has starred in a god-awful movie called Justin and Kelly, who else but she can deliver a commanding anthem of rise? “People Like Us” is clear-eyed, straightforward, and pushy, qualities that also make it off-putting, but her voice has always been the highlight of her singles, her voice dictates the beat and tempo, her voice can definitely cause some damage. The formula of “Since U Been Gone” is still here, but the moment her voice lilts, there is no way one won’t be swept away.
19. “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light Em Up)”
Fall Out Boy
Save Rock and Roll is a decent comeback, and its lead single, whose title shows Fall Out Boy’s difficulty to veer away from their emo roots, gives them enough muscle to stay ahead of the game. There’s too much going on: the hand clapping, the thundering drums, Patrick Stump’s howling, the second voice, the glossy and brooding atmosphere. Yet this kind of extravagance sounds cohesive—these elements are integrated well to create a convincing whole. It’s only three minutes long, but the feeling of being in a stadium full of people stays for quite a while.
18. “Get the Girl Back”
Despite featuring celebrities, the official music video for Hanson’s “Get the Girl Back” is far from reaching a million mark on YouTube—a number extremely unimaginable in this age of Justin Bieber and One Direction, when YouTube hits equate with marketability and eventual success—and this only means that the brothers can never be as huge as they used to be, regardless of the material they come up with. It’s sad, but at some point it also doesn’t matter—commercial success is something they have already experienced, and in this cruel business they’re actually quite lucky that their return as “grownups” is welcomed with more cheers than jeers. “Get the Girl Back” boasts a big band sound, which serves only to emphasize its pop-rock goodness, Taylor’s vocals, and the squeeze of juvenile love. It flaunts a straight up, rousing tune, loud and proud, no frills, nothing tongue-in-cheek. Just for Hanson’s return to the pop charts after almost 10 years, how can it be so hard to raise one’s glass to them?
17. “Do You Love Me”
Hooks are 2NE1’s best friends, and their entry on every year-end list accounts for their ability to unwrap old-fashioned melodies and rhythms and wrap them new. “D-O-Y-O-U-L-O-V-E-M-E” is a predictable come-on, but when followed by “Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me like the way I love you babe?” it turns a drab assembly into an irresistible party, like a centrifuge that puts every item that comes near it in rotation. This is slight compared with their previous singles, but even its slightness can poke all the stimuli in one’s body and cause euphoria of inexplicable heights.
Mariah Carey feat. Miguel
Mariah is a flirt but she’s the best flirt in town, this song seems to say, and its video, full of her booty shakes and vagina monologues, seems to say better. “Don’t stop till you thrill me, oh how you thrill me!” is something said during cunnilungus, but she gets away with it the same way she gets away with her lusty Christmas records: everything owes to the dynamics of her vocal package. Miguel showers her with adulations and she accepts every bit of it—I deserve all of them!—and something happens as they exchange lines, a spark almost imperceptible in the naked eye, a gentle flicker producing strong electricity, something that not even a cheap hashtag can taint. Unmoved by objectification and unfazed by Ariana Grande’s threats, Mariah simply holds her head (and boobs) high.
15. “Bakit Ngayon”
Julie Anne San Jose
Julie Anne San Jose is that rare breed of Kapuso star who doesn’t come across as cheap and trying hard like most of her contemporaries in her station. She’s no fluke. The weaknesses of her songs manage only to show her range and promise, and single after single there always emerges a reason to like her. On “Bakit Ngayon” she clings to the sappiness of ill-timed love, on and on until it reaches that magical middle eight, when she repeats “Dumating, nagparamdam sa akin” four times, each to different effect. And all the feebleness of the previous verses has been worth hearing because of this bridge, as it manages to tie up loose ends through something so dull and dreary, so humdrum in fact, but she sings it as though her world were about to crumble, as though her life depended on that stupid feeling.
14. “Still Into You”
Goddammit, it’s about that guy from New Found Glory! And it’s a profession of love, of all nasty things! But Hayley Williams, almost always in danger of becoming a second-rate Avril Lavigne, is gifted with oomph, with a sparkle of youth that transforms her words into contagious glee, with a voice that over the years she is able to use with flair. It’s hard to find fault with “Still Into You,” for it’s a song driven by genuine emotion. Its candor allows its lyrics to flow flawlessly, and its chorus is cooked to perfection. The moment Hayley shouts “I should be over all the butterflies!” the song becomes a balloon that bursts suddenly, and the sound it makes brings a vibe of celebration: confetti, colors, candles, cake. It’s ridiculous, but what kind of love isn’t?
13. “Best Song Ever”
It’s easy for some people to conclude that most love songs ruling the charts these days are fluff: hits that speak of almost the same thing, hits that take up so much space and offer nothing of value. This judgment is reasonable, but fluff, even at its slightest, is subject to various conditions, which make it interesting. Take the case of “Best Song Ever.” Its composers are accused of ripping off The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” and though the similarities are blatant, the song becomes reduced to such reputation, which is a shame because it’s a single that does not aspire to be anything but be a One Direction song: a formidable piece of fluff, a pastry full of marshmallows. Parts of it are vexing, providing the boys more dead-ends than possibilities, but it’s the moment they are after, a silly fraction of a moment that happens in the chorus, a half-minute of unadulterated pleasure that puts a new spin on feeling blissfully stupid. The emphasis is on the adverb, of course.
Listen to “Wings” and “Move” alternately and there’s this difference between them that’s hard to articulate without reaching a contradiction. The disparity is both subtle and glaring— subtle because they sound almost similar, the group’s distinguishing melodic chops are exhausted on both, though upon closer inspection, it feels as though they were separated by long years, while in fact it’s only 15 months; glaring because the vocals on “Move” are more confident and graceful, the transition between singers more evenhanded, the dynamics among the girls tighter and snappier. “Move” moves in different directions, possessed, happily intoxicated. It’s a banger in the tradition of Girls Aloud and Sugababes, and these young X-Factor ladies take pride in managing to stand alongside these fantastic female groups. Their common denominator? The British fondness for risky song structures. Little Mix? More like Little Minx.
11. “Nasa Iyo Na Ang Lahat”
Failure to acknowledge this hit gives the impression of denying, or even invalidating, the curious case of Daniel Padilla, particularly the hordes of fans who shower him with affection, and to whom a meaningless gaze from him is enough to send them to the mental ward. One fascinating facet of his popularity is that he evokes the peculiarities of a Korean star, from his image of vanity and virility to the way his mere presence prompts screams, which is a welcoming development as far as pop culture phenomena are concerned. His ode to Kathryn Bernardo, “Nasa Iyo Na Ang Lahat,” describes his personality aptly: it’s cute, juvenile, and silly, which means that it is intended only for those who like him. It may not age well, for it gets tiring after multiple listens, but it’s a song that knows the moment, a song whose effect matters only at present, the unreasonable here and now, a comforting reminder that good things don’t leave too soon.
Katy Perry doesn’t want to see you be brave. Unlike Sara Bareilles, she doesn’t offer any piece of advice or words of inspiration. She doesn’t tell you that “you can be amazing” or “you can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug.” That’s not her shit. That’s too churchy. Instead, she talks about herself—me, me, me, me, me—all for the sake of self-congratulation. But Katy has the ability to deliver clichés with exultation. She has the knack for debasing her personal experiences and enjoying it. She must have fallen asleep every time Russell Brand had one of those long discourses on politics, but she managed to catch the keywords for her personal use—rhyming “tiger” and “fire,” “lion” and “champion,” “zero” and “hero”—thereby producing “Roar” and its enjoyable display of narcissism. Perfectly assembled, cleverly foolish. It’s bullshit to call it a song of empowerment, made even more obvious by its facetious video, but it’s proof that charming songs, like attractive people, are hard to resist.
Abra feat. Arci Muñoz
Gloc-9 has been on top of the mainstream rap scene for years, so it’s only about time that someone takes his place to offer something new, that is, to have someone interpret clichés differently. A firecracker onstage, Abra fits the bill—he’s younger, bouncier, freer. In this business where everything that sticks out is scrutinized, his height seems to go unnoticed, overridden by his comely face and briskness. While “Gayuma” announces his arrival, “Ilusyon” confirms his stay. Its rallying cry, “huwag niyo ‘kong gagawing tanga!” captures the fury and resentment of dissatisfied people, a society drowned in poor options and bad choices. His rants are ear-friendly: they do not ask for sympathy; they are meant to make his listeners nod. And all the way through “Ilusyon,” one can’t help but submit to his words, enjoy the rhythm of his tirades, and feel the clutch of its shiny refrain.
8. “Blurred Lines”
Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell
So many things have been said about “Blurred Lines,” from the ecstatic reviews prior to its massive success to the scathing comments after the release of its music video, not to mention the 10-paragraph diatribe by Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield that only highlights the song’s infallible appeal, but they all boil down to the basic truth that, indeed, up to this century, sexism sells. And when chauvinism is bundled nicely, when it’s delivered by good-looking men with money, compromise arises, and people get divided by the complexity of their sensibilities. The funniest thing about this whole kerfuffle is that the only person who has been able to break Robin Thicke is Miley Cyrus at the VMAs—she gives him what he wants, she twerks and sticks her tongue out, she makes him nervous, she makes people realize the utter filthiness of being objectified—yet what happens? She is disgraced and becomes the slut icon. People have shamed her for standing up to him. Congratulations, society.
Yes, “Blurred Lines” is misogynist, indecent, and reckless. It is conceived by men who enjoy trivializing women; it is a song that actually understands its message and the impact it will have on listeners. And all of these are already clear at the onset, therefore making it an even more cunning piece of trash. And not to put too fine a point on it: it’s a pop song—teenagers dance to it at parties, it gets blasted at malls and supermarkets, people no longer give a fuck about its lyrics but continue to be carried away by its sonic luxuries, its “modern” beat, its “homage to Marvin Gaye.” Even the need to put words and phrases between inverted commas is its fault. Who says popular music is only about earning money? Obviously it can shake the ground like this.
7. “I Got A Boy”
At some point on Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy” one is tempted to exclaim: Huh, what’s happening? Clearly it’s a song that takes pleasure in defying conventions—it’s messy, ambitious, and confusing; its transitions are loose and bumpy; its hooks sometimes out of place. But one is easily swept away by its demeanor, the way it takes pride in its arsenal of snappy verses, the way the beats keep up with the girls who have no time for lyrical costume changes. In five minutes the song is able to travel places, to enter an arena and exit a cave, to go on a trip with only the senses moving. It’s berserk. It’s magnificently careless. Second after second, “I Got A Boy” looks for rules to break and the girls do so with knives between their knuckles, like characters from a Takashi Miike movie about to run amok.
6. “Get Lucky”
Daft Punk feat. Pharrell
This won’t be an assessment of “Get Lucky” because at this point one is already resigned to its refreshing brilliance, one doesn’t feel the need to discuss why in this industry full of surprises and inconsistencies it is embraced with no questions asked, one listens to it without hesitation and understands every bit of sensation it brings, the effortlessness of its groove, the kindness of its beats, the grace of Pharrell’s presence, the wisdom of Nile Rodgers, the way Daft Punk continue to reinvent their music without changing it, how any annotation on every year-end list does not affect its actual worth, because the song itself is beyond the usual critical appraisal, and sometimes that’s a good thing, for it makes one realize that melodies have the capacity to hold magic, and it’s one of life’s wonderful gifts better left unexplained.
“I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” and upon uttering these cold words Lorde makes her entrance, her voice a few steps ahead of her body, her voice more naked than her flesh. She’s 17, she’s from New Zealand, and this is her first record. One is not compelled to decipher her: what she gives is enough. She is straightforward: there is only fog between her lines, nothing with obvious shape. Even the success of “Royals” is unsurprising: all her producers have to do is release it, show her face on the video, and let her sing. The odds are in her favor. Singing about her insecurity has made her secure, has probably allowed her to afford the luxuries she mentions in the song, which is a funny twist of fate but also inevitable. “Royals” provides a sharp contrast to the noise and disorder that permeate today’s music, and it proves that it’s possible to simply come out of nowhere and rule.
4. “The Way”
Ariana Grande feat. Mac Miller
Brenda Russell lends the piano riff that kicks off “The Way,” and it not only sets a distinctly chirpy mood but also complements the texture of Ariana Grande’s thin voice. This backing track is the red lipstick to her soft lips, the bounce to her walk, the frills on her dress. Her initial delivery of the chorus can either be a hit or a miss, and she hits it, graciously. But she holds on to that riff only to gain momentum after Mac Miller’s twaddle—the moment she delivers her breathtaking verses she untangles herself and sprints, light on her feet, exhilarated by freedom. She pronounces every word with delightful flirtatiousness, singing as though she had to choose between holding the crown on her head and holding her skirt that’s being ruffled by the wind. “The Way” is by all means a splendid single, and perhaps no one in 2013 has turned the lights on as brightly as Ariana Grande has, and more importantly: no one has ever stepped on Mariah Carey’s shadow as threateningly as she has done, no one with such vigorous promise at the very least.
Psy may be an anomaly in the landscape of global pop music, but his presence is a welcome deviation, a refreshing change from the tired formulas being churned out by Western music producers in the past couple of years. There’s no way he can top the rumpus brought about by “Gangnam Style,” but with “Gentleman” he proves that at 35, he remains the enfant terrible of K-Pop, and frankly the most gifted composer of joyful hooks. The dominant hook of “Gentleman,” which appears in the beginning, middle, and end, is a spectacle in itself, a quicksand that freezes the rapture contained in the song—the glee, the ecstasy, the gaiety, the fun, basically sucking in all degrees of happiness—and Psy, of all reasonable things to do, puts a hand under his chin and shakes his hips, introducing the world to a dance of utter smugness. There’s a lot to say about his polarizing popularity and his consistent critique of South Korean culture in his songs and music videos, but for now Psy’s genius for silliness of great consequence and magnitude is enough to consider him an icon of the offbeat, the heedless horseman of the bizarre.
There are two live performances of “Ikot-Ikot” that are worth watching before one decides to embrace or dismiss it.
First is its debut on Sunday variety show ASAP. Since it’s unfamiliar to everyone’s ears, there is that atmosphere of tension and anticipation, and even Sarah herself, in her red blazer and red pants, looks serious and uneasy, probably hoping that the color of her outfit would absorb her nerves. But her face is fierce: it’s ready to be wounded. Following her habit, she enunciates words more than what’s necessary, but she brings the beat in, the hand gestures, the body language. Before proceeding to the bridge of the song, she walks to a stage closer to the audience. And then, to everyone’s surprise, she explodes. That bridge resonates deeply to her, and that bridge is meant to be sung that way: manic, hysterical, and greedy, Sarah almost flying off the handle towards the end. It’s a flawed performance—and no bullshit, that’s actually the point: pain isn’t supposed to be perfect—but that last part alone is enough to consider it the song of the year. Or, sadly, the heartbreak of the year, Sarah’s politest way of saying “Fuck you and fuck it, Gerald.”
Second is the performance on Showtime, where she takes more liberties with the arrangement and shows the delicate side of the song. These melodic changes also display its supple quality, which points at the skill of writer Thyro Alfaro and producer Bojam de Belen. But the spotlight is still on her, and in this performance one is inclined to notice the quality of her voice. It’s powerful, there’s no doubt about that, but in her 10 years in the business, it’s obvious that she’s still grappling with it—she is still trying to whittle it. And that nuance is not present in the studio version of “Ikot-Ikot”: that first flush of youth, those jagged edges she thinks sound good live but don’t, that insistence on her established style. The version on Expressions is clean and commanding, with less vocal calisthenics and fewer overtones, but even after multiple listens it continues to throb, and it’s a relief that finally, after several years of middling covers, Sarah releases an original composition worth aching for, worth losing one’s head for.
1. “Wrecking Ball”
“There’s method behind the madness,” writer Robert Copsey says in his review of “Wrecking Ball,” and obviously in addition to method there is motivation. Perhaps not even Miley has seen it coming, but the buzz she has created in 2013 is enough for another artist’s lifetime, and that she is still around, releasing and promoting the superb “#GETITRIGHT” as her next single, continuing to receive endless pieces of advice from self-important celebrities, it’s likely that the worst of it has already passed.
She has Liam Hemsworth to thank for “Wrecking Ball,” for despite being inferior to “We Can’t Stop” as far as novelty and technique are concerned, it has made an indelible icon out of her, which is always a great thing to carry, especially when your father’s biggest legacy is “Achy Breaky Heart.”
What more to say? Which stone to turn? Which angle deserves more light or shade? There’s no way to tell. Sadly, it feels that music critics, who, more than anyone else, should be immune to stigma, are turning their backs on Miley on account of her behavior this year; but truth to be told, it’s for this very reason that she is the most vital recording artist of 2013—not Kanye, not Katy, not Kendrick, not even Beyoncé—and it owes to her stunts that monotony has been dodged. Fortunately, when all her tricks have been exhausted, there still remains a soul in her, some dust to be collected, a completely talented person. Is it worth it? No. But it’s actually by doing something unworthy that worth is redefined, so there goes a perspective.
And “Wrecking Ball” is that unworthy thing that becomes worthy in light of all the fuss. Its ordinariness is striking. It’s a ballad filled with decent hooks, but technical composition is secondary only to the passion that Miley brings to the words and melody. She translates her pain into another form of pain, and her vocabulary of hurt helps her out. When listened closely, it’s the sound of a being about to die but doesn’t die, and Miley, like a word lost among phrases or a sentence hidden in countless paragraphs, lets out this final cry before submitting to rest. They say destruction creates new terrains and selves: in this new phase of her life and career, she may enter it completely hurt but at least she is in one piece.
Riddles of My Homecoming (Arnel Mardoquio, 2013) November 12, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe GingGing Hyde, Perry Dizon, Madz Garcia, Jillian Khayle Barbarona, Jeff Sabayle
Riddles of My Homecoming is a beautiful title, like a line from an ode or elegy written ages ago, waiting to be lifted by a curious reader. As the film cracks open many of its sorrowful ambiguities, it seems that there is more pressure for director Arnel Mardoquio to create something to match the elegance of these words than to carry the well-defined politics of his previous film, Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim. He finds painful comfort in abstraction, in images following a careless rhythm, in characters guided by voices. Riddles is hazy, elusive, and unreachable, dabbling in sensations and obscurities, but its surface doesn’t pull any surprises, its tone never betraying its modesty.
It argues: How can one depict the soul of a struggle without resorting to a personal language, without consulting a map whose locations are now ruins? Towards the end it whispers: The places are no longer here but their imprints remain, but what are imprints for?
To make people remember, or to make them remember not to forget, is what Mardoquio, with his gentle temperament, seems to say. His vignettes flow with dreamy pleasure; its edges are rough and pointed but they give off a warm and uncompromising feeling. Some stories are clear as they engage in universal themes (attraction, sex, murder, war, freedom) and some tread on unfamiliar territories, leaving a trail of puzzle pieces whose entire picture never form, but whose impact, conveyed through mysterious objects and behavior, is completely felt: fractured but whole.
Hinting at many things, it hits only a few, but those few manage to creep on one’s skin. Mardoquio shapes a silent film around subjects that require voices, people whose histories are defined by their sound, surroundings whose noises make up the legend of a land. But he gives them another tongue, offers them the gift of speech, and declares their independence.
A large part of Riddles is shot in Compostela Valley, where typhoon Pablo left hundreds of people dead and thousands of families homeless in 2012. Ravaged and razed, it’s a province that heaves a sigh whenever one reaches it, its bumpy and potholed terrain like a face full of pockmarks and scars, tired from having weathered too many battles. Mardoquio has chosen a place that has its own light, and Compostela Valley, with its bleak forests, pale skies, and murky waters, is a reminder of collapse and resignation that can erode any surface, that can empty any space that has an indistinguishable entrance and exit. The film’s baffling nature is given as it tries to condense many ideas, many failures of man between past and future, but it is never superfluous, never in its mosaic of phantasms can it be called thin or dull.
“It’s a short film. Don’t blink,” Mardoquio says in his introduction at the screening. And indeed it’s short: short compared to its ambition, short compared to the scale of his sociocultural issues, short compared to the breadth of its madness. It demands to be taken seriously, but it’s wrong to think that it is always serious. Riddles is a predictable route for Mardoquio—where else can he go after the marvelously radical arc of Ang Paglalakbay?—but he is steadfast in his activism, in his aching need to be heard. It is a cheerless vision driven by anger and regret, but for several moments it is tempted to make itself clear, to solve its own riddle, only to find itself unable, disabled, looking ahead with its eyes closed.
Babagwa (Jason Paul Laxamana, 2013) October 9, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written and directed by Jason Paul Laxamana
Cast: Alex Vincent Medina, Joey Paras, Alma Concepcion
There is a tendency to question the merits of Babagwa on account of its unpleasant ending, but even with such lapse it’s hard to deny its earsplitting accomplishment. Seething with fervor, three-fourths of it is downright terrific: a persuasive, willful, and unapologetic display of skill that few local films in recent memory have come close to achieving. Everything seems to have been arranged to emphasize the impression of astuteness, pushing until it destructs itself. It’s proof that flawed movies provide stronger depictions of obnoxious realities, as though their faults were part of a scheme that makes the viewing experience rewardingly unsettling.
Depth, luckily, is not a concern. Writer and director Jason Paul Laxamana does not scrutinize his subject: his primary intention is to lay the narrative down with force and doggedness. Babagwa’s lead character, Greg, is a swindler. Aided by his two cohorts, he befriends people using a false Facebook identity and makes them believe that in this day and age emotions are foolproof. He specializes in sending romantic signals and ensuring that they reach their target. As soon as his prospects show a moment of vulnerability, sweet nothings are exchanged, then sexual innuendos, and lastly, bank account numbers. He gets by through this horrid scam, a livelihood wholly dependent on fraud, a web of duplicities made stickier by an excessive faith in the innocence of feelings.
A rational claim is that Babagwa, like most narratives that cause tremendous discomfort, is a horror story. Its haunted house is the Internet, and Facebook is its most visited room. It is impelled by a series of actions that escalates until the mood no longer feels comfortable, until drastic decisions are made and the turn of events moves obliquely in fast forward. What brings the frightening feeling is how the characters, motivated by terrible reasons, feed on the terror they create before going on autopilot. When Greg entertains the thought he will be forgiven for the harm he has done by doing what’s right, he runs around like a headless chicken: an impostor falling into a trap he himself has set up, a con artist oblivious of his own naïveté. Arriving at a crossroads, the movie builds up to a thrilling conclusion that offers numerous exits, only to settle unwisely for the nearest one.
Its nuts and bolts, so tight before the reveal, are covered with rust in an instant, and this stain, aside from raising doubts, also adds to the icky aftertaste. Granted, that catch at the end is supposed to be clever—a way of showing a reversal of fortune, a nearly fatal stab of karma, clearly intended to mess things up further—but it rubs distastefully because the film has gained so much steam that it deserves a riper sense of closure. The ride would have been more satisfying had Laxamana let the cunningness go and shifted his focus to a resolution that does not resolve anything; cutting it abruptly or leaving it open, in fact, would have made an exceptionally fearful impact, for apathy trumps any form of payback or vindication. The final act is played out with the fat lady (not singing but) drawing the curtain of what feels like a joke, turning a convincing story into a cautionary tale, giving unsolicited advice whose moral righteousness softens the blow.
The fuss over the ending is warranted because it brings out what makes Babagwa an engaging piece of work. Bold, defiant, and aggressive, it doesn’t run for cover or ask for sympathy. Its propensity to go over the top pays off, aware that its display of vanity is designed to overwhelm the viewer. The pleasure of seeing Alex Medina, Joey Paras, and Alma Concepcion pull each other’s leg shows that catfishing is indeed a serious business, and that the Internet, the most extensive cradle of recent civilization—complete with history, culture, economic means, sociopolitical structure, and crimes—is also a place where only the fittest survive, a place where one lives and dies. And those left behind (people, things, and memories) have the ability to forget and take the next step, seemingly unfazed to let sleeping dogs lie.
Laxamana is driven by a filthy desire to provoke and he does so without hesitation, allowing his happy-go-lucky spirit to capitalize on the fear of everyday correspondence. By breathing life into Bam Bonifacio—showing him around his condominium unit, dressing him up, and adding details to his fictional charmed life—Laxamana makes the crime even more palpable, leaving deeper teeth marks as the juxtaposition of two lives (Bam and Greg) underlines the desperation that draws them together. The sex scenes between Alex Medina and Chanel Latorre, filled with wet kisses and nipple licking, border on soft-porn, coming across as dirty and titillating without being repulsive. With these two key portions of the film, there’s a conscious effort to set things in motion, to keep itself away from anything dull, but the end of the game, as Greg regards his destination to be, is only the start of something else.
On the Job (Erik Matti, 2013) September 12, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written by Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti
Directed by Erik Matti
Cast: Joel Torre, Piolo Pascual, Gerald Anderson, Joey Marquez
The hype surrounding On the Job confirms that a sizeable fraction of Filipino moviegoers, contrary to popular belief, is not in front of a display window looking for something good: it is on an island waiting for rescue. This audience, whose taste in cinema is diverse and self-assured, is a proud bearer of positive news. Any hint of deliverance, whether it’s the sound of a moving object or a slight change of light, suggests emancipation, and the timing and technical skill of On the Job happen to fit the mold it has in mind for years.
In light of the issues confronting the country at present, the film’s resonance is impossible to overlook. The association between the social unrest it depicts and the impassioned reviews is persuasive, but it also has a tendency to magnify its actual merits. Clearly, On the Job is a far cry from Sister Stella L. and Orapronobis—both movies carried out under a strong political climate, their stories depicting a deeply rooted struggle, their sentiments continuing to echo with fear—but director Erik Matti does not envision his film to be either, and that decision works somehow in his favor.
There is no denying that Matti is not keen on insights: he is more concerned with viewer interest. He is after amusement, that delight of seeing pleasure in the faces of his audience as he gets away with his smoke and mirrors. His fascination with genres over the years has served as an inadvertent preparation for this—from action and horror to fantasy and erotica, he understands the tropes and squeezes entertainment out of them—and On the Job not only marks a turning point in his career: it also becomes his status symbol.
The shower of praises it receives, however, implies a certain misguidance—a misreading of Philippine cinema’s condition, quite similar to a doctor prescribing dentures to a patient with a healthy set of teeth. Most of the manic reviews speak of banalities and fall short on describing the virtues of the film. Worse, they raise alarming concerns. For example, why does faith in Philippine cinema being restored turn up? Why do some people take pride in disliking Star Cinema releases yet when a decent one comes about, they make it a point to express full ownership of it, loudly and smugly? Why is On the Job—a passable prison drama, a passive political picture, and a telling thriller with impressive splotches of hardboiled noir—being deemed a manna from heaven? What is the point of using it to decry and invalidate other local movies?
One argument hardly raised, which is probably the most pertinent as far as the current state of Philippine cinema is concerned, is that there exist (and there have always been) worthy movies outside Cinemalaya. They are few but they are being made. Demonizing Star Cinema and the Metro Manila Film Festival is easy, but gray areas such as grant-giving bodies that do good and cause harm at the same time are given the benefit of the doubt, rarely argued, and left untouched. On the Job has taken years to complete and has been to hell and back, amid all the logistical nightmares and financial risks involved, but it only goes to show that it can be done and it’s realistic to set high expectations.
Needless to say, its centerpiece is its brazenness. It creates a picture that never for once looks like it needs any help, leaving the viewers with an impression of freedom and luxury. It holds them by the neck and steer their emotions to one specific route. What Matti does is untighten the screws in succession, first the ones in the corners and then those in the middle; but along the way one screw refuses to be undone, and that’s where the narrative stores some surprises, unleashing them slowly in the final act, the characters finding themselves on a dead-end street and between concrete walls.
A second viewing of it highlights the buildup of relationship between the two hired killers. The result of such development is rather strange, for the death of one of them is less striking than the death of the character pursuing them, the latter creating a fork in the road while the former coming across as something supplementary, like a whimsical afterthought. As the second death is revealed, the impression made by the first is still there, and the effect of how it wraps things up feels slight. Writers Michiko Yamamoto and Matti may have anticipated this effect, hence their footnotes show eagerness in establishing a resolution through a grand gesture, owing to the genre’s requirements.
There is also a special significance attached to the no-nonsense parade of grit, emphasized by the urban setting. Manila exudes so much flavor that the story would hardly make a dent in the viewer without it. The geographical dynamics slides on the glossy surface and leaps from it, making room for a lot of pursuit and gunshots that never feel out of place, the elements in the backdrop rearranging themselves surreptitiously. On the Job’s finest moments are those that allow the city, specifically the culs-de-sac and buildings occupying it, to create necessary distractions and participate in the action. Should one pay attention to the stylish enactment of its major sequences—the shootout in the public hospital, the chase at the train station, and the gunfire outside Manila City Hall, not to mention the evil pair of rain and traffic being indifferent to everything—one feels a spark of splendor, a momentary blanket of thrill, as these scenarios are seldom captured in local movies. Seeing them onscreen causes a sudden jolt, like the taste of hot sauce in a slice of five-cheese pizza, waiting to be acknowledged as they hit the senses, strong and aching for water.
Putting more emphasis on its technical proficiency is the manner in which the production design of Richard Somes rounds out the camera work of Ricardo Buhay, particularly in bringing to life a prison built from scratch. Buhay does justice to Somes’s meticulous visual details, showing the gracelessness of objects left to smear on their own, uncared for and unwashed, unacquainted with social order like the inmates around them. The narrative moves forward confidently because Buhay and Somes are able to make the tone of the film consistent, the exterior and interior sequences achieving fluid transitions. Furthermore, the tracking shots do not feel like decorations; they create a pleasant contrast with all the shooting and running, the camera looking for an angle of attack and finding it, surprised at its own discoveries.
Young Critics Circle member J. Pilapil Jacobo, in the lead of his review, thinks that “On the Job preoccupies itself too much with the techniques of cinema which make ‘action’ a legitimate object of Filipino film that its so-called treatise on Philippine violence barely works even as police reportage.” What makes this argument regrettable is the presence of valid arguments that fail to register because they are not substantiated in the remainder of the essay. The preoccupation with techniques is true, but in defense of On the Job, irrespective of how its pack of supporters tries to make sense of its relevance, there is never an instance in the movie that suggests it’s a “treatise,” that it’s purposely making a grand statement on sociopolitical issues. In fact, it’s a film whose consciousness of its nature is obvious—“I’m a fucking movie, goddammit!”—and above all else, Matti has not veered away from his personality: he remains a filmmaker inclined to work on formulas and make a compelling picture out of them, by hook or by crook.
On the Job may not be “intelligent enough to launch a ‘critique’ of establishment,” but at this point, when the arts have most likely reached their most dramatic peak and society has seen its best and worst people and experienced its nastiest nightmares, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that intelligence, the boon and bane of human existence, has been prized too highly all these years? Is it unfair to presume that the kind of cinema that bears fruit is not conscious of what it can do for its people but one that is aware of its limitations and acknowledges them? On what condition can criticism not just be content with complimenting but also complementing a national cinema?
It’s a frustrating ball game when the need arises to distinguish art from entertainment for the sake of favoring the former, some people forgetting that entertainment is in fact an art: a discipline that follows a set of aesthetic principles for it to succeed, making use of skills and techniques to deliver its desired effect. It’s unfair to look down on it as a form of expression just because the gratification it offers is deceptive, and a judgment is not any less convincing or credible if enjoyment, no matter how short-lived it may be, is used as a focal point of critical discussion. The main weapon of On the Job is its unapologetic preference for action, its clear-cut view of crime and redemption, and its apparent lack of disguise. Gunmen don’t talk nonsense when they are being cornered, the police arrive when there’s still something else to do, Manila stinks when it rains. There is nothing tricky about it, so one must not overrate its own sense of importance, or belittle its plain straightforwardness.
Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bakal (Mes de Guzman, 2013) August 28, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written and directed by Mes de Guzman
Cast: Jess Evardone, John Paul Escobedo, Abdul John Candelario
In the uneven terrain of Philippine cinema, dominated by films that require committee endorsements before getting made, Mes de Guzman’s movies provide directions to a highland, someplace where human relationships, placed in the artless backdrop of the countryside, are complex in their simplicity. De Guzman has the ability to pare down his stories without truncating the scale of his subjects, doing it without adding unnecessary theater or touches of exoticism intended to dress up the unpleasant. His films are set in rural neighborhoods where one sees the surroundings in a state of ruin, either due to abuses committed to nature or because of neglect by the state government.
The elements in his movies are quite predictable—poverty as an accepted norm, inherited by generations of family members; death as something inevitable, a natural termination of suffering; and children as players caught in forbidden games, their innocence lost and exploited—but de Guzman has a way of depicting small lives and showing the thorough implications of their fates.
The Earth Trilogy, comprised of Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Yelo, Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato, and Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bakal, whose tangents touch the curves of Diablo and Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa, is distinguished more by breadth than by ambition, marked specifically by the girth of the world being presented: the way it measures around the milieu of destitution in the provinces. These films reek of anger and frustration, but de Guzman—a farmer, a short story writer, a novelist, and a longtime resident of these neighborhoods—is a pacifist, which shows in the mildness of his temper and in the authenticity of his characterizations. This disposition, however, does not prevent him from making statements against oppression and its extensive history, no matter how slight they may seem to the casual moviegoer. His body of work as a filmmaker, a distinctive rendering of the modest and the miniature, contains some of the sharpest observations on the Filipino condition, presenting sides of social dysfunctions often taken for granted.
Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bakal, for instance, does not go far from the boundaries of its predecessors. The hills and mountains are still there, surrounding the community; the fields are bare and untended; the view of the clear blue sky does not look complete without the trees; and the roads remain unpaved and unnoticed. There is a boy at the beginning who walks around telling neighbors about an upcoming wedding, asking them for help. The lead character, Carlito, works at a junk shop that manufactures illegal guns, which the owner sells to alleged gang members in the area. Middle-aged and living with his parents, Carlito has a girlfriend whom he wants to marry, but for some reason he is apprehensive about telling his mother and father. From there, stories are thinly scattered and their connections unfold leisurely. Until the end, the picture stays in de Guzman’s territory.
Similar to his previous movies, the pace of Bakal is slow and consuming, sometimes to the point of inducing sleep. It is not because of dullness but due to the insistence on capturing the sluggishness of provincial life. It is a treatment that de Guzman does naturally (or to some extent, deliberately), a language whose surface looks easy to polish but actually entails a certain sensibility. This sort of rhythm has come to define his movies, but as much as it highlights the understated horror of rural life, inclusive of the poetry and metaphysics that go with it, it also leaves the viewer in a disordered shape, the futility of the situation bearing the heaviest effect.
A legitimate concern is that watching de Guzman’s movies is hardly about learning something new: it is about witnessing how life sets up a dead-end and traps its defenseless characters. He can tell different stories but with similar resolutions, and the permutation is infinite unless the system changes and addresses the problem, which is unlikely to happen soon. In this regard, de Guzman can be seen as a darling of auteur theorists: his films are full of echoes, their themes and motifs bounce to each other, the dialogues are straightforward, the worldview is consistent, and the visual style is rich in symbolism. No one can dispute the authorship of his movies, and each film in his body of work reinforces the other.
But his weakness also comes from this persistence. Most of the time the closure of his narratives is not commensurate with the degree of emotional buildup that occupies them. His conclusions are often unrewarding because to some extent the viewer is no longer involved, mentally or emotionally. He or she is inclined to drift off, for the story no longer seems to be on the ground, losing its way and never reaching its destination. When the final moments come in, there is only a vague sense of recollection, and that profound effect can easily be mistaken for gravity. To some audience members, this shortcoming is pardonable, especially when it is considered in the grand scheme of things, in how de Guzman has managed to introduce discussions of issues in the regions; but such failing needs to be raised in order to understand his significance as a filmmaker much better. And indeed, more than anything, De Guzman (like Diaz, Jeturian, Mendoza, and Mardoquio) is an important filmmaker: his movies are flawed but mature, they test one’s patience but they need to be seen.
The Earth Trilogy presents a bleak look at the lives of struggling Filipinos in the countryside: young and old, deprived and impoverished, hopeful and hopeless. Survival and suffering are key subjects, de Guzman showing the nature of resilience with limits, whose terminus, for better or for worse, only means death for his characters. Its finest accomplishment is the genuine restraint despite the grand themes of poverty, child labor, capitalism, free trade, sorrow, resignation, birth, youth, and death, de Guzman being able to tell stories with an appropriate tone. No question: the power of these movies originates from his experience and wisdom. There is a lot to admire in the sparseness of Bakal, the delay of tragedies, the meager servings of happiness, the precision of details, and how the tokens of subsistence move from one person to another, as though in the neighborhood nothing was really lost because everything was passed around: possessions, words, news, relationships, crimes, souls, anecdotes, fears. In its long-winded journey in a tiny space, the bulk of one’s life is spent waiting for good fortune, which never comes at the right time.
Porno (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2013) August 8, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Written by Ralston Jover
Directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr.
Cast: Carlo Aquino, Angel Aquino, Yul Servo, Rosanna Roces, Bembol Roco
The bulk of Adolfo Alix’s features in the past few years is marked by a dynamic front, built on concepts that survey relationships in which chance plays a crucial role and simple decisions have life-changing consequences. These ideas are steered by characters placed in situations that call for breakdowns of diverse temerities. From the restraint of Ananda Everingham’s inscrutable ennui in Kalayaan to the intensity of Cherry Pie Picache’s maternal sorrows in Isda, their big scenes often have a lasting effect, one that casts a shadow on the entirety of the film. In his recent output Alix has shown this knack for creating better baits, those spectacles that make the audience feel uncomfortable because of their beauty and absurdity, those clever decoys that, after watching the teasers, seem to promise fulfillment without reservations.
But there is always something in his movies that prevent them from being great: a glaring mistake in characterization, a change of tone in the dialogue, a sloppy direction of a crucial sequence, an uncanny resemblance of elements to other films. One or a combination of these disturbances adds up and points to a glitch in his worldview, in his filmmaking perspective. Having completed more than 20 films in eight years, Alix is proof that ripeness can’t be hurried, that a finished work deserves more time, even if it only means letting it still and untouched. His latest film, Porno, whose actual core is different from what its title proposes, carries that regret in seeing a work filled with potential but diminished by a tendency to legitimize its nature, the substance of which is drained before it ends.
It’s frustrating because the resources are just waiting to be exhausted. No matter how imposing the parts may be, the actors manage to pull it off, if the acting alone, with no regard for the movement of the material, is taken into consideration. Angel Aquino takes her time before she is able to settle in the role, but when her character’s predicament sinks in, she delivers something perplexing, which allows the viewer to understand the reason for casting her. Carlo Aquino, on the other hand, may have nothing left to prove as far as acting is concerned, but in Porno he’s onto something: his presence oozes with sexuality that catches almost everyone in the audience by surprise, giving off that inexplicable attractiveness never seen in any of his previous movies. And Yul Servo, for some reason, still has it, despite his puppy-dog eyes being more expressive than his delivery of lines.
But along the way the capacity of the actors, not to mention the stylish cinematography of Albert Banzon, becomes too given, something that can be easily taken for granted, because Alix decides to put strong emphasis on the advancement of the story: to layer the drama and make the explicit sex scenes legitimate. For there is too much liquid in the material, the narrative flows nowhere, and it is eventually wiped off by a number of disorienting supernatural elements, an attempt to provide texture and a link to existing realities. But what’s the point of this if the result is an utter mess of half-baked obscurity and ill-conceived theater? Why waste exciting plot points with cheap shock and hazy conclusions? Why are precious opportunities of spectacle (for instance, Carlo Aquino’s dubbing session) cut for the sake of providing details of his shady life, which, when seen, present nothing new?
Clearly this is Alix and writer Ralston Jover’s prerogative, but if they are after something profound, the profundity is not worth it. Their mistake is falling back on tricks that are supposed to add to the fascination, to punctuate the filth and its striking quality, but they only manage to ruin the suspension of disbelief. Instead of seeing them walk from one segment to another with natural slither, the characters are being given problems that force them to assess their situations. Their strings show on several occasions; their voices quiver because they are being directed. Should one make a connection between the two, this is the most obvious: in porn, the onlooker doesn’t usually care about the subject in the clip. The emotional investment is low, and seldom does the viewer feel compelled to think about it deeply afterward. Whether he or she does it to get off or to pass the time, it doesn’t matter. Porno rubs on the same idea. Thy will be done and there is nothing much in it after.
Purok 7 (Carlo Obispo, 2013) August 5, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Carlo Obispo
Cast: Krystle Valentino, Miggs Cuaderno, Arnold Reyes, Angeli Bayani, Julian Trono
Madness is present in Purok 7 but it does not manifest completely. It is dispensed in fragments and through hints, from the two young siblings left to fend for themselves to the deeper sociopolitical current that allows this scenario to happen. Director Carlo Obispo does not ignore issues at hand, but he keeps pushing them away from the center, focusing instead on the resilience of its characters and the lightness of rural life whose effect, when taken as a whole, has a tendency to weaken certain aspects of the film. Due to the milieu’s lack of strong characterization, what stands out after the conclusion is the modesty in trying to pull it off, and the consequence of such warm and good-natured disposition, that pervasive mildness from start to finish, is an immediate feeling of guilt, that distressing sense of having done something wrong, should one decide to speak up and make an unfavorable assessment of the film.
But guilt is healthy, and guilt has some measure of levelheadedness in it. The aspect of Purok 7 that works is the insistence on making it appear slight—the absence of hysteria, the idyllic surroundings, the way the images teem with light—and crucial to this is the performance of Krystle Valentino, whose smile and gestures are distinguished by the moving touch of innocence required for the role. She takes advantage of her anonymity by letting the audience feel her ordinariness, her physical presence complementing her emotional presence, her limitations catching up with her excesses, and like Obispo she has a way of delaying a meltdown without directing too much attention to herself. Her finest scenes are those awkward moments with her object of affection, those excitements that look natural on her and the disappointments that make her stumble. It’s an exaggeration to call her great, but Valentino delivers the goods needed: she pulls surprises whenever the film extends its lull.
And these intervals of lessened activity tend to prolong, with less concern for actions that urge the viewer to have a thorough understanding of the siblings’ situation than for actions that make the viewer sympathize with their difficulties. That impulse of compassion is there all throughout, and it turns into empathy—Diana and Julian’s longing for their mother’s return, their short time at the carnival, their father’s frustration at the city hall, Diana’s infatuation with Jeremy, her daydreaming, her unspoken dreams, her uncertain life ahead—but there is a missing beat that disengages the link, whose cause may be hard to identify.
In this regard, one cannot forego a number of considerations: first, the overemphasis on the “humanity” of characters as opposed to the reinforcement of a credible and absorbing milieu (nothing of such sort comes after the interesting sight of children at play in the first sequence); second, the misplaced snippets of music and the upsetting flatness of sound that get in the way of appreciating several scenes, disturbing the tone of silence and conversations (both of which are major concerns easily forgiven by some); and third, the portrayal of Diana’s best friend that has cerebral palsy, so badly acted that it puts Purok 7 in an unflattering position when it gets compared with Magnifico (an association made more obvious by that detail).
Obispo handles tragedy with understatement, and that choice of perspective is admirable: it’s a treatment that does not resort to appealing to emotions but manages to touch on the heart of the matter. But when those dance numbers halfway through the movie engage the audience more than the thought of a mother about to be killed in China, it’s quite unsettling to be confronted with a bigger share of guilt than deserved, not in terms of size but weight, not in terms of body but soul, and there seems to be something unjust in that conduct of sensitivity between the life present in the film and the life present in the theater, both avoiding to be neither here nor there.
Transit (Hannah Espia, 2013) August 2, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.
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Written by Giancarlo Abrahan and Hannah Espia
Directed by Hannah Espia
Cast: Irma Adlawan, Ping Medina, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Mercedes Cabral, Marc Justine Alvarez
It is rather unreasonable to pass judgment on Transit without first acknowledging its merits. Confident in taking on a subject bigger than her skill, writer and director Hannah Espia manages to depict the plight of Filipinos in a foreign country without making her audience feel estranged. The reach of her film and its implications create an effect that lingers, one that leaves an impression of totality, particularly in illustrating that Filipinos, regardless of their whereabouts, have a faculty for enduring distress and grief. Nationality is a nagging facet of Transit, and rightly so; but far more interesting is the depth of urban sociology and anthropology that makes the drama believable, the actors being able to extract overtones of similar quality to complement each other. It is to Espia’s credit that despite being shot mostly in Israel, the setting feels like home, the sense of belongingness and propriety brought forth by the predicament of the characters, as though they left the Philippines and carried all their emotional luggage.
The troubles of the Filipino family and community in Tel Aviv are unmistakable: they are there and they need to be dealt with. They are not refugees but seekers of livelihood, willing to commit themselves to precarious subsistence with guaranteed employment for fear of returning to a homeland that promises nothing. The horror of living in Manila is different from the horror of living in Tel Aviv. Horror may vary in quality but seldom in effect: the Filipino has no choice but to conform. Unlike Manila, Tel Aviv is a city where No is a definite answer and a child is likely to compare a Bar Mitzvah to circumcision. Unlike Tel Aviv, Manila is a city where Yes is often given but offers no security. Airports connect cities but not feelings. When Joshua asks worriedly, “What if my memory of Israel fades away?” it is a valid concern but also a helpless plea, something which even his father is powerless to answer. Transit is a collection of sad stories by characters who do not demand much from life, but obviously life doesn’t care: it doesn’t have ears.
Once it’s settled how well-made the film is, the viewer can see the larger frame where the picture is mounted. What doesn’t work for Transit is despite the play with structure, five stories told separately with overlapping scenes, it is not a compelling watch. Once the narratives are established, the conflicts become foreseeable—Yael’s issues with her mother, Tina’s pregnancy, Eliav’s collapse on the floor—and they settle for a nondescript high point. Modesty is preferred to lies and surprises; submission is favored instead of struggle. What moves the film along is not the decisions made by the characters, which could have been more striking, but the drama already existing, a storytelling tradition that most local filmmakers tend to consider more sincere. Furthermore, the repetition of scenes is not as effective as most people claim; in fact, it only provides unnecessary reiteration of nuances, opportunities which could have given way to additional layers of strain in the characters. It may be harmless, but seeing it executed five times magnifies the blemish.
It is rarely discussed as it may seem trivial, but it must be said that there is something inherently wrong with putting notes at the end of a movie. Transit is strong enough to not merit an explanation; any viewer moved by such depiction of injustice will be driven to learn more about it, to ask questions at the forum or to read up online. Offering this information is similar to putting the film inside a re-sealable bag, secure and impenetrable in the meantime, but what’s the point of this journalism, if not for supplementary drama? It is discomforting when it assumes responsibility for real-life problems: art and entertainment can only do so much. Transit is rich in details but lacking in actions, bearing a gentle mix of beauty and subtlety that gives precedence to weight, hoping for a deep and emotional impression on the viewers. While it is successful in many respects—the breathtaking feel of its outdoor shots, the use of Hebrew by the actors, the appearance of Toni Gonzaga, the violent little wars inside the violent big wars, the hurt of losing your home without realizing it—it is also imperative to see through its magnificence and continue to squint.
It Takes A Man and A Woman (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2013) April 5, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
L is for Laida or for Looking back?
Written by Carmi Raymundo
Directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina
Cast: John Lloyd Cruz, Sarah Geronimo, Isabelle Daza, Matet de Leon, Joross Gamboa, Gio Alvarez
Today it is hardly a matter of offering something new and different. Most viewers are not exactly looking for movies that are wiser than they are. Some take pride in liking stories that make them feel comfortable with their insecurities, entertainments that, to put it bluntly, drown in gravy. Star Cinema executives insist on formulas for a good reason, and despite making bold decisions—bold, by their standards—like killing KC Concepcion’s character in Forever and a Day or letting the public sympathize with a kept woman in The Mistress, it’s still difficult for them to let go of grand stereotypes, for in movies neither science nor literature is stronger than theater, and dramatic art, for all it’s worth, has the ability create a cultural identity, one that It Takes A Man and A Woman and its predecessors, A Very Special Love and You Changed My Life, have managed to do in five years.
Identity: big word, as Laida Magtalas would say. But the mainstream, with its consistent output and unwavering worldview, has always had a strong individuality. One can make a study of Star Cinema releases and feel a sense of fullness. Whereas independent cinema thrives on growth and novelty and nerve, studio movies are loath to enter and explore imaginative terrains because they don’t need treasures: they are already assured of the totality of their values. They operate in the same vein as religion, self-aware and self-flagellating, and the people behind them believe that “conviction” is closer to “convict” than to “convince.” Regardless of their deficiencies, however, it’s a mistake to deny them of existence. Being exposed to the intellectual luxuries of art-house cinema and giving it complete trust and dedication—to the point that even flagrant blunders are considered wise—the middleclass mind has the tendency to dismiss the lightness and smallness of ambition on the big screen, attributing satisfaction to guilty pleasure. It’s a gesture that smacks of pride and hypocrisy, a cosmopolitan attitude that wallows in vanity. At times some viewers mistake their erudition for understanding, and the humility to recognize an identity that displays genuine passion, refusing to render it valid or endorse it, is decried.
But there is nothing to lament about as far as repercussions are concerned. What works for Star Cinema is not the quality of each release but the efficiency of technique which allows its team to influence the taste of the moviegoing public. It Takes A Man and A Woman is the third installment from the romantic-comedy series starring John Lloyd Cruz and Sarah Geronimo, and despite taking four years to follow the highly successful You Changed My Life, it’s obvious that their fans are more than willing to wait. Should the long lines at theaters and the favorable feedback from social media be considered, its success is expected, as though writer Carmi Raymundo and director Cathy Garcia-Molina were carrying out duties that could yield only positive results.
Needless to say its success is also earned. Creating the sense of identification that people have with Laida Magtalas and Miggy Montenegro is not achieved overnight. Back then it’s a risky move, considering that John Lloyd is more closely associated with Bea Alonzo and Sarah with Gerald Anderson, and these movies have an air of being done on the side. Raz de la Torre, who introduced the characters in A Very Special Love in 2008, would be happy to know that if there’s a list of the most memorable film characters in the last ten years, one doesn’t need to pause and say Laida and Miggy. The response is instinctive: Laida and Miggy are lovable even at their worst.
Without question the audience is rooting for them, but only on the condition that their reconciliation must not be easy. Miggy’s present is in a shambles. He lost his father, cheated on Laida, and failed his family’s business. Laida has spent a couple of years in New York, and in addition to emotional baggage, she brings home her phony American accent. She agrees to work again for Miggy’s publishing firm, this time to help it close a deal with an international company, to save it from an imminent closure. At this point the Flippage plot already feels overworked, but using it seems to be the only way to renew the elements from the past without too much trouble. With this arrangement, understandably, tension remains between the couple, and the film builds its foundation on that, as Laida tries to be professional and Miggy makes an effort to fix his life.
Everything boils down to proving two things: one, that Laida deserves love and two, that Miggy deserves forgiveness. Having this spine to substantiate their actions, the narrative is at ease exclaiming truisms and aphorisms because there is a paperweight to put them in place. The consequence of this is that the kilig, at the beginning, becomes a formality, a little rigid and uncommitted, and it takes some time before it leaks naturally. The kilig, which is the brio of Sarah-John Lloyd movies, teases by coming later than expected, but when it arrives, peaking at that moment when they sleep beside each other, their faces in opposite directions, and wake up in a warm and tight embrace in the morning, it doesn’t know how to stop. The last thing that Laida and Miggy’s romance needs is reestablishment, but the pleasure of watching them comes from stating the obvious.
While some people complain about local movies being made for foreign audiences, it’s strange that no one is pointing out the clear and indisputable fact that here’s a film whose sensibility appeals only to Filipino viewers. Its humor is very specific, from the nature of the quips to the timing of their delivery. At some point the audience members feel that they’re being too impressionable, too gullible in fact, but a quick thought dispels it and says that there is nothing terrible about the feeling. Frankly, who else can relate to the wonderful music and lyrics of “Kailan”? Who else can appreciate the enjoyment of seeing Zoila and Friends make fun of Laida, and realize that Joross Gamboa (from the Star Circle Quest batch that includes Hero Angeles, Sandara Park, Roxanne Guinoo, and Melissa Ricks) may actually be its most talented discovery? Who else can feel that “Kiss Cam” moment is so contrived yet its spontaneity is also hard to resist? The bureaucracy of love and courtship between Laida and Miggy, the red tape that stops them from being together, the little twists of fate that mark them for life—they are served in raptures. The movie looks back as much as it looks forward. And rightly so because viewers don’t need big reasons: they watch Laida and Miggy for what they are and what they are not. Its imperfections are part of its charm, and along the way it conditions the audience to forgive them.
It is worthy of note that this preference for sugarcoating details and turning trivial scenes into crucial plot points is the same device employed by Be Careful With My Heart, the hit TV series starring Jodi Sta. Maria and Richard Yap, which, apart from being a phenomenal success, is a welcoming change in the kind of stories being produced for television. On the show are two characters, Maya and Ser Chief, whose initial relationship, like Laida and Miggy, is based on work. Now studying to become a flight stewardess, Maya used to be a nanny at Ser Chief’s household. She has taken a liking to him since their first meeting, more so when she gets the chance to interact with him regularly. No one calls him Ser Chief except Maya, and it has a ring to it that the viewers of the show find cute and sweet. Like Laida, Maya is a simple and idealistic girl determined to reach her dreams. Like Miggy, Ser Chief is a charming and sometimes sullen businessman, damaged by certain things from his past. Their story is not driven by villains and histrionics, or by quick pacing and dark secrets. They come to life by indulging in slices of it—sending and waiting for text messages, exchanging glances, preparing coffee, feeling awkward in front of each other—and the result is possibly some of the most exciting and rewarding scenes on television at present.
This style resonates to local audiences who have grown tired of trite narratives and generic cliffhangers because its mundane quality is closer to life, evoking the thinness and richness of it, the complexity of tiny maneuverings, the seeming faintness of fate. The fixation on lighthearted conversations is exerted with care, trying to produce a weighty impression by downplaying the drama and rimming the shallow eccentricities of the characters, the foolishness of their actions adding to their charisma. There is nothing lazy about this; it is one way of exercising control over the many directions that the narrative can take, letting the viewer pick up small details and piece them together to establish emotional links. The sleight of hand involved in making things appear slight, whereas in actuality turns are being made and deviations being observed, is far from groundbreaking, but it merits praise nevertheless.
There is elegance in working out this kind of transcription, and a two-hour movie may find it hard to distinguish excesses from nutrients. Many argue that It Takes A Man and A Woman should have ended in that sequence at the airport, and it might have been more fulfilling that way. It leaves the story on cloud nine, in a state of heavenly spectacle that evokes fantastic fiction, not for its elements but for its effect. All of a sudden time loses its way and sits on a bench, waiting for a breakdown to happen, knowing that only something irrational and perverse can make things right.
And it does happen. In movies singing and dancing is acceptable, but singing and dancing at the airport, where people are rushing to get to their flights and where silence and order are valued more than anything else, is outrageous. Even John Lloyd Cruz in real life is powerless to pull that off. But here it happens, to delightful, magical, and heartrending effect. Laida receives the love she deserves, and Miggy receives the forgiveness he works hard for; and seeing that moment take place by two sets of audience cheering for them, in the film and in the theater, inside the story and outside it, is the peak of being witnesses to their romance, that whatever comes after it will pale in comparison, will be too weak to register, and will only serve as graffiti. There is nothing clever or ironic about their fate—their ending is already known even before they are created—but recognizing its reality creates an impression of finality, because finality is not only the state of seeing the finish line but also of seeing things at their peak, of reaching the most significant point in a journey, of being able to realize that love built on artifice is still love, that any tainted feeling is pure, and that something—some thing—is always a joy for ever.
Aberya (Christian Linaban, 2012) February 10, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema Rehiyon, Noypi.
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Written by Christian Linaban and Ara Chawdhury
Directed by Christian Linaban
Cast: Will Devaughn, Mercedes Cabral, Iwa Moto, Nicholas Varela
Aberya can be faulted for nursing a wealth of clichés and for the way director Christian Linaban clings to them to push his four narratives, oftentimes to the point of failing to see how ridiculous and empty some sequences turn out to be, having too many clouds to obscure their sense, relying heavily on sensations instead of substance. Despite not having a solid core, it displays a kind of energy and rhythm that can only come from someone with a hand huge enough to hold the material together. Contrary to certain remarks of sloppiness, it manages to exert control over the scattered, oddly shaped fragments and interlock them with the bigger, more muscular ones, allowing itself to move forward with little concern for excesses. The visual exercise has nothing much to say—apparently having a message is hardly the film’s intention, bent as it is on showing off instead of exploring—and the entertaining manner in which it unravels the densities of its characters leaves no room for introspection. There is unity in its staleness, an order from its chaos. And just for that terrific segment starring Nicholas Varela, a culmination of Linaban’s promise and his ability to fulfill it, Aberya is worth the trippy cruise.
Rochel (Matt Baguinon, 2013) February 8, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema Rehiyon, Docu, Noypi.
Written by Pol Singson
Directed by Matt Baguinon
Produced at the Franco-German-Filipino 2012 Documentary Workshop
In the morning of Feb. 29 last year, a dead body was found in a private lot in Barangay Batong Malake in Los Baños, Laguna. The police identified the victim as Rochel Geronda, a 14-year-old student at Los Baños National High School and a sampaguita vendor. Her jogging pants were used to strangle her, knotted so firmly that it suggested the cause of her death. Her blouse was folded neatly and rolled up to her chest. Bruises covered her arms, hips, and feet. Her bra was found behind her neck and her underwear was pulled down. A sharp object seemed to have hit her head.
On her way to the crime scene, Rochel’s mother, Lani Geronda, was prepared to see the worst. When she arrived she immediately checked Rochel’s genitals, thinking that some objects had been inserted, but she didn’t find any. The body had been washed clean. There was a clear sign that she was raped, but her genitals weren’t defiled, as she feared they would be. What surprised her was the swarm of flies on Rochel’s eyes, their noise seemingly louder than that of the onlookers huddled in the area.
It was likely that Rochel was killed the night before. She was last seen at around 8 o’clock, when she left her house in Riverside Subdivision to visit a nearby Internet shop. The police later found out that she didn’t make it to the establishment. Three weeks after her murder, two suspects were arrested: Fredolin Presenta, a security guard, and Alberto Sigue, a farm caretaker. Presenta, the assailant, owned the flashlight that was found in the lot and Sigue helped him dump the body and hide from the authorities.
Months before Rochel was killed—in October 2011, specifically—another rape-slay incident took place in Los Baños. The corpse of 19-year-old UP student Given Grace Cebanico was found on Apec Road, with bruises and stab wounds all over her body, her hands tied behind her. There was a bullet wound on her forehead and a masking tape covered her mouth. Two men took turns raping her. In July of the same year, Bradley Inway, 16, and Gilbert de Ocampo, 23, were found dead on IPB Road in the university compound, less than 50 meters away from where Given Grace’s body was located. Inway and de Ocampo were thought to be victims of summary execution, which the police denied.
But the tragedy in Los Baños didn’t stop there. A few days after Rochel’s death, another UP student, Ray Bernard Peñaranda, was held up and stabbed by two men on a motorcycle. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Los Baños is no Ciudad Juárez, a city in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico where hundreds of women had disappeared and had been killed since 1993, but this succession of crimes in a once peaceful community is alarming enough to send people to the streets and demand a call for action. In light of Rochel’s case, the Laguna police director reshuffled the officers deployed in town and ordered some to undergo training, but clearly this is not a lasting solution. Whereas these incidents reveal a major shortcoming of security, it is not an issue of the local police force being completely incompetent but being caught off guard, unable to respond as effectively as they could because they are used to violent crimes happening only on occasion and between long periods of time. It doesn’t sound like a valid excuse, of course, because it isn’t, but taking this into consideration can partially explain why the killings have ceased recurring for the time being, unlike in Ciudad Juárez where female homicides continue and become intolerably dreadful over the years.
But then again crimes, oftentimes driven by desperate economic situations, are also cultural and political. They are specific in every nationality and neighborhood, the factors that contribute to their occurrences dependent on many aspects, and even the effect on the families of the victims is varied, the acceptance ranging from profound resignation to counter-violence to death itself. The only thing certain is that death, especially when brought about by a gruesome murder, always leaves an impression on both the individual and the community, and it persists.
The documentary Rochel, directed by Matt Baguinon and written by Pol Singson, may have started on this effect. It’s obvious that their proximity to the subject, them being UP Los Baños students, has enabled them to adopt a suitable sensibility, the kind that is propelled by social duty, and their youth has helped the film materialize almost immediately, resorting to resources at hand to pursue their careers without losing their initial objective. After all, documenting Rochel’s case does not require a strong personal voice. What it needs is a distinct smidgen of maturity to handle the sensitive material, which can be easily exploited for dramatic purposes, an ability to do emotional math to reach a sum that does not betray the actual events involved. This maturity comes with wisdom, as most viewers aren’t convinced without difficulty, and singling out Rochel’s case as opposed to Given Grace’s or Peñaranda’s poses more questions and raises more doubts than the filmmakers could imagine, a decision reflective of their artistic preoccupations. One can infer reasons, but hard to dismiss is the compliance of the main subject, Lani Geronda, whose unaffected manner lends the film its most persuasive quality.
On paper, Rochel sets out to paint two key portraits: of Rochel, a loving daughter and hardworking student, through the testimonies of people around her, and of Lani, a mother at the worst phase of her life, through her everyday activities. Onscreen, the absence of the former provides contrast to the presence of the latter, and the whole feels fractured but complete.
The filmmakers are able to draw interesting nuances from everyday actions: Lani waking up at 3 a.m. to prepare her children’s breakfast and uniform, reviewing their lessons, reminding them repeatedly to study hard and avoid trouble, accompanying the three of them to school but not without praying together before leaving the house, spending time with her grandchildren, doing the laundry and watching her small store when she gets home. They pursue Lani because she understands not only the intentions of the movie but also its artifices. She isn’t dismissive of suffering—in fact, she builds her defenses around it. Her honesty shines through, her relentless faith in god never off-putting, and her will to live to continue the search for justice is stirring in its openness. By placing Lani at the center, Rochel’s death becomes more resonant, the loss even more pronounced because of how meaningful the fourteen years had been and how, if only she had not been murdered, the succeeding years would have been steeped in optimism, hope being every poor family’s sense of new beginnings.
Baguinon and Singson recognize the sturdy groundwork, so they focus instead on creating a structure that will stand on it, which will not only serve as a visible exterior but also as a bridge to an isolated territory, a place where most media stories are having a hard time dipping their toes into. In addition to detailing the circumstances around Rochel’s life and death through the people closest to her, it sketches a map of emotions surrounding her absence, the singular and submerging feeling that hovers after her passing, the nondescript way it walks in and out of a person’s consciousness.
The storytelling, however, suffers from a few hiccups. Opening with messages of concern from Boy Abunda, Gloc-9, and several resource persons, the film rests on the mistaken need to have this introduction, more or less making the viewer aware of the scale of the situation. Apart from that, it has no purpose, and it seems to put an air of vanity to the issue about to unfold. One can feel that this idea of heightening the drama to connect better to a young audience and make the narrative more accessible becomes too persistent, as illustrated by the use of maudlin music in numerous scenes, either to underline the family crisis or draw attention to the poignancy of little things. For example, one of the most effective moments in the film is when Lani is seen playing with her grandson, Wilmer, and the two are enjoying each other’s company. That long sequence is not accompanied by anything—the candidness of their actions is striking enough. On the other hand, that part when Lani decides to watch a video of Rochel and her other grandson, Dayo, wipes her tears, the music in the background emphasizes the scene too much, making it feel unnatural and contrived. Granted, it gives the audience its first actual glimpse of Rochel’s face, but it pushes too much, disrupting the tone of the documentary.
It’s only fitting that Baguinon and Singson decide to end with a family affair. With her sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren, Lani pays a visit to Rochel’s grave on All Saints’ Day. They pray and talk to Rochel. There is nothing much to say but words of longing and promise. For several minutes, the filmmakers manage to isolate the Gerondas and their emotional state, as if telling that they are alone in their pain, which is actually truer than any medical or autopsy report, that in such time of terrible apathy and darkness their sorrows can’t be shared. Death brings people together, it seems to say, but only the family members can bear the cross on all sides: the weight is seldom in the middle. Evidently these intimate moments are more meaningful to the bereaved than to the audience, and the film is able to send a bit of that burden to the viewer. For a moment it brings to light the documentary’s main weakness: it strikes shadows, not human flesh. It doesn’t sniff around and follow trails. It doesn’t sink its teeth into the industrial landscape of Los Baños. It deliberately shows dramatic shots of streets and sidewalks instead of rendering the depth of the town’s monotony. Its restless editing tends to miss several highlights. But these failings only emphasize the film’s modest accomplishments, the sincerity of its makers, and the genuineness of its intent. Its scope is hardly encompassing, but what it manages to deliver is firm and levelheaded. Rochel not only recalls an incident but also offers a look into the future, a view of a bleak house, and in it a family about to realize how fast life is fading away.