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.