Monday, November 30, 2009

Cinema One Originals 2009: The films of Raymond Red

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cinema One Originals 2009: The Year of the Misbegotten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bontoc Eulogy (1995, Marlon Fuentes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Paano Ko Sasabihin? (2009, Richard Legaspi)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bakal Boys (2009, Ralston Jover)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When Timawa Meets Delgado (2007, Ray Defante Gibraltar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2004, Lav Diaz)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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