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Anak Araw (Gym Lumbera, 2012) December 6, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine.
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anak araw

Written and directed by Gym Lumbera
Cast: Jay de la Vega

Anak Araw is the first of Gym Lumbera’s two movies to be screened this year, and should one be inclined to look for something out of the ordinary in local cinema, his work could offer a welcome respite. See, experimental filmmakers have never had it easy, both in terms of audience and affirmation, but their existence makes any national cinema richer, their presence like dark shadows in a haunted house, intimidating but actually friendly. In Anak Araw Lumbera feels trapped in the strange art form but he makes the most of his time by amusing himself. It’s more entertaining than poetic, more charming than beautiful, and more external than internal, though all of these assumptions can easily be disproved. He shares fragments of history, sometimes turning them into splinters from the future, from watching the funeral of comedian Togo and hearing Nat King Cole sing the classic “Dahil Sa ‘Yo” to the sight of kids falling into the water and a band merrily playing in the forest, not to mention the hilarious visual of a boy crawling and making the sound of a goat, he distills the humor from them until the  whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, Lumbera revealing himself and showing his ass dimples.

Palitan (Ato Bautista, 2012) December 3, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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palitan

Written by Shugo Praico
Directed by Ato Bautista
Cast: Alex Vincent Medina, Mara Lopez, Mon Confiado

What’s very disgusting about Palitan is the cycle of abuse it creates, that after taking advantage of Mara Lopez’s body through a series of prolonged sex scenes that borders on the indecent and lascivious (in short, pointless and offensive) and making her believe (as an actor and a person) that she is carrying out the role for the sake of the film and not of the filmmakers (which is utter bullshit) it forces the viewers to partake in its obscenity and lets them feel as though the desecration committed to her were happening for a good reason, that the movie, in its insistence on overplaying the tension between the two men, uncovers the rottenness of its purpose systematically, and instead of paying homage to Scorpio Nights (a masterwork of heavy political insight) it actually embarrasses Peque Gallaga and his film to the core. Ideally, one shouldn’t waste time trying to discuss an obviously bad movie (oftentimes talking and writing about it  could lead to more upsetting discoveries, like how the female character, even in her final shot, is treated like a piece of meat, void of sincere humanity) but Palitan is working under the pretense of artistic worth (how else can its acceptance into a festival be explained?) and that fact alone poses serious danger, since it has been made with the help of institutions that believe in its ideologies, and there exists a league of minds that will respond to it with a hard-on and a folly of tolerance, rationalizing the film by virtue of subjectivity, to the point of defending its prurience. As expected, Ato Bautista and Shugo Praico top everything off by concluding the narrative the way men who use their balls more often than their minds do: give the woman a gun to kill the perverts who violated her. And that act only confirms how her character is made of cardboard (or of something flimsier) and defiles her even more because it reduces her existence to an entity as insignificant as a grain of sand, and her creators (smiling as they write her in paper) are pleased with that: they subsist and thrive in smut, their egos (and cocks) always in need of stroking.

Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (Arnel Mardoquio, 2012) December 1, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Cinemanila, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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ang paglalakbay 2

Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe Virtudazo-Hyde, Glorypearl Dy, Irish Karl Monsanto, Perry Dizon

In many ways Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is Arnel Mardoquio’s first great work. But in saying that, one runs the risk of devaluing the strength of his previous films, especially Sheika, which may be messy and untempered as a whole but has moments that offer a kind of hopeless desolation that its subject deserves to have. His movies are always conscious of his background. Hailing from Davao, he has long been exposed to the problems that people from Mindanao face, his stories taking shape from first-hand observations and experiences. He isn’t young: he is 42 and his hair has turned gray over the years. In addition to being a film writer and director, fields that he has decided to focus on fairly recently, he is a prolific and prizewinning playwright, theater director, actor, poet, and librettist. This involvement in various disciplines has given him a certain ripeness, a kind of wisdom that comes with age and maturity, aware that art is more or less an expression of misery. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is his fifth feature in four years, and his growth as a filmmaker, if he has a quality that needs to be emphasized, couldn’t be anything but remarkable. Instead of turning another screw, the movie is a statement that refuses to be quoted in simple terms, and its seemingly subdued surface allows more water to flow in its forked paths until there’s nothing left to corrode.

Much of its power comes from the deliberate control of sound.  Its investment in silence is difficult not to notice because the story, which involves three Muslim insurgents and a kid trying to escape from their captors, needs a lot of time to breathe. It alternates between sucking in air and exhaling it because it happens to be the metaphor for its actual premise, how some people caught in the conflict in Mindanao contend with their everyday life, always finding themselves running and staying put. Mardoquio addresses the complexities of the armed conflict, but he does not explain why violence remains and why war and peace have become too abstract to understand. He does not pursue the whys and the wherefores; instead he creates sequences, particularly the brilliantly executed opening, in which the whys and the wherefores have come to be pointless, knowing that life goes on regardless of reasons, whether the revolution succeeds or not. What the film accomplishes in its subtlety is a drama that is effective and moving, not to mention having the ability to conceal its propaganda very well—Mardoquio losing the habit of staging sloppy spectacles, something that he was wont to do in his earlier work—and the screen is filled with images that take the plot into surprising directions. At some point in the film there is that beautiful shot of the hill where a man is seen with a water buffalo, and then a few seconds later a troop of bandits emerges on top, seven of them, as if referencing either Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, and for a brief moment the narrative has an air of a Western movie, which makes the hostile environment even more strangely horrifying. There is no denying that Mardoquio is in love with his visuals, as there are instances when the film will intentionally pause to show a lovely view of the falls or the orange sky, but he knows when to cut them: he takes them away just when the viewer begins to fall in love with them as well.

Despite the many chasms it can fall into, Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim never gets carried away by its sentiments. The anger and frustration that seep through its story are levelheaded, and its perspectives are grounded in consequences and not in platitudes. When the lesbian angle is finally confronted, it unfolds naturally, Amrayda and Fatima kissing each other as if it’s the last time, a kiss that connotes passion and resignation as much as bravery and cowardice. Amrayda is tired of the revolution, but she does not speak of its futility. It is still necessary, if not downright indispensable. She believes in a kind of life where her religion and her personal preferences could coexist, a life that would allow her to be a Muslim and marry Fatima at the same time, a life that is impossible to happen yet it’s something that she fervently holds onto. Mardoquio shares her weariness, closing the film on a bleak and uncertain note, but what is fate but bleak and uncertain? Where does the struggle actually end? How can a film address these issues without limning the blood in the frontiers and the dead bodies under the ground, without bringing up the cause and losing oneself in the maze of its contradictions? There are no simple answers, but more appropriately: there are no answers. Clearly, the revolution has already happened some time ago. It is still taking place. It will never cease. And there will be more corpses.

Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, 2011) November 19, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Antoinette Jadaone
Cast: Lilia Cuntapay, Geraldine Villamil, Joel Sarracho, Bella Mercado

Several months ago, at an awards ceremony that ended up highlighting not only the winners but also the people who selected them, the Urian decided to give the best actress prize to Maja Salvador for Thelma. It was an upsetting gesture, a charade that did nothing to distinguish the Urian, probably the most respected group of film critics in the country, from other award-giving bodies that recognize piles of rubbish every year. To start with, its standards seem questionable. If its idea of superlative acting is one that revels in monotony and triteness, then there is something laughable about the credence that its members think they have. Salvador’s attack on drama offers nothing new: it’s a heavy-handed performance that pokes too much and expects to be noticed for it. Choosing her over Cherry Pie Picache’s immensely nuanced work in Isda or Fides Cuyugan Asensio’s moving turn in Niño, both of whom portray mothers with remarkable nuance and intensity, indicates a lapse in judgment that’s too glaring to be defended by subjectivity. What makes this decision even more disappointing is that the plate offered to the Urian does not lack good options; on the contrary, the serving of nominees in the category is quite generous. The jury members, whatever terrible reasons they may have, reckon that the most delicious food in the dish is the parsley, and consequently Salvador’s name is chewed on by the press like a tasteless garnish, making the other winners pale in comparison. Sad to say, this confirms the Urian’s need to butter up the mainstream to sustain its personal network, a compromise that exposes the weakness of the culture developed in this type of environment, a situation that’s not unique in Philippine cinema but whose repercussions are exclusive to it.

To each his own, of course, but a wiser decision would have been to bestow the prize to Lilia Cuntapay. She is the subject of Antoinette Jadaone’s debut film entitled Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, a mockumentary in which she plays herself and a fictional version of herself. It’s an unlikely concept brought to life—a renowned movie extra finally given the opportunity to top the bill and carry a full-length feature—but its more striking feat is that Cuntapay, at a ripe age of 76, is able to complete the film and leave an impression of delight in doing it. Obviously she has waited long enough for this. She is jumpy and self-conscious about the attention given to her, enjoying the limelight and the certainty of not being edited out of the movie, reined in by her director whenever she becomes too eager to please. Her face lights up and frowns exaggeratedly when she finds herself cornered by a question, a manner that reflects her actual personality and adds to the charm of the film. She delivers a flawed yet unforgettable performance, a distinction that owes more to her presence than to the people showering her with compliments, her time onscreen conveying a sense of timelessness, a feeling that this recognition won’t ever happen again. On numerous occasions, Cuntapay acts as though she were always being reminded that the movie, after many years of fruitless search, had finally found her, and this consciousness allows her to create a portrait of herself that looks exactly like her but in many ways also resembles a lot of people, bit players who only exist in a two-hour movie for five seconds, actors whose mere idea of contentment is getting paid and being attributed correctly in the closing credits. Surely, the esteemed members of the Urian have taken these things into consideration, but how could they have weighed Cuntapay and still found her wanting?

Well, there are no easy answers, but interestingly the Urian is not alone. In Six Degrees of Separation, Cuntapay is nominated for best supporting actress and fails to win the prize. A huge portion of the movie is spent on following her as she drafts a speech, including a couple of dream sequences (shot in film) where she is dressed in elegant gowns, holding a trophy and addressing an unseen crowd. For someone of her rank, understandably, this high praise means elation and anxiety, and Jadaone is quick to establish that foothold. After introducing the audience to several celebrities and ordinary people who seem clueless about Cuntapay, the director visits her house in Manila and talks to her neighbors, who, as the story progresses, turn out to be as fascinating as Cuntapay herself, made evident in that hilarious series of scenes as they wait for her interview on television. Except for her assistant Myra, these supporting characters make up the main weakness of the movie—their lines are too sensible, their curiosity doesn’t seem natural, and their day-to-day activities in relation to Cuntapay are rather indefinite—but they are also crucial in providing the main character an emotionally credible foundation. Without them the narrative will hardly move forward, but their actions affect the believability of the mockumentary as a storytelling device. The film loses its natural feel as it carries on, its plot points becoming more scripted than improvised, but Jadaone compensates for it by executing a fine drama of Cuntapay’s life. When she arrives at a film location hours before the call time and asks permission to use the toilet, only to be denied because it can only be used by the main actors, one feels that this is a situation that has happened to her many times in the past. There is that vicarious clutch of ache and sadness, like a paper cut that stings for the first time, but then the next scene shows Cuntapay peeing in the grass, hidden behind Myra’s garment, and the sight couldn’t be anything but sidesplitting. Just when the film is about to get too indulgent in its sentiments, Jadaone will find a way to come up with random bursts of humor, scenes that make Cuntapay’s situation painfully absurd and amusing at the same time.

“She is one filmmaker whose work I seriously believe would make for good commercial cinema. Here’s to hoping she gets her break soon and is given the freedom she deserves to make it in the manner she wants,” said Alexis Tioseco about Jadaone in 2006. The late critic had openly expressed his fondness for her student work, seeing in “’Plano,” “Saling Pusa,” and “Ang Pinakamagandang Pelikula” a certain potential that could go beyond the confines of the short film medium, a young and passionate mind whose sensibilities leaned on the mainstream but away from the stale formulas of most studio releases. Six Degrees of Separation happens to be the break that Tioseco was waiting for, and the rejection from Cinemalaya turned out to be a blessing since it’s likely that Laurice Guillen and Robbie Tan would insist on changing some aspects of the script that were too atypical. One could only speculate on the extent of their intervention: Would Cuntapay have bigger and more outrageous scenes to showcase her acting? Would she be given less screen time considering Guillen didn’t find her face too endearing? Would her poverty and lack of husband and children be emphasized, as well as being a lonely old maid about to bite the dust? The creative freedom given by Cinema One Originals has allowed Jadaone to make a film that teems with personality, letting her linger in a kind of adolescence that never loses sight and perspective of how this industry works and how cruel it can be even in the littlest of circumstances. The title may not match the zest of its material, but it totally makes sense in the context of Cuntapay’s fate, both as a seasoned actor and an aged woman whom the viewers are familiar with but have watched from an indeterminable distance, the separation leaping from professional to personal. In hindsight, Tioseco’s greatest legacy is the impression he left on the people he believed in, and Jadaone is one of them. She has turned that encouragement into a challenge not just to please him but also to continue what he so passionately did in his short life, helping out people in the industry who deserve more but receive less, proving that he was right in having faith in her.

In one of his interviews in the film, Peque Gallaga drives across a meaningful point. He mentions that getting an award is important for an artist because it raises her talent fee and improves her work condition. In an ideal world this should be true, but an ideal world is also full of disappointments. Although Cuntapay would have preferred to have these belated perquisites in the twilight of her career, she is motivated by another reason, and that is to show everyone that she is worthy of such praise, that the events in her life have naturally led to this, to a genuine appreciation of her craft by her peers. This explains her earnestness to come up with a good speech. She looks forward to having a perfect moment in case luck stays on her side, but unfortunately it decides to perch on someone else’s. Jadaone’s camera doesn’t show how the wrinkles on Cuntapay’s face have suddenly gone deeper or how her heart has skipped more than a beat. Instead it shows her hand crumpling the speech she has painstakingly prepared for days, acknowledging defeat. Despite not having seen the film she’s in, the audience members feel that Cuntapay deserves it, a sentiment that Jadaone has cleverly conditioned them to feel, so when Rio Locsin asks her to come up onstage and share the prize with her, the gesture draws attention to the softness of the narrative, succumbing to the necessity of a cathartic finish. In real life, as what happened in the Urian this year, Cuntapay is not expected to receive an award, and even if she does she is likely to share it with someone (with Maricar Reyes, for instance, at the Cinema One Originals ceremony). By way of an uncanny prescience, Jadaone has seen this coming and figured a much finer tribute: presenting this film to the public and making sure that it will be remembered for its star more than anyone or anything else. She succeeds and Cuntapay takes a bow, overwhelmed and lost in thought.

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

Amigo (John Sayles, 2010) December 7, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Cinemanila, Indie Sine.
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Written and directed by John Sayles
Cast: Joel Torre, Rio Locsin, Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper

The dichotomy in Amigo is loud and clear. Two sides: the Filipino and the American. The setting: the tail end of the Philippine-American War. Bonifacio was dead. Aguinaldo was the so-called president. Early on I thought John Sayles is making a joke. With some foreign dignitaries invited to watch the closing film of the Cinemanila International Film Festival, the Filipino dialogues in Amigo, which constitute more than half of the film, are not subtitled. I went on to think—sublimely, because of the cold—that from a joke Sayles is now making a statement. Maybe that’s part of his intent: them not having a chance to understand exactly what’s going on in the barrio the same way the Americans then never did. Clever, and indeed no one walked out. A patient group! I wonder what Ananda Everingham, who’s in the audience, must have felt in his seat. He might have thought of his father who swam across the Mekong River to fetch his dear wife from Laos to Thailand. He might have thought of their love story. He might have been moved to tears. But that affair happened in the late 70s. Amigo is set in the dawn of the twentieth century, so a seventy-year difference, considering Thailand and the Philippines are neighboring countries with a dramatic difference of colonial history, is only a matter of perspective, like, say, looking at Boy Abunda’s mirror. Anyway, there you go, the Philippine-American War, which lasted from February 1899 to June 1913, after the Mock Battle of Manila between Spain and America in August 1898, which must not be confused with the Battle of Manila, in which more than 2,000 Filipinos and 50 Americans were killed. So, who won the panjandrum?

John Sayles, of course, is a wise man. He knows my history better than I do, that much I can give. He can probably narrate the Philippine-American War history better than Gregorio Zaide, and in a more interesting demeanor. But Sayles, given away by his storytelling, is not a historian; he’s an interpreter, which is not to say that historians are not interpreters with the biggest balls. Like most great filmmakers, Sayles is a man interested in fiction inspired by history. In Amigo he is rather conscious of historical accuracy, which is just the right thing to be, but the setting does not hold water. We see the American soldiers, we see the Filipino “insurrectos,” we see the Spanish friar, we see the Chinese blabbering about their life, we see whores and horses; but except for their clothes, are you sure this is not 2010? Aren’t we looking at the spitting image of the Philippine-American War at present, the summary execution of insurgents, the extrajudicial killings of journalists, the Balikatan exercises, “Nicole,” and Noynoy’s continuous support of the American government? What is this, a set-up? Or do we get apprehended again for hyperbole?

I’m being unfair, of course. But ask anyone in the audience and not more than ten have a respectable idea of what the hell happened in the Philippine-American War. Maybe Kidlat knows. Or Spanky Manikan knows. Or Joel Torre knows. But the common people—ahem, us—what do we know? We just spent thirty minutes in Grade 3 discussing the Treaty of Paris and we laughed hard how cheap we were bought from the Damasos. The good thing about Amigo is that it doesn’t dwell on names and dates, which our elementary teachers were so wont to do. Sayles picks the meat and works on there, breads it, layers it with atmosphere, never mind if his chosen narrative is not as dramatic as, say, Platoon, or as ridiculous as Tropic Thunder. Sayles fulfills the American side of the coin with dexterity. The Yankees are so good at quips and puns. In fact, to be blunt, I enjoy the American parts more than the village plots, which probably speaks more about myself than the film. The subplots are more interesting than the whole, because the whole tries to be polite while the subplots are careless quirks that magically transform the flatness of the film into something unique. When things are reduced to metaphors, that’s when I freak out. Thank God no one tried to cast Gardo Versoza as a rebel. Come to think of it, why is it that in every period film set in the Philippines, either during the Spanish era or the American, there are always two characters that resemble RIzal and Bonifacio? Are they Adam and Eve? It must be tough being either one of them, always emulated like that. Anyway.

All the while I’ve been looking for some meaningful insight in Amigo but what I get are these beautiful and often funny postcards whose sender must have had a nice time scribbling on. It reeks of pertinence, but everything’s just floating up there. Since you know better, tell me, how come those three years of hamburgers and fries easily erased all the three hundred and thirty-three years of wine and the cross? Whose interpretation should we believe, and more importantly, whose context? You and whose army?

Ishmael (Richard Somes, 2010) November 18, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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Directed by Richard Somes
Cast: Ronnie Lazaro, Mark Gil, Pen Medina, Dan Alvaro

Dear Richard S.,

I like Ishmael. I don’t know how much, but I like it the way I like certain films whose failure can easily be recognized from the start, knowing they can only be half-empty or half-full. I must admit I’m still high on Yanggaw, which, come to think of it, I only saw once, and it’s obvious that no matter how much atmosphere Ishmael shares with Yanggaw, it isn’t by virtue of comparison that Ishmael lets down. It’s the way you were not able to conceal the glitches. The way you get too engrossed in polishing the script. The way you give away too many things, wary of loopholes in the plot, cautious of how logic and the lack of it might affect the film.

Remember, you are good at your imperfections. You can wrap us in your mood and burn us in your madness. You can take us to the infernal and leave us there. Correct me if I’m wrong but it seems to me that the whole idea for Ishmael is built around that final sequence, that moment when Ishmael is resurrected and goes on a killing spree. That frightening mania in Ronnie Lazaro’s eyes, his tattoos crawling in his skin, that Kurosawa precision: that’s you, that’s Richard Somes. Why you let it be soiled by the consistently annoying music I don’t know. It sounds more like computer game noise to me than music, disjointed, lacking architecture, frustratingly and erroneously placed, almost ruining the film. Overemphasis is not something you should be so fond of. I enjoy that final combat—though the attempt at paying homage to local action films disappoints a bit (knowing your intention only serves to raise our expectations)—and it’s my favorite part in Ishmael. You know why? Because that’s the only time when you let go of reason, when you go over the top, when you simply jerk off everywhere. It reminds me of Spoliarium, of Luna’s depiction of darkness, the brush of seemingly careless paint on the side, the sound of sword-slinging without the sight of actual swords, ruthless, bloody, dripping cold.

Expletives in Philippine cinema has never been as powerful as when Ronnie rumbles “Tang ina niyoooo!” whose delivery, I’m sure, would make even the foreigners laugh. The way Ronnie swears is scrumptious, and no acting award, out of the very few we give here, can deserve to have Ronnie as a recipient. It delights me to see how Ishmael’s character steps closer to Sanjuro’s—the dry humor, the wandering samurai, the arctic soul of a ronin—only, sadly, it’s too scared to take the risk of imitation. Instead, the writing slackens and focuses on the intricacies of faith, far from being an original idea but still holds up, though I would have preferred to see the western genre in the Philippine setting explored.

Ishmael is neither a step up nor a step down. I don’t think it will look better when I see it again, but one thing I’m sure: no one has ever depicted the Filipino night as good as you did here. Please: make more films. Embrace your style. Take risks.

Best regards, Richard B.

P.S. I think Hiligaynon suits you much, much better.

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (Remton Siega Zuasola, 2010) November 16, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Remton Zuasola
Cast: Donna Gimeno, Lucia Juezan, Gregg Tecson, Fedwilyn Villarba, Daday Melgar
Based on a story by Ma. Victoria Beltran

Pardon me for writing this in a hurry, but there’s no other way but string these thoughts I am about to share in haste, and I fear that last night’s experience need not be recounted in clarity anyway. It’s hard to tell whether my purpose has been renewed or has merely blended into the anonymity of the night but there I was, watching Remton Zuasola’s Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, cursing and unable to control myself during the first few minutes, fraught with a mix of sadness and disappointment, only to see myself two hours later, walking out of the cinema frantically overjoyed, realizing it’s one of the best nights I’ve ever had, despite the stress of the evening and the usual kick of drowsiness. I felt that if Philippine cinema could at least have a single film this good every year—like Anacbanua the previous year, or Now Showing two years before, or Endo three years before, or Todo Todo Teros four years before, and so on and so forth—then there’s really no point proclaiming, every now and then, like a madman, that Philippine cinema is either dead or dying, and that it needs a few rounds of spanking. People assume that digital cinema has come to the rescue, but let’s say it has, so what? Couldn’t we talk about something else? How about regional cinema?

Damgo tells the story of Terya as she spends her last few hours with her family in Olango Island, Cebu. Soon we find out that she is leaving for Germany to marry a rich old man, an agreement her mother made with a recruiter, who offers, I must spoil you, some of the most priceless entertainment in the film with her shrieks of “Oh Lord Jesus!” near the end of the journey. Remton does everything in one take. Yes, one take. Clearly, he is ambitious; but what’s more impressive beyond doubt is that I cannot feel that ambition at all. It’s as if shooting a ninety-minute long take is the most common thing to do, if not the easiest and least daunting. I’ll choose this over Russian Ark any time, for the latter, even if it brags the beautiful hallways and galleries of Hermitage and has all the elegance and boredom of presumptuous art, lacks instinct and interest, whereas Damgo brims with curiosity from start to finish, in every nook and cranny, imperfect but immeasurable, the script going as far as the deepest pretexts and subtexts of its subject.

Watching Terya and her family walk from the coast to the harbor, where Terya will take a boat to the airport, and as they are joined by various characters, each of them never reduced to a lousy symbolism—the first sign of failure among local writers, always reducing a character to a metaphor—the audience is treated like a gossipmonger, hearing the most personal of their troubles. Remton knows that their stories—the intimacy of their stories—are the closest way to our heart. Never has he indulged for the sake of sentimentality; on the contrary, the sparseness of his treatment is striking, how visceral its realness is, how its poetry is wrapped in the barest of words, how its prose has no other direction but sideways, and how the movie hangs onto the basics of cinema: storytelling and visual language.

The film moves like an elaborate dance, but the only thing complicated about it is our participation, how we feel for Terya, seeing her take everything that’s set for her, gripping on her not too many options, knowing that the greener side of the grass is no longer hers. It’s easy to laud the style, but look at it this way: if the story hasn’t been that interesting, if the dialogues haven’t been that engaging, and if Remton has opted to rely rigorously on his script and has not considered improvisation (or has followed the original idea for the film, for that matter), then where will that one take take us? To another exploitation of the countryside by a young filmmaker? To another misrepresentation of poverty? To another caricature of hopelessness? To another poor idea of rural life? Fortunately, Remton does not allow any speck of posturing in his first full-length. He’s aware that Damgo is more than a film about mail order brides; it’s never about them, really, but the people around them, their families, the friends they parted ways with, the community they left, the town they will no longer recognize when they return. To add insult to injury, the choreography ends when the gloomiest part of Terya’s life begins.

It’s a shame how little we know about mail order brides, coming across the subject in the news or on the Internet, usually accompanied by a fit of laughter and a shot of pity. It’s a disgrace how little we care for them, how detached we are to their plight, and how we look down on them and the life they lead as if we are that different. Sherad’s guidance has truly helped Remton a lot—the economy of shots, the frugality of the narrative on the surface as opposed to the abounding arches of angry politics underneath—but Remton and his painful sense of humor have proven that “No one escapes art unhurt,” and really, by the time I got home after the screening I checked my arms and legs and saw that they were all covered in bruises. Probing further, I also found out that some of my fingers and toes were missing. And the strangest of all is that my mind, can you believe it, after slipping out of my head, took my pen from my pocket and wrote this entry by itself. Happiness honestly hurts.

Ang Ninanais (John Torres, 2010) September 2, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, UP Screening.
10 comments

English title: Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song
Written and directed by John Torres
Cast: Ciriaco Gibraltar, Tope Grabato, Che Villanueva

They say only love can break your heart and John Torres’ new film, Ang Ninanais, breaks my heart just a bit. After a string of shorts, a groundbreaking debut, and a waywardly balky follow-up, John is still doing what he does best, pulling the audience to his daydreams and lulling them by whispering words of love. Love, because John is the minstrel of love. You know the story of the guy who drove to Lonesome Town to find his heart, lived there for years, and got his heart back? That’s him. Every now and then, you would be reminded of that. His films stand out because of that experience—because what’s the point of a John Torres film if he wouldn’t be so intimate, if he wouldn’t tell an experience with a touch of quirk, if he wouldn’t choose his words like a troubadour does, if he wouldn’t indulge in figures of speech, or if he would. . . well, use a tripod.

The camera, as Alexandre Astruc posits, functions like a pen to paper. The filmmaker must not be hindered by traditional storytelling. His freedom, as far as artistic merits are concerned, is limitless. In John’s case, there is more ink in the pen than the paper can allow. He decides to tell the story the moment he realizes he already ran out of something to write on, and that’s where, I suppose, I feel a little uncomfortable. I think when people say that Ang Ninanais is original and personal, it doesn’t put the film in any positive light. Worse, it only gives an impression of distance, tastefulness, and luxury; which only makes it, among his other films, a sheltered work, and less inviting regardless of praises (although to be honest, I believe that’s not much of John’s concern).

As a follower of his works, I never yearn for “maturity”. I just want the poetry to bleed, the indulgence to flourish, and the innocence to reign supreme. There is always compromise, especially how it’s not the usual moviegoing experience, but the voice outweighs the difficulty, the ambivalence. The voice captures what other narrations cannot; that is, sincerity and fake sincerity at the same time. You no longer refer to it as a voice-over—it has, in fact, turned into a character. You follow it, you listen to it, you believe in it. John’s voice is something you easily recognize in silence, because you know he just hangs around with a hand over his mouth, waiting for the perfect moment to speak.

What saddens me upon seeing Ang Ninanais is that the maudlin confession finally gives way to the cryptic profession. John continues breaking bad and adorns his narrative—complicates it, in other words—which makes the film feel like a cousin of Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Huling Balyan ng Buhi, the way the myth overrides the “functional” storytelling, a disorientating device but one that fulfills the objective of the film: sharing a long forgotten culture with an audience whose memory, ironically, is that of a goldfish. John is no longer telling about himself, or his girlfriend, or his childhood, or his musings on the mundane. Here we have the stretch of ambition, and here lies the protest of words.

Truth be told, they are some of the most beautiful lines that John has ever written. For instance:

Do not look for us in history or in books written by victors. They are exact and precise; we are uneventful and in between.

Do not look for our story in myths, apparitions, legends filling the gaps. They are bridges; we stretch and fall. Listen to our faces; don’t take our words. Our romance lies at the timbre of our voices.

In the end we will reject a revolution and arrive at love.

Yes, the words cut through like a hot knife through butter. But upon hearing them and watching the images on screen, they just float around, knocking on my ears. It may be attributed to the subject, how I know it’s personal to John yet it also seems that he is striving to connect it with other themes, to highlight nuances with the least effort. But in the end everything comes out rather pale. I think when John does that, when he tries to cover unfamiliar grounds, when he grasps things beyond his understanding, and when he marries them with his own, I could see some strings that distract me. Instead of wallowing in its warmth, I feel a little cold and ignored, like something is going on without my knowledge, and I have to reset whatever thoughts I had on the film. The last thing I would want myself to feel upon seeing any of John’s works is being left out, realizing afterward how things will be spoiled by explaining, and by asking “what does that mean?” and all those buzzkill why’s. As I brave the pouring rain outside Cine Adarna, after saying hi to John and at the back of my head deeply wanting to ask him something, Neil Young continues to sing in my head, “I have a friend I’ve never seen / He hides his head inside a dream / Yes, only love can break your heart / Yes, only love can break your heart.” A minute later I am wondering why melancholia was dismissed.

Possible Lovers (Raya Martin, 2010) August 4, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, Queer.
2 comments

Directed by Raya Martin
Music by Teresa Barrozo
Cast: JK Anicoche, Abner Delina

An image can go a long way even under the falsest of pretenses. In the case of Possible Lovers, the long way stretches for ninety-five minutes. It’s a shot of two men on the sofa: one looking at the other and the other sleeping cozily. At some point while watching the film, your eyes start to glaze over. The shot turns into an image. The image becomes clear and present. The image is memorized. The image is memory. Then you scratch your head, look at the door, and wait for walk-outs. You have prepared for this, but “this” sounds pointless, “this” sounds an awful way to spend ninety-five minutes, and “this” is Raya Martin’s film, possibly only to Raya Martin’s consumption. But you’re already here, you had a cup of coffee, you want to write a review. It’s the first time you see the auditorium filled with people, unlike the previous screenings when FullyBooked U-View felt more like a cold cave. You see familiar faces, you see the organizers, you see the filmmaker. You relish the old clip in the beginning, going through it at the back of your mind and wondering how it relates to this self-serving image in front of you. You are impressed by the resourcefulness in finding that footage, the same way the vignettes at the end of Autohystoria left you speechless. In a way you are piqued by the term “long-silent emotions” and angered by such interpretation. “They made movies in 1919,” it says. It shows people crossing the street, cars moving, buildings, trams. You hear people whispering after seeing the streetcars, and you need no confirmation to know what they’re talking about because you ask yourself the same thing. Is it shot in the Philippines? You see Teresa Barrozo in the row behind you. You can’t miss her. She layers the film with a variety of sounds. She’s working on a pattern of noises from running horses to speeding cars. She sets the pace. Her music is the only emotion in the film. You fall asleep. You wake up staring at the same image, literally. You laugh at yourself. You open your phone. You pretend to send someone a message. Don’t fool yourself. There’s no signal here. An hour has passed already. A few people must have left while you were asleep. You look at the screen. Nothing much has changed except the lighting. It’s a little bit brighter. The man is still looking at the sleeping possible lover. Do you care about this movie? When Raya said that he made the film for someone but failed to give him the copy, how is that supposed to affect your viewing? When he said that there’s only one copy of the film, a copy of which he uses every time he screens it, what difference does it make? You yawn. You notice two of the organizers are not in their seats. The one left is still there, holding his specs, eating his dandruff. The image brightens. There seems to be an open window on the gazer’s side where the sun is shining. The sleeping man moves his fingers occasionally. The gazer blinks. You imagine him masturbating, the turning point of the film, if it will ever have any. He continues staring at his possible lover for another ten minutes. Then it goes, “We were two possible lovers—waiting for the film to end.” Credits. So, there’s editing involved. The organizers inform you that due to reservations made after the screening, there will be no time for Q&A. You go out, you browse books, you sit to read. Your mind is elsewhere. You go inside Krispy Kreme, you order some coffee, you try to write. You start with the line, “An image can go a long way even under the falsest of pretenses,” an idea you lift from a TV show. You wish JK Anicoche wins Best Actor for his performance. You finish a paragraph. You post it on your blog the next day and entitle it “Possible Lovers (Raya Martin, 2010)”.

Sagwan (Monti Parungao, 2009) July 15, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, Queer.
1 comment so far

Directed by Monti Parungao
Cast: Ryan Dungo, Dennis Torres, Martina Wilson

Just when everyone thought that UP Cine Adarna was the newest gay bar in Quezon City came the premiere of Sagwan. It’s February last year, much like the premiere of Ang Lalake sa Parola in September 2007, when gay pride was on, and gay was every man in sight. It was a field day like no other. Cheers and jeers welcomed Sagwan. On one hand, it sated the crowd with unrelenting exposures of manhood and rigorous sexual activity. Prudence was not a virtue. Every gay eye magnified every movement as little as a bobbing dick. Clammy history, sodden with sin and surprise, was writing itself. On the other, it sated MTRCB’s exhibitionistic thirst for self-righteousness. After receiving complaints that UP Cine Adarna was being a “haven for pornographic films”—allegedly after “UP No Place for Gay Porno” came out in Manila Bulletin, a column by Mario Bautista whose sentiments were more institutional than personal, leaning on trite terms such as “artistic freedom”, “artistically well done”, and “artistic merits”—the University was threatened by another challenge to its immunity from censorship. Its producers cried foul after Sagwan rowed with a double X-rating. Off the top of everyone’s mind is this: Could the film sail through after its premiere and be allowed public screenings? A no-brainer, of course. It could, and it did. After the scissors of morality get in the way, Sagwan opened the First Queeriosity International Film Festival a week later.

Too bad I wasn’t there for the fine spectacle. Premieres like this are like being trapped in a shelter during a strong typhoon and finding representatives of every group with you, seeking refuge in the wonder about to come. It is Noah’s Ark only Noah is not aware of the vast homogeneity of his people; and instead of sixty days, the Ark is built only to last for two hours. People stay a half hour more for politesse, minding their P’s and Q’s without losing the thrill of the occasion. Clearly, what I hold now is the artifact that MTRCB deems fit for public viewing, the objet d’art it considers a morally sound film: the local video release of Sagwan. From what I see here—in this version already lacking in lust and lewdness, devirginized by the priests and priestesses of local cinema—MTRCB has foiled another coup to make its vestigial presence known, a vestige which, according to the dictionary, is “a degenerate or imperfectly developed organ or structure that has little or no utility, but that in an earlier stage of the individual or in preceding evolutionary forms of the organism performed a useful function”. That’s a long definition but you may stop at “a degenerate…” and the thought is still complete.

With the publicity it garnered after the premiere, it is rather unfortunate that the video release of Sagwan has more voice-overs than sex. Imagine—or if it gives you the creeps to imagine, just toy with the idea—the narration is tackier than the blowjobs. How regretful is that? The deprived viewer has the right to expect smut and enjoy it, but halfway through the film hovers that strong hunch that (1) it could never get any better; (2) completely nothing in it is worth fantasizing; and (3) this may not be Sagwan. The third, of course, is a wishful thought that the film and its director, Monti Parungao, do not deserve. Not even a pinch. Parungao co-writes Sagwan with Arnold Mendoza and together it becomes clear that neither of them knows how to write. They trust Alfred (Ryan Dungo), an eighteen-year-old virgin who makes a living ferrying tourists, to thrust his libido right in our face only to drown us in misery. Come on, give us a break—Alfred doesn’t look like eighteen; and worse, he doesn’t look like a virgin. As he rows his boat, he seems to argue with me: “Hanggang ngayon malinis ako. Lalaking birhen kung tawagin. Hindi dahil wala akong libog sa katawan. Sino ba namang aayaw sa sarap ng pagpaparaos?” Oh, really. That he has to be a virgin is a cheap excuse to convince us that he is also attracted to men, particularly to his close friend Eman (Dennis Torres) who is hitting on him and his girlfriend Cecilia (Martina Wilson). Attaboy! There is also an abundance of boatmen in sight—after all, Pagsanjan is a tourist destination—and there’s the treat of glimpsing at shirtless men whose chests are more expressive than their faces. They also wear shorts that are sadly shorter than their dialogues. If you remember these scenes very well, as clear as the mole in Eman’s face, nothing is wrong with you. The photography is exquisite.

Telling that is already exhausting. And I haven’t even told you the part that aside from transporting tourists the tour guides also moonlight in the sex trade, though that need not be said. Gay films nowadays lose that surprise to make them tick. It no longer takes a serious moviegoer to know where the story is going to lead. Sagwan is predictable all throughout, though its predictability wavers as much as it stagnates, which makes it a pain to watch. It doesn’t care to be watchable—it just cares to waste our time. Alfred’s confusion on his sexuality might be good if he doesn’t look so constipated, or if he reads books like Antonio does in Ang Lihim ni Antonio, or if he minds to zip his mouth and quit pouting. How come writers forget that their characters need to be interesting? And how come sex is always a commodity of boring self-reflection? Anyway, back to the story, if there is much to tell, Alfred doesn’t want his little soldier be touched by another man. He stands firm on not swinging both ways. His girlfriend is inarticulate—which is one way of saying that she is mute—who goes horny when her period comes near. She is subservient to Alfred, prepares him meals and watches him eat, but her subservience serves no purpose aside from emphasizing that she is a woman. Revealing that she was abused by her father, Parungao dropping hints here and there before eventually resorting to “akin ka lang, akin”, it becomes clear that the film’s concern is not to present her misfortune but to disgrace her even more, putting him in sheets between two men who have never quite learned the difference between a vagina and an ass. It felt awful watching the scene in the end without knowing that it’s ending there, completely bothered by that scary thought that it would go on finding more people to join their sex, share worse voice-overs, and eventually give us aneurysm. One clever device, though, that unlocks the mystery: as Alfred reaches his first orgasm, there goes the rotten flashback that explains the riddle providing the film’s only sign of acknowledging its medium. There is plot after all. Good grief.

That final scene is executed with grave intentions in mind. It illustrates the heaviest statement of the film, as it shows Alfred, Cecilia, and Eman spooning and eventually doing their thing. Whatever that statement is, I may not be too smart to interpret it, for I really don’t know what to say. The scene revels in its own worldliness that reading its textures, especially by someone who hasn’t experienced yet the thrill of threesome, would seem too pretentious. It’s better to leave you with Alfred’s words instead, who, among the three, is the only participant allowed to speak his mind and share his good feeling. He ponders, “Labing-walong taong sakit ng puson. Labing-walong taong tinitiis ko at hinihintay ang oras na ‘to. Sa wakas, nakaraos din ako.” Nice, how meaningful. Is it just me or these are lines that even full-blooded queers would cringe at? And laugh hard at after realizing how earnest they were delivered? Swear, from start to finish, Sagwan would make you feel very smart. That’s two hours of hearty consolation, if you were ever thinking of any. As Alfred continues to reflect, “Di nga siguro importante kung sino ang ka-sex mo. Ang importante kung ano ang pakiramdam ng ginagawa sa ‘yo.” Of course. You need a Master’s degree to know that.

Sagwan isn’t meant—nor could it ever aspire—to be this generation’s Boatman, which was also set in Pagsanjan and caused its director, Tikoy Aguiluz, trouble and controversy. Its star, Ronnie Lazaro, shared in an interview with Lourd de Veyra that Boatman “dealt him severe emotional trauma” and up to now he still feels uncomfortable being asked about the film. While Boatman enjoys cult popularity, Sagwan brings back the “trash movie aesthetic”, the kind of badly made films that makes you rethink its merits because it reminds you of the classic Susan Sontag note: “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful. . .” Sagwan, in all its awfulness, could only be good years from now, when its reputation has grown so strong that future viewers will be looking at its terrible story with fondness, finding a way to satisfy their need for nostalgic irony. Murder, incest, rape, and a whole bunch of offensive crap seem to crowd Sagwan with depth but they only serve to impress and to rid itself of “guilt” by touching on relevant themes. Just when you thought it will emphasize the paddle as a phallic symbol, it only comes close to using it as a murder weapon. But even seeing that, we still don’t care.

Its lack of coherence only proves weakness; but if we were to follow the Sontag ideal—in her landmark essay on Camp which points out: “. . . even though homosexuals have been its vanguard, Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste”—Sagwan is less a Camp movie than a product of Camp moviegoing. Its action-packed nudity caters to the hungry desire to bring the big fat dick back to the big screen, which Ang Lalake sa Parola proved possible three years ago. It is also worthy to take note that while Sagwan is by all means dreadful—and its idea of what we expect from the movies is so low it’s insulting—its followers, particularly those who attended the premiere, are the ones slowly carving its place in movie history. Whether Sagwan is the crowning glory of gay cinema or a smelly and crunchy piece of shit is somewhat inferior to the impact it already made. Two important people I am quoting here: first, Sontag again, in which she says, “Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste”; and The Bakla Review, who stands side by side with Manila Gay Guy in championing queer culture—having made a great impact on the gay community in the last few years—and he who includes Sagwan in his Ten Most Important Filipino Gay Films of the Decade and tells: “Like Live Show in 2001, or Larry Flynt’s Hustler, we may find [that] our right to see what we want, or to say what we want, rests on a silly little underdog—a far-from-perfect, but vital, piece of trashy art.”

I just wish our censors, lacking both good taste and good taste of bad taste, had nothing to do with Waste Management.

The Blur in amBisyon 2010 April 29, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Indie Sine, Noypi, Short Cuts.
7 comments

“Ayos Ka!” (Brillante Mendoza) – Perspective defines poverty

To say that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is the most disgusting Filipino who ever lived is quite a world away from being exact—for disgusting is too common a word, too common to describe the things she has done and hasn’t done yet, and too common to be true that the word itself may puke in protest.

We don’t live in common times. In the past ten years, the only thing that we Filipinos have in common is unlearning. Ondoy and Pepeng came and went so as the Maguindanao massacre, and the difference between the two only becomes a measure of casualties, not their cause. Not that we don’t do enough, but the evil behind them, especially in the case of the latter, is too powerful to defend itself. Arroyo’s presidency can always claim the worst of times—the dark ages in Philippine history, if only we can deceive ourselves to call ten years ago history—and whatever good things that happen during her time can only come to alleviate—neither to overcome nor to efface—the horror she has caused and inflicted. And that she will continue to cause and inflict it is indispensably happening. The Elections in May are mere ventriloquism.

Twenty or thirty years from now, we look back and this truth remains true. Only the context becomes different. We’d feel different, think different. Our few relevant thinkers would then be dead; writers would still be underpaid; and the kin of the Aquinos and the Marcoses and the Ampatuans would still reign in some parts of the land with no intention of stepping down. Of all the things time and history can conjure uniquely, context is the most important thing. Context is the only thing honest—the only thing that would remain honest—of all possible time.

A project of the ABS-CBN News Channel, amBisyon 2010 rubs on that context. That we have to mention that it’s related to the largest TV network in the country is as pertinent as the vision that it claims to have. We don’t have to be reminded that the Lopezes of the ABS-CBN are in gratitude to the Aquinos for having their station (and power company) back after the Martial Law, or that Kris Aquino never loses a show since she moved in to the network, or that regardless of being “in the service of the Filipino”, ABS-CBN still has its own politics to deal with, allies to return favors to, foundations to project itself pro-poor, and involvement in social issues to prove its concern. It’s funny how the media always say that every national election gives power to the people—that every one has his share of participation (and blame) in shaping the country’s future—but they are not so blatant about being more powerful than we do. Their “humility” to admit that power gains them nothing but confidence—and with that confidence comes the reason to think that they are ubiquitously relevant.

For the sake of being critical, the problem with amBisyon is that there are no other projects with the same vision to compare it with. It stands alone. And standing alone, the typical—and not so interesting—reaction is thankfulness; not that it is not deserved but it is simply not the important thing to express. In the desert of the few independently produced films that get shown in local theaters outside Cinemalaya and Cinema One, here comes a project that flags its oppositional politics. It prides itself on having some of the country’s best filmmakers united by the urgency of change, people who intend to make a difference by reminding the Filipino people of the importance of their votes months before the May Elections.

Surely, we must be thankful that amBisyon gets conceived and delivered, amid all the financial and political hurdles the producers have had to face just to have a decent public screening of it. The filmmakers who take part in expressing their contempt to the Arroyo government should also be commended, whether they make a good film or not, because in the arena outside criticism, it really doesn’t matter, does it? These films aren’t made for the critics; they are made to awaken the common people, to open their minds and act upon the bigger problems of poverty and corruption. As important is to let these people know of the cancer that is making our country ill; and to let them believe that a change is possible, and that change can be achieved by making the right decision—by caring.

But what really is the right decision? And what is the change it will bring?

“Di Ako Makatulog Dahil Wala Ka Sa Tabi Ko” (Jade Castro) – Humor is not rocket science

Some of these films have the answers, but most of them warble only on presenting them. For instance, the ongoing tension between the military and the rebels in Mindanao is an issue that has long been raised—considering how unending and hopeless its case seems to be—but only a few manage to make it matter, to break away from the confines of trite and conditional storytelling. Although it is never wrong to value sentimentality in films, sometimes the emphasis on heavy crying and convoluted plots works the other way around. The use of children to represent the meaninglessness of war becomes less and less effective because of directors who only know what they want to say but don’t have any idea how to deliver them fresh.

Another strong issue is poverty; though in fact it’s no longer an issue—it’s a character. It’s a character that keeps on reproducing many things: violence, corruption, theft, murder, power, greed, death; and it is where interesting sentiments come from, from Brillante Mendoza’s “Ayos Ka!”—where Mendoza makes an uncompromising case of derision—to Jeffrey Jeturian’s “Ganito Tayo Ngayon, Paano Tayo Bukas?”—which smacks its contempt of turd right at the very face of the President. The MTRCB taking offense on the basis of “injuring the prestige of the country” and “undermining the faith and confidence of the people to the government” just proves how inane the Board can get; but talking about that is merely beating a dead horse, lest Laguardia make sensible statements to compensate at least for their shameless screening fees.

That some filmmakers have resorted to metaphors is a curious addition to amBisyon; that while there seems to be an agreement on how “realism” can be so powerful to incite change, some also think that imagination can go a long albeit different way. The good ones that come out are laid with humor, from deadpan to laugh-out-loud. Erik Matti’s “Da More, Da Meniyer” entertains as much as it makes its point clear, that it can almost pass as something Matti made outside the project. Henry Frejas creates a perfect narrative in “Hanapbuhay”, particularly how simple it needs to be to achieve something complex, and how its humor is distinctly Filipino. And speaking of simple, Jerrold Tarog is making some of the most striking shorts in the past few years. He is somewhat reminiscent of a young Raymond Red, brave and clever, only Tarog is more confrontational, his intentions are as clear as his dialogues that hit the bull’s eye. “Faculty” raises concern on activism, but there’s more to social involvement that Tarog argues than neglecting one’s education. He eyes on spur-of-the-moment realizations, changes brought by the most typical of conversations, or in this case, farewells.

Filmmakers that show and maintain a certain type of personality will always be known even without their name in the credits. John Torres represents this the most. While his short “Wala akong Pakialam sa Demokrasya” seems to find itself out of place in terms of convention, it is one of the few that brings the profound out of the ordinary. Its marital conversation becomes a diagram of fidelity, Torres too distant to reveal but also too near to choke the audience on ambiguity. But the goodness of short films is that they end soon; and coming after Torres’ limbo is Jade Castro’s warmness. “Di Ako Makatulog Dahil Wala Ka Sa Tabi Ko” is like a scene from a high school movie that becomes everyone’s favorite, the way it makes fun of colloquial text-speak and reflects one’s “kakornihan”. What some people would call dumb is actually cute, and Castro is able to weld that humor with his personal memories of his grandma, turning the unhappy situation of healthcare in the country into an amusing private fare.

These efforts are truly good, but collectively good is what amBisyon is trying to be ambitious about; and there, as much as criticism wills itself to concede, comes the sad thing. What exactly should we do? Whom exactly should we vote for? And more importantly, what exactly should we expect after the Elections? Political situations are not a black-and-white thing; it’s not as if we elect GOODNESS or TRANSPARENCY or COMPETITIVENESS to office—we elect people. And people, not by virtue of cynicism, are unreliable beasts. True, these films open our eyes on the reality of our situations—hope, possibility, and truth—but what’s next after awakening? Among our choices, is there really someone out there who can lead us to such dream of change? Come to think of it, the reality of the future seems more alarming than the reality of the present.

“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous,” Susan Sontag once said. And if that real art is Ditsi Carolino’s “Lupang Hinarang sa Sumilao”—a massively emotional account of farmers who walked all the way from Bukidnon to Manila to fight ownership of their land, that very representation of poverty that the common Filipino must go through just to live, that slow and sure way to have one’s hope extinguished—then we must really be nervous. Very, very nervous. #

Attica! Attica! Top Films of 2009! (Part 8) March 24, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, Yearender.
1 comment so far

5. WANTED: BORDER (Ray Gibraltar)

It has more of the rock than the roll, but the roll rolls hard and gathers thick moss while the rock stays hard as it is, unyielding to every plot point that Gibraltar decides to punctuate, each character looming on the dirty palette of mess, each taking turns but Osang above them all delivers the proper poison, the most toxic acrimony, Gibraltar allowing her to drink it until she finally passes the bottle to us. Wanted: Border is one hell of a debilitating work—a joint rolled to flip out once a drag is taken—with all the smoke fogging its profile but all the radical points getting through nevertheless. For the love of god, see this.

4. BRIGHT STAR (Jane Campion)

I’m mistaken. I’m not sure I have the right feelings towards women. I’m suspicious of my feelings.

When it comes to Fanny, Keats, suspicious he may be of his feelings, shows otherwise. His words are sweet, his eyes talk to her like caressing her skin, and his lips yearn to touch hers, tenderly, gingerly, lingeringly, professing a love almost forbidden. In Bright Star, Jane Campion delivers Fanny Brawne and John Keats’ romance with the luscious adornment of words and their beauty, the way poets have their way with glibness, only Campion forgets being glib and aces at being lyrical.

It’s all but complementary, the way the elements unfold and spread the drizzle, the beautiful colors splashing onto the lovers’ sad predicament, the little games they play, the butterfly farm, the kiss in the woods, back when kiss is not only a kiss but an entire life spent on reminiscing, all wet behind the ears, like embroidered initials on a handkerchief, holding hands, sewing hairs, holding hearts, stitching hems of hope, like letters read over and over again, relished to the last word and until the last ink, breathing the smell of the handwriting, the crease left on the corners, the wistfulness, the fences, the longing.

Touch has a memory; but touch also has tears like memory, pain like memory, agony like memory, crucifixion like memory, death like memory. Me(mort)y: Keats knows all of that—he says it to appease himself, to appease Fanny. He knows that love is not only sharing memories but sharing pain, not only sharing touches but sharing tears, sharing all that can be shared, loving the mistake, locking lips with chances. They are perfectly in love and imperfectly sharing it, passing on, passing muster.

Attachment is such a difficult thing to undo; and his attachment to Fanny, Keats the romantic he is, kills him even more than his illness. The distance, the inhibitions, the social standards of their time: he is killed by them more than anything else. He is poor; but his heart is wealthy. Abundant, overflowing with lust for life. He has a lot to give, from his dirty nails to his empty stomach, only his body is giving up, but his love isn’t. Fanny knows there’s a brighter word than bright, a prettier word than pretty, and a lovelier word than lovely to describe Keats, bright, pretty, and lovely which Keats was, which Keats is, and which Keats will always be.

Bright Star aches; it aches their aches. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish are Keats and Fanny like they were Keats and Fanny, but even if they weren’t their portrayals warrant remembrance, like a sumptuous ode to the couple they give life to. Overwhelming is when Whishaw recites “Ode to a Nightingale” after Cornish sobs “Bright Star”, their correspondence from two different worlds sculpted like memories by Keats’ emotional verses. Sensuality is expressed not in the unclothing of clothes but in the unclothing of love, in the undressing of feelings, in the bareness of intimacy, especially when Fanny and Keats exchange the lines of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. Campion allows the beauty of Keats’ poems to seep through the cracks of the film, the way it bleeds to the point of consumption, frittering away, Keats the Endymion, forever youthful, forever remembered, and forever loved.

3. TWO LOVERS (James Gray)

Love means never having to say you’re sorry, but how awful that we always end up saying sorry than loving; how awful that we stray to places where hurt is the only feeling; how awful that we believe in things that will only betray us; and how awful that we wait on decisions that will never really be settled. James Gray films heartbreak in its most devastating—in its most banefully violent—and delivers an affecting portrait of romance that is so cruel and tender we walk out of the theater numb from too much crying, almost passing out. As tears fall down and carry ourselves away from the hurt, leaving only the physical weight of our heart and nothing else, we acknowledge and concede to the film’s power to wipe us out, walking alone behind a multitude of loves. Oh, Dylan Thomas.

2. MOTHER (Bong Joon-ho)

The dramaturgical first half, which morphs into an ingenious suspense-thriller-shocker in the second, has an effect like no other. Maybe it’s the cunning simplicity—the meticulousness of the shots, the careful precision of movement, the way the mother looks out for her son as she cuts the ginseng and cuts her own hand unconsciously, and the way the son drools and loses his patience—that holds water like a sponge, waiting for the right squeeze to be let out, whereas on the other side, unseen to the naked eye and felt only by the naked intuition, the lovely bones are being exhumed—”the lovely bones that had grown around our absence”—leading to a conclusion that mixes the great fire of calendars, acupuncture, tofu cake, Rashomon, and cellphone mysteries; the battle royale of high school life, Lolitas and gamers and nerds and thugs and tramps in one place, lipstick on a golf club and signed golf balls as murder accessories; and the assembly of merry senior citizens dancing on the bus. Memory is as pivotal as the lack of it; and that horror of the mother poisoning her own son and killing herself afterward almost happens, only it didn’t happen, the mother picks the wrong brand and the son, of all memories, remembers that his mother tried to kill him. Like every satisfying story we get in Mother a sense of closure in immortal openness, the intolerable cruelty of the need to end in two hours, the life and death of emotions evenly laid out, and the dance of wakefulness and wakelessness shown in possibly the most wonderful opening and closing sequences of 2009.

1. ANACBANUA (Christopher Gozum)

Over the phone Teddy Co teasingly asks, “If the mainstream gave way to the indie, what will indie give way to?” It will spoil a rather interesting conversation if I say what I think so instead I ask back, “What, sir?” After a slight pause—a grin perhaps?—he tells, “Regional cinema. Regional cinema it is.” As he talks, my mind is elsewhere, trying to count how many films from the regions I have seen so far. Very few. Very, very few. If it weren’t for When Timawa Meets Delgado—Ray Gibraltar’s first feature—and Anacbanua—the first film to be shot in Pangasinan language (not dialect, please)— I wouldn’t be so convinced to promise myself to rally for its propagation, for regional cinema to be considered fairly and seriously particularly here in Manila.

Come to think of it, more than the themes of romance and poverty that city filmmakers are always fond of, regional filmmakers have an edge on the very basic they have, to tell their life and culture unknown to us, their slowly dying language, and their people needing help but instead succumbing to anonymity. With the accessibility of filmmaking, creative minds in the provinces can find a way to commit their thoughts in the celluloid, a belief in which Teddy Co has been a staunch supporter of. According to him it’s better to leave to these people to film their own life than have these city dwellers go there and shoot, resulting sometimes in false interpretation of their culture. A film like Anacbanua—written, produced, and directed by Pangasinense jack-of-all-trades Christopher Gozum, using the poems of Santiago Villafania, Erwin Fernandez, and Melchor Orpilla—is that foolproof testament to regional cinema’s wealth of imagination, of its roads paved with novelty, and of its many undiscovered farms of beauty: indeed a future of almost ceaseless things to offer.

There is greatness that goes without saying; greatness that only gets vaguer when explained, when detailed, when someone comes in its defense; greatness, considering the meaning of the word slowly becoming obsolete, that is liberating, emancipating. For a film like Anacbanua to be made speaks of the times, of the reality that multiplies itself as much as fiction does. In the film, a young poet returns to his roots to have himself healed—to free himself from the angst that he feels, the spiritual sickness that grips him as he dreads the materiality of the mundane. What does he find? What does he not find? What else has changed? What else can change? Gozum films images the way an impressionist painter dabs his brush on his tableau, not only careful to achieve the effect he wants, but also careless to discover an exciting mistake. Cinematographer Joni Gutierrez nails it: the visuals are exhilarating, sensuous and breathtaking to the point of coma.

Remember what the pensive Emmeline Fox says in The Crimson Petal and the White?—I think we’re moving towards such a strange time. A time when all our moral choices will be complicated and compromised by our love of progress—and if she said that in a book taking place in the 1870s, could she also say the same thing now? Now as ever? Try to imagine her saying, centuries since: Love exists; and now it is as painful as death, as slippery as memory, as lonely as a falling leaf. Yet, in Anacbanua, love exists, and it is indeed as painful as death, as slippery as memory, and as lonely as a falling leaf. It has the courage of others and the heart of just one—the dead star’s glimmer before it bids goodbye, before it succumbs to that progress. Pronouncements never really make sense upon reflection, but for the heck of it, hear this: Anacbanua not only completes a year; it crowns a decade.

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Attica! Attica! Top Films of 2009! (Part 5) March 14, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Hollywood, Indie Sine, Noypi, Yearender.
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IntroductionPart 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

20. DISTRICT 9 (Neill Blomkamp)

Liking District 9 means being able to tolerate its racist (read: race related) appropriations. But race is everywhere; and race can never be avoided. It’s like the pavement we walk on everyday—it can’t be helped but be stepped on. While the issue on race is an obligatory discussion, it’s also as worthy to mention how District 9 is able to laugh at itself, to be ridiculous for ridiculous’ sake, to reveal a deeply political motive without succumbing to annoying motherhood dialogues and iffy global concerns. The derogatory way it mocks the media and the world’s multinational operations is pleasing to the point of chuckling at the sight of Sharlto Copley engaging himself in prawn-like activities after being accused of having sex with them. Being derogatory, like race, is everywhere; and Copley, along with the drama of alien eviction and nigger violence, might as well show off the Peter Jackson geekiness he’s known for. Despite lacking originality, District 9 catches up with a lot of scathing action, almost like a Transformers movie without the retinal damage and ear-bleeding explosions (and unfortunately, without Megan Fox too). It’s one hell of a filthy and unapologetic work, but clear-eyed and amusing at that.

19. UP (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

It’s too elementary to call it adventure, but all adventures are elementary anyway; so elementary, my dear friends, is always a good thing. But what counts is the fun, the ride, the thrill, the moments. Who cares about emotional bedrock? That bedrock is never meant to be noticed but it’s there; it makes the film work. Something about Mr. Fredricksen’s character that borrows from an old Spencer Tracy, or the way Pixar has always been brilliant in wordless scenes than in dialogues, that sets it straight from the start. But the cluster balloons—those cluster balloons that were made unforgettable in Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon—they seem to emerge out of a colonial understanding. Or is it the general knowledge of a dream? Or a misunderstanding? And why is the young mind always fascinated by colorful balloons? For Up to use it not only as a bookend device but as an element all throughout—it’s not just a trick but ingenuity.

18. ANG PANGGAGAHASA KAY FE (Alvin Yapan)

I think I said something inappropriate in my review of Fe a couple of months ago, which with the liberty I have now with this list I would like to make up for. Taken out of the Cinemalaya context—and not just because it stands out then—Fe still looks good. Yapan’s literary exposure is swell; but even without knowing so, his film reeks of letters, sublimity, and hidden happenings, without being too pedantic or excessive. In fact, a pulse can be felt as the film exposes its layers one by one, carefully until it reaches the end; a pulse that beats with rhythm and precision, thrusting forward and getting audible in total doppler effect. My memory of it makes me want to see it again.

17. VENGEANCE (Johnnie To)

It confounds me that while “Western” as a film genre is heavily established, there is no such thing as “Eastern” to speak of, the same way that “Western” has recognizable themes and motifs being revived, revised, and parodied year after year, Oscar after Oscar. Considering that theorists are keen on binary oppositions, this oversight (or Orientalism) reveals itself as characteristic of Western writings, often favoring America’s clinical influence and subverting less popular belief to the extent that even a film like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is just deemed a subgenre of American Western.

But at present, come to think of it, is there any active filmmaker in America working primarily on Westerns? Even John Ford and Akira Kurosawa didn’t work primarily on Westerns and Samurais, which just proves how able they really are, but is it an exaggeration to claim that Johnnie To, John Woo, Ringo Lam, and their company deserve an encompassing genre of their own? Aren’t they (oh, I cringe) auteurs who already earned their respective places in cinema?

Which brings this rant to To’s newest film, Vengeance. It is a mishmash of the filmmaker’s usual gimmick of slippery roads, colorful umbrellas, windswept gunslinging, and slow-motion sequences done in his trademark gracefulness, everything understated in an overstating way. Frankly, there’s nothing new about it except that it stars Johnny Hallyday (in a role that’s supposed to be for Alain Delon) and it’s a French-Chinese co-production, so one can easily feel the gravitating feeling of huge sum of money and marketing involved. Nevertheless, it still reveals To’s touch in the film: the humor, the dancing action, and the fray that concludes it. There is still that “devoidness” of much logic that audiences often complain about, and the preference of style to substance which is silly to elaborate on because again: style is substance. Suffice it to say, in Vengeance, To remains Asia’s most prized hipster.

As far as his previous films are concerned, however, Vengeance falls short in tightness. The holes are too big and the logic invites attention. The awkward English dialogues also get in the way, but other than that there’s a lot to appreciate in the film. No matter how deliberate some sequences are—for instance, when the gang assembles guns while eating pasta, or while shooting a bike as it pedals its way across the field, or that funny way they find time to smoke in the middle of firing bullets—To doesn’t lose his marbles; in fact, there’s that awareness that he almost has the same ambition that Kurosawa had while doing his best works, the way his confidence pushes the film to such heights. Vengeance ends in a shootout that is even better than Peckinpah’s famous shootouts: an awesome feast for the senses, the way the gymnastic gunplay of waltzing hay blocks steals the scene, cavorting, the wind capering the “heroic bloodshed” to bits. For a minute, it leaves an impression that  Johnny Hallyday is about to sing, but he didn’t—he really retired from singing. Oh, if he only sang—the vengeance would be infinitely sweeter.

16. WALANG ALAALA ANG MGA PARUPARO (Lav Diaz)

When me and the boys were out / We killed a thousand butterflies / So I put their wings into my mouth and said a prayer for our safe arrival  / And then a big black car crossed our path / And I wondered whether or not that shit was empty – Spencer Krug

Interesting sentiment raised by Dodo Dayao: he gets bored with Lav Diaz’s shorter films. But I will not be coming after that; what I’m after, which Dodo also raised as a concern, is that Diaz’s career as a filmmaker has now been synonymous to the length of his notorious films, that in colloquial language—and I admit to this—his name is being used to connote tediousness. Consider this conversation I overheard:

“Baka naman Lav Diaz ang gusto mong gawin na pelikula.”

“Hindi, itong sequence lang na ‘to ang gagawin kong Lav Diaz.”

“Siguraduhin mong hindi La Diaz ‘tong project na ‘to a. Ayoko nang may uuwing humihikab.”

But length also means dedication. Length means sacrifice. Length describes obsessive-compulsiveness. Length defines compromise. And length should not determine an audience (though in Diaz’s case I’m afraid it does). But would it have been different if the audience were not informed of the film’s running time? If they are unprepared? If they get engrossed in the film unmindful of time? Isn’t that what makes a film an experience, because of something that leaps out of the usual? Like Children of Paradise? Or Mirror? Or Seven Samurai?

Walang Alaala ang mga Paruparo doesn’t feel any less like a footnote, but along with other Diaz’s films since his debut, it feels complete, aches complete, and yearns complete. I am not ashamed to admit that it took Lav Diaz’s films for me to realize that cinema is different from literature, and that neither is mightier than the other. This one’s only an hour long so I’m sure you can not only find time; you can also make time to see it.

►► Next: Some {Random} Intermission

Isang Panayam kay Ray Gibraltar January 4, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Interview, Noypi.
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Kagagaling lang ni Ray Gibraltar sa isang shoot ng AVP para sa kaarawan ng isang dating senadora bago niya paunlakan ang panayam na ito.  Small-time lang daw, habang naghahanap siya ng trabaho sa paglagi niya rito sa Maynila. Tubong Iloilo si Ray—nagtapos ng kursong Philosophy sa University of Saint La Salle sa Bacolod at naging seminarista sa loob ng pitong taon—at doon nagsimulang magkainteres sa paggawa ng pelikula, hanggang sa mapadpad ang ilan sa mga ito sa Lungsod.

Unang nakilala si Ray sa pelikulang When Timawa Meets Delgado noong 2007, at kamakailan lang ay nasungkit niya ang pinakamataas na parangal sa Cinema One Originals para sa pelikulang Wanted: Border. Natapos din niya ang Syokoy, isang documentary tungkol sa Guimaras oil spill, sa tulong ng manunulat na si J.I.E. Teodoro at kapwa-filmmaker na si Oscar Nava; at ang Joy To The World, ang Prosesyon, na ipinalabas noong 2008 sa Cinemanila. Layon ng panayam na higit pang makilala ang filmmaker, partikular na ang pagtalakay sa pinakahuli niyang pelikulang Wanted: Border. Ang usapang isang oras na panayam ay umabot ng tatlo. Heto’t tunghayan.

Ipagpatuloy ang pagbasa >>

Noah Lennox, the Actor, in Three Short Films January 1, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Indie Sine, Music, Short Cuts.
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So I’m planning to grace the new year with love; and that love is Noah Lennox.

Noah, more known musically as Panda Bear, is a member of Animal Collective. He writes songs for the group, sings, drums, dubsteps, provides and mixes samples, and god knows what other things. He’s attracted to skateboarding (thus the video for “Comfy in Nautica”) and though he admits not being good at it, he is an aficionado. He relates his love for skateboarding to music, saying, “It’s often pretty brutal but I think it’s really the going for it and going for it in your own way with your own style that I find so attractive. The going for it and the trying to make impossible magic is what I’d always like to be aiming for with music even though that sounds out there.”

The stereotype that skateboarders are mostly rebellious—generally into hip-hop, hard rock, and reggae—when interspersed with Noah’s image and music, not to mention the type of trippy music his band plays, strikes me as bizarre. But in a good way, of course. Somehow I get the idea of his trying to point out similarities between professional skateboarders and professional musicians, which is not a bad comparison at all, but when I discovered three of his short films of which he stars as the lead actor, well, well, well, I see that nature has endowed him pretty much with sterling abilities. Writes well, sings well, acts well—well! that’s cinema, music, and literature all in one man.

Noah made the films while he was attending college in Boston University, and in all three he portrays the dweeb—the lanky, wimpy, introvert, and seemingly attractive but without-the-thick-glasses geek who tries to reach out and go out of his comfort zone. With the pretty face, perfect teeth, disorderly hair, and being “such a pioneer in the way he dresses,” twenty-something Noah seems very comfortable in his roles. The man, as I read his interviews, is as terrific as his music, not to mention incredibly modest. And though this entry is initially intended for fun, I couldn’t help but take the fun seriously.

Fish Sticks │ Directed by Andrew Drazek │ 4:47 mins │ 1999

“Fish Sticks” was shot in 1999 using a Bolex camera. This was back when these cameras are to-die-for among film students. I was once a student myself, and the Bolex is actually a dream camera for all of us; it is old and bulky but still revered for the quality it produces, well, if luck is with us and it does not flip out. There is something about the painstaking process of shooting in 16mm—about being too careful and too excited—that makes it memorable. Not to mention the tension of waiting for the print, if the shots came out as planned, or if anything came out at all.

“Fish Sticks” captures that feeling; and it sort of reminds me of those days in film school, thus the pensive introduction. It is a student film like any other; it features beautiful black and white photography, use of exterior locations, and unavoidable reference to old films. The running time is short—I imagine it didn’t go as planned—and the story is simple but the filmmaker tries to put a lot of things to intertextualize, i.e. with the books, the posters and the photos in the background, and the various details inside the room. I like the effort to shoot outside—again, as I observe, every film student goes through that happy Nouvelle Vague phase, which I am also guilty of—and they are done quite decently, rather evocative I must say, like the opening shot of a pair of shoes in the water. The ending is a shoutout to 400 Blows—the sea as the background—without the much-copied freeze frame but with the same beautiful boy looking at the camera.

The boy is named Gil (pronounced as gill), a fish hobbyist, who “admires fish. . . like a teenage girl who is obsessed with Jerry Lee Lewis.” He has 216 books on fish and sometimes spends his whole day in the aquarium. At night he gets some nightmares about fish getting caught and fried, and he wakes up disturbed. Near the end, Gil laments, “I have yet to find anyone who shares my interest in fish, let alone in me.” Oh, Noah.

Gil is a little like the narrator in Julio Cortazar’s story “Axolotl,” in which the narrator turns into an axolotl after visiting the animal several times in the aquarium. The narrator, as he looks in the eyes of the axolotl, later on believes that his eyes become theirs’, “watching what used to be his face on the other side of the glass.” Gil somehow feels that way toward fish, seeking communication, identifying with how they feel, loving them like they are him. His friendlessness allows him to find another form of friends, diverting to them his comradeship, devoting to them his time and love. Hence, selfless companionship is developed, something that people around him are incapable to deliver.

Clocking at near five minutes, “Fish Sticks” is quite a nostalgic work, beautiful at times, and has moments of sheer visual goodness, like the sincere homage in the end. It also features one of Noah’s songs in his first album, “A Filmmaker and a Musician”.

Appy Halloween │ Directed by Theodore William Beck │ 9:22 mins

In “Appy Halloween” Noah plays this teenager who speaks of George Washington, obsessing the President, telling a lot of things about him. He dons this George Washington outfit, wig, and sword; and stands beside a misspelled Happy Halloween greeting where he shapes his hands and fingers to form the missing letter H. No one seems to be around. The elevator doesn’t work. He tries to open the doors of his neighbors in the apartment, barging into them but every one of them is locked. He runs and makes some effort to be noticed. But nothing happens. He cries in a corner. Then a masked man appears who gives him the missing H. Noah replaces it in the greeting, the happy music plays, and when he presses the elevator button, it opens. The end.

I don’t really dig it that much, but “Appy Halloween,” like the two other films, is about Noah the loner, the geek in school who secludes himself most of the time but tries his best to socialize. He is at the dining table by himself; and his parents seem to be faraway. Halloween is no occasion to be alone, of course, but here we see him talking to himself, wearing “uncool” clothes, looking like a wimp crying in one corner. The masked man emphasizes this even more—though he is not a companion—as he offers him the missing piece to complete the night. Noah is rather helpless, bored with his loneliness. I figure he is going out to meet some friends, a costume party perhaps, and he’s off to have some fun.

By the way, if you’re a trivia-killa, there’s a short but special participation of “Did You See The Words” somewhere in the middle. Look for it.

Fecal Matters │  Directed by Andrew Drazek │ 9:47 mins │ 1999

This is probably the most obnoxious among the three short works but definitely the most fun that a film starring Noah Lennox can get. Here, Noah plays Bobby, an introvert who hatches a plan to attend the party of the school’s most popular guy, Rhett, who bullies him and beats the shit out of him. His only friend Lance, who is in the wheelchair, talks him out of it, but Bobby is pushing the plan for three reasons: “(1) to spite the man he hates, (2) to impress the woman he loves, and (3) to fulfill the dream that has been far too long coming.”

Seems like every geek’s masterplan to get back at the great tormentor, but what Bobby did was far more brilliant when seen than imagined. He literally eats his own shit in front of Rhett and his friends. He chews it like the most delicious meal in the world—like the food that will deliver all his lost dignity back—and licks around his lips to his audience’s delight. Everyone claps and accepts him. They hug him and talk to him, unlike before. Rhett even kisses him in the forehead and says he’s now part of his “firm”. The girls also start to approach him. Only when he did that act that he feels the sense of belongingness which he has always longed for and which in no way he regrets. To top it off, he gets a tender kiss from a girl after eating his shit—with all the bits around his lips and teeth—to the tune of Sixpence None the Richer’s ultimate song. In the film, literal seems to be the overlying motif.

I must admit I dig this shit. It’s a hoot! Come on, student films should be like this! Not the corny, boring, and serious stuff we often see. “Fecal Matters” delights mostly because of Noah’s portrayal of Bobby. He plays the character like a pro, a true natural. He is naïve but not irritating, which is cool especially when his quirks are shown. He is funny, interesting, weird, and disgusting. It is hard to imagine how far it is from Noah’s own personality, considering the music he had been doing during those days—Panda Bear released his first album in 1998—which were put to good use in some of his colleagues’ films. His embodiment of the geek—the one who finds comfort in his own room alone, “a boy of few talents, unpopularity being the only thing he excelled at,” “socially inadequate and immature,” among other things—is charming, nonetheless. Somehow this effortless act makes it all the more appealing; and makes the idea of “eating one’s shit to fit into a group” resounding in the context of high school-type of relationships. When Lance asks him, “But how is eating your own shit gonna make them think any better of you?” it is a plain and simple rhetorical high school question. Nothing can really talk a geek out of doing something he dreams up for a long time.

Then there go those funny scenes—the Dave Matthews song playing in the party, the bathroom scene when he dons a “woo-girl” attitude, the title itself, the sight of Vincent Larusso that reminds every young heart of Mighty Ducks, and I can’t put too fine a point on it, Noah dancing. (Yes, just “Noah dancing”; on second thought, why is Noah not dancing in Animal Collective’s live shows with that talent?)

He mentions in an interview, ““I’m a huge fan of all forms of dance music and I really like going to clubs and being around people dancing. I like that energy, and I really get psyched about large groups of people all kind of agreeing to just move around together.” Noah was doing Person Pitch that time, which sort of made sense, come to think of it, because the album has the groove of a dance album in it. Going back, the scenes I mentioned above are too cool to be left unsaid; and for nine minutes there is that side of Noah that we are unaware of, which we see at full throttle in “Fecal Matters”.

These three films side by side with Noah’s three albums are such pleasure to dive into. Starting the year with these seems the geekiest I can get to welcome the good tidings to come. So with all the happiness and luck to share, God bless us every one! And that’s me being Tiny Tim, finally being allowed to greet. Happy New Year.

P.S.

Noah now resides in Lisbon, Portugal with his wife, fashion designer Fernanda Pereira, and daughter Nadja. His followup to 2007’s Person Pitch is in the works, which is “something totally different”. Meanwhile, the Animal Collective film called ODDSAC will have its premiere in the Sundance Film Festival this month. It’s been four years in the making, with the band doing all the musical stuff and Danny Perez finalizing the visual neccesities. Something really good to look forward to.

Some good reads:

Panda Bear talks new solo albums, “super dark” films, and living in Portugal. Pedestrian.TV. November 23, 2009

Good Times, Other Realities: A Conversation with Panda Bear. PopMatters. March 26, 2007. Interview by Jennifer Kelly.

Wanted: Border (Ray Gibraltar, 2009) December 15, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Ray Gibraltar
Cast: Rosanna Roces, Publio Briones, Sunshine Teodoro, AJ Aurello

*

It can be called death by synopsis.

 

When someone wants to watch a movie but knows nothing about the screenings, synopses come to the rescue. That’s a requisite among Cineplex owners. Yet conversely, even if the moviegoer knows which movie to watch, he still reads the synopsis just to convince himself that spending on such film is right. Synopses, as far as utility is concerned, are tangible proofs that at least a story exists in the film. Even if a linear story is not present, at least, a paragraph’s worth is still said about the film. It will not be blank screen and white noise that’s waiting inside the theater, the audience is assured.

 

I bet even the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter, was accompanied by synopsis when it was first shown in the pre-nickelodeon days. I have no proof, of course, but I imagine the note that went along with the prints of the film in distribution—a note that mentions that the shot of the bandit firing the gun toward the camera could be put either at the beginning or at the end in the film—is already some form of synopsis, of putting into words expectations about the film.

 

A common synopsis introduces the film; it tells what happens in the story; and it ends openly, trying with seductive phrases to pull the audience in to pay for the ticket. Succinctly, it puts the film into perspective. Imagine how these few words can anticipate things for the audience; how they can determine expectations through mere description, or through looking at the photo that goes along with the summary; how they can make or break the film. Death by synopsis happens when this synopsis overtakes the film so much it kills it.

 

I am sure that the people who saw Wanted: Border read and re-read the synopsis before and after watching the film, and felt a certain disconnect between the description and the film itself, as if the words were not able to validate what they saw inside the theater. Not because the synopsis is not accurate, or it is for a different film, but because it explains and tells explicitly which is which, particularly Saleng’s background, the name of the agent she had a relationship with, and even how she feels about killing her boarders. Again, it is not a matter of accuracy—truth be told, why should I give a damn about synopses?—but a virtue of fairness, of providing the film what it deserves, of not ruining it.

 

That certain disconnect is mainly dependent on tone; and it happens because both camps are narrating in a completely opposite manner: the film is thoroughly suggestive, whereas the synopsis is downright explanatory (which, in all fairness to the art of writing synopses itself, is how it should be). While I doubt that Gibraltar himself wrote the synopsis of his film, I don’t also refuse to consider that he did. I think good writers are capable of writing in exactly opposite tones, and most of them are unaware of this ability until they do it and ask other people what they think. Though writing a screenplay is a much daunting task as opposed to writing a synopsis—my god, of course—I can’t see how impossible it is to summarize the film and write it the same way how the film is actually told.

But by all means I can hear you nagging at me! You’re rebuking this whole idea of mine on the nose! Marketing experience dictates that synopses should be clear enough for people to watch the film. I know that, and I have to give in, plain and simple. So much for five long paragraphs of not discussing Wanted: Border, I thank you if you are reading until here. I wish, even if I sound like nitpicking, I could help lessen the crimes of death by synopsis, especially on films like Wanted: Border, which really calls for every police in town, from the first image down to the last.

*

Inevitable is the mention of death. The film, after all, captures that somber mood of deathly living, that utter feeling of wallowing in morbidness. Though the characters are quite oblivious of it, or have managed to consider it a fact of life, the darkness emanates from every corner of the film, sustained in hopeful closure till the end.

Non-linear is a tricky structure, and the misguided viewer may find it disappointing especially if the director is too busy on his embellishments to trick the audience. But Gibraltar isn’t up for deception—it’s the way he is: telling the story in fragments, jumping from one plot to another, and letting the audience pick and connect the pieces all together. Not that he needs to prove anything, but since I managed to see When Timawa Meets Delgado and felt amused by such experiment, I think I could give him the permission to ruin me.

Indeed, Wanted: Border has reduced me to ruins, and even up to now I still believe that writing about it wouldn’t be enough to put into words what it is able to deliver.

It’s like a dream of a ridiculous man—say, like that Dostoyevsky’s story—Gibraltar, the ridiculous dreamer, and Saleng and her past and her present all but a dream. The dream is told in fragments, illogical yet teeming with its own logic. They work on their own; and they justify their own irrationality. We see Saleng and her boarding house/eatery and the various characters that surround her—who are not necessarily around her but seemingly just around her, Gibraltar wanting us to wait before this question about their relationship is revealed—the fat girl, the drug-dependent filmmaker, and the household of a lustful stepfather, subservient wife, and young college student. How they connect we are advised, but why they connect it’s up to us to interpret. There is that single physical event that connects them—a conclusion looming to satisfy our need for the tangible—but even that is close to dreamlike, closer to Gibraltar’s rejection of standard storytelling.

The structure of the film is similar to how we remember our dreams, mixing the past and present, the events caught up in its inconsistent timeline. They evoke a certain familiarity that is also distant and emotionally charged. While our personal dreams are often vague and subtle—never assuring us of continuation and certainty—Gibraltar’s film ends the dream, metaphorically, through a suggestion of those two. It never promises to resume, to go back, and to go further—it stops there as a dream, but it goes on to assume another form, that is to manifest in our unconsciousness. From that infection, so to speak, Gibraltar wants to reach our consciousness to facilitate an action.

Last year’s Yanggaw, which deals with the circumstances following the discovery of a family that one of its kin is a monster, goes farther on examining the nature of our beliefs on aswang. While the film earns its right to be dramatic, it stands out amid its predecessors for taking the concept of our folklore seriously and profoundly, breathing another life to the genre that has long been killed by unskillful hands. The aswang in Yanggaw is the aswang we met when we were young, when we listened to the stories of our elders, when we conjured their images in our minds, and when we gripped tightly on our pillows while listening to “Gabi ng Lagim”—whereas the aswang in Wanted: Border is the aswang we meet when we mature, when we start to get to know the people around us, and when we see ourselves in dog-eat-dog situations like they’re a way of life. It goes without saying that we are never new to the concept of aswang in the first place.

Somes’ film engages us through our basic knowledge of how an aswang looks, and the horror upon seeing it. It has managed to do so by creating an atmosphere of remoteness, of shock that is about to leap out of the screen anytime, of fear that gets into one’s mind and refuses to get out. Gibraltar’s film, on the other hand, uses the familiarity of his setting, the commonness of day-to-day life, to reveal a picture of bestiality, of actions we accomplish to satisfy our pleasures, and of crimes we commit to our society’s idea of morality. That this horror can happen any day, at any given time, and in any given place, is more terrifying than the moment these creatures—manananggal, tikbalang, duwende, mangkukulam, among other things—become visible in our eyes. The monster in Wanted: Border is ourselves; that can’t be disproved.

But there goes an argument: can a monster see itself as a monster? Can a monster justify its actions by telling that it needs to do these things to survive? With these two films, I am beginning to have this strange feeling, after all the misfortunes we’ve had in the last few years, that our rich folklore is really getting back at us.

Our borders are not geographical; as a group of islands, it is always safe to assume that the line that separates our people is physical space and nothing else, checkpoints, toll gates, water, airports, inability to travel. But in essence our borders are almost always moral, dictated by our beliefs, motivated by our ids. Violence happens when one of these borders is crossed—when one resorts to killing to live, when one decides to rape to fulfill carnal wishes, when one uses drugs to escape, when one eats to survive. The most terrible thing is that we all have our reasons, as philosopher Renoir once said, and we stand by them for convenience’s sake. That’s why we admit defeat, that’s why we believe that further struggle or effort is useless, that’s why we’re crazy. We all need to raise hell. And we are all defeatists in our own way.

It is easy to call Wanted: Border a violent film—a work that indulges in drugs, sex, and killing—but in all its severe observation on the extent of our capability to inflict harm on ourselves and other people, sometimes as violently as possible, it is driven by a pacifist motive, that individuals do possess the great ability to abstain from it, that violence, more often than not, is a work of man and not of circumstances. The parting shot says it all: the great impossible can always be done. But I remember myself saying after that shot, We are surrounded by fences! We are surrounded by death! We are surrounded by tragedies! How should we be able to get past those, for real?

One thing must be said, though: one should never forget these tragedies; otherwise they will all happen again. Like yesterday. Like the massacre.

Himpapawid (Raymond Red, 2009) November 24, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Essay, Festival, Indie Sine, Literature, Noypi.
11 comments

The Force

English Title: Manila Skies
Written and directed by Raymond Red
Cast: Raul Arellano, John Arcilla, Sue Prado, Soliman Cruz

Shortly after winning the Palme d’Or, Raymond Red heard the news of a hijack. The passengers of Philippine Airlines Flight 812, on their way to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from Davao, were stranded after a desperate man declared a hold-up. Holding a gun and a grenade, he asked for their valuables and kept them inside a bag. He ordered the pilot to descend six thousand feet above ground, went to the rear door, and jumped. He wore a ski mask and swimming goggles, in case of landing on water, and suited himself with a homemade parachute.

That was on May 25, 2000. His body was found three days later.

Our few relevant filmmakers know this: if there is a place where one can find the most important stories to film, they are on the papers. Read and everything is already there. The characters, the plot, the resolution. On his part, Red has a strong grasp of his inspiration, only he uses it to address a common problem, a problem so common it is easily ignored. He works on the same premise but makes his intentions clear: to put emphasis on the social perspective, and to make this premise relate without needing so much details. Not only he achieves credibility in terms of ambition, but he also delivers the image of poverty that we have long been wanting to represent us, fair and square.

Should we remember a meaningful statement released after the PAL hijack, these words from Rep. Roilo Golez could be handy:

I can’t understand why an armed hijacker would risk his life only for a hold-up. Possibly his main goal, besides robbing, is to deeply embarrass the government.

Considering the political climate that time, particularly the series of bombings in the city and the unending tension between the military and rebels in Mindanao, the incident could only be interpreted as politically-motivated, even if it sounds slightly uncaring to the hijacker himself, or more important than what provoked him to such limits. Red, however, wants to pursue the man, know him, get in touch with him, and identify with him. Red makes another story—a narrative less concerned about marital problems and dreams of skydiving—but he gives his character the same conclusion. After all, in light of our condition right now, there could possibly be more reasons to jump off a plane with a parachute with no ripcord than otherwise. It just takes an awful effort.

But an awful effort it is—Himpapawid.

Hunger and misery go hand in hand, and often it is hunger that delivers someone to misery. The way Red shapes the character of the hijacker, hunger is numbed implicitly—or maybe hunger is something we don’t notice anymore, and can only be shown through the symbolism of rats and cockroach crawling unnoticeably—and misery is shown otherwise. What could have led him to hijack a plane, amid the little chance of accomplishment, points to a single cause, something that could only be deduced from the simple truth—that we are poor, that we have a history of poorness, and that we have a strong culture of poverty. Only we feel it more than we see it in the film. Himpapawid isn’t keen on persuading, but it is persuasive enough to attribute the hijacker’s actions to our diminishing regard for social responsibility. We cannot ignore the changing economy yet we try our best to do so; we find ways to make a living and think of the future; we reflect on our steps to get there, while the reasons why we strive—mainly our growing families—are still there, remaining, staying, depending on us.

Red may be talking about the same social cancer that Rizal, through Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, made clear more than a century ago, only in Himpapawid we have a hopeless protagonist to follow, his circumstances closer to recognition, and his fate already known to us. One arguable similarity though: Red unfolds his story like a novel, pacing it through a series of carefully structured rising action, involving supporting characters to further define the main character, apparently to allow his situation to be seen as critical, placing a clever plant and payoff device to render his argument intensely, and, in the writer’s command of words, making all the effort deliver a view of how things had been, and how things are going to be.

Himpapawid may well be the literary highlight of the year, but it is also its filmmaker’s return to the language that has nurtured him most. During those nine years between Anino and Himpapawid, the situations have clearly not changed for the better. We’re still like hamsters running persistently in wheels—running in one place and time, running till we lose the will to run—only in our case, we are running a life that doesn’t do us any good as time goes by.

*

Generations (The Young)

Generations (The Old)

More than forty years since its first publication, Mga Agos sa Disyerto remains a resounding piece of literature. The twenty-five stories that compose the collection—five shorts from Efren Abueg, Dominador Mirasol, Rogelio Ordoñez, Edgardo Reyes, and Rogelio Sicat—deliver a strong command of both language and subject that one can easily smell and taste their settings. The subjects are broad; the descriptions varied; the stories bleed fire and filth; and the characters.are so familiar they seem to walk right past the reader. There is more to poverty than being poor, the book is explicit in telling, and more to depression than not having a place to live and food to eat. Poorness is described the same way they are felt. The pressing depiction of the characters’ lives and their struggle to make out with the little things they have, as they face every day with an empty stomach, leaves its mark on succeeding generations of writers and readers, quickly establishing the book as a canon of short fiction.

Every story in the collection flows from the stream of social realities; each seems to emanate from a small opening of light that lets every observation cut deeply; yet it is in this little opportunity where hope springs forward—hope not only for Philippine literature but also for its inspiration, the poor society that continues to be poor, and the cruel situations that remain more and more cruel. But the writers are less concerned about solutions than problems—problems which cannot be ignored once one goes outside and observes. In these stories hope exists but it doesn’t come in the most appropriate time. Dire situations, however, give way to realities that can only come in such circumstances, a view of life that, for instance, can only be apparent to Ida and Emy in “Di Maabot ng Kawalang-Malay,” or to Impen after brawling with Ogor in “Impeng Negro.”

Included in the anthology is Sicat’s “Tata Selo,” a story that is widely read because it is required reading among high school students. Its language strikes the students first. Words like “istaked, “kahangga,” “gris,” and “nakiling” are new to their ears, or too old to be recognized that even their parents are not familiar with them. The clause “Kinadyot ng hepe si Tata Selo sa sikmura,” may elicit laughter, as the word “kadyot” is mostly used now to suggest sexual action. The names of the characters are also uncommon; “Tata” and “Kabesa” are rarely used in the city at present; and people now are more comfortable to say “Meyor” than “Alkalde.”  This being a suggestion of difference in locality, one cannot discount the fact that the story endures because of its subject. Effort, then, is expected from the teachers to explain to the students not just the meaning of difficult words and its plot structure; but more importantly the author’s manner of description and characteristic language, the context and subtexts of the milieu, and how they still relate today.

Right at the very start it is clear that the tragedy of Tata Selo is his killing of the landowner who forces him to leave his farm. But his greater tragedy—if there is such comparative way of looking at it—is not being able to fight for his reason. The crime undresses him of respect, fair treatment, and humanity; and that crime is a cruel equalizer. In the eyes of the people who look at him in detention, he is an old man—and they pity him. In the eyes of the police and the mayor, he should not have killed his lord—and they also pity him. It is in Sicat’s absolute sensitive control that Tata Selo comes to life as a powerful representation of poverty—both of body and spirit—that is borne out of greed and injustice. The feeling of helplessness is incredibly felt; the thought that the poor will only become poorer looms, and the truth that the rich won’t give a damn about them becomes stronger.

Atrofia, Joey Velasco, 2005, Oil on canvas

One could imagine Tata Selo as he looks outside his cell and the people look at him back—only the old man isn’t aware of them, isn’t aware of their look of pity, isn’t aware of anything at all—and one of those eyes knows he’ll die soon, hungry and bruised. Sicat breathes life not only to Tata Selo but also to countless farmers and laborers who live in deprivation, them who are abused even more because of their situation, them who have to work hard and get less in return without complaining. This value for humanism that Sicat punctuates in his story—a humanism based on character and dignity—also predominates in Raymond Red’s Himpapawid.

Raul and Tata Selo suffer from similar fate—only in different situations and different company of people. Like in “Tata Selo,” age isn’t a virtue to be proud of in Himpapawid; in fact, the older a person gets, the less likely he is to settle down comfortably. The older he gets, the harder the situations can be. And the older he gets, the bleaker his future is. Getting enough food to eat for every day becomes a luxury. A good work is hard to find; and once work is found, keeping it is even harder. In the film Raul asks permission from his boss to leave work in the morning because he plans to complete his papers for his job application abroad. His boss refuses, despite Raul’s plea and display of desperation, at his wits’ end just to convince him say yes. His boss agrees, only he’ll lose his job—and Raul, alone in his dismay and hopelessness, goes home, jobless.

His conversation with his boss is the first instance of seeing him on edge. His anger is understandable; but his steadfast demeanor, revealed in his tone and manner of reasoning, is, for lack of a better word, bizarre. Certainly, the boss wouldn’t go out on a limb to yield to his request. Like he says, people line up every day just to get Raul’s job—a job that demands no rest day, no valid excuse for absence. Raul is just another worker that can be easily replaced. The boss reasons out to his plea like the decision isn’t coming from him. There is a sense of detachment; a feeling of higher control. The order needs to be observed, or else the other workers will follow suit and the whole business will fail. Raul loses his job because he isn’t privileged to have a better work environment, the same way Tata Selo is socked by the police while in jail because he is an old man who killed a powerful person in the community. Their reasons are irrelevant.

Important is the reaction of other people to Raul’s character. The boss maintains his cool as he talks to him, though he almost loses it if he hasn’t been busy. An emotional turning point, however, is seen when Raul goes to the agency to finish his papers. The day, unlike any other day, is a succession of mishaps. He loses his coins in the sewer; he is riled by a dismissive customer in the photocopying shop; he steps on a poop. In the agency he flares up when the clerk tells him that his requirements aren’t right, thus his application cannot be processed. He goes in a shouting spree, denouncing the applicants who will themselves to condescend just to get work, scaring them. He tears up his papers and throws them away. He curses the system; he curses the plight of the unfortunate. He tells the truth, but in the eyes of these people, he is a madman. He is a threat to their dreams of greener pastures. But in the eyes of the audience, is he really acting strange?

It is easy to see where Raul is coming from. He stays in a dirty house, an apartment whose rent he hasn’t paid for months. His father is ill in the province and he cannot go there to visit him. He just lost his job. He tries to apply for a work abroad only to find out that his papers are incomplete. He is hopeless; he would lick any dust of hope that comes along his way. In the company of his beer friends, though, he finds it. And in their group he isn’t different; he isn’t bizarre; he isn’t tense. The long talk in front of the store best describes the “Filipino inuman,” humorous, tacky, and honest. The audience becomes a listener to truthful rants and a witness to a crime that will yield grave misfortune. The group welcomes him. He becomes part of their plan. He agrees to help the heist.

Beer is salvation

Raul isn’t at the center of the plan but it is through his participation that the film is able to convey its strongest point. The life of the poor is like dominoes falling in longer intervals, but the effect and outcome are still the same: the fall of everything. However difficult the situations are, there is still one that will come after another, an action that will trigger another situation to happen.

Everything topples onto another until there is nothing left to fall onto, until the end of everything, until death. And Raul, in the middle of everything, refuses to be defeated by circumstances and loses himself—his sanity letting go and completely leaving him on his own—hungry and bruised, choosing death by deadening. He jumps with the parachute of workers—of strikers who fight for fair treatment—and that isn’t enough. He dies beside their protests, beside the wails of empty stomachs, beside the clamor for little food, beside the cries of the young, beside the dead cause. He lies on the mud with his feet up, still trying to stand.

The fate of the poor is living and dying all the same. Like Tata Selo, Raul could only repeat his words and no one will ever care to listen.

*

Halfway through the sequence inside the plane, before the hijack happens, Teddy Co points at the two flight attendants. “Look at that,” he says in the vernacular. “Look at that. Raymond is telling us that women now have become workers and men have become bummers. Good-for-nothing. Useless.”

The observation is spot-on, so truthful it hurts. The reversal of the set-up is not anymore unusual, though; male chauvinism, at least in the Filipino household, has become lax and impractical. A family that stays together starves together; that’s an acceptable principle. Pride breeds hunger; and that pride is something that Filipinos have learned to set aside and reconsider. If the husband is out of work and the wife takes care of financial support, the former is expected to take over her duties. In some cases, however, such swallowing of pride on the husband’s part harbors guilt, laziness, and misery.

Tom and Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford, 1940

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath sets a formidable example. At first, it has the impression of patriarchal solidarity—there’s Tom, Pa, Grandpa, Al, Connie, Noah, Uncle John, and Casy active in making important decisions. But when the family moves out of Oklahoma to find work in California, the said impression of fraternity slowly crumbles and each of these men has shown great weakness that leaves the family down-and-out. Ma, her mind clear and her voice stern and assured, now gives the orders and makes sure they are followed. She pulls the family together; when a member of the family dies, leaves, or gets killed, she is there, thinking, knowing what needs to be done, and doing what needs to be done after. She shows her strength to her husband, telling him in his face that gone were the times when he rules the family and when his decisions matter, especially now that he cannot give the family anything to eat. From pillar to post, she never gives up; she has elected herself to the position of not only being the head of the family, but its light—its direction.

Ma talks with a lot of weight but never inconsiderately. She talks coming from her experience and observations, knowing she has gone through enough hardships to grant her the privilege of shedding enlightenment, of telling what she thinks is unavoidable about their plight. Her words sum up the truth of their condition:

I’m learnin’ one thing good. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need — go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.

Only ones. That will help. Poor people.

Strikingly, Himpapawid also makes the league of extra-unlucky gentlemen prominent. The men dominate the narrative, that aside from Raul there are also characters that the story takes time to explore, namely his beer friends and the father and son in the province. On the other hand, there is a particular woman that stands out, not just because she is the only woman in the crowd of men but because she appears in three personas, Red making sure not to tell whether or not they are the same person.

The suspiciously promiscuous woman, the clerk, and the stewardess—Sue Prado plays them with the required ambiguity to further emphasize the mental torment of Raul. Red may have the intention of keeping her characters worthy of probe, especially in relation to Raul’s resolve to hijack a plane, as each of them figures in his moments of utter defeat (first, when he got fired; next, when his application papers weren’t accepted; and last, when he was about to hijack the plane). The woman is primarily seen as the object of his sexual desire—may it be her image specifically or just her as the lone woman in the desert of unfortunate men the viewer is not really advised—but unlike Ma in The Grapes of Wrath, she does not help Raul in the course of the story. The only time she helps him is when she pushes him out of the plane door to his death. Instinctively, that is the culmination of her purpose: bringing him to his grand finality.

A teaser for the film, slated for release in February 2010

Should one think of Filipino novels in a similar vein, Edgardo Reyes’ Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Norman Wilwayco’s Mondomanila: Kung Paano Ko Inayos Ang Buhok Ko Matapos Ang Mahaba-haba Ring Paglalakbay come to mind. The former is adapted into film by Lino Brocka in 1975; and the latter is being helmed by Khavn dela Cruz and is set to release next year. Considering that local cinema and literature don’t have a wealthy tradition of working together, there is no question why both novels are picked up for the big screen. Both have strongly defined main characters—Julio Madiaga and Tony de Guzman—who are molded by their experiences in the city, changed by their ill fates, and scarred by their bloody encounters. Allowing these men to represent the proletariat, Reyes and Wilwayco have made their characters distinctly alive that the reader starts to smell them and feel the sweat dripping on their foreheads as they run for their life.

The characterization of the city is by all means integral to the writers’ social criticism, which in closer inspection goes deep into their personal background. Both Reyes and WIlwayco are sons of the streets, children of grief, and drunkards who know the way of the world better than the aristocrat. Reyes, with his understated and careful force of description—always putting importance on precision and truthfulness—is a deserving inspiration to Wilwayco’s savage control of language, whose style has always matched the filthiness and putridness that pervade his stories. They have come to regard the city as a character on its own, defining their human characters, and not allowing them to escape the truth of their condition. They offer no world of beauty, no make-believe world of happily-ever-after—because in reality no paradise can exist in a city that was built in hell. Their city has pushed the animal out of Julio and Tony; and like Raul in Himpapawid, the beast is a creature that evolves grimly and hopelessly.

Julio Madiaga, Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Lino Brocka, 1975

Raul, Himpapawid, Raymond Red, 2009

Are they looking at the same person?

In Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Mondomanila, the clear conflict is man against society. Julio and Tony struggle to survive; they struggle to achieve their goal—Julio to finally be with Ligaya, and Tony to live a comfortable life out of the slums; and both struggle alongside their need to fill their stomachs with food. Himpapawid follows the same theme; scene after scene, layers pile up to reach the peak of Raul’s desperation. His primary need to go home in the province to visit his ill father blows up when he loses his job and gets involved in a failed heist. In a streak of luck (or unbelievable negligence), he is able to sneak his gun and grenade into the airport. He decides to hijack the plane, collect all the passengers’ valuable possessions and jump off with a homemade parachute. He hasn’t expected his death, for sure; he has overlooked it. Despair has numbed his mental state; he has lost his mind, though not fully. His logic is intact; only his plan isn’t. His distress has robbed him of the right frame of mind, proving the truth of his words, “Bato na ang utak ko!”

Red has gone literary without sacrificing the language of film. His literary devices—the flashback inside Sir Fernando’s office, the tripleganger character, and that particular scene when Raul has slept inside the taxi instead of looking out for his cohort—are woven seamlessly with the storytelling, allowing the images and sound to stand out without too much emphasis. The viewer gets to feel poverty without seeing similar images in the community—unlike, for instance, in Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador or Lino Brocka’s Insiang where the image of the community strongly appears and reappears in the narrative; instead, the emotional equivalent of these images is given: the behavior of Raul, the inebriated Lav Diaz mouthing “Wasak,” the interview of Pen Medina on television, the news clip of hostage-taking, and the numerous close-ups of Raul’s face, dripping with sweat. There is no particular place where Raul belongs—not the slums, not the workplace, not the store—except the streets. Red shoots Raul walking like he has walked these streets all his life, like he was born in them, grown in them, and slept in them every night. The pavement is his home, his last and only place in the city.

Like a flying vulture, Raul is always looking for something; but essentially, he is looking at something. He looks down at his feet; he looks up to see the plane approaching; he looks at his boss with contempt; he looks back; he looks at his side as he eats his crackers and drinks his softdrink; he looks daggers at the passengers of the plane, looking at them as if looking at himself, again, contemptuously. More than anything aesthetic, there is a reason why Red keeps angling towards the sky, from the audience’s point of view to Raul’s. Compassion—Red wants the audience to feel that—but really, is compassion enough? Will compassion help Raul ease his suffering? Will it alleviate his loss? (On second thought, could loss ever be alleviated?) Will it feed him? Will it give him hope?

It is no lie, however, that shared suffering does not guarantee intimacy. Having put the unfairness of human life into perspective, Red seems to say that Raul’s greater tragedy is indeed having us, all of us, as his companions. And around us, those who stay, tragedies like Raul are just waiting for the right moment—the right flicker of despond, and the right sharpness of knives—to happen.

Biyaheng Lupa (Armando Lao, 2009) October 27, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Festival, Indie Sine, Noypi.
6 comments

biyaheng lupa

English Title: Soliloquy
Written and directed by Armando Lao
Cast: Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Angel Aquino

In an interview by Fanny A. Garcia, entitled “Armando ‘Bing’ Lao: Mula Mainstream Films tungo sa Indie Films, Mula Scriptwriter tungo sa Creative Producer,” Lao expresses his dismay on the lack of credit given to writers, of which he cited how local and foreign film communities regard directors as the sole authors of films. It is a culture, according to Lao, that even the academe is responsible for. Writers are often seen as secretaries of directors, they are obviously treated inferior to them, and most of the time they are neglected in the festival entourage. The writer creates the material, the director interprets it, so how come the director takes most of the credit?

Upon seeing Biyaheng Lupa on its premiere in the 11th Cinemanila Film Festival, I am both a proud student and a pleased audience. His attempt to prove his point in Garcia’s interview clearly shows his sterling ability not just as a writer but also as a director, as he risks to make his strengths and weaknesses visible. For a first film, it is always a good sign to see some weakness. Weakness dictates following, and weakness is truth. Once the disbelief is suspended, Lao starts to guide his characters one by one as their stories unfold and, interestingly, overlap.

The surface of the story initially rests on interest. The bus carries the characters from the city to Legaspi, Albay. Along the way, it picks passengers, halts at bus stops, and drops them off to their destinations. As far as the narrative is concerned, the story is just that, plain and simple. But here’s the trick, when the door of the bus closes, after that moment when the mute character gets into the vehicle, we get to hear what these passengers are thinking. We get to hear their thoughts, their intentions, their motives, their past and their present, their future, their musings on everything—their stories. Lao runs a risk in doing this, as it appears as a limited experiment, but the touch of quirk has made it serious and complex. There is the huge probability of failure—more likely if the material is not handled by the writer himself—but the sensitivity of the “dialogues,” the familiarity of the characters, and the relationship that comes out of them dominate.

What makes it work is that Lao did not take the writer’s cap off his head. He is practically in control. It is a writer’s film by all means, an exercise that shows his range and ability to share a world he created, to allow us to enter it, belong, and mingle with his characters. Through the unconventional storytelling, he is able to deliver a credible introspection of these people. He has also managed to study them more intimately, closer to their heart, and deeper to their soul. We respond to their thoughts—we laugh at them, we feel bad about their chances, we bully their stinking attitude, and we commiserate with their troubles. Lao not only gives them legs to stand, but also an extra pair to stroll around and have fun. The humor connects and pinches, making its style look effortless, believable—praiseworthy.

In Lao’s use of symbolic time, three important points become clear. First, time is very relative to the characters. Second, the characters are one with their realities. And third, the subject is equal to the environment. In our class, Lao barely discussed symbolic time since he was more concerned with real time, pushing us to explore more about our chosen milieus. But he left a short note about the subject, and here it is, in bullets:

> Story is phenomenological

> Timeline is condensed

> Plotting is rhizomic

> Character is subjectified

> Exposition is impressionistic

> Resolution is existential

There are theories involved in Lao’s writing process. He is scrupulous. He tries every possible turn that his story can take. He dresses his characters and puts them in different situations. He checks their credibility, if they speak right, if their problems are reasonable, if their actions are believable. These things are necessary regardless of time mode—dramatic, real, or symbolic—and regardless of the writer’s choice to overlap the three, which is what most of the time happens. Unlike his usual scripts, Biyaheng Lupa is essentially symbolic; the form is noticeable in its use of time, and the handling of the characters in relation to each other. While form is favored, content does not suffer. Each has a story to tell, and each contributes to the portrait that Lao is trying to paint. The tone is carefully sustained, especially when it shifts to “reality”—when the characters are out of the bus and start to talk, when we hear “real” conversations as opposed to meandering thoughts and private musings.

Only in the end it chooses to be dramatic. The execution is poetic, alright, but the effect is out of place. While it could have chosen to end in the long shot of the bridge—that slow, uncertain feeling of staying in the middle of something, the night clad in pitch black, the road ahead enigmatic, the moon and the stars sleeping—it chooses to awaken the emotions we tried to keep away while watching the film by ending with tragedy. It disturbs the beautifully-set mood with a drastic turning point, which pounds my ear with a bit of betrayal, of making the unpredictable and unsatisfying turn. Clearly, this is a writer’s decision.

But what I recognize as weakness in its conclusion is part of Lao’s growth as a writer-director—something inevitable, something natural and understandable. The annoyance to the culture of authorship has pushed him to wear both hats; and seeing him now control his own material, imagining him taking chances with the possibilities not only with words but also with sounds and images, is welcoming. It is every writer’s dream: his contribution to be acknowledged. And Biyaheng Lupa—with the ripeness of its concept and the completeness of its thought—makes every writer in this side of town happily proud.

* Garcia, Fanny A. “Armando ‘Bing’ Lao: Mula Mainstream Films tungo sa Indie Films, Mula Scriptwriter tungo sa Creative Producer”. MALAY, Vol. 21 No. 2. Pamantasang De La Salle, Filipinas. 2009.

Lola (Brillante Mendoza, 2009) October 21, 2009

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Festival, Indie Sine, Noypi.
9 comments

lola 1

Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Written by Linda Casimiro
Cast: Anita Linda, Rustica Carpio, Tanya Gomez, Jhong Hilario

Rumor has it that Lola was admired in the Venice Film Festival because the audience there was moved by the glaring similarity between their city and our own. The sight of the surrounding waters and the boats that transport people from one place to another in the film may have reminded them of the lovely canals and gondolas of their city. They may have been particularly impressed by our gondeliers who don’t wear shirts even if the weather is cold. Seeing the rows of houses built on these high waters may have caused them to cringe—because they lack the beauty of their own monuments and buildings, the bridges that connect them together, and the romantic feeling that one gets while looking at them. Surely, our Venice is no place to propose a marriage. The audience may have also related to the strong rains and flooding, which they have come to regard as common occurrences in their everyday life since their city was built. They know how it feels like living above water. They even have tourists visiting them just to look at their life.  The stories about the sinking of Venice may have also crossed their mind. But supposing the rumor is true, what could possibly be wrong with their emotional familiarity with the film?

Just to clarify, we don’t call them gondolas. We call them boats because boats are used in our small rivers in the province. We don’t call them canals too. They’re just plain and simple “flowing water” to us, not “streets paved with water” because we really have streets—they’re just covered with water. What we refer to as canals are often clogged with garbage that has been there for thousands of years. “Estero” is often used, though it is pejorative, which apparently the Spanish origin of the word is not. We just love to address things in their pejoratives. When you live near the “estero,” you live in the shanty district of the city. Flies mix into your food, rats run beside you as you sleep, and you’re fine with it. It’s easy to get used to the smell. The rows of houses built on these high waters are houses for sure, mostly made of concrete and metal, but some are makeshift shacks made of whatever things their owners can find—scraps of wood, tin cans, cardboards, fabric, tarpaulins, anything to cover their homes from the sun and rain. Their foundations may be strong but we can’t be sure in ten years. We are not sure if Sitio Ilog in Malabon is sinking but aquifers are impossible to find there. We are not sure what the ground is made of because we haven’t really seen how it looks like for a long time. Interestingly, we call these shacks “barong-barong,” and we call our national dress for men “Barong Tagalog.” Furthermore, it is politically incorrect to call these people living in shanties “squatters.” We are advised to call them “urban settlers” because they really are urban settlers.

We have tourists, and they also come to visit us to look at our life but we’re sure they are not happy about it. Yes, they admire our resilience, our smiles amid the misery, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re pathetic. At the height of the relief operations for the victims of typhoon Ondoy, we see American soldiers stoked by the gleam in these people’s eyes as they receive the goods to feed themselves with after the disaster. But until when they’ll have something to eat we’re not really sure. We can only be sure that the relief goods are temporary. After a certain period of time, as if taken hostage by ailing memory, we go back to the state of calamity that is not caused by natural calamity, but by political calamity, historical calamity, and calamity by natural selection.

We also eat typhoons for breakfast—we have them all year long. Like Venice, we are used to periodic flooding, heavy downpours, and high tides, but we are more wary of tsunamis and landslides. We have landslides even in the city, and recently it is taking its toll on wealthy subdivisions. Flood is one thing; but flooded all year ’round is another. Sitio Ilog in Malabon, Metro Manila, which is the main setting of Lola, is one of our little Venices, with floodwater that never subsides even during summer. The film’s main emotional thrust comes from the mere sight of the place, and while it does not attempt to make the situation of its people dramatic, it appeals like a news story, made compelling just by its telling and the footage that comes along with it.

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Brillante Mendoza has always been up for challenges, and among those challenges is either choosing a subject that will fit his location or choosing a location that will fit his subject. Whichever way, he gets the benefit of his interesting subjects. But unfortunately they don’t always work. The danger of his realism is knowing that it can break down any minute, that its fragility can open its doors to failure anytime. There are times when being fragile works though, if it is carefully sustained like Kinatay, but upon seeing Lola and looking back at the experience of seeing Foster Child two years ago, Mendoza seems to go back to that safe road of throwing in brilliant moments to make up for his inability to be terse.

When an argument is repeated, it is meant for emphasis. But when an argument is already sound, and this argument is repeated a number of times, it can only account for indulgence, which is not bad if the intention reaches out to emotions other than anger and depression. But what if that is the intention? And what if that has always been the intention? In the arts, realism often equates to the sordid. Fundamental to the realists are truth and accuracy. While realism, especially in the Philippines, is naturally depressing, it should also be awakening. But realism, if it still needs to be pointed out, should not only be reflected—it should also be interpreted. Unfortunately that’s when Mendoza takes his realism for granted, the part when he has to interpret, the part when he has to lobby the underlying advocacy of his films, the part when he not only needs to put his ear to the ground but also every part of himself.

He is an observer alright. But observers, to be effective, must relay their observations clearly and punctiliously. These observations are used to come up with assumptions—hypotheses which, no matter how far-fetched and maligned, help to find solutions to the problem. Mendoza has strong observations on old age, on human suffering, and on the dragging inefficiency of our political system in general. Suffice it to say that the details of Lola are overwhelming. Problems ooze from various directions: social (robbery and prison), economic (the grandmothers’ struggle for a living), spiritual (faith and resilience), personal (relationships of the characters with each other) and environmental (rains and flood). These are well-founded observations. These happen. These are real. But Mendoza has not able to put them to good use. He hasn’t able to capture the interest in their conflicting realities and the force to make them coherent—that while the theme itself is embracing these stories to drive his point across, the narrative suffers from his graceless hand, from his haphazard way of making us feel the agony of the grandmothers’s fate.

It is easy to be carried away by some of the scenes because they are really effective. The closeups of Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio are like images of endless grief, the lines on their faces trace every hardship they had to bear. The expression of weariness seems to be sculpted on them. Anita Linda walking in a small alley, calling out her grand-grandson, shouting, and eventually glimpsing at a corpse, is harrowing to the bone. The funeral procession also holds the same feeling, only magnified to achieve a cruel epiphany. The aerial shot of boats moving forward makes it poignant, during which the silence among audience members could only mean commiseration. Rustica Carpio’s tedious walk down the stairs, holding on to the rail in every step, validates our sympathy to her. That oddball sequence of catching fish in their flooded house—with every family member delighted by the strange discovery—seems more like an inadvertent parody of Mendoza’s popularity in foreign festivals. In Lola‘s brilliant moments, clearly, Teresa Barrozo’s music becomes their life.

There is a reason why people advise you to take your time. There is a reason why some films take years to be finished, and ultimately there is a reason why some films are not finished. To finish a film just for the sake of finishing it—or to be able to participate in a prestigious festival, perhaps—isn’t criminal, in fact it’s mostly reasonable, but it also risks the respect of your peers. While foreign press will not be able to discern the cities of Manila, Mandaluyong, and Malabon, and how they are illogically connected in the narrative, your fellow countrymen will. Foreign festivals are gluttons for punishment, and sadly the film community in your country is slowly turning into that too.

Now we go back to our question in the beginning. What could possibly be wrong with the foreign audience’s emotional familiarity with Lola? Nothing. Film appreciation is interesting because it is personal,and not entirely cultural. It is solely dependent on the person’s taste—his individuality. And Lola is a good example to illustrate this, a pressing case that will fuel discussions on perception. It is impossible not to be moved by its reality, but it stops when it has already accomplished that reality. We ask, should a film cease from continuing its social study when its objective of representing reality is already done? Isn’t that hit and run? Is the film helping our condition if it only continues to dignify our resilience? Our patron saint of words Conrado de Quiros says, “The other face of resilience is a long-suffering people. Or worse, the other face of resilience is an uncomplaining people.” Because when the credits start to roll, we just sit back there and give the film a courtesy clap.

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