Friday, February 25, 2011

Sisa (1951, Gerardo de Leon)

2011 is the year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the University of Santo Tomas and the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal, an illustrious Thomasian. The year also marks the 60th anniversary of the screening of Sisa, an enduring masterpiece by Thomasian Gerry de Leon.

The classic film presents the background story of one of Rizal’s more prominent characters, Sisa. The sultry young lady is courted by four young men. One of them marries her and eventually sires two children. Another suitor takes away the life from her husband. The third one murders her child. The last one brings hope to the remaining child.

The black-and-white film contains most of the signature shots of de Leon. The first shot is a memorable close-up image of a smiling Sisa enthralled by the singing of Maria Clara. Near the end of the film is an equally memorable shot of a dark shadow cast against the walls of the bell tower.

In between the memorable iconic shots are samples of de Leon’s masterful mise-en-scene compositions. An excellent example is a beautifully framed shot showing a glowing lamp in the foreground with people on the background. Their pensive faces fill in the four corners of the shot. They speak one after the other in counterclockwise fashion. They are all wishing to be enlightened on the dark past of Sisa. Their curious faces highlight the importance of the illuminating information that will be unveiled.

The main theme of the film is enlightenment or lumina pandit. Most of the evil deeds in the film are done in dark, secluded places. These hideous acts and their perpetrators are later revealed and unmasked in broad daylight or in a well-lit room.

Scriptwriter Teodorico Santos seamlessly blended his wonderful background story of Sisa with segments from Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. Amongst her four suitors, Sisa chooses and marries Pedring. A jealous guardia civil named Antonio arrests and keeps Pedring in a cell full of lepers. When he is eventually released, he is no longer the same.

Another spurned suitor, Sakristan Mayor Baldo, takes revenge by bringing trumped-up charges of theft against Sisa’s son, Crispin. In a fit of outrage, he beats the boy to his death in the bell tower. He then throws the corpse in a river.

An idealistic young man named Crisostomo Ibarra takes pity on the marginalized couple, a leprous man and a crazed woman. More than any other film, Sisa is probably the main inspiration for Mario O’Hara’s script Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang. The latter also has a young man caring for his small town’s main outcasts, a male leper and a pregnant mad woman.

The fourth suitor, Elias, is a faithful admirer of Sisa. He is instrumental in helping Ibarra to evade the vicious authorities. He brings hope to the surviving child named Basilio by showing him the hidden treasures and briefly reuniting him with her dying mother.

Padre Salvi and Donya Consolacion, the inglorious bastards from the book Noli, also make their appearances in the film. However, Padre Salvi is barely seen as the celebrant in Sisa and Pedring’s wedding.

Donya Consolacion is in her all-out villainous mode. She utilizes her being the wife of the alferez to break up the party hosted by Ibarra. She hates the fact that she was not invited at all to the party. Another scene shows the Donya ordering the household helpers to close the window because she can’t stand the noise coming from a religious procession outside. She becomes even more furious when she hears Sisa singing. With a whip in hand, she orders Sisa to sing and dance for her. Then, she whips her until the crazed woman escapes from her clutches.

The film Sisa has a hypnotic grip on viewers. Anita Linda is simply amazing in an award-winning performance as the crazed title character. The story-telling is tight and well-paced. However, the climactic ending seems rushed. It is basically a CliffsNotes summary of the latter part of Noli Me Tangere. The sudden change in pace left me wondering whether some parts are still missing. Is there a director's cut somewhere?

The digitalized copy of the film is not in good condition. The images are chopped in the right and bottom sides. The audio is not clear enough and sometimes muffled. I had a hard time deciphering the name of Sisa’s husband. I’m not even sure if it is really Pedring. It sounds like Peding or Peping.

I’m still thankful, though, that I saw one of the best works of National Artist for Film, Gerardo de Leon. This film was definitely the highlight of the UP Diliman run of Cinemalaya 2008. I hope Cinemalaya 2011 has a section for films about Jose Rizal, his works, and his characters. Will we finally see a copy of Gerardo de Leon’s El Filibusterismo? The epic film was scheduled for screening decades ago but the screening was unfortunately scrapped. Is a print really existing or should we just be contented playing the film in our minds?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

My Valentine Girls (2011, Chris Martinez, Dominic Zapata, Andoy Ranay)

The Valentine offering starts with a loveless bespectacled author (Richard Gutierrez) pondering over possible themes for his trilogy of love stories. He gets a ribbing from his precocious little sister for wasting too much time writing on the computer.

Let us take a look at the stories if they are indeed time-wasters (and money-wasters, too).

Soulmates (by Dominic Zapata)

The first episode tells the story of Aia (Rhian Ramos), a pretty girl recovering from a car crash. She is regularly visited by a ghost named Oslec, who she learns was the guy who she bumped and killed during the crash. He came back to asked a favor from guilt-ridden Aia. He wants to go home. The story unravels as Aia helps Oslec journey back to his true home.

The plot twists can be seen far ahead. How is it that Aia was able to buy tickets for their ferris wheel ride? If she wasn't able to purchase tickets, then how come she didn't question her invisibility from living persons? As the questions pile up, your initial hunch that the pair is still alive and recovering from their injuries ultimately becomes stronger.

Putting out the episode title at the start of the feature is a poor decision. It defeats all efforts to camouflage the fact that both are still alive. The audience naturally expects the couple to be together at the end. The concept of the pair meeting and having a romantic affair in the dream world is a good one, though.

I loved the scenes showing Ramos screaming her lungs out during those supernatural encounters with Oslec. Ramos is perfect for those horror/slasher films. She also has a radiant screen presence and looks a lot like a well-known celebrity. Taylor Swift? Far from it. She reminds me more of the fashionable charmer Anne Curtis.

BBFF (by Andoy Ranay)

The second segment is the weakest of the three tales. The story has sexy Andie (Solenn Heussaff) ruing her decision to set up a blind date for her boy best friend (BBF). When the girl and BBF becomes a couple, she struggles to cope with being alone.

The I'm-afraid-to-lose-my-best-friend story has been done better in films such as Close to You. BBFF suffers from having a shorter running time. The characterizations are superficially fleshed out and the pacing seems rushed. I didn't like the amateurish direction by first timer Andoy Ranay. There are several scenes that are un-cinematic and out-of-focus. The poor blocking of characters makes my eyes wander to different parts of the screen. This scanning of a shot can be a good thing if what you see is beautifully framed, but as it is, BBFF's images are lackluster and bland.

Heussaff's strong personality seems fit for an Angelina Jolie-type of action film or superhero movie. Her whistle-bait figure was highlighted in several bikini shots. Having done well in the Survivor show, she also seems destined to do a survivor/adventure film.

Gunaw (by Chris Martinez)

The last tale is a hilarious post-apocalyptic love story. A Pinoy male named Aidan is a survivor of the Valentine nuclear holocaust in 2012. In his search for other survivors, he encounters and kills zombies with ease. Three years passed before Aidan meets Ivy, possibly the last woman on earth. Will sparks fly between the two?

Director Chris Martinez is on a roll. He was responsible for one of 2010’s top comedies, Here Comes the Bride. That film gave us the fantastic performance of Angelica Panganiban as a lustful gay. This time, Martinez once more cast another actress in an offbeat role. Who would have thought of pairing the dashing Richard Gutierrez with the irrepressible Eugene Domingo, and make it work?

Seeing Domingo as Ivy is a blast. Her first appearance sets off in motion a series of laugh-out-loud scenes. With serious music playing in the background, Aidan eyes a figure praying at the altar of a church he sought refuge at. The audience starts laughing when they realize that the figure is Domingo.

The funniest scene is a dig on the requisite kilig moment in mainstream romance films. Aidan is teaching Ivy the basics of tennis. When he comes from behind to guide Ivy’s hand, the theater erupts in a mixture of laughter and swoons. I think I may never associate a tennis-based kilig moment with romance again. I just had to recall Ivy’s beaming face and I burst automatically into a grin.

Richard Somes and a fellow production designer did wonders on a post-apocalyptic setting. From the North Korean nuclear room to the bombed-out building shelter to the zombie-infested swimming pool, the production design is truly outstanding.

The inclusion of Team Pilipinas zombies is a stroke of genius by the filmmakers. Aidan had a hard time getting rid of these agile and athletic zombies. It took Aidan’s cunning before he was able to get away from them.

Gunaw is the saving grace of the150-minute film My Valentine Girls. The two earlier segments are indeed time-wasters. The newbie directors, Zapata and Ranay, had to rely on showing more skin to make their segments more interesting. Martinez had the last say on this tendency to feature eye-candy by having Domingo don a swimsuit with a deep, deep, deep cleavage.

If you have some money to spend for a pair of movie tickets but don’t have lots of time, then you may skip the first two segments and just watch the rip-roaring third segment. Your partner may thank you later for taking him/her out to a wonderful movie. What to do with the time saved is up to both of you.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bulong (2011, Chito Roño)

I always anticipate a horror film directed by Chito Roño. I can never forget my moviehouse experience of viewing Roño's blockbuster hit Sukob. It is so scary that I had goose bumps all over my arms. Sure, there are several cheap shock tricks but overall, the suspenseful and brooding atmosphere gives me spine-tingling chills. The movie, starring Kris Aquino and Claudine Barreto, is based on a local superstition stating that it is bad luck for two or more siblings to marry within a period of one year. The superstition had its origin in rural places. Children of farm hands are dissuaded from seeking marriage within months of a sibling's earlier marriage because it will surely deplete the family's savings and resources, which are dependent on seasonal harvests.

Roño once more mined a Filipino superstition for his new film Bulong. This time the movie suggests that a person with an unfulfilled wish can seek the help of a recently departed loved one. All that is needed is to whisper your wish to the deceased. The premise is that the dead person is now at the bosom of the good Lord and more likely will be able to intercede for the wishes of the living. In this regard, Filipinos seem to treat their dead relatives as saints. Most of them even visit their departed loved ones on All Saint's Day and not on All Soul's Day.

Hospital worker Conan (Vhong Navarro) is hopelessly in love with a sexy and beauteous nurse named Ellen (Bangs Garcia). He is on friendly terms with the alluring lady but gets desperate when he sees her kissing a resident doctor. The jealous guy seeks the help of his friends and learns about the power of a wish whispered to the dead. He scampers off to a wake and surreptitiously opens the casket. In a barely audible way, he whispers: Mahalin ako ni Ellen.

The next day sees Conan, oozing with confidence, making his moves on Ellen. The young woman isn't too happy with the brazen behavior of the guy and gives him a tongue lashing. The wish didn't materialize. Is it because the wish needs time to be fulfilled? No. The corpse didn't hear him. Conan belatedly learns that the dead person was deaf.

Yep, this is not a straightforward horror film. Roño knows that it is a tough act to surpass or equal his horror hits Feng Shui and Sukob. He changes tactics by making a horror-comic film. Bulong is a supernatural film hampered by the need to come up with funny scenes. In the end, it is neither scary nor is it super-funny.

While the film benefits from reliable performances of Navarro and Angelica Panganiban, Bulong is just an average movie that is a mishmash of mildly terrifying scenes and fluffily funny antics. The tired slapstick routine of bandaged patients wiping the walls and floors with their faces is here. The film also borrows some fiends and concepts from films such as Drag Me To Hell and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and also from the video game series Resident Evil. However, the special effects are very good especially the muddy zombies pestering Oprah (Angelica Panganiban) and the disfigured mammary glands of Ellen. The latter is memorable because of a deliciously wicked strip-tease set-up by Roño.

Bulong didn’t impress me much with its cinematic skills but it did leave the audience with a few valuable life lessons:

1) Leave the dead alone. They have just been freed from worldly undertakings so don't pester them with your wishes. There's also the possibility of a quid pro quo.

2) Be careful with what you wish for. This is good advice for single people especially this heart month. Conan is able to taste the love of Ellen but eventually vomits it out of his system. Being loved obsessively and violently by the girl of his dreams is not what he yearned for.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What is this thing called 'The Cinema of Lav Diaz'?

A glimpse at the schedule of Philippine International Arts Festival events this heART month reveal an Ani ng Sine feature film titled The Cinema of Lav Diaz. I don't know if this is a documentary or a set of short films by the maverick filmmaker. All I know is I'll be among the curious cinephiles waiting in line to view this piece on Sunday, February 6, 2011 at the Shangri-la Mall Cineplex.

ANI NG SINE: A harvest of the films produced during the 2008-2010 term of the National Committee on Cinema

The Cinema of Lav Diaz * Otsenta’y Nueve * Neo-Revolution * Dawa’t Tabling * Movement of the Sun * Waray in the City * Manila’s Forgotten Forest * Entablado * Tundong Magiliw * Ang Lalaking Tinubuan ng Pakpak * Sayaw: A Documentary Film on Philippine Dances

Shang Cineplex, Shangri-La Mall, Ortigas 11:00 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Sunday, February 6