Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tirador (Brillante Mendoza, 2007)

Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador opens summarily and briskly with a police raid on a shantytown in the outskirts of Quiapo. Rendered In a cinema-verite vein, it's a night sequence that simulates what we see on the evening news, the herky-jerky camera work that documents all manner of interrupted illegality – and in this breeding ground of criminals, out they come tumbling.

The element of surprise rattles the unsuspecting: packets of drugs and other paraphernalia go flying out the windows, prostitution stops short of consummation, and the guilty, who must feel accordingly so, take a dive into fetid waters to escape. No exit for the unwitting – except for those who have learned to adapt to these specialized lives, those who know the loopholes of the law and can humor them.

It’s a heady and humorous beginning to what is essentially a cross-section of the underbelly of Quiapo, a portrait of the small-time criminals whose fates literally crisscross in the commerce and commotion of its busy streets. Much of the humor and irony can be self-deprecating, taking to heart, it seems, the truism that the Filpino laughs at his own misfortunes. And there can be as much misfortune as fortune in the act of everyday survival. Mendoza’s criminals are not smooth and infallible operators, but they know how to roll with the punches.

There is young Odie who pilfers coins from unattended gambling machines. Caloy must turn to snatching after his pedicab is heartlessly repossessed. Odie’s father will take your valuables at knifepoint, but shares his meager takings with adopted families. Rex and Tes are a couple in more ways than one, pilfering expensive electronics in well-coordinated tandem.

In Tirador, most of these men and women, young and old, have long ago stopped sentimentalizing the despondency of being at the bottom of the social totem pole. Even among their own kind, there is no letting their guard down. They live by the cold laws of the urban jungle, where Social Darwinism applies with ruthlessness as well as with finesse. One can never afford to turn his back on a cowering figure or a seemingly repentant or remorseful quarry. They are a pack of chameleons with well-practiced masks, all honed to second nature.

Mendoza’s social commentary – leavened by streetwise idiom and the jargon of gangsters and thieves – levels the breakdown of law and order on the whole rotten hierarchy of society. The usual suspects are easy targets and not spared here: they whose faces are plastered all over walls like so many posters of wanted criminals. But the culture of cynicism and immorality are more deeply entrenched. Politicians and religion are partly singled out, but in truth, it’s an over-determined state of things. Corruption breeds corruption, ad infinitum.

To disentangle the coils of corruption, however, is not, ultimately, Tirador's purpose. What’s paramount is its study of self-preservation. Nothing is sacred here-- so that the feast of the Black Nazarene is not just a moment for religious fervour – but provides singular opportunities for thievery. Grand electoral rallies, with the fiery motherhood speeches of the country’s supreme leaders, are equally promising bonanzas for thieves.

Tirador, as the foregoing suggests, is sheer gritty realism – but not angry, certainly not vociferously so. Paradoxically it radiates raw and lurid power with underplayed drama. As a piece of docudrama, it has much method and stripped-down production values in common with Mendoza’s other real-time film, Manoro. It’s a visual departure from the self-conscious aestheticism of his other films namely Masahista and Serbis. But in Tirador, there is a hand-in-glove dovetailing of form and content. The handheld, in-the-trenches camera work goes hand in hand with street-level proceedings, observing without comment what would otherwise be sentimentalized or overdramatized. Where exploitation might be unavoidable, Tirador achieves sheer human compassion.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kinatay (2009, Brillante Mendoza)

This is no ordinary Brillante Mendoza film.

Vividly colored snippets of people doing their routine morning chores. Friendly game of basketball among the young men. Tween girls running an errand. A cook cutting a chicken into pieces. Happy portrait of a couple with their cute boy.

Is this really a Brillante Mendoza film?

Employing an Alfred Hitchcock's trick in Rear Window, the Mendoza film lures the audience into the blissful, carefree world of Peping (Coco Martin), a soon-to-be-married criminology student. The beautifully-lensed daytime segment takes a voyeuristic peek into the activities of Peping's neighbors. This segment will soon segue into a cheesy interlude onboard a jeepney and ultimately culminating in the joyous wedding celebrations. However, the daytime segment ends with an ominous shot of a red-tinged sunset.

Night falls and we see Peping running an errand for a criminal syndicate headed by rogue cops. His friend Abyong (Jhong Hilario) later convinces him to join an operation. They catch up with their colleagues inside a family van. A prostitute named Madonna (Ma. Isabel Lopez) becomes the last rider to hop onboard.

What follows is a Stygian journey into the pits of hell. Peping didn't expect anyone to receive any kind of beating. When the gang members start gagging Madonna and tying up her hands, Peping helplessly looks on. Sarge (John Regala) slaps and kicks the prostitute. The muffled cries of Madonna eventually died down. A shocked Peping can't believe the events transpiring before him. Even if he wanted to leave, he knows he can't get pass through the tight-guarding Cerberus-like trio near the van's door.

Scriptwriter Armando 'Bing' Lao provides a solid depiction of Peping's slow descent into the heart of darkness. After the group unloads the unconscious prostitute in a house, Peping contemplates on ditching the group. Escape is not an easy option, though. The group members are mostly cops-turned-hardened criminals and he is just a student. They won't hesitate to kill him. The crooked police captain (Julio Diaz) drags Peping further down the abyss by giving him a gun. The lure of power clouded the student's judgment. Soon, he is fetching sacks that will be used in the disposal of Madonna's chopped-up body parts.

The Stygian trip back to the city is equally hellish for Peping. Madonna failed to pay the required money and was soon thrown, limb by limb, out of the vehicle. The stench of the rape-slay crime overcomes Peping. He vomitted and realized that he has reneged on his school oath. He can never get back the much-desired integrity.

This is no ordinary Brillante Mendoza film.

Kinatay is the most terrifying film made by Mendoza. To horror fans out there who have never seen a movie by Brillante Mendoza, now is the right time to savor the brilliance of a Mendoza film. The suspense ratchets up to the roof since the start of the Stygian journey. The film's chills quotient never flags down. It maintains its feverish pitch until the end. The most chilling sight is seeing a pot-bellied man washing bits of skin and blood off his body. The man, who will later don a long-sleeved white polo, is Sarge, a police officer. Criminal cops? Scary stuff. The scarier part is they do really exist. As the Dagdag National Artist Carlo J. Caparas would say, 'God have mercy on us!'

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional (2005, Raya Martin)

‘Know yourself first,’ said the old man. And thus, the brilliant, multi-storied film unfolds the history of the common man. For more than 300 years of Spanish rule, the common man was fed with tales of miraculous cures, manna, and promised deliverer. He was taught Christian teachings such as loving your enemies and being patient.

The first story features a young bell ringer, who grows up steeped in religion and miracles. Even a natural occurrence like a solar eclipse is seen as a miraculous event like the raining of manna. The children with their mouths wide agape seem to be in the act of receiving communion. The darkened sun may have been enticing as a eucharistic host.

There is a remarkable shot of elderly women streaming out of a church. In all of Martin’s films, this sepia-tinged shot was one of a few times wherein Martin got the effect he always wanted: an early 20th century picture coming to life. What makes it doubly memorable was the preceding segment dealt with a religious statue that allegedly comes to life.

Another story deals with an actor involved in a theatrical presentation of the Legend of Bernardo Carpio. The legend, as propagated by the Spaniards, tells the sad fate of an insurrecto trapped between two moving mountains. Every time Bernardo Carpio tries to break free, the earth shudders. The people content themselves with the thought that some day, Bernardo Carpio will successfully break free and lead them out of bondage.

The theatrical people participated in a game wherein they come up with words that define nationhood for the common man. One word seems to encompass all given words; and that word is yearning.

The penultimate story focuses on the yearning for freedom. Abuses by the friars and the Spanish government took its toll on the patient indios. A stunning and highly effective shot sees a group of indios throwing a Spanish friar into the river. A young man enlists to become a member of the revolutionary army. Unfortunately, the proletarian revolution failed because of lack of arms. An illustrado-led revolutionary army continued the fight against the Spaniards.

Raya Martin's A Short Film About the Indio Nacional ends with the sidetracked indio contemplating on his ideas of freedom and nationhood, while bourgeois-led events unravel on. These events will lead to the prolonged sorrow of the Filipino nation. Until now, the masses still yearn for a Bernardo Carpio, a hero, or a leader who will lead them out of poverty.

With allusions ranging from Jose Rizal’s novels to Andres Bonifacio’s failed revolution, the film works on various levels that it needs to be seen repeatedly to fully grasp its beauty and intellect. Every viewing unleashes new things. I can’t wait to see it for the nth time!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In My Life (2009, Olivia Lamasan)

Vilma Santos chose this as her comeback film in lieu of Raya Martin's Independencia. The latter film is among the best films released so far this year, while In My Life will soon be forgotten after the media hype whimpers down.

The blurbs boldly scream... Passionate scene of John Lloyd Cruz and Luis Manzano! Acting showdown between Cruz and Vilma!! 16th Anniversary Presentation of Star Cinema!!!

The prolific production company should have selected a better story for the triumvirate of Vilma, Cruz, and Manzano. The movie starts with Noel Villanueva (John Lloyd Cruz) worrying about the impending visit of his lover's mother. Shirley Templo (Vilma Santos) is a cranky librarian and former physical education teacher, who belatedly visits her birth country, the United States of America. She hesitantly goes to New York City to stay with her son, Mark Salvacion (Luis Manzano). She learns soon enough that Mark is living in with Noel.

The film shows New York City as a place where everyone is free to choose his/her lover, regardless of looks, race, and sexual orientation. The non-Filipino actors were surprisingly good. They really seem to be residents. Heck, they probably are city residents. However, I'm bothered with the film's depiction of the city's dark side. It shows an African-American harassing Shirley.

Luis Manzano has a memorable scene with his mom, Vilma. The picnic scene shows Mark with Shirley. They have a one-on-one talk about how Shirley began to distance herself from Mark because of his sexuality. Manzano was so gay-ingly good in this scene. He did not portray Mark as the swishy type but is still convincing as a homosexual. Manzano will figure in another memorable and well-directed scene. Nope, it is not the passionate scene but the one involving him and his preoccupation with his cellphone.

The much-hyped passionate scene is a dud. If you blink, then you will probably miss it. The beautiful shot before the kissing scene is the one that should have been talked about. We see Noel hugging Mark while a tear drop rolls down his cheek. Now, that is a passionate person who is very much in love!

There are directing and script flaws that bother me. The travelogue scenes diminish the impact of the fish-out-of-the-water concept. The initial scenes give the impression that Shirley is very much adapted to the city. Also, Shirley is not a bumbling moron. She is an educated person and a librarian at that. The wacky scenes are completely out of line.

The film seems to be about how a mother comes to grips with her homophobia. Well, it turns out, that she is not only distant to her son but also to her two daughters. She is not homophobic. She is plainly a bad mother. How she ended up being a bad mother was not tackled at all. The film was so caught up with other topics such as marriage for convenience, and gay couples that it forgot the major topic.

Director Olivia Lamasan wasn't able to repeat her magic in Sana Maulit Muli. Her latest film is an acting showcase for Manzano and Cruz. Sadly, it is hampered by a cluttered story. There are better films released out there. Showing at indieSine is Jerrold Tarog's technically-competent Mangatyanan. And, there's the magnificent Independencia, which will have its last screening at the UP Cine Adarna on Saturday (September 19) at 1:00 pm. See the excellent movie that Vilma rejected as her comeback film.
Photo from Star Cinema

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Panudlak (2008, Ray Defante Gibraltar)

VSO Bahaginan has been affecting lives of poor people around the world via its corps of volunteers. These change warriors share their knowledge and skills in order to alleviate poverty in their assigned areas. The inspiring stories of two volunteers are depicted in the docu-fiction Panudlak.

Volunteers are portrayed as sowers of hope. The documentary juxtaposed volunteerism with the Panudlak rituals in the Visayas. Farmers adhere to age-old planting traditions and rites to ensure good harvest. VSO Bahaginan also aspires for fruitful placements of members. The non-governmental organization mobilizes efficient and effective professionals and assigns them to their rightful volunteer positions.

When the group started looking for filmmakers, director Ray Gibraltar volunteered (but, of course!) and was sent to Cambodia to document the experiences of two Filipino professionals, Debbie Santentes and Manuel Reyes. Santentes works as a district education adviser, while Reyes is an organization and project management adviser.

Homesickness and isolation are the major concerns of the two Filipinos. Each of them works alone as sole Filipino volunteer in their respective district. However, their loneliness, doubts, and fears vanish every time they see their projects come to fruition. A well-stocked library, a piggery business, and a water treatment system are just some of the valuable projects that make a big difference in the lives of impoverished people in Cambodia.

The psychological insights of Katrin de Guia serve as a nice overview of why Filipino volunteers adapt so well in other countries. Their sense of kapwa makes them empathetic to the needs of downtrodden people. The feeling of pakiramdam helps the volunteers gauge when to join a group or how to blend in with the community.

Almost an hour in length, the documentary should have been pruned down. There are repetitive scenes dealing with the projects. Then there are the scenes that linger on such as the farewell and last day of Santentes. I don’t know if it is really intended but the erratic editing gives the viewers a detached view of the two volunteers. It is not entirely a bad thing because the focus shifts towards the development projects, which are the fruits of the volunteers’ sacrifices.

The documentary gives a no-frills portrait of how ordinary people can make a big difference. Every development initiative, no matter how small, is a big step toward making the world a little less unfortunate and a little less troubling. To learn more about the VSO Bahaginan, visit http://www.vsobahaginan.org.ph/

Friday, September 11, 2009

Manoro (Brillante Mendoza, 2006)

By now, everyone must be quite familiar with the teachings and tenets of real-time filmmaking, a paradigm of Filipino cinema pioneered by the avuncular Armando Lao. A slew of successes in recent years that includes Jeffrey Jeturian’s Kubrador and Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador has given it a high artistic profile. Manoro, another film by Mendoza, continues to demonstrate the virtues of this school of filmmaking. A film of disarming and deceptive simplicity, Manoro, which means teacher in the Aeta language, chronicles a handful of days in the life of Jonalyn Ablong, a young Aeta tasked to help and teach her fellow Aetas -- illiterates all --to fill out ballot forms.

The year is 2004 and it is the eve of presidential elections. Armed with basic equipment and a makeshift blackboard, young Jonalyn must traverse a dying landscape, past water-lily-strangled streams, across lahar-choked plains and mountains, to instruct her fellow Aetas on how to put their presidential choices into writing. Whether taking pains to write down FPJ, GMA, or Lacson, there seems to be a child-like struggle to do so. Meanwhile, Jonalyn’s grandmother’s mind seems to be elsewhere – before a simple attack of black ants disperses this gathering.

There is also the matter of fetching Jonalyn’s grandfather who has gone hunting for wild boar in the mountains. She and her father must make a long, arduous trek through treacherous trails to look for him if he is to cast his ballot the following day. Jonalyn’s father seems equally fickle about the coming elections, and seems more inclined to find employment at a South Korean project in the vicinity. But that, too, requires filling out forms.

Manoro is as much about a portrait of a young teenage girl (i.e. the disproportion between her ability and her mission), as it is about a portrait of an indigenous people. Ralston Jover’s script offers a quietly burning reproach to the Aetas: depicted as a closely-knit community who share the fruits of the hunt and everything else, there are also less than flattering jabs in their direction. Take their worship of pagan gods to whom much is attributed. Take their flighty and fickle stance towards the election, the allegory of the lowly ants that can scatter them. They seem to be caught unsure at a crucial crossroads, no longer simply hunter-gatherers but not fully absorbed into modern society just yet.

With a cast of characters who play themselves, with a highly suitable use of hand-held cameras and a documentary approach, Manoro evokes a multi-faceted fable – of troubled hope and of a people caught in retreat. There are faint echoes of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards and Kiarostami’s Where is The Friend's House? and other Iranian films to be found in this film. There are also slight resonances of the mysticism of something like Souleymane Cisse’s Yeelen. But Manoro lays solid and unshakable claim to what it portrays. Filmmakers of the old schools, sit up and take notice!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ploning (Dante Nico Garcia, 2008)

Ploning, written and directed by Dante Nico Garcia, has a tantalizing provenance.

Its origins are not written literature or factual story, but one mysterious folk song. Garcia recalls how many years ago, he was made to hear, at a gathering of friends, a Cuyonon love song about a man who leaves behind his love and their island home with a vow of steadfast love and eventual return. Mysterious and meager, the lyrics hinted teasingly at Ploning, the woman of the title. But it was premise enough for the director, setting the creative wheels into motion. For years, the film gestated steadily, with Garcia ultimately crafting his own rendition of the story (with the help of Benjamin Lingan) and envisioning it as a vehicle for actress-friend Judy Ann Santos.

Ploning takes place mostly in Cuyo, an island off mainland Palawan that once served as the province’s capital. The rich and sumptuous colors of this island’s nature and culture – the verdant greens, the sparkling oceanic blues, the ochres and other earth tones – are perfectly captured through Charlie Peralta’s unerring cinematography. One of the film’s recurring motifs is the Ati-Ati Festival, full of festivity and pavonine colors. The Cuyonons are no less endearing, their tightly-knit sense of community and their leisurely way of life, a gentle reproach to the world outside. The Cuyonon language gives the film its own lilting and subtle rhythms.

The film opens in the high seas on an illegal Taiwanese fishing vessel plying the waters off Palawan. One of the crew is Muo Sei, a 30-year-old dark-skinned man who seems quick to pick fights with his crewmates. His Taiwanese boss, who keeps a fatherly eye on him, tells him how he keeps enunciating the name of Ploning in his sleep. He suggests that Muo Sei should try to figure out what it all means and make peace with his past. He is given a one-day furlough on Cuyo to find out what he can about his past.

Muo Sei, it turns out, is Rodrigo, a native of Cuyo who was given up for lost 25 years ago in a sea mishap. In search of the mysterious woman in his dreams, Rodrigo retraces his steps and returns to all the places he once knew, their old village, Ploning’s house, where little is left but a picture of him and the woman. We begin to see the past through Rodrigo as a 5-year-old child; and towards the end, through Ploning’s confidante, Celeste.

As the memories return, Rodrigo enfleshes Ploning and an ensemble of characters that populate Cuyo. Like the woman of the song, Ploning was known around the village for remaining faithful to one Tomas, who had left town for some pressing reason. This left her with a reserved and distant countenance. We barely see it though. Ploning’s presence, if anything, seems lovingly communal: a composite of feminine ideals, assuming many womanly roles and providing succor to those in straitened circumstances. She was the sun, the island’s stalwart: a motherly presence to Rodrigo as a 5-year-old boy and Siloy, a broken-hearted, young man who admires her apparent faithfulness to Tomas; a sisterly figure to Celeste, a nurse from Manila, and Alma, a single mother who can unburden only to Ploning; and a daughterly presence, however aloof, to her father, Susing, and Juaning, a bedridden paralytic, Rodrigo’s mother.

Writer-director Garcia seems to be tiptoeing around his subjects: his affection and reverence for Ploning and the Cuyonons, on one hand, and bosom-friend Judy Ann Santos, and her retinue of established and non-professional actors, on the other, has preempted the earthy and seamy side of characters to show. (Apparently there is a dark side to Ploning, but you’d never know if you missed one expository moment.) We should have been tipped off : Ploning comes billed as Judy Ann Santos’s 30th birthday offering: the filmmakers are careful to mythologize – and folklorize – its lead actress.

This also happens to be the maiden offering of Panoramanila, a hybrid production house of independent filmmaking and major industrial logistics, which has a self-appointed ethnocentric thrust of throwing the Filipino and his archipelago into flattering relief. It succeeds in its purpose, but it has also produced a film with touristy tension, devoid of genuine conflict and replete with treacly, winsome characters.

There are structural cracks in the narrative that should be mentioned, too: many of the key events in the characters’ lives, for one, are not shown but told. The talkiness, the endlessly expository nature of the dialogue, is only meant to ventilate the beautiful cadences of the Cuyonon language. (This film is weary of the imperialism of Tagalog.) Another flaw is how the narrative momentum seems retarded by the crisscrossing of present events and flashbacks. Ploning loses much emotional and climactic power because of this.

Ploning would go on to become the Philippines’ entry to the 81st Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film Category. Not my kind of film, but the film authorities could have made a worse choice, let’s put it that way.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In Da Red Korner (2006, Dado Lumibao)

The late critic Alexis Tioseco wished that more Filipinos get to see the following underrated films, In Da Red Korner, and Ray Defante Gibraltar's When Timawa Meets Delgado. These influential movies are indeed little gems of independent cinema. Both films feature innovative approaches to storytelling and tackle major obsessions by Filipinos.

In Da Red Korner deals with boxing, while When Timawa Meets Delgado is a hilarious mockumentary on nursing. It had been a long time since I saw the latter film, so I’ll just focus on the boxing film, which sometimes crop up on Cinema One.

Lumibao's movie chronicles the travails of female lightweight boxer Rhodora 'Doring' Villamor (Meryll Soriano). It is three days before the finals of the National Open Amateur Boxing Championship and she is still struggling to reach the ideal weight of 60 kilos. She forgoes having meals and does extra hours of practice in order to shed some pounds. The early part of the film showcases the training camp for boxers. We see the spartan conditions of the boxers’ quarters. We see the rugged mountains with grazing goats.

After conquering her weight problem, Doring encounters another formidable foe, dysmenorrhea. She prepared for the arrival of this foe by stocking up on essential things. However, a drug addict stole her toiletries and medical kit. She spends the eve of the championship searching for sanitary napkins and pain killers. This middle segment of the film features an influential tracking shot done at night. Doring was out in the rain desperately looking for the precious napkins. She scours the dark streets in search for open retail stores. Dark tracking scenes such as these became common in later films such as Tribu and Engkwentro.

The last part of the film focuses on the day of the boxing championship. Director Lumibao presents a realistic portrait of happenings at a boxing event. The casual and humorous annotations by the ringside broadcaster are mostly spot-on. We see a singer botch up the ending of the national anthem. We see female boxers engage in some bits of wrestling atop the ring.

In Da Red Korner is one of the pioneering ‘real-time’ films of 2006, along with Kubrador and Manoro. All three films have different subjects and directors but they are alike in most aspects. They all feature female protagonists. They employ a 3-day period as time frame. Then, there are the tracking shots showing the places that the leads tread on. Even their endings are the same. Things end up badly for the three leads.

If you're wondering why those films are all alike, then wonder no more. All of them have the creative mark of Armando Lao, probably the best scriptwriter working in the country right now. He started tinkering with the real-time mode in 2004 and perfected it in 2006. That year saw 'real-time' films barge into local film consciousness via film festivals such as Cinemalaya and Cinemanila. Those films prepared the audience to accept future films with innovative and experimental approaches to storytelling.

Yearning to watch some real-time films? Catch the Brillante Mendoza masterpieces, Manoro and Tirador at UP Videotheque, with screenings until Saturday (September 12). Check out also the Sindie Film Festival, which is currently running at Robinsons Galleria. Tribu and Engkwentro will be shown there.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Kimmy Dora (Kambal Sa Kiyeme) (2009, Binibining Joyce Bernal)

So far, 2009 has been a decent year for excellent, widely popular comedy films. These include the Sine Direk standout Ded Na Si Lolo by Soxie Topacio and the Cinemalaya Best Picture winner Last Supper No. 3 by Veronica Velasco. The latest funny romp is Kimmy Dora, a much-awaited return to form of director Bernal.

The petite filmmaker collaborated with some of the best people working on the film industry. One of them is actress Eugene Domingo. Restricted mostly to being sidekicks in movies, Domingo can easily upstage the leads with her excellent thespian skills. Equally adept in dramatic and comic roles, she can evoke empathy because of her ability to get behind the skin of her character.

In this laugh-out-loud film, Domingo portrays not one but two widely diverse characters, Kimmy and Dora. Borrowing some tricks from Michael V, Domingo uses intelligent characterization to limn out differences between the identical twins. Kimmy Go Dong Hae is a confident tycoon with super-genius intelligence. A bout with typhoid fever during her childhood transformed her into a hot-headed person. Dora is the younger twin whom everyone loves. However, she doesn’t have an iota of business acumen. In fact, she is a mentally-challenged person. A rift begins to form between the twins when Kimmy’s crush, Johnson (Dingdong Dantes) starts to woo Dora.

Writer Chris Martinez played a big part in helping Domingo bring out the laughs. A plethora of witty one-liners, sophisticated adlibs, and brusque slapstick by Kimmy keep the audience in stitches. However, the outrageous fish-out-of-the-water situations involving Dora were the ones that brought the house down. Dora’s impersonation of Kimmy is a hilarious tour-de-force by Domingo. The tongue twister lesson with Regine Velasquez is a hoot!

The future looks bright for the local comedy scene. The rise of Domingo as a comedy star is a welcome development. But, along with discovering new lead comedians, the industry needs to nurture and develop scriptwriters who excel in comedy. Also, Binibining Bernal should focus more in directing comedy films. Making people laugh is really her forte. Kimmy Dora is the best proof of her comic touch.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Serbis (2008, Brillante Mendoza)

Serbis competed for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. Critics were divided over the merits of the film by Mendoza. When it crossed over the Atlantic, it was met with mostly positive reviews by American critics. It is still one of the highest-rated Filipino films tracked at the Metacritic site.

I have seen two versions of Serbis but I still haven’t seen the Cannes Film Festival version that polarized critics. The indieSine version is a heavily-cut R-18 film with valuable English subtitles. The censored scenes were re-integrated back for the UP Cine Adarna run of the film. Alas, the so-called Director’s Cut version did not have English subtitles making it difficult for viewers to take a grasp of Ilocano and Kapampangan dialogues. And apparently, it was not the definitive version. The DVD version of the film is probably the ultimate version. It seems to feature Coco Martin’s frontal nudity scene, which was not shown (censored?) at the initial UP Cine Adarna run.

Frontal nudity and graphic sex scenes abound in this movie. The initial scene shows a naked nubile girl preening in front of a mirror. She repeatedly whispers the words ‘I love you,’ which are barely heard amidst the noise of motor vehicles outside the room. Eighty-eight minutes later, I was muttering ‘I love this film.’

With Serbis, scriptwriter Armando Lao shows why he is the master and originator of the ‘real-time’ mode, which emphasizes the power of the place. In this film, Lao deals with the lives of denizens in a decaying movie house that features soft-porn flicks. Nanay Flor (played magnificently by Gina Pareño), matriarch of the family running the crumbling business, is deeply involved in a case against her philandering husband. Her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) gets embroiled in an incestuous relationship. Male prostitutes loiter in the lobby. At the end of the film, a movie house employee named Alan (Coco Martin) had enough of filthy things and promptly leaves the place.

A major strength of the film is its realism. The audience squirms as Alan cleans the clogged toilets and his buttock. These and other scenes of squalor are probably alien to foreign critics who lambasted the film. But, there are scenes that should have been excluded or minimized. Mendoza sometimes belittles the intelligence of his audience. A case in point is a scene showing a vehicle clearly going the wrong way. Mendoza finds it necessary to supply a close-up shot of the ‘One-way’ sign.

The trademark kinetic camerawork of a ‘real-time’ film is also here. The camera follows Nayda as she traverses the stairways and dark hallways of the movie theater. After opening the door of the projection room, she seems to be taken aback by what she sees. The scene then cuts to a shot of a hunky projectionist playing with himself.

The Movie and Television Review and Classification Board initially gave the film an X rating. In response to the board’s action, Dante Mendoza and Bing Lao inexplicably sought a compromise and allowed the snipping of some scenes in order for the film to be shown in a mall in 2008. That was a grave mistake committed by the duo. What does it profit filmmakers if they gain a wider audience but loses their creative vision and soul?

Mendoza learned his lesson and vowed not to show future films in an edited version. In anticipation of the full run of Lao and Mendoza’s Kinatay at UP Cine Adarna, the UP Film Institute is showing award-winning works of Mendoza such as Serbis, Masahista, Manoro, and Tirador during this month of September 2009. Excluding Masahista, all films are recommended especially Serbis, a top-notch example of ‘real-time’ films.