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Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 5) September 3, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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dagitab

Dagitab (Giancarlo Abrahan)

Almost every aspect of Dagitab, from the story and direction to the cast and technical details, makes it a cut above the rest of the entries in this year’s Cinemalaya. Its opening image sets the mood of mystery, evoking a sense of richness quite conscious to unfold something larger than life, emotions and thoughts of considerable weight that put the viewer at ease, alternating between mind and heart. Despite the nature of its characters to talk a lot, there is a quietness that keeps the story steady while in motion, gently peeling its many layers until it reaches the core. No doubt the beauty in the first half captivates: the humor, the temper and indulgence, the marital and personal issues, the attachment to one’s alma mater, the feeling of living there for years and having this particular frame of mind, the horse latitudes, the entanglement of youth and middle age, the demons, the wires waiting for current to flow.

But it is upon contact with this core that writer and director Giancarlo Abrahan finds himself helpless like his own pair of characters, struggling to keep hold of the pretty pieces and wringing every possible item soaked in its sentiment. As he tries to look for a proper closure, the film crumbles the way it is built, slowly, with grace and refinement, poking at softer spots, unsure where to end but certain that it has to remain introspective. It’s easy to be carried away while watching it, to find a moment of connection that will clear all the stains, the stilted dialogue, the blitz of overly conscious UP markers, to identify with the couple’s belief that had they led “more normal” lives, it would have been different —this claim of being out of the ordinary, possibly in a higher position than others but wounded and hurting all the same, oblivious to the things they take for granted—but by all means it won’t. Dagitab is too stiff and careful, too absorbed in the idea that it’s fascinating, and too focused on its subject that it fails to see the whole from afar, like looking at the dark sky and noticing only the stars, not the constellation. B-

#Y

#Y (Gino Santos)

Several reviews of #Y commend director Gino Santos for walking around the reason for its main character’s suicide. While it’s obvious that such ploy is intended to produce this seemingly startling semblance of insight, there is sneakiness in its execution, the discreetness easily mistaken for skill. People talk about it as though he were saying something meaningful or interesting, while in fact everything in the film looks lip-synched, and the worldview to which it affixes its statements and insinuations reeks of piss.

One can’t help but wonder: is being inarticulate now a benchmark of good filmmaking? Or does it have something to do with the allure of ambiguity, how, in real life, nothing can be completely understood? Hardly pointed out in these reviews is that the motivation has always been there, loud and clear, and conveying it in plain conventional terms defeats the film’s objective to reflect (and not reflect on) the lives of upper class kids who flaunt their pleasures and preoccupations in a manner that puts the audience in this position to formulate judgments based on their crassness, pretense, and indifference. These characters are flat on purpose, designed to be pumped with air, but even with shape, they have no silhouette. Why create them and give them nothing inside? Why speak on their behalf and sound gibberish?

The Animals is sloppy, but it’s the right kind of sloppy: its transgression makes the viewer feel dirty and violated. The intent to offend is explicit, and it can’t help but go overboard because it has nothing much to say. #Y, on the other hand, is more conscious of its mischief, beholden by this duty to represent, hiding in this veneer of inscrutability and itching to be taken seriously. Santos and writer Jeff Stelton should have known better than pulling the angst card and making the suicide feel trivial and frivolous, unable to capture the nuance of it that is actually universal, preferring instead to show the layer that gleams with self-congratulation. D

mariquina

Mariquina (Milo Sogueco)

Writer Jerrold Tarog has always had issues with time. His scripts, most notably for Senior Year and Sana Dati, find their fulcrum in the past, in decisions that cut deeper as years go by. His characters are often put out of action, powerless to let bygones be bygones, trying to reach and pick up something from way back. Time is his beloved villain, and in Mariquina, it comes with a goon squad, tormenting the protagonist with memories that form the bulk of the film, events that already happened, and it isn’t so much about seeing things swell and burst but observing how they become smaller, get creased and folded, reduced to this tiny square, a handkerchief damp with tears. Clearly it is neither about the place nor the shoes that have made it famous—Tarog uses these elements only to make the ache specific, to have some corners that will define the context and subtext and limit the course of action, but he ends up confronting larger rocks along the way: the degree of pain can never be precise.

But the script can’t stand alone. For a narrative that digs out many unpleasant items, most of which are bones whose nature has always been to frighten, Mariquina moves smoothly, conscious of every step and rest, and breathes in and out evenly. One sits through it and feels the softness of its heavy scenes, light but never slight, dense but never difficult. Director Milo Sogueco is attentive to blanks and beats, providing his cast with a similar level of understanding of the material, no one higher or lower, all on the same plane, armed with the same weapon. Mylene Dizon, Ricky Davao, Barbie Forteza, and Bing Pimentel complement one another, and whenever they are off-screen, they are felt more, their absence more imposing than their presence.

The presence of Imelda Marcos and the insinuations of a seemingly better life during her husband’s reign are shadows seen and felt on a daily basis that people have learned to deal with over the decades, vestiges of his regime that not only persist in present surroundings but are also embedded on one’s consciousness, inescapable, noticed only on particular occasions, so when Imelda walks in and delivers her lines she sounds like a bad version of herself, because she makes an effort to be real. But even this weak point speaks volumes, something that can be argued with interest. One of the pleasures of watching Mariquina is being overwhelmed by its generosity: how it finds the compelling in the ordinary and feels grateful for every particle of dust that settles. A-

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 4) August 22, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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CS

Children’s Show (Roderick Cabrido)

The strength of Children’s Show lies in its interesting focal point—children and teenagers, their youth and poverty exploited, trying to make ends meet for their families by participating in brutal underground fights—and it’s a hook that gets thinner as the story progresses. Director Roderick Cabrido deviates from it to favor a drama that is, by all means, engaging and worthy to look at, but he fails to consider that the viewer itches to learn more about these gruesome matches and discover details and nuances, how these arrangements have come to pass, what allows this terrible system to continue, and in what way does it implicate the failure of many social institutions to be on the side of the poor and help them lead better lives. It could have been illuminating, bent as it is on presenting this culture, the corners that trap its characters and observe them make life-changing decisions, but it offers only flashes and flickers of discernment, owing mostly to writer Ralston Jover’s quirks. In the grand scheme of things, what it is carries the same weight as what it isn’t, and unknowingly Children’s Show tends to emphasize what it lacks. Cabrido, like his first narrative feature, has something in him that his contemporaries don’t have—the frenetic keenness, the eye for grub and grit, the excesses that display his personality—but it will probably take time before he fully realizes it. C+

janitor

The Janitor (Michael Tuviera)

A dirty mind is quick to consider that The Janitor may have been initially conceived as a gay movie, what with its diligence to have mouth-wateringly attractive actors play lead, supporting, and even minor roles, their presence serving as its main currency. Those scenes in which Dennis Trillo works out and shows off his shapely muscles, sex cuts, and tattoos, exuding this masculinity that makes the female and gay spectator shudder in gratefulness, feel unnecessary but justified on the basis of carnal pleasure, director Michael Tuviera aware of how cinema is about gaze and the gratification gained from it. Within this context, especially when the audience has come to a point where it looks forward to the next hot guy to appear onscreen, The Janitor works so well—there is brisk dynamics in its tease and homoeroticism—but even outside it, even in the framework of an action genre, it satisfies. A distinct current keeps moving it to the fore, unafraid whether it comes across as laughable or incredulous. The comparison with On the Job is valid, and Tuviera, concerned only about delivering a twist and polishing the surface on which it happens, doesn’t care. Whenever he is in doubt, all he has to do is show his boys and engage them in a physical activity. How cunning. B+

kasal

Kasal (Joselito Altarejos)

Director Joselito Altajeros’s preferred English title of Kasal is The Commitment, and native speakers all know that this is not a faithful translation but one that provides depth and wisdom to the idea of wedding or marriage. This kind of gesture pervades the film, whose composure is tame compared with his early works, to the point that even at its most tender and touching moment, that long take of Arnold Reyes and Oliver Aquino having sex, Altajeros chooses to have one of his movies projected on the wall as it happens. There is consciousness to overplay things, to make issues go out of hand and be settled or neglected in a manner that requires a stretch, and these concerns may happen in real life but in film they appear flimsy, almost like a wordy afterthought. Kasal rubs in such a way that it feels somewhat obliged to speak for the gay community, putting its couple not only in relatable circumstances but also in crucial ones, the most obvious of which puts forward their conflicting ideas on same-sex marriage in the Philippines: one is hopeful (and quite naive) while the other is doubtful (and obviously cynical). It’s a film that gays of all sensibilities would be so open to love—for it deliberates a pertinent subject at a time when discussions like this deserve attention, boasting a pool of skilled actors devoted to its beliefs and driven by a desire to approach things from a sober perspective—but it is weakened by the tendency to overexplain and repeat its arguments, and as the narrative comes to an end it’s hard to tell whether the reaction evoked is sympathy or tolerance. C+

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 3) August 17, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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haringtondo

Hari ng Tondo (Carlos Siguion-Reyna)

There is this priceless scene in Hari ng Tondo in which an emotional Cris Villonco, running away from home, trips and falls on the ground with her hastily collected clothes. She is in such a hurry to leave that she blurts out to the young girl in front of her, “Tawagin mo akong taxi! Tawagin mo akong taxi!”—to which the child replies, “Taxi ka! Taxi ka!”—and it happens so fast, ending as suddenly as it starts, that the laughter comes only after realizing that the joke is over. That brief moment alone captures the energy of the film, enthusiastic and raring to go, spontaneous and careless, hardly insightful but downright amusing, driven by this pleasure from making fun of the rich and poor and sparing neither of them from the prank. It seems to be built on a series of setups, playing with the stereotypes of the community but not so much reflecting the actual—the drama resting on one’s preconceived notions of Tondo but refusing to show them deliberately, only bits and pieces, random stink here and there, superficial chaos and disagreements for the sake of spectacle. This is not, after all, about poverty and suffering but the humor that comes along with sentimentalizing them, sometimes risking being insensitive in exchange for laughs. Whenever a large crack in the narrative shows or an uncomfortable stereotype lingers, the film is quick to expose it further or make necessary distractions: the audience will always be reminded how unserious it is. But what makes it all the more interesting is that Hari ng Tondo marks the return of Carlos Siguion-Reyna, whose prominent movies are notable for being affectingly contrived, and his confidence to push things over is still there, only now he’s unsympathetic and relaxed. It may not be an ideal comeback, but it’s delightfully enough. B+

sundalongkanin

Sundalong Kanin (Janice O’Hara)

It’s cruel to put down something earnest and unpretentious as Sundalong Kanin, especially in a festival that is now populated by big names and ambitious productions, but despite the potential of its story and the unwavering will to deliver, the film is hardly convincing. The crudeness is understandable, leaving this air of innocence and inexperience suited to its gruesome coming-of-age story, but the moment the kids talk about the imminence of war and take reckless actions during the Japanese occupation, it turns into a disappointing high school production where efforts are rewarded based on tolerance, the viewer predisposed to allow its good intentions eclipse the obvious flaws of execution. The atrocity of war couldn’t be any clearer—almost every scene is a reminder of how terrible it is, and every dialogue comes across as something lifted from a textbook—except that there’s something amiss in the way it consistently presents this perspective, as though appropriating these historical events only for show, for a passing grade. C

hustisya

Hustisya (Joel Lamangan)

Nora Aunor’s sinister laugh at the end of Hustisya is a fitting closure to a film that has its share of extremely bad and unexpectedly good moments, the hysteria no longer confined to the narrative but seeming to extend to her personal life, as though Ricky Lee and Joel Lamangan staged this scene alone as an opportunity for her to speak her mind about the National Artist issue, and Ate Guy, the superstar, possibly the most fascinating figure in Philippine cinema, for the lack of better gesture, cracks up after hearing some words whispered to her, aware of the absurdity of it all but allowing herself to be carried along. One can easily feel that despite her humble presence, she is much bigger than the material: all it does is make room for predictable dramatic scenes and catch up on her, unable to provide her with what she deserves. Granted, Ate Guy blends perfectly into the milieu, but Manila seems so designed to welcome her—political rallies, vandalism, disappearance of activists, and religious feasts happen when she’s around—and Lamangan is eager to show her reaction to these realities, may it be a casual look or an emotional reflection. Hustisya is too concerned about accommodating her that the drama, out of convenience, jumps from one outrageous sequence to another, and she just keeps doing what she is told. From time to time, most especially in that scene where she repeats “Akin na ang notebook ko!” in such iconic delivery that audience members find themselves clapping with pleasure, the flashiness is forgivable. But more often than not, when the story is forced to move, one gets used to laughing with pain. C+

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 2) August 11, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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ronda2

Ronda (Nick Olanka)

Sticking out like a sore thumb is how Ronda concludes deliberately, the systematic and calculated way it pulls the story in that direction, and how, in its resolve to follow the troubles of a passive main character whose life is occupied by circumstances that come along with her police work and her difficult relationship with her son, hinges on this strong emotional bookend only to take advantage of the given impression made by goodbyes, the final sequence showing the peak of her grief. There is nothing wrong with this choice, of course, except that it makes the viewer feel that director Nick Olanka is keen on favoring the foreseeable and makes it a point to focus intensely on the swelling instead of the burst, choosing the cinematic over the eloquent, captivated more by conventional tricks than character analysis. Extending the story would entail showing Ai-Ai delas Alas sink in despair, and that would mean a different kind of movie, but Ronda, as it is, bares too much skin but has nothing much to show underneath. Rather than running and reaching many areas, it is just content jogging in place. C

s6parados

S6parados (GB Sampedro)

There appears to be a consensus among serious festival moviegoers that S6parados is a terrible film, and this is obviously a blind alley, but seldom admitted is that, for all its laughable self-awareness and mind-blowing sentiments on male misery, its awfulness is enjoyable. Watching it is like listening to six guys too full of themselves talk about their shitty love problems over cases of beer, and instead of raising arguments or being fair to both parties concerned, one just nods or grins and waits for interesting anecdotes and ridiculous punch lines. The moment they get drunk, they can barely respond with logic. So they start blabbering: a husband finally comes out to his wife, a restaurant owner finds another woman to love after his breakup, an alcoholic tries to help himself for a change, a seaman out of work turns to womanizing, a junkie car salesman wants to start anew by leaving his wife, a battered husband tries to man up—basically men who, according to their stories, receive the shorter ends of the stick and admit being losers. Poor dudes! Manly tears! What makes it even funnier is that they don’t actually and necessarily hate their wives: they are too kind and understanding to think ill of them. They are not male chauvinist pigs: they are just male and chauvinist. S6parados is a pure cavalier movie, written and directed to parade the sacrifices and sufferings of men just to keep their precious dignity intact, and without a doubt only a guy can come up with that inspired title. C

bwaya

Bwaya (Francis Xavier Pasion)

Bwaya doesn’t seem to be a work motivated by sincerity. The story is heartbreaking enough—on her way to school, a student is attacked by a crocodile lurking in the water, and consequently her family grieves her loss—but director Francis Pasion is not satisfied with simply telling it. He is eager to leave his self-serving stamp on the movie, the device he has already employed in Jay and Sampaguita, and make it larger than life, more relevant to his personal interests, and better suited to fulfill the qualities of a festival-friendly entry, one that challenges viewership and gives a semblance of elevated understanding of sociopolitical issues. But what he does in Bwaya is waste the exceptional performances of Angeli Bayani and Karl Medina and debase the powerful depiction of a helpless community trying its best to deal with the shit of everyday life all for the sake of having a statement, for that itch to yelp a protest against media exploitation to which he also contributes. What is sick about it is not the film, which, removing the meta elements, is in fact a persuasive look into the various layers of violence experienced by being born and raised poor, but the filmmaking—the insistence on pointing a finger, the tenacity to draw attention to oneself and appear bright and thoughtful in the midst of anguish, and the nerve to make the audience feel such disproportioned terror, showing the infinity of excuses that comes with freedom of expression. There is clearly offense meant and given, and if this is Pasion’s idea of responsible filmmaking—and if this is the Filipino movie that gets recognized locally and overseas for its worth—one can only hope for a more discerning voice to stand against it, and better films to sink it. D

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 1) August 8, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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kna

K’na, the Dreamweaver (Ida Anita del Mundo)

A friend calls it admirable, but another way of describing K’na is that it’s an exercise in wastefulness, squandering opportunities to produce a meaningful picture of life down south where people take pride in leading disciplined lives, where communities caught in decades-long armed conflict nurture wives trapped in unhappy relationships and husbands killed in bloody encounters, where a colorful history and culture is both an identity and contradiction; and the film, instead of treating its subject with maturity and wisdom, settles for the dull kind of picturesque, dipping its toes into several sociopolitical issues just to enliven its core but failing to leave any remarkable impression, capturing only the unexciting luster of complexities and preferring blindness to insight. K’na keeps mentioning the importance of design, but its own is not even worth a second look. C–

1stkosi3rd

1st ko si 3rd (Real Florido)

The title of Real Florido’s debut film rings distinctly, the symmetry and insinuation of its words giving way to juvenile thoughts—precise, succinct, and catchy without overplaying its quirks—and even without having read the synopsis or seen the trailer, one can easily assume what it is about. Fortunately when it comes to elaborating the story, Florido is driven by this liveliness that cloaks its many lapses, and what stands out amid the flourishes and indulgence is his sincerity, a flawed display of intention, the mix of excitement and excess that comes with youth. 1st ko si 3rd depicts old age with boredom and regret, but it is filled with numerous blinks of joy that couples in their senior years experience with heightened effect (chatting on Facebook, fixing an old car, receiving an invitation, talking to a seamstress, constant daydreaming), their lives finding this instant where time keeps inflating and pulling their leg. The film brims with humor that doesn’t care whether it succeeds or not—its comic moments are either hit or miss—achieving a lightheartedness that may be strained but not phony, its modesty both its weakness and strength. All along it prepares the viewer for this long-awaited meeting of Nova Villa and Freddie Webb, building up to what seems to be the movie’s climax, the present trying to overreach its hands to the past, but once it arrives at that point, no magic ever occurs, no sparks, no touching revelations, not even a glimmer of kilig, peaking where it’s dry and detached, cold and clinical, and one can only feel sorry for her that the person she has always cherished in her thoughts is just a beautiful idea that died a long time ago, a mere shadow of a big mistake, a figment of the sadness that occupies every space of her life. B

asintado

Asintado (Louie Ignacio)

At some point in Asintado, most likely after the first fifteen minutes, the viewer gives up on the idea that it is going to be good. One can only scowl at how proud it is of its stale stereotypes and trite plot turns, but Louie Ignacio is disposed to make things worse, revealing one rotten cliché after another, until it reaches this laughable conclusion and embarrassing postscript. It’s funny how people are led to believe that this is a story worth telling and filming, because from start to finish it is aware only of how it can pander to the basest emotions in the most preposterous way, and Ignacio is so fluent, his despicable language flowing as a stream, making the shameless dramatic excuses float and their stink linger, that it’s just fitting how it ends in a music video, with Aiko Melendez looking up, as though she were asking for help amid this whole mess. D+

Rekorder (Mikhail Red, 2013) March 1, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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rkrdr

Written by Mikhail Red and Ian Victoriano
Directed by Mikhail Red
Cast: Ronnie Quizon, Mile Lloren, Buboy Villar

The past year has been considered a high point of Philippine cinema, yet in hindsight, in a reflection that may occur to moviegoers who often find themselves confounded by tiring pronouncements, validating this assertion does not rest on the consensus that, indeed, a number of distinguishingly well-made films have been released in 2013, emphasized further by year-end lists put together by local critics and cineastes. A more convincing argument for the previous year’s greatness, if one must be drawn to such monotonous debate, is the rarely pointed out but curiously remarkable fact that a string of overlooked films, those who have suffered from groupthink and inattention, provide better material for telling discussions, and should titles be named, these include Rekorder by Mikhail Red, Amor y Muerte by Cesar Evangelista, Puti by Mike Alcazaren, Babagwa by Jason Paul Laxamana, and Four Sisters and A Wedding by Cathy Garcia-Molina. All these movies are obviously flawed, but the mix of newness and charm, not to mention excesses and lapses, that their directors bring to the screen is a welcoming change from the usual subjects of admiration.

Rekorder, for instance, is drowned out by the brimming compliments for Transit by Hannah Espia, the darling of the crowd at Cinemalaya and the country’s entry to the Oscars, accolades that seem to have made it invulnerable. Both in their twenties, Espia and Red have directed acclaimed short films prior to their first features and represent a good crop of young filmmakers who have taken a chance on grant-giving festivals and come out with a finished product—not an easy feat these days considering that the seed money is wrapped in a foil of concessions and compliance. After Cinemalaya, however, Espia and Red have come to be defined by the reception to their debuts. She is able to screen her film in various cities across the world, encouraged by the eagerness for her follow-up; he, on the other hand, is happy just to be able to show his work to a handful of viewers, in Manila or in Tokyo, most of whom may actually enter and leave the theater carrying the same feeling. But to the few who have been moved by the rawness and sincerity of Rekorder, particularly by its failed attempts at polishing its perspective, it only feels right to admit that, with the benefit of hindsight, the small consideration given to it matches its smallness, and that Red, supposing he is willing to be on the suffering side of the art form for which his father has labored for decades, can offer something that his contemporaries cannot.

Although it’s shot in different formats, the changes in tone, texture, and frame sizes complement the atmosphere of internal and external deterioration, from the demons that keep hovering over the principal character to the glitches in his surroundings that he is forced to confront, actions and distractions that Red sets up to make him move. Rekorder’s experimental quality, instead of presenting new ideas, falls into the trap of engaging in stale metaphors and hackneyed juxtapositions, visuals that feel compelled to say something, plots that tend to put things out of focus, and elements that build down rather than up to a conclusion, particularly with the effect of those shots of buildings and skies at night, highlighting the verves perceptible only among the nocturnal. But this is Red’s youth speaking for him, which is an acceptable display of flimsiness; and it’s good that he hasn’t lost it, for the moment the film attends to a crucial turning point, when the protagonist bears witness to a crime and is able to record it on video, the narrative suddenly finds a backbone, and what has started out as messy becomes messier, and its echoes sound clearer and more resonant.

What several viewers regard as “dragging” is basically an effort to establish coherence between things from the past and present, how these items, whether material (camcorder, movie posters, theaters, reels) or conceptual (violence, media, ethics, freedom, progress), are changed and devalued over time, and the people who own and consume them—those who fail to adjust and carry on, those who choose to stop at one moment and realize it’s better to stay there—end up battered and haunted. Ronnie Quizon, in a career-defining performance, embodies a man who wanders between reason and madness, and one by one the objects and thoughts keeping him steady are being taken away from him, Red capturing his weariness and struggle by submitting to Quizon’s delightful moments of self-indulgence. A commanding presence onscreen, he exudes the soul of a lazy, tormented hero, one who’s difficult to hate and frown upon, and one whose frequent plunges into despair are inevitable.

A huge chunk of Rekorder tugs at movie piracy and the glory days of Philippine cinema, but oddly these matters feel negligible as the story moves forward. They provide the backdrop in which the lead character situates his life (or lack thereof) and fixations, but as soon as the routine of his work and his past are established, they wilt and fade. For some reason they come across as distant, lacking the immediacy to make the viewer feel involved. May this be attributed to Red’s weakness as a writer and director or is indifference a prevailing attitude as far as these subjects are concerned? How come when Earl Ignacio, the moment he is being carried away by the police during a raid, shouts about the sorry state of Filipino films, in a tone that is somehow similar to being slapped in the face, the tendency to cringe and look away from the screen is so tempting? How is it possible not to be affected by the nuances of these contradictions?

Nevertheless, the reveal at the end makes an uncanny impression, for, unexpectedly, the long walks and empty gazes begin to add up, the trembling and stuttering, the look of fright and longing, the melancholy of a single man, the detachment from society and from himself, the obscenity of simply being alive. Eclipsing the pain of nostalgia and the ordinariness of violence is this throb of personal preoccupation, and Rekorder, in its efforts to create a complex and rounded milieu for its protagonist, understands the need to collapse, and in a world that continues to pull unpleasant surprises, where humanity rusts for want of use, it seems to be the only fitting end.

*Published in the second issue of Kino Punch, UP Cinema’s film magazine

Babagwa (Jason Paul Laxamana, 2013) October 9, 2013

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Babagwa-1

Written and directed by Jason Paul Laxamana
Cast: Alex Vincent Medina, Joey Paras, Alma Concepcion

There is a tendency to question the merits of Babagwa on account of its unpleasant ending, but even with such lapse it’s hard to deny its earsplitting accomplishment. Seething with fervor, three-fourths of it is downright terrific: a persuasive, willful, and unapologetic display of skill that few local films in recent memory have come close to achieving. Everything seems to have been arranged to emphasize the impression of astuteness, pushing until it destructs itself. It’s proof that flawed movies provide stronger depictions of obnoxious realities, as though their faults were part of a scheme that makes the viewing experience rewardingly unsettling.

Depth, luckily, is not a concern. Writer and director Jason Paul Laxamana does not scrutinize his subject: his primary intention is to lay the narrative down with force and doggedness. Babagwa’s lead character, Greg, is a swindler. Aided by his two cohorts, he befriends people using a false Facebook identity and makes them believe that in this day and age emotions are foolproof. He specializes in sending romantic signals and ensuring that they reach their target. As soon as his prospects show a moment of vulnerability, sweet nothings are exchanged, then sexual innuendos, and lastly, bank account numbers. He gets by through this horrid scam, a livelihood wholly dependent on fraud, a web of duplicities made stickier by an excessive faith in the innocence of feelings.

A rational claim is that Babagwa, like most narratives that cause tremendous discomfort, is a horror story. Its haunted house is the Internet, and Facebook is its most visited room. It is impelled by a series of actions that escalates until the mood no longer feels comfortable, until drastic decisions are made and the turn of events moves obliquely in fast forward. What brings the frightening feeling is how the characters, motivated by terrible reasons, feed on the terror they create before going on autopilot. When Greg entertains the thought he will be forgiven for the harm he has done by doing what’s right, he runs around like a headless chicken: an impostor falling into a trap he himself has set up, a con artist oblivious of his own naïveté. Arriving at a crossroads, the movie builds up to a thrilling conclusion that offers numerous exits, only to settle unwisely for the nearest one.

Its nuts and bolts, so tight before the reveal, are covered with rust in an instant, and this stain, aside from raising doubts, also adds to the icky aftertaste. Granted, that catch at the end is supposed to be clever—a way of showing a reversal of fortune, a nearly fatal stab of karma, clearly intended to mess things up further—but it rubs distastefully because the film has gained so much steam that it deserves a riper sense of closure. The ride would have been more satisfying had Laxamana let the cunningness go and shifted his focus to a resolution that does not resolve anything; cutting it abruptly or leaving it open, in fact, would have made an exceptionally fearful impact, for apathy trumps any form of payback or vindication. The final act is played out with the fat lady (not singing but) drawing the curtain of what feels like a joke, turning a convincing story into a cautionary tale, giving unsolicited advice whose moral righteousness softens the blow.

The fuss over the ending is warranted because it brings out what makes Babagwa an engaging piece of work.  Bold, defiant, and aggressive, it doesn’t run for cover or ask for sympathy. Its propensity to go over the top pays off, aware that its display of vanity is designed to overwhelm the viewer. The pleasure of seeing Alex Medina, Joey Paras, and Alma Concepcion pull each other’s leg shows that catfishing is indeed a serious business, and that the Internet, the most extensive cradle of recent civilization—complete with history, culture, economic means, sociopolitical structure, and crimes—is also a place where only the fittest survive, a place where one lives and dies. And those left behind (people, things, and memories) have the ability to forget and take the next step, seemingly unfazed to let sleeping dogs lie.

Laxamana is driven by a filthy desire to provoke and he does so without hesitation, allowing his happy-go-lucky spirit to capitalize on the fear of everyday correspondence. By breathing life into Bam Bonifacio—showing him around his condominium unit, dressing him up, and adding details to his fictional charmed life—Laxamana makes the crime even more palpable, leaving deeper teeth marks  as the juxtaposition of  two lives (Bam and Greg) underlines the desperation that draws them together. The sex scenes between Alex Medina and Chanel Latorre, filled with wet kisses and nipple licking, border on soft-porn, coming across as dirty and titillating without being repulsive. With these two key portions of the film, there’s a conscious effort to set things in motion, to keep itself away from anything dull, but the end of the game, as Greg regards his destination to be, is only the start of something else.

Porno (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2013) August 8, 2013

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Written by Ralston Jover
Directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr.
Cast: Carlo Aquino, Angel Aquino, Yul Servo, Rosanna Roces, Bembol Roco

The bulk of Adolfo Alix’s features in the past few years is marked by a dynamic front, built on concepts that survey relationships in which chance plays a crucial role and simple decisions have life-changing consequences. These ideas are steered by characters placed in situations that call for breakdowns of diverse temerities. From the restraint of Ananda Everingham’s inscrutable ennui in Kalayaan to the intensity of Cherry Pie Picache’s maternal sorrows in Isda, their big scenes often have a lasting effect, one that casts a shadow on the entirety of the film. In his recent output Alix has shown this knack for creating better baits, those spectacles that make the audience feel uncomfortable because of their beauty and absurdity, those clever decoys that, after watching the teasers, seem to promise fulfillment without reservations.

But there is always something in his movies that prevent them from being great: a glaring mistake in characterization, a change of tone in the dialogue, a sloppy direction of a crucial sequence, an uncanny resemblance of elements to other films. One or a combination of these disturbances adds up and points to a glitch in his worldview, in his filmmaking perspective. Having completed more than 20 films in eight years, Alix is proof that ripeness can’t be hurried, that a finished work deserves more time, even if it only means letting it still and untouched. His latest film, Porno, whose actual core is different from what its title proposes, carries that regret in seeing a work filled with potential but diminished by a tendency to legitimize its nature, the substance of which is drained before it ends.

It’s frustrating because the resources are just waiting to be exhausted. No matter how imposing the parts may be, the actors manage to pull it off, if the acting alone, with no regard for the movement of the material, is taken into consideration. Angel Aquino takes her time before she is able to settle in the role, but when her character’s predicament sinks in, she delivers something perplexing, which allows the viewer to understand the reason for casting her. Carlo Aquino, on the other hand, may have nothing left to prove as far as acting is concerned, but in Porno he’s onto something: his presence oozes with sexuality that catches almost everyone in the audience by surprise, giving off that inexplicable attractiveness never seen in any of his previous movies. And Yul Servo, for some reason, still has it, despite his puppy-dog eyes being more expressive than his delivery of lines.

But along the way the capacity of the actors, not to mention the stylish cinematography of Albert Banzon, becomes too given, something that can be easily taken for granted, because Alix decides to put strong emphasis on the advancement of the story: to layer the drama and make the explicit sex scenes legitimate. For there is too much liquid in the material, the narrative flows nowhere, and it is eventually wiped off by a number of disorienting supernatural elements, an attempt to provide texture and a link to existing realities. But what’s the point of this if the result is an utter mess of half-baked obscurity and ill-conceived theater? Why waste exciting plot points with cheap shock and hazy conclusions? Why are precious opportunities of spectacle (for instance, Carlo Aquino’s dubbing session) cut for the sake of providing details of his shady life, which, when seen, present nothing new?

Clearly this is Alix and writer Ralston Jover’s prerogative, but if they are after something profound, the profundity is not worth it. Their mistake is falling back on tricks that are supposed to add to the fascination, to punctuate the filth and its striking quality, but they only manage to ruin the suspension of disbelief. Instead of seeing them walk from one segment to another with natural slither, the characters are being given problems that force them to assess their situations. Their strings show on several occasions; their voices quiver because they are being directed. Should one make a connection between the two, this is the most obvious: in porn, the onlooker doesn’t usually care about the subject in the clip. The emotional investment is low, and seldom does the viewer feel compelled to think about it deeply afterward. Whether he or she does it to get off or to pass the time, it doesn’t matter. Porno rubs on the same idea. Thy will be done and there is nothing much in it after.

Purok 7 (Carlo Obispo, 2013) August 5, 2013

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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purok7

Written and directed by Carlo Obispo
Cast: Krystle Valentino, Miggs Cuaderno, Arnold Reyes, Angeli Bayani, Julian Trono

Madness is present in Purok 7 but it does not manifest completely. It is dispensed in fragments and through hints, from the two young siblings left to fend for themselves to the deeper sociopolitical current that allows this scenario to happen. Director Carlo Obispo does not ignore issues at hand, but he keeps pushing them away from the center, focusing instead on the resilience of its characters and the lightness of rural life whose effect, when taken as a whole, has a tendency to weaken certain aspects of the film. Due to the milieu’s lack of strong characterization, what stands out after the conclusion is the modesty in trying to pull it off, and the consequence of such warm and good-natured disposition, that pervasive mildness from start to finish, is an immediate feeling of guilt, that distressing sense of having done something wrong, should one decide to speak up and make an unfavorable assessment of the film.

But guilt is healthy, and guilt has some measure of levelheadedness in it. The aspect of Purok 7 that works is the insistence on making it appear slight—the absence of hysteria, the idyllic surroundings, the way the images teem with light—and crucial to this is the performance of Krystle Valentino, whose smile and gestures are distinguished by the moving touch of innocence required for the role. She takes advantage of her anonymity by letting the audience feel her ordinariness, her physical presence complementing her emotional presence, her limitations catching up with her excesses, and like Obispo she has a way of delaying a meltdown without directing too much attention to herself. Her finest scenes are those awkward moments with her object of affection, those excitements that look natural on her and the disappointments that make her stumble. It’s an exaggeration to call her great, but Valentino delivers the goods needed: she pulls surprises whenever the film extends its lull.

And these intervals of lessened activity tend to prolong, with less concern for actions that urge the viewer to have a thorough understanding of the siblings’ situation than for actions that make the viewer sympathize with their difficulties. That impulse of compassion is there all throughout, and it turns into empathy—Diana and Julian’s longing for their mother’s return, their short time at the carnival, their father’s frustration at the city hall, Diana’s infatuation with Jeremy, her daydreaming, her unspoken dreams, her uncertain life ahead—but there is a missing beat that disengages the link, whose cause may be hard to identify.

In this regard, one cannot forego a number of considerations: first, the overemphasis on the “humanity” of characters as opposed to the reinforcement of a credible and absorbing milieu (nothing of such sort comes after the interesting sight of children at play in the first sequence); second, the misplaced snippets of music and the upsetting flatness of sound that get in the way of appreciating several scenes, disturbing the tone of silence and conversations (both of which are major concerns easily forgiven by some); and third, the portrayal of Diana’s best friend that has cerebral palsy, so badly acted that it puts Purok 7 in an unflattering position when it gets compared with Magnifico (an association made more obvious by that detail).

Obispo handles tragedy with understatement, and that choice of perspective is admirable: it’s a treatment that does not resort to appealing to emotions but manages to touch on the heart of the matter. But when those dance numbers halfway through the movie engage the audience more than the thought of a mother about to be killed in China, it’s quite unsettling to be confronted with a bigger share of guilt than deserved, not in terms of size but weight, not in terms of body but soul, and there seems to be something unjust in that conduct of sensitivity between the life present in the film and the life present in the theater, both avoiding to be neither here nor there.

Transit (Hannah Espia, 2013) August 2, 2013

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.
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Written by Giancarlo Abrahan and Hannah Espia
Directed by Hannah Espia
Cast: Irma Adlawan, Ping Medina, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Mercedes Cabral, Marc Justine Alvarez

It is rather unreasonable to pass judgment on Transit without first acknowledging its merits. Confident in taking on a subject bigger than her skill, writer and director Hannah Espia manages to depict the plight of Filipinos in a foreign country without making her audience feel estranged. The reach of her film and its implications create an effect that lingers, one that leaves an impression of totality, particularly in illustrating that Filipinos, regardless of their whereabouts, have a faculty for enduring distress and grief. Nationality is a nagging facet of Transit, and rightly so; but far more interesting is the depth of urban sociology and anthropology that makes the drama believable, the actors being able to extract overtones of similar quality to complement each other. It is to Espia’s credit that despite being shot mostly in Israel, the setting feels like home, the sense of belongingness and propriety brought forth by the predicament of the characters, as though they left the Philippines and carried all their emotional luggage.

The troubles of the Filipino family and community in Tel Aviv are unmistakable: they are there and they need to be dealt with. They are not refugees but seekers of livelihood, willing to commit themselves to precarious subsistence with guaranteed employment for fear of returning to a homeland that promises nothing. The horror of living in Manila is different from the horror of living in Tel Aviv. Horror may vary in quality but seldom in effect: the Filipino has no choice but to conform. Unlike Manila, Tel Aviv is a city where No is a definite answer and a child is likely to compare a Bar Mitzvah to circumcision. Unlike Tel Aviv, Manila is a city where Yes is often given but offers no security. Airports connect cities but not feelings. When Joshua asks worriedly, “What if my memory of Israel fades away?” it is a valid concern but also a helpless plea, something which even his father is powerless to answer. Transit is a collection of sad stories by characters who do not demand much from life, but obviously life doesn’t care: it doesn’t have ears.

Once it’s settled how well-made the film is, the viewer can see the larger frame where the picture is mounted. What doesn’t work for Transit is despite the play with structure, five stories told separately with overlapping scenes, it is not a compelling watch. Once the narratives are established, the conflicts become foreseeable—Yael’s issues with her mother, Tina’s pregnancy, Eliav’s collapse on the floor—and they settle for a nondescript high point. Modesty is preferred to lies and surprises; submission is  favored instead of struggle. What moves the film along is not the decisions made by the characters, which could have been more striking, but the drama already existing, a storytelling tradition that most local filmmakers tend to consider more sincere.  Furthermore, the repetition of scenes is not as effective as most people claim; in fact, it only provides unnecessary reiteration of nuances, opportunities which could have given way to additional layers of strain in the characters. It may be harmless, but seeing it executed five times magnifies the blemish.

It is rarely discussed as it may seem trivial, but it must be said that there is something inherently wrong with putting notes at the end of a movie. Transit is strong enough to not merit an explanation; any viewer moved by such depiction of injustice will be driven to learn more about it, to ask questions at the forum or to read up online. Offering this information is similar to putting the film inside a re-sealable bag, secure and impenetrable in the meantime, but what’s the point of this journalism, if not for supplementary drama? It is discomforting when it assumes responsibility for real-life problems: art and entertainment can only do so much. Transit is rich in details but lacking in actions, bearing a gentle mix of beauty and subtlety that gives precedence to weight, hoping for a deep and emotional impression on the viewers. While it is successful in many respects—the breathtaking feel of its outdoor shots, the use of Hebrew by the actors, the appearance of Toni Gonzaga, the violent little wars inside the violent big wars, the hurt of losing your home without realizing it—it is also imperative to see through its magnificence and continue to squint.

Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 3) October 11, 2012

Posted 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, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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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, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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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, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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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, 2011

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
7 comments

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?

*Cross-published on:

Cuchera (Joseph Israel Laban, 2011) July 28, 2011

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
13 comments

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, 2011

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Literature, Noypi.
16 comments

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, 2011

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
2 comments

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, 2011

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
2 comments

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, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Invitation, Noypi.
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