Saturday, June 30, 2012

TISOY! (Ishmael Bernal, 1977)

Ishmael Bernal’s Tisoy! is quite a lark -- every bit as boisterous and hilarious as Nonoy Marcelo’s comic strip that it adapts for the big screen. Quite a challenge to transpose something as embedded in pop culture as Marcelo’s menagerie into film, but Bernal strikes all the right notes. Come to think of it, an adaptation was just about ripe for the Seventies, when American and foreign influences held sway in everyone’s sensorium and slashes of Martial Law remained in the air, a time that begged to have a snapshot of its flora and fauna to be taken, as it were. Enter Tisoy, a young, free spirited mestizo, and his equally lively and adoring clique of friends.   

Tisoy, as played with disarming panache by Christopher de Leon, does embody the charisma of the mestizo, the part-Caucasian so often held in high esteem and regard. He wears hip and body-hugging Western attire, speaks Tagalog in reverse, the slang of the times, and rides a Harley Davidson-like motorcycle. Arriving on the trot from America, he tows along his friends with whom he had initially fled local shores. He is looking for his American father, who has been sighted in Manila. But it’s also high time to touch base with old friends – and most of all to reunite with his long-suffering love interest, Maribubut.

Bernal’s brand of humor here relies, for the most part, on our awareness of its references. Tisoy is a grab bag of all kinds of nods, including, but not limited to, films and television advertisements of the seventies. There are homages to Julio Madiaga and Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag and Mike de Leon’s Itim, as well as Bert Marcelo reprising among other things his iconic line for San Miguel Beer. But there are also open hints of European inflection, as in close-ups of the pages of Le Figaro, and even perhaps a nod to Godard’s famous traffic jam in Weekend – minus the long tracking shot, but with an equally memorable set piece about restlessness and tedium.

Tisoy may be said to live and die with the Seventies and with those who remain attached to that decade. The film’s verve and intelligent energy, however, give it a life in popular culture: a self-propagating life as only films can sustain, as enduring as its originary comics. Along with creating a worthy vehicle for its lead, Christopher de Leon, Bernal’s challenge was not only to convey Nonoy Marcelo’s comic, but trenchant satire, but to make Tisoy endearing despite a cavalier regard for others.

There’s a palpable effort by Bernal to distance his work from being just a faithful adaptation, but to create a parallel cosmos – most particularly via the kind of references he chooses to include in the film. Tisoy, among other things, is a Nouvelle Vague-ish romp, a collage of fashion, advertisement, television, music, film and other representations of popular media. Somehow it all succeeds – and probably due partway to our familiarity with the material – in drawing a vivid ensemble of characters as well as a recognizable evocation of the times. We see it at the edges, around the characters, on their person, in their society, on their lips.   

And perhaps rightly so: Tisoy revels in its memorable characters -- from Moody Diaz's Aling Otik to Bert Marcelo's Tikyo -- while glossing over a slender plot. But who is taking note – aren’t we here for the high jinks and the gags, the mannerisms and the tics of an epoch? One can also read it so: Tisoy is a film whose kinetic and free-wheeling ethos belies the authoritarianism and despotism of its times. And as the boisterous story of a fair-haired boy – or shall we say a fair-skinned boy -- this film can resonate in a country that remains, to this day, obsessed with such conundrums as skin color and other surface issues of identity. Heck, it may be high time for this film’s rediscovery.        

Sunday, June 17, 2012

HILO (thread) (Jan Philippe V. Carpio, 2007)

Within the framework of the huis-clos hangs, with obsessive recurrence, the cinematic corpus of Jan Philippe Carpio. As much as any other director might prefer to be identified with works of cosmic scope and significance, Carpio favors a more circumscribed premise: the closed doors, where characters are scathingly and powerlessly entrapped and pitted against each other. In Balay Daku (2002), his early masterpiece, Carpio foregrounded a hacienda full of inimical and inescapable bedfellows. In Tako, a short film about old flames threshing out their relationship at a despedida party, the premises could just as well be a phone booth.

Call it an affinity with the likes of John Cassavetes or Nobuhiro Suwa (M/Other comes to mind), call it a nod to Bunuel's hellish mise-en-scenes (The Exterminating Angel comes to mind), Carpio has often gravitated towards this strain of chamber drama, lean and spare, ever attuned to Sartre and his notion of the unbearable. The conflicts Carpio probes and examines are not so much materialist as they are metaphysical no-exits – as such, more irresolvable, and more harrowing, versions of hell.  

Hilo (2007), Carpio’s third full length film, further distills Carpio's fascination with the claustrophobia of the closed doors. Structured as a triptych, it charts the deadlocked relationship of two lovers, revolving around an unsettled and oft-interrupted dinner that runs the gamut of emotions, everything from nervous laughter to teary-eyed reticence.

Emerson and Jenny are, on the surface, regular lovers. Little indicates they are ill-matched. A salient point, however, is the fact that the man is a professor, while the woman is a student, which might explain certain dynamics between the two. Three almost identical episodes compose Hilo, slightly different from one another only in their gradual addition of detail and the growing tone of fatigue. The setting is a  dining table -- that hallowed place which imposes civility on the proceedings. Consequently, the couple hem and haw, approach and circle their issues with much trembling energy and much awkward aside. Speech bears a lot of informational withholdings, skirts a lot of verbal taboo. Voices trail off, murmur and sing to themselves, the objects of their predicates are missing, their pronouns refer to unknown antecedents. The problem is "it." But there is much misplaced laughter, that crutch of silent spaces and improvisatory dead air, almost to shatter the fourth wall for us.

Hell is other people, Sartre once declared. But Carpio is not as misanthropic nor hell-bent on passing judgment. With Brechtian mannerisms and a withholding of the true bugaboos bewitching the characters, Hilo keeps us at a respectful distance, our perspective bearing witness to the effects rather than the causes of the couple's impasse. Instead this dramatic aloofness, one suspects, serves to fetishize gentility – that of the ever-shifting mirage of civility, a bourgeois strain of which Carpio observes and sometimes subverts in Balay Daku. We suspect the truth about Emerson and Jenny, but there are enough gestural fakes and feints to throw us off; all we are certain of seeing are bits and pieces, like so many fragments and facets of a cubist painting.

Describing his oeuvre as a succession of “momentaries,” Carpio emphasizes the instantaneousness of his films, their shimmer that we briefly glimpse. Call them snapshots, quick cross sections, or slices of life, Carpio seems solely intent to present points in a continuum, a mere thread in a bigger tapestry, all meant to preclude easy, conventional conceptions about his body of narratives and character construction.

With the bareness and minimalism of a Dogme 95 setting – a table for two, a half-full dish of pasta, and spoons and forks that Emerson and Jenny toy self-consciously with – Hilo funnels our attentions to its two actors and their curious dynamic that manages to engage our empathy. Sympathy,  on the other hand, is made elusive by distanciation. Meanwhile the improvisational work of the two actors, Jenny Logico and Emerson Sanchez, is commendable. Carpio is not unlike a Prospero who sets a basic premise into motion for his protagonists to extemporize and enflesh its ontological bare bones.

True to the implications of Carpio’s conceptual idée fixe, Hilo  concludes in a kind of impasse, the problems as insoluble as ever. Things are back to square one, and somehow different. For, without exactly knowing why, we have undergone the brunt of emotional and psychical attrition, only guessing at the unknown wellsprings of the couple's problems. Without realizing it, we have come full circle: The couple is dead! Long live the couple!