Sunday, December 27, 2009

MMFF 2009 Parade: I Love You, Goodbye

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2009) - Angelica Panganiban, Kim Chiu, Derek Ramsay, and Gabby Concepcion at the Metro Manila Film Festival Parade

MMFF 2009 Parade: WapakMan

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2009) - Manny Pacquiao at the Metro Manila Film Festival Parade

Saturday, December 26, 2009

MMFF 2009 Parade: Shake Rattle & Roll XI

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2009) - Ruffa Gutierrez at the Metro Manila Film Festival Parade

MMFF 2009 Parade: Nobody Nobody But Juan

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2009) - Dolphy at the Metro Manila Film Festival Parade

Friday, December 25, 2009

MMFF 2009 Parade: Mano Po 6

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2009) - Sharon Cuneta at the Metro Manila Film Festival 2009 Parade

MMFF 2009 Parade: Ang Panday

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2009) - Bong Revilla at the Metro Manila Film Festival 2009 Parade

MMFF 2009 Parade: Ang Darling Kong Aswang

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2009) - Vic Sotto and Cristine Reyes at the Metro Manila Film Festival 2009 Parade

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Biyaya ng Lupa (1959, Manuel Silos)

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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Huling Balyan ng Buhi (2006, Sherad Anthony Sanchez)

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.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Now Showing (2008, Raya Martin)

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.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dukot (2009, Joel Lamangan)

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.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cinema One Originals 2009: The films of Raymond Red

The Cinema One Originals Digital Movie Festival 2009 was a veritable feast for movie lovers. A retrospective of works by maverick filmmakers, Brillante Mendoza and Danny Zialcita, was on hand. A welcome surprise is the screening of Raymond Red's award-winning short films.

A Study for the Skies (1988) is a silent meditation on a young man's futile attempts at flying. He tries out several wing contraptions that are similar to those inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. After several failed attempts, the defiant man does a Vitruvian man. An audacious piece of filmmaking, the film won a Best Short award from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino.

Anino (2000) is the Cannes-winning short film of Red. It is a wonderful tribute of sorts to Lino Brocka's Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag. A harried and hungry photographer seeks solace at Malate Church. He had not eaten in a day. Upon his exit from the church, a mysterious man in black taunts him. ‘Prayers are useless.’ ‘You’re a thief.’ The words of the enigmatic stranger cling to him like a shadow. The next time they meet, the hapless lens man had all been eaten up by the darkness and filth oozing from all corners of Manila.

Director Raymond Red will once more explore the themes from the short films (ie. flying as a metaphor for escape, and Manila as hell for impoverished people) in his latest film, Himpapawid (2009, Manila Skies). The story deals with Raul Lakan, a downtrodden man who cannot take the ills of the city anymore. He joins a heist that goes badly. Armed with a grenade, he hijacks an airplane. He then parachutes out of the plane with a bagful of loot.

Is Himpapawid the much-awaited masterpiece of Red? No. The acting of Raul Arellano is too loud for my taste. Directing actors seems to be Red’s Waterloo. I’ve read critics' complaints about poor acting in Red’s earlier feature films Bayani and Sakay. I’ve seen both films way back in the 1990s and the only good thing I can remember now is the sound engineering of Bayani.

The short films of Red still linger in my mind. These are prime examples of great filmmaking. Other excellent short films shown at the festival were Anomi, Bulong, and a trio of Cinemalaya winners (Andong, Bonsai, and Rolyo). These short films were sometimes better than the main feature films that they accompanied. The short films of Red and other non-competing films (eg. Tirador and Altar) soften the disappointments I’ve had with the competing entries.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cinema One Originals 2009: The Year of the Misbegotten

The movers and shakers of this year's Cinemalaya must be congratulating themselves as the year comes to a close. A fruitful year, 2009, they must be musing as they pop champagne and toast themselves in jubilation. True enough, many of this year’s films have exceeded modest expectations and have done not just the filmmakers, but the country proud. Even as this is being written, many of these films are now making the rounds of the festival circuit abroad and initial news indicates they are coming home far from empty-handed. Pepe Diokno's Engkwentro won the Venice Horizons Award and the Luigi de Laurentiis Award at the recent Venice Film Festival and Alvin Yapan's Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe bagged the Gold Prize at the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival. At this year’s Cinemanila Film Festival, local audiences had the privilege to see the promising feature debuts of directors Christopher Gozum (Anacbanua) and Armando Lao (Biyaheng Lupa) and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see them invited overseas as well. Nor would it be surprising to see them grabbing some prizes along the way.

When all is said and done, the same might not be said of the entries to this year’s Cinema One Originals. Featuring veteran directors at the helm, this year saw a forgettable procession of mediocre and uninspired filmmaking. One came away from watching the Originals with a sensation of malaise: the films were not bad, but not good, either. The films were either too safe (read: too commercial, too formulaic) or just too headlong (read: too enterprising but not too well thought-out). But the coup de grace that doomed these films remains the failure of the scriptwriting. Film critics have often harped on the short shrift afforded to Filipino film scripts, and this year's films validate this cutting observation and testify to the need for improved screenwriting.

If nothing else, the Cinema One Originals this year seemed to dwell on the shallow end of navel-gazing. Self-flagellation has never been so symptomatic as now. And yet, like most of Lenten flagellants, these films open little more than skin-deep wounds, seemingly content and complacent at their exhibitionism. As humans, as a society, as a nation, we get little insight through these films into our essential maladies. The interrogation of our common plight dissolves ultimately into flippancy. These films don’t problematize our condition as much as take cheap potshots at it; hence many in this lineup of films are either comedic or fantastic.

Lahat tayo may abnormality, declares a supposedly insightful character in Maximus & Minimus, the opening film at the festival, a comic film that proceeds to do nothing with its rehashed insight into the human condition, but concludes with a cynical ending. The eponymous characters must contend with distorted self-perceptions amidst a modern world obsessed with rigorous conceptions of beauty. Their shallow plight is telegraphed by their names: Maximus is an overweight beauty who has few problems – not even with her healthy sex life – except that a new lover has given her a reason to doubt her comfort in her own skin. Papu, on the other hand, derives his nickname, Minimus, from his lack of penile endowment, so lacking that he cannot possibly pleasure the fleshy and fleshly Maximus. He is consigned in this movie to find ways to remedy his physical shortcoming, illustrated by trope after trope depicting his failures. Lest we think that abnormalities depicted in this film are shallow, Maximus’ new lover will give Freudians a reason not to outrightly dismiss it. On second thought, forget it.

Paano Ko Sasabihin is a romantic comedy that turns Maximus & Minimus' motif of dysmorphia into the motif of disability. This is strictly for the birds: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and well, you get the drill. Not many films delve into the sensitive issue of disability; but those that do often squander the chance at giving this subject a fresh, insightful spin. Practically trivializing its delicate subject and turning it into a substanceless subplot, Paano Ko Sasabihin, sadly, belongs to this majority. A cutesy tale about two people who know sign language (the boy works at a school for deaf-mute; the girl has a mute brother) and mistake each other for deaf-mute, it is little more than a vehicle for its stars, who are reprising their romance in an ongoing television serial.

Wanted: Border is the film that comes closest to a serious distillation of some of our national maladies. But it’s not so much a social analysis as it is a stylish and richly embellished imagining of a story in the tabloids. Like much tabloid fodder, we get a gallery of grotesque characters -- yet identifying who corrupts whom is no easy task in a culture of violence that implicates everyone. At the center of its black, macabre comedy is Saleng, a woman who must run an eatery while military men turn her house into a halfway house for suspected communist rebels. Before long, the tortures Saleng and her mentally-challenged son witness turn them into butchers. With increasingly ghoulish faces, leprous sores, black circles under their eyes (remember Elem Klimov’s Come and See?), they butcher and cook their victims and feed them to the unsuspecting – not the least of which are their teachers in torture. As the first woman to be crucified during Lent, Saleng embodies the conflicts and traumas of a nation's tortured history. Whether her acts of butchery are the symptom of profound sociopathy or just the outcome of Pavlovian conditioning, whether her crucifixion is sincere penitence is left to the audience to decide. It is best left that way: Wanted Border neither trivializes nor judges.

Bala Bala: Maniwala Ka is a fantasy that foregrounds our common irrationality, as if to acknowledge it would mean our redemption. At the heart of its story is a boy named Amiel, a mute child whose secrets are manifold. He has elemental origins and elemental powers, but he is also a child suffering from the abuse of his adoptive parents. He begins to use his supernatural gifts for good when he meets an agriculturist who has come to the boy’s beleaguered town on orders to investigate the source of a plague. The plague – not unlike a biblical one – has started to claim children and domesticated animals. The agriculturist, an arrogant cynic from the city, becomes the child’s instrument to heal sick children. The agriculturist also crosses paths with a curious witch doctor whose prophecies seem to be coming true. In the end, we are given to speculate (read: the film withholds too much) that the town is little but a playground for elementals who apparently harbor resentment for the mistreatment of their kind. Bala Bala: Maniwala Ka ultimately depicts the chastening of science, and revels in privileging what cannot be verified by it. With the logic of magic realism, with its espousal of the anachronistic, this fantasy further reinforces why we have remained in the dark ages for so long, why we have remained stubbornly polarized against a logical positivistic world.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bontoc Eulogy (1995, Marlon Fuentes)

A fellow film buff and I were talking about the local cinema scene during a lull in screenings at Cinemalaya Cinco. The topic drifted to film critics. Ted pointed out a young guy from the crowd and said that he was Alexis Tioseco. I was dumbfounded. I've seen the guy a number of times but I never knew that he was the film critic/programmer with intelligent things to say about cinema. All along I thought Tioseco was a middle aged man. His intense passion and extensive knowledge of Filipino films belie his true age.

Four months later, I'm sitting at the Videotheque room of the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI). It is the first day of the tribute to the late film critic, Alexis Tioseco. Short films slated for showing were championed by Tioseco in his Fully Booked Film Series. That is what I liked most about Tioseco. Not only did he recommend some truly superb films, he made it a point to share those films via public screenings. The UPFI pays tribute by showing two of these films for free. Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is a Brechtian film about the ongoing struggle of working-class people in the United States. It is a one-of-a-kind film that will resonate with the activist-students of the national university.

The must-see film is Bontoc Eulogy. Almost an hour in length, it transports the audience back to the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Relying heavily on archival photos and footages, director Marlon Fuentes reconstructs the experiences of 69 Igorots on display at the World Fair. During the event, local inhabitants of the Philippines were dubbed as ‘primitive.’ Archival footage shows the frequent slaying of dogs for food, the mock beheading of enemies, and the ape-like foot structure of the Igorots.

From this faux documentary arises the truth behind the ‘human zoo’ exhibit. The display of so-called primitive Filipinos is an attempt to justify the Benevolent Assimilation project of the Americans started in the late 19th century. American officials believed that the local natives of the Philippines were incapable of governing themselves after the fall of Manila. President William McKinley felt it was immoral to give the Philippines back to the Spanish government. Hence, the United States annexed the Philippines and began its mission of educating and christianizing Filipinos.

The Filipinos bravely fought back despite scarcity of arms. The Americans, already aware of the power of films, created some films that depict Filipinos as bandits. These propaganda films show Filipino troublemakers retreating from the Americans. The fighting was pictured as a mild insurrection by local subjects and not as a war between two nations. Several of these films had Afro-Americans portraying Filipinos.

Bontoc Eulogy starts as a detective story (a middle-aged Filipino immigrant searching for his Igorot warrior-grandfather) and ends up as an examination of the Filipino immigrant experience. Foreign settlers experience the hurt of being called brown monkeys and of being treated as second-class citizens. Several of them inevitably look back to the past in order to survive. They crave for heroes, warriors, and freedom fighters. If they cannot find one, then they will invent one. The short film cites Jose Rizal’s saying, ‘he who does not look back from whence he came from will never ever reach his destination.’

A character from the film states that 'Filipinos are expert in the art of forgetting.' But, Filipinos also excel in remembering. The tribute titled In Memoriam: Alexis Tioseco (1981-2009) will be held at UPFI Videotheque on the following dates: November 24 (4:30 PM), November 25 (4:30 PM & 6:30 PM), November 26 (4:30 PM), and December 3 (4:30 PM & 6:30 PM). Admission is free.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Paano Ko Sasabihin? (2009, Richard Legaspi)

A kiss is just a kiss but if it is done by the scrumptious pair of Enchong Dee and Erich Gonzales, it ends up being an earth shuddering moment.

I've been watching movies at theaters for a long time, but the Cinema One Originals screening of Paano Ko Sasabihin? is one of a few times I've heard the audience loudly swooned in unison. Moviegoers strongly reacted to the initial kissing scene between Mike (Enchong Dee) and Erhyl (Erich Gonzales). I knew that both young stars are popular but I never expected that kind of intense reaction from fans.

Television writer Erhyl is a regular commuter of the Light Railway Transit. Just like Betsy Rallos of Now That I Have You, Erhyl is always on the lookout for her crush. She have been eyeing him long enough to know that he is deaf-mute. The ice was broken when she thanked him. How? It turns out that Erhyl knows a bit of sign language. Her brother is also deaf-mute.

The main problem of Erhyl becomes how to tell to her new friend, Mike, that she is not deaf-mute. The pretty lass feels dirty for deceiving him. The young man though has a secret of his own.

The fifth edition of the Cinema One Originals film festival is not as breathtaking as the torrid kiss of Mike and Erhyl. As expected, Wanted: Border romped off with most of the major prizes. It is a sign of the festival's relatively weak slate that no film got the first runner-up award or the so-called jury prize.

However, Paano Ko Sasabihin? nabbed a special mention from the film festival jurors led by film critic Rolando Tolentino. The average romance film was also selected as winner of the Audience Choice award. If you ignore the idiotic root of the film's main conflict, then this film will be a pleasant ride with a delectable screen presence of Gonzales. It is no wonder then that Dee gave his growling best in their memorable kissing scene.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Paalam Aking Bulalakaw ... (2006, Khavn de la Cruz)

Television station TV5 screens local independent films every Wednesday night at 9 pm. One of the best films shown in October 2009 is Khavn de la Cruz’s Paalam Aking Bulalakaw (Goodbye My Shooting Star).

So far, this is the only film of Khavn that I truly love. Yes, that's the proper term: love. This film deals with all permutations of that powerful four-letter word. This is also an ode to the people, food, icons, and landmarks of the University of the Philippines. And, it took an Atenean to show the charms of the national university.

Just what it is in the waters of Ateneo? Brilliant Atenean filmmakers Khavn and John Torres create unconventional films (Paalam Aking Bulalakaw and Todo Todo Teros) that make you fall in love, or if you’re already in love, will make you love more. They blend picturesque poems with poetic pictures. They conjure images of pretty, smart ladies in their stories. If John had Russian student Olga, then Khavn has Pinay actress Ana Maria.

Ana Maria (played by Meryll Soriano) is a frustrated violin player still hurting from her break-up with an American boyfriend. She meets up with friend K one afternoon because it was getting to be a bore at home. The duo starts their tour of the University of the Philippines at Sunken Garden.

A cool, loony optometrist teases K about his crush for Ana. He answers that having a crush is against his religion. It had been years but K wasn’t ready to reveal his feelings for Ana. Not yet, anyway.

The young man drops subtle hints by bringing up the subject of love frequently. He asks friends what they thought about love. Egay states that sex is a better trip than love. Elmo says love is an amalgam of hate, lust, and sex. Ana opines that love is sadness and happiness in one person.

But, for K, love is Ana. This unrequited love of K shows up in his heart-wrenching songs and poems. And, boy, are they potent! Songs dealt with shooting stars, lonely moon, wanting, and eternal devotion. On the other hand, poems tackled endless waiting, love letters, and goodbyes.

This extraordinary film shows the wildly romantic side of Khavn. A devastating blend of hardcore mushy songs and heart-core poems will also bring out the hopeless romantic in you. Sheesh! Just when you thought you were over that special someone, this film will make you pine for her/him.

So, still interested in this achingly beautiful film? Proceed with caution. You’ve been warned!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bakal Boys (2009, Ralston Jover)

Riding through the streets of Metro Manila, an observant commuter will notice something amiss. Once in a while, manhole covers on the streets and steel railings from flyovers disappear. Blame it on the rising number of desperate bakal men and boys. Several of them filch and steal every possible metal scrap they can lay their hands on. These items will later be sold at dishonest junk shops.

Bakal Boys starts with a pair of kids, Utoy and Bungal, running away from a security guard. They have just stolen some metal scraps from a ship. Just when the security guard comes close to apprehending the pair, the duo dives into the polluted waters of Manila Bay. Most of the time, though, Utoy and the other kids get their scraps the hard, legit way. The poor kids scour the dirty waters looking for metal pieces. They are expert divers because they live in the nearby Baseco compound in Tondo.

Director Ralston Jover utilized real-life children metal divers from the slum area of Baseco. The film takes a look at how they go about doing their work. The brazen way in which the kids take to the waters is simply unnerving.

Like a well-coordinated platoon of soldiers, they pursue their mission of retrieving an anchor with aplomb. Each one of them has a respective task to do. The divers plumb the murky depths. Some cook rice. A few youngsters fetch a banca for their ride back to the compound. The junk shop owner shortchanges the group. The kids can not complain because of the owner's threat of charging them with theft. After settling the transaction, the kids realize that one of them is missing in action. The loss of Bungal becomes a catalyst for the redemption of Utoy.

Bakal Boys does a neat job of essaying the lives of children metal divers. Jover's direction is generally good but some scenes with the kids are stagey. The junk shop scene shows the kids scratching their heads in unison. There are also scenes in which the kid actors anticipate their dialogue cues.

Nevertheless, Bakal Boys is a remarkable debut feature film. It may not be on par with the 'real-time' films of Brillante Mendoza and Jeffrey Jeturian but it is better than most mainstream films out there. Jover has the chops to make excellent films in the future. His earlier movie, Marlon, won the best documentary award at the 10th Cinemanila International Film Festival.

If you want a more insightful look at children metal divers, then check out the short film Batang Pier. The documentary film, directed by La Salle students Camille Adraincem, Paola Recuenco, and Michelle Saquido, examines in depth the problems and aspirations of the young metal divers of Manila's South Harbor.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When Timawa Meets Delgado (2007, Ray Defante Gibraltar)

This is one of the films championed by the late film critic Alexis Tioseco. In response to Tioseco’s wish for more people to see the movie, film critic Francis ‘Oggs’ Cruz chose this film as his Critic’s Pick selection during the Cinemanila International Film Festival 2009. The movie is a good choice because it is a pretty decent film and is rarely exhibited.

Sure, the picks of film critics Bien Lumbera and Roland Tolentino are better films (Serbis and Engkwentro) but those films have been well-exhibited. How I wished the two Urian members chose little-seen gems such as the Urian Best Picture nominee Hunghong Sa Yuta or Hospital Boat. The latter films, both of which I failed to see, had one-time only screenings at Cinemalaya festivals.

When Timawa Meets Delgado is still funny and wacky after all these years. My second viewing of the Gibraltar film highlights major assets and reveals a few defects as well. The rousing soundtrack, with songs by Mista Blaze, Tinug ni Nanay, and Color It Red, keeps things perky when segments fail such as the conversation between filmmaker Jun Delgado and his lover.

The segment I disliked most is the ambush interview with two young girls. Director Ray Gibraltar coaxes the girls to give answers that fit in with the film’s subjects, which are nursing and the lure of working abroad. The segment falls flat because of awkwardness. It contrasts differently from the well-edited interviews of nursing students.

The editing of the film is a mixed bag. The segment featuring the video projects of Delgado takes up a lot of time. It became dragging after a while. There seems to be funny things embedded in the video sampler but are just too deep or personal for ordinary moviegoers to decipher. I had more of a blast with the sampling of the works of award-winning gay poet Ruben Timawa. The gayspeak translation of Timawa’s poem ‘The Pig’ continues to bring out the guffaws. That alone is already worth the price of a ticket.

I love the humor, silliness, and inventiveness of the film. It is a unique and crazy hodgepodge of serious documentary footages, exhilarating music videos, penetrating interviews, and hilarious poem reading.

Special thanks to Oggs for using his clout to get this one-of-a-kind movie exhibited on a big screen.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2004, Lav Diaz)

October 24, 2009. Several malls observed United Nations' Day by holding events. Some of you may have celebrated their birthdays or anniversaries on that day. For a dozen or so moviegoers at Fully Booked's U-View, they spent half of that special day watching Lav Diaz's majestic story, Evolution of a Filipino Family.

It was a mini-celebration of United Nations' Day at U-View. An award-winning Filipino filmmaker, a Filipino-Chinese film critic, a Filipino-Japanese female scriptwriter, a middle-aged Caucasian male, and a smattering of local cinephiles patiently sat through the 11-hour epic film.

11-hour film!?! Who would have thought of doing that?

Evolution of a Filipino Family is epic storytelling at its best. Only a genius like Lav Diaz can consistently create films that are more than 5 hours in length, and win acclaim and awards in the process. This film is Diaz’s response to Lino Brocka’s dictum of creating films for fellow Filipinos. It is a film in which local moviegoers will identify themselves with the aspirations and travails of the Filipino family.

The story initially focuses on a rural family. Three female siblings take on farm jobs because their father was incarcerated for theft. As the film progresses, we get to know of two more families. There is the family of treasure hunters in Benguet. A father and his adopted sons try their luck looking for gold. The third family is a fictional and dysfunctional one. The radio-based family is made up of a lecherous stepfather, his wife, and his stepdaughter. Just as the family of treasure hunters keeps track of a favorite radio program, the audience also anticipates the continuing drama and adventures of the three sisters and the gold prospectors. The storytelling is so intense and gripping, you will not notice the minutes quickly passing by.

Lav Diaz utilized various tricks to keep the audience wide awake. He inserted footages of voice talents doing work for a melodramatic radio program. The loud, booming voices and emotional faces keep the audience enthralled. There are also footages of grave political mistakes captured on video. Watching this film is probably your only chance to see unexpurgated video versions of the Ninoy Aquino assassination and the Mendiola massacre of farmers in 1987. These powerful footages were stunning.

But, ultimately, the harrowing tales of the families are the ones that will keep the viewers glued to the screen until the end. There is a killing here and a massacre there. There are incarcerations. And, then, there are those family reunions. There will be a happy ending for one family and a sad ending for another family.

As the end credits roll on, the cinephiles lingered. When the lights came back, a spontaneous, overwhelming applause erupted in the small room. The audience obviously loved the film. Almost half of the attendees that night came back the next day to watch another Lav Diaz film, Agonistes. That is the effect of a Lav Diaz film. Once you've seen an epic film by Diaz, you'll be begging for more.

Evolution of a Filipino Family is a highly recommended film. It may have a problem with synchronized dialogues but it is a film worth celebrating and worth allotting 12 hours or so of your precious time.

The Cinemanila group must be commended for exhibiting three Lav Diaz films during the festival in October 2009. Now, the question on local cinephiles’ minds is ‘when is the much-awaited screening of Batang West Side?’

Friday, October 30, 2009

Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-Paro (2009, Lav Diaz)

Tasked to create a short film for an omnibus project of the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF), Lav Diaz came up with the 59-minute film, Butterflies Have No Memories. He is always pushing his films to the limit. A minute more and it would no longer have been considered a short film. However, the JIFF organizers trimmed it down to 40 minutes in order to make it fit in with two other short films. The longer version is available in the DVD box set released by JIFF.

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

Biyaheng Lupa (Armando Lao, 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

Agonistes (Lav Diaz, work-in-progress)

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 Philippines. He singles out the classic strugglers of contemporary times, the working-class men and the peasants, to shoulder grinding poverty. In truth, it can be said that the agonist has been a favorite fixture of Diaz’s other films: Heremias is both agonized and anguished, so is Hamin in Death in the Land of Encantos, tortured and demented at once. Epic but individual in scope, mythological and biblical in character, Diaz’s stories are veritable stories of struggles, sagas of agony.

Agonistes opens with a grandiose sequence of robust buildings under construction in Manila. This is the magnificence that, on a sudden, contrasts with the slumped figure of one construction worker, a young man named Juan. As he narrates what he has witnessed to Manoling, an older, brotherly fellow worker, he has been traumatized by the sight of one of his co-workers being buried alive in wet concrete at the construction site. But the occupational dangers are not the end of it – the rainy season soon floods the metropolis and makes it impossible for them to reach their workplace.

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

Anacbanua (Christopher Gozum, 2009)

Somewhere deep in the night in distant Middle East, the present year, a Filipino writer, burning the midnight oil, is suddenly seized by a creative paralysis, a profound crisis of identity. He is a poet of a dying breed, if being a poet is not an ephemeral fate in itself, as he labors to write in his mother tongue, Pangasinense. We get a sense of his literary interiors by the books at his elbow: The Age of Reprieve by Sartre, Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, The Stranger by Camus. There seems to be the streak of the existential loner in him – a foreign legacy that doesn’t sit well with his antipodal upbringing.

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 Sacred Agno River. Epiphany comes at the mere vision of paddy fields, and sets him into running like a child in boisterous, euphoric circles. Is he any nearer to the "Caboloan of old," that "parnassus of Pangasinan"?

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 Saudi Arabia to receive his much-deserved prizes. Distance must indeed give this director perspective, in addition to what we presume are pangs of homesickness contained in Anacbanua. The great artist must indeed suffer for his art.