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Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2016 (Part 3) August 16, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.
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dagsin

Dagsin (Atom Magadia)

It’s understandable to frown upon Dagsin. It is the kind of drama that makes it a point to explain, piling details on the already heavy background of its lead character. It is never subtle: its first shot is of the books of Kant, Camus, and Kierkegaard — a forthright sign of its inclination — and the “gravity” of the title, among other things, may amusingly refer to what saves Tommy Abuel’s life at the end. It inserts flashbacks plainly, inelegantly, and the switch between the past and present becomes routine that one takes pleasure, for instance, in some curious details such as Lotlot de Leon and Janine Gutierrez playing different characters despite looking so much alike.

But it is in this unrelenting seriousness that Dagsin becomes admirable. Whether presenting the atrocities of the Second World War or the romance and relationships torn by it, the film just puts the story out there, without irony, without trying to look different, without being conscious of how films in this festival are often judged based on bringing “something new” to the table. There is nothing new in Dagsin: the only thing driving it is the heartfelt dedication to its subject, the conviction to show the sorrows of a man with a troubled past as a soldier and judge and as a husband and idealist. The drama has its high points (the game between the captured soldier and the Japanese officer, the endearing presence of Marita Zobel, the ticks of hostility towards spiritual belief), and at its center is Abuel’s performance: he who in his graveness is able to exhibit all the fractures of his character, the old age and soul, the ruined heart and honor, and eventually the peaceful resignation to everything he has long resisted to embrace.

landoatbugoy

Lando at Bugoy  (Vic Acedillo, Jr.)

Pretty much what Lando at Bugoy is all about is in its synopsis. It may a bad thing to some, but this straightforwardness, this directness that cares only for something very specific, is what makes the film work. It is simply that: a father who earns a living by carving gravestones accepts the challenge of his spiteful son to return to school — and it delivers the touching moments that come with such premise, the push and pull, the fights that outline their relationship clearly. The sluggish pace is both its boon and bane, but the story becomes meaningful because it brings to the fore this way of life focused on a particular concern, on the undeniable importance of education, on the fulfillment of this basic need that leaves an inspiring note at the end. Like Dagsin, Lando at Bugoy can easily be dismissed, but the lack of polish, this taking pride on being small, the enunciation of this genuine intent to share a facet of life often overlooked, can strike a chord in those that see glimmers of emotion in modesty.

kusina

Kusina (Cenon Palomares and David Corpuz)

Kusina is a failure. But it is an interesting failure. All the strong and willful ideas are there in the material, the aim to characterize a woman through key aspects of her life from birth to death, the layers and timbres of politics in the household and out of it, made evident in how her existence is also shaped by sociopolitical changes, those metaphors that emphasize her position in the kitchen not only as a place but also as a representation of her worth, the kitchen as both her prison and salvation, the kitchen in which, beyond logic, she lives and dies, literally and figuratively, everything done in a soundstage in continuous time, putting the faith in the magic that could come from this resolute theater — but all these concepts, despite the clarity of purpose and the direction in which their combined effect is envisioned to achieve something larger than life, flop because they have not been refined to register cinematically: they make no sweeping impact onscreen.

For almost forty-five minutes, before Judy Ann Santos enters the story, Kusina relies on a stale telling of incidents, on this mechanical movement that punctuates the flatness. Although it’s obvious it’s not about cooking, it does not in any way make an attractive emphasis on this love for food, on how this culinary passion has made her stay in the kitchen no matter what, on its power to change lives. Kusina is keen on emphasizing the woman, on the statements that come with it, but it all feels too pale and expected, too flimsy despite the efforts to establish the succession of eras through details, too concerned with highlighting her confinement that instead of seeing the virtue of this symbolic illustration, the lasting impression relates to her inaction, her idleness, the shortness of her mind. This is no form of empowerment, and even if it does not aim to be one, Palomares and Corpuz could have at least been more generous to Juanita. Because even in her death, when she experiences happiness, and when the audience feels most overwhelmed, the film makes use of it only as a device to stir emotion, and at the end of it all her fate, sadly, is still steeped in fantasy.

mercuryismine

Mercury is Mine (Jason Paul Laxamana)

As far as cooking goes, Mercury is Mine, Jason Paul Laxamana’s third feature this year, characterizes it better than Kusina. One can smell and taste the sisig Pokwang prepares in her make-believe show. One can feel her passion for cooking despite doing it every day, the poignant solitariness when she talks to a pig’s head. The nuances in Pokwang’s delivery, her personality to please and be understood, suggesting the unhappy part of her life that is yet to be revealed, already tell a story. Laxamana is good at this: he knows how to draw one’s attention at the onset, laying out the details openly. As a director he is skillful and manipulative, taking risks in choosing where the narrative will go, always a step ahead of his audience. He is good at making his characters human, putting them in situations that test their principles, but in his excesses (and possibly, insecurities) there comes a point when the provocation does not pay off, for all it does, for better or worse, is make the audience feel uncomfortable.

Mercury is Mine shows persuasively the relationship between a Filipino and an American and all its plain and emblematic intricacies, the “meet cute,” the tension, the mentalities, the loving and hating, the dreams and nightmares, the dirty laundry, the goodbye. There is something disturbing about the use of Blue Lagoon in reference to their bond, but that’s where the film is going. It aims to perplex and complicate. The sudden turns of narrative and shifts of tone are deliberate, an exercise of Laxamana’s control that ruins an otherwise logical flow to indulge in his habit of provoking, to surprise and call attention to itself, a valid, mercurial decision on one hand, but one that appears too eager to be noticed on the other, seeming to seek validation for its skill. Towards the end, the film keeps giving birth to one plot after another, consciously, more for the sake of play than enrichment. There is no question about competence, but perhaps it would have helped to realize that a shtick, despite its function, doesn’t always work.

thekids

Still from the touching coming-of-age drama, “The Kids,” by Sunny Yu

This would require a separate and longer post to substantiate fully, but this has to be said: this year’s Cinemalaya, contrary to what many are saying, is quite a batch to remember, for several reasons.

One is it is able to prove, despite the expected inclement weather, that it can still draw a huge crowd, its festival vibe being its unique distinction from other local film festivals. Just the sight of people going in and out of CCP’s main theater, or the sound of their reactions while watching, is proof enough. Also, it’s always a good thing when the bulk of the attendees are young people.

Second, flawed as some of the films may be, even those that are problematic can carry a conversation. There is no competition entry that is too dull for a discussion. It’s a sign of progress when moviegoers go beyond the trap of determining only whether a film is good or bad, the kind that reduces moviegoing into a simple, soulless experience. It is the deboning that matters more, the comparison of notes, the emotional debates, the drive to share something meaningful on social media.

Third, it’s a year of outstanding performances, of acting turns that are impossible to ignore, quite memorable that they deserve to be mentioned: Barbie Forteza and Nora Aunor in Tuos; Bela Padilla and Elizabeth Oropesa in I America; Nanding Josef, Lou Veloso, Jun Urbano, and Leo Rialp in Hiblang Abo; Tommy Abuel and Lotlot de Leon in Dagsin; Allen Dizon and Gold Azeron in Lando at Bugoy; Janus del Prado in Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching; Pokwang and Bret Jackson in Mercury is Mine; Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip in Pamilya Ordinaryo; and Judy Ann Santos in Kusina. In some cases, these performances have eclipsed the films to which they belong.

Fourth, as disappointing as the totality of the short film selection may be, with no particular entry that leaps impressively, the importance of this form cannot be denied.

And lastly, the non-competition films — the well-curated Asian films in the two sections, the screenings of the digitally remastered Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising and Cain at Abel, the tribute to Francis Pasion, the spotlight on Jaclyn Jose, as well as other festival programs that screen a number of short films and prizewinning features old and new — are surprisingly well attended. Cinemalaya should take care of, and not take for granted, this audience. No festival is an island: more than its films, it lives because of its audience.

See you next year.

Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2016 (Part 2) August 11, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.
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ponching

Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching (Inna Miren Salazar Acuña and Dos Ocampo)

For a light comedy, a genre which is always a welcome addition to a festival that usually leans towards serious and heavy themes, Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching is a struggle to watch. Sitting through it is a chore that gets tougher by the minute. Whenever it becomes actually funny, the narrative hurries to go back to its weak point: the dull new family in the title, this being the center of the gags and drama, with many of its members trying hard to be quirky.

It’s hardly about predictability or depth, the believability of the situation, or the humor that gets tiresome, but mostly how the film runs out of steam so early, so quickly, like a balloon losing air and flying around without direction, spinning, wrinkled and writhing, before landing lifelessly on the ground. It’s this sound of falling the audience gets for a story, the deflating of an otherwise funny premise, and the experience is long and winding and sometimes pointless.

Many factors contribute to this: underdeveloped writing, lack of guidance, unrealized potential, a miscommunication of creative approach, and possibly the stubbornness to consider fresh, new ideas, all of which are made manifest in its overreaching efforts. It’s not wrong to borrow devices from TV for inspiration, but cinematic language requires sustaining of longer interest, and Ponching fails to have rhythm that fits the narrative it tries to stretch. Even the lesbian subplot, as much as it feels genuine and indispensable, comes off rather misplaced. Damn, even the charms of Janus del Prado, who deserves helming a full-length every now and then, cannot save it.

pamilya ordinaryo

Pamilya Ordinaryo (Eduardo Roy, Jr.)

Making movies about poverty can never solve or alleviate the problem, but one must not discount its function. In the ceaseless efforts of filmmakers to dwell on the subject and shed light on the vicissitudes of being poor, the issue continues to be relevant and therefore impossible to set aside. It remains an urgent matter, a constant reminder of situations conveniently ignored, and the most effective of these movies are those that not only provide meaningful perspectives through details and characterizations, but also offer, through vigorous handling of material, a credible and comprehensive view of life tested by extreme circumstances, one that goes beyond the tiers of financial troubles and extends to the larger aspects of the human condition: survival, dignity, compassion, morality, self-worth. Several of Lino Brocka’s films in the 70s and 80s validate this, and after him, if audiences would only be more liberal and discerning, there are many directors who have tried, and actually succeeded, telling stories that can effect as much change as activism.

It’s too soon to say, but owing to its absolute immediacy and cunning, Pamilya Ordinaryo already feels like a benchmark against which other films of its kind will be measured. It teems with so much life and energy, with explicit displays of force and frisson, that Aries and Jane could have been just outside the theater premises, loafing, asking around for the person carrying their baby. In his third feature, Eduardo Roy is able to refine his language in the most satisfying way possible, letting go of the tricks and excesses that weaken his previous films, and find not just the right ending but also the right timing for it. This strong direction, oppressive but never going too far, builds up in surges from start to end, and in between Roy knows how to make the scenes crack until the whole thing is fractured but still intact, about to be shattered but remaining in one piece until the very end.

The tension comes from the dogged linearity of it — how clear that there is really no turning back, and how, by using the simple narrative of an underage couple looking desperately for their abducted child, it is able to impart the cruelty of misfortune pounding without mercy. It is painful to see how Aries and Jane strive to walk forward and become defeated despite doing their best, more so when they are humiliated by the very people who should be helping them. When Jane goes to the police station to seek help and is instead asked to recount her first sexual experience, accused of lasciviousness and forced to show her lactating breasts to be ridiculed, the viewer feels the abuse vicariously. And when the TV crew loses the photos of their child, the only memento they have of him, it is only natural to expect them to go insane.

But they do not. Because Roy presents Aries and Jane as characters of enormous strength, not resilience, not understanding, not resourcefulness, but strength. They are people whose youth has been corrupted but whose will to survive is toughened by experience, making them nearly invincible. They steal for a living but are obviously guided by religious virtues, and such complexities and contradictions are substantially illustrated. Comparisons can easily be made with The Child, the Dardenne Brothers’s film with an almost similar premise, with the young characters and the intimate, direct camera style punctuating the physical proximity, but Pamilya Ordinaryo reflects a uniquely Filipino struggle, an exceptionally Filipino spirit and fate defined by a specific culture and politics of poverty. But it is when Roy decides to allude to The Bicycle Thief that it turns into something else, into something terrifyingly close, and no ending no matter how quiet and lingering can make their predicament any less heartbreaking.

Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2016 (Part 1) August 9, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.
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1-2-3 (Carlo Obispo)

The heartbreak of 1-2-3 comes from its lead characters: a young girl, driven by her dream to be a singer, who leaves her small fishing town to escape violence and poverty, and her brother who tries to save her from the claws of prostitution. It is hard not to be moved by their plight, by the switch from one nightmare to another, from a household that decries education and tolerates abuse to a city in which these children discover, and eventually accept, exploitation. Instead of creating the drama around their resistance, Carlo Obispo instead shows their choice to stay, their willingness and submission, and the factors leading them to this decision. This seems a fertile land to till. However, he has picked the wrong tools. The bigger, more terrible heartbreak of 1-2-3 is the weakness of storytelling, the inability of Obispo to make effective use of this emotional bait to carry the film through, his insistence on inserts that add layers and texture but with oblivious disregard for developing a persuasive, flowing narrative. The whole lacks in congruity, and the subplots feel withdrawn from the main narrative. The gentleness of his direction, the softness of his approach, does not suit the material, which demands firmness and newer insight. Whereas one can argue that this old-fashioned take implies how little has changed in society over the decades, one cannot also shake the feeling that there is nothing to the film but recycling tropes and preferring bad clichés to good ones.

tuos

Tuos (Roderick Cabrido)

People expecting Tuos to be a Nora Aunor movie will be disappointed because it is not one per se: it is not a vehicle for her to showcase her skills, not another film in which she is given long moments to shine, because frankly, in her status in the past and at present, what else is there to prove? The feat of Tuos is using Aunor with respect to her ability to be effective even in a supporting role: its feat is she did not own the film — the film owned her. And Barbie Forteza, in another career highlight, with whom Aunor shares the bulk of her screen time, is able to take up the challenge and exceed expectations.

But the film has other interesting things working to its favor. The Cabrido of Children’s Show — showy, reckless, and self-assured — has turned into this shrewd, confident, and sharp filmmaker of Tuos, weaving a story of a sacred tradition with a composite of conventional, genre devices and playful animation integrated artfully into the telling. With its subject, it is only fitting to aim for something immersive, for a gradual buildup of atmosphere, the viewing experience getting heavier and more tedious as it progresses. Despite the style, the details are accessible, the specificity of actions rooted in tradition and the struggle to break free from it. But Tuos captivates mainly with moments of sheer mystery — those aural and visual enchantments relating the culture of its people, their echoes and fading light — and the frays wavering at the end, seen and felt in darkness and silence, mesmerize as much as they confound.

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I America (Ivan Andrew Payawal)

I America could have been some sort of vindication for Ivan Payawal after the out-and-out mess of The Comeback. At some point in the beginning and towards the middle he does manage to take control and set out clearly the characters, milieu, situation, and conflict. Despite some forgivable flashes of gracelessness, the first act makes a fine impression, underlining his ability as a writer to rely on confrontations and what-ifs. The research is evident, driving the peculiar dynamics of characters and plotting of emotions. But moving onward, as cards are laid out and dramatic jumps become inevitable, the direction cracks at one moment, then cracks again in another, and again and again until the narrative suffers from too many cracks and begins to collapse and drop major chunks of credibility, until all the pieces are on the floor. Payawal loses it whenever he tries to extend a scene to emphasize the humor in one’s misfortune but only ends up making the spectacle painful to watch. His romps are reminiscent but not in the direction of Joyce Bernal and Wenn Deramas, directors who have shown in their best films that drama and comedy are not polar opposites but siblings, closely related and tied by tragedy. In I America, there are many extenders that add weight to Erica’s predicament, but it becomes so heavy and confused that even Payawal himself gets lost. It could have used more discipline than free will, more music than noise, more dancing than running.

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Hiblang Abo (Ralston Jover)

Even for those who have not read the original play by the great Rene O. Villanueva, or have not seen it staged, there is no denying that the material of Hiblang Abo as seen in Ralston Jover’s adaptation is an outstanding theater piece. In terms of both content and technique, ideas and wisdom go hand in hand, with several rooms opened and closed in succession, sometimes even barged into without knocking. This intelligent maneuvering comes with the emotional maturity required to pull it off, the soul that makes the actions of the body and discourses of the mind immortal. The four old men — portrayed with palpable range by Lou Veloso, Jun Urbano, Nanding Josef, and Leo Rialp, each with his own highs and lows — are roommates, buddies, and confidantes who, in the course of sharing their past, are surrounded by reminders of death and become each other’s friends and foes. There is always something going on: even their silence occupies thoughts.

But Jover, even with the noblest intent, can only do so much, and his version of Hiblang Abo, adapted for the screen with the help of Naning Estrella, is able to make one appreciate the material for its eloquence — for its scale and literariness — and a clever flashback device in which Matt Daclan plays all the characters is worthy of note. In the process of filming the theater, however, and finding an equivalent for the experience that can only come from seeing the words leap from the actors onstage, from one skin to another, many important things fail to make a full impact. There is a major problem with the visual language, and it’s not a wise decision to employ almost the same kind of imprecise camerawork in his previous films (Bakal Boys, Bendor, Hamog), which are mostly shot outdoors. Numerous moments could have benefited from focusing on the actors’ faces instead of trying to be unconventional, from trimming the excesses and stubbornness which have come to define Jover’s filmmaking. But clearly the fact that this discussion can go on and on to varying lengths and degrees means the flawed nature of the film, its veneration of Villanueva with understanding, is an achievement in itself.

Sinag Maynila 2016: A Minority Report May 8, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Festival, Noypi, Sinag Maynila.
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sinag2016

“Five films don’t make a festival,” a friend remarked, jokingly. “Savage,” I said. Then I laughed because it’s practically true: like last year, the highlight of Sinag Maynila 2016 is its five features, but this time it has two sets of short films (thirteen of them in total) — a selection of new names that provide a seeming contrast with the familiar ones in the main lineup — and a section for Samsung CinePhone entries for students. Despite making an effort to branch out, this add-on feels rather superficial, with only one screening schedule for each short film set, with so little publicity to urge people to see them.

More than the fewness of movies in the program, it is the lack of festival atmosphere and activity that blankets Sinag Maynila — the sheer absence of excitement that should characterize an annual occasion like this. Understandably these are birth pangs commonly associated with recent ventures: its steady audience remains the audience of other local film festivals, those who are devoted viewers of local films, those who adjust or clear their schedules just to see these new works, hoping to find treasures.

If Solar Entertainment CEO Wilson Tieng and Brillante Mendoza are serious about making Sinag Maynila a long-term enterprise (i.e., if they care about keeping this small audience and attracting new ones), there should be as much emphasis given to the organization, to the planning and promotion, as to the process of selecting films for the two-million-peso grant and ensuring they get made in time. As of now Sinag Maynila makes only a slight impression, even to the devoted, and only when these films get into foreign festivals do they get talked about again, which makes the intention of producing them rather obvious.

With only five entries, the curation easily invites more questions about what isn’t there than what is present. It leans more toward darker themes — serious, somber, and shapeless — as opposed to genre entertainment, spelling out its penchant for arthouse standards that expect an intellectually higher regard. It also steps away from subjects centered on poverty but lingers instead on its fringes. It is reasonable to deduce that this is Mendoza’s taste in film and, quite possibly, filmmaking — such characteristic mix of grit and grime that affects as much as it alienates; bleak stories that only become interesting when the form becomes the story, and when the story attaches itself to a larger metanarrative. Haste is also felt — as haste has long been an aesthetic of grant-produced films, the result of which, whether good or bad, has come to typify many local films of the past decade.

For this year, sadly, the selection of Sinag Maynila falls short of interest and zeal. Both façade and interior, from texture and color to depth and impact, turn out to be unremarkable and unimpressive, individually and collectively. The festival has to raise its game or risk being taken for granted, if it is not yet there at this point.

MRS

MRS. (Adolf Alix, Jr.)

The screenplay of Mrs. is written by Ralston Jover, and his recognizable device and design figure prominently in the film. It is standard Jover: peculiar milieu, multiple characters, stark dramatic moments, with apparitions constantly slipping through the cracks. One can appreciate how he plays with real time using non-real-time elements, and in all of the films he has written or directed, this ruse is a hit or miss.

As conveyed by the title, Mrs. is a story of women in middle and old age who are connected simply by association. Holding them together is Virgie, a stubborn mother who refuses to leave her house despite the warnings of an earthquake. As the narrative unfolds it introduces several people in her life: her helper who is about to get married; her sister who insists on selling the property; her daughter who lives overseas and keeps encouraging her to leave; her other daughter who is into a religious group; and a woman she meets who tells her about her son’s disappearance.

Mrs. presents these layers with tact — furtive, careful, and rhythmic — and furnishes them with details that summon a glance of complexity. It hinges on how everyday interactions are laden with disguised connections, most of which are emotional threads that remain unseen unless touched. Director Adolf Alix is able to lay down the important pieces and at the same time suspend a rope of uncertainty, enabling another layer of interest: an odd tension from not knowing what will happen next.

But all of this sounds good only conceptually: the fleetingness of the characters soon becomes the fleetingness of the film, and the curiosity coming from its structural exposition, despite a couple of surprises from the actors, is made less remarkable by a lack of color, by this overall faintness that isn’t made satisfying at the end. The screws remain loose, and instead of being tightened, to hold the frame better despite missteps and quirks, they are unfastened for a dramatic close. Mrs. hides its fumbling, but it fumbles all the same.

TPO

TPO (Joselito Altarejos)

TPO concerns a young woman who is repeatedly abused by her husband. She goes to court, the process of which involves expected resistance, and leaves with their son. Nestled on this slim timeline, severed in three overlapping perspectives, are details of a marital relationship that appear to illuminate on such domestic violence: her submission, his machismo, her vulnerability, his gutlessness. Basically both of them, husband and wife, are made to look pale. Neither of them is strong or willful — they feel like sketches, recognizable but not fully drawn, rough and half-finished — and they have to be berated, convinced, insulted, battered, humiliated, or rendered stupid before they realize something has to be done, or a decision has to be made.

The only strong character is the husband’s father, a figure of authority that justifies the existence and extension of abuse, in a way also legitimizing the conditions surrounding it, his chauvinism not only unchallenged and endured, but also fondled and serviced. The abuse at the center of TPO is not completely attributed to him — there is a clear acknowledgment of fault coming from different sides — but it is its most visible root. In emphasizing his control does the film manage to cohere the many unspoken definites, the quiet collapse of walls and will, thereby creating this pervasive tone of terror in the use of off-screen drama and minimal action. One can be easily impressed by this but therein lies the rub.

The portrayal of helplessness is dated, and that may be a statement in itself — how old habits persist, unquestioned — but TPO has nothing new to offer and argue so instead it tries whenever it can to be edgy: imprecise long takes and long shots, flat structural design, a reading of the TPO with the paper flashed onscreen, abruptly ended sequences, understated (and oftentimes ineffective) acting, a sort of quietness that is too noticeable and directed. These come off as distractions rather than parts of a discussion against violence, managing to say that domestic abuse is awful and complicated, but it’s a truism that could have benefitted from a stronger reliance on script than improvisation, on counting on clear and exact points than artful slips and miscues.

dyamper

DYAMPER (Mes de Guzman)

Mes de Guzman has made some really good films in the past, so it’s painful to admit that Dyamper doesn’t come close at all to them. One could attribute it to the use of professional actors, or to the pressure coming from deadlines, but his recent outputs with grant-giving festivals no longer feel as well-thought-out and insightful as his previous works — their unevenness merely feels sloppy, and the importance of shaping the milieu is set aside. Dyamper suffers from these flaws, yet the most obvious is the lack of strong direction, the poor staging of actions, the carelessness in carrying the film to different places without any satisfying feeling in either the journey or destination. There are merits to its core narrative — with the three boys jumping onto the backs of trucks to steal sacks of rice, especially the sociopolitics that comes with it — but the insistence on making it dramatic limits the emotional connections that could be made with the film. Dyamper ends up being a confused mélange of ideas, subjects, and treatments, and by wanting to touch on many things it manages only to make the viewer appreciate the efforts and not the result.

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EXPRESSWAY (Ato Bautista)

Shugo Praico and Ato Bautista are longtime collaborators, and if their films should stand as proof, neither of them is growing, or getting better at being a writer and director. We get it — male characters: male ids, male egos, male super-egos. Male genre essentials: sex, guns, murder, dark past, chase, revenge, death. Expressway, their sixth feature-length team-up, offers both genre entertainment and genre trash. The entertainment, however, is short-lived, coming only from how promising the first sequence is: the play of light and darkness, the dance of dust and dirt, the premise of a jazzy noir thriller about to unfold. The trash arrives as soon as the story is told. Moving along, it becomes less and less interesting: trite plotlines abound, corny flashbacks, a laughable twist that can be seen coming 30 minutes into the film, and Aljur Abrenica, with his annoying smug and terrible outbursts, making the viewing experience almost unbearable. Only the stylish excesses keep it running, but these trimmings lose their allure because they do not have any weight: they are only something to look at, not to be looked into. Expressway has all the makings of enjoyable fluff, but even calling it fluff feels overpraising it.

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LILA (Gino Santos)

Lila is bad — that seems enough to cover everything — but there are curious aspects to its badness that make it worth seeing, if only to experience the discrete pleasures of watching a bad film, or in a more utilitarian sense: to serve as a cautionary tale for filmmakers on how not to make a horror movie.

This is Gino Santos’s fifth film, his third festival entry after The Animals and #Y in Cinemalaya, and he has another Star Cinema film currently in preproduction. This should count as useful experience, but Lila proves to be a thousand steps backward, and from being an exciting discovery — a talent worth hearing out for his perspective of today’s (upper class) youth — he now seems to have turned into an amateurish fixture, all flashy and popular but showing no signs of taking his craft seriously.

To put it bluntly: Lila has no understanding at all of what horror means, how horror works, and why horror fiction is made. Almost every aspect has worked together to make it awful: writing, direction, acting, shot choices, camera movements, music cues, editing. It has no idea what is required to create suspension of disbelief, and in countless moments it spoils its own efforts, as though what happens onscreen is a product of first draft, first take, or first thought. Central to its suspense is the main character’s reading of a diary, and from the slow buildup to the ridiculous delivery, it’s a device that can be considered one of the worst blunders in local cinema (such realization becoming more painful because it relates to literacy). With this and many others, it’s an embarrassment of lapses, both small- and large-scale, and even a writer who is used to describing unpleasant things with flair would deem it unwise to put Lila in a lyrical light.

Like the rest of the films in Sinag Maynila 2016, its material needed more time to be analyzed, revised, and realized — and frankly most films produced by grant-giving festivals often look like they needed more time — and it’s fair to raise this fault in an expectedly flawed system. But it’s also fair to say that the creative path of Lila, basing on the outcome, is not something that festivals like this must encourage and uphold.

CineFilipino 2016 (Part 1) March 28, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, CineFilipino, Noypi.
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lotto

A LOTTO LIKE LOVE (Carla Baful)

It’s hard to say good things about A Lotto Like Love — the fact that it got made is quite a feat in itself, but even admitting that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Right at the onset, with the use of loud and flashy music and preference for excessive delivery, it’s clear it aims for easy recognition of its efforts. It is concerned only with the surface, with how the audience will get the jokes and how the story will reach the end, but it is not stuffed with matter for serious thought, unaware that good comedies are also mental, shrewd and sensible in their silliness. The premise of finding a missing lottery ticket dates back to Rene Clair’s 1931 classic Le Million, or even farther with the play on which it is based, which means the selling point is hardly the concept but the way its interest is sustained, how the complications making up the search can offer moments of delight and frustration, how the characters can become closer to the audience after such ordeal. But instead of moving in this direction, A Lotto Like Love deliberately goes backward and insists on ridiculous twists and turns, terrible sense of humor, and strained romance. It is brimming with confidence but for the wrong reasons, satisfied only with the possibilities of laughter, and not with the actual fun. Somehow its biggest offense is making the leads awfully stupid: seeing Isabella de Leon and Martin Escudero in roles that make them bad actors is saddening, especially since these two have delivered in the past. It doesn’t get better, and one can merely look forward to heaving a sigh of relief when it ends.

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STAR NA SI VAN DAMME STALLONE (Randolph Longjas)

There is virtue in how Star na si Van Damme Stallone succeeds at being a touching document of a person with Down syndrome, depicting not only his life as soon as his disorder is known but also the people around him coming to terms with it, particularly his mother whose unconditional devotion to him provides the film its beating heart. Longjas is able to deliver the needed restraint, the mix of empathy and sensitivity the material deserves, hopeful but realistic, sad but self-assured, without any hint of underestimating or pandering to his subject. However, what’s glaring is the film does nothing else. Its structure, divided into parts showing Van Van growing up and his mother looking out for him all the time, draws on moments that would emphasize the responses of characters to his situation; and while that is lifelike and reasonable, there is discomfort in the decision not to go further or deeper. There are spaces waiting to be filled, opportunities for possible explorations, yet the film lingers in what is known and knowable, and seems to be content only with eliciting the warmth and tenderness expected from it.

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ANG TULAY NG SAN SEBASTIAN (Alvin Yapan)

Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian is riddled with several problems, the most obvious of which is the cheaply designed CGI and the sloppiness of its day-for-night effect. Of course, to some people, seeing those lapses has worked to its advantage: they have contributed to the strangeness of experience, to the laughable thrill, to the anything-goes mindfuckery. But who are they kidding? Something is clearly amiss with the direction, and there’s no denying those gaffes owe more to poor artistic decisions than deliberate choices. Alvin Yapan’s films, from Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe to An Kubo sa Kawayanan, have exciting premises — his literary background enriches what could have been a stale retelling of ordinary stories, making his voice unique in this regard — but for some reason, something happens when the words find their visuals, and when the world written on paper moves into the motion picture. In Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian, clearly, the aim is to produce horror, and sometime before the two leads realize their misfortune, in that quick moment when anyone in the audience could be in their place, there may be one or two sequences of pure fright. But the rest, with varying nuances of bad dialogue and acting, is comedy: a comedy of errors. So it goes.

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BUHAY HABANGBUHAY (Paolo Herras)

For a work that goes to great lengths to be quiet and subdued, Buhay Habangbuhay happens to be a torture to sit through. It is fully committed to telling a story of souls that stay on earth, and its main character, played with hilarious seriousness by Iza Calzado, hangs around to observe her husband and see him have another family after her death. Quite a selfless act, really, and there seems to be a point to make about unconditional love, but nothing in its showy visual effects and mediocre writing is able to create any worthy impression. Paolo Herras seems to be too in love with the material that he doesn’t notice that it weighs so little, and no matter how the shots look polished and sophisticated, a story wrapped in platitudes and served with parsley cannot manage to go far.

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SAKALING HINDI MAKARATING (Ice Idanan)

Depictions of youth in film have always attracted interest. And youth, by all means, is less about age than spirit, the drive to pursue a dream long ignored, or the urge to go on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and be ready, with eyes closed, for the consequences. That fuck-it attitude. That irrepressible impulse. That burning desire to take a leap. Such recklessness is easily validated by the feeling — always comforted by the thought that it’s the journey and never the destination — and it is in showing these larger-than-life risks being taken that these depictions leave a lasting effect: they do not aim for the heart; they aim for the heartstrings. Sakaling Hindi Makarating has a lot of elements to make the audience feel warm and fuzzy: snail mail, painted postcards, traveling alone, meeting new people, being in remote places, realizing the beauty of being away, of being in love with the pursuit and being emboldened by freedom, feeling the tap of fate on the shoulders. All of these speak to many people, regardless of age, and they project this image to aspire for — the promise of self-discovery after it. But in all its good intentions and pleasant quirks, Sakaling Hindi Makarating supposes an audience that would overlook its big and small missteps, that viewers would be forgiving if they see them, that it’s all about the feeling. It plays with and overplays romantic notions, but some holes in its logic (the postmark; the uncertainty of the sender, thinking it could be the ex, yet the couple has been together for more than 10 years; the exchanges between her and her new friend) make it hard to suspend disbelief. Undoubtedly, part of its charm rests on the idea of fleetingness, on chances and randomness, the way things come and go, the way people accept things for what they are, the way some decisions are not fully controlled. But for the most part the film simply wants the audience to fall for it, to believe in it regardless, to forgive it and love it at the same time. It always follows its heart, and sadly, as everyone knows, the heart is not always right.

Film Log: January 2016 February 8, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Hollywood, Noypi, Oscars.
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beautybestie

Wenn Deramas has built an empire. Not everyone is happy about it, but it’s futile to deny its existence and power, considering that five of the top ten highest grossing Filipino films of all time are his. There comes a point when dissing his movies becomes unwise — when complaining about his sensibility and brand of humor only ends up as noise — because he continues making films all the same. He doesn’t care. He knows the game. He doesn’t get sick of it. He has developed a formula for attracting people who are willing to give their money and feel good about it. Beauty and the Bestie fulfills its audience because it is what they expect it to be: histrionic, exaggerated, self-aware, ridiculous, tactless, insensitive, full of antics that gloat in its silliness, with Vice Ganda as the ambassador of tackiness. In his empire, the tackier the better. There is hard work and skill in doing all of this, in creating a circus orchestrated for the sake of entertainment, in furnishing Coco Martin with comic timing, which many people don’t care about or don’t care about knowing as long as they are laughing, and clearly there is something Deramas can do that other directors cannot. I enjoyed Beauty and the Bestie because I knew what I was getting. It’s not a dumb movie. Dumb is when you felt stupid after. I didn’t.

*

The hype surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens, based on my social media feed, gave an impression that I might die if I didn’t catch it in its first week. I managed to see it only after the New Year, and I’m still alive. That it passed the Bechdel test is pretty much the only semblance of insight I had while exiting the theater. If you are not a fan of the franchise, where else would you latch on? Would you be engaged in a discussion? Aside from saying, “it’s decent, but its action sequences look limp and unexciting,” what else would light the bulb? Perhaps Internet boyfriend Oscar Isaac?

*

Macbeth was shown with English subtitles because the Scottish accent and language could come across as gibber to some moviegoers. Too bad reading them didn’t prevent me from dozing off — as I had, a couple of times, despite my ethical resolve not to — but fortunately not when Michael Fassbender, as the king, finally realizes he needs to take a bath in the open water, letting the audience take a quick peek of his kingdom. He and Marion Cotillard, unquestionably, are fine actors, but as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the struggle is real. They seem detached from the core. Honestly, could one really say the cinematography is good if it didn’t make the tragedy as compelling as it should?

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It fills me with dread to talk about Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin because it means I would have to grant it time and energy. A double whammy — thinking how it made me sit through it and feel every nuance of dismay and agony, without any moment in any of its three episodes that merits reconsideration, despite my innate optimism that it could have something of value after all. It looks like a rough cut. It misunderstands comedy — its idea of humor is all cheap display of cheap slapstick, and its execution always leans toward making things cheaper (dialogue, plots, acting, skit). The effect on me crosses between wanting to cringe and wanting to leave. It might have been intentional to put Chris Martinez’s episode at the end, as it is the most bearable, but even his attempts at camp couldn’t save it. It’s a mistake to let Bob Ong think his material should be films.

*

Charles Schulz’s beloved characters have moments to show their quirks in The Peanuts Movie, the familiarity rubbing warmly and taking on a cordial tone right at the onset: light, harmless, childish and childlike at the same time, almost pure in its recall of intimacy. Just seeing Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Snoopy, and Woodstock on the screen is already worth the while, and the deliberate lack of ambition (or ambitiousness) is endearing, especially since it’s obvious it’s targeting a much younger demographic. The film, however, is unable to capture that tacit complexity one feels when reading the strip — a miniature world that reveals a universe of rich overtones in its simple document of everyday interactions — the wisdom in its seemingly random observations and dialogue that makes the reader feel literate. Could having such depth been avoided on purpose?

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Everything About Her has good and bad parts. This can probably be said about most Star Cinema movies — as the fulfillment of formula has made these qualities distinguishable, knowing where it goes well and where it nose-dives — but with Vilma Santos and Joyce Bernal, the desire to endorse it, and make a good case for it despite its inevitable shortcomings, is strong. It is convincing at first, from the start when the characters and conflicts are established and all the way through the piling up of challenges for both female characters. But in an effort to close it with something remarkable and leave the audience with warmth, it decides to be generic and resort to platitudes that dilute the inspired moments, in turn weakening what could have been a moving depiction of female (and maternal) strength. Ate Vi gets away with the many times she repeats herself (her approach and sentiment) from her previous movies, and this showcase of recognizable maternal roles makes her iconic in this regard. But Everything About Her does not find its soul in her but in Angel Locsin, delivering what could be one of the best Star Cinema characters in years.

*

The Big Short is sophisticated, but nothing in it is new — the subject, the storytelling, the dramatic arc, the pacing, the heroic stance, the wires getting tangled and loosened, the moralism — they’ve all been the stuff of American movies endorsed by critics almost every year. Nevertheless it’s interesting to follow the buildup and downfall, especially when it diverts and draws on pop culture, bringing in Margot Robbie, Richard Thaler, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain to explain the financial concepts and make them sound enticing. The two-hour nonstop talk isn’t off-putting. In fact, the sound of greed, as it passes from one person to another and reaches its peak, is quite delightful.

Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 1) November 11, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.
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honorthyfather

HONOR THY FATHER (Erik Matti)

A number of good things can be said about Erik Matti’s latest film, Honor Thy Father, but what clearly deserves the strongest highlight is its subject. Part of the thrill for the uninitiated audience is the manner in which Matti treats it casually without losing the magnitude and intricacies, the moral high ground slowly being tested and broken into pieces. The drama could have easily come out from the seeming absurdity of the modus operandi — how the desperate need for money has brought about a difficult and complex solution, far from the quick and easy acts of stealing — but Matti and writer Michiko Yamamoto are more interested in larger forces at work, in how people are dehumanized by scheming organizations selling salvation. Cunning is how dignity is examined through contrast, with the elaborate digging and exploding, unexplained and unjudged, coming off rather dignified because of the utter dedication given, while the religious group tricking people into making regular donations, like the Ponzi schemers robbing Peter to pay Paul, is fronted by rectitude but bearing the palpable halo of evil. The dramatic turns may not be consistently on point, but the totality sweeps gracefully, and John Lloyd Cruz, in an admirable career move, delivers an intense performance that can reduce the viewer, who may only be comfortable seeing him in romantic roles, to ruins.

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RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN (Hong Sangsoo)

For longtime followers of South Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo, Right Now, Wrong Then is a familiar terrain. It still has his unbelievable knack for turning simple what-ifs into complex realizations of everyday encounters. The two main characters — a filmmaker visiting Suwon for a screening and lecture and a beautiful young lady he meets at an old palace who happens to be a painter — converse shyly and intimately, walking from place to place and hopping reflexively from lucid to drunk and to lucid again, until Hong decides, midway through the film, to repeat their encounter, with the same setup but slightly different details (on the surface and underneath). The result, in all its seeming simplicity, is heartbreakingly delightful, and between occasional laughs and tears, reeling from the infinite nuances found in ordinary situations, one feels the profundity of common experience often taken for granted, and rarely articulated so well, in contemporary cinema.

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BAKA SIGURO YATA (Joel Ferrer)

It’s sad to put down a film with winning charm and candid sensibility like Baka Siguro Yata, but it will be more unkind not to admit that despite these qualities it is unable to pull things off. It looks into three connected romantic relationships, each with varying levels of maturity and vulnerability that make it ripe for highly charged moments which, if executed right, can be affecting, the comedy being a dramatic device in itself. But something from the very start has been amiss: the direction hardly feels skilled and confident — in many cases resorting to amateur tricks — and as a result it fails to give justice to a script that is not only driven by witty dialogue and expositions but also by the easy-to-overlook concept of grand emotions in a small world. There are funny scenes, no doubt, but these moments alone cannot carry the film, much so if it is stubborn to subscribe to the kind of entertainment of humdrum television, from the storytelling and delivery of gags to the sloppy stitching of acts. Ferrer ends up choosing the common and convenient, varnishing the trite and only making it much triter.

NETPAC Festival Report — QCinema 2015: Third Time’s a Charm November 8, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Noypi, QCinema.
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QCinema, or the Quezon City Film Festival, had produced only three films in its inaugural year in 2013. It ran for three days in two cinemas, and since three films didn’t seem enough to conduct a festival, several entries from the recently concluded Cinemalaya accompanied them.

The following year delivered a stronger lineup — with production and post-production grants offered to features, documentaries, and short films — including a number of current international movies (Ida; Two Days, One Night; Leviathan; Mommy; Jauja; 52 Tuesdays; The Don Juans) which delighted cinephiles pining for the incomparable big screen experience. This time it ran for a week, and something interesting happened: it overlapped with the schedule of another film festival, the Cinema One Originals, which was then celebrating its tenth year, in the same venue. It was such a nice, busy time for hardcore local moviegoers.

Now in its third year, QCinema has reached a key turning point, boasting more than 200 screenings of eight new features, five documentaries, and over twenty foreign films in six cinemas in three malls in Quezon City, all in ten days. This may be modest figures by overseas standards, but in the Philippines this is a big deal. Over the years the challenge has always been to sustain a film festival — Cinemanila stopped indefinitely in 2013; Cinemalaya, though it managed to go past a controversy, had only short films in competition this year; and World Premieres, alas, continued its annual display of failure — but even more difficult is to sustain a growing audience. Just on these two accounts, QCinema 2015 has made a major leap.

Festival director Ed Lejano is completely aware that a festival cannot live on good intentions alone — it must be run with astute consideration for both the business and artistic side of programming, or else it will be another case of taxpayer’s money put to waste. He knows that the Quezon City government is keen on self-promotion, and branding is a priority. From the ridiculously catchy jingle to every piece of publicity material, the QC centricity is all over, but he ensures that the goal of this initiative — the promotion of cinema and the creation of better compromises for local filmmakers — is not lost in the seeming tourism feel of the event.

QCinema, on one hand, succeeds at having a clear identity and imprint, with goals to promote the city and its artistic legacy while also helping the industry produce new films. On the other, it provides opportunities for moviegoers to see works that will never reach the cinemas (because no distributor would bring them). The idea of putting current world cinema in a Filipino festival is always good because local films can be better appreciated (or gauged) in a larger, more dynamic context, allowing this foreign sensibility to enrich understanding and offer comparison and contrast.

For instance, American classic Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) finds itself in the company of Filipino classics Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (Eddie Romero) and Oro, Plata, Mata (Peque Gallaga), all of which deal with war and its effect on people but each with different perspective and depth. The stunning long take of German film Victoria (Sebastian Schipper) achieves something different from the impressive long take of Filipino work Anino sa Likod ng Buwan (Jun Lana). Local filmmakers, always curious about the potential of technology to discover uncharted terrains in storytelling, can derive inspiration from Tangerine (Sean Baker), not just because it was shot fully on iPhone 5S, but also because it managed to go beyond this selling point with a mature and persuasive handling of its subject. And who would have thought Gaspar Noé’s Love, with long scenes of actual fucking and cum spurting in 3D, will find its way on these highly conservative shores, with not just one screening but two?

QCinema’s efforts to offer variety have resulted in something remarkably satisfying. Screen International includes films that earned recognition from prestigious festivals abroad: Tale of Tales and Cemetery of Splendour from Cannes; Court from Venice; Victoria and How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) from Berlin; and Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes) from Rotterdam. The Asian Cinerama section includes A Simple Life (Anna Hui), Nader and Simin: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi), Overheard (Alan Mak, Felix Chong), and Niño (Loy Arcenas), all of which have strong voices and distinct cultural roots. Curated by Carlo Manatad, Asian Shorts is composed of short films from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Taiwan that look at the preoccupations of common people who struggle to survive every day. Music Genius presents three documentaries — Heaven Adores You (Nickolas Rossi), Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Pierre-Henry Salfati), and 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard — exploring the lives and deaths of music icons Elliott Smith, Serge Gainsbourg, and Nick Cave, respectively.

But by all means the highlight of QCinema 2015 is the eight Circle Competition and five DoQC entries. Filmmakers of full-length features had only six months to realize their scripts, crossing that thin line between attainable and unthinkable. With the ownership of their work given to them — something that other grant-giving festivals are hesitant to offer — most were able to secure additional funding to help in the completion of their films. Several of the competition entries are co-produced by Eduardo Rocha and Fernando Ortigas, two of the main producers of Heneral Luna, the groundbreaking surprise of 2015 which had an unprecedented nine-week run in theaters to become the highest grossing Filipino independent film of all time. Together, freedom and finances can do wonders, and despite the limited production time, all of the films have managed to be interesting talking points after their premieres, whether by virtue of quality, subject, or posturing.

Apocalypse Child (Mario Cornejo), Water Lemon (Lemuel Lorca), and Matangtubig (Jet Leyco) have strong attachment to their settings, with the characters explored in the context of their association with these places, and the drama being uncovered slowly to reveal wounds and mysteries. Iisa (Chuck Gutierrez) is set in a remote community in southern Philippines hit by a tragedy reminiscent of Typhoon Haiyan, focusing on a group of people trying to get back on their feet but held down by the complexities of their situation. A different kind of tragedy happens in Kapatiran (Pepe Diokno), in which a series of violent rites of a law school fraternity is interspersed with scenes of varying thematic similarity, mostly emphasizing confinement and absurdity. Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo (Mihk Vergara) has a world of its own in which children discover success and defeat in a beloved street game, while Gayuma (Cesar Hernando) wanders between fantasy and reality, with sex serving as the thin line separating them.

It is worth noting that four of the eight features are made by first-time directors, with Hernando, acclaimed production designer of Mike de Leon’s films, making his debut at 69 years old.

Compared with the Circle Competition entries, the DoQC documentaries are more challenging to watch. Audio Perpetua (Universe Baldoza) makes use of a concept that links two seemingly disjointed things, but is unable to make the crucial connection. At the center of Bingat (Choy Pangilinan, Brian Quesada, Joolia Demegilio, Abet Umil) is the raging struggle to recognize the importance of archaeological work in the country, mixing interviews and experimental techniques, but the length and tedium tend to weaken its strong sentiments. Traslacion: Ang Paglakad sa Altar ng Alanganin (Will Fredo) features interviews with gay, lesbian, and transgender couples, drowning them in ineffective music and unhelpful staged flourishes. The magic of Of Cats and Dogs, Farm Animals and Sashimi (Perry Dizon) is it unfolds gently and freely, allowing the viewer to acclimatize to the pace of provincial life.

The NETPAC jury — composed of film critic Philip Cheah, Korean director Doo-yong Lee, and writer Richard Bolisay — is unanimous in awarding the prizes to Crescent Rising (Sheron Dayoc) and Sleepless (Prime Cruz). Crescent Rising is a current and urgent document of the state of war in Mindanao, touching on the many aspects of the conflict from jihad and the Bangsamoro Basic Law to the families and civilians helplessly caught in between. It is far from being an authoritative work — it can still be improved with tighter editing and careful selection of footage — but it is powerful and potent as it is, the many cracks leaving a profound impression of this long struggle for the end of hostility.

Sociopolitical issues are never in the fore of Sleepless, but they are present in the periphery, in its strong undercurrent. Two call center agents become friends, and they turn to each other to idle the sleepless nights or mornings away while dealing with their own personal troubles. No romance is pursued, and no hint is ever given that a romantic relationship between them will be their escape. Sleepless is a break from the pervasive and undying trend in local movies of treating romance as the end-all and be-all of life. By upholding the vastly underrated worth of unconditional companionship, it reveals a truer portrait of urban disquiet without resorting to clichés and empty spectacles.

These two NETPAC jury prize winners, in a way, are descriptive of QCinema 2015’s achievement: relevant, timely, charming, and wise, with modesty to recognize improvement and brimming with a desire to join the awake and awakened Filipino audience for another year of festive moviegoing.

This report is also published on NETPAC’s website.

Above the Clouds (Pepe Diokno, 2015) August 12, 2015

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

Written and directed by Pepe Diokno
Cast: Ruru Madrid, Pepe Smith

Pepe Diokno’s much-awaited second film veers away from almost every aspect of his debut work, forgoing grit and aggression for subtlety and introspection. The years between them may have factored into the direction he has chosen, for the most obvious difference is how, unlike Engkwentro, Above the Clouds takes its time to unfold, bearing a language that is all too familiar with audiences who are used to immersive silence, minimal drama, striking visuals, and spatial dynamics coming together to create a sense of experience instead of spectacle.

This aesthetic of slow, or what is regarded by some as contemplative, aims for the soul rather than the body, and Diokno’s discernible choice to extract the essence and revel in restraint makes a good picture — if a good picture means being left with an impression — showing that, like commercial movies, artistic films also abide by a formula to achieve an effect.

A teenager and his grandfather, estranged from one another, deal with grief and spend time together, hiking up a mountain where their dead loved ones have once had special memories. In a nutshell, that’s basically it — two bodies and two souls — the rest is background and interpretation. The plot offers no surprises, and it doesn’t need any. It only needs to emphasize a relationship forced into being because it is the door through which its ruminations on sorrow come and go. The interaction between the two characters reveals merely the distance between them, how one tries to reach out as the other moves away, and the film, the way it is written and staged, gives them no one to turn to but each other, not even the departed. Only upon buying this setup can the viewer appreciate the nuances it tries so hard to keep and eventually expose for emotional impact.

Yet Above the Clouds, despite the undeniable artistic flair, is carefully predictable. It moves in such a way that its lead characters seem to be completely unaware of the path laid before them and of the emotions about to smother them, as though cruelly they were excepted from seeing the whole view, and the audience, for the entire time, is positioned at the vantage point, witnessing their struggle and anguish from a determined spot. One feels sad while watching it because it is only natural to feel sad, but there is nothing in it that rises above, or goes deeper beneath, this veneer of mourning, nothing that makes the sadness separate and specific.

The death of the parents during Ondoy is an interesting detail, but Diokno prefers to dilute this suggestive element in favor of accessibility, letting it add only to the overall sense of tragedy and not to a narrative that needs more layers. Granted, Ondoy appears to strike a chord mostly with people who have been acquainted with it (i.e., those from Manila) — the way Yolanda can have a distinct and lasting impact mostly on victims from Samar and Leyte — and people outside the eye of these tragedies can merely use art or consume it to share in the grief. But Ondoy, come to think of it, is the fulcrum of Above the Clouds, and an articulation of grief coming from it could have brought forth something more distinct, allowing a more resonant reading of the title to complement the emphatic but unmistakably beautiful final shot.

Diokno himself had an experience of Ondoy, and being someone from the city has afforded the film, largely shot in the Cordillera, this point of view: a boy glued to his phone and music player while on the move, a boy regarding his parents’ special place as something his and therefore feeling responsible for its keeping, a boy unable to know and appreciate the sacredness of the surroundings for other people. This perspective does not attempt to show strong familiarity with the place — it is far from promoting tourism and being an advocacy — but it is apparent that the sights are purposely used to characterize and deepen the story, the climb signifying a rocky relationship promised to reach a turning point, and without this scenic view of the mountains and meaning darkness, the film would have nothing much to show, not enough for it to stand on its own.

So somehow it seems only reasonable that the loudest criticism of the movie from local viewers comes in this regard, something which foreign audiences expectedly failed to highlight, the way environmental neglect is presented, and the nature of the medium makes it open to various angles of judgment. Some are quick to point out the vandalism supposedly tolerated in the movie, even aggravated by the fact that another film, both critically and commercially successful, has also been a subject of similar reproach (and, as it turns out, these two films, in the ensuing chaos of arguments, are being made accountable for their audience’s possible reckless actions, not to mention ill-intentioned thoughts, after seeing them).

This is why showing a locally produced film to a Filipino audience proves to be meaningful. Despite the extreme displeasure that comes with reading inane online comments and arguing with people of various levels of posturing, some of whom have no awareness of decency and diplomacy, Above the Clouds becomes relevant because of these discussions. Even with the guise of being fictional by nature, should films be absolved from criticism outside their cinematic merits? To what extent should filmmakers be held accountable for their viewers (as well as their thoughts and actions)? These debates bring to light the often taken-for-granted facet of film culture, this idea that a work, once shown and made consumable, carries a duty for its audience — the duty to educate and share a good message — and it is assumed that those who see it, especially if the subject is sensitive and misinterpretation could lead to something unpleasant, may or may not be bright enough to make a proper response. Cinema, in this case, is believed to be powerful when something dangerous is imminent, or if it shows something that does not conform to one’s idea of appropriate. This kind of mindset that doubts the ability of an audience to be responsible points at a lack of sufficient art education, thereby the blame easily (and thoroughly) goes to the art being produced.

Hardly raised in these accusations of negligence, and something which substantiates the tendency of the film to romanticize and be romanticized, is that all these issues could have been avoided (or forgiven) if Above the Clouds had a better script, if it had made a stronger case for its deliberate display of destruction. For a movie that depicts trails and terrains, it decides to take the path often traveled and comes unprepared for a long trip, sharing the view but not the experience.

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 5) September 3, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Dagitab (Giancarlo Abrahan)

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

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

#Y

#Y (Gino Santos)

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

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

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

mariquina

Mariquina (Milo Sogueco)

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

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

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

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 4) August 22, 2014

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

Children’s Show (Roderick Cabrido)

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

janitor

The Janitor (Michael Tuviera)

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

kasal

Kasal (Joselito Altarejos)

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

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 3) August 17, 2014

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

Hari ng Tondo (Carlos Siguion-Reyna)

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

sundalongkanin

Sundalong Kanin (Janice O’Hara)

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

hustisya

Hustisya (Joel Lamangan)

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

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 2) August 11, 2014

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

Ronda (Nick Olanka)

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

s6parados

S6parados (GB Sampedro)

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

bwaya

Bwaya (Francis Xavier Pasion)

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

Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 1) August 8, 2014

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

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

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

1stkosi3rd

1st ko si 3rd (Real Florido)

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

asintado

Asintado (Louie Ignacio)

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

She’s Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2014) July 30, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
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gangster

Written by Carmi Raymundo
Directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina
Cast: Kathryn Bernardo, Daniel Padilla, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Ian Veneracion

There is something curious about this tendency of a certain portion of the moviegoing public to wish for smarter commercial films. Although their conventional nature has long been established and accepted, local genre movies, for them to be considered deserving of attention and praise, are expected to bend rules and display cleverness. The lack of originality is justifiable, but when this degree of smartness (or coolness) is not met, it becomes easier and more convenient to find fault and notice particular areas in which the film could have been better, further encouraging this school of criticism that strives to be objective, pointing out the good and the bad and weighing these elements together as though worth could be gauged through basic enumeration of qualities and attainment of balance. But objectivity is sometimes as unhelpful as dismissal, and often taken for granted is the fact that studio releases don’t need to be smart to be successful—commercially and artistically—and some of them are actually successful on both terms because they have no intention to appear smart.

Star Cinema understands this play of principles, for its main currency is context. When its writers and directors are in top form, they manage to come up with wonderful pieces of fluff that make a larger impression than those independent movies acclaimed at festivals abroad, an impact that self-serving snobs are keen on invalidating. Although these commercial films cannot compete as far as novelty, depth, and breadth of subjects are concerned, they touch on specific aspects of Filipino sensibility, which may be trifling and negligible to some but in fact more genuine and persuasive than many attempts at social relevance.

In the case of Star Cinema’s romantic comedies, which have been its consistent breadwinner since the mid-2000s, the most striking effort is the proliferation of love teams, continuing the tradition of fanaticism that has made audiences of various generations swoon over Rogelio dela Rosa and Carmen Rosales, Tita Duran and Pancho Magalona, Nida Blanca and  Nestor de Villa, Nora Aunor and Tirso Cruz III, Vilma Santos and Bobot Mortiz, Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin, Piolo Pascual and Judy Ann Santos, and John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo—a few of those pairs whose chemistry onscreen has the ability to create sparks and induce spasms, celebrities whose private and social lives at the peak of their careers were owned by the public.

Frankly, no volume of Hollywood movies can match the experience of seeing the middleclass and the masses lose their heads over these reel lovers—an infatuation whose plain existence is its reason—and this is an identity to be proud of: an instance when emotions become exclusive but not dismissive, when certain feelings (generally thought to be universal) are fully comprehensible only to the film’s target audience, and when enjoyment rests comfortably on a skillful suspension of disbelief. When it comes down to the wire, the virtues, peculiarities, and nuances of kilig are hardly possible to interpret, translate, or subtitle.

The release of She’s Dating the Gangster is crucial not only in ascertaining the intense popularity of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla, whose phenomenal rise to fame is describable only through exaggeration, but also in attesting to the power of cinema to hold magic: that ability to affect and make sweeping gestures that bring about irrational, foolish, and ridiculous reactions. There is nothing groundbreaking about this, of course, but it’s pointless to overlook the fact that the KathNiel fever, as far as action is concerned, is growing, advancing, and overpowering. One can only smirk at audience members responding with rowdiness upon the mere sight of the actors’ names in the opening credits, shrieking and stomping their feet, losing it every time Daniel and Kathryn appear onscreen. Midway through the film, the noise becomes part of the viewing experience, a series of occasions on which a simple close-up signals a rumpus; and making a sober assessment, which takes into account both milieu and material, becomes trickier and more challenging.

At some point, though, a line can be drawn, and a few things can be articulated. For instance, Kathryn’s loveliness is intoxicating: she glows with delight, lights up every corner of the screen, and acts without drawing too much attention to herself or her quirks. Her Athena and Kelay can easily exude the qualities of a manic pixie dream girl despite not being one, but she is able to kill any sense of mystery and irony in her characters, her weak moments outshined by her strong ones. There is something regal about her overall appearance—how her clear skin, perfect teeth, and bright eyes convey such warm and pleasant feeling. Only she can temper Daniel’s smugness with grace, and people identify with her openly: she who falls for someone seemingly unattainable, someone who can be so cruelly distant and difficult. Kathryn is obviously a more convincing actor than Daniel, and she does it without overreaching or stealing his thunder, capturing those conflicting youthful emotions that people her age usually experience.

Daniel, on the other hand, knows how to work his charm with ease, the laziness and overconfidence strangely coming off rather endearing, and this owes not only to his genes but also to his awareness of them. The bad boy image fits him like a glove, and although it’s hard for him to adjust when it comes to softer scenes, he makes an effort to humanize his characters. Whenever he crumples his forehead and furrows his eyebrows ostentatiously to express despair, or when he consciously does that knee-bending grin to win Kathryn over, he gets away with it deftly—he is so used to being forgiven. As Kenji and Kenneth, Daniel is able to substantiate his matinée idol status, something which Rico Yan or Piolo Pascual has once experienced, and live up to a considerable measure of the adulation heaped on him. Those scenes that show him dancing prove that he understands it: silliness is not only part the game—it also completes it.

She’s Dating the Gangster is based on a book written by Bianca Bernardino, first published on Wattpad in 2006. A certain demographic has taken it pretty seriously, encouraging Summit Media to pick it up and put it out under its Pop Fiction series. To some extent, this type of young adult novels seems to differentiate itself consciously from those romance pocketbooks with daring covers that quite a number of people find too crude (the consumption of which often associated condescendingly with house helpers and folks from the province). Their themes and narratives have glaring similarities, particularly with the heavily female point of view and abuse of lengthy voiceovers, but the difference lies in the target readership. She’s Dating the Gangster caters more to high school and college students, millenials whose everyday interactions are dedicated mostly to the joys and thrills of online friendship, hinged on the comfort provided by social media and its placebo effect. Several of these readers, for some reason, have also found the eccentricities of Korean dramas (and culture, subsequently) amusing and worth emulating: the lightheartedness, the gentle approach to things, and the attractive routes to escape they offer. Although Bernardino’s book confronts serious subjects (illness, death, suicide), the sensibility is constricted and juvenile, and the decisions of its characters just seem bent on providing shamelessly emotional plot turns.

In short, the original material may have an appeal, but it’s neither literary nor cinematic enough. Screenwriter Carmi Raymundo and director Cathy Garcia-Molina have seen these limitations and decided to work around them with Kathryn and Daniel in mind, because once their faces are pressed on the roles, the narrative is sure to find its own direction. It’s hilarious how some people decry the use of “gangster,” which represents the childish and irresponsible codenames that students come up with when they are angry or annoyed—names whose meanings matter only in that phase of their lives and are gradually forgotten after it—but it is something that the film itself does not even take seriously. “Gangster” is a hook that gets played over and over to the point of annoyance, but its only purpose is to stay in one’s memory.

The riskiest change is setting the bulk of the story in the 90s, which Garcia-Molina carries too far to achieve something downright silly and out-and-out artificial. There’s no point being realistic in both the look and details—from the use of beepers and playing billiards to the awful get-up of students and the design of the school, the phoniness actually persuades the viewer to make fun of them. The film is too conscious about establishing the era, clumsily incorporating that Eraserheads song, those AC/DC and Nirvana T-shirts, and those embarrassing classroom details into a story whose characters do not even display any smidgen of interest in them. Wigs remain a Star Cinema curse, and seeing them on Kathryn and Daniel is like watching them fully submit to a terrible initiation rite. Cinematographer Dan Villegas enjoys filling the screen with bright light and vivid colors, and despite moving repeatedly from past to present, he maintains this glossy texture that is easy on the eyes, keeping that surface busy but almost weightless, as though he were tempered by love himself.

This tacky 90s imitation, however, rarely feels dishonest. The many decorations in the film only serve to surround Kenji and Athena and are not there to define them. Their love story does not depend on where they are and who they are with—for clichéd as it may sound, it depends on the choices they make based on the circumstances. When those options are laid down, the movie bares its flaws and gives in to crappy turns of plot. Undoubtedly the most prominent of these is the strained detailing of their separation, the deathbed drama, the wasted Rio Locsin monologue, the utter forcedness of it all that doesn’t seem to jibe with the hollow surroundings—since as far as attachment to the story is concerned, their romance has been real and convincing, and this breakup (or its barely credible motivation) sticks out too proudly.

Another concern is the decision to let the pair play both roles, and perhaps the only way to answer it is to imagine it the other way around. Again, commercial films are after the effect, and they are allowed to have these implausible situations as long as they accomplish larger-than-life consequences. And She’s Dating the Gangster, aware may it seem of its folly, hangs onto this device that lets the viewer feel that since Kenji and Athena have not been able to reach their happily ever after because of timing, Kenneth and Kelay, in a preposterous twist of fate as Kenji’s son and Athena’s niece, are there to fulfill those years of longing and distance, allowing them to meet by chance and become close to each other. How else can the audience feel the pain (of the past) and the excitement (of the present) if it weren’t for Kathryn and Daniel acting as reminders of fate and doom? The ending may be a cop-out, the same way that most Star Cinema endings have always been inadequate and disappointing, but it is intended for no one but the fans, those who will watch the film more than once just to have that feeling again, those who understand that love is not for everyone but would rather see it received by deserving people.

After two dull feature-length movies (Must Be… Love and Pagpag) and two remarkable television shows (Princess and I and Got to Believe), Kathryn and Daniel are already well-acquainted with the body language that drives their fans mad, gestures and actions that can set off incredible reactions. Garcia-Molina takes advantage of this, but she also challenges them. By putting them in two backdrops, it feels as though she wanted them to relearn the basics of kilig, stretching their boundaries to discover finer distinctions that can be explored and new flirty tricks that can be carried out to maximum effect. She is a director that can easily be dismissed or overrated, but after more than a decade of sticking to her method and style, appropriating them to a number of love teams whether tried or new, it just seems fair to recognize that she is an indispensable filmmaker, as vital to this industry as Lav Diaz and Wenn Deramas, for only she can deliver romantic comedies that are entertaining, insightful, and sensitive, with flair and skill, with hardly an unpleasant aftertaste.

In fact, it owes to her that the single most memorable scene in She’s Dating the Gangster is not between Kathryn and Daniel but between Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta, showing their heartrending final (and brief) encounter in slow motion, as though as a director she were doing her part to extend their time together and give them a closure they deserve, and with Angeline Quinto’s powerful singing in the background, Kenji lights up as he sees her, snatched by the most overwhelming kind of happiness, the most unexpected surprise of his life, the only bright cloud in his empty sky, and Athena, now in a wheelchair, frail but cheerful, resigned to dying but content just to have this one moment, looks up to him and smiles; he exclaims “Hi” and she replies “Gangster,” and by now everything seems to float on tears, sinking the inconsistencies and emphasizing only the unforgettable: Athena’s crazy cheerleading, Kenji’s dance moves, that wedding promise witnessed by Mayon, Athena touching her chest and Kenji oblivious of her sickness, and his words before she dies—”All the years of waiting, it’s all worth it just to see you today”—the pain alluding to Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, their intimacy transcending circumstances, the ability of love to travel and come back in different form but remaining pure and intact, and time, as always, the unkindest villain of them all, being a bitch.

Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Lav Diaz, 2013) March 29, 2014

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
9 comments

Norte

Written by Rody Vera and Lav Diaz
Directed by Lav Diaz
Cast: Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania, Hazel Orencio, Angelina Kanapi, Soliman Cruz

Sometime in 2004, in a roomful of undergraduate students, a lecturer started his class by sneering at Lav Diaz. That time there was a lot of talk about the release of Ebolusyon ng isang Pamilyang Pilipino, a work filled with characters steeped in many shades of anguish not far from the despair experienced by those who took part in making it. This lecturer, who also happened to have established a name for himself as a film critic, was aghast by the idea of a ten-hour movie being conceived and received, let alone being programmed at international festivals, and this made Ebolusyon an easier target of his ridicule.

There was no way of remembering the exact words, for it was his self-aggrandizing tone and highly inspired provocation that caught the students’ attention, specifically the manner in which he delighted in his attack, condemning the film solely for its length, the peak of which came when he pointed out, one by one and systematically, the various activities that could be accomplished in ten hours, from the mundane to the outrageous, from washing clothes and waiting for them to dry to the slow formation of stalactites and stalagmites, and his filibustering went on for three hours until it was already time for the students to leave. Judging by the looks on their faces, sitting through that class was either absolute pain or absolute pleasure, and thanks to this lecturer, who hadn’t seen a second of Ebolusyon yet already making permanent impressions, some of them had reconsidered pursuing their film degrees, inadvertently allowing this minor incident to cut through several facets of their academic experience.

It is a useless memory with negligible consequences—an instructor’s display of ferocious absurdity seems nothing compared with the news of a student committing suicide several years later, whose passing has shaken the spirit of numerous film majors, some of whom are present in that class—but it is a known fact that useless memories cling forever; and these bits of impractical and hollow details, always there but seldom acknowledged, only become well-defined in the most inopportune moment, confirming that even meaningless things resonate deeply given the right time and vulnerability. This violent act of dissing and dismissing films without having seen them, bringing to light the brutally bitter side of criticism driven for the most part by self-importance, recalls the dynamics of quiet viciousness that persists in Diaz’s body of work.

Even as early as Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, he has demonstrated the ability to inflict wounds that feel painful only after they heal, and in his much longer movies this fixation has grown bleaker and more threatening, for between the projected image and the audience a bridge is being built for the burden to cross. The length of his movies has always been a source of discouragement, but experiencing the passage of time is crucial in looking into his work, especially with how such proceeding changes and erodes the lives of his characters, how it observes their gentle descent into oblivion. The concepts that Diaz is so keen on exploring film after film hardly feel abstract or theoretical: they are made specific by his anger and frustration, by the seeming futility of struggle, and by the aggression inculcated in small and large systems, begun and exacerbated during colonial rule, and present up to now on various levels of society, continuing to oppress and eliminate the weak and the poor, to whom he has frequently dedicated his stories.

Diaz has always been on the periphery of the industry, and this position, away from the rewards and restrictions of popular digital cinema, the development of which has given way to a much-desired golden age, has made his films even more distant from the public. Almost a decade after Ebolusyon, he directs Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, which bears resemblance to Batang Westside not only in length and use of color but also in tautness and precision. With the searing clarity of its vision and the measure of significance that lies in its fullness, Norte is likely to be mentioned constantly as proof of his brilliance. It has come at a time when the current political climate is beset with prospects of having another Marcos as president and the alarming emergence of young minds defending his dictatorial regime. In his interviews, Diaz is vocal about the character of Fabian being molded from Ferdinand Marcos—the brightest law student in his class, the young murderer dodging his punishment, the intellectual wrestling with his demons, the man gifted with good looks, wealth, and freedom but struggling for peace of mind and contentment, the leader enlivened by his keenness to destroy—and he has made it a point to set Norte in Marcos’s hometown in Ilocos, the land where the roots of despotism are anchored until present, lending the film not only its title but also its past.

The guise of a linear structure does not prevent Diaz from telling a compelling narrative, but whenever he takes the liberty of sidestepping—lingering over sceneries, pursuing dead-end characters, inserting plots that can stand on their own outside the film, or conjuring dream sequences that raise the narrative to overwhelming heights—the emotions that have once been firm and unyielding suddenly soften, escaping the confines of cinema and connecting themselves with larger aspects of human condition. It takes a while before Norte arrives at a point of levelheaded tranquility, before the bad taste left by the uncomfortable bursts of philosophizing turns into a reminder of horrible things to come, but when it does, when the narrative arcs of Fabian and Joaquin become closer by moving away from each other, all possible exits lead to tragedy.

The weight carried by the film owes a lot to Diaz’s understanding of grief, which allows him to orchestrate big and small pieces of heartbreaking incidents to form a whole that touches every moral surface, no matter how far and deep. Adding to the throb of pain, which takes its time before making its absence felt, is the parchedness of dramatic highlights, especially in those sequences with Joaquin and Eliza, who bear the film’s soul and spirit, the couple whose days and nights alternate between looking back and looking forward, always waiting to avert the misfortune lying ahead of them. The most painful and powerful moments in Norte are those that show their need to live for each other, all the time refusing to succumb to bad luck, only to end up in an unconditional state of desolation in which all their hopes settle as dust.

Joaquin’s story—an unremarkable man whose dream of setting up a small livelihood for his family is shattered by an accident; an unremarkable man who, in an unreasonable turn of events, becomes the fall guy prosecuted for double murder; an unremarkable man who, after seeing Eliza for the first time in several years and exchanging with her a future built only on optimism, unguarded from the certainties of disappointment, is likely to hear the news of her death in a cruel accident (the kind that happens so frequently in the country it hardly feels impossible)—is a story that keeps repeating itself among the masses, among the people who have grown tired of fighting for their rights and are now simply taking it all in, their paths worsened by the paths before them, their fates dictated not by god but by man.

A poor man can weather as many bad accidents as possible—being born into an impoverished family, having to go through life in the most abject of circumstances, being disgraced on account of his social position, trying all means to survive only to be buried deeper in debt and penury—but one severe incident, the reason for which will never be discovered, is enough to efface all his tremendous displays of fortitude, forcing him to give up. Norte openly overstates the goodness of Joaquin, the way he responds to evil by showing incredible compassion, and the culmination of which happens as he reaches a spiritual peak. But even Diaz, who has invested in Joaquin the warmest affection possible between an author and a creation, cannot bring himself to face Joaquin’s reaction to Eliza’s demise, and the audience feels this sorrow in the final scene where Ading and the two children walk funereally, looking numb and emptied, impossible to be comforted.

In almost every review of Norte there seems to be a fulsome need to mention Diaz’s admiration for Dostoevsky, the parallelism and differences between Raskolnikov and Fabian, the hopelessness of their tormented existence and the context in which their actions (and inactions) produce harsh consequences. While this is clearly a remarkable way of examining his work, unfortunately it also limits the perspective appropriate for a much more illuminating appreciation of his position as a filmmaker from the third world, as a narrator of his countrymen’s inexhaustible suffering, and as a Filipino who tries to alleviate the centuries-old struggle for equal opportunity by keeping its memories alive. Extrapolating Dostoevsky’s influence on his films creates an attractive distraction, one that asserts Diaz’s accessibility because of the themes he engages in, but it does not exactly offer the most persuasive reason for his importance. The patriotism that permeates in his films has always been exact and uncompromising—the identity of the characters is unmistakably Filipino, made more distinct by their ambiguities and contradictions—and in this regard, it is only rational to suggest that the artists with whom Diaz can be comfortably associated are his fellow writers with strong roots in social realism, specifically Rogelio Sicat and Edgardo Reyes, authors whose short stories, novels, and essays confront the elaborate cycle of violence experienced by the poor and their great efforts to contend with this terrible reality.

In two of his most celebrated stories, “Impeng Negro” and “Tata Selo,” both written in the early sixties, Sicat brings to life characters pushed to the extremes by people who abuse them, forcing them to break and fight back. Constantly bullied by his neighbor for his skin color, Impen can no longer contain the scorn and loathing hurled at him, so after feeling the blood in his cheeks, after being hit and kicked repeatedly despite his defenselessness, and after being ridiculed for his sorry condition, he gets up and pummels the face of his adversary as madly as he can, using only what he has: his hands and the sheer urge to defend his dignity. Tata Selo, on the other hand, is an old man imprisoned for killing the owner of the land he tills, who, according to him, has terminated him from work unfairly; but as the subtle details of the story reveal, the reason for the crime is the rape committed to his daughter. Holding the cold steel bars and looking far away, he mutters, in an expression of grief that intimates his inability to resist madness, that everything (his land, his daughter, his honor, and his life) has been taken away from him.

Impen and Tata Selo are nowhere to be found in Norte—it’s no surprise that the likes of them are dead by now, in real life and in fiction—but the distinct qualities that have made them unforgettable characters in Philippine literature are in Joaquin and Eliza, who get by through their heroic patience and belief that life, until and unless it ends, will always have a chance to be better. Prizewinning playwright Rody Vera, with the help of Raymond Lee and Michiko Yamamoto, shapes them (as well as Fabian, whose antagonism and cunningness provide the film a livid state of grace) and plants their stories deeply in a fertile soil, enabling Diaz to cultivate it on his own terms. The freedom given by Vera is a wonderful gift, for Diaz, perhaps even without knowing it, is able to pay tribute to Mga Agos sa Disyerto, a seminal anthology first published in the sixties that renders the subject of poverty with emphasis on radical form and content, linking the traditional and the progressive. Fifty years have passed since then and the can of worms, passed from one destitute generation to another, is still there. Diaz captures in Norte the passage of time and change of values in these people, their struggle being the only invariable element, and imparts the imposing scale of adversity committed to them.

One particular scene springs to mind, which, when taken into consideration with the film’s finer details, can easily go unnoticed: Tired after spending the entire day pushing her cart of produce around town, Eliza returns home with a plastic bag of bread for her children and sister. They invite her to eat, but Eliza, who has probably forgotten in the long years of hard work what hunger means, declines and goes to bed. The film moves to another scene, but for some reason, perhaps due to the way it evokes the plainness of life absent from the city or how Angeli Bayani leaves the viewer unsteady by making simple gestures, it’s difficult to shake off the ache of witnessing that short moment fade away without imagining how it has come about—exhausted, Eliza remembers her loved ones as she walks home, stops by a store to buy something for them, and smiles as she pictures the look of happiness on their faces. But she won’t take a piece of her present. She would rather offer it pure and untouched. She’s too drained to even think of this, so she decides it’s better to turn in so she can wake up early next morning for work. It’s hard to believe that this is the same mother who, out of distress and desperation, has once contemplated killing herself and her children, and in the end is betrayed by the very faith she has protected painstakingly, but selflessness, at its most heartbreaking, identifies itself better with thoughts of tragedy.

It’s unfair that there’s only so much a writer can talk about in the presence of great art, but the inability to express and explain every aspect of its finery simply confirms its worth. Every attempt to assess Norte reflects the failure to cover countless areas of discussion it cracks open—the most striking of which, arguably, is the nature of Fabian’s crimes; how the first murder is totally uncalled for and how it is necessitated only by an exercise of will and a mania to satisfy himself; how the second murder substantiates this nihilism and how, instead of surrendering himself, his idea of making amends by helping Joaquin’s family through his connections is even sicker; how the succeeding crimes (raping his sister, killing a dog) are corollary; and most importantly, how human experience boils down to all questions of how. The life and times of Juan dela Cruz roll on this Möbius strip, continuous and one-sided, all ends joined. The film’s title, in what seems to be Diaz’s harshest assertion, does not refer only to a province but also to a direction, the cardinal point of a compass, the traveler’s guide to reaching a destination, and the force that pulls a person to a grand purpose. What Norte ascertains is that all debates on the current state of Philippine cinema must end: It answers everything. And sadly it is enough.

On the Job (Erik Matti, 2013) September 12, 2013

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
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onthejob

Written by Michiko Yamamoto and Erik Matti
Directed by Erik Matti
Cast: Joel Torre, Piolo Pascual, Gerald Anderson, Joey Marquez

The hype surrounding On the Job confirms that a sizeable fraction of Filipino moviegoers, contrary to popular belief, is not in front of a display window looking for something good: it is on an island waiting for rescue. This audience, whose taste in cinema is diverse and self-assured, is a proud bearer of positive news. Any hint of deliverance, whether it’s the sound of a moving object or a slight change of light, suggests emancipation, and the timing and technical skill of On the Job happen to fit the mold it has in mind for years.

In light of the issues confronting the country at present, the film’s resonance is impossible to overlook. The association between the social unrest it depicts and the impassioned reviews is persuasive, but it also has a tendency to magnify its actual merits. Clearly, On the Job is a far cry from Sister Stella L. and Orapronobis—both movies carried out under a strong political climate, their stories depicting a deeply rooted struggle, their sentiments continuing to echo with fear—but director Erik Matti does not envision his film to be either, and that decision works somehow in his favor.

There is no denying that Matti is not keen on insights: he is more concerned with viewer interest. He is after amusement, that delight of seeing pleasure in the faces of his audience as he gets away with his smoke and mirrors. His fascination with genres over the years has served as an inadvertent preparation for this—from action and horror to fantasy and erotica, he understands the tropes and squeezes entertainment out of them—and On the Job not only marks a turning point in his career: it also becomes his status symbol.

The shower of praises it receives, however, implies a certain misguidance—a misreading of Philippine cinema’s condition, quite similar to a doctor prescribing dentures to a patient with a healthy set of teeth. Most of the manic reviews speak of banalities and fall short on describing the virtues of the film. Worse, they raise alarming concerns. For example, why does faith in Philippine cinema being restored turn up? Why do some people take pride in disliking Star Cinema releases yet when a decent one comes about, they make it a point to express full ownership of it, loudly and smugly? Why is On the Job—a passable prison drama, a passive political picture, and a telling thriller with impressive splotches of hardboiled noir—being deemed a manna from heaven? What is the point of using it to decry and invalidate other local movies?

One argument hardly raised, which is probably the most pertinent as far as the current state of Philippine cinema is concerned, is that there exist (and there have always been) worthy movies outside Cinemalaya. They are few but they are being made. Demonizing Star Cinema and the Metro Manila Film Festival is easy, but gray areas such as grant-giving bodies that do good and cause harm at the same time are given the benefit of the doubt, rarely argued, and left untouched. On the Job has taken years to complete and has been to hell and back, amid all the logistical nightmares and financial risks involved, but it only goes to show that it can be done and it’s realistic to set high expectations.

Needless to say, its centerpiece is its brazenness. It creates a picture that never for once looks like it needs any help, leaving the viewers with an impression of freedom and luxury. It holds them by the neck and steer their emotions to one specific route. What Matti does is untighten the screws in succession, first the ones in the corners and then those in the middle; but along the way one screw refuses to be undone, and that’s where the narrative stores some surprises, unleashing them slowly in the final act, the characters finding themselves on a dead-end street and between concrete walls.

A second viewing of it highlights the buildup of relationship between the two hired killers. The result of such development is rather strange, for the death of one of them is less striking than the death of the character pursuing them, the latter creating a fork in the road while the former coming across as something supplementary, like a whimsical afterthought. As the second death is revealed, the impression made by the first is still there, and the effect of how it wraps things up feels slight. Writers Michiko Yamamoto and Matti may have anticipated this effect, hence their footnotes show eagerness in establishing a resolution through a grand gesture, owing to the genre’s requirements.

There is also a special significance attached to the no-nonsense parade of grit, emphasized by the urban setting.  Manila exudes so much flavor that the story would hardly make a dent in the viewer without it. The geographical dynamics slides on the glossy surface and leaps from it, making room for a lot of pursuit and gunshots that never feel out of place, the elements in the backdrop rearranging themselves surreptitiously. On the Job’s finest moments are those that allow the city, specifically the culs-de-sac and buildings occupying it, to create necessary distractions and participate in the action. Should one pay attention to the stylish enactment of its major sequences—the shootout in the public hospital, the chase at the train station, and the gunfire outside Manila City Hall, not to mention the evil pair of rain and traffic being indifferent to everything—one feels a spark of splendor, a momentary blanket of thrill, as these scenarios are seldom captured in local movies. Seeing them onscreen causes a sudden jolt, like the taste of hot sauce in a slice of five-cheese pizza, waiting to be acknowledged as they hit the senses, strong and aching for water.

Putting more emphasis on its technical proficiency is the manner in which the production design of Richard Somes rounds out the camera work of Ricardo Buhay, particularly in bringing to life a prison built from scratch. Buhay does justice to Somes’s meticulous visual details, showing the gracelessness of objects left to smear on their own, uncared for and unwashed, unacquainted with social order like the inmates around them. The narrative moves forward confidently because Buhay and Somes are able to make the tone of the film consistent, the exterior and interior sequences achieving fluid transitions. Furthermore, the tracking shots do not feel like decorations; they create a pleasant contrast with all the shooting and running, the camera looking for an angle of attack and finding it, surprised at its own discoveries.

Young Critics Circle member J. Pilapil Jacobo, in the lead of his review, thinks that “On the Job preoccupies itself too much with the techniques of cinema which make ‘action’ a legitimate object of Filipino film that its so-called treatise on Philippine violence barely works even as police reportage.” What makes this argument regrettable is the presence of valid arguments that fail to register because they are not substantiated in the remainder of the essay. The preoccupation with techniques is true, but in defense of On the Job, irrespective of how its pack of supporters tries to make sense of its relevance, there is never an instance in the movie that suggests it’s a “treatise,” that it’s purposely making a grand statement on sociopolitical issues. In fact, it’s a film whose consciousness of its nature is obvious—“I’m a fucking movie, goddammit!”—and above all else, Matti has not veered away from his personality: he remains a filmmaker inclined to work on formulas and make a compelling picture out of them, by hook or by crook.

On the Job may not be “intelligent enough to launch a ‘critique’ of establishment,” but at this point, when the arts have most likely reached their most dramatic peak and society has seen its best and worst people and experienced its nastiest nightmares, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that intelligence, the boon and bane of human existence, has been prized too highly all these years? Is it unfair to presume that the kind of cinema that bears fruit is not conscious of what it can do for its people but one that is aware of its limitations and acknowledges them? On what condition can criticism not just be content with complimenting but also complementing a national cinema?

It’s a frustrating ball game when the need arises to distinguish art from entertainment for the sake of favoring the former, some people forgetting that entertainment is in fact an art: a discipline that follows a set of aesthetic principles for it to succeed, making use of skills and techniques to deliver its desired effect. It’s unfair to look down on it as a form of expression just because the gratification it offers is deceptive, and a judgment is not any less convincing or credible if enjoyment, no matter how short-lived it may be, is used as a focal point of critical discussion. The main weapon of On the Job is its unapologetic preference for action, its clear-cut view of crime and redemption, and its apparent lack of disguise. Gunmen don’t talk nonsense when they are being cornered, the police arrive when there’s still something else to do, Manila stinks when it rains. There is nothing tricky about it, so one must not overrate its own sense of importance, or belittle its plain straightforwardness.

Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bakal (Mes de Guzman, 2013) August 28, 2013

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
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bakal

Written and directed by Mes de Guzman
Cast: Jess Evardone, John Paul Escobedo, Abdul John Candelario

In the uneven terrain of Philippine cinema, dominated by films that require committee endorsements before getting made, Mes de Guzman’s movies provide directions to a highland, someplace where human relationships, placed in the artless backdrop of the countryside, are complex in their simplicity. De Guzman has the ability to pare down his stories without truncating the scale of his subjects, doing it without adding unnecessary theater or touches of exoticism intended to dress up the unpleasant. His films are set in rural neighborhoods where one sees the surroundings in a state of ruin, either due to abuses committed to nature or because of neglect by the state government.

The elements in his movies are quite predictable—poverty as an accepted norm, inherited by generations of family members; death as something inevitable, a natural termination of suffering; and children as players caught in forbidden games, their innocence lost and exploited—but de Guzman has a way of depicting small lives and showing the thorough implications of their fates.

The Earth Trilogy, comprised of Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Yelo, Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato, and Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bakal, whose tangents touch the curves of Diablo and Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa, is distinguished more by breadth than by ambition, marked specifically by the girth of the world being presented: the way it measures around the milieu of destitution in the provinces. These films reek of anger and frustration, but de Guzman—a farmer, a short story writer, a novelist, and a longtime resident of these neighborhoods—is a pacifist, which shows in the mildness of his temper and in the authenticity of his characterizations. This disposition, however, does not prevent him from making statements against oppression and its extensive history, no matter how slight they may seem to the casual moviegoer. His body of work as a filmmaker, a distinctive rendering of the modest and the miniature, contains some of the sharpest observations on the Filipino condition, presenting sides of social dysfunctions often taken for granted.

Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bakal, for instance, does not go far from the boundaries of its predecessors. The hills and mountains are still there, surrounding the community; the fields are bare and untended; the view of the clear blue sky does not look complete without the trees; and the roads remain unpaved and unnoticed. There is a boy at the beginning who walks around telling neighbors about an upcoming wedding, asking them for help. The lead character, Carlito, works at a junk shop that manufactures illegal guns, which the owner sells to alleged gang members in the area. Middle-aged and living with his parents, Carlito has a girlfriend whom he wants to marry, but for some reason he is apprehensive about telling his mother and father. From there, stories are thinly scattered and their connections unfold leisurely. Until the end, the picture stays in de Guzman’s territory.

Similar to his previous movies, the pace of Bakal is slow and consuming, sometimes to the point of inducing sleep. It is not because of dullness but due to the insistence on capturing the sluggishness of provincial life.  It is a treatment that de Guzman does naturally (or to some extent, deliberately), a language whose surface looks easy to polish but actually entails a certain sensibility. This sort of rhythm has come to define his movies, but as much as it highlights the understated horror of rural life, inclusive of the poetry and metaphysics that go with it, it also leaves the viewer in a disordered shape, the futility of the situation bearing the heaviest effect.

A legitimate concern is that watching de Guzman’s movies is hardly about learning something new: it is about witnessing how life sets up a dead-end and traps its defenseless characters. He can tell different stories but with similar resolutions, and the permutation is infinite unless the system changes and addresses the problem, which is unlikely to happen soon. In this regard, de Guzman can be seen as a darling of auteur theorists: his films are full of echoes, their themes and motifs bounce to each other, the dialogues are straightforward, the worldview is consistent, and the visual style is rich in symbolism. No one can dispute the authorship of his movies, and each film in his body of work reinforces the other.

But his weakness also comes from this persistence. Most of the time the closure of his narratives is not commensurate with the degree of emotional buildup that occupies them. His conclusions are often unrewarding because to some extent the viewer is no longer involved, mentally or emotionally. He or she is inclined to drift off, for the story no longer seems to be on the ground, losing its way and never reaching its destination. When the final moments come in, there is only a vague sense of recollection, and that profound effect can easily be mistaken for gravity. To some audience members, this shortcoming is pardonable, especially when it is considered in the grand scheme of things, in how de Guzman has managed to introduce discussions of issues in the regions; but such failing needs to be raised in order to understand his significance as a filmmaker much better. And indeed, more than anything, De Guzman (like Diaz, Jeturian, Mendoza, and Mardoquio) is an important filmmaker: his movies are flawed but mature, they test one’s patience but they need to be seen.

The Earth Trilogy presents a bleak look at the lives of struggling Filipinos in the countryside: young and old, deprived and impoverished, hopeful and hopeless. Survival and suffering are key subjects, de Guzman showing the nature of resilience with limits, whose terminus, for better or for worse, only means death for his characters. Its finest accomplishment is the genuine restraint despite the grand themes of poverty, child labor, capitalism, free trade, sorrow, resignation, birth, youth, and death, de Guzman being able to tell stories with an appropriate tone. No question: the power of these movies originates from his experience and wisdom. There is a lot to admire in the sparseness of Bakal, the delay of tragedies, the meager servings of happiness, the precision of details, and how the tokens of subsistence move from one person to another, as though in the neighborhood nothing was really lost because everything was passed around: possessions, words, news, relationships, crimes, souls, anecdotes, fears. In its long-winded journey in a tiny space, the bulk of one’s life is spent waiting for good fortune, which never comes at the right time.

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

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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SONY DSC

Written by Ralston Jover
Directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr.
Cast: Carlo Aquino, Angel Aquino, Yul Servo, Rosanna Roces, Bembol Roco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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