Tuesday, July 31, 2012

DIABLO (Mes de Guzman, 2012)

Diablo throws us for a loop with an opening scene that depicts a devil possession in a mining camp in the highlands of Nueva Vizcaya. This is a red herring, a play on our expectations as to the earthly manifestations of the devil, a play on our expectations when it comes to the traditions of horror. But this is no conventional horror. This may not be a horror film at all. If the prologue says anything, it is that dark forces do exist, in the chambers of cheerless caves up in the mountains, as well as in the chambers of  the heart in our own living breasts – where we don’t dare to look, where they are least expected. 

Then we find ourselves in the huge, half empty house of Nanay Lusing, a mysterious matriarch who seems to be a master of her solitude. She is a reserved and intrepid woman who hardly makes a peep when an earthquake shakes her house. She is a widow and has five sons, all of whom have left home but who come to visit once in a long while. There is the miner, there is the soldier, there is the inheritance-seeking never-do-well, there is the farmer, there is the Lamplighter, whose emulation of Jesus throws us for another loop. He comes in the night and scales Nanay Lusing’s home as though it were to battle a monolith of the devil. Again, director Mes de Guzman seems to be pulling our legs, and humorously preparing his meditations on the conflict of good and evil.     
The devil, in truth, does not come in the form of cloven hooves, forked tails and horns. The devil may very well be our own living flesh, our own spawn, our battle with loneliness, our battle with solitude. Nanay Lusing at first seems an impregnable wall:  all the “devil” can do is stand in silhouette in the shadows, another de Guzman joke. As long as she can hold on to the few things that keep her sane, however seemingly little, she is free of the devil. She is an impregnable wall who cannot be brought down by rumors about herself, the neglect by her sons. She insists that she can fend for herself. Instead, she befriends street waifs, feeds them, and takes them into her home.

Some of the most telling scenes on the ineptitude of the devil are made clear by the return of Nanay Lusing’s money-grubbing son, full of schemes and full of cunning and wiles. He will stop at nothing to get his way, he may even send her own mother down the river. If anything, however, the scenes involving  this son demonstrate how the devil gets discomfited and thwarted, how the principle of goodness almost makes easy fun of it. Look for the sequences full of risible magic realism, on the power of holy palm wreaths, and how they are supposed to ward off the devil.  

But de Guzman may be simply wearing the ill-fitting mask of humor. Like the deadpan faces in a Kaurismaki picture, the humor here can be dark and wry. As far as I can tell, this could very well be dedicated to the predestined loneliness of all mothers. I see my own mother here. I see his own mother here: I’ve heard about her delicate condition nowadays. When life starts to go haywire at the end, when the nature of life is overturned, the devil may very well be there to waylay. When Nanay Lusing yelps at the death of her radio’s batteries – a signal of how the cumulative force of human tragedies has finally hit her – de Guzman has taken an abstract of the devil’s impending triumph and has given it a concrete expression.


Monday, July 30, 2012

POSAS (Lawrence Fajardo, 2012)

Like a visual motif threading the film, the camera fixes on these ministerial words on the sides of patrol cars, on the walls of a police precinct: to serve and to protect. Transpiring in a matter of a day, Lawrence Fajardo’s crime thriller, Posas, demonstrates the terrible irony of such a fighting cry. It begins with the commission of one petty crime and ends disturbingly with a terrible mug shot of a well-entrenched culture of higher crime and corruption. At film’s end, who gets served and protected gets unmasked yet again in a society where law is no deterrent but, paradoxically, an expedient that serves the unscrupulous.

It all starts with the simple theft of a cell phone in Quiapo. A pickpocket operating in the vicinity, Jestoni Biag, is caught red-handed and identified by his victim. At this point, the police procedural unfolds with the customary manner of the genre, from the finger-printing of the suspect to his moment at the fiscal’s office. But as the proceedings wear on, the brutalization of the petty thief takes hold. The thief’s denials are easy pickings for the brutal police who force a confession out of him. The police secure him his pardon, but not before utter pain, not before anguish, not before a Faustian bargain for his soul.

If nothing else, Posas depicts the pecking order of crime and corruption: from the street-level thief to the fence to the police to the unseen voices on the phones. The entrenched nature of this breeding ground for crime ought to be a chilling proposition but the treatment by Fajardo is sadly too impressionistic and epidermal. Instead of enlarging on his stories, he sometimes gets caught up in the improvisational skills brought in by his actors. He seems to be aiming for a documentary immediacy, although it is bound to pale in comparison to, say, the rawness of TV Patrol.

But that is not to say that the film has failed in his purpose. Although most of this material is mundane knowledge, it has its moments. For one, there is an almost imperceptible rearing of ugly heads here: corruption almost sneaks up on us. What might start as a routinary questioning of the suspect turns gradually into obscene dehumanization. What might seem like a complaisant handling of a pretty victim’s case, turns out to be an insidious ploy by the police all along: a calculated act of evil that is too practiced and fluid not to achieve its ends.

Fajardo also contributes to this genre the psychology of the criminal. Like the corrupt policemen around him, he is getting adapted to the technicalities of the law. He latches on to the loopholes, and even his family starts to reason like him. But as pecking orders go, he remains the bottom feeder. Posas, then, retells the tragedy of the small fry who at the end of the day will get the bad end of it. And here as in real life, he fails to get his day in the sun. Instead, he must suffer the ultimate loss of his soul. Here as in real life, he must reside in the shadows of the bigger and monstrous forces who manipulate and circumvent the law.   

Title in English: Shackled   

Saturday, July 28, 2012

BWAKAW (Jun Robles Lana, 2012)

Advancing age does not sit well with Old Man Rene. The years have not been kind to him and have given him the patina of a grumpy, unhappy figure. Woe to anyone who dares cross him: the old man has a withering tongue and a mildly violent streak. Fierce in his solitude, he keeps many of his friends and neighbors at bay, and lives alone in a rickety ancestral dwelling. Here his sole companions are Bwakaw, a voracious, loyal stray, and if you can count it, a wooden sculpture of a supine Jesus that is said to be miraculously growing. 

The crux of his unhappiness seems to stem from his unflaunted and secretive sexuality. When one of his friends, Zaldy, an aging but flamboyant parlorista, gives him first dibs on a couple of call boys, he sends them back with a stinging reprimand. The old man seems to be going through the motions of life. All that consumes him are the details of impending death: an empty coffin sits in his living room; his prized belongings are wrapped up and inscribed with the names of intended recipients; he obsessively revises a last will and testament that he entrusts to the parish priest. An encounter with a brusque and muscular tricycle driver named Sol, however, breaks down his grumpy, irascible exterior. Now the perpetual scowl has turned into secret smiles; the old man relents to a haircut and has his gray hair dyed.

While this premise is far from novel anymore, there is charm in the the small, aforementioned and still unmentioned details. They are all marshaled with great timing and pacing. While Lana’s script seems to have been cobbled together from a cycle of old-man films -- such as De Sica’s Umberto D. (about a man and his trusty dog), Kurosawa’s Ikiru (an existential fare about an old man finding meaning in the terminus of life), and even Bergman’s The Wild Strawberries (a lyrical surreal meditation on old age) and Sorin’s Bombon El Perro (about a man who finds inspiration and redemption from his dog) -- Bwakaw finds an alchemy through the bricolage of dialogue and characterization, if the foregoing paints a part of the picture.

A meditation on old age and death, Bwakaw is splendidly leavened by acerbic wit and rough humor. This often finds expression in brutal exchanges between Old Man Rene and the ensemble of absurdly comic characters around him. The overall tone remains light and bright. While there are plenty of references to sickness and death – e.g. someone keeps importuning Old Man Rene for an audience with the miraculous santo entierro on behalf of the sick, and fatal sickness surrounds the old man and ultimately strikes close to home – they contrast with and are eclipsed by the lively and robust and humorous characters. A moment of hilarity that thumbs its nose at death happens when Old Man Rene lies down in his coffin, and pretends death while his friends and neighbors walk in on him and start mourning.

The triumph of Jun Lana’s film is to serve up death in a marinade of humor, vitality, and indomitability. There is no treacle dripping from it; no cloying, sickly sweet aftertaste. None of the histrionics of dying, no heavenly kowtowing. Neither is Bwakaw a celebration of ghoulish morbidity and dark humor. Nor are the characters steeped in bitterness and cynicism. Even at the film's lowest moments, darkness does not enter into it. Like the titular dog, one must learn to seize even the scraps. Like the dog, one should be voracious for life.  

Friday, July 27, 2012

KALAYAAN (Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr., 2012)

Enisled on Kota Island, one of the disputed islands of the Spratlys, Julian Macaraig, a solitary sentry, spends his long, uneventful days in routine and ennui. Other than reporting ship movements in the area, there is little productive to do, so he idles the time away with silent and deadpan regularity. Here he listens to the unfolding news of President Estrada’s imminent downfall on radio and television, on the shore he poaches turtle eggs buried in the sand, he keeps himself fit with his daily dozen, and masturbates to Asian pornography.

But there is something strange that draws him to the island’s mangroves. He bears witness to inexplicable sightings here. This is prefigured by a prologue showing a mermaid giving pleasure to a man of unknown identity. When two other soldiers are assigned to join Julian on the island, we learn the enchanted and maddened fate of those who previously held the same post. But they are tales of the fantastic: how mermaids abound and may make contact, how a lost and spectral sentry roams the islands, how the secret location of deposits of black gold is kept by the mermaids. We also learn how the death of his predecessor has rendered Julian mute for many moons.

On the surface, Kalayaan follows through lengthy, unedited takes the island sentry’s isolation, a fact which foreshadows the dangers of enforced exile and solitude.  Silence is its first symptom. Seeing mythical things is another. Madness may be next. But through radio and television broadcasts, the fate of the disputed islands is made to run parallel with the fate of a nation, a fact that allegorizes the importance of the latter. The film’s title, after all, denotes the grand word of freedom. One interpretation might point to the ironic lack of freedom of the film’s main protagonist – his seemingly being held incommunicado, a victim of large traumas. This is echoed and verbalized with empathic displeasure by the two arrivals. On the island, the lack of freedom destroys the mind, and evokes illusory figures and phantasms, dark and fatal as the promise of oil.

Along with Sandoval’s Aparisyon, Kalayaan is probably the most consciously and frontally European in tone and approach among this year’s Cinemalaya entries. The thrust of visuality and the sparsity of dialogue not only remove the burden of the vernacular from its Thai actor but bring the film closer to the aesthetics of Western filmmakers. In scenes showing the sentries performing exercises, there is a conscious effort to take a page from Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, a film about the French Foreign Legion in a remote outpost in Djibouti. This is not to mention the entire tradition of contemplative cinema valorized in the last decade or so in Europe that Kalayaan seems to draw from. Closer to home, Kalayaan has affinities to the work of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose own enchanted forests figure in Blissfully Yours and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives.

Judged as a work in the prolific career of director Alix, Kalayaan represents a triumph. Kalayaan is a deceptively simple film about the dark side of solitude, and yet read at a higher level, yields a more profound significance.  Like last year’s Isda, and unlike his earlier output, it exemplifies how elements of magic realism and the supernatural can be harnessed to deepen and add meanings. That it may signify Alix’s easy (too,easy, some will maintain) adaptability, that it may suggest that he is something of a chameleon without a particular style (from the straightforward, unaffected debut of Donsol to the Iranian-inspired Kadin to the expressionist, poverty film Chassis), this filmmaker can answer by making more and more films of this caliber and quality. There can be no doubt, Kalayaan is one of the superlative films at this year’s Cinemalaya.

Title in English: Wildlife

Thursday, July 26, 2012

REQUIEME! (Loy Arcenas, 2012)

The way we regard our own doesn't always equal the way we regard the foreign born: how often we discriminate against ourselves. Filmmaker Loy Arcenas continues to impress and delight -- this time with such themes as xenomania, and double social and moral standards. No sophomore slump here. A new and rich vein, in fact, has opened up for him. Gone for now is the lyric mode inherent in his debut, Niño. Gone for the moment is the serious and solemn tone. In its place is the ludic and ironic side of a versatile film practice. REquieme! demonstrates a more frolicsome bent, a more inclusive reach with its searing portrayal of the addled Filipino psyche.

There is much to appreciate here: the wealth of relevant themes and the way Arcenas weaves, intercuts and translates them into his own brand of black comedy. There is a temptation to go for broke and swing for the fences, but the director shows maturity in depicting his ludicrous observations with such assured judgment that the wry sense of humor does not come across as mean-spirited or off-putting. He skewers them all, though he is more composed than scattershot: our operatic grief, our sacralization of the dead, and our irreverence to all things that spout out of us like so much stream of consciousness, emphasizing a wildly verbal culture.

REquieme! is irreverent but not done in bad taste. Arcenas brand of black humor here supports the soap box for four deaths, and two funerals, those twin themes of death and lamentation. Our supposed reverence for the dead is given an uproarious roller-coaster ride with a televised saga of a corpse being mistakenly transported elsewhere around the world -- from Riyadh to Rome to Hawaii – to much dismay and mourning of his family. Then such lack of reverence  finds wry expression in how a dead man is given two funerals. Elsewhere another of the corpses gets held up interminably by red tape and rigid bureaucrats.

But just as paramount to REquieme!’s concerns is its commentary on the discrimination against unconventional sexuality. Surprisingly it is also the film's heart. At the center of the film, after all, is Joanna, a would-be transgender who, after running away from his homophobic home, has found a new identity and a semblance of family. When one of his surrogate kin dies, he goes to the extremes of giving him a decent burial. Meanwhile, Swanie, his estranged mother and a barangay captain, is trying to make a show of grief and translate the death of his distant Filipino-American nephew Adolfo Payapa – the notorious killer of a famous fashion designer – into electoral victory. 

What makes us infamously tick as a people, Arcenas seems to know by instinct. And he is learning well, openly taking a page from another accomplished satirist, Dennis Marasigan (director of Vox Populi), who gets a famous nod here. REquieme! keeps it refreshingly current owing to its strong sense of our fundamental social and cultural weaknesses, although it is clearly inspired by the life and death of Andrew Cunanan and his murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace in 1997. 

Whatever the case, the viewer is apt to be surprised with shock after shock of self-recognition. Just as much, the moments of the collective mentality are bound to be telling: the second-guessing and kibitzing as communities gather around television sets, radios, and funerals. Arcenas transmutes these moments of the Filipino psyche with a keen sense of humor and irony. They never feel crass or perverse, only that the sociology of a people is spot-on and so pitch-perfect that our only rejoinder is laughter, a nodding, knowing  laughter.                             

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

APARISYON (Vincent Sandoval, 2012)

Darkness has fallen upon the country. The streets of the capital are smoldering and exploding with mass protests to overthrow a despotic regime. Plaza Miranda has just been bombed, sending shock waves of brutal repression. The proclamation of Martial Law seems imminent. Somewhere in the countryside -- in a nunnery in the woods -- the state of things, however, couldn’t be more different. Monastic life is all but untouched and proceeds with idyllic steadiness:  the nuns undertake their tasks in perfect peace and serenity, there is joy and wide smiles during meals. A new nun has even come to the fold. The spreading lawlessness, however, is about to shatter this peace and interrogate their connection with the outside world. 

Vincent Sandoval’s Aparisyon is set with historical and political specificity, but it could happen anywhere where the fate of a people is at stake, where the push of a precious little could tilt the balance. Aparisyon is a film that allegorizes the inaction of the crucial many, the silent majority of society. More important, it thematizes the horrors and dangers of social passivity. 

Rather than receive the terrifying news from outside, the Mother Superior in Aparisyon silences the last remaining radio with confiscation. Rather than resolve the ills that claw and paw at them, there is an inward direction and even self-flagellation. Rather than blow the whistle on a crime, the nuns allow themselves to be gagged, lest they call attention to themselves, lest the malefactors turn upon them.

Sandoval establishes all this with lush cinematography. The theme of cowardly inaction is carefully and poetically constructed in brilliant compositions. Often, the faces of elderly nuns are framed in close-ups to reveal deep and heavy circles around their eyes, eyes that silently betray fear and meekness and apprehension, brows that are knitted in self-concern. Mostly they are silent. What begins as a gravitation towards natural idylls, turns into a lingering in the cold interiors of the nunnery. The camera pans here are slow and lingering in keeping with the sluggish response of the nuns, in keeping with the themes of inaction and indecision.

Great credit is due the filmmaker for fashioning something that is often thought beyond conflation: a poetic and lyrical allegory that is also profoundly political, profoundly dialectical. It is doubly to his credit that he accomplishes this without leaving the environs of a nunnery. It features nuns but it may have little to do with them. In effect, Aparisyon questions, for one, our own received images about nuns – nuns that link up in the frontlines of People Power, nuns who are fierce, brave and eloquent -- but it never mocks us and our complacent stand. In this regard, Sandoval is something of a humanistic instructor, a Socratic mentor who always wants us to question the world. Wants us to jump down from the fences and act bravely and decisively when the crucial moment comes.