Friday, October 30, 2009
In the extremely loaded film Butterflies Have No Memories, a bearded man named Ferdinand ‘Pedring’ Belleza is yearning for the return of mining in his town. He worked as chief security officer of a multinational mining company for decades. When it closed down, he lost a well-paying job, as well as his family.
The long-legged beauty Martha is a scion of the mining owners. The family closed the mining company after toxins heavily polluted the river. Their hasty departure turned the former prosperous place into a ghost town.
The return of fair-skinned Martha fuels irritations among local residents. She is likened to the so-called snow from Canada (mine tailings) that triggers skin rashes among the residents. Her former playmates, Carol and Willy, no longer have time to accommodate the young Canadian lady. They are so busy doing household chores or eking out a living. It is ironic that Martha, named after the Biblical character known for her hospitality, is treated badly during her visit.
There is a tinge of envy for the rich, single, and carefree visitor. Some people are more hostile. Pedring hatches a plan to kidnap Martha. His love for money reigns supreme over memories of good times with the family of Martha.
The short film alludes to the destructive effects of mining in Marinduque. Mine tailings caused the biological death of Boac River in 1996. The mining company left the place after decades of operations. Subsequent proposals to re-open the mining site are repelled by the Church and environmentalists.
The hellish effects of mining/treasure hunting were earlier tackled by Diaz in his majestic epic story Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino. A female character from the film admonishes her husband to give up mining. 'It is hell,' said the sight-impaired woman. Indeed, the mining area became a burial ground for gold prospectors and treasure hunters. Diaz will return once more to the issue of treasure hunting in a film project titled Agonistes.
Butterflies Have No Memories contains elements one would expect from a Lav Diaz film. Shot in bleak monochrome, the abbreviated film includes a couple of long takes. The lush ambient sound is also here along with scenes featuring animals/insects. I always look forward to the last two elements, ambient sound and inclusion of animals. They play a big part in making Diaz’s films so natural and realistic.
What I didn’t expect is the peculiar, dream-like ending. It features three adult men donning Moriones masks. Their epiphanic encounter with a swarm of butterflies triggers a change of heart for one of them. The sublime last shot is that of a prostrated young man in the middle of the forest while a pair of Roman soldiers looks on.
Lav Diaz is truly a great filmmaker and storyteller, equally adept with short features and epic stories. Butterflies Have No Memories is his best short film so far and one of his most symbol-laden films. It is a wonderful amalgam of mundane and insane images.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
There is a little-known Serbian comic film titled Who’s Singing Over There? (Slobodan Sijan, 1980) that has a similar premise: a passenger bus, a long journey, a cast of disharmonious travelers who must keep their sufferance. There, too, is the star-crossed destination. The similarities are striking, but they remain on paper. Armando Lao’s Biyaheng Lupa outstrips its antecedent: it's not a simple account of claustrophobic travel, but a poetic, disembodied journey of voices.
Biyaheng Lupa is not so much a road movie, a journey to appointed places, as it is a trip into inner landscapes. Mouths barely open. Like telepaths, we hear the passengers think and feel inwardly, all their psychic activity audible on the soundtrack – making us privy to dramatic irony. Regrets, suspicions, disdains, fears, hopes, paranoias, desires, prejudices, the whote gamut: all feelings and senses oscillate in a steady stream-of-consciousness on this eventful bus ride. Travel has never been a more introspective activity. We don't get the impression of noise: the disembodied voices are devoid of ambient noise.
Lao’s characters strike close to Filipino homes and yet sound not too rehashed. Lao’s light satire sees them as caricatures caught in their funny and comical foibles. There is the man with the body odor who is unaware of it. This is complemented by a shadiness – pragmatic or opportunistic? – as he secretly wolfs down a wrapped espasol he finds under his seat. There is the multi-level marketer who dreams grand dreams of profits but is discomfited at every turn and finds no takers among a busload of streetwise passengers. His anti-cancer merchandise even gets him into trouble with the military.
There is the discreet, daydreaming cougar who is on her way to a tryst with her younger lover. Her thoughts of romance are broken as the town gossip has just come on board the bus. Her wariness turns to slight panic when she realizes that a picture of her lover and herself is missing. The gossip is an odd creature: a beautiful lady who is indeed profiled as a curiosity seeker. Yet her caviling instincts are balanced by her romantic thoughts for the ticket man on the bus.
They also come in parallels and polarities. The young text-mates, one of them a conflicted and secretive mute, who provide the aspect of puppy love. A homosexual and a good-looking teenager are cats and dogs. And this apparently involves thwarted sexual advances in the comfort room. A look into the hearts of a pair of old characters reveal checkered pasts, tinged with regrets and slight despair.
There are checkpoints, there are stopovers, there are drop-offs, along the way. But there are moments when the static nature of the mise-en-scene – mostly static framing of characters with just the dynamism of aural information – stagnates the flow of the film. Lao shifts gears with a song number, a chorus of the passengers with their teary-eyed plea for love or tenderness. Or understanding. I forget. Touching enough.
Biyaheng Lupa may not break new ground in film art, but there are few films that precede it in its use of the stream-of-consciousness as a narrative device. Fewer have even succeeded. Off-hand there are Resnais’s seminal Last Year at Marienbad and Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone, but Lao’s film can be said to be more ambitious. In his directorial debut, he attempts a subconscious portrait of an ensemble cast of characters. It takes some flair and some balls to even attempt it. And Lao has some success.
Biyaheng Lupa, in the end, however, is watered-down sociology, the sanitized fabric of the Filipino subconscious. The resulting portrait is not as raw, illogical and impressionistic as the Filipino psyche would have been. Still, this is one auspicious debut with moments of sheer cinematic beauty. Look for the butterfly floating through the bus, a lyrical moment that signals the uncertainty of this bus ride we call life.
Monday, October 26, 2009
The ancient Greeks invented and defined the term apropos of our everyday fate. Agony. Ours is one born out of a myriad of cataclysms – both natural and auto-inflicted. Lav Diaz’s Agonistes, an admitted work-in-progress but already fully formed, meditates on the Filipino’s most pressing worldly struggle, his struggle to break out of material poverty and the non-material consequences of poverty. Hints, however, point to a more eschatological theme – the centrality or the simultaneity of the spiritual struggle.
Directing from his own script, Diaz transposes the ancient term agonistes to latter-day
Agonistes opens with a grandiose sequence of robust buildings under construction in
These two become so desperate that, over a drinking session, they latch on to a kind of Pascalian wager. Manoling has revealed a secret of treasure supposed to be buried in his family’s land somewhere in Bikol. If they find it, they are set for life. If not, it’s just a matter of a few days’ work and a matter of looking a little silly, perhaps. They aren’t even thinking of that: Manoling is just “tired” of the daily grind.
Quitting their jobs, they emerge in Bikol one day, purchase digging equipment and get to work. They meet Manoling’s brother who farms the land but whose wife Loleng is terminally ill with a lung disease. As the trenches deepen, Juan and Manoling only manage to turn up rusty metals and an old military boot. Manoling’s brother seems content to live a farmer’s life and jokes in the background about a share of the spoils. At dusk, all of them often – including the bed-ridden Loleng -- gather to watch the magnificent – otherworldly? – sunset.
Agonistes is a miserabilist ode to materialism – or an oblique one to spiritual “reorienting.” Or perhaps, their unresolved dialectic. As the almost Syssiphian diggings go on, the crash and crunch of shovels against sand and gravel alternate with the sound of Loleng’s deathly and fatal coughing. As Juan and Manoling pursue their treasurely dreams, they seem oblivious to the specter of death, the possibility of afterlife. Like a colossal god, Mayon Volcano towers in the background to shame their pointless efforts. The Pascalian wager of the search for treasure can thus be read as an allegory on misplaced faith itself, the pursuit of false gods.
Even in this rough cut, Agonistes holds up as an excellent film. The layers of meaning are already robust. The simplistic notion, for instance, of the materialistic agonist (represented by Juan and Manoling) is elevated by the presence of other kinds of agonists: Loleng, the terminally ill agonist whose struggle is physical illness and presumably coming to terms with her faith; and Manoling’s brother, outwardly content, but something else deep down.
It’s a world of lingering shadows, and Diaz complements his classic themes with black and white cinematography. It serves him well again – appropriately eerie and reminiscent, among others, of the work of Bela Tarr. Diaz’s compositions are painterly -- he must have studied classic portraiture in preparation for this -- which reinforces the timelessness and universality of his themes, whether it is a reckoning of the ills of the contemporary Filipino or not. Diaz’s work will transcend the borders of time and space and nationality, our agony aunt for all time.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Somewhere deep in the night in distant
At a crucial climacteric of his creative life, the poet decides drastically: abandon his overseas job and return to his faraway roots, literally and figuratively, in order to retrieve his generative bearings. Accompanied by no one but his sullen Muse, the poet surfaces in Pangasinan, brooding about his spiritual estrangement, thinking he is the last Filipino poet writing in the vernacular amid a welter of borrowed languages. Starting on this fairly worn premise -- the artist in creative limbo -- Christopher Gozum’ feature debut proceeds to a literally poetic and lyrical odyssey in the life of an embattled poet, as he tries to retrieve himself through an exploration of his native Pangasinan, its culture, its artisanal and creative industries.
Will the poet recover the heartland that underpins his creative spirit? What illuminations and epiphanies are in store for him? The poet journeys from town to town, Bayambang, San Carlos, Lingayen, among others, his destinations dictated by the salient features and textures of Pangansinan: the Agno River, its plentiful rice paddies, San Roque Dam, the baroque edifice of the provincial capitol, the brick makers, clay pot factories, the bagoong industries, the metalworks specializing in cleavers.
Anacbanua complements what the camera sees with fighting words and poetry. The first Filipino film to be shot entirely in Pangasinense, the soundtrack is a groundswell of sonnets and villanelles (the fiery an-long of Pangasinense poet Santiago Villafania) as though to document the creative and spiritual struggle and resurgence of the poet and the tempering sway of the Muse. Pangasinense has never sounded so fierce and fascinating, sacred and earthy.
There is a mystical and metaphysical edge to how the journey influences the poet. His Christian background, for instance, seems to make him confess to his sense of sin, his affinity with the fallen angel. His Muse in the meantime is impelled to make ritual offerings at the
Director Gozum's experimentalism, thankfully, eclipses the didactic and overly hortatory summation of Villafania's poetry at the end. The director's eye for the poetic seems attuned to the work of visual stylists like Sergei Paradjanov (tableaux vivant compositions) and Bela Tarr (the textural qualities, the tactility of the images, and the monochromatic photography). The film's imagery forms a disparate diversity that ultimately finds cohesion in their theme of renewal, regeneration and creation.
Tonight, at the 2009 Cinemanila International Film Festival Awards, Christopher Gozum marked his feature debut with an auspicious bang: Anacbanua won the Lino Grand Prize, the grand prize for the Digital Lokal category, besting five other entries including Armando Lao’s Biyaheng Lupa. The director, who conceived, shot and performed practically all aspects of post-production, made it a sweet double by bagging the best director award. It’s a pity he is not here but in faraway
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Anacbanua (Christopher Gozum, 2009)
Not a narrative film at all, and fortunately so. This is one fierce piece of memorable filmmaking -- a successful experiment in film form that has kinship with the work of film poets like Sergei Paradjanov. Anacbanua concerns a young Filipino poet, based in distant
Dolores (Lito Casaje, 2009)
Dolores is a pubescent girl on the verge of womanhood. She is beginning to attract the libidinal eyes of men, no wronger than the men in her family. Dolores. Dolours. Sadnesses? Or perhaps Dolores Haze. Lolita. That Humbert Humbert nymphet. Unfortunately the similarity with the Nabokov classic ends right there. Everything goes downhill from here to the abyss of bathos. Alas, if only the filmmakers had the mind to follow the time-honored tradition of adapting literature. No such luck. Director Casaje terms his picture as a “coming-of-age” film, an ironic misnomer as the title character doesn’t even live to grow up from loss of innocence and the end of childhood. What we get instead is unintended comedy, about beady-eyed old men and a shell-shocked young girl. Before the jig is up, there is a long trail of dead, and we can’t help treating it with laughter.
Avoid at all costs.
Iliw (Bona Fajardo, 2009)
Set in Japanese-occupied Vigan, parts in
Passable, commercially viable fare.
Ang Beerhouse (Jon Red, 2009)
For the last few decades in Philippine commercial cinema, the beerhouse has become a common fixture in action films. An action film is not complete, it seems, without a shootout or a brawl at a beerhouse. There is always a fight by alcohol-addled men for the attentions of the establishment’s women. In Jon Red’s Ang Beerhouse, the violence may have been tempered but the dive is no less cleaned up: unscrupulous operators lurk in the background. The titular beerhouse is where men spend their hard-earned money and this is where love blossoms between one of its dancers and the poor man who sells street food across the street. But Ang Beerhouse is a sprawling mess, self-indulgent, too drawn out, offers nothing new, and the conflicts are artificial. But stay tuned, hot-blooded males: you will be rewarded at the end with the ample offerings of Gwen Garci. This is a beerhouse after all.
Worth a few laughs and titillating moments, but neglible.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I envy those people who have experienced seeing the Laranas film on the big screen. It must have been a swell time for those lucky moviegoers. The movie made a huge impression on me even if I just saw it on a medium-sized television set.
I love the mood-setting opening scenes with shots of empty halls and spiral stairways. The sound effects heighten the chill factor. I adore the suspenseful set-pieces such as the initial appearance of Pinky (Angel Locsin) and the tormenting of Pinky by a malevolent spirit inside the vacant unit.
The visually and aurally stunning chiller asks the question: What is more horrifying, a plethora of ghost apparitions or the specter of domestic violence?
What if both haunt you every night?
That is the problem facing Marvin (Richard Gutierrez) in his recently purchased condominium unit. Every night, he hears a couple fighting across the hall. The bloodcurdling screams of the wife pierces through his room. Even if he wants to intervene, he is afraid of the wife’s husband, a policeman. The sleep-deprived young man complains to the caretaker.
Marvin learns the truth about the family living in the room down the hallway. They are somehow connected with the ghosts that appear in his unit. A fateful close encounter with the couple convinces him to leave the place.
Sigaw was recently remade into an American film titled The Echo, which was also directed by Yam Laranas. Actress Iza Calzado reprises her award-winning role as the maltreated wife in the latter film. With Laranas and Calzado back on board, I will surely watch the American remake in a movie house. This is the next best thing to experiencing Sigaw on the big screen.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Eaten, beaten, kidnapped, murdered -- dogs seem to run the gamut of misfortunes in Bong Joon-ho's Barking Dogs Never Bite. Cruel? Moviegoer, take heart: with some strategic and judicious editing, Barking Dogs is a film that keeps animal cruelty to a minimum. Animals figure peripherally here. Man remains the primary subject. As a black comedy, it may barely qualify, despite what might be its potentially polemical imagery.
Writer-director Bong Joon-ho references the sorry plight of dogs in order to allegorize the abusive deeds of men towards fellow men. What we do to dogs is how we act at home, in the workplace, and in society in general. But Bong refrains from making didactic pronouncements. We simply get to watch characters made neurotic and psychically demoralized by depersonalizing forces in society. We learn of them almost by second hand : The government that shortchanges its retiring employees; the college dean who accepts bribes; the building contractors who have erected a substandard residential complex; the teachers who pay their way to better careers: all these supposedly respectable cornerstones of society.
Barking Dogs Never Bite mostly takes place in the aforementioned apartment complex. Yun-Ju, an assistant professor who is vacillating between doing nothing or bribing his way to full professorship, must also contend with his pregnant wife’s henpecking. There is also the nagging and incessant barking of a dog somewhere in the building. Locating it, he nervously goes about disposing it. He ends up stashing the dog in the building’s basement, where the maintenance man ultimately finds it, presumably butchers it and cooks it.
This touches off a series of canine disappearances, and the neighborhood soon blooms with posters of lost dogs. Hyun-Nam, a lowly bookkeeper who works for the city and who dreams of heroism, immediately investigates after witnessing a dog being thrown off a building. The heart of the film, she is closer to catching the culprit than she realizes.
If one believes stereotypes, Koreans are redoubtable and fanatical dog-eaters. Dogs are known to be brutalized in painful rituals before they are finally cooked. Fear and pain aroused in them, superstition says, makes their meat a better, tastier delicacy. Barking Dogs hints at the popularity of dog-eating among Koreans, but does so in discreet and comical ways. But as good satires go, those who seem respectable are worse. Even then, director Bong never makes absolute moral judgments. His film concludes on a peaceful, lyrical note, as if to reconcile the world of good and evil.
What the film bequeaths to us, meanwhile, is a story well told. Bong’s narrative gifts draw on a good mix of genres: comedy, suspense and drama, all in calibrated doses. In succeeding films like Memories of Murder and The Host, Bong would go from strength to strength utilizing these self-same virtues: his visual and narrative ambidexterity allowing his films to defy categorization. Early in his career, he has demonstrated a maturity that few directors achieve in a lifetime. Memories of Murder may be his best so far, but Barking Dogs is a worthy feather in his cap.
Early, crucial scenes feature parents reminding their kids about the value of prayers. This emphasis on religiosity also shows up in the use of locations such as the local churches in Quiapo and Bohol. Other prominent tourist spots highlighted in the film are Bohol’s Chocolate Hills, Hinagdanan Cave, and Loboc River.
The beauty of the local beaches is complemented by the good-looking pair of Aljur Abrenica and Kris Bernal. The two youngsters register well on the big screen. However, Abrenica looks awkward in his dramatic scenes. His nicely-sculpted but bulky-looking body gives the impression that there is always a misplaced hanger up his shirt. He had a hard time portraying vulnerability onscreen.
The story and directing should have been given the same amount of loving care as the scintillating camerawork. Incredulities and inanities mar the story of a mother and her son who fled to Bohol to start life anew. The scenes showing characters falling over bodies of water are crudely staged.
Just when I was about to give up on this run-of-the-mill romance film, it surprises me with a satisfying ending. It wasn't because the young lovers got together again. The trigger behind their reunion is the one that caught my fancy.
The heartfelt ending is set in a church. In a scene that recalls the early scenes, we see a family member reminding a loved one about the importance of sacraments. It is the wedding day of Steph Luzano (Bernal). There is no sparkle in her eyes. Steph’s brother-priest reminds her that there is still time to back out. And, back out she did.
For a change, it is nice to see a scene highlighting the importance of the sacrament of marriage. However, it is a pity that the scene had to be in a pedestrian film that is nothing more than a travelogue movie for Bohol.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Nominated for the Golden Palm at
Old Boy proffers little food for thought. Here, however, revenge can be as sophisticated as it is envenomed – a revenge recollected in tranquility, a revenge constructed like a three-act drama. The object of this intricate vendetta is Oh Dae-su, a middle-aged family man, who is mysteriously kidnapped and imprisoned in a room for 15 years, framed as his wife’s murderer, and released just as mysteriously. All we are given to see is a short sequence as the film opens of Oh Dae-su at a police station, a boisterous man when he is drunk, and little else. Oh Dae-su, in turn, feels a blind fury against his mysterious jailer: what else consumes him but revenge? What he doesn’t realize is that the vendetta against him is just beginning, everything has been choreographed in advance, and he has no idea who is behind it, let alone the reasons for it.
Judging by this film alone, Park Chan-wook is a storyteller who knows his craft. He has adapted a popular manga with aplomb and made it his own. Old Boy, which also references classic literature like The Count of Monte Cristo, bristles with well-titrated doses of suspense, mystery, and action. Well-paced and incident-packed, it builds with a dramatic crescendo into a shocking climax.
Engrossing are the scenes in Oh Dae-su’s prison room where he is fed and groomed while he is sedated with Valium gas. Attempts at escape go nowhere (shades of Le Trou and A Man Escaped); television becomes his lone window on the world. He devotes much of his time to improving his fighting skills, which will serve him outside in good stead. Once released, Oh Dae-su searches in vain for his daughter, his one remaining family; but what fuels him is the search for his abductor, efforts that would prove bloody and violent. But the avenger’s identity soon becomes apparent. Meanwhile, Oh Dae-su has fallen in love with a young sushi cook named Mido, who looks strangely familiar.
Old Boy’s perverse insight into human nature is touched upon but unfortunately not sufficiently mined. Consuming oneself with visions of revenge may be unfortunate and self-destrucitve according to Sir Francis Bacon, but Old Boy imparts it another spin. Revenge can act as a raison d’etre for those who harbor it. It is a passion that can breathe life into men and in old Boy, it is an obsession that can keep one alive.
The failure of Old Boy is the lack of plausibility of the motive for revenge. The avenger’s identity comes out of left field, someone almost completely unknown. This is probably the fault of the original material that has been slavishly adapted. The reason for the revenge is ultimately juvenile, in more ways than one, and forfeits whatever chance Old Boy could have had in fashioning a modernist statement.
Old Boy, currently being remade by Steven Spielberg for 2010, is the film that burst the Korean New Wave bubble for me. If its triumph in
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Lola is a daunting, demanding, but ultimately rewarding film. If Mendoza kept you on the edge of your seat with the suspense-chiller Kinatay; then this time around, Mendoza will make you teary-eyed throughout the heavy drama movie.
The mood is drab, funereal, and quite depressing really. The heartbreaking plight of the elderly, prisoners, and impoverished people is too much to take. Think in terms of the gloomy aftermath of tropical storm Ondoy. The worst flooding in the Philippines since 1967 resulted in the deaths of hundreds and displacement of thousands of families. But, amidst all the dreariness, the extraordinary resilience of the Filipinos shines through. Bayanihan spirit will help our countrymen get through this crisis.
Lola highlights that type of resiliency and indefatigable spirit inherent in Filipinos. The Mendoza film features two grandmothers who’ve probably encountered and weathered all types of crisis and troubles. The two senior citizens are linked together by a homicide-robbery case. Lola Josefa ‘Sepa’ Quimpo (Anita Linda) lost her grandson in the incident. Lola Purificacion Burgos’ grandson Mateo is the suspect in the killing.
Adversity brings out the best in Filipinos. The elders (brilliantly acted by veteran actresses Linda and Rustica Carpio) will do anything for their family members. Lola Sepa mortgages her pension card in order to raise money for the funeral service. On the other hand, Lola Puring pawns television, and mortgages her property to amass funds for a possible amicable settlement. However, extreme crisis also brings out the worst in the Filipino. Lola Puring resorts to shortchanging buyers of vegetables to raise precious money.
The funeral procession on the inundated streets of Malabon is destined to be an iconic Mendoza moment. We see Lola Sepa, family members, loved ones, friends, and neighbors riding in a half-dozen bancas as they serenely go to the cemetery. No one is crying. It is as if their tear ducts have all dried up.
There is also a beautiful, night-time shot of a shimmering, gleaming flooded street that bodes hope and redemption. The ending shows the two grandmothers, along with loved ones, coming out of the Hall of Justice. They have overcome the latest problems that life has thrown at them. Drawing strength from family members, they are ready once more to wade through life’s joys and sorrows.
Lola will open the 11th Cinemanila International Film Festival, which runs October 15-25, 2009 at the Market! Market! Cinemas in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig. Opening night is by invitation only. Check the Cinemanila website for more information