Sunday, December 23, 2012


Florentina Hubaldo represents the Tess of the d’Urbervilles of Lav Diaz's emergent diegesis of Bicol. (Slowly but surely, he is constructing a cinematic geography around his native land -- the topography of Mayon Volcano is now all but trademark -- with works situated thereabouts like Death in the Land of Encantos and Agonistes). Like Thomas Hardy’s hard-luck heroine, every sort of misfortune has befallen the young Florentina. Florentina’s father is a savage beast, the embodiment of evil, brutally killing her mother, enslaving Florentina and prostituting her even before she has grown into full womanhood. Florentina is so violently banged up by her father that she suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy and, as a result, must constantly and traumatically remind herself of who she is. Any plan of an escape that she dreams of is often quashed by her father’s brutal and drunken omnipresence, her being continually chained to a bed, and an inutile grandfather, who discourages her with inexplicable fatalism. All circumstances conspire to doom Florentina to a tragic fate. 

This story of agony seems to have been conceived by Lav Diaz as an amplification of an earlier 2-hour film entitled Agonistes, admittedly a rough draft, a work in progress, when it was shown a few years ago and had since been withdrawn from circulation. This lost piece of Diaz’s filmography has returned here and been refurbished to serve as a flipside to the fate of Florentina, a moral fable about two misguided poor souls desperately searching for lost treasure in the shadows of Mayon Volcano. Their desperation, they will soon realize, may not be so desperate vis-à-vis the tragedy of Florentina. Of late, Lav Diaz has favored the idea of mise en abyme, the idea of two or more disparate stories existing within a single film, acting like mirrors reflecting each other, producing supplementary or complementary reflections, or an amplification, whether through distortion or exaggeration, of its desired themes. This is evident here, as much as it is in last year’s magnum opus, Century of Birthing, with its intricate story-within-a-story structure.

On the surface, Lav Diaz's mature aesthetics remain intact. There is a handsomeness to the visuals here, a cleaner, less grainy and higher black-and-white contrast to the cinematography than we are accustomed to that suggests an upgrade of technological wherewithal. Florentina Hubaldo, however, also makes apparent its dramatic rawness, that it might also be a work in progress. The Cinemanila programme pegs the running time at 5 hours, but the version shown was nearly 6 hours long. This version of Florentina Hubaldo evinces scenes that lack artistic rigor and run obligatorily long. Long takes are Diaz's métier, only this time they feel like longueurs; a kind of tedium, from a sense of lacking narrative tension on the screen, overtook me, a kind of fatigue perhaps after having gladly sat through all of Diaz's lengthy mature works -- from Batang West Side to Century of Birthing. There is tightening at the editing end to be done.

Diaz also misjudges the ending of his film. Sacrilege to second-guess someone like Diaz, who knows a thing or two about narrative structures and storytelling to say the least, but the conclusion is pure anticlimax. Disappointing, since this is where he usually distinguishes himself, surcharged as he has often been with the most powerful, most unforgettably resonant epiphanies in film history to punctuate many of his masterworks. This is a 6-hour film without a pay-off, sadly. Between two choices – the fate of Florentina and her equally ill-fated daughter, on one hand, or the fate of the two treasure hunters on the other – Diaz has to choose wrongly.

Diaz merely repeats himself. The architectonic redundancy lies in concluding the film with Florentina’s eventual escape from the clutches of her father. No need at all: this particular detail by then has already been narrated and emphasized by the Good Samaritan – brother to one of the treasure hunters -- who would help Florentina and adopt her daughter. This anticlimactic ending takes up a better part of an hour and merely proves to be uneventful, interminable, and torturous -- not because of Florentina's symptomatic display of CTE, but because it is obligatory, and willfully repetitive in its purpose. To my mind, instead, there is some unfinished business in the fate of the two treasure hunters. Their search for treasure has only led to their discovery of an elusive and maddening gecko. There are possibilities left to explore there – the idea of a false, or a worthy, transcendental signified -- represented by the gecko, perhaps. What becomes of them? What is there for them to glean from their failures to find treasure and from the tragedy of Florentina? Is it enough to leave us with the ironically bourgeois rationale: the social and moral illusion that everyone, including these two desperate souls, should count themselves thankful for their lot in life, simply because there are human beings less fortunate than them like Florentina?

If Diaz's modest purpose is not a moral tale but pure, self-evident mimesis -- that is, a stark portrayal of evil and the unspeakable casualties it may cause -- Florentina Hubaldo is sufficient. It is patent and dramatic enough, even melodramatic. The sight of a discombobulated Florentina, reeling from CTE, repeating and repeating her name and her narration of her sob story is sufficiently effective. Yes, she will not be forgotten. Repetition ad infinitum can do that. Diaz's obsession with Dostoevsky's idea of evil shows itself again with the Karamazov patriarch, all vices and all hatefulness, finding expression in Florentina’s evil, incomprehensibly, inexplicably evil father. An exaggerated  reminder to all of us that such evil lurks in the world, that such unlucky, improbable creatures like Florentina Hubaldo and her daughter exist and can fall victim to it. All in all, Florentina Hubaldo, CTE is in any other auteur’s filmography a worthy addition, but coming at the heels of all of Diaz’s masterworks in the last 10 years or so, it is something of a letdown.   

Friday, December 21, 2012

GREAT CINEMA PARTY (Raya Martin, 2012)

Unfortunately, Raya Martin’s Great Cinema Party represents one of the young director's most non-committal, most evasive works to date. Pity, there are plenty of missed opportunities here for the kind of committed statements we have come to expect from him. Perhaps, for once, he simply wanted to throw a party, and these are stolen outtakes from his personal archives that got into the wrong hands and were edited and passed off by some namesake. Maybe this is for the moment a sabbatical from all the fist-pumping post-colonialism we have pigeonholed him into. Nowhere in his cycle of faux-naif works -- from Indio Nacional to Independencia and even to the drug-addled Buenas Noches, Espana (the faux-naif tag is a misnomer but to me his works do convey a deceptive innocence that cushions their cogent historico-politico-cultural commitment) -- has he let up and relaxed his fierce Filipino Weltanschauung this much. This may be it, Raya Martin, the enfant terrible, in slacker mode.

The Great Cinema Party starts out, promisingly enough, with a silent 20-minute prologue consisting of snippets pieced together out of archival material and newsreels of the Second World War covering the fierce fighting on our own shores. We come to see all the horrors of the war, artillery firing, aerial strafing and dogfights, the Japanese, Filipino and American combatants, some of the many dead, and the bombardment and rubble of Manila. There is a frame or two shown upside down, as if to remind us of inadvertence, that this is the work of real people, of cameramen, of filmmakers. The rest of the visuals, however, passes without comment, as most of the movie disappointingly does. (There are precious few toeholds for us in the offing: too casual, too coy, too subtle, Martin is about to overestimate us.)

Ending this montage of newsreel footages in all its graphic glory is the superimposed image of Lav Diaz, a genie releasing us from the carnage and welcoming us, the audience, to the Great Cinema Party, with the promised attendance of Andrei Tarkovsky and Andre Bazin. The film then starts the celebratory itinerary on the island of Corregidor, that icon of Second World War resistance with its ruinous military bulwarks. Led around by that famous cicerone, Carlos Celdran, are youthful Caucasians, none of whom are recognizable but are supposed to be filmmakers. There is almost flippant curiosity here among these tourists, but thankfully there is refreshingly no solemn and sobering annotation on the war. However we are also left with next to nothing: the almost total absence of any historical comment seems to militate against the movie. Meanwhile, from concrete lookouts and battlements pop out heads of these tourists, a subtle attempt at levity. There is a moment when an unexplained explosion occurs in the distance while Celdran is making a point and this moment passes uncommented upon. What is that about? Fill in with your best conjecture. At nightfall, the tourists repair and dine at an ancestral mansion that houses cinematic artifacts from bygone times. The sometimes polite, sometimes flippant ignorance these guests show about our history and cinematic heritage is understandable but slightly disappointing.

Then the Great Cinema Party unfolds – and quite disappointingly as well. Everyone of note on the indie scene makes an appearance, from film directors to actors to critics, joining up with the Caucasian guests. Personally we see these indie luminaries often enough at festivals around town so the sight of them has all the frisson of seeing newly laundered clothes. Pleasant, but familiar. But here again missed opportunities abound. The cameos of these gathering celebrities are never parlayed into anything bigger. A comment by one of the assembled goes “I spend my salary on the Criterion Collection” and it comes across as banal and trite. Every cinephile makes such a claim. How about Second Run or Filmmuseum instead? The whole exercise of eating, drinking and exchanging banal comments turns into something, well, not so great. Nothing substantial comes out of it. 

If Martin is making any profound statement at all, it whistles over my head. Things again are just too offhand and oversubtle. If Martin is making a comment about filmmakers as regular people, I don’t know. If Martin, instead, takes this gathering as that of a rare breed, I'm none the wiser. If Martin is making a grand comment about cinema as the last custodian of history -- both of them joined at the hip in a vital relationship -- he is bound to deny it. What then if Martin refuses to comment on the proceedings? We are compelled to take the exercise for what it is -- one big shindig, dedicated to cinema and history, its twin concerns. What is there to celebrate, though, if history remains unkind to us, if we -- as much as our Hollywood-shackled cinema -- remain, inextricably, in the death grip of a lingering post-colonial malaise and a blighted kind of neocolonialism? Everyone, meanwhile, seems blissfully oblivious, enjoying and celebrating themselves: their presence, shorn ironically of presence, seems so enough, so complacent, and so self-satisfied, that they are caught up in the fireworks of it all, in the supposed company of Tarkovsky and Bazin, in their own imagined glory, in one empty act of triumphalism.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

JUNGLE LOVE (Sherad Anthony Sanchez, 2012)

The jungle is obscene.   -- Werner Herzog 

The jungle is all about our dreams, our deepest emotions, our nightmares. It is not just a location, it is a state of our mind. It has almost human qualities... The question I asked myself when first confronted by the jungle was ' How can I use this terrain to portray landscapes of the mind?'
                                                    -- Werner Herzog

The jungle leads us beyond social and cultural codes, to a state of nature where humans must confront themselves to find themselves. Society increasingly makes us forget our inner lives and concentrate on the outer ones.

                                   -- Apichatpong Weerasethakul,
               nicknamed "The Sergei Eisenstein of the Jungle" 


In Apichatpong's work, the jungle is a radically different world, populated by spirits, mysterious beings, and half-animals. It is the realm of dreams, the non-rational, of secrets and desires. Whoever enters it leaves the safe communal space of the town or home and faces the unknown.”
                                                -- Natalie Boehler

Both the complex paradigms of the forest stemming from the Occident (the German Herzog) and the Orient (the Thai Weerasethakul) converge and conflate in Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Jungle Love: the psychological and phenomenological (Herzog) coexist with the patently mystical and animistical (Weerasethakul), the stark vision of nightmare (Herzog) sits alongside the elusive but graspable notion of the sanctuary (Weerasethakul), the speculum of the immanent and imaginary (Herzog) juxtaposes with the robust transcendence of the supernatural (Weerasethakul). And still Sanchez thrives in its interstices and repurposes the jungle for socio-economic, religious and political usages. Everything happens and yet integrates closely together in Sanchez's version of the jungle.

Despite its supposed inviolability and sacrality in our culture, here the jungle is a playground, but one with a mind of its own, too. In it, we find a pair of young lovers from the city blithely lost and searching for a tribe in its midst, all the while using its landscapes for sexual relief. They taunt and torment their native guide with carnal innuendos and his temptations soon start to burgeon. About to cross their paths is a middle-aged woman, who sexually scorned by a younger married man, steals his child, and escapes through the jungle. Left momentarily alone, the infant in her possession mysteriously disappears into thin air. Meanwhile, a detail of army men undertake drills and training and take a swim in a nearby river. While there, one of them becomes enchanted by an invisible entity in the midst of the jungle.

Harnessing the frameworks on the jungle articulated by jungle-crazed directors like Herzog and Weerasethakul, Sherad Sanchez incorporates into his film a cross-pollination of all those ideas and translates them into a hybrid both imitative and yet original. As in Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Jungle Love is all about “our dreams and deepest nightmares.” As in Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives, Sanchez's jungle teems with “spirits and mysterious beings.” These presences are self-evident and hinted at here. As in the Thai auteur's Tropical Malady, Jungle Love is an escape from “social and cultural codes,” as evidenced by the free love that reigns in its midst.

What sets apart Sherad Sanchez’s Jungle Love, on the surface, is a light, unfreighted tonality and mood -- one of ludic and playful impishness and mischief that refreshingly distinguishes its vision from the often portentous, sombre and humorless approach of other filmmakers trying to condense the mysteries of the jungle. This can be ascribed, for one, to Sanchez's flippant treatment of all the denizens of this jungle, both tourists and transients, on one hand, and the resident spirits and the lost tribe, on the other.

Almost to a man, the characters in Jungle Love seem obliviously trapped or ensconced in the maze of the jungle so that they never appear grim nor do they angle for sympathy. While the old woman seems distraught over losing the baby, her condition does not prove pitiful. While the urbanites may forever go in circles beyond anyone's help, they aren’t tragic: we may even see their vanishing as just deserts for their desecration and carnalization of their surroundings. When an army man receives pleasuring from an invisible jungle spirit, the sight of orgasm is not off-putting nor perverse. When we get a glimpse of the tribe, they are a collection of fertility goddesses, with big, ample bosoms, bathed in prismatic colors. 

Sanchez strikes all the right notes -- no apparent grace notes at all -- and all the right chords to impart the film's effects, affects and sensations. Jungle Love is fingerprinted with a lightness of touch, and an even-handed, never over-the-top sense of the magical and mysterious. This moderation of that sense of the off-kilter is reinforced by a sparing and well-placed use of stylized details (a color filter or two, and how about the singing motley crew with animal masks who materialize at well-timed moments?). The soundtrack is also a keeper, keeping everything on the upbeat with humorous levity. The main theme is a pop song blaring from the radio with lyrics that go “Jesus loves you... ‘Mama Mary loves you.” Infectious.

So infectious is this insistent religious refrain that it starts to hint at a prevailing state of sin, accompanied by the possibility of redemption: it is not hard to imagine the locale of Jungle Love as a halfway point for its oversexed and wayward characters. A concept of purgatory hasn't been this much fun, but Jungle Love is indeed littered with clues of uncertain liminality. Now and again are images of limbo bordering on nightmare or hell: there are close-ups of the infant-stealing woman looking on with anguish, then the indiscriminate couplings, the sexual debauchery, and the sudden transmogrification of characters from one form to another. This is not paradise yet.  

More than a reimagining of purgatory, or an altered state of supernatural enchantment, Jungle Love posits a nation beset with our more immediate, more worldly and more concrete nightmares. Remember that Sanchez's magnum opus, Imburnal, is no harmless experimental film about nothing: a seemingly tangential yet haunting portrait of those who live in the fetid fringes of Davao City. Not dissimilar, not too far-fetched, Jungle Love stakes its claim as a political allegory about a country in the thrall of powerful forces -- where sex is a sinful opiate of the masses, where the urban rich flaunt their arrogance and indulge their pleasures, where nightmares are the currency, where only the military forces experience a guiltless, rejuvenating sense of jouissance. This could be the spitting image of a Christian Third World country, a kind of banana republic. Neither Herzog nor Weerasethakul could have visualized and conceived such an analogy. Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Jungle Love is one fun and memorable romp through the great unknown that is the primeval forest as something we have inhabited all along. This, our jungle, is obscene.

Monday, December 17, 2012

COLOSSAL (Whammy Alcazaren, 2012)

What has become abundantly, colossally clear with the arrival of Whammy Alcazaren on the independent scene and the premiere of his experimental first film, Colossal, is that this young wunderkind has grand ambitions for cinema. For his feature debut, he has taken on “the myth of man” for his towering theme, as the Cinemanila programme proclaims, and to a considerable extent he has been equal to the task. For the moment, however, the hyperbole of the title remains inapplicable to the final product -- so tantalizingly close, but unconverted. Not a masterpiece just yet. Ask anyone else, however, about their encounter with Colossal and the testimonials would be glowing and the gigantism of superlatives is bound to gush forth.

Don’t think this is meant to be contrarian, the prodigious talent of Alcazaren is there to marvel at: I can perfectly see what the converted and the faithful see, but their adulations are also often colored, quick to favor and factor in his astonishing youth, that this is just his thesis film at the University of the Philippines. A school project, to be perfectly honest about it. And the myth of man? True, true. Such grand themes for such a young, collegial filmmaker. They say: "There is not anyone comparable, not any teenager or early twenty-something in recent memory, at least, who has undertaken such a work of such professed scope and breadth with such confidence and precocity. Not even Raya Martin, perhaps." That may not be too far-fetched, but about Colossal I harbor some reservations. 

What astonishes me, at this juncture, are the writerly gifts of Alcazaren. The screenplay for Colossal essentially consists of an epic monologue of consistent versification supposedly recited by an ancient, old man. Epics, it must be said, are rarely attempted in verse. For someone barely out of his teens, this hoary ventriloquism is no small feat. This has been, up to this point, Alcazaren's most developed metier. A considerable gift to envy even by writers twice his age. A gift so full-fledged and mature. The sinuousness and supple contortions of his syntax, as suggested by the English subtitles (how I wish I could understand Bisaya), are there for all to hear and see. The bamboo-like resistance of his lyricism sways with meanings: a single viewing may not be enough to illuminate the beauty of language and expression and comprehend the nuances of emotion and wisdom. But here it becomes a little dicey: the old ancient man addresses a second person -- is it even a person? -- whose death grieves him, but whose identity seems to shift around, remaining a nagging, unresolved question. 

Colossal's grief is its motif of grief -- as given verbal expression by the ancient man in a dolorous low key, compounded by scenes of mourning of a young contemporary man -- has no clear referent. This grief is suspended in the ether of the abstract. Should it be simply be understood as universal grief about human death? Or is this grief something more colossal -- about the demise of races, cultures, civilizations, or even grand abstracts? As the ancient man poeticizes in a disembodied voice, the young contemporary man, who is equally grief-stricken, traverses natural landscapes -- from forests to caves to shores -- to commune with the consolations of nature, of the cosmos, to meditate on the nature of man and grief and loss. Are they one and the same: the ancient man and the contemporary man, or are they the grieving archetypes of their time? And who is the dead? Apparently someone in the young man's tribe, apparently someone the old man grew up with -- his oft-mentioned mother, his entire tribe, his nation? Apparently it is lapsarian man. Apparently someone universal, with the ancient's clear reference to the myth of Orpheus.

Apparently this is about us as a nation. We get a tell-tale word or two to suggest it, and a montage of photographs to emphasize it. The old man hails from many generations ago, he confesses, in a time of noble chieftains, a time of datus. He also alludes to the creation myth of Malakas and Maganda, a sure sign of his provenance. All the while his meditations are woven together with still photographs: towards the beginning, of old and new Manila, for instance, the photo of an old, manicured Luneta, circa 1960s, juxtaposed in contrast with a photo of vehicular gridlocks in our streets of today. Towards the end, as the old man expresses solidarity with “colossal youths” -- the freedom fighters, the fallen but fighting youths in the streets -- there is a procession of euphoric revolutionary moments, the recent Edsa 2 revolution in particular (the youthful Alcazaren is too young to remember the first one), side by side with photos of happy anthemic moments from recent live concerts of local bands. Colossal -- but all on paper. For the moment, it leaves too many questions pendant.

For the moment, the visual approach of Alcazaren is static and in dire need of imagination and expansion. His use of still photographs is slavish for one. Another callow flaw is his obsessive, unmoving regard for natural forms verging on the abstract and tactile textures, and their well-worn symbolism: for instance, those of predictable rock formations and especially water. Water imagery seems to be his calling card -- its fluidity, he seems to say quite tritely, is not unlike the passage of time, the process of grief, the history of man -- whether taken as stills or captured in the following ways: water rolling onto shores, water crashing in waves against rocks, water pooling at the foot of falls.

Surely Alcazaren has a lot else in store for us. Colossal is nothing to sneeze at. Take for instance the ingenious epilogue, monochrome as the rest of the film's 86-minute duration, featuring what seems to be a firmament of stars where geometric patterns of lines are drawn. It seems like an afterthought to end it all, and yet how strangely apt and evocative, as though Alcazaren imagines the ancient consultation of stars, the birth and death of old and new constellations, as though to ground the place of man in the universe. Maybe this is the best way to foreground the wisdom of the old man's words, the myth of man. 

For now, Alcazaren has not attained the rarefied heights of the original. He has taken unmistakable pages from his cinematic ancestors, the closest one being Christopher Gozum, most especially his first film Anacbanua. Between the two, the reliance on poety recited in a regional tongue is one striking similarity. The ranging over landscapes is another glaring parallel, with Gozum marking his chronotope with Pangasinan particularity. Alcazaren’s landscapes and tribe, in contrast, seem a generic one, although complete with token tattoos and shamans. Otherwise, this tribe doesn’t exist, or is unrecognizable. Surprisingly he did not shoot in the Visayas but expediently on location in Ilocos Norte (but the young grieving man in the film might indeed hail from Ilocos to begin with) at some expense of authenticity. But we must greet the young Alcazaren with open arms at the start of a promising career. He is the future of our cinema. He is bound to be colossal.