Monday, March 28, 2011

Pisay (2007, Auraeus Solito)

High school pics and youth-oriented movies were hugely popular in the 1980s. The teen angst movies of John Hughes made a big star of Molly Ringwald. In this part of the world, the local Brat Pack headed by William Martinez and Aga Muhlach thrilled fans with their own version of adventures and misadventures. The films, booming with generation-defining songs, dealt mostly with common adolescent problems such as fitting in, identity crisis, unrequited love, and strained relationship with parents. However, most of the films are mere teen fantasies. Plain-looking Andie (Ringwald) nabs a date with a rich and good-looking playboy in the cult classic Pretty in Pink. The young lads from Bagets get to drive fancy cars and bed sultry women. The films make it look like it was a good time to be in high school.

But, what is high school life really like during the tumultuous, waning years of the corrupt Marcos regime? Auraeus Solito’s Pisay is probably the definitive high school movie on the era. The production design, slang, and music are spot on. It captured perfectly the spirit of the times. President Ferdinand Marcos lifted martial law in 1981 but the political repression and corruption continue to flourish. Former Senator Benigno Aquino was assassinated in 1983. Yellow fever swept the people until its zenith in February 1986. The zeitgeist molded patriotic students and created courageous young heroes.

The film Pisay takes a look at how the 80s affected eight bright students of the Philippine Science High School. They are part of the so-called cream of the crop. Several of these gifted students have competed, and will compete, in local Quiz Bee contests and international academic competitions. The award-winning script by Henry Grajeda presented a vivid account of student life in a highly competitive national science high school. Important lessons were imparted via science and math themes that are easily understood by ordinary high school students. However, it is the film’s handling of political themes that makes it more memorable and accessible.

Episodic in nature, the movie starts with a ‘love story.’ Rom and Wena’s growing affection for one another gets smothered by their teacher, Ms. Casas. They are likened to planets veering away from their orbits and wrecking havoc on outer space. Ms. Casas reminds them to focus on their studies. The wordless meeting between the two along the hallway is beautifully filmed. The alternate student Rom barges into the honors roll but loses the girl. Parting is sweet sorrow indeed.

Mateo seems to be one of those who cannot focus on their studies. He is a bullied dormer who still yearns for his family in the province. This homesickness takes its toll on his grades. The chubby student gets dropped from the school rolls for failing a college-level math subject. He shares a valuable lesson to others like him who got kicked out. A Bell Curve diagram identifies them as winners who just happen to pale beside more diligent scholars. Mateo returns two years later to tell his teacher that he is taking up Mathematics in college.

There are more stories of other students who did not graduate with the batch. Liway, a student more attuned with social sciences than natural sciences, fights for better school facilities and repeal of the school’s segregation plan. Her courage stems from exposure to the works of her activist parents. The whole family had to go abruptly to Netherlands to escape political persecution. On the other hand, Minggoy is a budding astronomer whose life is cut short by an illness. His early death may be an allusion to numerous students killed by Marcos’ henchmen.

The stench of the crimes of the Marcos regime can not be isolated even from a government-funded high school. I’m not sure whether there was a strong student movement against Marcos in Pisay (Ms. Casas plaintively recalls a rally gone wrong) but surely, the students must have had strong opinion against Marcos after the Edsa Revolution. They will learn that among other hideous things, his crony was responsible for the cancellation of their dearly beloved anime show, Voltes V. Nowadays; graduating students barely have a clue about the legacy of Marcos. There is even an absurd movement to have his remains buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Solito and Grajeda, both members of their school's Silver Jubilarian batch this year, have made their alma mater proud with this excellent film. Solito made a courageous decision to shun science courses by taking up Theatre Arts in college (yes, the character Euri is based on him). He went on to create movies with markedly Filipino sensibilities. I still have a hard time choosing the best film of Solito. My answer usually is the last film I’ve recently seen from among these three movies: Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Tuli, and Pisay. The latter film though is still his best directed film.

Congratulations to those graduating this year. Remember you are all winners even if you belong to the left side of the Bell curve’s right half.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dung-Aw (1975, Lino Brocka)

The month of March is commemorated every year in the Philippines as Women’s Month. This week’s highlights seem to be unrelated at first glance…

March 16. Two days ago, Armida Siguion-Reyna, the feisty, octogenarian actress and movie personality, became the sole recipient of the Diwata award at the 20th International Women’s Film Festival.

March 19. On that day 280 years ago, a baby girl was born named Maria Josefa Gabriela Cariño in Santa, Ilocos Sur. She will later be known as Henerala Gabriela Silang.

What else bind both ladies aside from being Ilocana firebrands and, lower your eyebrows, Women’s Month role models?

Both figure in the historical/musical film Dung-Aw. The title refers to an Ilocano traditional verbal practice of highlighting a deceased person’s accomplishments. If you have seen the film Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio, then you’ve heard of the Dung-aw chanted by the Ilocana shaman. The Ilocano word also means ‘to look (or peek) out of the window. ‘

Dung-Aw is a glimpse into the heroism of 18th century revolutionary leader Gabriela Silang (Armida Siguion-Reyna). There is an early magnificent shot that captures perfectly the dung-aw concept. With a dirge playing in the background, we see the corpse of Gabriela lying atop a horse. A superimposed image of a black-clad lady makes it appear as if Gabriela has risen from the death. For nearly three seconds, the powerful image it presents is that of a victorious Gabriela. The extolling of a dead person’s achievements is ultimately what a dung-aw is all about.

The accompanying dirge is somewhat similar to the Lenten songs of the progressive singing group Patatag. There seems to be not so much difference between a dung-aw and the pasyon. Both lamentations narrate life stories.

Scriptwriter Mario O’Hara makes do with limited information about Gabriela. He gets straight to the point with regards the reason behind the revolution of the Ilocano peasants. The Spaniards usurp the indulto de comercio to their advantage. They allow Ilocanos to trade but only at prices set by them. The landowning couple, Diego and Gabriela, resorts to bypassing the Spaniards. However, a Judas Iscariot betrays them for a pouch of money. The assassination of her husband Diego prompts Gabriela to lead the rebels despite overwhelming odds. She was eventually arrested and, just like Jesus Christ, was executed publicly. A young revolutionary named Pablo waits for the second coming of Gabriela.

I admire the filmmakers for their courageous artistic decision of shaping the film into a dung-aw. The film is informative and instructive just like a dung-aw or a pasyon. But, it is not satisfying and doesn’t peak. It stays monotonous just like the droning sound emanating from the Pasyon. The songs and performances are not memorable. Siguion-Reyna has a beautiful voice but is simply too mature to play the fiery Gabriela.

O’Hara takes another crack at retelling the life of Gabriela Silang by directing his own film. That project, with the working title of Henerala, is on my list of must-see films at the Cinemalaya 2011. Is this the second coming of Gabriela bruited about in the film?

Another thing that whets my appetite is a dream project of Siguion-Reyna. The Diwata awardee revealed that she wants to make a no-holds-barred account of the massacre of 57 people in Maguindanao. She doesn't care about possible repercussions. To paraphrase Siguion-Reyna, true courage is fighting even when death stares at you. Spoken like a true Gabriela.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Who’s That Girl? (2011, Wenn Deramas)

With the entry of SM Development Corp (SMDC) into the world of filmmaking, expect a proliferation of feel-good movies set in upscale chic condominiums and peppered with moneyed characters. Who’s That Girl? features the real estate developer’s latest celebrity endorser, Anne Curtis. The product placement starts from the very first scene. An aerial shot shows the splendor of the four-tower condominium development called Mezza Residences. The blatant advertising then gets more sickening as we see a lady transfer to her new swanky unit. A flock of hunks obligingly helps the beauteous charmer carry her things. Okay, we get it. Good Guys really do exist in these condominiums. And, also Audrey Hepburn-esque ladies, large swimming pools, and lovely rooms.

This bland movie, designed to sell the concept of high living at a condominium, may as well be the template for future SMDC movies. They will definitely not dwell in stories about corrupt generals investing in condominiums, balcony fall accidents, construction fatalities, and gas leaks in basements.

Elizabeth Pedroza (Curtis) is a UST Architecture graduate infatuated with her long-time school crush, John Eduque (Luis Manzano). Her world comes crushing down when she learns about the death of Eduque. She immediately goes to the wake and gets the shock of her life. She sees an older man, instead of a young man, lying in the coffin. The wife of the deceased John Eduque Sr gets piqued with her visit. A family friend’s simple question ‘who’s that girl?’ soon escalates into a grand-scale inquisition complete with kidnapping and high-profile rescue.

The movie takes risk with an unsympathetic character in Elizabeth. Yes, she’s hopelessly in love but her actions are reprehensible. A Thomasian stalker engaging in petty thefts? Bad… bad girl.

A stark contrast to her is Eduque, a campus heartthrob. He is supposedly a goody-two shoes but the scene showing him caring enough for mouth-agaped Elizabeth smacks of vanity and a bit patronizing. A second scene also doesn’t work out well. In a stagey contrived way, Eduque gets to comfort Elizabeth. The first act ends with no character to root for. Eduque comes across not as a Good Guy but plainly a rich, show-off kid. Elizabeth is simply despicable.

Curtis and Manzano tries their very best to salvage the movie with their on-screen chemistry. This is their third pairing and it is their worst film together so far. The characters are not likable and the truly comic moments, such as the predicament of a nude Eduque, come in trickles. I prefer their earlier pairings in All About Love and Ang Cute Ng Ina Mo, which was also directed by Deramas.

The use of a video recording to spur a moody change in Eduque’s mother is too convenient and unsatisfying. It is also a repeat of a device from the movie Ang Cute Ng Ina Mo. The video does not provide us with a concrete evidence of John Eduque Sr.’s undying love for Mrs. Eduque. How sure is she that she is the recipient of the video message?

The ending showing Elizabeth and Eduque frolicking at the UST Quadricentennial Fountain seems to be a last-minute addition by Deramas. Few films are set in UST so the Hotel and Restaurant Management graduate must have decided to show more of the school’s best assets. I think the original ending should have been the arrival of a lady in black at the interment of John Eduque Sr. Cue in the theme song, freeze frame, and you’ve got yourself a nice ending. The only problem with that type of ending is it will probably afflict the good guys at SMDC with sequelitis. No sequels please. I’ve had enough of this pathetic movie.