Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sigwa (2010, Joel Lamangan)

Director Joel Lamangan admitted that he was quite nervous with his first Cinemalaya film during the second day of the Sine Taktakan forum. He had apprehensions about how his film compare to those made by young filmmakers.

Sigwa is a film that Lamangan can be proud of although it is not what I was expecting from Lamangan and scriptwriter Bonifacio Ilagan, both activist victims of the harsh Marcos regime. It is not, and does not pretend to be, the definitive movie on the volatile seventies. It is more of a nostalgic search for the missing children of the Left movement. The film examines what happens to activists when they grow old.

The filmmakers took a risk in making a Fil-Am mother as main protagonist. Dolly (Dawn Zulueta/Megan Young) is a former journalist turned activist who was deported to the United States of America after her arrest in the 1970s. She came back to look for her daughter who she initially thought to be dead. The character is well wrought but she is too tame and American to represent the fiery generation of Filipino activists.

Dolly is no longer the firebrand she used to be. Two of her colleagues have mellowed down as well. On the extreme end is Oliver (Tirso Cruz III/Marvin Agustin), a student activist leader who has made a 180-degree turn to become a defender of the status quo. Instead of serving the people, he is propping up the administration of an unpopular president. Azon (Gina Alajar/Lovi Poe) was traumatized by a rape-torture incident and led a quiet life in the province raising a family. Only community organizer Rading and New People’s Army member Cita continue to be involved in the movement.

The film blends the star power and polished performances of a mainstream blockbuster with the relevant, edgy story of an indie film. It is not a smooth marriage because of the film’s difficulty in straddling the line between mainstream and indie filmmaking. Lamangan should have used hand-held camera tactics to capture in-your-face rally break-ups. The massive rally at the start is stagy and lacks gritty realism. It doesn’t help that it came after stirring footages of actual First Quarter Storm rallies were shown that set the screen ablaze. It will take nearly the entire movie before a scene of such power and courage is shown again.

The explosive ending is something that will never see light in a mainstream film. The convoy of Cabinet Secretary Oliver is intercepted by a group of rebels. An irate Oliver gets down from his car and meets face-to-face with his ex-lover and ex-comrade Cita (Zsa Zsa Padilla/Pauleen Luna). The scene cuts to a medium shot of the beautiful, smirking amazon fighter and then, the screen fades to black. The ending works because Lamangan leaves it up to the viewer to imagine the kind of punishment (or redemption?) befitting the treacherous Oliver.

Sigwa, the box-office hit at the Cinemalaya 2010 festival, is a good advocacy material that will probably make the rounds of the vast human rights network here and abroad. It may not be as bombastic and intense as Dukot nor is it as dramatic and epic as Dekada ’70 but it surely kicks ass.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Vox Populi (Dennis Marasigan, 2010)

Vox populi, vox dei.

The voice of people, the voice of God. In Dennis Marasigan’s frank but comic political satire Vox Populi, these ancient words are turned on their head and undergo the worst ironies and corruptions we in modern times are not exactly unfamiliar with and not exactly unaffected by. For all intents and purposes, we have rendered passé the spirit of this Latin saying, made extinct as Latin itself. For politics, Philippines-style, implicates and indicts us, who take on the term political animal with savage literalism. Our brand of politics, to amplify the metaphor, is a disgustingly tentacular beast that corrupts and depraves everything it touches.

In Vox Populi, the vantage point is recomposed and refreshed yet again – through the eyes of a blank-slate character straight out of a Frank Capra political comedy. Connie de Gracia, a first-time candidate in mayoralty elections in a town called San Cristobal, displays an unsophisticated, all-but-naive manner, with still youthful features that belie a past she terms disgraced. It’s a wise and ingenious character makeup, the tabula rasa, the innocent eye that might as well be that of a child. And it is just as well: Electoral candidates have a way of devolving into self-conscious and docile creatures who lose their ability to judge themselves and their public acts correctly.

Everything happens on the last day of the campaign – the meat of this film and the subject of hand-held cameras following Connie de Gracia’s every move – packed as it is with gross incident and shockingly frank exposition that reveal the putrefying cross-section of Filipino politics. Around Connie de Gracia are a retinue of supporters who seem more naturally pragmatic and more politically wise than she could ever be: Tony, the political strategist who does most of the dirty work performing electoral sleights of hand behind her back; Ricky, Connie’s younger brother, who will use traditional electioneering tactics and personal charms to sway wide swaths of voters like religious groups and friendly block-voters, and Letty, her personal assistant who simultaneously feeds her voter psychology and sandwiches for missed meals.

Even in these all-too-cynical times, there remains a lightly off-putting power about the campaign transactions that go down in Vox Populi. They proceed shamelessly with the same audacity of commercial barter and bargain. Barefacedly, potential voters make known their problems that need to be resolved in a strict, reciprocal transaction of quid pro quo. Even Connie de Gracia without fully realizing it is already being sucked into this vortex of corruption. Asking about the technicalities of the electoral rules, she makes sure that her every campaign move is legal, although it may involve something so immoral and unethical as the subtle disenfranchisement of her opponents’ voters.

Essentially, Vox Populi goes over familiar but factual terrain, but Marasigan is an adept operator negotiating his material with controlled satire and refuses to milk his situations for easy laughs. When the moments do come, they are well-earned and authentically funny. The diverse and motley characters that Connie de Gracia encounters on the last day of the campaign are just as familiar: her brother’s grizzled godfather who only wants her to acknowledge all of her past – both their shameful parts and the reflected glories of her politician father – before he pledges his support; the pastor who has control of a block-voting religious group; an old professor of Connie’s who tests the true idealism and mettle of his old student; and a business tycoon who hedges his bets by supporting all the candidates with the agency of money. Marasigan weaves all these characters and their contexts with assured and masterful insight and confidence. A gifted farceur in this instance, Marasigan could have been a vulgar humorist if he didn’t exercise tranquil restraint. The laughs could have come fast and cheaply, but fortunately that isn’t so. He measures and weighs all his effects and the result is a potent film that doesn’t last one second more than it needs to.

Vox Populi is a refreshing satire with an old soul. We may know in advance the social types and social ills the film acidly presents to us but we shake our heads with as much outrage as the first time to its corrupt and savage truths. After all, these compromised and concessional truths define for us the hulking juggernaut known as the Filipino realpolitik. Redemption comes for the much-aggrieved audience at a crucial moment in the film when a group of youths approach candidate Connie – to pledge their support. Her strategists ask automatically, In return for what? The answer is a gentle reproach – or perhaps a stinging rebuke – of youthful idealism, a moment of exclamatory significance for a crowd awaiting sweet deliverance.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (2010, Mario O’Hara)

Among the films featured at the 6th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, this historical film is one of the most important. A faithful retelling of one of our history’s sourest incidents, in which a hero orders the death of another hero, the film is a lemon juice distilled painfully on Filipinos’ open, gaping wound.

As the film credits roll on, excerpts of various komedya plays are presented. We then see Andres Bonifacio (Alfred Vargas) playing a prince searching for the Ibong Adarna, an elusive bird with healing powers. Among the audience member is his lover, Gregoria de Jesus (Danielle Castaño). The next few scenes show the depth of the couple's love for one another. A bawling Gregoria is briefly detained after the arrest of her husband, Andres Bonifacio.

The trial of Bonifacio is dragging in most parts. The repeated questioning of the prisoners takes its toll on viewers' patience. Director O'Hara should have shortened the segment by showing successively similar responses to a single question. Limited budget obviously played a role in his inability to reconstruct the events narrated by the witnesses. The theatrical elements of the trial are a perfect fit for the moro-moro proceedings. At the start of the trial, the inept lawyer tasked to defend Bonifacio is already asking for forgiveness for his client's wrongdoings.

Angelina Kanapi steals the film with her portrayal of the Ibong Adarna and narrator. Instead of lulling the viewers to sleep, she is the one that energizes the whole film with her strong screen presence. Donning a semi-kalbo haircut and made up in white make-up, she eerily recalls Death in Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal. When she wears a red and yellow dress and performs a dance, I can't help but see it as a dance of death by Spain. The colonizing country can then be seen as the one responsible for Andres Bonifacio's death.

I love the music score for this film. The hymn Marangal na Dalit ng Katagalugan was played in the background during the execution of Bonifacio. The lyrics refer to the fight against the Spaniards. Again, the film seems to suggest that Spain was responsible for the death of Bonifacio. The lovely kundiman Jocelynang Baliwag was given prominence in the early part of the film. It was the song sung by Gregoria and the captured soldiers of the Magdiwang faction. In the guise of a courtship song, the lyrics pertain to love for the motherland. Another song that serves as an outlet for nationalism is the song Sa Dalampasigan. It pays tribute to martyrs who served as inspiration of the Philippine Revolution.

It’s always a pleasure seeing O’Hara conjure wildly creative films like Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio. Marvel at how he showed the horrors, the bombings, and the killings during the revolution using minimal money. Heck, save for the interminable trial scenes, I was mesmerized with the film’s inventiveness and Filipino-ness. The band playing komedya music; poem readings; the folk dance pandanggo sa ilaw; all these things, and more, magically transported me to the late 19th century Philippines. O’Hara’s film reminds me of Raya Martin’s A Short Film About Indio Nacional. The latter is similarly structured in framing the revolution within the popular mediums of entertainment in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Even though Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio failed to received an award from the five-man jury at Cinemalaya 2010, it is a must-see film for Filipinos. It may spur them, as I did, to learn more about our heroes and history. If you’d enjoyed the film, then you’ll probably relish O’Hara’s offbeat masterpiece Sisa. A film that can only come from the wonderful imaginings of the veteran director, the movie suggests Sisa is the voluptuous morena lover of Jose Rizal.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Two Funerals (2010, Gil Portes)

A cross between Colorum and Ded Na Si Lolo, this hilarious film is a welcome return to form for director Gil Portes. According to the acclaimed creator of Mulanay, Saranggola, and Mga Munting Tinig, he came across the subject for the film in a tabloid. He read about the case of a corpse that was delivered to the wrong set of surviving family members. This germ of an idea haunted him for years. He peddled his story to lots of producers but none will touch it.

SineDirek could have been a perfect venue for Portes’ project but it failed to materialize this year. It is a good thing that Cinemalaya expanded its grant program by coming up with the Directors’ Showcase competition. Portes and four other veteran directors were able to get sizable budgets for their dream projects.

Two Funerals was a crowd-favorite during the festival. There was boisterous laughter from the audience all throughout the movie. Jeffrey Quizon is a delight to watch as a married man battling his personal demons. Mon Confiado and Benjie Felipe are an odd couple cooking up ways to earn money during the wake. Confiado’s theory about the lady in the coffin is a certified hoot.

Tessie Tomas shines again in a Cinemalaya film. For the third straight year, her marked portrayals give luster to the films. She earned acting nominations for her portrayal as a friend of a dying cancer patient in 100. She was nominated and won for her role as a pawnshop owner in Sanglaan. This year, she unravels her comedic timing and dramatic skills in her role as a mother determined to get hold of the corpse of her daughter. Her breakdown scene at the wake in Matnog, Sorsogon was a difficult one to do but she pulled it off.

The award-winning script by Enrique Ramos was obviously well thought of. I love the juxtaposition of the holy and the irreverent, the spiritual and the mundane. Almost all punch lines hit their mark. There was an excess of gay-themed jokes, but why carp? The only glitch I can see with the script is the politician campaigning during Good Friday.

Portes expressed gladness over the horde of awards received by his film. It even won the Audience Choice award in the Directors’ Showcase category. I came to appreciate the cinematography only after viewing the film projected beautifully in the Teatro Huseng Batute of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The night scenes at the bridge were wonderful. During the early days of the Cinemalaya 2010 festival, all the films I’ve seen at the Little Theater suffered from poor projection. The organizers remedied this problem by moving the projection system closer to the screen.

Two Funerals is an entertaining, fun-filled film. But, if you’re going to watch it at Cine Adarna in UP Diliman, then be warned that the film may literally end up as dark comedy. I hope the UP Cineastes’ Studio and co-organizers utilize a better projection system. Straining your eyes to check out the action at dark, projected images is no laughing matter. The audience deserves a better moviehouse viewing experience.

UPDATED (July 24):
Coincidence? Fast response?
Anyway, I want to thank the UP Cineastes' Studio and co-organizers for vastly improving the projection of a film at Cine Adarna. I had a great time yesterday during the Sampaguita screening.

Catch Cinemalaya 6 goes to UP next week. The best of the competition entries is still to be screened. The must-see film is Mark Meily's Donor. Two Funerals, Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio, Halaw, and Shorts B program are also well worth seeing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Sampaguita, National Flower (Francis Xavier Pasion, 2010)

Francis Xavier Pasion’s Sampaguita, National Flower – a real-life glimpse into the nightly fates of a group of street urchins selling the titular garlands in the streets of Manila – has just won the Special Jury Prize at this year's Cinemalaya. Popular reception also seems to validate such critical acclaim as first- and second-hand accounts attest to the ability of this film to draw tears of apparent pity and sympathy at various screenings. At the risk of seeming callous and iron-hearted, let me say that the reception borders on the curious -- an exaggeration, an overcompensation for something? -- but then again aren't we the same country of bleeding hearts reeled in by the sobering stories and saddening sagas coaxed out on national television by the likes of Willie Revillame and Jessica Soho? Frankly speaking, there’s also already an entire subgenre of films that have more dexterously parlayed the dramatic potential of a similar premise: Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, Hector Babenco’s Pixote and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. Sampaguita does not hold a candle to those classics.

But a bad filmmaker on the evidence of this film, Pasion is not. Already, to say that Sampaguita possesses no power to move is to deny the foregoing and underestimate this filmmaker’s powers of manipulation. To sweep its audiences into simultaneous applause and tears is no mean feat. Pasion knowingly deploys his practiced tricks as he intercuts actual interviews with his young subjects and the corresponding dramatizations of their confessions en route to crafting an account of poverty.

We do get a vividly graphic if stylized sense of degradation that befalls the young characters of this film. Images sear on our memory: tired and weary, they sleep on hard pavement with cardboard for blankets; the cops and city officials chase and scatter them off the streets like so many vermin; the night unlooses on them shadowy pedophiles and various predators. There is no reprieve for them, those whose lives on the home front are not appreciably better, and perhaps worse, since they presuppose bigger expectations for a sense of home. As a prologue of sorts demonstrates, our national symbols are being drained of lofty meaning for the dispossessed. The sampaguita, more significantly, has become inextricably linked with images of deprivation, danger and despondence.

But Pasion commits suspect decisions, too. None more glaring is his choice of a curious timeframe to formulate his story. Here it is Christmas season, and the acts of charity are more commonplace and more forthcoming than during the rest of the year. All of a sudden, the streets are not so uninviting, but a source of bonanza for those who know how to beg and hustle. This cosmetically closes the gap of class divisions, a misrepresentation of social conditions that Pasion must be called to explain. By showing the bourgeoisie in a positive light, doesn’t it return the onus of decent existence on the shoulders of its young characters?

With the noblesse oblige of the bourgeoisie in evidence, it throws in a suspicious, Empsonian form of ambiguity into the proceedings. Have the noble acts of our representatives on screen galvanized us into action, or have they just reassured us into complacency and refrained from seeking our further intervention? It may be an old chestnut but the saying Everday is not Christmas holds a demonstrable, time-tested wisdom. Sampaguita may have reduced us to tears, but it has also absolved the audience of its crucial role of social transformation. It may have coaxed us into applause, but only for our majestic mirror-image in the eyes of these little, pitiful street urchins.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Halaw (Sheron Dayoc, 2010)

Here in imperial Manila, how often do we stop and think about distant Mindanao? This begs repeating, for in truth we have consigned our southern brethren to the margins of consciousness. Worse, we think of them with a colonizer’s orientalism: warlike and belligerent, intractable and ungovernable. No understanding and touching base with their kind, let alone extending what is due them as part of the nation. Our nexus with them is tenuous, characterized by neglect and ignorance, hostility and strife. While the North gets the lion’s share of infrastructural development, budgetary allocations and administrative favor, the South is a poor relation that must fend for itself, even if it means scattering its desperate denizens in search of greener pastures.

Sheron Dayoc’s feature debut, Halaw, is a story of the dangerous, daily diaspora from Mindanao to immediate foreign territories, a story of risky human traffic we have for far too long turned a blind eye to. From a native Mindanaoan director, it is a welcome corrective to the lack of films about the region in general. Hopefully, it isn’t the last. It isn’t pretty to look at as it should be, no glossy and hypnotically arresting visuals but a cinematographic treatment marked by raw, cinema-verite imagery centering on those who would rather escape notice, let alone documentation. Halaw is a film that follows the human smuggling through the so-called southern backdoor. Rendered in real-time narration, it details, with a strict observational stance, one fraught passage through the perilous seas of Mindanao.

In a seaside town in Zamboanga, where it all begins, a Badjao named Jahid and his young daughter Daying prepare for the illegal pump-boat crossing to Sabah, where they intend to locate his missing wife. They lack the requisite fare but prevail upon the boat’s conductor with Daying’s last remaining possession, her earrings. Another practiced traveler is Hernand, a white slavery operator who is finding it hard to recruit his share of unsuspecting women (i.e. virgins are at a premium). In Hernand’s company is one such girl, too wide-eyed and ignorant to calculate her impending mistake, drawn ironically to her future incarnation, a middle-aged prostitute in the same boat, who plies her flesh in Malaysian territories. This prostitute gladly humors her with a modern woman’s accessories: her beguiling perfume, her fancy clothes and her lucrative claims if the younger girl played her cards right.

However, the sea journey is never free of risk and treachery. The pump-boat operators may know all the precautionary measures from mapping out the best routes to escaping detection in Malaysian waters, but nothing is guaranteed. The smallest exigency – e.g. the presence of water in the hull, the sudden sputtering of the boat’s motor – can be a cause of concern for both the travelers and their transporters. Easy passage is for the unusually lucky.

Even as there are divertissements along the way – e.g. the young Daying regaling her boatmates with what must be a Badjao dance, something she parlays into a handful of coins – the sense of reprieve is palpably temporary. In a well-conceived, penultimate scene set on Mananako Island, the last stopover, the sense of peril becomes apparent. Flesh becomes the currency to settle old debts, and the sea is no longer what it seems. The hardest part, however, is far from over.

If, as one watches, one detects an Ariadne’s thread of sorts through Halaw and films like Jeturian’s Kubrador, Mendoza’s Manoro and Ralston Jover’s Bakal Boys, the sure guiding hand of Armando Lao and his real-time paradigm have been at work all along. This scriptwriting wizard, who has for years ensured a steady stream of well-conceived screenplays, lends his assistance to a new filmmaker once again, although one begins to wonder if his unmistakable influence has made for a homogenization of those films he has helped to shape. Frankly, for as long as a film is given ample time to germinate in the collaboration, what matters should be the well-made product.

That seems to be part of Halaw’s one glaring problem, its rough-draft finish. Like an exquisite corpse, Halaw has some missing vital parts. The interaction between the travelers, the agoraphobia of the open seas, the different complexions and colorations of a journey, seem hurriedly sketched, rushed. A sense of narrative truncation happens at the end, all too abruptly. Perhaps, this picture’s structure is an attempt to draw a parallel to the lay of the land, highlighting the chopped-up nature of a nation. Like a gangrenous limb, there is a part of us that must want, desperately, to be separated, amputated.

Cinemalaya 6 goes to UP Diliman, Quezon City

Catch the winners of the 6th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival at UP Diliman. All films will be screened at the UP Film Institute's 800-seater Cine Adarna. Price of an admission ticket is PHP 80. Please contact 0915-514-2640 for inquiries and ticket reservations.

Screening schedule of Cinemalaya 2010:

5pm - THE LEAVING (Ian Dean S. Loreños)
- Best supporting actress (LJ Reyes)
- Best production design
- Best cinematography
730pm - MAGKAKAPATID (Kim Homer Garcia)
- Audience choice award (New Breed)

5pm - HALAW (Sheron Dayoc)
- Best picture (New Breed)
- Best director (Sheron Dayoc)
- Best actor (John Arcilla)
- Best editing

730pm - SI TECHIE, SI TEKNOBOY AT SI JUANA B (Art Katipunan)

5pm - LIMBUNAN (Gutierrez Mangansakan II)
730pm - REKRUT (Danny Añonuevo)
- Best supporting actor (Emilio Garcia)
- Best sound

5pm - SAMPAGUITA (Francis Xavier Pasion)
- Special jury prize

730pm - MAYOHAN (Dan Villegas and Paul Sta. Ana)
- Best actress (Lovi Poe)
- Best screenplay
- Best cinematography

5pm - VOX POPULI (Dennis Marasigan)
730pm - SHORTS A*
BOCA by Alistaire Christian E. Chan, BREAKFAST WITH LOLO by Steven Flor,
DALAW by Janus Victoria, DESPEDIDA by Borgy Torre & FACULTY by Jerrold Tarog

5pm - SHORTS B*
HARANG (BARRIERS) by Mikhail Red, HAY PINHOD OH YA SCOOTER (I WANT TO HAVE A BICYCLE) by Hubert Tibi, LOLA by Joey Agbayani, "P" by Rommel Tolentino & WAG KANG TITINGIN by Pam Miras
- Best short film (Wag Kang Titingin)
- Best director (Milo Tolentino for P)
- Best screenplay (Mik Red for Harang)
- Special jury prize (P)
- Audience choice award (P)
730pm - TWO FUNERALS (Gil Portes)
- Special jury prize (Directors' showcase)
- Best director (Gil Portes)
- Best screenplay
- Best cinematography
- Audience choice award (Directors' showcase)

5pm - DONOR (Mark Meily)
- Best picture (Directors' showcase)
- Best actress (Meryll Soriano)
- Best actor (Baron Geisler)
- Best supporting actress (Karla Pambid)
- Best production design


5pm - SIGWA (Joel Lamangan)
- Best supporting actor (Tirso Cruz III)
730pm - PINK HALO-HALO (Joselito Altarejos)
- Best editing

5pm -
HALAW (Sheron Dayoc)
- Best director (Sheron Dayoc)
- Best actor (John Arcilla)
- Best editing

730pm - DONOR (Mark Meily)
- Best actress (Meryll Soriano)
- Best actor (Baron Geisler)
- Best supporting actress (Karla Pambid)
- Best production design

Friday, July 16, 2010

Limbunan (Gutierrez Mangansakan II, 2010)

Beautiful shots make me sick.
– Roberto Rossellini

Filmmaker Gutierrez Mangansakan must be under the mistaken notion that it is enough to illuminate a social problem and withhold comment in order to maintain a semblance of judicious and solomonic position. That is the fallacy he commits with his latest film, Limbunan. False, because there is no such thing as an objective cinema, not even that supposedly most objective of cinematic practices, the documentary. Each frame committed to film contains the seeds of politics and position.

Whether he intended it or not, Mangansakan has forwarded sociocultural conservatism through his latest film. Limbunan may on the surface be a picture about one forced betrothal of a 16-year-old Maguindanaoan girl named Ayesah, but it is unequivocally a film about resignation and reconciliation to traditions, ultimately redounding to the practice of arranged marriages. Mangansakan has revealed at the gala for this film at Cinemalaya 2010 that the film was partly occasioned by the Maguindanao massacre. It is a reaction to the inflicted violence that must have weighed on creating a pacifist film, which Limbunan seems to be.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with a pacifist film except that it protects the status quo. It describes a flawed culture in Maguindanao, but it prescribes, by default, by a compliant ending, the continuation of the current state of things. It glosses over the very problems it raises. Gloss, that’s what it is, and to appraise the film at face value is to disguise the reactionary values conveyed at its core. Limbunan gingerly broaches the issues inherent in arranged marriages, fettered women’s rights and other corollary problems, but, ultimately, they are given the short shrift. They are all conveniently swept under the rug of supposedly bigger and vaster considerations.

Limbunan is not without its virtues. It is quite admirable in its unconventionality, stripped down and almost bereft of story, unlike the routinary run of traditional narratives. It is a visual film more than anything, its lush, poetic imagery borders on superfluity, but it may help explain the dilemmatic passage of time within the film. It is a tonal poem with deceptive moods.

It is a tonal poem that charts a month of confinement for Ayesah, a month of solitude during which all her needs are attended to. But she is almost inconsolable; her betrothal is against her will. Her sense of inequity is evident as she questions her elders about the wisdom of this looming marriage. However, she is prevailed upon to stay the course by her sagely aunt, Farida, whose wisdom is painfully earned and learned. She comes from a long line of women who have had the same nuptial experience. She knows her niece’s hurts, but there are bigger relevancies, according to her, than personal happiness. There are vaster sociopolitical repercussions linked with this impending union – perhaps peace and progress in Maguindanao?

Limbunan is no humanist document in spite of Mangansakan’s intentions. Long after the arranged marriage that is hinted to have taken place at film’s end, what will have become of Ayesah? Essentially a sacrificial lamb, a human pawn, she must forever stay mute, as mute as her place of domestic exile – the limbunan we get glimpses of and experience with her. But again, to believe the entrenched practices, there are more pertinent things than personal happiness, the fate of entire territories perhaps, though Ayesah loves another man.

Instead of chipping away at the ossified values and unprogressive traditions in Maguindanaoan culture, Limbunan devotes its time lulling us with pretty pictorialism. Bound in the immediate vicinity of Ayesah’s home, the camera follows Ayesah’s playful sister, Saripa, who examines the natural minutiae of their backyard (hints of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood come to mind). However, the kind of imagery we see bears little contributory value – not tension; not emblem – except perhaps as an index to the long wait that Ayesah must suffer until the moment of inescapable reckoning. Her aunt may assuage her griefs, her own mother assume Ayesah’s everyday chores, but this anticipation of the enforced marriage, the sense of self-sacrifice, is so much like a death sentence – so aestheticized as if this inequity were not so cruel and inhuman.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Leaving (Ian Loreños, 2010)

Everything is changing, leaving, and returning. There is always a constant transience in this world.   -- The Leaving, program synopsis

Strange but one sees little of the transience in question ever dramatized in this film. The film promises movement and what we get is stasis. If nothing else, everyone here is trapped in purgatorial states, a state of imprisonment, which makes transience synonymous with escape. Escape, that’s all – and perhaps a dastardly one. Let’s recite their names one by one. Martin, unable to fend for himself, literally hightails it to the loving arms of his parents in the States. Grace sees transience by giving up on her marriage. The line of least resistance. And those who supposedly make the existential  transition – the transient ones? The lovers, William and Joan – they do so through violence. Violence also takes another neighbor; they find her all broken like the rag doll that is supposed to stand for her missing younger sister. Sick. And how about the ghosts trapped in this haunted apartment building? This film defines transience in the most perverse terms: A function of flight and defeatism. The frightening part is, it seems done in solemn earnest. As such, one tries to see another film altogether. Another review instead, written before knowledge of those lines about transience – unearned, never made concrete.

According to popular notions, the Chinese in this country are so clannish and tight-knit in their ethnicity that it's hard to single out anyone of them who is struggling in life. Mention the word Chinese and this immediately conjures lofty and grandiose images of a business tycoon, or a rich, well-connected fat cat, or a kid studying in the most exclusive schools. In Ian Loreños’ The Leaving, one gets to see the other side of the tracks: Tsinoys who are economically vulnerable and subject to moral and human susceptibilities.

But Loreños -- who wears a number of hats as writer, producer and director for this film -- locates his characters almost exclusively within a middle-class spectrum, which short-circuits some of the exercise. Still, in a film set in a haunted apartment building in the enclave of Binondo, it’s a good college try. Perhaps, there aren’t really impoverished Tsinoys around after all.

Three intertwining stories make up The Leaving: subtitled Martin, The Lovers, and The Wife. In Martin, the eponymous character is the scion of a once-wealthy family who have since emigrated to the United States, leaving him alone to fend for himself. In the ensuing fall from grace, his girlfriend has left him, while he goes applying in futility from one job to another. In The Lovers, Wiliam, a married man, is embroiled in a volatile affair with travel-agent Joan and they tussle with deadly results. In The Wife, one sees a long-suffering character who discovers her husband’s indiscretions and starts a close, almost intimate relationship with the next-door neighbor, Martin. These overlapping lives must also coexist with the ghosts and ghostly ones trapped in the apartment building.

A nagging feeling of familiarity, however, sours an appreciation of this film. What condemns it is an unbridled wearing of influences on its sleeves. The Leaving is a pastiche of all-too-identifiable sources -- from Asian movies, mostly Hong Kong derivations, particularly Wong Kar-Wai, and still more specifically In the Mood for Love. Read above for the plot toThe Wife. From the very Asiatic color motif – red, all shades of red, curtains, calendars, fruits, dresses, and blood, copious blood – to suspiciously familiar shot compositions to the presence of ghosts recruited from Asian horror flicks, Nakata’s The Ring among others, this film is like a shameless collage that would put Picasso and Braque to shame.

It would have been all compensated for had this film recounted fresher, more novel stories, but that, too, is not forhtcoming. Aside from slavishly quoting In the Mood for Love in one part, the other two stories are not compelling enough to sit through either. They are trite tropes that one might generate in a scriptwriting workshop – e.g. someone looking for a job to no avail; a pair of lovers fighting and leading to the most logical extreme. If Loreños feels so compelled to tell stories about Tsinoys, he is better off adapting stories by authors like Charlson Ong, Mario Miclat and other Tsinoy fictionists. Having said that, Loreños had a good premise – the notion of the struggling Filipino-Chinese – but somewhere along the way, he just lost the plot, and ended up paying homage not to Tsinoys but an entire continent.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cinemalaya 6: Bigger and better!

The 6th edition of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival is bigger and better. There are now 24 films entered in the competition as compared to 20 films last year.

Some of the best filmmakers out there have entries in the competition. Award-winning veteran directors Mario O'Hara, Mark Meily, and Joey Agbayani lead the pack of old guards. Meanwhile, tyro directors Francis Xavier Pasion, Sheron Dayoc, and Jerrold Tarog infuse the festival with their refreshing filmmaking styles and mesmerizing stories.

There's a lot of bad news-good news combos this year.
1) Arnel Mardoquio's Sheika withdrew from the New Breed Full-Length competition. It will be shown though and is in competition for the NETPAC award.
2) There are no film screenings scheduled at Silangan Hall. The good news is there is a whole day of screenings added to the festival. Yep! There will be screenings on Monday, July 12.
3) SineDirek didn't materialize this year. The good news is Cinemalaya created the similar Directors' Showcase. New films from O'Hara and Meily? Wonderful!
4) There will be a special screening of Raymond Red's Himpapawid during the festival. However, Erik Matti's The Arrival is also scheduled on the same timeslot. What film to watch then? There will be lots of times when a moviegoer will be confronted with the issue of what film to watch during the festival. That's great news for cinephiles.

Cinemalaya 2010 promises to be the best edition yet. Among my recommendations in the exhibition category are:

AMBISYON 2010 by Various Directors

17 July / Sat 09:00 PM Tanghalang Manuel Conde (CCP Dream Theatre)
- Two of the shorts are also included in the New Breed Short Feature competition

- Catch the films of Brillante Mendoza, Jerrold Tarog, and Jon Red

18 July / Sun 10:00 AM Bulwagang Alagad Ng Sining (CCP MKP Hall)
- Andong is a rollicking story of a boy obsessed with television shows

BOSES by Ellen Ongkeko Marfil (from 12 up)
10 July / Sat 10:00 AM Bulwagang Alagad Ng Sining (CCP MKP Hall)
- An abused boy learns about the different parts of a violin and more

DINIG SANA KITA by Mike Sandejas (for ages 12 up)
18 July / Sun 10:00 AM Tanghalang Huseng Batute
- A deaf-mute guy reaches out to a troubled female rocker

EMIR by Chito Rono
16 July / Fri 06:15 PM Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (CCP Little Theatre)
EMIR by Chito Rono

17 July / Sat 10:00 AM Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino (CCP Little Theatre)
- One of the best films so far this year

ENGKWENTRO by Pepe Diokno (Cinemalaya)
17 July / Sat 06:15 PM Tanghalang Manuel Conde (CCP Dream Theatre)
- A young man tries to get out of his drug-infested and violence-ridden place

KUNDIMAN NG LAHI by Lamberto Avellana (1959)
17 July / Sat 03:30 PM Tanghalang Manuel Conde (CCP Dream Theatre)
- My favorite film of National Artist Lamberto Avellana

RED SHOES by Raul Jarolan
10 July / Sat 06:15 PM Tanghalang Manuel Conde (CCP Dream Theatre)
- The screening is some sort of a homecoming for the should-have-been-a-Cinemalaya-finalist

SANGLAAN by Milo Sogueco (Cinemalaya)
12 July / Mon 06:15 PM Tanghalang Manuel Conde (CCP Dream Theatre)
- A beautiful film about relationships and mementoes

*** Complete screening schedule ***

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor (Koji Yamamura, 2007)

The true way is along a rope that is not crossed high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling, rather than to be walked upon -- Franz Kafka. Lines of caution and despair, they provide the epigraph to this startling anime film, inspired by a Kafka short story of the same title. What director Koji Yamamura and his intrepid team of animators do well is take a spare and barebones story by the Czech writer and create a disturbingly oneiric vision of the world like no other.

A Country Doctor takes just over 20 minutes to accomplish its purpose, breathing life as it does into a brooding tale about the human condition. It opens, forebodingly, in a country doctor’s courtyard as he prepares to answer an emergency deep in the night. What complicates his impending journey is a snow blizzard sweeping through the terrain. To add to his woes, his horse has died during the cold, wintry hours. His servant girl Rosa tries to look for a replacement, knocking from door to door, but to no avail. But just as the country doctor starts to rue his luck, a groom comes out of nowhere with a pair of mysterious horses. The groom turns out to be a malicious figure who telegraphs his carnal intentions upon Rosa, alarming the country doctor just as he is about to leave. He has little time to react, it seems, as he is hurried off on his rig.

Arriving at the end of his journey, the country doctor is ushered to the sickbed of a boy , who whispers to him his intention to die. At first the country doctor finds nothing wrong with the child, no fever, no worrying symptom of any kind. But a wound in the boy’s side is revealed on closer inspection; the country doctor just missed it until it is hinted to him. It’s a festering wound, the size of a palm, full of wriggling worms. Stripped naked by the boy’s family, sung to, and made to keep a close vigil on the boy, the country doctor reassures his patient but escapes the sickroom as soon as the boy falls asleep. Naked and freezing on horseback, he rides blindly through icy snow and buffeting winds of the night.

This short précis of the film’s storyline follows Kafka’s prose with close exactitude. Even so, this anime gives free rein to the expansive imaginations of its animators. It’s a combination of story and execution that produces a film ripe with multivocal meanings. The country doctor, who at the end rushes homewards, or nowhere, through blizzards of snow, is plagued with various exigencies, but seems blindly cognizant of them, or chooses to remain ignorant. Neither does it seem probable for him to redeem his servant girl from the groom’s raging lust, nor will he see through his wounded patient’s crucial hours. What does the elusive wound represent? What does the doctor's undressing mean? Who is the groom? Does the country doctor stand, as critics claim, for the modern man too deadened to respond to the real emergencies of existence?

The beauty of Yamamura’s film lies not only in its unsettling story but in its visually gripping evocation of a dream world. Rendered in stark, monochromatic colors, both characters and context evoke surreal and expressionistic 2-d representations that complement its existential themes. The animation revels in modernist touches: distortions and elongations of human figures (faces, limbs and torsos), the elements, and the inanimate. This is all occasioned, it seems, by the particulars of Kafka’s story: the swirly, inky night, the driving snows, the worm-infested wound, the dream-like goings-on. Complemening it all is the ghostly presence of storytellers intoning like the narrators of a Noh play.

Yamamura’s A Country Doctor is a triumph of anime filmmaking that has to be seen to be appreciated and cherished. Without going overboard, it takes here and there, successfully synthesizing all manner of influences: from Frederic Back to Yuri Norstein, from Die Brucke to German Expressionism. Rarely do we encounter adaptations that do justice to their sources. A Country Doctor has the distinction of surpassing its basis, Kafka be damned.