Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How to Become Myself (Jun Ichikawa, 2007)

Some contend that life must be lived with a mediation of masks. Others espouse the contrary: a life conducted with as much consistency and honesty as possible, without dissimulations and the need for social personas. Jun Ichikawa’s How to Become Myself undermines the reductive simplicity of either perspective, and forwards a strategic compromise between the two. There is verity in the oft-repeated line from Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Based on a novel by Mado Kaori, this is the story of two kindred spirits floundering through young adolescence as they parse what it means to live happily and approach life at the right pitch and proportion. A profound yet delicate drama, it is a film that continues in the same vein and tonality as the director’s previous offering, Tony Takitani, employing a subtle direction that owes to the tranquil touch of Ozu. Ichikawa finds his comfort zone in borrowing the old master’s quiet cadences and pillow shots, affording his story a quality of equanimity and a lyrical rhythm.

As the film opens, two adolescent girls named Juri and Kanako meet very briefly just before high school graduation. It’s a meeting that leaves a lasting impression on both girls, with Kanako leaving behind a line from Dazai Osamu: “You’re a good liar; you should do the right thing.” Cryptic, but the line somehow clicks with the listener. The two lose touch and resettle in different towns, with Juri finding a sense of equilibrium in her new life. It’s no mean feat, as she must buck the divorce of her parents, and adapt to a new school and environment.

Thanks to the talismanic line from Dazai, the once-troubled Juri reinvents herself and turns her life around. She becomes well-adjusted enough to become everybody's favorite at school. This is the part where word about Kanako reaches her. Relocated to another school, she faces the same prospects as Juri once did. Juri decides to intervene and makes contact with Kanako via email. While Juri turns their correspondence into a novel, Kanako takes advice about everything: from classmates to school etiquette, down to what to say to a suitor, what to order on a date. Through her friend's steady instruction, Kanako refashions herself to great effect.

It’s a hackneyed conceit straight out of Edmond Rostand. But Ichikawa makes the Cyrano-ish character of Juri more humanly vulnerable as the drama wears on. Juri proves to be no worldwise figure but an insulated girl who lives vicariously through her friend. The seemingly passive Kanako has been thoughtfully testing out her friend’s advice, all along, and provides the best existential insight in the film when Juri needs it.

But the concerns of Ichikawa’s film are also very contemporary. At a time of discarnate relationships online, relationships built on emails, video conferences, and text messages, it’s a film that slightly suspects but surprisingly doesn’t take an entirely dim view of new technology in advancing relationships. Cast to a great extent as email and text exchanges between Juri and Kanako, How to Become Myself recuperates the epistolary tradition. There is power in the written word, now more than ever.

The presence of novelist Dazai Osamu is often invoked and lingers in the background. His hovering spirit in Ichikawa’s film is an ambivalent one, not outright glorified nor ridiculed. His words sustain Juri at one point, but his meanings may very well have been misconstrued. If Dazai’s characters are frustrated suicides or maladjusted individuals, Ichikawa’s are made of sterner stuff. There is fight in them, and one is quite certain, no matter life’s adversities, of their resilience. They will never go the way of Yozo in Dazai's No Longer Human or Dazai himself.

At once poetic and pragmatic, How to Become Myself is like a book wanting to be read and learned from. A self-help tome, a survival manual, a teenager's guide to the universe, or whatnot, but its heart will be forever in the right place.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Rebels of the Neon God (Tsai Ming-liang, 1992)

From Antonioni to Brocka, The Allusive Cinema of Tsai Ming-liang

Born and raised in Kuching, Malaysia, Tsai Ming-liang was introduced to movies by his grandparents, who often took him to screenings of popular films from China, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, America, and the Philippines at any of the dozen or so cinemas that populated their small, quiet town.

-- Darren Hughes, Senses of Cinema

Don’t think for a moment that Tsai Ming-Liang, that formidable auteur of Taiwanese New Wave, sprang fully-formed from the godhead of cinema with his feature debut, Rebels of the Neon God, in 1992. Far from it. As the epigraph suggests, Tsai has had an early exposure to the influence of film, a childhood pervaded by film and moviegoing, and it doesn’t end there. Long before the clinical term for his condition had a name, Tsai’s diasporic life saw him cultivating a cinephilia, a voracious consumption of films. It’s a cinephilia that seems unabated and has found expression throughout many of the director’s films. Think Tarantino, think French New Wave, only more integrated. Less apparently intertextual.

For Tsai, the real watershed that ushered him into a more serious and obsessive pursuit of the moving image was his relocation to Taiwan at the age of twenty. Unlike his native Kuching which could only offer commercial cinematic fare, the cultural institutions of Taiwan had vaster resources and deeper, more extensive archives. Enrolling himself in the Chinese Culture University in Taipei to study drama and film, Tsai was soon exposed to the films of the French New Wave and the New German Cinema. This formative period would see his initiation into the works of Truffaut, Fassbinder, Bresson, and Antonioni. These are the auteurs to this day that are most often identified with Tsai.

True to form, Rebels of the Neon God is a laudable first film that doesn’t forget to pay tribute to the director’s considerable filmgoing. Thematically speaking, Rebels mirrors the urban alienation that preoccupies Antonioni in such films as La Notte and L’Eclisse. Obsessed with the more “modern” milieus of cities, Tsai would go on to problematize urban relationships in such films as Vive L’Amour and The Hole.

Rebels of the Neon God, in sum, chronicles the disechanted lives of several youths, lost in the unforgiving shuffle of city life. As the film begins, Hsiao-Kang evinces the symptoms of this anomic affliction. One restive night, he inexplicably crashes his hand through a window pane, an allusion to a similar scene in Wenders’ tale of alienation, False Move. Meanwhile in the garish lights of this stormy evening, Ah-Tse and Ah-Ping, two youthful operators, ransack payphones for their hoard of coins. Later on, Ah-Kuei, another restless denizen of the city, winds up in someone’s bed yet again, her palliative to combat her loneliness. Then, a day later, Hsiao-Kang, with his hand bandaged, tries to get a refund for tutorial classes he is taking at a nearby school. End of education. They are dropping out from life, and neither does Tsai offer a neat solution, let alone an optimistic end. Rebels, as far as cinematic depiction goes, are meant to toe the line or be crushed. For good measure, Tsai never misses the chance to juxtapose Hsiao Kang with a pasteboard image of James Dean circa Rebel without A Cause.

A more fascinating aspect of Tsai's film, however, is its seeming wealth of references and allusions to Filipino films. Rebels of the Neon God may very well be Tsai’s sneaking tribute to Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Neon, probably the nearest film to depict the crushing and grinding stranglehold of a city. Lee Kang-Sheng’s Hsiao Kang, the central outsider-loner of Tsai’s film, bears an uncanny resemblance and countenance to Bembol Roco’s shell-shocked provincial Julio Madiaga in Brocka’s masterpiece. As Julio Madiaga is cornered by a murderous mob towards the film’s end, Ah-Tse and Ah-Ping, who have just been caught stealing motherboards from video game machines, suffer a very similar fate in the denouement of Tsai's film. The similarities are, well, uncanny.

If the foregoing should be dismissed as a function of speculation, mere conjecture, the charge may be justified. But consider the eerie sense of recognition as one goes down Tsai’s filmography. Take Hsiao-Kang’s transformation into a porn actor in Tsai's Wayward Cloud, a narrative twist prefigured by Julio Madiaga’s turn as a male prostitute. In another Tsai film, The Hole, there is the pivotal conceit of a hole in the floor of an apartment building that becomes a lifeline between a man and a woman. Familiar? Can you say Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights? A more particular and thorough study may yield more connections and perhaps these shouldn’t be surprising. Tsai’s easter eggs embedded in his films are a fitting tribute to a cinema that is worthy of tribute and emulation. Our cinema.

cowritten with Nel (aka Film Angel)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cinemalaya 2010 teaser: Casket

Next month, the whole world will be watching the World Cup finals and the Cinemalaya 2010 entries.

Video courtesy of WorldWillBeWatching1

Friday, June 18, 2010

Emir (2010, Chito Roño)

The hype is true. Emir is indeed the biggest Filipino musical you’ll ever see. However, the ads failed to mention that it is also one of the best local films released so far this year.

Budgeted at over 50 million pesos, the film is truly epic. From the sand dunes of Ilocos Sur to the verdant rice terraces of Ifugao to the palatial homes in Middle East and back to the picturesque Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte, the bold and majestic musical sweeps up the viewer on a magical carpet ride. The film soars so high that when the ride gets jerky due to a dragging song here and a few anti-male bashing there, the ensconced viewer is barely shaken and continues to enjoy the wondrous journey.

The voyage of Ilocana lass Amelia (Frencheska Farr) takes her to an unnamed Middle Eastern country. She ends up as a nanny to Ahmed, only son of a sheikh. She does an exceptional job raising Ahmed and gets shortlisted for the position of majordomo. She rejects the promotion. That decision somehow saved her from being killed in an uprising. Amelia returns to the Philippines and finds some of her dreams coming true.

Emir showcases the singing and songwriting prowess of Filipino artists such as Dulce, Bayang Barrios, Ebe Dancel, Gary Granada, and Chino Toledo. Although the songs are not radio-friendly, they do a neat job of fleshing out the narrative. The combination of excellent soundtrack and exotic choreography of Douglas Nierras is pure cinematic joy. There are several show stopping scenes such as the street dance in Ilocos and the tears-inducing duet of two ladies. The latter is a heart-wrenching elegy about love.

I find the duet between Dulce and Farr to be too long. But, if we consider the song’s length as aping the long-winded goodbye of Filipinos, then it makes sense. And, with the beautiful voice of Dulce, the scene is bearable.

My major complaint with the film is its refusal to tackle the deeper reasons behind the Filipino diasporas. The filmmakers avoided blaming the government for the export of Filipino workers. It may have something to do with the film being produced by the Film Development Council of the Philippines and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

It is a pity that the film is not raking in lots of money unlike a Sarah Geronimo movie. Farr may not be as popular as Geronimo but she fits perfectly the role of Amelia. She is morena and, according to a press release, has Ilocana blood. Blessed with a full-bodied voice, she was able to hold her own against veteran performers in the film. She has a great potential to make waves in the theatre scene.

Good local films are on a roll. First it was Noy, then Emir, and, three weeks from now, several entries from the 6th edition of Cinemalaya will surely mesmerize us as well. If you’re planning on purchasing a Cinemalaya festival pass, then troop down to the CCP Box Office. Festival passes are very, very limited and worth PHP1500. That's a bargain if you consider the ticket price of PHP 150 per screening. And who knows, there may be a re-screening of the majestic Emir at the CCP during the Festival.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Secret of the Grain (Abdel Kechiche, 2007)

An old world is fast disappearing in the southern shores of France. Abdel Kechiche’s momentarily elegiac but ultimately celebratory The Secret of the Grain opens on this note of lamentation. Everywhere are signs of obsolescence and decay -- floating junk, rotten boats -- as the camera surveys the fast-changing harbor of Sete. We are listening to an unsentimental annotation of a tour guide about the transformation of this maritime corner on the Mediterranean. Gone is the fish crier, he says, the man who announces the day’s catch. He has been replaced by the mechanical proclamations of computers. Here to one side of the harbor are the mountains of detritus and scrap-iron of old factories. “There used to be ovens in France,” comments the guide, referring to the closure of heavy industries. As if to locate the displaced humans in this equation, he proceeds to describe the torturous, 3-month excursions of old tuna fishers to far-away oceans.

Surely this casual commentary is insufficiently convincing, so the camera cuts to the graying figure of Slimane, a faithful shipyard worker, to give these sad realities a human face. We see him just at the instant when he is summarily eased out of his 35-year job. Slimane is a throwback to the old concierge in Murnau’s The Last Laugh, made obsolete after years of faithful service. In stunned silence, Slimane accepts his fate, silently incredulous that an old, artisanal job such as his can find a quick and equally qualified replacement. The truth is, latter-day economics are striking roots and have made manual labor expendable and his services dispensable. We learn the other manifestations of this new but ruthless and cut-throat world order: the preference for new and illegal immigrants as the workforce where they are needed as they present fewer complications and more profit to employers. As commented on elsewhere in the film, the new capitalists are shifting to more lucrative and less-labor-intensive, post-industrial ventures.

This talk can be all densely suffocating for a 151-minute film and Kechiche shifts to less mechanic, more domestic gears, as he follows Slimane around. Taking his cue from Robert Guediguian’s sociological studies of the working class strata of Marseilles, writer-director Kechiche proceeds to documenting the daily lives of immigrant Arabs in this seaside town in southern France. But lest one forgets, some of the quasi-documentary feel must also derive from Kechiche’s previous film, L’Esquive. It’s a familiarity with this mode of filmmaking that allows him to trace the reticulations of the Arab immigration and assimilation with relative ease.

Whether observing the gatherings of Slimane’s former wife Souad and their four children, and the protective care the graying man receives from his new woman, Latifa, and her feisty daughter Rym, Kechiche never fails to introduce an underlying commentary on the broader picture. His prime narrative strategy is linguistic metaphor. Gathering to partake of a meal of couscous, their dialogue is very pointed and empathic in expounding, for instance, the subject of disposable diapers – a thinly-veiled allusion to the disposability of Slimane in the new economy. Another: Couscous, they remark meaningfully, is the product of love, a labor of love, meant to reference the human touch invested by old artisans.

As the film wears on, the accent soon falls on the family and its crucial role in many aspects of life, at least in Slimane's life. What starts out with the solitary, dour figure of this man soon gives way to a lively ensemble of his extended families and the Arab section of Sete. They may find it irresistible to talk behind Slimane’s back, but there is genuine solidarity originating in these tight-knit circles in his hour of need. The consequences of documentary closeness, however, are such that we are made to witness, for instance, the extra-marital indiscretions of his son Majid and the scene-stealing disaffection of his Russian wife, Julia. We don’t fail to listen to Rym, almost like Slimane’s surrogate daughter, as she defends the old man from his unfeeling sons and often acts as his mouthpiece.

Much of the film’s engaging and endearing payload, however, comes in the last section of the film, when Slimane undertakes a plan to turn an old, dilapidated ship into a couscous restaurant. There is gripping suspense in anticipating whether his efforts will come to fruition on his restaurant’s opening night. But The Secret of the Grain does not fixate on single-handed heroism. To be blunt about it, Slimane comes across as an almost pathetic, ineffectual persona, and there’s a literally breath-taking allusion to De Sica’s Bicycle Thief towards the film’s end that highlights this, as he tries to run after and retrieve a stolen motorcycle.

An allegory about solidarity and the communal values of an older world, The Secret of the Grain sees a sincere volunteerism and a closing of ranks at the film's crucial juncture. Perhaps meant as stabs at the patriarchal nature of Arab societies, many of the well-meaning acts are the gestures of women. Don’t fail to watch through to the end; multivalent and polyphonic, this film makes simultaneous points that are brought home at the conclusion. Full of carousing, music and belly-dancing, the suspenseful – have I used the word yet? -- ending rounds out a tale well-told. In a world fast metamorphosing and phasing out the need for human touch, there is hope in homespun goodness yet.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Just Anybody (Jacques Doillon, 2008)

Two figures plunge the viewer in medias res at the start of Jacques Doillon’s quirky, genre-bending, romantic comedy, Just Anybody. Barging out of a restaurant, Costa (a native of these country parts) and Camille (a Parisienne who tags along with him) are disputing a point of difference. They are threshing out a night gone wrong, their first together: Costa sees it as consensual sex; Camille sees it as rape. Yet Camille strangely sees a saving grace in him. For the moment, Costa wants to rusticate and visit his young daughter, and so just as soon, they part ways.

Following Costa to his hometown of Le Crotoy, Camille encounters Cyril, a cop who takes an instant romantic liking to her. They, too, get into a suddenly elaborate conversation. With practiced deduction, Cyril reads between the lines and concludes that Costa, a ‘nobody’ in these parts (a euphemism for sure), raped Camille. It’s a potential ménage-a-trois that is further complicated by Gwendoline, Costa’s long-suffering wife. Along the way, there is an equally quirky array of characters that add comic and cuckoo color to this film.

But Just Anybody is not so much about quick couplings as it is about men and women blundering their way into a proper niche, a sense of redemption. Wrong-headed and deviant, they lead ill-advised lives that seem to be headed nowhere. Seemingly patterned after Jim Jarmusch’s menagerie of misfits, Doillon’s characters are embroiled in a farce that features strange, uproarious, even recidivistic behaviour: a thug who is actuated by chivalry, a cop who stalks a woman and yet refuses to leverage his badge, an urban girl who aids and abets the thug.

Writer and director Doillon depicts a sense of anomie in such a surprisingly infectious and lighthearted manner. Costa commits one felony after another, mugging and robbing his defenseless victims, but his acts seem to be rationalized by some perverse notion of chivalry and responsibility. Camille, who exhibits a measure of urban sophistication, is not above overlooking and condoning Costa’s often shocking crimes. It is she who goads Costa to raise some money, however tainted, as a peace offering to his estranged wife and child for the many years of neglect. Meanwhile, Cyril thinks it’s not undeserved and perhaps normal -- the offshoot of the pursuit of love? -- to be blindsided by violence. The characters are whacked, touched by a crooked sense of moral ambiguity.

The dialogue, scripted by Doillon, is often casual, witty and punchy. But this director seems to be suffering from a paucity of ideas since his prize-winning Ponette (1996) on his way to wrapping up his latest film. Suffice it to say that after all the display of criminal deviancy and feckless behaviour, Just Anybody peters out into a conciliatory end, all too neatly. And perhaps that is the film's overriding but elusive point : however flawed the characters may be, there shines a common humanity -- forgiveness and magnanimity on one hand, contrition and reconciliation on the other. Still one can't shake the cut-and-dried, schematic ending. Doillon must be getting overtures from Hollywood and this must be his calling card.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008)

Birdsong. Emerald green trees, lush verdant undergrowth. Dogs playfully bounding in the glistening grass. You can hear them breathlessly panting. Children hunt and search, heartily and boisterously, for hidden treasures among the boughs. These opening images in Olivier Assayas’s latest film Summer Hours set a lyrical tone for the luminosity that follows. We are in the middle of the Marly estate in the French countryside, as Helene, the matriarch, celebrates her 75 th birthday. Everyone who matters is present: Helene’s two sons, Frederic and Jeremie, and lone daughter, Adrienne, and their children, despite their hectic, cosmopolitan lives. Alone with her eldest son, Frederic, however, Helene is leaving instructions and the contents of her last will and testament.

These are no idle premonitions. True enough, Helene soon passes away before the end of summer. Her last will is most needed to sort out inheritances, a considerable one that includes her collection of antique furniture, paintings and books. Her former lover happened to be Paul Berthier, a painter of some renown. Helene had rightly foreseen what would happen, taking into account her children's different circumstances, the different lives they lead. While Frederic wishes to keep the summer house and its contents intact, Jeremie and Adrienne, both industrial executives based in different countries, see no need for it. Jeremie, in fact, is in dire need of money to buy a house in his adopted China; Adrienne may have to live much of the time in Japan.

Here is a scenario that would in lesser hands be fraught with melodramatic possibilities and histrionics. But Olivier Assayas’s film keeps emotionalism within acceptable levels, not only achieving a film of assured pathos but parlays his premise into a statement not just about the Marly family but about each one of us, each human being. And as it makes its humanistic statement, it offers a gentle reproach to the inexorable march of civilization. Summer Hours is not so much about family intramurals as it is about the recognition of each one's birthright to live according to a personal compass.

There is what we might call a sweet dynamic among the Marly siblings. To make his point, Assayas never overplays the angle of fraternal civility, leaving only little, automatic gestures as shorthand for respect and reverence. No words necessary, the gestures are reflexive and heartfelt. Much of the differences among them is elliptical.

Summer Hours, more aptly, ranges over generational contrasts, between Helene and her children, and in the last act of the film, between Frederic and his teenage daughter, Sylvie. Too preoccupied with the matters of the family estate, Frederic is jolted when he finds out Sylvie’s adolescent crimes. Shoplifting. Smoking pot. Sexual initiation. The father may be furious but to borrow a phrase from Godard, this is her life to live. Yet surprisingly Frederic subsequently consents to what might be seen as a desecration: Sylvie throwing a party for her friends in the auctioned summer house. Perhaps it's just as well. After all, these, too, are her summer hours.

The history of civilization has been notable for its production and preservation of cultural artifacts. Assayas’ film, a film that features the auction of art treasures and family heirlooms and the interiors of museums, may never refute that, but it postulates each person’s inalienable heritage: Nothing takes more privilege than the individual, the human welfare. Let each one explore the height and latitude of summer -- those too-few, too-brief summers.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

God's Offices (Claire Simon, 2008)

It’s OK. No one knows us here, a teenaged girl reassures another in the opening sequences of Claire Simon’s felicitously titled God’s Offices. They stand restlessly on a balcony of an abortion clinic cum family planning center in the heart of an unnamed French city, moments away from taking their turn with a social worker. As the film unfolds along the fine lines between documentary and fiction, this troubled teen will pass through a revolving door of women, women of all ages and walks of life, as they receive all manner of help, from simple advice and assistance to life-altering succor about matters of sex and the repercussions of sex. Whether referring to this halfway house for women or the conceiving womb, God’s Offices depicts a humane though often painful portrait of women.

Drawing on research material she and her team gathered between 2000 and 2007, Claire Simon crafts a story -- nay, a series of stories -- that hews close to sessions recorded at a host of family planning centers across France, sessions unified by an inherently confessional tone and themes that would otherwise have been kept in the dark. As befits the material, the film is captured in cinema-verite fashion (not too overly shaky and intrusive, however), and a supplemental authenticity is added by a cast of first-time actresses playing the beleaguered women. It’s an inspired stroke of casting that the social workers are played by well-known veteran actresses of French cinema, including Beatrice Dalle and Nathalia Baye. They provide the compassionate presence and the voice of reason through an often tense and disconsolate film, a presence more subtly empathic and empathetic than what non-professional actors might be able to portray.

God’s Offices, if nothing else, puts forward a whole spectrum of sad and tragic human stories from the vantage point of women. Through highly detailed and informative accounts, one gets the sure sense that women take the brunt of sexual relationships. Anxiety from delayed periods. The pill. Abortifacients. Pregnancy. Abortion. The wrath of families and the whole social stigma of unwanted pregnancy and motherhood. The few men who figure in this film are angry, demanding and impatient figures, and the men who figure in the women's narrations are no more scrupled. This series of episodes channels one exhausting psychic outpouring. But in a film that features only one half of the gender divide, we are merely getting one side of the story, however honest and genuine the accounts are made to be.

The thrust of the film is, unswervingly, the story of women. With an almost unvarying emotional pitch, it plays out a dozen or so slices of women's life in a 2-hour duration. There is the young teenage girl at the film’s opening asking simply about contraception behind her parents’ back. A more distraught and tearful episode features the confession of an impregnated woman caught between a husband and a lover who turns to blackmail in order to bed her down repeatedly. Another confession reveals a woman, who for years has suspected her own sterility, suddenly getting on the way. How? Everything comes full circle at the end, when a middle-aged Bulgarian prostitute is asked why she keeps getting pregnant with the same man. There is but one answer wafting through the corridors of God’s offices: Love. A picture that foregrounds abortion and its convenient rationale, God's Offices intimates, at film's end, that most noble of human emotions and motivations. Nothing should be unwanted and tainted, not the wages of love.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Girl on The Train (Andre Techine, 2009)

She's not all there. There's a faraway and wistful look in the eyes of young Parisienne Jeanne Fabre, and it scarcely seems to be one of aspiration. When the camera follows her around the city in Andre Techine’s The Girl on the Train, she seems to be a study of youth misspent. There is little to indicate what yearnings, or perhaps sorrows, inhabit her mind, and even when she rollerblades across the city, there is on her face, the perpetual gaze of abstraction. Taking her time to look for jobs, she mysteriously eschews the ones that answer her resume. It’s not as though she lacks her mother’s wisdom and supportive presence. Au contraire. Even when she finds love, it hardly seems enough a catalyst to awaken her from a perpetual reverie. “Learn to open your eyes,” someone soon advises her.

Based on events that made news headlines in France in July 2004, Techine’s latest film draws on the hoax perpetrated by a 23-year-old woman named Marie-Léonie Leblanc who, in an apparent effort to gain attention, claimed to have been attacked by black and Arab youths on a Parisian train. It was a hoax that touched a nerve across a country reeling from a string of anti-Semitic attacks. In The Girl on the Train, we vaguely sense the public outrage, but what is writ larger are a young woman’s ill-advised choices and her galvanization from a mysterious trance.

The Girl on the Train is structured as a diptych, two halves carrying utilitarian titles, the first half being the “Circumstances” and the second “Consequences.” Far from assuming a documentary approach, Techine lenses his material with the same poetic sensibility and delicacy that grace his previous mature work (The Thieves, The Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season). “Circumstances” traces the fictionalized moments of Jeanne’s life that might help explain why she committed the hoax. What essentially unravels her is the repudiation by her boyfriend, a promising Olympian wrestler who is faced with a lengthy prison sentence because of her. “Consequences” encapsulates the moments after the hoax, the gathering together of Jeanne’s suddenly extended family, her mother and mother’s friends – mainly a Jewish lawyer and his family whom Jeanne involves in her hoax – to let her see the error of her ways. It is the adolescent Nathan, the young grandson of Bleistein, who sees through her, a kindred spirit.

The young Belgian actress, Émilie Dequenne, who played the down-and-out working class girl in the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta, essays enigmatic yearnings to perfection as the eponymous character. Catherine Deneuve, as Jeanne’s mother, is a strong but unobtrusive presence, ready to enlist everyone’s help and swallow her pride to see her child through. Michel Blanc, as the Jewish lawyer Bleistein, is a strong ballast who shrewdly knows the bigger picture borne out of the consequences.

Throughout Techine’s film runs a recurrent motif that reveals one of its inspirations: the musical theme to Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. Both films, true enough, are unconventional character studies of young, embattled women. While Nana in Godard’s film meets with a fatalistic and perhaps cynical end, a prostitute’s cold-blooded death, however, Jeanne is not beyond redemption. The Girl on the Train professes, as in many previous Techine pictures, the power of familial bonds. Love redeems, and it cuts across all barriers.

Not as evidently strong and coherent as Techine’s masterpieces (The Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season), The Girl on the Train is a work that makes more sense with retroactive appreciation. It’s a film that hints and suggests as much as tells its story. If nothing else, it yet again confirms the filmmaker’s fascination with women, a long-standing one borne out in more than three decades of filmmaking. The Bad Girl, Strayed, The Thieves, and The Bronte Sisters are pictures that foreground the subjectivity of women, a subjectivity that paradoxically avoids eliciting facile judgments. Here lies the strange redemptive power of Andre Techine’s brand of cinema.

A Good Marriage (Eric Rohmer, 1982)

Cinema has never been kind to the figure of woman. Patriarchy interpellates and objectifies her, to paraphrase the words of a young Godard. Within the diegetic universe, if not the corporate ambit, of film production, she is asked to inhabit the margins to foreground the primacy of man. She is asked to assume a lower, inferior rank, tucked away in domestic and domesticated roles as mother, non-career woman, housewife. She must never threaten the male protagonist, and if she isn’t going to be his complement, neither can she assume the persona of an equally strong villain. This, more or less, defines the screen presence allotted to women in this most macho of arts.

Released in 1982 as part of his cycle of films called Comedies and Proverbs, Eric Rohmer’s A Good Marriage is a picture that can divide opinion as to its place within feminist canon in an era of growing identity awareness. It is bound to be applauded outright or perhaps elicit a few cringe-worthy moments in its depiction of women. Its main protagonist, Sabine, the movie’s premise quickly makes plain, is a young woman on a quest to find a husband. She declares one fateful night, after doing away with her married boyfriend, that she will pursue marriage as an ideal in life and revert to a figure of olden times when women were respected and desired for their virtue.

Enter Edmond, a lawyer bachelor who meets all of Sabine’s coveted attributes in a man. Handsome, rich, successful. Most of all, single. Here is Sabine’s cue to assume the womanly ideal that she espouses, but she gets bad advice from her best friend Clarisse, who goads her to take the initiative and pursue him. Much of the rest of A Good Marriage is a lot of self-absorbed second-guessing on the part of Sabine (and her friend Clarisse) on how to go about ensnaring her intended man and the resulting abortive efforts. They proceed, predictably, with teary-eyed repercussions.

As a woman exercising her subjectivity, the figure of Sabine may elicit groans from an audience that thinks her crude and less than cunning in her methods of entrapment. Good for her, they will say, A Good Marriage is nothing but a film that puts her back in her rightful place, the passive position. As a woman, she is not subject but object. She has to wait to be ridden like a frozen horse on the carousel of marriage.

But a more informed reading may see Sabine as the prototype of a woman as the aggressive other. We live in a culture that concedes too much to men, and this paradigm is turned on its head in this Rohmer film. Sabine may fail, but not unlike all first timers do. She hits and misses but she will take the attendant lumps and bruises. It is she who pursues; she is predator, not prey for once, that’s what counts.

After all, the film ends where an opportunity seems to present itself to Sabine once again. After all, something has been withheld here, some complicating fact: that Edmond belongs to the haute bourgeoisie, while Sabine is substantially rungs lower on the economic ladder. (Cue in the Marxists.) That Edmond blinks first in a letter he writes to Sabine: he can never sacrifice his freedom. Edmond is not just a snooty rich man, but a man who feels threatened by an aggressive woman. Sabine will get the hang of it. Nature, after all, will bear her out. Predators more often fail than succeed in their pursuit of prey.

Like the five other films in the cycle of Comedies and Proverbs, Rohmer conceived A Good Marriage in such a light but cautionary vein, as seriocomic parables that illustrate the pitfalls of relationships and their less-than-fairy-tale consequences. Rohmer’s direction here, as always, is light and unobtrusive, allowing Beatrice Romand free rein to shine as Sabine. Arielle Dombasle (as Clarisse) and Andre Dussollier (as Edmond) turn in worthy supporting roles. If you fancy a film with simple but lilting charms, with articulate and involving characters, you can do worse than a film by Rohmer. A Good Marriage is no exception.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Noy (2010, Dondon Santos)

That was a long, long dry spell of good new films. It is already the month of June but I can only cite less than a handful of notable feature-length films such as Cesar Apolinario’s Puntod, Raul Jorolan’s The Red Shoes, and Chris Martinez’s Here Comes the Bride. The El Niño phenomenon will soon give way to a deluge of hopefully great entries from upcoming local film festivals. The 6th edition of Cinemalaya is just around the corner.

Dondon Santos’ film is a refreshing change from formulaic love stories and sleazy sex films. The film Noy does not deal with the life of Senator Noynoy Aquino. The titular character Noy (Coco Martin) is a street-smart guy who has nabbed a job at a television station by using fake school records. He makes use of this opportunity by crafting a report on the presidential campaign of his namesake Noynoy Aquino. Lacking the knowledge and skills of an educated journalist, Noy comes up with a pedestrian set of footages. His errors and misadventures make up the bulk of humorous scenes in the film. Determined to give heart to his report, Noy decides to focus on the problems of urban poor people like him and how Senator Aquino intends to address them.

President-elect Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III was quoted in press releases as being impressed with the acting of Coco Martin and the guerrilla filmmaking tactics. He seems to be happy with the film which several viewers have lambasted for showing him mostly in good light. Memorable candid moments include Aquino horsing around with Baby James and an obviously-elated Senator enjoying his recording of a rap spiel for an ad.

I admire the decision of the director to include campaign footages showing Aquino laying out his plans. In a campaign sortie, Aquino promised to provide PhilHealth coverage to all Filipinos within 3 years. If Aquino fails to deliver on these campaign promises, then this film will haunt him big-time.

The film, with a script by Shugo Praico, brings up the issue of Hacienda Luisita and the luck of being a child of parent-heroes. I can no longer recall the scene but I think the issue of Kamaganak Inc. was also subtly tackled.

The movie Noy is not a great film although believers of Aquino will undoubtedly adore it while non-fans may find it worthwhile for various reasons. It combines the gritty realism of a Brillante Mendoza film, the acidic wit of Francis Xavier Pasion's Jay and images of a compelling TV documentary. However, the didactic ending mars the film. Noy remarked in the early part of the film "Ako lang ang hindi tunay." Yes, he is a fake and also his postmortem message. It falls flat and sounds false.

After viewing a film that deals with duplicity and falsehoods, viewers will probably keep an eye on the actions of President-elect Benigno Aquino III. Will he be true to his campaign promises or will he be unmask as a pretender?