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Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe Virtudazo-Hyde, Glorypearl Dy, Irish Karl Monsanto, Perry Dizon
In many ways Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is Arnel Mardoquio’s first great work. But in saying that, one runs the risk of devaluing the strength of his previous films, especially Sheika, which may be messy and untempered as a whole but has moments that offer a kind of hopeless desolation that its subject deserves to have. His movies are always conscious of his background. Hailing from Davao, he has long been exposed to the problems that people from Mindanao face, his stories taking shape from first-hand observations and experiences. He isn’t young: he is 42 and his hair has turned gray over the years. In addition to being a film writer and director, fields that he has decided to focus on fairly recently, he is a prolific and prizewinning playwright, theater director, actor, poet, and librettist. This involvement in various disciplines has given him a certain ripeness, a kind of wisdom that comes with age and maturity, aware that art is more or less an expression of misery. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is his fifth feature in four years, and his growth as a filmmaker, if he has a quality that needs to be emphasized, couldn’t be anything but remarkable. Instead of turning another screw, the movie is a statement that refuses to be quoted in simple terms, and its seemingly subdued surface allows more water to flow in its forked paths until there’s nothing left to corrode.
Much of its power comes from the deliberate control of sound. Its investment in silence is difficult not to notice because the story, which involves three Muslim insurgents and a kid trying to escape from their captors, needs a lot of time to breathe. It alternates between sucking in air and exhaling it because it happens to be the metaphor for its actual premise, how some people caught in the conflict in Mindanao contend with their everyday life, always finding themselves running and staying put. Mardoquio addresses the complexities of the armed conflict, but he does not explain why violence remains and why war and peace have become too abstract to understand. He does not pursue the whys and the wherefores; instead he creates sequences, particularly the brilliantly executed opening, in which the whys and the wherefores have come to be pointless, knowing that life goes on regardless of reasons, whether the revolution succeeds or not. What the film accomplishes in its subtlety is a drama that is effective and moving, not to mention having the ability to conceal its propaganda very well—Mardoquio losing the habit of staging sloppy spectacles, something that he was wont to do in his earlier work—and the screen is filled with images that take the plot into surprising directions. At some point in the film there is that beautiful shot of the hill where a man is seen with a water buffalo, and then a few seconds later a troop of bandits emerges on top, seven of them, as if referencing either Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai or Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, and for a brief moment the narrative has an air of a Western movie, which makes the hostile environment even more strangely horrifying. There is no denying that Mardoquio is in love with his visuals, as there are instances when the film will intentionally pause to show a lovely view of the falls or the orange sky, but he knows when to cut them: he takes them away just when the viewer begins to fall in love with them as well.
Despite the many chasms it can fall into, Ang Paglalakbay ng Bituin sa Gabing Madilim never gets carried away by its sentiments. The anger and frustration that seep through its story are levelheaded, and its perspectives are grounded in consequences and not in platitudes. When the lesbian angle is finally confronted, it unfolds naturally, Amrayda and Fatima kissing each other as if it’s the last time, a kiss that connotes passion and resignation as much as bravery and cowardice. Amrayda is tired of the revolution, but she does not speak of its futility. It is still necessary, if not downright indispensable. She believes in a kind of life where her religion and her personal preferences could coexist, a life that would allow her to be a Muslim and marry Fatima at the same time, a life that is impossible to happen yet it’s something that she fervently holds onto. Mardoquio shares her weariness, closing the film on a bleak and uncertain note, but what is fate but bleak and uncertain? Where does the struggle actually end? How can a film address these issues without limning the blood in the frontiers and the dead bodies under the ground, without bringing up the cause and losing oneself in the maze of its contradictions? There are no simple answers, but more appropriately: there are no answers. Clearly, the revolution has already happened some time ago. It is still taking place. It will never cease. And there will be more corpses.
Amigo (John Sayles, 2010) December 7, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Cinemanila, Indie Sine.
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Written and directed by John Sayles
Cast: Joel Torre, Rio Locsin, Garret Dillahunt, Chris Cooper
The dichotomy in Amigo is loud and clear. Two sides: the Filipino and the American. The setting: the tail end of the Philippine-American War. Bonifacio was dead. Aguinaldo was the so-called president. Early on I thought John Sayles is making a joke. With some foreign dignitaries invited to watch the closing film of the Cinemanila International Film Festival, the Filipino dialogues in Amigo, which constitute more than half of the film, are not subtitled. I went on to think—sublimely, because of the cold—that from a joke Sayles is now making a statement. Maybe that’s part of his intent: them not having a chance to understand exactly what’s going on in the barrio the same way the Americans then never did. Clever, and indeed no one walked out. A patient group! I wonder what Ananda Everingham, who’s in the audience, must have felt in his seat. He might have thought of his father who swam across the Mekong River to fetch his dear wife from Laos to Thailand. He might have thought of their love story. He might have been moved to tears. But that affair happened in the late 70s. Amigo is set in the dawn of the twentieth century, so a seventy-year difference, considering Thailand and the Philippines are neighboring countries with a dramatic difference of colonial history, is only a matter of perspective, like, say, looking at Boy Abunda’s mirror. Anyway, there you go, the Philippine-American War, which lasted from February 1899 to June 1913, after the Mock Battle of Manila between Spain and America in August 1898, which must not be confused with the Battle of Manila, in which more than 2,000 Filipinos and 50 Americans were killed. So, who won the panjandrum?
John Sayles, of course, is a wise man. He knows my history better than I do, that much I can give. He can probably narrate the Philippine-American War history better than Gregorio Zaide, and in a more interesting demeanor. But Sayles, given away by his storytelling, is not a historian; he’s an interpreter, which is not to say that historians are not interpreters with the biggest balls. Like most great filmmakers, Sayles is a man interested in fiction inspired by history. In Amigo he is rather conscious of historical accuracy, which is just the right thing to be, but the setting does not hold water. We see the American soldiers, we see the Filipino “insurrectos,” we see the Spanish friar, we see the Chinese blabbering about their life, we see whores and horses; but except for their clothes, are you sure this is not 2010? Aren’t we looking at the spitting image of the Philippine-American War at present, the summary execution of insurgents, the extrajudicial killings of journalists, the Balikatan exercises, “Nicole,” and Noynoy’s continuous support of the American government? What is this, a set-up? Or do we get apprehended again for hyperbole?
I’m being unfair, of course. But ask anyone in the audience and not more than ten have a respectable idea of what the hell happened in the Philippine-American War. Maybe Kidlat knows. Or Spanky Manikan knows. Or Joel Torre knows. But the common people—ahem, us—what do we know? We just spent thirty minutes in Grade 3 discussing the Treaty of Paris and we laughed hard how cheap we were bought from the Damasos. The good thing about Amigo is that it doesn’t dwell on names and dates, which our elementary teachers were so wont to do. Sayles picks the meat and works on there, breads it, layers it with atmosphere, never mind if his chosen narrative is not as dramatic as, say, Platoon, or as ridiculous as Tropic Thunder. Sayles fulfills the American side of the coin with dexterity. The Yankees are so good at quips and puns. In fact, to be blunt, I enjoy the American parts more than the village plots, which probably speaks more about myself than the film. The subplots are more interesting than the whole, because the whole tries to be polite while the subplots are careless quirks that magically transform the flatness of the film into something unique. When things are reduced to metaphors, that’s when I freak out. Thank God no one tried to cast Gardo Versoza as a rebel. Come to think of it, why is it that in every period film set in the Philippines, either during the Spanish era or the American, there are always two characters that resemble RIzal and Bonifacio? Are they Adam and Eve? It must be tough being either one of them, always emulated like that. Anyway.
All the while I’ve been looking for some meaningful insight in Amigo but what I get are these beautiful and often funny postcards whose sender must have had a nice time scribbling on. It reeks of pertinence, but everything’s just floating up there. Since you know better, tell me, how come those three years of hamburgers and fries easily erased all the three hundred and thirty-three years of wine and the cross? Whose interpretation should we believe, and more importantly, whose context? You and whose army?
Himpapawid (Raymond Red, 2009) November 24, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Essay, Festival, Indie Sine, Literature, Noypi.
English Title: Manila Skies
Written and directed by Raymond Red
Cast: Raul Arellano, John Arcilla, Sue Prado, Soliman Cruz
Shortly after winning the Palme d’Or, Raymond Red heard the news of a hijack. The passengers of Philippine Airlines Flight 812, on their way to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from Davao, were stranded after a desperate man declared a hold-up. Holding a gun and a grenade, he asked for their valuables and kept them inside a bag. He ordered the pilot to descend six thousand feet above ground, went to the rear door, and jumped. He wore a ski mask and swimming goggles, in case of landing on water, and suited himself with a homemade parachute.
That was on May 25, 2000. His body was found three days later.
Our few relevant filmmakers know this: if there is a place where one can find the most important stories to film, they are on the papers. Read and everything is already there. The characters, the plot, the resolution. On his part, Red has a strong grasp of his inspiration, only he uses it to address a common problem, a problem so common it is easily ignored. He works on the same premise but makes his intentions clear: to put emphasis on the social perspective, and to make this premise relate without needing so much details. Not only he achieves credibility in terms of ambition, but he also delivers the image of poverty that we have long been wanting to represent us, fair and square.
Should we remember a meaningful statement released after the PAL hijack, these words from Rep. Roilo Golez could be handy:
I can’t understand why an armed hijacker would risk his life only for a hold-up. Possibly his main goal, besides robbing, is to deeply embarrass the government.
Considering the political climate that time, particularly the series of bombings in the city and the unending tension between the military and rebels in Mindanao, the incident could only be interpreted as politically-motivated, even if it sounds slightly uncaring to the hijacker himself, or more important than what provoked him to such limits. Red, however, wants to pursue the man, know him, get in touch with him, and identify with him. Red makes another story—a narrative less concerned about marital problems and dreams of skydiving—but he gives his character the same conclusion. After all, in light of our condition right now, there could possibly be more reasons to jump off a plane with a parachute with no ripcord than otherwise. It just takes an awful effort.
But an awful effort it is—Himpapawid.
Hunger and misery go hand in hand, and often it is hunger that delivers someone to misery. The way Red shapes the character of the hijacker, hunger is numbed implicitly—or maybe hunger is something we don’t notice anymore, and can only be shown through the symbolism of rats and cockroach crawling unnoticeably—and misery is shown otherwise. What could have led him to hijack a plane, amid the little chance of accomplishment, points to a single cause, something that could only be deduced from the simple truth—that we are poor, that we have a history of poorness, and that we have a strong culture of poverty. Only we feel it more than we see it in the film. Himpapawid isn’t keen on persuading, but it is persuasive enough to attribute the hijacker’s actions to our diminishing regard for social responsibility. We cannot ignore the changing economy yet we try our best to do so; we find ways to make a living and think of the future; we reflect on our steps to get there, while the reasons why we strive—mainly our growing families—are still there, remaining, staying, depending on us.
Red may be talking about the same social cancer that Rizal, through Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, made clear more than a century ago, only in Himpapawid we have a hopeless protagonist to follow, his circumstances closer to recognition, and his fate already known to us. One arguable similarity though: Red unfolds his story like a novel, pacing it through a series of carefully structured rising action, involving supporting characters to further define the main character, apparently to allow his situation to be seen as critical, placing a clever plant and payoff device to render his argument intensely, and, in the writer’s command of words, making all the effort deliver a view of how things had been, and how things are going to be.
Himpapawid may well be the literary highlight of the year, but it is also its filmmaker’s return to the language that has nurtured him most. During those nine years between Anino and Himpapawid, the situations have clearly not changed for the better. We’re still like hamsters running persistently in wheels—running in one place and time, running till we lose the will to run—only in our case, we are running a life that doesn’t do us any good as time goes by.
More than forty years since its first publication, Mga Agos sa Disyerto remains a resounding piece of literature. The twenty-five stories that compose the collection—five shorts from Efren Abueg, Dominador Mirasol, Rogelio Ordoñez, Edgardo Reyes, and Rogelio Sicat—deliver a strong command of both language and subject that one can easily smell and taste their settings. The subjects are broad; the descriptions varied; the stories bleed fire and filth; and the characters.are so familiar they seem to walk right past the reader. There is more to poverty than being poor, the book is explicit in telling, and more to depression than not having a place to live and food to eat. Poorness is described the same way they are felt. The pressing depiction of the characters’ lives and their struggle to make out with the little things they have, as they face every day with an empty stomach, leaves its mark on succeeding generations of writers and readers, quickly establishing the book as a canon of short fiction.
Every story in the collection flows from the stream of social realities; each seems to emanate from a small opening of light that lets every observation cut deeply; yet it is in this little opportunity where hope springs forward—hope not only for Philippine literature but also for its inspiration, the poor society that continues to be poor, and the cruel situations that remain more and more cruel. But the writers are less concerned about solutions than problems—problems which cannot be ignored once one goes outside and observes. In these stories hope exists but it doesn’t come in the most appropriate time. Dire situations, however, give way to realities that can only come in such circumstances, a view of life that, for instance, can only be apparent to Ida and Emy in “Di Maabot ng Kawalang-Malay,” or to Impen after brawling with Ogor in “Impeng Negro.”
Included in the anthology is Sicat’s “Tata Selo,” a story that is widely read because it is required reading among high school students. Its language strikes the students first. Words like “istaked, “kahangga,” “gris,” and “nakiling” are new to their ears, or too old to be recognized that even their parents are not familiar with them. The clause “Kinadyot ng hepe si Tata Selo sa sikmura,” may elicit laughter, as the word “kadyot” is mostly used now to suggest sexual action. The names of the characters are also uncommon; “Tata” and “Kabesa” are rarely used in the city at present; and people now are more comfortable to say “Meyor” than “Alkalde.” This being a suggestion of difference in locality, one cannot discount the fact that the story endures because of its subject. Effort, then, is expected from the teachers to explain to the students not just the meaning of difficult words and its plot structure; but more importantly the author’s manner of description and characteristic language, the context and subtexts of the milieu, and how they still relate today.
Right at the very start it is clear that the tragedy of Tata Selo is his killing of the landowner who forces him to leave his farm. But his greater tragedy—if there is such comparative way of looking at it—is not being able to fight for his reason. The crime undresses him of respect, fair treatment, and humanity; and that crime is a cruel equalizer. In the eyes of the people who look at him in detention, he is an old man—and they pity him. In the eyes of the police and the mayor, he should not have killed his lord—and they also pity him. It is in Sicat’s absolute sensitive control that Tata Selo comes to life as a powerful representation of poverty—both of body and spirit—that is borne out of greed and injustice. The feeling of helplessness is incredibly felt; the thought that the poor will only become poorer looms, and the truth that the rich won’t give a damn about them becomes stronger.
One could imagine Tata Selo as he looks outside his cell and the people look at him back—only the old man isn’t aware of them, isn’t aware of their look of pity, isn’t aware of anything at all—and one of those eyes knows he’ll die soon, hungry and bruised. Sicat breathes life not only to Tata Selo but also to countless farmers and laborers who live in deprivation, them who are abused even more because of their situation, them who have to work hard and get less in return without complaining. This value for humanism that Sicat punctuates in his story—a humanism based on character and dignity—also predominates in Raymond Red’s Himpapawid.
Raul and Tata Selo suffer from similar fate—only in different situations and different company of people. Like in “Tata Selo,” age isn’t a virtue to be proud of in Himpapawid; in fact, the older a person gets, the less likely he is to settle down comfortably. The older he gets, the harder the situations can be. And the older he gets, the bleaker his future is. Getting enough food to eat for every day becomes a luxury. A good work is hard to find; and once work is found, keeping it is even harder. In the film Raul asks permission from his boss to leave work in the morning because he plans to complete his papers for his job application abroad. His boss refuses, despite Raul’s plea and display of desperation, at his wits’ end just to convince him say yes. His boss agrees, only he’ll lose his job—and Raul, alone in his dismay and hopelessness, goes home, jobless.
His conversation with his boss is the first instance of seeing him on edge. His anger is understandable; but his steadfast demeanor, revealed in his tone and manner of reasoning, is, for lack of a better word, bizarre. Certainly, the boss wouldn’t go out on a limb to yield to his request. Like he says, people line up every day just to get Raul’s job—a job that demands no rest day, no valid excuse for absence. Raul is just another worker that can be easily replaced. The boss reasons out to his plea like the decision isn’t coming from him. There is a sense of detachment; a feeling of higher control. The order needs to be observed, or else the other workers will follow suit and the whole business will fail. Raul loses his job because he isn’t privileged to have a better work environment, the same way Tata Selo is socked by the police while in jail because he is an old man who killed a powerful person in the community. Their reasons are irrelevant.
Important is the reaction of other people to Raul’s character. The boss maintains his cool as he talks to him, though he almost loses it if he hasn’t been busy. An emotional turning point, however, is seen when Raul goes to the agency to finish his papers. The day, unlike any other day, is a succession of mishaps. He loses his coins in the sewer; he is riled by a dismissive customer in the photocopying shop; he steps on a poop. In the agency he flares up when the clerk tells him that his requirements aren’t right, thus his application cannot be processed. He goes in a shouting spree, denouncing the applicants who will themselves to condescend just to get work, scaring them. He tears up his papers and throws them away. He curses the system; he curses the plight of the unfortunate. He tells the truth, but in the eyes of these people, he is a madman. He is a threat to their dreams of greener pastures. But in the eyes of the audience, is he really acting strange?
It is easy to see where Raul is coming from. He stays in a dirty house, an apartment whose rent he hasn’t paid for months. His father is ill in the province and he cannot go there to visit him. He just lost his job. He tries to apply for a work abroad only to find out that his papers are incomplete. He is hopeless; he would lick any dust of hope that comes along his way. In the company of his beer friends, though, he finds it. And in their group he isn’t different; he isn’t bizarre; he isn’t tense. The long talk in front of the store best describes the “Filipino inuman,” humorous, tacky, and honest. The audience becomes a listener to truthful rants and a witness to a crime that will yield grave misfortune. The group welcomes him. He becomes part of their plan. He agrees to help the heist.
Raul isn’t at the center of the plan but it is through his participation that the film is able to convey its strongest point. The life of the poor is like dominoes falling in longer intervals, but the effect and outcome are still the same: the fall of everything. However difficult the situations are, there is still one that will come after another, an action that will trigger another situation to happen.
Everything topples onto another until there is nothing left to fall onto, until the end of everything, until death. And Raul, in the middle of everything, refuses to be defeated by circumstances and loses himself—his sanity letting go and completely leaving him on his own—hungry and bruised, choosing death by deadening. He jumps with the parachute of workers—of strikers who fight for fair treatment—and that isn’t enough. He dies beside their protests, beside the wails of empty stomachs, beside the clamor for little food, beside the cries of the young, beside the dead cause. He lies on the mud with his feet up, still trying to stand.
The fate of the poor is living and dying all the same. Like Tata Selo, Raul could only repeat his words and no one will ever care to listen.
Halfway through the sequence inside the plane, before the hijack happens, Teddy Co points at the two flight attendants. “Look at that,” he says in the vernacular. “Look at that. Raymond is telling us that women now have become workers and men have become bummers. Good-for-nothing. Useless.”
The observation is spot-on, so truthful it hurts. The reversal of the set-up is not anymore unusual, though; male chauvinism, at least in the Filipino household, has become lax and impractical. A family that stays together starves together; that’s an acceptable principle. Pride breeds hunger; and that pride is something that Filipinos have learned to set aside and reconsider. If the husband is out of work and the wife takes care of financial support, the former is expected to take over her duties. In some cases, however, such swallowing of pride on the husband’s part harbors guilt, laziness, and misery.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath sets a formidable example. At first, it has the impression of patriarchal solidarity—there’s Tom, Pa, Grandpa, Al, Connie, Noah, Uncle John, and Casy active in making important decisions. But when the family moves out of Oklahoma to find work in California, the said impression of fraternity slowly crumbles and each of these men has shown great weakness that leaves the family down-and-out. Ma, her mind clear and her voice stern and assured, now gives the orders and makes sure they are followed. She pulls the family together; when a member of the family dies, leaves, or gets killed, she is there, thinking, knowing what needs to be done, and doing what needs to be done after. She shows her strength to her husband, telling him in his face that gone were the times when he rules the family and when his decisions matter, especially now that he cannot give the family anything to eat. From pillar to post, she never gives up; she has elected herself to the position of not only being the head of the family, but its light—its direction.
Ma talks with a lot of weight but never inconsiderately. She talks coming from her experience and observations, knowing she has gone through enough hardships to grant her the privilege of shedding enlightenment, of telling what she thinks is unavoidable about their plight. Her words sum up the truth of their condition:
I’m learnin’ one thing good. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need — go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.
Only ones. That will help. Poor people.
Strikingly, Himpapawid also makes the league of extra-unlucky gentlemen prominent. The men dominate the narrative, that aside from Raul there are also characters that the story takes time to explore, namely his beer friends and the father and son in the province. On the other hand, there is a particular woman that stands out, not just because she is the only woman in the crowd of men but because she appears in three personas, Red making sure not to tell whether or not they are the same person.
The suspiciously promiscuous woman, the clerk, and the stewardess—Sue Prado plays them with the required ambiguity to further emphasize the mental torment of Raul. Red may have the intention of keeping her characters worthy of probe, especially in relation to Raul’s resolve to hijack a plane, as each of them figures in his moments of utter defeat (first, when he got fired; next, when his application papers weren’t accepted; and last, when he was about to hijack the plane). The woman is primarily seen as the object of his sexual desire—may it be her image specifically or just her as the lone woman in the desert of unfortunate men the viewer is not really advised—but unlike Ma in The Grapes of Wrath, she does not help Raul in the course of the story. The only time she helps him is when she pushes him out of the plane door to his death. Instinctively, that is the culmination of her purpose: bringing him to his grand finality.
Should one think of Filipino novels in a similar vein, Edgardo Reyes’ Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Norman Wilwayco’s Mondomanila: Kung Paano Ko Inayos Ang Buhok Ko Matapos Ang Mahaba-haba Ring Paglalakbay come to mind. The former is adapted into film by Lino Brocka in 1975; and the latter is being helmed by Khavn dela Cruz and is set to release next year. Considering that local cinema and literature don’t have a wealthy tradition of working together, there is no question why both novels are picked up for the big screen. Both have strongly defined main characters—Julio Madiaga and Tony de Guzman—who are molded by their experiences in the city, changed by their ill fates, and scarred by their bloody encounters. Allowing these men to represent the proletariat, Reyes and Wilwayco have made their characters distinctly alive that the reader starts to smell them and feel the sweat dripping on their foreheads as they run for their life.
The characterization of the city is by all means integral to the writers’ social criticism, which in closer inspection goes deep into their personal background. Both Reyes and WIlwayco are sons of the streets, children of grief, and drunkards who know the way of the world better than the aristocrat. Reyes, with his understated and careful force of description—always putting importance on precision and truthfulness—is a deserving inspiration to Wilwayco’s savage control of language, whose style has always matched the filthiness and putridness that pervade his stories. They have come to regard the city as a character on its own, defining their human characters, and not allowing them to escape the truth of their condition. They offer no world of beauty, no make-believe world of happily-ever-after—because in reality no paradise can exist in a city that was built in hell. Their city has pushed the animal out of Julio and Tony; and like Raul in Himpapawid, the beast is a creature that evolves grimly and hopelessly.
Are they looking at the same person?
In Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Mondomanila, the clear conflict is man against society. Julio and Tony struggle to survive; they struggle to achieve their goal—Julio to finally be with Ligaya, and Tony to live a comfortable life out of the slums; and both struggle alongside their need to fill their stomachs with food. Himpapawid follows the same theme; scene after scene, layers pile up to reach the peak of Raul’s desperation. His primary need to go home in the province to visit his ill father blows up when he loses his job and gets involved in a failed heist. In a streak of luck (or unbelievable negligence), he is able to sneak his gun and grenade into the airport. He decides to hijack the plane, collect all the passengers’ valuable possessions and jump off with a homemade parachute. He hasn’t expected his death, for sure; he has overlooked it. Despair has numbed his mental state; he has lost his mind, though not fully. His logic is intact; only his plan isn’t. His distress has robbed him of the right frame of mind, proving the truth of his words, “Bato na ang utak ko!”
Red has gone literary without sacrificing the language of film. His literary devices—the flashback inside Sir Fernando’s office, the tripleganger character, and that particular scene when Raul has slept inside the taxi instead of looking out for his cohort—are woven seamlessly with the storytelling, allowing the images and sound to stand out without too much emphasis. The viewer gets to feel poverty without seeing similar images in the community—unlike, for instance, in Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador or Lino Brocka’s Insiang where the image of the community strongly appears and reappears in the narrative; instead, the emotional equivalent of these images is given: the behavior of Raul, the inebriated Lav Diaz mouthing “Wasak,” the interview of Pen Medina on television, the news clip of hostage-taking, and the numerous close-ups of Raul’s face, dripping with sweat. There is no particular place where Raul belongs—not the slums, not the workplace, not the store—except the streets. Red shoots Raul walking like he has walked these streets all his life, like he was born in them, grown in them, and slept in them every night. The pavement is his home, his last and only place in the city.
Like a flying vulture, Raul is always looking for something; but essentially, he is looking at something. He looks down at his feet; he looks up to see the plane approaching; he looks at his boss with contempt; he looks back; he looks at his side as he eats his crackers and drinks his softdrink; he looks daggers at the passengers of the plane, looking at them as if looking at himself, again, contemptuously. More than anything aesthetic, there is a reason why Red keeps angling towards the sky, from the audience’s point of view to Raul’s. Compassion—Red wants the audience to feel that—but really, is compassion enough? Will compassion help Raul ease his suffering? Will it alleviate his loss? (On second thought, could loss ever be alleviated?) Will it feed him? Will it give him hope?
It is no lie, however, that shared suffering does not guarantee intimacy. Having put the unfairness of human life into perspective, Red seems to say that Raul’s greater tragedy is indeed having us, all of us, as his companions. And around us, those who stay, tragedies like Raul are just waiting for the right moment—the right flicker of despond, and the right sharpness of knives—to happen.
To Siomai Love (Remton Siega Zuasola, 2009) October 28, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Noypi, Short Cuts.
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Directed by Remton Siega Zuasola
Written by Dona Gimeno, Marvin Rubio, Remi Sola
Cast: Dona Gimeno, Marvin Rubio, Nathaniel Rubio, Gerard Piodos
Love knows no weather. It will barge into your door come hell or high water, even if the door is locked, or even if there is no door to begin with. Doors—we have a lot of them. We keep them locked, we keep them open, we keep them free for anyone to enter, we keep them ajar sometimes, but we always keep them where they are. We don’t want to change the location of our doors because we’re thinking someone might visit again—wishful, of course, but that’s how we are. Only a few bother to believe that love not only enters through doors. We have windows, dog doors, doorknob holes, peepholes everywhere. And the unexpected goes into one of them, To Siomai Love included. It’s like watching an eclipse, except that we don’t have the sun, the moon, and the earth. But three elements are still present: the two lovers and their newly found love. The lovers choose their role—be the moon, or be the earth. Love will always be the sun. The sun gives the two lovers the excitement to get to know each other, the rush of blood to their heart, the flow of words to their tongue. Considering that beautiful moment—when the couple talk and talk, talk and talk and talk, flirt and flirt, flirt and flirt and flirt, laugh and laugh, laugh and laugh and laugh—there are no other variables of failure, except chance. Or maybe human error. Or just plain assholeness. Or life. Departure has to happen. No numbers exchanged, just the gut feel of seeing each other again, trusting the sun, the moon, and the earth to meet again, to be pulled by gravity. But things happen—and things don’t. Wanting love is not even wrong; but not forcing it is not even right. The film bursts into melodic tune when it ends, Fran Healy singing “Take me, don’t leave me, Take me, don’t leave me,” only you hear it virtually, looping till the next short.
Biyaheng Lupa (Armando Lao, 2009) October 27, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Festival, Indie Sine, Noypi.
English Title: Soliloquy
Written and directed by Armando Lao
Cast: Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Angel Aquino
In an interview by Fanny A. Garcia, entitled “Armando ‘Bing’ Lao: Mula Mainstream Films tungo sa Indie Films, Mula Scriptwriter tungo sa Creative Producer,” Lao expresses his dismay on the lack of credit given to writers, of which he cited how local and foreign film communities regard directors as the sole authors of films. It is a culture, according to Lao, that even the academe is responsible for. Writers are often seen as secretaries of directors, they are obviously treated inferior to them, and most of the time they are neglected in the festival entourage. The writer creates the material, the director interprets it, so how come the director takes most of the credit?
Upon seeing Biyaheng Lupa on its premiere in the 11th Cinemanila Film Festival, I am both a proud student and a pleased audience. His attempt to prove his point in Garcia’s interview clearly shows his sterling ability not just as a writer but also as a director, as he risks to make his strengths and weaknesses visible. For a first film, it is always a good sign to see some weakness. Weakness dictates following, and weakness is truth. Once the disbelief is suspended, Lao starts to guide his characters one by one as their stories unfold and, interestingly, overlap.
The surface of the story initially rests on interest. The bus carries the characters from the city to Legaspi, Albay. Along the way, it picks passengers, halts at bus stops, and drops them off to their destinations. As far as the narrative is concerned, the story is just that, plain and simple. But here’s the trick, when the door of the bus closes, after that moment when the mute character gets into the vehicle, we get to hear what these passengers are thinking. We get to hear their thoughts, their intentions, their motives, their past and their present, their future, their musings on everything—their stories. Lao runs a risk in doing this, as it appears as a limited experiment, but the touch of quirk has made it serious and complex. There is the huge probability of failure—more likely if the material is not handled by the writer himself—but the sensitivity of the “dialogues,” the familiarity of the characters, and the relationship that comes out of them dominate.
What makes it work is that Lao did not take the writer’s cap off his head. He is practically in control. It is a writer’s film by all means, an exercise that shows his range and ability to share a world he created, to allow us to enter it, belong, and mingle with his characters. Through the unconventional storytelling, he is able to deliver a credible introspection of these people. He has also managed to study them more intimately, closer to their heart, and deeper to their soul. We respond to their thoughts—we laugh at them, we feel bad about their chances, we bully their stinking attitude, and we commiserate with their troubles. Lao not only gives them legs to stand, but also an extra pair to stroll around and have fun. The humor connects and pinches, making its style look effortless, believable—praiseworthy.
In Lao’s use of symbolic time, three important points become clear. First, time is very relative to the characters. Second, the characters are one with their realities. And third, the subject is equal to the environment. In our class, Lao barely discussed symbolic time since he was more concerned with real time, pushing us to explore more about our chosen milieus. But he left a short note about the subject, and here it is, in bullets:
> Story is phenomenological
> Timeline is condensed
> Plotting is rhizomic
> Character is subjectified
> Exposition is impressionistic
> Resolution is existential
There are theories involved in Lao’s writing process. He is scrupulous. He tries every possible turn that his story can take. He dresses his characters and puts them in different situations. He checks their credibility, if they speak right, if their problems are reasonable, if their actions are believable. These things are necessary regardless of time mode—dramatic, real, or symbolic—and regardless of the writer’s choice to overlap the three, which is what most of the time happens. Unlike his usual scripts, Biyaheng Lupa is essentially symbolic; the form is noticeable in its use of time, and the handling of the characters in relation to each other. While form is favored, content does not suffer. Each has a story to tell, and each contributes to the portrait that Lao is trying to paint. The tone is carefully sustained, especially when it shifts to “reality”—when the characters are out of the bus and start to talk, when we hear “real” conversations as opposed to meandering thoughts and private musings.
Only in the end it chooses to be dramatic. The execution is poetic, alright, but the effect is out of place. While it could have chosen to end in the long shot of the bridge—that slow, uncertain feeling of staying in the middle of something, the night clad in pitch black, the road ahead enigmatic, the moon and the stars sleeping—it chooses to awaken the emotions we tried to keep away while watching the film by ending with tragedy. It disturbs the beautifully-set mood with a drastic turning point, which pounds my ear with a bit of betrayal, of making the unpredictable and unsatisfying turn. Clearly, this is a writer’s decision.
But what I recognize as weakness in its conclusion is part of Lao’s growth as a writer-director—something inevitable, something natural and understandable. The annoyance to the culture of authorship has pushed him to wear both hats; and seeing him now control his own material, imagining him taking chances with the possibilities not only with words but also with sounds and images, is welcoming. It is every writer’s dream: his contribution to be acknowledged. And Biyaheng Lupa—with the ripeness of its concept and the completeness of its thought—makes every writer in this side of town happily proud.
Lola (Brillante Mendoza, 2009) October 21, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Festival, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Written by Linda Casimiro
Cast: Anita Linda, Rustica Carpio, Tanya Gomez, Jhong Hilario
Rumor has it that Lola was admired in the Venice Film Festival because the audience there was moved by the glaring similarity between their city and our own. The sight of the surrounding waters and the boats that transport people from one place to another in the film may have reminded them of the lovely canals and gondolas of their city. They may have been particularly impressed by our gondeliers who don’t wear shirts even if the weather is cold. Seeing the rows of houses built on these high waters may have caused them to cringe—because they lack the beauty of their own monuments and buildings, the bridges that connect them together, and the romantic feeling that one gets while looking at them. Surely, our Venice is no place to propose a marriage. The audience may have also related to the strong rains and flooding, which they have come to regard as common occurrences in their everyday life since their city was built. They know how it feels like living above water. They even have tourists visiting them just to look at their life. The stories about the sinking of Venice may have also crossed their mind. But supposing the rumor is true, what could possibly be wrong with their emotional familiarity with the film?
Just to clarify, we don’t call them gondolas. We call them boats because boats are used in our small rivers in the province. We don’t call them canals too. They’re just plain and simple “flowing water” to us, not “streets paved with water” because we really have streets—they’re just covered with water. What we refer to as canals are often clogged with garbage that has been there for thousands of years. “Estero” is often used, though it is pejorative, which apparently the Spanish origin of the word is not. We just love to address things in their pejoratives. When you live near the “estero,” you live in the shanty district of the city. Flies mix into your food, rats run beside you as you sleep, and you’re fine with it. It’s easy to get used to the smell. The rows of houses built on these high waters are houses for sure, mostly made of concrete and metal, but some are makeshift shacks made of whatever things their owners can find—scraps of wood, tin cans, cardboards, fabric, tarpaulins, anything to cover their homes from the sun and rain. Their foundations may be strong but we can’t be sure in ten years. We are not sure if Sitio Ilog in Malabon is sinking but aquifers are impossible to find there. We are not sure what the ground is made of because we haven’t really seen how it looks like for a long time. Interestingly, we call these shacks “barong-barong,” and we call our national dress for men “Barong Tagalog.” Furthermore, it is politically incorrect to call these people living in shanties “squatters.” We are advised to call them “urban settlers” because they really are urban settlers.
We have tourists, and they also come to visit us to look at our life but we’re sure they are not happy about it. Yes, they admire our resilience, our smiles amid the misery, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re pathetic. At the height of the relief operations for the victims of typhoon Ondoy, we see American soldiers stoked by the gleam in these people’s eyes as they receive the goods to feed themselves with after the disaster. But until when they’ll have something to eat we’re not really sure. We can only be sure that the relief goods are temporary. After a certain period of time, as if taken hostage by ailing memory, we go back to the state of calamity that is not caused by natural calamity, but by political calamity, historical calamity, and calamity by natural selection.
We also eat typhoons for breakfast—we have them all year long. Like Venice, we are used to periodic flooding, heavy downpours, and high tides, but we are more wary of tsunamis and landslides. We have landslides even in the city, and recently it is taking its toll on wealthy subdivisions. Flood is one thing; but flooded all year ’round is another. Sitio Ilog in Malabon, Metro Manila, which is the main setting of Lola, is one of our little Venices, with floodwater that never subsides even during summer. The film’s main emotional thrust comes from the mere sight of the place, and while it does not attempt to make the situation of its people dramatic, it appeals like a news story, made compelling just by its telling and the footage that comes along with it.
Brillante Mendoza has always been up for challenges, and among those challenges is either choosing a subject that will fit his location or choosing a location that will fit his subject. Whichever way, he gets the benefit of his interesting subjects. But unfortunately they don’t always work. The danger of his realism is knowing that it can break down any minute, that its fragility can open its doors to failure anytime. There are times when being fragile works though, if it is carefully sustained like Kinatay, but upon seeing Lola and looking back at the experience of seeing Foster Child two years ago, Mendoza seems to go back to that safe road of throwing in brilliant moments to make up for his inability to be terse.
When an argument is repeated, it is meant for emphasis. But when an argument is already sound, and this argument is repeated a number of times, it can only account for indulgence, which is not bad if the intention reaches out to emotions other than anger and depression. But what if that is the intention? And what if that has always been the intention? In the arts, realism often equates to the sordid. Fundamental to the realists are truth and accuracy. While realism, especially in the Philippines, is naturally depressing, it should also be awakening. But realism, if it still needs to be pointed out, should not only be reflected—it should also be interpreted. Unfortunately that’s when Mendoza takes his realism for granted, the part when he has to interpret, the part when he has to lobby the underlying advocacy of his films, the part when he not only needs to put his ear to the ground but also every part of himself.
He is an observer alright. But observers, to be effective, must relay their observations clearly and punctiliously. These observations are used to come up with assumptions—hypotheses which, no matter how far-fetched and maligned, help to find solutions to the problem. Mendoza has strong observations on old age, on human suffering, and on the dragging inefficiency of our political system in general. Suffice it to say that the details of Lola are overwhelming. Problems ooze from various directions: social (robbery and prison), economic (the grandmothers’ struggle for a living), spiritual (faith and resilience), personal (relationships of the characters with each other) and environmental (rains and flood). These are well-founded observations. These happen. These are real. But Mendoza has not able to put them to good use. He hasn’t able to capture the interest in their conflicting realities and the force to make them coherent—that while the theme itself is embracing these stories to drive his point across, the narrative suffers from his graceless hand, from his haphazard way of making us feel the agony of the grandmothers’s fate.
It is easy to be carried away by some of the scenes because they are really effective. The closeups of Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio are like images of endless grief, the lines on their faces trace every hardship they had to bear. The expression of weariness seems to be sculpted on them. Anita Linda walking in a small alley, calling out her grand-grandson, shouting, and eventually glimpsing at a corpse, is harrowing to the bone. The funeral procession also holds the same feeling, only magnified to achieve a cruel epiphany. The aerial shot of boats moving forward makes it poignant, during which the silence among audience members could only mean commiseration. Rustica Carpio’s tedious walk down the stairs, holding on to the rail in every step, validates our sympathy to her. That oddball sequence of catching fish in their flooded house—with every family member delighted by the strange discovery—seems more like an inadvertent parody of Mendoza’s popularity in foreign festivals. In Lola‘s brilliant moments, clearly, Teresa Barrozo’s music becomes their life.
There is a reason why people advise you to take your time. There is a reason why some films take years to be finished, and ultimately there is a reason why some films are not finished. To finish a film just for the sake of finishing it—or to be able to participate in a prestigious festival, perhaps—isn’t criminal, in fact it’s mostly reasonable, but it also risks the respect of your peers. While foreign press will not be able to discern the cities of Manila, Mandaluyong, and Malabon, and how they are illogically connected in the narrative, your fellow countrymen will. Foreign festivals are gluttons for punishment, and sadly the film community in your country is slowly turning into that too.
Now we go back to our question in the beginning. What could possibly be wrong with the foreign audience’s emotional familiarity with Lola? Nothing. Film appreciation is interesting because it is personal,and not entirely cultural. It is solely dependent on the person’s taste—his individuality. And Lola is a good example to illustrate this, a pressing case that will fuel discussions on perception. It is impossible not to be moved by its reality, but it stops when it has already accomplished that reality. We ask, should a film cease from continuing its social study when its objective of representing reality is already done? Isn’t that hit and run? Is the film helping our condition if it only continues to dignify our resilience? Our patron saint of words Conrado de Quiros says, “The other face of resilience is a long-suffering people. Or worse, the other face of resilience is an uncomplaining people.” Because when the credits start to roll, we just sit back there and give the film a courtesy clap.
Highlights of 2008 March 1, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Cinemalaya, Cinemanila, European Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, Yearender.
Like a Mike de Leon film, contemporary Philippine cinema is moving from fairly interesting to diversely brilliant
BEST FILM: Now Showing
The Raya Martin paradox: he is not for everyone; he is for every one. What surprises me is the obvious difference in taste. While European audience is easily proclaiming him a genius, local viewers are dismissing him as an artist incapable of telling a good story. Now Showing runs for five hours and it makes you feel every second of it. We are not anymore in the age of brevity, when punch lines are the best element of fiction. This is the age of tedium; the painful wait describes our lives. For what I believe is an impressive feat on Martin’s part is dividing an audience, not only into camps of believers and non-believers but also into minute groups, the tiniest being the intellectual farters who argue his lack of connection to his audience, his pseudo-highbrowism, and his unabashed insensitivity, but that discussion I reserve for boring blogging days. For now, borrowing Kael’s statement on Godard, this is what I think: it is possible to hate every single film by Martin – – or find it pretentious – – and still, at least in terms of cultural duty, be shattered by his brilliance.
BEST DIRECTOR: Richard Somes (Yanggaw)
Somes’ eye for visual details remains his handsomest trait, but the synergism in Yanggaw all points to his remarkable sleight of hand. First features are the most interesting because they calibrate their filmmakers’ futures, not necessarily determine their fates but their chances and their following. It is also the beginning of every filmmaker’s luck or depression. Somes not only gives you the price of the ticket but he also gives every director in the field a resounding slap on the face. A horror that makes you think will surely eat your brains. A word of caution to Rico Maria Ilarde: better watch out.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR: Ronnie Lazaro (Yanggaw)
In an article that is definitely one of the best odes ever written to a Filipino actor, practically because we only have a few biographers, Lourd de Veyra believes Lazaro’s “most powerful virtue” is his eyes. “Those are eyes of strange, uneasy, existential depth, a hunger that transcends the physical.” You can change everything in him but not the eyes; ask him to play any role and those eyes will adapt to anything; they will always bring out the best, the unspeakable greatness, from him. In Yanggaw, Lazaro plays the father of the aswang, a principled man faced by the horror of his daughter’s inexplicable disease and torn between killing her or letting her kill the townspeople and, eventually, her own family. Lazaro has perhaps given the character more depth than Somes and Gaston have intended in their script; his skill in delivering every possible nuance in his character, as always, is perfect. He is never calculated, predictable; the only thing you can predict is his overwhelming effect on you (thus the term “The Lazaro Effect”). We, writers, will grow old and die but we will never get tired of recognizing an actor this great; that’s the least consolation we can give to such deity on earth.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS: Mylene Dizon (100)
Who can embody a strong woman better than Mylene Dizon? She who, in real life, can have a child with a man whom she already left, and still be happy? Dizon is the femme fatale, the fighter, the alphafemale. She has gone a very long way after that breakthrough film of hers where she plays a young woman who wet-nurses a son of a Japanese who has set her husband free. Chris Martinez shifted gears for the good; his writing style undiminished. While there are some lapses that Martinez has not able to stitch and patch properly, 100 still shines because of Dizon’s effortless whip, her supporting cast amazingly letting her shine. She downplays sentimentality in exchange for graceful prowess; one can easily write a novel out of her piercing stare.
BREAKTHROUGH FILM OF THE YEAR (for first films): Yanggaw
Yanggaw has the feel of a film that has been made a long time ago, yet it possesses a hypnotizing vibe of newness and originality. It reshapes the genre, disguises its stereotypes, and turns them into an impressive reassessment of our values. It is uniquely Filipino, no matter how it becomes difficult to qualify something as such these days, the difficulty even in defining what constitutes our own, what really is Filipino. That to uncover the myths and practices of rural people, Somes relies on popular belief and adds his own, enabling his aswang not only to fly above roofs and trees but also to fly as the most richly-examined horror film in recent years.
BEST SHORT FILM: Anomi
Richard Legaspi’s Ambulancia and Joaquin Valdes’ Bulong, if press releases and recognition abroad should be considered, are the finest but following that idea brings substantial room for debate because both of them lack the spunk that this category requires. Even Antoinette Jadaone’s latest work, Tumbang Preso, fails to match her classic Salingpusa. Sasha Palomares’ Andalusian Bitch almost bowls me over but this year belongs exceptionally to Renei Dimla’s Anomi, a six-minute painted glass animation whose holism accounts for its vision of social stratification, that no matter what happens decay is the fate of every one, of the rich and the poor, of the young and the old, of greedy presidents and ghoulish congressmen. Its intentions aside, its mighty visuals and terrific sound design turn every short film this year into mediocre.
BEST HOLLYWOOD FILM: Wanted
The imports are still doing a great job in American cinema. Back when Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang were in Hollywood, these foreigners were on top of their game. And they still are. Mark Millar and James McAvoy are Scottish, Thomas Kretschmann is German, and Timur, as we all know, is Russian. Wanted fires like a speedbullet in the brain; it cuts every line connected to reason, which leaves us with only a little breath to grasp. This is total entertainment; one side of cinema absolutely fulfilled. (And Wall-E is cutely narrowing his eyes for me to add him; so I promised.)
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE (NON-HOLLYWOOD) FILM: California Dreamin’
The sadness of Nemescu’s untimely death in a car crash, along with sound engineer Andrei Toncu, is not only felt after the news came out. His first feature, which turns out to be also his last, speaks of that impairing loss, of that uncomforting truth, that he can never make films again, that he can never make fun of his country’s political maladies ever again. It has loose ends and blank spaces in between, the pitfall of dying while your film is still in the editing room, but Nemescu has stood by the saying that one is only as good as his final work and made sure that by that standard, he is leaving an impressive mark not only in the towering features of the Romanian New Wave but also in the ever-exciting landscape of world cinema. If Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has knocked you out, California Dreamin’ will certainly leave you underground, waiting to be unearthed for several days.
Schnabel finally comes in full metamorphosis in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, cementing his aesthetic and transforming a moving life story into a devastating two-hour viewing experience worthy of eternal remembrance. While almost every acclaimed film in the Oscars last year delves on the darkness of the human heart, his latest work breaks into the most inspiring virtue of existence, that living is not anymore a question of life and death, but the necessity of making sense in the world where words are not enough to fuel one’s spirit. What could better describe its effect than the experience of seeing it with people who cannot force themselves to stand up from their seats minutes after the credits rolled and the lights went out. That’s something I would call “communal bereavement.”
Meanwhile, only few had seen When Timawa Meets Delgado when it premiered in Cinemalaya and was shown commercially in Indie Sine. So much for lacking big-named stars and a clear point of interest to speak of, its obscurity can easily account for its regional background but it is also its strongest trait that sets it apart among the films released last year. Funny, intelligent, and downright affecting, When Timawa Meets Delgado is in the ranks of indie classics.
BEST FILM SEEN IN PIRATED DVD: Blissfully Yours
You get it, then you don’t, then you get it again, then you don’t. In such fickleness, how can it be so astonishingly beautiful? Part-romance, part-mystery, part-nothing, part-everything, Joe’s second feature is beauty to the infinity.
SPECIAL AWARD: Bontoc Eulogy
Marlon Fuentes tries to unravel his roots by starting with a void. The St. Louis Fair of 1904, by all means the most controversial exposition in history, is the most fitting event to characterize the blameless American attitude: accomplishing a crime with the least malice and getting away with it hands clean. In all virtue of self-righteousness, not every race can do that. The call of cultural duty strikes Fuentes as a dire need for personal affirmation. By mixing fact and fiction, history and personal reminiscences, archival footage and quirky recreations, Fuentes has made a depressing document of striking beauty about a country whose identity remains its lifetime treasure but still, after centuries of hunt and chase, has never been truly found.
Now throw me your sharpest dagger: The Dark Knight‘s stiffness still puts me off in second viewing; it certainly is the most unlived up hype I have ever encountered. And yes, I would not let this pass, I know Joel Lamangan is loved by industry people but that doesn’t mean he is as good as his image; Walang Kawala, despite its obvious efforts to titillate the queer sense, only intensifies the truth that life can never be fair – – it can only be worse – – and that we are all Murphy’s best friends. It is trash that cannot be recycled; it is not even pleasurable to look at. Five years ago I may find it insulting but now I only have three words for it: Burn the tapes. And out of guilt I would like to say that For the First Time is still unbearable in fast forward and Brutus is a torturous example of political narrowmindedness at its ridiculous worst.
But what’s worse than the worst film? The worst trailer. Don’t blame me for ruining two and a half minutes of your life but admit it, you clicked that Replay button to see it again; it has that pinch of necessity. Like, What was that? Maybe I missed something. And there, you’re hooked, piteous hilarious. Truth is, porn is a gazillion times better than this. A strike of thought: why is porn not shown in local theaters? And this one can survive a week? Are we still on earth? Definitely the line of the year: DON’T YOU THINK I DESERVE AN APOLOGY OR AT LEAST AN EXPLANATION? (with feelings). John Waters must see this. Just the sound of the title is enough to give me a fit.
Tuli (Auraeus Solito, 2005) January 26, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Indie Sine, Noypi, Queer, UP Screening.
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Directed by Auraeus Solito
Cast: Desiree del Valle, Vanna Garcia, Luis Alandy, Carlo Aquino
Tuli is an interesting work. Among the countless digital films released in the past years, it is something that I would call “uniquely Filipino.” It deserves to be seen by more Filipinos, not only by audiences in foreign festivals who have always equated exoticism with beauty. While the West’s cultural exposure to our films means interest and appreciation, sometimes, the idea is filled with implicit self-servingness and personal ambition that misrepresentation is likely to occur.
It is completely different from its predecessor and successor. It lacks the girlish charm of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, a big risk considering that it is the filmmaker’s breakthrough work, and not far from being considered a landmark in Philippine cinema. I believe it is quite overpraised though. But what Solito has managed to pull off in his features is capturing the spirit of childhood nostalgia, the quixotic vision of adolescence, and that coexisting pain and thrill of growing up and seeing the world with a different set of eyes. Pisay, like Maxi, makes up for its proud excesses by being entertainingly intriguing. The amusement in watching Tuli, however, is derived from a unique understanding of tradition. Despite our cultural lenience to circumcision, its humor is unlike the appeal of both Maxi and Pisay, which says a lot about the potential of a schizophrenic filmmaker. Solito, in teaming up with competent screenwriters, shapes their prizewinning stories like they were his own, with acute emphasis on their environments that are less marginal than commonplace.
The ritual is only used as a device to suggest multitude of things. The film opens with pubescent boys lined up to be circumcised. With the help of his daughter, the town’s circumciser asks them to chew guava leaves before their foreskins are cut. Saying goodbye to their foreskins is their proud transition to manhood. Several years have passed, the boys have grown up and started to court women. A young man religiously woos Daisy, the circumciser’s daughter, who grows up frustrated with his drunkard father. In a quip of rebellious childishness, Daisy falls for her close friend, Botchok, and decides to live in with her after the man who got Botchok pregnant leaves. They form a relationship of undefined roles; they just want to be together, and they are happy. Meanwhile, the town is alarmed by their implicit blasphemy, blaming them for the ill omen. The film offers a vague closure, with the couple happily taking care of Daisy’s child from who used to be the town’s only uncircumcised male.
The unnamed barrio and its strict conservatism are fundamental in developing the story from a coming-of-age folk adolescence to a distinctly observed clash of the old and the new. There is a great deal of details given to show the town’s customs and traditions, its people’s superstitious beliefs from the talisman to faith healing, as well as Holy Week rites such as the reenactment of Christ’s life, pasyon, and penitence through scourging. In a particularly striking scene, Daisy scourges herself in the woods as punishment, implying the sense of cultural imprisonment that her rebellious character has to endure. The contradiction allows you to examine the motivations of each character that are sometimes too trite and incredible.
Solito has once expressed his admiration for Kidlat Tahimik’s Turumba, a sublime portrait of neocolonial occupation of a small town in Laguna, and in Tuli he has achieved that beleaguering effect of collision between two different worldly ideas, a civil war of values in a relatively modest community.
This is what queer films should regard with empathy: an introspective look on our roots. Instead of abusing, exploiting, and commodifying homosexuality, roads should be paved for a mature comprehension of their circumstances, of the decisions they have to make, of the lives they tend to lead. Tuli is Solito’s most unsuccessful work – – his music video for the Eraserheads is in fact even more popular – – but this is definitely a revelation of his importance in our thriving national cinema, a lasting voice in the cacophony of mainstream independence.
Binyag (Mariami Tanangco, 2002) January 19, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Noypi, Short Cuts, UP Screening.
Written and directed by Mariami Tanangco
Mariami Tanangco’s diploma film may have come out of unconscious transsexuality, but despite its brooding machismo, despite the various motifs that further emphasize the sordid logic of patriarchy whose primary concern is having the balls to overkill, despite relying heavily on stereotypes, Binyag sustains its hardboiled tenacity up to the sly end, no matter how conventional its attack to poke suspense through editing and harsh lighting, not to mention cunning actors who add to its claustrophobic wickedness. It inspires – – secretly, the struggle to just finish a thesis turns into a challenge to earn a best thesis – – as much as it satisfies. Bravery has now lost its meaning among young students’ works; it is not anymore a fitting word to describe such courage to raise issues hushed by apathy. The steady direction makes up for unnecessary experiments, the intrusion of slow-motion images that heightens the drama, pushing it out of normalcy to effectiveness. It is not a perfect film, but I am sure the late Jovenal Velasco was proud of this work.
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Romanian Title: Nesfarsit
Directed by Cristian Nemescu
Cast: Armand Assante, Jamie Elman, Razvan Vasilescu, Maria Dinulescu
Everything falls into place in Cristian Nemescu’s first – – and last – – feature film, for what seems like an anti-American sentiment becomes a searing portrait of a country’s fabricated consciousness, giving the most fitting name to an anonymous pain, conjuring a tragic tale of humorous mix-up in the greatest tradition of Renoir and Shakespeare, and skewering manifold facets of war from the Nazis to GIs.
A train said to be carrying strategic equipment for NATO in support of the ongoing war in Yugoslavia is stopped in a small town in Romania for failing to present necessary documents. The station chief, Doiaru, despite receiving orders from the Prime Minister to let them pass, insists on seeing the papers without any sign of giving in. Even the head of the American marines, who is in charge of delivering the freight as soon as possible in a time as urgent as this, walks up to him innumerable times to settle their immediate passage, but no words can stir up Doiaru’s heart: no exceptions, no entry without the documents even if Bill Clinton flies to Romania and talks him out of it. While spending the idlest moments of their lives when they should have been somewhere else shooting rabbits, the American soldiers are invited by the town’s mayor in their founding centenary, specially celebrated for the second time, and the people warmly welcome them with booze and young girls wanting a taste of foreign flesh. Factory workers crash the party with their protest signs – – against Doiaru who wants to bankrupt their place to buy it for a lower price. Meanwhile, Doiaru’s daughter, Monica, engages in a wordless relationship with Sergeant David, shares his solitude and homesickness, and as their brief romance comes to an end, Monica also part ways with her father, who is killed in a riot between the townspeople and the chief of police. As violence wraps the community, the cargo train finally leaves with the soldiers awed by the fireworks prepared for them.
There are deliberate errors and put-ons, either intentional or otherwise, that Nemescu successfully delivers to great effect. Spilling fax papers in a government office where no one is there to receive, the misspelled “Wellcome” word written by the mayor in the blackboard, Monica’s admirer who translates David’s words to her differently, the hilarious replica of the Eiffel Tower in the vicinity, and the orgy in the hotel that leads to a massive blackout, these details add up to the lingering absurdity of war where everything becomes an unredeemable evil farce. One moment it bloats, and in a sudden realization of worthless lapse, it explodes. Nemescu pokes fun without holding back, killing the beast while the enemies are upfront, and still gets away with it, in a controlled temper a little less than Kusturica. That hatred toward Americans seems to stand out, perfectly characterized by Doiaru’s obstinacy – – seemingly implying that every time the Americans arrive, there is always a hint of danger. The Americans come and stir up a bloodbath, stay for long to defend their interests, and leave the warfield with their hands clean – – and in this case, even a fireworks to celebrate their victory. Blameless bastards.
The Second World War subplot, shot in remarkable black-and-white in war-destroyed Romania, strikes with outstanding similarity – – that unmistakable semblance – – to the war in Bosnia and Kosovo, indeed history fulfilling its promise of repeating itself in such a short period of time. It doesn’t feel alienating; the war seems to be the connecting thread among each and every one of us. Later in the middle of the film, a remnant of that war – – a shell hiding underground waiting for its baptism of fire for years – – causes the entire city to grope in darkness, as David and Monica runs hand in hand while the manholes burst open one after another.
A magnificent ensemble of actors enables Nemescu to achieve this posthumous brilliance. Armand Assante’s fierce-looking yet weak-kneed marine captain commands admiration for his humorous stiffness, giving his character a nuanced consistency of a soldier trapped in playful circumstances. Razvan Vasilescu steals the heart of stone and gives it a life of his own as Doiaru, definitely the most memorable creation in this film. TV actor Jamie Elman exudes effortless charm while Maria Dinulescu seduces him with undeniable presence and unwavering sensuality. Their romance, however short it may be, displays a fascinating facet of love’s blindness – – a wordless love, a loveless sex, a passionate intercourse of unknown origin. Ion Sapdaru’s overjoyed mayor mocks every city’s witless statesman, a lovely performance from start to finish.
That the film may have benefited from tighter editing is a valid qualm to raise, that if only Nemescu has survived from his fatal car crash California Dreamin’ will turn out to be a far greater film than it is now – – but less memorable, less affecting, less complete – – because what makes it a goddamn masterwork is that nature of incompleteness, that despite being left unfinished it is still a harrowing gem that fills an empty ocean with water, and afterlife pities the world for the loss of this young filmmaker at the height of his career, his death felt immeasurably by myself – – writing this as my way of recognition. Nemescu may have wanted escape – – escape from what? – – escape to a place where he can make films without limits – – for dying is the only way for you to float free – – and in the background, The Mamas and the Papas sings the ultimate escape song of the Murakami generation – – all the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown) and the sky is gray (and the sky is gray) – – for there is no song in our world as deeply emotional as it really is, reminding us that all it takes to escape is two minutes and forty-two seconds, nothing less than a millisecond.
Two Masked Apples in a Desert in Eran Kolirin’s Band’s Visit (2007) October 29, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila.
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Hebrew Title: Bikur Ha-Tizmoret
Written and directed by Eran Kolirin
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Ronit Elkabetz, Saleh Bakri
Cinemanila has this strange yet enduring tradition of selecting winners for its Lino Brocka Grand Prize Award; sometimes its choice is so screwball you would think it is bound to make a fuss. But this prerogative to choose mostly overlooked films, the understated ones that also deserve praise as much as its contemporaries did abroad, is actually a virtue of cinematic justice – – standing up for equally substantial works that reveal an interesting view of the world from wherever deserted island their filmmakers may be. Majid Majidi’s Color of Paradise, as maudlin as its title is, pulls off a very engaging tale of a blind child’s relationship with his father, who sees him as a burden to his planned marriage. It overwhelms with beautiful shots and touching innocence, and even the utter sentimentality of its final scene is forgivable. What Time Is It There? is Tsai Ming-Liang’s foray to transnational disconnection and nostalgia between lovers whose spatial distance is eclipsed by a more depressing absence in their spirit. In 2003, Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan beat Meirelles’ much-lauded City of God with Uzak, undoubtedly one of the finest releases in the last ten years and the film that exquisitely captures the cynicism of twenty-first century subsistence. The year after, the prize was awarded to Ryuichi Hiroki’s Vibrator, which, thanks to Raymond Lee’s unabashed tolerance, I saw when I was still two years away from being MTRCB-legal. A moody erotica with a pair of hungry strangers seeking for affection that escaped from themselves, Vibrator is a gem rarely acknowledged, featuring intense performances from both of its actors.
This year the jury handed over the Bulol to The Band’s Visit, an entry from Israel whose popularity is indebted to the Academy’s foolishness when it disqualified the film for the Best Foreign Language Film category because more than half of its dialogue is in English. It is technically legitimate, that dispute over failing to submit to the rules – – but the Academy had obviously missed the point of its use in the film, or yet its members have not realized the film’s profound understanding of cultural displacement, exceptionally emphasized by the use of English language. As if to compensate the fret, Beaufort, the film that Israel submitted after the controversy, got nominated.
The Band’s Visit is a humorous remembrance of an Egyptian police band that was sent to Israel to perform, only to be lost in a remote town where people were not even familiar with their destination. It may be a matter of dislocation – – of finding yourself in a wrong place – – but Kolirin gives his debut work less a sense of geography than a handshake of history, of the century-long Arab-Israeli conflict happening somewhere far from the Middle East and Northern Africa. A fictional town in a vast desert is the last place that Tewfiq, the band’s leader, would want his group to find themselves in but luck is on their side when they meet Dina, a restaurant owner who offers them shelter. It may not have much plot to speak of – – as the film spends all its time from the band’s arrival to the town till its departure the day after, thus their awkward stay in Dina and her friend’s place for a night, their talks, their unusual trips outside, the people they have to deal with for hospitality – – but its virtues are more than cinematic, it is the kind of work that wears its politics on its sleeves yet you don’t see it, you just feel it’s there. The politics is unmistakably there, but you tend to notice other things, its mature simplicity, its seamless storytelling, its deftly crafted characters – – everything becomes a humble appreciation of life, of happiness in misery, of suffering and contentment because there is no other choice after all.
The dry humor fills the film with great interest. It seems to imply that if there is one thing more suppressing than distance from our loved ones it is the distance from ourselves, like we are two beings, two bodies, two souls, separated, looking at each other, telling the difference but finding nothing else except for being apart. In the end when the band has finally found the Arab cultural center in Petah Tiqva and starts to perform, Sasson Gabai’s spiritually shoveling voice and Saleh Bakri’s contagious grin, as well as the air of comforting acceptance, it supposes that we will all come to our end no matter what – – and we certainly will.
Psychokinesis in Park Chan-wook’s I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK (2006) October 27, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila.
Korean Title: Saibogujiman kwenchana
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Cast: Lim Soo-jung, Jung Ji-hoon, Choi Hee-jin
No, it’s far from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, not even a mile close to it, far from Kesey’s humor, far from the wards of stubborn America whose boundless paranoia remains its distinctive trait. No Big Nurse, no therapist junkies, no doctors of pain – – but everyone, as you see their faces, everyone is McMurphy, not Billy Bibbit, not Harding, not Sefelt, not Chief Bromden, not the acutes, but McMurphy, the lunatic of all lunatics! Park Chan-wook, after the massive success of his vengeance trilogy, scores another out-of-control indulgence but with a more whimsical tone to it.
Consider this: if Tarantino likes Old Boy, raves about it so much that he tried to convince other jury members to award it the Palme d’Or, only to be turned down in favor of Moore’s quasi-anti-America slockumentary, then everyone in the world who thinks like him or pretends to think like him likes it too, so you get the idea that sometimes film viewing isn’t anymore a matter of taste but fanaticism, or idiocy, that may well qualify you to say that I’m generalizing. It sounds like South Korea’s grandest festival recognition, considering Im Kwon-taek taking home the Best Director prize in 2002 and Jeon Do-yeon the Best Actress in 2007, and a boost to its vigorous national cinema that proves to be unstoppable in both critical and box-office regard. In our case, Brocka and Mendoza went home empty-handed – – a perfect circle, yeah, zero – – that raises the question, is it a tradition of not winning anything? Reserve your “It’s OK, the nomination is more than enough” retort because still, winning something is winning, beating everyone else – – it absolutely matters in this material world, no matter how fabricated our realities may be, no matter how immature. A Cannes prize is such a huge balloon that never runs out of air, it gives an immeasurable amount of pride to look back, or maybe in a trip abroad when someone learns that you’re from the Philippines, you’d pick up from his remark, “Oh, I’ve seen Lav Diaz’s opus from Cannes and it was really worth the entire week of sitting through, it was the most justified pick from the jury in years” with “Yeah, impressive for you to have seen it but I didn’t like it that much, I thought it was the indulgence of a remorseless fiend,” and you’d go on and on talking about cinema until you have squeezed each other’s life over a cup of coffee. If that flow of reasoning is concerned, if winning awards is all that matters, is Park a better director than Mike de Leon? he whose brand of violence and horror is only known to thousands (imagine only thousands, but who knows?) while Park enjoys millions of audience just because of that palm leaf or certificate or whatever that he received from the Parisians? Imagine what a simple attachment to a name can do. C’est la vie, c’est la mort, Sarkozy would say.
This is a few parallels away from Nuclear Korea, away from King Jong-il’s fried brain, away from the invisible corpses of the war sponsored by America – – America, the Palin America. Is America the common denominator of every country in the world? Oh, I mean it in a bad way. Is America the shameless expatriates who killed our identity until we remained cultureless? I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK is too self-absorbed to think of that, it is an exaggerated vision of madness that only succeeds at random, a crazed film that avoids sedation, which may somehow do the film a lot of good, with careful focus and thrift. That world, that universe of escape that these patients share resembles our own, the colors, the stories, the running away from pain and loss – – are we really far from them? Park’s brand of violence is still there, in case fans are thinking twice about watching the film after seeing Rain in the poster, refreshing gore galore of deft humor, dream sequences that escape from their own dreams only to wake up in trifles. An uneven film with a skyful of promise, not to mention the quirky title and the demiurgic opening credits wonderfully sewn in the first sequence, I’m A Cyborg But That’s OK is like looking at endless rows of mirrors, seeing only one proof of sanity and purposeful existence – – that of caricature, pitiful sketches and surface cartoons of coolness that smudge easily in a drizzle.
The Elixir in Julian Schnabel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) October 23, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, Biopic, Cinemanila, European Films, Literature.
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French Title: Le scaphandre et le papillon
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Max Von Sydow
Based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir
The closest thing to being buried alive is running the shortest distance between heaven and earth, the case when you believe both ends of human life, heaven as a euphemism for Lucifer’s den and earth as where all sleeping dogs lie, short enough for the line to blur, as if existing in two far-fetched worlds at the same time can equip you with a stroke of partial omniscience. Schnabel, in his attempt to paint the remaining years of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life during his “locked-in” state, not only delivers a moving fragment of fate’s indomitable power to tangle disconnected lines but also creates a heartrending document of the endless virtues of human imagination, the purest vision of all, because in this concentric circle where we all walk, there is never enough time to compensate for all the things we have lost – – never really enough time – – because time lies and time kills us all, one second after another.
Schnabel’s interest in filming biographies proves how personal his art can be. He filmed Basquiat because perhaps he was once Basquiat himself; he filmed Reinaldo Arenas because perhaps the writer’s style has influenced him a lot; he filmed Bauby because, well, perhaps the man’s unbelievable hold in the final days of his life inspired him to share it with the world – – quizas, quizas, quizas. Personal expression moves beyond his world, his art, and it becomes a need, a life, an afterlife, like every artist considers his craft is. Basquiat remains to be seen but Before Night Falls fails to win me over; it feels like a ponderous burden from start to finish, even Javier Bardem can’t save it. But there is that unmistakable eye for unconventionality, that disregard for immature ideas, that lapse between beauty and madness, that magnificent anomaly that is difficult to resist, telling you that he will make up for everything in his next work. And yeah, what a promise. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, only his third film, everything becomes a culmination of his sweeping power to recall life through death, a breathing record of magnificence – – a paradox that speaks more on who we are not than who we are.
Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle magazine, suffered a stroke while driving with his son for a trip. In a coma for twenty days, he woke up with his entire body paralyzed, except for his left eye. His locked-in state deprived him of any movement aside from rolling his eye and blinking his eyelid, looking at the farthest horizon that his eye could ever reach: vegetative, maimed, barely alive. He was still mentally capable – – he could answer yes or no with a blink of an eye, he could form words and sentences through dictation, blinking through letters that his therapist spoke, a feat of immense difficulty, the only way for him to speak his mind. Accomplished as he was, he had few visitors. He had a wife and kids, as well as a girlfriend who failed to visit him. Through letter-by-letter dictation with his interlocutor, Bauby had written his memoir – – Le Schapandre et Le Papillon - – published in 1997, a runaway bestseller which Bauby had only enjoyed for ten days after a fatal pneumonia.
Irony has never been more resounding than this: I felt even more alive after seeing the film. The use of Bauby’s point of view – – his eye, his view of the world, his only window to physical universe – – provides a groundbreaking feat of emotional hinge, it’s as if every wink of his eye is equivalent to a life born, a soul cleansed, a purpose revivified, and an existence justified. That opening sequence is prolonged enough to put the film in its proper pace, we feel what he feels, we see the people through his eyes, we feel his heart cringe, his hopes crash, his dreams fade – – all the visual pain given to us is rewarding; Schnabel’s brush knows exactly what to paint, where to put emphasis, when to furnish the garnish, how to mix the colors of life and death in perfect tone, and the result is a striking portrait of sublimity; it is paralyzingly beautiful. Under such spell I am powerless.
Understandably, controversies arise regarding how faithful it is to Bauby’s life – – can a film ever be faithful to life? – – which part is fact and which part is fiction, how his relationship with his wife and girlfriend is distorted to create a more cinematic scenario, how he managed to have three kids instead of two, how Bauby never really wanted to die in the beginning, even the legalities of adapting Bauby’s memoir based on the ownership of the “droit moral” which basically is “an intellectual right of an artist to protect his work” thus asserted by Bauby’s wife – – all these elaborately written in Beth Arnold’s The truth about “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
But the truth is no one really knows what’s going through his head during those two years in vegetative state. No one can claim the exact truth; even Schnabel cannot. But what Schnabel did was take a piece of his life, plant it in his head for years, wait for it to grow, then after some time it flourished, it bore fruits and became one of the most moving works in recent years. Who says nothing can sum up a man’s life in two hours? Schnabel just did. Mathieu Amalric and Max Von Sydow deliver electrifying moments brisk enough to melt you in your seats. And in that magical flashback when Bauby returns home, drives around Paris, and meets his family, in possibly the greatest hommage ever made to 400 Blows, that music of bliss reassures you how comforting it is to live by looking at other people’s failures destroyed by faith, because imprisonment only becomes a choice when you stop fighting against it.
Hardboiled Wonderland in Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007) October 22, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Animé, Asian Films, Cinemanila, Literature.
Directed by Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, and Hideaki Anno
Written by Hideaki Anno
Based on Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s manga series
Television brought me up. Before and after school hours I would easily turn into a pebble lying on the sofa chewing whatever food it was offering me. There was a time when I would dare not to listen to my parents and stay in my room late at night just to catch shows on cable, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Hallmark, MTV, Turner Classic Movies, WOWOW, Living Asia, Home TV Shopping, CCTV, even Japanese and Korean dramas with English subtitles – – all those crap that remain part of myself until today, fragments of who I am now. In short, TV was my parent, my surrogate mother and father, and it was through him that I discovered the world, and god, I believe I was spoiled. Afternoon timeslots were often occupied by animé, great dubbing courtesy of ABS-CBN, from Akazukin Cha-cha to Zenki, Voltes V to Daimos, Ghost Fighter to Fushigi Yuugi, Dragon Ball to Time Quest – – from innocently clad moral tales to futuristic settings heavy in philosophy and adult themes. It was in second year high school when Neon Genesis Evangelion started to air just right after our P.E. class and our group would troop to our nearby friend’s house to watch it before heading home. Coherence was not really something I noticed. First time I saw it I was overwhelmed by the massive bombardment of visuals, the execution of action, the attention to details, as if I was being forced to look without a blink. Sad for our rotten brains, the show was called off, after all the numerous cuts we had obliged to compromise. High school was such a boring rollercoaster for me, studies, projects, news editorship of the school paper, barkada blues, prom, camps, admission tests to universities. Just before the term ended our cable was cut and I lost interest in television – – an act of perfidy I committed to my surrogate parent.
Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone is enough to burst that melancholia swelling in my nerves. Stunning to say the least, Hideaki Anno’s colossal apocalyptic vision of the future delivers a fantastic feast of the senses, from ocular to tangible explosions, powerful storytelling that even viewers who are alien to the series will get hooked, and razorsharp details and startling philosophical allusions, from the Bible to Sartre’s No Exit, that the Star Wars franchise can eat itself in its tapered popularity. No matter how dreary, Evangelion makes you feel that every frame of it is irreplaceable, even worthy of postcards from absolute memory.
We wake up in different ceilings every day, we forget who we are, we leave a grain of ourselves from yesterday, we carry on with tomorrow’s promise of rebirth – – for that one last chance, is it worth everything? On why is there is no real happiness in Shinji’s world must strike the egos and ids and superegos out of us and yet we move on, because there is no other way. The limitations we have define us. The freedom we have weakens our attachment to ourselves. Running away marks Evangelion‘s commencement of hostility to human weakness. What is there to run away? Where do we go? Is the choice really on us? Everything comes and goes from inside. There has never been a more accurate analogy in human behavior than the hedgehog dilemma – – come to think of it, really, the hell are other people, a nod for Sartre’s caustic honesty. Evangelion knocks the existential out of you, drains the logic of your purpose. If the only reason for living is to consume your calculated life on earth – – hence to live – – then what is there to worry about? A nuclear armageddon may have started somewhere in the Pacific, with all the final Evas and Angels left to determine our fate – – and here we are, lost like tears in the rain.
Dunce Dance in Johnnie To’s Sparrow (2008) October 21, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila.
Chinese Title: Man Jeuk
Directed by Johnny To
Cast: Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Ka Tung Lam
Dumbfounded after a film screening can only mean two things, either the film is stupid or you are. Johnny To’s Sparrow is too hypnotic I easily slipped into numbness after the opening scene. The casualness of its treatment, the sublime humor of the pickpockets, the umbrellas and the rain in that beautifully choreographed sequence, the piercing precision of shots, Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril’s transmogrifying music that defies gravitational pull, the buoyant delivery of minimalist action, the allusion to Melville which Dodo tipped off, even that avian parallelism to Le Samouraï – – everything feels like being trapped in an eighty-seven minute valse – – moody and eclectic, slow and sparingly evocative, driving sideways in deceiving rhythm, paced in what may have been called an assault to nothingness – – watching it is being an assassin of meaningless boredom. Stupefied, there’s no other way to react afterward but appear stupid.
Thai Title: Rak Haeng Siam
Written and directed by Chookiat Sakveerakul
Cast: Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, Mario Maurer, Chermarn Boonyasak
So this is the type of queerness that even homophobic dummies will like just to sell themselves to the minority. Love of Siam, in its tedious exploration of domestic breakdown, is a tricky attempt to put forth a biting commentary on the bourgeoisie in exchange for a coy subplot of homosexual romance. The coming-of-age story may sound sappy enough but the way it lingers on the displacement of traditional values shows an irresistible sleight of hand.
Of course there is always a lame childhood to blame. When Tong’s family moved out after his sister’s disappearance, Mew not only lost a friend but also a morsel of himself, something that reminds him of escape from isolation. A happy childhood is not something that he really aspires for, but when his grandmother dies, loneliness seems to be the only option left for him – – a choice he embraces without hateful misgiving. Gifted, he throws his feelings to music and forms a band with his high school friends. Tong, on the other hand, has to bear the stern upbringing of his mother. His father has turned imbecile, giving everything up to diurnal booze, hopelessly struggling to recuperate after his daughter’s loss. Tong grows up in a company of pompous friends, he used to have a steady girlfriend, his needs are well-supported, and his mother leads him to the path of a promising future: a successful career and a happy family life. The two meet and discover their feelings for each other, in an unexpected time and place, and Tong’s mother finds out. After trying to pull them apart, she faces her own tragedies, Mew’s band manager who looks like her daughter, her husband’s failing health, and her personal inhibitions in life. Too many points that Love of Siam drives across that it is difficult to find a thread that connects them without jumping one after another, hence this confused description, except for every character’s desire to connect and fulfill their idea of happiness – – so elusive it is almost invisible.
Despite the troubled couple’s presence in the periphery, it is amusing how their relationship takes up most of the film’s interest. Could it be that heterosexual romance has become too boring and ineffective? Or is it guilty pleasure seeing one’s fantasies on screen? Sakveerakul has cleverly bargained this romance to force us to examine his other characters, other maladies in the lives of their families that speak of ironies in Thailand’s booming socio-economic state. Impressive are the details that emphasize the layers of waywardness – – disappearance, death, and loss – – for the freshness they bring to inflate the narrative. Unfortunately, towards the middle, this jampacked narrative also stalls its development, losing focus, and dragging everything in seams. Its length, however, provides a lot of room for sturdy characterizations, as well as popular cultural references that enable to bring out the core of its intentions. Emphasis is given to the importance of family, on how a person’s life mirrors the disintegration of his own, which in a way brings us to moral fairness determined by economics, that poor people are not alone in their suffering – – the rich also have their share of pain, less prominent but more dreadful, their inability to be content in their comfortable lives, their search for a void in their massive lines of disconnection, looking for a needle in a haystack. I heard the Martians are confused – – why are human beings so damn complicated?
Homosexuality has always been an issue – – at the back of our heads there is always that inkling of doubt, of mighty skepticism that even gays and lesbians themselves honestly admit. It will never be an accepted norm because it is the way of the world, the discourse between superiority and inferiority, who displays power over whom and who consents to be ruled upon, traverses the dialectic of gender – – it is human error, human weakness. Perhaps it is even easier to predict the end of the world than when this clamor over same-sex marriage will stop. To reveal irregularities that go against one’s religion is human nature. Ever wonder why in the entire course of our lifetime we yearn for equality yet we only get compromised freedom? Why even in death there is still no such thing as fair equilibrium? It is because equality is a non-human privilege, a sacrament among worthy people outside earth, fed to us through a fragment of deception called satisfaction, which, as an additional jest, is too difficult to discern among other emotions that we have. The existence of stereotypes is often seen as evil, the way it presupposes relationships, but don’t you think in as much as they create boxes they also ease the burden of going back to square one? Preposterous logic, even stupid, but life’s more stupid if you don’t get along with it.
Mew, the effeminate, knows exactly what he wants. He is talented, he has an outlet to release his repressed feelings, he believes people who bully him are unworthy of his attention. He knows when to fight. He shows his admiration discreetly, the woman in him believes that he must not be aggressive – – the man must make the first move. On the other hand, Tong, the knight in shining armor, the vulnerable, handsome guy believes their relationship is worth trying, only a strong figure in his life is opposed to it. While Mew’s intentions are clear, Tong is confused. The only way he can show his feelings is to show them – – to put his arms on his shoulder, to go to his house and reassure him, to kiss him tenderly. Everything is simple – – except that human beings are not as simple as their actions. After their feelings are revealed, it becomes a compromise. Mew is ready to give up when Tong’s mother talks him out of it. Bright future for my son, he will find a wife, have children, happy family. As you can see, the problem with the effeminate character is that he is too selfless – – he loves his partner so much he is ready to give him up – – his idea of love can easily be mistaken for daftness. Tong self-destructs, he may be a man but emotionally he is a retard, to whom will he express his feelings? To football? His newly-found romance is too alien for him and his friends can only provide condescending provocations and a finger in his ass. Now that Tong is ready to commit, oblivious as he is to the outcome of his actions, Mew shies away – – their lines never meet – – they think of each other yet they can’t be together. Such fate. I wonder, how much of our stay in this world is spent in tragedy?
Good thing there is an eternal fan base for this type of films. The “misleading” marketing of the film as a typical teenage romance disturbed the conservative camps in Thailand when they found out the queer angle that has gathered a lot of buzz from the fans. Fanfictions online are widespread – – alternate endings, chance encounters of Mew and Tong, even haters of Donut – – which seals its enduring recall in the years to come. I admit the film itself is not great – – but above average, fleshy, schmaltzy, coolly observant, sensitive, and the controlled handling of the material makes up for the overlong sequences. God takes the cue when it ends. Why is it that when something good happens, God always takes the credit?
When it fades out, there is that painful realization of that distinct human disability, of wanting love and pushing it away, of not only wanting love but needing it, of needing it and pushing it away, of sacrificing individual happiness for the two of you thinking that it will be a better resolution, that if you are really for each other, then fate has its way of bringing you two again together, but what if fate has Alzheimer’s, what if fate is the evil bully who tortured you when you were a kid, what if fate wants you to suffer because he’s Catholic? No matter what, there is nothing more intimate than someone’s head resting on your shoulder, you two are thinking about each other, that same moment, that comfort in strangeness, the future ahead of you no matter how narrow this world has become through the years, and the hell other people care.
Fraternal Sobriety in Raya Martin’s Autohystoria (2007) December 3, 2007Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Indie Sine, Noypi, UP Screening.
Written and directed by Raya Martin
Cast: JK Anicoche, Lowell Conales
Grand Prize Winner, 2007 Cinemanila International Film Festival
The risk of too much indulgence is that once a filmmaker lays all his cards and insists on it, the less his work becomes interesting. Aside from knowing which film to watch, loyal followers of cinema should also learn to deal with the idea that in every great film, there is always a touch of cruel indulgence in it — may it be In The Mood For Love’s drifting romance, Andrei Rublëv’s soporific images, Baryoke’s moments of narrative flight, or All About Lily Chou-Chou’s disconcerting details — the relationship is mutual. This is what clearly defines the line between a director and a filmmaker. A director interprets; a filmmaker criticises. Whether he loves his images too much that he chooses not to edit it (or color-correct it either) or he wants a jump-cut in every .0005 seconds of his film, it is just a matter of preference. Furthermore, cinematic indulgence is not only limited to form, as what local digital films these days may prove. Quite a few, like Mes de Guzman and Brillante Mendoza, are benignly lenient to their stories that seeing them is a breath of fresh air. But right now, only two among local filmmakers are capable of doing both, that is, indulgence in form and content, at the same time: Lav Diaz, whose works are constant reminders of artistic defiance, and his younger contemporary Raya Martin, whose films go beyond the shaky boundaries of his age.
The production of meaning is very critical in Autohystoria. How does one know what this film is about? How could he derive a meaning, a flow of narrative, and an understanding from those images? How could we not hate him for his long takes and ambiguity? How could we stand more than an hour of prolonged equivocacy, and, like I mentioned — such cruel indulgence? How could we? Frankly because this man is saying something, and we ought to listen to him — not to weep like his characters do but at least join them in their weeping — to rekindle years of forgotten memories — a national weeping to overflow the seas that surround us.
So does the magic of this film: you don’t have to know what it is to understand it. Everything feels so familiar — the conspicuous wandering from one place to another, the beauty of nature that we’ve lost, our lives turning into smaller and smaller circles, and our past that continues to elude us, to escape our grasp, as if we never needed it, why do we have to know our history anyway? isn’t it why it is called past? why bother to remind us of our suffering, of our failed coups d’etat, of our uprisings that went to waste? why lose ourselves in these things? (Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there? When did time begin, and where does space end? Isn’t life under the sun just a dream? Isn’t what I see, hear, and smell just the mirage of a world before the world?*)
Autohystoria is a leap from Martin’s previous effort, Maicling Pelicula Ñang Ysañg Indio Nacional; from an elegy and now to a eulogy, it clearly shows his distinct calibre as a filmmaker, the way he weaves historical events and contemporary lives — nothing much is different between them I suppose — and his insistence to deliver a work not for himself but for a muster of lost souls, of an indignant population, of a forgotten race — clamoring to be heard, whispering boisterously. Like A in Ulysses’ Gaze, Martin begins his journey across epic boundaries to search for the lost reels of history we once had, of our past overkilled by apathy, of our memories drowned by sorrows, of our efforts to recover them but to no avail — and such cruel indulgence is rewarded by a bittersweet symphony, a hymn of an endless quest for one’s self, both constantly and consciously, in the land of imagined existence.
As Dodo Dayao perfectly encapsulates the feeling: “. . . Its subtext – – – that political homicide is in our blood – – – runs hardwired with marrow chill and black voltage, but its visceral jolt is the volatile that stays with you.” It kills. * * * *
*From Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987)
Shoveling Snow in Dance Dance Dance and Ploy October 9, 2007Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Essay, Literature.
A hallucinatory take on Haruki Murakami’s startling early masterpiece and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s stunning latest work – pieces of a lost puzzle — picked up, and magnified
The most important facet of film viewing, often shared in public discussions, is its gift of intertextuality — the correlation of emotions to a network of meanings, images, and perceptions that we derive from other forms of art, thus evoking a bullet of memories and shoveling those crystallized fossils in the dark pits of our minds.
FILM A —–> FILM B ——> FILM C ——>FILM D ——> FILM E ………. ——–> FILM Z
One film always reminds us of another, it is inevitable, even in the most obscure reasons. The concept of “who benefits or harms whom” is highly subjective, debatable, and painstakingly difficult to start with.
Two months. Two rainy months. It never crossed my mind. It took a while before the idea sank in (in fact, it’s not even my idea): a worthy similarity, a realisation tempting to be conclusive, with lines that never intersect and yet a parallelism so transparent.
Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy bears striking resemblance to Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance.
In the film, Ploy waits for her mother to arrive from Sweden inside a hotel bar. Wit, a returning businessman from the States who came with his wife to attend a funeral, befriends and asks her to stay in their hotel room, a few more hours before her mother’s supposed arrival. The introduction of Ploy to the couple, to Wit’s wife particularly, marks a turning point: suspicion arises and breaks evenly, surmounted by the nimbus of emotions and unresolved past between the two. Something to ponder on, the fact that she plays the title role, why is Ploy the most passive character in the film? By doing practically nothing, the relationship of the people she has just met falls apart, in a bloody shambles. Provoked self destruction can be considered valid. Ploy is nineteen.
In the novel, Yuki waits for her mother inside the hotel’s restaurant, Walkman stuck in her ears (it might be the Talking Heads or Echo and the Bunnymen playing), and while her role to the protagonist’s search is vaguely presented, her characterisation alone is indeed memorable. Her clairvoyance is puzzling yet believable, and though Murakami is at his peak in having us manipulated in this web of urban mysteries and metaphysics, its thrilling nature leaves a feeling of enchantment. While Yuki seems to agree that “rock and roll is the greatest thing in the world,” Ploy indulges herself in reggae and shares an earphone with Wit, surprised at the world that this young lady exposes herself into. Yuki is thirteen.
That Ploy and Yuki are perhaps the same person — the rebellious teen waiting for Godot — of different age and on different time and worlds, is a product of a young mind’s “extreme indulgence.” But as playful as the dragonflies of the field, we really never know.
The film’s lethargic pacing and the novel’s shifting realities seem to share a world of their own, a universe wherein lucidity is beyond grasp, and upon experiencing them, we don’t care — they are just beautiful. On their peripheries are the -isms we would rather neglect: capitalism, modernism, materialism, urbanism, et al, but we are confronted by them, probably on our way home after seeing the film or finishing a chapter of the book, in a way different than other people. A profound delusion, its eeriness and ethereal charm infect us with the feeling that we all share a piece of this mad, fleeting world.
The narrator’s mobility in Dance Dance Dance is apparent. From house to market, car to train, work to rendezvous, Shibuya to Aoyama, Japan to Hawaii, he is restless. Murakami’s plot twists and endless possibilities work effectively with his setting and the disjointed, meandering life of his protagonist. While Ploy is rather seen as a stationary film whose sequences are mostly inside a luxurious hotel, the tension presented, mediated by Ratanaruang’s admirable affection to details, makes it look, and feel, otherwise. The possibilities are surreal. When Dang accuses Wit of infidelity, her unyielding insecurity dwells on her subconscious. In a stunning sequence, Dang kills Ploy using a pillow to suffocate her. Someone knocks on the door. As if it triggers her to think rationally, she pulls her into the bathroom, turns the shower on, and opens the door. Surprise.
The observation may be a bit crude, haphazard, manipulative, and too tied-up, but the hotel in Ploy resonates the claustrophobic atmosphere of Dolphin Hotel — the emptiness, the longing, the deprivation, the notion of abstract itself — and the memories created, and lost, in that place. The room where the Sheep Man stays, a deceptive mind would rather think, is where the bartender and the chambermaid are having their greatest resort to boredom, their strangest pleasure ever, proving words aren’t enough to express one’s feelings. The “monotonous rush” in the Sheep Man’s words reminds me of that silence, albeit their passionate intercourse.
The women in these works — wife, child, stranger, poet, and all the lost women — represent vitality, the struggling force of living, or being alive, and to them where all the overwhelming power of Ploy and Dance Dance Dance owe their brilliance. In a period of unsettling wakefulness, ironically, men created them.
*Thank you very much to Maritess Cruz and Dodo Dayao for the memory support.
Morsels of Liquefaction in Paris Je T’aime (Various, 2006) September 7, 2007Posted by Richard Bolisay in Cinemanila, European Films.
Originally published in Digital Buryong on August 25, 2007.
Directed by Olivier Assayas, Federic Auburtin & Gerard Depardieu, Gurinder Chadha, Sylvain Chomet, Ethan & Joel Coen, Isabel Coixet, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Christopher Doyle, Richard LaGravanese, Vincenzo Natali, Alexander Payne, Bruno Podalydes, Oliver Schmidt, Nobuhiro Suwa, Daniela Thomas & Walter Salles,
Tom Tykwer, and Gus Van Sant
I am tired of seeing Paris in pictures. I can smell Paris in novels and short stories, but I feel that those authors are lying to me. And even a film like Paris Je T’aime can’t save me from this hole of desire, a surge as blindful as doses of squid inks, to visit this city where “overrated” seems to be non-existent.
The idea for this venture is brilliant. But like most good concepts, it is not delivered well. Or probably just falls short in overall direction. I am tempted to say coherence, but no — it’s not coherence. There is a smooth transition from one story to another: smooth and short enough to forget them easily. The transition could’ve been better. I wonder why the producers took out Christoffer Boe’s and Raphaël Nadjari’s segments just “because they could not be properly integrated into the movie.” Judging how the omnibus turned out, it seems like it doesn’t matter if they included the two. In fact, only a few stand out, either really bad or really good. Everything just came and went.
Trois mentions spécials:
Coen Brothers’ Tuileries is fantastic. Steve Buscemi is still the Steve Buscemi I adore– he still lives in oblivion. Forgetting the cardinal rule of eye contact, we know that even Mona Lisa cannot save him from two young lovers who consider kissing in public as their daily dose of Centrum.
Quite surprised that a lot of fellow bloggers and friends dislike Sylvain Chomet’s Tour Eiffel. Perhaps I just can’t forget how lovely Triplets of Belleville is. I am either laughing or smirking from start to finish, I don’t know why. I just find mimes really funny and that kid is cute. It succeeds in making me smile, no matter what Chomet’s intentions are. At least now I understand why people around me are so silent and why all the shrieks are just coming from a single mammal.
Hands down, the best installment is the last. Alexander Payne’s lonely tourist visits Paris, armed with her Je parle français un peu and the osmosis of her past, and ends up more lonely than she ever expected. Its bitter ironies and the hilarity of her narration — a language that French language beginners like myself finds very funny that I got teary-eyed — save me from the disappointment that I thought I’ll feel afterwards. Inoubliable: Practicing her French, she asks a store attendant how to go to a certain place. The girl recognizes that she is a tourist. She answers back in English. Harsh. Anyone knows where to buy modesty in Paris? Pardon the generalization. In Quatorzième Arrondisement, we realize how it’s like to be in Paris after all.
P. S. Whatever happened to Chris Doyle? * * *
Complex Partial Seizure in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Ploy (2007) September 7, 2007Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila.
Originally published in Digital Buryong on August 19, 2007.
Written and Directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Lalita Panyopas, Pornwut Sarasin, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Porntip Papanai
Cinematography Chankit Chamnivikaipong
Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s affection to details is exemplary. Opening a fridge, moving of bathroom curtains, lighting a cigarette, pouring wine, stealing a tuxedo, applying make-up — everything looks so eerie and dreamlike it feels like everyone of us in the audience forgot how to blink for fear of missing even a single frame. Dang mentions that there is a thief in their hotel room. Wit says, Is something missing? She leaves it unanswered. We know that she intends to get Ploy out of their room. But Ratanaruang stops there. Dang’s agony is paranoia. Something triggerred from the outside but she’s not letting it show. Later on, we realize who the thief is. Whether she is unconscious or not about suspecting Ploy of theft, stealing Ploy’s necklace is not only a manifestation of her inner evil, but insanity as well. By the moment she steps out of the hotel, reality unfolds and eats her up, chews her incessantly.
It is tempting to compare Ratanaruang with Wong Kar-wai, considering a few similarities in plot details. Is Wit’s mention of love and marriage’s expiration date an allusion to Takeshi Kaneshiro’s hopeless-romantic character in Chungking Express? Nearing its end, when Wit holds Dang’s hands as she comfortably places her head on his shoulders, is it to evoke a doomed relationship reminiscent of Su Lizhen and Mr. Chow in In the Mood for Love (or perhaps Happy Together)? Who knows.
Perhaps the closest that these two directors share in common is Chris Doyle — Wong’s partner in crime in some of his highly-acclaimed films — whose presence in Last Life in the Universe is very much felt. However, the aforementioned assertion is no way to lessen Ratanaruang’s brilliance. Originality should never be an issue in criticism. Everyone is indebted to everyone else who came before him, and describing a film “unoriginal” is ignorance, not to mention insensitivity. Ploy is unsettling in its own way but never disturbing, achieves subtlety without excessive indulgence, and possesses a unique beauty that can only come out among Asian films. I am sure any film geek here would be familiar with that.
A realization: Ploy leaves a feeling of uneasiness, as if every scene is happening in the corner of our eye. Askew, we enthused over the idea of simply observing what will happen next, will Ploy awaken alive, will Wit and Dang reconcile before the funeral, why did she quit acting, et cetera. We even enjoy the sight of the bartender and the chambermaid taking their time in reaching orgasm. The pain of our existence, the fleeting nature of life, and the oceanic anomaly of emotions we need to swim — Ratanaruang captured all of them in this film. A bittersweet symphony, choking the agony of relationships — it is transience redefined.
Leaving the theatre in a drunken stupor, I asked the soundproof walls whom I envy for seeing countless films in exhibition during the Festival, Is it only in Asia that love expires? * * * * *