Riddles of My Homecoming (Arnel Mardoquio, 2013) November 12, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe GingGing Hyde, Perry Dizon, Madz Garcia, Jillian Khayle Barbarona, Jeff Sabayle
Riddles of My Homecoming is a beautiful title, like a line from an ode or elegy written ages ago, waiting to be lifted by a curious reader. As the film cracks open many of its sorrowful ambiguities, it seems that there is more pressure for director Arnel Mardoquio to create something to match the elegance of these words than to carry the well-defined politics of his previous film, Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim. He finds painful comfort in abstraction, in images following a careless rhythm, in characters guided by voices. Riddles is hazy, elusive, and unreachable, dabbling in sensations and obscurities, but its surface doesn’t pull any surprises, its tone never betraying its modesty.
It argues: How can one depict the soul of a struggle without resorting to a personal language, without consulting a map whose locations are now ruins? Towards the end it whispers: The places are no longer here but their imprints remain, but what are imprints for?
To make people remember, or to make them remember not to forget, is what Mardoquio, with his gentle temperament, seems to say. His vignettes flow with dreamy pleasure; its edges are rough and pointed but they give off a warm and uncompromising feeling. Some stories are clear as they engage in universal themes (attraction, sex, murder, war, freedom) and some tread on unfamiliar territories, leaving a trail of puzzle pieces whose entire picture never form, but whose impact, conveyed through mysterious objects and behavior, is completely felt: fractured but whole.
Hinting at many things, it hits only a few, but those few manage to creep on one’s skin. Mardoquio shapes a silent film around subjects that require voices, people whose histories are defined by their sound, surroundings whose noises make up the legend of a land. But he gives them another tongue, offers them the gift of speech, and declares their independence.
A large part of Riddles is shot in Compostela Valley, where typhoon Pablo left hundreds of people dead and thousands of families homeless in 2012. Ravaged and razed, it’s a province that heaves a sigh whenever one reaches it, its bumpy and potholed terrain like a face full of pockmarks and scars, tired from having weathered too many battles. Mardoquio has chosen a place that has its own light, and Compostela Valley, with its bleak forests, pale skies, and murky waters, is a reminder of collapse and resignation that can erode any surface, that can empty any space that has an indistinguishable entrance and exit. The film’s baffling nature is given as it tries to condense many ideas, many failures of man between past and future, but it is never superfluous, never in its mosaic of phantasms can it be called thin or dull.
“It’s a short film. Don’t blink,” Mardoquio says in his introduction at the screening. And indeed it’s short: short compared to its ambition, short compared to the scale of his sociocultural issues, short compared to the breadth of its madness. It demands to be taken seriously, but it’s wrong to think that it is always serious. Riddles is a predictable route for Mardoquio—where else can he go after the marvelously radical arc of Ang Paglalakbay?—but he is steadfast in his activism, in his aching need to be heard. It is a cheerless vision driven by anger and regret, but for several moments it is tempted to make itself clear, to solve its own riddle, only to find itself unable, disabled, looking ahead with its eyes closed.
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.
Ishmael (Richard Somes, 2010) November 18, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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Directed by Richard Somes
Cast: Ronnie Lazaro, Mark Gil, Pen Medina, Dan Alvaro
Dear Richard S.,
I like Ishmael. I don’t know how much, but I like it the way I like certain films whose failure can easily be recognized from the start, knowing they can only be half-empty or half-full. I must admit I’m still high on Yanggaw, which, come to think of it, I only saw once, and it’s obvious that no matter how much atmosphere Ishmael shares with Yanggaw, it isn’t by virtue of comparison that Ishmael lets down. It’s the way you were not able to conceal the glitches. The way you get too engrossed in polishing the script. The way you give away too many things, wary of loopholes in the plot, cautious of how logic and the lack of it might affect the film.
Remember, you are good at your imperfections. You can wrap us in your mood and burn us in your madness. You can take us to the infernal and leave us there. Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems to me that the whole idea for Ishmael is built around that final sequence, that moment when Ishmael is resurrected and goes on a killing spree. That frightening mania in Ronnie Lazaro’s eyes, his tattoos crawling in his skin, that Kurosawa precision: that’s you, that’s Richard Somes. Why you let it be soiled by the consistently annoying music I don’t know. It sounds more like computer game noise to me than music, disjointed, lacking architecture, frustratingly and erroneously placed, almost ruining the film. Overemphasis is not something you should be so fond of. I enjoy that final combat—though the attempt at paying homage to local action films disappoints a bit (knowing your intention only serves to raise our expectations)—and it’s my favorite part in Ishmael. You know why? Because that’s the only time when you let go of reason, when you go over the top, when you simply jerk off everywhere. It reminds me of Spoliarium, of Luna’s depiction of darkness, the brush of seemingly careless paint on the side, the sound of sword-slinging without the sight of actual swords, ruthless, bloody, dripping cold.
Expletives in Philippine cinema has never been as powerful as when Ronnie rumbles “Tang ina niyoooo!” whose delivery, I’m sure, would make even the foreigners laugh. The way Ronnie swears is scrumptious, and no acting award, out of the very few we give here, can deserve to have Ronnie as a recipient. It delights me to see how Ishmael’s character steps closer to Sanjuro’s—the dry humor, the wandering samurai, the arctic soul of a ronin—only, sadly, it’s too scared to take the risk of imitation. Instead, the writing slackens and focuses on the intricacies of faith, far from being an original idea but still holds up, though I would have preferred to see the western genre in the Philippine setting explored.
Ishmael is neither a step up nor a step down. I don’t think it will look better when I see it again, but one thing I’m sure: no one has ever depicted the Filipino night as good as you did here. Please: make more films. Embrace your style. Take risks.
Best regards, Richard B.
P.S. I think Hiligaynon suits you much, much better.
Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (Remton Siega Zuasola, 2010) November 16, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Remton Zuasola
Cast: Donna Gimeno, Lucia Juezan, Gregg Tecson, Fedwilyn Villarba, Daday Melgar
Based on a story by Ma. Victoria Beltran
Pardon me for writing this in a hurry, but there’s no other way but string these thoughts I am about to share in haste, and I fear that last night’s experience need not be recounted in clarity anyway. It’s hard to tell whether my purpose has been renewed or has merely blended into the anonymity of the night but there I was, watching Remton Zuasola’s Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, cursing and unable to control myself during the first few minutes, fraught with a mix of sadness and disappointment, only to see myself two hours later, walking out of the cinema frantically overjoyed, realizing it’s one of the best nights I’ve ever had, despite the stress of the evening and the usual kick of drowsiness. I felt that if Philippine cinema could at least have a single film this good every year—like Anacbanua the previous year, or Now Showing two years before, or Endo three years before, or Todo Todo Teros four years before, and so on and so forth—then there’s really no point proclaiming, every now and then, like a madman, that Philippine cinema is either dead or dying, and that it needs a few rounds of spanking. People assume that digital cinema has come to the rescue, but let’s say it has, so what? Couldn’t we talk about something else? How about regional cinema?
Damgo tells the story of Terya as she spends her last few hours with her family in Olango Island, Cebu. Soon we find out that she is leaving for Germany to marry a rich old man, an agreement her mother made with a recruiter, who offers, I must spoil you, some of the most priceless entertainment in the film with her shrieks of “Oh Lord Jesus!” near the end of the journey. Remton does everything in one take. Yes, one take. Clearly, he is ambitious; but what’s more impressive beyond doubt is that I cannot feel that ambition at all. It’s as if shooting a ninety-minute long take is the most common thing to do, if not the easiest and least daunting. I’ll choose this over Russian Ark any time, for the latter, even if it brags the beautiful hallways and galleries of Hermitage and has all the elegance and boredom of presumptuous art, lacks instinct and interest, whereas Damgo brims with curiosity from start to finish, in every nook and cranny, imperfect but immeasurable, the script going as far as the deepest pretexts and subtexts of its subject.
Watching Terya and her family walk from the coast to the harbor, where Terya will take a boat to the airport, and as they are joined by various characters, each of them never reduced to a lousy symbolism—the first sign of failure among local writers, always reducing a character to a metaphor—the audience is treated like a gossipmonger, hearing the most personal of their troubles. Remton knows that their stories—the intimacy of their stories—are the closest way to our heart. Never has he indulged for the sake of sentimentality; on the contrary, the sparseness of his treatment is striking, how visceral its realness is, how its poetry is wrapped in the barest of words, how its prose has no other direction but sideways, and how the movie hangs onto the basics of cinema: storytelling and visual language.
The film moves like an elaborate dance, but the only thing complicated about it is our participation, how we feel for Terya, seeing her take everything that’s set for her, gripping on her not too many options, knowing that the greener side of the grass is no longer hers. It’s easy to laud the style, but look at it this way: if the story hasn’t been that interesting, if the dialogues haven’t been that engaging, and if Remton has opted to rely rigorously on his script and has not considered improvisation (or has followed the original idea for the film, for that matter), then where will that one take take us? To another exploitation of the countryside by a young filmmaker? To another misrepresentation of poverty? To another caricature of hopelessness? To another poor idea of rural life? Fortunately, Remton does not allow any speck of posturing in his first full-length. He’s aware that Damgo is more than a film about mail order brides; it’s never about them, really, but the people around them, their families, the friends they parted ways with, the community they left, the town they will no longer recognize when they return. To add insult to injury, the choreography ends when the gloomiest part of Terya’s life begins.
It’s a shame how little we know about mail order brides, coming across the subject in the news or on the Internet, usually accompanied by a fit of laughter and a shot of pity. It’s a disgrace how little we care for them, how detached we are to their plight, and how we look down on them and the life they lead as if we are that different. Sherad’s guidance has truly helped Remton a lot—the economy of shots, the frugality of the narrative on the surface as opposed to the abounding arches of angry politics underneath—but Remton and his painful sense of humor have proven that “No one escapes art unhurt,” and really, by the time I got home after the screening I checked my arms and legs and saw that they were all covered in bruises. Probing further, I also found out that some of my fingers and toes were missing. And the strangest of all is that my mind, can you believe it, after slipping out of my head, took my pen from my pocket and wrote this entry by itself. Happiness honestly hurts.
Isang Panayam kay Ray Gibraltar January 4, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Interview, Noypi.
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Kagagaling lang ni Ray Gibraltar sa isang shoot ng AVP para sa kaarawan ng isang dating senadora bago niya paunlakan ang panayam na ito. Small-time lang daw, habang naghahanap siya ng trabaho sa paglagi niya rito sa Maynila. Tubong Iloilo si Ray—nagtapos ng kursong Philosophy sa University of Saint La Salle sa Bacolod at naging seminarista sa loob ng pitong taon—at doon nagsimulang magkainteres sa paggawa ng pelikula, hanggang sa mapadpad ang ilan sa mga ito sa Lungsod.
Unang nakilala si Ray sa pelikulang When Timawa Meets Delgado noong 2007, at kamakailan lang ay nasungkit niya ang pinakamataas na parangal sa Cinema One Originals para sa pelikulang Wanted: Border. Natapos din niya ang Syokoy, isang documentary tungkol sa Guimaras oil spill, sa tulong ng manunulat na si J.I.E. Teodoro at kapwa-filmmaker na si Oscar Nava; at ang Joy To The World, ang Prosesyon, na ipinalabas noong 2008 sa Cinemanila. Layon ng panayam na higit pang makilala ang filmmaker, partikular na ang pagtalakay sa pinakahuli niyang pelikulang Wanted: Border. Ang usapang isang oras na panayam ay umabot ng tatlo. Heto’t tunghayan.
Wanted: Border (Ray Gibraltar, 2009) December 15, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Ray Gibraltar
Cast: Rosanna Roces, Publio Briones, Sunshine Teodoro, AJ Aurello
It can be called death by synopsis.
When someone wants to watch a movie but knows nothing about the screenings, synopses come to the rescue. That’s a requisite among Cineplex owners. Yet conversely, even if the moviegoer knows which movie to watch, he still reads the synopsis just to convince himself that spending on such film is right. Synopses, as far as utility is concerned, are tangible proofs that at least a story exists in the film. Even if a linear story is not present, at least, a paragraph’s worth is still said about the film. It will not be blank screen and white noise that’s waiting inside the theater, the audience is assured.
I bet even the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter, was accompanied by synopsis when it was first shown in the pre-nickelodeon days. I have no proof, of course, but I imagine the note that went along with the prints of the film in distribution—a note that mentions that the shot of the bandit firing the gun toward the camera could be put either at the beginning or at the end in the film—is already some form of synopsis, of putting into words expectations about the film.
A common synopsis introduces the film; it tells what happens in the story; and it ends openly, trying with seductive phrases to pull the audience in to pay for the ticket. Succinctly, it puts the film into perspective. Imagine how these few words can anticipate things for the audience; how they can determine expectations through mere description, or through looking at the photo that goes along with the summary; how they can make or break the film. Death by synopsis happens when this synopsis overtakes the film so much it kills it.
I am sure that the people who saw Wanted: Border read and re-read the synopsis before and after watching the film, and felt a certain disconnect between the description and the film itself, as if the words were not able to validate what they saw inside the theater. Not because the synopsis is not accurate, or it is for a different film, but because it explains and tells explicitly which is which, particularly Saleng’s background, the name of the agent she had a relationship with, and even how she feels about killing her boarders. Again, it is not a matter of accuracy—truth be told, why should I give a damn about synopses?—but a virtue of fairness, of providing the film what it deserves, of not ruining it.
That certain disconnect is mainly dependent on tone; and it happens because both camps are narrating in a completely opposite manner: the film is thoroughly suggestive, whereas the synopsis is downright explanatory (which, in all fairness to the art of writing synopses itself, is how it should be). While I doubt that Gibraltar himself wrote the synopsis of his film, I don’t also refuse to consider that he did. I think good writers are capable of writing in exactly opposite tones, and most of them are unaware of this ability until they do it and ask other people what they think. Though writing a screenplay is a much daunting task as opposed to writing a synopsis—my god, of course—I can’t see how impossible it is to summarize the film and write it the same way how the film is actually told.
But by all means I can hear you nagging at me! You’re rebuking this whole idea of mine on the nose! Marketing experience dictates that synopses should be clear enough for people to watch the film. I know that, and I have to give in, plain and simple. So much for five long paragraphs of not discussing Wanted: Border, I thank you if you are reading until here. I wish, even if I sound like nitpicking, I could help lessen the crimes of death by synopsis, especially on films like Wanted: Border, which really calls for every police in town, from the first image down to the last.
Inevitable is the mention of death. The film, after all, captures that somber mood of deathly living, that utter feeling of wallowing in morbidness. Though the characters are quite oblivious of it, or have managed to consider it a fact of life, the darkness emanates from every corner of the film, sustained in hopeful closure till the end.
Non-linear is a tricky structure, and the misguided viewer may find it disappointing especially if the director is too busy on his embellishments to trick the audience. But Gibraltar isn’t up for deception—it’s the way he is: telling the story in fragments, jumping from one plot to another, and letting the audience pick and connect the pieces all together. Not that he needs to prove anything, but since I managed to see When Timawa Meets Delgado and felt amused by such experiment, I think I could give him the permission to ruin me.
Indeed, Wanted: Border has reduced me to ruins, and even up to now I still believe that writing about it wouldn’t be enough to put into words what it is able to deliver.
It’s like a dream of a ridiculous man—say, like that Dostoyevsky’s story—Gibraltar, the ridiculous dreamer, and Saleng and her past and her present all but a dream. The dream is told in fragments, illogical yet teeming with its own logic. They work on their own; and they justify their own irrationality. We see Saleng and her boarding house/eatery and the various characters that surround her—who are not necessarily around her but seemingly just around her, Gibraltar wanting us to wait before this question about their relationship is revealed—the fat girl, the drug-dependent filmmaker, and the household of a lustful stepfather, subservient wife, and young college student. How they connect we are advised, but why they connect it’s up to us to interpret. There is that single physical event that connects them—a conclusion looming to satisfy our need for the tangible—but even that is close to dreamlike, closer to Gibraltar’s rejection of standard storytelling.
The structure of the film is similar to how we remember our dreams, mixing the past and present, the events caught up in its inconsistent timeline. They evoke a certain familiarity that is also distant and emotionally charged. While our personal dreams are often vague and subtle—never assuring us of continuation and certainty—Gibraltar’s film ends the dream, metaphorically, through a suggestion of those two. It never promises to resume, to go back, and to go further—it stops there as a dream, but it goes on to assume another form, that is to manifest in our unconsciousness. From that infection, so to speak, Gibraltar wants to reach our consciousness to facilitate an action.
Last year’s Yanggaw, which deals with the circumstances following the discovery of a family that one of its kin is a monster, goes farther on examining the nature of our beliefs on aswang. While the film earns its right to be dramatic, it stands out amid its predecessors for taking the concept of our folklore seriously and profoundly, breathing another life to the genre that has long been killed by unskillful hands. The aswang in Yanggaw is the aswang we met when we were young, when we listened to the stories of our elders, when we conjured their images in our minds, and when we gripped tightly on our pillows while listening to “Gabi ng Lagim”—whereas the aswang in Wanted: Border is the aswang we meet when we mature, when we start to get to know the people around us, and when we see ourselves in dog-eat-dog situations like they’re a way of life. It goes without saying that we are never new to the concept of aswang in the first place.
Somes’ film engages us through our basic knowledge of how an aswang looks, and the horror upon seeing it. It has managed to do so by creating an atmosphere of remoteness, of shock that is about to leap out of the screen anytime, of fear that gets into one’s mind and refuses to get out. Gibraltar’s film, on the other hand, uses the familiarity of his setting, the commonness of day-to-day life, to reveal a picture of bestiality, of actions we accomplish to satisfy our pleasures, and of crimes we commit to our society’s idea of morality. That this horror can happen any day, at any given time, and in any given place, is more terrifying than the moment these creatures—manananggal, tikbalang, duwende, mangkukulam, among other things—become visible in our eyes. The monster in Wanted: Border is ourselves; that can’t be disproved.
But there goes an argument: can a monster see itself as a monster? Can a monster justify its actions by telling that it needs to do these things to survive? With these two films, I am beginning to have this strange feeling, after all the misfortunes we’ve had in the last few years, that our rich folklore is really getting back at us.
Our borders are not geographical; as a group of islands, it is always safe to assume that the line that separates our people is physical space and nothing else, checkpoints, toll gates, water, airports, inability to travel. But in essence our borders are almost always moral, dictated by our beliefs, motivated by our ids. Violence happens when one of these borders is crossed—when one resorts to killing to live, when one decides to rape to fulfill carnal wishes, when one uses drugs to escape, when one eats to survive. The most terrible thing is that we all have our reasons, as philosopher Renoir once said, and we stand by them for convenience’s sake. That’s why we admit defeat, that’s why we believe that further struggle or effort is useless, that’s why we’re crazy. We all need to raise hell. And we are all defeatists in our own way.
It is easy to call Wanted: Border a violent film—a work that indulges in drugs, sex, and killing—but in all its severe observation on the extent of our capability to inflict harm on ourselves and other people, sometimes as violently as possible, it is driven by a pacifist motive, that individuals do possess the great ability to abstain from it, that violence, more often than not, is a work of man and not of circumstances. The parting shot says it all: the great impossible can always be done. But I remember myself saying after that shot, We are surrounded by fences! We are surrounded by death! We are surrounded by tragedies! How should we be able to get past those, for real?
One thing must be said, though: one should never forget these tragedies; otherwise they will all happen again. Like yesterday. Like the massacre.
Next Attraction (Raya Martin, 2008) July 29, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi, Queer.
Directed by Raya Martin
Cast: Coco Martin, Paolo Rivero, Jaclyn Jose
On our first day of class the late Jovenal Velasco told us that what distinguishes film from the other arts is that it is a “clear presence of an absence.” Everything in cinema boils down to the projection of moving images, hence the presence of people, places, and actions that are not really there in front of our eyes. The suspension of disbelief holds it, but when you try to think about it, these images seem to make us aware that these things are happening right when we are watching them. The illusion of time in cinema is probably its most important trait, the characteristic that sets it apart from other forms of self-expression, and the quality that makes it all the more versatile and evolving.
The presence then is confined to the technical; if there is no projection there would be no such thing as “cinematic experience” at all. (Well, in the case of home videos and digital discs, which also belong to cinema, it may be a projection of different kind.) It is the basic thing that the audience often takes for granted, something that only mall owners and theater operators find critical to take time thinking about. It is the absence that excites us; it is in this absence where our appreciation of cinema springs forth and blooms into something bigger than us. Only art can be bigger than god, and that thinking comforts us.
The absence relies on storytelling. The details of the story are pushed forward or intentionally made stagnant by its teller through plotting (the writing part) and treatment (the filmmaking part). These two work together, and it is up to the filmmaker to decide, like a doctor advising dosage to his patient, how much he needs his plot to move or his treatment to change. It is the correspondence of these two things that makes or breaks a film. The filmmaker doesn’t need to balance them; reaching a desired effect depends on his strong and willful purpose.
In this context I would say that Next Attraction has more presence than absence. It experiments on the telling of the story, its technique more felt than the story itself. It is obvious that there are two stories in the film – – one, the crew that shoots a short film, and the other, the short film itself – – but it is hard to qualify them separately because they are intended to work as one. The basic elements are ignored; there is no main character, there is no conflict, and there is no narrative to follow. After all we are in the times when all shortcomings and excesses are attributed to being postmodern.
You don’t have to see all his films to know that Martin is a queer storyteller. His stories are unusually told. It feels like he doesn’t even want to tell them at all. The explicit and implicit absence of his “absence” is the line that divides his critics, proving that there is really a very thin line between crap and genius, but ignoring the fact that one can be both at the same time. Next Attraction deserves the praise and the hate it receives, for it works for two sets of appreciation, both valid and understandable. What the film lacks in having a story to follow, it provides by being the story itself. The film is the story. The film is the bigger story. You discuss it more than the “story of the film” itself, even if you believe there is none.
I understand that it feels annoying when you feel too much power from the filmmaker, how he seems to be in full control of everything, how he points his hands at something and it changes, how he acts like the answer to everything, yes, no, or maybe. Expectations matter a lot to a viewer; it may be all his purpose for believing in cinema in the first place. What is cinema, by the way? Does what we make out of it really matter? Does a film stop being a film after you see it? Then, what is it after? Should intentions be more or less qualified, I believe it is always a singular argument that just because you feel it, it doesn’t mean it is there; and just because you don’t feel it, it doesn’t mean it is never there.
Sa North Diversion Road (Dennis Marasigan, 2005) June 9, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Festival, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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Directed by Dennis Marasigan
Cast: Irma Adlawan, John Arcilla, Rolly Inocencio, Kalila Aquilos
Based on Tony Perez’s play
Sa North Diversion Road, Dennis Marasigan’s first shot at filmmaking, is perhaps one of the earliest instances when the shortcomings of the digital as a medium become almost irrelevant to talk about, because it proves that the story, its level of maturity and intelligence, will always be the king. Marasigan may have been attracted to Tony Perez’s play for its structure – – ten vignettes of adultery played by different couples traveling along the expressway – – but it could have also been its weakness, provided that the actors who will play the ten couples have varying degrees not only of exposure but also of talent. Monotony has always been an issue in the staging of the play because the couples share the same face – – that of the betraying husband and the betrayed wife – – and seeing it ten times with incompetent actors will surely not be the best two hours of your life inside a cold theater.
The idea of letting the same actors play the roles, which would only matter less since Marasigan has chosen the finest fruits in the first harvest, is possibly the greatest honor it has given to the material, for he has altered it without losing its strength. It is more than versatility that Irma Adlawan and John Arcilla have; I believe it is experience, something that is unique to every one, something that no other actors can do the same because they all lead a different life. All great performances are imperfect but this is the closest that one can get to flawlessness. Adlawan, with all the mightiness she can throw to outshine Arcilla, is gifted with such wonderful poise that is never tiring; one can never take his eyes off her for fear of missing a wink or a slight narrowing of her eyes. She delivers ten faces of a betrayed woman with different eyes, different ears, different hearts, and different acceptance of truth. We see her play each one of them but we see different women – – different wounds, different voices, different husbands, different pasts, different futures. She is all of them, all the wives that the betraying husband chose to ignore.
Arcilla, on the other hand, and despite the inferiority of his position, handles the role with exemplary control; the usual tone of apology, denial, and remorse of the unfaithful husband he shows is credible; we can almost see where he is coming from and what made him do it. Whether he is an old-school poet who chimes sweet words and piles promises on promises or the ill-fated praying man who gets shot in the head at the end of his prayer, Arcilla’s force is unwavering – – we see the sinner through him. I find it completely unfair when people compare his performance to Adlawan’s; that she has shown a far more memorable portrait of the wife, that she is outstanding, that she almost knocks him out in every scene. That Adlawan’s great is absolutely true, but she wouldn’t be great without him as her partner.
It is easy to credit the successful film adaptation of a play to its playwright; after all, in stage plays, directors are often billed after the writer and the actors. But when you give someone the liberty to interpret the material through images and music that can be controlled and modified to suit his intentions, regardless if he’ll be faithful or not, two things can only happen: he’ll make us sleep or he’ll make us think. If people want to see a play, they’ll go out of their way to attend performances in formal concert halls or theaters. If movies strike their fancy, the malls are the most convenient place to go. But if a play is adapted into film, how can that attract viewership, in this country if I may be clear, except for die-hard cinephiles or the curious followers of the filmmaker?
Good thing that festivals welcome these ideas with warm embrace. The funding may be insufficient but it could still go a long way especially if the utmost intention is to expose an excellent literary piece to the public, which I believe Marasigan’s objective in the first place. How many of you would still consider infidelity a taboo if almost every marriage is wrecked by it? How could it still be unacceptable if it is too commonplace? We always see it in the movies – – the unfaithful husband, the crying wife, the vacationing mistress, the destroyed marriage, the rounds of loud conversations, the kids who grow up parentless – – and perhaps some people have come to realize that committing the sin once would not crucify them as much as other people who are committing it more than once. Even in infidelity people still think through levels of transgression.
But Perez believes otherwise. Adultery, from whichever angle you look at it, may it be the howling couple in “Baliuag Exit” who finds breathing less important than screaming and throwing profanities or the sweet couple in “Meycauayan Exit” who teases each other, communicates almost wordlessly, with only the wife shouting “Kaliwete!” in the end to reveal her exact feelings, has only one face. The feeling is all the same, regardless of how it’s done. It is painful because it destroys the contract – – not the paper that states that the two people are married, blessed by god, and all those holy things but the foundation of the relationship, the house of trust it is able to build through the years, the experiences that can never happen again, the past that can only serve as a painful memory of a has-been. The varying tones of humor and seriousness in the vignettes are clearly used to draw the conclusion that looms above these contrasts: experience is unique but the feeling is not; that misery is not something we can eliminate but something that we can always keep to a minimum.
The comparison will always show up so I think it would be better to discuss it anyway. In 2002, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami released Ten, a film whose main character is a woman driving around Tehran, talking with her passengers like her son, her sister, a prostitute, and a bride. As the title suggests, it is divided into ten parts; the numbers appear on screen like a countdown. Like Sa North Diversion Road, Ten was shot in digital. All throughout the film the camera was only placed in two angles: the driving woman’s angle and her passenger’s. What Kiarostami has pulled off is that his technique has managed to blend with his film’s politics; the confinement that his characters feel is reflected on how limited we could see them, limited to the four walls of his frame.
While it could have also worked in Sa North Diversion Road, I believe it is a good call that Marasigan has not overtaken the material’s wisdom by embellishing it with such technique. It is enough that he makes good use of what the medium can offer, the close-ups, the necessary flashbacks, the overlapping of narratives, the convenience of lighting, and the use of sentimental music. Marasigan’s modesty and discipline reflect very well despite the constraints. The close-up of Adlawan’s face as she looks at her husband and his other woman kiss, as her suspicion finally receives its long-awaited confirmation, as all her reasons to fight against it suddenly took a vacation and left her alone, has allowed us to hold onto her heart to comfort her, even for a brief moment.
The ninth segment, which shows the title of the film unlike the usual exit points named after each episode, has put forth the film’s knockout punch. The singer and the songwriter talks about their life, his marriage, her mixed happiness and disappointment to his marriage, his songs, her admiration to his craft, her love for him ever since. Before the scene fades out, he says, Alam mo, sa lawak ng pag-ibig ko, alam ko maliligaw din ako e, paulit-ulit. . .walang katapusan. Everything changes, even the road is bound to change its name. And then a question walks closely to our ear: do exit points really take us to an exit, or do they just take us back from where we started?
Highlights of 2008 March 1, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Cinemalaya, Cinemanila, European Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, Yearender.
Like a Mike de Leon film, contemporary Philippine cinema is moving from fairly interesting to diversely brilliant
BEST FILM: Now Showing
The Raya Martin paradox: he is not for everyone; he is for every one. What surprises me is the obvious difference in taste. While European audience is easily proclaiming him a genius, local viewers are dismissing him as an artist incapable of telling a good story. Now Showing runs for five hours and it makes you feel every second of it. We are not anymore in the age of brevity, when punch lines are the best element of fiction. This is the age of tedium; the painful wait describes our lives. For what I believe is an impressive feat on Martin’s part is dividing an audience, not only into camps of believers and non-believers but also into minute groups, the tiniest being the intellectual farters who argue his lack of connection to his audience, his pseudo-highbrowism, and his unabashed insensitivity, but that discussion I reserve for boring blogging days. For now, borrowing Kael’s statement on Godard, this is what I think: it is possible to hate every single film by Martin – – or find it pretentious – – and still, at least in terms of cultural duty, be shattered by his brilliance.
BEST DIRECTOR: Richard Somes (Yanggaw)
Somes’ eye for visual details remains his handsomest trait, but the synergism in Yanggaw all points to his remarkable sleight of hand. First features are the most interesting because they calibrate their filmmakers’ futures, not necessarily determine their fates but their chances and their following. It is also the beginning of every filmmaker’s luck or depression. Somes not only gives you the price of the ticket but he also gives every director in the field a resounding slap on the face. A horror that makes you think will surely eat your brains. A word of caution to Rico Maria Ilarde: better watch out.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR: Ronnie Lazaro (Yanggaw)
In an article that is definitely one of the best odes ever written to a Filipino actor, practically because we only have a few biographers, Lourd de Veyra believes Lazaro’s “most powerful virtue” is his eyes. “Those are eyes of strange, uneasy, existential depth, a hunger that transcends the physical.” You can change everything in him but not the eyes; ask him to play any role and those eyes will adapt to anything; they will always bring out the best, the unspeakable greatness, from him. In Yanggaw, Lazaro plays the father of the aswang, a principled man faced by the horror of his daughter’s inexplicable disease and torn between killing her or letting her kill the townspeople and, eventually, her own family. Lazaro has perhaps given the character more depth than Somes and Gaston have intended in their script; his skill in delivering every possible nuance in his character, as always, is perfect. He is never calculated, predictable; the only thing you can predict is his overwhelming effect on you (thus the term “The Lazaro Effect”). We, writers, will grow old and die but we will never get tired of recognizing an actor this great; that’s the least consolation we can give to such deity on earth.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS: Mylene Dizon (100)
Who can embody a strong woman better than Mylene Dizon? She who, in real life, can have a child with a man whom she already left, and still be happy? Dizon is the femme fatale, the fighter, the alphafemale. She has gone a very long way after that breakthrough film of hers where she plays a young woman who wet-nurses a son of a Japanese who has set her husband free. Chris Martinez shifted gears for the good; his writing style undiminished. While there are some lapses that Martinez has not able to stitch and patch properly, 100 still shines because of Dizon’s effortless whip, her supporting cast amazingly letting her shine. She downplays sentimentality in exchange for graceful prowess; one can easily write a novel out of her piercing stare.
BREAKTHROUGH FILM OF THE YEAR (for first films): Yanggaw
Yanggaw has the feel of a film that has been made a long time ago, yet it possesses a hypnotizing vibe of newness and originality. It reshapes the genre, disguises its stereotypes, and turns them into an impressive reassessment of our values. It is uniquely Filipino, no matter how it becomes difficult to qualify something as such these days, the difficulty even in defining what constitutes our own, what really is Filipino. That to uncover the myths and practices of rural people, Somes relies on popular belief and adds his own, enabling his aswang not only to fly above roofs and trees but also to fly as the most richly-examined horror film in recent years.
BEST SHORT FILM: Anomi
Richard Legaspi’s Ambulancia and Joaquin Valdes’ Bulong, if press releases and recognition abroad should be considered, are the finest but following that idea brings substantial room for debate because both of them lack the spunk that this category requires. Even Antoinette Jadaone’s latest work, Tumbang Preso, fails to match her classic Salingpusa. Sasha Palomares’ Andalusian Bitch almost bowls me over but this year belongs exceptionally to Renei Dimla’s Anomi, a six-minute painted glass animation whose holism accounts for its vision of social stratification, that no matter what happens decay is the fate of every one, of the rich and the poor, of the young and the old, of greedy presidents and ghoulish congressmen. Its intentions aside, its mighty visuals and terrific sound design turn every short film this year into mediocre.
BEST HOLLYWOOD FILM: Wanted
The imports are still doing a great job in American cinema. Back when Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang were in Hollywood, these foreigners were on top of their game. And they still are. Mark Millar and James McAvoy are Scottish, Thomas Kretschmann is German, and Timur, as we all know, is Russian. Wanted fires like a speedbullet in the brain; it cuts every line connected to reason, which leaves us with only a little breath to grasp. This is total entertainment; one side of cinema absolutely fulfilled. (And Wall-E is cutely narrowing his eyes for me to add him; so I promised.)
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE (NON-HOLLYWOOD) FILM: California Dreamin’
The sadness of Nemescu’s untimely death in a car crash, along with sound engineer Andrei Toncu, is not only felt after the news came out. His first feature, which turns out to be also his last, speaks of that impairing loss, of that uncomforting truth, that he can never make films again, that he can never make fun of his country’s political maladies ever again. It has loose ends and blank spaces in between, the pitfall of dying while your film is still in the editing room, but Nemescu has stood by the saying that one is only as good as his final work and made sure that by that standard, he is leaving an impressive mark not only in the towering features of the Romanian New Wave but also in the ever-exciting landscape of world cinema. If Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has knocked you out, California Dreamin’ will certainly leave you underground, waiting to be unearthed for several days.
Schnabel finally comes in full metamorphosis in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, cementing his aesthetic and transforming a moving life story into a devastating two-hour viewing experience worthy of eternal remembrance. While almost every acclaimed film in the Oscars last year delves on the darkness of the human heart, his latest work breaks into the most inspiring virtue of existence, that living is not anymore a question of life and death, but the necessity of making sense in the world where words are not enough to fuel one’s spirit. What could better describe its effect than the experience of seeing it with people who cannot force themselves to stand up from their seats minutes after the credits rolled and the lights went out. That’s something I would call “communal bereavement.”
Meanwhile, only few had seen When Timawa Meets Delgado when it premiered in Cinemalaya and was shown commercially in Indie Sine. So much for lacking big-named stars and a clear point of interest to speak of, its obscurity can easily account for its regional background but it is also its strongest trait that sets it apart among the films released last year. Funny, intelligent, and downright affecting, When Timawa Meets Delgado is in the ranks of indie classics.
BEST FILM SEEN IN PIRATED DVD: Blissfully Yours
You get it, then you don’t, then you get it again, then you don’t. In such fickleness, how can it be so astonishingly beautiful? Part-romance, part-mystery, part-nothing, part-everything, Joe’s second feature is beauty to the infinity.
SPECIAL AWARD: Bontoc Eulogy
Marlon Fuentes tries to unravel his roots by starting with a void. The St. Louis Fair of 1904, by all means the most controversial exposition in history, is the most fitting event to characterize the blameless American attitude: accomplishing a crime with the least malice and getting away with it hands clean. In all virtue of self-righteousness, not every race can do that. The call of cultural duty strikes Fuentes as a dire need for personal affirmation. By mixing fact and fiction, history and personal reminiscences, archival footage and quirky recreations, Fuentes has made a depressing document of striking beauty about a country whose identity remains its lifetime treasure but still, after centuries of hunt and chase, has never been truly found.
Now throw me your sharpest dagger: The Dark Knight‘s stiffness still puts me off in second viewing; it certainly is the most unlived up hype I have ever encountered. And yes, I would not let this pass, I know Joel Lamangan is loved by industry people but that doesn’t mean he is as good as his image; Walang Kawala, despite its obvious efforts to titillate the queer sense, only intensifies the truth that life can never be fair – – it can only be worse – – and that we are all Murphy’s best friends. It is trash that cannot be recycled; it is not even pleasurable to look at. Five years ago I may find it insulting but now I only have three words for it: Burn the tapes. And out of guilt I would like to say that For the First Time is still unbearable in fast forward and Brutus is a torturous example of political narrowmindedness at its ridiculous worst.
But what’s worse than the worst film? The worst trailer. Don’t blame me for ruining two and a half minutes of your life but admit it, you clicked that Replay button to see it again; it has that pinch of necessity. Like, What was that? Maybe I missed something. And there, you’re hooked, piteous hilarious. Truth is, porn is a gazillion times better than this. A strike of thought: why is porn not shown in local theaters? And this one can survive a week? Are we still on earth? Definitely the line of the year: DON’T YOU THINK I DESERVE AN APOLOGY OR AT LEAST AN EXPLANATION? (with feelings). John Waters must see this. Just the sound of the title is enough to give me a fit.
Tambolista (Adolfo Alix Jr., 2007) January 24, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi, UP Screening.
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English Title: Drumbeat
Directed by Adolfo Alix Jr.
Cast: Sid Lucero, Jiro Manio, Coco Martin, Anita Linda
That the two films are often compared out of obvious similarities in theme and treatment proves to be mutually helpful. Tambolista and Tirador are worthy companions of each other; both have a remarkable pulse of the city’s fat-surrounded heart and filthy lungs, beating and breathing with all their remaining strength, capturing not only the stink of Manila we live with everyday but also the balance of compromise we often take for granted, a requiem that never ends. I know I went overboard in my review of Tirador, exaggerating descriptions and punctuating them excessively, but that was only because a film like that makes you want to drag anyone you meet into the theater, to see it, to experience it like you did, a frustration I had after leaving an empty cinema. While Mendoza’s film asphyxiates to the point of agreement, Tambolista lets its mild details drift until they find the right puzzle to connect. As a viewer it feels like being given a fabric to sew your own dress, complete with all the materials needed to mend, and whatever the outcome is reflects your understanding of the film.
Two brothers both need money; one for his dreams, the other for his sins. While the dream to buy a drum set can wait, abortion is an urgent case for the elder; he even considers selling his flesh to earn. What an irony to plan an abortion when your mother is in the hospital delivering your youngest sibling. And then a friend barges into their home to seek shelter, an escape after stealing cash and sleeping with his landlady, caught by her own husband who eventually kills his six-year old daughter. This friend is a mischief-maker; he leads the brothers into a crime they have never meant to commit, that of stealing their old neighbor’s cash that can save them from their financial troubles, and, out of diabolic reflex, killing her as well, which in turn provokes the old neighbor’s brother to commit suicide. Everyone thinks that he killed his sister because they always fight. But then the younger brother finds out. The friend tricks his accomplice, the elder brother, to meet him and his death; he knows he will tell the police. After knifing him several times inside a bathroom of an old moviehouse, he bumps into the younger brother who runs after him, cornering him, hitting him hard with his drumstick, screaming, weeping. That’s how the dress I have finished looks like.
The best thing about Alix is that he takes risks. By allowing Ave Regina Tayag’s tense narrative to build like dominoes about to fall down in a sudden tap, he follows Godard’s idea of requiring a story of a beginning, middle, and end but not necessarily in that order to echo the restlessness of his characters and the swallowing mouths of the city, so subtly delivered Tirador almost loses face in comparison. It coheres, but you will not see the edges despite the haphazardness on the surface, for there seems to be hidden hands at work, smudging the dirt until the blur belongs to the story itself, helping it out, reinforcing it. It is a triumph in every field – – Jiro Manio, Coco Martin, Sid Lucero, and all the supporting players, Anita Linda, Fonz Desa, Ricky Davao, Susan Africa, Simon Ibarra, and Mosang are powders of a firecracker reserved for a pyrotechnic display that once lit will explode marvelously in the dark sky; Albert Banzon, again, lends his eye for mystic visual magic to another great work; and Khavn dela Cruz seems to have his own show on the side, enriching the film with music of varying texture, the mix of ambient sound and impatient rhythm creates another character, apart from the multiple characters of its numerous narratives.
The convenience of the digital has made it possible to photograph the city with a style that corresponds to its intoxicating grimness; it has allowed filmmakers to shoot the dark alleys of Manila, the ubiquitous traffic, the old moviehouses that slowly fade in oblivion, the bookshops and convenience stores that disappear without our knowing, the moral poorness of the common Filipino and his predicament, the droplets of happiness that satisfy his little hopes. The digital is the salvation of our pipe dreams. In all its battering disorder and confusing hysteria, Tambolista is a daring experiment that succeeds.
On What It Feels Like To Drown in Ron Bryant’s Alon (2008) December 16, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi, UP Screening.
English Title: Wave
Directed by Ron Bryant
Cast: Mark Gil, Eula Valdez, Charee Pineda
On what may have been the film that will nail his reputation, Ron Bryant scores a lopsided dissatisfaction, and on what may have secured his place in my reserved future viewings becomes a case of compromise, I am already having second thoughts. Alon still deserves to be looked at, and if one has managed to follow his works – – Ruptura as an amateur yet disturbing experiment, Baryoke as a beautiful piece of indulgence, and Rotonda as a messy tour-de-force – – it can easily be inferred that he is one of the better directors around, someone who promises a thorough understanding of cinematic language, but, as what Alon has meticulously proved, he can also be a stubborn artist whose ideals can fail in accordance with his subject.
Bryant is good with multiple actors – – Rotonda and Baryoke benefit from the layers of their narratives, evoking a coherent argument in various perspectives of their characters’ lives – – but rather ineffective in minimalist scenarios. It opens with the familiar shots of the sea, the crashing waves, then a voice suddenly breaks the monotony, a poem being recited, the longing of a loved one, painful words. A young woman follows her dog, which leads her to a man in his house, a taciturn fellow who looks mysterious to her. They talk and easily become friends because of her vexing eagerness. She returns and next thing you know he is teaching her how to cook, sitting with her in front of the beach, and fighting about the possibility of them being together. The film has a drastic turn, in the least impressive way, when the young woman discovers that he has a wife, a sick, dying wife at that, on her bed upstairs. The wife looks forward to her death, asks her husband to consider his relationship with the young woman, what could be more gratifying than your own wife pushing you to have another woman at your side once she’s gone? Nothing, because that’s not the case, our man is not a ladykiller, he is a principled man. There is no hint of inconvenience in their relationship, all three of them, and it seems that the dying woman wants her fair share of pain, she is ready to die. At this point I forgot to tell you that the young woman is just in vacation, so she has to leave, back to the city, and study as a nurse. When she comes back to the house near the sea, several years after, as the waves reassure her of their constant guidance, she can only make out the loss of an important fragment of her past and nothing else; she stood still.
The story sounds convincing but five minutes through the film I can already sense what’s massively wrong with it: Charee Pineda. She has mouthed what comes to mind as the most annoying “hi” in cinema you’ll ever hear; she has broken the strength of this film into a million pieces, whatever left is trite and uninteresting. Too bad not even Mark Gil and Eula Valdez can overcome her irritating presence; she annoys more than she delivers. Bryant employs his usual sweep of long takes and slow burn in less satisfying effect; I long for interest, there is nothing in it that has that, it is still the stuff we see in TV. The pain will always be present; it’s up to us to play with it and make it the most important thing in the world. In Baryoke, the linger becomes an integral part of its narrative, its waywardness is the story, its characters’ lives determined by both chance and decision, its tedium is its strength; in Alon, what surfaces is obstinacy, and that being consistent is not good enough; it loses grip despite the force it gives on its handling. In the blink of an eye, the beauty that has been keeping our attention in steady escapes.
In Diabolic Bliss in Richard Somes’ Yanggaw (2008) December 10, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi, UP Screening.
Directed by Richard Somes
Written by Richard Somes and Dwight Gaston
Cast: Ronnie Lazaro, Joel Torre, Tetchie Agbayani, Aleera Montalla
In Philippine folklore, the aswang is generally used to describe different types of night creatures that feed on human innards and blood. From the popular manananggal and mangkukulam to the werewolves and shapeshifters that vary according to one’s regional background, the aswang is understandably a striking facet of local belief that manage to endure through the years. In our continuous ascent to the standards of Western living in exchange for cultural amnesia, it must be noted that the aswangs are doing us a favor of sustaining this heritage. Interestingly, this bloodthirsty figure has that strong and timeless halo over its head that it remains the most exploited character in Pinoy horror stories, from short pieces of fiction to TV serials, in every Halloween episode of magazine shows and documentaries, as well as news reports of terror in provinces. But where else could it be given such esteemed overuse but in cinema, specifically the annual Metro Manila Film Festival that breathes life to endless Shake Rattle and Roll flicks that scare less than their ability to frustrate.
What has long been missing in these efforts is depth; what should be less explored are the aswang‘s grisly exploits, the number of dead increasing every day, children, pregnant mothers, their intestines scattered in the fields; what must be thought of is giving their stories a fresh yet unconventional dimension, a revision of an overused plot by reflecting on the harsh realities that the aswang and its family has to face, not just cardboard scenarios and poorly executed sequences taken from shallow brainstorming and weak social observation. Given it has the benefit of that unpardoning contrast, still, Yanggaw succeeds in re-defining the myth by acknowledging its psychological nuances, that by commanding the most perfect ensemble of actors in a narrative of unstoppable force, it has put forth what I proudly believe as one of the finest revelations in the fickle landscape of contemporary Philippine cinema.
The film is quick to introduce the conflict. The mystery is easily established in the first sequence. But from there it chooses to emphasize the buildup, from how an ordinary family in a remote town lives a difficult but happy life on their own to the moment when they discover that one of their members is afflicted with the disease, the poison that runs through her blood that makes her crave for human flesh. The transition from the peaceful household, mirthfully punctuated by the father offering every one a gift after winning a stake, a piercing farewell to their emotional misery, to the massive disturbia that follows after the monster has become full fledged, until it starts to escape by the room’s window, until it returns with its fangs still drenched in blood and hair in warlike disarray, until the corpses in the town start to pile up, until everyone becomes suspicious, until it begins to harbor the darkest guilt, until the monster has to be tied up, until it has to be let loose because of the father’s hinge on his principles, until the monster begs for its death, until the father decides against all laws of his abiding life to slaughter it, in a severe force that turns him into an animal, until every memory of it becomes a nightmare that only afterlife can erase.
The pacing in that critical transition transforms Yanggaw from a lowly, piteous flick into an admirable effort that resuscitates the hackneyed genre, in which there is only one or two serious filmmakers who truly embody a sense of maturity. Richard Somes, whose prior experience in production design has lent a great deal of credibility in his first full-length, is one of those very few. The acute similarity of horror stories to crime fiction, let’s say Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, is the emphasis given to murder. Whereas detectives are responsible to bring justice in accordance with the law, using several clues that come along their way, the principal character in horror, the murderer itself, creates the tension, provides the clues, and wreaks havoc to the community. It is a play between the active and passive roles of their characters in which a reversal of role is likely in the end. In thrillers, we uncover the crime bit by bit until we reach the truth; in horror, however, the crime is right there in front of us, clearly asking for our reaction, us waiting for another turn of event that will lead to the conclusion. The price of seeing the murder, of keeping the truth to ourselves, is the need to face the consequences with them. In this regard, the horror genre seems to work its assailing blow: the psychological. It starts from the nightmare and springs forth to various threads, personal relationships, social betrayal, moral uprightness, and more importantly, spiritual obedience. The good thing about Yanggaw is that while it is more of a tragedy of a Filipino family, specifically in a town where faith is as unquestionable as the need for food on their table, it doesn’t press too much on religion, so what happens becomes more tangible.
History check: this will need your memories of previous aswang movies. There is no need to cite a specific one, because, as you will find out, the idea is somewhat familiar. Before, the aswang is a stranger, someone in the town whom no one knows much about, and her existence (right now I wish to bring into light the fact that every aswang in every aswang film ever made is a she) provokes nothing extraordinary. She is just like everyone, except for her nocturnal quench for blood. She may even be a figure of purity, like Aiko Melendez as a nun in Shake Rattle and Roll IV. This is clever, for this increases her peril as a character, diverting the attention to anyone but her, she as the unusual suspect. But the problem is that the only thing that the story wants to deliver is the scare, the untying of the knot, the exposition and chase scenes done in the sloppiest way possible. It is a tiring excuse that stretches the vestiges of the genre, doing nothing good in particular. In Yanggaw, however, the aswang becomes familiar, she is among us, we see her transform, we see her chase children, we see her as she rocks the bed with chains on her arms and legs, we hear her cry and scream, we know her, she is familiar, Somes has made her so close to recognition we forget that she is a monster. The aswang has been given life, through her family, the decisions of the father, the misgivings of the mother and the sibling, the terror in the community, even the details of her murder. The illusion becomes truth. Yanggaw prefers depth to schlock, and the longer you watch it the more you realize that it is not so much about the aswang herself but the family that adopts her new persona and their lingering struggle. Once that belief has been suspended, there is really no turning back.
I am tempted to call it a gravely satisfying work but the resolve of the narrative, particularly on how it relies on editing to heighten the drama, is a bit misplaced. A longer version is said to be prepared by Somes, and this may provide the timely orgasm at the film’s end. Ronnie Lazaro and Joel Torre don’t have to do anything to prove that they are indeed the greatest actors of our time, that if we start mentioning names, every one, even Christopher de Leon, will pale in comparison.Yanggaw makes you feel honored just by their presence. The volleyball game between the two camps has that flinch of unsettling strangeness; it makes the remote town far more remote. That it is in Hiligaynon (in an unspecified place somewhere in Panay Island, particularly where aswangs are predominant) does not seem to put any pressure on its mix of professional and new actors; Tetchie Agbayani is regal and utterly convincing. Erik Matti as the violent whip healer is surprisingly effective. Gio Respall and Monet Gaston add credibility to their family’s demise. And finally, Aleera Montalla is appallingly menacing, she is the vamp of our nightmares. Claravall and Sacris fashion a distinct eye for visual character, their light and darkness are moving as if they are part of the story themselves.
As the MMFF is about to commence a few weeks from now, it is agonizing how this brave trailblazer will be neglected by the most. As for my part, I tell you, Yanggaw is peerless, it shows not the limitations but the possibilities of the genre it has raised to hell. It is a fuck you to every Shake Rattle and Roll movie made and will ever be made (incidentally Somes had a segment for the franchise three years ago), and it has a terribly magnetic vision almost close to Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, the godfather of horror films. If the pen is still mightier than the sword, then dear reader, after the aswangs have made me proud, I rest my case.
The Three Wise Monkeys in Rico Maria Ilarde’s Altar (2007) October 31, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Directed by Rico Maria Ilarde
Written by Rico Maria Ilarde and Mammu Chua
Cast: Zanjoe Marudo, Nor Domingo, Dimples Romana, Dido dela Paz
Call it a sick fetish but I have this tendency to put in a positive light filmmakers who make good use of Klaudia Koronel as an actress, even for a small role that’s enough for her to shower her effortless provocation, that very representative of carnal pleasure bordering from gut-busting hilarity to nerve-wracking hysteria, which, in the heart of things, and in all grave seriousness, what makes her a very effective actress, in such damn way that Kristine Hermosa and Marian Rivera must dig their respective holes in their yard, stay there, spare us from nightmares, and never come out until the end of the world. Not that this attempt to watch all her films has been successful – – I have only seen a handful, and imagine how keen I am to see her first starring role in Augusto Salvador’s Walang Dayaan Akin Ang Malaki (No Cheating, The Biggest is Mine) for years. I am sure she has already reached the peak of her career in Jeturian’s Tuhog and Reyes’ Live Show, which, thanks to MTRCB’s unflinching inutility, got a lot of publicity when they were released and earned a slew of supporters for the films’ merits. I recall Rico Maria Ilarde’s Babaeng Putik (Woman of Mud) used to be shown in cable back in high school, sometimes during weekday afternoons or late nights when everyone wanted to be anywhere except on the couch, and I remember, quite vividly, how Klaudia Koronel’s character would come out from the tree and scare the wits out of Carlos Morales’ chiseled abs. I find the film frightening at that time, even funny for some of its ludicrous moments, but nevertheless it fills the idea of scare that is different from the tiresome scream flicks we used to eat that time – – films whose notion of horror is not as a genre but in the outcome itself of the work.
Ilarde continues to challenge himself with the possibilities, perhaps he is still on his way to discovering nameless alleys and untouched screws of speculative fiction’s boundless curves and corners, and in the process of sculpting troubled men who are physically able yet emotionally disturbed, men whose priceless means of comfort is escape from their ugly past and uglier future, he comes up with works that are filled with so much quirk and interest, stories that are fermented for long years not only because they take so long to be thought over but also due to studio executives’ narrow idea of sensible horror, that if there is one filmmaker in this field to watch out for, then Ilarde is the surefire hitman.
Altar is a step forward, yet before it comes to its harrowing end, there are unusual turns and excesses that I find unnecessary or weakly executed. The dialogues occupy most of the film’s revelations, disabling the visuals to speak well for the conveyance of the mystery. Again, is being verbose a cultural thing? Even if it helps pushing the narrative to easier comprehension, too much talk between Anton and Lope undermines the mystical atmosphere of the house. There is just too much talk – – too much mucus and too much lubricant – – that spoils the tension of revealing the horror, which weakens your appreciation of Louie Quirino’s subdued grip of Ilarde’s vision. The addition of subplots can either lead to stronger characterizations or less focus, and it does both – – putting impressive weight on Anton’s burdened sportsman character by meeting a maiden from a nearby townhouse, sharing a brief romance that lets him tell his sorrowful past, and tending to give room to usual drama that perhaps Ilarde’s way of showing that despite his lenience to fantasy his stories are still very much rooted to everyday life, everyday drama, human weakness.
Anton’s interest in the occult is somehow unclear, if not dubious, which if only the story has put a chunk of dialogue in making his intentions tangible may pave the way to our reception to the turn of events with less skepticism. True, his concern with the strange happenings in the house mirrors our own anxieties toward the supernatural – – Ilarde may be a bit hesitant – – but it will only nudge the fragile narrative a little, not so much to let it fall down and break, if we are spared from wondering, because may it be human nature to intrude to matters beyond our limits, it may also prove literary incapability or distrust. Furthermore, in a film that relies heavily on sound design and music, any misplacement of noise or silence can feign its intentions and mask even its sincere mastery.
This may sound like a grand pretentious joke but I must tell you, after all the misgivings I lined up above, these complaints are what make up a must-see movie. It takes an awful lot of experience and commitment to deliver a genre film against the odds of stupid studios who don’t know the difference between screaming and faking it, between scare and fear, between the bluff and the real thing. The feel of a B-movie builds an ambience of obscurity that adds to the adventure of uncovering a secret, of solving a riddling truth, of carrying over a failed destiny, and of looking out from a cross-shaped window, eyes filled with bitter tears, bereft of happiness and freedom. Altar digs deeper on the ancient formula that “all it takes to make a horror film is a haunted house,” building more houses with more secret rooms and more cobwebs and more shrines that suck up human bodies for nourishment and human souls for longer life.
I have this idea that if you cut Zanjoe Marudo in half, the two pieces will be markedly different, as if they come from two markedly different people. Marudo has that strange enigma coming out of him, he is neither great nor horrible, virile nor effeminate, outstandingly smart nor incredibly stupid, but there is something about him that reminds you of dual presence, maybe of classic representations of a man and a woman, of doubts written all over his face and body that give emphasis on his words, of enabling sensuality that even himself is not aware of. In that brief moment while he is in the kitchen, tasting the food that he is cooking, out of nowhere he moves his hands and jerks his torso as if dancing – – but in truth he is under a spell of a dream, and we are obliged to see it as a hallucination.
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Directed by Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto
Written by Jerrold Tarog
Cast: David Barril, Publio Briones III, Owee Salva
In the tradition of brave young cinema, Confessional screeches its staggering drive into a tunnel of guileless collisions – – from personal, political, social, and traditional maladies to ephemeral and quizzical assassinations of truth – – it crashes the windows of passive resistance, of passive lies, and of passive power tripping, and in lieu of the linear, overused approach, it whips with dynamic excesses and colorful appendices that set the subplots in motion – – its kinetic energy rips the veins of our eyes in a sudden U-turn crash – – blame those pink fences and concrete barriers – – and in ugly kaleidoscope the hopes of our land form shapes of madness and fear.
It is a failed documentary in Ryan Pastor’s idealistic eyes. He leaves his work in Manila and travels south, accompanied by his girlfriend only in the cabin, as she dumps him when they get off the ship. A relationship that only the two of them can understand, he continues and searches for the subject that will bare the unique Filipino culture according to his standards. His cover of the annual Sinulog Festival in the lively streets of Cebu is filled with humorous, thought-provoking interviews that range from a nun who shares her short stint as an actress, much to our surprise as we see her alluring teenage pictures, to a performer whose queer personality is somewhat obvious then afterward, when Pastor asks the question, we are likewise left in doubt, wondering whether her supposed way to earn a living is indeed true. And then he meets Lito Caliso – – the trapo whose honesty almost kills him with insatiable fear of the unknown – – and the turn of events leads him to an extraordinary curb of fate, the face-off with a filthy past, and in the end all he cares for after the bloody self-serving interview of his subject is the shot – – that frigging final shot – – the avenger points his gun toward the camera then escapes, as if overcame by fear, by an invisible force of defeat – – the lies eating the truths, the truth swallowing the lie.
Tarog’s Astig precedes the screening of Confessional in Cinemalaya; like its inspiration, Astig touches on regional differences – – on how in this archipelago of 7,100 islands there exists a far-fetched understanding of oneness, nationality, and belongingness to the same race – – this crash of cultural upbringing aggravated by history and politics, the crossing of virtual borders, the invasion of communal space, the light and darkness – – the evil inside the modern man masked by good intentions. Tarog enjoys confrontation with truths, for only by lying one can face them, as ruthlessly delivered in his award-winning short, Carpool. The element of surprise in his films is always present; it leaves a feeling of delight after the twist is loosen out – – the punch line that every one finds himself laughing at – – because it entails harsh consequences.
It is wonderful that some of the most beautiful films in recent years are done by first-time full-length filmmakers, in their mid-twenties or early thirties breaking in amid the pressure dictated by festival grants and lack of sufficient funds. Done in a meager budget, Tarog and Antipuesto shot Confessional for roughly around one million pesos ($23,200), quite heroic you would think – – but if you consider John Torres’s Todo Todo Teros whose expenses only amounted to five thousand pesos ($116), it is already ambitious. Money, however, does not account for everything; the hardest situations give birth to limitless discoveries, breathing new life to struggling young ones who are waiting to be pushed from the edge – – down to the farthest grounds of unspoken dreams and fulfilled promises. * * * * *