Wanted: Border (Ray Gibraltar, 2009) December 15, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Ray Gibraltar
Cast: Rosanna Roces, Publio Briones, Sunshine Teodoro, AJ Aurello
It can be called death by synopsis.
When someone wants to watch a movie but knows nothing about the screenings, synopses come to the rescue. That’s a requisite among Cineplex owners. Yet conversely, even if the moviegoer knows which movie to watch, he still reads the synopsis just to convince himself that spending on such film is right. Synopses, as far as utility is concerned, are tangible proofs that at least a story exists in the film. Even if a linear story is not present, at least, a paragraph’s worth is still said about the film. It will not be blank screen and white noise that’s waiting inside the theater, the audience is assured.
I bet even the first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery, made in 1903 by Edwin S. Porter, was accompanied by synopsis when it was first shown in the pre-nickelodeon days. I have no proof, of course, but I imagine the note that went along with the prints of the film in distribution—a note that mentions that the shot of the bandit firing the gun toward the camera could be put either at the beginning or at the end in the film—is already some form of synopsis, of putting into words expectations about the film.
A common synopsis introduces the film; it tells what happens in the story; and it ends openly, trying with seductive phrases to pull the audience in to pay for the ticket. Succinctly, it puts the film into perspective. Imagine how these few words can anticipate things for the audience; how they can determine expectations through mere description, or through looking at the photo that goes along with the summary; how they can make or break the film. Death by synopsis happens when this synopsis overtakes the film so much it kills it.
I am sure that the people who saw Wanted: Border read and re-read the synopsis before and after watching the film, and felt a certain disconnect between the description and the film itself, as if the words were not able to validate what they saw inside the theater. Not because the synopsis is not accurate, or it is for a different film, but because it explains and tells explicitly which is which, particularly Saleng’s background, the name of the agent she had a relationship with, and even how she feels about killing her boarders. Again, it is not a matter of accuracy—truth be told, why should I give a damn about synopses?—but a virtue of fairness, of providing the film what it deserves, of not ruining it.
That certain disconnect is mainly dependent on tone; and it happens because both camps are narrating in a completely opposite manner: the film is thoroughly suggestive, whereas the synopsis is downright explanatory (which, in all fairness to the art of writing synopses itself, is how it should be). While I doubt that Gibraltar himself wrote the synopsis of his film, I don’t also refuse to consider that he did. I think good writers are capable of writing in exactly opposite tones, and most of them are unaware of this ability until they do it and ask other people what they think. Though writing a screenplay is a much daunting task as opposed to writing a synopsis—my god, of course—I can’t see how impossible it is to summarize the film and write it the same way how the film is actually told.
But by all means I can hear you nagging at me! You’re rebuking this whole idea of mine on the nose! Marketing experience dictates that synopses should be clear enough for people to watch the film. I know that, and I have to give in, plain and simple. So much for five long paragraphs of not discussing Wanted: Border, I thank you if you are reading until here. I wish, even if I sound like nitpicking, I could help lessen the crimes of death by synopsis, especially on films like Wanted: Border, which really calls for every police in town, from the first image down to the last.
Inevitable is the mention of death. The film, after all, captures that somber mood of deathly living, that utter feeling of wallowing in morbidness. Though the characters are quite oblivious of it, or have managed to consider it a fact of life, the darkness emanates from every corner of the film, sustained in hopeful closure till the end.
Non-linear is a tricky structure, and the misguided viewer may find it disappointing especially if the director is too busy on his embellishments to trick the audience. But Gibraltar isn’t up for deception—it’s the way he is: telling the story in fragments, jumping from one plot to another, and letting the audience pick and connect the pieces all together. Not that he needs to prove anything, but since I managed to see When Timawa Meets Delgado and felt amused by such experiment, I think I could give him the permission to ruin me.
Indeed, Wanted: Border has reduced me to ruins, and even up to now I still believe that writing about it wouldn’t be enough to put into words what it is able to deliver.
It’s like a dream of a ridiculous man—say, like that Dostoyevsky’s story—Gibraltar, the ridiculous dreamer, and Saleng and her past and her present all but a dream. The dream is told in fragments, illogical yet teeming with its own logic. They work on their own; and they justify their own irrationality. We see Saleng and her boarding house/eatery and the various characters that surround her—who are not necessarily around her but seemingly just around her, Gibraltar wanting us to wait before this question about their relationship is revealed—the fat girl, the drug-dependent filmmaker, and the household of a lustful stepfather, subservient wife, and young college student. How they connect we are advised, but why they connect it’s up to us to interpret. There is that single physical event that connects them—a conclusion looming to satisfy our need for the tangible—but even that is close to dreamlike, closer to Gibraltar’s rejection of standard storytelling.
The structure of the film is similar to how we remember our dreams, mixing the past and present, the events caught up in its inconsistent timeline. They evoke a certain familiarity that is also distant and emotionally charged. While our personal dreams are often vague and subtle—never assuring us of continuation and certainty—Gibraltar’s film ends the dream, metaphorically, through a suggestion of those two. It never promises to resume, to go back, and to go further—it stops there as a dream, but it goes on to assume another form, that is to manifest in our unconsciousness. From that infection, so to speak, Gibraltar wants to reach our consciousness to facilitate an action.
Last year’s Yanggaw, which deals with the circumstances following the discovery of a family that one of its kin is a monster, goes farther on examining the nature of our beliefs on aswang. While the film earns its right to be dramatic, it stands out amid its predecessors for taking the concept of our folklore seriously and profoundly, breathing another life to the genre that has long been killed by unskillful hands. The aswang in Yanggaw is the aswang we met when we were young, when we listened to the stories of our elders, when we conjured their images in our minds, and when we gripped tightly on our pillows while listening to “Gabi ng Lagim”—whereas the aswang in Wanted: Border is the aswang we meet when we mature, when we start to get to know the people around us, and when we see ourselves in dog-eat-dog situations like they’re a way of life. It goes without saying that we are never new to the concept of aswang in the first place.
Somes’ film engages us through our basic knowledge of how an aswang looks, and the horror upon seeing it. It has managed to do so by creating an atmosphere of remoteness, of shock that is about to leap out of the screen anytime, of fear that gets into one’s mind and refuses to get out. Gibraltar’s film, on the other hand, uses the familiarity of his setting, the commonness of day-to-day life, to reveal a picture of bestiality, of actions we accomplish to satisfy our pleasures, and of crimes we commit to our society’s idea of morality. That this horror can happen any day, at any given time, and in any given place, is more terrifying than the moment these creatures—manananggal, tikbalang, duwende, mangkukulam, among other things—become visible in our eyes. The monster in Wanted: Border is ourselves; that can’t be disproved.
But there goes an argument: can a monster see itself as a monster? Can a monster justify its actions by telling that it needs to do these things to survive? With these two films, I am beginning to have this strange feeling, after all the misfortunes we’ve had in the last few years, that our rich folklore is really getting back at us.
Our borders are not geographical; as a group of islands, it is always safe to assume that the line that separates our people is physical space and nothing else, checkpoints, toll gates, water, airports, inability to travel. But in essence our borders are almost always moral, dictated by our beliefs, motivated by our ids. Violence happens when one of these borders is crossed—when one resorts to killing to live, when one decides to rape to fulfill carnal wishes, when one uses drugs to escape, when one eats to survive. The most terrible thing is that we all have our reasons, as philosopher Renoir once said, and we stand by them for convenience’s sake. That’s why we admit defeat, that’s why we believe that further struggle or effort is useless, that’s why we’re crazy. We all need to raise hell. And we are all defeatists in our own way.
It is easy to call Wanted: Border a violent film—a work that indulges in drugs, sex, and killing—but in all its severe observation on the extent of our capability to inflict harm on ourselves and other people, sometimes as violently as possible, it is driven by a pacifist motive, that individuals do possess the great ability to abstain from it, that violence, more often than not, is a work of man and not of circumstances. The parting shot says it all: the great impossible can always be done. But I remember myself saying after that shot, We are surrounded by fences! We are surrounded by death! We are surrounded by tragedies! How should we be able to get past those, for real?
One thing must be said, though: one should never forget these tragedies; otherwise they will all happen again. Like yesterday. Like the massacre.