Rochel (Matt Baguinon, 2013) February 8, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema Rehiyon, Docu, Noypi.
Written by Pol Singson
Directed by Matt Baguinon
Produced at the Franco-German-Filipino 2012 Documentary Workshop
In the morning of Feb. 29 last year, a dead body was found in a private lot in Barangay Batong Malake in Los Baños, Laguna. The police identified the victim as Rochel Geronda, a 14-year-old student at Los Baños National High School and a sampaguita vendor. Her jogging pants were used to strangle her, knotted so firmly that it suggested the cause of her death. Her blouse was folded neatly and rolled up to her chest. Bruises covered her arms, hips, and feet. Her bra was found behind her neck and her underwear was pulled down. A sharp object seemed to have hit her head.
On her way to the crime scene, Rochel’s mother, Lani Geronda, was prepared to see the worst. When she arrived she immediately checked Rochel’s genitals, thinking that some objects had been inserted, but she didn’t find any. The body had been washed clean. There was a clear sign that she was raped, but her genitals weren’t defiled, as she feared they would be. What surprised her was the swarm of flies on Rochel’s eyes, their noise seemingly louder than that of the onlookers huddled in the area.
It was likely that Rochel was killed the night before. She was last seen at around 8 o’clock, when she left her house in Riverside Subdivision to visit a nearby Internet shop. The police later found out that she didn’t make it to the establishment. Three weeks after her murder, two suspects were arrested: Fredolin Presenta, a security guard, and Alberto Sigue, a farm caretaker. Presenta, the assailant, owned the flashlight that was found in the lot and Sigue helped him dump the body and hide from the authorities.
Months before Rochel was killed—in October 2011, specifically—another rape-slay incident took place in Los Baños. The corpse of 19-year-old UP student Given Grace Cebanico was found on Apec Road, with bruises and stab wounds all over her body, her hands tied behind her. There was a bullet wound on her forehead and a masking tape covered her mouth. Two men took turns raping her. In July of the same year, Bradley Inway, 16, and Gilbert de Ocampo, 23, were found dead on IPB Road in the university compound, less than 50 meters away from where Given Grace’s body was located. Inway and de Ocampo were thought to be victims of summary execution, which the police denied.
But the tragedy in Los Baños didn’t stop there. A few days after Rochel’s death, another UP student, Ray Bernard Peñaranda, was held up and stabbed by two men on a motorcycle. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Los Baños is no Ciudad Juárez, a city in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico where hundreds of women had disappeared and had been killed since 1993, but this succession of crimes in a once peaceful community is alarming enough to send people to the streets and demand a call for action. In light of Rochel’s case, the Laguna police director reshuffled the officers deployed in town and ordered some to undergo training, but clearly this is not a lasting solution. Whereas these incidents reveal a major shortcoming of security, it is not an issue of the local police force being completely incompetent but being caught off guard, unable to respond as effectively as they could because they are used to violent crimes happening only on occasion and between long periods of time. It doesn’t sound like a valid excuse, of course, because it isn’t, but taking this into consideration can partially explain why the killings have ceased recurring for the time being, unlike in Ciudad Juárez where female homicides continue and become intolerably dreadful over the years.
But then again crimes, oftentimes driven by desperate economic situations, are also cultural and political. They are specific in every nationality and neighborhood, the factors that contribute to their occurrences dependent on many aspects, and even the effect on the families of the victims is varied, the acceptance ranging from profound resignation to counter-violence to death itself. The only thing certain is that death, especially when brought about by a gruesome murder, always leaves an impression on both the individual and the community, and it persists.
The documentary Rochel, directed by Matt Baguinon and written by Pol Singson, may have started on this effect. It’s obvious that their proximity to the subject, them being UP Los Baños students, has enabled them to adopt a suitable sensibility, the kind that is propelled by social duty, and their youth has helped the film materialize almost immediately, resorting to resources at hand to pursue their careers without losing their initial objective. After all, documenting Rochel’s case does not require a strong personal voice. What it needs is a distinct smidgen of maturity to handle the sensitive material, which can be easily exploited for dramatic purposes, an ability to do emotional math to reach a sum that does not betray the actual events involved. This maturity comes with wisdom, as most viewers aren’t convinced without difficulty, and singling out Rochel’s case as opposed to Given Grace’s or Peñaranda’s poses more questions and raises more doubts than the filmmakers could imagine, a decision reflective of their artistic preoccupations. One can infer reasons, but hard to dismiss is the compliance of the main subject, Lani Geronda, whose unaffected manner lends the film its most persuasive quality.
On paper, Rochel sets out to paint two key portraits: of Rochel, a loving daughter and hardworking student, through the testimonies of people around her, and of Lani, a mother at the worst phase of her life, through her everyday activities. Onscreen, the absence of the former provides contrast to the presence of the latter, and the whole feels fractured but complete.
The filmmakers are able to draw interesting nuances from everyday actions: Lani waking up at 3 a.m. to prepare her children’s breakfast and uniform, reviewing their lessons, reminding them repeatedly to study hard and avoid trouble, accompanying the three of them to school but not without praying together before leaving the house, spending time with her grandchildren, doing the laundry and watching her small store when she gets home. They pursue Lani because she understands not only the intentions of the movie but also its artifices. She isn’t dismissive of suffering—in fact, she builds her defenses around it. Her honesty shines through, her relentless faith in god never off-putting, and her will to live to continue the search for justice is stirring in its openness. By placing Lani at the center, Rochel’s death becomes more resonant, the loss even more pronounced because of how meaningful the fourteen years had been and how, if only she had not been murdered, the succeeding years would have been steeped in optimism, hope being every poor family’s sense of new beginnings.
Baguinon and Singson recognize the sturdy groundwork, so they focus instead on creating a structure that will stand on it, which will not only serve as a visible exterior but also as a bridge to an isolated territory, a place where most media stories are having a hard time dipping their toes into. In addition to detailing the circumstances around Rochel’s life and death through the people closest to her, it sketches a map of emotions surrounding her absence, the singular and submerging feeling that hovers after her passing, the nondescript way it walks in and out of a person’s consciousness.
The storytelling, however, suffers from a few hiccups. Opening with messages of concern from Boy Abunda, Gloc-9, and several resource persons, the film rests on the mistaken need to have this introduction, more or less making the viewer aware of the scale of the situation. Apart from that, it has no purpose, and it seems to put an air of vanity to the issue about to unfold. One can feel that this idea of heightening the drama to connect better to a young audience and make the narrative more accessible becomes too persistent, as illustrated by the use of maudlin music in numerous scenes, either to underline the family crisis or draw attention to the poignancy of little things. For example, one of the most effective moments in the film is when Lani is seen playing with her grandson, Wilmer, and the two are enjoying each other’s company. That long sequence is not accompanied by anything—the candidness of their actions is striking enough. On the other hand, that part when Lani decides to watch a video of Rochel and her other grandson, Dayo, wipes her tears, the music in the background emphasizes the scene too much, making it feel unnatural and contrived. Granted, it gives the audience its first actual glimpse of Rochel’s face, but it pushes too much, disrupting the tone of the documentary.
It’s only fitting that Baguinon and Singson decide to end with a family affair. With her sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren, Lani pays a visit to Rochel’s grave on All Saints’ Day. They pray and talk to Rochel. There is nothing much to say but words of longing and promise. For several minutes, the filmmakers manage to isolate the Gerondas and their emotional state, as if telling that they are alone in their pain, which is actually truer than any medical or autopsy report, that in such time of terrible apathy and darkness their sorrows can’t be shared. Death brings people together, it seems to say, but only the family members can bear the cross on all sides: the weight is seldom in the middle. Evidently these intimate moments are more meaningful to the bereaved than to the audience, and the film is able to send a bit of that burden to the viewer. For a moment it brings to light the documentary’s main weakness: it strikes shadows, not human flesh. It doesn’t sniff around and follow trails. It doesn’t sink its teeth into the industrial landscape of Los Baños. It deliberately shows dramatic shots of streets and sidewalks instead of rendering the depth of the town’s monotony. Its restless editing tends to miss several highlights. But these failings only emphasize the film’s modest accomplishments, the sincerity of its makers, and the genuineness of its intent. Its scope is hardly encompassing, but what it manages to deliver is firm and levelheaded. Rochel not only recalls an incident but also offers a look into the future, a view of a bleak house, and in it a family about to realize how fast life is fading away.
Joel Torre: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS February 2, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Interview, Noypi.
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It must have been one of those rainy afternoons in September when I had the chance to speak with Joel Torre in his house in Mandaluyong. The interview took less than an hour, excluding the photo shoot, and it was a privilege to have a nice conversation with an actor whom I respect a lot. As expected, Joel was a gentleman, charming and never intimidating, and the pauses he made before answering some questions left an impression on me, as though I managed, in a few instances at least, to pose queries that allowed him to reminisce memories he had long forgotten and was then willing to share. The feature appeared in the magazine more than a month later.
One look at Joel Torre and there is hardly any hint of glamour. His presence rarely intimidates. His gray beard and mustache accentuate the smile on his face, and his afternoon get-up, a black polo and a pair of jeans, makes him a charmer, a handsome actor whose reputation has grown finer over the years. He seems very comfortable with interviews, however repetitive and intimate the questions may be. Sometimes he pauses to recall a long-forgotten memory, but most of the time he shares stories like a father speaking to his son about his fondest experiences: sweet and straightforward.
Growing up in Bacolod, he thought his name, Jose Rizalino, was a little strange. His classmates at school had more common first names: Angelito, Ricardo, Miguelito, Ronaldo. Whenever that usual debate about choosing a worthier national hero comes up, Joel remembers, like the smell of an old blanket, that he would always be on Rizal’s side. “I’d rather follow the footsteps of Rizal than Bonifacio’s. His beliefs are closer to mine,” he says. Not only do they share the same name but they also share the same birth date: he was born on June 19, 1961, exactly a hundred years after the revolutionary hero’s birth.
His face lights up when he recalls an anecdote during Ninoy Aquino’s burial in 1983. “I was with Mike [de Leon] and we were talking about changes brought about by the political climate that time. I told Mike, perhaps randomly, ‘You know, I think I am destined to play Jose Rizal.’ And I was right. The way I look at things now, nothing happens by coincidence.” More than a decade later, de Leon made Bayaning Third World, arguably the most clever film that tackles the Rizal myth, a postmodern labyrinth in which two filmmakers search for the hero, played by Joel, and pick up the crumbs of his identity.
This peculiar kinship has given Joel opportunities to play Rizal in a number of films, plays, and television shows, so numerous in fact that he has portrayed the life of the national hero in almost every genre and approached them from various point of views. His interest in the arts, not to mention his exposure to them, started early. His family owned a moviehouse in Cadiz, a town near Bacolod, which was called Ramona. They used to go there every weekend, and instead of going straight home, young Joel would pay a visit to the theater, which showed action and comedy films like Tarzan, Green Beret, and Tony Ferrer movies. At four years old, he was watching The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, smitten by the allure of the silver screen.
Ramona was bought by investors and closed down sometime in the ‘80s, a few years after Joel graduated from college. He was already active in a theater group before then. He was seven when he joined the Genesius Guild, where he met one of the most important people in his life, Peque Gallaga. Peque had seen his first play, All the Way Home, and being friends with his family, the director went straight to his house after the show, congratulated him, and said, “I want you to be in all my plays.” It didn’t take long before Joel saw himself spending his summer, Christmas, weekends, and all his free time in the guild, participating in small community programs and large-scale productions, such as Fiddler on the Roof and The King and I. Young Joel had fun despite the busy schedule, and he was thankful for the rigorous training that became handy when he started being involved in making movies.
He completed his college internship under Peque’s guidance, learning the ins and outs of filmmaking first-hand (Peque was directing Champoy that time). Oftentimes he was assigned in the art department, helping out in the production design and running little errands. Before his breakthrough role in Oro Plata Mata, he appeared in Bernal’s Bilibid Boys and Brocka’s Gumising Ka Maruja, where he played bit parts. Asked about his first movie, Joel fumbles for memory. “It was in a short film also directed by Peque, shot in 1969 or 1970 when I was eight or nine years old. I can no longer recall the title. Basta I play a boy who accidentally shoots his brother. That’s the only thing I remember. In fact, I almost forgot about it, until the guy who plays my brother reminded me of it six years ago. He died last year.”
Forty years after the release of Oro, Joel constantly appears in movies and on television. The reason for his popularity even at present is that his image has become synonymous with permanence, almost to the point of being taken for granted, and his contributions to Philippine cinema have earned him the right to be called an icon. Along with fellow Ilonggo Ronnie Lazaro, he has become closely associated with the independent cinema that boomed in the early 2000s. Filmmakers attest to his professionalism, and how, without much effort, they are able to get the acting they want from him, sometimes more than what the roles require.
But the term “independent” is nothing new to Joel. From the beginning he has always been an independent actor, deliberately shying away from the glitz of show business. His experience in theater productions has taught him to value every project he accepts, whether mainstream or independent, lead role or supporting role, 35mm or digital. “When [our group] arrived in Manila, we were so ready. We knew the standards and we aimed to raise the bar. Peque set it for us, 110 percent. We were an amateur theater group doing professional work. There was never a transition or adjustment. I always gave everything I could regardless of the project.”
His latest film, Amigo, which he co-produced, is directed by John Sayles, one of the leading figures in American independent cinema. Joel just arrived from the States after attending some film festivals and he was pleased with the response of the people, some of which were not even from the Filipino community. “Amigo taught me the other side of filmmaking. It’s an expensive movie to make, but it’s still independent because John had the freedom to do anything he wanted. He’s the director, scriptwriter, producer. . . he’s responsible for the distribution, editing, lahat. And all the hard work paid off because of the glowing reviews from the critics. Foreign writers singled out my performance in the film. So what’s there to ask? Come to think of it, there’s more pressure in Amigo than in Oro. Ako yung Amigo dun sa pelikula e. I have a bigger role than Chris Cooper.”
What he likes about the recent new wave in local cinema is the sheer number of films being produced. According to him, quantity is a good sign that the industry is doing well. On the other hand, what he doesn’t like about it is that there is no fixed distribution. There is also no venue to show these films, which leads to the sad reality that they don’t get enough support. “Dapat collective e. We need the audience to come in. Mahal mag-advertise. As you can see, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank is doing great, but it was backed up by Star Cinema in terms of promotion.” He is hopeful about the direction that Philippine cinema is taking at present, but he is disheartened by the system. “Kulang ang sistema. Walang unyon. Laging may unjust labor practice. Kawawa din yung mga maliliit na tao na laging napupuyat sa trabaho. At sana tinatangkilik din ng tao ang mga pelikulang ginagawa natin.”
As an actor, however, Joel considers himself lucky that he still gets to do things that he wants. When he’s not taping for 100 Days to Heaven, a hit primetime soap on ABS-CBN, he stays home until lunch. He runs some errands, goes to the bank, or calls the commissary. He’s also very busy with his business, JT’s Manukan, which is soon to open new branches in Katipunan and McKinley Hill. “Sa totoo lang, ayoko na magpuyat. I’m not getting any younger. Madalang na ang projects, so I spoke to my wife and we decided to open the Manukan. Sinuwerte at naging successful naman siya.” Managing a business is not easy, but he enjoys it. He now has more time to relax and spend with his children, sometimes even go out of the country on vacation. “Nothing to think about. Minsan masaya na nasa bahay lang,” he shares with a smile.
Word has also gotten around that he plans to direct a World War II movie, which will be co-produced by Mike de Leon. But it hasn’t materialized yet. “Matagal na yun, kaso wala talagang budget. I wrote a few scenes, but I need to take a sabbatical to concentrate on finishing it.” He says he can’t let go of the concept. As of the moment, the project is too big and ambitious, and titles such as Forgotten Heroes, Beterano, and Death March are being considered. For a man with such passion for the arts and whose career has spanned generations from the great Manuel Conde to the soon-to-be-great Xyriel Manabat, nothing seems impossible, given the right time.
Published in UNO November 2011; all photos from Bayaning Third World
We Yell Like Hell to the Heavens: The Top Albums of 2012 January 22, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music, Yearender.
Well, look who made a belated list.
2012 didn’t pass like a breeze. The days came in with unbearable force and slowness, a torturous year when I begged nights to end as soon as they started. Only concerts made me sober, hence my splurge on gigs, and I’m thankful for having friends who joined me in my madness for live music. In many ways 2012 was a turning point, the year when I lost the most important person in my life and when my dreams collapsed on their own, but it was also the year that had to happen, a time that made me realize the importance of concession, the inevitability of reaching such decision, and the need for a wise albeit weary acceptance of defeat. Sadly I didn’t have better options. It took me a while to say that I am doing well, and I guess the business of saying that to people closest to me slowly became natural, for it was an attempt to go past that point where hell is not other people but myself.
Needless to say, the albums below had been wonderful companions, many of which, if I were to be sentimental about it, helped me through. I remember all of them with fondness, sometimes with pain and regret, but often with a smile on my face, because even discomfort makes me grin or laugh. Some of these records serve as time stamps, leaving very distinct impressions on my mind. For instance, I was listening to Album #42 on the bus when my two sisters and I went out together, something which rarely happen these days, and Album #34 when I was on the car with my coworkers during those long drives from Taguig to Quezon City. My favorite record to listen to at the airport is Album #3. Once, when I was on the plane to Cebu it made me feel so happy and giddy that I cried. When my mother was at the hospital, I listened to Album #33 constantly, and several days before she died Album #5 was with me all along, holding my hand as I tried to hold back my tears. Listening to Album #46, #45, #28, #23, and #20 still makes me sad up to now, but nothing beats Album #2 in being so heartbreakingly beautiful.
But surely I had crazy moments, times when happiness was hard to contain, days when I looked high without being under the influence. Album #6 is the first contender for album of the year, pure crystal meth from start to finish, and heaven knows I’m miserable now for missing out on their Hong Kong gig today. Album #49 and #44 are punk rock at its wildest, and Album #39, #31, #21, and #9 are my ever-dependable hip-hop pills. Album #41 isn’t as bad as many critics and fans say it is (in fact, it has a lot of enchanting moments) and Album #25 has haters who may not have even listened to it in full. Normally I won’t put two albums by one artist but I made an exception: Album #30 and #12 are inseparable, brilliantly delivered by a musician who always comes up with heartfelt compositions. And of course, what to say about Album #4? It’s a landmark record whose commercial failure is completely upsetting, but in years’ time music snobs will look back and be blinded by its sheen. How about Album #1? Well, not even the end of the world could stop it from being on top of the list. It’s the record that I had been waiting for months, and when it came it ruined me. After several weeks it put me back together, then ruined me again.
So without further ado, here are the top albums of 2012, the best EPs, a list of the year’s overlooked songs, the most memorable concerts I attended, and more than 170 links to tracks I love, all in one post. See you again next year, friends!
50. BABY, Tribes
49. HOLOGRAMS, Holograms
48. EVANS THE DEATH, Evans the Death
47. ANGELS OF DARKNESS, DEMONS OF LIGHT II, Earth
46. A CHURCH THAT FITS OUR NEEDS, Lost in the Trees
45. PORT OF MORROW, The Shins
44. OFF! OFF
43. I BET ON SKY, Dinosaur Jr.
42. THE GHOST IN DAYLIGHT, Gravenhurst
41. CENTIPEDE HZ, Animal Collective
40. WHO NEEDS WHO, Dark Dark Dark
39. 4EVA N A DAY, Big K.R.I.T.
38. GIVEN TO THE WILD, The Maccabees
37. SUN, Cat Power
36. SOMETHING, Chairlift
35. SHUT DOWN THE STREETS, A.C. Newman
34. DEVOTION, Jessie Ware
33. THE SOMETHING RAIN, Tindersticks
32. THE HAUNTED MAN, Bat for Lashes
31. good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar
30. OCEAN ROAR, Mount Eerie
29. THE IDLER WHEEL IS WISER THAN THE DRIVER OF THE SCREW AND WHIPPING CORDS WILL SERVE YOU MORE THAN ROPES WILL EVER DO, Fiona Apple
28. RHYTHM AND REPOSE, Glen Hansard
27. TRANSCENDENTAL YOUTH, The Mountain Goats
26. THE SEER, Swans
25. BORN AND RAISED, John Mayer
24. ‘ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND! ASCEND! Godspeed You! Black Emperor
23. I KNOW WHAT LOVE ISN’T, Jens Lekman
22. THE FLOAT, Rebecca Gates and the Consortium
21. LIFE IS GOOD, Nas
20. SHIELDS, Grizzly Bear
19. A THING CALLED DIVINE FITS, Divine Fits
18. RUNNER, The Sea and Cake
17. AMERICA, Dan Deacon
16. SWING LO MAGELLAN, Dirty Projectors
15. OPEN YOUR HEART, The Men
14. TRAMP, Sharon Van Etten
13. UNTIL THE QUIET COMES, Flying Lotus
12. CLEAR MOON, Mount Eerie
11. WIXIW, Liars
10. KOI NO YOKAN, Deftones
9. RETURN OF THE PHUNKY JUAN, Dash Calzado
8. TRANSVERSE, Carter Tutti Void
7. TAMA NA ANG DRAMA, Ang Bandang Shirley
6. CELEBRATION ROCK, Japandroids
5. PUT YOUR BACK N 2 IT, Perfume Genius
4. KISS, Carly Rae Jepsen
3. WAKING SEASON, Caspian
2. MID AIR, Paul Buchanan
1. CAPACITIES, Up Dharma Down
BEST EPs: UNDERSEA, The Antlers; SILENT HOUR/GOLDEN MILE, Daniel Rossen; KAYA MO MAG-SANDO? Pedicab
BEST OST: THE MASTER: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Jonny Greenwood
BEST ALBUM COVER: NO LOVE DEEP WEB, Death Grips
ANOTHER P-P-P-PLAYLIST (Best Songs not on the Albums and Tracks Shit)
1. “Under the Westway,” Blur
2. “Ill Manors,” Plan B
3. “Only In My Dreams,” Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti
4. “Angels,” The xx
5. “Lost,” Frank Ocean
6. “Duquesne Whistle,” Bob Dylan
7. “The Celestials,” The Smashing Pumpkins
8. “Clique,” Kanye West (feat. Big Sean and Jay-Z)
9. “R U Mine?” Arctic Monkeys
11. “Do Ya Thing,” Gorillaz (feat. Andre 3000 and James Murphy)
12. “Anna Sun,” Walk the Moon
13. “I’ve Seen Footage,” Death Grips
14. “I’ll Be Alright,” Passion Pit
15. “Adorn,” Miguel
16. “Heaven is a Ghost Town,” Minus the Bear
17. “Arena Rock Encore with Full Cast,” The Cribs
18. “Sixteen Saltines,” Jack White
19. “Watching You Watch Him,” Eric Hutchinson
20. “Hey Jane,” Spiritualized
MOST MEMORABLE CONCERTS
1. Radiohead. The King of Limbs Tour. Nangang Exhibition Hall, Taipei, July 2012. With Ayn.
2. The Smashing Pumpkins. Oceania Tour. Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City, August 2012. With Megan.
3. Sigur Rós. Valtari Tour. Fort Canning, Singapore, November 2012. With Ayn and David.
4. Morrissey. World Trade Center Manila. May 2012. With Megan, Beverly, and Jerrold.
5. Up Dharma Down. Capacities album launch. One Esplanade, Pasay City, November 2012. With Ayn and Bolix.
6. Keane. Strangeland Tour. SM Mall of Asia Arena, Pasay City, October 2012. With Ali.
7. Lady Gaga. Born This Way Ball Tour. SM Mall of Asia Arena, Pasay City, With Ayn, Leo, Dohna, and Ate.
8. Sting. Back to Bass Tour. Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City, December 2012. With Tish and Tita.
9. Snow Patrol. Fallen Empires Tour. Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City, August 2012. With Ayn and Ali.
10. Toe. NBC Tent, Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City, March 2012. With Gian.
11. Pupil. 70s Bistro, Quezon City, May 2012.
12. James Morrison. The Awakening Tour. Araneta Coliseum, Quezon City, October 2012.
*Pop* Goes My Heart: The Top Tracks of 2012 January 11, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Music.
Without further ado, here are the 25 songs that made the previous year sunnier and happier, the 25 songs between “Gangnam Style” and “Pusong Bato” that ruled the airwaves and the Internet, the 25 songs that lightened the world a bit and made everyone crazier than before. No guilt, all pleasure!
[The Truth About Love]
Although Robyn can make “Try” a much sultrier ballad, putting emotional twirls at the end of each line and turning “try try try” and “by by by” into something softer but more cutting, only P!nk can deliver its aches like a boxer: intense and livid, but also mindful of which rib to crack.
24. “TRIUMPHANT (GET ‘EM)”
Mariah Carey feat. Rick Ross and Meek Mill
Whoever thought of planning to release a Mariah single on which she happens to come out as the featured artist must receive 50 percent of this song’s royalties, because seriously, Rick Ross and Meek Mill may own “Triumphant” but Mariah, being the diva that she still is, is unfazed. She beams with self-confidence and is bent on showing that she can give Rihanna a run for her money with just a shiny chorus and an impassive repetition of hooks.
23. “AS LONG AS YOU LOVE ME”
Justin Bieber feat. Big Sean
The Biebz’s second single from his third studio album contains some of the most awful lyrics of the year—a cringe fest, to be honest, from the icky “As long as you love me, I’ll be your platinum, I’ll be your silver, I’ll be your gold” to the gross “I’ll be your Hova, you can be my Destiny’s Child on the scene girl”— but with the brilliant lo-lo-lo-lo-love hook, the giddy clapping, those freaking dubstep frills, and the revolting thought that Justin Bieber is still loveless (just broke up with Selena yo), how can it not be a pleasurable three and a half minutes?
22. “CALL MY NAME”
[A Million Lights]
At this point Cheryl Cole seems to be in the brink of exhaustion, trying to stay in the game despite the multiplying number of pop stars being born every year, but when she delivers “Call My Name,” a Calvin Harris-produced track armed with a chorus to weep for, a manic pixie earworm that spins restlessly, the dance floor is full of go once again.
No question this is JoJo in her finest form: slow and sexy R&B does not only suit her—it changes her. On “Demonstrate” she sounds at ease shifting from one falsetto to another, the classy way she hits the notes an indication of an interesting musical direction. She keeps up with the overwhelming stagger-step beats, sweeping the song clean with a subtle finish.
20. “THE BOYS”
Language doesn’t seem to be that much of a barrier, considering the English version of “The Boys” is able to take along the rapturous rhythm of the original, crammed with a range of whips and thumps that a feisty nine-piece group can offer. Although the military beats sound derivative, they provide the song an edge of familiarity, the flow of lines from one member to another as slick as the movement of their hips.
19. “SOVEREIGN LIGHT CAFÉ”
Unmistakable is the wistfulness of this song, the sentimentality it attaches to sights and experiences, the memories that singer Tom Chaplin are reminded of when he visits them on his mind while on a busy tour, the comfort they bring, those charming spots in East Sussex, that café on the Bexhill seafront, the changing city kept beautifully intact by an English band that continues to grow.
18. “WANT U BACK”
[Sticks + Stones]
“Want U Back” is not something a casual listener takes seriously upon first listen. It shares the vexing quality of Ke$ha’s singles, only Cher Lloyd’s youth displays itself up-front, allowing her bitter rants to explode into pieces. She’s so keen on making frustrated grunts that they turn out to be the song’s main highlight, making it a giddier and crazier ride.
17. “I LOVE IT”
Icona Pop feat. Charli XCX
No song released in 2012 can match the force and ferocity of this unexpectedly wrecking club jam from Swedish pop duo/bitches Icona Pop. Filled with knives and cannon balls—“I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn / I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs”—the effect of its repetitions is nothing but exhilarating, and when their fury ends there’s no other option but to go through it all over again.
16. “SHE’S SO MEAN”
The funny thing about “She’s So Mean” is that it’s a work of forty-something dudes almost in the afterlife of their careers, yet it also sounds like something that The Click Five or The Cab, possibly at their most inspired, could come up with, the cutesy lyrics never getting in the way because Rob Thomas and company know how to woo a girl just by tickling their instruments, the drums and guitars in particular.
15. “NEXT TO ME”
[Our Version of Events]
This what makes the landscape of pop music so irresistible: the emergence of talents with amazing vocal gifts and songwriting chops. Emeli Sandé is definitely on top of many of them, and fortunately in the years of Adele’s reign the soar of her voice stands out. On “Next To Me” she sounds so poised and spirited that the man she’s singing about must be so blessed to have her on his side.
14. “EVERYTHING IS EMBARRASSING”
This track is here because even though it’s not as mainstream as the others on the list, it suggests an interesting direction that pop music should take. “Everything is Embarrassing” is a piece of gem that seems to be stuck in its time, the melodrama of Ferreira’s words and delivery drowned in an ambiance of colorful and tuneful splashes, making it heavier but cooler, its presence like a brisk wind passing by.
13. “ROMAN HOLIDAY”
[Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded]
A provocateur par excellence, Nicki Minaj has successfully reached a point when she can create smash hits without stealing the limelight from someone else’s singles. Her second album is full of them, any of which could be on the list, but its irreverently outrageous opener happens to take a piece of everything, touching on the wild, baffling, crazy, and clueless. From the theatrical rap delivery to the stunning transitions between verses, it’s pretty much a display of zing and verve, putting in a famous Christmas tune and referencing a controversial pedophile in a matter of seconds. Only a brilliant artist can deliver a wrecking ball this sick.
Maroon 5 feat. Wiz Khalifa
How the hell did Adam Levine and the rest of Maroon 5 get away with something as ludicrous as this? Well, obviously, by stick-to-itiveness. Some of his sentiments are embarrassing—“Oh you turned your back on tomorrow, ‘cause you forgot yesterday / I gave you my love to borrow, but you just gave it away”—but when his face, body, and nasal singing are taken into consideration, it’s kind of pointless to resist. The guitars and piano conspire to create an arrangement that coats more sugar than needed, and the result is delicious.
11. “LOVE SEA”
“I was not looking for artsy-fartsy love,” sings Anders SG on “10,000 Nights of Thunder.” And Alphabeat’s singles, mostly cheery but also filled with longing, aren’t looking for anything artsy-fartsy either. Their lyrics are warm and relatable, carried by simple melodies that hang onto a sparkling chorus. “Love Sea” is a genial example of their ability to make platitudes sound refreshing, and at the same time it shares the glitters of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” the song like a bubble taking a long time to burst.
Julie Anne San Jose
[Julie Anne San Jose]
It’s a tough call. Julie Anne San Jose’s breakthrough hit “I’ll Be There” shares the sweet and novel wonders of Heart Evangelista’s “One,” Jennylyn Mercado’s “Kahit Sandali,” and Yasmien Kurdi’s “In The Name of Love,” but its lack of bridge, whose presence could have brought the song to wholly different heights, is too glaring not too notice. The follow-up single “Enough” makes up for this, leaving the mushy terrain of “I’ll Be There” and exchanging it for a bolder front, almost to the point of being too annoyingly driven, its glossy production values matched by San Jose’s confident singing. Her rap verse after the bridge is a risky move, but she pulls it off even without taking a deep breath.
9. “NATIONAL ANTHEM”
Lana del Rey
[Born to Die]
Like her other singles, “National Anthem” touches on obsession and loneliness, and here Lana del Rey is a lady with an insatiable greed for riches, clinging to her man and asking him to give her a Chevron and a standing ovation. Her self-centeredness is her strength: she loves herself so much she wants him not only to adore her but also to be patriotic to her, every time and everywhere, like a dying soldier to his country. She has earned the right to receive luxuries—at her best, she knows how to pretend emotion and make it appear regal, the foolishness of her words owing to her mania for success—but when it’s time to return the favor, she never disappoints. This song proves that.
8. “CATCH MY BREATH”
[Greatest Hits: Chapter One]
There’s a strain in Kelly Clarkson’s singing that is not supposed to work to her advantage, but surprisingly it does. Her set of pipes is her massive weapon, and on “Catch My Breath” she puts it to great use, standing out amid the EDM flourishes and becoming its focal point. She has written inspirational songs before about her journey, but this one sounds fresher than the first.
7. “GIVE YOUR HEART A BREAK”
As far as pop singles go, Demi Lovato has been easily eclipsed by her Disney contemporaries. But after the release of “Skyscraper” and “Give Your Heart A Break,” not to mention her stint in the second season of The X-Factor USA, she seems to have landed on a position that Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez have never been to, that distinct feeling of progression made evident by the kind of songs she takes on. While “Skyscraper” is a test of vocal vulnerability, “Give Your Heart A Break” challenges her with grander choruses, surrounded with a more complicated arrangement of strings, drums, and violin. There’s a fire in her voice that makes it a tad intimidating, but it’s infinitely better than anything with Auto-tune.
It’s hard to believe that The Killers could still come up roses after a terrible third album and a hiatus, but “Runaways” is nothing short of exhilarating, the effusive slushiness of it, instead of mashing the material, imposes a kind of emotion that requires a stadium full of people to feel. It’s the closest to a Hot Fuss euphoria that skeptical followers of the band have long wanted to experience again.
[Looking 4 Myself]
Comparisons have already been made, so one might as well be blunt about it: “Climax” is better than all of The Weeknd’s songs combined, and that’s because its brilliance isn’t daunting. It’s a dashing single in an elegant tux, Usher’s best in years and producer Diplo’s first marvelous stab, a four-minute bruise-cruise packed with exciting highpoints. Of course, there’s no way Usher will let go of being sexy, but he is careful with his transitions as he comfortably moves in and out of falsetto. The moment he yells “at all” and Diplo accompanies it with escalating synths and a heavenly second voice, the song rips in a fraction of a second, and then some islands begin to form.
4. “LIVE WHILE WE’RE YOUNG”
[Take Me Home]
Insanely good-looking faces and sexy voices aside, the success of One Direction owes to songs that tease about wanting to get laid. Some of them are easily achieved, thanks to their music videos and live performances, but the most successful efforts, the trio of “What Makes You Beautiful,” “One Thing,” and “Live While We’re Young,” are subtle invitations to sex, their lyrics carefully worded so that pre-pubescent girls and gays (even adults) will still be allowed to hear and enjoy them. The first single from their sophomore album is built on sexual nudges, a collection of come-ons introduced by a cleverly used Clash guitar riff and pulled together by a blissful chorus, the boys basking in the hedonism of youth and the shortness of it. At one point they say, “I know we only met but let’s pretend it’s love,” and it feels like an ordeal because pretending to love them is rather difficult.
3. “I LOVE YOU”
The sky’s the limit for 2NE1, their brilliance somewhat reminiscent of Girls Aloud’s in the first half of the 2000s, loved not only for their consistent placement in the charts but also for their innovations in the pop scene, delivering songs that expand and go outward, awe-inspiring compositions that take risks and produce breathtaking results. Like “Biology,” “I Love You” has more than three hook verses, and the four ladies travel from one to another with oomph and ease, the listener lost in the seamless intricacy of it all. By the time it reaches its loudest at 2:45, it lands on its most elegant part and emits sparks.
2. “CALL ME MAYBE”
Carly Rae Jepsen
It’s only more than a year old by now, but it seems that everything has already been said about “Call Me Maybe.” Is there any stone left unturned? Any nook as yet undiscovered? Perhaps. But any kind of fumbling only adds to its composite quality. No one can say how time will treat it, but as early as now it’s easy to tell that it will age well, people will look back and say, “That’s it!” with a silly smile, because the moment “Call Me Maybe” came and conquered, it rolled like a snowball trundling across the globe, getting bigger and bigger every time it’s played and parodied, a phenomenon of staggering proportions so enormous that months later even its bloated state is a charming sight. It’s a piece of manufactured merchandise that listeners have embraced and endorsed, but more than just a commercial item it’s a cultural product, a huge and unmistakable one, which intimidates only the snobbish. This song has reserved its place on radio for more than 50 years, but in the heart of its generation, it knows no expiry date.
Possibly the only presence that’s bigger than “Call Me Maybe” in 2012 is Taylor Swift, and for good reasons. Her fourth studio album is her best to date, filled with tracks that flirt with perfection, neck and neck with Kiss as the top pop record of the year. She did not cross over from country to pop-rock—she owned both. She pulled it off the way she parted ways with her boyfriends, sharp and self-assured, and there’s no denying that she uses these highly publicized break-ups to market herself better. She has created an indelible image that teens can easily relate to, giving the impression that she has actually learned from these experiences. She’s a clever bitch, but one that’s hard not to love.
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is too snarky, and it’s the kind of cheery derision that she must put to rest from time to time (it’s a fan bait, of course) considering she’s capable of doing something grander and more expansive like “State of Grace” and “Red.” The latter, which finds her playing with a bunch of crayons and similes, puts together one of her best songwriting efforts in many years. She knows that as much as she aspires to be Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon, she can never be either of them, but she has reached a point where her two idols, no offense to both, have become irrelevant to her accomplishments, creating an impact on a significant group of listeners that Joni and Carly didn’t in their heyday.
“Red” is the finest pop song of the year because it does not only make use of physical triggers—apart from its catchy hooks and lyrics, it boasts a bridge that gleams with seemingly nondescript brilliance, allowing the song to soar and alight on the ground in seconds, and a post-chorus that proves an abundance of thought, an excess that doesn’t feel like one—it also shows a deep affection for the genre that’s been easily taken for granted by listeners and critics alike, its singer completely aware of her massive influence, and instead of competing with her contemporaries, she does something that most of them are loath to do, and that is, to make a return to basics. Without a doubt, the pop throne is now hers.
Let Us Compare Mythologies: The Top Filipino Films of 2012 December 30, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, Yearender.
In the introduction to his first collection of writings, Anthony Lane asserts that “the primary task of the critic is the recreation of texture—not telling moviegoers what they should see, which is entirely their prerogative, but filing a sensory report on the kind of experience into which they will be wading, or plunging, should they decide to risk a ticket.”
The critic being described exists in Philippine cinema, and there are a few of them stuck in the mangroves and observing the flow of water as they write their reveries. Their sensory reports are awaiting readers, logophiles who are crazy about newfangled encounters with the anatomies of cinema.
But the critic must also be an explorer, an indefatigable traveler. He or she should discover unknown countries, stay there, and talk to their people. These foreign regions are the life support of any national cinema. As valuable as the canons may be, these new films and filmmakers are more persuasive signs of progress.
Once flags are lodged in these countries, he or she must also know the right time to leave. Sentimental attachment weakens the critic, but weakness is always a good trait to have, only if it’s served in reasonable servings.
The most important thing is to have a constant belief in an unthinkable possibility, an idea lifted from Lane himself, that moviegoers can be stretched, and they can learn to love it. The critic must have faith in this, or else the local scene will soon become a lonely vacuum.
Below are ten homelands. None of them are perfect, but all have fascinating towns and cities, each boasting attractions that every reader who reads the critic must find time to visit. The first thing to do is sail north and scroll down. The places are positioned according to experience, but don’t hesitate to disobey as deemed necessary.
10. KAMERA OBSKURA, Raymond Red
There must have been a time when moviegoers enjoy a dose of mawkishness and simplicity, a period when the idea of art does not aim to confound but to instruct, and it’s OK because people get something from it regardless of the unnecessary flourishes. Moreover, there is a clear recognition of a larger canvas and the significant points it raises, not only on political history but also on the temperament of the medium. Kamera Obskura relies heavily on artifice—the strings it pulls and the rumpus it creates attract too much attention—but its message is loud and clear. Musing on a possible failure, its sender Raymond Red wonders: what’s wrong with didacticism if it manages to divide audiences and make them argue? Why give subtlety too much credit? What could be more enlightening than the assertion that there is a higher purpose than art? The answers remain unsent.
9. THE ANIMALS, Gino Santos
The Animals is riddled with problems of varying intensities, mostly regarding its inconsistent maneuvering of plot and characters, but these missteps only emphasize the disposition of its filmmaker: a young man fresh out of film school wanting to prove something, a need so palpable that while sitting through the movie, the viewer becomes more concerned with him and how much he is going to fuck the whole thing up than with his group of well-to-do kids. The film throws a tantrum from time to time, but one cannot ignore its unmistakable voice, the current that runs through the narrative and keeps it moving. The youth should never lose that: the courage to be rude and the guts to offend, because when’s the next time that such behavior will be acceptable? Gino Santos depicts rats in cages and beasts in their little wilds, but he is also their keeper, guiding them into places where monsters bite without warning, and where parents, blindsided by time, let this horror happen.
8. ANAK ARAW, Gym Lumbera
It’s easy to fall into the trap and say that Taglish reflects Gym Lumbera’s pensive side and Anak Araw his lighthearted personality, but this assumption not only limits further reading of his work but also fosters a kind of thinking that gives more credit to the façade than to the foundation. It actually yields a finer insight if the viewer decides to transpose the two. For one, Anak Araw provides a semblance of structure that allows his experiment to extend to various directions, his hands always looking for a place to make contact. The positioning of its elements is far from random, and its sense of humor is not as effortless as it seems to be, considering the poles that Lumbera manages to draw together. He continues to dampen the ache and sorrow that seep out of the black-and-white images, his language hungry for recognition despite the seeming haze, presenting a piece of history orphaned by its people but imposingly complete.
7. JUNGLE LOVE, Sherad Anthony Sanchez
Champions of Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s movies may consider Jungle Love a minor piece of work since there’s hardly anything in it that can’t be put into words—finally! something slightly comprehensible!—but it’s also the reason for its charming brilliance. It’s a shrewd portrait of young lovers catching up on old mysteries, of hapless cadets and well-endowed women sharing silence and sensations, which contains some of the most rewarding and strangest depictions of sex and coquetry in local cinema. Sanchez manages to create a pleasantly intelligent discourse without paralyzing his audience, allowing them to penetrate it and sprawl in all directions, leading them to a terrain that’s not exactly graspable but comfortable nonetheless. The tracking shots of the jungle provide a light, supple texture, making it seem like the viewer is entering Herzog territory, a place that foreshadows casualty, and fortunately Sanchez permits such pleasures to repeat and linger. This being a movie of treacherous slopes and faint come-ons, the presence of an insanely catchy novelty song is manna from heaven.
6. PASCALINA, Pam Miras
Pascalina does not give a good first impression. Its grainy, home video quality is enough to throw someone off, and Pascalina happens to be one of those frustrating characters whose ill fate can’t be helped. But Pam Miras is smart enough not to resort to cheap tricks and bloodletting to pull the viewers in. Instead, she makes her narrative swell until it bursts with tension, creating a rickety, airless, and claustrophobic cavity in which her characters slip into without noticing it, her main character being the only person to realize the descent. Shireen Seno and Malay Javier, using a Digital Harinezumi, favor compositions that look as though they were infested by maggots—the shots are dingy but strong, a fundamental force in carrying out the beast that Pascalina ignores—and Corinne de San Jose casts a chill over the rubble, creates more corpses, and hides them in the dark, her sound design hovering until the film finds Pascalina shaking hands with the devil.
5. GIVE UP TOMORROW, Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco
In hindsight, the Chiong murder case, from the moment it first came to public attention in 1997 to the release of Paco Larrañaga’s death sentence in 2004, was a dog and pony show. It exploded and scattered its shrapnel to every nook and cranny of the Philippine justice system, a grim and painful reminder of an organized snafu that required gods and monsters to accomplish, tightening the knots of an unforgivable criminal gaffe instead of helping loosen them. In Give Up Tomorrow, the situation being dissected is messy. Arguments pile on top of one another incessantly—each of them forming the trajectory towards the center, Paco’s innocence bearing the clearest but most disputed evidence—but the documentary makes a strong and convincing point by showing how clean-cut it is. Producer Marty Syjuco and director Michael Collins are driven by a hazy glimmer of hope, and rather than doing an autopsy they perform a CPR, veering away from mere journalism and carefully guiding the viewer into a cold, unsettling conclusion that pounds the truth that justice, regardless of partakers, shouldn’t be arbitrary. Their film presents a world where the hideous becomes bearable, and this kind of tolerance is more revolting than the crimes and misdemeanors that their seven-year search has managed to uncover.
4. ANG PAGLALAKBAY NG MGA BITUIN SA GABING MADILIM, Arnel Mardoquio
At times, the surface of Arnel Mardoquio’s fifth full-length feature would be so frightfully calm that its characters also tend to notice it, and they make some noise to break free from the stifling atmosphere, revealing parts of themselves that have long been seeking release. So when the big moments take place, they don’t really leave an impression of size but of spontaneity, war being life itself, a stage of never-ending battles and losses, and Mardoquio, without betraying the intricacies of his subject, melts this exterior as the narrative unfolds, the stuff underneath bulging with apprehension and dread.
3. PUREZA: THE STORY OF NEGROS SUGAR, Jay Abello
Jay Abello is a skilled cinematographer, and although Pureza features beautiful images of the Negros landscape, they are hardly the highlight of his exhaustive documentary. He’s more concerned with digging—histories, communities, dynasties, voices, culture, crimes, injustice, yarns of stories, huge chunks of contradictions, the embarrassment of riches, the thrust of being born poor, the numerous divides created by sugar as the region’s goldmine, the lives of people it continues to affect at present, from the families of hacienderos to the impoverished farmers who own a piece of land but can’t make a decent living out of it—he discovers all of these, which makes the film too heavy to carry, but he never stops. Pureza is driven by Abello’s resolute desire to answer a simple question, but along the way it unearths tragedies of the worst kind, a pile of incongruities in the sociopolitical topography of the country eaten by neoliberal trade and neocolonialism, a grave national problem being neglected ever since. After connecting the dots, the film’s final image assumes the form of a recognizably Filipino cluster fuck, one that has taken countless lives and many lifetimes to happen.
2. COLOSSAL, Whammy Alcazaren
“Colossal—but all on paper,” writes Noli Manaig about Whammy Alcazaren’s debut film. Five simple words, but strong enough to inflict hurt on the young Alcazaren. Manaig pens an eloquent review, but one can’t miss the tone of derision that permeates it, the way he attributes most of the film’s praises to how people always take into consideration the director’s age, basically a factor that Alcazaren can do nothing about. After highlighting an extremely favorable comment, Manaig takes the bull by the horns and presents his detailed but generally unfriendly assessment. But here’s the thing: in light of that appraisal, an important incident, something rare in local cinema, takes place. A seemingly slight but crucial exchange has materialized between an articulate film critic and a promising filmmaker, the latter armed with his overwhelming poetry and images, and the former with his persuasive skepticism, and both manage to build strong defenses of their own. That’s a welcome development, right? It’s something that needs to happen more frequently. But in an argument between two figures, who’s more convincing?
Well, Colossal lives up to its name in many ways, but it must be said that it’s the kind of work that reeks of privilege. The resources needed to make it—the intellectual attitude, the emotional control, the access to historical material—wave its hands nonchalantly at the audience. Belonging to a family of esteemed professionals and artists, Alcazaren makes use of the medium, succumbs to an eclectic mindset, and does something strange and beautiful with it. Colossal observes grief, alluding to C.S. Lewis’s book on the subject, and is narrated single-handedly by an old man who muses on a medley of stories, a shapeless monologue seeming to exist independently from the visuals. Alcazaren creates brave new worlds by luxuriating in monochromatic curlicues, at one point playing with lines to form constellations, and structures his film with conscious regard for its architecture, each sequence like a concrete block waiting to be filled with cement. It turns into a concentration of riches, overseeing a contagion of maladies in a place where maps are not needed, just silent understanding. There is only a suggestion of grief—perhaps in Alcazaren’s mind, to confront it is to betray it—but even its lightest tinge is imposing enough.
1. FLORENTINA HUBALDO, CTE, Lav Diaz
Lav Diaz’s movies feel like they are set at the end of the world—their place and time harbor a sense of resignation and denouement, what with the consuming display of despair and stone-cold violence, most strikingly the passage of time in preparation for what seems to be an impending doom—and his characters are either unaware of it or they don’t care about what’s coming. The latter is more likely, considering that time and space in Diaz’s films are not ideas but companions, visible and perceptible, their existence so physical that the medium, and the language consequently, concedes to the need for a more accurate depiction of emotional decay, one that respects time by allowing it to appear as an element closest to its spotless form.
Even Florentina Hubaldo, the subject of his most recent film, would have expressed how much she wanted the world to end had she been more articulate, had she found a way to escape the life that her abusive father ruined for her so early. But her confinement is seeking finality, and that finality is death, so Diaz is only as helpless as her, pained at the sight of his creation, and the only happiness he could give her, aside from the cheerful sequences with the Higantes, is that moment when she and her daughter are seen together, smiling as the boat passes by, freed from the grief of the world. The post-nominal letters in the title are the same cuffs that tie Florentina to her bed, only this suffix consigns her into a beastlier lodging, sharing the fate of the gecko that never stops making a sound until someone finds it. Someone does find her eventually, only her respite is not long enough to make up for the things she has lost.
Like Diaz’s other films, Florentina Hubaldo, CTE contains the nuances and challenges of great literature. It doesn’t beg to be watched in its entirety: its strength is its ability to remain powerful despite the inevitability of missing sequences due to its length. But sincere admirers of Diaz never call it length: they call it dimension, the distance from end to end not measured by minutes but by experience, and waiting for the film to unfold is similar to reading a novel without actually holding one. Diaz turns the pages and they fuel a dying bonfire. Unknown to him, they burn but never turn into ashes.
For future reference: The Top Filipino Films of 2011 December 25, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, Yearender.
Old habits die hard, and one of them turns out to be one year late.
1. LAWAS KAN PINABLI, Christopher Gozum
2. BIG BOY, Shireen Seno
3. TUNDONG MAGILIW, Jewel Maranan
4. ISDA, Adolfo Alix, Jr.
5. ELEHIYA SA DUMALAW MULA SA HIMAGSIKAN, Lav Diaz
6. X-DEAL, Lawrence Fajardo
7. BAHAY BATA, Eduardo Roy, Jr.
8. PAHINGA, Khavn De La Cruz
9. WON’T LAST A DAY WITHOUT YOU, Raz Dela Torre
10. EX PRESS, Jet Leyco
Mamay Umeng (Dwein Baltazar, 2012) December 13, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Dwein Baltazar
Cast: Gerry Adeva, Sue Prado, Crizzalyn Enriquez, Ramona Revilla
Many writers have pointed out the beauty and subtlety of Mamay Umeng, and without a doubt Dwein Baltazar’s debut feature is a beautiful and subtle film. In fact, despite the lack of narrative action, it has the ability to hypnotize the viewer, thanks in large part to Neil Daza’s striking camera work and to actor Gerry Adeva’s indelible presence, which lingers even after the screen fades to black. Baltazar’s portrait of Mamay Umeng is as clinical as an autopsy, basically providing a 70-minute glimpse into an old man’s life as he waits on his death, but she leaves plenty of room for introspection, capturing everyday moments and making them resonate, her discipline as a filmmaker as recognizable as her subject’s frailness. It’s the kind of film that’s willing to sacrifice plot development and character arcs for the sake of effect—that mental and emotional impression based on the totality of a piece of work—and on one hand, bravo, it succeeds, congratulations, but on the other: is that it? To what end? The problem with the idea of filming life as it happens is that it becomes the basis of everything: the director has to stand by it and the viewer, seeing how its stubbornness will never waver, concedes to it and becomes subservient to the point of resignation. A story about waiting doesn’t have to emphasize waiting to illustrate its point—a lot of precious opportunities are lost because of this mistaken idea—and the decision to observe and idle instead of making an effort to drive the narrative into far riskier territories, may they be physical or emotional, only scratches the surface: it will create a wound but it will heal very soon. Mamay Umeng is fraught with affecting displays of sadness, but one can’t help feeling that they stand out because the scenes around them are bare, that they are restrained because there’s a pervasive fear of ruining the tone of the movie, that in essence the film is trying to leap but it can’t leap because it would rather go around, afraid of losing what it has accomplished. And by all means that’s a sadder thought.
Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi (Richard Somes, 2012) December 11, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Richard Somes
Cast: Erich Gonzales, Mark Gil, Alfred Vargas
Mariposa sa Hawla ng Gabi has the makings of a fine action movie, but along the way it is hindered by its tireless underpinning of mood, oftentimes forgetting that it has a story to tell, which is a pity because its narrative is captivating. A young woman, played by Erich Gonzales with a mix of charm and grit, sets out to explore the sudden death of her sister. As she seeks help from people, she gets caught in a warren of corrupt men and their evil activities. Opposite her is an eccentric with a horrible obsession, a crazy character played by Mark Gil, and the film builds up until the two of them meet and eventually part ways, with blood in their hands and faces. Noir is a rarity in contemporary local cinema, and Mariposa is the genre at its grimiest: it reeks of sludge and vomit, every scene feeling like a note from the underworld, a page from a maddening novel on anarchy. Director Richard Somes is easily enamored by visuals, but he has a problem making the scenes work together. Although Mariposa has its share of gripping moments—narrative crests scattered in the beginning, middle, and end—it becomes weak due to his disregard for pacing, the potboiler never quite boiling because the meat turns out to be half-cooked, the soup lacking a pinch of salt.
Anak Araw (Gym Lumbera, 2012) December 6, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine.
Written and directed by Gym Lumbera
Cast: Jay de la Vega
Anak Araw is the first of Gym Lumbera’s two movies to be screened this year, and should one be inclined to look for something out of the ordinary in local cinema, his work could offer a welcome respite. See, experimental filmmakers have never had it easy, both in terms of audience and affirmation, but their existence makes any national cinema richer, their presence like dark shadows in a haunted house, intimidating but actually friendly. In Anak Araw Lumbera feels trapped in the strange art form but he makes the most of his time by amusing himself. It’s more entertaining than poetic, more charming than beautiful, and more external than internal, though all of these assumptions can easily be disproved. He shares fragments of history, sometimes turning them into splinters from the future, from watching the funeral of comedian Togo and hearing Nat King Cole sing the classic “Dahil Sa ‘Yo” to the sight of kids falling into the water and a band merrily playing in the forest, not to mention the hilarious visual of a boy crawling and making the sound of a goat, he distills the humor from them until the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, Lumbera revealing himself and showing his ass dimples.
Alagwa (Ian Loreños, 2012) December 5, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Ian Loreños
Cast: Jericho Rosales, Bugoy Cariño, Leo Martinez, Carmen Soo
The best parts of Alagwa are those that linger on the relationship between the father and his son, moments that stay with the viewer because they tiptoe around the drama and attack it at the most vulnerable time. They are compellingly executed but tempered enough not to stretch the movie’s early highlights. It also helps that Jericho Rosales and Bugoy Cariño are mainstream actors: they exhibit a kind of discipline that has a tendency to please: their performances are trimmed well and their ability to hold an emotion and sustain it for a certain period adds to the effect of the buildup towards the tragedy. Both are aware of their position at the center of the movie, sometimes changing places from left to right, so the fulcrum never weakens, or at least it gives the impression of steadiness. But director Ian Loreños knows that at some point he’ll enter a gray area where even the talent of his actors can’t pull him out. The predictability of the narrative does not hamper the film—the parallel cutting to several sequences in the future intensifies the conflict and changes its texture, despite being an unadventurous structural device—but its producers’ advocacy, which becomes controlling in the middle until the end, does. Listen, it’s a good cause: it presents the enormity of child trafficking and the numerous lives it ruins, the horror of seeing it happen and not being able to stop it. But an effective advocacy in film doesn’t show its hands; it sends strong air punches until the viewer writhes upon feeling them. The drama becomes stilted in the second half because it decides to put forward its intent with little regard for the sobriety of reason. Alagwa shares the madness of Secret Sunshine, the acclaimed 2007 movie by Lee Chang-dong, but whereas the latter latches on dragging the story of a grieving mother, Loreños’s film stays away from any form of inactivity, determined to keep the narrative afloat and moving all the time. Fortunately it’s all done in good taste, leaning more on eliciting compassion than logic, the Filipino spirit being the sentimental and hyperbolic kind. Proving this is the decision to end it at an almost improbable point, a crucial conclusion to a story whose emotional graph is dotted with red marks. But thank god Jericho Rosales can act: he nails that scene like gangbusters. Fucking waterworks.
Palitan (Ato Bautista, 2012) December 3, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written by Shugo Praico
Directed by Ato Bautista
Cast: Alex Vincent Medina, Mara Lopez, Mon Confiado
What’s very disgusting about Palitan is the cycle of abuse it creates, that after taking advantage of Mara Lopez’s body through a series of prolonged sex scenes that borders on the indecent and lascivious (in short, pointless and offensive) and making her believe (as an actor and a person) that she is carrying out the role for the sake of the film and not of the filmmakers (which is utter bullshit) it forces the viewers to partake in its obscenity and lets them feel as though the desecration committed to her were happening for a good reason, that the movie, in its insistence on overplaying the tension between the two men, uncovers the rottenness of its purpose systematically, and instead of paying homage to Scorpio Nights (a masterwork of heavy political insight) it actually embarrasses Peque Gallaga and his film to the core. Ideally, one shouldn’t waste time trying to discuss an obviously bad movie (oftentimes talking and writing about it could lead to more upsetting discoveries, like how the female character, even in her final shot, is treated like a piece of meat, void of sincere humanity) but Palitan is working under the pretense of artistic worth (how else can its acceptance into a festival be explained?) and that fact alone poses serious danger, since it has been made with the help of institutions that believe in its ideologies, and there exists a league of minds that will respond to it with a hard-on and a folly of tolerance, rationalizing the film by virtue of subjectivity, to the point of defending its prurience. As expected, Ato Bautista and Shugo Praico top everything off by concluding the narrative the way men who use their balls more often than their minds do: give the woman a gun to kill the perverts who violated her. And that act only confirms how her character is made of cardboard (or of something flimsier) and defiles her even more because it reduces her existence to an entity as insignificant as a grain of sand, and her creators (smiling as they write her in paper) are pleased with that: they subsist and thrive in smut, their egos (and cocks) always in need of stroking.
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Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe Virtudazo-Hyde, Glorypearl Dy, Irish Karl Monsanto, Perry Dizon
In many ways Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is Arnel Mardoquio’s first great work. But in saying that, one runs the risk of devaluing the strength of his previous films, especially Sheika, which may be messy and untempered as a whole but has moments that offer a kind of hopeless desolation that its subject deserves to have. His movies are always conscious of his background. Hailing from Davao, he has long been exposed to the problems that people from Mindanao face, his stories taking shape from first-hand observations and experiences. He isn’t young: he is 42 and his hair has turned gray over the years. In addition to being a film writer and director, fields that he has decided to focus on fairly recently, he is a prolific and prizewinning playwright, theater director, actor, poet, and librettist. This involvement in various disciplines has given him a certain ripeness, a kind of wisdom that comes with age and maturity, aware that art is more or less an expression of misery. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is his fifth feature in four years, and his growth as a filmmaker, if he has a quality that needs to be emphasized, couldn’t be anything but remarkable. Instead of turning another screw, the movie is a statement that refuses to be quoted in simple terms, and its seemingly subdued surface allows more water to flow in its forked paths until there’s nothing left to corrode.
Much of its power comes from the deliberate control of sound. Its investment in silence is difficult not to notice because the story, which involves three Muslim insurgents and a kid trying to escape from their captors, needs a lot of time to breathe. It alternates between sucking in air and exhaling it because it happens to be the metaphor for its actual premise, how some people caught in the conflict in Mindanao contend with their everyday life, always finding themselves running and staying put. Mardoquio addresses the complexities of the armed conflict, but he does not explain why violence remains and why war and peace have become too abstract to understand. He does not pursue the whys and the wherefores; instead he creates sequences, particularly the brilliantly executed opening, in which the whys and the wherefores have come to be pointless, knowing that life goes on regardless of reasons, whether the revolution succeeds or not. What the film accomplishes in its subtlety is a drama that is effective and moving, not to mention having the ability to conceal its propaganda very well—Mardoquio losing the habit of staging sloppy spectacles, something that he was wont to do in his earlier work—and the screen is filled with images that take the plot into surprising directions. At some point in the film there is that beautiful shot of the hill where a man is seen with a water buffalo, and then a few seconds later a troop of bandits emerges on top, seven of them, as if referencing either Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, and for a brief moment the narrative has an air of a Western movie, which makes the hostile environment even more strangely horrifying. There is no denying that Mardoquio is in love with his visuals, as there are instances when the film will intentionally pause to show a lovely view of the falls or the orange sky, but he knows when to cut them: he takes them away just when the viewer begins to fall in love with them as well.
Despite the many chasms it can fall into, Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim never gets carried away by its sentiments. The anger and frustration that seep through its story are levelheaded, and its perspectives are grounded in consequences and not in platitudes. When the lesbian angle is finally confronted, it unfolds naturally, Amrayda and Fatima kissing each other as if it’s the last time, a kiss that connotes passion and resignation as much as bravery and cowardice. Amrayda is tired of the revolution, but she does not speak of its futility. It is still necessary, if not downright indispensable. She believes in a kind of life where her religion and her personal preferences could coexist, a life that would allow her to be a Muslim and marry Fatima at the same time, a life that is impossible to happen yet it’s something that she fervently holds onto. Mardoquio shares her weariness, closing the film on a bleak and uncertain note, but what is fate but bleak and uncertain? Where does the struggle actually end? How can a film address these issues without limning the blood in the frontiers and the dead bodies under the ground, without bringing up the cause and losing oneself in the maze of its contradictions? There are no simple answers, but more appropriately: there are no answers. Clearly, the revolution has already happened some time ago. It is still taking place. It will never cease. And there will be more corpses.
Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, 2011) November 19, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Antoinette Jadaone
Cast: Lilia Cuntapay, Geraldine Villamil, Joel Sarracho, Bella Mercado
Several months ago, at an awards ceremony that ended up highlighting not only the winners but also the people who selected them, the Urian decided to give the best actress prize to Maja Salvador for Thelma. It was an upsetting gesture, a charade that did nothing to distinguish the Urian, probably the most respected group of film critics in the country, from other award-giving bodies that recognize piles of rubbish every year. To start with, its standards seem questionable. If its idea of superlative acting is one that revels in monotony and triteness, then there is something laughable about the credence that its members think they have. Salvador’s attack on drama offers nothing new: it’s a heavy-handed performance that pokes too much and expects to be noticed for it. Choosing her over Cherry Pie Picache’s immensely nuanced work in Isda or Fides Cuyugan Asensio’s moving turn in Niño, both of whom portray mothers with remarkable nuance and intensity, indicates a lapse in judgment that’s too glaring to be defended by subjectivity. What makes this decision even more disappointing is that the plate offered to the Urian does not lack good options; on the contrary, the serving of nominees in the category is quite generous. The jury members, whatever terrible reasons they may have, reckon that the most delicious food in the dish is the parsley, and consequently Salvador’s name is chewed on by the press like a tasteless garnish, making the other winners pale in comparison. Sad to say, this confirms the Urian’s need to butter up the mainstream to sustain its personal network, a compromise that exposes the weakness of the culture developed in this type of environment, a situation that’s not unique in Philippine cinema but whose repercussions are exclusive to it.
To each his own, of course, but a wiser decision would have been to bestow the prize to Lilia Cuntapay. She is the subject of Antoinette Jadaone’s debut film entitled Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, a mockumentary in which she plays herself and a fictional version of herself. It’s an unlikely concept brought to life—a renowned movie extra finally given the opportunity to top the bill and carry a full-length feature—but its more striking feat is that Cuntapay, at a ripe age of 76, is able to complete the film and leave an impression of delight in doing it. Obviously she has waited long enough for this. She is jumpy and self-conscious about the attention given to her, enjoying the limelight and the certainty of not being edited out of the movie, reined in by her director whenever she becomes too eager to please. Her face lights up and frowns exaggeratedly when she finds herself cornered by a question, a manner that reflects her actual personality and adds to the charm of the film. She delivers a flawed yet unforgettable performance, a distinction that owes more to her presence than to the people showering her with compliments, her time onscreen conveying a sense of timelessness, a feeling that this recognition won’t ever happen again. On numerous occasions, Cuntapay acts as though she were always being reminded that the movie, after many years of fruitless search, had finally found her, and this consciousness allows her to create a portrait of herself that looks exactly like her but in many ways also resembles a lot of people, bit players who only exist in a two-hour movie for five seconds, actors whose mere idea of contentment is getting paid and being attributed correctly in the closing credits. Surely, the esteemed members of the Urian have taken these things into consideration, but how could they have weighed Cuntapay and still found her wanting?
Well, there are no easy answers, but interestingly the Urian is not alone. In Six Degrees of Separation, Cuntapay is nominated for best supporting actress and fails to win the prize. A huge portion of the movie is spent on following her as she drafts a speech, including a couple of dream sequences (shot in film) where she is dressed in elegant gowns, holding a trophy and addressing an unseen crowd. For someone of her rank, understandably, this high praise means elation and anxiety, and Jadaone is quick to establish that foothold. After introducing the audience to several celebrities and ordinary people who seem clueless about Cuntapay, the director visits her house in Manila and talks to her neighbors, who, as the story progresses, turn out to be as fascinating as Cuntapay herself, made evident in that hilarious series of scenes as they wait for her interview on television. Except for her assistant Myra, these supporting characters make up the main weakness of the movie—their lines are too sensible, their curiosity doesn’t seem natural, and their day-to-day activities in relation to Cuntapay are rather indefinite—but they are also crucial in providing the main character an emotionally credible foundation. Without them the narrative will hardly move forward, but their actions affect the believability of the mockumentary as a storytelling device. The film loses its natural feel as it carries on, its plot points becoming more scripted than improvised, but Jadaone compensates for it by executing a fine drama of Cuntapay’s life. When she arrives at a film location hours before the call time and asks permission to use the toilet, only to be denied because it can only be used by the main actors, one feels that this is a situation that has happened to her many times in the past. There is that vicarious clutch of ache and sadness, like a paper cut that stings for the first time, but then the next scene shows Cuntapay peeing in the grass, hidden behind Myra’s garment, and the sight couldn’t be anything but sidesplitting. Just when the film is about to get too indulgent in its sentiments, Jadaone will find a way to come up with random bursts of humor, scenes that make Cuntapay’s situation painfully absurd and amusing at the same time.
“She is one filmmaker whose work I seriously believe would make for good commercial cinema. Here’s to hoping she gets her break soon and is given the freedom she deserves to make it in the manner she wants,” said Alexis Tioseco about Jadaone in 2006. The late critic had openly expressed his fondness for her student work, seeing in “’Plano,” “Saling Pusa,” and “Ang Pinakamagandang Pelikula” a certain potential that could go beyond the confines of the short film medium, a young and passionate mind whose sensibilities leaned on the mainstream but away from the stale formulas of most studio releases. Six Degrees of Separation happens to be the break that Tioseco was waiting for, and the rejection from Cinemalaya turned out to be a blessing since it’s likely that Laurice Guillen and Robbie Tan would insist on changing some aspects of the script that were too atypical. One could only speculate on the extent of their intervention: Would Cuntapay have bigger and more outrageous scenes to showcase her acting? Would she be given less screen time considering Guillen didn’t find her face too endearing? Would her poverty and lack of husband and children be emphasized, as well as being a lonely old maid about to bite the dust? The creative freedom given by Cinema One Originals has allowed Jadaone to make a film that teems with personality, letting her linger in a kind of adolescence that never loses sight and perspective of how this industry works and how cruel it can be even in the littlest of circumstances. The title may not match the zest of its material, but it totally makes sense in the context of Cuntapay’s fate, both as a seasoned actor and an aged woman whom the viewers are familiar with but have watched from an indeterminable distance, the separation leaping from professional to personal. In hindsight, Tioseco’s greatest legacy is the impression he left on the people he believed in, and Jadaone is one of them. She has turned that encouragement into a challenge not just to please him but also to continue what he so passionately did in his short life, helping out people in the industry who deserve more but receive less, proving that he was right in having faith in her.
In one of his interviews in the film, Peque Gallaga drives across a meaningful point. He mentions that getting an award is important for an artist because it raises her talent fee and improves her work condition. In an ideal world this should be true, but an ideal world is also full of disappointments. Although Cuntapay would have preferred to have these belated perquisites in the twilight of her career, she is motivated by another reason, and that is to show everyone that she is worthy of such praise, that the events in her life have naturally led to this, to a genuine appreciation of her craft by her peers. This explains her earnestness to come up with a good speech. She looks forward to having a perfect moment in case luck stays on her side, but unfortunately it decides to perch on someone else’s. Jadaone’s camera doesn’t show how the wrinkles on Cuntapay’s face have suddenly gone deeper or how her heart has skipped more than a beat. Instead it shows her hand crumpling the speech she has painstakingly prepared for days, acknowledging defeat. Despite not having seen the film she’s in, the audience members feel that Cuntapay deserves it, a sentiment that Jadaone has cleverly conditioned them to feel, so when Rio Locsin asks her to come up onstage and share the prize with her, the gesture draws attention to the softness of the narrative, succumbing to the necessity of a cathartic finish. In real life, as what happened in the Urian this year, Cuntapay is not expected to receive an award, and even if she does she is likely to share it with someone (with Maricar Reyes, for instance, at the Cinema One Originals ceremony). By way of an uncanny prescience, Jadaone has seen this coming and figured a much finer tribute: presenting this film to the public and making sure that it will be remembered for its star more than anyone or anything else. She succeeds and Cuntapay takes a bow, overwhelmed and lost in thought.
On Homeland. October 25, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Oh You Know, TV.
At the time of writing, Homeland is airing its second season, just a few days after the fourth episode, and it demands to be written because that particular episode, wittingly called “New Car Smell,” illustrates how political thrillers should be made. It’s no doubt a masterclass in writing and direction, its pacing like a live wire waiting to be touched, and when touched explodes in the end, which actually happens in its mind-blowing conclusion that feels like an early but by no means premature season finale. The brilliance of Homeland lies in its unpredictability, and this is not just unpredictability for the sake of suspense but also of something that reveals a kind of fearlessness that its pool of ace writers has managed to deliver since the first season, making the viewers feel as if the episodes are conceived and taped at that very moment, the plot turns never random but always impulsive, the narrative arcs of Carrie and Brody, as well as their family baggage, meeting without actually seeing each other, their emotional intensities equaled by no one but themselves. For a show that features two main characters that rarely meet in person, Homeland knows when to hurl its most deafening grenades. That particular sequence when Carrie and Brody meet at a hotel bar is quite similar to the time they spent in the cabin one weekend, only the former is more taxing because neither is drunk and both are more frightening when they’re not under the influence of alcohol, especially Carrie because she has a plan in mind that she’s going to carry through no matter what, regardless of instructions given by Saul, Estes or Quinn, and simply because she is a manic and ruthless intelligence officer. Claire Danes portrays her with massive keenness, displaying a kind of demeanor that leaves the viewer in awe of her dramatic range, too focused to be bothered by anything trivial yet too sensitive to miss the complexity of casual details. She’s like a plane that always experiences turbulence, and unfortunately for the people around her she refuses to put her seat belt on. Any one or any thing that can make her feel uncomfortable or can loosen the screws in her head is welcome, and Brody, episode after episode, does so on various levels of terrifying intensity. Damian Lewis provides him with human and beastly qualities that shred the character in little pieces, only to be picked up and put together again. At this point, who cares about the logic of madness? At the rate it’s going, Homeland doesn’t seem to care for its audience’s nerves. Wherever its story turns up, in the Middle East or in the woods in Gettysburg, one can only expect brilliant anomalies, and in the crazy scheme of things, those fractures can easily suffice.
Marilou Diaz-Abaya: IMPRESSIONS October 23, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi, RIP.
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Director Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Cesar Montano on the set of “Jose Rizal”
In almost every field of interest between arts and science there seems to be a pressing need to represent women. It’s a kind of consciousness established in societies where campaigns for sexual equality are strong and pervasive. Certainly, the world would be a better place when everyone’s rights are respected, but sometimes there is that danger of doing it as a token effort, considering men in general don’t find it necessary to be part of every thing. Representation happens to them naturally and with much less bother. This business of glorifying women and their achievements—the media making a fuss about the first female president, the first woman to climb a tallest mountain, the first female Nobel Prize winner, and so on and so forth, and focusing on the subject voraciously—is rarely an innocent gesture. It’s a display of obscene generosity in situations that only call for an honest but dispassionate recognition, one that refuses to pander to women but still maintains its sincere admiration.
Hence, it only feels appropriate to honor Marilou Diaz-Abaya, whose career in film, television, and the academe spanned three decades, without too much emphasis on her gender. Obviously, being a woman did not limit her to tackle themes of her choice. Yes, her first few films (Tanikala, Brutal, Moral, Karnal, and Alyas Baby Tsina) feature women, but they aren’t ideal: they are dazed and confused, damaged by their personal decisions and impaired by their vulnerabilities. During that time, Abaya made films in the company of talented men, women, and gay men—Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Laurice Guillen, Lupita Kashiwahara, Peque Gallaga, and Celso Ad. Castillo—and she belonged. She was not the finest filmmaker of her generation, nor she deliberately aspired to be one, but she slowly made a name for herself, her modesty and seemliness eclipsing the dark nature of her early movies.
Looking back, it makes sense that a number of people consider Brutal, Moral, and Karnal a trilogy of some sort, as their titles clearly indicate their parallel stories. These three films do not intersect but they share a world where misfortunes happen and fracture the lives of their characters. They present tragedies of varying intensities, placing women not only at the center but also in the periphery. Brutaltells the story of a young woman who murders her husband and his friends. A female journalist writes about her case and meets another woman who takes pride in selling her body. Moral features four university students who find themselves at a crossroads, yearning for love and chasing their dreams. Karnal enters a much sinister territory, depicting a couple living in a remote town shrouded by secrets, narrated by an old lady whose frightening voice is a character in itself. All three movies were written by acclaimed writer Ricky Lee, his scripts heavy on research and rich in characterization, and Abaya did not only handle them maturely: she grasped them with force and confidence. Clearly, she felt challenged by her contemporaries.
While there is a palpable sense of femininity in these movies, Abaya abstains from sanctimonious pageantry and puts things in perspective. She raises concerns of women and the violence committed to them, but she also recognizes their shortcomings and susceptibility to moral hypnosis, their fates determined by their resolve or lack thereof. The world is unfair to women, but so is to men.Karnal, for instance, has a strong and suffocating depiction of patriarchy, the overbearing father played by Vic Silayan controlling not just the women of the house but also the men. It’s a horrifying picture of a family maddened by circumstances, and the woman whose importance in the story is emphasized leaves a disturbing impression of subsistence, coming out alive in the end but bereft of spirit. By contrast, Moral is a lighter but sharper piece, one whose observations on the struggles of present-day women, lost in the mazes they create for themselves, are relevant up to now. WhereasBrutal and Alyas Baby Tsina dwell on the criminal and psychological, overplaying hopelessness and suffering, Moral rims its characters by emphasizing their faulty nature, placing them in more realistic situations but with less defined solutions to their problems.
Abaya gave into expectations, which could be extremely hard when you’re twenty-something, principled, and pressured by the task of working with some of the local industry’s renowned actors. She confronted the need to have a so-called female voice in a business dominated by male egos, but she didn’t make a huge deal out of it. Filmmaking, after all, requires the flair for sucking up to the system and turning the tide in the shortest time possible. As her reputation grew, Abaya started to swerve and change direction. Overshadowing the remarkable scripts of Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo (written by Amado Lacuesta), Milagros (written by Rolando Tinio), and May Nagmamahal Sa ‘Yo (written by Ricky Lee) are epic productions she took charge of near the end of the ‘90s. After working with GMA Films for Sa Pusod ng Dagat, she embarked on an ambitious project of directing the life of Jose Rizal, which turned out to be one of the movies that people would fondly remember her for. Running for almost three hours, Jose Rizal is by all means impressive in scale, from its cast and locations to its wardrobe and production design. Having been given the financial liberty to interpret history, Abaya took on the challenge and pleased her producers, the box-office success of the movie owing to its relevance (1998 is the 100th year of Philippine independence) and inclusion in the annual Metro Manila Film Festival. Abaya managed to repeat this feat, although in a much smaller scale, with the release of Muro-ami the following year. Cesar Montano credited her for advancing his acting career, as the movie also made the rounds in foreign film festivals.
The palette on which Abaya decided to situate herself and her characters broadened and leaned on the populist side, but this was neither for the benefit nor detriment of her career, since her films in the ‘90s and ‘00s, well-made most of them might be, weren’t faultless, and only upon recognizing the nature of these lapses that her entire body of work could be fully appreciated. In this period she no longer seemed as self-conscious as she was when she began, yet in this settled state she also lost that spark of youth, preferring to address larger social issues by way of narratives poached in television drama, resorting to truisms instead of the whys and wherefores. She presented social ills with beaming optimism, an attitude she had until her final years. In Bagong Buwan, for instance, she avoided stereotyping Muslims and Christians, but did so with an off-putting blatancy that stood out as the movie progressed. By placing the carefully executed drama at the center, Abaya wasn’t in control of her characters; on the contrary, they were in control of her. It’s a movie that shows an angry face but not an angry heart, lacking any kind of subversiveness that may have made it leap out of the ordinary.
Not to put too fine a point on it: she softened, and her voice lost its ire. One could attribute it to the type of projects she took on, but clearly it’s natural for artists to change, and she did so (intentionally or not) as personal life caught up on her, settling down and having two kids to tend to. Another reason could be time. Several years before digital cinema boomed, her contemporaries in the ‘80s were either dead or inactive. Slow years, so to speak, went by. She became more involved in socio-civic work and teaching, helping out various organizations and honing hungry young minds at Ateneo. Her passion was channeled to people who needed her, and she obliged. Cancer didn’t stop her. In 2007, shortly after the diagnosis, she founded the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute and Arts Center and established programs for aspiring filmmakers. It was a very emotional time, but she managed to shoot and finish Ikaw ang Pag-ibig, which would turn out to be her last hurrah. A tribute to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the film is a farewell and love letter to a generation she is about to leave behind, a piece of work that understandably shows her frailness. Like most of us, she was living and dying at the same time, and in those two hours came her final breaths in her homeland, submitting to the industry she served for 30 years, cinema being the only homeland of filmmakers who fought their wars until the very end.
But what is death if not cruel and kind, if not an amalgam of strange contradictions, discoveries, and dead-ends? Where does one find consolation but in grief? Where does one turn to when silence starts to idle? Philippine cinema lost three of its beloved children this year—Dolphy, Mario O’Hara, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya—and their quietus is not only a reminder of mortalities that happen between parentheses but also of the crumbs they took with them, their departures an indication of life in an industry that’s always been rumored to be dead. She spent her last five years in pain and resignation, the latter casting a shadow on the former, blanketed in optimism and bent on sharing every bit of herself with old and new friends, family and acquaintances. She was mourned and missed by people who knew her, and even those who didn’t felt a kind of affection towards her, a familiar but distant feeling of knowing her, of being moved by her passion. More than her body of work, which had its highs and lows, she created a path to follow, an existence devoted to art and spiritual work, left to the tender mercies of time, which could also be as cruel and kind as death. In this industry, what remain are the impressions made by the brave and generous, and books, should they be fortunate enough to be printed, would certainly have her name.
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 3) October 11, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine.
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APARISYON (Vincent Sandoval, 2012)
There is something suspicious about Sister Lourdes the moment she steps into the monastery. You know, the way nuns tend to be: extremely pleasant on the outside but sharp on edges, with one eye closed and one eye open, one hand holding a rosary and one hand holding a knife. But basing on Jodi Sta. Maria’s performance and Vincent Sandoval’s direction, tellingly, she happens to be nothing more than a blank slate. In most instances, Sister Lourdes accepts apples as apples and oranges as oranges, curious and spirited but never unreasonable. She is fostered by nuns of diverse personalities, upright characters that emphasize her inexperience. They create the tension around her, and she submits herself willingly to their severity.
With a setting like this, though, it is likely that she bites into one of those poisoned apples. This kind of breaking point is rather unsurprising, as the movie, in its firm structure, builds up to it consciously, the drama afterwards becoming tighter and more internal. Jay Abello’s subtle framing and Teresa Barrozo’s low-key music act as effective accomplices to this stifling atmosphere. But it doesn’t stop there. Sandoval takes advantage of a room full of horrors and decides not to open any window, creating a Martial Law movie without the bombardment of the usual elements that define it, for instance, people rallying on EDSA or faces of Marcos, Ninoy, Ramos, and Enrile. He is very generous when it comes to staging emotional scenes, careful not to lose their weight. However, a number of crucial sequences, especially those that happen after the crime, bank too much on mystery that they lose balance. As a result, the the narrative tips over and reveals some cracks.
Aparisyon shows abuse and guilt, the fringes of evil, the misfortune of the years lived in danger. For the most part it’s an absorbing experience, but one couldn’t help feeling that the movie could have flown much further, up and away, out of its box. It lounges in its ambiguity and pain, over the hushed tones of fearful women, in the remote forest where suffering is shared and isolated at the same time. It’s a siege film void of an escape plan, and at the center of it is not the group of nuns but Sandoval, overexerting his characters’ emotions, restrained by his own motives, a victim of his own ideas. Its strengths are also its weaknesses, and Sister Lourdes, despite her pointless prayers, knows that she can only do so much. B
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 2) August 17, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
ANG NAWAWALA (Marie Jamora, 2012)
When all this clamor surrounding Ang Nawawala dies down, it would be interesting to ponder on ideas that will broaden the horizon of the movie, as opposed to those that limit it, hoping that people will refrain from embarrassing themselves by expressing empty and baseless sentiments. For instance, when a writer claims that Ang Nawawala shares “a humanity that transcends class boundaries” and that “not all movies have to be a commentary on the sociopolitical status of the country,” the film might find itself in a very dangerous position, one that requires justifying itself more than it needs to, thereby falling into the clutches of an indiscreet clique.
To some extent, most of the arguments online, which are neither polarizing nor progressive, are more fascinating than the film itself, tending to magnify its intentions and worship its makers, its supporters passionate to nail their point by proving others wrong. They create the loudest noise, always defensive of the movie’s merits and wary of people who make a fuss about class, trying to undermine the luxury that the characters can afford. Discussions are generally healthy, but it is a mistake to believe that just because a piece of work invites a heavy amount of attention, it becomes a movie of certain importance. As it is, Ang Nawawala presents nothing that is hard to understand. It is shrouded by a mist so thick that once the story is told and its peculiarities are exhausted, all that is left to do is turn the wiper on and drive away.
The story is set at Christmastime. Gibson (Dominic Roco) has stopped talking after a terrible childhood accident. After several years abroad, he returns home and is welcomed by his family, with whom his relationship has become cold and distant. His close friend Teddy (Alchris Galura) reaches out to him and they go out to seek fun and romance. The latter he finds in Enid (Annicka Dolonius), an attractive young woman who enjoys attending art exhibits and gigs, and they strike up a friendship, Enid aware of Gibson’s forbearance to speak. He falls in love with her, only to find out that she comes with strings attached. Having opened himself recklessly to Enid, Gibson turns to someone who’s been with him all along, winding up a chapter of his life that has long been needing closure, and leaps in the dark with eyes open.
All of these are presented nice and cozy, except that at some point in the movie, obvious questions begin to crop up: why are people, young and old alike, so keen on liking this? Where is the huge torrent of enthusiasm coming from? Haven’t they seen anything better, stories with richer characters and finer rhythm, films with more striking personalities driven by a kind of energy that characterizes youth and being at a crossroads? Because seriously, with the intense way it’s being received, Ang Nawawala is a size 6 being given a size 10, being asked to sport higher heels than it can manage.
Clearly, there’s no use arguing about two things: (1) that the movie has connected well with many audience members, and (2) that writers Marie Jamora and Ramon de Veyra have a sincere intention, which shows in its undeniably pleasant appeal. However, from a conflicting perspective, Ang Nawawala has problems translating that genuine objective into a language that’s defined and discerning. Jamora overlooks a number of saggy sequences that could have provided Gibson a dimension outside his discomfort zone. She could have done away with all the gloss and replace it with layers, seeing that she prefers inertia to gravity, and come up with a way of highlighting emotional authenticity aside from glorifying despair. She lets a lot of good narrative opportunities pass—Dawn Zulueta and Buboy Garovillo’s characters could have been anything but flat, and Enid could have been more than just a pretty, dolled-up face. But as the story is told, it is apparent that Jamora wants to capture that limbo, that feeling of being forced to mature, that train of adulthood that one wants so badly to miss, only perhaps unknown to her, she is filling everything with haze. By showing heartbreak with more emphasis on break than heart, the film drowns in its whiny and generic indulgence.
Many elements are just there for their prettiness and they suck whatever little the movie is trying to say. It’s so rich in material possessions but so poor in nuances, and clearly it makes a point about class because it strives so hard to ignore it. Suffice it to say, depiction is rarely an innocent and harmless act. The iPhones, the vintage cameras, the Mac computers, the posters of Mike de Leon movies, even the turntable and stacks of vinyl that have now become an obsession of the wealthy because of their worth (nostalgia being such an expensive commodity)—they parade Gibson’s family’s ability to afford the luxuries of both the old and the new, riches that it is never embarrassed about, riches that of course it takes for granted. More than presenting an honest-to-goodness story, Ang Nawawala illuminates these certainties, the middle class holding a sense of absolute entitlement to freedom, and chooses to use an enfeebled love story as a pretext, as an apology in fact, to say that the well-off also suffers, that fortunate people may have earned their comfortable life but they also agonize, even worse.
Whereas the movie depicts Gibson with a lot of options at hand, having choices and second chances, many of which he is too indisposed to notice, it also validates, incongruously, how limited the thought given in the creation of his character. He never extends his hand—he wants you to extend your hand for him. And if that’s not enough, the filmmakers also want you to extend even your heart for him. If, in Jerrold Tarog’s words, Gibson is “an upper middle class kid who grows up a little,” then it’s the same case for the film. Ang Nawawala plays the game in every imaginable way: it appeals to the youth of today, it is hip and friendly, it embraces and high-fives everyone. But when all is said and done, it only revels in the distance it has created. And as a token of appreciation, it passes on a cigarette it feels so privileged to share. C+
Cinemalaya 2012 (Part 1) August 1, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
POSAS (Lawrence Fajardo, 2012)
Posas feels like a reprise of Amok, from the chaotic spectacle of violence to the harsher realities borne out of its multi-character plots, except that the former’s treatment is wholly different, preferring tedium to brevity, repeating its surficial and figurative points instead of reinforcing them through riskier expositions. Nothing in the movie is fresh, which is a minor complaint considering Fajardo’s strong directorial control in his previous work, Amok being able to prove that predictability can also be thrilling, something that Posas loses sight of the moment it spreads its dirty limbs. The narrative is unable to build up steam, oblivious to how and why stereotypes work, failing to view the social problem from a perspective that makes it worth the scrutiny. Fajardo lets it slip from his hand many times, and though the result isn’t exactly disastrous, it shows his skepticism about the material, a script lacking in meaningful insight, resorting to premature ideas and half-baked executions. Therefore, the actors can hardly be blamed for the limitations of their dialogues, although the nuances that some of them display can easily be appreciated. In fact, as one leaves the theater feeling dissatisfied, it becomes obvious that Art Acuña’s presence leaves a bigger impression than the movie itself, his ability to create tension out of body language alone hounding the viewer, his sense of authority so palpable and menacing that even his fingers act when he sends a text message or when he closes a door. His performance may come across as too focused and calculated, but Acuña never shows any hint of ambiguity or contradiction: his stare cuts through without leaving blood, his shadow lingers without making a sound. C
REQUIEME! (Loy Arcenas, 2012)
Written by renowned actor and playwright Rody Vera, the script of Requieme! is rife with observations on a society whose incongruities define it, articulated through a number of sketches that rely heavily on several punch lines, delivered subtly and flamboyantly, oftentimes discomfortingly hilarious, only the punch lines do not really signify the end of a joke because the whole movie is a continuous course of events whose impact intensifies at every turn, a tragicomedy that bites the hand that feeds it. The movie is hardly a farce: there is more to it than the penchant for sensationalism, the over-the-top situations that cross the line but are never unlikely, considering that the breadth of Filipino sensibility isn’t exactly graspable or comprehensible, and Vera yields to that, foregoing unnecessary apologies, employing some sort of realism that is neither magical nor kitchen sink, the luck and misfortune of the characters seemingly interchangeable. However, Arcenas misses the crucial placement of these literary refinements, quite a few of what could have been wonderful scenes losing their force due to structural discord, the humor being stretched to the point of sagging, either falling short or not getting there at all. Similar to Last Supper #3, Requieme! tracks down the roots of the filthy bureaucratic system that strangle and lock the masses in their unfortunate fates, flaunting a way life that is distinctly Filipino, a kind of misery that is exclusive to its struggling breed. B-
MGA MUMUNTING LIHIM (Jose Javier Reyes, 2012)
It would be quite amusing to suppose that the premise of Mga Mumunting Lihim is lifted from Judy Ann Santos’s landmark TV series in the 90s, where her diary plays a crucial role in establishing a jaw-dropping turning point, exposing another misdeed that will eventually lead to a nasty cliffhanger, a formidable storytelling device that’s surely one of that decade’s greatest legacies. In Joey Reyes’s film it is a collection of diaries, and it is central in providing the narrative some explosives, particularly when the people involved in the journal entries are provoked, Juday’s circle of friends played by Janice de Belen, Iza Calzado, and Agot Isidro, doing verbal Olympics as their little secrets are uncovered, rowdy confrontations being Reyes’s strongest trait as a writer. These earsplitting arguments are the most entertaining aspect of the movie: they are exaggerated, hysterical, and overdramatic—absolutely pleasurable. But take those chunks of fireworks away and what’s left is a clearly identifiable teleplay, lazily told through a succession of flashbacks, its frames filled with excessive vanity shots, the construction of the film trying so hard to be young and hip and ending up like a fool. C
DIABLO (Mes de Guzman, 2012)
In Oscar Wilde’s words, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible,” and Mes de Guzman takes that to heart. Diablo is possibly his most beautifully photographed movie to date, a feat considering that it doesn’t feature as much landscape backdrops as his previous movies, which has now become a motif of his work. In his latest film, the compositions of interior locations, often clad in darkness, carry so much weight and ambivalence that at some point they begin to suffocate. The severity of his pace is quite a matter of contention, one that doesn’t steer away completely from his style but gives rise to doubts as regards his purpose, the mystery working on the assumption that there is something to be revealed, some expectations to be satisfied and knots to be untied. But this is Mes de Guzman after all—he lets you wait, regardless of result. To some extent, judging by the sight of Carlo Aquino’s picture at Nanay Lusing’s desk at the beginning and the way the impregnable matriarch shows her strongest emotion upon discovering the death of her radio, Diablo is also de Guzman’s cleverest work, poking fun at the seriousness of it all. Is this because Cinemalaya considers him New Breed despite having six features under his belt? B-
KAMERA OBSKURA (Raymond Red, 2012)
Yes, Raymond Red’s highly divisive Kamera Obskura will work even without its bookends—respected archivists Teddy Co, Cesar Hernando, and Ricky Orellana discussing the discovery of the silent movie in front of the media, and later on assessing its merits—but the film, without this fictional setup, will lose the advocacy that might have been the reason for its existence in the first place. People make a fuss about this lack of subtlety, about the blatant and didactic framework that envelops the movie, but this criticism, despite being valid, will easily be trampled on once the merits of the film, aesthetically and fundamentally, are considered. There is no experiment in form: it is simply a film within a film, and more than anyone in local cinema, Red knows how to play with form, and in Kamera Obskura he does so with boyish grace.
The silent film touches on many things: from the exile of a man to his discovery of a mysterious light, from his newly-found freedom to his possession of a magical camera, from the politicians trying to get hold of him to the sight of flying bicycles over buildings, from the political pastiche to the theatrical embellishments—Red is so eager to pile textures upon textures, layers upon layers, garnish upon garnish, like he’s trying to collect pieces of the past long neglected, the smell of places, the scars of history, trinkets of personal memory left in the gutter. To the disappointment of many, Red makes it clear that the whole thing is artificial, that the extent he has gone through to make a reproduction of the lost movie will in fact work to the disadvantage of Kamera Obskura, and he is aware of this, the imitation proving that all that’s lost can never be recovered. As he leaves the viewer with that final image, Pen Medina staring at his massive sculpture, recalling Ferdinand Marcos’s bust, everything being drowned by the weepy music, Red becomes that kid who wants to make a difference regardless of recognition, that kid finally being able to watch the fruit of his handsome imagination in the comfort of his own room. A-
MNL 143 (Emerson Reyes, 2012) July 14, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Emerson Reyes and Ade Perillo
Directed by Emerson Reyes
Cast: Allan Paule, Joy Viado, Gardo Versoza, Che Ramos
The best thing about MNL 143 is that Emerson Reyes is able to finish it. Despite the turn of events after its disqualification from Cinemalaya, he managed to raise money, hire the actors and crew he wanted, and complete the movie as he deemed fit. The worst thing about it is that the outcome, preceded by hype and expectations, is awfully lackluster. The disappointment is purely based on the weakness of its storytelling: the movie is unable to build a strong emotional core and falls into the trap of mistaking simplicity for emptiness. Had Reyes tried to take a leap and deliver the story it promised well on paper, he could have achieved something remarkable, not only for himself but also for the community that fought for his freedom of choice. Regrettably, MNL 143 displays a lack of ambition that can easily be confused with modesty, failing to strike a chord and take notice of the city that it wears proudly on its sleeve.
For a narrative that uses a device to take advantage of the many characters it brings together, the material should at least make the viewer curious. Commonplace issues of FX passengers are fine as long as their telling is motivated by a kind of inconsequence that stirs and creates a ripple effect—a movement that is faint at first sight but becomes perceptible as the film progresses. Sadly, Reyes does not encourage that setup to happen. He allows his characters to carry their stories and let them be known; however, there is no crucial dramatic arc that links them, no water that runs through that provides a nice flow. A number of stories start and end without any foothold on the past, sounding so written and perfunctory that they crash and burn upon delivery. As a viewer it’s like eavesdropping on people and realizing that you already know what they’re talking about: it validates the story but it doesn’t make it any more interesting. The only connection among the characters is the FX ride, not the everyday struggle of making it through the day alive and at ease, which could have made the token portraits more effective.
Making up for the lack of spontaneity and texture is the romance between Ramil, the FX driver, and Mila, the girlfriend he lost when he worked overseas. In what seems to be the handy slice of cake near the end of the movie, Mila becomes Ramil’s passenger, and the two engage in a conversation they have long wanted to have. Mila is now a widow, and as their sides are explained, it is obvious that Ramil is the only one holding onto their past. She’s content with her present life, but he wants her back. Several hours before they meet, he looked at her picture and cried inside the vehicle. It’s a flimsy scene that anticipates their meeting, handled absentmindedly and without interest, helpful in establishing his purpose but lacking in punch to drive the narrative into a tunnel of certainty. Ramil and Mila’s encounter could have provided some sort of deliverance from the monotony that permeates all throughout, but even this dramatic peak is conveyed unremarkably, bereft of something magical, of a warm and touching feeling that situations like this call for. The movie aspires so much to be artless and unsophisticated that it ends up dull, dry, and dreary.
On top of everything else, for a piece of work that considers itself deserving of the name of the city in its title, that city has been set aside. Yes, the commute from Buendia to Fairview shows Metro Manila—the poor infrastructure, the noisy streets, the polluted surroundings, and the cramped space in which people find themselves stuck—but the city, regardless of its peripheral presence, is never shown to be of any significance. It acts like a standee: it’s there, you see it, but it’s only a cardboard representation of the real thing. The most obvious question Reyes does not answer is: why is Manila special? Where is the relationship between the city and its characters? MNL 143 misses its context and subtexts, carrying on until its fuel runs out: a mere short distance, a few meters the farthest. It could have been set elsewhere and spared Manila the trouble of being given a tiny compliment, but it decides to show its toothless grin. It is proof that good intentions, however humbly they are expressed, are always inclined to mislead.
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) July 7, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, European Films.
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Written and directed by Robert Bresson
Cast: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pelegri
“The film is not a thriller,” a note at the beginning of Pickpocket tells. “Using image and sound, the filmmaker strives to express the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him.” The filmmaker is Robert Bresson and the young man is Michel, both of whom have experienced life in prison, Bresson for 18 months at a German camp and Michel by the end of the movie. The dynamics between the two—the creator and the creation—speaks volumes about the perfectionist nature of Bresson and his style that is anything but ostentatious. His approach defines a kind of severity that is easier explained than done: the economy of shots, the carefully-timed fadeouts, and the voiceover that provides a sturdier description of the characters than the short dialogues themselves. Like a professional butcher, Bresson gets rid of the fat and serves only the finest, laying Michel’s story, a pickpocket with a dying mother and questionable principles, as simple as possible on the surface, illustrating his detachment not only from the people around him but also from the corrupt and blasé society that he willingly submits himself to. Michel is aware of the consequences of his actions, but his motivation is no longer grounded in material needs but in adventure, something that rationalizes his lack of meaningful relationships, and his dependence on thrill and danger.
Bresson’s language can alienate the unacquainted but it bears gifts to those who are patient. There are breathtaking moments of tension, those that happen vaguely in the movie but mostly in the viewer’s mind, and they are accomplished with such ease that one wonders if the French are really that oblivious to their surroundings. That sequence at the train station more than halfway through the film displays Bresson’s ability to stun with the simplest of weapons. Michel and his two partners take turns in sliding hands into passengers’ suits and pockets, taking cash out of purses and bags, grabbing arms and filching prized watches, and Bresson shows fingers and faces, nonchalant looks and quick strides, person after person, trick after trick, all dry and terse, everything going smooth for the three thieves. It’s an organized crime in a public place, and Bresson wastes no time in shooting the scenes in a calculated manner—not in slow motion but in slow, larger-than-life contact—being able to situate Michel in the backdrop of the life he chooses to have, knowing that sooner or later the authorities are going to catch up on him and bare their handcuffs. “You’re not in the real world. You share no interests with others,” Jeanne, the kind neighbor who takes care of his ill mother, says. Later on Michel realizes the truth of this observation. She fancies him and visits him in prison. Like the doors that he always leaves open, she waits until he comes back because he always does, guided by guilt and comprehension, struggling from solitude. Bresson offers sympathy and Michel does not refuse.