Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 3) October 11, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine.
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APARISYON (Vincent Sandoval, 2012)
There is something suspicious about Sister Lourdes the moment she steps into the monastery. You know, the way nuns tend to be: extremely pleasant on the outside but sharp on edges, with one eye closed and one eye open, one hand holding a rosary and one hand holding a knife. But basing on Jodi Sta. Maria’s performance and Vincent Sandoval’s direction, tellingly, she happens to be nothing more than a blank slate. In most instances, Sister Lourdes accepts apples as apples and oranges as oranges, curious and spirited but never unreasonable. She is fostered by nuns of diverse personalities, upright characters that emphasize her inexperience. They create the tension around her, and she submits herself willingly to their severity.
With a setting like this, though, it is likely that she bites into one of those poisoned apples. This kind of breaking point is rather unsurprising, as the movie, in its firm structure, builds up to it consciously, the drama afterwards becoming tighter and more internal. Jay Abello’s subtle framing and Teresa Barrozo’s low-key music act as effective accomplices to this stifling atmosphere. But it doesn’t stop there. Sandoval takes advantage of a room full of horrors and decides not to open any window, creating a Martial Law movie without the bombardment of the usual elements that define it, for instance, people rallying on EDSA or faces of Marcos, Ninoy, Ramos, and Enrile. He is very generous when it comes to staging emotional scenes, careful not to lose their weight. However, a number of crucial sequences, especially those that happen after the crime, bank too much on mystery that they lose balance. As a result, the the narrative tips over and reveals some cracks.
Aparisyon shows abuse and guilt, the fringes of evil, the misfortune of the years lived in danger. For the most part it’s an absorbing experience, but one couldn’t help feeling that the movie could have flown much further, up and away, out of its box. It lounges in its ambiguity and pain, over the hushed tones of fearful women, in the remote forest where suffering is shared and isolated at the same time. It’s a siege film void of an escape plan, and at the center of it is not the group of nuns but Sandoval, overexerting his characters’ emotions, restrained by his own motives, a victim of his own ideas. Its strengths are also its weaknesses, and Sister Lourdes, despite her pointless prayers, knows that she can only do so much. B
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 2) August 17, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
ANG NAWAWALA (Marie Jamora, 2012)
When all this clamor surrounding Ang Nawawala dies down, it would be interesting to ponder on ideas that will broaden the horizon of the movie, as opposed to those that limit it, hoping that people will refrain from embarrassing themselves by expressing empty and baseless sentiments. For instance, when a writer claims that Ang Nawawala shares “a humanity that transcends class boundaries” and that “not all movies have to be a commentary on the sociopolitical status of the country,” the film might find itself in a very dangerous position, one that requires justifying itself more than it needs to, thereby falling into the clutches of an indiscreet clique.
To some extent, most of the arguments online, which are neither polarizing nor progressive, are more fascinating than the film itself, tending to magnify its intentions and worship its makers, its supporters passionate to nail their point by proving others wrong. They create the loudest noise, always defensive of the movie’s merits and wary of people who make a fuss about class, trying to undermine the luxury that the characters can afford. Discussions are generally healthy, but it is a mistake to believe that just because a piece of work invites a heavy amount of attention, it becomes a movie of certain importance. As it is, Ang Nawawala presents nothing that is hard to understand. It is shrouded by a mist so thick that once the story is told and its peculiarities are exhausted, all that is left to do is turn the wiper on and drive away.
The story is set at Christmastime. Gibson (Dominic Roco) has stopped talking after a terrible childhood accident. After several years abroad, he returns home and is welcomed by his family, with whom his relationship has become cold and distant. His close friend Teddy (Alchris Galura) reaches out to him and they go out to seek fun and romance. The latter he finds in Enid (Annicka Dolonius), an attractive young woman who enjoys attending art exhibits and gigs, and they strike up a friendship, Enid aware of Gibson’s forbearance to speak. He falls in love with her, only to find out that she comes with strings attached. Having opened himself recklessly to Enid, Gibson turns to someone who’s been with him all along, winding up a chapter of his life that has long been needing closure, and leaps in the dark with eyes open.
All of these are presented nice and cozy, except that at some point in the movie, obvious questions begin to crop up: why are people, young and old alike, so keen on liking this? Where is the huge torrent of enthusiasm coming from? Haven’t they seen anything better, stories with richer characters and finer rhythm, films with more striking personalities driven by a kind of energy that characterizes youth and being at a crossroads? Because seriously, with the intense way it’s being received, Ang Nawawala is a size 6 being given a size 10, being asked to sport higher heels than it can manage.
Clearly, there’s no use arguing about two things: (1) that the movie has connected well with many audience members, and (2) that writers Marie Jamora and Ramon de Veyra have a sincere intention, which shows in its undeniably pleasant appeal. However, from a conflicting perspective, Ang Nawawala has problems translating that genuine objective into a language that’s defined and discerning. Jamora overlooks a number of saggy sequences that could have provided Gibson a dimension outside his discomfort zone. She could have done away with all the gloss and replace it with layers, seeing that she prefers inertia to gravity, and come up with a way of highlighting emotional authenticity aside from glorifying despair. She lets a lot of good narrative opportunities pass—Dawn Zulueta and Buboy Garovillo’s characters could have been anything but flat, and Enid could have been more than just a pretty, dolled-up face. But as the story is told, it is apparent that Jamora wants to capture that limbo, that feeling of being forced to mature, that train of adulthood that one wants so badly to miss, only perhaps unknown to her, she is filling everything with haze. By showing heartbreak with more emphasis on break than heart, the film drowns in its whiny and generic indulgence.
Many elements are just there for their prettiness and they suck whatever little the movie is trying to say. It’s so rich in material possessions but so poor in nuances, and clearly it makes a point about class because it strives so hard to ignore it. Suffice it to say, depiction is rarely an innocent and harmless act. The iPhones, the vintage cameras, the Mac computers, the posters of Mike de Leon movies, even the turntable and stacks of vinyl that have now become an obsession of the wealthy because of their worth (nostalgia being such an expensive commodity)—they parade Gibson’s family’s ability to afford the luxuries of both the old and the new, riches that it is never embarrassed about, riches that of course it takes for granted. More than presenting an honest-to-goodness story, Ang Nawawala illuminates these certainties, the middle class holding a sense of absolute entitlement to freedom, and chooses to use an enfeebled love story as a pretext, as an apology in fact, to say that the well-off also suffers, that fortunate people may have earned their comfortable life but they also agonize, even worse.
Whereas the movie depicts Gibson with a lot of options at hand, having choices and second chances, many of which he is too indisposed to notice, it also validates, incongruously, how limited the thought given in the creation of his character. He never extends his hand—he wants you to extend your hand for him. And if that’s not enough, the filmmakers also want you to extend even your heart for him. If, in Jerrold Tarog’s words, Gibson is “an upper middle class kid who grows up a little,” then it’s the same case for the film. Ang Nawawala plays the game in every imaginable way: it appeals to the youth of today, it is hip and friendly, it embraces and high-fives everyone. But when all is said and done, it only revels in the distance it has created. And as a token of appreciation, it passes on a cigarette it feels so privileged to share. C+
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 1) August 1, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
POSAS (Lawrence Fajardo, 2012)
Posas feels like a reprise of Amok, from the chaotic spectacle of violence to the harsher realities borne out of its multi-character plots, except that the former’s treatment is wholly different, preferring tedium to brevity, repeating its surficial and figurative points instead of reinforcing them through riskier expositions. Nothing in the movie is fresh, which is a minor complaint considering Fajardo’s strong directorial control in his previous work, Amok being able to prove that predictability can also be thrilling, something that Posas loses sight of the moment it spreads its dirty limbs. The narrative is unable to build up steam, oblivious to how and why stereotypes work, failing to view the social problem from a perspective that makes it worth the scrutiny. Fajardo lets it slip from his hand many times, and though the result isn’t exactly disastrous, it shows his skepticism about the material, a script lacking in meaningful insight, resorting to premature ideas and half-baked executions. Therefore, the actors can hardly be blamed for the limitations of their dialogues, although the nuances that some of them display can easily be appreciated. In fact, as one leaves the theater feeling dissatisfied, it becomes obvious that Art Acuña’s presence leaves a bigger impression than the movie itself, his ability to create tension out of body language alone hounding the viewer, his sense of authority so palpable and menacing that even his fingers act when he sends a text message or when he closes a door. His performance may come across as too focused and calculated, but Acuña never shows any hint of ambiguity or contradiction: his stare cuts through without leaving blood, his shadow lingers without making a sound. C
REQUIEME! (Loy Arcenas, 2012)
Written by renowned actor and playwright Rody Vera, the script of Requieme! is rife with observations on a society whose incongruities define it, articulated through a number of sketches that rely heavily on several punch lines, delivered subtly and flamboyantly, oftentimes discomfortingly hilarious, only the punch lines do not really signify the end of a joke because the whole movie is a continuous course of events whose impact intensifies at every turn, a tragicomedy that bites the hand that feeds it. The movie is hardly a farce: there is more to it than the penchant for sensationalism, the over-the-top situations that cross the line but are never unlikely, considering that the breadth of Filipino sensibility isn’t exactly graspable or comprehensible, and Vera yields to that, foregoing unnecessary apologies, employing some sort of realism that is neither magical nor kitchen sink, the luck and misfortune of the characters seemingly interchangeable. However, Arcenas misses the crucial placement of these literary refinements, quite a few of what could have been wonderful scenes losing their force due to structural discord, the humor being stretched to the point of sagging, either falling short or not getting there at all. Similar to Last Supper #3, Requieme! tracks down the roots of the filthy bureaucratic system that strangle and lock the masses in their unfortunate fates, flaunting a way life that is distinctly Filipino, a kind of misery that is exclusive to its struggling breed. B-
MGA MUMUNTING LIHIM (Jose Javier Reyes, 2012)
It would be quite amusing to suppose that the premise of Mga Mumunting Lihim is lifted from Judy Ann Santos’s landmark TV series in the 90s, where her diary plays a crucial role in establishing a jaw-dropping turning point, exposing another misdeed that will eventually lead to a nasty cliffhanger, a formidable storytelling device that’s surely one of that decade’s greatest legacies. In Joey Reyes’s film it is a collection of diaries, and it is central in providing the narrative some explosives, particularly when the people involved in the journal entries are provoked, Juday’s circle of friends played by Janice de Belen, Iza Calzado, and Agot Isidro, doing verbal Olympics as their little secrets are uncovered, rowdy confrontations being Reyes’s strongest trait as a writer. These earsplitting arguments are the most entertaining aspect of the movie: they are exaggerated, hysterical, and overdramatic—absolutely pleasurable. But take those chunks of fireworks away and what’s left is a clearly identifiable teleplay, lazily told through a succession of flashbacks, its frames filled with excessive vanity shots, the construction of the film trying so hard to be young and hip and ending up like a fool. C
DIABLO (Mes de Guzman, 2012)
In Oscar Wilde’s words, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible,” and Mes de Guzman takes that to heart. Diablo is possibly his most beautifully photographed movie to date, a feat considering that it doesn’t feature as much landscape backdrops as his previous movies, which has now become a motif of his work. In his latest film, the compositions of interior locations, often clad in darkness, carry so much weight and ambivalence that at some point they begin to suffocate. The severity of his pace is quite a matter of contention, one that doesn’t steer away completely from his style but gives rise to doubts as regards his purpose, the mystery working on the assumption that there is something to be revealed, some expectations to be satisfied and knots to be untied. But this is Mes de Guzman after all—he lets you wait, regardless of result. To some extent, judging by the sight of Carlo Aquino’s picture at Nanay Lusing’s desk at the beginning and the way the impregnable matriarch shows her strongest emotion upon discovering the death of her radio, Diablo is also de Guzman’s cleverest work, poking fun at the seriousness of it all. Is this because Cinemalaya considers him New Breed despite having six features under his belt? B-
KAMERA OBSKURA (Raymond Red, 2012)
Yes, Raymond Red’s highly divisive Kamera Obskura will work even without its bookends—respected archivists Teddy Co, Cesar Hernando, and Ricky Orellana discussing the discovery of the silent movie in front of the media, and later on assessing its merits—but the film, without this fictional setup, will lose the advocacy that might have been the reason for its existence in the first place. People make a fuss about this lack of subtlety, about the blatant and didactic framework that envelops the movie, but this criticism, despite being valid, will easily be trampled on once the merits of the film, aesthetically and fundamentally, are considered. There is no experiment in form: it is simply a film within a film, and more than anyone in local cinema, Red knows how to play with form, and in Kamera Obskura he does so with boyish grace.
The silent film touches on many things: from the exile of a man to his discovery of a mysterious light, from his newly-found freedom to his possession of a magical camera, from the politicians trying to get hold of him to the sight of flying bicycles over buildings, from the political pastiche to the theatrical embellishments—Red is so eager to pile textures upon textures, layers upon layers, garnish upon garnish, like he’s trying to collect pieces of the past long neglected, the smell of places, the scars of history, trinkets of personal memory left in the gutter. To the disappointment of many, Red makes it clear that the whole thing is artificial, that the extent he has gone through to make a reproduction of the lost movie will in fact work to the disadvantage of Kamera Obskura, and he is aware of this, the imitation proving that all that’s lost can never be recovered. As he leaves the viewer with that final image, Pen Medina staring at his massive sculpture, recalling Ferdinand Marcos’s bust, everything being drowned by the weepy music, Red becomes that kid who wants to make a difference regardless of recognition, that kid finally being able to watch the fruit of his handsome imagination in the comfort of his own room. A-
MNL 143 (Emerson Reyes, 2012) July 14, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Emerson Reyes and Ade Perillo
Directed by Emerson Reyes
Cast: Allan Paule, Joy Viado, Gardo Versoza, Che Ramos
The best thing about MNL 143 is that Emerson Reyes is able to finish it. Despite the turn of events after its disqualification from Cinemalaya, he managed to raise money, hire the actors and crew he wanted, and complete the movie as he deemed fit. The worst thing about it is that the outcome, preceded by hype and expectations, is awfully lackluster. The disappointment is purely based on the weakness of its storytelling: the movie is unable to build a strong emotional core and falls into the trap of mistaking simplicity for emptiness. Had Reyes tried to take a leap and deliver the story it promised well on paper, he could have achieved something remarkable, not only for himself but also for the community that fought for his freedom of choice. Regrettably, MNL 143 displays a lack of ambition that can easily be confused with modesty, failing to strike a chord and take notice of the city that it wears proudly on its sleeve.
For a narrative that uses a device to take advantage of the many characters it brings together, the material should at least make the viewer curious. Commonplace issues of FX passengers are fine as long as their telling is motivated by a kind of inconsequence that stirs and creates a ripple effect—a movement that is faint at first sight but becomes perceptible as the film progresses. Sadly, Reyes does not encourage that setup to happen. He allows his characters to carry their stories and let them be known; however, there is no crucial dramatic arc that links them, no water that runs through that provides a nice flow. A number of stories start and end without any foothold on the past, sounding so written and perfunctory that they crash and burn upon delivery. As a viewer it’s like eavesdropping on people and realizing that you already know what they’re talking about: it validates the story but it doesn’t make it any more interesting. The only connection among the characters is the FX ride, not the everyday struggle of making it through the day alive and at ease, which could have made the token portraits more effective.
Making up for the lack of spontaneity and texture is the romance between Ramil, the FX driver, and Mila, the girlfriend he lost when he worked overseas. In what seems to be the handy slice of cake near the end of the movie, Mila becomes Ramil’s passenger, and the two engage in a conversation they have long wanted to have. Mila is now a widow, and as their sides are explained, it is obvious that Ramil is the only one holding onto their past. She’s content with her present life, but he wants her back. Several hours before they meet, he looked at her picture and cried inside the vehicle. It’s a flimsy scene that anticipates their meeting, handled absentmindedly and without interest, helpful in establishing his purpose but lacking in punch to drive the narrative into a tunnel of certainty. Ramil and Mila’s encounter could have provided some sort of deliverance from the monotony that permeates all throughout, but even this dramatic peak is conveyed unremarkably, bereft of something magical, of a warm and touching feeling that situations like this call for. The movie aspires so much to be artless and unsophisticated that it ends up dull, dry, and dreary.
On top of everything else, for a piece of work that considers itself deserving of the name of the city in its title, that city has been set aside. Yes, the commute from Buendia to Fairview shows Metro Manila—the poor infrastructure, the noisy streets, the polluted surroundings, and the cramped space in which people find themselves stuck—but the city, regardless of its peripheral presence, is never shown to be of any significance. It acts like a standee: it’s there, you see it, but it’s only a cardboard representation of the real thing. The most obvious question Reyes does not answer is: why is Manila special? Where is the relationship between the city and its characters? MNL 143 misses its context and subtexts, carrying on until its fuel runs out: a mere short distance, a few meters the farthest. It could have been set elsewhere and spared Manila the trouble of being given a tiny compliment, but it decides to show its toothless grin. It is proof that good intentions, however humbly they are expressed, are always inclined to mislead.
Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (Marlon Rivera, 2011) August 8, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Chris Martinez
Directed by Marlon Rivera
Cast: Eugene Domingo, JM de Guzman, Kean Cipriano, Cai Cortez
Comparisons are dangerous to make and risky to defend when writing film reviews, but sometimes their ability to simplify and flesh out acute similarities and differences between two movies explains their worth, especially when the point being illustrated bares the curiously inconsistent nature of the moviegoing public, people who have social and financial capability to watch screenings at festivals and mall theaters.
Wenn Deramas’s Ang Tanging Ina Mo (Last Na ‘To!) is a critical and commercial success, winning major awards at the 2010 Metro Manila Film Festival and the PMPC Star Awards for Movies and raking in millions at the box-office. No matter how blasphemous it sounds to hardcore cinephiles, Deramas’s win as Best Director brings to mind François Truffaut’s similar victory at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival for The 400 Blows. Both recognitions were confirmations, and both directors, coming fom the furthest ends of artistic reputation, became established auteurs in their own right, each of them guided by a world view that defined their oeuvre.
The only basis for Ang Tanging Ina Mo‘s critical acclaim is the awards—and of course, the inescapable praise from Butch Francisco—and the only people who took it seriously were those from the production themselves. The film has many levels of crap, enjoyable at some parts, but apparently its life starts and ends inside the theater. Outside, it becomes a figment of the occasion, a staple of the season, a pile of dirt under your fingernails. So, poking at the obvious, how come Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, also a critical and commercial success, manages to linger outside the confines of the cinema and excites even the most highbrow of moviegoers?
Simple: its filmmakers cater to the taste of the middle class. Unlike Deramas, Chris Martinez, the writer of Septic Tank who’s clearly in control of the movie, is a Palanca-winning author, an independent filmmaker, and a wily humorist whose grasp of Filipino sensibilities crosses socio-economic classes. His stories are culture-specific, metropolitan, and contemporary. They record a certain period in Philippine society when people are inclined to favor massive trends and when popular fixtures of discussions die of overkill. Bridal Shower, Bikini Open, Kimmy Dora, Caregiver, Here Comes the Bride, and the remake of Temptation Island are children of men, women, gays, and lesbians of our time. They are offspring of a vogue and they connect well to people because their subjects are the audience members themselves, their friends, their enemies, and their loved ones. The middle class appreciates this mix of wit, timeliness, and familiarity, and when a Martinez script is handled by a competent director—Jeffrey Jeturian in particular—it leaps from caricature to virtuosity. Septic Tank director Marlon Rivera treads on the script religiously, which is so thin you can easily segregate which is biodegradable and which is not.
Almost every review written about Septic Tank emphasizes the laugh-out-loud nature of the film, and yes, it’s that type of movie. However, what’s missing from these reviews is the profession of tolerance for the clumsy gaps between the gags. For instance, before marveling at the sight of Eugene Domingo at her luxurious house, the audience has to suffer from the utter shoddiness of a musical number first. The blunder of Septic Tank is the assumption of its filmmakers that the viewers will not be able to recognize which parts of the movie are intentionally sloppy and which parts aren’t. Even in some scenes where Rivera could have taken advantage of the freedom from Martinez’s control and shown his skill in framing and blocking actors, specifically those set in the slum location of Walang Wala, it seems that the school of filmmaking that Rainier and Bingbong are so fond of mocking is where Rivera comes from. Again, that may be intentional, but that doesn’t mean it’s effective.
In her review of the film, Jessica Zafra mentions that “everything we’ve always wanted to say about poverty porn—movies, mostly independently-produced, which focus on the squalor and desperation of the underclass in Philippine society—is encapsulated in Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank.” Upon realizing that her definition of poverty porn is completely similar to mine, I wonder why her statement strikes me as empty. First of all, Septic Tank does not say much about poverty porn. It’s practically short on insight and its indulgence in farce makes room for that typical academic defense that a work need not be explicit and serious to prove its point. While I concur that comedies are harder to pull off than dramatic films, what I dislike about Septic Tank is that it panders to moviegoers and tries hard to be funny. Its attempts at comedy fail most of the time because of the pressure to be funny, and this consciousness shows a lot in the awkward staging, dull photography, and uninspired cutting between scenes.
Second, the movie treats poverty porn with disdain, belittling its significance as a socio-political echo of contemporary art and society. A number of people look down on poverty porn as if it’s some kind of disease, and they feel the right to express superiority to it, mock its existence, and give it a death sentence. Poverty is substance, porn is form, and the combination of both is a patent of Philippine cinema that can’t be denied. We make movies about poverty because more than half of our population are poor. But Septic Tank doesn’t dwell on that. It dwells on people, the filmmakers, the festival programmers, and the local and international audience that encourage the proliferation of this type of films. Septic Tank reveals the hypocrisy of local filmmakers and the absurdities of their filmmaking, but at the end of the movie, aren’t the people behind Septic Tank guilty of milking money out of other people’s trash too?
The movie is less a critique of local independent cinema than a showcase of Eugene Domingo’s overstated comic talent. It stops from dragging the moment Rainier, Bingbong, and Jocelyn arrive at her house, a temple of some sort in which her portraits adorn the walls and her staff members exchange brilliant questions like “How is Ms. Domingo today?” This sequence strikes a balance with the crucial café setting in the first half. But no matter how painfully realistic Arthur Poongbato is, the conceited filmmaker can never match the audacity of Eugene’s diva antics. Upon reflection, it’s actually a little frustrating when you realize that Martinez and Rivera have been successful in letting Eugene parody herself and make the excesses work, whereas when they shift the focus to Rainier, Bingbong, and Jocelyn, the luster wears off very easily.
Art is entertainment and entertainment is art, but when a work consciously aspires to be both, there is the risk of falling into neither. Septic Tank is worthy of discussions, but expect loads of air quotes—”reality,” “irony,” “poverty,” “social commentary,” “audience appeal,” “great,” “funny,” “witty”—which are all fluff. For a movie that ridicules a notable aspect of Philippine cinema, a work that’s supposed to articulate ideas, it’s strange that Septic Tank is not a far cry from the type of films it lampoons. After all, is laughter really the best medicine?
Cuchera (Joseph Israel Laban, 2011) July 28, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written and directed by Joseph Israel Laban
Cast: Maria Isabel Lopez, Simon Ibarra, CJ Ramos, Jon Neri, Sue Prado
The people behind Cuchera have always been vocal about the nature of their material. Like Pepe Diokno’s Engkwentro, the film lays down statistics and starts the grind from there. It owes its life from the news, from stories of Filipino drug couriers abroad, about people who are trapped in a labyrinth in which trouble lurks at every exit. By saying that Cuchera is based on a true story, its makers suppose that clinging to that selling point provides the film a certain importance, giving it automatic weight and substance, a powerful defense from reproach that may have convinced filmmaker Francis Pasion in calling it “the darkest, most depressing, gut-wrenching film in the history of Cinemalaya,” or festival programmer Ed Cabagnot in saying that “it’s the bravest Cinemalaya film this year” and adding “nay, ever.” Veering away from the shower of empty praises, critic Oggs Cruz shares an insight, which, even though I find the reasoning faulty, gives Cuchera the credit it deserves. Cruz says, “Cuchera is rightfully shocking. It’s [better] seen as a horror film than a drama.” I agree, but it is more important to point out that the key word here is neither “shocking” nor “horror,” but “rightfully.”
Hovering over the movie is a nagging sense of legitimacy, which is a little conceited in suggesting that any appalling piece of news translates well into film, that whatever detail misinterpreted in between is unintentional, and being informed and sharing it with other people expresses concern, deliberately mistaking expression for actual help. Cuchera is heavy on depiction. In fact, there’s very little in it that we haven’t heard from the news or read in the newspapers. Director Joseph Laban makes good use of that advantage and fills his movie with details that shock as much as they numb, fixated on building an atmosphere of fear and claustrophobia. He succeeds in provoking emotional responses, but what he fails to consider is the skill to sustain them, to allow us not only to hold onto his characters but also to grip them, even embrace them, and not just feel sorry for them. Laban feeds on unsophistication, borrowing distinctive elements from Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (strobe lights, long van ride, ominous music) and misconstruing them, heedless of context. There’s no argument about its realism, but how far will the prose go without something new to say?
One of the key concepts related to hyperreality is “reality by proxy,” and Cuchera simulates a piece of reality, reproducing it in such a way that the dynamics are dressed in guilt—cloaked in the thick armory of pertinence—that having a socio-political theme becomes an excuse for reason. At some point these questions need to be raised: Why make a copy of reality in cinema where fantasies of self-nourishment abound? How do you contend against a film whose urgency looks daggers at criticism? And most importantly, who do you think the Cinemalaya people are fooling when they tease the audience with the strapline, “See the Unseen”? What here have we not seen before? Notwithstanding a couple of disturbing scenes—disturbing because they are staged in bad taste—the rest of the movie is downright predictable except for one. The character of Maria Isabel Lopez checks herself in the bathroom mirror, probing her breast for a lump. The worry in her eyes speaks volumes, evoking Catalina Sandino Moreno from Maria Full of Grace, and her fingers reach out to something that the entire movie takes pains in discovering. It’s the only time Cuchera dips its toes in the water, and unfortunately it’s too quick to withdraw.
*Cross-published on Pelikula Tumblr
Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me (Erick Salud, 2011) July 22, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Literature, Noypi.
Written by Jerry Gracio
Directed by Erick Salud
Cast: Edgar Allan Guzman, Mercedes Cabral, Simon Ibarra, Mel Kimura
Based on the bestselling book by Eros Atalia
In the company of pubescent boys and girls, kids who mindlessly talk aloud and take down notes for their school paper, how can I not enjoy Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me? The movie had them rolling in the aisles, seemingly competing against the film’s utter lack of restraint, and the frenzy between them was dead contagious. Thirty minutes through the movie I was having a hard time “catching up” with the humor, and a few scenes later I was probably the one with the loudest chuckle in the audience. The goodness of its entertainment is that it doesn’t make you think of the consequences. It’s simple: it makes you happy, therefore it’s good. No guilt from the pleasure, no guilt from the way it brims with careless youth.
Ligo na U, Lapit Na Me is (500) Days of Summer without the elements that make the latter annoying—elements that also make it endearing to many people—particularly the manic pixie dream girl. Mercedes Cabral is Zooey Deschanel except that she is not trying so hard to be mysterious. While we are inclined to call Mercedes’s character a slut, we couldn’t say the same to Summer. She is disposably vanilla cardboard. Mercedes evokes a kind of sensuality that keeps you away from curiosity. She does not confound; she is simply erratic like the rest of us. On the other hand, Edgar Allan Guzman is our Joseph Gordon-Levitt, charmingly hopeless, helplessly cute, showing off more skin and dumbness than needed. Edgar is able to sustain our interest from start to finish, breaking the fourth wall many times, waking up on the wrong side of the bed with a smile on his face. His sensuality matches that of Mercedes, even exceeds it, proving that his face is more expressive than his physique.
What makes the movie work is that the script, written by Jerry Gracio, is never apologetic for its excessiveness, and it feels like being at the other end of the rollercoaster ride: seeing what’s coming ahead and enjoying the thrill nevertheless. Like literature or cinema that is lightweight and does not talk about grave social issues, Ligo Na U, Lapit Na Me will gain a huge following from a select group of people, young ones most especially, and that sounds better than having movies recognized abroad whose viewership does not exceed a hundred. Around these students who have actually read the book and gone out of their way to see its adaptation, I, clueless about the work of Eros Atalia, feel a bit old and think it’s a good sign.
Amok (Lawrence Fajardo, 2011) July 20, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by John Bedia
Directed by Lawrence Fajardo
Cast: Dido dela Paz, Mark Gil, Garry Lim, Nonie Buencamino, Roli Inocencio
If you ask me what aspect of local independent cinema I dislike, I’d say it’s the unabashed preference for content and dismissal of form. A good film strikes a balance between the two, but usually, movies that tackle social issues, no matter how sloppily made they are, are more appreciated than those that boast of technical excellence, as if choosing a pressing subject exempts a work from scrutiny and showing off technique is a display of arrogance. Whereas content is mostly a writer and director’s piece of cake, determined prior to execution, form is mathematics: every one in the production contributes to it, consciously or not, including luck and the lack of it.
The obvious dichotomy between form and content is sometimes so pronounced that when I say Amok’s production values are superb, I find myself guilty of singling out the obvious, an observation bordering on superficial because it’s right there on the nose, waving at every member of the audience to see. But my point is: however trite the story is, however familiar the predicaments of its characters are, and however predictable the turn of events has become, Amok succeeds because Lawrence Fajardo, who serves as the film’s director, production designer, and editor, has managed to put together a fantastic group of people—from writer John Bedia and cinematographer Louie Quirino to the movie’s trailblazing ensemble of actors—whose slight misstep can actually ruin the unmistakable rawness of the film.
Amok depicts Manila in the claws of darkness, except that the streets are bathed in light. Broad daylight brings its citizens close to danger and far from the comfort of anonymity, death being an outcome of chance and not necessarily of wrongdoing. Every sequence shares not a slice of life but life itself, fast, open-ended, arresting, seemingly pointless. Far from asking for sympathy, Bedia’s script presents people as people: they laugh, they cry, they live, they die. Their lives begin and end the moment we see them. Fajardo does not make room for too much subtlety like Ron Bryant did in Rotonda, which, aside from its location, also shares a number of characters strewn together in a muck of misfortune. What makes Amok a better film—and mind you, I was rooting for Rotonda to win the grand prize that year—is that its direction pulsates. The rhythm builds up and is carried through the climax, not an explosion of some sort, but a gala of predictable outcomes and unpredictable victims.
The principal crime committed is triggered by the weather, the scorching heat that pushes someone over the edge. Contrary to the complex social dynamics of Brocka’s Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Bernal’s Manila by Night, Amok simplifies the message—or more appropriately, the delivery of the message—but not in an unfavorable way. It’s as if all the characters are placed inside a maze and each one of them stumbles upon each other, reacting based on their circumstances, staving off the madman but to no avail. The camera looks at them and runs after them, never shaky, its movements never gratuitous. While it is easy to assume that every film shot in Manila is influenced by Maynila and Manila, what strikes me upon seeing Amok is that despite painting a similar picture, it pulls off a bleaker end, primarily because nothing much has changed since then. There is still order from the chaos.
Maskara (Laurice Guillen, 2011) July 17, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Irina Feleo
Directed by Laurice Guillen
Cast: Tirso Cruz III. Shamaine Buencamino, Ina Feleo, Rez Cortez
When film critic Philbert Dy from Click the City said that “no criticism can touch Maskara,” he must have implied that hurling bad words towards the movie was by all means inappropriate, that criticism, in a way, could only provide a misleading interpretation of the film. I may disagree with that, but I have to acknowledge that Maskara is actually Guillen’s best work for a long time, and by best I am afraid that it has to stand in comparison with her awful movies of recent (Santa Santita, I Love You Goodbye, Sa ‘Yo Lamang) and the contrast gives it a rather much obvious appreciation.
The personal nature of the film, which commemorates the life and art of Guillen’s husband Johnny Delgado, is sweeping. Many personalities recount their experiences with Delgado, most of which are funny, sad, and uplifting, and these parts are the most interesting moments in Maskara. All these actors, from veterans like Liza Lorena and Ricky Davao to young ones like Miles Ocampo and Rap Fernandez, paint a picture of Johnny Delgado’s life at its best and worst, memories of working with him cherished, marking some impressive turning points in their careers.
Sometimes it’s vexing when Guillen cuts their stories and focuses instead on Ina Feleo’s narration, which is good in itself but somehow loses its grip because of repetitiveness. However, it’s admirable how Guillen adheres to a bit of fiction instead of easily giving in to the feel of a documentary, Tirso Cruz III playing Delgado’s equivalent, Shamaine Buencamino as hers. The script, written by Ina, reeks of platitudes, but it’s hard not to appreciate them, especially when you feel that she’s actually talking to her father directly, expressing her love for him. Interestingly, a power failure interrupted the screening for a few minutes, and for all we know it might be Johnny Delgado playing a trick on us, being his usual mischievous self, letting out a hearty laugh upon seeing our watery eyes.
UPFI Screenings in July 2010 July 19, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Invitation, Noypi.
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From Mich Ortiz:
Sanglaan (Milo Sogueco, 2009) September 20, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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English Title: The Pawnshop
Directed by Milo Sogueco
Cast: Ina Feleo, Tessie Tomas, Joem Bascon
Random journal entries – - yes I still keep a journal! – - about unnecessary things, obsessive dreams, and keepsakes of drunk conversations.
Hinahanap mo nga ba ako o ang kawalan ko? – Bob Ong
I just woke from sleep. Checked the time. 4:34. Shit. Either I go back to sleep or I try to go back to sleep. The latter is more likely than hell.
Trying to remember.
God, yes, I dreamt of Ina Feleo’s nose. Yes, Ina Feleo’s nose. Ina. Feleo. Nose. Nose. Nose. Dunno why. Saw Sanglaan two nights ago. With no one of course, so I’m still left with my thoughts. Dunno if I have thoughts about the film though. I can’t seem to react about it, either good or bad. Anyway. . .
Yes, Ina Feleo’s nose.
It was only her nose in the dream. How do I know it’s her? Or it’s hers? Of course when it’s a dream, those things are not supposed to be argued, you just know it.
I just know it’s her nose, OK.
I was staring at it for a long while, waiting for her to sneeze or something. But she didn’t sneeze. She just smiled. I know she smiled because her skin moved a little. Oh I wish I’d seen her face.
Her nose was lovely.
I remember in grade school, we used to write essays about anything in English class. I imagine I would pick her nose as my subject (hahaha I didn’t mean it that way) and I could go on and on and on describing every detail of it, and my teacher would probably complain again about how wordy my essays are. I would smile because at least she read it.
Okay, enough of daydreaming.
It wouldn’t be a nose without protruding, and hers protrudes like. . .like. . .like the way Thom’s ears stick out. It is just divine. Looking at it is calming, but it also grabs and requires your full attention. I imagine a TV looking for signals and the signal-meter stops when it reaches her nose – - it can’t stand a divine creation! It adorns her beauty. It beams me home.
Haaah, why can’t I just sleep? Instead of this.
When I meet her, I will tell her that. That she has a beautiful nose. I hope she doesn’t get conscious about it because it is a lovely, beautiful nose.
Oggs driving. Me not listening. Well I can’t help but listen of course. He’s talking about Milo. I thought Milo Tolentino, Hermann’s friend. Milo Sogueco pala. I complain about Tessie Tomas screaming, and he quips, Flor Salanga kaya! He sounds depressed just by telling it.
Oggs is always the nice guy. Even when he sounds depressed, he still looks jubilant about it. We need a critic like that.
Hannah Montana, LFO, croissants, Khavn and Sherad walking from afar. . . Why am I writing this?
Even the wind is telling me how sad it is.
I wish I hadn’t looked. But it was open. How can I not say goodbye.
Saw Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe, Sanglaan, and Last Supper No. 3. Straight. I feel very tired. Lord, please, skip the dreamfest tonight. I just want to sleep a long sleep.
“Aren’t you giddy today?” I asked when the news of Kinatay’s win came out, as I’ve been asking everyone I know.
“Only slightly! The nationalist part of me says nice to hear the recognition, the critical part of me says I’ll only be truly happy for a film’s success if I’ve seen it and liked it.”
I texted back, “Ang purist mo naman!! Hehe.”
Was there a time when Alexis wasn’t unintentionally sincere?
Tonet, not drunk.
“Sabi ni Direk Joyce, IF YOU CAN’T SOLVE IT, DIS-SOLVE IT!”
Napahandusay kami sa lapag. Pang-film major lang ba yung joke?
In fairness sa joke, hindi ko napanood ang Paano Kita Iibigin.
The artlessness works for me – - the restraint, the distribution of drama, the walking subtlety and vagueness of Ina Feleo, her nose that distracts me from focusing, the often-reserved tone of the film – - but only up to a certain extent.
The script leaves you wanting, for more or for less? I guess for more. But there is acuity in its “lessness” that is difficult to ignore – - it may be a masterpiece in modesty for all I know – - but should I trust my thoughts as I walk away after seeing the film, I may have to lean on the half-empty side.
Its loud points are really loud. Its soft points are like a whisper. Is it confused? Is it experimenting? Is it following a seismograph of emotions or something? The way it shakes at first, then nothing, then shakes again, then nothing, then the big earthquake comes. Or it could have been made with more time? More time to fine tune? More time to check if the AV jacks are connected accordingly?
The film screams “I could have been better” when it ends. It leaves a taste that I cannot decipher – - which is good if it lasts for days, but two months? I don’t know. I thought if I had more time to think it over. . . Sanglaan still puzzles me.
“If you can’t understand it, misunderstand it!” There goes a principle.
Dreamt of Ina Feleo’s nose again!!!! Haunting me? If ever I find the right frame of mind to write about Sanglaan, it should start with this dream. There is no other way. Making sense is overrated anyway.
“Hindi dahil sa hindi mo naiintindihan ang isang bagay ay kasinungalingan na ito. At hindi lahat ng kaya mong intindihin ay katotohanan.”
>>Buti pa si Bob Ong, comforting.
Last Supper No. 3 (Veronica Velasco, 2009) August 21, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi, Queer.
Directed by Veronica Velasco
Written by Veronica Velasco and Jinky Laurel
Cast: Joey Paras, Jojit Lorenzo, JM de Guzman
It is not a series of unfortunate events. It is the unfortunate event in itself: life. Tragicomedy, from Shakespeare and Beckett to Renoir and Dr. Horrible, is more tragic than comedic, but we’re all at it for laughs mostly. It is a clever genre, one that entertains without giving the sullen taste of social apathy. Tragic is too common; it’s everywhere. Tragedy is a way of life; comedy isn’t. It is a response to tragedy. It maybe is the most creative thing that the thinking human ever thought of since building a fire. Or the periodic table of elements. Or deforestation. Or the color bars. Or the aperture of cameras. If we can’t see the hilarity in misfortunes we are doomed. If we can’t find the tragic in the absurd we are foolish, and we are wasting our short stint here on earth. It’s a funny game, life. And we all die and those awfulness and ridiculousness don’t mean a thing when we take off. Like Greg saying, We can live with dignity, we can’t die with it. Replace dignity with any catholic word and that would suffice. It’s a tragic ordeal, life. And we have to go through the odds to dispose them. Act like they never happened, live like they never changed us. Homosociality – - or iso-sociality, if you’re a political-correctness-geek – - is of no use and defense, unfortunately. We are in the modern medieval, where knights are not anymore as gallant as they used to be. The modern knights accept their fate mild-manneredly, amid every bureaucratic improbability and amid every absurd policy, and are just happy to have lived life the way generations before them did, without questioning why or how, the two most dreadful in the 5Ws and 1H, it has to be.
Colorum (Jobin Ballesteros, 2009) August 20, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Directed by Jobin Ballesteros
Cast: Alfred Vargas, Lou Veloso, Archie Adamos
You hear the clinking of the ice. The screech of the butterfly bicycle. The tsk-tsk of the projector. Even the rain that hasn’t come down yet. When you listen intently to Colorum you hear lots of things. Figments, truths, cries and whispers. It is a road movie that tells less about roads than passengers, the doors that open and close for them, the trap door of fate that sets them up. It holds strongly on unpredictability, the unknowingness of turns, and the delandscaped drama it inconsistently and roughly delivers. Holes are everywhere, but never mind, continue. Absurdity is the new beauty. The relationship between the two tramples out other things, the young lady wanting to have an abortion, the deranged writer, the corrupt religious leader, the Ro-Ro trip to the south, the parking violation, the phone call to a loved one we never see, the sound of gunshot from somewhere. There are cue cards willfully hung in almost every scene, like a history book flipped page by page by the wind to denote movement, but you don’t really notice them, you see them and you notice them, but you don’t really notice them, ignoring them is fine, they don’t matter in the narrative anyway, at least not much, just some devices to thicken it, texturize it maybe, or add some depth, but not perspective. So you see, history is there but the story is telling us another thing. It essays to fit the little pieces on the canvas of history, but how come we don’t manage to see the supposed bigger picture? Is history really the bigger picture? Is Colorum telling us that it’s our fault not to really see it even if it’s there, begging to be noticed? Or is it the film’s lack of coherence and steady direction that puts us off and misleads our focus? For one thing, I have cared so much for the two characters till the end. They have come to grip me, and even that annoying staging of Lou Veloso being shot in the end is up for forgiveness. The culminating series of shots of the various characters is exempt from the forgiveness rule though. I realize I can make the infinite number of ways to flinch when that scene was shown. The Ninoy juxtaposition, however, is in the waiting list for sympathetic amnesty. I get it, I get it. It was juxtaposed to parallel his death to Ninoy, right? Right! It didn’t go overboard but was it necessary? Or just to push for more guilt? Anyway, let’s give it the benefit of the doubt. The way that it’s imperfect and inconsistent, and at times weakly executed, Colorum‘s impact overshadows the bug.
Manila (Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2009) August 18, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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Directed by Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix, Jr.
Cast: Piolo Pascual, Rosanna Roces, Jay Manalo, Alessandra de Rossi
This is not failure borne out of failure. Perhaps something envisioned with nothing but failure in mind. Hoped that failure would work. Hoped that failure would be understood. But failure is failure. The skin peels off and the others still see the next skin as failure. But does failure equate to Sitak? Or Lalamunan? Or Izza Ignacio? Not failures but geniuses in disguise, or failures of failures in disguise.
Origins reek of. Greatness. Immortality. Importance. Stark Vision. Both share the city, the other renamed after the First Lady’s ire on foreign image, the other entered Cannes and lost to Fosse and Kurosawa, but still. Origins reek of. What do origins seek? They never seek, never find anything, get the nothing out of everything and remain whole. Portraits of light without vision, dark with blood on tracks, dirt on every inch of the frame, spilt dreams, testicles and ovaries in a knot. Never look for escape. ‘Tis like asking where god is when you can’t see him. Nowhere. Now where?
Would it appear here, an hommage. A tribute slash eulogy of encumbered youths. Origins are the load it carries. The failure wearied. The failure produced. The failure befitted. Martin isn’t up for the challenge, goes around it, and concedes to failure. Bang. Has fun. Has fang. Has pun. Dreads it every second. Every piece fails to connect. Martin always has the defense of pointlessness. He turns the Light into lightlessness. Alix works it out and in and above and under and beyond. Faith, fate, fake. Looks good. Smells swell but too theatery. His Night owns a night of forgetfulness.
Narrowly pleased press are oversensitive. Overreacting, too. A wave of mutilation, nevertheless. But doesn’t every director owe everything to someone? Brocka to de Sica and Rocha? Bernal to Sartre? Méliès to the Lumiere? The Lumiere to Edison? Edison to Daguerre?
But Piolo is trapped in his own commercial. In his multivitamins. In his coffee. In his abs. In his skyscraper of cheekiness and silk bridges he built to the public, charms turned off to favor boldness, courage that identifies with defeat. It feels chemically derived. He greases himself with glamor. His idea of deglamorized is still in glamor. But you got to give the man some props. Reaching out is reaching less. Riching out and riching less.
Works and not. Textures. Contours. Colors. Planet pit. Not Bernal against Martin. Alix against Brocka neither. Pit Martin against Alix. Pit them. Pit Piolo against Himself. The battle of the pittest. It ain’t working as hommage – – – all but callous – – – and ain’t working alone – – – quite sinuous, but undeservedly. The Golden Rule never fails, Expecting is one way of hurting yourself. Or the only. The test is over. The experiment in failure bears the result. Yet, what is the sound of one hand clapping again?
Astig (GB Sampedro, 2009) August 8, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
English Title: Survivors
Directed by GB Sampedro
Cast: Dennis Trillo, Sid Lucero, Arnold Reyes, Edgar Allan Guzman
Boy Abunda and his garish league of stars penetrating Cinemalaya is like Mother Lily asking John Torres to make a film with Regal with all artistic freedom. It simply doesn’t work. One way or the other there will be conflicts of interest, and there will be questions that will mock its integrity. Nonetheless I fully understand that a festival like this is also a business. Monetary issues should be taken care of to sustain its activity, but I’m sure it can be attained without sacrificing its very vision. Right now, for all it’s worth, Cinemalaya just betrays my hope for a tradition of quality. Bit by bit it is starting to shelter itself from criticism, and probably from now on I will just be the cheerful and optimistic attendee who is just glad that a festival like this is happening every year, and promises to be with it through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, from its hopeful birth to its unfortunate death.
As expected Astig rakes in the most earnings in this year’s fest, thanks in part to the numerous showbiz personalities who appear in cameo, and to its producer who, as his job, plugs the film in his daily, weekly, and primetime programs. Its commercial viability is unquestionable. Its four main actors are considerably famous in their field. It is visually pleasing, tightly narrated, and edited with intensity and right pacing. But what gives? Granted it is well-made, it is still as horrible as the idea of its producers wanting to represent us in Cannes next year. It is as horrible as the idea of turning this festival into a religion whose surface is all too calm but inside there is that human evil waiting to erupt anytime. Astig is less a film than a two-hour commercial of frenzied testosterone overflowing everywhere, in complete accordance with its producers’ idea of the role of the gay community to stupid straight men.
How lucky GB Sampedro is. He gets a grant from Cinemalaya and he receives further support from Boy Abunda, who in turn secures that his film will be immensely known to the public. Thirty seconds, twenty seconds, or even ten seconds of talk time is an absolute blessing of publicity. Does every filmmaker get that chance? No. Does he get the “euphoric feeling” of being called “independent”? Yes. For his film to have its premiere in the festival is delightlessly cruel to his contemporaries.
Sadly, Cinemalaya is not anymore standing on its feet. It had its time, and as it turned out, it’s not this year. It is still missing that important bullet to prove that immense difference between “digital” and “independent”, the proof that its means is only a way of reaching its more important goal, to make way for stories that express a unique vision, a Filipino experience that is worth telling, and not just turd copycats of overused themes. Every independent movement in music and cinema does not avoid cages; in fact they live inside them. But they know when to slip through their cages and how to do it. It spreads itself; it sets an example of freedom within freedom, and camarederie among peers that it sincerely enjoys. In its selfish claim for the rebirth of Philippine cinema through digital films, I hope its meaningful enlightenment comes near before a film like this gives it another stroke.
Mangatyanan (Jerrold Tarog, 2009) August 4, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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English Title: The Blood Trail
Directed by Jerrold Tarog
Cast: Che Ramos, Neil Ryan Sese, Publio Briones III
The great thing about first films: the grace of kindness from your audience.
If the film turns out to be good, then sure thing you’ll have some followers. More than twenty is not bad. Imagine twenty mouths spreading the word to twenty more mouths. That would mean more people awaiting your next film. If it turns out to be bad, then people would think you are just starting to figure out the medium; surely it’s not your fault you don’t know everything. A first-film miss could be frustrating, possibly the most wounding thing that could ever happen to a filmmaker. But a first-film hit is more difficult, especially to serious craftsmen. Either you go down or you do something like your previous work, which makes you a consistently good filmmaker but a dull one at that. But when you go down, you deal with the cruel hands of fate: facing unmet expectations.
It would be stupid to fault Mangatyanan for coming after Confessional. For I have anticipated a lot, it is probably more my fault that it has not measured up to my expectations. Unfortunately, beside the coolness and first-rate storytelling of Confessional, Mangatyanan only comes close to the coo—– of the coolness and the first—– of the first-rate. I have read somewhere that the story is the most important element in films, which, according to the writer, Confessional fails to give. That may be true, but is the story only limited to the subject, the narrative, and the plot? Isn’t how it is told also contributes to how a story can be called ‘well-written’ and ‘dynamic’? Isn’t the real story of Confessional the wryly comic way of how Tarog and Antipuesto depict our culture?
Mangatyanan is narrative-heavy. After relying so much on twists in his previous works, Tarog now decides to track the more conventional way of telling the story with as little interference as possible. Apparently the goal is to focus on the drama rather than the commentary, and that goal is served well. The drama kicks a lot of sand. But as the narrative progresses and we start to learn more about the painful past of its main character, it becomes too driven by it that it ends too run-of-the-mill, commonplace, and predictable.
To have credibly connected Laya’s past to the tribal ritual that she covers in Isabela is clever. It is an insane idea but it works; we feel how devastated she still is, how difficult moving on is for her, how domestic violence is something indelible, how it marks you for life. Tarog has resorted to conventional means to show it: flashbacks, customary music, stylized lighting, dramatic execution, and tight editing. But Tarog, for me, is not like any conventional filmmaker; he is, in the basis of his previous films, the unorthodox fabulist, the irresistible liar we still believe in, and the beatnik who says what needs to be said, so much more if they hurt because they’re true. He has restrained so much in this film that his vision suffers, his mission is compromised.
There’s no better way to say this. Mangatyanan disappoints despite its humble simplicity. The cliché subject becomes trapped in its own stereotype. It is only told in a different voice but it is still the same person who tells it. Nevertheless I still believe in Tarog’s talent, and I still look forward to the last installment of the trilogy. Sounds like the usual breakup dialogue, but bias always favors the bold.
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.
Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe (Alvin Yapan, 2009) July 25, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
English Title: The Rapture of Fe
Written and directed by Alvin Yapan
Cast: Irma Adlawan, Nonie Buencamino, TJ Trinidad
There are brilliant hands at work in Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe and those are not just the hands of writer-director Alvin Yapan. The whole thing is a synergy of carefully drawn elements that work together to create an atmosphere of alienating mystery. From the deliberate non-linear editing to the beautiful dolly shots, not to mention the music that rubs like a disease, the buildup gives a rewarding payoff, but it cuts you off abruptly that you start to wonder whether its greatness is real or just a plain and simple dog trick.
Should we consider Yapan’s background, it is not surprising that he values the story strongly. In telling the rapture of Fe there is a commanding authorial hold that follows the pace of an engaging literary work, broad on the surface but tight and lean on its details. The mystery becomes the hook that pulls you in, and the narrative that supports it is the smell of food that leads you to its lair. The Yapan-writer is sheltered and riskless because he knows the way; he is in the zone. He could work on his canvas freely, that’s why he chooses to translate its title as “The Rapture of Fe” rather than “The Rape of Fe” because the latter doesn’t fit. The abuse and despoliation committed to her is one thing; the rapture is another, but more encompassing, not to mention the taboo word: profound.
The Yapan-filmmaker, on the other hand, is vulnerable to stylish indulgence but still pretty much in control. He works on literary metaphors but he still manages to pull them off as cinematic devices. When you take for instance that scene when Fe tries so hard to bury the basket of fruits she received from an unknown suitor, we feel the anxiety and the fear that clouds her heart. Despite her clear conscience she feels helpless to ignore things. It takes a few minutes before the scene ends; we feel how tortured she is, emotionally; how the mystery seems to rob her of escape. Munro may have written that in three or four pages, distant yet wrenching with truthfulness, but Yapan wraps everything in those long minutes, the emotion still solid and real.
A man telling the story of a woman is quite a suspicious thing. I mean, could a bird tell the experience of swimming in the sea like a fish could? Could be, in pure artistic terms. I still believe that Kenji Mizoguchi is the greatest feminist filmmaker in the world because he is a man, not despite of. In Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe Yapan is a man and a woman: on one hand he says that the abuse of women is cliché but true – - more like Thom Yorke singing, we’re not scaremongering, this is really happening, happening – - and on the other she says that escape is a bleak place of unknown future. The Women’s Crisis Center supported the film, which could mean that they approve of it, which could also mean that it flags their idea of how women should be treated. Yapan hides that, but looking closely will reveal everything, like looking at a stereogram long enough to see a 3D image.
I cannot imagine anyone donning the clothes of Fe as varied and nuanced as Irma Adlawan. You see, Adlawan is at the point of her career when she can do nothing wrong; she not only tries different roles, she excels in them. She is the embodiment of the great actor. I must admit that I have Vilma Santos in mind as I write this but that’s because Santos is also a great actor; but she started as a child star, unlike Adlawan whose career in the movies only boomed quite recently. Adlawan could be fairly compared to Santos in the 80s, both in terms of depth and versatility. Now it seems that Santos’s abilities are too limited in the mainstream, unlike Adlawan whose range of roles has given her the exposure she deserves.
She breathes Fe’s conflicting relationship with her husband and childhood lover with certain sensitivity. We see a woman, a fearful woman, not a human dressed in womanly clothes, moving with womanly gestures, speaking in womanly tone, but a woman standing and talking as a woman. Every movement, as little as blinking of an eye or pouring of the sugar, is a universe of expressions when Adlawan does it. Her tenderness is evenly laid out, and her gentle demeanor is unwavering; from start to finish she can never be but her character.
Yapan holds Adlawan, as well as the other aspects of his production, with only one thing in mind: deliver. In his flight as a filmmaker on his own, he not only promises might; he delivers it. Bestiality and rapture travel in separate ways but he lets them meet. The mystery it shows is the mystery that we, as an audience, uniquely create. Not knowing becomes infinitely satisfying, lest we are not afraid of knowing it. On what turns out to be the most disappointing year of Cinemalaya, when it has again proved its refined taste in movies, Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe becomes too prominent to be ignored. It stands out, and it stands best.
Dinig Sana Kita (Mike Sandejas, 2009) July 22, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Music, Noypi.
English Title: If I Knew What You Said
Written and directed by Mike Sandejas
Cast: Zoe Sandejas, Romalito Mallari, Robert Seña
In this stage of independent cinema when filmmakers are finding it hard to break free from the confines of grim and mournful stories of life in penury, a subject so often used and abused it only makes us poorer in spirit, it is nice that there are still a few feel-good movies to make us believe in the hackneyed metaphor of light at the end of the tunnel. I wonder if it would be fair to suggest that positive stories are the stuff of mainstream, and the depressing ones are reserved for indie. Not that there’s anything bad about it; after all a depressing film could be entertaining and lovey-dovey at the same time. In Cinemalaya’s lineup there seems to be an intention to balance these two, avoiding a lopsided festival that usually favors somber themes.
In terms of ambition, Dinig Sana Kita is just the stocky apartment between the high-rise buildings in this year’s competing films, but despite the indulgence in almost intolerable mawkishness, it manages to pull a string of hearts. You see, I have this thing about goody-goody films; I don’t want them to go on and hypnotize me and turn me into a Good Samaritan after the screening. The joke is the film turns out to be uplifting, inspiring, optimistic, moral, conscientious, straight, and all those churchy things, as if the poster has not suggested them at all, and I like it, well, almost like it, if you remove the dancing mother, the stylish effects to denote the singer’s troubled mind, and that note of plea in the end. I had a couple of laughs because the actors are surprisingly good, especially the band members, but I also had a couple of winces, and it’s crazy laughing and wincing one scene after another.
People who care so much about the difference between mainstream and independent cinema argue where the line is. But Mike Sandejas knows the game. He knows how to apply the mainstream elements to his “indie” film, telling you, hey, mainstream costs millionssssss, mine just costs millionss. Notice the s? He knows the rules; he knows the formula. It’s like the writer who already knows what to write and how to write it to win the Palanca. It lacks the surprise but then who wants the surprise if you have the prestige? The formula is not a secret but of all people Sandejas decides that, well, let’s make something good and uplifting. It sounds more like a homily. He had actually done that before. Tulad ng Dati is good, which becomes outstandingly good because its contemporaries are weak; it is a film that is not difficult to like if you like The Dawn, which more often than not you don’t, and it is uplifting in the sense that I cannot say anything more. Dinig Sana Kita is good because it is safe and harmless entertainment, and it is uplifting because, come on, it’s about the deaf people, how can you not feel your heart nudge a little? You don’t need to be a Catholic to appreciate it, and you don’t have to be deaf either. Because the language of love is universal, and love is for everyone.
Oh, come on. It’s not.
Engkwentro (Pepe Diokno, 2009) July 21, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Pepe Diokno
Cast: Felix Roco, Daniel Medrana, Eda Nolan, Zyrus Desamparado
Nowadays when you call a young filmmaker brave, that would be making a complete fool of yourself. Because seriously, young and brave, they go together, they never lose each other’s hand, they hold on like couples facing the sunset. Only when you are young you have the guts to do things that most people think are stupid, despite you thinking otherwise. And when you look back it’s fine because, yeah, you can just shrug it off and say, That’s me, I did that, I was 21, I was young and stupid, but I did that, I was brave, wasn’t I?
But Pepe Diokno is not stupid. He’s just young. You can choose to be stupid but you cannot choose to be young, young at heart maybe, but there’s no such thing as old at heart, right? So that nulls it. First films speak of love and labor, of affirmation and discouragement, of fate and options, so comments about it, half-meant or not, would be taken seriously. Admit or not, we are all paranoid about our own work; we would love to hear what other people think, the subtler way the better. And this is what I think: Engkwentro tries hard to be significant, while in fact what it says about the state-sponsored vigilantism down south is like watching a lame coverage of the subject on late-night news, the surface full of fearful reports and startling interviews, but once the TV is turned off, it all boils down to one thing: we never really know what it’s all about. We just pretend to know.
When you have a subject like this, it almost gives you every reason to do it. You have a buffet of important subjects to choose from; you choose the hardest. You choose the one that is most ignored; you choose what can speak very well for yourself, what your parents have instilled in you, what your environment tells you to be part of. It is brave, but before you go ahead and shoot it, the narrative based on the subject must also be well-thought-of, mature enough to be taken seriously by your target audience, and if your market is everyone, then mature enough to be taken seriously by everyone. Diokno chooses a very sensitive subject; in fact it is so sensitive almost every year we have two or three films about the war in Mindanao, and at least one of them winning in festivals abroad, getting citations yada yada yada.
There is completely nothing wrong with that. We are at this festival that requires camaraderie and civility, all for the love of Philippine cinema, because yeah, cinema is about life and capturing life and all that jazz but have we really become more critical on the films that we watch? Not that being critical is that important at all, in fact it ruins the experience, but have these films inspired us a lot to move us to thinking and acting? Sure thing, Engkwentro has moved me to thinking.
Once the film starts to feed you its politics right at the very beginning, even before you see its visuals, and by feeding I mean giving you some sort of demographics, numbers, quotations, all those things, as if you’re too ignorant not to know exactly how many civilians are killed this year in Davao by these squads, who sponsors them, et cetera, et cetera, then it will always remind you to think twice before saying anything bad about it, which isn’t fair because not every film is about the war in Mindanao. Should Mangatyanan replace that Baudelaire quote by showing how many tribes up north are already losing their tradition? Or should Astig show us how many cases of snatching are blottered in police stations daily? But it’s a more alarming thing you say, it’s a bigger problem than that how dare you, the killings in Mindanao, more frightening in fact that you could just get shot in the middle of the road if they mistake you for some NPA or whatever.
But Diokno has allowed his subject to eat him alive, disabling his vision to penetrate the many veins of his film. His adherence to his style is admirable. The sound becomes a vital element to create an atmosphere of fear, and the unseen is clearly more crucial than what we see. We get how these people struggle just to have something to eat every day, how they barely survive, how the youth now belongs to hopelessness, their ambition robbed so early by poverty, and Diokno decides, well, those things could add to my grand point. They did, because those are necessary, but we also get the impression that the film could only bring us to the surface and nothing deeper – - not that depth is a priority, but a good direction to reach that depth is. Engkwentro is a student work by all means: ambitious, experimental, angsty, and brimming with force and energy; but it is also a student work of superficial thoughtfulness. It goes nowhere.
Celso Ad Castillo’s voice embodies the powerful, fascist dictator, and even without seeing his face we get to feel for the main character, his need to run. Through the long takes in the dark alleys of the slum community, we find ourselves involved with these people, their activities and their way of life. But this is the subject alone. The subject is doing the film the whole favor; Diokno sets out with a thin narrative in hand, with that big bang thing in the end, and that’s it: it passes off as shocking and brilliant.
Now I’m starting to wonder how come these young middleclass filmmakers, well-educated and properly exposed to dire socio-political conditions of our country, still haven’t learned that hard-hitting preachiness doesn’t work. I believe Diokno and I are almost of the same age. I hope when I look back and read this journal a couple of years from now, finding myself sounding so stupid wouldn’t hurt so much. Because between being bravely stupid and stupidly brave, I would always choose the latter.