Monday, August 17, 2015

AN KUBO SA KAWAYANAN (Alvin Yapan, 2015)






Every filmmaker of note seems haunted by its specter: the nostalgia for our nation's lost origins. What they, and perhaps each of us, seek, however, isn't dissimilar from a Derridean trace, a reference to the past that seems elusive, ill-defined and indeterminate, "a mark of the absence of a presence, an always-already absent present." Yet our historicist and history-conscious filmmakers persist. In Kidlat Tahimik’s “Why Is Yellow The Middle of The Rainbow?” the director-narrator recognizes the virtues of the Native American shaman and brings him to an apotheosis as an ideal parallel to our own babaylan, our own bygone version of the seer and miracle-worker. In the cinematic corpus of Auraeus Solito, it is the babaylan of Palawan that serves as the conduit of old, healing wisdom. In Kristian Sendon Cordero's "Angustia," a heroic Bicolano shaman is placed in favorable relief against a headlong Spanish man of religion. Meanwhile Lav Diaz's expansive explorations of the so-called Malay time are hypostatized examples resulting from a yearning for idealized roots. In "Todo Todo Teros," John Torres lends the soapbox for Diaz to expound on what he read of Pigafetta's famous chronicles of Magellan's expedition, in particular the accounts of Cebu, detailing the natives' cultural precocities. Even in the already postmodern phase of his mature work, Raya Martin invokes precolonial nativism as a life-saving, albeit superstitious, talisman that finds expression in such works as "Independencia" and "How to Disappear Completely."

The attempt to locate the ideal historical substrate for our vanished civilization and culture, the attempt to retrieve it, can be vaguely read into Alvin Yapan’s latest work. As in many films that take this route, there is a crypto-mystical tonality to the proceedings. In "An Kubo Sa Kawayanan," the bamboo house seems alive, surrounded by woods also stirring with strange, enchanted animals and insects. And the inhabitant of this hut, a kind of hermit, has turned inward in the hut's solitude, in her quasi-schizophrenic state. (She speaks to herself, perhaps in response to all the decoded flows of labor, capital, and commodities that encircle her: the lure of technology, the lure of jobs, the lure of the city and the world.) The hut seems to know the past as much as the future: how its stairs begin to creak as if to forewarn its tenant of threat and danger. How it appears to tell the hermit in dreams what is about to unfold.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes: “The hermit’s hut is a theme which needs no variations, for at the simplest mention of it, “phenomenological reverberation” obliterates all mediocre resonances… Its truth must derive from the intensity of its essence, which is the essence of the verb “to inhabit.” “ Yapan's hut is indeed surrounded by breathtaking solitude and enchantment, but it cannot hide itself as a rickety structure, a site of decay. Yet it seems to serve its sentinel as an oracular house that imparts wisdom and admonition – it communicates with her -- and extending the hut as a metaphor of immensity and cosmicity, it might be the Filipino's larger habitation. Time and place. History.       

Our enchanted, indigenous history, then, as hopelessly propped up by its last, steadfast tenant. Although the hut seems structurally unsound, and perhaps untenable, Yapan constructs his locus-of-hut-as-history with something endemic, resilient and pliant: the bamboo. How he frames the primeval grass with lyricism: how it rustles and sways in the winds. How it is buoyant in water. And in seeming contradistinction, Yapan intercuts these bucolic images with those of mammoth ships, presumably of global trade and commerce. Side by side, the bamboo seems valorized, quixotically so: that matrix of our folklore, of our creation myths, from which our first man and woman emerged (i.e. Malakas and Maganda). And the mystical bamboo hut with its enchanted milieu speaks like the old wisdom it evokes.

If the hermit’s hut and its vicinity stand for precoloniality or that so-called idealized past, Yapan, however, seems confined, mostly, to mythopoetic gestures inscribed on the terrain of global and domestic conjunctures (Yapan has mined this vein of postcoloniality and globalization before in films like "Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe" and "Debosyon"). Little here, it seems, can be offered on how the course of history will have to change. If Yapan views the past with idealism, it is almost perhaps as an automatic reflex to invoke the "unalloyed" past. For where to locate our vanished origins, the “arche,” the beginning? It would be ridiculous to subscribe to the nostalgia of Levi-Strauss, who rhapsodized how man should revert to a savage/precultural stage of anthropological development. History is after all contingent and aleatory and not trapped in describing circles, let alone in primitive temporality. What lies ahead can thus not be determined in advance. Nonetheless we must not lack historical perspective -- that history is not a smooth continuum, but composed of ruptures and breaks. Instead of mystifying the originary past, we must nurture an appreciation of history that enjoins a development of a philosophy of resistance, whether materialist or not, one that can challenge a faulty status quo, whether with a syncretic horizon or not, and offer the possibility of a genuine and significant change.  


Friday, March 27, 2015

VIOLATOR (Eduardo Dayao, 2014)






No causality, no teleology, but the spontaneity of evil. This is Violator's doubtful premise, or perhaps the pretended, ostensible premise. Evil happens, or in more colloquial terms: shit happens. Possibility: telos points towards hell, given how the picture ends portentously in carnage -- and perhaps its determinism, too, given how, at the start, the world is already half-eclipsed: semaphored by crushed blacks, images of rustwork and stormclouds and other minutiae of brooding, benighted atmosphericism. A world spiralling and hurtling towards apocalypse. Meanwhile, what the film considers its talismanic line -- on the order of "evil for evil's sake" -- is twice-told, repeated, spelled out with emphasis just to deny the possibility of ambiguity (Jadaone’s That Thing Called Tadhana cloyingly quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald twice for a more romantic purpose.). 

One can make, however, a case for the causality of evil, despite the disclaimer of characters: evil can be traced to the opportunism of human power, as cops with guns, as cult leaders possessed with charisma and mystique, both evident here. Throw in natural catastrophes and paranormal hauntings in the background apropos of a new millennium (It's getting late for catastrophic end of millennia, though. This smokescreen is wearing thin) and you have a universal unravelling. With regard to the syntagm of "the spontaneity of evil," it can be taken as the nervous irony from the mouth of evildoers, a denial on the eve of inevitable doom and retribution, a euphemism for those to whom what goes around, comes around.

Storm clouds, deluges threaten on the horizon, the film forebodes at the start. A reminder that Mother Nature can be not so motherly after all, but decidedly, lopsidedly evil. Conflictual Nature, we have it in spades, but a conceit once too often resorted to. After all, the trajectory from Homo natura to Homo historia has long come and gone. (Not hereabouts, one may contend, but it remains an old chestnut that should remain windfallen.) Nature here is atmospherically not so neutral, a dark expressionism. Nature is black and Manichean evil, and to mix religions, this nature basks after theodicy, if such a thing exists. In Violator's world, things are post-Christian, but the supposed benevolence of God, or a despair for his immanence, is blasted symbolically in the form of brittle plaster figurines of  patron saints and the Holy Family lined up like hapless victims of execution, pulverized by the bullets of a dying police protagonist. Another index of residual religion: men immolate themselves as in some Eastern religions. And another: assorted suicides and cultists neatly mass-murder themselves according to fatal prophesy. Entropy is order. 

Eschatology of evil, then, although Violator seems to blur, or intentionally confuse, a sense of natural calamity and paranormal or a kind of last judgment apocalypse for a precinctful of crooked cops. Well, these are all understandably obfuscatory devices of deferral in the film's process of becoming. Like retribution, like memories to haunt conscience, apparitions of dead cultists and those of other nameless spirits take their maddening turns. How much of it exists in the mind, how much is diegetically real? All part of its thesis on evil and its genre-bending slippages and machinations, one may suppose. 

As befits genre conventions, Violator tries to ratchet up horror at the end, but the picture has somehow undercut itself. The horror is all but paradoxically dissipated with its shift from the general lay of the land to the specific -- that is, from an unpredictable, and thus unsettling, first half to a second half flood-bound in a police precinct, its crooked cops spooking each other by the numbers. Not even a demonic being who infiltrates the proceedings does the trick. It hardly helps when the blacks become more and more crushed, to the point of blinking, stuttering darkness in the thick of a no-exit ending. My eyes glaze and get rheumy with this kind of exaction, this taxation of vision, as in the case of Hindi Sila Tatanda. But if nothing else, early on -- that is, the first half of the film -- Violator has cinematic moments of sheer cogency (take immolation, take videographic footage of cult proceedings) that creepily blindside you as it can simultaneously depict elements of horror Japanese-style -- otherwise the picture can get somewhat, well, dim.         

PS. Wrote this long ago when the film first came out, but I'm still wondering what a known, staunch partisan/ a bosom buddy of the filmmaker was doing on the board of judges. Ethical propriety hereabouts, I guess, is just a suggestion, not a moral injunction.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A GIRL AT MY DOOR (July Jung, 2014), HAN GONG-JU (Lee Su-Jin, 2014), THREAD OF LIES (Lee Han, 2014)












Let me say at the outset, my knowledge and appreciation of South Korean culture can at best be described as fragmentary, that of a dilettante. Yes, I’ve visited the country in the past, but it was just that, a sojourn that was always never close enough for the purposes of a full acculturation. Some aspects of what I have experienced appeal to me more than others. Bulgogi is sweet and tender, soju is bracing, but the telenovella and K-pop, no matter what splash Fil-Korean Sandara Park seems to be creating as a singer, cut no ice with me. My strongest affinity, for now, starts and concludes with the country’s art-house films.

Lately catching up on some of last years’s films, I came across this cluster of dramas, quick and random choices, that thematize what it is like to be a young Korean girl. Curiously, by some tell-tale coincidence, they seem to be performatively saying and meaning the same things with dire univocal repercussions. All revolving around young female protagonists – around the ages of 13-15 years old -- these films show an onerous subject formation that traumatizes, stigmatizes, and ultimately drives their protagonists to a point of no return. 

In a society that preens itself on a long-held claim of modernity, where phallicism ostensibly has for many generations not excluded female genitalia, is there really a legitimate whisper for help regarding the brutalization of young adolescent girls? Do these films suggest the groundswell for the return of the repressed -- that is of the need for authoritarianism once experienced in the country's history? Or is it the other way around, given the wayward adult figures in this film? Or are these perhaps mere coincidental fabulations of cinema in a country so progressive it's run by a female president? (Having said that, female president notwithstanding, it doesn't necessarily invalidate the premise of these films either. One has to ask incredulously again: Where does the sudden topos of beleaguered adolescents come from? Is it just a manifestation of presentational, that is, prioric art?)

A Girl at My Door features a young, adolescent Do-Hee who suffers corporal and verbal violence at the hands of her step parents. Han Gong-Ju tells the eponymous story of a teenager who is, this time, gang-raped by several dozen teenagers right in her home. Thread of Lies weaves the affecting tale, told in mixed tones, of Cheon-Ji who is driven to suicide by school bullying and the seeming neglect of those nearest to her.

In varying shades of desperation, they reveal, if they are based on the empirical and more than just anecdotal, the issues that fissure the upbringing and makeup of young Korean girls. Young male teenagers seem to act with entitlement and impunity -- abetted, it seems, by permissive parents.

And the invariable response seems to be a drastic one. Although she is shown to be a free spirit who enjoys to dance by the breakwater, Do-Hee, always bangs her head, irrationally, against the wall as if wanting to atomize herself whenever she realizes her situation in life. There is little succor for her, unless a deus-ex-machina is mercifully inserted into the proceedings.

Cheon-Ji is a thoughtful young girl who is made the butt of jokes, the butt of hectoring and psychical violence, alternating with being an object of indifference. As all this unfolds, told in flashbacks that immortalize her, she is all too introspectively aware of her problematic milieu that she checks out volume after volume on self-help and psychology from the school library. Preparing her suicide carefully, she has the most courteous and dignified reproach to her family and tormentors.

Not with dissimilarity, Han Gong-Ju realizes early on -- although she is whisked away to a more silent town, seemingly a more insulated place away from the juridical proceedings -- that the situation will only come to a head. She ineptly practices swimming lessons for the denouement that she foresees for herself. At a crucial moment of conjuncture and desperation, she will be made to choose whether to throw herself into a river. 

Two kinds of unduly privileged men and young men become apparent here. Those who are quick to inflict violence – the step father (along with her step grandmother) of Do-Hee who make her black and blue all over and the young gang-rapists of Han Gong-Ju. But the presence is just as apparent as the absence. Do-Hee, Han Gong-Ju and Cheon-Ji are all but without father figures - - fugitive or merely absent -- with Do-Hee all but an orphan who will latch on to the kindness of strangers. The majority of the other parents and adults posited by these three films, meanwhile, are all neglectful and thus enablers of a dangerous vacuum by their absence. The mob rule of the gang-rapists' parents that almost lynches Han Gong-Ju is also disinhibited and telling here.

Present-day surveys indicate that South Korea is fast becoming a decidedly atheistic society – the numbers range from 40-50 % of the population -- and these three films seem to attest to a growing measure of anomie and nihilism, presumably filling in the void left by religion. They seem to ask for a spiritual ballast, a guiding direction beyond the blind and desperate anti-solution of self-annihilation. It makes us wonder what Slavoj Zizek, who visited the country last year, had to say about the psychoanalytic imaginary of  the country and the seeming dialectical condition between the sexes -- a dialectic, not an alternation, between yin and yang, if you will -- faced by Korean women had he been asked on the urgent subject. Then again psychoanalysis, of which the Slovenian philosopher is a master juggler, has always been centered on oedipalization – the formation of male psyches from boyhood into adulthood. No room for the distaff side at all. Small wonder then they invited the Elvis of Philosophy over -- maybe even, in the process, to win over the womenfolk to oedipal hegemony.  

Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE NATIVITY WILL NOT BE TELEVISED (Noli Manaig, 2014)





A first attempt at a short film.

Timelapse deployed as a modality of anamorphism.

Speed and motion as robust falsehood and dissimulation, in contrast to the truth claims and idealism of Futurist vision.

On second thought, this might be the result of a desired dynamic and agitation of such an idealism.

Friday, December 27, 2013

NORTE, HANGGANAN NG KASAYSAYAN (Lav Diaz, 2013)





As far as Lav Diaz remains the capable puppeteer pulling his strings, Fabian Viduya serves as the director's vitriolic mouthpiece, the bitter voice of commentary spouting a deeply rotten state of things rooted in a deeply flawed history and a pseudo-scientific society, this time as filtered through the self-destructive philosophies of the West. Inhabiting Norte's narrative, Fabian is a powder keg, a loose cannon ready to explode. Anyone versed enough in Western critical thought and philosophy may discern how he spouts contradictions that try to evade, but only betray, an entrapment in dangerous thinking, whether it subscribes to the specters of postmodernism or something else, one that's bound to end in grief and tragedy. 

Fabian foresees a "Zero Society," a scenario, presumably, after the end of history, the end of ideology, where infinite pluralism and pandemonium reign, symptomatic of a widespread but faulty appreciation of postmodernism. To counteract this apocalyptic belief that anything goes, Fabian proposes the elimination of "what is wrong," but what is wrong to his mind is even more all-encompassing: his very own family, his unscrupulous usurer, his feckless self, anything that may represent evil. Thus what is right may be a question mark given the near totalization of what is wrong. What seems to loom large and imminent before him is the ideology of capitalism, which he observes and suffers on a daily basis. Otherwise his position seems overdetermined by the abstractions of theories and the burdens of imagination, never as utopian as what he may envisage in his dark den of books.

As Norte's discursive context, the choice of postmodernism and other pseudo-sciences such as religion is well-calculated. As an ideology, postmodernism is no longer as peremptory and relevant as it used to. Perhaps, for instance, Fabian should even be glad that European hegemony and the European grands recits are over and done with. Decentering or delimiting the meta-narratives of the West will allow us to cultivate our own national narrative, or retrieve our own glorious past. Instead, Fabian is caught up in a personal dialectic with himself: he seems to see no redeeming value in finishing his studies, none in Magda the usurer who lends at an exorbitant interest, none in his rich, capitalist sister despite her willingness to set him up for life, and perhaps none at all in himself if he fails to bring about the fruition of his notions of a utopian scheme of things. To the discursive puppet, Fabian, hostage to Western aporia, it all seems to hinge upon the outright negation of what is wrong, what is rhizomatically evil, a solution that is purely theoretical, doctrinaire, easier said than done.

What is most striking about Norte, then, in the context of depiction and discourse, is its embodiment of a Filipino protagonist in a radically foreign, postmodern mold -- distinct from the voiceless subalterns and the oppressed that dominate our present cinematic lore. Postmodernism is nothing new as an aesthetic and stylistic methodology, favored for a while by such filmmakers as Raya Martin (e.g. anti-narrativity,auto-referentiality and so on), but Norte's novelty lies in its unique central character: a postmodern creature, a Cartesian ego, depicted in an extreme crisis of self-awareness and contradiction. Postmodernism is a European discourse and yet here we encounter its tendencies lurking among us in ways that recall a Bruno Dumont or a Michael Haneke film. Reexamining it with scrutiny, however, will bear the writer-director out. For one Diaz sharpens his end-of-history thematics with the flipside of millenarian euphorics – made more pronounced and conscious by Diaz's references to Mayan and Filipino-cult doomsday scenarios. Fabian’s psychological meltdown is not just the product of conceptual cooptation by Westernized learning but also of cultural and sublunary complexities that encompass us in the idea of an actual end of times. 

Fabian's flawed vision may foresee the world's imminent collapse, but his thinking remains not ahead of the times but behind it. European postmodernism does not signal the world's end since it has since been undercut by such schools of thought as Third Culture, Post-Theory or Post-Criticism, and Cognitivism. European continental philosophy is now just one of many available philosophies, no longer the monolithic arbiter of critical or philosophical thought. If Fabian had exerted himself enough in his studies, he would have been spared the ill effects of defective perspective and ideology. Perhaps even spared committing the same ghastly murders as detailed in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. (But of course, it will be said, that's the film's very point, a variation on Dostoevsky's novel.)

Norte is not, however, a mere portrait of addled intellectuality and the lunacy born out of it. Norte may be Diaz's stern reproach of the West itself – how its ideas and ideals have corrupted us and the rest of the world. (On the other hand, Norte itself, as a film product, might be an act of gratitude, a catering to the liberal West, especially Europe, where many of Lav Diaz's masterworks during the last decade have been feted, have found home and have made their screening debuts.) Norte itself is a classical movie (in its enshrined binary opposition, however, it may be viewed as structuralist and thus anti-humanist as well) but timeless in pitting good and evil in all their complicated antinomy and dynamic. While the murderous Fabian represents someone who deludedly thinks he is ridding the world of the evil of capitalism, his reverse is the classical, martyr-like (if perhaps fatalistic) Joaquin Atillano, an inherently good man, seemingly too ironically good, who gets convicted and jailed for the crimes Fabian has committed. 

As a kind of Filipino everyman, Joaquin Atillano answers his trials and tribulations by dint of virtue. In prison, Joaquin does not become the hardened and brutalized human being; instead, it seems to bring out the most noble deeds in him. Even when distance and absence separate him from his family for years, he steadfastly remains rooted in goodness. He is a living, breathing transcendence: in his dreams, he journeys in astral travels and visits his family in faraway Ilocos. Tarkovskian shades of our own paranormal and mystical phenomena take place here. This is Diaz’s roundabout conviction made manifest -- the reciprocal of Fabian’s warped unconscious -- that in spite of the distinct presence of evil in the world, Diaz still puts faith in the tenacity and uprightness of man. Postmodernism and other insidious ideologies may confound us, but Diaz will not leave this up to the perils and deadlocks of such a discourse, only to the identifiable contrast of evil against which to put virtue in true relief. (Does Joaquin seem to simulate virtue? Certainly not.) If the world is inexorably approaching the apocalypse, man must persist -- despite the prospects of extinction and dissolution -- in transcendent goodness.

Title in English: Norte, The End of History 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY (Raya Martin, 2013)




Two distinct ways to read Raya Martin’s How To Disappear Completely. One interpretation suggests that out of sheer despair Martin has gone out of his brilliant mind, all but berserk in foretelling a turbulent disintegration of our nation from within, toppled from rickety historical foundations, well beyond salvation from the clutches of Western religion and neo-colonialism. For much of Martin's young but extensive filmography, he has undertaken a de facto revolutionary project against the lingering constructs of colonialism, to the point of intimating an affinity with and cathexis to pre-colonial nativism. However, here he appears in despair in projecting his cinematic enterprise in a losing struggle. The other interpretation is more palatable, more heroic, more acceptable conscience-wise, but not untouched with a kind of extreme subject positioning in a counter cinema that envisions a confrontational revolt against what is keeping us in insidious shackles. Take your pick: Martin either as a doomsaying visionary resigned to predicting and foreseeing a social meltdown, or as a a steadfast quixotic but terrifying foot soldier -- how we've come to know him -- still flailing away at the enemy's windmills.

Through a youngster's perspective, an instance of the faux-naif vantage that can survey difficult themes with suspended, defamiliarized judgment, Martin demonstrates the extreme possibilities of social dissolution and revolution, seeing matters through the viewpoint of an adolescent girl who is gradually inculcated and traumatized by her parent's Westernized imaginary, shaped by societal institutions founded on Spanish Catholicism and American mythos and materialism. At the symbolic turning point, her mother thus instills fear in her: “Your way home is not as safe as you might think.” This might represent the incipience of her adolescent awakening but this coincides with a realization of all her socio-historical vulnerabilities, and by extension an entire nation and its posterity's susceptibilities. This is the metaphorical stage that makes her chillingly hear and see things in and out of the unconscious. Not just a possibly imagined metaphor, but this also points out the metonymy that puts her in close proximity to the real, actual dangers her mother symbolically describes: the man with a rifle in the forest, the labyrinth-like navigability of this milieu, her father’s incestuous attentions.

Negotiating this nosedive from childhood's Apollonian idyll and order to Dionysian disquiet and chaos of a budding pubescent is handled through the film’s systematicity of suspense, through hyper-stylized visual and aural designs. Aurally, with a pulsating electronic bass and beat, or with the hum of menacing fluorescence, or with the eerie chirp of cicadas that shades into technological buzz, the young girl’s fears are indexed in the present and all their modern complications. The strategic elision of sound is also bewildering, seemingly laden with dark secrets and just as suspenseful in what it withholds from us. This soundscape is coupled with a no less aggressive optical approach, how things appear eerily out of focus, how phantoms seem to appear in the mirror or flit across someone's field of vision, to say nothing of the girl's psychosexual dreams. Here the visual aspects oscillate between the impressionistic and the expressionistic: the former with what is roughcast and deliberately made out of focus, phantasmatic or hallucinatory in their echoes, slowed down to frame-by-frame commitment to memory of suggestive horror, and the latter with its ritualized, religious images filtered in red, pig entrails marinating in blood.

Martin’s visionary prediction seems bleak and pessimistic if his double-edged imagery may be resolved and clarified.  However, he also allows for the possibility of a genuine nullification of many of our ghosts in the dialectic he proposes. For one he sees a chaos of ideologies that may cancel out each other in a process of self-regeneration that will bode well for our future, but whether this is an overture for a symbiosis of absorbed cultures is at cross purposes with Martin's apparent nativism (e.g. how the central character lost in a fearsome forest uses the guidance of folklore and finds her way home is a motif used before in Martin's earlier work, Independencia.) 

How the warring ideologies symbolically engage each other represents the film's most allegorically indelible, if chilling, imagery. This climaxes in the symbolic burning and desecration of cruciforms that suggest an awakening from spiritual, or perhaps historical, passivity. Who are these rampaging figures, however, at the forefront of these subversive acts of irreligion? Here, a teenage girl who takes armed revolt against her defective ancestry, and there, a bunch of skateboarding thugs, leaving behind a destructive aftermath in a cemetery, raping schoolchildren in sight. These images, while powerful, may work to infantilize and downgrade their greater ideological mettle into a seeming outburst of rebellious teen spirit. Yet, from one politicized film to the next, Martin has assumed a deliberate faux-naif perspective, a child-like vantage that disguises its venomous discourse. If not, perhaps this reading is all too literal, the title's self-terminating act. Perhaps Martin is not as disillusioned as that may imply. Perhaps if anything Martin is grounded in the miraculous present, how he frames counter reality with irony, making current for us symptoms of periodization, anachronistic yet relevant: how we remain the opposite of the cinematic figures he has experimentally depicted, how although passive we are not so addled, how not yet irredeemably rooted in psychosis, how from this fucked-up historico-ontological matrix not yet emerged as Western-style mass murderers and serial killers.