Don’t Believe Me Just Watch: Top Filipino Films of 2015 January 2, 2016Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Hollywood, MMFF, Noypi, QCinema, Sinag Maynila, Yearender.
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Over the years, it has been fairly instinctive to preface year-end lists with an apology, as though this admission of shortcoming in the face of supposed responsibility could give more credence to one’s taste or judgment. Clearly there is a popular mindset favoring those who express regret over an inevitable act of selection, and this guilt appeals to fairness. Objectivity is valued highly. Objectivity is observed and aspired. Objectivity, for some people, should be the DNA of criticism. Do not hurt their feelings. Do not make them feel bad. Do not be difficult.
But making lists, lest we forget, is silly. It’s the writer’s vain idea of playing favorites and revealing his “preferences” — for “bias” is too strong a word that is often regarded negatively and with hostility. The most convenient kneejerk reaction to an unfavorable review is to raise the bias of the writer against the work (the genre, the actors, its audience, everything related to it) and that’s fine — but some people overdo it out of spite (and regrettably the Internet offers plenty of room to make them feel good about themselves). It’s a freaking list. It’s not meant to be definitive.
Criticism, at best, is not journalism, and it’s not a matter of saying one is better than the other. Their nature always comes with limitations. Criticism may have the quality of fine journalism — the process: inquisitive, attentive; the presentation: convincing, thorough, challenging, thought-provoking; the writing: sober, piercing — but the ever-contested “objectivity” comes not from the reporting of facts or a fair and ethical standpoint but from the flair of prose and sensation of poetry clasping spot-on assertions and lucid arguments, the critique serving not as a guide but as a supplement — or if it’s that good: nourishment — something held when needed and thrown when not useful. No hard feelings.
Objectively, 2015 is another year for Philippine cinema. One can always claim it is better or worse than the previous years, but why dwell on that? Every year is a different year, and one can choose to do better than use platitudes on a subject ripe with specific achievements and failures, between which are attractive points of conversation: the survival of grant-giving bodies and emergence of new ones; the spirit of independent cinema and its constant struggles that have come to define it; the drive of mainstream films to take advantage of currency (vehicles for new love teams, a much-awaited rom-com sequel, a biopic of a famous religious figure; the constant fascination with mistresses); the allure and annoyance of “hugot” and how it has become a brand; the films of Neal Tan, Don Frasco, Joven Tan, Roi Vinzon, Carlo J. Caparas, and William Mayo, shown bravely despite expectations of drawing a small audience; the unprecedented box-office success of an independently produced historical film and the depth and inanity of discussions surrounding it; the shady disqualification of an MMFF film for a best picture prize, disputing once again the credibility of the organization; the efforts of ABS-CBN to restore and remaster Filipino classics; the undying and upsetting problem of distribution. So many things, and some of them mostly went unnoticed. This is not even taking into account the most important development of the past few years: the thriving of films from the regions, and the attempts to open venues and develop a steady, nurturing audience for them. Interestingly, many films these days, perhaps intuitively, have plotlines or characters with explicit and crucial regional connection. Although the Manila centricity is still there, it is no longer as pervasive as before.
A number of films participated in foreign festivals, but for some reason there’s an impression that filmmakers or producers in general didn’t seem to be wholly concerned, or enthusiastic, about overseas prestige, though this assertion, of course, is hard to substantiate. It’s also likely we may have been producing films that foreign programmers aren’t exactly keen on having. Compared with previous years, when winning abroad would be standard validation, this year winning at local festivals felt more desired. The industry’s big issues are centralized locally, and if you ask me, that’s way better than taking part, for instance, in the usual fuss of getting into the Oscars shortlist every year.
So this would have to end with an apology, after all: I haven’t seen all the movies of 2015. Only Philbert Dy is all-powerful in this regard. But I’ve seen at least ten I find worthy to share with you, or even recommend, plus a few foreign titles I managed to catch in theaters. It goes without saying, but with this being a completely personal selection, the common thread between them is my engagement, whether or not such engagement is influenced by others. Frankly, I have reservations for each film. It is only natural that in this best-of list I emphasize the good, but there is nothing here that I regard blindly. In some cases, the flaws and weaknesses actually contributed to my appreciation.
1. Sometime in March, a decision to step out of the office to de-stress led to something which, nine months later, I would remember fondly as a completely immersive experience. Without a phone or anything as distraction, I watched Imbisibol and was drawn slowly to it — like I flew to Japan and got there while on my seat, feeling the freezing winter and warm company of undocumented Filipino workers making ends meet in hiding — and more than two hours later, with the narrative closing on a high note, I got up dreading the return to the office, not because I might get reprimanded but because I was in a sullen, inconsolable mood. For a film set entirely in a foreign country, Imbisibol is able to depict and explore a distinctly Filipino struggle, linking the unique threads of overseas employment and its constant ups and downs, and the canvas on which the stories are laid holds this complexity that can only come from a mature set of hands and minds. Imbisibol does not depend on romantic promises. It takes time to unfold, and sometimes it takes too much time that the stasis makes the viewer forget what’s happening, like closing one’s eyes to suspend reality for a moment, and when the story starts moving again one can easily feel the throbbing and quieting down. Whereas the original play is said to be more brutal, the film, played out like a mesmerizing visual memory, offers several escape routes, the endpoints of which are uncertain. Substantial comparisons with Batang West Side can be made, but the Hanzel Harana of Imbisibol, the unfortunate Filipino on a foreign land, is not yet dead.
2. I’ve been quite vocal about my love for Sleepless. After seeing it, overwhelmed, I tweeted: “If this movie will propose to me, I will say yes.” And I still feel the same. Of all the films this year, this had the strongest emotional grip on me. The metanarrative of romantic love as something natural between two people in constant communication or intimacy makes sense, but the “small narratives” defined by specific circumstances and nuances of characterization prove to be more satisfying because of efforts, successful in many ways, to revise the genre and its tropes. But is it still a love story without one falling for the other? I think so. Sleepless doesn’t seek to be validated by love. On the contrary, the love hovering around seems to be seeking validation, and it doesn’t happen.
3. At the heart of Ari: My Life with a King is Conrado Guinto, the king of Kapampangan poets, whose kingdom is the native language he tries to keep alive. He is invited to a school program to receive an award, but the mayor doesn’t even bother to listen to his speech and leaves after a photo opportunity. Guinto recites in front of a largely disinterested audience, students and teachers who do not seem to appreciate the art he is being recognized for, the writing and performance of poetry to which he has dedicated most of his life. Unlike his fellow awardees, he doesn’t have any material riches to speak of, not even a car to take him home, or money to lead a comfortable life with his wife, but he takes pride in what he does: he commits himself to the rekindling of interest in Kapampangan language and culture, a thankless job that can barely support him. He is dying, like the cause he is fighting for, and no one, except for a young man he happens to befriend, seems to care. Director Carlo Catu and writer Robby Tantingco, in a heartrending display of humanity, and in innumerable moments of meaningful symbolism, show why losing a man like Guinto does not only mean losing a person but also all his hard work — his life becoming synonymous with his art — and seeing people are indifferent about it is a pain worth being reminded of, always.
4. Most beautiful things cause pain, and Apocalypse Child has so much hurt in store. It’s hard to watch it without being conscious of the weight underneath, which, bit by bit, begins to surface as the characters test each other’s vulnerability just by being together, or just by sharing the silence. It’s been a while since a drama of this scale and range is produced, the years spent on research and incubation unmistakably felt in the edges, with how Mario Cornejo’s direction tightens Monster Jimenez’s script with ruthless calm, how the tension is built based on breathing intervals. The shooting of Apocalypse Now in Baler in the 70s — its effect on the people and how it led to the birth of surfing in the town — serves as a hook, but like a healing wound, it is felt only when hit. It is a loaded memory, one that carries consequences in the present. The dynamics built around it take care of the spooling: those folks who have stayed and left and returned since then, the town and its charming tall tales, the unsettled scores and unspoken regrets, the inclination to simply let things happen, que sera sera. Cornejo and Jimenez create a deep focal point where all of them come together and tussle, and a wrecking ball, out of the blue, looms in sight to destroy them. Fuck, this movie still owes me a drink.
5. Much bigger than the uproar caused by the disqualification case with the MMFF, which further exposes the ills of a long-existing system that continues to impair filmmakers and moviegoers, is the subject of Honor Thy Father, and it’s not an overreaction to say that these two issues are connected. Instances of challenging religious organizations have a widely documented history of actions resulting in cruelty and bloodshed, and although this link seems too hyperbolic in this case, it is not hard to imagine that Erik Matti drew the ire of several parties and something was done about it. Ishmael Bernal was there first: examining the vicissitudes of faith in relation to making stupid decisions with dire consequences — and in similar vein Matti, through a script written by Michiko Yamamoto, makes the association sharper and harder to dispute. Ponzi and pyramiding schemes are usually the butt of jokes these days, but it is never funny when lives are at stake, and when this faith in easy money crumbles with the prospect of losing everything. Any kind of faith is tricky — even the modus of acetylene gang members is built on the belief that at the end of each explosion is a pot of gold — and everyone has their own reasons, mostly for their own benefit. The courage of Honor Thy Father to bring mostly untouchable matters to light is not wasted on thin and half-baked claims: its power comes from being a riveting, persuasive, and enraging piece of work that raises its voice at the right place and time.
6. There appear to be no more stones left unturned for Heneral Luna, and what it has become in several months of social media hysteria certainly owes to what it is: a compelling historical biopic with a strong, meme-able central character, the narrative designed (and at times injected with fictional elements) to emphasize dramatic contradictions, and the research, sufficient as it is, tailored to make it reachable to audiences. This happens to be Jerrold Tarog’s foremost skill: the ability to make it accessible, striking a balance between something too deep and too dumb, and letting his viewers feel something worthy to be giddy about — a display of sentimentality hitting a sensitive nerve — or making them feel challenged to argue. History, especially its interpretation, will always be taken personally by some, and the desire for change in present society often entails looking back into the past for lessons, no matter how different the circumstances may be. Heneral Luna has opened a lot of boxes, large and small, some empty and some occupied, but above all else it proves it can be done — the basic indie spirit driving it — and whether or not this is a mere fluke is as dependent on the next film as it is on the audience. It is never one-way. Producers Ed Rocha and Fernando Ortigas, aware that its success won’t be repeated soon, went on to fund more films (for QCinema, Cinema One Originals, and MMFF) afterward.
7. Dayang Asu hardly looks back. Its impulse is to move forward, and this doggedness to follow a straight path, understandably, has its faults. But by sticking to what he wants, Bor Ocampo renders a quietly disturbing mapping of the stages of corruption, with varying intensities, from how its seed is planted, how it grows, and how it bears fruit. And it goes on because the soil is always fertile. Evil is infinite and hard to subvert. At some point, the numbness sets in.
8. This kind of numbness, whose effect is similar to a tight grip on the neck, isn’t present in Water Lemon. It is gentle and thoughtful, and sometimes it’s too engrossed in itself that it overlooks some excesses. It is the second time Lorca pays tribute to his beloved hometown, and it’s an improvement from Mauban: Ang Resiko because the characters are not just living in the place but they also have memories in it, the drama hinging on moments when their strength is tested. The attachment is mostly sentimental, and Lorca and writer Lilit Reyes are able to make the audience feel why places can sometimes offer better comfort than people.
9. Carl Papa submitted the script of Manang Biring to QCinema and Cinema One Originals, and in both cases, by a quirk of fate, it was assigned to me. It was a thick manuscript, more than a hundred pages, and if Papa only knew that my mother died of breast cancer three years ago and was also called “Biring” by friends, I’m sure he would be worried it went to my hands. Needless to say, it ruined me, and I endorsed it to both committees. The concern had always been about feasibility, given the limited amount of time for production, since he wanted to do rotoscoping and won’t do it any other way, despite my advice that maybe — just maybe — it could work better conventionally. Good thing he didn’t listen and insisted on his plan. Manang Biring is a first in Philippine cinema, and such achievement won’t mean a lot had it been awful or mediocre — but it isn’t, for no matter how crude and uneven the visuals and telling may be, the story of a mother doing everything to extend her life for her daughter leaves a most indelible impression, tears included. “Merry Christmas, Nita” remains the saddest line of the year.
10. Sherad Anthony Sanchez doesn’t seem to be particularly proud of Salvage, his first foray into commercial work, but I’d like to think of it as an experiment — as he is (or has always been) an experimental filmmaker — that yields interesting results. The mainstream discipline is not his zone, and part of what makes Salvage engaging is seeing his efforts (and struggle) to inject new ideas into the found footage aesthetic and pulling them off most of the time. There are legit scares that leap out of the normal, shaking things up when things feel too safe and comfortable, and Sanchez, knowing his cunning based on his previous films, appears to be putting things that don’t appear clear and present at first watch. As the narrative moves forward, the more it becomes challenging because — what is happening? Its political statements are never ambiguous, and fortunately, unlike the characters, they manage to reach the audience quite safely.
Inching close: Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal and a Whore (Khavn dela Cruz), Hamog (Ralston Jover), Taklub (Brillante Mendoza), Tandem (King Palisoc), The Crescent Rising (Sheron Dayoc)
1. The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
3. Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)
4. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo)
5. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)
6. Tangerine (Sean Baker)
7. Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)
8. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
9. Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
10. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson)
Coming from a franchise that produced some of the most spank-worthy characters ever to grace the silver screen, 2010’s best performance doesn’t look like it has anything to do with it. While it’s easy to credit Jerrold Tarog for crafting such a handsome fright piece—distancing his segment away from its two awful predecessors—Carla Abellana is just hard to miss. She avoids the wrong way of acting in horror movies, specifically, the Queen of Horror’s school of “monthly period” acting, with her penchant for overplaying and making the ugliest faces possible. Carla is by all means in control of her character in “Punerarya.” She looks stunning as a teacher. Every time her face lights up the screen, I couldn’t help but notice the remarkable nuances she delivers for the entire forty minutes. She shatters the damsel in distress stereotype and puts an end to all the too-stupid-to-live women borne out of the pea-sized brains of male writers. Even the way she carries her clothes—something that reminds me of Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love—deserves an essay on effective costume design. As the plot unfolds, she dances gracefully to the soft-pedalled music, which proves how wrong studio producers are in preempting the reactions of moviegoers through loud and tasteless noise. Never has she lost grip on making her character believable, on being a horrified clever lady, on looking calm and careful, on doing what seems to me is an endangered attack on the genre that has recently squatted some space in watered-down and offensively cheap comedies. One of her students, played by Nash Aguas, couldn’t have said it better: “Teacher Diane, ang bango bango mo naman!” Without any wasted moment and featuring a divine Odette Khan, “Punerarya” smells good too.
Senior Year (Jerrold Tarog, 2010) December 30, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, MMFF, Noypi.
Written and directed by Jerrold Tarog
Cast: Che Ramos, Ina Feleo, LJ Moreno, RJ Ledesma
At the rate he’s going, I might as well come right out and say that Jerrold Tarog represents a lot of things noteworthy about local cinema. He possesses both the free-spiritedness of youth and the maturity of the old. Of course, that doesn’t make him the best person in his field or the one who has the least need for learning, but this assertion is given using good judgment, neither to flatter the filmmaker nor to hand him too much credit. Conversely, this is meant to emphasize the truth behind our hopes to have someone embody a pleasant characteristic of Philippine movies, one whose idea of filmmaking is not just for personal expression, and one whose nature is slanted towards improvement, that upon re-viewing his body of works, even his mistakes are interesting to examine.
So, I choose Jerrold. I don’t think it was that hard to select. After doing a couple of short films (“Carpool,” “Astig,” “Star Player”), making his first feature under Cinema One Originals (Confessional), giving Cinemalaya a try (Mangatyanan), participating in AmBisyon (“Faculty”), and closing the year with two Metro Manila Film Festival entries (one-third of Shake Rattle and Roll XII and Senior Year), he seems pretty content moving from place to place, from one producer to another. He handles projects with impressive versatility, directing, writing, editing, and composing music for them; and he doesn’t seem daunted by the pressure of living up to any expectations aside from his own. This bodes well for the years ahead.
By saying “a lot of things noteworthy” I risk the insinuation that he only covers good things, but this is not the case. I was clearly disappointed with Mangatyanan—I winced plenty of times while watching it—because the experiment on form didn’t work. I don’t even think it’s an experiment. I just consider it below average filmmaking. But to be fair, it’s a film that provokes long discussions. Personal preferences and tastes in movies will likely come up, but there will only be two sides of the coin: either you like it or you don’t. Those in the middle are wimps. After watching Senior Year, I realize that a conventionally-structured script is not for him. A humorless and stiff narrative like Mangatyanan, which dwells on domestic violence and reeks of metaphors, catches Jerrold in his most vulnerable, displaying his weaknesses the moment he starts to indulge in the heavy-handed turns of its drama.
Which makes his two other features, Confessional and Senior Year, all the more impressive. Truth be told, comedies are the hardest to pull off. Jeffrey Jeturian’s best work could be Bridal Shower, if only Tuhog, Minsan Pa, and Kubrador are not as well made and brilliant. Jay borders on being effectively overdone and Kimmy Dora was killed by too much publicity. The succeeding Eugene Domingo movies, Here Comes the Bride in particular, are flummeries; and calling Ai-Ai delas Alas “Comedy Queen” is a joke too obscene. Comedies are not just meant for laughs. They also intend to hurt. Looking back, Confessional in 2007 was dropped like a bomb. It’s painfully funny; it delivered the punches round after round; and the ending made a serious blow to the head. Senior Year does just the same, albeit differently.
To plagiarize Tolstoy: “Happy high school memories are all alike; every unhappy memory is unhappy in its own way.” Senior Year takes advantage of the collective experience—the stereotypes that permeate the corners of the school grounds, the pages of a science report, the silly conversations on prom night, the slumbooks tucked away in lockers, the noisy cafeteria, the overnight practice for an English class presentation, the first drag of yosi, the first sip of beer, the last goodbye on graduation day, the stupid poses in class pictures—everything is not weighted by thinking but by nostalgia, especially this time when nostalgia is a cheap commodity. The tone is not regretful, but it’s not proud either. High school is this one big snow globe raining with surprises, rejection, and isolated showers of happiness. Jerrold takes us back with a knife pointed at our waists—like boys and girls with thorns in our sides—and it’s a journey both fun and dreadful; fun because we see ourselves reflected on the characters, as if Jerrold spied on our diaries, and dreadful because, god, we hate seeing unwelcome ghosts of the past.
Every fucking thing in high school is stupid—as it is after—and Senior Year acknowledges that. In a way, it is written and directed with restraint, aware that each character can fall any time into the chasms of self-righteousness. Here it is also obvious that Jerrold tells a story better by using short and snappy scenes, carefully cutting away when needed. He’s an effective editor too, like Beat Takeshi in some of his best works (Fireworks, Kikujiro, Sonatine, Dolls, and Zatoichi). Granted, it’s a high school movie and the pacing must imply movement—stalking, running, endless chatting, walking from one room to another—but there’s no drama being sold aside from the tragedy of everyday. After all, the most persuasive flashbacks are those that make you feel they’re happening at present, and Senior Year, while conscious of its plots, doesn’t linger on the difference. Watching it is like reading Murakami on a lazy Sunday afternoon, lightheaded and lighthearted; and without actually noticing it, you cry as you close the book, you cry as you look faraway, and you cry because you see your doppelganger happier than you, luckier than you.
Ang Darling Kong Aswang (Tony Reyes, 2009) May 17, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, MMFF, Noypi.
Directed by Tony Reyes
Cast: Vic Sotto, Cristine Reyes, Jean Garcia, Agot Isidro
In Vic Sotto’s universe, Vic Sotto is the most handsome man. Even the most gorgeous of women acknowledges that. His leading ladies are head over heels in love with him, and they are more than willing to marry him and have his kids.
How about other men? Well, he must be surrounded by dorks for emphasis. You know, Richie D’ Horsie, Jose, Wally, Jimmy Santos, the funny guys. In his universe, men who are better-looking than him are bad guys. In the case of Ang Darling Kong Aswang, there is Rafael Rosell. He also likes Cristine Reyes, but she likes Vic Sotto-the skinny mortal better. Rafael, however brawny and good-looking he is, doesn’t come close to Vic’s charm. He is a hopeless case compared to Vic, and damn, Rafael is a bad vampire. Bad people in this type of films are never rewarded with anything except death. So he dies—not that you don’t expect that, of course—and Vic lives in the end, happily ever after, as so-called family films are so fond of.
If your expectations are next to nothing, Ang Darling Kong Aswang would turn out to be one satisfying film. Because it really is. Not because it tries much, but because it isn’t really trying anything. It is effortlessly narrow, but some sequences pay off because they are funny—pure and simple. The slapsticks that work kick with relish, while the boring stuff happen when your eyes are closed. That quick. Aswang clichés are left and right, especially in the opening sequence that is almost comparable to Saving Private Ryan’s intensity, except that no one will take that comparison seriously. Its notions on heterosexual relationships are trite, and it’s the same old faces of Vic Sotto, Joey de Leon, and the gang since Okay Ka Fairy Ko and Eat Bulaga making fun of each other.
You ask, what changed? The leading ladies, of course! Younger faces are chosen to keep up with Bosing. And countless closeups of Cristine Reyes’ face too! Whenever Cristine feels bad about her life, seriously, she should just watch this film and be reminded that she’s pretty. That’s one purpose of the film perhaps. It’s not too bad after all; in fact it’s so good, it’s almost incredible. Its humor has this cool timing that no matter how unoriginal it is, it still sounds fresh. Plus the fact that they are able to relate Boy Bawang and Liver Spread to the aswang myth, or the pun on “full moon” as “pulmon”, or the idea that not all aswangs are light-resistant, well, if it isn’t corny it isn’t fun.
For Vic Sotto fans, this one’s a treasure. But for those who are not, this is just one of those ridiculously enjoyable spinoffs of his previous exploits worthy of a peek.
Brown Histories (Bontoc Eulogy, Baler, Blissfully Yours) January 8, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Docu, MMFF, Noypi.
“Bontoc Eulogy,” “Baler,” “Blissfully Yours”
by Richard BOLISAY
(Bontoc Eulogy, Marlon Fuentes, 1995)
If a film lives depending on how many people have seen it, then Bontoc Eulogy has already died in Philippine memory. But thanks to Alexis Tioseco’s efforts this small film has gone another rebirth to more than twenty people in FullyBooked U-View last December. More than anything, such profound discovery leads me to reflect on the necessity of direction, for what are films but reflection of a soul, of souls scattered in search for emotional truth, that even if few of us in the audience can express the heart of this collective experience, one can never discount the power of persuasion that any one of us can uniquely deliver.
Marlon Fuentes examines the gray area of his roots and puts it under the microscope, only to find out that gray, not brown, is what defines our race, that the moment a child breaks into this world he already shares that loss, or lack, whatever difference there is between the two, in his blood, as if it is the only thing that keeps us together as Filipinos – – our imagined pasts. Every Filipino has a blur in his cognition of identity, and Fuentes, in his careful mishandling of his material, taking deliberate measures to emphasize his tricks, bellows the most painful cry of a Filipino-American standing on the crossroads, like a child left under the rain, unable to move the landscape behind him, that despite his feet moving forward, everything around him is still in place, motionless, untroubled.
Bontoc Eulogy starts with reminiscences, with old photos of Fuentes on his college graduation before leaving the Philippines for America, carrying his dreams and his past with him. He thinks aloud, allowing his thoughts to seep through our minds, on how he is able to live in two worlds, his new life with his children in America and “the flickering afterimages of the place [he] once called home.” The narration is accompanied by images of rural living, presumably in Bontoc where the filmmaker’s kin had lived, of Igorots doing their everyday chores, bathing carabaos, women carrying their children, performing rituals, dancing, even showing their mundane activities, as well as images coming out of nowhere like the child sleeping inside a kulambo (mosquito net), while Fuentes continues to raise his questions, to ask himself, almost rhetorically. He relates the stories of his two grandfathers: Emiliano, who died during the war against Spain in 1896, and Markod, a Bontoc warrior who was one of the Igorots who left their village for the St. Louis World’s Fair, to be put in display in the largest and most ambitious exposition of world culture, an event that marked a turning point not only to people who attended the fair but also to everyone who lived at the early years of the century. Markod strikes Fuentes as more interesting to probe, not to mention a global setting to speak of where his thoughts can be identified with in a wider scale.
Markod travels to America along with 1110 tribal natives, two of whom froze to death inside a boxcar. These groups share nothing with him but origin and skin color. As they arrive, they are asked to build houses and perform activities the same way they do back home, the authenticity becoming irrelevant since the visitors of the fair are already astonished just by merely seeing them. It is, by all means, the bestseller of the fair, their otherworldliness pulling every inch of interest, validating the dichotomy of the festival by contrasting the presence of indigenous people to the advances in modern technology pioneered in the West. Fuentes uses footage of the actual fair as he tells Markod’s story. He describes the fair through his eyes; his mix of prose and poetry hops from the box of fiction to cross the realm of the real, and afterward the dissolution of the real, that questioning its truth becomes natural but unnecessary. Markod wanders around the fair grounds, for what is an exhibit without getting some amusement (imagine the sight of a woman who can whirl a chair using her mouth), and rides the Ferris wheel for the first time in his life. Like Fuentes, Markod is consumed by a longing, an intense desire to go home, be home, be back with his family, with his wife who was pregnant when he left, and now, in this land unknown to him, millions of miles away, in a place where he couldn’t care less, where people consider him more as an object than a human being, an artifact in a museum, a prehistoric bone exhumed in a faraway polar region, a missing link in an unknown civilization, with eyes feasting on him, giving undivided attention like a biologist examining a rare species of algae, all but cerebral, the distance between the spectator and the spectacle farther than the distance to Andromeda, Markod wants to escape and Fuentes gives him that freedom, those few moments when Markod has the taste of home as he hides in a forest, calm, peaceful, far from the noise of the fair, and he walks until he falls asleep, and when he wakes up, the guard is beating him up violently until he is put in confinement. Markod never loses the only thing he has – – hope – – and it drives him further away from himself, returning home only in his mind. Unable to move from there, Fuentes starts to ponder on Markod’s whereabouts, his remains in the country where he now lives, as he goes to the National Archives and reads about a man who climbed in a Ferris Wheel and died the next morning. With his camera, he visits museums and sees the skulls and preserved brains of unknown people; he wonders if not one of them is Markod. But one thing I believe he is sure of: Markod never went home.
Intent is the most misleading thing in the world; but when you rob the intent of something it loses its importance. Fuentes’ purpose is to make an anti-illusionistic film, a documentary of half-truths but complete understanding, and by using a generic footage to represent the visuals of his material and mixing them with seamless recreations and creative shots to glue the pieces and tighten the spaces in between, he manages to weave a powerful yet depressing account of the intangible – – our concept of identity – – that right now only becomes a question of relevance. Like the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, Bontoc Eulogy can also be analyzed in dichotomy. First, it is a personal journey; an undertaking to satisfy the filmmaker’s objective, but as it unfolds it is able to put forth a sentiment that is not only the filmmaker’s own but also of every Filipino’s. Second, its trickery, instead of losing your trust, impresses you. The narrative is designed to follow the filmmaker’s intention and it serves its vision as much as it manipulates. By accepting the fiction of this faux documentary, it lightens the feel of history without losing any weight of it, allowing the imagination to take over, because history is only an interpretation – – the Bible, for instance, is an interpreted teachings of Christ – – a human creation; therefore it is not a definite signifier and proof of one’s existence.
I tend to believe that what has never been ours can never hurt us. Sometimes I wonder if identity is just a concept made out of boredom, of people who had nothing much to do so they posed a question with no definite answer, because if identity is what defines you, then isn’t your name good enough to answer that? Deep thoughts only lead to deeper thoughts, and deeper thoughts can only reach a deadend. But people who bravely puts himself in the quest is satisfied just to have taken the challenge, the effort, the initiative to know, despite failure, despite reaching the deadend, because after all the journey in itself is the destination, the bittersweet treasure. Bontoc Eulogy is created out of falseness, and with that falseness Fuentes has created a truth, a truth that is beautiful, a truth that is depressingly beautiful. For a film that cares much about history but agrees to alter it, Fuentes has proved what a Japanese writer once said, “No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself.” He never did.
(Baler, Mark Meily, 2008 )
That brief moment when the screen reveals Roy Iglesias’ name as Baler‘s writer, admittedly a sign of my irrepressible sordidness, I know the next two hours will cause me to endure seeing an ambition painfully falling into pieces, crumbling until the make-face epic grandiousness peels to expose the shortness of its vision, leaving me with nothing but regret.
I admire the intention; I admire the effort being given to films that recreate periods in our history. It is always an attempt to remind us that we have a past, that we existed before, that we have roots, that by experiencing these things through cinema we can be able to appreciate what our ancestors had gone through for us; nationalism is what keeps us steady, our social conscience. But filmmakers, no matter how pure their intentions are and no matter how many volumes of documents and memories of war they exhume, must also be aware of the infinite power of creativity, of imagination’s limitless ability to affect, to conceal the ugliness of this world, to bear the pain of a cruel universe. What Baler has pushed through is accuracy; where it fails miserably is form, originality, and interest. Its interpretation of war is nothing different to what our textbooks have told us – – textbooks that are recently reported to impart errors – – bland, superficial, and formulaic. “Textbook history.”
With little financial resources that local producers are willing to risk, Baler‘s production values are convincing. I am no expert in historical accuracy but for the most part, it is able to suspend my disbelief, letting me examine the plot and its characters better, their shortcomings rendered visibly and their lack of striking moments consistently delivered, as if Meily has forgotten that we paid for our money’s worth and not for charity work. His wife, Lee Meily, has been again a huge help. Like in Crying Ladies, her cinematography shines but not strong enough to be considered great; it suffers along with the story. What bothers me most of the time is the use of language, the multitude of actors delivering lines in Spanish, the phraseology and syntax of Tagalog in the late 1800s; the inflections are sometimes very disturbing for their apparent misappropriation.
It is easy to take the setting for granted, given that since it was during wartime patriotism is alright to be overused, but after walking out of the near-empty theater, only three days after the festival opened, I wonder what is it with the Baler siege that made them turn it into a film. What is so important about it? Neither I’m doubtful of the heroism of our freedom fighters that time nor I’m denying its historical significance but if Baler has been successful, it should have given it depth and interest, not just narrow staging of events in exchange for a faded romance recycled for a millionth time. What I get out of it is that the siege is flat and uninteresting, and the Spanish soldiers and the Filipino army with them are too stupid to starve themselves to death, and that their commitment to service is shallow because they have to surrender themselves in the end, or that Baron Geisler need not hold a bottle of wine to make him look less sober. It relies too much on historical details, probably afraid of misinterpreting it, afraid that the dead will wake up to hunt them for misrepresentation, that it loses what it has meant to strive for: an inspiring story. What it chooses to focus on is nothing new, we’ve seen those battles before, Conrado Baltazar has shot it superbly in Gallaga’s Virgin Forest, we already know how much we’ve suffered, we just don’t realize how much we’ve lost. It is a Roy Iglesias’ mistake: not making risks, adhering with stereotypes, lacking creativity. With those Spaniards forced to stay inside the church, even though I am ripping this off from Bunuel, isn’t it more interesting if they want to surrender but they just can’t get out? The door is not locked but they just can’t move themselves out and no one wants to start doing what’s necessary? And they stay there for months and months until they eat all the furniture? That is far from being accurate but wouldn’t that be more intriguing to watch for two hours? But what Meily did is sprinkle it with too much seasoning it has already acquired a taste different from its own.
Imagine getting a gift put in smaller and smaller boxes, wrapped very nicely, taped very tight, and when you get to the smallest one you find out that there is nothing inside but air – – it is just a practical joke. It made you laugh; you know it means something but in truth it is really nothing; it is just meant to make fun of you. Baler is that; like Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal, it has ambition but it does not serve that purpose; it is an empty ambition. It only leaves you asking yourself, Are these films really reflective of my history? I hope not.
(Blissfully Yours, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)
Forty-five minutes through the film, a pop tune accompanies the name of the producers, the title of the film, the actors, the crew – – the credits seem to appear out of nowhere, without any intention than their mere existence – – and this is when a playful Thai young woman and a Burmese illegal immigrant drive their way to the forest, exchanging meaningful glances, clipping fingernails, holding hands, mindlessly applying homemade lotion, chatting, teasing. By the time the car reaches the end of the road and the two head for a walk, it marks an imperceptible transition, a hidden transmogrifier clicking to turn another object into another, which is what basically describes Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Joe) as a filmmaker – – a shaman in the city weaving tales of the modern and the supernatural, a human transmogrifier, an urban fabulist – – and his second feature, Blissfully Yours (Sud Sanaeha), is so damn blissful I feel my senses have coerced into putting me in a state of miraculous exhilaration.
It is one of those rare instances when you feel that the credits are not only serving their purpose to flash names; here, hours after I realize the magic of that quirk, it provides the bridge for the two parts of the story, events that are only defined by their location and not by their narrative, because definitely the most difficult in writing about Joe’s films is defining terms (an event is not really an event, a transition is not really a transition, and sometimes a character is not really a character, just a chemical reaction in our brain that resulted from straining to find some meaning in the film’s first hour) without making necessary exceptions. The first part, at least, is hinged on the “normal.” Roong, a young lady who works in a factory of figurines, and Orn, an older woman who longs to have another child, accompanies the illegal Burmese immigrant Min to the doctor for his skin problem spreading all over his body. They pretend that Min is unable to speak so that people will not be suspicious of his status. Orn requests for a medical certificate so Min can apply for a job but the doctor refuses to give her without legal identification. She begs, even reminding the more stubborn doctor her loyalty for a long time, but to no avail. They pass by the market to buy some ingredients for Min’s cream to alleviate the pain and itch before heading to her husband’s office, where she talks to him about her plans to get pregnant. Before leaving, she cuts the vegetables and mixes them with the lotions and moisturizers with the help of her husband’s colleague, who, in a skillfully directed sequence thereafter, chases their car in his motorbike without Orn and Min noticing him. They go to Roong’s workplace and Orn helps her fake an excuse to leave work early, and they exchange vehicles and part ways with Roong taking Min with her. And the credits roll a few minutes after.
The dialogues are nothing less than mundane but it keeps you holding on – – it has that spark of quaintness – – particularly that scene inside the clinic where it reveals the characters the same way it adds to the film’s seeming peculiarity. Joe handles everything with precision, as if his penchant for texture and atmosphere will lose its spell if he exceeds a few seconds in lingering. And while he fulfills the responsibility of giving information about his characters, at the side, he never loses his indulgence, rewarding us with those shots from the back of the car, navigating the dusty roads, passing old stores and vulcanizing shops, and details of an alienating city life. Before moving to his favorite setting, he gives us the vibe of the extraterrestrial, that without favoring any scientific or fantastic plots he is able to create an atmosphere of strangeness common to science fiction, effortlessly.
Min surprises Roong by bringing her to a beautiful view of the countryside from the forest. It is an escape from the troubles of life, a picnic in the remotest side of the world, the pleasures of privacy, the excitement of quietude, the warmth of two bodies trapped in a passionate kiss, and Joe, in his magical eye for ethereal dreams, drowns the background of trees with blinding light, the sun at its fiercest, the leaves almost burning as Min breaks free and complains again of his flaky skin. The next sequences are difficult to differentiate. Memories, illusions, realities are all mixed up, not to mention that the setting makes everything primitive and disturbingly real. Joe drives the story into the wilderness but no act of savagery happens, just two people finding comfort with each other, unmindful of the world, heedless of histories. As it continues detailing Min and Roong’s aimless escapade, not in the usual verboseness but through the subtlest sweep of invisible transitions and mythical burn, Joe allows his story to travel in the past, present, and future, existing, for a brief moment, all at the same time. The mystery is there right from the very beginning but when we get to see Orn making love with her husband’s colleague in that same forest, and when he runs to chase the thief who steals his bike and Orn finds her way to Min and Roong’s place in the lagoon, it deepens the unknown consequences. What is possibly there to happen among the three of them?
Blissfully Years owes a lot of its beauty to uncertainty, that what we know is sometimes less important than what we don’t know, that knowledge can also work against us, that knowing is defeat. Why does it fade in the middle when Orn is finding her way in the forest? We hear a gunshot somewhere but where exactly does that come from? Why does Joe have to draw the scribbles and sketches of Min on the screen? I don’t know, but I understand that these uncertainties are what propel the almost non-existent narrative to unbelievable heights. It is a work that succeeds in detaching its story from the world, the characters from their repressive universe within, to escape, that like Roong and Min, it is able to give us, in two blissful hours, a view of the great wide world over there, and make us feel the adventure of discovering the perfect freedom in a new world. We have grown to so much unhealthy detachment that we cannot anymore tell the difference between what is ours and what we borrowed, what is ours and what we just stole, and what is ours and what can never be ours. Min’s skin problem is Joe’s most powerful metaphor to the very idea of race; it is something we will never lose. Being political is not only being critical; it is also recognizing that we are already imprisoned even before we are born; accepting that life can never be perfect but endlessly beautiful. After some time, it makes you think, what makes us differentiate what is culturally ours and not? How well do we know ourselves now? Are we still what we used to be? Is culture something that fades into oblivion after several years of inobservance?
The details of sexual activity are far from sensuous; they are almost perfunctory and apologetic. But the actors are doing it in such a way that being their voyeur leaves us without any guilt; such fancy deserves to be look at. That moment near the end when Roong lies beside Min to doze, exactly when we are very much tempted to fall asleep as well (and I’m thinking, you shameless woman, I fought every slim chance of sleeping just to finish this film and here you are sleeping before me), she slides her hand into his shorts and fondles his penis, cut to Orn alone nearby, sobered up after crying, and Roong closes her eyes to sleep, the sound of the water constantly moving, a fly landing on her cheek, she mutters Min’s name, dreaming maybe, and after forever looking at her Joe cuts to the view of the sky, the azure in the Thai-Burmese border, then to Roong rousing from her nap, her eyes looking up in probably the briefest shot in this film. A film so invisibly-structured and cryptic, Blissfully Yours is beauty to the infinity.