Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 3) November 23, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Noypi.
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RAMS (Grímur Hákonarson)
A film set in Iceland, specifically in a secluded valley where the lives and interaction of town folk depend so much on their sheep, is bound to be cold, through and through. Yet the feat of Rams is its seeping warmth, which comes from the way it examines the relationship of two brothers estranged for forty years despite their physical proximity, and how they are brought together by the purge of their flock and the bleak prospect of carrying on without them. This premise is simple and approachable, but director Grímur Hákonarson, in a riveting exhibit of gentleness, is able to elevate the depiction of deep-seated hostility into a scale and range of biblical resonance, evoking grand and arresting emotions out of desolation. Rams is wrapped by layers of obvious and faint details, and the unwrapping, until the very end, can be breathtaking in its quietness.
MGA REBELDENG MAY KASO (Raymond Red)
There is something noble about the nostalgia evoked by Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso, in which Raymond Red depicts one fateful day in September 1986 leading to the closing night of the 1st Independent Film and Video Festival: a defining moment when Philippine cinema’s so-called band of outsiders asserted the legitimacy of the alternative movement, further advancing their ideals and challenging the reign of mainstream paradigms. Red’s personal involvement in this occasion provides the voice of the film, as he attempts to relive the experience and impart it to present-day viewers, evidently correlating the struggle between then and now. He brings in key people, most notable of whom is Nick Deocampo as the group’s strong-willed mentor, and places them in the lingering afterglow of the People Power revolution that deposed decades of dictatorship. The many instances of uncanny parallelism are not forced: that’s what makes it worthy of recollection.
But nostalgia, when used as a groundwork for a story, cannot live on memories and good intentions alone, and what is missing in Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso is energy — the palpable enthusiasm that can cross the screen and rub on the audience, such vigor and urgency that can affect audiences regardless of age and disposition — and this lack of spunk, sadly, sinks what could have been a sound statement on an industry always wrestling with demons, mostly of its own. Red may have made a faithful account of the event and its sentiment, revealing through conversations the preoccupations and ambitions of these struggling filmmakers, but he fails to make them feel important: he is unable to share the feeling and manages only to tell what happened, not why the audience should know or care. The film makes a strong case for the importance of pursuing individual vision — and that’s the most laudable thing — but even personal work, when too confined in its space, can lose its way and meaning once taken out and set free.
FRENZY (Emin Alper)
Frenzy, like Rams, is about two brothers, but instead of freezing cold they find themselves in the heat of Turkey’s political meltdown, with terrorist attacks in Istanbul and the police’s efforts to track down armed groups. Its strength lies in being a convincing document of unrest, in capturing through specific details and metaphors the paranoia of people made helpless by the situation. From the beginning it is quite clear that it refuses to be curbed by genre conventions, avoiding well-defined characterizations and leaning instead toward ambiguous expositions. But the effort to psychologize pulls the film down, mostly because it confuses things without latching on a stronger, wider ground other than its apparent message, and the punch it intends to seal the story lands only as a poke.
DAHLING NICK (Sari Dalena)
Clocking at over three hours, Dahling Nick is an extensive and unsubtle study of Nick Joaquin elaborated through interviews with National Artists F. Sionil Jose and Bienvenido Lumbera, CPP founder Jose Maria Sison, high-profile writers, friends, and relatives attesting to his literary importance and vigorous character, remembering with fondness his contributions to shaping Philippine art and politics. With readings of passages from his major works and dramatizations of “The Legend of the Virgin’s Jewel,” “May Day Eve,” and “The Two Kisses of Eros,” it follows Joaquin’s life from his promising youth and religious devotion to his political involvement and unexpected death. There is no denying of its ambition: it taps on almost every aspect possible and material available, adding clips of Lamberto Avellana’s adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino and Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, as well as rarely heard and seen clips of Joaquin being interviewed and delivering a speech. It is a biopic as much as it is an encyclopedia, stuffed full to the gills, and even in its closing credits the veneration is unrelenting, indefatigable.
Sari Dalena’s idea of paying homage to such icon, who also happens to be a beloved childhood figure, is something that unfortunately falls in the realm of labored extravagance, driven by an intemperate urge to offer and please; and in the end while she succeeds at substantiating the significance of Joaquin as a Filipino, she is unable to see the value of preciseness, of how a work can have so much impact if it had the humility to sacrifice detail for discipline. Length is a minor issue: basing on numerous anecdotes and the deep facets of his body of work, Joaquin by all means is a fascinating artist, a worthy subject of scrutiny and discourse. But Dahling Nick, for all its research and frills, is hardly about scrutiny and discourse: what it does is gather, lay out, and put together similar things, unmindful that the core is weakened by being redundant, by succumbing to indulgence that inflates the film to the point of incredulity.
To Dalena’s credit, Dahling Nick pulsates with life: it is spirited and freewheeling, intent to sketch a portrait of Joaquin to emphasize his legacy. His earnest readers will always find a hook to cling to, no matter how many times it has been repeated, and those who have faint recognition of the man will realize with sadness why this yearning to immortalize him is so strong, why his oeuvre deserves not only acknowledgment but also consumption, why in fact he is the greatest Filipino writer in a land where forgetting and neglect constitute an identity. It is the most persuasive aspect of the film. But sadly it dwells only on the halo. Dahling Nick offers no other color, no appraisal of Joaquin outside his usual league of admirers, and as a result the tribute feels too exclusive and diluted, a celebration seen only from the open windows of a large house where its esteemed guests are laughing and raising a toast.
A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (Roy Andersson)
There are filmmakers like Jacques Tati, Michelangelo Antonioni, and now Roy Andersson, whose works do not make complete sense when explained, or any explaining, whether precise or detailed, does not come close at all to the actual experience of seeing them. Even in the most objective of descriptions, there seem to be no equivalent phrases to match the dynamics on the surface and more so what’s under it, hence the viewer, upon seeing the movie, experiences something else. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third part of Andersson’s fifteen-year Living Trilogy, does not fully commit itself to easy understanding — for it is how most pleasures become valuable, when given with difficulty. In ways that only stubborn and resolute filmmaking can achieve, it allows itself to be taken to pieces, and whether as a whole or in fragments, the sense that remains does not lose its weight and impact. One can’t help but hold the soul coming from its rigid frame, to which the satisfyingly uncomfortable tremble of watching it is clasped. No tableau is the same or makes the same impact, and Andersson, in the assembly of these sequences with wry wisdom, presents the tragicomedy of life that regards suffering with respect, and whatever humor it brings is merely interpretation, for humor is just a human concept in a bigger, less understandable expanse of existence.
Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 2) November 14, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Noypi.
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BUKOD KANG PINAGPALA (Sheron Dayoc)
There are only two settings in Bukod Kang Pinagpala: a house and a forest. In these two places Sheron Dayoc situates his story of a paralytic mother who suddenly gets well presumably after a visit from the devil, and with brutal enthusiasm he aggrandizes it by laying emphasis on the darkness consuming her. After establishing this premise with the usual symbols and flourishes of religious nature, Dayoc is no longer concerned with plot (or depth) and characterization (or nuance) — in unsubtle terms he creates horror out of conventional means and overplays it, on and on until the point is no longer about having a point but being pointless. A great deal of time is spent on how the mother yields, rather willingly, to her captor, and how her freedom from physical confinement is exchanged for total submission. There is something preposterous about this whole act, in the refusal to widen and enrich the scope, as though it was done while wearing blinkers, unable to see anything but the front. Dayoc only cares about delivering the scares — and what scares it has! It is a mad feat to be effective and ineffective at the same time, each coming from extreme ends, and Bukod Kang Pinagpala gets narrower and narrower until the very last scene, until out of the blue it awakens from unconsciousness and wants to be relevant.
MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
A much deeper and more compelling study of confinement, Mustang looks into the lives of five young orphaned sisters under strict guardianship of their uncle and grandma. It is set in a remote town in Turkey where conservatism is formidable and women are forced to accept their fates as housewives fully subservient to men. Punished for their supposed indecency around boys, they are imprisoned in their house, with any means to communicate with the outside world taken away from them, and over time they find ways to display resistance and seek the pleasures they deserve, oftentimes with grave consequences. First-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is able to present their youthful struggles, small victories, and solemn defeats with force and maturity, steered by an impassioned female sensitivity. The audience has cared so much about them that the pain of seeing their story end is almost unbearable.
DAYANG ASU (Bor Ocampo)
Dayang Asu alternates between a walk and a brisk walk. Even in its high moments it refuses to run or sprint. It possesses this inflexible command of material, with director Bor Ocampo firm on telling it his way, in his vernacular, in his beat. Basing on his disciplined handling, he is aware that stories of corruption, violence, and injustice have mostly been told countless of times before, in varying shades and textures, set in numerous places and leading to different outcomes, but he is after the cold-hearted clutch of consistency, the hard-hitting truthfulness of linear action, without neglecting the need for substance to allow precise movement.
The dog-eat-dog viewpoint is clear, and apparently the search for a dog to kill and eat is used to shove it further. There is a lot of room for fleshier examinations of social ills and for a closer look at the father-and-son relationship, but Ocampo is content with observing things from a distance, neither near nor far, making the audience feel like implicit witnesses. It avoids the common (and tiring) tendency to be a mood piece and relies instead on headway and pacing. One can be partial to the dryness and lack of eagerness and think these qualities are deliberate, in keeping with the bestiality of criminal work. In this dogged approach, Dayang Asu may have a long leash, but all throughout it keeps a tight and uncomfortable grip.
THE TREASURE (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Treasure hunting has always had this ancient ring to it, but it never fails to arouse the curiosity of both the old and young because it evokes fascinating myths and exhumes long-forgotten stories. At the center of The Treasure is the act itself, the impatient search for fortune in an old family property where decades ago pivotal moments in Romanian history took place. Bookending it is the motivation and the result, and director Corneliu Porumboiu, in another showcase of cunning restraint, connects many dots in one precise swing, managing to cross leisurely between past and present with palpable political byplays. The punch is surprisingly hilarious, and it’s a stroke of genius topping a work thick with clues of wisdom.
MANANG BIRING (Carl Joseph Papa)
There have been several films made about elderly people and their struggle with old age and isolation, some of which are highly regarded such as Adela by Adolf Alix, Bwakaw by Jun Lana, and Lola by Brillante Mendoza, but none of them have been told in the same fashion as the rotoscoped world of Manang Biring, the second feature of Carl Joseph Papa. Similar to his debut Ang Di Paglimot ng mga Alaala, it builds the character of a mother, and in doing so vividly illustrates the importance of maternal company, not to mention the degree of loss felt once it is gone. In Manang Biring, however, the mother is at the center, living and dying at the same time, coming to grips with her illness and enlivened by the imminent arrival of her daughter from overseas.
One can only salute Papa for pushing his objective through and achieving it: the rotoscoping may be crude and flat at times, but emanating from it is this persistence of vision, this unmistakable drive to see it through the finish line. Certainly it is hard not to be moved by perseverance. The story, in its initial draft, is expansive, detailed, and verbose, and efforts have been made to sharpen it up to suit his chosen form. But one must also recognize several faults — a particular clumsiness in the storytelling, the occasionally misplaced rhythm, the unhelpful lulls and talkiness — which impede the flow and draw attention to aspects that could have been executed better. Assessing Manang Biring enables a careful consideration of its strengths and lapses, reaching a point where warranted praise and justified forgiveness meet, and for the most part, as demonstrated by the emotional ending, its soul can carry more weight and lift the film higher than its skill.
Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 1) November 11, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.
HONOR THY FATHER (Erik Matti)
A number of good things can be said about Erik Matti’s latest film, Honor Thy Father, but what clearly deserves the strongest highlight is its subject. Part of the thrill for the uninitiated audience is the manner in which Matti treats it casually without losing the magnitude and intricacies, the moral high ground slowly being tested and broken into pieces. The drama could have easily come out from the seeming absurdity of the modus operandi — how the desperate need for money has brought about a difficult and complex solution, far from the quick and easy acts of stealing — but Matti and writer Michiko Yamamoto are more interested in larger forces at work, in how people are dehumanized by scheming organizations selling salvation. Cunning is how dignity is examined through contrast, with the elaborate digging and exploding, unexplained and unjudged, coming off rather dignified because of the utter dedication given, while the religious group tricking people into making regular donations, like the Ponzi schemers robbing Peter to pay Paul, is fronted by rectitude but bearing the palpable halo of evil. The dramatic turns may not be consistently on point, but the totality sweeps gracefully, and John Lloyd Cruz, in an admirable career move, delivers an intense performance that can reduce the viewer, who may only be comfortable seeing him in romantic roles, to ruins.
RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN (Hong Sangsoo)
For longtime followers of South Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo, Right Now, Wrong Then is a familiar terrain. It still has his unbelievable knack for turning simple what-ifs into complex realizations of everyday encounters. The two main characters — a filmmaker visiting Suwon for a screening and lecture and a beautiful young lady he meets at an old palace who happens to be a painter — converse shyly and intimately, walking from place to place and hopping reflexively from lucid to drunk and to lucid again, until Hong decides, midway through the film, to repeat their encounter, with the same setup but slightly different details (on the surface and underneath). The result, in all its seeming simplicity, is heartbreakingly delightful, and between occasional laughs and tears, reeling from the infinite nuances found in ordinary situations, one feels the profundity of common experience often taken for granted, and rarely articulated so well, in contemporary cinema.
BAKA SIGURO YATA (Joel Ferrer)
It’s sad to put down a film with winning charm and candid sensibility like Baka Siguro Yata, but it will be more unkind not to admit that despite these qualities it is unable to pull things off. It looks into three connected romantic relationships, each with varying levels of maturity and vulnerability that make it ripe for highly charged moments which, if executed right, can be affecting, the comedy being a dramatic device in itself. But something from the very start has been amiss: the direction hardly feels skilled and confident — in many cases resorting to amateur tricks — and as a result it fails to give justice to a script that is not only driven by witty dialogue and expositions but also by the easy-to-overlook concept of grand emotions in a small world. There are funny scenes, no doubt, but these moments alone cannot carry the film, much so if it is stubborn to subscribe to the kind of entertainment of humdrum television, from the storytelling and delivery of gags to the sloppy stitching of acts. Ferrer ends up choosing the common and convenient, varnishing the trite and only making it much triter.
NETPAC Festival Report — QCinema 2015: Third Time’s a Charm November 8, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Noypi, QCinema.
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QCinema, or the Quezon City Film Festival, had produced only three films in its inaugural year in 2013. It ran for three days in two cinemas, and since three films didn’t seem enough to conduct a festival, several entries from the recently concluded Cinemalaya accompanied them.
The following year delivered a stronger lineup — with production and post-production grants offered to features, documentaries, and short films — including a number of current international movies (Ida; Two Days, One Night; Leviathan; Mommy; Jauja; 52 Tuesdays; The Don Juans) which delighted cinephiles pining for the incomparable big screen experience. This time it ran for a week, and something interesting happened: it overlapped with the schedule of another film festival, the Cinema One Originals, which was then celebrating its tenth year, in the same venue. It was such a nice, busy time for hardcore local moviegoers.
Now in its third year, QCinema has reached a key turning point, boasting more than 200 screenings of eight new features, five documentaries, and over twenty foreign films in six cinemas in three malls in Quezon City, all in ten days. This may be modest figures by overseas standards, but in the Philippines this is a big deal. Over the years the challenge has always been to sustain a film festival — Cinemanila stopped indefinitely in 2013; Cinemalaya, though it managed to go past a controversy, had only short films in competition this year; and World Premieres, alas, continued its annual display of failure — but even more difficult is to sustain a growing audience. Just on these two accounts, QCinema 2015 has made a major leap.
Festival director Ed Lejano is completely aware that a festival cannot live on good intentions alone — it must be run with astute consideration for both the business and artistic side of programming, or else it will be another case of taxpayer’s money put to waste. He knows that the Quezon City government is keen on self-promotion, and branding is a priority. From the ridiculously catchy jingle to every piece of publicity material, the QC centricity is all over, but he ensures that the goal of this initiative — the promotion of cinema and the creation of better compromises for local filmmakers — is not lost in the seeming tourism feel of the event.
QCinema, on one hand, succeeds at having a clear identity and imprint, with goals to promote the city and its artistic legacy while also helping the industry produce new films. On the other, it provides opportunities for moviegoers to see works that will never reach the cinemas (because no distributor would bring them). The idea of putting current world cinema in a Filipino festival is always good because local films can be better appreciated (or gauged) in a larger, more dynamic context, allowing this foreign sensibility to enrich understanding and offer comparison and contrast.
For instance, American classic Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) finds itself in the company of Filipino classics Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (Eddie Romero) and Oro, Plata, Mata (Peque Gallaga), all of which deal with war and its effect on people but each with different perspective and depth. The stunning long take of German film Victoria (Sebastian Schipper) achieves something different from the impressive long take of Filipino work Anino sa Likod ng Buwan (Jun Lana). Local filmmakers, always curious about the potential of technology to discover uncharted terrains in storytelling, can derive inspiration from Tangerine (Sean Baker), not just because it was shot fully on iPhone 5S, but also because it managed to go beyond this selling point with a mature and persuasive handling of its subject. And who would have thought Gaspar Noé’s Love, with long scenes of actual fucking and cum spurting in 3D, will find its way on these highly conservative shores, with not just one screening but two?
QCinema’s efforts to offer variety have resulted in something remarkably satisfying. Screen International includes films that earned recognition from prestigious festivals abroad: Tale of Tales and Cemetery of Splendour from Cannes; Court from Venice; Victoria and How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) from Berlin; and Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes) from Rotterdam. The Asian Cinerama section includes A Simple Life (Anna Hui), Nader and Simin: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi), Overheard (Alan Mak, Felix Chong), and Niño (Loy Arcenas), all of which have strong voices and distinct cultural roots. Curated by Carlo Manatad, Asian Shorts is composed of short films from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Taiwan that look at the preoccupations of common people who struggle to survive every day. Music Genius presents three documentaries — Heaven Adores You (Nickolas Rossi), Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Pierre-Henry Salfati), and 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard — exploring the lives and deaths of music icons Elliott Smith, Serge Gainsbourg, and Nick Cave, respectively.
But by all means the highlight of QCinema 2015 is the eight Circle Competition and five DoQC entries. Filmmakers of full-length features had only six months to realize their scripts, crossing that thin line between attainable and unthinkable. With the ownership of their work given to them — something that other grant-giving festivals are hesitant to offer — most were able to secure additional funding to help in the completion of their films. Several of the competition entries are co-produced by Eduardo Rocha and Fernando Ortigas, two of the main producers of Heneral Luna, the groundbreaking surprise of 2015 which had an unprecedented nine-week run in theaters to become the highest grossing Filipino independent film of all time. Together, freedom and finances can do wonders, and despite the limited production time, all of the films have managed to be interesting talking points after their premieres, whether by virtue of quality, subject, or posturing.
Apocalypse Child (Mario Cornejo), Water Lemon (Lemuel Lorca), and Matangtubig (Jet Leyco) have strong attachment to their settings, with the characters explored in the context of their association with these places, and the drama being uncovered slowly to reveal wounds and mysteries. Iisa (Chuck Gutierrez) is set in a remote community in southern Philippines hit by a tragedy reminiscent of Typhoon Haiyan, focusing on a group of people trying to get back on their feet but held down by the complexities of their situation. A different kind of tragedy happens in Kapatiran (Pepe Diokno), in which a series of violent rites of a law school fraternity is interspersed with scenes of varying thematic similarity, mostly emphasizing confinement and absurdity. Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo (Mihk Vergara) has a world of its own in which children discover success and defeat in a beloved street game, while Gayuma (Cesar Hernando) wanders between fantasy and reality, with sex serving as the thin line separating them.
It is worth noting that four of the eight features are made by first-time directors, with Hernando, acclaimed production designer of Mike de Leon’s films, making his debut at 69 years old.
Compared with the Circle Competition entries, the DoQC documentaries are more challenging to watch. Audio Perpetua (Universe Baldoza) makes use of a concept that links two seemingly disjointed things, but is unable to make the crucial connection. At the center of Bingat (Choy Pangilinan, Brian Quesada, Joolia Demegilio, Abet Umil) is the raging struggle to recognize the importance of archaeological work in the country, mixing interviews and experimental techniques, but the length and tedium tend to weaken its strong sentiments. Traslacion: Ang Paglakad sa Altar ng Alanganin (Will Fredo) features interviews with gay, lesbian, and transgender couples, drowning them in ineffective music and unhelpful staged flourishes. The magic of Of Cats and Dogs, Farm Animals and Sashimi (Perry Dizon) is it unfolds gently and freely, allowing the viewer to acclimatize to the pace of provincial life.
The NETPAC jury — composed of film critic Philip Cheah, Korean director Doo-yong Lee, and writer Richard Bolisay — is unanimous in awarding the prizes to Crescent Rising (Sheron Dayoc) and Sleepless (Prime Cruz). Crescent Rising is a current and urgent document of the state of war in Mindanao, touching on the many aspects of the conflict from jihad and the Bangsamoro Basic Law to the families and civilians helplessly caught in between. It is far from being an authoritative work — it can still be improved with tighter editing and careful selection of footage — but it is powerful and potent as it is, the many cracks leaving a profound impression of this long struggle for the end of hostility.
Sociopolitical issues are never in the fore of Sleepless, but they are present in the periphery, in its strong undercurrent. Two call center agents become friends, and they turn to each other to idle the sleepless nights or mornings away while dealing with their own personal troubles. No romance is pursued, and no hint is ever given that a romantic relationship between them will be their escape. Sleepless is a break from the pervasive and undying trend in local movies of treating romance as the end-all and be-all of life. By upholding the vastly underrated worth of unconditional companionship, it reveals a truer portrait of urban disquiet without resorting to clichés and empty spectacles.
These two NETPAC jury prize winners, in a way, are descriptive of QCinema 2015’s achievement: relevant, timely, charming, and wise, with modesty to recognize improvement and brimming with a desire to join the awake and awakened Filipino audience for another year of festive moviegoing.
This report is also published on NETPAC’s website.
Matangtubig (Jet Leyco, 2015) November 7, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Brian Gonzales
Directed by Jet Leyco
Cast: Amante Pulido, Lance Raymundo, Mailes Kanapi
The original script of Matangtubig is heavy on the procedural, following a series of events after the discovery of a dead girl’s body and the vain efforts to find her missing companion. It is a horrible crime emphasized by where it has taken place: a quaint, rural town in Batangas whose mayor brags about a zero crime rate, a neighborhood where everyone knows each other and paranoia spreads like wildfire. Writer Brian Gonzales sticks to several genre conventions but lays it open to strange possibilities, allowing director Jet Leyco to play his tricks and submerge the narrative in a bizarre concoction of lies, enigmas, and specters. It is as hardboiled as it gets, and the shell cracks as soon as the witness, a fisherman with also a daughter to protect, decides to keep the truth.
Evidently Matangtubig wants to achieve two things: to tell a compelling murder mystery and, in the course of getting close to the answers, to fuck it up. As the narrative unfolds, or gives this impression of movement, the red herrings are also scattered and left in such careful nonchalance, clearing this path leading to the climax. The fucking up isn’t random and impulsive — there is a choreography to it, a manipulation of actions intended to bring to the surface these supernatural elements — and this is Leyco’s touch, unleashing the uncanny out of the everyday while also being mindful of the sociopolitical timber, his signature, the watermark on his films.
There is humor in its terror, and a number of scenes and sequences contribute to characterization: the uncomfortable photo op when the parents of the victims have switched picture frames of their daughters, Lance Raymundo doing his report in the middle of the water and suddenly disappearing, the marching band and the funeral procession meeting absurdly at an intersection, the first time the mysterious fragments are shown in passing.
But sadly the whole doesn’t pan out as strongly as expected. The problem with Matangtubig is its narrative design, how the layout looks striking from afar but upon closer inspection the arrangement of text (plots) and images (visuals) — not to mention other elements aimed to complement them: rhythm, music, sound, clues, blank spaces — is too loud and pronounced, letting the viewer see the actual strings being pulled. It is deliberate in revealing right at the start the identity of the perpetrators, an intriguing hook by all means, but in a way the film also works in a similar vein: anyone with a discerning eye for detail can see where it is going, what atmosphere it is aiming for, what horror it has in store.
The concern is not about being highly derivative — certainly many works at present borrow from others, from style to atmosphere, from technique to world view, from milieu to pacing — but it depends a lot on the ability to hold everything together with a sleight of hand, to go above the comparisons and leave a singular, distinctive dent. This is Leyco’s objective. The end of Matangtubig is bombastic without apologies: it is the culmination of the other side of its murder mystery. And while it leaves on such a high note, the astonishing spectacle it has painstakingly worked hard for achieves an effect that leaves as quickly as a shooting star: so fast there is no time to make a wish.
Water Lemon (Lemuel Lorca, 2015) November 2, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Lilit Reyes
Directed by Lemuel Lorca
Cast: Jun-jun Quintana, Tessie Tomas, Lou Veloso, Alessandra de Rossi, Meryll Soriano
The charm of Water Lemon, Lemuel Lorca’s fourth film and so far his most fully realized work, is its setting. Mauban in Quezon Province comes to life with an endearing depiction of its people and their constant preoccupations, which is far from the haphazard caricature in his previous film, Mauban: Ang Resiko. Lorca’s love for his hometown is unmistakable, and can easily be blinding for its earnest sentiment, but what works for Water Lemon is a narrative that captures a small, timid town generally content in its smallness and timidity, how its residents deal with everyday troubles and bouts of loneliness, whether through hardcore drinking or chatting with someone from faraway who offers emotional comfort.
Life in Mauban, as it turns out, is not always slow and passive. What often passes for conflict is the hovering uncertainty of being there, of staying because there are no better options, those moments, few and far between, when one gets weary and sick of provincial life. Idleness is a myth: people have to work not only to have food on the table but also to feel better about themselves. In many ways the audience is not treated as a tourist, and Mauban, though beautiful, doesn’t feel at all like an attraction.
It also looks at people who have long been wanting to leave, those who are sometimes judged for their ambition, to whom a better life means one that is spent outside the town’s simple, almost resigned, way of living. This idea of leaving, however, isn’t confined only to moving out of town. And this is where writer Lilit Reyes hits the spot: dying also means leaving. And dying, whether by accident or illness, always inflicts hurt on those who stay, also making them die little by little. The drama at the center of Water Lemon, aside from making room for intense and poignant scenes, creates this vivid portrait of a town that accepts its fate but also hits itself for merely accepting, a place seemingly isolated from the supreme comforts and vanities of modern world, a town that may be unworldly and unambitious but is now finally coming to terms with change.
Filemon, the heart and mouth of Water Lemon, has Asperger’s, but he is not suffering from it, at least not in the way he projects himself. He is stubborn and assertive, qualities that secure him from his tendencies. Although he dismisses a lot of people, avoiding intimacy even with his mother, he loses it upon being told he is fired. Having a work says so much about self-worth, and for someone conscious about being different, it can mean the world to him. The sound of that world crumbling provides the film its moving vulnerability.
But the drama also has a number of false notes, the most striking of which has to do with Bertha and Maritess, supporting characters whose high moments tend to be too affected. The same effect happens when Pina verbalizes her grief with a neighbor: the moment feels written, and the monologue draws too much attention to itself. These are glitches that create ripples, stories that may be based on real life but look ineffective in film, but Water Lemon, fortunately, flows into a large sea, and with exceptional performances of Jun-jun Quintana, Tessie Tomas, and Lou Veloso, the impression it leaves is quite immense.
Gayuma (Cesar Hernando, 2015) October 31, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written and directed by Cesar Hernando
Cast: Benjamin Alves, Elora Españo, Phoebe Walker
Over the weeklong run of the QCinema International Film Festival, a strong opinion among many festival goers, discussed in hushed tones or mentioned indirectly in social media, is that Gayuma turns out to be bad, or very bad, depending on how the judgment is told and how the assessments become more specific. There seems to be an agreement on the film’s inability to tell a good story, or to tell a story in a good way, as it relies on a trite narrative, incredible plot points, dated references, ineffective music, laughable dialogue, and several other elements that further emphasize its larger-than-life thinness. These claims, unfortunately, are well founded, and all its displays of art knowledge feel completely conspicuous, making the viewing experience switch between wincing and resignation, until the overall feeling becomes nothing short of unpleasant.
With its large doses of sex and ludicrous storyline, Gayuma is reminiscent of Seiko-produced movies in the 90s, which means, for an open-minded viewer, it can be strangely watchable. The consistency is enough reason to be engaged. Obvious are the efforts put together to sustain interest and make it intriguing, as scene by scene the visuals are consciously being mounted to look artful. The music, berserk and ostentatious, is thought to heighten the emotions, but it succeeds only at drowning the film further. One feels sorry about the fact that while the story being undernourished can be forgivable, as execution could do a lot of wonders, more regrettable is how the many talented artists in the film, the numerous big names lending a hand to complete it, are unable to be of any saving grace.
There is absolutely no problem with the idea of mixing genre elements with conventional art-house touches, how a ghost story can be told alongside Marcello Mastroianni or Michelangelo Antonioni, or a how a mysterious past can find its place in the lives of students in a state university, even in the guise of sexual exigencies. The UP Fine Arts Building, especially for non-Fine Arts majors, has always had this inexplicably enigmatic vibe that draws visitors to it, a sense of adventure in its seemingly commonplace surroundings. But Gayuma, in all its good intentions, is unable to keep up, its old-fashioned stubbornness — many, many things in it helplessly revealing a script written a long time ago — has not worked in its favor.
As biases should not always be seen in a negative light, it’s only fair to admit the source of reservation: Cesar Hernando, acclaimed production designer and mentor of countless film people, at 69 years old, is the director of Gayuma, and this is his first feature-length. How can one disregard such valiant soldier? How, in light of his dedication to helping the careers of young directors for decades, can one be oblivious to this time when he finally takes the leap? Of course, one can separate judgment of work from respect for the filmmaker. Gayuma clearly suffers from the weaknesses and excesses than can be associated with a debut work. In the basic, most constructive form of criticism, unkind words are better said than kept. But can this short review be any clearer in its predisposition that no matter how much of a letdown Gayuma is, the writer’s stronger sentiment is that Hernando, now finally coming to terms with first-film hitches, makes another feature, and another one and another one? He has completely earned being given the benefit of the doubt.
Sleepless (Prime Cruz, 2015) October 30, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Jen Chuaunsu
Directed by Prime Cruz
Cast: Glaiza de Castro, Dominic Roco, TJ Trinidad, Irma Adlawan
Romance, whether in fiction or real life, has always been a major currency: love, more than anything, is both the motivation and reward, the logic and instinct. But the kind of love often emphasized, aspired, and admired in cinema is romantic: a strong force that can make grand, sweeping gestures, the overall effect of which, whether lounging in subtlety or excesses, determines the merits, or ineffectiveness, of a film. Love stories will never lose their relevance — the material lends itself to infinite permutations — and those that make a precisely memorable impression usually have something to say beyond the intensity of the feeling.
In Sleepless, in what seems to be the film’s riskiest undertaking, the main characters are not in love with each other. They meet at work, become friends, and eventually find their lives at a standstill because of the unpleasant consequences of their respective relationships. They take comfort in each other. Even towards the end writer Jen Chuaunsu and director Prime Cruz are not keen on “shipping” them, and it is by virtue of this companionship, essentially carrying the weight and implication of romance, that Sleepless unfolds its simple, seemingly slight story against the backdrop of cutthroat corporate work in the Third World.
It is interesting not because it does not pursue the romance but because it does not seek to be validated by it. The reason for Gem’s sleeping problem at the beginning is the nature of her work, but later on, as she finds a meaningful companion in Barry, it becomes a habit formed out of fulfillment gained from it, how the physical distress is compensated by emotional gratification. The foundation of the film is their contact, and it develops into a friendship defined by circumstances, the way they deal with their own troublesome family relations and failed romances while trying to be there for one another, without taking advantage of the convenience coming from their vulnerability. Over time the characters become stronger than the plot points, and the small moments, no matter how predictable, manage to ignite fireworks.
Although Sleepless shares obvious similarities with Shift by Siege Ledesma and Ang Nawawala by Marie Jamora, particularly in terms of milieu and treatment, a worthier comparison can also be made with Endo by Jade Castro, with how employment is a crucial part of a person’s life decisions. The call center environment as a workplace is never substantially explored, but it is presented in such a way that neither glorifies nor condescends to its culture, acknowledging the industry that has been the country’s main economic growth source for more than a decade. As call center agents, Gem and Barry go on with their day-to-day lives the way other workers, who are regarded presumably with higher respect, do, yearning for similar needs and hoping to be in better situations. What makes Sleepless current is this scaffold — the grave importance of being employed, and the submission to the pleasures and sorrows of work — with recognition of things being temporary as nothing but natural. The city shown in its locations is also a curious element: it is neither highly developed nor visibly struggling, neither happy nor sad, a city presented not as a character but as a spectator, the way places, despite the tendency to sentimentalize them, in fact do not really care about people.
Nothing in Sleepless is new or groundbreaking, and this prevailing mindset to offer novelty, to engage in some sort of activity proving the worthiness of creation, has been around only to challenge perceptions. The use of animation in a few sequences may have been disagreeable to some, but one can see it as a means to break the monotony, to render foolishness in the context of boredom, which actually provides nuance to the characters and stirs the surface. Sleepless has a rich undercurrent that can easily be overlooked, either out of being too meek or unresisting, but in truth it speaks eloquently of the tiny tragedies of every day, of the slacker’s desperation to finally be on the right track after so many attempts, and of how some people escape solitude and look for souls to cling to. The lonely will always stay lonely, and every friendship they find is a love story living a common life and dying a common death.
Above the Clouds (Pepe Diokno, 2015) August 12, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Pepe Diokno
Cast: Ruru Madrid, Pepe Smith
Pepe Diokno’s much-awaited second film veers away from almost every aspect of his debut work, forgoing grit and aggression for subtlety and introspection. The years between them may have factored into the direction he has chosen, for the most obvious difference is how, unlike Engkwentro, Above the Clouds takes its time to unfold, bearing a language that is all too familiar with audiences who are used to immersive silence, minimal drama, striking visuals, and spatial dynamics coming together to create a sense of experience instead of spectacle.
This aesthetic of slow, or what is regarded by some as contemplative, aims for the soul rather than the body, and Diokno’s discernible choice to extract the essence and revel in restraint makes a good picture — if a good picture means being left with an impression — showing that, like commercial movies, artistic films also abide by a formula to achieve an effect.
A teenager and his grandfather, estranged from one another, deal with grief and spend time together, hiking up a mountain where their dead loved ones have once had special memories. In a nutshell, that’s basically it — two bodies and two souls — the rest is background and interpretation. The plot offers no surprises, and it doesn’t need any. It only needs to emphasize a relationship forced into being because it is the door through which its ruminations on sorrow come and go. The interaction between the two characters reveals merely the distance between them, how one tries to reach out as the other moves away, and the film, the way it is written and staged, gives them no one to turn to but each other, not even the departed. Only upon buying this setup can the viewer appreciate the nuances it tries so hard to keep and eventually expose for emotional impact.
Yet Above the Clouds, despite the undeniable artistic flair, is carefully predictable. It moves in such a way that its lead characters seem to be completely unaware of the path laid before them and of the emotions about to smother them, as though cruelly they were excepted from seeing the whole view, and the audience, for the entire time, is positioned at the vantage point, witnessing their struggle and anguish from a determined spot. One feels sad while watching it because it is only natural to feel sad, but there is nothing in it that rises above, or goes deeper beneath, this veneer of mourning, nothing that makes the sadness separate and specific.
The death of the parents during Ondoy is an interesting detail, but Diokno prefers to dilute this suggestive element in favor of accessibility, letting it add only to the overall sense of tragedy and not to a narrative that needs more layers. Granted, Ondoy appears to strike a chord mostly with people who have been acquainted with it (i.e., those from Manila) — the way Yolanda can have a distinct and lasting impact mostly on victims from Samar and Leyte — and people outside the eye of these tragedies can merely use art or consume it to share in the grief. But Ondoy, come to think of it, is the fulcrum of Above the Clouds, and an articulation of grief coming from it could have brought forth something more distinct, allowing a more resonant reading of the title to complement the emphatic but unmistakably beautiful final shot.
Diokno himself had an experience of Ondoy, and being someone from the city has afforded the film, largely shot in the Cordillera, this point of view: a boy glued to his phone and music player while on the move, a boy regarding his parents’ special place as something his and therefore feeling responsible for its keeping, a boy unable to know and appreciate the sacredness of the surroundings for other people. This perspective does not attempt to show strong familiarity with the place — it is far from promoting tourism and being an advocacy — but it is apparent that the sights are purposely used to characterize and deepen the story, the climb signifying a rocky relationship promised to reach a turning point, and without this scenic view of the mountains and meaning darkness, the film would have nothing much to show, not enough for it to stand on its own.
So somehow it seems only reasonable that the loudest criticism of the movie from local viewers comes in this regard, something which foreign audiences expectedly failed to highlight, the way environmental neglect is presented, and the nature of the medium makes it open to various angles of judgment. Some are quick to point out the vandalism supposedly tolerated in the movie, even aggravated by the fact that another film, both critically and commercially successful, has also been a subject of similar reproach (and, as it turns out, these two films, in the ensuing chaos of arguments, are being made accountable for their audience’s possible reckless actions, not to mention ill-intentioned thoughts, after seeing them).
This is why showing a locally produced film to a Filipino audience proves to be meaningful. Despite the extreme displeasure that comes with reading inane online comments and arguing with people of various levels of posturing, some of whom have no awareness of decency and diplomacy, Above the Clouds becomes relevant because of these discussions. Even with the guise of being fictional by nature, should films be absolved from criticism outside their cinematic merits? To what extent should filmmakers be held accountable for their viewers (as well as their thoughts and actions)? These debates bring to light the often taken-for-granted facet of film culture, this idea that a work, once shown and made consumable, carries a duty for its audience — the duty to educate and share a good message — and it is assumed that those who see it, especially if the subject is sensitive and misinterpretation could lead to something unpleasant, may or may not be bright enough to make a proper response. Cinema, in this case, is believed to be powerful when something dangerous is imminent, or if it shows something that does not conform to one’s idea of appropriate. This kind of mindset that doubts the ability of an audience to be responsible points at a lack of sufficient art education, thereby the blame easily (and thoroughly) goes to the art being produced.
Hardly raised in these accusations of negligence, and something which substantiates the tendency of the film to romanticize and be romanticized, is that all these issues could have been avoided (or forgiven) if Above the Clouds had a better script, if it had made a stronger case for its deliberate display of destruction. For a movie that depicts trails and terrains, it decides to take the path often traveled and comes unprepared for a long trip, sharing the view but not the experience.
Smaller and Smaller Circles: Sinag Maynila 2015 March 30, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, Sinag Maynila.
Sinag Maynila is the brainchild of Solar Entertainment CEO Wilson Tieng and director Brillante Mendoza, a partnership that aims to bridge the financial and creative aspects of filmmaking, something that most grant-giving bodies aim to do.
With the name of the city in the festival name, it is interesting that only one of the entries is purportedly set in Manila (Ninja Party in an exclusive all-girls school). Bambanti is shot in Isabela, Balut Country mostly in Candaba, Pampanga, Imbisibol in Fukuoka, Japan, and Swap supposedly in Cebu. Their respective filmmakers also hail from different parts of the country, each having distinct roots.
Sinag Maynila 2015 succeeds at offering a diverse collection of stories, and the resulting films also offer diverse qualities.
BAMBANTI (Zig Dulay)
Glowing reviews of Bambanti overemphasize the smallness and simplicity of the film, as though these characteristics were enough to consider it worth raving, but hardly mentioned in them is its obviousness, how the smallness and simplicity are labored to the point of dullness. There is a handful of good things working for it — beautiful rural sceneries that make city people melt in superficial longing, skilled actors who can turn scenes into moments, and a quietness that can easily be mistaken for volume — but the material loses its life as it unfolds and its skin is shed, leading to a resolution that is not only clear and explicit but also plain and unchallenging. A watch gone missing is conveniently used to expose social ills and injustice — this representation is so literal it is ridiculous to regard the turn of events as symbolic. There is no point inflating its virtues: it is a small film that also achieves something small, and the ending, which shows the merry festivities of the town watched by its people, looks and feels like a usual tourism advert, touching but forgettable, pretty but merely passing.
BALUT COUNTRY (Paul Sta. Ana)
Sitting through Balut Country and at one point feeling that it has nothing more to share but platitudes and sentimentality, one wonders why such a harmless film is made, and why, in a world full of pleasant possibilities, an audience must endure eating bland pudding instead of something nourishing. And to think that the subject is balut, a distinctly Filipino food item often offered to foreigners for enjoyment, to see how they will react after seeing the prematurely formed chick inside the egg, the film does not make any effort to be interesting, or even funny. The premise is built only on a decision to be made — will he sell the land or not? — and for more than an hour the story feels obliged to tour the audience around town, in certain places where mundane conversations can be made and the characters can reflect on wasting time. No, it is neither thoughtful nor contemplative — it is simply self-absorbed and unaware of what insight is. Every film can be appreciated for the nature of its subject and the intricate social structure on which it instinctively perches. Balut Country has a rich context to boast, but its idea of telling a story is idling the time away in listlessness.
NINJA PARTY (Jim Libiran)
To be fair, Ninja Party is neither gross nor pointless. It takes on a provocative subject and even more provocative viewpoints, which explains the thread of viewer reactions between appreciation and disdain. This insistence to provoke seems to be its point, for it presents this group of young female students from a strictly Catholic school and bares only their rebelliousness, particularly the temptations that surround them and the difficulties of having hormones controlling their decisions.
Sure, spinning a dildo instead of a bottle is a game that can happen in real life, or showing nipples to each other is some girls’ idea of having fun, or giving head in the car should not be encouraged but it cannot be helped when the itch comes — but these scenes, among others that also show teenage girls in compromising situations, hardly feel connected with a bigger picture or statement. Ninja Party only scratches the surface, and it doesn’t have anything that would at least substantiate the constant feeling of discomfort, or anything that goes beyond the guise of using socioeconomic differences (that overused justification for films about spoiled youth) as an argument for its lack of maturity. Lysistrata may even provide a relevant reference and context, but the film itself has no strong background and dynamics to let the inclusion of this famous play hold water.
When those girls start to act dirty and give the boys some good time, the film presents consequences for them and not for the latter. And that seems to be okay because the world has worked that way for centuries. Having depth, whether explicit or implicit, is not its priority, and this lack of perceptiveness leads only to punctuate the upholding of male entitlement, both in the film and the filmmaking, and the aftertaste is nasty as fuck.
SWAP (Remton Siega Zuasola)
Swap iterates the one-take style of its predecessors To Siomai Love and Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, only this time the film is split into sequences of varying locations and times, posing a much difficult challenge despite the control offered by a studio setup. Unlike the two films, whose outdoor surroundings contribute to the dynamics of the technique and make room for fascinating blinks of spontaneity, Swap has to put up one set after another as the camera rolls. Success depends heavily on timing, and this need for a calculated execution is a magnet for mishaps.
Truth be told, among the films in the festival, Swap is the most likely to achieve greatness — it has the best concept, the most daring spirit, and the most personal story. It is an all-or-nothing risk, and while watching it, one feels like cheering for it, egging it on until it reaches the finish line in one piece. But then a few minutes into the film, a number of things are already amiss. The production values are wanting. Some dialogue does not help the story and only creates unnecessary nuisance. The acting from its competent cast is strained. The transitions — those crucial connecting points that are supposed to make marvelous impressions — are often too conspicuous. These disturbances ruin the flow and inhibit suspension of disbelief, letting the audience notice the cracks and overlook a couple of interesting treatments (the split screen, the radio program, the many attempts at fluidity). Little slugs turn up one by one, from the first sequence to the last, and they eat away the foundation and collapse the film’s great ambition entirely and enormously.
And this is a painful admission for what could have been an important work. Like Soap Opera, Swap is brimming with ideas — ideas that are not fully realized, ideas that come out uninspired due to obvious constraints, and ideas that fall short and end up on the floor. But it is something that can also be attributed to weariness. The whole film is hampered by this overall feeling of fatigue, and even with a clever concept that manages to reflect on the political turmoil surrounding the family drama, sadly Swap limps until the very end.
IMBISIBOL (Lawrence Fajardo)
Imbisibol is set in Fukuoka, Japan, amid the bleak landscape of snow and news of illegal immigrants being arrested and deported, but the struggle of its main characters, some of whom are undocumented Filipino workers, is very close to home. It starts at a point when something is already happening: a Japanese husband tells his Filipino wife to let go of their apartment tenants because of their status. She refuses: she simply cannot do it. Only one of these tenants is an important character in the film — a young father working at a lumber company and raising the ire of a colleague — and he is introduced almost halfway through it, the peak of his conflict providing the climax and tying its beginning and end.
The other characters — an elderly gentleman juggling between his two jobs and preparations for his friend’s birthday; a has-been host and entertainer having a hard time attracting new clients and maintaining old ones; and other Filipinos connected with them — make up the bulk, and it is through the gentle and precise examination of their troubles does the narrative find a sturdy emotional core. The overlap of their stories tightens the relationships, and not only the unseen and unheard are emphasized, but also the unmentioned. Clearly, much of the film’s power comes from an enterprising use of structure — with all the splashes and smudges of glaze and the visible and vanishing flashes of sorrow — and the risk it takes in leaving the stories open, without any assurance of returning to them, indicates the trust in the capacity of the material (originally a play staged two years ago) to hold every detail it has set free.
Matching the strength of the story and screenplay is the scrupulous attention given to making it cinematic. The breathtaking views of the city at wintertime complement the hovering sadness and intensify it, but it is done in such a way that the immensity never feels overwhelming. There is a certain lightness to it, in fact, especially with how the elements frame the characters and how the shots are made stationary most of the time. The images are not just beautiful — they are bursting with meaning and consequence — and this technical feat deserves as much recognition as everything else in the film.
With a narrative that sprawls across the many aspects of the overseas Filipino experience, illuminating the mistaken assumptions and misunderstandings of greener pastures and hero worship, Imbisibol is not without its faults, the most glaring of which is the handling of crucial scenes in the climax. But these imperfections only make it all the more moving, highlighting the heartbreak and helplessness, for the struggle will always be there, and whichever time and place they are set, these stories will remain as an identity that no prosperity and claims of progress can erase.
Lav Diaz: Moving Forward by Going Back February 5, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Noypi, Prince Claus Fund.
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From Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Century of Birthing, 2011)
In the Philippines, a country whose centuries of struggle against foreign aggressors often reflect the violence that the majority of its people experience at present, Lav Diaz rarely makes his presence felt. Similar to a handful of makers with intense dedication to their craft but hardly a drop of vanity to claim recognition, he seldom shows up at screenings and believes that his films already speak enough of his worldviews. His interviews, though articulate and illuminating, are loose threads compared with the sturdy and strapping fabric of his narratives, laid out over bleak backdrops of blood, sweat, and tears.
Diaz hails from Datu Paglas, a small town in Maguindanao, much like the dying village in From What Is Before (2014). His early films, made after moving to Manila from New York, have conformed more than resisted, as one is obliged to do to learn the rules of the game. Not much has been written about Serafin Geronimo, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion (1998), Burger Boys (1999), Naked Under the Moon (1999), and Jesus, Revolutionary (2002) — all of which tanked at the box office — but they cannot be set aside simply for paling in comparison with his longer works. There he built the foundation that has come to define his highly regarded pieces, where the inclination to make deep and unsettling characterizations had taken root.
His later films are recognized not only for their length but also for their span, merging dimension and scale and having the precise skill to match their ambition. The stretch of lives in Batang West Side (2001), Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), Heremias (2006), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Melancholia (2008), Century of Birthing (2011), and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) — shoveling through the heap of shameless political conceit, large-scale corruption, abject poverty, and trails of fading memory — is measured in blinks and breaths. Diaz navigates through miseries the way a boat sets sail, armed with readiness and optimism, his eyes always on the sky and sea. The passing of a storm owes more to nature than misfortune: luck is denied and tragedies happen for a reason. With a god to turn to, his characters understand their predicament and gradually come to terms with inherent injustice. The social cancer depicted by Filipino hero José Rizal in his novels is the same affliction pervading his films, only now, with more than a century between them, the infirmity is terminal and death is more certain than life. This is argued in powerful and searing clarity in Norte, The End of History (2013).
Diaz matters only to those who care to know him, whose lives have intersected with a screening of one of his films, and from then on have believed in his diligence and understood the urge that drives him to tell stories that run from five to ten hours. Whereas before, the concern is about having audiences for his films, now it is about finding venues and putting schedules in order to accommodate them, and such change of direction is overwhelming in itself.
One particular sentiment keeps hovering whenever a Filipino filmmaker achieves distinguished acclaim abroad — a question that seems to act, unfairly, as a litmus test. Is he the next Lino Brocka? This attachment to nostalgia is a distinctly Filipino trait, the tendency to overvalue the past, for after dying in a car crash in 1991, Brocka has been venerated to the point of worship, influencing a wide range of filmmakers including Diaz himself. Although the works of Ishmael Bernal and Mike de Leon are also as worthy of admiration, they do not possess Brocka’s social realism, and the national cinema of the Philippines, for better or worse, cannot exist and persist without this tradition. Diaz has answered this: he is not the next Lino Brocka, but his films, aware that going forward is the only way back, prove that such yearning has come to an end.
This short laudation is commissioned by the Prince Claus Fund, published in its 2014 Prince Claus Awards program. Lav Diaz is one of the 10 recipients of the prestigious prize, “honoured for his uniquely moving portrayals of the complexities of Filipino reality; for expanding and intensifying cinematic experience through his innovative approach to the art of filmmaking; for expressing truth and building a powerful cultural legacy for national healing and international understanding of the Philippines; for challenging the dominant commercially and politically driven uses of cinema; and for remaining true to his art and his intentions, providing inspiration for others working outside the mainstream.”
2014, for most people, is just another year. But for those who have committed themselves to catching every possible screening in theaters, seeking the comfort and warmth of darkness with or without companion, the year in cinema has overflowed in both quality and quantity. It has offered almost the whole nine yards: Hollywood blockbusters, small independent productions, foreign language films, documentaries, gay movies, forums and lectures, and everything in between.
But more impressively, Filipino films have not wavered. There have been local and international film festivals organized one after another, to the point that two of them have overlapping screenings at the same mall. And this is not just in Manila. Several cities and towns across the country have been active in promoting their own filmmakers, offering venues to show their works.
Themes have also departed from the usual. Poverty is no longer a prevailing subject, which can be interpreted in several ways. Is it a reflection of an improvement in the general economic conditions of the people, or a display of discontent with the previous depictions and handling of the subject? Are local audiences tired of seeing bleak social realities on the big screen, or are filmmakers no longer interested in them? Of course, these are nothing but mere conjectures.
More than a year later, typhoon Yolanda has remained a reminder of the most terrible kind of tragedy that can change everything, and it has come to signify many aspects of the Filipino life, its hopes and struggles, not to mention its often emphasized resilience. Sadly, the disaster will forever be part of the collective (and cultural) experience and consciousness.
Furthermore, romantic comedies have stepped up, and a curious indication of this is that festivals have made room for them. Big stars have appeared in small movies, and their fans have shown their overwhelming support. Star Cinema has picked up independently produced movies for distribution, and it’s a good, good sign, regardless of the financial turnout.
But perhaps the most agreeable, and somewhat easily taken for granted, development as far as social interactions are concerned is that seldom do people talk now about the difference between mainstream and independent—finally, it’s no longer a fucking thing!—and even when they do, they no longer make it sound like a celestial spectacle. These films, one way or another, have made that possible.
10. English Only, Please (Dan Villegas)
Let’s get this straight: awards matter; and sometimes they do matter a lot. A huge bulk of the moviegoing public has come out to see English Only, Please only after it won major prizes at the Metro Manila Film Festival, allowing it to have sold-out screenings and exceed the earnings of other entries with far better chances of box-office success. Its failure to win best picture has also sparked interest: how can a film receive recognition for its script, acting, and direction without winning the top prize? Over the years, the MMFF has always had its share of mysteries.
Yes, it can be done; and it can be done without making nasty compromises. English Only, Please can be appreciated better in the context of the festival, which has long been a source of scorn for some viewers, but one can’t disregard the fact that word-of-mouth promotion works only if the film being supported is more than acceptable—it has to be thoroughly, categorically, and out-and-out good for the standard moviegoer. Dan Villegas, a competent cinematographer himself, is able to vanish in his own film, so light his touch that the viewer notices his absence, for how can the film move with such grace and ease without someone orchestrating the whole thing? There is more than one answer, but the only one that can cover everything now is the most beautiful surprise of the year: Jennylyn Mercado.
9. Esoterika: Maynila (Elwood Perez)
Only the pompous, stiff, and humorless will not enjoy Esoterika, Elwood Perez’s depiction of Manila on acid. It moves restlessly with almost no regard for conventional continuity, waving this wicked and outrageous Polaroid of the city that leaves no room for the audience to argue: only to giggle, snort, and chortle. It is a triumph of mad filmmaking: sequence after sequence, the confusion leads to laughter, and this amusement lets the viewer excuse the film’s obvious flaws for practical reasons. Ronnie Liang carries the role with consistent gullibility and in numerous instances miscarries it without warning: he has the exact mix of innocence and ignorance to match his comely face and sculpted body, his physicality exploited to absurd effect. Now 70 years old, Perez has made some of the most irreverently pleasurable movies of the 70s and 80s that can astound even audiences of today, and with Esoterika he shows that his skill hasn’t aged—his impudence has always been a gift.
8. Barber’s Tales (Jun Robles Lana)
It is not an exaggeration to say that Barber’s Tales seems out of place in the landscape of local cinema in 2014. That’s quite telling, to say the least, and a curious point of discussion. Not many directors today tell their stories in this manner any more, nor exhibit this kind of showmanship that bears no intention to be sharp or clever. Diluted in too much dialogue, it holds no alarms and surprises: it is compelling in its predictability. Jun Lana dedicates Barber’s Tales to Marilou Diaz-Abaya, his mentor and inspiration, and her influence is unmistakable: the dramatic time disappears into the milieu and historical context, carried by a submissive protagonist awakened by social struggle and injustice. The result is a mature and modest work that sweeps the viewer whenever it sighs and shrugs.
7. Lorna (Sigrid Andrea Bernardo)
What resonates clearly after seeing Lorna is that it is not about a woman getting to grips with old age and feeling dissatisfied with her life but the pains of being single and alone in general—the sting of isolation, the prospect of dying without a hand to hold, and the grief of not being good enough to be loved passionately in return. Lorna’s life is seldom interesting—her two friends are not always there to make her feel that the world is kind and colorful—and Sigrid Bernardo underlines this tedium, the dull sight and sound of every day, and puts her in situations that bare her bitterness, no matter how reasonable may it be. There is that lovely touch of theater that pulls the film out of the dumps whenever it tends to indulge, the delight of having the opportunity of shooting someone to free oneself, the freedom to just stop ugly things from happening, and these sequences cause the poignant moments to linger long enough to touch each other’s crest. As Lorna, Shamaine Buencamino makes the audience feel not only the depth of the ocean but also all the islands in it so far away from one another, delivering a character of many shades and textures, likable and unlikable at the same time. She is eternal sunshine, and Lav Diaz is the spotless mind.
6. Mariquina (Milo Sogueco)
Mariquina puts the city and the shadow of its once illustrious shoe industry in the periphery in favor of a family drama that can’t seem to contain itself despite the years. Domestic woes are set aside and reappear without warning, revealing certain wounds, inflicted on various layers of skin, that refuse to heal. The past is a bitch, Jerrold Tarog and Milo Sogueco insist, and this bitch holds the film together, allowing the long-withheld ache to either rupture (loud and messy) or kill its keeper (quiet and piercing). With its ambition and the tenacity to achieve it, the weight of the unseen and unspoken carried and released, and the actors that come jointly with spectacular force, Mariquina explodes in several places and offers a rewarding closure.
5. Gusto nang Umuwi ni Joy (Jan Tristan Pandy)
There is a quick scene in this quiet but affecting documentary where Joy, an undocumented Filipino domestic helper in the U.K., walks a dog, picks up its poop on the sidewalk, and puts it inside a plastic bag. It is shown without drama, perhaps even without sympathy, for this is only a small and negligible aspect of her everyday life in a foreign land where she has labored for six years, nothing compared with the loneliness and anxieties eating her from time to time. She is comforted only by the pictures and messages sent to her through Viber. The voices of her husband and children and the sight of her grandson ease her homesickness as she performs her housekeeping and babysitting duties.
Jan Tristan Pandy follows Joy as she tries to secure a work visa and make her stay legal, permitting her to return home without risking her employment. But the odds are not in her favor, and she is at the mercy of institutions that care so little for her, if they even do at all. He hardly focuses on strong emotions—the high points of the film are levelheaded sentiments, natural reactions to distress and disappointment—and this low-key treatment lets the viewers see Joy from afar, how her work conditions, except for her status, are far from bad, how those years in careful “hiding” have given her family a comfortable life, how she finds worth and hope in modest deeds, how tolerant and accepting she has become. Pandy depicts her with neither warmth nor detachment, for Joy does not represent anything except herself. This document of her life, both sober and somber, becomes much sadder the moment it finds a fitting conclusion.
4. She’s Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina)
What’s more telling about She’s Dating the Gangster is not the ability of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla to deliver the sweeping magic expected of them, nor the skill of Cathy Garcia-Molina to explore newer sensations and spaces in romantic comedies, but how it has managed to shed light on interesting perspectives. For one, it bares on a larger scale the generation of young people engrossed in Wattpad and reveals the kind of stories and storytelling that excite them, thereby allowing Star Cinema—the only film studio thriving in this age when the mainstream is no longer mainstream as far as the number of releases is concerned—to take advantage of the trend, driven by its nature to recognize currency in the current.
But this is in no way a display of consideration for She’s Dating the Gangster. Even in the confines of the actual film itself, let down may it be by the triteness of the story, something moves with irresistible confidence and conveys the delicacy of a formula. The silliness and excesses that carry it compose a whole that muddles mature and immature responses to love, making use of the freedom that commercial movies, within the seeming limitations of their narratives, can play with. Kathryn and Daniel are finally able to show that, given a skilled director, their appeal can go beyond television, accepting that sometimes they need to step aside to benefit the film. The brief encounter of Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta near the end is an intense emotional highlight, a meta device that has yet to find its equal in recent years, and there is no better response to it than surrender.
3. Violator (Dodo Dayao)
Violator has the look and feel of a first or last film, something that has been on the mind for a long time, incubated, thought and rethought until it starts to take shape and bleed. This is clear with the calculated, precise, and confident way it unfolds, the attention to details, and the tendency to fill the story with references to several influences and ideas that intensify its apocalyptic premise. It proceeds with both eagerness and caution, conforming to the genre and challenging it at the same time, making it more specific while keeping the indispensable stereotypes.
An interesting claim is that everyone is a supporting character: the relationships created between Joel Lamangan, Victor Neri, Andy Bais, Timothy Mabalot, Anthony Falcon, RK Bagatsing, and Cesar Montano do not depend on each other. No one is leading anyone. Another is that everything is a reminder of anomaly: the cult leader appearing in plain sight, the two friends on the hill, the maddening sound of rain, the dead birds falling from the sky, the photo eaten and swallowed, the male ego trying to be stronger than the end of the world, the devil fucking up. The climax is an attempt at finding a center, putting together these elements in one impressive technical feat, a bunch of men pulling actual and abstract triggers, letting the audience remember those sketches in the first half and how they are more frightening in hindsight.
On many occasions, one can feel the critic in Dodo Dayao guiding and berating him, making decisions for him, but there is also the visual artist awfully concerned with mood, and the result is a picture that overwhelms in the first viewing and illuminates in the second, fully accomplished in both instances.
2. That Thing Called Tadhana (Antoinette Jadaone)
For some people, Anthony is too good to be true, a dreamboat, a stranger too kind to exist. In fiction and real life, good intentions are often regarded with doubt, and having misgivings is reasonable, a completely human trait, except it tends to overlook the fact that some people would actually choose to err in this direction, to make wrong decisions at the right time. Someone who would bear listening to a woman terribly immersed in her heartaches and accompany her all the way to Baguio and Sagada, at one point finding himself falling for her, is hardly convincing: there has to be a catch. But That Thing Called Tadhana has none—Anthony just wants to be with Mace, hoping to make her feel better, and she, on the other hand, would appreciate a sponge, a willing companion who can endure her mood swings. Kindness, after all, can be free and genuine.
In every script, Antoinette Jadaone makes it a point to find a hook, like a composer whose main objective is to create something that sticks, something that pokes at the softness of her viewers and mesmerizes them. She revels in witty dialogues, exchanges that tread quickly between serious and humorous, and alludes to her own influences. The charm of Tadhana is that it doesn’t feel too crowded—John Lloyd Cruz, One More Chance, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?,” Don’t Give Up On Us, BenCab, Session Road, Café by the Ruins, strawberry taho, shooting stars, lost luggage, bungee jumping, Up Dharma Down—all these staples of romantic fancy and pop culture references are laid down gently and leave a mild but definite impression. Jadaone gets away with them because they seldom feel like accessories: they breathe the same air as her characters.
But all this won’t have been possible without the remarkable performance of Angelica Panganiban, she who plays Mace with weight, vulnerability, and vividness, not only persuasive and endearing but also annoying and inconsiderate, a woman who deserves a slap in the face and a hug after it. It’s interesting that JM de Guzman is chosen for the role: not very handsome, not very popular, and not very striking: he complements her to the point of weakening his own character (that Anthony almost becomes a manic pixie dream guy).
2014 has been a fruitful year for Jadaone: three features with commercial releases (Beauty in a Bottle; Relaks, It’s Just Pag-Ibig; and Tadhana), a prizewinning short (“Ang Nanay kong Noisy”), a Palanca win for screenplay, a screenwriting credit and award for English Only, Please, an invitation to Berlinale—and clearly if the prize of good work is more work, the prospect of having her around for a long time is rather reassuring.
1. Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (Lav Diaz)
As recent as three or four years ago, it would have been ridiculous to suggest, or even entertain the idea, that Lav Diaz can fill a theater, in Manila or anywhere else in the world. Just connecting his name with a jampacked screening feels absurd, especially with how his filmmaking has remained stubborn over the years, his ideas always looking for doors and windows to enter and extending as far as space and silence permit, as though he had long been onto something and only a few people could see it. For more than a decade, it appears as though it became a matter of who will give up first: he who continues to tell stories that contain the bleak fates of his people, or his small but growing number of viewers who have come to terms with his demands and by now have the sense to decide whether he’s a hack or not.
Winning the grand prize in Locarno has surely changed things, leading to arrangements that will allow his body of work to be seen by those interested in it, madness as it may seem, for now, especially after the successful runs of Norte across the country, the concern is no longer about having audiences but about finding venues and putting schedules in order to accommodate them. Diaz has sculpted time himself: he has convinced enough people to recognize that cinematic time is hardly about length but depth, not so much about stretching it but letting it absorb as many fine points as possible. Between Diaz and his viewers, time is the main currency, a requirement and an agreement, the protagonist and the villain, something he has always made clear ever since. There is this tired and trite debate that insists on separating art from entertainment, but how can someone sit through a black-and-white five-hour movie, trying as much as possible to refuse the need of going to the bathroom, without admitting that there is actually a spell of enjoyment at work? That beyond the grayness and stillness there are in fact lives raring to come out and one is curious to see them?
The Film Development Council of the Philippines, acknowledging its win as the highest honor given to Philippine cinema, has decided to organize a free screening of Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon, interestingly, on September 21, exactly 42 years since Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation 1081, which placed the entire country under martial law. This historical moment figures prominently in the film in a horrifying sequence, the sound of Marcos’s voice having located the eye of the nightmare. Despite the note at the beginning, a hopeful viewer tries to comfort himself by thinking that everything is fiction; but now, in a clear declaration of fascist intent, he couldn’t deny the certainty of every word that has come to define countless pasts and futures. The reaction of the soldiers makes it all the more unsettling and sickening.
There is so much to say and argue about the sorrow, suffering, and violence depicted in Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon. It is far from perfect—there are numerous instances when the technique reveals indulgence and tests one’s patience, moments when it feels wrong to wait this long—but Diaz, with his gift as a storyteller, has a means of making the viewers understand why this thorough and expansive depiction is crucial, why this is the only way for him to let them feel the indescribable regret of seeing a town and its people disappear off the face of the earth, with almost no one remembering them, why some narratives can survive without ends, and why the appeal of great films is their flawed nature. An applause ends the screening, the theater still packed with people, and nothing from any movie released this year has ever come close to this instant of absolute joy.
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 5) September 3, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Dagitab (Giancarlo Abrahan)
Almost every aspect of Dagitab, from the story and direction to the cast and technical details, makes it a cut above the rest of the entries in this year’s Cinemalaya. Its opening image sets the mood of mystery, evoking a sense of richness quite conscious to unfold something larger than life, emotions and thoughts of considerable weight that put the viewer at ease, alternating between mind and heart. Despite the nature of its characters to talk a lot, there is a quietness that keeps the story steady while in motion, gently peeling its many layers until it reaches the core. No doubt the beauty in the first half captivates: the humor, the temper and indulgence, the marital and personal issues, the attachment to one’s alma mater, the feeling of living there for years and having this particular frame of mind, the horse latitudes, the entanglement of youth and middle age, the demons, the wires waiting for current to flow.
But it is upon contact with this core that writer and director Giancarlo Abrahan finds himself helpless like his own pair of characters, struggling to keep hold of the pretty pieces and wringing every possible item soaked in its sentiment. As he tries to look for a proper closure, the film crumbles the way it is built, slowly, with grace and refinement, poking at softer spots, unsure where to end but certain that it has to remain introspective. It’s easy to be carried away while watching it, to find a moment of connection that will clear all the stains, the stilted dialogue, the blitz of overly conscious UP markers, to identify with the couple’s belief that had they led “more normal” lives, it would have been different —this claim of being out of the ordinary, possibly in a higher position than others but wounded and hurting all the same, oblivious to the things they take for granted—but by all means it won’t. Dagitab is too stiff and careful, too absorbed in the idea that it’s fascinating, and too focused on its subject that it fails to see the whole from afar, like looking at the dark sky and noticing only the stars, not the constellation. B-
#Y (Gino Santos)
Several reviews of #Y commend director Gino Santos for walking around the reason for its main character’s suicide. While it’s obvious that such ploy is intended to produce this seemingly startling semblance of insight, there is sneakiness in its execution, the discreetness easily mistaken for skill. People talk about it as though he were saying something meaningful or interesting, while in fact everything in the film looks lip-synched, and the worldview to which it affixes its statements and insinuations reeks of piss.
One can’t help but wonder: is being inarticulate now a benchmark of good filmmaking? Or does it have something to do with the allure of ambiguity, how, in real life, nothing can be completely understood? Hardly pointed out in these reviews is that the motivation has always been there, loud and clear, and conveying it in plain conventional terms defeats the film’s objective to reflect (and not reflect on) the lives of upper class kids who flaunt their pleasures and preoccupations in a manner that puts the audience in this position to formulate judgments based on their crassness, pretense, and indifference. These characters are flat on purpose, designed to be pumped with air, but even with shape, they have no silhouette. Why create them and give them nothing inside? Why speak on their behalf and sound gibberish?
The Animals is sloppy, but it’s the right kind of sloppy: its transgression makes the viewer feel dirty and violated. The intent to offend is explicit, and it can’t help but go overboard because it has nothing much to say. #Y, on the other hand, is more conscious of its mischief, beholden by this duty to represent, hiding in this veneer of inscrutability and itching to be taken seriously. Santos and writer Jeff Stelton should have known better than pulling the angst card and making the suicide feel trivial and frivolous, unable to capture the nuance of it that is actually universal, preferring instead to show the layer that gleams with self-congratulation. D
Mariquina (Milo Sogueco)
Writer Jerrold Tarog has always had issues with time. His scripts, most notably for Senior Year and Sana Dati, find their fulcrum in the past, in decisions that cut deeper as years go by. His characters are often put out of action, powerless to let bygones be bygones, trying to reach and pick up something from way back. Time is his beloved villain, and in Mariquina, it comes with a goon squad, tormenting the protagonist with memories that form the bulk of the film, events that already happened, and it isn’t so much about seeing things swell and burst but observing how they become smaller, get creased and folded, reduced to this tiny square, a handkerchief damp with tears. Clearly it is neither about the place nor the shoes that have made it famous—Tarog uses these elements only to make the ache specific, to have some corners that will define the context and subtext and limit the course of action, but he ends up confronting larger rocks along the way: the degree of pain can never be precise.
But the script can’t stand alone. For a narrative that digs out many unpleasant items, most of which are bones whose nature has always been to frighten, Mariquina moves smoothly, conscious of every step and rest, and breathes in and out evenly. One sits through it and feels the softness of its heavy scenes, light but never slight, dense but never difficult. Director Milo Sogueco is attentive to blanks and beats, providing his cast with a similar level of understanding of the material, no one higher or lower, all on the same plane, armed with the same weapon. Mylene Dizon, Ricky Davao, Barbie Forteza, and Bing Pimentel complement one another, and whenever they are off-screen, they are felt more, their absence more imposing than their presence.
The presence of Imelda Marcos and the insinuations of a seemingly better life during her husband’s reign are shadows seen and felt on a daily basis that people have learned to deal with over the decades, vestiges of his regime that not only persist in present surroundings but are also embedded on one’s consciousness, inescapable, noticed only on particular occasions, so when Imelda walks in and delivers her lines she sounds like a bad version of herself, because she makes an effort to be real. But even this weak point speaks volumes, something that can be argued with interest. One of the pleasures of watching Mariquina is being overwhelmed by its generosity: how it finds the compelling in the ordinary and feels grateful for every particle of dust that settles. A-
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 4) August 22, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Children’s Show (Roderick Cabrido)
The strength of Children’s Show lies in its interesting focal point—children and teenagers, their youth and poverty exploited, trying to make ends meet for their families by participating in brutal underground fights—and it’s a hook that gets thinner as the story progresses. Director Roderick Cabrido deviates from it to favor a drama that is, by all means, engaging and worthy to look at, but he fails to consider that the viewer itches to learn more about these gruesome matches and discover details and nuances, how these arrangements have come to pass, what allows this terrible system to continue, and in what way does it implicate the failure of many social institutions to be on the side of the poor and help them lead better lives. It could have been illuminating, bent as it is on presenting this culture, the corners that trap its characters and observe them make life-changing decisions, but it offers only flashes and flickers of discernment, owing mostly to writer Ralston Jover’s quirks. In the grand scheme of things, what it is carries the same weight as what it isn’t, and unknowingly Children’s Show tends to emphasize what it lacks. Cabrido, like his first narrative feature, has something in him that his contemporaries don’t have—the frenetic keenness, the eye for grub and grit, the excesses that display his personality—but it will probably take time before he fully realizes it. C+
The Janitor (Michael Tuviera)
A dirty mind is quick to consider that The Janitor may have been initially conceived as a gay movie, what with its diligence to have mouth-wateringly attractive actors play lead, supporting, and even minor roles, their presence serving as its main currency. Those scenes in which Dennis Trillo works out and shows off his shapely muscles, sex cuts, and tattoos, exuding this masculinity that makes the female and gay spectator shudder in gratefulness, feel unnecessary but justified on the basis of carnal pleasure, director Michael Tuviera aware of how cinema is about gaze and the gratification gained from it. Within this context, especially when the audience has come to a point where it looks forward to the next hot guy to appear onscreen, The Janitor works so well—there is brisk dynamics in its tease and homoeroticism—but even outside it, even in the framework of an action genre, it satisfies. A distinct current keeps moving it to the fore, unafraid whether it comes across as laughable or incredulous. The comparison with On the Job is valid, and Tuviera, concerned only about delivering a twist and polishing the surface on which it happens, doesn’t care. Whenever he is in doubt, all he has to do is show his boys and engage them in a physical activity. How cunning. B+
Kasal (Joselito Altarejos)
Director Joselito Altajeros’s preferred English title of Kasal is The Commitment, and native speakers all know that this is not a faithful translation but one that provides depth and wisdom to the idea of wedding or marriage. This kind of gesture pervades the film, whose composure is tame compared with his early works, to the point that even at its most tender and touching moment, that long take of Arnold Reyes and Oliver Aquino having sex, Altajeros chooses to have one of his movies projected on the wall as it happens. There is consciousness to overplay things, to make issues go out of hand and be settled or neglected in a manner that requires a stretch, and these concerns may happen in real life but in film they appear flimsy, almost like a wordy afterthought. Kasal rubs in such a way that it feels somewhat obliged to speak for the gay community, putting its couple not only in relatable circumstances but also in crucial ones, the most obvious of which puts forward their conflicting ideas on same-sex marriage in the Philippines: one is hopeful (and quite naive) while the other is doubtful (and obviously cynical). It’s a film that gays of all sensibilities would be so open to love—for it deliberates a pertinent subject at a time when discussions like this deserve attention, boasting a pool of skilled actors devoted to its beliefs and driven by a desire to approach things from a sober perspective—but it is weakened by the tendency to overexplain and repeat its arguments, and as the narrative comes to an end it’s hard to tell whether the reaction evoked is sympathy or tolerance. C+
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 3) August 17, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Hari ng Tondo (Carlos Siguion-Reyna)
There is this priceless scene in Hari ng Tondo in which an emotional Cris Villonco, running away from home, trips and falls on the ground with her hastily collected clothes. She is in such a hurry to leave that she blurts out to the young girl in front of her, “Tawagin mo akong taxi! Tawagin mo akong taxi!”—to which the child replies, “Taxi ka! Taxi ka!”—and it happens so fast, ending as suddenly as it starts, that the laughter comes only after realizing that the joke is over. That brief moment alone captures the energy of the film, enthusiastic and raring to go, spontaneous and careless, hardly insightful but downright amusing, driven by this pleasure from making fun of the rich and poor and sparing neither of them from the prank. It seems to be built on a series of setups, playing with the stereotypes of the community but not so much reflecting the actual—the drama resting on one’s preconceived notions of Tondo but refusing to show them deliberately, only bits and pieces, random stink here and there, superficial chaos and disagreements for the sake of spectacle. This is not, after all, about poverty and suffering but the humor that comes along with sentimentalizing them, sometimes risking being insensitive in exchange for laughs. Whenever a large crack in the narrative shows or an uncomfortable stereotype lingers, the film is quick to expose it further or make necessary distractions: the audience will always be reminded how unserious it is. But what makes it all the more interesting is that Hari ng Tondo marks the return of Carlos Siguion-Reyna, whose prominent movies are notable for being affectingly contrived, and his confidence to push things over is still there, only now he’s unsympathetic and relaxed. It may not be an ideal comeback, but it’s delightfully enough. B+
Sundalong Kanin (Janice O’Hara)
It’s cruel to put down something earnest and unpretentious as Sundalong Kanin, especially in a festival that is now populated by big names and ambitious productions, but despite the potential of its story and the unwavering will to deliver, the film is hardly convincing. The crudeness is understandable, leaving this air of innocence and inexperience suited to its gruesome coming-of-age story, but the moment the kids talk about the imminence of war and take reckless actions during the Japanese occupation, it turns into a disappointing high school production where efforts are rewarded based on tolerance, the viewer predisposed to allow its good intentions eclipse the obvious flaws of execution. The atrocity of war couldn’t be any clearer—almost every scene is a reminder of how terrible it is, and every dialogue comes across as something lifted from a textbook—except that there’s something amiss in the way it consistently presents this perspective, as though appropriating these historical events only for show, for a passing grade. C
Hustisya (Joel Lamangan)
Nora Aunor’s sinister laugh at the end of Hustisya is a fitting closure to a film that has its share of extremely bad and unexpectedly good moments, the hysteria no longer confined to the narrative but seeming to extend to her personal life, as though Ricky Lee and Joel Lamangan staged this scene alone as an opportunity for her to speak her mind about the National Artist issue, and Ate Guy, the superstar, possibly the most fascinating figure in Philippine cinema, for the lack of better gesture, cracks up after hearing some words whispered to her, aware of the absurdity of it all but allowing herself to be carried along. One can easily feel that despite her humble presence, she is much bigger than the material: all it does is make room for predictable dramatic scenes and catch up on her, unable to provide her with what she deserves. Granted, Ate Guy blends perfectly into the milieu, but Manila seems so designed to welcome her—political rallies, vandalism, disappearance of activists, and religious feasts happen when she’s around—and Lamangan is eager to show her reaction to these realities, may it be a casual look or an emotional reflection. Hustisya is too concerned about accommodating her that the drama, out of convenience, jumps from one outrageous sequence to another, and she just keeps doing what she is told. From time to time, most especially in that scene where she repeats “Akin na ang notebook ko!” in such iconic delivery that audience members find themselves clapping with pleasure, the flashiness is forgivable. But more often than not, when the story is forced to move, one gets used to laughing with pain. C+
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 2) August 11, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Ronda (Nick Olanka)
Sticking out like a sore thumb is how Ronda concludes deliberately, the systematic and calculated way it pulls the story in that direction, and how, in its resolve to follow the troubles of a passive main character whose life is occupied by circumstances that come along with her police work and her difficult relationship with her son, hinges on this strong emotional bookend only to take advantage of the given impression made by goodbyes, the final sequence showing the peak of her grief. There is nothing wrong with this choice, of course, except that it makes the viewer feel that director Nick Olanka is keen on favoring the foreseeable and makes it a point to focus intensely on the swelling instead of the burst, choosing the cinematic over the eloquent, captivated more by conventional tricks than character analysis. Extending the story would entail showing Ai-Ai delas Alas sink in despair, and that would mean a different kind of movie, but Ronda, as it is, bares too much skin but has nothing much to show underneath. Rather than running and reaching many areas, it is just content jogging in place. C
S6parados (GB Sampedro)
There appears to be a consensus among serious festival moviegoers that S6parados is a terrible film, and this is obviously a blind alley, but seldom admitted is that, for all its laughable self-awareness and mind-blowing sentiments on male misery, its awfulness is enjoyable. Watching it is like listening to six guys too full of themselves talk about their shitty love problems over cases of beer, and instead of raising arguments or being fair to both parties concerned, one just nods or grins and waits for interesting anecdotes and ridiculous punch lines. The moment they get drunk, they can barely respond with logic. So they start blabbering: a husband finally comes out to his wife, a restaurant owner finds another woman to love after his breakup, an alcoholic tries to help himself for a change, a seaman out of work turns to womanizing, a junkie car salesman wants to start anew by leaving his wife, a battered husband tries to man up—basically men who, according to their stories, receive the shorter ends of the stick and admit being losers. Poor dudes! Manly tears! What makes it even funnier is that they don’t actually and necessarily hate their wives: they are too kind and understanding to think ill of them. They are not male chauvinist pigs: they are just male and chauvinist. S6parados is a pure cavalier movie, written and directed to parade the sacrifices and sufferings of men just to keep their precious dignity intact, and without a doubt only a guy can come up with that inspired title. C
Bwaya (Francis Xavier Pasion)
Bwaya doesn’t seem to be a work motivated by sincerity. The story is heartbreaking enough—on her way to school, a student is attacked by a crocodile lurking in the water, and consequently her family grieves her loss—but director Francis Pasion is not satisfied with simply telling it. He is eager to leave his self-serving stamp on the movie, the device he has already employed in Jay and Sampaguita, and make it larger than life, more relevant to his personal interests, and better suited to fulfill the qualities of a festival-friendly entry, one that challenges viewership and gives a semblance of elevated understanding of sociopolitical issues. But what he does in Bwaya is waste the exceptional performances of Angeli Bayani and Karl Medina and debase the powerful depiction of a helpless community trying its best to deal with the shit of everyday life all for the sake of having a statement, for that itch to yelp a protest against media exploitation to which he also contributes. What is sick about it is not the film, which, removing the meta elements, is in fact a persuasive look into the various layers of violence experienced by being born and raised poor, but the filmmaking—the insistence on pointing a finger, the tenacity to draw attention to oneself and appear bright and thoughtful in the midst of anguish, and the nerve to make the audience feel such disproportioned terror, showing the infinity of excuses that comes with freedom of expression. There is clearly offense meant and given, and if this is Pasion’s idea of responsible filmmaking—and if this is the Filipino movie that gets recognized locally and overseas for its worth—one can only hope for a more discerning voice to stand against it, and better films to sink it. D
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 1) August 8, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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K’na, the Dreamweaver (Ida Anita del Mundo)
A friend calls it admirable, but another way of describing K’na is that it’s an exercise in wastefulness, squandering opportunities to produce a meaningful picture of life down south where people take pride in leading disciplined lives, where communities caught in decades-long armed conflict nurture wives trapped in unhappy relationships and husbands killed in bloody encounters, where a colorful history and culture is both an identity and contradiction; and the film, instead of treating its subject with maturity and wisdom, settles for the dull kind of picturesque, dipping its toes into several sociopolitical issues just to enliven its core but failing to leave any remarkable impression, capturing only the unexciting luster of complexities and preferring blindness to insight. K’na keeps mentioning the importance of design, but its own is not even worth a second look. C–
1st ko si 3rd (Real Florido)
The title of Real Florido’s debut film rings distinctly, the symmetry and insinuation of its words giving way to juvenile thoughts—precise, succinct, and catchy without overplaying its quirks—and even without having read the synopsis or seen the trailer, one can easily assume what it is about. Fortunately when it comes to elaborating the story, Florido is driven by this liveliness that cloaks its many lapses, and what stands out amid the flourishes and indulgence is his sincerity, a flawed display of intention, the mix of excitement and excess that comes with youth. 1st ko si 3rd depicts old age with boredom and regret, but it is filled with numerous blinks of joy that couples in their senior years experience with heightened effect (chatting on Facebook, fixing an old car, receiving an invitation, talking to a seamstress, constant daydreaming), their lives finding this instant where time keeps inflating and pulling their leg. The film brims with humor that doesn’t care whether it succeeds or not—its comic moments are either hit or miss—achieving a lightheartedness that may be strained but not phony, its modesty both its weakness and strength. All along it prepares the viewer for this long-awaited meeting of Nova Villa and Freddie Webb, building up to what seems to be the movie’s climax, the present trying to overreach its hands to the past, but once it arrives at that point, no magic ever occurs, no sparks, no touching revelations, not even a glimmer of kilig, peaking where it’s dry and detached, cold and clinical, and one can only feel sorry for her that the person she has always cherished in her thoughts is just a beautiful idea that died a long time ago, a mere shadow of a big mistake, a figment of the sadness that occupies every space of her life. B
Asintado (Louie Ignacio)
At some point in Asintado, most likely after the first fifteen minutes, the viewer gives up on the idea that it is going to be good. One can only scowl at how proud it is of its stale stereotypes and trite plot turns, but Louie Ignacio is disposed to make things worse, revealing one rotten cliché after another, until it reaches this laughable conclusion and embarrassing postscript. It’s funny how people are led to believe that this is a story worth telling and filming, because from start to finish it is aware only of how it can pander to the basest emotions in the most preposterous way, and Ignacio is so fluent, his despicable language flowing as a stream, making the shameless dramatic excuses float and their stink linger, that it’s just fitting how it ends in a music video, with Aiko Melendez looking up, as though she were asking for help amid this whole mess. D+
She’s Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2014) July 30, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written by Carmi Raymundo
Directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina
Cast: Kathryn Bernardo, Daniel Padilla, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Ian Veneracion
There is something curious about this tendency of a certain portion of the moviegoing public to wish for smarter commercial films. Although their conventional nature has long been established and accepted, local genre movies, for them to be considered deserving of attention and praise, are expected to bend rules and display cleverness. The lack of originality is justifiable, but when this degree of smartness (or coolness) is not met, it becomes easier and more convenient to find fault and notice particular areas in which the film could have been better, further encouraging this school of criticism that strives to be objective, pointing out the good and the bad and weighing these elements together as though worth could be gauged through basic enumeration of qualities and attainment of balance. But objectivity is sometimes as unhelpful as dismissal, and often taken for granted is the fact that studio releases don’t need to be smart to be successful—commercially and artistically—and some of them are actually successful on both terms because they have no intention to appear smart.
Star Cinema understands this play of principles, for its main currency is context. When its writers and directors are in top form, they manage to come up with wonderful pieces of fluff that make a larger impression than those independent movies acclaimed at festivals abroad, an impact that self-serving snobs are keen on invalidating. Although these commercial films cannot compete as far as novelty, depth, and breadth of subjects are concerned, they touch on specific aspects of Filipino sensibility, which may be trifling and negligible to some but in fact more genuine and persuasive than many attempts at social relevance.
In the case of Star Cinema’s romantic comedies, which have been its consistent breadwinner since the mid-2000s, the most striking effort is the proliferation of love teams, continuing the tradition of fanaticism that has made audiences of various generations swoon over Rogelio dela Rosa and Carmen Rosales, Tita Duran and Pancho Magalona, Nida Blanca and Nestor de Villa, Nora Aunor and Tirso Cruz III, Vilma Santos and Bobot Mortiz, Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin, Piolo Pascual and Judy Ann Santos, and John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo—a few of those pairs whose chemistry onscreen has the ability to create sparks and induce spasms, celebrities whose private and social lives at the peak of their careers were owned by the public.
Frankly, no volume of Hollywood movies can match the experience of seeing the middleclass and the masses lose their heads over these reel lovers—an infatuation whose plain existence is its reason—and this is an identity to be proud of: an instance when emotions become exclusive but not dismissive, when certain feelings (generally thought to be universal) are fully comprehensible only to the film’s target audience, and when enjoyment rests comfortably on a skillful suspension of disbelief. When it comes down to the wire, the virtues, peculiarities, and nuances of kilig are hardly possible to interpret, translate, or subtitle.
The release of She’s Dating the Gangster is crucial not only in ascertaining the intense popularity of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla, whose phenomenal rise to fame is describable only through exaggeration, but also in attesting to the power of cinema to hold magic: that ability to affect and make sweeping gestures that bring about irrational, foolish, and ridiculous reactions. There is nothing groundbreaking about this, of course, but it’s pointless to overlook the fact that the KathNiel fever, as far as action is concerned, is growing, advancing, and overpowering. One can only smirk at audience members responding with rowdiness upon the mere sight of the actors’ names in the opening credits, shrieking and stomping their feet, losing it every time Daniel and Kathryn appear onscreen. Midway through the film, the noise becomes part of the viewing experience, a series of occasions on which a simple close-up signals a rumpus; and making a sober assessment, which takes into account both milieu and material, becomes trickier and more challenging.
At some point, though, a line can be drawn, and a few things can be articulated. For instance, Kathryn’s loveliness is intoxicating: she glows with delight, lights up every corner of the screen, and acts without drawing too much attention to herself or her quirks. Her Athena and Kelay can easily exude the qualities of a manic pixie dream girl despite not being one, but she is able to kill any sense of mystery and irony in her characters, her weak moments outshined by her strong ones. There is something regal about her overall appearance—how her clear skin, perfect teeth, and bright eyes convey such warm and pleasant feeling. Only she can temper Daniel’s smugness with grace, and people identify with her openly: she who falls for someone seemingly unattainable, someone who can be so cruelly distant and difficult. Kathryn is obviously a more convincing actor than Daniel, and she does it without overreaching or stealing his thunder, capturing those conflicting youthful emotions that people her age usually experience.
Daniel, on the other hand, knows how to work his charm with ease, the laziness and overconfidence strangely coming off rather endearing, and this owes not only to his genes but also to his awareness of them. The bad boy image fits him like a glove, and although it’s hard for him to adjust when it comes to softer scenes, he makes an effort to humanize his characters. Whenever he crumples his forehead and furrows his eyebrows ostentatiously to express despair, or when he consciously does that knee-bending grin to win Kathryn over, he gets away with it deftly—he is so used to being forgiven. As Kenji and Kenneth, Daniel is able to substantiate his matinée idol status, something which Rico Yan or Piolo Pascual has once experienced, and live up to a considerable measure of the adulation heaped on him. Those scenes that show him dancing prove that he understands it: silliness is not only part the game—it also completes it.
She’s Dating the Gangster is based on a book written by Bianca Bernardino, first published on Wattpad in 2006. A certain demographic has taken it pretty seriously, encouraging Summit Media to pick it up and put it out under its Pop Fiction series. To some extent, this type of young adult novels seems to differentiate itself consciously from those romance pocketbooks with daring covers that quite a number of people find too crude (the consumption of which often associated condescendingly with house helpers and folks from the province). Their themes and narratives have glaring similarities, particularly with the heavily female point of view and abuse of lengthy voiceovers, but the difference lies in the target readership. She’s Dating the Gangster caters more to high school and college students, millenials whose everyday interactions are dedicated mostly to the joys and thrills of online friendship, hinged on the comfort provided by social media and its placebo effect. Several of these readers, for some reason, have also found the eccentricities of Korean dramas (and culture, subsequently) amusing and worth emulating: the lightheartedness, the gentle approach to things, and the attractive routes to escape they offer. Although Bernardino’s book confronts serious subjects (illness, death, suicide), the sensibility is constricted and juvenile, and the decisions of its characters just seem bent on providing shamelessly emotional plot turns.
In short, the original material may have an appeal, but it’s neither literary nor cinematic enough. Screenwriter Carmi Raymundo and director Cathy Garcia-Molina have seen these limitations and decided to work around them with Kathryn and Daniel in mind, because once their faces are pressed on the roles, the narrative is sure to find its own direction. It’s hilarious how some people decry the use of “gangster,” which represents the childish and irresponsible codenames that students come up with when they are angry or annoyed—names whose meanings matter only in that phase of their lives and are gradually forgotten after it—but it is something that the film itself does not even take seriously. “Gangster” is a hook that gets played over and over to the point of annoyance, but its only purpose is to stay in one’s memory.
The riskiest change is setting the bulk of the story in the 90s, which Garcia-Molina carries too far to achieve something downright silly and out-and-out artificial. There’s no point being realistic in both the look and details—from the use of beepers and playing billiards to the awful get-up of students and the design of the school, the phoniness actually persuades the viewer to make fun of them. The film is too conscious about establishing the era, clumsily incorporating that Eraserheads song, those AC/DC and Nirvana T-shirts, and those embarrassing classroom details into a story whose characters do not even display any smidgen of interest in them. Wigs remain a Star Cinema curse, and seeing them on Kathryn and Daniel is like watching them fully submit to a terrible initiation rite. Cinematographer Dan Villegas enjoys filling the screen with bright light and vivid colors, and despite moving repeatedly from past to present, he maintains this glossy texture that is easy on the eyes, keeping that surface busy but almost weightless, as though he were tempered by love himself.
This tacky 90s imitation, however, rarely feels dishonest. The many decorations in the film only serve to surround Kenji and Athena and are not there to define them. Their love story does not depend on where they are and who they are with—for clichéd as it may sound, it depends on the choices they make based on the circumstances. When those options are laid down, the movie bares its flaws and gives in to crappy turns of plot. Undoubtedly the most prominent of these is the strained detailing of their separation, the deathbed drama, the wasted Rio Locsin monologue, the utter forcedness of it all that doesn’t seem to jibe with the hollow surroundings—since as far as attachment to the story is concerned, their romance has been real and convincing, and this breakup (or its barely credible motivation) sticks out too proudly.
Another concern is the decision to let the pair play both roles, and perhaps the only way to answer it is to imagine it the other way around. Again, commercial films are after the effect, and they are allowed to have these implausible situations as long as they accomplish larger-than-life consequences. And She’s Dating the Gangster, aware may it seem of its folly, hangs onto this device that lets the viewer feel that since Kenji and Athena have not been able to reach their happily ever after because of timing, Kenneth and Kelay, in a preposterous twist of fate as Kenji’s son and Athena’s niece, are there to fulfill those years of longing and distance, allowing them to meet by chance and become close to each other. How else can the audience feel the pain (of the past) and the excitement (of the present) if it weren’t for Kathryn and Daniel acting as reminders of fate and doom? The ending may be a cop-out, the same way that most Star Cinema endings have always been inadequate and disappointing, but it is intended for no one but the fans, those who will watch the film more than once just to have that feeling again, those who understand that love is not for everyone but would rather see it received by deserving people.
After two dull feature-length movies (Must Be… Love and Pagpag) and two remarkable television shows (Princess and I and Got to Believe), Kathryn and Daniel are already well-acquainted with the body language that drives their fans mad, gestures and actions that can set off incredible reactions. Garcia-Molina takes advantage of this, but she also challenges them. By putting them in two backdrops, it feels as though she wanted them to relearn the basics of kilig, stretching their boundaries to discover finer distinctions that can be explored and new flirty tricks that can be carried out to maximum effect. She is a director that can easily be dismissed or overrated, but after more than a decade of sticking to her method and style, appropriating them to a number of love teams whether tried or new, it just seems fair to recognize that she is an indispensable filmmaker, as vital to this industry as Lav Diaz and Wenn Deramas, for only she can deliver romantic comedies that are entertaining, insightful, and sensitive, with flair and skill, with hardly an unpleasant aftertaste.
In fact, it owes to her that the single most memorable scene in She’s Dating the Gangster is not between Kathryn and Daniel but between Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta, showing their heartrending final (and brief) encounter in slow motion, as though as a director she were doing her part to extend their time together and give them a closure they deserve, and with Angeline Quinto’s powerful singing in the background, Kenji lights up as he sees her, snatched by the most overwhelming kind of happiness, the most unexpected surprise of his life, the only bright cloud in his empty sky, and Athena, now in a wheelchair, frail but cheerful, resigned to dying but content just to have this one moment, looks up to him and smiles; he exclaims “Hi” and she replies “Gangster,” and by now everything seems to float on tears, sinking the inconsistencies and emphasizing only the unforgettable: Athena’s crazy cheerleading, Kenji’s dance moves, that wedding promise witnessed by Mayon, Athena touching her chest and Kenji oblivious of her sickness, and his words before she dies—”All the years of waiting, it’s all worth it just to see you today”—the pain alluding to Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, their intimacy transcending circumstances, the ability of love to travel and come back in different form but remaining pure and intact, and time, as always, the unkindest villain of them all, being a bitch.
Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Lav Diaz, 2013) March 29, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Written by Rody Vera and Lav Diaz
Directed by Lav Diaz
Cast: Sid Lucero, Angeli Bayani, Archie Alemania, Hazel Orencio, Angelina Kanapi, Soliman Cruz
Sometime in 2004, in a roomful of undergraduate students, a lecturer started his class by sneering at Lav Diaz. That time there was a lot of talk about the release of Ebolusyon ng isang Pamilyang Pilipino, a work filled with characters steeped in many shades of anguish not far from the despair experienced by those who took part in making it. This lecturer, who also happened to have established a name for himself as a film critic, was aghast by the idea of a ten-hour movie being conceived and received, let alone being programmed at international festivals, and this made Ebolusyon an easier target of his ridicule.
There was no way of remembering the exact words, for it was his self-aggrandizing tone and highly inspired provocation that caught the students’ attention, specifically the manner in which he delighted in his attack, condemning the film solely for its length, the peak of which came when he pointed out, one by one and systematically, the various activities that could be accomplished in ten hours, from the mundane to the outrageous, from washing clothes and waiting for them to dry to the slow formation of stalactites and stalagmites, and his filibustering went on for three hours until it was already time for the students to leave. Judging by the looks on their faces, sitting through that class was either absolute pain or absolute pleasure, and thanks to this lecturer, who hadn’t seen a second of Ebolusyon yet already making permanent impressions, some of them had reconsidered pursuing their film degrees, inadvertently allowing this minor incident to cut through several facets of their academic experience.
It is a useless memory with negligible consequences—an instructor’s display of ferocious absurdity seems nothing compared with the news of a student committing suicide several years later, whose passing has shaken the spirit of numerous film majors, some of whom are present in that class—but it is a known fact that useless memories cling forever; and these bits of impractical and hollow details, always there but seldom acknowledged, only become well-defined in the most inopportune moment, confirming that even meaningless things resonate deeply given the right time and vulnerability. This violent act of dissing and dismissing films without having seen them, bringing to light the brutally bitter side of criticism driven for the most part by self-importance, recalls the dynamics of quiet viciousness that persists in Diaz’s body of work.
Even as early as Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion, he has demonstrated the ability to inflict wounds that feel painful only after they heal, and in his much longer movies this fixation has grown bleaker and more threatening, for between the projected image and the audience a bridge is being built for the burden to cross. The length of his movies has always been a source of discouragement, but experiencing the passage of time is crucial in looking into his work, especially with how such proceeding changes and erodes the lives of his characters, how it observes their gentle descent into oblivion. The concepts that Diaz is so keen on exploring film after film hardly feel abstract or theoretical: they are made specific by his anger and frustration, by the seeming futility of struggle, and by the aggression inculcated in small and large systems, begun and exacerbated during colonial rule, and present up to now on various levels of society, continuing to oppress and eliminate the weak and the poor, to whom he has frequently dedicated his stories.
Diaz has always been on the periphery of the industry, and this position, away from the rewards and restrictions of popular digital cinema, the development of which has given way to a much-desired golden age, has made his films even more distant from the public. Almost a decade after Ebolusyon, he directs Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, which bears resemblance to Batang Westside not only in length and use of color but also in tautness and precision. With the searing clarity of its vision and the measure of significance that lies in its fullness, Norte is likely to be mentioned constantly as proof of his brilliance. It has come at a time when the current political climate is beset with prospects of having another Marcos as president and the alarming emergence of young minds defending his dictatorial regime. In his interviews, Diaz is vocal about the character of Fabian being molded from Ferdinand Marcos—the brightest law student in his class, the young murderer dodging his punishment, the intellectual wrestling with his demons, the man gifted with good looks, wealth, and freedom but struggling for peace of mind and contentment, the leader enlivened by his keenness to destroy—and he has made it a point to set Norte in Marcos’s hometown in Ilocos, the land where the roots of despotism are anchored until present, lending the film not only its title but also its past.
The guise of a linear structure does not prevent Diaz from telling a compelling narrative, but whenever he takes the liberty of sidestepping—lingering over sceneries, pursuing dead-end characters, inserting plots that can stand on their own outside the film, or conjuring dream sequences that raise the narrative to overwhelming heights—the emotions that have once been firm and unyielding suddenly soften, escaping the confines of cinema and connecting themselves with larger aspects of human condition. It takes a while before Norte arrives at a point of levelheaded tranquility, before the bad taste left by the uncomfortable bursts of philosophizing turns into a reminder of horrible things to come, but when it does, when the narrative arcs of Fabian and Joaquin become closer by moving away from each other, all possible exits lead to tragedy.
The weight carried by the film owes a lot to Diaz’s understanding of grief, which allows him to orchestrate big and small pieces of heartbreaking incidents to form a whole that touches every moral surface, no matter how far and deep. Adding to the throb of pain, which takes its time before making its absence felt, is the parchedness of dramatic highlights, especially in those sequences with Joaquin and Eliza, who bear the film’s soul and spirit, the couple whose days and nights alternate between looking back and looking forward, always waiting to avert the misfortune lying ahead of them. The most painful and powerful moments in Norte are those that show their need to live for each other, all the time refusing to succumb to bad luck, only to end up in an unconditional state of desolation in which all their hopes settle as dust.
Joaquin’s story—an unremarkable man whose dream of setting up a small livelihood for his family is shattered by an accident; an unremarkable man who, in an unreasonable turn of events, becomes the fall guy prosecuted for double murder; an unremarkable man who, after seeing Eliza for the first time in several years and exchanging with her a future built only on optimism, unguarded from the certainties of disappointment, is likely to hear the news of her death in a cruel accident (the kind that happens so frequently in the country it hardly feels impossible)—is a story that keeps repeating itself among the masses, among the people who have grown tired of fighting for their rights and are now simply taking it all in, their paths worsened by the paths before them, their fates dictated not by god but by man.
A poor man can weather as many bad accidents as possible—being born into an impoverished family, having to go through life in the most abject of circumstances, being disgraced on account of his social position, trying all means to survive only to be buried deeper in debt and penury—but one severe incident, the reason for which will never be discovered, is enough to efface all his tremendous displays of fortitude, forcing him to give up. Norte openly overstates the goodness of Joaquin, the way he responds to evil by showing incredible compassion, and the culmination of which happens as he reaches a spiritual peak. But even Diaz, who has invested in Joaquin the warmest affection possible between an author and a creation, cannot bring himself to face Joaquin’s reaction to Eliza’s demise, and the audience feels this sorrow in the final scene where Ading and the two children walk funereally, looking numb and emptied, impossible to be comforted.
In almost every review of Norte there seems to be a fulsome need to mention Diaz’s admiration for Dostoevsky, the parallelism and differences between Raskolnikov and Fabian, the hopelessness of their tormented existence and the context in which their actions (and inactions) produce harsh consequences. While this is clearly a remarkable way of examining his work, unfortunately it also limits the perspective appropriate for a much more illuminating appreciation of his position as a filmmaker from the third world, as a narrator of his countrymen’s inexhaustible suffering, and as a Filipino who tries to alleviate the centuries-old struggle for equal opportunity by keeping its memories alive. Extrapolating Dostoevsky’s influence on his films creates an attractive distraction, one that asserts Diaz’s accessibility because of the themes he engages in, but it does not exactly offer the most persuasive reason for his importance. The patriotism that permeates in his films has always been exact and uncompromising—the identity of the characters is unmistakably Filipino, made more distinct by their ambiguities and contradictions—and in this regard, it is only rational to suggest that the artists with whom Diaz can be comfortably associated are his fellow writers with strong roots in social realism, specifically Rogelio Sicat and Edgardo Reyes, authors whose short stories, novels, and essays confront the elaborate cycle of violence experienced by the poor and their great efforts to contend with this terrible reality.
In two of his most celebrated stories, “Impeng Negro” and “Tata Selo,” both written in the early sixties, Sicat brings to life characters pushed to the extremes by people who abuse them, forcing them to break and fight back. Constantly bullied by his neighbor for his skin color, Impen can no longer contain the scorn and loathing hurled at him, so after feeling the blood in his cheeks, after being hit and kicked repeatedly despite his defenselessness, and after being ridiculed for his sorry condition, he gets up and pummels the face of his adversary as madly as he can, using only what he has: his hands and the sheer urge to defend his dignity. Tata Selo, on the other hand, is an old man imprisoned for killing the owner of the land he tills, who, according to him, has terminated him from work unfairly; but as the subtle details of the story reveal, the reason for the crime is the rape committed to his daughter. Holding the cold steel bars and looking far away, he mutters, in an expression of grief that intimates his inability to resist madness, that everything (his land, his daughter, his honor, and his life) has been taken away from him.
Impen and Tata Selo are nowhere to be found in Norte—it’s no surprise that the likes of them are dead by now, in real life and in fiction—but the distinct qualities that have made them unforgettable characters in Philippine literature are in Joaquin and Eliza, who get by through their heroic patience and belief that life, until and unless it ends, will always have a chance to be better. Prizewinning playwright Rody Vera, with the help of Raymond Lee and Michiko Yamamoto, shapes them (as well as Fabian, whose antagonism and cunningness provide the film a livid state of grace) and plants their stories deeply in a fertile soil, enabling Diaz to cultivate it on his own terms. The freedom given by Vera is a wonderful gift, for Diaz, perhaps even without knowing it, is able to pay tribute to Mga Agos sa Disyerto, a seminal anthology first published in the sixties that renders the subject of poverty with emphasis on radical form and content, linking the traditional and the progressive. Fifty years have passed since then and the can of worms, passed from one destitute generation to another, is still there. Diaz captures in Norte the passage of time and change of values in these people, their struggle being the only invariable element, and imparts the imposing scale of adversity committed to them.
One particular scene springs to mind, which, when taken into consideration with the film’s finer details, can easily go unnoticed: Tired after spending the entire day pushing her cart of produce around town, Eliza returns home with a plastic bag of bread for her children and sister. They invite her to eat, but Eliza, who has probably forgotten in the long years of hard work what hunger means, declines and goes to bed. The film moves to another scene, but for some reason, perhaps due to the way it evokes the plainness of life absent from the city or how Angeli Bayani leaves the viewer unsteady by making simple gestures, it’s difficult to shake off the ache of witnessing that short moment fade away without imagining how it has come about—exhausted, Eliza remembers her loved ones as she walks home, stops by a store to buy something for them, and smiles as she pictures the look of happiness on their faces. But she won’t take a piece of her present. She would rather offer it pure and untouched. She’s too drained to even think of this, so she decides it’s better to turn in so she can wake up early next morning for work. It’s hard to believe that this is the same mother who, out of distress and desperation, has once contemplated killing herself and her children, and in the end is betrayed by the very faith she has protected painstakingly, but selflessness, at its most heartbreaking, identifies itself better with thoughts of tragedy.
It’s unfair that there’s only so much a writer can talk about in the presence of great art, but the inability to express and explain every aspect of its finery simply confirms its worth. Every attempt to assess Norte reflects the failure to cover countless areas of discussion it cracks open—the most striking of which, arguably, is the nature of Fabian’s crimes; how the first murder is totally uncalled for and how it is necessitated only by an exercise of will and a mania to satisfy himself; how the second murder substantiates this nihilism and how, instead of surrendering himself, his idea of making amends by helping Joaquin’s family through his connections is even sicker; how the succeeding crimes (raping his sister, killing a dog) are corollary; and most importantly, how human experience boils down to all questions of how. The life and times of Juan dela Cruz roll on this Möbius strip, continuous and one-sided, all ends joined. The film’s title, in what seems to be Diaz’s harshest assertion, does not refer only to a province but also to a direction, the cardinal point of a compass, the traveler’s guide to reaching a destination, and the force that pulls a person to a grand purpose. What Norte ascertains is that all debates on the current state of Philippine cinema must end: It answers everything. And sadly it is enough.
Rekorder (Mikhail Red, 2013) March 1, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Mikhail Red and Ian Victoriano
Directed by Mikhail Red
Cast: Ronnie Quizon, Mile Lloren, Buboy Villar
The past year has been considered a high point of Philippine cinema, yet in hindsight, in a reflection that may occur to moviegoers who often find themselves confounded by tiring pronouncements, validating this assertion does not rest on the consensus that, indeed, a number of distinguishingly well-made films have been released in 2013, emphasized further by year-end lists put together by local critics and cineastes. A more convincing argument for the previous year’s greatness, if one must be drawn to such monotonous debate, is the rarely pointed out but curiously remarkable fact that a string of overlooked films, those who have suffered from groupthink and inattention, provide better material for telling discussions, and should titles be named, these include Rekorder by Mikhail Red, Amor y Muerte by Cesar Evangelista, Puti by Mike Alcazaren, Babagwa by Jason Paul Laxamana, and Four Sisters and A Wedding by Cathy Garcia-Molina. All these movies are obviously flawed, but the mix of newness and charm, not to mention excesses and lapses, that their directors bring to the screen is a welcoming change from the usual subjects of admiration.
Rekorder, for instance, is drowned out by the brimming compliments for Transit by Hannah Espia, the darling of the crowd at Cinemalaya and the country’s entry to the Oscars, accolades that seem to have made it invulnerable. Both in their twenties, Espia and Red have directed acclaimed short films prior to their first features and represent a good crop of young filmmakers who have taken a chance on grant-giving festivals and come out with a finished product—not an easy feat these days considering that the seed money is wrapped in a foil of concessions and compliance. After Cinemalaya, however, Espia and Red have come to be defined by the reception to their debuts. She is able to screen her film in various cities across the world, encouraged by the eagerness for her follow-up; he, on the other hand, is happy just to be able to show his work to a handful of viewers, in Manila or in Tokyo, most of whom may actually enter and leave the theater carrying the same feeling. But to the few who have been moved by the rawness and sincerity of Rekorder, particularly by its failed attempts at polishing its perspective, it only feels right to admit that, with the benefit of hindsight, the small consideration given to it matches its smallness, and that Red, supposing he is willing to be on the suffering side of the art form for which his father has labored for decades, can offer something that his contemporaries cannot.
Although it’s shot in different formats, the changes in tone, texture, and frame sizes complement the atmosphere of internal and external deterioration, from the demons that keep hovering over the principal character to the glitches in his surroundings that he is forced to confront, actions and distractions that Red sets up to make him move. Rekorder’s experimental quality, instead of presenting new ideas, falls into the trap of engaging in stale metaphors and hackneyed juxtapositions, visuals that feel compelled to say something, plots that tend to put things out of focus, and elements that build down rather than up to a conclusion, particularly with the effect of those shots of buildings and skies at night, highlighting the verves perceptible only among the nocturnal. But this is Red’s youth speaking for him, which is an acceptable display of flimsiness; and it’s good that he hasn’t lost it, for the moment the film attends to a crucial turning point, when the protagonist bears witness to a crime and is able to record it on video, the narrative suddenly finds a backbone, and what has started out as messy becomes messier, and its echoes sound clearer and more resonant.
What several viewers regard as “dragging” is basically an effort to establish coherence between things from the past and present, how these items, whether material (camcorder, movie posters, theaters, reels) or conceptual (violence, media, ethics, freedom, progress), are changed and devalued over time, and the people who own and consume them—those who fail to adjust and carry on, those who choose to stop at one moment and realize it’s better to stay there—end up battered and haunted. Ronnie Quizon, in a career-defining performance, embodies a man who wanders between reason and madness, and one by one the objects and thoughts keeping him steady are being taken away from him, Red capturing his weariness and struggle by submitting to Quizon’s delightful moments of self-indulgence. A commanding presence onscreen, he exudes the soul of a lazy, tormented hero, one who’s difficult to hate and frown upon, and one whose frequent plunges into despair are inevitable.
A huge chunk of Rekorder tugs at movie piracy and the glory days of Philippine cinema, but oddly these matters feel negligible as the story moves forward. They provide the backdrop in which the lead character situates his life (or lack thereof) and fixations, but as soon as the routine of his work and his past are established, they wilt and fade. For some reason they come across as distant, lacking the immediacy to make the viewer feel involved. May this be attributed to Red’s weakness as a writer and director or is indifference a prevailing attitude as far as these subjects are concerned? How come when Earl Ignacio, the moment he is being carried away by the police during a raid, shouts about the sorry state of Filipino films, in a tone that is somehow similar to being slapped in the face, the tendency to cringe and look away from the screen is so tempting? How is it possible not to be affected by the nuances of these contradictions?
Nevertheless, the reveal at the end makes an uncanny impression, for, unexpectedly, the long walks and empty gazes begin to add up, the trembling and stuttering, the look of fright and longing, the melancholy of a single man, the detachment from society and from himself, the obscenity of simply being alive. Eclipsing the pain of nostalgia and the ordinariness of violence is this throb of personal preoccupation, and Rekorder, in its efforts to create a complex and rounded milieu for its protagonist, understands the need to collapse, and in a world that continues to pull unpleasant surprises, where humanity rusts for want of use, it seems to be the only fitting end.
*Published in the second issue of Kino Punch, UP Cinema’s film magazine