Thursday, August 5, 2010

Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song (Ang Ninanais, John Torres, 2010)

The films of John Torres are forever striving and aspiring for intimacy, it seems. They are not unlike an ongoing series of cinematic billets-doux meant for a secret addressee, defying the impersonality of communal viewing spaces. All of Torres’s films, so far, prompt this impression, confirmed by the position of privilege given to his speaking voice. In an era of stylized aesthetics and depersonalized poetics in filmmaking, the gesture of this speaking voice is a rare virtue that should not be altered nor faulted. It is a meditative and reflective presence that is contributory to a cinema of confession, of a persona laid bare, of sincerity. To quote the late Alexis Tioseco: (Torres’s voice)… is deliberate in its cadence but always sincere—and that sincerity is the key. It unlocks the secret to the beauty of John as a filmmaker, but also John as a person. It's a sincerity so tangible, so real, that it's disarming.

It is hardly surprising then that Torres has chosen to valorize a voice, a shibboleth of sorts, that fabled and mellifluously singsong timbre of the Ilongo language, here in his latest film. At the outset, however, the director makes clear (he did at Cinemalaya 2010) that everything is grist to the creative mill, the language being a premise in the filmmaker’s accustomed operandi of playing with cinematic form. Refrains Happen like Revolutions in a Song is not simply meant to uphold the orality and epistolarity of his chosen language(s) but to put a premium on the many cultures that underpin it. It is the director’s most ambitious work so far, as it also attempts to transcend the confessional material of his previous films (though he has been quoted that certain aspects of this latest film struck a very personal chord with him) and explores, instinctively, matters as hefty as the study of native signs, and the vitality and utility of culture in the face of acculturation and other threats.

His point of departure is the mythical island of Panay. Torres essays the role of a poetic sort of benshi who makes an epistolary dedication at the start to a complicit other – perhaps a twin, a lover or an alter ego? – with whom he inhabits the liminal, interstitial spaces within myth, history, folklore and the pertinent arenas of the abstract. Intertitles soon inform us about the oral tradition of the Sulanon tribe of the island: how certain female children are made to learn the Hinilawod epic by rote and by heart, essentially a love story between two elementals who meet only in dreams. This commitment to memory takes many years to master and the child is kept away from society, and is hence called a binakod. Her consecration to her calling somehow idealizes her in the eyes of common folk and is hence mythicized as much as the elementals.

The film opens in earnest in present-day Panay as it follows Sarah, a beauteous lass who uses her charms to perform the ruthless job as a debt collector. But her job entails much waiting and frustration, so that Sarah and her assistant while away the tedious time by telling stories – with Sarah assuming the role of a binakod, and later on, a tamawo, the elemental in search of her love. This role-playing, these make-believe moments are not too-far-fetched owing to the nature of insularity. Panay islanders remain steeped in and attuned to a mythic/folkloric collective unconscious that permeates everyday idiom and vocabulary.

History then weaves another thread into the film's story. We read about anecdotes of two factions of revolutionaries fighting for leadership of Panay Island at the start of the 20th century, while American colonizers try to crush or pacify them. These accounts feed the imagination of Sarah, a welcome distraction as she goes from one job to the next. The intertitles soon inform us that Sarah becomes intertwined with history and saves the lives of revolutionaries. Toward's film's end, she disentangles herself from work, and heads to the cane fields of La Carlota, looking for the man she has never met except only in her dreams. Much like the myth she enacts in make-believe.

Much of the film translates as a conundrum, starting with its title in Filipino. Ang Ninanais may be translated as “the desire” or “the intended,” an adjectival noun whose very intention is left a question mark. In semiotic terms, this film can also be entitled The Signified, whose identity, again, is elusive. This titular referent could be a variety of things: an elusive other as much as an elusive gesture or an elusive abstract. As in much of the film, one is continually kept guessing – the temporal collapse connects the past and the present, the world of abstraction and the world of the concrete are commingled as the epistemological boundaries are erased – to the dangerous edge of losing the point and the plot completely.

Skeptical minds would be tempted to dismiss this filmmaker’s methodology as verging perilously on free association. To wit: he takes two disparate narrative or ideational elements, and weaves an arbitrary connection between them, and repeats the process all over again. Valid, perhaps. What is undeniable is the difficulty of pulling off this improvisatory propensity with conviction, and somehow there is enough sleight of mind and heart from Torres to eke out a worthy film.

While Todo Todo Teros and Years When I Was a Child Outside focus on overtly personal hurts and human failings, Refrains Happen Like can be said to be less personal, more multifocal; it explores conflations (past and present, myth and reality, history and contemporary) and parallels (Sarah’s life and folklore, Sarah’s life and history) of epistemic phenomena, which give a glimpse into the difficult but rich, inner lives of multicultural and multilingual Filipinos. There is a wealth of phenomena at work here, the collapse of the past and the present, the mirroring of the historic and the contemporary, the mythical and the folkloric, the make-believe and the real – all illustrating the complexity of establishing human identity – and perhaps illustrating the difficulty, if not the improbability, of human connection and intimacy.

Refrains Happen Like Revolutions is a film of ever-changing, protean forms and guises. One is never too sure where he or she stands as realities interpenetrate. Torres just manages to weave together an epistemic quilt that reveals the complexity of Filipino identity and psyche, while remaining true to his experimental nature. The balancing and juggling act of this film is a difficult task -- a fact that, in turn, may confound viewers -- but even as a transitional film for the filmmaker, it is a much more layered and much richer work than any analogous film ever attempted -- even the well-regarded Thai film, Mysterious Object at Noon, by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul.


  1. Great read, Northern Portrait.

    I'm with you on the Mysterious Object at Noon comparison --- especially as to how the narrative evolves so organically. This is probably my favorite John Torres, and up to now, I can't find the words to describe how I actually feel for the film --- frustrated, enamored, awestruck, etc.. I know a lot will not agree with me, or you, but the film's a lovely piece of work.

  2. Thanks Oggs,

    The film is just that, a film that encompasses all those simultaneous feelings you mentioned. If I write another review of this film tomorrow, I suspect I might even contradict what I've written here. To me, it's a multi-faceted, shape-shifting movie that accommodates many levels of meaning. I need to see it again as I think I'm not halfway into understanding its full import. There is just something haunting about it.