Biyaya ng Lupa is my favorite local film and my pick for the best Filipino film of the twentieth century. Fifty years ago, this excellent LVN production premiered in theaters as a Christmas presentation. It was the third film of Rosa Rosal and Tony Santos to gain critical acclaim. The duo was earlier paired in the neorealist Anak Dalita and the sea adventure film Badjao.
There are lots of things to like in this agrarian melodrama. The film features Rosa Rosal at her best. The direction and screenplay are top-notch. The pacing is fast. And, the ensemble acting is one of the best I've seen in local cinema.
When I told my mother that I adore Rosa Rosal's performance in this movie, she countered that movie fans hated Rosal way back then. The sexy actress portrayed contravida roles so convincingly that she incurred the wrath of moviegoers. It is a good thing that the LVN head honcho gave her lead roles in the studio’s prestige movies. These roles showed her acting skills to the fullest. Biyaya ng Lupa nearly gave her the Best Actress Award at the Asian Film Festival. The film remains her favorite among all of her movies.
Rosa Rosal portrayed Maria, a provincial lass blissfully married to Jose (Tony Santos). They plant lansones seedlings all over their sprawling lot. They foresee the orchard as key to a bountiful future. Years later, the couple is blessed with children. Director Manuel Silos tracked the expansion of the family by showing the growth of the lansones from a mere seedling to a sapling until it grew into a mature tree. This brilliant device was a marked improvement over the stale ripping of calendar pages to show passage of time.
I love the briskness of the film. It felt like an adventure movie. The spare Bressonian-like editing tells the story efficiently by eliminating dull moments. The anxiety and excitement of expectant father Jose is captured in a thrilling manner. We see him running from one house to another. The rapid editing and lively music played a big part in making the scene effective.
The screenplay by Celso Al. Carunungan is chockfull of references to Biblical characters. The presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary is felt throughout the film. The matriarch is named Maria. Several interior scenes show the family's altar with the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Jose narrates the legend of the lansones. It was said that the fruit was poisonous. It took the intercession of Mother Mary to make the fruit edible.
The death of Maria’s daughter Carmen is only the beginning of a series of trials, not unlike those of Job. One after another the problems come cascading like a deluge. The flowering lansones trees fall prey to a typhoon. Maria’s other daughter Angelita is raped by Bruno, a neighborhood monster created by rumor-mongers and gossipers in Santa Monica. A vengeful Jose seeks out Bruno but is killed in return. Her son Arturo, lured by a city slicker, asks to advance his inheritance. The prodigal son, destitute and cheated out of his money, later comes home asking for forgiveness.
The direction by Silos is truly excellent although there are a few minor things that are dated or simply out-of-place. The kissing scenes are more correctly called sniffing scenes. Yes, the lead actors sniff one another in lieu of a buss. It is not as bad as what you think but it can elicit a chuckle or two. I’ve seen this film a countless of times but I still discern something new with every viewing. The latest thing I’ve unraveled is not a good one, though. It concerns a scene involving a repentant Miguel (Leroy Salvador). Holding a cross, the deaf-mute utters a prayer asking for forgiveness after a brutal beating of Bruno. Although it is true to the film’s Christian framework, the turnabout is so sudden. The scene also straddles the line of cloyingness. Other scenes involving Miguel are memorable, especially his courtship of Gloria. The latter, hilarious scenes beat any romance scenes in current local movies about deaf-mute people.
Other memorable scenes include Lito showing off, and eating from, a cluster of sweet-looking lansones; a carabao putting on a harness; and the classic ending showing Maria caressing a plow and grabbing a handful of soil. It is a perfect ending to a superb film screaming for a Criterion-like DVD or BluRay release.
The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is getting lots of bad press these days. The entire nation still have not recovered from the shocking massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao, and days later, we also have to deal with the hostage-taking of 75 people in Agusan del Sur and the escape of 31 inmates in Basilan.
Violence in Mindanao is also getting ample screen time with several feature films and Cinemalaya short films such as Angan-Angan and Latus dealing with the topic. The award-winning Engkwentro, filmed in Metro Manila, alludes to the death squad of Davao City. Another film on desaparecidos and extra-judicial killings in the city is Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s experimental film Imburnal.
Davao-born director Sanchez came to prominence with his debut film Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other). He utilized an unconventional way of essaying the effects of violence on the people of Mindanao. Two narratives converge but one narrative seems to be an allegory. This extraordinary film specifically deals with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-led rebellion. It tells the intertwining stories of people wounded by the armed conflict.
An elderly babaylan wakes up to find stigmata in her arms. She struggles to find her place in a world transformed by modernization and wrecked by rebellion. The likes of her is no longer given the honor and respect accorded to them in the old days. Long before the coming of the Spaniards in the Philippines, a babaylan is a well-respected priestess and healer. Spanish colonialism marginalized the female babaylans. The latter-day surviving babaylan gets no respect as she tries to fend off a horny teenager who eyes her as a sex object. The soldiers make fun of her singing.
A young girl and her brother scour the forest for their parents. They probably symbolize the children orphaned by the rebellion in Mindanao. The verdant scenes in the forest highlight the excellent cinematography.
A member of the New People’s Army (NPA) accidentally kills a comrade. He hastily leaves their camp and crosses over to the camp of the government soldiers. He is not treated as an enemy. He later jams with the soldiers on a couple of videoke songs. Music as a unifying element was folk group Asin’s suggestion on bridging the gap between opposing armed forces.
In the film, a comrade teaches her colleagues that the NPA does not treat a government soldier as an enemy. There are three enemies of the group: imperialism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and feudalism. The female comrade then mentions two of the nation’s abhorrent feudal oligarchs, the Aboitizes and the Lopezes.
Lopezes?!? Aren’t they connected with the Cinema One channel? Isn’t Cinema One the group which gave seed money for independent filmmakers? Isn’t filmmaker Sanchez one of those given seed money? Yes, Sanchez was, and still is, a beneficiary of the despised feudal lords, the Lopezes. Last year, he was a winning finalist for the poetic film Imburnal. This year, he was the main creative consultant to finalists of the Cinema One Originals Digital Movie Festival 2009.
Sanchez is one of the more courageous independent filmmakers out there. I’m eagerly awaiting his third film. It will probably tackle once more issue/s in Mindanao. Meanwhile, if you’re brave enough to try out unconventional films, then watch his feature films Huling Balyan sa Buhi and Imburnal. Check out the first film and if you sort of like it, then try out the more experimental Imburnal. Graphic images of poverty and hopelessness from the latter film will leave you scarred for life.
Now Showing captures the joyful and carefree ways of a young Filipina in the time of That’s Entertainment, a popular talent-variety show hosted by German Moreno.
A fledgling, and possibly young, filmmaker shares a fervent wish via an animated message. The filmmaker/animator wants to be just what every body else wants…you know, to be a star and to be always in the spotlight. The film’s initial scene cuts to a shot of a spotlight. Wait, it is a series of headlights. But, where is the performer? A precocious good-looking tween named Rita comes out from a closet and proceeds to belt out a song. In her birit-best performance, she does a heartfelt interpretation of Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now. She then segues to acting. This segment is a bittersweet nostalgic trip. Yep, it reminds one of the amateurish talent workshops of That’s Entertainment.
Filipinos are obsessed with celebrities. Several of them join talent shows to pursue their dreams of making it big in the world of showbiz. The world of Rita is a similar world of stars and performers. She was named after sultry Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. Her grandmother was a former actress. Filipino kids like Rita are coerced to perform in front of relatives during parties.
Director Raya Martin creates a perceptive, three-part coming-of-age story of a post-Marcos baby. The excellent first part features Rita mimicking her favorite celebrities, playing street games, studying at night, and searching for a neighbor’s dog. We do not see her cry even if she was not included by fellow kids in a Christmas presentation. She refuses to let her disappointment with a lackluster birthday party get in her way. The only time we see Rita cry is during an out-of-town vacation. It is not clear what exactly triggers her outpouring of emotion. It may have something to do with Rita’s absentee father or Rita’s grandmother-actress. The segment following Rita’s emotional outpouring gives us some clue on what Martin wants to convey.
Part two of the film deals with the black-and-white movie Ang Tunay Na Ina. The 1939 movie is one of a handful of extant local feature films from the pre-World War II era. Rita’s grandmother might have been one of the characters in the movie. There is a scene in which a group of children performs a song-and-dance act. This scene echoes a similar Christmas scene in Part One.
The second part of Now Showing will most likely be a head scratcher to casual moviegoers and Raya Martin newbies. It consists of black-and-white film images played randomly, backwards, and upside down. It should be noted that Martin is a director obsessed with early twentieth century films. He is fond of using archive materials and found footages in his films. Martin may have been lamenting the poor state of film archiving in the Philippines. Just like the excruciating part two of Now Showing, most of the early local films are incomplete and barely viewable.
Part three of the film shows an older, less fearful, and still staunch entertainment devotee, Rita. The nubile girl tends a pirated DVD stall in Quiapo. Her mom always reminds her to be cautious of boys. At the end of the film, a pregnant Rita shuns the spotlight hoisted on her. She rides a bus back to the province.
Just like other Martin films, Now Showing can be enjoyed at different levels. Running parallel to Rita’s coming-of-age story is the evolution of home entertainment videos. From the distorted audio and video images of a well-played VHS tape, the film looks back at the faded audio and scratchy images of the1939 film Ang Tunay Na Ina, and fast forwards to the crisp audio and crystal-clear images of digital video. Another topic tackled was the irony of entertainment-obsessed Filipinos lacking appreciation for film heritage and film preservation.
If you've slept through the film or walked out during a screening, give the movie another chance to work its charms. Based on my experience, several Martin films get better with every succeeding viewing. From an initial bewildering/exasperating experience, my third viewing of Now Showing has made me a fan. It is so far my favorite work by Martin.
The film starts with call center agent Maricel Villacruz (Iza Calzado) meeting up with activist boyfriend, Junix Etrata (Allen Dizon) on October 24, 2006. A group of alleged communist guerrillas abducts the two lovers. The abduction of the pair thrusts their parents into the world of activists and desaparecidos. It is a world of paranoia, treachery, love, political awakening, and sacrifice.
Dukot is a courageous film dealing with the then worsening human rights situation in the Philippines under the administration of President Gloria Arroyo. The film also highlights the work and advocacies of militant youth group Anakbayan and human rights alliance group Karapatan. The latter group noted an increase in the number of involuntary disappearances in 2006. 93 people became desaparecidos in the first eleven months of that year. A total of 185 political killings were also recorded.
Director Joel Lamangan and scriptwriter Bonifacio Ilagan carved the film based on their experiences as activists and political detainees. Lamangan was tortured during his incarceration. A sibling of Ilagan is a desaparecido. The rally and torture scenes are realistic because of the filmmakers’ inputs and the participation of actual activists.
The script captures what it is to be an activist in a martial law-like atmosphere. Ilagan situates the film in Central Luzon and Metro Manila during the year 2006. He alludes to the reign of terror by an official whose surname sounds like the Tagalog word for airport. During this grim period, leaders and members of party-list groups and militant people’s organizations are killed or abducted almost every month. Human rights defenders and social workers in rebel-infested places are branded as communists.
Dukot easily becomes one of my favorite Lamangan films. It boasts of fine performances by Iza Calzado and Allen Dizon. The pair portrays the star-crossed lovers. The film’s love angle is a well-thought out element. Several activists have to sacrifice their personal romance in favor of love for country. The film is marred somewhat by a confusing, crisscrossing type of editing but the film’s gritty message of the need to stop involuntary disappearances and political killings is more than enough to forgive that lapse.
Dukot belongs to this year’s trio of powerful movies about extra-judicial killings and desaparecidos. The two other films are Engkwentro and Bente. These are the films that should be seen by our countrymen in order to understand the growing culture of violence in our country.