Thursday, December 30, 2010

MMFF 2010 Parade: Sina Super Inday, Fr. Jejemon, Agimat at Enteng ay nag-shake rattle and roll

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2010) - Lovely stars and grand floats at the Metro Manila Film Festival Parade

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

MMFF 2010 Parade: RPG Metanoia

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2010) - The voice talents of the wonderful animated film RPG Metanoia joined the Metro Manila Film Festival Parade.

**** If you can only watch one film this festival season, then watch this awesome film. The suave animation is light years away from that of Dayo and Urduja. There are lots of cool character designs including a yoyo-wielding boy and his heroic father. The story is interesting enough for kids and adults. The voice talents are mostly good with the exception of Aga Muhlach. ****

MMFF 2010 Parade: Rosario

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2010) – The colorful and expensive float of Rosario amazed the people during the Metro Manila Film Festival Parade. It eventually won the Best Float award.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

MMFF 2010 Parade: Dalaw

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2010) – Kris Aquino and the scream team shrieked their way at the Metro Manila Film Festival 2010 Parade.

Monday, December 27, 2010

MMFF 2010 Parade: Ang Tanging Ina Mo (Last Na ‘To!)

SMX, Mall of Asia, Pasay City (December 24, 2010) – Ai-Ai delas Alas and her brood participated at the Metro Manila Film Festival 2010 Parade.

Their comedy film nabbed nine awards including the Best Picture award. It also won awards for Best Actress (delas Alas), Best Director (Wenn Deramas), Best Screenplay (Mel del Rosario), Best Story (Mel del Rosario), Best Supporting Actress (Eugene Domingo), Best Musical Score (Jesse Lasaten), Best Child Performer (Xyriel Manabat) and the Gender Sensitive Award.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Happyland (2010, Jim Libiran)

Who is the all-time highest goal-scorer of the Barcelona Football Club?

Is it David Villa of the World Cup 2010 winning team Spain? No. Is it exciting-to-watch Argentinian player Lionel Messi? No.

The answer is Paulino Alcantara. The early 20th-century footballer scored a phenomenal 357 goals in 357 matches! He is one of the legendary players of the venerable club. And, he is a Filipino.

Flashforward to the 21st century. The sport of football is no longer on the radar of most Filipinos. Despite cable television bringing live broadcasts of World Cup 2010 matches to local viewers, football did not make a huge dent in the consciousness of the Filipino people. It seldom dominates headlines and front page stories in our basketball-crazy country. So it is quite surprising and gladdening to read news, and see television coverage, of the Phl football team's entry into the semifinal round of the AFF Suzuki Cup 2010.

On the night the film Happyland had its world premiere at Cinemanila 2010 in Robinsons Movieworld Galleria, a spunky football team from the Philippines pulled a stunning 2-0 win over the defending champion team from Vietnam. Phil Younghusband, who had a cameo role in the film, scored the second goal for the defense-oriented Azkals. The extraordinary good news is a perfect assist to the advocacy of non-profit organization Futkal Inc and filmmaker Jim Libiran.

Futkal is an acronym for Futbol sa Kalye (Football on the Streets). The group passionately teaches children the game of football in an alternative way. It takes away the notion that football should be played only on soccer fields. It is definitely not a game only for rich kids. Anybody can play football in an abandoned street, open space, or vacant lot.

Jim Libiran returns once more to the streets of Tondo in Manila for his second film. Just like his debut film Tribu, he focuses on a group of young people. These impoverished young boys are no longer rappers but futkaleros or street footballers. A Spanish missionary priest named Fr. Jose manages the group and zealously preaches the gospel that football is the sport for Filipinos. He always tell the amazing exploits of footballer Paulino Alcantara in Europe to prove his point.

Shunning the edgy story, dark milieu, and raw violence of Tribu, Libiran molds a more mainstream film for his target audience: the youth. His new film deals with the problems of a varied set of young characters such as a neighborhood basketball idol, a fleet-footed snatcher, a pedicab driver, and a pair of solvent-sniffing friends. The straight-forward story traces how this odd group of resilient misfits rise to redemption. The best parts of the film are the football match segments. They give valuable insights on how the futkaleros play the game and how they behave. Their unorthodox playing style may not be the beautiful game played by the Germans or the Brazilians but it produces good results for the team. In March 2010, a Tondo futkalero was part of the Phl team that won a trophy at the Street Child World Cup in South Africa.

Happyland may not be a beautifully slick film, marred by still-to-be-refined blurry shots, but it gets an A for advocacy. Libiran plans to show the film to schools and youth clubs all over the country. The film screenings will hopefully result in more kids getting out from a drug and crime-filled life and getting into the wonderful world of football. Local teams winning tournament matches are mere bonuses.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mondomanila (Khavn dela Cruz, 2010)

These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands…

Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.

-- Julia Kristeva, An Essay on Abjection

This is not another masterpiece by Khavn dela Cruz. This is not guerilla digital filmmaking at its finest. This is not the stuff of cinema: Certainly not about the high-jinks of the juvenile and the poor; the foisting upon audiences of the taboo and the abject; no, there is no subversive import lying just beneath the surface. No, this is not a film by Khavn dela Cruz. This is not his 28th film. This is not Mondomanila Filmfest Motherfuckers.

Frivolity aside, Mondomanila represents one of Khavn’s best films to date. Here is a flower of evil plucked from the fertile dung of the margins, blooming among the dregs of society; here is a work of uncompromising and unwavering vision, a film that was almost stillborn, but now here in our midst, jumping out at us like a jack-in-the-box, thumbing its nose at us who cower behind blinders. In a word, be prepared for a frightful but rollicking ride through a no-man’s land that we, the coddled, hold our breaths against and turn away from.

At the rotten core of Mondomanila are teenage layabout Tony and his juvenile posse, Paranoid X, pleasure-seeking delinquents without a future but never to be taken for pushovers. Here in their neighborhood of slums and garbage dumps, they are kings, and the cameras observe them in very close proximity, rendering them through hallucinatory filters, washed-out colors, split screens and strange lighting. These Bunuelian olvidados exhibit few inhibitions: young, brash and compliant, they mouth their syntax of obscenities and perform outrageous acts that straddle the lines of morality. They sing and rap, some of them break-dance, some hold small jobs, some don’t, but what makes them gravitate together, what defines them, are common misery and drug-induced fantasies.

Much of their adolescent fantasies, predictably, revolve around sex. Among them is a compulsive masturbator, who uncontrollably does his thing even in the group’s presence. Another literally engages in bestiality: easing himself on a live, squawking goose, just before he chops off its head. Lumped together, their sexual obsession is even worse: they peep on fornicating midgets and lesbian twins. Meanwhile, menace lurks in the background: Whiteboy, a Caucasian pedophile, makes no bones about his perverse ideology and submits the young kids of the neighborhood to “sexual slavery.” Soon his deviancy hits very close to home.

Figuratively, and all but literally, one gets buried neck-deep in Mondomanila’s proverbial bodily fluids. The immoral. The criminal. Few taboos remain unscathed here. Combining the abrasive aspects of his recent films namely Squatterpangk and The Family that Eats Soil, Khavn transvaluates Julia Kristeva’s notions of the abject and turns it from a source of horror to something darkly humorous. Instead of horrifying us and making our skin crawl, Khavn numbs and etherizes our sensibilities into a catharsis: blood, piss, excrement, bestiality, sodomy, and mutilation are here in plentiful doses that erode our guards. At some point we start to laugh; we wallow and luxuriate in it. Numbed and etherized in the abject, Khavn paves the way for his film’s subversive end.

Cunning murder, hypocritical revenge, to borrow Kristeva’s words, this is what the film deems its logical coda. Guile, cunning, hypocrisy are exactly the words that befit the crime, subsequently a composite of several crimes. The fact that the crime is compounded raises the acts to the level of the abject, many times over. We laugh nervously and must do a double-take, as the so-called heroes dance and sing for joy after the fact: We realize our rank complicity, our blurring concepts of right and wrong. We argue curiously: But doesn't the crime -- done as it is at the expense of someone draped with neo-colonial trappings -- translate to a symbolic act of patriotism? And how to explicate the aggravating actions after the crime? Reparations? Somehow it is so morally wrong; somehow it is so viscerally right.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chassis (Adolfo Alix Jr., 2010)

A truck. A homicidal, ten-ton truck. To see Adolf Alix’s Chassis is to step figuratively into the path of such an oncoming, runaway vehicle. For good measure, the same truck will back up on your convulsing body just to make sure it does the job. Alix’s latest film is just that, unforgiving. Unforgiving; it spares nobody. Not the film’s diegetic characters who must endure the grinding forces of poverty and harsh circumstance. Not the viewing audience, no matter how prepared it believes it is for a film like Chassis.

But don’t get me wrong. The same uncompromising virtues are what makes Chassis an ultimately commendable film. And I’m beginning to like it for the same reasons that may ultimately discourage a wider patronage. As with any genuine art, after all, common sensibilities are meant to be shocked and scandalized. It’s often ahead of its time. This is not to say, though, that Chassis is a work of such ground-breaking originality. One will recoil from this realization: that it’s a pauperized version of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.

I say “pauperized” for several reasons. One, Chassis is a literal pauperization, the story is transplanted to an impoverished scenario. Unlike the domesticated Jeanne Dielman, the heroine of Chassis is a woman without a home. Nora inhabits no living space of her own, but a parking lot in a harbor compound, where the underside of her chosen cargo truck serves as her roof. Like a hermit cab without a shell, she must look constantly for a home to live under. She must lug her few belongings – a cardboard mat, a few clothes, a few cooking utensils – from one chassis to another, at the mercy of the trucks’ brisk schedules. Two, what Akerman takes a monumental 201 minutes to dramatize and make a statement, Alix accomplishes in a dense and intense 73 minutes, a veritable slice of life.

Chassis, like Akerman’s film, however, is about self-sacrifice, an entrapment in helpless circumstance, and what happens when one’s reason for it ceases to exist. In Chassis, Nora is a woman trapped in a cycle of poverty and prostitution. She resigns herself to selling herself very cheaply in order to support a hand-to-mouth existence for herself, her lover and her young, uncomprehending daughter.

Her daughter represents the last consolation, a final lifeline, for whom she can sustain her state of indignity. She will put her through school on any pain. She will promise her what she can only grant through acts that degrade her in the eyes of everybody. Her smile is reserved just for her child. Never for anyone else, not for her lover, not for the truck drivers who use her like so much latrine, not her demi-monde kind in this compound, not for the Mormon missionary who tries to evangelize her.

Everything about Chassis is grim and dreary. Depicted in ominous tones of black-and-white, it seems forever set in a twilight hour. One never knows whether it’s lightening or darkening. All one senses is its sepulchral nature. The gargantuan specters of cargo ships and maritime industry, meanwhile, tower in the distance, as though never to stop for the negligible fates of humanity. But what stays with us, more crucially, is the film’s chiaroscuro portrait of a woman with nowhere to go: Nora, with her funereal mask of a face, her sleep-walking steps, her lifeless stance – the shorthand of wretched resignation.

While the last drastic gesture of Jeanne Dielman is born out of a long, cumulative process of prostitution and thankless domesticity, we can pinpoint the last straw that produces Nora’s act of rebellion. With Nora’s raison d’etre intact, however, it is foreseeable that she could go on and on indefinitely as a martyrized woman. Whether, like Jeanne Dielman, Chassis will become a feminist favorite, however, remains to be seen. Viewers have been reportedly put off by its unrelieved bleakness and hopelessness, remarking how utterly different Alix has turned out to be since the days of Donsol and Kadin. But that’s beside the point. To repress the reality depicted in Chassis just to humor our squeamish bourgeois sensibilities is just wrong; wronger when we do nothing from the comfort of our armchairs.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (2010, Remton Siega Zuasola)

Days before the start of the Cinema One Originals 2010, there were high expectations for the film entries of Richard Somes and Remton Zuasola. Somes gained a well-deserved reputation for his film Yanggaw, which won majority of the awards at the Cinema One Originals 2008. Zuasola won raves for his Cinemanila 2009 short feature winner To Siomai Love. I haven’t seen the latter, which was said to be a one-take wonder, so I wasn’t sure if he deserved some of the buzz. I became more curious about his Cinema One entry when I learned that it was also done in one take.

One-take full-length feature film? Can Zuasola really pull it off?

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria exceeded all my expectations. The phenomenal film is a knockout combination of adept filmmaking and caustic portrait of a Filipina mail-order bride and her debt-ridden family. Imagine mixing some of the colorful female characters of Noli Me Tangere, the craziness and wittiness of a Joey Gosiengfiao comedy, the savvy skills of a real-time method filmmaker, and the competence of a Cebu-based crew and actors, and you've got yourself a potent brew of pure indie film goodness. It is so good that as the end credits roll on you cannot wait to watch it all over again. It is simply the must-see Pinoy indie film of 2010.

The film begins with a mother searching for her daughter, Eleuteria. Along with her husband and her other daughter, they scour the area for traces of the lanky teenager. The latter is seen trying to drown herself in a creek.

Eleuteria is a mail-order bride who, until the last minute, dillydallies with her decision to go to Germany. She has a local boyfriend. This fact, along with the thought of being ruthlessly shoved into marrying an elderly foreigner named Hans Kirschbaum, makes Eleuteria hesitant to go abroad. Ironically, these two factors become crucial decision changers in the end.

The spine-less boyfriend desperately coaxes her to elope but eventually surrenders because of strong opposition by the parents, relatives, and friends of Eleuteria. Another spine-less male figure is her fisherman father. The latter objects to his daughter's impending marriage but doesn't want to impose his will on the matter.

When she decided to drown herself, Eleuteria tries to call attention to the fact that she does not want to go away. Locked in a psychological battle, she just doesn't want to give in to the whims of her mother. However, constant nagging by her mother made her decide to accept her elder's wish. The belated decision is not so much a daughterly obedience but more of a rebellious, contemptuous act against her mother and the spineless male figures in her life. In a chance meeting with a childhood friend, she says she will never set foot again in their small hometown.

But, just like migratory birds frequenting it, they do come back to Olango Island, Cebu. Cousin Merle, recently separated from her German husband, comes home for good. With her savings, she is able to build a three-storey house. She is the one guiding Eleuteria every step of the way.

The film captures the long, eventful journey of Eleuteria from a creek to the boat terminal in a masterfully orchestrated one take. The ensemble acting is so natural and realistic that the local residents don't mind the shooting happening in their midst. The actors are just like members of a regular family out to send off one of their family member. Even the crazy guy seems to be not out of place. Most barrios in the Philippines have their share of loonies. In this film, the barrio has craziness as its theme for a fiesta. Aside from the crazy guy, there are other interesting characters in the film such as the scene-stealing father and the Paris, Italy-based (!?!) recruiter. Their interaction with one another produces loud guffaws from the audience. The witty screenplay is based on a novel by Maria Victoria Beltran.

Zuasola deserves all the hoopla (and awards) for his film. On the other hand, Somes' film Ishmael didn't live up to expectations. Its best scene shows a fallen alien unsheating his blades on his arms and whooping up hordes of Decepticons. Oops, I think that is from the film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. See, I can barely remember good things about Ishmael. Somes loses his magic touch with his second film. I hope Zuasola doesn't succumb to the so-called sophomore jinx.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Astro Mayabang (2010, Jason Paul Laxamana)

I'm amazed at the increasing number of young filmmakers in the movie industry. With Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals leveling the playing field, all the tyros need to do is present feasible good screenplays. Their shortlisted stories are so refreshing, daring, and original that you just had to forgive them when they come up with untrammeled, technically unpolished, and information-overloaded films.

Astro Mayabang does not have that glossy and slick look of a major studio film but its screenplay has a few noteworthy things to say. It tells the story of a Kapampangan lad named Astro who wears his patriotism on his sleeves literally. Part of his daily get-up is a Philippine flag-inspired jacket and Pinoy pride shirts and paraphernalia.

The film takes a swipe on Filipinos who passionately latches on to all Pinoy achievements, no matter how small, in order to mask their shameful and disgusting behavior. Patriotic Astro has a flipside attitude in that he is a racist and a xenophobic. He castigates a couple of foreigners for refusing to give alms to a beggar. Misdirected criticisms against the others reflect on the idleness and insecurities of Astro. He should ask himself what he has done to improve the lot of his dysfunctional family and poor countrymen. They are barely scraping by but show-off Astro still keeps on buying those colorful, expensive limited edition shirts and jackets. This reflects on the fiesta mentality of some Filipinos. The latter are willing to go to loan sharks in order to serve sumptuous food dishes that leave a deep impression on visitors. Di bale nang mabaon sa utang, basta may maipagmayabang lang sa kapwa.

Astro goes to great lengths to proclaim his love for Pinoy singers and music groups but he buys only pirated compact discs. He is like one of those Facebook fanatics who keep on liking films they haven't seen at all. The film aptly puts it: ‘Loving someone doesn't end in simply claiming that you love someone or something.’ You have to walk the talk. Don't just proclaim your love for the artists, show it. Support your favorite singers by buying original CDs. Watch their films on movie houses. More importantly, emulate those traits that help Pinoy achievers excel in their respective fields.

Insecure Astro is not so much suffering from what Nick Joaquin noted as Filipinos' heritage of smallness but more so from lack of solid knowledge about his country's history, arts, politics, and cultural heritage. Yes, Astro has a superficial, tiny amount of Filipino-ness in him. He yearns for those rare Pinoy pride moments that temporarily boost his self esteem. Astro even appropriates some foreigners in his small set of contemporary idols and icons. His concept of an idol is one carved out of colonial mentality and love for Hollywood. All across his room are pictures of 8-division world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, 'Glee' actress Charice Pempengco, Journey lead singer Arnel Pineda, wrestling icon Batista, Tony winner Lea Salonga, and even that of Cristeta Comerford. Cristeta who? She is the Executive Chef of US President Barack Obama.

Take away the temporary phenomenal effect of the Pacquiao fights and Astro will not be as happy and proud to be a Filipino. What if Pacquiao retires from boxing or, shudder the thought, loses a match? Who will then give a boost to the superficial Filipino-ness of the youth? Politicians? Entertainers? Indie filmmakers? The latter group has been a steady provider of good news to Filipinos. Their award-winning films have conquered film festivals around the world.

A character from the film remarked that Filipino films suck. Well, he might change his mind after watching the wonderful entries from the Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival 2010. In an amazingly fruitful year, majority of the films are good enough to warrant repeat viewings. Astro Mayabang, marred somewhat by the repetitive use of footages, boasts of fine performances by Arron Villaflor and Megan Young. It received a special citation from the festival jury and nabbed the Audience Choice award, which seems to be based on box-office performance. Jason Laxamana must have been proud. Hmm, a popular hit and a critical citation for a debut film? Not bad for an undergrad student.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Layang Bilanggo (Mike Dagñalan, 2010)

There is much to admire in the early goings of Layang Bilanggo. The first 10 or so minutes are a study in storytelling restraint and concision, an opening sequence that redounds to great directorial promise. First, we are given to witness an assassin’s pinpoint precision as he executes a hit. The film then cuts to a jail office where a journalist and the chief warden discuss rumors of prisoner-assassins. The warden hems and haws, clearly concealing the truth. Subsequently, we get the assassin's vantage, his double life in prison... In a few precise and penetrating scenes that reflect and lay bare the urgency of what it dramatizes, the film sets up an absorbing premise and introduces the disturbing reality of the prisoner-for-hire.

Prisoner-for-hire. That criminal mutation born out of extreme state impunity and corruption, on the payroll and protection of penitentiaries that are supposed to reform him. In Mike Dagñalan’s sophomore film, the focus falls on one such assassin named Paul, a man who is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He wants to turn his life around, but he is helpless. For him, there is no exit: middle-aged and all, he must keep on killing to remain useful to his sponsors, to whom the diminishment of his abilities might spell expendability. Death. His is a cheapened life whose fate is not his to decide.

There are two parallel strands that interweave to tell this man’s story. One strand traces his apparent past as an assassin who gets instructions from a warden named Adamos and a shadowy godfather. Even in the confines of such irregular circumstances, there are still other irregularities: power struggles among penitentiary officials, and machinations for his criminal services. Which is where the film starts to lose it. These sequences comprise some of the subplots that unnecessarily complicate the film, where a little narrative restraint would have been to the point.

The other strand of Paul’s story is his search for his daughter and his admission into Anawim, an institution for the aged. Here he is a curious presence. While the real denizens of Anawim grapple with dementia and second childhoods, Paul turns out fine portraits. We soon realize why he is here: why he noticeably has a close rapport with the home's art teacher. She is his abandoned daughter. He has found her. There is no outright reunion, but that doesn’t stop the film from approximating it. Suffice it to say: she soon calls him father.

Such is the suspect dramatic roundedness of Layang Bilanggo. It is crammed with all the melodramatic elements beloved to Filipino tastes. Listen to its twist-a-minute delights: The sad, elderly stories in Anawim. The alliance of a cop and a criminal. The formidable foe in a woman assassin. A father and daughter’s de facto, if momentary, reunion. The high-body-count finale: What more can a casual filmgoer want?

Quick eventfulness seems to be the filmmakers' overriding credo and Layang Bilanggo's ultimate undoing. The film, it turns out, credits four scriptwriters. Throw in a script consultant in the person of Bing Lao, who must have wielded little veto power, and you have the makings of an over-determined and overwritten story. Where a more direct expose on a disturbing criminal reality would have sufficed in making a powerful and unforgettable and relevant statement, Dagñalan stubbornly elects to tell a story chockful of popular and sensational action and drama. Layang Bilanggo may have romped off with the top prizes at the recent Cinema One Film Festival but it remains the work of a callow filmmaker. This is not yet Kubrador or Kinatay or Bakal Boys. This is glorified soap opera.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ishmael (Richard Somes, 2010)

Richard Somes knows how to hardsell his latest film. Ishmael, he declares, is a homage to the Filipino western. A salute to a long-lamented genre, a shout-out to the pantheon of cowboy icons of the past. He rattles off the names one by one: Lito Lapid, Dante Varona, and Ramon Revilla Sr. Ah names to remember, he sighs, and his words whet our appetite, treble our expectation of impending fun. Expectation, perhaps, of a humorous spoof, or a deadpan tribute.

Alas, for all its declared heritage, for all the hoopla around this new film by the celebrated director of Yanggaw, Ishmael is a paradox of a failure. There is little to none of our own spaghetti lore revisited in this film. None of the director’s mustachioed heroes. (The mustache seems to be his fetish.) None of the genre’s tropes and trademarks. (Sure it features the trope of revenge, but so does any kung fu film.) None of the wide-brimmed hat; the skittish horses, the hot, sandy deserts.

It’s not as if Somes is aiming for something more cerebrally unique, more intricately intertextual. Somes himself declares, at the outset, how Ishmael is little more than a genre exercise. Leaving aside this authorial self-deprecation, one regrets to report that the writer-director is not wide of the mark. And worse. What Somes perhaps believes to be new and innovative is the persistent referencing of films outside the genre of the western – as if to do so is to transfuse new blood and resuscitate this dead category. Epic fail. The effect is plain pastiche. All the allusions point to are the viewing habits of Somes: Anglo-American, sure. While at it, Somes does not disguise his filmic methods and modalities: he quotes generously and flagrantly.

Notice The Night of the Hunter knuckle tattoos on Ishmael. Disappointingly, the tattoos on this ex-convict, returning to a town ruled by a messianic cult figure, tell no story. They are not so much palimpsestic layers but so much like badly done graffiti. Notice the scripture-quoting character from Pulp Fiction, the megalomaniac who counterpoints Ishmael’s down-and-out figure. This film drips with so much Tarantino obsession that it’s hard to shake off the image of Samuel L. Jackson quoting chapter and verse. Notice towards the end the Edward Scissorhands’ weaponry at work, part and parcel of a character who resurrects from the dead to unleash his inner Rambo, his murderous rampage.

That may be the most intriguing moment in Somes’ film -- its sudden, last-ditch flight from realism, the last-second departure from the predictable. We have been waiting for the irreverence, the impiety at the expense of the conventions of this double-dead genre to kick in and here it is…But too little, too late. Everything that came before bleeds into it, engulfed by our ennui and indifference.

Ishmael remains very good to look at, but hardly disguises its architectonic flaws. It is sumptuously photographed and well put-together from latter-day film techniques, the handiwork of an accomplished and au-courant filmmaker, but the screenplay is scantily, too safely written. A script doctor would have helped a lot. As it stands, the script is severely wanting, perhaps the element of the sustained send-up, or perhaps a modicum of tension that could propel it through the swathes of expendable exposition. Expendable exposition is what happens when a film is meant to be a vehicle for its acting talents. The speaking parts here are not particularly piquant but just plain redundant.

The compelling villain also eludes this film. Not even Mark Gil’s efforts at camp and tongue-in-cheek delivery deflect and redeem the Tarantino borrowings: the effect is neither chilling nor humorous. His figure is an ironic Messiah, a Pontius Pilate and lecher rolled into one, and still seems not evil enough. His minions always do his bidding, even when we like our villains rough-and-tumble, their dastardly deeds not overheard but evident. Yet the little touches could have sufficed. The lone telling moment about him is his choice of a serenade piece: atonal music on the piano a la Arnold Schoenberg. Good one.

Ishmael, in the end, is not even close to imitating the western. What it parallels better is the samurai. This is no better exemplified than by the fight scenes at the film’s climax, with one man, strapped with bolo blades at both hands, taking on a townful of religious cultists. Reverberations of Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara Kiri or Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom are set off. He is like an avenging, exterminating angel. Coming back from the dead, he may be staking a claim to the mantle of the real messiah. Or maybe just staking a claim to redemption, a little of dignity.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Third World Happy (2010, EJ Salcedo)

This smart and competent film of Edward James Salcedo was the third consecutive good film I saw at the Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival, which is ongoing at the Shangri-la Plaza Mall. The sixth edition of the film festival promises to be the best ever yet in terms of higher-than-average quality of competing films and exhibition films such as Confessional, Wanted: Border, Hesus Rebolusyonaryo, and Serafin Geronimo: Ang Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion. The last two films were shown last weekend on cable channel Cinema One as part of the film festival's tribute to maverick indie director Lav Diaz.

Third World Happy is the best Sam Milby film I've seen yet. The acting ensemble, the direction, and the screenplay are all superb. The dashing actor still speaks in an American accent but this time it fits his character Wesley Tecson, a gifted painter based in the USA who comes back to the Philippines because of the death of a loved one. In the course of his stay here, he encounters what it is like to be happy and contented.

Milby doesn't bare his abs but gets to effectively bare the angst of his character. Wes is a Fullbright scholar who ends up as a lowly assistant in an art gallery in New York. He shies away from contact with his family and friends in the Philippines. One of those he left behind is his ex-girlfriend Aylynn (Jodi Sta. Maria). The scene showing the initial meeting of the two after 12 years of separation was well directed by Salcedo. The characterization of the two former lovers were so fleshed out that the audience gets to empathize with both of them. Sta. Maria was so good in portraying a jilted woman trying to put up a brave front. Giving ample support to the leads are Melissa Mendez, Archie Alemania, and a host of other actors.

New filmmaker Edward James Salcedo based the film's story from his life experiences. A proud Thomasian, having graduated from dear old UST Elementary in 1983, Salcedo finished high school and college in the United States. Racism changed his world viewpoint. Life in the First World is not as happy as in the Third World. He persevered in the competitive world of advertising, where he encountered similar people stuck in their day jobs because of the need to pay the bills. Most have given up on their dreams to become comic book artists and filmmakers. The death of his uncle led EJ back to the Philippines where he eventually got to fulfill his dream of being a filmmaker. In 2007, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino nominated EJ Salcedo's short feature Talahib, which dealt with faded dreams.

The theme of lost dreams also crops up in Third World Happy. Much expectations were borne by Wes in the United States. Everybody expected him to conquer the art world. But, not everybody can be a Juan Luna.

I like the character Achi in the film. She is first seen reading the book Ilustrado, which suggests that the dead is not who you expect it to be. She envies author Miguel Syjuco for having conquered the literary world. Wes asks her why she doesn't pursue her writing. Achi replies that she had to take over managing their family's funeral business. On the day of Wes' departure, she is able to make Wes proud of her writing. She may not have been a Syjuco but at least her well-written obituaries can still make a huge difference.

Wes realizes that he doesn't have to live to the expectations of people. He doesn't have to create a Spoliarium or an Ilustrado to make people proud of him or to make them happy. They are already happy. He just needs to do what is important and joyful for him to do. At the end of the film, he goes home.

I loved the last frame of the movie. Wesley's miniature painting looms big in Aylynn's room. Yes, bigger than Juan Luna's Spoliarium.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Cinema of Celso Ad Castillo (2009, Produced by Byron Ron Bryant)

A lot of movie industry people were interviewed for this documentary on the legacy of filmmaker Celso Ad Castillo. Some of them call him Maestro. Others look up to him as a genius. Lav Diaz affectionately describes him as a madman. But, I tend to agree most with their observations that Castillo is a visual artist par excellence.

One of the best visual stylists in local cinema, Castillo was aptly described by Peque Gallaga as a lucky cinematic animal. The heavens and the weather conspire to create a picturesque moment every time he shoots a film. Castillo admits to having fits over the setting up of his first ever camera placement. But, once he got over it, he goes on to utilize his being a former comic book illustrator to paint beautifully-framed stories.

Check out the odd camera angles of his horror classic Patayin Mo Sa Sindak Si Barbara. The coffin being carried out of the hearse seems to have a 3-D effect of trying to break through the screen. The eerie mirror reflection of Ruth's diabolical glare still brings shiver to the spine. The haunting visuals and spooky soundtrack bolster the film's reputation as a scary terrifying flick.

There's a story behind the famous wet look popularized by beauty queen Gloria Diaz in Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa. She narrates how she was showered with lots of movie contracts after her return from the United States. From those offers, she chooses Castillo's. She was so impressed with the filmmaker's Patayin Mo Sa Sindak Si Barbara that she promptly said yes. New and still naive in the film industry, she hikes off to location shooting with nary a change of clothing and underwear. The film crew accompanies her to a nearby town to look for a bra. The available ones for sale are so bad Diaz decides not to wear a bra in the movie. Since the movie is set along the sea coast, there are shots of Diaz in a wet, see-through dress. The catfight between Diaz and Elizabeth Oropesa on the coastline is the stuff that wet dreams are made of.

Castillo went on to do much more revealing films for the Manila International Film Festival and the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. His films Virgin People and Snake Sisters emerged as top-grossing flicks. There is a clip from Snake Sisters that shows Castillo's wicked sense of framing. We see a young scantily-clad female hunter searching for a prey. With her body crouched low, her posterior is prominently seen and surrounding it are dozens of erect phallic sticks.

I remember reading an article that says that of all the sex films shown at the Manila Film Center during the Marcos era, Castillo's Isla was said to have had the horniest effect on the audience. The story seems to imply that the Film Center insider based his assessment on the sticky state of the theater after a full-house screening of the film. A tantalizingly nude Maria Isabel Lopez frolicking in the sands and sea is simply too much to handle for itching viewers.

Castillo loves casting beautiful women in his films. He also adores the sea and the rain. Almost always there is a scene in his films set along the waters or set during a rainy day. Ron Bryant, a protege of Castillo, indirectly paid tribute by directing a Cinema One Originals film titled Alon, a story of a pretty, nubile girl vacationing at a seacoast village. Bryant upped the ante by helping create this eye-opening documentary.

The best visual revelation I'd discovered from the documentary was seeing traces of Fernando Amorsolo in Castillo's agrarian film Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan. The enchanting sunlight bathing the fields, the colorful attire of the farmers, and the framing of the daily rituals allude to several paintings of Amorsolo. Aside from the visual references to Amorsolo, the film is also memorable for those shots of farmers seemingly bonded to the lands. From a distance, a group of farmers are busy doing planting chores. Most of the time we see them with only their upper body half visible. The missing legs say a lot about rural bondage and feudalism in our country.

I'm extremely thankful to Cinema One Originals 2010 for giving moviegoers a rare chance to view bits of Castillo's works at Shang Cineplex's Premiere Theatre, a top-tier luxurious movie theater with excellent sound system. Castillo and Lav Diaz are this year's worthy recipients of a tribute by the annual competition for independent filmmakers. Cinema One Originals 2010 is ongoing at the Shangri-la Plaza Mall until Tuesday, November 17.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Andrew Leavold's Search for Weng-Weng (or, the Story of the Pinoy Grindhouse Cinema)

Blood (red, green, and splattered all over). Boobies (perky, taut, and free from silicone implants). Bullets (and bamboo spears and lots of bombings).

These are the elements of the B-movies, which were the focus of Andrew Leavold’s November 4, 2010 lecture at UP Videotheque. Popular fare in drive-in theaters, these movies also end up as the second, lesser film in a twin-bill offering. Ranging from horror films, women-in-prison dramas, post-apocalyptic revenge flicks, they have been described as trash, crass, and low class. But, to those hordes of people who grew up watching them in Betamax or VHS tapes, these films have been wonderful guilty pleasures. Judging from the audience response to a preview of Mark Hartley's documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed, a new generation of moviegoers is ready to partake of the sumptuous silliness of Philippine-made grindhouse movies.

Some of the more memorable cheesy exploitation films were made and produced in our country. Quentin Tarantino remarked that the Philippines is unique in being a filmmaking country with two distinct industries. There is a film industry that caters to local audiences. LVN Films, Regal Films, and Star Cinema belong to this group. There is another film industry that caters exclusively to international viewers. This segment is responsible for the Roger Corman-produced horror films, Eddie Romero's Blood Island trilogy, and the Chuck Norris actioners.

Leavold spoke of how Filipino visionaries and businessmen such as Conrado ‘Boy’ Puzon, Bobby Suarez, and Cirio Santiago dabbled into this goldmine of exporting films. Puzon bought local films for a pittance. He refurbished and dubbed them into foreign languages. He made lots of money selling them to video and film distributors all over the world. The Anthony Alonzo-starrer W is War made it to Europe. An IMDB reviewer described the film as ‘one of the bizarre masterpieces’ from Europe. Suarez initially started dubbing Chinese films into English. He then made a couple of films such as Cleopatra Wong and The One-Armed Executioner, both of which penetrated the almost-impregnable North American market.

Cirio Santiago is a name I grew up with. As a teenager I used to borrow tapes from the neighborhood Betamax rental store twice a month. There came a time when I have watched all the famous films (read: award-winners and commercial hits). I started venturing out with unknown titles. One of those obscure titles I saw was Cirio Santiago’s Stryker.

Theatrically released in the Philippines as Battle Truck, Stryker tells the story of a loner in a post-apocalyptic world. Good guys and bad guys fight it out over scarce water. They ride in armored-clad cars, gas-guzzling motorcycles, and a heavily-fortified truck. It had been years since that fateful viewing but I still remember the midget pissing on the lead character’s face, the scantily-clad girls, and the truck magically evading all sorts of obstacles (Shoot the wheels! Shoot the wheels! Aah, idiots). I didn’t know then that it was a rip-off of Road Warrior. I was just a high school kid having lots of fun watching it. My enjoyment of the film was amplified because the film was made in the Philippines. Wow! I became more proud because the international film was directed by a Pinoy filmmaker. Little did I know that those exported films will reach, and profoundly affect, other kids like Quentin Tarantino, who ended up as an ardent fan.

On the other side of the world, an Australian boy in Bahrain makes do with pirated tapes of films. He encounters some outlandish films with actors of unknown nationality. They don’t look like Chinese and they neither resemble Mexicans. A close encounter with a 2.9 feet midget named Weng Weng sets the young Leavold to begin probing the origin of those films. Having identified them to be Philippine-made, he scours for more of those weirdly-attractive films. The decades-long passion for Pinoy B-movies resulted in a documentary, a doctoral thesis, and a humongous, to-die-for collection of 700 tapes/videos of obscure Philippine-made films.

Leavold is an engaging speaker with lots of stories to tell. He narrates how Cirio Santiago would usually bring a jeepney at Malate and hauls aboard a troop of almost drunk, sleepy Caucasians willing to join the day’s shoot. He also speaks of how marketing savvy people pushed up the name of local actor/s to top billing even if he/she appears only for a few minutes in the international film.

Leavold’s inexhaustible love and respect for those Pinoy B-movies has a magical way of rubbing on to his listeners. A UP Film graduate complained that she had a hard time getting access to those B-movies. Leavold then spoke of a magical place where nearly all the rare stuff that film buffs want to view is available. Quiapo is the place where he finally got a copy of Romero's The Ravagers. The pretty graduate then remarked that she may have to break her vow of not buying pirated DVDs. Those B-movies seem to be so irresistibly fun.

A Caucasian friend of Leavold told of how scared he was during their sojourn to Quiapo. On the day major western countries issued travel advisories, there they were in crowded Quiapo. He kept hearing 'Americans, Americans' in the utterances of the people. He might have been a new visitor who mistook the people's hospitality and over-eagerness to help for hostile acts. What about Leavold? Well, he didn't mention any untoward incidents. He just mentioned that he wants to learn Filipino in order to better understand the films of Chiquito. In fact, he will return to the Philippines in 2011 to shoot an action film with the members of what he affectionately calls the goon community of local cinema.

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino brought his stash of Pinoy B-films for screening at the Cinemanila festival. He also rode a pedicab in going to Malacañang Palace. In 2010, Andrew Leavold braved the throng in Quiapo to get his loot of priceless pirated DVDs. If these distinguished people were willing to risk their limbs just to put the spotlight on Pinoy B-movies, then those films must have been worth viewing.

Haven't seen a B-movie? Take the plunge and explore the fascinating flipside of Philippine cinema. The films are outrageously funny and adventurous, and just like comfort food, they are nice to devour once in a while.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)

One of my favorite comic strip characters is Charlie Brown. He's a good guy but has problems getting noticed by the girl of his dreams. He makes those beautiful hand-written cards that remain unsent. Maybe, he isn't sure if the girl is available or if they have anything in common. Absence of a ring on her finger does not automatically mean that she is single and unattached. Girls also don't go around with a sign that says 'I like chocolates' or 'I'm a passionate cinephile.' Charlie badly needs someone or something to help him with his problem.

Maybe, that someone is Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe, that something is Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook came into existence in spring of 2004. It was too late for Charlie Brown, who ceased to live, along with his Peanuts mates, in February 2000. However, I'm sure that there are thousands, make that millions of 'Charlie Browns' out there using the Facebook to befriend someone or to score a date.

The first scene of the brilliant, wildly entertaining film sees Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) having a date. He talks so fast that I had a hard time catching up with what he is saying. What his pretty date heard though is enough to make her head for the exit. The young man can't get over the failed date. With booze in hand, he ranted against her in his blog. Soon, he realizes what a jerk he had been and tries to woo the girl all over again. The rest of the film takes a look at the project he creates in order to catch the attention of the girl, Erica (Rooney Mara). What he created is really an attention grabber.

Current statistics reveal that the once-small Harvard-based information sharing project has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. Facebook now has 500 million active users. These people spend over 700 billion minutes per month on the website. Wow! That is a staggering amount of time.

Most of the Facebook use time is allotted to lurking, as suggested by a report released by computer security firm Palo Alto Networks. A minimal amount is spent updating comments and playing games. People are more concerned with what their friends are doing, their plans, their current moods, and of course, their relationship status.

The must-see foreign film presents a fascinating ringside account of how the interplay of technical wizardry and knowledge of human needs led to the creation of Facebook. It reminds me of another attention-grabbing, twisted online project which exploited the basic need to love/belong and be loved. In 2000, a Pinoy programming student named Onel de Guzman inserted a computer virus in an email with the subject line ‘I Love You.’ The note contains an attachment that, when opened, re-sends the message to everyone in the recipient’s Microsoft Outlook address book. It also leads to the loss of every JPEG and certain other files on the recipient’s hard disk. The Love Bug wrecked havoc on millions of computers around the world in a single day.

Who can resist the urge to click on an ‘I Love You’ attachment or ‘Accept Friend Request’ button? Maybe the girl who ditched Mark Zuckerberg. The ending shows the young man lurking and patiently waiting for that important Facebook notification.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Shake Rattle & Roll X (2008, Mike Tuviera / Topel Lee)

Filmmakers Mike Tuviera and Topel Lee tried their best to scare viewers in the first two chapters, which are set in places people are likely to regard as safe and secure. Emergency is an aswang story set in a busy hospital. A major theme from the short feature is environmental degradation, which also crops up in the Tuviera-megged Nieves. The aswangs are forced to come out after incursions by people into their forest haven. They fight back after the death of their leader's child.

I love the black smoke effects by Larger Than Life. The ceiling-and-wall climbing aswangs need a little bit of tinkering and polishing, though.

Class Picture segment stars Gerald Anderson, Kim Chiu, and Erich Gonzales. It deals with a group of students attempting to stop a curse wrought by a nun who taught at 19th century San Selino College. The short feature is good enough for a few shrieks.

The handful of scares gives way to laughter. Yes, you read it right. Laughs came courtesy of the charming third segment featuring Marian Rivera as a kooky slayer named Nieves. Think of a 21st-century Gabriela Silang. Provide her with a Batman-worthy belt set and a native bag full of amulets, potions and knick-knacks (bluetooth headset!). Then, garb her in a sexy ultra-modern terno. What you get is the first engkantolarya, a lovely and courageous slayer of jealous engkantos, mischievous creatures, and terrifying monsters.

Nieves is a female albularyo raised to the next level. Not only can she cure mysterious illnesses, she kills off the root of the maladies with the ease of Buffy. Add the frank, acerbic wit of a stand-up comic, the pop culture sensibility of a jolog, and the mesmerizing beauty of a lovestruck angel, and you've got yourself one of the best movie characters in a long, long while.

Nieves was supposed to have a spin-off film last year but it didn't push through. It would have been a well-deserved break from the Shake, Rattle & Roll (SRR) formula of pure thrills and chills.

The horror series is a perennial blockbuster during the holiday season. But, most of the stories are basically pedestrian, recycled ones. Regal Films is wily enough to throw in the star power in order to camouflage the weaker segments. The tenth edition of the series is one of the better editions yet. Nieves is up there with the SRR gems such as Ishmael Bernal's Pridyider. For those wondering, Rivera has a starring role in an entry to the 2010 Metro Manila Film Festival. I hope she does magic once more to her new character, Super Inday.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Patayin Mo Sa Sindak Si Barbara (1974, Celso Ad Castillo)

The smart and pretty accurate title says it all! This classic is really a terrifying chiller of a movie.

Nurse Barbara Enriquez (Susan Roces) comes back to the Philippines to attend the wake and interment of her stepsister, Ruth Martinez (Rosanna Ortiz). She extends her stay in order to help her niece Karen cope with the loss of her mother. Meanwhile, strange things begin tormenting the members of the household.

Director Castillo utilized mirror and glass reflections to enhance the visual appeal of the film. He also came up with distorted shots and eerie camera angles to heighten the terror index.

I can’t forget the cemetery scene involving Ruth and Barbara. I remember Rosanna Ortiz from her films with Dolphy. I never imagine that she can be this effective in portraying a vengeful woman. The piercing glances of Ruth are diabolic. The scorned woman is really bent on killing people who have hurt her. From that point on, the suspense goes on full throttle until the end of the movie.

One of my favorite scary moments sees Fritz Martinez (Dante Rivero) approaching Barbara at the fountain. You can feel Barbara is uncomfortable talking to Fritz. The audience is left wondering if they indeed had an affair. There is unbearable icy tension because Ruth may chance upon them. When the doll appeared, I nearly jumped from my seat. The excellent music score played a big part in setting the mood.

The only false note in the film is Barbara's attempt to calm down Karen by reciting the Apostle's Creed. Susan Roces' delivery bordered on campiness. That was the only thing that marred Roces' otherwise fine performance.

I hope Cinema One includes this horror classic in its annual film festival/competition. It deserves to be seen in a darkened movie theater. Try to imagine ogling the eyes of the vengeful Ruth on the big screen! Whew! That ought to be a spine-tingling moviehouse experience.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sheika (2010, Arnel Mardoquio)

The film Sheika, a captivating and haunting valentine to the beautiful but violence-wracked island of Mindanao, is my favorite at the Cinemalaya 2010 festival. The powerful images (eg. an 'imprisoned' Gary reading Shie's journal) and life-affirming stories crawl their way into your head and stay embedded there along with your cherished memories.

Fe GingGing Hyde comes up with a devastating performance as Shie, a Tausug widow who lost her mind after the deaths of her sons. I cannot forget the part wherein she attempts to shield her son from an assassin’s coup-de-grace. Her unexpected action at the bridge is the best I’ve seen yet of maternal love and sacrifice in local cinema. Until the very end, she fiercely protects her children from the snares of the devil. Diyablo. That is the word she used to describe the goons. It bespeaks of the deep hatred she had for these fiends.

Combining the sensuality of Charito Solis, the fierceness of Nora Aunor, and the subdued acting of Lolita Rodriguez, Hyde is so awesome that I can’t think of any actress that may do justice to the role of Shie. I was wondering who the festival officials had in mind for the main character. It was said that a pair of Cinemalaya officials voiced out their preference for a mainstream actress.

Filmmaker Arnel Mardoquio did the right thing in withdrawing his film from the New Breed competition. He refused to heed the 'suggestions' of the powers that be. He stuck with his decision to film with a purely Mindanao-based crew and actors. In the end, he was vindicated. The resulting film eventually won the Netpac Award.

The bittersweet movie boasts of a brave, gripping script and lovely soundtrack. It is the first indie film to deal directly with the notorious Death Squad in Davao City. Previous films, such as the excellent Imburnal and Engkwentro, only allude to extra-judicial killings by nameless death squads. Sheika takes the issue head on. It presents the true story of a mother who’d lost her four sons to the heartless assassins of Davao City. It indicts the local business group for supporting the death squad members.

The soundtrack does not seem to include a song by Joey Ayala, but his song themes are very much apparent. Davao City and Mindanao in the film were not unlike the places depicted in the songs of Ayala. Gun-related violence and bloodshed mar the beautiful city and the bountiful island. Hamletting and discord are widespread. With corpses springing out from nowhere, the city is slowly turning into a cemetery.
Pastilan! Pastilan... Ang Dabaw ay sementeryo!

However, just like Shie, Davao City and the rest of Mindanao can still recover from a traumatic past. Twisted loving care from a friend helped Shie to get well. Local songwriters and filmmakers seem to agree that love can overcome violence and hatred in Mindanao. The Cinemalaya 2010 standouts Limbunan and Sheika both utilized Asin's immortal song Himig ng Pag-ibig in their soundtracks. Amidst all the misery and ugliness brought by the war, the Mindanaoan filmmakers are still hopeful that beauty, peace, and love will reign someday in the southern Philippine island.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Terror is A Man (Gerry de Leon, 1959)

Terror is A Man is a taut and superbly-crafted horror b-movie that terrifies on a visceral and psychological as much as a scientific level. The title could not have been better chosen: it’s a resonant billing and advertising come-on rolled into one. Terror and man, in the hands of the future National Artist, Gerry de Leon, truly equate. For the purposes of the genre, there is the putative beast of terror on the loose, while the real monster preens, man-like, on the foreground. This film revivifies and returns to the thematic concerns of The Island of Dr. Moreau and Frankenstein, among other models, as it skewers the arrogant anthropocentrism of man and the cold, inhuman methods of science.

A remote, misty and shadowy island off South America, the ominously named Blood Island, is the locus where terror reigns. De Leon conjures an eerie and expressionist island with minimal fuss and even more minimal budget, an island where a crazed scientist named Charles Girard rules with the sanction of science. Performing countless surgeries, transplants, and other disfiguring experiments on a panther, he seeks to bring about a new and improved species of man, a man without the burdens of unproductive emotions.

The film's monster of science, a furry biped midway between animal and man, follows a cardinal principle of horror: he is a monster kept, literally, under wraps for much of the film. In fact, he is never completely visible, always either drenched in shadows, or swaddled in layers of gauze. When he starts to wreak revenge, we are held breathless by what he does and inflicts more than what he must look under the bandages. When the islanders start to die, they flee en masse just as an American survivor of a shipwreck is washed onshore. What this newcomer, a man named William Fitzgerald, finds on the island are unwilling accomplices to the heedless experiments: Frances, Girard’s wife and unwilling nurse; Walter, the doctor’s minion who lusts after the doctor’s wife; and a couple of native servants.

De Leon makes do with a shoestring budget and true poverty aesthetics. Filmed on location in Corregidor and Cavite and other parts of Luzon in the Philippines, with an able cast of mostly American actors, Terror is A Man was shot in grainy black-and-white with bare and spare settings and yet has the look and feel of a well-oiled Hollywood b-movie production. Filipino exploitation, in the form of other horror fare and women’s prison flicks, was still a decade or so away, but de Leon’s effort could very well have served as a prototype and template for those following in his footsteps.

At a time of heated debates worldwide about the pitfalls of genetic experimentation, Terror is A Man has the potential for a revival. With its eerie imagery of disfiguration and sadism, it packs a potent argument against the free, unregulated enterprise of scientific study. De Leon may be simply paying homage to favored classics by H.G. Wells and Shelley, but perhaps he had a strong prescience of scientific dilemmas to come, and the underpinnings of moral rectitude to back it up.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Yelo (2009, Mes de Guzman)

Ice is the Earth is the magnificent opening salvo of Mes de Guzman’s trilogy of films dealing with the plight of ordinary Filipinos. Films about our poor countrymen? Again? The award-winning filmmaker was not entirely happy with his choice of film themes. He wants to someday make a film that is full of hope but in the meantime he shares some indelible images of poverty and melancholic life of Juan de la Cruz.

The first ten minutes or so of the film are presented in an almost documentary fashion, with a warm narration that lures audience to the chilly, dangerous world of the mangangabogs/fish herders and tripulantes/boat workers in southern Philippines. Child divers steer fishes through the nets. They ensure that small stones don’t get caught up in the nets. During lulls in fishing action, the fish herders do errands or serve as lookouts.

A charming, powerful segment is the montage of playtime aboard the vessel. It is a believable portrait of idyllic moments. From skipping ropes through clapping games and wracking brains during the different board games, the men had lots of fun. Those with spare money spend some time in karaoke joints. However, too much idle time wearies down the younger ones.

Enchanting images from karaoke videos spur 14-year-old Pempe (Elijah Castillo) to cajole his brother Digos (Edwin Pamanian) about moving to Manila. These incessant pleadings by Pempe become a major irritant in the daily lives of the two orphans. Their supervisor noticed their rift and decides to transfer Pempe to an ice factory near Manila.

Ice. Sea.

These two elements dominate the film as much as the two orphans. The brothers are rumored to be mermen. They are full of energy when at sea. The warmth of brotherly love negates the devastating coldness of the ocean. Hence, when Pempe decides to get away from the sea and his brother, he ends up like a fish out of the water. The film then shows the importance of constant heart-warming communication. Visits by Digos become scarce due to distance and work. The anger felt by the youngster becomes an icy, impervious wall that never thaws even after his death. His lifeless body is covered up in ice just like the fishes dropped off at ports.

Filmmaker de Guzman is a gifted storyteller. His combination of words and images is vivid and memorable. Take for example the striking image of rusting ships. It captures perfectly how the Marcos family and their cronies left the Philippines in a sorry, crumbling state. Pier Kalawang is an apt description for the country.

The director has an interesting acting find in Edwin Pamanian. Cut from the same mold as Tsai Ming-liang’s Lee Kang-Sheng, the actor’s ordinary, rugged look and raw acting fit in perfectly with the documentary feel of the film. Pamanian also stars as a miner in the second movie of the Earth Trilogy. Both movies were funded by foreign film festival groups.

I've been wary of several foreign-funded films whose synopses look promising but when you see the finished products, urgh, they are pure hogwash. Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Yelo is different. So is Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato. The two Earth films restore my faith in local films funded internationally. Göteborg International Film Festival Fund, which supported Ice is the Earth, was responsible for co-producing Lav Diaz's excellent Heremias. I'm eagerly anticipating the fund's other Filipino projects such as Jim Libiran's Happyland and Monster Jimenez's Kano.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Empties (Jan Sverak, 2007)

Not unlike Umberto D. in Vittorio de Sica’s 1952 masterpiece, Josef Tkaloun is an old and senior citizen who seems to be running on empty. He is the picture of a spent force, slowly becoming out of touch with his profession, alienated from his young charges and the inexorable march of the times. (He mistakes a recycle bin on a computer's operating system to mean an actual waste basket.) His weariness and surliness with his insolent and irreverent students one day reaches the tipping point. He declares to the principal: he is no longer happy; he tenders his irrevocable resignation.

The film, however, doesn’t go downhill, and downbeat, from here. This prologue is one, big red herring. Jan Sverak’s film is anything but a somber neorealist treatise about old age and marginalization; instead it proceeds to capture something more cheerily humanist, a picture about joie de vivre.

The joy of living. Of that, Tkaloun has plenty to spare. Nobody’s fool and nobody’s patsy, he is someone who would like to pursue life on his own terms, though sometimes ill-advised. First, he takes on a young man’s job as a courier – the kind that requires him to negotiate city traffic on a bicycle. The results prove disastrous. After an almost debilitating bicycle crash, he lands a closeted job at the supermarket. It’s a job that merely requires him to receive assorted empty bottles from customers. It’s a thankless job on paper, enough to make his wife feel scorned. She voices to him her suspicion that he is trying to stay away from her.

Her fears may not be entirely misplaced. Meanwhile the new job presents singular joys for Tkaloun. (It also affords the film its title, an ironic but apt metaphor). Perhaps after the years of aggravation from school children, he relishes the intercourse of grown-ups. Before long, he befriends everyone at the supermarket, his fellow employees and a diverse collection of regular customers. Among the lot, there is the old and reticent Rezac, who heads the station that processes the empties; Lamkova, the feeble, old woman, who depends on Tkaloun to deliver groceries to her home; and Ptackova, another customer, who has made no bones of wanting to have an affair with him.

Written and conceived and brought to life by Zdenek Sverak, the director’s father, Tkaloun leaps to life among a crowd of empties, both the literal and figurative ones. He plays the role of an aging cupid, a positive but mischievous enabler, who connects the many lonely characters around him: from old man Rezac to Tkaloun’s divorced daughter, Helena. As relationships he has engineered prosper around him, Tkaloun, too, is entertaining temptations in his own life. They haunt him in frightful yet funny dream sequences that provide a surreal tone to the film. His wife, however, may have learned a trick or two from him.

Ending with a symbolically life-embracing balloon ride above Prague, Empties is a return to form for the father-and-son team behind Kolya, the wonderful Oscar winner for best foreign picture in 1996. Jan Sverak’s direction may be sometimes too winsome, and too witty (if that’s ever bad) and his metaphors too neat and apt; and Zdenek Sverak’s characterization too enthusiastic and childlike; it can’t be denied that they work well together. After a much-publicized falling-out during filming, the Sveraks appear to have patched differences with the recent release of a new collaboration entitled Kooky. May there be more partnerships in the future!

Monday, September 13, 2010

All is Forgiven (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2007)

All is Forgiven is a family drama unlike any other: its portrayal of the sad realities of a troubled home, warts and all, is rendered with dignity and grace, subtlety and lyricism. While its underlying foundation and genre is drama – here a drama that enacts a family's dissolution and fragmentation, and its aftermath – it remains even-keeled and avoids the melodrama of the overwrought. It's a film that lives and breathes with graceful action as much as graceful pauses.

Mia Hansen-Love’s quietly poetic first film is one that does not take a high moral ground about the nature and dynamics of families. Everyone, after all, is born of a family: no didacticism needed. All the film wishes is to frame and follow its characters, its family of three: the thirty-something Frenchman Victor, his Austrian wife, Annette, and their still-uncomprehending five-year-old daughter, Pamela.

The film begins in 1995 in Vienna, where Annette is employed, and shifts to Paris a month or so later, where it slowly becomes clear that each change of residence is an attempt at a fresh start. This is all because Victor is nursing a bad habit. A drug addiction. Casually, he sums up his concept of life this way: writing in the morning (he is a failed poet), taking walks in the afternoon, and doing drugs at night. The change of scenery, however, fails to remedy their escalating marital problems, and the family dissolves.

The second half of the film takes place in Paris, twelve years later. Elided in the action are the rehabilitation of Victor, who now lives quietly in the city as a proof-reader in a publishing house; Annette’s re-marriage with another Frenchman; and the upbringing of Pamela. Pamela, who is now a high school student, soon receives word from Martine, Victor’s sister, and their contact results in a meeting. All those intervening years, Martine reveals, Victor has been trying to touch base with his estranged daughter. When Victor finally does get the chance, the father-daughter reunion is civil and without recrimination. As they meet subsequently again and exchange letters, the past is threshed out and finds a measure of resolution. The end is a moment that echoes with powerful pathos, with an even more ultimate resolution.

All is Forgiven, paradoxically, reveals and repeats what each of us already know, and yet resonates with a kind of emotive power that few films achieve. What’s almost as paradoxical is how Hansen-Love has crafted a highly refreshing film while remaining indebted to a host of filmmakers: in All is Forgiven, we find the quiet grace of Ozu, the poetic touch of Assayas, the conflicts of Pialat, and the tormented figures of Garrel. On second thought, the way Hansen-Love marshals her diverse influences with remarkable assurance and aplomb, and ultimately delivers, why should it be held against her?

Therein lies the real achievement of this film. Once director Hansen-Love realizes the universality of her themes, their inherent nature in our collective consciousness, she proceeds to draw on film lore, and her final calculations and execution bear her out. Elliptical, almost plotless, without a grand thesis, yet almost mythical, All is Forgiven tells us a story of such surprising immediacy and detail that we will remember the names and faces, flaws and all, for a long, long time. A lifetime.