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.

Friday, September 10, 2010

My Brother is An Only Child (Daniele Luchetti, 2007)

Perhaps because compatriots Bernardo Bertolucci (Before the Revolution/The Conformist) and Marco Bellocchio (China is Near/ Good Morning, Night) raised the bar so high for films about radical politics that filmmaker Daniele Luchetti, if he so much as knows his filmic ancestors, seems to have resigned himself to repeat the cinematically hackneyed aspects of the turbulent 1960s in which his film is set, in favor of the dynamics of his easily predictable story. Instead of attempting an ambitious and noble film, Luchetti settles on a highly orthodox filmmaking meant, presumably, to capitalize on the commercial potential of a powder-keg premise.

My Brother is An Only Child, true enough, features some explosive action, but foregrounds a straightforward story; here it is the dramatization on the theme of sibling rivalry. But its story of two brothers – the Benassi brothers, the teenage Fascist Accio and the older Marxist Manrico – is not founded on a relationship of fatal jealousy, or treachery, or betrayal. Its plot skirts that with a more conciliatory statement -- that family is family, regardless of how someone is the fair-haired boy, given the lion-share of opportunities and the imprimatur of the family. Commendably, director Luchetti opts to frame the picaresque experiences of the younger sibling, Accio, as he comes of age, the hard way.

What remains noteworthy, too, are the contradictions in Accio's makeup. He may be feared for his street thuggery, acquiring for him aliases along the way, but he remains an awkward teenager who has yet to experience a young man’s rites of passage. His virtues are apparent in scenes where he cherishes his books and learning Latin. He would like nothing better than to attend a classical university. Perhaps it is out of resentment of Manrico, perhaps out of his consignment to a technical school by his family, that he has come to idolize the proto-Fascist Mussollini and has joined Neo-Fascist elements who battle Marxists in the streets.

Manrico draws near to being a cookie-cutter figure, but his understated affection for Accio is a nuance that sets him apart. The family condones -- if not dotes on -- his fashionable Marxist leanings and his role as a union leader at a factory – remember, these are the 1960s – but he leads a double life throughout the film. For a mere factory worker, he is surprisingly in easy control of stashes of money he won’t hesitate to spend on himself. His cavalier regard for women also seems to hint at compromised ideals.

Quite devoid of imagination, the film installs a woman, and not extreme ideologies, between the two brothers. Accio can only look on and carry a torch for Francesca, while Manrico cheats on her. Like Manrico, Francesca is a Marxist, but enjoys the presence of Accio and their dialectical debates. There are not many surprises throughout: the film can be distilled into the aforementioned ménage-a-trois. When the film springs a surprise at the end, it registers like a tacked-on contrivance. My Brother is An Only Child concludes with a fantastic ending that seems out of left field and rather unearned.

If Bertolucci and Bellocchio operate on a more sensible and more intellectual plane, Luchetti’s hashing out of ideological dilemmas is unimaginatively literalistic, fraught with images of tensions and frictions and pitch battles in the streets between Neo-Fascists and Marxists. Granted, it sketches the cynical measures of radicalism that extremists of both sides have been known to employ, but what new insight or vantage can it proffer? Well, Bertolucci may yet come out of semi-retirement, but Bellocchio still seems to be alive and kicking and cranking out films. There is no tossing and turning in the graves yet.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Leaving (2010, Ian Loreños)

If you're a regular Facebook denizen, then you've probably experienced having your name removed from a friend's list of contacts. It hurts badly, especially if you haven't an inkling why you were obliterated from the list.

The emotional pain pales in comparison with the terrible anguish of a Chinoy young man named Martin. He also gets dumped without any explanation. The dumper in this case is his girlfriend! He wanders around Chinatown in his troubled state. He wants to confront her but something deters him and that is the fear of the truth. He knows she is no longer interested in him.

The Leaving deals with the fears of Chinese-Filipinos in Binondo. Director Ian Loreños laments the fading traditions and changing landscape in his neighborhood. There are fewer speakers of Chinese language among the youth. Dilapidated houses are torn down to make way for condominiums and malls. Scores of families leave for better places. This diaspora brings out some fears and anxieties in young Chinoys.

Loreños brilliantly frames their stories within the horror genre. He is quite successful in bringing out the screams although a bit too much reliance on Asian horror imagery (eg. Sigaw's empty corridors and the fiends of Japanese horror films). He fails to maximize the Chinese Ghost Month setting of the movie. A Singaporean movie The Maid starring Alessandra de Rossi was more effective in scaring viewers with Ghost Month tales and traditions. The Kelvin Tong film features memorable spooky vignettes such as the reason behind vacant seats at performances and the punishment for people who've done bad things during the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar. Singapore was shown as hell for Pinay domestic helpers.

LJ Reyes won an acting award for her role as the martyr wife Grace in The Leaving. Her student year/s at St. Stephen High School gave her the tools to portray a Chinese-speaking character. Just like the betrothed lass of Limbunan, Grace gets bamboozled by an elder with the positive aspects of arranged marriages. The gist of her mother's advice is that as long as she (Grace) gets to eat three meals a day then the marriage is fine. I'm sure young Chinese women will raise hell with this pathetic advice. Incidentally, the Singaporean movie The Maid has a vivid hellish view of an arranged marriage.

Unfriended? Dumped? Betrayed?
The Leaving asks you to retreat, pray, move. Moving on is not enough. Martin goes from place to place but ends up distraught at the end of the day. Grace keeps on living her uneventful daily life the same way over and over again. Both characters eventually see the light and reexamine their lives and priorities. They pray for guidance and discernment. They move forward and leave the ghosts of the past.