Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Boses (2008, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil)

Boses, produced with some help from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, deals with the issues of child abuse and the rehabilitation of abused kids. It also highlights the use of music therapy to heal the emotional wounds of battered children.

Director Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil deftly blends melodramatic scenes with tense, exciting moments such as the initial meeting of the two main protagonists and the chase scene near the end. Add the powerful pull of the music playing scenes and the film ends up an engrossing and touching story of redemption.

I loved the idea of a frail, mute boy turning an angry, reclusive man into a caring person. Violinists attach a device called mute to the violin in order to mellow down the volume when they practice. In this film, the mute Onyok (Julian Duque) softens the choleric music of Ariel (Coke Bolipata). Ariel becomes more caring and loving. He surprises his sister by giving her a buss on the cheek.

On the other hand, Ariel helps Onyok to regain his ‘voice.’ The young boy is finally able to communicate and reach out to other people through his violin. His music nurtures the seed of love in the hearts of people he meets. Indeed, music is the food of love.

The two leads were surprisingly good. Julian Duque is a real child prodigy and it was a pleasure to see him play and act well. Coke Bolipata gave a fairly good performance. Indie regulars, Cherry Pie Picache and Ricky Davao, provide ample support to the acting tyros.

Boses was a last-minute addition to the list of Cinemalaya finalists. It became one of the better films of the Cinemalaya 2008 class. The next Cinemalaya edition is just around the corner, but the film has not been shown in commercial theaters. The highly-acclaimed movie deserves a full theatrical release.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Next Attraction (Raya Martin, 2008)

Probably more famously known for his cinema of the historical (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional, Autohystoria, and more recently, Independencia), Raya Martin is very rapidly making strides in another direction in what might be called his cinema of the topical. After inaugurating his Box Office Trilogy in 2008 with a film entitled Now Showing, the 24-year-old director has quickly followed it up with its second installment, Next Attraction, a film about the current state of the local film industry and about the young director’s conversations with his favored medium. In Next Attraction, we get for the most part the supposed neutrality of the cinema-verite documentary that is used, but the nature of what is being documented can be sometimes indicting.

Right from the start, we are asked to ruminate on a sequence shot – a long static one – of a house built circa 1970s. More precisely, this first scene happens in the poorly-kept backyard of this house, grass unmown, the roof water-stained, suggestive, perhaps, of unsettled, troubled thoughts. Winds buffet the coconut and palm trees and the other ornamentals in the background as a woman saunters out of the house and sits in one of the wrought-iron chairs in the yard. From a distance, her slow, deliberate manner, running her fingers through her hair, is indicative of wistful, pensive thoughts. We aren’t too sure, however; her face is a blur. The winds soon die down. As the minutes pass meditatively, the strange detail of a klieg light standing in a corner, beaming brightly in broad daylight, becomes apparent. What is this film up to now? Then we hear the empathic word: Cut! This has been all a take; the woman is an actress in a film.

It’s a film within a film. Director and writer Raya Martin, however, is not content with this tried-and-tested conceit. Francois Truffaut (Day for Night), Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up) and Andrzej Wajda (Everything for Sale) have tried their hand at this narrative device before, but Martin goes one better: Next Attraction is a film within a film within a film. What results is surprisingly an intricate but coherent work. Three realities, three verisimilitudes in one film: one conveying a fictitious film crew being documented; another conveying the fictitious documentarians who never become visible other than through their scrupulous hands covering camera lenses, indicating cuts; and the third conveying the apparently “true story” being filmed. What we ultimately see is the documentarians’ point of view chronicling a film crew in action.

As might be expected when cameras are rolling, the film crew being documented are a picture of efficiency and synergy. They pull off the naturalism of a tight-knit group going about their business through a day of exacting work. Although they seem oblivious of anyone documenting them, they seem too eager to work with each other. No tantrum-throwing directors here, only modest actresses who don’t mind posing with admirers for pictures and such. This film crew is exemplary, bent assiduously on their tasks and everyone, from the director down to the technicians, is on his best behavior.

Complementing this film crew very well are the documentarians: very discreet and unobtrusive, as they chronicle the long, grueling but not necessarily unsatisfying shoots of a film crew. Using cinema-verite methods, the documentarians position themselves in the least intrusive positions on the set, shielding their lenses and turning off their cameras when needed. They almost shy away from the filmmakers’ shoots, and seem to home in on the dynamics of this film crew instead. What they capture is by turns reflective (conveyed through simple cuts to black) and frenetic (or perhaps tedious) (conveyed through jump cuts).

The overall tone of Next Attraction is, for the most part, tongue-in-cheek as it captures the controlled chaos of a film shoot. The fictitious film director (J.K. Anicoche) has time for small talk – jabbing playfully at Raya Martin the famous director in one of his overheard conversations with his crew. But if this is a time for a little humor, this also the time to pay homage to the capacity of the camera to fictionalize, to create its own truths. With simple editing trickery, this documentary of sorts is suggestive of ars cinematica – whose visual zeal and robustness echo the self-referential mannerisms of Godard.

And the film being shot? When the resulting film is tacked on and shown at the end, it might seem like anticlimax: it seems too aestheticized, too prettified compared to the relatively grittier realism of the actual shoot. But this fictitious film embodies many of the truths about what goes on in local cinema. The penchant for melodrama, the current predominance of indie aesthetics and production values, and the commodification of homoerotic acts are but some of the salient points of this fictitious film. And what is it about? Suffice to say that it features a troubled relationship between mother (Jacklyn Jose) and her 17-year-old son (Coco Martin).

Next Attraction is perhaps as much about the struggling (moribund?) state of one national cinema as it is a meditation on the nature of filmmaking, of what is true and what is not. Nothing (or perhaps everything) is what it seems: the truth is filtered through so many intervening mediations that might influence it. What may come billed as “a true story” is ultimately amplified, modulated and refracted by actor, film crew, director, editor and so on – subject to their synergy, the smallest eventuality, the smallest whimsy of everyone on the set. If there are passages that apotheosize an actress in bygone times in Now Showing, Next Attraction is more inclusive, it congratulates everyone who is (was ever) involved in that backbreaking endeavor called filmmaking. And perhaps that’s the note on which Raya Martin ultimately wants to leave us – not a scathing satire but an oblique homage to filmmaking.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Imburnal (2008, Sherad Anthony Sanchez)

Cebu, Boracay, and Davao City are the top tourist destinations in the Philippines. In the case of Davao City, visitors must have felt safe and secure with the city’s almost crime-free tag. Davaoeño filmmaker Sherad Anthony Sanchez shatters the city’s image with his latest courageous film.

Imburnal is the best local film I’ve seen in 2008. A brutal and unflinching statement against the death squad of Davao City, the movie portrays a city plagued by extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances. In a ruthless bid to cleanse the city of crime, vigilantes exterminate juvenile delinquents and suspected criminals as if they were mere cockroaches.

The rancid lives of the poor kids and teenagers were fleshed out in gory details. They shoplift clothes. They freely narrate their experiences in bed. They indulge in group sex inside the filthy sewer pipes. They roam the well-lighted streets of the city in the middle of the night.

The sewers of Punta Dumalag in Barangay Matina Aplaya end up as favorite hangout spot of two boys (Brian Monterola and Allen Lumanog). The pair spends countless hours in the sewers. They sleep there. They play with cockroaches. They swim in the murky waters. The sewerage system is the place where they witness loveless sex and lifeless bodies of teenagers. Childhood laughter gave way to fear and apathy after corpses started to sprout like mushrooms.

In March 2009, three months after the release of the film, the Commission on Human Rights initiated a much-delayed probe into the unexplained killings of 814 people in Davao City since 1998. Most of the vigilante-style killings have been attributed to a shadowy group called the Davao Death Squad (DDS). City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte denied that the government was behind the DDS. He said the killings were the result of gang wars, drug trade rivalries, and personal grudges.

Imburnal compares Davao City to a well-maintained, white-painted tomb. On the surface, it is so peaceful, clean, and nice to look at, but inside, it stinks and is full of rotten things. A memorable scene from the film shows a trio of juveniles traversing the city’s expansive cemetery. It is so big that they eventually got tired trekking the place.

The 210-minute film contained other highly memorable scenes. The initial scene surprised me because I never knew that a kid was lying on the concrete sewer pipe. The kid blended so well with his environment that he became invisible. A similar scene showed another marginalized young denizen sleeping on a pathway along the river. He became visible only when the camera started to zoom in on him.

The fantastic last sequence showed the playful two boys aping Tarzan atop a tree along the river. I had a hearty laugh after hearing and seeing a tree branch break. I was laughing so hard that when another branch broke I was caught unaware. I gasped and it took me some time to gain back my wits.

If you’re game for a different kind of viewing experience, then try to see the director’s cut of the film. Just prepare, really prepare, to get in the flow of Sanchez’s hellish and pitch black vision of Davao City.

The film won the Best Digital Lokal Picture Award at the 10th Cinemanila Film Festival and the Best Picture Award at the Cinema One Originals 2008. It also nabbed two major awards at the 10th Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Independencia (2009, Raya Martin)

Maverick filmmaker Raya Martin groped for words in an impromptu speech before the start of the June 12, 2009 Philippine premiere of the film Independencia. 'Anong sasabihin ko?,' he muttered to his companions. The 24-year-old director may not be the best speaker out there, but he speaks volumes with his consistently excellent films.

Independencia is Martin's latest masterpiece. The 77-minute film is the second in a trilogy of films depicting the Philippines under colonial powers. Martin uses dominant film formats and popular entertainment fare during each period to frame his stories. The first film Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional utilized kundiman, theatre plays, and silent films to depict the Spanish period. This time around, Independencia employs newsreels and early 20th century studio films with false backdrops to show the destructive effects of the American colonization.

The Americans saw the potential of films as propaganda. They utilized films in their battles. Popular newsreels shown in the United States depicted American soldiers stopping an insurrection in the Philippines. The fighting was pictured as an uprising against an established government and not as a war between two countries. Most of the newsreels were just re-enactments showing American soldiers in good light.

Martin is a young man obsessed with early Filipino films. Most of his films deal with silent films, early 20th-century newsreels, and pre-war Filipino films. In this film, he recreates a movie that counters the jingoistic intent of an American newsreel. He indigenizes the movie’s format and content. The movie features three dark-skinned actors portraying characters fleeing from American troops. The characters speak in an old-fashioned local language. Local myths and superstitions are depicted in the movie.

The false backdrops of the movie riled two viewers seated near me. They complained about the obvious studio sets, which they perceived to be a result of the producers' stinginess. Another one blurted out 'The film is boring.' I expected this kind of reaction from them because I've overheard them saying it was their first time to see a Martin film.

The film Independencia is Martin’s most accessible film so far but it is still arty fare for casual moviegoers. The film is in black-and-white. The film is not talky but speaks a lot about heavy stuff such as colonialism, propaganda, and native resistance. The film does not feature a popular actor. Vilma Santos was originally set to play the mother but later backed out. In hindsight, Tetchie Agbayani is the right and better choice for the role. She is a morena and closely resembles Sid Lucero, who plays her son.

The theme of native resistance was enhanced with the film's utilization or visualization of lines from protest songs such as Marangal na Dalit ng Katagalugan. The song Bayan Ko dealt with an image of a caged bird crying and struggling to break free. The film featured several released birds flying straight to freedom. The last line of the country's national anthem was enacted at the stunning, blood-stained ending of the film.

Martin may have stammered in his introduction but he managed to greet the audience with 'Happy Independence Day!' It was a happy day too for independent films and independent filmmakers. His courageous film was a perfect ender to a whole day of local film screenings at the 14th French Film Festival at Shang Cineplex.

*picture taken here

**check out also this review

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Independencia (Raya Martin, 2009)

For, with a strong indigenous cultural life, foreign
domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation.
-- Amilcar Cabral

Everyone of us is channeling Americans. For over a hundred years now, we have imitated and internalized their smallest tics and their thickest twang; we aren’t called Little Brown Americans for nothing. Our assimilation of all things American is there to see – though perhaps too self-evident to notice. We eat Kentucky Friend Chicken and McDonald’s burgers and wash them down with swigs of Pepsi or Coca-Cola. We wear the latest shoes from Nike and listen to the latest songs by American Idols. We watch the latest movies churned out by Hollywood,
starring our favorite state-side actors. These are our everyday realities. We are, in truth, not as independent as the history books would like us to believe; we are living in the shadow of these insidiously neo-colonial times.

Raya Martin’s Independencia, making its Philippine premiere on Independence Day ironically in a French film festival, may not espouse up-in-arms revolution (how, when the enemy is within us?) but delivers a subtly hortatory message: the Filipino should endeavor to rediscover his pre-colonial roots. It’s the first small step in his long journey towards recovering true independence. Set in the early 1900s and onwards, Independencia avoids, perhaps by default, the grandiosely-scripted and astronomically budgeted depiction of an epical and heroic era: the American occupation. Instead, writer-director Raya Martin astutely focuses on common folks, non-comnbatants: a mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and her son (Sid Lucero) who flee to the forest as soon as the threat of war encroaches on their town.

Here, in this forest, reality seems refracted through a strangely allegorical and magical prism. Birds dart out of the bushes like shimmering bullets; breezes blow unceasingly; ferns and palm fronds sway and bend; a stream ripples and flows through it. In the conversations that will transpire within its bosom, this forest will be alluded to as the object of greed, and two towns go to war for it. This is where mother and son seek refuge. Soon (no one knows the nature of time here) they are joined by a woman (Alessandra de Rossi) who has been raped by American soldiers. In due time, she gives birth to a fair-skinned child.

Independencia, however, is not about a family’s insularity. What this retreat from the outside world ultimately means is a symbolic return to the Filipino’s bedrock strength, a revalorization of his indigenous culture, his pre-colonial past. Within this film’s family, the oral tradition of myths, proverbs, legends and general folklore, is reenacted and passed down from one generation to another. Talk of talismans, giant wild boars, and the aswang circulate among this family in the woods. And the realities in the forest – e.g. the son finding his way home only after turning his shirt inside out, the appearance of wood spirits – don’t seem to contradict what this family partakes in.

Not unlike South American and other Third World writers employing magic realism in their works, Martin harnesses the inherently surreal/fantastical aspects of our folklore in order to mirror the under-emphasized and misrepresented aspects of our culture. Circulated in the deep of the night, circulated during meals, the stories exchanged in the depths of the forest are a kind of nourishment, a defense mechanism that both diverts and fortifies.

And yet in Independencia, Martin has fashioned out one of his least confounding and more accessible films to date. Independencia is not unlike a well-told legend: there are moments of facile objective reality combined with moments that ask us to suspend disbelief. Much of Martin’s unconventional and unpredictable narrative techniques are becoming familiar to us, it seems. He has also decided to meet his audience halfway: much of the counter-intuitive filmmaking we’ve seen in movies like Autohystoria and Now Showing is kept to a minimum. (But perhaps these are just the strictures of this particular film – to be displaced by the stylistic demands of the next film.) Instead of unknowns and non-professionals, he casts well-known, professional actors for this, and they invariably deliver.

Conceived as the second entry in Raya Martin’s cycle of films set during periods of national struggle (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional being the first), Independencia may not mention America once in any of the film’s dialogue but its pernicious presence, its colonizing threat, is palpable. There is a newsreel-like sequence at midpoint of Independencia that brings this home: an actual atrocity by American soldiers shooting a boy suspected of pilfering is reported in quasi-provincial, faux-American accent. The film finesses its point with humor. There are no strident anti-American slogans here. That the American atrocity mirrors what happens in a 1976 film (Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara's Minsa’y Isang Gamu Gamo), only seems to suggest the currency of the Americans’ unchangingly contemptuous, subhuman regard for Filipinos.

Make no mistake, Independencia is a sophisticated post-colonial film and Raya Martin, at least in this instance, a veritable post-colonial filmmaker. Making a virtue of meager funding from European institutions (in particular, the IFFR’s Hubert Bals Fund in 2007), he uses unconventional and postmodern approaches to film Independencia. Noteworthy is his reliance on distanciation techniques, which puts the stamp of its real provenance on the film. This film, shot in black and white by Jeanne Lapoirie, may look like an early 20th century American movie, but it is unmistakably a product of its time. Independencia is a living, breathing film: its colonial discourse is not restricted to the past, but remains as valid as ever. Hence, the tell-tale markers like the theatrical acting and theatrical dialogue, the unnaturally thick make-ups, the hybrid sets (a fusion of natural, live elements and handpainted backdrops brought to life by production designer Rodrigo Ricio), characters talking straight to the camera, the effect of film seemingly running out of its reel are not unjustified instances. The presence of White Leghorns – not introduced to the Philippines until 1950 – in a film that is supposed to be set during the American era also tells us of the timelessness of the issues problematized by this film.

Independencia, however, ends in the most unambiguous terms possible. Orphaned and alone, the fair-skinned boy (Mika Aguilos) enacts the supreme gesture of self-determination. Pursued by American soldiers deep in the forest, the boy makes sure of signifying his true allegiances. His realization of who he is and where he belongs, paints the sky in different shades of brown. This is, after all, the brown man’s world -- his beloved country. Long live the Filipino!

*picture from Criticine

Monday, June 15, 2009

Macho Dancer (Lino Brocka, 1988)

During the heady moments of the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution, a film critic asked director Lino Brocka if he would be happier to see President Ferdinand Marcos kicked out of office. The feisty director said, "No, because I wouldn't have any one to fight against anymore."

It wasn't long before Brocka found another enemy to fight: the incompetent administration of President Corazon 'Cory' Aquino. The latter half of the 1980s saw Brocka with two excellent films, Macho Dancer and OraProNobis. The films denounced the dehumanizing poverty, widespread corruption, and rampant human rights abuses under the Aquino administration. Both films feature lead characters taking the gun as a last resort to rectify social injustices. Who knows what else Brocka would have recommended if he didn't die on May 21, 1991?

Macho Dancer is the first Filipino gay film to gain recognition around the world. However, it is more than a mere gay film. It is a scathing indictment of the Aquino administration. Graffiti in the male rest room reads 'We are for Cory.' Yes, the Filipino people sided with President Aquino. But, what had she done for the people and the country after two years in power?

Brocka showed that not much had changed since the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution. Corruption is still rampant as seen in the scope of police officer Kid's illegal activities. Poverty continues to drive poor people to take squalid jobs such as call boys, macho dancers, prostitutes, and porn stars.

The movie is an eye-opener to the world of macho dancers and call boys. They are portrayed as fashionable and well-groomed men living in decrepit apartment rooms and doing despicable acts. In the first reel alone, the audience gets a glimpse of what happens inside a gay bar. A new recruit named Pol (Alan Paule) is being interviewed by the owner. The latter then asks Pol to take off his clothes and show his penis.

After the interview, Pol goes downstairs and sees the main show of the gay bar. Seven nude men are seated on stage. All of them are busy playing with themselves while horny foreigners in the audience ogle at them. A new acquaintance, Noel (Daniel Fernando), persuades Pol to transfer to another gay bar that has a 'cleaner' and 'less degrading' main act. It is 'cleaner' because two nude men take a shower together on stage at Mama Charlie's Bar.

Alan Paule and other actors playing macho dancers were trained by a real macho dancer for three months. Paule, in his debut film, did an excellent job portraying a naive-looking macho dancer. He was able to play a courteous character slowly getting jaded by the things he saw in Manila. Jacklyn Jose was effective during her character Bambi's breakdown scene. It was heartbreaking to hear her narrate how at a young age she was abused by her own father.

Daniel Fernando won a well-deserved Gawad Urian Best Actor award for his stunning performance. He was a natural during the carinderia scene. He was a lusty performer during his macho dancing/shower scenes. I doubt any actors today can do what he did so well in the film.

After a mammoth retrospective of Brocka movies at mag:net Katipunan in May 2009, another Brocka retro is being cooked up for Cinemalaya Cinco in July 2009. The late director deserves all the tributes and retrospectives he is getting these days. Macho Dancer is one of top films of Brocka that should be seen by moviegoers.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ma Saison Préférée (André Téchiné, 1993)

Here is one French film that deserves to be seen by Filipino audiences who are looking for something new. André Téchiné’s Ma Saison Préférée (My Favorite Season) will surprise and confound those of us who still relish the old Filipino paradigm of family dramas – the overwrought, oversentimental, overdramatized kind. Téchiné’s film, instead, depicts a portrait of a dysfunctional family without the emotional and cathartic excesses. Family tensions and antagonisms here are played out with such grace and elegance that one comes away from it with warm, ennobled feelings.

André Téchiné’s Ma Saison Préférée, a film about cherished memories and idealized pasts, is also a film about misrecognitions: we don’t see from one set of lenses, and therefore don’t see identically. In Téchiné’s shorthand, the seasons simply stand for memory’s mnemonics. Summer beguiles the film’s characters, middle-aged siblings, Emilie (Catherine Deneuve) and Antoine (Daniel Auteuil), for instance, not for the warmth of the sun and days in the park, but for something each of them alone knows.

Some of this film's characters, however, cling too fiercely to their shared memories, jealously guarding not just these memories but those with whom they experienced those special moments – to the point of everyone else’s exclusion. At such times, these memories verge on the obsessive, verge on murking their pure waters.

Such memories, such ties, tangled and obsessive, lie at the heart of Téchiné’s film. It starts with a premise that seems harmless enough: a family gathering around a mother’s incipient old age and widowhood, but it’s a family, as the story unfolds, freighted with curious bonds.

As Berthe is adopted into daughter Emilie's home when the former is no longer able to look after herself, Berthe seems naturally ill at ease in her new home. Things hint at the unseemly, however, as Emilie finds Berthe muttering to herself in the dark at ungodly hours of the night. Is it her infirmities, her new home, that make her an unsettled member of the household? When Antoine, Berthe's youngest son, visits for Christmas, however, this rekindles the tight-knit closeness between Emilie and Antoine. Berthe, on the other hand, only seems to respond to Antoine, to the detriment of Emilie and her family. Family romance, yes – in a way.

Emilie, a prospering lawyer, and Antoine, a brain surgeon, are seemingly well-adjusted professionals on the surface. But the quirks soon start to show: we find Antoine muttering to himself in the restroom a stream of mantras redolent of psychoanalysis. While Emilie vents her unsettled, sexual emotions on a stranger on a park bench. Emilie and Antoine are in the thick of reevaluating their relationship, their unusual closeness borne out of an intimate childhood. Emilie seems more sure of what it all means, but Antoine seems to value it differently. He seems to dance attendance around her at every chance. And perhaps it explains why Antoine doesn’t see eye to eye with Emilie’s husband.

Berthe, on the other hand, seems only receptive to her own children. There is a brief sequence towards the end when the three are together on the road and they recreate their happy journeys in childhood, Emilie and Antoine singing humourous nursery songs. They go on along their magical itinerary, retrieving their magical past. Family romance, yes – in a way.

Ma Saison Préférée adroitly and tastefully renders Antoine and Emilie’s potentially incestuous relationship. Writer-director André Téchiné sidesteps a polemical outcome with assured subtle and lyrical direction, mixing solemn and comic moments. (His light touch gives this film a funny sense of gallows humor at times, as evidenced by Antoine’s suicide attempt.) Téchiné's relish for unorthodox relationships, as films like The Wild Reeds would bear out, is in evidence yet again. Ma Saison Préférée, despite its delicate theme, ends with warm, rarefied feelings. All without the emotional manipulation and exhaustion we are accustomed to.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ridicule (Patrice Leconte, 1996)

Ridicule, when it goes unrefuted and unretorted in kind, is the kiss of death in this costume film by versatile French director Patrice Leconte. Ridicule, in a nutshell, is a pungent yet tasteful satire on aristocrats set in pre-revolutionary France. Set in the main at the palace in Versailles, it isn't so much about King Louis XVI as it is about his scheming and competing courtiers. At this court, wit is the ammunition; in order to survive – that is, to escape ridicule – one must devote oneself closely and studiously to cultivating it.

Interestingly, this period piece appropriates many of the tropes of American high school movies, only this time in finery and thick facial powder. The competitions of wit and other goings-on at Versailles are not unlike the academic pursuits and rivalries evoked in this genre. One marquis, for instance, is not unlike a conscientious student who keeps careful notes – notebook after notebook – of witticisms he picks up from day to day – quips, paradoxes, repartees, all kinds. Another, an abbot no less, is like an exam cheat who makes sure he gets questions whose answers he already knows. The hectoring cliques are here, too, intent on putting the nonconformists in their place. While those who can’t keep up, the weak-hearted, resort to something drastic. They hang themselves.

Le Marquis Gregoire Ponceludon is the natural wit, the newcomer who is at court for more pressing and urgent reasons. An older aristocrat, Le Marquis de Bellegarde, takes him under his wing and becomes a bosom friend. The old man has a headstrong and academic daughter, Mathilde, who devotes her time to perfecting the 18th century prototype of scuba-diving equipment and testing them out at the nearest well. But in order to further her studies without worries, she has agreed to marry a rich, old nobleman who can provide for her future. But that is all before she meets Gregoire, a well-learned engineer who seeks royal support to drain the fever-infested swamps of his humble region.

Ridicule’s strength lies in its finely-wrought script – though some of it is easily lost in translation. Everyone here – even the deaf-mute – is a master at intellectual one-upmanship and can eloquently trade barbs with those who dare open their mouths. Everyone speaks in sweet, sententious tones, in effortless epigrams, as though they were reading from Voltaire or Rochefoucauld.

In Ridicule, wit stands for the superficial concerns of aristocrats while peasants struggle to survive and die of preventable ailments. At court, wit seems to be the index of those who are most treacherous. Take Madame de Blayac, who presides over the games of intellect. She maneuvers and uses every expedient – of words, of charm, of connections – to get her way. Gregoire, beware!

Ironically, King Louis seems oblivious to it all. He displays the least capacity for these verbal games, and often misses the point.

It isn’t long before the French Revolution breaks out. Could these courtiers talk their way out of the guillotine?

Andong (Rommel Tolentino, 2008)

Andong is a short-feature film that I want to view again and again. The Cinemalaya 2008 movie is a rollicking take on a boy obsessed with television shows. He spends most of his time outside their home because they don’t have a television. One day, he comes across a man selling a raffle ticket worth 20 pesos. The main prize is a television set. Andong then sets out to raise 20 pesos.

Among the best and memorable Cinemalaya images last year are scenes showing Andong and his younger brother trying to get a glimpse of their favorite television programs. It is achingly painful to watch them peering through a crack or tiptoeing just to hurdle obstacles to their television viewing. It’s a good thing the bittersweet images were followed by rip-roaring funny segments. The movie is a laugh fest to the max. The excellent and award-winning script also dealt with the value of hard-earned money.

The two boys were very good actors. I break into a smile every time I recall the infectious laughter of Andong’s sibling. The trailer is right. It made sense to me after I viewed the short film. The two boys are every parent’s nightmare.

I was surprised at the excellent storytelling of competing short-feature films in 2008. My Pet and God Only Knows are some of the standouts. But, the best is still Milo Tolentino’s Andong. This is the second short-feature film of Tolentino to get the Best Short Film Award at the Cinemalaya competitions. He is now working on a full-length film for the Cinema One Originals 2009 and another short-feature film for Cinemalaya Cinco.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

17 Fois Cécile Cassard (Christophe Honoré, 2002)

Christophe Honoré‘s 17 Fois Cécile Cassard is a film encompassing 17 fragments in the life of its title hero, a disconsolate widow who can’t seem to overcome her husband’s suicide. It is not a selfish suicide but one of self-sacrifice – in order to secure her future and their son’s with insurance money. As her sense of bereavement, however, becomes too much, she becomes incapable of living from day to day and taking care of her son. She must leave everything behind – her hometown of Tours, her friends, her son – and embark on a journey of consolation and renewal.

Through 17 moments that trace a trajectory from grief to recovery, Honoré dramatizes a familiar story and perhaps a personal, autobiographical one, dedicated to the director's parents. By no means, however, do these fragments -- stylized and aestheticized -- form a clear-cut and conventional story. There is a suffocating sense of unreality to the proceedings: the characters Cécile Cassard meets along the way may not be mere people but abstractions incarnate; his final destination, Toulouse, seems like an allegorical city. Much of the film is drenched in the atmospherics of darkness and stasis complemented by soundscapes that reflect the inner states of the film’s widowed protagonist. Great distortions and noise in the tradition of My Bloody Valentine suffuse much of the soundtrack.

Another promising alumnus of Cahiers du Cinéma – a part of the second generation after Godard, Truffaut and company? — Christophe Honoré fashions out a brave and bold debut, a film that doesn’t so much take its cue from traditional plotting as it does from the gradual processes of life. We see the gradations from loss to renewal unfold as they should, with compact and quiet tonalities.

Honoré takes away the literalness of the film's theme and subjects, and grounds them in a defamiliarized milieu. Toulouse, viewed through the prism of endless nights and dark emotions, becomes a kind of purgatory, populated almost exclusively by homosexuals, who are our world’s wretched, after all, consigned to a kind of social limbo. Honoré is unflinching in depicting homoerotic acts, the maddened men and their maddening sexual desires, as though to hint at the city’s psychical and emotional turbulence.

Toulouse under a dark night is the film’s overarching presence. But the characters here provide a noteworthy counterpoint. Béatrice Dalle is sufficiently understated -- no histrionics here -- as Cécile Cassard. Romain Duris (L’Auberge Espagnole), who plays Matthieu, the gay man with a compassionate heart, however, steals the spotlight. Notable is the scene where he, barely clad in a thong, performs a number from Jacques Demy’s Lola. Although he is involved with another gay man, Matthieu has love to spare for Cécile and perhaps to everyone else who needs succor. Matthieu is like a consoling mother, a principle of nature, who promises to give Cécile another son. Perhaps, just perhaps, the night is lifting, the music is taking a redemptive turn.

UPCAT (Roman Carlo Olivarez, 2008)

The film can best be described as Pisay-lite. Like the Auraeus Solito film, UPCAT is a well-made, entertaining film dealing with high school students on the verge of maturity. There are similar themes between the two films such as first love, cut-throat competition, scholars serving the people, and pursuit of one’s dream. There are similar scenes like the tête-à-têtes on rooftops. Both films also featured indie favorite Arnold Reyes. The main differences between the two films are Pisay is better directed and it captured perfectly the essence of the featured school.

UPCAT is not about student life in the University of the Philippines. It deals with students wishing to enter the country’s sole National University. It examines how those UPCAT dreams make or break the success of students in the future. The choices they make during their school years will determine their career paths.

The start of the film showing the future selves of students was a bit confusing. Eventually, the film found its rhythm. The story and the characters were well-drawn. But, I don’t agree with Avelino and Baby Olivarez’s reason for dissuading Lucas (Felix Roco) from taking the exam. I believe that life’s lessons, no matter how traumatic, should be imparted to the youth so that they may learn from them.

Students need to choose wisely their answers to life’s problems and questions. The masters of the Alpha Kappa Omega fraternity featured in Batch ‘81 are probably batch mates of an important character in the film. Ben’s choice of school organization had an impact on his life. A lead character in the film chooses BA Political Science as his course. This decision leads him to his one true love.

There are several valuable tips for test takers. The film suggests takers to practice shading circles the right way. The film also advises students to seek help for problems they cannot solve on their own. Lucas hesitates to take the UPCAT. He thinks he is not brainy enough to pass the exam. However, he is afraid of losing Jane Concepcion (Hiyasmin Neri) if he doesn’t make it to UP. He decides to take a review course offered by Michael Mendoza (Richard Quan). And, coupled with a more positive attitude, he passes the test.

There’s a minor production design booboo I’d noticed. Jane Concepcion was looking at her siblings’ college diplomas. One of the diplomas had ‘Conception’ as surname. This mistake is not noticeable in televisions but in a theater screen it is easily detected.

UPCAT ended up as the most popular film of Cinema One Originals 2008. A large part of the film’s success was due to the wonderful bunch of refreshing, young, and talented actors. Felix Roco and Yas Neri were able to hold their own against veteran actors Bembol Roco and Mark Gil in most scenes. However, it was the smart-aleck turned tibak (Joseph Roble) who was the film’s acting revelation.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Manuel Conde is our newest National Artist for Film

The late filmmaker Manuel Conde will be proclaimed National Artist for Film in June 2009. He is the seventh film personality to receive the nation's highest accolade for artists. The other film artists accorded the distinguished title were Lamberto Avellana, Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Gerardo de Leon, Fernando Poe Jr., and Eddie Romero.

Conde directed Genghis Khan (1950), the first Filipino film to gain recognition in a major international film festival. The film was honored for technical achievement at the Venice Film Festival in 1952. Critics raved at the epic feel of the low-budget film. They marveled at the authenticity of the little horses used for the film.

During the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival 2008, a retrospective of Conde films was held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). I was surprised to see Genghis Khan listed as one of the films to be shown. With the state of film preservation efforts in the country, it was a miracle to see the film in widescreen. The amazing film still holds up very well. It was a fast-paced thrilling epic with bits of humorous scenes.

There were six other Conde films shown at the CCP and the University of the Philippines. The original Ibong Adarna (1941) is a visual treat. Among the tricks utilized by Conde were matte painting to convey grandeur of castle, deep focus camerawork during the giant scene, and a Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequence. The film is also known as the first local movie to feature a color sequence. The part showing the transformation of the Adarna bird was tinted with color. However, the version shown at CCP did not have the colored sequence.

Conde dabbled in different film genres. Senorito (1953) is a romantic comedy. I saw traces of Chiquito in the proud character played by Conde. The film also had a stunning in-your-face fist fight scene. Then, there were the actioners, El Robo (1957), Venganza (1958), and Krus na Kawayan (1956). Once again, the realistic bloody scenes (eg. torture and stabbing scenes) stand out in these films. Film critic Nicanor Tiongson noted that five persons died during the perilous shooting of Krus na Kawayan. I failed to see the comedy film, Pilipino Kostum - No Touch (1955).

From the extant films of Conde, I noticed the strong emphasis on visuals, realistic violence, and suave humor. The maverick director collaborated with National Artist for Visual Arts, Carlos Botong Francisco in his films. The production design and cinematography gave Genghis Khan a sweeping, majestic look. Conde was also able to mix brutal violent scenes with funny scenes in this film and other films.

In connection with the Conde retrospective, Tiongson's book on the maverick filmmaker had its launching at the CCP. Among the guests was reclusive director and future National Artist for Film, Mike de Leon. Almost all the film buffs there had their eyes fixed on the jacket-clad filmmaker. He went out of his way to show his respect and appreciation to a true film master, Manuel Conde.

The book titled The Cinema of Manuel Conde is a dazzling opener to the world of Conde films. With the dearth of existing Conde films, the book gives a strong defense for Conde's proclamation as a National Artist for Film. A reading of the synopses of the highly-acclaimed Juan Tamad films will make a Filipino film buff cry. He will weep because the excellent films are no longer available for viewing. Another reason is that the social problems (eg. corruption and vote buying) tackled in the films did not fade away.

Try to get a copy of Tiongson and Cesar Hernando's book. It is the first of a twelve-part series on Filipino film directors. The book, just like its subject, is truly magnificent.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Marie-Jo and Her Two Loves (Robert Guediguian, 2002)

The French, it seems, do not shock so easily; they aren’t rigid, hardened moralists about to cry foul at the prospect of moral depravity. Well, at least not in the artificial world of movies. The theme of marital infidelity, for one, has obsessed many French filmmakers for a long while and established an extensive tradition of controversial filmmaking. In Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, a husband declares his dalliances with a woman with the full expectation that his wife would understand him. Louis Malle’s Les Amants is regarded as one of the watershed films in this subset, featuring the most torrid sexual scenes at the time of its initial screening across Europe. Other exponents of this much-contested theme are Claire Denis, whose Friday Night apotheosizes one tryst, and Bertrand Blier, whose films like Trop Belle Pour Toi and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs were not only well-received but also well-awarded.

The canon is expanding every day. Of recent vintage is Robert Guediguian’s Marie-Jo and Her Two Loves, where this time, it is a woman who asserts her questionable subjectivity. Marie-Jo, the main character, is torn between what can only be reductively called a romantic love and a pragmatic love. To her, at first, there doesn’t even seem to be a distinction between sex and love. She seems to be playing it by ear. What makes this scenario more remarkable is the fact that Daniel, her husband, and Marco, the lover, seem amenable to a three-cornered relationship. When the husband senses the tell-tale signs of infidelity and verifies the affair, he teeters between confronting her and keeping quiet. He chooses the latter. While on the other hand the lover is reduced to importuning her over the phone for the next tryst. He doesn’t demand her divorce and allows things to go on as before.

Marie-Jo, in truth, is caught between two equally desirable choices. Daniel is a thoughtful and devoted type of man who may lack learning and education but whose love and constancy for Marie-Jo cannot be questioned. Marco, on the other hand, is the stuff of romance and robust love: a good-looking man with a felicitously effusive tongue, he is a well-traveled seafarer who knows a hundred cultures and can regale any listener with fantastic tales for hours on end. Marie-Jo starts her affair on purely sexual grounds with him, but ends up head over heels in love. Enough for her to abandon Daniel and her daughter Julie.

Set in the seaside city of Marseille, with recurrent shots of massive hulls of ships and wide expanses of water, the film tests the openness to forbidden relationships of its world-wise inhabitants. Surprisingly everyone around Marie-Jo approves of her affair with Marco and entertain the possibility of her leaving Daniel for the lover: a workmate of Marco’s, a patient at the hospital where Marie-Jo is a nurse. It is for the simple reason that she seems noticeably “happy” and the lover likewise.

What makes this film with a tricky theme a highly watchable affair is its recognition of relational details, details that can be telling and diverting. In one scene, Marco asks for a full disclosure of Marie-Jo’s day at home like a lovesick, forlorn lover. Hesitatingly she proceeds to describe all her domesticities, and stops humorously – to the dismay of the lover – when she comes to a point of describing what the husband does sexually to her. Another equally diverting scene is when Marie-Jo sets up Marco to meet her family and both sides end up liking each other.

Marie-Jo and Her Two Loves (2002) seems to mark a departure for the director of The Town is Quiet (2000). Missing from the former film is the almost ethnographic study of Guediguian’s hometown, Marseille, and its locals; in its place is something akin to a fable, not a moral one but one about human foibles that cannot be judged or faulted. With that, the film concludes with a poetic but perhaps too contrived ending – the deep blue sea, a watery deus-ex-machina.

Forum on Mike de Leon's Sister Stella L

Cine Adarna, UP Diliman, Quezon City (March 20, 2009) – Award-winning actress Vilma Santos and showbiz colleagues shared their stories at a forum dealing with Mike de Leon's Sister Stella L. The reunion was part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the film.

The seven panelists were Vilma, actress Laurice Guillen, scriptwriter Pete Lacaba, production designer Cesar Hernando, producer Mother Lily Monteverde, film critic Mario Hernando, and film academician Roland Tolentino.

Mother Lily and Vilma narrated that they cried during the first showing day of the film in 1984. The film suffered a severe box-office beating by Sharon Cuneta's movie Bukas Luluhod ang mga Tala. The film of the Star for All Seasons was groveling in the dust.

But 25 years later, Vilma's film is still the talk of the town and is rightly recognized as one of the best Filipino films of the 20th century. Roland Tolentino enumerated the three major reasons why the film is a gem of Philippine cinema. He noted the excellent acting by Vilma and the rest of the cast. Laurice Guillen remarked that she had to let go of her stage mannerisms in order to properly portray a nun. It remains a milestone in her acting career. A somewhat embarrassed Vilma admitted that she was clueless on the film’s message during the course of the shooting.

Tolentino also highlighted the social realism of the film. Labor problems, persecution of media, and harassment of nuns were effectively portrayed in the film. A forum listener, Sister Rosario Battung, confirmed that her colleagues were stalked by military men during the Marcos regime. They were being harassed by the police and soldiers. A Kilusang Mayo Uno member said the film was always one of the films viewed at picket lines. Pete Lacaba butted in to say that hopefully the DVD copy was an original one. He also noted that media persecution got worse during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Radio commentators and print journalists were being killed.

The last one mentioned by Tolentino was the Brechtian ending. Sister Stella L was directly speaking to the audience. She was exhorting the people to take a stand against human rights abuses. Cesar Hernando confirmed that there was a different ending shown at the Venice Film Festival. The festival version showed the monologue by Sister Stella L. It was then followed by a shot of multitudes attending a huge anti-Marcos rally. The courageous film was instructing people to join anti-Marcos rallies!

Mario Hernando said the likes of Sister Stella L may never be produced again. It was made during a time of intense patriotism among the Filipinos. Nowadays, love for country among Filipinos ranks way below love for family, love for career, and love for box-office money. Mother Lily shrugged off from doing more relevant films due to the film’s poor showing at the box office. It was a surprise then to hear Mother Lily saying that she plans to do another Sister Stella L during the forum. I had a blast seeing the eyes of the usually stoic Tolentino nearly pop out.

Lacaba touched on the genesis of the script. Mon Isberto wrote a script on nuns involved in agrarian reform. The script metamorphosed into a Lacaba story dealing with an activist nun in the city. During pre-production, Lacaba begged off from editing the script. He was then working on what would be Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim. De Leon and Jose Almojuela were the ones who pruned Lacaba's script. Ellen Ongkeko added some dialogues.

De Leon and his crew had an easy time shooting the film. Cesar Hernando said it was one of the easiest shoots of a de Leon film. The real reason may have been the professionalism and efficiency of the film crew. Vilma shared the story of how the crew worked into the night preparing for the next day’s shooting. She loves to work with de Leon again. She hopes de Leon will make more films. That is also the fervent wish of countless local film buffs.

Film trivia:

Sangandaan - Film producer Marichu Vera Perez found the original title of the film to be too serious and suggested Sister Stella L as title

Sister Stella L - During research, Pete Lacaba interviewed several Stella Maris nuns. He decided to use Stella as the activist nuns' first name. The shortened surname was cribbed from Sophia Loren's film Lady L

Republic Oil Factory - the setting for the fictional factory is a true factory owned by producer Mother Lily Monteverde

Kung hindi tayo kikilos, sino ang kikilos? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa? - The immortal lines were coined by Ditto Sarmiento, editor-in-chief of The Collegian

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Un Secret (Claude Miller, 2007)

Claude Miller’s Un Secret, based on Philippe Grimbert’s autobiographical novel of the same name, concerns, as the title suggests, a family secret (in truth, more like a hundred secrets), and as many well-kept secrets go, it isn’t a flattering one. Thirty-seven-year old Francois Grimbert narrates in pensive voice-over his remembered childhood, the experiences of his parents before his birth, and how this withheld information has shaped his own identity and what he sees in hindsight.

There are several threads to this convoluted story. Before Francois is born, encompassing the Second World War. When Francois is 7 years old. When Francois is 14 years old. All intercut with the present, when Francois is 37 years old, in scenes shot curiously in monochrome. The rest of the film is in color. Why that is, one can merely speculate. Perhaps this seeming cleft is in need of healing and harmonization, resolution and reconciliation?

Plot is thick and verges on the sensational. Suffice to say that Un Secret is a tale of jealousy, guilt, revenge, infidelity, regret. And then some. It happens to involve Parisian Jews living before, during and after the Second World War. A further twist sees them, at least some of them, escaping to rural France.

At 7 years old, Francois is a frail boy who can never measure up to his athletic, well-built parents. His father, Maxime, is an accomplished gymnast, while his mother, Tania, is an admired platform diver. They seem to be perfect, too perfect, human specimens, cut from a different cloth next to him. He invents a robust imaginary brother, an equal of his parents, who strangely haunts him in his dreams. At this point, one obligatorily wonders: is he someone else’s son? The answer is no, and it is best left unsaid for those who intend to watch this film.

As twist piles on twist, told in one flashback after another, Francois will discover his Jewish roots, his parents’ reason for changing their tell-tale Jewish name. His parents' odyssey during the great war. There will also emerge the real reason for the spectral presence of a brother. There will also surface the names of Hannah and Robert and Simon, fellow Jews, not unrelated to each other and to the Grimbert family.

It is a creditable juggling act that writer-director Claude Miller achieves in Un Secret. The various plot threads, the many characters, are enough to confuse the casual viewer, but Miller paints a personalized yet sweeping canvas (with different film stocks, different colors) with aplomb and assurance. There is even enough time to insert gruesome newsreel of dead, emaciated Jews in mass graves. Un Secret, however, just stops short of melodrama: Miller balances restrained exposition and sentiment very well. It’s a film that will work well as a film on Jews, or as family drama. Almost too sensationalistic and too crowd-pleasing for its own good, Un Secret takes its place just beneath Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants and De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This pantheon needs to open a new wing fast.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

L'Esquive (Abdel Kechiche, 2003)

I remember the civil tremors that rocked Paris and other major suburbs across France in October and November 2005. They would be televised to us from half a world away in the form of harrowing, post-apocalyptic images on the evening news. Shots of burning cars and public buildings, scenes of youths fighting pitch battles with riot police—all still linger in my mind. They marked a social upheaval that recalled the uprisings of May 1968 and prompted fears of government overthrow. It all seems to have stemmed from the deadly electrocution of two minority teenagers perceived to have been caused by brutal police persecution. It dredged up and brought to the fore decades of long-simmering resentment by marginalized masses, mainly North Africans and other émigrés, who had suffered from racism and xenophobia.

Abdel Kechiche’s L’Esquive, shot almost prophetically in 2003, paints the grim picture in one of the disenfranchised housing projects where many of the minorities have been relegated. This film depicts life at the periphery, the brutalized conditions of the ghettos arising from state neglect and public paranoia. In French, esquive is a sporting term that refers to a sidestep. In Kechiche’s film, it is about Muslim teenagers learning to navigate the everyday dangers of the banlieues. Shot properly in cinema-verite style – in the manner of Raymond Depardon and Frederick Wiseman – L’Esquive is a documentary of adversity and resiliency disguised as fiction, capturing graphically the pent-up and misplaced energies of its young subjects. It is equally made memorable and resonant by the naturalistic performances of its ensemble cast: all of them seem to be non-professionals playing their own lives.

At the film’s center is the budding young love between Krimo, an inarticulate hood, and Lydia, a glib, indomitable theatre actress. But we know the prospects of romance here seem false and out of place, they may not be forthcoming, and yet we are glad that this film is not about extreme displays of violence either. We don’t even mind that all of the characters seem to be screaming at the top of their lungs each time they speak. (It seems to be the norm: even friends engage each other in these seemingly uncivil ways). There are no death tolls mounting here, but this is a film that paradoxically conveys its points subtly: we know at the end who will most likely live less-than-peaceful destinies and those who will execute the appropriate esquive.

What L’Esquive captures instead is the tough-as-grits explosion of language. At every turn, there is the prospect of heated altercation. This is Kechiche’s sense of proxy violence, his fiery brand of pacifism and diplomacy: rage and anger transmuted and expressed in words. Krimo’s father is behind bars and is only mentioned in passing. We know that Krimo is in a gang, too, but all we witness of him is his brooding ways, his often funny inability to articulate his thoughts and feelings. Much of the violence happens offscreen: Kechiche insulates us from its easy spectacle. It is enough to pit his characters in the dialectics of the streets for us to get a sense of their unsettled, unnerving lives. They snarl like lions; their voices growl; and their idiom is not fit for the faint-hearted. And yet they are not afraid to laugh and cry, to express their fears and their hesitations.

The best that L’Esquive offers to the viewer is the value of sublimation. Characters like Lydia and her ‘homeys’ devote their all to the theatre and at film’s end, there is a sense of their assimilation of social skills that will help them integrate into wider society. Lydia in particular goes around in a period costume – her comfort, escapist blanket? – in order to internalize her role in a Marivaux play. It is enough to intrigue Krimo, who drops his old girlfriend and tries his hand at acting. But as the drama professor points out the thesis to Marivaux’s Triumph of Love: the much-hardened, much-brutalized Krimo is too much a product of a violent upbringing to take on the role of the harlequin. And yet like the-once-diffident Lydia, Krimo would stand an even chance of redemption if he just kept at it long enough. If he just kept at it long enough.

L’Esquive won 4 Cesar Awards in 2005, including one for Best Film.