Thursday, February 28, 2013

TIRADOR (Brillante Mendoza, 2007)

Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador opens summarily and briskly with a police raid on a shantytown in the outskirts of Quiapo. Rendered in cinéma-vérité fashion, it's a night sequence that simulates what we see on the evening news, the herky-jerky camera work that documents all manner of interrupted illegality – and in this breeding ground of criminals, out they come tumbling.

The element of surprise rattles the red-handed: packets of drugs and other paraphernalia go flying out the windows, prostitution stops short of consummation, and the guilty, who must feel accordingly so, take a dive into fetid waters to escape. No exit for the unwitting – except for those who have learned to adapt to these specialized lives, those who know the loopholes of the law and can humor them.

It’s a heady and humorous beginning to what is essentially a cross-section of the underbelly of Quiapo, a portrait of the small-time criminals whose fates literally crisscross in the commerce and commotion of its busy streets. Much of the humor and irony can be self-deprecating, taking to heart, it seems, the truism that the Filpino laughs at his own misfortunes. And there can be as much misfortune as fortune in the act of everyday survival. Mendoza’s criminals are not smooth and infallible operators, but they know how to roll with the punches.

Young Odie is one of them, and his modus operandi is to pilfer coins from unattended gambling machines. Another is Caloy who must turn to snatching after his pedicab is heartlessly repossessed. Odie’s father will take your valuables at knifepoint, but shares his meager takings with adopted families. Rex and Tes are a couple in more ways than one, pilfering cheap electronics in well-coordinated tandem.

In Tirador, most of these men and women, young and old, have long ago stopped sentimentalizing the despondency of being at the bottom of the social totem pole. Even among their own kind, there is no letting their guard down. They live by the cold laws of the urban jungle, where Social Darwinism applies with ruthlessness as well as with finesse. One can never afford to turn his back on a cowering figure or a seemingly repentant or remorseful quarry. They are a pack of chameleons with well-practiced masks, all honed to second nature.

Mendoza’s social commentary – leavened by streetwise idiom and the jargon of gangsters and thieves – levels the breakdown of law and order on the whole rotten hierarchy of society. The usual suspects are easy targets and not spared here: they whose electoral faces are plastered all over walls like so many mugshots of wanted criminals. But the culture of cynicism and immorality are more deeply entrenched. Politicians and religion are partly singled out, but in truth, it’s an over-determined state of things. Corruption breeds corruption, ad infinitum.

To disentangle the coils of corruption, however, is not, ultimately, Tirador's purpose. What’s paramount is its study of self-preservation. Nothing is sacred here-- so that the feast of the Black Nazarene is not just a moment for religious fervour – but provides singular opportunities for thievery. Grand electoral rallies, with the fiery motherhood speeches of the country’s supreme leaders, are equally promising bonanzas for thieves.

Tirador, as the foregoing suggests, is sheer gritty realism – but not angry, certainly not vociferously so. Paradoxically it radiates raw and lurid power with underplayed drama. As a piece of docudrama, it has much method and stripped-down production values in common with Mendoza’s other real-time film, Manoro. It’s a visual departure from the self-conscious aestheticism of his other films namely Masahista and Serbis. But in Tirador, there is a hand-in-glove dovetailing of form and content. The handheld, in-the-trenches camera work goes hand in hand with street-level proceedings, observing without comment what would otherwise be sentimentalized or overdramatized. Where exploitation might be unavoidable, Tirador achieves sheer human compassion.

Reviewed: September 29, 2009  (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

Friday, February 22, 2013

SUMMER HOURS (Olivier Assayas, 2008)


Birdsong. Emerald green trees, lush verdant undergrowth. Dogs playfully bounding in the glistening grass. You can hear them breathlessly panting. Children hunt and search, heartily and boisterously, for hidden treasures among the boughs. These opening images in Olivier Assayas’s latest film Summer Hours set a lyrical tone for the luminosity that follows. We are in the middle of the Marly estate in the French countryside, as Helene, the matriarch, celebrates her 75 th birthday. Everyone who matters is present: Helene’s two sons, Frederic and Jeremie, and lone daughter, Adrienne, and their children, despite their hectic, cosmopolitan lives. Alone with her eldest son, Frederic, however, Helene is leaving instructions and the contents of her last will and testament. 

These are no idle premonitions. True enough, Helene soon passes away before the end of summer. Her last will is most needed to sort out inheritances, a considerable one that includes her collection of antique furniture, paintings and books. Her former lover happened to be Paul Berthier, a painter of some renown. Helene had rightly foreseen what would happen, taking into account her children's different circumstances, the different lives they lead. While Frederic wishes to keep the summer house and its contents intact, Jeremie and Adrienne, both industrial executives based in different countries, see no need for it. Jeremie, in fact, is in dire need of money to buy a house in his adopted China; Adrienne may have to live much of the time in Japan. 

Here is a scenario that would in lesser hands be fraught with melodramatic possibilities and histrionics. But Olivier Assayas’s film keeps emotionalism within acceptable levels, not only achieving a film of assured pathos but parlays his premise into a statement not just about the Marly family but about each one of us, each human being. And as it makes its humanistic statement, it offers a gentle reproach to the inexorable march of civilization. Summer Hours is not so much about family intramurals as it is about the recognition of each one's birthright to live according to a personal compass. 

There is what we might call a sweet dynamic among the Marly siblings. To make his point, Assayas never overplays the angle of fraternal civility, leaving only little, automatic gestures as shorthand for respect and reverence. No words necessary, the gestures are reflexive and heartfelt. Much of the differences among them is made elliptical. 

Summer Hours, more aptly, ranges over generational contrasts, between Helene and her children, and in the last act of the film, between Frederic and his teenage daughter, Sylvie. Too preoccupied with the matters of the family estate, Frederic is jolted when he finds out Sylvie’s adolescent indiscretions. Shoplifting. Smoking pot. Sexual initiation. The father may be furious but to borrow a phrase from Godard, this is her life to live. Yet surprisingly Frederic subsequently consents to what might be seen as a desecration: Sylvie throwing a party for her friends in the auctioned summer house. Perhaps it's just as well. After all, these, too, are her summer hours. 

The history of civilization has been notable for its production and preservation of cultural artifacts. Assayas’ film, which features rich imagery of the auction of art treasures and family heirlooms and the interiors of museums, may never refute that, but it postulates each person’s inalienable heritage: Nothing takes more privilege than the individual, the human welfare. Let each one explore the height and latitude of summer -- those too-few, too-brief summers. 

Reviewed: June 7, 2010 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

GOD'S OFFICES (Claire Simon, 2008)

It’s OK. No one knows us here, a teenage girl reassures another in the opening sequences of Claire Simon’s felicitously titled God’s Offices. They stand restlessly on a balcony of an abortion clinic cum family planning center in the heart of an unnamed French city, moments away from taking their turn with a social worker. As the film unfolds along the fine lines between documentary and fiction, this troubled teen will pass through a revolving door of women, women of all ages and walks of life, as they receive all manner of help, from simple advice and assistance to life-altering succor about matters of sex and the repercussions of sex. Whether referring to this halfway house for women or the conceiving womb, God’s Offices depicts a humane though often painful portrait of women.

Drawing on research material she and her team gathered between 2000 and 2007, Claire Simon crafts a story -- nay, a series of stories -- that hews close to sessions recorded at a host of family planning centers across France, sessions unified by an inherently confessional tone and themes that would otherwise have been kept in the dark. As befits the material, the film is captured in cinema-verite fashion (not too overly shaky and intrusive, however), and a supplemental authenticity is added by a cast of first-time actresses playing the beleaguered women. It’s an inspired stroke of casting that the social workers are played by well-known veteran actresses of French cinema, including Beatrice Dalle and Nathalia Baye. They provide the compassionate presence and the voice of reason through an often tense and disconsolate film, a presence more subtly empathic and empathetic than what non-professional actors might be able to portray. 

God’s Offices, if nothing else, puts forward a whole spectrum of sad and tragic human stories from the vantage point of women. Through highly detailed and informative accounts, one gets the sure sense that women take the brunt of sexual relationships. Anxiety from delayed periods. The pill. Abortifacients. Pregnancy. Abortion. The wrath of families and the whole social stigma of unwanted pregnancy and motherhood. The few men who figure in this film are angry, demanding and impatient figures, and the men who figure in the women's narrations are no more scrupled. This series of episodes channels one exhausting psychic outpouring. But in a film that features only one half of the gender divide, we are merely getting one side of the story, however honest and genuine the accounts are made to be. 

The thrust of the film is, unswervingly, the story of women. With an almost unvarying emotional pitch, it plays out a dozen or so slices of women's life in a 2-hour duration. There is the young teenage girl at the film’s opening asking simply about contraception behind her parents’ back. A more distraught and tearful episode features the confession of an impregnated woman caught between a husband and a lover who turns to blackmail in order to bed her down repeatedly. Another confession reveals a woman, who for years has suspected her own sterility, suddenly getting on the way. How? Everything comes full circle at the end, when a middle-aged Bulgarian prostitute is asked why she keeps getting pregnant with the same man. There is but one answer wafting through the corridors of God’s offices: Love. A picture that foregrounds abortion and its convenient rationale, God's Offices intimates, at film's end, that most noble of human emotions and motivations. Nothing should be unwanted and tainted, not the wages of love. 

Reviewed: June 6, 2010 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

INDEPENDENCIA (Raya Martin, 2009)

For, with a strong indigenous cultural life, foreign
domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation.
-- Amilcar Cabral

Everyone of us is channeling Americans. For over a hundred years now, we have imitated and internalized their smallest tics and their thickest twang; we aren’t called Little Brown Americans for nothing. Our assimilation of all things American is there to see – though perhaps too self-evident to notice. We eat Kentucky Friend Chicken and McDonald’s burgers and wash them down with swigs of Pepsi or Coca-Cola. We wear the latest shoes from Nike and listen to the latest songs by American Idols. We watch the latest movies churned out by Hollywood,
starring our favorite state-side actors. These are our everyday realities. We are, in truth, not as independent as the history books would like us to believe; we are living in the shadow of these insidiously neo-colonial times.
Raya Martin’s Independencia, making its Philippine premiere on Independence Day ironically in a French film festival, may not espouse up-in-arms revolution (how, when the enemy is within us?) but delivers a subtly nativist message: the Filipino should endeavor to rediscover his pre-colonial roots. It’s the first small step in his long journey towards recovering true independence. Set in the early 1900s and onwards, Independencia avoids, perhaps by default, the grandiosely-scripted and astronomically budgeted depiction of an epical and heroic era: the American occupation. Instead, writer-director Raya Martin astutely focuses on common folks, non-comnbatants: a mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and her son (Sid Lucero) who flee to the forest as soon as the threat of war encroaches on their town.

Here, in this forest, reality seems refracted through a strangely allegorical and magical prism. Birds dart out of the bushes like shimmering bullets; breezes blow unceasingly; ferns and palm fronds sway and bend; a stream ripples and flows through it. In the conversations that will transpire within its bosom, this forest will be alluded to as the object of greed, and two towns go to war for it. This is where mother and son seek refuge. Soon (no one knows the nature of time here) they are joined by a woman (Alessandra de Rossi) who has been raped by American soldiers. In due time, she gives birth to a fair-skinned child. 
Independencia, however, is not about a family’s insularity. What this retreat from the outside world ultimately means is a symbolic return to the Filipino’s bedrock strength, a revalorization of his indigenous culture, his pre-colonial past. Within this film’s family, the oral tradition of myths, proverbs, legends and general folklore, is reenacted and passed down from one generation to another. Talk of talismans, giant wild boars, and the aswang circulate among this family in the woods. And the realities in the forest – e.g. the son finding his way home only after turning his shirt inside out, the appearance of wood spirits – don’t seem to contradict what this family partakes in.

Not unlike South American and other Third World writers employing magic realism in their works, Martin harnesses the inherently surreal/fantastical aspects of our folklore in order to mirror the under-emphasized and misrepresented aspects of our culture. Circulated in the deep of the night, circulated during meals, the stories exchanged in the depths of the forest are a kind of nourishment, a defense mechanism that both diverts and fortifies.

And yet in Independencia, Martin has fashioned out one of his least confounding and more accessible films to date. Independencia is not unlike a well-told legend: there are moments of facile objective reality combined with moments that ask us to suspend disbelief. Much of Martin’s unconventional and unpredictable narrative techniques are becoming familiar to us, it seems. He has also decided to meet his audience halfway: much of the counter-intuitive filmmaking we’ve seen in movies like Autohystoria and Now Showing is kept to a minimum. (But perhaps these are just the strictures of this particular film – to be displaced by the stylistic demands of the next film.) Instead of unknowns and non-professionals, he casts well-known, professional actors for this, and they invariably deliver.

Conceived as the second entry in Raya Martin’s cycle of films set during periods of national struggle (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional being the first), Independencia may not mention America once in any of the film’s dialogue but its pernicious presence, its colonizing threat, is palpable. There is a newsreel-like sequence at midpoint of Independencia that brings this home: an actual atrocity by American soldiers shooting a boy suspected of pilfering is reported in quasi-provincial, faux-American accent. The film finesses its point with humor. There are no strident anti-American slogans here. That the American atrocity mirrors what happens in a 1976 film (Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara's Minsa’y Isang Gamu Gamo), only seems to suggest the currency of the Americans’ unchangingly contemptuous, subhuman regard for Filipinos.

In this light, Independencia can be seen a sophisticated post-colonial film and Raya Martin, at least in this instance, a veritable post-colonial filmmaker. Making a virtue of meager funding from European institutions (in particular, the IFFR’s Hubert Bals Fund in 2007), he uses unconventional and postmodern approaches to film Independencia. Noteworthy is his reliance on distanciation techniques, which puts the stamp of its real post-modern provenance on the film. This film, shot in black and white by Jeanne Lapoirie, may look like an early 20th century American movie, but it is unmistakably a product of its time. Independencia is a living, breathing film: its colonial discourse is not restricted to the past, but remains as valid as ever. Hence, the tell-tale markers like the theatrical acting and theatrical dialogue, the unnaturally thick make-ups, the hybrid sets (a fusion of natural, live elements and handpainted backdrops brought to life by production designer Rodrigo Ricio), characters talking straight to the camera, the effect of film seemingly running out of its reel are not unjustified instances. The presence of White Leghorns – a variety of poultry not introduced to the Philippines until 1950 – in a film that is supposed to be set during the American era also tells us of the timelessness of the issues problematized by this film.

Independencia concludes, empathically, in the most unambiguous terms possible. Orphaned and alone, the fair-skinned boy (Mika Aguilos), whose outward Caucasian appearance might be a potentially symbolic vector of cultural syncretism between the colonizer and colonized, enacts the supreme gesture of self-determination. Pursued by American soldiers deep in the forest, the boy makes sure of signifying his true allegiances. His realization of who he is and where he belongs, paints the sky in different shades of brown. This is, after all, the brown man’s world -- his beloved country. Long live the Filipino!

Reviewed: June 18, 2009 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

L'ESQUIVE (Abdel Kechiche, 2003)


I remember the civil tremors that rocked Paris and other major suburbs across France in October and November 2005. They would be televised to us from half a world away in the form of harrowing, post-apocalyptic images on the evening news. Shots of burning cars and public buildings, scenes of youths fighting pitch battles with riot police—all still linger in my mind. They marked a social upheaval that recalled the uprisings of May 1968 and prompted fears of government overthrow. It all seems to have stemmed from the deadly electrocution of two minority teenagers perceived to have been caused by brutal police persecution. It dredged up and brought to the fore decades of long-simmering resentment by marginalized masses, mainly North Africans and other émigrés, who had suffered from racism and xenophobia.

Abdel Kechiche’s L’Esquive, shot almost prophetically in 2003, paints the grim picture in one of the disenfranchised housing projects where many of the minorities have been relegated. This film depicts life at the periphery, the brutalized conditions of the ghettos arising from state neglect and public paranoia. In French, esquive is a sporting term that refers to a sidestep. In Kechiche’s film, it is about Muslim teenagers learning to navigate the everyday dangers of the banlieues. Shot properly in cinema-verite style – in the manner of Raymond Depardon and Frederick Wiseman – L’Esquive is a documentary of adversity and resiliency disguised as fiction, capturing graphically the pent-up and misplaced energies of its young subjects. It is equally made memorable and resonant by the naturalistic performances of its ensemble cast: all of them seem to be non-professionals playing their own lives.

At the film’s center is the budding young love between Krimo, an inarticulate hood, and Lydia, a glib, indomitable theatre actress. But we know the prospects of romance here seem false and out of place, they may not be forthcoming, and yet we are glad that this film is not about extreme displays of violence either. We don’t even mind that all of the characters seem to be screaming at the top of their lungs each time they speak. (It seems to be the norm: even friends engage each other in these seemingly uncivil ways). There are no death tolls mounting here, but this is a film that paradoxically conveys its points subtly: we know at the end who will most likely live less-than-peaceful destinies and those who will execute the appropriate esquive. What L’Esquive captures instead is the tough-as-grits explosion of language. At every turn, there is the prospect of heated altercation. 

This is Kechiche’s sense of proxy violence, his fiery brand of pacifism and diplomacy: rage and anger transmuted and expressed in words. Krimo’s father is behind bars and is only mentioned in passing. We know that Krimo is in a gang, too, but all we witness of him is his brooding ways, his often funny inability to articulate his thoughts and feelings. Much of the violence happens offscreen: Kechiche insulates us from its easy spectacle. It is enough to pit his characters in the dialectics of the streets for us to get a sense of their unsettled, unnerving lives. They snarl like lions; their voices growl; and their idiom is not fit for the faint-hearted. And yet they are not afraid to laugh and cry, to express their fears and their hesitations.

The best that L’Esquive offers to the viewer is the value of sublimation. Characters like Lydia and her ‘homeys’ devote their all to the theatre and at film’s end, there is a sense of their assimilation of social skills that will help them integrate into wider society. Lydia in particular goes around in a period costume – her comfort, escapist blanket? – in order to internalize her role in a Marivaux play. It is enough to intrigue Krimo, who drops his old girlfriend and tries his hand at acting. But as the drama professor points out the thesis to Marivaux’s Triumph of Love: the much-hardened, much-brutalized Krimo is too much a product of a violent upbringing to take on the role of the harlequin. And yet like the-once-diffident Lydia, Krimo would stand an even chance of redemption if he just kept at it long enough. If he just kept at it long enough. 

L’Esquive won 4 Cesar Awards in 2005, including one for Best Film. 

Reviewed: June 3, 2009 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

LIMBUNAN (Gutierrez Mangansakan II, 2010)


Beautiful shots make me sick. – Roberto Rossellini

Filmmaker Gutierrez Mangansakan must be under the mistaken notion that it is enough to illuminate a social problem and withhold comment in order to maintain a semblance of judicious and solomonic position. That is the fallacy he commits with his latest film, Limbunan. False, because there is no such thing as an objective cinema, not even that supposedly most objective of cinematic practices, the documentary. Each frame committed to film contains the seeds of politics and position.

Whether he intended it or not, Mangansakan has forwarded sociocultural conservatism through his latest film. Limbunan may on the surface be a picture about one forced betrothal of a 16-year-old Maguindanaoan girl named Ayesah, but it is unequivocally a film about resignation and reconciliation to traditions, ultimately redounding to the practice of arranged marriages. Mangansakan has revealed at the gala for this film at Cinemalaya 2010 that the film was partly occasioned by the Maguindanao massacre. It is a reaction to the inflicted violence that must have weighed on creating a pacifist film, which Limbunan seems to be.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with a pacifist film except that it protects the status quo. It describes a flawed culture in Maguindanao, but it prescribes, by default, by a compliant ending, the continuation of the current state of things. It glosses over the very problems it raises. Gloss, that’s what it is, and to appraise the film at face value is to disguise the reactionary values conveyed at its core. Limbunan gingerly broaches the issues inherent in arranged marriages, fettered women’s rights and other corollary problems, but, ultimately, they are given the short shrift. They are all conveniently swept under the rug of supposedly bigger and vaster considerations. 

Limbunan is not without its virtues. It is quite admirable in its unconventionality, stripped down and almost bereft of story, unlike the routinary run of traditional narratives. It is a visual film more than anything, its lush, poetic imagery borders on superfluity, but it may help explain the dilemmatic passage of time within the film. It is a tonal poem with deceptive moods.

It is a tonal poem that charts a month of confinement for Ayesah, a month of solitude during which all her needs are attended to. But she is almost inconsolable; her betrothal is against her will. Her sense of inequity is evident as she questions her elders about the wisdom of this looming marriage. However, she is prevailed upon to stay the course by her sagely aunt, Farida, whose wisdom is painfully earned and learned. She comes from a long line of women who have had the same nuptial experience. She knows her niece’s hurts, but there are bigger relevancies, according to her, than personal happiness. There are vaster sociopolitical repercussions linked with this impending union – perhaps peace and progress in Maguindanao?

Limbunan is no humanist document in spite of Mangansakan’s intentions. Long after the arranged marriage that is hinted to have taken place at film’s end, what will have become of Ayesah? Essentially a sacrificial lamb, a human pawn, she must forever stay mute, as mute as her place of domestic exile – the limbunan we get glimpses of and experience with her. But again, to believe the entrenched practices, there are more pertinent things than personal happiness, the fate of entire territories perhaps, though Ayesah loves another man.

Instead of chipping away at the ossified values and unprogressive traditions in Maguindanaoan culture, Limbunan devotes its time lulling us with pretty pictorialism. Bound in the immediate vicinity of Ayesah’s home, the camera follows Ayesah’s playful sister, Saripa, who examines the natural minutiae of their backyard (hints of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood come to mind). However, the kind of imagery we see bears little contributory value – not tension; not emblem – except perhaps as an index to the long wait that Ayesah must suffer until the moment of inescapable reckoning. Her aunt may assuage her griefs, her own mother assume Ayesah’s everyday chores, but this anticipation of the enforced marriage, the sense of self-sacrifice, is so much like a death sentence – so aestheticized as if this inequity were not so cruel and inhuman. 

Published: July 16, 2010 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Andre Techine, 2009)


She's not all there. There's a faraway and wistful look in the eyes of young Parisienne Jeanne Fabre, and it scarcely seems to be one of aspiration. When the camera follows her around the city in Andre Techine’s The Girl on the Train, she seems to be a study of youth misspent. There is little to indicate what yearnings, or perhaps sorrows, inhabit her mind, and even when she rollerblades across the city, there is on her face, the perpetual gaze of abstraction. Taking her time to look for jobs, she mysteriously eschews the ones that answer her resume. It’s not as though she lacks her mother’s wisdom and supportive presence. Au contraire. Even when she finds love, it hardly seems enough a catalyst to awaken her from a perpetual reverie. “Learn to open your eyes,” someone soon advises her. 

Based on events that made news headlines in France in July 2004, Techine’s latest film draws on the hoax perpetrated by a 23-year-old woman named Marie-Léonie Leblanc who, in an apparent effort to gain attention, claimed to have been attacked by black and Arab youths on a Parisian train. It was a hoax that touched a nerve across a country reeling from a string of anti-Semitic attacks. In The Girl on the Train, we vaguely sense the public outrage, but what is writ larger are a young woman’s ill-advised choices and her galvanization from a mysterious trance. 

The Girl on the Train is structured as a diptych, two halves carrying utilitarian titles, the first half being the “Circumstances” and the second “Consequences.” Far from assuming a documentary approach, Techine lenses his material with the same poetic sensibility and delicacy that grace his previous mature work (The Thieves, The Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season). “Circumstances” traces the fictionalized moments of Jeanne’s life that might help explain why she committed the hoax. What essentially unravels her is the repudiation by her boyfriend, a promising Olympian wrestler who is faced with a lengthy prison sentence because of her. “Consequences” encapsulates the moments after the hoax, the gathering together of Jeanne’s suddenly extended family, her mother and mother’s friends – mainly a Jewish lawyer and his family whom Jeanne involves in her hoax – to let her see the error of her ways. It is the adolescent Nathan, the young grandson of Bleistein, who sees through her, a kindred spirit. 

The young Belgian actress, Émilie Dequenne, who played the down-and-out working class girl in the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta, essays enigmatic yearnings to perfection as the eponymous character. Catherine Deneuve, as Jeanne’s mother, is a strong but unobtrusive presence, ready to enlist everyone’s help and swallow her pride to see her child through. Michel Blanc, as the Jewish lawyer Bleistein, is a strong ballast who shrewdly knows the bigger picture borne out of the consequences. 

Throughout Techine’s film runs a recurrent motif that reveals one of its inspirations: the musical theme to Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie. Both films, true enough, are unconventional character studies of young, embattled women. While Nana in Godard’s film meets with a fatalistic and perhaps cynical end, a prostitute’s cold-blooded death, however, Jeanne is not beyond redemption. The Girl on the Train professes, as in many previous Techine pictures, the power of familial bonds. Love redeems, and it cuts across all barriers.

Not as evidently strong and coherent as Techine’s masterpieces (The Wild Reeds, My Favorite Season), The Girl on the Train is a work that makes more sense with retroactive appreciation. It’s a film that hints and suggests as much as tells its story. If nothing else, it yet again confirms the filmmaker’s fascination with women, a long-standing one borne out in more than three decades of filmmaking. The Bad Girl, Strayed, The Thieves, and The Bronte Sisters are pictures that foreground the subjectivity of women, a subjectivity that paradoxically avoids eliciting facile judgments. Here lies the strange redemptive power of Andre Techine’s brand of cinema.

Published: June 4, 2010 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

HOW TO BECOME MYSELF (Jun Ichikawa, 2007)

Some profess that life must be lived with a mediation of masks. Others espouse the contrary: a life conducted with as much candor and consistency as possible, without dissimulations and the need for public personas. Jun Ichikawa’s How to Become Myself undermines the reductive simplicity of either perspective, and forwards a strategic compromise between the two. There is verity in the oft-repeated line from Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes." 

Based on a novel by Mado Kaori, this is the story of two kindred spirits floundering through young adolescence as they parse what it means to live happily and approach life at the right pitch and proportion. A profound yet delicate drama, it is a film that continues in the same vein and tonality as the director’s previous offering, Tony Takitani, employing a subtle direction that owes to the tranquil touch of Ozu. Ichikawa finds his comfort zone in borrowing the old master’s quiet cadences and pillow shots, affording his story a quality of equanimity and a lyrical rhythm.

As the film opens, two adolescent girls named Juri and Kanako meet very briefly just before high school graduation. It’s a meeting that leaves a lasting impression on both girls, with Kanako leaving behind a line from Dazai Osamu: “You’re a good liar; you should do the right thing.” Cryptic, but the line somehow clicks with the listener. The two lose touch and resettle in different towns, with Juri finding a sense of equilibrium in her new life. It’s no mean feat, as she must buck the divorce of her parents, and adapt to a new school and environment.

Thanks to the talismanic line from Dazai, the once-troubled Juri reinvents herself and turns her life around. She becomes well-adjusted enough to become everybody's favorite at school. This is the part where word about Kanako reaches her. Relocated to another school, she faces the same prospects as Juri once did. Juri decides to intervene and makes contact with Kanako via email. While Juri turns their correspondence into a novel, Kanako takes advice about everything: from classmates to school etiquette, down to what to say to a suitor, what to order on a date. Through her friend's steady instruction, Kanako refashions herself to great effect. 

It’s a hackneyed conceit straight out of Edmond Rostand. But Ichikawa makes the Cyrano-ish character of Juri more humanly vulnerable as the drama wears on. Juri proves to be no worldwise figure but an insulated girl who lives vicariously through her friend. The seemingly passive Kanako has been thoughtfully testing out her friend’s advice, all along, and provides the best existential insight in the film when Juri needs it.

But the concerns of Ichikawa’s film are also very contemporary. At a time of discarnate relationships online, relationships built on emails, video conferences, and text messages, it’s a film that slightly suspects but surprisingly doesn’t take an entirely dim view of new technology in advancing relationships. Cast to a great extent as email and text exchanges between Juri and Kanako, How to Become Myself recuperates the epistolary tradition. There is power in the written word, now more than ever.

The presence of novelist Dazai Osamu is often invoked and lingers in the background. His hovering spirit in Ichikawa’s film is an ambivalent one, not outright glorified nor ridiculed. His words sustain Juri at one point, but his meanings may very well have been misconstrued. If Dazai’s characters are frustrated suicides or maladjusted individuals, Ichikawa’s are made of sterner stuff. There is fight in them, and one is quite certain, no matter life’s adversities, of their resilience. They will never go the way of Yozo in Dazai's No Longer Human or Dazai himself.

At once poetic and pragmatic, How to Become Myself is like a book wanting to be read and learned from. A self-help tome, a survival manual, a teenager's guide to the universe, or what-not, but its heart will be forever in the right place.

Published: June 30, 2010 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

Monday, February 18, 2013

GIVE UP TOMORROW (Marty Syjuco / Michael Collins, 2012)

That this film was underwritten, bankrolled and co-directed by a relative of Francisco Juan "Paco" Larrañaga, the subject of this documentary, should give the viewer some pause and perspective. Not the pause and perspective that are borne out of the film’s understandable bias, but the pause and perspective that our own biases have run rampant within us from being fed by mass media only part of a crime story involving Larrañaga

For most of us old enough to remember him, Paco Larrañaga seemed every inch guilty as charged of the rape and murder of the Chiong SistersMarijoy and Jacqueline, sometime in 1997 along with his co-accused. But the truth is we were made to know precious little of a more comprehensive story: forces in society worked to suppress the bigger, deeper, and more accurate picture. 

More than 14 years later, the air may have sufficiently cooled. This film tries to go upstream, as it were, to dramatize the story of a long-suffering family who may have kept their silence for far too long, and perhaps more crucially, present Larrañaga's own testimony which was muzzled, every step of the way, by the trial courts. The film gives voice to a simple but well-corroborated defense: the plain, verifiable contention that Larrañaga, 20 years old then, was in Manila, studying at a culinary school, when the crimes were supposed to have taken place in Cebu. 

Today, Larrañaga, a dual citizen of Spain and our country, sits in a prison in Madrid awaiting an elusive parole after a protracted odyssey, having shuttled perilously from a life sentence to a death sentence, then back again, before his repatriation. The wounds and hurts he and his family have been inflicted, however, may be too deep to ever fully heal.
That will help explain part of the thrust of the film not to spare anyone, not even the aggrieved family of the late Chiong Sisters. Many of the intentions of the bereaved parents come into question and they don’t come off smelling like roses. They are made to appear of knowingly pinning the blame for the deaths of their daughters on innocents. They are implicated in keeping mum on their knowledge of crimes. Suspects arise: there is a shadowy and powerful figure, hinted at but judiciously unrevealed by the film, who may be behind the horrific fate of their daughters, although this theory is not allowed to fully cohere. 

But the overarching influence that the Chiongs are supposed to wield – an influence that holds sway on the police, the anti-crime groups, the justice system, all the way up to the president – does hold some water. It all stemmed from mass sympathy and outrage, the groundswell that put pressure on the minders of society. Everyone was sucked into the vortex of an almost soap-operatic drama that struck a societal chord: the perception that the rich always get away scot-free.

The film then is double-edged in its affect and effect: it is a defense of a kinsman as well as an implicit indictment of how society can go horribly wrong. Footages of editorial shows on television that were quick to condemn Larrañaga make us flinch, and the interviews of members of the Larrañaga family are full of helpless grief. They all add up to the plausibility of injustice being committed against someone repeatedly referred to as a “boy.” Society may be to blame, but their motivations, akin to that of a mob, however, may also be explicable. Larrañaga, mestizo and reputed to be a bad boy in Cebu,  “a scion of the influential Osmena clan,” became the flashpoint of a seething class antagonism. This is the revenge of the masses, so to speak, against one of the aristocracy.       

But what proves ultimately powerful, despite the care and discretion of the filmmakers not to sentimentalize their subject to the point of seemingly insulating him, is how the film remains profoundly, dramatically affecting. There are not many footages involving Larrañaga’s own statements -- might he implicate himself otherwise? -- but somehow his scarcity and perceived reticence gives him an aura of dignity and an aura of even-mindedness. It is the members of his family who are called upon to reveal what this man and they themselves have had to suffer and endure in the interim. In the words of those who make testimonies on his behalf, he still remains a child. Then as the footages unfold, we see him being led away in handcuffs to the chants of death, then little by little we see him grow into adulthood, and because he remains something of a mystery throughout, we wonder what these experiences have wrought on his life. Then he speaks, uncertain of his future, quite philosophically, how if he is to give up on life, he should “give up tomorrow.” And tomorrow, he will repeat the same line. Heartbreaking.  

Saturday, February 16, 2013

ANG NAWAWALA (Marie Jamora, 2012)

I spent my youth obsessing about music -- seeking out films like this, films whose soundtracks might appeal to me, not merely as accompaniment and background to enhance, or embellish, the dramatic proceedings onscreen, but rather, as splendid and cherished music on their own, waiting to be abstracted, identified, and acquired for my own listening pleasure. Foundational films are all but synonymous with John Hughes and include such classics as Some Kind of Wonderful, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller Day Off -- superlative examples whose sound design transcended their cinematic purpose and became personal and popular soundtracks for an entire generation. Active in the 80s and early 90s, Hughes pioneered this innovative kind of incidental music, culling from the pop and rock music of the era -- often British New Wave, sometimes Australian, sometimes continental Europe, sometimes North American -- rather than commissioning the work of professional film scorers. (No accident that most of the titles enumerated above form part of Hughes filmography.)

During those simpler and admittedly more naive times, films made the grade if they included cameo performances by beloved bands, if a favorite tune or some excellent new discovery would only play in the background. In many instances, a song was the mnemonic to remember any movie by. Times, however, change. Years later that kind of music fell into decline and it closed that chapter of my life. Besides, films of that persuasion, most often of the so-called high school subgenre, were also coterminous with that era. Now everything is a memory, a corollary of my younger, more innocent, more ignorant days. Today cinematic cameos and walk-ons of musicians, more often than not, strike me like so much product placement.

What of more recent retrospective movies, say, those throwbacks to the postpunk era and their music-related thematics like 24 Hour Party People or Control, you may ask? Did I not succumb to the tempting evocation of Manchester's independent scene circa 1980s, and savor, in particular, the recreation of concerts of Factory label bands at the legendary Hacienda? Did I not lap up the brief life of Ian Curtis, the briefer life of Joy Division, the timbre of this suicide's tortured vocals and his spastic dance moves? Admittedly, I did, on all counts, with wide-eyed nostalgia to boot. Admittedly, when cleansing the retina of challenging films, I allow myself the soft touch of such films. Admittedly, too, my jaundiced presumptions of their lack of worth have been time and again proven wrong, as demonstrated above. So with the push and pull of mixed feelings, I went to watch Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala, partly with a knee-jerk jadedness, but partly with something akin to an adolescent’s exuberance. Ang Nawawala, after all, promised to fill the bill. The spotlight was on a kind of music after my heart, indie pop, that little known variety of pop with a small, specialized following.

To my dismay, nothing clicked. Nothing registered with me. Alas, there were no anthems worth latching onto, at least not to my fairly cultivated ear for music. Many of the indie pop allusions were not lost on me, but there were moments of vague disconnect: was it the film's glaring formulism, was it the distancing and warping effect of age and my past musical allegiances, is today's indiepop not my thing despite my profession of affinity? Turning into an unwilling eavesdropper, I had to suffer through the uninteresting non-story, mostly a pretext for shooting band performances and the indie pop lifestyle that I initially thought to be cinematic. Wrong. For some reason, it cut no ice with me. Not even the slew of cameos -- from Pedicab to Outerhope -- came close to home. My affections for films with a musical leitmotif turned limp and lifeless.

Ten years reportedly went into the preparation and gestation of Jamora's film debut, but what comes across is mere surface luster: a spankingly crisp and fluid cinematography that takes in everything from band sound checks and gigs to a fine array of indie pop paraphernalia and status symbols: Tintin t-shirts, Hello Kitty headphones, Korg synthesizers, a Japanese vinyl pressing of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration, and stacks of mostly New Wave vinyl records -- all calculated to jack up the hipster index. But what was put on the back burner was, unfortunately, the single most important ingredient: the blueprint for a plausible, well-written screenplay. Ang Nawawala's story proves paper-thin, its focus on music, concerts and records, nothing novel, its central character, a self-imposed mute, is improbable. Compare and contrast that with, say, Stephen Frears' High Fidelity. For one, Frears' film concerns relatively more identifiable and more believable characters. Moreover, much of the musical aces up its sleeve, now well-known tropes, were unique to it and newly minted when the movie first appeared, mainly thanks to Nick Hornby's novel. Maybe High Fidelity was the apex of its kind, after which everything went downhill and derivative: the proto-film about mix tapes, vinyl records, and musical coolness and triumphalism.

At some point even Frears' movie started to sag on me, as soon as its mechanisms became apparent on subsequent viewings. Ang Nawawala doesn't fare better, formulated with a much-used Hollywood template -- i.e. boy and girl meet cute, boy goes steady with girl, boy loses girl -- and worse, it tries to be a bricolage of two movies, the first one being the above-mentioned courtship between boy and girl, a lot of which happens at indie pop concerts-cum-karaoke-sessions, and the second one involves the nominal theme of filial estrangement, a negligible Oedipal conflict of sorts, tacked on at the eleventh hour to save the whole project.

Much of Ang Nawawala seems simply too precious to be comprehended. By the time it begins, our hero has held himself incommunicado for the duration of a decade, and for reasons, it would turn out, that seem to be non-issues. However, he obliges to communicate through all sorts of gadgets and electronics, too. Where is the integrity here for that prisoner of a long-lingering shock? It all seems at cross-purposes, but there may be an explanation: it does, after all, conform to a certain brand of indie pop ethos. Consider how most indie pop sub-genres such as chamber pop, twee, guitar pop, sophisti pop, jangle, c86, and bedroom pop, for instance, mirror a kind of aesthetics that is more pop-slanted than rock-oriented, more self-conscious than self-assured. Consider the mannerisms of these sub-genres and they may well hint at the mellow and subdued sensibilities of the average indie pop listener, including our hero, a melancholy softie who can't and seemingly won't outgrow his traumas. When the great reveal of his hurts happens, it predictably proves underwhelming, and we wonder if it is intended as a reproach to the indie pop fan's putatively suspect constitution, or as a larger, more encompassing critique of middle class vulnerabilities.

Amid the growing welter of poverty films circulating at all the domestic festivals -- those grimly serious films tackling widespread and legitimate social problems in earnest -- Ang Nawawala sticks out like a sore thumb, a whimsical work by comparison that foregrounds affluence, privilege and the ridiculous problematics of a young man rendered perpetually mute by his mother's casual slip of tongue. Frankly, much, much better conceptualized statements can be made about the bourgeoisie than this. To be sure, Ang Nawawala excels in terms of photographic polish and irreproachable production values but there is a gaping chasm at its narrative and ideological center. A flashback towards the end weakly explicates the source of our hero's protracted silence: his trauma stems from an overly precocious realization, at the age of 10, of his mother's secondary regard for him vis-a-vis his twin brother, the favorite, who dies suddenly and leaves a void in his mother's life. The felt hurt of neglect, of not being the fair-haired son, may sting but is it supposed to linger? Mountain, or, rather, molehill? Or has it all been in the agenda: has writer-director Jamora endeavored to show that such a hypersensitivity defines the upper crust our hero represents -- that the bourgeois are made of such feeble and fragile stuff? Possible, but doubtful: there is no tangible ideological slant within the film. And when the music fails in the final reckoning, a music that serves as an aphrodisiac for its two blossoming lovers, but shows, in the end, the tenuousness of its talismanic power -- let's just say, the girl proves promiscuously phonocentric while our hero remains silent and tight-lipped -- Ang Nawawala has become a matter of sheer indifference.   
Title in English: What Is Not There

Friday, February 8, 2013

IMBURNAL (Sherad Anthony Sanchez, 2008)


The history of cinema is the history of the tyranny of narrative films. The right of first refusal to anything worth committing to film belongs to the province of narrative films. Narrative films are what sells, here and elsewhere. Narrativization, it seems, is the handmaiden of crass commercialism. Young filmmaker Sherad Anthony Sanchez turns away from this corruption of cinematic art and kneels down at the tabernacle of the experimental. Through Imburnal, a 3-hour, 30 minute tour de force set in the sewers and shantytowns of Davao City, director Sanchez renews and defamiliarizes our received notions about what it depicts, in the process dismantling the predictable tendencies of narrative films, in the process, too, reawakening our collective conscience and consciousness. Let the wounds reopen and fester again!

What Imburnal succeeds in doing is to recompose and poeticize the ugly, the squalor and the wretchedness. In effect, the cinematic alchemy is to see the sewers in a new light. The result may not be an aesthete’s notion of a paradisiacal playground, but the sewers are not merely repositories of filth and refuse either, but afford a hideaway for its denizens. They are the last refuge and haunting places for the kids and teenagers living in the nearby slums. We don’t smell these sewers for some reason, even as the waters flowing through them aren’t pristine either.

Eschewing straight narrative, director Sanchez decides to film episodes of life in the margins as they take place in and around the sewers. The editor (Sanchez, too?) and a phalanx of cinematographers are agents of abstraction as much as the director: the camera blurs out of focus, it decenters compositions, runs on and on in lengthy takes. Editing is as defamiliarizing: freeze frames, an assortment of jolting and jarring filters, disjunctive and non-linear editing, all intertwined with simply lyrical compositions. Out of potential tabloid material, Imburnal is perhaps what we might call an instance of poetic social realism.

While Davao City is hailed by lofty honors as the safest and cleanest city in Southeast Asia, there is much squalor in the periphery. Allen and Joel, two kids who figure in Imburnal, practically think of the sewers as their second home. They play and frolic and swim there, and tom-peep the older kids fornicating in different permutations. The older kids, no older than teenagers, hang out here too. They have dead-end prospects in life; their talk centers on sex, the opposite sex, love, and the mundane. Otherwise, there are cheap vices – smokes, alcohol, improvised drugs and all – to be had.

Imburnal attests to the instinctive resiliency of life – its strange but seductive mutations – where none is expected to survive. The sewers may not represent heaven on earth, but they sometimes function as the last refuge for the young who have nowhere to go. Some of them even go to die there. Through Imburnal, Sherad Anthony Sanchez has created both a poem – an elegiac one perhaps – and a document that attest to the lives of the marginalized and the voiceless. From the depths of these sewers rises a film that can arrest us, a beautiful Baudelairean flower.

Reviewed: August 30, 2009 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision) 

HALAW (Sheron Dayoc, 2010)


Here in imperial Manila, how often do we stop and think about distant Mindanao? This begs repeating, for in truth we have consigned our southern brethren to the margins of consciousness. Worse, we think of them with a colonizer’s orientalism: warlike and belligerent, intractable and ungovernable. No understanding and touching base with their kind, let alone extending what is due them as part of the nation. Our nexus with them is tenuous, characterized by neglect and ignorance, hostility and strife. While the North gets the lion’s share of infrastructural development, budgetary allocations and administrative favor, the South is a poor relation that must fend for itself, even if it means scattering its desperate denizens in search of greener pastures.

Sheron Dayoc’s feature debut, Halaw, is a story of the dangerous, daily diaspora from Mindanao to immediate foreign territories, a story of risky human traffic we have for far too long turned a blind eye to. From a native Mindanaoan director, it is a welcome corrective to the lack of films about the region in general. Hopefully, it isn’t the last. It isn’t pretty to look at as it should be, no glossy and hypnotically arresting visuals but a cinematographic treatment marked by raw, cinema-verite imagery centering on those who would rather escape notice, let alone documentation. Halaw is a film that follows the human smuggling through the so-called southern backdoor. Rendered in real-time narration, it details, with a strict observational stance, one fraught passage through the perilous seas of Mindanao.

In a seaside town in Zamboanga, where it all begins, a Badjao named Jahid and his young daughter Daying prepare for the illegal pump-boat crossing to Sabah, where they intend to locate his missing wife. They lack the requisite fare but prevail upon the boat’s conductor with Daying’s last remaining possession, her earrings. Another practiced traveler is Hernand, a white slavery operator who is finding it hard to recruit his share of unsuspecting women (i.e. virgins are at a premium). In Hernand’s company is one such girl, too wide-eyed and ignorant to calculate her impending mistake, drawn ironically to her future incarnation, a middle-aged prostitute in the same boat, who plies her flesh in Malaysian territories. This prostitute gladly humors her with a modern woman’s accessories: her beguiling perfume, her fancy clothes and her lucrative claims if the younger girl played her cards right.

However, the sea journey is never free of risk and treachery. 
The pump-boat operators may know all the precautionary measures from mapping out the best routes to escaping detection in Malaysian waters, but nothing is guaranteed. The smallest exigency – e.g. the presence of water in the hull, the sudden sputtering of the boat’s motor – can be a cause of concern for both the travelers and their transporters. Easy passage is for the unusually lucky.

Even as there are divertissements along the way – e.g. the young Daying regaling her boatmates with what must be a Badjao dance, something she parlays into a handful of coins – the sense of reprieve is palpably temporary. In a well-conceived, penultimate scene set on Mananako Island, the last stopover, the sense of peril becomes apparent. Flesh becomes the currency to settle old debts, and the sea is no longer what it seems. The hardest part, however, is far from over.

If, as one watches, one detects an Ariadne’s thread of sorts through Halaw and films like Jeturian’s Kubrador, Mendoza’s Manoro and Ralston Jover’s Bakal Boys, the sure guiding hand of Armando Lao and his real-time paradigm have been at work all along. This scriptwriting wizard, who has for years ensured a steady stream of well-conceived screenplays, lends his assistance to a new filmmaker once again, although one begins to wonder if his unmistakable influence has made for a homogenization of those films he has helped to shape. Frankly, for as long as a film is given ample time to germinate in the collaboration, what matters should be the well-made product.

That seems to be part of Halaw’s one glaring problem, its rough-draft finish. Like an almost exquisite corpse, Halaw has some missing vital parts. The interaction between the travelers, the agoraphobia of the open seas, the different complexions and colorations of a journey, seem hurriedly sketched, rushed. A sense of narrative truncation happens at the end, all too abruptly. Perhaps, this picture’s structure is an attempt to draw a parallel to the lay of the land, highlighting the chopped-up nature of a nation. Like a gangrenous limb, there is a part of us that must want, desperately, to be separated, amputated. 

Reviewed: July 19, 2010 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

MEMORIES OF MATSUKO (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2006)

Bless her poor soul. All she ever wanted was to do right by her loved-ones. All she ever did was to give a part of her self with little expectation of reward. But hers was not a perfect world. Life would boomerang on her despite her best efforts. This, in essence, is the sad trajectory of Matsuko's worldly existence.

At first blush, it seems like a subject matter meant solely for a downbeat film. Memories of Matsuko, however, manages to achieve a more complex feat, a more multifaceted and more polyphonic film than might appear on paper. It tones down the tragic in favor of a hyper-realistic portrait of the comic and the dramatic. It’s a movie that tries and succeeds in not playing it straight and yet retains the sad eventfulness of its heroine's story. Oscillating between its evocation of humor and pathos in 127 minutes of sheer emotional push and pull, it aims true for the heart.

We learn about Matsuko, however, through second hand and in flashbacks. By the time the film begins, she is a box full of ashes. Her nephew Shou, a directionless youth, has been tasked by his father to clean out his dead aunt’s apartment. Shou hardly knew her. Yet in death, Matsuko might just affect the tenor of his disaffected life.  
Matsuko’s fall from grace is rooted in childhood -- her father rejecting her in favor of her sickly younger sister -- but culminates when she protects her high school student who is suspected of theft. She takes the blame for it and is discharged from her duties in dishonor. Her family, most especially her father whose approval Matsuko seeks, disowns her.

Thrown out of the family, Matsuko rebounds from one abusive relationship to another, as she looks for companionship that has long eluded her. Almost all her lovers, however, prove to be wrong choices: There’s an aspiring but heavy-handed writer who takes his own life, a married man who is simply jealous of the writer, a pimp, a yakuza thug who is as fearsome as his tattoos. When she seems to have found the right man, she is thrown into jail for a crime she has been running away from.

Finely balanced between comedy and drama, Memories of Matsuko is leavened by pop tunes and musical numbers whose lyrics are relevant to the moment and the fate of its heroine. It’s a film that mixes tone in just the right proportions and emerges as both entertainment and as serious meditation on a life tracing a downward spiral.

The life of Matsuko is pretty much the stuff of soap operas – only her life seems without payoff and redemption. The film, however, never faults her for her ill-advised decisions, although there is a lot of them. Prostituting herself? No. Murdering her lover? No. Refusing help when she most needs it? No. 

This is the achievement of Nakashima’s film: Matsuko remains sympathetic all throughout despite her flaws. Memories of Matsuko feels neither too oppressively heavy nor too insistent on pulling at our heartstrings – at least not until the end. We are simply dazzled by the visual sumptuousness on the screen, the gloss and the crisp, rich colors that recall the best color movies (Gone With the Wind is one of the conscious references.). We are likewise diverted by the many incarnations of Matsuko, as well as the colorful characters that she meets: her shady jobs, the porn actress, the suicidal writer, the yakuza gangster, her bedridden sister, the boy band.

As her murder unfolds at film's end, the bittersweet irony clarifies: Matsuko has genuinely touched a few lives, even those who could only respond with treachery. When it's all over, there is but a single abiding image: her face and lips puckered at us, a woman not ashamed to make herself look silly just to make our day.

Reviewed: July 5, 2009 (Northern Portrait/The Persistence of Vision)

From Antonioni to Brocka, The Allusive Cinema of Tsai Ming-liang


From Antonioni to Brocka, The Allusive Cinema of Tsai Ming-liang

Born and raised in Kuching, Malaysia, Tsai Ming-liang was introduced to movies by his grandparents, who often took him to screenings of popular films from China, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, America, and the Philippines at any of the dozen or so cinemas that populated their small, quiet town.
-- Darren Hughes, Senses of Cinema

Don’t think for a moment that Tsai Ming-Liang, that formidable auteur of Taiwanese New Wave, sprang fully-formed from the godhead of cinema with his feature debut, Rebels of the Neon God, in 1992. Far from it. As the epigraph suggests, Tsai has had an early exposure to the influence of film, a childhood pervaded by film and moviegoing, and it doesn’t end there. Long before the clinical term for his condition had a name, Tsai’s diasporic life saw him cultivating a cinephilia, a voracious consumption of films. It’s a cinephilia that seems unabated and has found expression throughout many of the director’s films. Think Tarantino, think French New Wave, only more integrated. Less apparently intertextual.

For Tsai, the real watershed that ushered him into a more serious and obsessive pursuit of the moving image was his relocation to Taiwan at the age of twenty. Unlike his native Kuching which could only offer commercial cinematic fare, the cultural institutions of Taiwan had vaster resources and deeper, more extensive archives. Enrolling himself in the Chinese Culture University in Taipei to study drama and film, Tsai was soon exposed to the films of the French New Wave and the New German Cinema. This formative period would see his initiation into the works of Truffaut, Fassbinder, Bresson, and Antonioni. These are the auteurs to this day that are most often identified with Tsai.

True to form, Rebels of the Neon God is a laudable first film that doesn’t forget to pay tribute to the director’s considerable filmgoing. Thematically speaking, Rebels mirrors the urban alienation that preoccupies Antonioni in such films as La Notte and L’Eclisse. Obsessed with the more “modern” milieus of cities, Tsai would go on to problematize urban relationships in such films as Vive L’Amour and The Hole.

Rebels of the Neon God, in sum, chronicles the disechanted lives of several youths, lost in the unforgiving shuffle of city life. As the film begins, Hsiao-Kang evinces the symptoms of this anomic affliction. One restive night, he inexplicably crashes his hand through a window pane, an allusion to a similar scene in Wenders’ tale of alienation, False Move.

Meanwhile in the garish lights of this stormy evening, Ah-Tse and Ah-Ping, two youthful operators, ransack payphones for their hoard of coins. Later on, Ah-Kuei, another restless denizen of the city, winds up in someone’s bed yet again, her palliative to combat her loneliness. Then, a day later, Hsiao-Kang, with his hand bandaged, tries to get a refund for tutorial classes he is taking at a nearby school. End of education. They are dropping out from life, and neither does Tsai offer a neat solution, let alone an optimistic end. Rebels, as far as cinematic depiction goes, are meant to toe the line or be crushed. For good measure, Tsai never misses the chance to juxtapose Hsiao Kang with a pasteboard image of James Dean circa Rebel without A Cause.

A more fascinating aspect of Tsai's film, however, is its seeming wealth of references and allusions to Filipino films. Rebels of the Neon God may very well be Tsai’s sneaking tribute to Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Neon, probably the nearest film to depict the crushing and grinding stranglehold of a city. Lee Kang-Sheng’s Hsiao Kang, the central outsider-loner of Tsai’s film, bears an uncanny resemblance and countenance to Bembol Roco’s shell-shocked provincial Julio Madiaga in Brocka’s masterpiece. As Julio Madiaga is cornered by a murderous mob towards the film’s end, Ah-Tse and Ah-Ping, who have just been caught stealing motherboards from video game machines, suffer a very similar fate in the denouement of Tsai's film. The similarities are, well, uncanny.

If the foregoing should be dismissed as a function of speculation, mere conjecture, the charge may be justified. But consider the eerie sense of recognition as one goes down Tsai’s filmography. Take Hsiao-Kang’s transformation into a porn actor in Tsai's Wayward Cloud, a narrative twist prefigured by Julio Madiaga’s turn as a male prostitute. In another Tsai film, The Hole, there is the pivotal conceit of a hole in the floor of an apartment building that becomes a lifeline between a man and a woman. Familiar? Can you say Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights? A more particular and thorough study may yield more connections and perhaps these shouldn’t be surprising. Tsai’s easter eggs embedded in his films are a fitting tribute to a cinema that is worthy of tribute and emulation. Our cinema.

Reviewed: June 28, 2010 (Northern Portrait & Film Angel/The Persistence of Vision)