Tuesday, November 24, 2015

DAYANG ASU (Bor Ocampo, 2015)




The dogs are not Disneyfied. They are pitiful pawns, commodities of mercantilization. Another animality earns notoriety, in full display, but no sense of compunction here, about the crimes portrayed, about the depraved with double lives, described in a trickle-down hierarchy, about this "dog nation" that hints at a descent into cannibalism. The resolution is part retribution, but also heralds an open end, a testament to the resilience of entrenched culture of crime and corruption. It takes a page from Godfather III, a prelude to Godfather IV which would have depicted a new reign of terror. The ascendant protagonist in Bor Ocampo's film, however, is a reluctant participant, someone thrust into it, a wounded tiger (or a wounded dog?) who must lick his wounds and respond to the ferocity within.

The circle of crime. The vortex of it all. Herein lies Dayang Asu's focus, yet, for good or bad, it verges on moral ambiguity. Good in the sense that the audience was clapping at the end of it, but suspect in the sense that its peripheral depictions go overshadowed. For one, the film's sacrificial victims, in the form of Muslims, get buried in more ways than one. Consequently what Etienne Balibar might refer to as "internal, differential racism," which underlies our society to the detriment of minorities like Muslims, is touched on but goes under-theorized. (Based on cultural differences, the religious racism surrounding Islam is common to us and Balibar's France). Missed opportunity, but it would have been conversely a polemical flashpoint had the film taken that route. (Ralston Jover's Hamog, another festival entry, enfleshes its Muslim characters with more depth, but just the same problematizes them.)   

What occupies the quicksilver time, instead, is the fast montage about a nation, set in the microcosm of Pampanga, in the thrall of men in power abusing power, while everyone downstream follows suit or cowers in fear. Nothing new, except that these proceedings are observed by formative eyes. Here the tension between nomos (law/order) and physis (chaos), however, is a source of humor and horror. For, in truth, the figures who wield law and order are the very forces of chaos. The film tosses us red herrings that there is hope, but how is the underworld portrayed in any national cinema, let alone the one with such rich iconography of crime we keep patronizing, Hollywood?

Blunt metaphor to hit our heads with, but there are two kinds of dogs here: one is the privileged dog that gets to fetch a middleman’s price and lands in the lap of innocent coddling and petting. The second kind is not as lucky, gets butchered for the mouths of those who have lost civilized conduct. But these dog-eaters are cunning. Some have families, well-grounded even, who have no clue what they are up to. As for the wretched dogs, none gets spared. But none becomes so feral as to bite back as in Samuel Fuller's White Dog (a better film) or Kornel Mundruczo's White God (a worse one). In all these films, ultimately, the rabidity of men is what's truly in the crosshairs.

Behind the camera, Bor Ocampo is up to the task: his award for best direction isn't undeserved. Speed, shifty editing, is his calling card, his tribute to Eisenstein perhaps, with a restless kinetic feel that propels us, disoriented and hard-pressed to catch up from one shot to the next, as if the establishing shots are all but jettisoned and most of the shots are always-already in the middle, where action and the colorful, piquant turn of phrase (mostly in Kapampangan) are the only logic. Like bullets ricocheting, like a Morse code sending out a dire message in rapid dots and dashes, the film keeps us on the backfoot, until the unraveling at the end. An end for which, originality aside, Mario Puzo would have done a double-take. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

BUKOD KANG PINAGPALA (Sheron Dayoc, 2015)



He awakens her, a religious devotee, from a vegetative sleep, a long-standing coma. He heals her of paralysis, festering bed sores and all, and then soon he is ravishing her in her sleep and whispering commands in her ears. Is he the real thing or some opportunistic being in sheep’s clothing? In this religious horror mystery, questions like this are asked to make us doubt our received pieties of many centuries. In this, it tries to be polemical, but in this, for better or worse, it is unsure of conviction. That, and ammunition.

It is little we haven’t heard of before, no matter how this entity in question looks like Jesus Christ according to Davinci: dark beard, a crown of thorns, and flowing hair like a Nazarenite. No, no matter how the house under seeming possession seems like a gallery of religious European artifacts, like some symbolism emanating all the way from the Quattrocento. The proceedings are as breakable as the house’s statuary.

Of course Roman Catholicism as European/Spain’s religious legacy is the target here. But Dayoc’s new film -- something atypical of his previous work -- falls short even in its portentousness: the biblical rhetoric spouted all throughout is rehashed and regrettably underwritten – to think that three heads share screenplay credits. Many of the lines sound like trite expressions of damnation cut and pasted from some unlettered forum or message board. Sure, they may be read as symptoms of postcolonial malaise, but little is done with this chestnut that is imaginatively new. It is almost already everyday stuff. To find someone answering to the name of God or something just as bizarre, you need only to peruse the news about our religious cults or the strange characters coming out of the woodwork during election season.  

Despite this film’s efforts to make itself controversial and polemical, the script is lackluster, unsubstantial, miserably wanting. The polemic it foists on us feels uneven, unsure about how to achieve the demonization of Christianity while floating the possibility that the whole shebang isn’t of divine inspiration at all. It plugs in worn-out biblical symbolism – a dove here, a serpent there – to keep us guessing. But it just comes off playing safe, too calculated and too medieval. Its real target is thinly veiled, after all, whether he shifts shape as a succubus or as flesh and blood.
  
In a country where the excesses and pitfalls of (false) devotion and religiosity are quite apparent – even movies have depicted this skepticism from Bernal's Himala onwards – this is not uncharted territory anymore. So much so that films -- like Miss Bulalacao, another competition entry -- have widened their scope to include extraterrestrial intervention and determinism in man’s affairs. Not that I approve of it. It’s just one deus-ex-machina for another.

For better or for worse, Bukod Kang Pinagpala’s stabs at horrifying us away from religion, in the end, are attended with laughter and tittering. No one was into it. No one in the audience was. Not the actors and actresses with their empty, worn-out lines, and half-hearted performances. Not even the subtitlists were in the know. At times the captions refer to the supernatural figure with reverential capitalized pronouns, sometimes that’s out of the window. Pity, it seems as if Dayoc was trying to do a Kleist or a Bunuel, but the latter’s humor and irony, for one, are nowhere in sight. From a familiar and therefore challenging premise, the film isn’t equal to it, but only gives way to profane reactions for the wrong reasons.      


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

MANANG BIRING (Carl Joseph Echague Papa, 2015)




THE OTHERING OF THE ILOCANA


Admittedly there is much in the making of Manang Biring that translates as sheer Greek to me. Until today, I had never sat through a full-length animated movie done exclusively with the use of rotoscoping. I’d once seen a few brief glimpses of Linklater’s Waking Life, but had found the film overlong for one sitting, decided to take a rain check and forgot about it. My first impression of this modality of animation was that it works to impart an oneiric, sometimes comics-like quality, sometimes painterly dimension to live action. Rotoscoped imagery might remind you of the distortions and flatttenings of modern art, from Matisse to Munch, from Expressionism to Fauvism to Hyperrealism, or it might come across as animated comics done by a skilled draughtsman. A virtue with great applications, apparent even then.
  
No question, there is a serious art to it. There is also the artisanal dedication in the attention to detail that it entails. These days, however, there’s also recourse to the labor-saving substitute of 2D and 3D applications (even Adobe Photoshop can do it at a pinch) not to mention more powerful gpu and cpu rendering that can be had on the cheap. Beyond being an exercise in style, however, a work like Manang Biring makes you wonder what makes an animator take the pains to essentially make two movies – one, a live-action representation, the other, the rotoscoped product, a representation of the representation -- for the price of one. 

In Manang Biring, there seems sufficient justification for a full-length feature rotoscoping: one, that no other Filipino has done it, and two, the film features apropos material (e.g. dream sequences, moments of absurdity) that is less easy to achieve with live action, and more evocative if done with the stylization of rotoscoping. My own sense is that, as this is a sort of elegy in honor of the filmmaker’s mother, a rotoscoped world affords the filmmaker a grieving distanciation, a mediation, a dressing of the wounds for something that remains fresh and unhealed in his memory. Manang Biring is further homage to Papa's late mother as well as  a sublimation of grief. If last year’s award-winning Ang ‘Di Paglimot ng Mga Alaala captured the mother's actual footage, this time, Papa swings to the other end of the spectrum with fictionalized animation.

From all appearances, Manang Biring entailed easily more time and elbow grease to put together than last year's debut, but Papa’s paean to his mother this time proves not without logical clunkiness and betrays, unwittingly, reservations about the idea of motherhood. As the titular mother, Manang Biring errs on the side not of motherly instinct but of worldly irrationality predicated on timidity and vanity, illegality and sheer lack of horse sense.

As if, in the end, after all, this mother does not want to be seen with warts and all. As if this tough Ilocana who bludgeons burglars and sells abortifacients in front of Quiapo Church suddenly grows deathly afraid (more afraid than death even) at the mention of a daughter who has gone missing for years and who now makes her whereabouts known all but too late -- when Manang Biring is battling for her life. If anything, someone faced with mortality knows no modesty when it comes to the comfort of family. One is truest at the verge of dying.

When Manang Biring receives word of her daughter’s homecoming, though, a daughter who has hitherto scarcely been a good, filial example, what does Manang Biring do with her borrowed time? She burns the candle at both ends committing one far-fetched, illegal scheme after another in an effort to make money to extend her life: teaming up with her erstwhile burglar in order to steal from an ecstasy dealer to selling the narcotic pills herself at a club for ravers. When all else fails, she conspires to put a stand-in in her place when the appointed time comes. That doesn't sound like human nature, let alone the verity about mothers. It sounds like the stuff of pure comics. Here are some of the reasons for the use of rotoscoping, after all.

If Kurosawa’s Ikiru is about how a terminally ill man tries to do his best to help his community, Manang Biring, all but to the end, is about scheming and deception, a headscratcher that even involves a male impersonator taking her place. Maybe it’s my naivete kicking in and the likes of Kanji Watanabe are a thing of the past. Cynicism, they will sing, is the ballad of the times.

Which begs a common sense question, my most nagging incredulity at this supposedly up-with-the-times world, this quick-fix world: why are the proceedings anachronistically trapped in a time warp where Manang Biring has to wait for many long months to get in touch with her daughter when she can get hooked up with latter-day telephony at an instant? And who even takes pains to write snail-mail these days? Perhaps Papa begs not to repeat himself, as videocam dialogue was the main motif of his debut film. The point of the delay of course is to dangle the specter of drama and death over the slowly-fading figure of the mother. There’s no question what obsesses Papa at the moment, there's no question about his sincerity about it, but the turns and devices of narrative should be better thought out in future projects.

Admittedly the foregoing may sound less than flattering, but let me temper that with a confession. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Manang Biring goes on to win the grand prize and subsequently make the rounds of overseas festivals. The film has virtues, I suspect, that only honest-to-goodness filmmakers can put a finger on. Papa is a filmmaker's filmmaker, full stop. He looks set toy go from strength to strength, what with all his technical wizardry to make even worthier, if not truly masterful films. His passion for filmmaking is immense. Ambidexterous in his command of the medium, even. He is like a Jan Svankmajer with his restless versatility who leaves little to chance. He is a meticulous animator who must be his own worst critic, teasing out detail after detail that may slip the casual eye. And his nods to cinema are those of a studious and devout adherent. Notice the littlest salutes to traditional filmmaking: how, for instance, a fish-eye lens effect bloats Manang Biring’s face. Note how he tries to achieve in rotoscope such cinematographic values as narrow depth of field and deep focus. Notice how timelapses of clouds swirl over Manang Biring as if ready to consume her. Pity, though, she all but cowers, even when she alternatively looks toughest. 

Fight or flight? Manang Biring seesaws between the two extremes. Part of the unsettled internal conflict seems to stem from the long tradition of othering the Ilocana has undergone in screen representations. Much like the way the Waray has been portrayed as the other, the Ilocana as the other may still derive from the way Gloria Romero portrayed Manang Biday, the tough and feisty Ilocana, in the 1950s: tobacco munching, tough-talking, bellicose, armed with a two-by-two. Minus much of the trappings, Manang Biring channels this regional archetype, but dubiously extends it to naturalize an unlawful aggression, a wrong-headed means to stay alive. This defines a hamartia that is then compounded by a contradictory hamartia at the other extreme, that of Manang Biring being made to look like a timid, vain old lady when it comes to the matter of her daughter. Things don't add up. She seems, after all, not so much a more nuanced character as a confused and addled one. Mestastasis in the brain? Maybe. Maybe, and this is perhaps what the circuitous and clunky detours of aporetic feeling Manang Biring wishes to convey: everyone quakes at the prospect of death, even more so the prospect of a guilt-ridden, lonely and undignified death.