Thursday, July 28, 2011

TEORIYA (Zurich Chan, 2011)

At the heart of Zurich Chan’s Teoriya is the search of a man for the elusive grave of his father. The search involves a far-ranging journey crisscrossing his homeland, one that thrusts him into the bosom of different destinies and destinations. It serves as occasion for a meditation on the land and people, a meditation on what beareavement means. What the son learns along the way informs a theory to explain what he has never tried to confront before: the undeniable legacy of his father.
In short, Teoriya dramatizes a theory of uncertainty to situate the father in relation to the son. There remains, however, another theory to consider, the self-referential theory, the authorial theory. Outside the narrative thrust of the film, this filmic effort, Chan’s feature debut, stands for the director’s declaration of a film philosophy, what he deems should constitute a film, what substance to incorporate, what poetics to bring to bear upon it.
Having sat through Chan’s film, all the talk of theory, one realizes, is much ado about nothing. Teoriya is conventional filmmaking: conventional tale, conventional storytelling, conventional poetics. As an allegory -- there seems to be one about patriotic inheritance -- this film may sound heroic and noble, but it’s an idea better heard than seen. The script is a letdown.
The premise, for instance, has the feel of a shopworn, dog-eared opening gambit. A man returns to his hometown of Zamboanga City to claim the inheritance left behind by his estranged father. It doesn’t amount to much: An old, temperamental car, a self-help book, and an assortment of personal effects. The most valuable item is his father’s journal, where he soon reads about the ecumenical anxieties of a dying family man. His last famous words: The family is the anchor!
To much regret, the narrative settles for the most facile of contrivances:  a lot of fortunate coincidences, a lot of deus-ex-machina encounters. Serendipity and predestination could very well be the themes. The father’s journal, meanwhile, is a fount of cliches. (The family is the anchor! We hear this again and again.) The allegory is not much of an allegory. The filmmaker has picked out the most obvious, most prosaic analog: a dying father to stand for a moribund fatherland.
The film unfolds as a road excursion: a journey through Zamboanga convulsed with poverty and rebellion. While enlightenment slowly dawns on this man, the road leads here and there wherever fate brings him. He slowly gets the pulse of the land, the truths of his father’s confessions. Although much of it happens at random, it’s all to the good: the proverbial coincidences are conspiring to lead him to the right places and right people. (If you have read Paulo Coelho before, you might get the idea.)
Every stranger met along the way is salt of the earth. There is a highwayman, armed hilariously with a blunt two-by-four, desperately compelled by poverty. The hard-up man proves to be a good chap; offers him all the hospitality he can afford. Another is a family who welcomes him to their home and teaches him what little they know of familial solidarity. Then to round out the grace of benevolent fates, an unexpected presence from the past proves to be a god-sent intervention.
Certainly, one can do worse than watching a film with such an ostensibly relevant and commendable import. However, much of what transpires in Teoriya has the patina of the old-and-many-times-gone-over. Everything is tired. The truths are truisms. The father’s journal must be closed shut, lest we hear its bleating again... The family is the anchor, the anchor!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

NINO (Loy Arcenas, 2011)

Faded glory crumbles from the walls of the Villa Los Reyes Magos, the ancestral dwelling of the Lopez-Aranda family. This house used to be grand, laments one of the remaining members of this once-proud family in a resigned and regretful tone. And there is every reason for regret. From having born witness and played host to some moments and figures of historic importance, the house teeters on its last legs. The fate of its occupants seems inextricably linked with the fate of the very house.
Gaspar stands at the head: a deus otiosus, feeling the ravages of old age and attendant infirmities. Bedridden and in constant need of care, he is nursed with devotion by his younger sister Celia. These two elderly characters once represented the zenith and pride of this aristocratic clan: Gaspar was once a putative kingmaker and congressman whose associations and alliances were a who’s who in Philippine politics. Celia, on the other hand, used to be a famous and preeminent opera singer and now has to teach voice lessons as well as sell her silverware in order to augment the drying coffers of the house.    
It is with their children that dissolution is most pronounced. Celia’s daughter Merced is the unforgiving supervisor of the house, who has taken on boarders, but has made lovers out of them. Her resentment is evident against the manipulations of her brother Mombic, a prodigal son of sorts who is just as shamelessly impelled by self-interest. The start of the film coincides with the arrival of Mombic and his young son, Antony, with intentions to borrow money for a job prospect in distant Dubai and leave his young son behind.
Complications come to a head when Gaspar suffers a potentially fatal stroke. His dissolute daughter Raquel comes home from the States ostensibly to put his affairs in order. As Gaspar's condition worsens, she thinks about disposing of the house, threatening to leave the occupants homeless. Incestuous secrets are laid bare with her arrival. Reinhardt, her son by a third husband, whom she has brought along, has secrets of his own. Young Antony seems like the last, innocent counterpoint in the proceedings. Enthralled by wondrous stories about the child Christ, he gladly assumes the vestments of the miraculous figure, and begins to answer to the name Nino, a presence who listens in on the secrets of the house.
Arcenas’ Nino depicts the decline of an aristocratic family with great flair. Neither like Ozu’s films on the theme of family dissolution, nor Bela Tarr’s own brooding take, Almanac of Fall, Nino occupies a middle ground: Equal parts intrigue and grace. Thorough research has gone into certain aspects of the screenplay, adding authenticity to its portrait of a faded time. The dialogue benefits from the bygone textures of Spanish colloquialisms.
Where great care further shows itself is in the evocation of a defunct Philippine opera. Philippine opera has gone into progressive decay since its golden age in the 1970s and 1980s. Then there is Fides Cuyugan-Asensio. No other opera singer could have conceivably taken her place as Celia. (Sylvia La Torre may be too old for the part now.) Her roles as devoted sister and compassionate mother are wonderfully counterpointed with little touches of aristocratic mannerisms. The arias she sings afford a soothing balm so that Gaspar keeps requesting them like bedtime stories. But Ms. Cuyugan shares the vocal limelight with other luminaries from Philippine opera. Their gathering at Gaspar’s bedside to sing a tertulia is honest and dignified nostalgia.
There are no tears as they sing their pieces. They had their shining moments in another time and the best way to go out is with head held up high. We often share the same fate. Permanence may not even be for gods. Death and loss and dissolution are the only constants. Then like all creation we begin again.        

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK (Marlon Rivera, 2011)

The word of mouth is right on the money. Marlon Rivera’s first feature film, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank, is as uproariously enjoyable as promised.  This metafilm of sorts turns the cameras around on the most unlikely yet most logical subject: the indie filmmaking scene. If there is an absence of documentaries on it, this should be the next best thing.

The concept is hardly new. There are plenty of examples in this full-fledged cycle: Truffaut's Day For Night, Kiarostami's Close-Up/Through the Olive Trees, Wajda's Everything For Sale and hereabouts, Raya Martin's Next Attraction. What distinguishes Rivera’s film from such rarefied company, however, is its irreverent, iconoclastic take on its hapless topics. 

The storytelling too is unconventional and ludic.  Familiar figures, situations and aspirations identified with indie filmlore come in for satire and parody. This film leaps and gambols with a fusion of reality and fantasy. To the educated eye, it reprises iconic images and sequences from certain indie films of the not so distant past. No one escapes the tongue-in-cheek and sometimes abrasive skewering.
Right from the start, Ang Babae throws us for a loop. We are unwittingly immersed in a film within a film. A youthful voice-over maps out sequences of a shoot. He is, in fact, thinking aloud, fleshing out the mise-en-scene. An establishing shot shows mountainous piles of garbage. Then it cuts to an indigent mother and her brood of children. She is ladling noodle soup for them. Camera cuts to her bathing one of her pre-pubescent daughters. A few cuts later, mother and child are in a hotel knocking on the door of an old Caucasian man. The child is being pimped to a pedophile.
The title of the projected film is Walang-Wala, an inspired and risible tagline that comes in for many milkings. Then the camera cuts to the film proper: the voice-over belongs to Rainier, a young director with grand cinematic dreams. He is in a car, brainstorming with his producer, who serves as driver, and their assistant, a plump girl who forever fantasizes about making domestic musicals, although her visions look like a pastiche of Foster Child, Mondo Manila Motherfuckers and Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveiros.
They brainstorm from pillar to post. At a cafe, they dream big, brainstorm further, and in between begrudge an indie director whose film has caused a sensation in a festival in Venice.  As if on cue, the director in question shows up with his retinue. This part is among the most risibly draining moments of the film. The crowd seems well attuned to this stereotypical figure, a country-yokel type with bad grammar and unsophisticated ways. Expresso is what he wants to order at the café. 

But the best laughs are still in the offing. As the brainstorming goes back and forth, the three upstarts start to hit upon increasingly outrageous ideas. It soon becomes clear how wrongly advised and wrongly motivated they are. For instance, their choices to play the poor mother seesaw among Eugene Domingo, Mercedes Cabral and Cherry Pie Picache, with uproariously unprincipled justifications. They are indeed thinking out too loud for comfort. Scouting their location, they discover a perfect spot, a panorama of sprawling garbage dumps and burgeoning slums, a setting that they imagine would give them a masterpiece, until they plummet down to earth, seeing their car burglarized.                 
The virtuoso of the film remains, hands down, Eugene Domingo. She commands the last act with her inimitable comic act. When the filmmakers show up at the comedian’s house to secure her participation in their film, we see a sophisticated home, complete with body guards, assistants and personal trainers. They are welcomed by a well-coiffed and well-attired Eugene, a picture of flamboyance and primadonna-like airs. Her moments are effortlessly pitch-perfect and excel the funniest bits of Kimmi Dora. She is a walking satire all her own, at the expense of her own screen persona.  Her performance is better seen than paraphrased here. The moment in the septic tank caps off her triumph: she still comes up smelling like roses.
Hats off to Rivera whose film doesn’t disappoint. Ang Babae is at once entertaining and revelatory on a sometimes-nurturing, sometimes-cutthroat film industry. The shifts between light comedy and ferocious satire, however, ensure that we will never be too sure about this perspective we are afforded. One thing is certain, when a self-referential film like this gets made, it’s a sure sign that indie filmmaking in the country is alive and well.  When it’s as well-made as this, it is no longer just homage, but a legitimate film standing on its own.         


The grand and not so grand narratives of sexual awakening are a dime a dozen. Each one of us has a story to tell – and how often a story to embellish – at an early juncture of adolescence. More relevantly, within the annals of cinema, the terrain is a well-trodden one, assuming a subgenre all its own. Many a tawdry youth-oriented film has singlemindedly sexualized love, and thus vulgarized and grossly irrigated this honorable ideal. An entry of a preeminent kind, Alvin Yapan’s Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa is a lyrical and poetic tale that brings back respectability to eros so often shortchanged.

In truth, Yapan’s film does not merely touch upon pure and pristine love, but gracefully rebukes the tyranny of sanctioned love. As a tale exploring the first stirrings of homosexuality, Ang Sayaw is not so much about the wages of raging hormones as it is about the innocence and struggles of unconditioned, unmediated love.  It posits a primordial world when gender roles have not been internalized. Yet it must be said in the same breath, it’s a tale meant for everyone, not least of whom those who compartmentalize love. Either way, it’s a film akin to a puzzle: it recomposes itself after each telling: a multifaceted gem that will mystify the most searching eye.

To begin to describe the plot is to simplify it. On the surface, it registers as much as the next film wanting to tell what it knows about sexual awakening and sexual incipience. Here, however, God is in the details: one must listen to the readings – and promptings, if one is inclined – of suggestive and transgressive poetry on the soundtrack as well as to the meaningful gestures between characters. A line of verse may be as significant as the import of a gaze.   

In Yapan’s film, there are spades of either one. Verses of sexual initiation – from Ophie Dimalanta to Joi Barrios, from Benilda Santos to Merlinda Bobis – fill the soundtrack at every turn, readings from a literature class taught by a beautiful but curiously single teacher named Karen. There is little back story about her past except to suggest how she has sacrificed love in pursuit of the arts. Her life has become devoted to teaching not just the import of verse, but the language of dance. Marlon is a student smitten with her, though poetry, the kind that that demonstrates love regardless of gender, remains inscrutable to him. Karen’s assistant at her dance studio, Dennis, is in the same poetry class and has the tell-tale gaze.

Dennis has realized he has eyes alone for those of his own sex. When Marlon hires him in secret for dance lessons, a move to impress Karen, Dennis starts to draw his gaze closer. His lessons are not only instructive for the aspiring dancer but for the viewer, it yields the metaphor of how dance, as in other forms of cultural and social expression, is often a phallocentric performance. Man leads, and the woman follows. Man is active; woman, passive.

Here lies one of the film’s foremost curiosities: what happens when there are two men, or two women, performing the dance? What brand of dance is it? The dance of two left feet? Marlon and Dennis soon enough master the dance, not just dispelling our gendered assumptions, the tyranny of prescribed love, but here we see Karen, a kind of muse-like facilitator for the two youngsters, teary-eyed seeing, perhaps, a kind of synergy. Her gaze is a complex one. 
The last act of the film depicts a stage performance of Humadapnon, an epic poem rendered into dance by Karen’s troupe of dancers. Dovetailing like no other, Marlon and Dennis essay the lead roles, and breathe life into a kind of unmediated, spontaneous love that existed long ago. They have poured themselves into their roles, and at the climax of performance, Marlon, for the first time, looks meaningfully Dennis in the eye, and his tears fall.  His gaze tells an unflinching story.      

BAHAY BATA (Eduardo Roy, Jr., 2011)

In Eduardo Roy Jr.'s Bahay Bata,  the opening sequence captures with a handheld camera much of the film's observational yet cogent message. We follow a pregnant, grimacing  woman as she makes her way toward the Fabella Hospital, a maternity hospital for the poor. A real-life subject, she proceeds without help, all the way into a waiting room crammed full with more grimacing, pregnant women. Once here, we get the robust but helpless quotidian images at the wards of the same hospital, an insitution that is overtaxed, shorthanded and bursting at the seams with the expectant, the reluctant, the newly delivered. This, in a few, succinct sequences, transmits the frontal and unembellished state of reproductive health care in the country. 

The narrative of Bahay Bata coincides with the Christmas season, something that gives decided resonance to its issues surrounding the orphaned plight of health care. The strong documentary feel permeates the proceedings with the kind of immediacy found in the direct-cinema of Frederick Wiseman. But rather than dwelling on dire institutional disorder and disrepair, Bahay Bata has a more ambitious and sprawling focus. It bravely and boldly takes on many far-reaching themes: the joy and humanity of expectant women; the straitened circumstances of those who can’t pragmatically raise a child; and the measure of heroism, and the resultant struggle, of men and women of an overstretched institution; how they must make do with limited logistics while managing the thorny affairs of their own lives.

The Fabella Hospital proves to be a rich vein of indelible imagery, hence making it something of a character. There is a breathtaking establishing shot of the main maternity ward that shows the length and breadth of rampant population. Patients are arrayed in constricted spaces:  each single bed must be shared by as many patients as possible.  But instead of funereal faces and fiercely guarded communality, there is a sense of hope and new beginning. A woman who has given birth to her thirteenth child remains as  happy and doting as a first-time mother. Whenever a new mother fails to lactate, someone else among them gleefully stands in as a nursemaid to feed the hungry mouth. There is also lively talk among these unsinkable women about prizes that one might win if one luckily gives birth on Christmas day.  

For some of the transients here, Fabella even represents a reprieve from more unfortunate circumstances. One of them, a mendicant without a home, dreads the prospects of raising her child out in the streets and the harsh, urban elements. She keeps bargaining for a few more days before she is discharged, until she has to make a painful decision. Another mother is in handcuffs, with a woman in uniform at her side. However cramped the spaces, however lacking some provisions, the hospital must be preferable to a life behind bars.    

The irony extends to the  nurses themselves. It’s a well-known phenomenon in behavioral studies how caregivers are often the most in need of care and comfort. There is an episode here that shows how an old nurse, after receiving insulting remarks from a superior doctor for neglect of duty, walks out on her 30-year job, but not before giving the doctor a piece of her mind, and a piece of her fist. The accumulation of abuse has worn her out beyond repair. But the film’s central fiction is that of Sarah, a nurse who may look spit and polished and beyond reproach, but only deceptively so. It is she who must shoulder some hard obligations and secrets. One soon realizes why the sight of endangered, blue infants gives her a sense of vertigo. The clock is ticking on her too in a world of unwanted children.

The constant shift between semi-documentary and fiction seems to juggle many threads of material and an ensemble of characters to boot. This may give the impression that the film has taken on more themes and subjects than it can ably handle. Roy, however, builds his case little by little, episode by episode, and the ending, more catholic than Catholic, is well-earned. He has bravely but soberly weighed the state of reproductive health within the country and what he has found is a beleaguered governmental system that can’t sufficiently support society. One can almost read his mind: If he makes enemies out of it, so be it. Amen.              

AMOK (Lawrence Fajardo, 2011)

The city is on a hair-trigger. In Lawrence Fajardo’s unsettling and unnerving feature debut Amok, a new day starts out like any other day in the metropolis. The hustle and bustle registers with little divergence from our own conceptions of the city. We can recognize the faces. Pedestrians ply the overpasses and pavements, vendors and hobos scatter, vehicles honk in gridlock. This day seems like any other day. On the soundtrack, however,  cautionary lyrics ring out, a song rapped by a group of young street kids. The frictions borne out of our proximities, the words suggest, can be dangerous.
Shot in crisp and vivid broad daylight, Fajardo’s film may telegraph oncoming violence, but its plausible choreography gives us pause: this can indeed happen. Or at least this film earns it:  it takes an elaborate construction of disparate urban stories to get there. Like an Italo Calvino novel, it weaves together beginnings of stories with only spatial and temporal proximity as their connection. But his clutch of stories has one common and damning pay-off, unless the very admonition betrays us.
The stories are everyday and novel enough. We recognize the characters, so their fates are all the more astonishing to us when it is over. A father and teenage son wait for the bus ride home to the province, their talk filled with filial intimacy. An uncle and his nephew hurry off to a job interview. An aging stunt man awakens with thoughts of better days, while a prostitute sleeps in his bed. An aging matriarch reproaches her driver for being caught in traffic. A talent agent and his new ward have an altercation with a disobliging taxi driver. And a game of billiards plays out with much heckling among street layabouts. Soon there is gamesmanship, one-upmanship, and with money on the line, the nerves start to fray.
Fajardo is a patient and polished operator. He has the assurance of an old hand and shows a flair for thrilling action. It helps that he has assembled an ensemble of tried and tested veteran actors to give life to disparate characters. Mark Gil’s aging erstwhile actor is pure effete perfection, and when his sexy prostitute sports an Adam’s apple, Gil nauseously exclaims how it would ruin his career. Hilarity ensues. And his preening behavior before the camera at the end alleviates the astonishing events. The altercations here are almost just as charged and inspired. The taxi driver and gay talent agent’s verbal exchanges are humorous but dangerous. Dido dela Paz as a gunrunning thug has the leer and offending parlance that will embroil him in trouble. At every turn, he is making enemies.         
In Amok, violence may not just be threats to corporeal being but  the final expression of the pent-up inflictions on our private psyche. When the time is ripe, the setting turns into a city at war, where all rules of common decency are suggestions. However, he does not posit the usual suspects. Fajardo implicates one and everyone in his cynical city. Unintended casualties should disabuse us of our complacency. And violence, when it erupts, is like a bullet that won’t pick its victim. In its illustration of extermination, Amok is almost like a statement of threat, a deterrent. We are not beyond violence. And yet Fajardo seems to overplay the angle of suspended civility,  too much that Amok becomes a cynical movie. Still, Fajardo, if he so wishes, can invoke our checkered history. Heck, human tendency is behind him, for that matter.