Thursday, December 1, 2011

ANATOMIYA NG KORUPSIYON (Dennis Marasigan, 2011)

Expectations run high when a film like this attempts a portrait of such a monolithic subject as corruption. Anatomiya ng Korupsyon seems dressed for the part, as portentously titled as any picture put on screen, conjuring in our minds something epic and dramatic. Director Dennis Marasigan, however, has a reputation for making films of finesse and tempered sentiment, and sadly enough, in this film, he sticks too conservatively to his comfort zone.

As much as a public pillory is in order -- that carcass of corruption dragged out into the open -- Marasigan softpedals it. The subject he singles out -- shenanigans in a Marcos-era government office -- is handled all but daintily. Euphemistically. Marasigan seems too much of a nice guy to fight fire with fire. He all but says, excuse me, before he skewers his quarry. 

In Anatomiya ng Korupsyon, Marasigan hides more than he shows -- often to our dismay. Perhaps we are expecting an expose, while Marasigan presumes his subject to be a fait accompli. For instance, he gives us a scene where a government clerk with a deck of playing cards proposes a game to an officemate, but Marasigan just as soon cuts away. It is an opportunity fraught with possibilities that goes begging. We get it, but Marasigan approaches it with control and restraint, and consummates what the scene is about off screen. 

Restraint, obviously, is not bad in itself. And there are those who like Anatomiya the way it is. But sometimes this film doesn't need it. Sometimes it needs to loosen its reins for fear of asphyxiation. Following through on its potentially humorous moments will only improve the synergy of its parts.

Few filmmakers like Bresson (L'Argent) can pull off what Marasigan is trying to do, a tight-lipped treatment of a massive theme like corruption. As it is, Marasigan is doing Frank Capra material with Bressonian seriousness and deadpan. Here, its main protagonist, Cely Martinez, a new, idealistic lawyer appointed to the Family Court, is the picture of deadpan, to the point of making her seem more soulless than the lively corrupt government officials that surround her. (It might be argued that that is precisely the point: Corruption has been naturalized.) 

That is the kind of ambiguity and uncertainty marring this film. When dealing with its humorous moments, it also gets bogged down by its oscillation between parody and satire. Parody, for instance, is a shot of an office drawer stocked full of merchandize like cigarettes and candy. We don’t laugh. It’s old and there is no riff on it.  

Satire, on the other hand, is what happens when a corrupt clerk actively hides a folder of documents on a disordered desk in order to delay their delivery and therefore cause more bureaucratic grease money. Now this image is fresh and we react accordingly. In terms of parody, Anatomiya does not present anything new, nor does it reinvent its images. With its satire, the film scores points by ridiculing, for instance, the actions of the misguided clerk. Why satire is not sustained all along, one can only suspect that the material has not been thoroughly developed. 

Ambiguity also attends the depiction of corrupt superiors in Anatomiya. They do not come across as villains. They are almost too clean and mild-mannered. They don’t wallow in luxury and money. They are almost understanding, nice guys, giving the newcomer all the leeway she needs. Perhaps it is all intended to depict a new kind of culpability, but their lot looks more naturally life-like than the film’s supposed heroine. 

If I'm somewhat disappointed with Anatomiya ng Korupsyon, it is because the film is not half bad. Marasigan is a well-meaning filmmaker who has proven himself in this vein before, but this time, he has in his hands a work in progress. Perhaps he ought to look at his film’s ending first. Out of nowhere, it equates an idealistic and incorruptible character like Cely Martinez with someone like Jun Lozada, someone who is not exactly beyond reproach. While the likes of Cely Martinez eat insipid cafeteria food under a mocking poster of La Dolce Vita, the likes of Lozada are luxuriating in a club house in some exclusive subdivision. And what of the staggeringly cynical line that Anatomiya takes from Lozada – how he was tasked to "moderate the greed” of public officials – are there gradations of greed then? Is corruption, and the guilt born out of it, a matter of negotiation now?   

Alternate Title: Anatomiya ng Korupsyon
Title in English: Anatomy of Corruption

Monday, November 28, 2011

MGA ANINO SA TANGHALING TAPAT (Ivy Universe Baldoza, 2011)


The shadows at noon, they have always been there... 

These dark, penumbral undercurrents sneak up on the viewer. They stalk the center, where three girls rush to embrace the advent of adolescence. On the cusp of full-fledged bodies, these girls anticipate it with a sense of wonder and headiness. Baldoza’s film is meant to foreshadow the collision of changes – spiritual, intellectual and physiological – in the lives of its characters: a personal testimony that reminds us how fraught with distress, as much as happiness, this stage in life can be. 

These girls are the newly adolescent. Their flowering is headlong, and complacent. They embrace the latitude of their young age, but ignore the fine print that comes with it. They handle sex as an unfamiliar apparatus, in different stages of clumsiness and callowness. They are tempting fate, a fate that memorializes them in various stages of maturation. You can all but draw a schema. Thus there is a reason to read a symbolic subtext into their destinies.

Much mystifies the illustration of the three girls’ lives. There is a biblical fatality in their quest for knowledge, more so that they are oblivious and uncalculating, myopically curious and caught up with the turning of their bodies. They meet at the wake of their grandfather in a bucolic province. Ines is an urban adolescent who is curious about her family secrets, wanting to come to terms with her mother’s past. Odessa is a provincial lass who is experiencing the bloody bodily changes of adolescence, and savoring in turn the sight of a boy bathing half-clad. And Ezra, her elder sister, frontally and boldly faces the urges within her, sexual and sensual. 

Their fable is framed by a rural superstition about the contagion of death. When someone dies, it is said, a relative should refuse overtures that occur in their dreams, or be the next to die. You never realize how significant this line is until the chilling, haunting end. In the meantime, there is beauty in how the literal and the symbolic are inextricably intertwined in this allegorical piece.  

The vulnerabilities of the girls are illustrated by the story of Ines and her impressionability to the supernatural. Appearing to her in a kind of dream, spirits of the forest proposition her in exchange for the secrets about her mother. She gravitates to them and their mysteries, perhaps even in her waking moments. Yet she is not even the most susceptible.

At every turn rears the mystery of life and sex and death, their symbolic interconnectedness. You can, however, read this film as both allegorical and actual and there is plenty to spare; that is its singular achievement. You can range far from folklore to Freud and not explain this film away, or you can dwell on the everyday in which it is set. These are the transpositions and juxtapositions that Baldoza makes possible in this unlikely coming of age film.   

Mga Anino Sa Tanghaling Tapat is a film that starts quite generically but ends up strong and indelibly. The makings of a family drama at the start give way to an unforgettable fable that crisscrosses genres and realities. It is no simple achievement, juggling the various elements mentioned above without taxing our sense of enthrallment. Adept as any fabulist, Baldoza strikes a commendable, careful balance, creating a film that ought to garner a viewership. Whether adolescents should see it, perhaps they ought to. Although the strong imagery may preclude it, the film's message is a kind of caveat to youth that recommends itself. But I doubt, in this all too literal and prudish country, their hysterical, blushing mothers would allow it.

Alternate title: Mga Anino ng Tanghaling Tapat
Title in English: Shadows of Noon

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

FOREVER LOVED (Lawas Kan Pinabli, Christopher Gozum, 2011)

Writ large is the heroic struggle of the Filipino diaspora in movies about the overseas contract worker. When the dramatization of marytyrdom is even remotely justified, expect multiple versions out of it: Bagong Bayani and The Flor Contemplacion Story, for instance. Such films tend to perpetuate myths, mostly favorable, about our so-called unsung heroes. This is not, nor should it be, the whole story. Christopher Gozum’s experimental documentary, Forever Loved, forwards a corrective to all the attractive portraits in film or in other media. Or at least, Gozum's point is to paint a more humanized picture.

Few sources can be as reliable and comprehensive as Gozum concerning this. Himself an overseas contract worker of long-standing, he shot three years worth of footage in Saudi Arabia – its deserts, moors, cities and its Filipino expatriate community – without intention to turn it into a film. The material eventually took shape and the result is Forever Loved, a work with a fresh perspective, with a sometimes polemic and often long, discursive content.     

Running 3 hours and 20 minutes, Forever Loved can be regarded as a documentary first, and a fictional/experimental film, second. The documentary footages are real-life interviews with Filipino overseas workers whose stories are both new and familiar. There is the near-rape victim, the unpaid worker, the fall guy, all reinforcing the notion of a tricky, knotty life abroad, but there are also stories from the flipside such as that of the fossil/rock collector, who seems to have found a fulfilling life in his adopted country.  

The most telling segments of Forever Loved, however, lead it to credible authorities with articulate insight into the overseas worker. A Filipino journalist of long-tenure in Saudi Arabia explains how our history of colonial subservience makes us vulnerable to the abuse of foreigners. The creator of, a website that documents the Filipino experience abroad, reports a contrasting quality that is supposed to land the Filipino in trouble: his intrinsic stubbornness, a trait we have never thought exportable. Such contradictory insights hint at the complicated, checkered nature of the Filipino.                

These documentary passages are framed by a fictional story about a newcomer in Saudi Arabia. He has traveled not just to take a job but to search for his wife who has gone missing for three years in that Middle Eastern country. His story takes its shape from the myth of Odyssey as well as the biblical Moses. Like Odysseus, he undertakes a far-ranging journey in the hopes of reaching his wife. Like Odysseus, he even finds a kind of Calypso in the desert. But he is also a kind of Moses, the film’s own analogy, who sadly discovers the debauchery of the exodus, that is, the crimes of the Filipino diaspora.

For every alleged case of victimization that befalls a Filipino, Gozum finds a contradictory voice, a credible statistic, to balance our vision. The facts paint the reverse of the martyr: a not-so-passive, not-so-innocent Filipino. His crimes, largely unreported or distorted when they reach our shores, abound such as drug-trafficking, gambling, and practices deemed illegal in host nations. Those who are in flight, the so-called runaway workers who often want to be repatriated, have a lot to run away for. 

Forever Loved can be viewed, in simplistic terms, as two movies rolled into one. It is possible to untwine the documentary aspect from the fictive section. Each one, alone, could probably hold up to scrutiny. Together, they work in a kind of uneasy synergy that creates an eye-opening and wildly experimental film. That’s because naturalistic documentary does not traditionally mix with formal experiment. Admittedly Forever Loved is more cinematically inclusive – and therefore less disciplined – than the purely experimental Anacbanua.

It may, however, also be a simple question of unfamiliarity. Midway through this sprawling opus, the film’s interweaving of documentary and fiction assumes a rhythm we slide into, and the fresh perspective it affords about the Filipino overseas worker is wholly absorbing even if unflattering. The experience is greatly enhanced by the film's fictional/experimental portion that shares similarities with the avant-garde work of Philippe Garrel. Indelible are the fierce and binding rhythms of Pangasinan language, mostly the poetry of the poet-protagonist, and Ran Kirlian’s futuristic synths on the soundtrack.   
Forever Loved, in the end, may well be the most thorough, most textured, and most insightful study on the Filipino OCW. Perhaps such a saga of a people's exodus is bound to unfold in many more unforeseen ways and will never see an immediate end. Gozum deserves to be commended for going against the grain, forwarding a perspective the rest of us aren't prepared to entertain. He never loses sight of the human picture, the stories he has heard or knows first-hand. These stories, whether grounded on the real or the invented, must resonate with him, cut him to the quick, a heart that harbors the traumas of being so far from home.  


(Title in Pangasinan: Lawas Kan Pinabli) 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

SAKAY SA HANGIN (Regiben Romana, 2011)

What is simultaneously baffling and beguiling early on in  Regiben Romana’s Sakay Sa Hangin is the fact that it can be approached as a kind of anthropological document as much as it can be understood as a myth of its own making. Multivocal, multivalent, it puts us in touch with the daily rituals, ceremonies and customs of the Talaandig tribe in Bukidnon, Mindanao, while following and observing the preparations of a man who is about to embark on a mythic journey. The journey should be taken on the back of a saduk (a wind-blown vessel), an oracle declares to him, an utterance that engages fact with fictive myth.

The man who must undertake this voyage is Gali, a devout man of peace who, through the whisper of dreams, feels tasked to avert a great war. He seeks the audience of chanters and oracles to prepare the way, enlists his friend’s help, and gathers his family for final instructions. In the interim, we watch him, a great musician, in extended recitals as he plays instruments indigenous to his tribe – the flute, the lute, the jew’s harp. Out of scratch, he creates a talismanic bamboo woodwind: an instrument of power, a kind of weapon in foreign myths, as with Orpheus or Pan. Soon, to consecrate this instrument, he invokes the blessing of the spirits and gods of nature: the earth, the sun, the river, the rain.

On plain paper, this synopsis reads like the outlines of a myth. But in real terms, Romana executes it as a documentary with small touches that elevate it from factual gathering. As described above, the small touches are rooted in the Talaandig’s lore and their quotidian lives. For the musicians like Gali, for instance, it is normal to invoke the higher powers that govern his milieu, his musical instruments made out of the materials of nature.

Animism is a strong presence in the life of Gali and the tribe that he represents. Romana is even inclined to believe its reality transcends the scope of his film and even captured in it. While editing two-months-worth of material taken among the Talaandigs, a startling discovery occurred to him. Figures of heads and faces seemed to appear among the flora in his footages, something that he went on to “emphasize” as triangles in his film. Perhaps there is more to native beliefs than meets the eye.

Waway Saway, who plays Gali, however, claims the brighter spotlight. It is curious where Waway the musician ends, and Gali the character begins. With long, extended takes that document his every move and his every musical note, he commands us as a captive audience. He lulls us like a Pied Piper: when the end comes, the two-hour running time seems scarcely long enough.

That is not, however, to take away from the great achievement of Romana, rather it underscores the film's rich multivalence. Sakay Sa Hangin is a worthy ethnographic document of singular distinction. Few films -- Murnau's Tabu and the works of Flaherty perhaps -- can be compared with it through cinematic history. Sakay Sa Hangin, without didacticism, also retrieves our lost connection and communion with nature. Framed in an open-ended structure, the film demonstrates the flow of life and how it ought to be held sacred: war should not enter into it. And once we latch on to its lyrical imagery, its fabulous structure and spare storytelling, it is a breeze to watch. A breath-taking ride on the wind.

(Title in English: Wind-Blown)

Monday, November 14, 2011

SA KANTO NG ULAP AT LUPA (Mes de Guzman, 2011)

Filmmaker Mes de Guzman seems to have one overriding and obsessive tendency throughout his career: a Wordsworthian affinity for naif and innocent characters caught helplessly in the clutches of an unwelcoming world. These protagonists in de Guzman's films are often children or youths, depicted as castaways or as disenfranchised creatures left to their own devices, scarcely comprehending their sorry plight. Many of the old Kanun films of Iran, films catered to the young, are artificial compared to this, their dilemmas little more than math problems geared to their delicate age, their outcomes leaning towards happy or hopeful resolutions. De Guzman, on the other hand, does not shy away from tragic denouements, taking the classical unities of drama to their logical and truthful ends.

This darkening of vision in the work of de Guzman has been most pronounced in recent years. Last year, he engineered Stone is the Earth and Ice is the Earth, two parts in a projected trilogy that are particularly embedded in this ominous vein. That is not to say that it is a newfangled tendency: his earliest short, Batang Trapo (2002), and his famous Daang Patungong Kalimugtong (2005) are not exactly sunshine paeans to children.

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa is apt to sunder hearts once again. Set in the inhospitable province of Nueva Vizcaya, it takes an unflinching gaze at the hand-to-mouth lives of four street boys living on the fringes. They are from the highlands, but the lure of modern life and disaffection from their families have made them come down to the big, bustling towns like Solano, Aritao and Bayombong. However, few jobs and opportunities beckon, only the pangs of privation. Instead of food, they chew on betel-nut to slake their hunger. 

As in many broods, there is a pecking order among these kids. Yoyong, the eldest, most adolescent of the group, is big-brotherly but not above putting a hand on his younger mates at the slightest provocation. Poklat is a firebrand, who either stands up to Yoyong or abuses his secondary position. Boying seems loyally attached to the group, finding his way back even after being forced home by his father. Uding, the literate among them, is the bottom feeder, who must make do with scraps after every one has had their fill. 

Episodic in structure, neorealist in approach, De Guzman's film shows these kids caught in the last gasp of innocence. Their naivety is best illustrated in a scene where they bring home a discarded vhs player found on a garbage heap. Believing it to be a gift, they have it tested on a neighbor’s television, only to realize that it is broken and  beyond repair. Worse, it is technology as obsolete as their innocent worldview. 

For the most part, cynicism has not corrupted these kids. The world still holds out grand abstractions like camaraderie and love. In one episode for instance, Yoyong is taught how to read and write by Uding, in the hope that through letters he can court a well-off girl he admires from afar.

De Guzman, however, does not underestimate his characters. He affords them with sparks of cunning that seem lifted from childishly clever movies they have seen. One episode details how the youngsters write a letter to trick the boss at the local slaughterhouse into hiring Yoyong. They surprisingly succeed, and are soon helping Yoyong wash pig entrails. At such times, the twists and turns may seem to be scarcely plausible.

But De Guzman is carefully setting things up. He is chiseling away at dramatic uniformity. This is the bliss before the fall. Events are steering inevitably into an incontrovertible ending. What happens, he asks, when a disjuncture between the boys' unwieldy dreams and the world's monolithic reality becomes all too painfully manifest? What happens when their sense of family derived from the group is threatened and the appeasement requires such grand and heroic gestures?  And what happens when hunger intervenes in all these boys' hardships? Antidotes to these visceral yearning lose their dark luster. They must be sought at all costs. 

Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa is a film composed with calibrated compassion. It secretly wishes for a reprieve for its characters, but it concedes to the tenor of things. The final moments are oneiric and hallucinatory, swathed in muted light and thick fog: the boys are trudging up a grassy mountain. Does it conjure a kind of ascension, or are they being summoned again for a cruel comeuppance? Are they going back home, or nowhere between heaven and earth?    

(Title in English: At The Corner of Heaven and Earth)
(Alternate Name for Director: Ramon Mez de Guzman)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

BIG BOY (Shireen Seno, 2011)

Pax Americana, circa 1945, comes to the Philippine Islands at the end of war. On the island of Mindoro, American parachutes rigged with relief goods dangle from the high branches of trees like loaded socks on a Christmas tree. There is expectation of colonial largesse in the air. Former soldiers serving under the Americans claim their much-cherished benefits. Citizenship. Travel. Money. Livelihood.  

Strange, bittersweet things, however, are afoot for a pre-adolescent boy named Julio. From a laboratory in his backyard, his father has just created a growth concoction whose efficacy is quite a success. Each day made to take spoonfuls of the bitter drug and bodily stretched on a rack, Julio is the docile guinea pig. His growth spurts are notched on the bamboo poles supporting the family nipa hut. This way, approval from his father seems welcome, but Julio must pay for it according to the strictures of scientific method. His siblings run free; he has grown distant from the village. He seems mute, wearing a doleful look. Julio has become Big Boy, the mascot of his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, deep in the fastnesses of Mindoro. One day he stops growing.

Big Boy, the first feature film by Shireen Seno, is in many ways about the traumatization of childhood. Childhood is not always magic and idyll. True, to some extent, Seno’s film mirrors Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Summer at Grandpa’s with its evocation of a happy childhood. Here with fondness are the wonder years: the parlor games, the outdoor adventures, the staunch playmates, the favorite songs, and the innocence. But in Big Boy, the innocent is uncomprehending and bewildered, tragic and ill-fated. It is perhaps because national hindsight paints a darker picture, owing to the unlucky turns in our history.

For her first film, Seno deserves a ton of credits for her unflinching recreation of a colorful but sorrowful childhood. One can imagine a screenplay almost wholly descriptive of time, mood and place: Big Boy is quite visual. Seno finds a true correlative not just with a grainy stock and a Super 8 camera that felicitously envision bygone times, but with collaborative and mentoring minds who help her transition into feature filmmaking. John Torres and Pam Miras are credited by Seno in one interview, but two kindred spirits emerge from a viewing of Big Boy. Raya Martin’s Independencia and Kidlat Tahimik’s Turumba are what come to mind, one of them a period piece set in early American times, and the other about a child's traumatic encounter with the West.

Apart from its strong and evocative visual qualities (an out-of-focus, deteriorated look and a smudgy palette), Seno makes conscientiously sure that the film's soundtrack is not neglected. Her use of out-of-synch sound evokes the convolutions of memory. We remember this way: the sounds and images are sometimes governed by different mnemonics. And again, the verbal aspects in Seno’s film are as evocative as the visuals themselves. For one, the singing of songs and the family banter and endearments are pitch-perfect and seamlessly complement what appears onscreen. No mean feat for a film that mostly foregrounds children,  most of whom are non-professionals.

Big Boy is also a study in how a few touches can recreate faithfully a given period. It helps that some architecture of American handiwork remains, but with minimum expense the visuals of Big Boy seem to take on an old vintage. A street sign, household implements, a costume or two, an American song sung as a lullaby – all not so elaborate minutiae that believably indicate the postwar era.      

Few filmmakers are like Seno, for what she achieves is not even often attempted. Today’s filmmakers want to be modern and contemporary and urban, or simply have no connections to the past. Seno is not one of them. Big Boy has a special resonance for those who have once listened to the older and slowly disappearing generation. The stories they tell often turn toward the generosity of our old colonizers. Hey, Joe, do you have chocolates? The line is anachronistic, but you still hear that in the provinces.  My grandfather, an English teacher in peacetime, named his children after characters in books that his American counterparts gave him. Our obsession with our old masters has been total – and fatal. Seno tells this heart-wrenching story.                 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Towards A Personal Canon: Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe is a figment of my mind. In this cobwebbed,  nostalgia-laden mind, it oddly consists of Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary,  Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.
This is rather arbitrary -- except for the fact that these countries once formed satellites to the Soviet Union, a buffer zone against the threat of the West.

Today, balkanization and democratization have sliced and diced Eastern Europe. Yugoslavia is gone and has become five nations. Czechoslovakia has split into halves.

But I still hark back, perversely if nostalgically, to those glorious times when they operated as singular countries, when they were ruled by the strange strictures -- the freeze and thaw -- of socialism.

Today, I still hark back to the Czech New Wave. The Czechs, like Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman, as much as the Slovaks, like Dusan Hanak and Juraj Jakubisko.



I still hark back to the Yugoslavian Black Wave in the mid-1960s. Aleksandr Petrovic, Zivojin Pavlovic, and Dusan Makavejev presided, but there were quite a few equally capable cineastes lurking in the eclipse.

I still think about the early alumni of the National Film School in Lodz -- Krzysztof Zanussi, Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, and Andrzej Wajda, the best-known names in Polish cinema graduating and making films in quick succession.

Hungary remains largely terra incognita beyond what Miklos Jancso, Marta Meszaros, Istvan Szabo and a few select filmmakers have had to offer. Istvan Gaal, Pal Sandor, Zoltan Fabri have only begun to be rediscovered and reassessed by wider audiences, within and without Hungary.

Much remains unaccounted for and undocumented for the moment. National archives have not been thoroughly exhausted. And these are bountiful times for some countries like Romania, hitting its stride with the emergence of such talents as Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu. There is much to discover -- and this list is liable to reflect more informed and more comprehensive choices, a wider and more inclusive geography.

Meanwhile here is one version of Eastern Europe that deserves to be seen. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a fairly useful one with which to start an exploration of national cinemas that have been, by virtue of ideological association, unjustly dismissed and overlooked. 

The list, in no particular order:

Narcissus and Psyche (Gabor Body, 1980)
Satantango (Bela Tarr, 1994)
Dekalog (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1989)
The Cassandra Cat (Vojtech Jasny, 1963)
Young and Healthy as A Rose (Jovan Jovanovic, 1971)
When Father Was Away on Business (Emir Kusturica, 1985)
The Joke (Jaromil Jires, 1969)
Daisies (Vera Chytilova, 1966)
Man of Marble (Andrzej Wajda, 1977)
The Sun in A Net (Stefan Uher, 1962)

Build A House Plant A Tree (Juraj Jakubisko, 1980)
Capricious Summer (Jiri Menzel, 1968)
The Cremator (Juraj Herz, 1968)
Celebration in the Botanical Garden (Elo Havetta, 1969)
Wild Lilies (Elo Havetta, 1972)
Fruit of Paradise (Vera Chytilova, 1970)
Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda, 1958)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jires, 1970)
Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957)
Damnation (Bela Tarr, 1988)

Courage for Every Day (Evald Schorm, 1964)
Larks on A String (Jiri Menzel, 1969)
The Dog Who Loved Trains (Goran Paskaljevic, 1977)
Werkcmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)
Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (Emir Kusturica, 1981)
A Generation (Andrzej Wajda, 1955)
Valley of the Bees (Frantisek Vlacil, 1968)
The Shop on Main Street (Jan Kadar/Elmar Klos, 1965)
Almanac of Fall (Bela Tarr, 1985)
Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, 1965)
Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1979)

Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961)
The Ear (Karel Kachyna, 1970)
Interrogation (Ryszard Bugajski, 1982)
Time of the Gypsies (Emir Kusturica, 1988)
Firemen's Ball (Milos Forman, 1967)
White Dove (Frantisek Vlacil, 1960)
Dancing in the Rain (Bostjan Hladnik, 1961)
The Oak (Lucian Pintilie, 1992)
Tri (Aleksander Petrovic, 1965)
When I'm Dead and White (Zivojin Pavlovic, 1967)

W.R. Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev, 1971)
Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing (Dusan Makavejev, 1967)
Man is Not A Bird (Dusan Makavejev, 1965)
Sweet Movie (Dusan Makaevejev, 1974)
A Short Film About Killing (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)
A Short Film About Love (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)
Curriculum Vitae (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1975)
Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel, 1966)
Reconstruction (Lucian Pintilie, 1968)
Adoption (Marta Meszaros, 1975)

The Medusa Raft (Karpo Acimovic-Godina, 1980)
The Outsider (Bela Tarr,1981)
Szerelem (Karoly Makk, 1971)
Another Way (Karoly Makk, 1982)
My Sweet Little Village (Jiri Menzel, 1985)
Diamonds of the Night (Jan Nemec, 1964)
Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer, 1966)
Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, 1962)
Round-Up (Miklos Jancso, 1966)
Winter Wind (Miklos Jancso, 1969)

How I Was Systematically Destroyed By Idiots (Slobodan Sijan, 1983)
The Red and the White (Miklos Jancso, 1967)
Red Psalm (Miklos Jancso, 1972)
My Way Home (Miklos Jancso, 1965)
It Rains in My Village (Aleksander Petrovic, 1968)
Montenegro (Dusan Makavejev, 1981)
Landscape After Battle (Andrzej Wajda, 1970)
Everything for Sale (Andrzej Wajda, 1969)
Father (Istvan Szabo, 1966)
The Hand (Jiri Trnka, 1965)

Eroica (Andrzej Munk, 1958)
A Distant Journey (Alfred Radok, 1950)
I EVen Met Happy Gyspies (Aleksander Petrovic, 1967)
Family Nest (Bela Tarr, 1979)
The Scar (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1976)
Year of the Quiet Sun (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1984)
Silence and Cry (Miklos Jancso, 1967)
And Give My Love to The Swallows (Jaromil Jires, 1972)
Cabaret Balkan (Goran Pasklajevic, 1998)
Alice (Jan Svankmajer, 1988)

Man of Iron (Andrzej Wajda, 1981)
Saragossa Manuscript (Wojciech Has, 1965)
Oil Lamps (Juraj Herz, 1971)
Sitting on A Branch, Enjoying Myself (Juraj Jakubisko, 1989)
Marathon Family (Slobodan Sijan, 1982)
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski,1981)
Little Otik (Jan Svankmajer, 2000)
Third Part of the Night (Andrzej Zulawski, 1971)
Catsplay (Karoly Makk, 1972)
The Cow (Karel Kachyna, 1994)

Black Cat, White Cat (Emir Kusturica, 1998)
Ecce Homo Homolka (Jaroslav Papousek, 1969)
Cantata (Miklos Jancso, 1963)
Witches' Hammer (Otakar Vavra, 1970)
The Party and the Guests (Jan Nemec, 1966)
Who is Singing Over There? (Slobodan Sijan,1980)
The Pier (Wojciech Solazrz, 1969)
Black Peter (Milos Forman, 1964)
Hogo Fogo Homolka (Jaroslav Papousek, 1970)
Marketa Lazarova (Frantisek Vlacil, 1967)

The Current (Istvan Gaal,1963)
Sweet Anna (Zoltan Fabri, 1958)
The Hour-Glass Sanatorium (Wojciech Has, 1973)
Walkover (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1965)
322 (Dusan Hanak, 1969)
Illumination (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1973)
Structure of Crystal (Krzysztof Zanussi, 1969)
The Man from London (Bela Tarr, 2007)
The Prefab People (Bela Tarr, 1982)
Pearls of the Deep (Chytilova/Jires/Menzel/Nemec/Schorm, 1966)

Birds, Orphans, Fool (Juraj Jakubisko, 1969)
Shadows of a Hot Summer (Frantisek Vlacil, 1978)
The Good Soldier Sveijk (Karol Stekly, 1957)
Bolshe Vita (Ibolya Fekete, 1996)
Our Car (Frantisek Cap, 1962)
Lemonade Joe (Oldrich Lipsky, 1964)
Seclusion Near A Forest (Jiri Menzel, 1976)
Diary for My Children (Marta Meszaros, 1984)
Szindbad (Zoltan Huszarik,1971)
Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski, 2008)

The Unknown Soldier's Patent Leather Shoes (Rangel Vulchanov, 1979)
Merry-Go-Round (Zoltan Fabri, 1956)
The Witness (Peter Bacso, 1969)
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
Tales from the Golden Age (Cristian Mungiu et al, 2009)
Filantropica (Nae Caranfil, 2002)
The Goat Horn (Metodi Andonov, 1972)
Michael The Brave (Sergiu Nicolaescu, 1970)
Police, Adjective(Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Towards A Personal Canon: Latin America

My top 100 Latin American films of all time.

There are traditional hot beds in Latin American cinema and my viewing has tended to be influenced by the availability of films from those countries. Probably topmost would be Brazil, which experienced an awakening  in the 1960s with the emergence of Cinema Novo. The likes of Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos were among its chief exponents. But if Cinema Novo was about espousing social transformation and political liberation, the so-called Cinema Marginal offered cinema from the fringes -- unashamedly underground and low-budgeted. Lumped together under this banner were loose cannons like Rogerio Sganzerla and Julio Bressane.

Another traditional powerhouse of Latin American film would be Argentina. In the 1960s, the term Third Cinema was coined here by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino to describe the cinema being practiced in the Third World, sociopolitical, mass-centered, anti-colonial. In the last decade or so, Argentina has seen a resurgence with Nueva Ola, or the New Argentine Cinema. Directors of note include Martin Rejtman, Lucrecia Martel and Lisandro Alonso.

Mexico must also be mentioned as a country with a rich tradition in filmmaking. Time and again, it has produced good directors throughout the last century. Examples would be Emilio Fernandez in the 1940s, Arturo Ripstein in the 1970s, and an entire generation of talented filmmakers in the 2000s).

Chile will probably be synonymous with two luminaries: Raoul Ruiz, the director of magical, Borgesian films, and Patricio Guzman, the director of compelling political documentaries. They are easily two of the best filmmakers ever produced by the continent.

Cuba too has had a great film tradition: Tomas Gutierez Alea will always be held in high esteem by cineastes for Memories of Underdevelopment (although in truth he was no one-hit wonder), Humberto Solas for Lucia, and Santiago Alvarez for revolutionary documentaries that must still do Fidel Castro proud.)

But a handful of paragraphs to introduce Latin American cinema will always be insufficient. My own survey is at best fragmentary. Thus this list benefits from the input of several books. David A. Cook's A History of Narrative Film. Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History: An Introduction. Deborah Shaw's Contemporary Cinema of Latin America. Tamara L. Falicov's The Cinematic Tango, Contemporary Argentine Film. 

A few leads were also provided by the folks at mubi and kg. 

Here then is my list, an ever-protean list, in no particular order:

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010)
The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzman, 1975-1978)
The Hour of the Star (Suzana Amaral, 1985)
Chronicle of A Boy Alone (Leonardo Favio, 1965)
Three Sad Tigers (Raoul Ruiz, 1968)
The Deceased (Leon Hirszman, 1965)
Antonio das Mortes (Glauber Rocha, 1969)                           
The Dependent (Leonardo Favio, 1969)
The Given Word (Anselmo Duarte, 1962)
Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 2004)

The Hour of the Furnaces (Fernando E. Solanas/Octavio Getino, 1968)
Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomas Gutierez Alea, 1968)
The Clandestine Nation (Jorge Sanjines, 1989)                     
Rapado (Martin Rejtman, 1992)
Julio Starts in July (Silvio Caiozzi, 1976)
Whisky (Juan Pablo Rebella, 2004)
Sao Paulo - Sociedade Anonima (Luis Sergio Person, 1965)
La Casa del Angel (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1957)
The Red Light Bandit (Rogerio Sganzerla, 1968)
La Cienaga (Lucrecia Martel, 2001)

Rio, 40 Degrees (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1955)
Machuca (Andres Wood, 2004)
The Woman of Everyone (Rogerio Sganzerla, 1969)
The Priest and the Girl (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, 1965)
The Land of Sao Sarue (Vladimir Carvalho, 1971)
Bang Bang (Andrea Tonacci, 1970)
The Antenna (Esteban Sapir, 2007)
Swimming Alone (Ezequiel Acuna, 2003)
Copacabana Mon Amour (Rogerio Sganzerla, 1970)
Sao Bernardo (Leon Hirszman, 1971)

The Blood of the Condor (Jorge Sanjines, 1969)
Terra em Transe (Glauber Rocha, 1967)
Tan de Repente (Diego Lerman, 2002)
Black God, White Devil (Glauber Rocha, 1964)
Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, 2000)
Limite (Mario Peixoto, 1931)
Men and Women (Walter Hugo Khouri, 1964)
Official Story (Luis Puenzo, 1985)
City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2002)
Macunaima (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, 1969)

The Unscrupulous Ones (Ruy Guerra, 1962)
Ana and the Others (Celina Murga, 2003)
Bolivia (Adrian Caetano, 2001)
El Viaje (Fernando E. Solanas, 1992)
La Libertad (Lisandro Alonso, 2001)
Bye Bye Brazil (Carlos Diegues, 1979)
How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1971)                                                             
Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998)
Piel de Verrano (Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, 1961)
Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso, 2006)

Tangos, L'Exil de Gardel (Fernando E. Solanas, 1985)      
Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, 2007)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, 2008)
This Strange Passion (Luis Bunuel, 1953)
Nietzsche's Days in Turin (Julio Bressane, 2001)
Los Olvidados (Luis Bunuel, 1950)                                
Nazarin (Luis Bunuel, 1959)
Jackal de Nahueltoro (Miguel Littin, 1969)
Let's Go With Pancho Villa (Fernando de Fuentes, 1936)
Ganga Bruta (Humberto Mauro, 1933)
Lucia (Humberto Solas, 1968)

Man Facing Southeast (Eliseo Subiela, 1986)
The Last Supper (Tomas Gutierez Alea, 1976)
La Nina Santa (Lucrecia Martel,2004)
Japon (Carlos Reygadas, 2002)
The Death of A Bureaucrat (Tomas Gutierez Alea, 1966)       
The Exterminating Angel (Luis Bunuel, 1962)
Waiting for the Messiah (Daniel Burman, 2000)
Fando and Lis (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1968)
Pixote (Hector Babenco, 1981)
Vidas Secas (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1964)

The Case of the Naves Brothers (Luis Sergio Person, 1967)   
Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, 2009)
The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)            
Castle of Purity (Arturo Ripstein, 1973)
The Angel Was Born (Julio Bressane, 1969)
Rio, Northern Zone (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1957)        
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)                                  
The Criminal Life of Archibaldo dela Cruz (Luis Bunuel, 1955)
Crane World (Pablo Trapero, 1999)
Passion of Berenice (Jaime Humberto Hermosillo, 1976)

La Frontera (Ricardo P. Larrain, 1991)
79 Primaveras (Santiago Alvarez, 1969)
Isle of Flowers (Jorge Furtado, 1989)
Araya (Margot Benacerraf, 1959)
Historias Minimas (Carlos Sorin, 2002)
Los Guantes Magicos (Martin Rejtman, 2003)
Killed His Family, Went to the Movies (Julio Bressane, 1969)
Batalla en Cielo (Carlos Reygadas, 2005)                            
Enamorada (Emilio Fernandez, 1946)                                   
Throw Me A Dime (Fernando Birri, 1960)
Maria Candelaria (Emilio Fernandez, 1944)
LBJ (Santiago Alvarez, 1968)
Funny Dirty Little War (Hector Olivera, 1983)
The Penal Colony (Raoul Ruiz, 1970)
Drifter (Cao Guimaraes, 2007)
Accident (Cao Guimaraes, 2006)                                      
Fresa Y Chocolate (Tomas Gutierez Alea, 1994)               
Awakening of the Beast (Jose Mojica Morins, 1970)
The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin (Julio Garcia Espinosa, 1967)                                                                                   
The Strategy of the Snail (Sergio Cabrera, 1993)

Friday, October 14, 2011

BUENAS NOCHES, ESPANA (Raya Martin, 2011)

Has Spain ever left us? Today, more than a century removed from our country's declared independence, Raya Martin’s latest film, Buenas Noches, Espana, seems to prompt such a question. From all indications, Martin appears unsure of a definite answer, unconvinced of a clean break. Implicit in the film's title seems a fervent wish: a valedictory with some finality. And yet Spain, it seems, is in his heart: proof positive is how he is sojourning in that country, enjoying its hospitalities, and primed to produce another film with a Spanish cast.

Understanding the tenor of Martin’s previous films, however, we take it to be no benign vacation: contemporary Spain remains a fertile hunting ground for artifacts and documents relevant to our nation. In our minds, Martin is not unlike a late 19th-century ilustrado travelling through Spain and the continent, picking up pieces of Filipino heritage, and evidence against our old colonial masters. True enough, in Buenas Noches, Martin’s own personal archaeology while in Spain has yielded a startling find, a find that, sadly, many viewers never get to see in the aftermath of their decision to damn the film and walk out on it.

Buenas Noches may not be an easy film to sit through, but it justifies its devices. This film hinges on the mysteries of physics and those of altered states; and Martin never discourages such a notion: the film’s characters, he hints, may be high on hallucinogenic drugs. What else to expect when he takes a news item about an instance of teleportation in 1593 (one where a Filipino soldier vanishes in Manila and materializes in Mexico City), then soups up that gizmo of science fiction and passes it off as a wholesale possibility? Thus, all amped up, and all doped up if you will, Martin proceeds to blindside us with the postcolonial thrust evident in his previous films.   

From Autohystoria (2007) to Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional (2005) to Independencia (2009), Martin has been engaged on a mission of dredging up and retrieving our colonial past. That has meant everything from reconstructing the lay of the land in 1896 to doing a diachronic depiction of Filipino culture circa American times. This time Buenas Noches reveals more about our present-day cultural relations with Spain than anything else, something that might seemingly involve more diplomatically palatable facets of geopolitics, but still puts into perspective how much – or how little – has changed between the two countries. 

To show all this, Buenas Noches engages in untutored filmmaking. Almost spitefully, it offers no plot, no narrative, no dialogue, no exposition, no characterization, no budget: merely perhaps the capital of charm to sign up the services of two well-known Spanish actors (one is Pilar Lopez de Ayala, known for her work on Guerin’s In The City of Sylvia). What is in great abundance here are eyeball-gouging process shots, like tinted, superimposed, overexposed images, the better to underscore the atmosphere of hallucination. What is also in great abundance is the wall of sound on the soundtrack: a grating reverberation of electric guitars, looping percussions, industrial and mechanical noise. Then like canned accompaniments to punch-lines, there is music from old Hollywood cartoon shows, the better to highlight the pranks of a pair of teleporting lovers at the center of the film.

Still, of these teleporters, we know precious little. This kind of minimalism paradoxically adds to the mystery of their identities. Their journeys are even more meaningful, showing up everywhere with perfected spatial travel, visiting Spain and presumably its various colonies like Mexico and our own country. Teleportation, it seems, is that proximity borne out of colonialism. But this is all a prelude to a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao, which, at first, they turn into a playground, unleashing themselves like refugees from Godard’s Bande A Part.

Levity, however, turns to tearful solemnity when they stumble on a sad reality: a clutch of Juan Luna paintings languishing in some neglected rack in the museum. Locked away in these institutional walls, they are too far removed to make a voice. The Spoliarium was returned to us on a whim. Will these lesser-known paintings in Bilbao suffer the same fate? For so long, we seem to be incapable of recovering parts of our patrimony that have been withheld from us not only by Spain, but by American and Japanese colonizers. This is our postcolonial condition.

But while this might be key to finding the intent of this film, is it the key to gleaning a narrative and understanding the film as a whole? The dubious have a point. Still the unusual interweaving between these two possible threads, and the red herring that this film represents for the purposes of archaeology, are beguiling and absorbing enough to recommend it to the viewer. History is never too simple, after all. Spain is in the heart, and not in the heart, and the infinite gradations in between.   

Monday, October 3, 2011


Life according to a manual. Life according to instruction. In this documentary about West Germany circa 1988, Harun Farocki unravels a dystopic lay of the land, where every human step proceeds in accordance with prescribed and inculcated behavior. He examines how modern Germany might be overdoing it, how its culture of thought and intellectualism might be permeating aspects of life that it never should.
Farocki’s primary material, seemingly innocuous enough, are sequences from training courses. Without any apparent order or logic, they are intercut and observed devoid of comment. How policemen are trained in the handling of crime; how medical students are taught the mechanics of childbirth; how waitresses must comport themselves among clientele: these passages form an amalgam that appears nothing out of ordinary until Farocki intersperses contrapuntal images that create meaning for his juxtapositions. Hence, we cringe at how a striptease dancer is schooled to the last gesture, to the point of disgust. We wince at how children are repeatedly and heavily psychoanalyzed and tested. We are appalled by the way elderly citizens, counter-intuitively, receive instruction on social behavior.
Welcome to the German Federal Republic, where everything proceeds by the numbers. Where everyone is socially appropriated and micromanaged. Where nature and innocence are denaturalized and unlearned. What should be articles of personality and individuality are summarily expunged by the vaunted German obsession for perfection and polish. This is the panorama of his country that Farocki has decided to show us: artificial, antiseptic, automatic.   
In this way, Farocki’s visual motif – of mattresses, car doors, key locks made to undergo stress tests, and wear and tear – begins to make sense like Eisenstein’s non-diegetic inserts: these much abused objects are a metaphor for the German mind and psyche. Farocki’s documentary is a social parable that warns of collective psychical and psychological exhaustion and enforced conformity.  
There is an afterimage from this film that haunts the viewer: the look of a striptease dancer that questions the rigid cooption of how she must act, that lays out, ad nauseam, the almost robotic proramming of each of her living, pulsing gestures. It’s a moment that invites paradoxes: The quest for perfection can be demoralizing; the insistence on instruction can create angry ciphers. Deep enough, the soul may be objectified, but it will revolt. 
Such suggestions Farocki elicits while eliding all manner of commentary. No telling voice-over cues us in, as in his best-known work, Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989). Everything is there, and Farocki leaves us to piece together a meaning. To take his film as a kind of rigid and didactic statement after all is the least of his intentions. He is one German who still believes in self-determination and independent thought.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

SALT FOR SVANETIA (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930)

Long before world audiences sat up and took notice of such masterpieces as The Cranes Are Flying (1957) and I Am Cuba (1964), Mikhail Kalatozov was cutting cinematic teeth at the fringes of Soviet Union cinema as a creator of documentaries. His work was, literally, film practice at the margins, fashioning out pieces from his Georgian homeland, a satellite far-flung from Moscow and the hubs of the socialist empire. Salt for Svanetia, shot in the late 1920s, was one such documentary that should have announced him as a director to be reckoned with.

An early, important piece in the genre of ethnographic film, Salt for Svanetia employs the paradigm formulated by Robert Flaherty with Nanook of the North (1922) and antedates the thematic explorations of Luis Bunuel’s Las Hurdes (1933). The scenario that Kalatozov presents is a Soviet Union still in its infancy, consolidating and laying down the foundations of a new order. Kalatozov’s film provides a valuable if slightly fictionalized document that chronicles the hardscrabble life in Svanetia and the outskirts of the Ushkul region in the Caucasus Mountains just as socialization and modernization were at its doorstep.

Kalatozov draws on Flaherty’s example of recreating, and not exclusively observing, the pertinent social, economic and cultural goings-on in Svanetia. Very early on, it displays a prodigious signature that seems to owe a debt to his contemporary Eisenstein. This finds particular expression in distinctive stylization: the camera tilts obliquely and the subjects are endowed with unnatural expressions and postures; a stylistic sensibility that shaped I Am Cuba, made nearly 40 years later. 

 In the out-of-the-way regions of Svanetia, life is unrelentingly difficult. In the summers, marauding landowners from neighboring lands swoop down on the villages and take away what little they have. If not for sentinel towers, Svanetians are readily vulnerable targets with few defenses. In the winters, life is no less arduous. Barley and other crops are buried under snowfall, and must be prematurely harvested. Apropos of the title, what is most valuable to the villagers of Svanetia, however, is salt. It is particularly in short supply in winters, so scarce that menfolk must trek across the snowy slopes of treacherous, avalanche-prone mountains en route to remote civilization in order to obtain it.

Aside from the pointed jabs at a feudal backwardness, religion and superstition come in for critiques in Kalatozov’s documentary. In one telling episode towards the end, the happy moment of childbirth while someone is being buried is instead dramatized as a bad omen. Demonized almost as a witch, an expectant woman is turned out of the village, lelft to labor unattended in barren dirt. She gives birth, but the newborn is left to the tender mercies of nature: most poetitcally, a dog foraging for a salt lick. The image of this mother fertilizing her child’s grave with milk drawn straight from her breast is powerful and indelible. There are images, however, of happier moments of quiet dignity too; for instance, the array of uniquely shaggy hairstyles of Svanetians and the illustration of native self-sufficiency in how each artifact such as woolen clothes are hard-won and painstakingly produced.

In 1936, Kalatozov would begin pursuing his craft outside his comfort zone and his Georgian roots. He would be equal to the job, although his efforts would seemingly pay off quite belatedly. In 1957, he would fashion, arguably, his best masterpiece, The Cranes Are Flying, an indictment of war that would go on to win the Golden Palm at Cannes. Seven years later, Kalatozov would craft another unqualified masterpiece in I Am Cuba, a paean to the newly socialized country of Cuba, bringing the filmmaker full circle to his documentary beginnings.