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Aswang (Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, 1992) June 18, 2012

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Lagarista, Noypi.

Directed by Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes
Written by Pen Medina and Jerry Lopez Sineneng
Cast: Alma Moreno. Manilyn Reynes, Aiza Seguerra

At the onset of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’s genre-defining work, it is clear that the so-called creature of the night is real. The moment it shows Alma Moreno in her black dress and shawl, only the ill-advised will not be convinced of her moonlighting activities. She walks ominously, pacing back and forth like an animal following its prey, and fixes her stare on people that strike her fancy. She transforms into a cat or snake or bird and appears in suspicious places. Despite her strangeness to the surroundings, she rarely raises the doubt of the townspeople because of her pleasing appearance. Such literary device works well in the film, and its writers, Pen Medina and Jerry Lopez Sineneng, tease the audience by playing with stereotypes and breaking them. Rarely does the movie pander to its viewers by resorting to cheap schlock gimmicks; on the contrary, it takes its time before finally revealing its fangs of brilliance.

Gallaga and Reyes are aware that the key to pulling off a horror movie is the establishment of its story, and they succeed in doing so by weaving a pair of carefully developed plots. Joey Marquez’s cameo at the beginning, in which he plays the aswang’s first victim, lured by her mysterious and sexual beauty, forms the first plot, one that reinforces the belief of the folks in Talisay that the aswang is by no means a figment of their imagination. The second concerns Catlyn (Aiza Seguerra), her nanny, Veron (Manilyn Reynes), and her driver, Dudoy (Berting Labra). They arrive at Catlyn’s house and witness a bloody robbery and murder. Catlyn’s mother is killed and the kid sees the faces of the criminals. Afraid that their identities will be revealed to the police, the thugs come after them but the three manage to escape and hide in the town where Dudoy’s sister lives, in Talisay where, incidentally, the aswang is notoriously making her comeback. Unburdened by the confines of an instructive morality tale, the film allows its two plots to meet and its two villains, the aswang borne out of myth and the aswang borne out of a corrupt society, to pay for their wrongdoings.

Like some prized wine kept in the cellar, Aswang still tastes exquisite almost twenty years later. It sure looks dated, but that’s more a sign of strength than of weakness. It foregoes the typical too-stupid-to-live characters that permeate recent episodes of Shake Rattle and Roll and strikes a balance between horror and comedy. Sometimes this proclivity to overdo cracks and one-liners thwarts the suspense, disabling the nicely-built thrill to achieve its full force, but that’s a minor concern. Aiza Seguerra, at an age when she reached her peak as a gifted child actor, is adorable, delivering her smart lines with a perfect mix of charm and acuity. She provides comic entertainment, but when it’s time to do serious drama, she can easily break into tears. Manilyn Reynes screams gratingly, but that’s part of her job. The great Berting Labra does a Karl Malden circa A Streetcar Named Desire and delivers a hefty monologue against the aswang, but it obviously pays no heed to him because it devours him several sequences later. Also worthy of note is Lilia Cuntapay’s bit role as Alma Moreno’s old self, stealing the scene in the short minutes she appears in.

Don Escudero’s production design helps a lot to make Aswang a good-looking fright piece. He has given the creature a face, a house, and a pair of wings, as well as some little details that make her existence credible. These elements allow the film’s suspension of disbelief to endure. When the aswang shows her real face, she looks more fascinating than fearsome. There’s a feeling of curiosity upon discovering how the filmmakers have chosen to interpret the myth. Moreover, the camera work by Joe Tutanes is impressive, prohibiting any room for sloppy shots and wasted angles. For instance, the short sequence of Alma Moreno peeping through the roof and slipping her tongue into the hole to eat Janice de Belen’s baby has gone down in local cinema history as one of its most memorable moments. Aswang does not confound—it confronts, and it has the skill to dissolve its shortcomings and let its surprises stand out.  Film critic Pio de Castro III believes that the film owes its success to Gallaga’s “third eye,” and that “eye” is never shut from start to finish.


Takaw Tukso (William Pascual, 1986) October 24, 2011

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Lagarista, Noypi, Trip to Quiapo.
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Written by Armando Lao
Directed by William Pascual
Cast: Jaclyn Jose, Anna Marie Gutierrez, Julio Diaz, Gino Antonio

Sex takes up a generous amount of time in Takaw Tukso. Director William Pascual and writer Armando Lao purposely extend the lovemaking scenes and create a series of Bergmanesque erotica, letting the drama benefit and suffer from its theatrical embroideries. The film won the major awards at the Gawad Urian in 1987, but like its two co-nominees for best picture (Mario O’Hara’s Bagong Hari and Peque Gallaga’s Unfaithful Wife), only few have seen it because of utter negligence, burying it deeper in anonymity.

It’s a tale of two couples trying to come to terms with the hell that’s starting to burn between them. After an exasperating fight with her mother, Debbie (Anna Marie Gutierrez) decides to leave home and elopes with Boy (Gino Antonio), the cousin of her boyfriend, Nestor (Julio Diaz). They get married and stay in the house where Boy and Nestor live, distressing Nestor even more. Debbie’s friend, Letty (Jaclyn Jose), has been in love with Nestor for a long time and she seizes the opportunity to get closer to him. After a night of sex, they tie the knot and live in a room next to Boy and Debbie’s. Tension among the four ensues—carnal between Debbie and Nestor, fraternal between Nestor and Boy, and belligerent between Debbie and Letty—and it’s only a matter of time when the house becomes too small for them and fire starts to spread like domino pieces falling on top of one another.

Its sexual dynamics bears a striking resemblance to Scorpio Nights, Peque Gallaga’s 1985 film about a student bedspacer peeping through a hole on the floor and fancying the sight of a woman in her lingerie, whom he eventually sleeps with. Both movies depict the claws of darkness that hovers around the setting, particularly the bedroom, and in Takaw Tukso’s case, the car repair shop. These confined spaces breathe a life of their own and provide a distinct mood of claustrophobia. Debbie, Boy, Nestor, and Letty get trapped in some sort of black hole: they act according to their instincts and turn into animals when provoked. Lao is less conscious about the scruples of morality than the logic of dramaturgy, putting danger signs everywhere, and keeping track of each character’s misstep. Like most directors of Lao’s scripts, Pascual allows himself to be controlled and overpowered, yet there are crucial scenes in the film whose strength comes from his directorial command, most especially the confrontations among the four characters. The manner in which the acting is delivered to perfection—the vulnerability that warrants an explosion anytime—owes a lot to his discipline as a director.

The existing bootleg copy does not do justice to Joe Tutanes’s masterly camera work and Brillante Mendoza’s outstanding production design, both elements that grease the narrative and turn it into a visual spectacle. Even in its sad state of overexposed colors and unintentional jump cuts, the film shows proof of the skill committed to it. Similar to some of the films made in the 80s, it hints strongly at the effects of martial law, as well as the anxiety of what lies ahead. Furthermore, highbrow moviegoers are likely to admire its rigid stone wall structure, forgiving its tendency to indulge in rhetoric and extract repetitious arguments. It is too in love with its own beauty and brilliance to notice its boundaries, which adds to the discomfort of watching it. Takaw Tukso is a flawed work, but one that stands by its imperfections and makes them worthy of defense.

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Working Girls (Ishmael Bernal, 1984) October 16, 2011

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Lagarista, Noypi, Trip to Quiapo.

“Makati, 1984”

Written by Amado Lacuesta
Directed by Ishmael Bernal
Cast: Hilda Koronel, Chanda Romero, Carmi Martin, Rio Locsin, Gina Pareño

On the surface, the first team-up of writer Amado Lacuesta and director Ishmael Bernal is rather unlikely. Prior to the release of Working Girls in 1984, Lacuesta was a bank executive in Makati, working his way up the company ladder, and Bernal had already been making movies for more than a decade, including the highly regarded works Manila By Night, Himala, and Broken Marriage. Lacuesta’s background was focused on business, Bernal on art and its many limbs. Both showed remarkable success in their fields, and their paths wouldn’t have crossed if one of them hadn’t chased his other dream.

Noted for writing dialogues in his pad of paper at work, Lacuesta pursued writing on the side. Having little exposure to film production did not discourage him to submit a script to a competition organized by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. A few years later he was asked to write a screenplay for Viva Films, which producers Tony Gloria and Vic del Rosario picked up to advance the careers of some of the industry’s biggest stars then—Rio Locsin, Carmi Martin, Chanda Romero, Hilda Koronel, Baby Delgado, and Gina Pareño—and to introduce newcomers like Edu Manzano and Cesar Montano. Bernal agreed to direct Working Girls, and it went on to become one of Viva’s critical and commercial triumphs. More importantly, its writer, given a pat on the shoulder, began to take movie projects as part of his day job.

Lacuesta needs to be mentioned early because he is seldom championed by film writers, while in fact, looking back on his relatively short career in cinema, one realizes he has never written a second-rate script. Even Mumbaki (Butch Perez, 1996), which tells the story of a man returning to his roots in Ifugao to serve as a town doctor, a material that works outside Lacuesta’s artistic comfort zone, holds up very well because it strikes a good balance between heavy research and emotional sensitivity. For Working Girls, apparently, he does not have to conduct research. His many years of work in Makati have provided him enough knowledge to write a script whose characters are anything but forced. He has lived in the environment: watching presentations at board meetings, observing secretaries share gossips, putting up with the formality of dinner cocktails, sneering at office politics that thrives whenever somebody gets promoted or when the stock market plunges into an all-time low. His dialogues do not sound scripted; on the contrary, his pen makes graceful strokes however complicated the plots may be.

“Sabel! This must be looooove!”

One important reason for its success is its colorful characterization. Carla (Hilda Koronel) holds one of the top positions in Premium Bank and is being considered for promotion. Her closest rival is Raul (Tommy Abuel), a womanizer who gets her secretary, Isabel (Rio Locsin), pregnant. Raul, however, has his eyes on Amanda (Baby Delgado), an executive from Property Management Seminars who faces stiff competition with Nimfa (Gina Pareño), a single mother who earns a living selling jewelry to employees of both companies, returning every week to bring new items and collect payment. Rose (Maria Isabel Lopez) cannot pay Nimfa on time, so she asks help from her friend, Khris (Joel Lamangan), and she eventually concedes to prostituting her body for easy money. Anne (Chanda Romero) has less financial problems than Rose, but her marriage is slowly falling apart. Taking no notice of their troubles is Suzanne (Carmi Martin), the voluptuous secretary (read: office slut) who seduces old executives and willingly offers her “assets” to them.

It goes without saying that Working Girls champions women, but it is not hampered by any feminist intentions. It still plays on stereotypes about women being inferior to men (read: male chauvinist pigs) but the movie shows them only to make fun of them. Lacuesta and Bernal, both male, treat women as women: they flirt, they hurt, they fall in love, they fall out of love, they work their way to the top, they make stupid decisions. That’s the movie’s firearm of feminism: women are not different. Their brains are bigger than their boobs, as Joyce Jimenez wittily points out in Narinig Mo Na Ba ang L8est? (Jose Javier Reyes, 2001), but there are times when their boobs take control and it’s perfectly fine. Their imperfections only make them more attractive. Their sexual needs do not make them less of a person, and their efforts to please the men they like demonstrate how society is turning the tables for the better.

Almost eighty percent of the film happens at the workplace, and even when the characters are staying home or dining at a restaurant, they still talk about work. Working Girls is driven by the idea that career makes or breaks a person’s life at a certain point, and Makati in 1984, booming and becoming the city’s center of business, is the place to be for people who want to succeed. Dirty old men, social climbers, office bullies, doltish receptionists: they’re all there, haggling to keep their heads above water. Bernal has an eye for structural design and cinematic space, complementing the supposedly monotonous interiors with shots of streets and skyscrapers, taking pleasure in adding fine details like old-fashioned taxis and advertisements lit by neon colors at night. Unlike Star Cinema movies that depict the middle-class, Working Girls presents people who are not alienated from their surroundings. The characters’ wealthy backgrounds are not just an excuse to shoot in luxurious locations or to have them talk about their luxurious lives (read: No Other Woman). When Carmi Martin screams “Sabeel! This must be looooove!” and Edu Manzano calls her to his office and reciprocates her feelings, it’s nothing short of brilliant, the kind of humor that doesn’t leave a bad taste of camp in the mouth.

Jose Javier Reyes, in one of the lowest points of his career, dared to remake Working Girls in 2010. He took the liberty of using the same title and said that his version was intended to pay tribute to Lacuesta and Bernal, unaware that he only did them a disservice. He filled in the shoes of writer and director and fell short on both. For one, he failed to realize that in Lacuesta’s world, hindi lang bata ang lumalandi. Men and women in their thirties and fourties aren’t promiscuous: they are liberated. They have lives outside the bedroom. Lacuesta knows how executives talk to fellow executives and how common employees try to make ends meet and still manage to have some fun after. They are humorous because they are intelligent. Bernal was aware of all of these, and obviously he didn’t have a hard time making the great script work.

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Lagarista (Mel Chionglo, 2000) October 10, 2011

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Lagarista, Noypi, Trip to Quiapo.

Written by Ricky Lee
Directed by Mel Chionglo
Cast: Piolo Pascual. Janna Victoria, Cherry Pie Picache, Koko Trinidad

There is no denying that Piolo Pascual, after more than ten years in show business, has earned the right to be called an icon. His name has become synonymous with matinée idol worship, a status once achieved by the likes of Richard Gomez, Aga Muhlach, and Robin Padilla, and whose impact, arguable it may seem to many, has been way beyond usual. “Papa P” bears both sides of the pop culture coin. It’s a nickname that even straight guys have become accustomed to and the elite have grown fond of. Aside from acting on television and in movies, he also sings, performs at concerts, hosts programs, and endorses countless products and services. It’s hard to question Piolo’s charm and versatility, yet why is it that his first major role on the big screen, a character whose passion for movies is eclipsed by his passion for romance, rarely gets the attention it deserves from fans and cinephiles alike?

For one, Lagarista is not a vehicle for stardom. Its intentions are modest and simple, far from the themes of star-driven blockbuster movies. Released in 2000, the film is directed by Mel Chionglo, produced by Crown Seven Ventures Inc., and written by Ricky Lee. Piolo stars opposite Janna Victoria, a lesser known actress whose shot at fame also depended on the movie. Fate has been less considerate to Janna; she never had a role this big after Lagarista. On the other hand, Piolo, whose face and physique had been turning mature at the time, appeared in a number of films playing leading man roles, before finally snagging a crucial part in Dekada ’70 (Chito Roño, 2002). After that, people no longer regarded him as an obscure object of desire. On the contrary, the desire was defined, affirmed, and known. Two years after receiving a Gawad Urian nomination for Lagarista, Piolo turned the tables and collected numerous best supporting actor trophies for his performance in Chito Roño’s movie. Dekada ’70 made him a star. Lagarista made people notice that he has the makings of one.

A more disheartening reason for Lagarista‘s failure to leave a mark on viewers is that it didn’t stay long in theaters. It’s one of those movies promoted in tabloid newspapers, written about in gossip columns, and mentioned briefly by Cristy Fermin or Lolit Solis in entertainment news. For what it’s worth, the CBCP might have cared to review it. But like most “lost” movies in the 80s and 90s, it wishes to be reconsidered, as this site aims to instill in its readers, as a work worth revisiting, if not for its aesthetics then for the bottle of time it was able to keep. Lagarista does not aspire for greatness, but in every nook and cranny, in its artlessness and sincerity, in its obliviousness to Piolo’s naiveté, it was able to achieve a feat so little but heartfelt, capturing a phase in Philippine cinema when filmmakers cared less about stars but the stories they earnestly wanted to tell.

At the center of the movie is Gregory (Piolo Pascual). He bikes his way through the streets of Manila and transports film reels from one theater to another. He lives with his grandfather (Koko Trinidad) whose dementia worries Gregory, but whose stories on local movies—being friends with Rogelio dela Rosa, Carmen Rosales, Leopoldo Salcedo, and other film stars—fill him with inspiration. Even his name is taken from a famous movie star: Gregory Peck. He is surrounded by characters whose situations reflect the environment he lives in, their stories mostly about love and separation; Jimmy (Pen Medina), his coworker who waits for his wife (Jennifer Sevilla) to come home; Osang (Cherry Pie Picache), a neighbor encumbered by the (im)possibilities of her lover’s return; Elmo (Bryan Homecillo), a kid left by his father to an abusive uncle (Noni Buencamino); and Bella (Daria Ramirez), a frequent visitor of the theater where Gregory works, giving “extra service” to its patrons.

In many ways, these people emphasize the affection Gregory feels for Anna (Janna Victoria), a girl who stays in a nearby dormitory and moonlights, as Gregory eventually finds out, as an entertainer in a nightclub. He falls for her and she lets him into her life, but her wayward nature, not to mention her tendency to think only for herself, is bittersweet for someone as hopelessly romantic as Gregory.

The film focuses on their love story, but it isn’t exactly the type of romance that promises anything new or interesting. What makes their relationship worthy to look at, however, are the details that complement it, no matter how manhandled they are in the film. For instance, a clip is shown from Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, 1991) where Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta are kissing passionately, and then it cuts to Gregory and Anna inside a motel room, about to make love. The attempt at parallelism is obvious, a little laughable in fact, but the film gets away with it the moment the couple strips and shares the heat of the night. The charm of Lagarista rests on its ability to drop numerous references (the FPJ movies, the Rosanna Roces and Nora Aunor posters, the sentimentality of Priscilla Almeda’s cameo near the end) and make them appear without any hint of arrogance, candidly showing how the moviegoing experience is attached to their lives the same way social networking sites preoccupy most people today.

The most touching scene happens when Anna celebrates her birthday and Gregory wants to surprise her by screening a Sharon Cuneta movie she saw as a kid, the title of which she couldn’t remember. Armed with only bits of the movie’s plot in his mind, Gregory goes out of his way to find a reel of the film and steals it from another theater. A humble celebration takes place inside the cinema, attended by their few friends, and they watch the movie together. The next day, in what feels like a pie being thrown at their faces, Gregory and his cohort Jimmy are put in prison.

Never has the film hinted on Gregory’s affection for the job or the importance of it. The nostalgia, however, lingers on the details that Chionglo and Lee use to provide texture to the film. Much of the film’s memorable images are the hand-painted billboards for B-movies and soft-porn releases gracing the facade of ill-maintained theaters. Passing by them, vehicles along Recto and Avenida scramble in traffic, as Gregory hurries to deliver the reels on time. In an early scene, he finds out that Jimmy steals old film reels to earn money from making small wind instruments. Later on, the theater where they work closes down to give way to a residential building. The movie soaks in these details and fortunately its filmmakers know the right time to squeeze.

Upon reflection, the movie theater in Lagarista resembles the one in Serbis (Brillante Mendoza, 2008). It’s a place for people seeking cheap pleasure, mindless of the movie being shown, heedless of the memories that used to inhabit the seats and the aisles. But unlike Mendoza’s film, Lagarista does not trip on the necessity of realism and ends in some sort of silly fantasy. Watching the feast of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, Gregory convinces Anna about living together. The strange thing about it is that neither of them sounds like characters from a movie. They seem to have finally crossed the screen and embraced another form of life, speaking a different language, writing their own story.

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