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.
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.
Let Us Compare Mythologies: The Top Filipino Films of 2012 December 30, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, Yearender.
In the introduction to his first collection of writings, Anthony Lane asserts that “the primary task of the critic is the recreation of texture—not telling moviegoers what they should see, which is entirely their prerogative, but filing a sensory report on the kind of experience into which they will be wading, or plunging, should they decide to risk a ticket.”
The critic being described exists in Philippine cinema, and there are a few of them stuck in the mangroves and observing the flow of water as they write their reveries. Their sensory reports are awaiting readers, logophiles who are crazy about newfangled encounters with the anatomies of cinema.
But the critic must also be an explorer, an indefatigable traveler. He or she should discover unknown countries, stay there, and talk to their people. These foreign regions are the life support of any national cinema. As valuable as the canons may be, these new films and filmmakers are more persuasive signs of progress.
Once flags are lodged in these countries, he or she must also know the right time to leave. Sentimental attachment weakens the critic, but weakness is always a good trait to have, only if it’s served in reasonable servings.
The most important thing is to have a constant belief in an unthinkable possibility, an idea lifted from Lane himself, that moviegoers can be stretched, and they can learn to love it. The critic must have faith in this, or else the local scene will soon become a lonely vacuum.
Below are ten homelands. None of them are perfect, but all have fascinating towns and cities, each boasting attractions that every reader who reads the critic must find time to visit. The first thing to do is sail north and scroll down. The places are positioned according to experience, but don’t hesitate to disobey as deemed necessary.
10. KAMERA OBSKURA, Raymond Red
There must have been a time when moviegoers enjoy a dose of mawkishness and simplicity, a period when the idea of art does not aim to confound but to instruct, and it’s OK because people get something from it regardless of the unnecessary flourishes. Moreover, there is a clear recognition of a larger canvas and the significant points it raises, not only on political history but also on the temperament of the medium. Kamera Obskura relies heavily on artifice—the strings it pulls and the rumpus it creates attract too much attention—but its message is loud and clear. Musing on a possible failure, its sender Raymond Red wonders: what’s wrong with didacticism if it manages to divide audiences and make them argue? Why give subtlety too much credit? What could be more enlightening than the assertion that there is a higher purpose than art? The answers remain unsent.
9. THE ANIMALS, Gino Santos
The Animals is riddled with problems of varying intensities, mostly regarding its inconsistent maneuvering of plot and characters, but these missteps only emphasize the disposition of its filmmaker: a young man fresh out of film school wanting to prove something, a need so palpable that while sitting through the movie, the viewer becomes more concerned with him and how much he is going to fuck the whole thing up than with his group of well-to-do kids. The film throws a tantrum from time to time, but one cannot ignore its unmistakable voice, the current that runs through the narrative and keeps it moving. The youth should never lose that: the courage to be rude and the guts to offend, because when’s the next time that such behavior will be acceptable? Gino Santos depicts rats in cages and beasts in their little wilds, but he is also their keeper, guiding them into places where monsters bite without warning, and where parents, blindsided by time, let this horror happen.
8. ANAK ARAW, Gym Lumbera
It’s easy to fall into the trap and say that Taglish reflects Gym Lumbera’s pensive side and Anak Araw his lighthearted personality, but this assumption not only limits further reading of his work but also fosters a kind of thinking that gives more credit to the façade than to the foundation. It actually yields a finer insight if the viewer decides to transpose the two. For one, Anak Araw provides a semblance of structure that allows his experiment to extend to various directions, his hands always looking for a place to make contact. The positioning of its elements is far from random, and its sense of humor is not as effortless as it seems to be, considering the poles that Lumbera manages to draw together. He continues to dampen the ache and sorrow that seep out of the black-and-white images, his language hungry for recognition despite the seeming haze, presenting a piece of history orphaned by its people but imposingly complete.
7. JUNGLE LOVE, Sherad Anthony Sanchez
Champions of Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s movies may consider Jungle Love a minor piece of work since there’s hardly anything in it that can’t be put into words—finally! something slightly comprehensible!—but it’s also the reason for its charming brilliance. It’s a shrewd portrait of young lovers catching up on old mysteries, of hapless cadets and well-endowed women sharing silence and sensations, which contains some of the most rewarding and strangest depictions of sex and coquetry in local cinema. Sanchez manages to create a pleasantly intelligent discourse without paralyzing his audience, allowing them to penetrate it and sprawl in all directions, leading them to a terrain that’s not exactly graspable but comfortable nonetheless. The tracking shots of the jungle provide a light, supple texture, making it seem like the viewer is entering Herzog territory, a place that foreshadows casualty, and fortunately Sanchez permits such pleasures to repeat and linger. This being a movie of treacherous slopes and faint come-ons, the presence of an insanely catchy novelty song is manna from heaven.
6. PASCALINA, Pam Miras
Pascalina does not give a good first impression. Its grainy, home video quality is enough to throw someone off, and Pascalina happens to be one of those frustrating characters whose ill fate can’t be helped. But Pam Miras is smart enough not to resort to cheap tricks and bloodletting to pull the viewers in. Instead, she makes her narrative swell until it bursts with tension, creating a rickety, airless, and claustrophobic cavity in which her characters slip into without noticing it, her main character being the only person to realize the descent. Shireen Seno and Malay Javier, using a Digital Harinezumi, favor compositions that look as though they were infested by maggots—the shots are dingy but strong, a fundamental force in carrying out the beast that Pascalina ignores—and Corinne de San Jose casts a chill over the rubble, creates more corpses, and hides them in the dark, her sound design hovering until the film finds Pascalina shaking hands with the devil.
5. GIVE UP TOMORROW, Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco
In hindsight, the Chiong murder case, from the moment it first came to public attention in 1997 to the release of Paco Larrañaga’s death sentence in 2004, was a dog and pony show. It exploded and scattered its shrapnel to every nook and cranny of the Philippine justice system, a grim and painful reminder of an organized snafu that required gods and monsters to accomplish, tightening the knots of an unforgivable criminal gaffe instead of helping loosen them. In Give Up Tomorrow, the situation being dissected is messy. Arguments pile on top of one another incessantly—each of them forming the trajectory towards the center, Paco’s innocence bearing the clearest but most disputed evidence—but the documentary makes a strong and convincing point by showing how clean-cut it is. Producer Marty Syjuco and director Michael Collins are driven by a hazy glimmer of hope, and rather than doing an autopsy they perform a CPR, veering away from mere journalism and carefully guiding the viewer into a cold, unsettling conclusion that pounds the truth that justice, regardless of partakers, shouldn’t be arbitrary. Their film presents a world where the hideous becomes bearable, and this kind of tolerance is more revolting than the crimes and misdemeanors that their seven-year search has managed to uncover.
4. ANG PAGLALAKBAY NG MGA BITUIN SA GABING MADILIM, Arnel Mardoquio
At times, the surface of Arnel Mardoquio’s fifth full-length feature would be so frightfully calm that its characters also tend to notice it, and they make some noise to break free from the stifling atmosphere, revealing parts of themselves that have long been seeking release. So when the big moments take place, they don’t really leave an impression of size but of spontaneity, war being life itself, a stage of never-ending battles and losses, and Mardoquio, without betraying the intricacies of his subject, melts this exterior as the narrative unfolds, the stuff underneath bulging with apprehension and dread.
3. PUREZA: THE STORY OF NEGROS SUGAR, Jay Abello
Jay Abello is a skilled cinematographer, and although Pureza features beautiful images of the Negros landscape, they are hardly the highlight of his exhaustive documentary. He’s more concerned with digging—histories, communities, dynasties, voices, culture, crimes, injustice, yarns of stories, huge chunks of contradictions, the embarrassment of riches, the thrust of being born poor, the numerous divides created by sugar as the region’s goldmine, the lives of people it continues to affect at present, from the families of hacienderos to the impoverished farmers who own a piece of land but can’t make a decent living out of it—he discovers all of these, which makes the film too heavy to carry, but he never stops. Pureza is driven by Abello’s resolute desire to answer a simple question, but along the way it unearths tragedies of the worst kind, a pile of incongruities in the sociopolitical topography of the country eaten by neoliberal trade and neocolonialism, a grave national problem being neglected ever since. After connecting the dots, the film’s final image assumes the form of a recognizably Filipino cluster fuck, one that has taken countless lives and many lifetimes to happen.
2. COLOSSAL, Whammy Alcazaren
“Colossal—but all on paper,” writes Noli Manaig about Whammy Alcazaren’s debut film. Five simple words, but strong enough to inflict hurt on the young Alcazaren. Manaig pens an eloquent review, but one can’t miss the tone of derision that permeates it, the way he attributes most of the film’s praises to how people always take into consideration the director’s age, basically a factor that Alcazaren can do nothing about. After highlighting an extremely favorable comment, Manaig takes the bull by the horns and presents his detailed but generally unfriendly assessment. But here’s the thing: in light of that appraisal, an important incident, something rare in local cinema, takes place. A seemingly slight but crucial exchange has materialized between an articulate film critic and a promising filmmaker, the latter armed with his overwhelming poetry and images, and the former with his persuasive skepticism, and both manage to build strong defenses of their own. That’s a welcome development, right? It’s something that needs to happen more frequently. But in an argument between two figures, who’s more convincing?
Well, Colossal lives up to its name in many ways, but it must be said that it’s the kind of work that reeks of privilege. The resources needed to make it—the intellectual attitude, the emotional control, the access to historical material—wave its hands nonchalantly at the audience. Belonging to a family of esteemed professionals and artists, Alcazaren makes use of the medium, succumbs to an eclectic mindset, and does something strange and beautiful with it. Colossal observes grief, alluding to C.S. Lewis’s book on the subject, and is narrated single-handedly by an old man who muses on a medley of stories, a shapeless monologue seeming to exist independently from the visuals. Alcazaren creates brave new worlds by luxuriating in monochromatic curlicues, at one point playing with lines to form constellations, and structures his film with conscious regard for its architecture, each sequence like a concrete block waiting to be filled with cement. It turns into a concentration of riches, overseeing a contagion of maladies in a place where maps are not needed, just silent understanding. There is only a suggestion of grief—perhaps in Alcazaren’s mind, to confront it is to betray it—but even its lightest tinge is imposing enough.
1. FLORENTINA HUBALDO, CTE, Lav Diaz
Lav Diaz’s movies feel like they are set at the end of the world—their place and time harbor a sense of resignation and denouement, what with the consuming display of despair and stone-cold violence, most strikingly the passage of time in preparation for what seems to be an impending doom—and his characters are either unaware of it or they don’t care about what’s coming. The latter is more likely, considering that time and space in Diaz’s films are not ideas but companions, visible and perceptible, their existence so physical that the medium, and the language consequently, concedes to the need for a more accurate depiction of emotional decay, one that respects time by allowing it to appear as an element closest to its spotless form.
Even Florentina Hubaldo, the subject of his most recent film, would have expressed how much she wanted the world to end had she been more articulate, had she found a way to escape the life that her abusive father ruined for her so early. But her confinement is seeking finality, and that finality is death, so Diaz is only as helpless as her, pained at the sight of his creation, and the only happiness he could give her, aside from the cheerful sequences with the Higantes, is that moment when she and her daughter are seen together, smiling as the boat passes by, freed from the grief of the world. The post-nominal letters in the title are the same cuffs that tie Florentina to her bed, only this suffix consigns her into a beastlier lodging, sharing the fate of the gecko that never stops making a sound until someone finds it. Someone does find her eventually, only her respite is not long enough to make up for the things she has lost.
Like Diaz’s other films, Florentina Hubaldo, CTE contains the nuances and challenges of great literature. It doesn’t beg to be watched in its entirety: its strength is its ability to remain powerful despite the inevitability of missing sequences due to its length. But sincere admirers of Diaz never call it length: they call it dimension, the distance from end to end not measured by minutes but by experience, and waiting for the film to unfold is similar to reading a novel without actually holding one. Diaz turns the pages and they fuel a dying bonfire. Unknown to him, they burn but never turn into ashes.
For future reference: The Top Filipino Films of 2011 December 25, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, Yearender.
Old habits die hard, and one of them turns out to be one year late.
1. LAWAS KAN PINABLI, Christopher Gozum
2. BIG BOY, Shireen Seno
3. TUNDONG MAGILIW, Jewel Maranan
4. ISDA, Adolfo Alix, Jr.
5. ELEHIYA SA DUMALAW MULA SA HIMAGSIKAN, Lav Diaz
6. X-DEAL, Lawrence Fajardo
7. BAHAY BATA, Eduardo Roy, Jr.
8. PAHINGA, Khavn De La Cruz
9. WON’T LAST A DAY WITHOUT YOU, Raz Dela Torre
10. EX PRESS, Jet Leyco
Mamay Umeng (Dwein Baltazar, 2012) December 13, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Dwein Baltazar
Cast: Gerry Adeva, Sue Prado, Crizzalyn Enriquez, Ramona Revilla
Many writers have pointed out the beauty and subtlety of Mamay Umeng, and without a doubt Dwein Baltazar’s debut feature is a beautiful and subtle film. In fact, despite the lack of narrative action, it has the ability to hypnotize the viewer, thanks in large part to Neil Daza’s striking camera work and to actor Gerry Adeva’s indelible presence, which lingers even after the screen fades to black. Baltazar’s portrait of Mamay Umeng is as clinical as an autopsy, basically providing a 70-minute glimpse into an old man’s life as he waits on his death, but she leaves plenty of room for introspection, capturing everyday moments and making them resonate, her discipline as a filmmaker as recognizable as her subject’s frailness. It’s the kind of film that’s willing to sacrifice plot development and character arcs for the sake of effect—that mental and emotional impression based on the totality of a piece of work—and on one hand, bravo, it succeeds, congratulations, but on the other: is that it? To what end? The problem with the idea of filming life as it happens is that it becomes the basis of everything: the director has to stand by it and the viewer, seeing how its stubbornness will never waver, concedes to it and becomes subservient to the point of resignation. A story about waiting doesn’t have to emphasize waiting to illustrate its point—a lot of precious opportunities are lost because of this mistaken idea—and the decision to observe and idle instead of making an effort to drive the narrative into far riskier territories, may they be physical or emotional, only scratches the surface: it will create a wound but it will heal very soon. Mamay Umeng is fraught with affecting displays of sadness, but one can’t help feeling that they stand out because the scenes around them are bare, that they are restrained because there’s a pervasive fear of ruining the tone of the movie, that in essence the film is trying to leap but it can’t leap because it would rather go around, afraid of losing what it has accomplished. And by all means that’s a sadder thought.
Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi (Richard Somes, 2012) December 11, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Richard Somes
Cast: Erich Gonzales, Mark Gil, Alfred Vargas
Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi has the makings of a fine action movie, but along the way it is hindered by its tireless underpinning of mood, oftentimes forgetting that it has a story to tell, which is a pity because its narrative is captivating. A young woman, played by Erich Gonzales with a mix of charm and grit, sets out to explore the sudden death of her sister. As she seeks help from people, she gets caught in a warren of corrupt men and their evil activities. Opposite her is an eccentric with a horrible obsession, a crazy character played by Mark Gil, and the film builds up until the two of them meet and eventually part ways, with blood in their hands and faces. Noir is a rarity in contemporary local cinema, and Mariposa is the genre at its grimiest: it reeks of sludge and vomit, every scene feeling like a note from the underworld, a page from a maddening novel on anarchy. Director Richard Somes is easily enamored by visuals, but he has a problem making the scenes work together. Although Mariposa has its share of gripping moments—narrative crests scattered in the beginning, middle, and end—it becomes weak due to his disregard for pacing, the potboiler never quite boiling because the meat turns out to be half-cooked, the soup lacking a pinch of salt.
Anak Araw (Gym Lumbera, 2012) December 6, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine.
Written and directed by Gym Lumbera
Cast: Jay de la Vega
Anak Araw is the first of Gym Lumbera’s two movies to be screened this year, and should one be inclined to look for something out of the ordinary in local cinema, his work could offer a welcome respite. See, experimental filmmakers have never had it easy, both in terms of audience and affirmation, but their existence makes any national cinema richer, their presence like dark shadows in a haunted house, intimidating but actually friendly. In Anak Araw Lumbera feels trapped in the strange art form but he makes the most of his time by amusing himself. It’s more entertaining than poetic, more charming than beautiful, and more external than internal, though all of these assumptions can easily be disproved. He shares fragments of history, sometimes turning them into splinters from the future, from watching the funeral of comedian Togo and hearing Nat King Cole sing the classic “Dahil Sa ‘Yo” to the sight of kids falling into the water and a band merrily playing in the forest, not to mention the hilarious visual of a boy crawling and making the sound of a goat, he distills the humor from them until the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, Lumbera revealing himself and showing his ass dimples.
Alagwa (Ian Loreños, 2012) December 5, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Ian Loreños
Cast: Jericho Rosales, Bugoy Cariño, Leo Martinez, Carmen Soo
The best parts of Alagwa are those that linger on the relationship between the father and his son, moments that stay with the viewer because they tiptoe around the drama and attack it at the most vulnerable time. They are compellingly executed but tempered enough not to stretch the movie’s early highlights. It also helps that Jericho Rosales and Bugoy Cariño are mainstream actors: they exhibit a kind of discipline that has a tendency to please: their performances are trimmed well and their ability to hold an emotion and sustain it for a certain period adds to the effect of the buildup towards the tragedy. Both are aware of their position at the center of the movie, sometimes changing places from left to right, so the fulcrum never weakens, or at least it gives the impression of steadiness. But director Ian Loreños knows that at some point he’ll enter a gray area where even the talent of his actors can’t pull him out. The predictability of the narrative does not hamper the film—the parallel cutting to several sequences in the future intensifies the conflict and changes its texture, despite being an unadventurous structural device—but its producers’ advocacy, which becomes controlling in the middle until the end, does. Listen, it’s a good cause: it presents the enormity of child trafficking and the numerous lives it ruins, the horror of seeing it happen and not being able to stop it. But an effective advocacy in film doesn’t show its hands; it sends strong air punches until the viewer writhes upon feeling them. The drama becomes stilted in the second half because it decides to put forward its intent with little regard for the sobriety of reason. Alagwa shares the madness of Secret Sunshine, the acclaimed 2007 movie by Lee Chang-dong, but whereas the latter latches on dragging the story of a grieving mother, Loreños’s film stays away from any form of inactivity, determined to keep the narrative afloat and moving all the time. Fortunately it’s all done in good taste, leaning more on eliciting compassion than logic, the Filipino spirit being the sentimental and hyperbolic kind. Proving this is the decision to end it at an almost improbable point, a crucial conclusion to a story whose emotional graph is dotted with red marks. But thank god Jericho Rosales can act: he nails that scene like gangbusters. Fucking waterworks.
Palitan (Ato Bautista, 2012) December 3, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written by Shugo Praico
Directed by Ato Bautista
Cast: Alex Vincent Medina, Mara Lopez, Mon Confiado
What’s very disgusting about Palitan is the cycle of abuse it creates, that after taking advantage of Mara Lopez’s body through a series of prolonged sex scenes that borders on the indecent and lascivious (in short, pointless and offensive) and making her believe (as an actor and a person) that she is carrying out the role for the sake of the film and not of the filmmakers (which is utter bullshit) it forces the viewers to partake in its obscenity and lets them feel as though the desecration committed to her were happening for a good reason, that the movie, in its insistence on overplaying the tension between the two men, uncovers the rottenness of its purpose systematically, and instead of paying homage to Scorpio Nights (a masterwork of heavy political insight) it actually embarrasses Peque Gallaga and his film to the core. Ideally, one shouldn’t waste time trying to discuss an obviously bad movie (oftentimes talking and writing about it could lead to more upsetting discoveries, like how the female character, even in her final shot, is treated like a piece of meat, void of sincere humanity) but Palitan is working under the pretense of artistic worth (how else can its acceptance into a festival be explained?) and that fact alone poses serious danger, since it has been made with the help of institutions that believe in its ideologies, and there exists a league of minds that will respond to it with a hard-on and a folly of tolerance, rationalizing the film by virtue of subjectivity, to the point of defending its prurience. As expected, Ato Bautista and Shugo Praico top everything off by concluding the narrative the way men who use their balls more often than their minds do: give the woman a gun to kill the perverts who violated her. And that act only confirms how her character is made of cardboard (or of something flimsier) and defiles her even more because it reduces her existence to an entity as insignificant as a grain of sand, and her creators (smiling as they write her in paper) are pleased with that: they subsist and thrive in smut, their egos (and cocks) always in need of stroking.
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Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe Virtudazo-Hyde, Glorypearl Dy, Irish Karl Monsanto, Perry Dizon
In many ways Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is Arnel Mardoquio’s first great work. But in saying that, one runs the risk of devaluing the strength of his previous films, especially Sheika, which may be messy and untempered as a whole but has moments that offer a kind of hopeless desolation that its subject deserves to have. His movies are always conscious of his background. Hailing from Davao, he has long been exposed to the problems that people from Mindanao face, his stories taking shape from first-hand observations and experiences. He isn’t young: he is 42 and his hair has turned gray over the years. In addition to being a film writer and director, fields that he has decided to focus on fairly recently, he is a prolific and prizewinning playwright, theater director, actor, poet, and librettist. This involvement in various disciplines has given him a certain ripeness, a kind of wisdom that comes with age and maturity, aware that art is more or less an expression of misery. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is his fifth feature in four years, and his growth as a filmmaker, if he has a quality that needs to be emphasized, couldn’t be anything but remarkable. Instead of turning another screw, the movie is a statement that refuses to be quoted in simple terms, and its seemingly subdued surface allows more water to flow in its forked paths until there’s nothing left to corrode.
Much of its power comes from the deliberate control of sound. Its investment in silence is difficult not to notice because the story, which involves three Muslim insurgents and a kid trying to escape from their captors, needs a lot of time to breathe. It alternates between sucking in air and exhaling it because it happens to be the metaphor for its actual premise, how some people caught in the conflict in Mindanao contend with their everyday life, always finding themselves running and staying put. Mardoquio addresses the complexities of the armed conflict, but he does not explain why violence remains and why war and peace have become too abstract to understand. He does not pursue the whys and the wherefores; instead he creates sequences, particularly the brilliantly executed opening, in which the whys and the wherefores have come to be pointless, knowing that life goes on regardless of reasons, whether the revolution succeeds or not. What the film accomplishes in its subtlety is a drama that is effective and moving, not to mention having the ability to conceal its propaganda very well—Mardoquio losing the habit of staging sloppy spectacles, something that he was wont to do in his earlier work—and the screen is filled with images that take the plot into surprising directions. At some point in the film there is that beautiful shot of the hill where a man is seen with a water buffalo, and then a few seconds later a troop of bandits emerges on top, seven of them, as if referencing either Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, and for a brief moment the narrative has an air of a Western movie, which makes the hostile environment even more strangely horrifying. There is no denying that Mardoquio is in love with his visuals, as there are instances when the film will intentionally pause to show a lovely view of the falls or the orange sky, but he knows when to cut them: he takes them away just when the viewer begins to fall in love with them as well.
Despite the many chasms it can fall into, Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim never gets carried away by its sentiments. The anger and frustration that seep through its story are levelheaded, and its perspectives are grounded in consequences and not in platitudes. When the lesbian angle is finally confronted, it unfolds naturally, Amrayda and Fatima kissing each other as if it’s the last time, a kiss that connotes passion and resignation as much as bravery and cowardice. Amrayda is tired of the revolution, but she does not speak of its futility. It is still necessary, if not downright indispensable. She believes in a kind of life where her religion and her personal preferences could coexist, a life that would allow her to be a Muslim and marry Fatima at the same time, a life that is impossible to happen yet it’s something that she fervently holds onto. Mardoquio shares her weariness, closing the film on a bleak and uncertain note, but what is fate but bleak and uncertain? Where does the struggle actually end? How can a film address these issues without limning the blood in the frontiers and the dead bodies under the ground, without bringing up the cause and losing oneself in the maze of its contradictions? There are no simple answers, but more appropriately: there are no answers. Clearly, the revolution has already happened some time ago. It is still taking place. It will never cease. And there will be more corpses.
Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, 2011) November 19, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Antoinette Jadaone
Cast: Lilia Cuntapay, Geraldine Villamil, Joel Sarracho, Bella Mercado
Several months ago, at an awards ceremony that ended up highlighting not only the winners but also the people who selected them, the Urian decided to give the best actress prize to Maja Salvador for Thelma. It was an upsetting gesture, a charade that did nothing to distinguish the Urian, probably the most respected group of film critics in the country, from other award-giving bodies that recognize piles of rubbish every year. To start with, its standards seem questionable. If its idea of superlative acting is one that revels in monotony and triteness, then there is something laughable about the credence that its members think they have. Salvador’s attack on drama offers nothing new: it’s a heavy-handed performance that pokes too much and expects to be noticed for it. Choosing her over Cherry Pie Picache’s immensely nuanced work in Isda or Fides Cuyugan Asensio’s moving turn in Niño, both of whom portray mothers with remarkable nuance and intensity, indicates a lapse in judgment that’s too glaring to be defended by subjectivity. What makes this decision even more disappointing is that the plate offered to the Urian does not lack good options; on the contrary, the serving of nominees in the category is quite generous. The jury members, whatever terrible reasons they may have, reckon that the most delicious food in the dish is the parsley, and consequently Salvador’s name is chewed on by the press like a tasteless garnish, making the other winners pale in comparison. Sad to say, this confirms the Urian’s need to butter up the mainstream to sustain its personal network, a compromise that exposes the weakness of the culture developed in this type of environment, a situation that’s not unique in Philippine cinema but whose repercussions are exclusive to it.
To each his own, of course, but a wiser decision would have been to bestow the prize to Lilia Cuntapay. She is the subject of Antoinette Jadaone’s debut film entitled Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, a mockumentary in which she plays herself and a fictional version of herself. It’s an unlikely concept brought to life—a renowned movie extra finally given the opportunity to top the bill and carry a full-length feature—but its more striking feat is that Cuntapay, at a ripe age of 76, is able to complete the film and leave an impression of delight in doing it. Obviously she has waited long enough for this. She is jumpy and self-conscious about the attention given to her, enjoying the limelight and the certainty of not being edited out of the movie, reined in by her director whenever she becomes too eager to please. Her face lights up and frowns exaggeratedly when she finds herself cornered by a question, a manner that reflects her actual personality and adds to the charm of the film. She delivers a flawed yet unforgettable performance, a distinction that owes more to her presence than to the people showering her with compliments, her time onscreen conveying a sense of timelessness, a feeling that this recognition won’t ever happen again. On numerous occasions, Cuntapay acts as though she were always being reminded that the movie, after many years of fruitless search, had finally found her, and this consciousness allows her to create a portrait of herself that looks exactly like her but in many ways also resembles a lot of people, bit players who only exist in a two-hour movie for five seconds, actors whose mere idea of contentment is getting paid and being attributed correctly in the closing credits. Surely, the esteemed members of the Urian have taken these things into consideration, but how could they have weighed Cuntapay and still found her wanting?
Well, there are no easy answers, but interestingly the Urian is not alone. In Six Degrees of Separation, Cuntapay is nominated for best supporting actress and fails to win the prize. A huge portion of the movie is spent on following her as she drafts a speech, including a couple of dream sequences (shot in film) where she is dressed in elegant gowns, holding a trophy and addressing an unseen crowd. For someone of her rank, understandably, this high praise means elation and anxiety, and Jadaone is quick to establish that foothold. After introducing the audience to several celebrities and ordinary people who seem clueless about Cuntapay, the director visits her house in Manila and talks to her neighbors, who, as the story progresses, turn out to be as fascinating as Cuntapay herself, made evident in that hilarious series of scenes as they wait for her interview on television. Except for her assistant Myra, these supporting characters make up the main weakness of the movie—their lines are too sensible, their curiosity doesn’t seem natural, and their day-to-day activities in relation to Cuntapay are rather indefinite—but they are also crucial in providing the main character an emotionally credible foundation. Without them the narrative will hardly move forward, but their actions affect the believability of the mockumentary as a storytelling device. The film loses its natural feel as it carries on, its plot points becoming more scripted than improvised, but Jadaone compensates for it by executing a fine drama of Cuntapay’s life. When she arrives at a film location hours before the call time and asks permission to use the toilet, only to be denied because it can only be used by the main actors, one feels that this is a situation that has happened to her many times in the past. There is that vicarious clutch of ache and sadness, like a paper cut that stings for the first time, but then the next scene shows Cuntapay peeing in the grass, hidden behind Myra’s garment, and the sight couldn’t be anything but sidesplitting. Just when the film is about to get too indulgent in its sentiments, Jadaone will find a way to come up with random bursts of humor, scenes that make Cuntapay’s situation painfully absurd and amusing at the same time.
“She is one filmmaker whose work I seriously believe would make for good commercial cinema. Here’s to hoping she gets her break soon and is given the freedom she deserves to make it in the manner she wants,” said Alexis Tioseco about Jadaone in 2006. The late critic had openly expressed his fondness for her student work, seeing in “’Plano,” “Saling Pusa,” and “Ang Pinakamagandang Pelikula” a certain potential that could go beyond the confines of the short film medium, a young and passionate mind whose sensibilities leaned on the mainstream but away from the stale formulas of most studio releases. Six Degrees of Separation happens to be the break that Tioseco was waiting for, and the rejection from Cinemalaya turned out to be a blessing since it’s likely that Laurice Guillen and Robbie Tan would insist on changing some aspects of the script that were too atypical. One could only speculate on the extent of their intervention: Would Cuntapay have bigger and more outrageous scenes to showcase her acting? Would she be given less screen time considering Guillen didn’t find her face too endearing? Would her poverty and lack of husband and children be emphasized, as well as being a lonely old maid about to bite the dust? The creative freedom given by Cinema One Originals has allowed Jadaone to make a film that teems with personality, letting her linger in a kind of adolescence that never loses sight and perspective of how this industry works and how cruel it can be even in the littlest of circumstances. The title may not match the zest of its material, but it totally makes sense in the context of Cuntapay’s fate, both as a seasoned actor and an aged woman whom the viewers are familiar with but have watched from an indeterminable distance, the separation leaping from professional to personal. In hindsight, Tioseco’s greatest legacy is the impression he left on the people he believed in, and Jadaone is one of them. She has turned that encouragement into a challenge not just to please him but also to continue what he so passionately did in his short life, helping out people in the industry who deserve more but receive less, proving that he was right in having faith in her.
In one of his interviews in the film, Peque Gallaga drives across a meaningful point. He mentions that getting an award is important for an artist because it raises her talent fee and improves her work condition. In an ideal world this should be true, but an ideal world is also full of disappointments. Although Cuntapay would have preferred to have these belated perquisites in the twilight of her career, she is motivated by another reason, and that is to show everyone that she is worthy of such praise, that the events in her life have naturally led to this, to a genuine appreciation of her craft by her peers. This explains her earnestness to come up with a good speech. She looks forward to having a perfect moment in case luck stays on her side, but unfortunately it decides to perch on someone else’s. Jadaone’s camera doesn’t show how the wrinkles on Cuntapay’s face have suddenly gone deeper or how her heart has skipped more than a beat. Instead it shows her hand crumpling the speech she has painstakingly prepared for days, acknowledging defeat. Despite not having seen the film she’s in, the audience members feel that Cuntapay deserves it, a sentiment that Jadaone has cleverly conditioned them to feel, so when Rio Locsin asks her to come up onstage and share the prize with her, the gesture draws attention to the softness of the narrative, succumbing to the necessity of a cathartic finish. In real life, as what happened in the Urian this year, Cuntapay is not expected to receive an award, and even if she does she is likely to share it with someone (with Maricar Reyes, for instance, at the Cinema One Originals ceremony). By way of an uncanny prescience, Jadaone has seen this coming and figured a much finer tribute: presenting this film to the public and making sure that it will be remembered for its star more than anyone or anything else. She succeeds and Cuntapay takes a bow, overwhelmed and lost in thought.
Marilou Diaz-Abaya: IMPRESSIONS October 23, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, RIP.
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Director Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Cesar Montano on the set of “Jose Rizal”
In almost every field of interest between arts and science there seems to be a pressing need to represent women. It’s a kind of consciousness established in societies where campaigns for sexual equality are strong and pervasive. Certainly, the world would be a better place when everyone’s rights are respected, but sometimes there is that danger of doing it as a token effort, considering men in general don’t find it necessary to be part of every thing. Representation happens to them naturally and with much less bother. This business of glorifying women and their achievements—the media making a fuss about the first female president, the first woman to climb a tallest mountain, the first female Nobel Prize winner, and so on and so forth, and focusing on the subject voraciously—is rarely an innocent gesture. It’s a display of obscene generosity in situations that only call for an honest but dispassionate recognition, one that refuses to pander to women but still maintains its sincere admiration.
Hence, it only feels appropriate to honor Marilou Diaz-Abaya, whose career in film, television, and the academe spanned three decades, without too much emphasis on her gender. Obviously, being a woman did not limit her to tackle themes of her choice. Yes, her first few films (Tanikala, Brutal, Moral, Karnal, and Alyas Baby Tsina) feature women, but they aren’t ideal: they are dazed and confused, damaged by their personal decisions and impaired by their vulnerabilities. During that time, Abaya made films in the company of talented men, women, and gay men—Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Laurice Guillen, Lupita Kashiwahara, Peque Gallaga, and Celso Ad. Castillo—and she belonged. She was not the finest filmmaker of her generation, nor she deliberately aspired to be one, but she slowly made a name for herself, her modesty and seemliness eclipsing the dark nature of her early movies.
Looking back, it makes sense that a number of people consider Brutal, Moral, and Karnal a trilogy of some sort, as their titles clearly indicate their parallel stories. These three films do not intersect but they share a world where misfortunes happen and fracture the lives of their characters. They present tragedies of varying intensities, placing women not only at the center but also in the periphery. Brutaltells the story of a young woman who murders her husband and his friends. A female journalist writes about her case and meets another woman who takes pride in selling her body. Moral features four university students who find themselves at a crossroads, yearning for love and chasing their dreams. Karnal enters a much sinister territory, depicting a couple living in a remote town shrouded by secrets, narrated by an old lady whose frightening voice is a character in itself. All three movies were written by acclaimed writer Ricky Lee, his scripts heavy on research and rich in characterization, and Abaya did not only handle them maturely: she grasped them with force and confidence. Clearly, she felt challenged by her contemporaries.
While there is a palpable sense of femininity in these movies, Abaya abstains from sanctimonious pageantry and puts things in perspective. She raises concerns of women and the violence committed to them, but she also recognizes their shortcomings and susceptibility to moral hypnosis, their fates determined by their resolve or lack thereof. The world is unfair to women, but so is to men.Karnal, for instance, has a strong and suffocating depiction of patriarchy, the overbearing father played by Vic Silayan controlling not just the women of the house but also the men. It’s a horrifying picture of a family maddened by circumstances, and the woman whose importance in the story is emphasized leaves a disturbing impression of subsistence, coming out alive in the end but bereft of spirit. By contrast, Moral is a lighter but sharper piece, one whose observations on the struggles of present-day women, lost in the mazes they create for themselves, are relevant up to now. WhereasBrutal and Alyas Baby Tsina dwell on the criminal and psychological, overplaying hopelessness and suffering, Moral rims its characters by emphasizing their faulty nature, placing them in more realistic situations but with less defined solutions to their problems.
Abaya gave into expectations, which could be extremely hard when you’re twenty-something, principled, and pressured by the task of working with some of the local industry’s renowned actors. She confronted the need to have a so-called female voice in a business dominated by male egos, but she didn’t make a huge deal out of it. Filmmaking, after all, requires the flair for sucking up to the system and turning the tide in the shortest time possible. As her reputation grew, Abaya started to swerve and change direction. Overshadowing the remarkable scripts of Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo (written by Amado Lacuesta), Milagros (written by Rolando Tinio), and May Nagmamahal Sa ‘Yo (written by Ricky Lee) are epic productions she took charge of near the end of the ‘90s. After working with GMA Films for Sa Pusod ng Dagat, she embarked on an ambitious project of directing the life of Jose Rizal, which turned out to be one of the movies that people would fondly remember her for. Running for almost three hours, Jose Rizal is by all means impressive in scale, from its cast and locations to its wardrobe and production design. Having been given the financial liberty to interpret history, Abaya took on the challenge and pleased her producers, the box-office success of the movie owing to its relevance (1998 is the 100th year of Philippine independence) and inclusion in the annual Metro Manila Film Festival. Abaya managed to repeat this feat, although in a much smaller scale, with the release of Muro-ami the following year. Cesar Montano credited her for advancing his acting career, as the movie also made the rounds in foreign film festivals.
The palette on which Abaya decided to situate herself and her characters broadened and leaned on the populist side, but this was neither for the benefit nor detriment of her career, since her films in the ‘90s and ‘00s, well-made most of them might be, weren’t faultless, and only upon recognizing the nature of these lapses that her entire body of work could be fully appreciated. In this period she no longer seemed as self-conscious as she was when she began, yet in this settled state she also lost that spark of youth, preferring to address larger social issues by way of narratives poached in television drama, resorting to truisms instead of the whys and wherefores. She presented social ills with beaming optimism, an attitude she had until her final years. In Bagong Buwan, for instance, she avoided stereotyping Muslims and Christians, but did so with an off-putting blatancy that stood out as the movie progressed. By placing the carefully executed drama at the center, Abaya wasn’t in control of her characters; on the contrary, they were in control of her. It’s a movie that shows an angry face but not an angry heart, lacking any kind of subversiveness that may have made it leap out of the ordinary.
Not to put too fine a point on it: she softened, and her voice lost its ire. One could attribute it to the type of projects she took on, but clearly it’s natural for artists to change, and she did so (intentionally or not) as personal life caught up on her, settling down and having two kids to tend to. Another reason could be time. Several years before digital cinema boomed, her contemporaries in the ‘80s were either dead or inactive. Slow years, so to speak, went by. She became more involved in socio-civic work and teaching, helping out various organizations and honing hungry young minds at Ateneo. Her passion was channeled to people who needed her, and she obliged. Cancer didn’t stop her. In 2007, shortly after the diagnosis, she founded the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute and Arts Center and established programs for aspiring filmmakers. It was a very emotional time, but she managed to shoot and finish Ikaw ang Pag-ibig, which would turn out to be her last hurrah. A tribute to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the film is a farewell and love letter to a generation she is about to leave behind, a piece of work that understandably shows her frailness. Like most of us, she was living and dying at the same time, and in those two hours came her final breaths in her homeland, submitting to the industry she served for 30 years, cinema being the only homeland of filmmakers who fought their wars until the very end.
But what is death if not cruel and kind, if not an amalgam of strange contradictions, discoveries, and dead-ends? Where does one find consolation but in grief? Where does one turn to when silence starts to idle? Philippine cinema lost three of its beloved children this year—Dolphy, Mario O’Hara, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya—and their quietus is not only a reminder of mortalities that happen between parentheses but also of the crumbs they took with them, their departures an indication of life in an industry that’s always been rumored to be dead. She spent her last five years in pain and resignation, the latter casting a shadow on the former, blanketed in optimism and bent on sharing every bit of herself with old and new friends, family and acquaintances. She was mourned and missed by people who knew her, and even those who didn’t felt a kind of affection towards her, a familiar but distant feeling of knowing her, of being moved by her passion. More than her body of work, which had its highs and lows, she created a path to follow, an existence devoted to art and spiritual work, left to the tender mercies of time, which could also be as cruel and kind as death. In this industry, what remain are the impressions made by the brave and generous, and books, should they be fortunate enough to be printed, would certainly have her name.
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 3) October 11, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine.
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APARISYON (Vincent Sandoval, 2012)
There is something suspicious about Sister Lourdes the moment she steps into the monastery. You know, the way nuns tend to be: extremely pleasant on the outside but sharp on edges, with one eye closed and one eye open, one hand holding a rosary and one hand holding a knife. But basing on Jodi Sta. Maria’s performance and Vincent Sandoval’s direction, tellingly, she happens to be nothing more than a blank slate. In most instances, Sister Lourdes accepts apples as apples and oranges as oranges, curious and spirited but never unreasonable. She is fostered by nuns of diverse personalities, upright characters that emphasize her inexperience. They create the tension around her, and she submits herself willingly to their severity.
With a setting like this, though, it is likely that she bites into one of those poisoned apples. This kind of breaking point is rather unsurprising, as the movie, in its firm structure, builds up to it consciously, the drama afterwards becoming tighter and more internal. Jay Abello’s subtle framing and Teresa Barrozo’s low-key music act as effective accomplices to this stifling atmosphere. But it doesn’t stop there. Sandoval takes advantage of a room full of horrors and decides not to open any window, creating a Martial Law movie without the bombardment of the usual elements that define it, for instance, people rallying on EDSA or faces of Marcos, Ninoy, Ramos, and Enrile. He is very generous when it comes to staging emotional scenes, careful not to lose their weight. However, a number of crucial sequences, especially those that happen after the crime, bank too much on mystery that they lose balance. As a result, the the narrative tips over and reveals some cracks.
Aparisyon shows abuse and guilt, the fringes of evil, the misfortune of the years lived in danger. For the most part it’s an absorbing experience, but one couldn’t help feeling that the movie could have flown much further, up and away, out of its box. It lounges in its ambiguity and pain, over the hushed tones of fearful women, in the remote forest where suffering is shared and isolated at the same time. It’s a siege film void of an escape plan, and at the center of it is not the group of nuns but Sandoval, overexerting his characters’ emotions, restrained by his own motives, a victim of his own ideas. Its strengths are also its weaknesses, and Sister Lourdes, despite her pointless prayers, knows that she can only do so much. B