Tuesday, April 30, 2013

INSIANG (Lino Brocka, 1976)

Reminiscent of Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, though not as stomach-turning and not as willfully controversial, Insiang’s opening sequence showing the barbarous assembly-line butchery at a slaughterhouse serves effectively to foreshadow a grim and violent denouement. Set in the cramped warrens of Tondo, Insiang uses its neorealist sensibilities to depict the dark destiny of its title hero. 

Insiang, played with quiet strength by Hilda Koronel, is the unwanted daughter of Tonia, a middle-aged woman who cavorts with younger men. One such man is Dado (Ruel Vernal), the slaughterhouse worker who is using the older woman to get to her daughter. Insiang, in the meantime, is being worn down by the advances of her boyfriend, Danny (Rex Cortez). And yes, he promises marriage.

In Insiang, the men are up to no good. There is a relatively minor character, a man with a pure heart, admiring Insiang from afar, but most of the men here have beady eyes and fire in their loins. Director Lino Brocka, working from a script by Lamberto E. Antonio, takes a page from the worldview of Shohei Imamura, a Japanese director who in films such as Insect Woman and The Pornographers portray strong and crafty women. Imamura’s women toy with their lust-heavy, sterile-minded men. In Brocka’s film, Insiang may ultimately fall prey to her pursuers but she is no bleeding heart about to fall paralysed in a state of inaction and catatonia. 

Insiang’s way of getting even, however, beggars our sense of credulity. Her mother, Danny and Dado are all marked for revenge, but not in the way we expect it. Insiang is not the emotional victim, but the calculated mind who wakes up to her powers of sexual persuasion. Instead of lashing out emotionally like many victims do, she subtly controls Dado, her ravisher, with more of what he wants. Can she endure being raped over and over again? While biding her time, Insiang allows herself to be sexually used, waiting to be discovered by her mother, who she knows will not take Dado’s infidelity lightly. The subtle manipulation, this neat and intricate sort of vengeance, seems too hard to believe. It seems to have transcended its neorealist foundation to another category, another genre altogether. Granted, it’s a well-made film, it was the first Filipino film to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival (in 1976), but its reality is sheer cinematic reality – only to happen within the parameters of fictive film.

Reviewed: May 17, 2009

Monday, April 29, 2013

ANG TATAY KONG NANAY (Lino Brocka, 1978)

For director Lino Brocka, cinema is the art of compromise. Each film of his own choosing was matched with two or three – often commercial – projects thrust upon him. Filmmaking is, after all, big business: immense money is involved and taking on what producers and financiers dictate is every director’s Faustian bargain. In Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, there seemed to be a happy meeting of minds: it’s a commercial project, a vehicle for the comedy king, Dolphy, and yet its thematic concerns were easily close to Brocka’s heart.

Made in 1978, a hectic year for the director fielding film assignments left and right (Mananayaw, Gumising Ka, Maruja, Hayop sa Hayop, and Rubia Servios are the other voluminous works he churned out that year) Ang Tatay Kong Nanay still retains the hallmarks of a Brocka creation. The acting is first-rate and the story is as polished as it can be for a mass audience. But it’s easily the superb acting performances, particularly by Dolphy and Nino Muhlach, that carry this film and make it memorable.

Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, in not so many words, is Brocka’s valentine to the unsung fringe of society that he belongs to: the homosexual. Dolphy plays Dioscoro Derecho, a middle-aged gay hairdresser who, as the film opens, lives a simple independent life: a parlorista by day, and a cross-dressing gay by night. He lives for the occasional beauty contest for gays and the boisterous company of his like-minded friends. Complications arise when Dennis (Philip Salvador), a much younger man for whom Dioscoro carries a torch, turns up with his infant son. 

Dennis leaves as soon as he arrives, plunking his son in the care of the long-suffering gay. The infant grows up to be Nonoy (Nino Muhlach), an inquisitive boy who knows Dioscoro as his only parent. As Nonoy starts to ask worldly questions, Dioscoro is forced to go straight and hide his double life. Further twists are afoot, when Dennis returns for a visit and Nonoy’s biological mother makes a bid for the young boy’s custody.

Brocka crafts his film like a melodrama, perhaps not as highbrow as Fassbinder, but perhaps along the lines of Douglas Sirk, aiming for the heart first and foremost. There are enough moments to make you reach for your hankies, always helped along by a well-worn musical motif in the background, a lullaby sung by Dioscoro and Nonoy to each other, with its affirmative lyrics of companionship. Dolphy’s dual performance, as both a gay and straight man, gives this film its comic divertissement. Nino Muhlach deserves what he was called back then, the Wonder Boy, essaying a sympathetic role, his eyes ever full of innocence, and yet instinctively stopping short of cloying. Lino Brocka, in the meantime, takes Orlando Nadres’ story and maps out the difficulty of binary lives. There ought to exist no dichotomy in the realm of human emotions. The third and other sexes are as human as those hardwired to be straight, and perhaps uniquely equipped to encompass all human instinct—paternal as well as maternal.

reviewed: May 19, 2009


Long before the outside world attracted and absorbed the diasporic swell in the millions, the lure of the big city has held an irresistible promise for the Filipino as restless migrant. Manila as the land of milk and honey, Manila as the fascinating symbol of sensory pleasures, such images have burned recurrently and obsessively in his mind. Underneath the hypnotic facade of the metropolis, its allure of sight and sound, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Yet to this day few appear deterred by reality and the urban influx continues. Everyone is thus familiar with nubile women from the sticks recruited unsuspectingly into urban brothels. Everyone is quite familiar with the housemaid raped, ironed or bludgeoned. Everyone has heard about factory workers locked up in their working places or living in unlivable dormitories. Here is the Brocka classic -- a classic often regarded as the preeminent film on any canonical list of Philippine cinematic treasures -- that recounts the circumstances of one such tragic story.

As the film opens, Maynila Sa Mga Kuko's story has long begun in earnest. At the corner of Misericordia and Ongpin, Julio Madiaga stakes out an apartment above a storefront with a signage emblazoned Chua Tek Trading Store. His long journey from a distant fishing island to Manila has brought him here, where he suspects his girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso, is being kept against her will. In flashback after flashback, interspersed with Julio's bitter exposition, we are given an idyllic back story, their life of simple poverty but of simple, unfettered happiness too – only to go terribly wrong upon the arrival of a city woman who sweet-talks the womenfolk with prospects of education and well-paying jobs in the big city.

Maynila Sa Mga Kuko, however, is more about the brutalizing impact of the metropolis on Julio than the tragic fate of Ligaya. In order to survive, Julio takes on all kinds of menial and degrading jobs, as a construction worker and as a male prostitute. At firsthand, he witnesses urban corruption and squalor in all their grisly details: the death of his fellow workers in construction accidents, the schemes of the money-grubbing foreman, the subjection of his friend’s sister into prostitution. Julio is slowly accumulating the inhuman provocation of the city. In the meantime, people around him rationalize the advantages of the city, its preferable fate to their life in the countryside. Although the city teems with unsavory characters and shady goings-on, Julio meets some of the living pulse of the city -- all human but all invariably ground down by harsh life. Little by little, the bright neon is fading: this city has little saving grace.

Brocka, adapting Edgardo Reyes novel of the same title, depicts a miserabilist city, and there is little question what tragic trajectory its story is tracing. Brocka does little to hide its allegorical leanings: Ligaya Paraiso, translated as Happiness Paradise, stands for each man’s pursuit of happiness; Ah Tek, the China man who may be responsible for the disappearance of Ligaya, can be read in the vernacular as atik, or money, the driving force that subjugates helpless and powerless fates.

The figure of Julio Madiaga and the milieu that surrounds him remain current in this new century's urban landscape. As I type this down, another man dies at a construction site. An entire factory of workers is discovered living like vermin. Shantytowns of migrant Filipinos are burned down in some corner of Manila. Has it really been 34 years since Brocka committed their tragic silhouettes to film?

Title in English: Manila in the Claws of Neon
Reviewed: May 20, 2009

Sunday, April 28, 2013

MESTO NA ZEMLE (Artour Aristakisian, 2001)

Maria, wide-eyed woman wrapped in the regalia of rags, 
what provenance do you come from, bagwoman
who lugs around the refuse of Moscow, limping,
inch by painful inch, on feet festering from gangrene,
about to give out, about to give up on this world?
Take heart, Maria, you whose dignity is laid so low
that you must roam with the cats, lie prone on doorsteps
seeking alms or merely directions to a refuge you long for –
but how they shoo you away like dirty pigeons,
how your words weigh like droppings smearing their monuments.

Take heart, Maria, when they deem you touched,
half-mad, half-beatific because you can almost taste
this utopia on earth, a rumored eden for the sick and homeless,
a place promisingly called the Temple of Love –
are you perhaps otherworldly, mongering the trinkets of religion?

When finally, at the end of your tether, you come to this condemned
building teeming with men, women and children, they take you
in without question – these unlikely occupants of this promised land:
cripples, drug addicts, hippies, the down-and-out dregs of skid row.

Nothing’s plenty here in this poorman’s paradise: food is
meager, each one on spoonful rations; space isn’t fit for sardines,
narrow as coffin. There are no floorboards to speak of.
The walls are signatured by wrecking balls, emblazoned with
the bloom of graffiti.

This temple reeks.

Except for Love. This place preens itself on a curious brand.
Sex is a big part of it. Love is instilled this way: asleep or in
need, you are bodily carried from off the streets. You, newcomer,
are fed, bathed, and suckled by women’s breasts like a hungry
infant. In turn you must do the same, pay forward.

Maria, how quietly you take it all in, but how suddenly it seems
you are converted to this hybrid of religion and hedonism –
how you pledge yourself like a biblical Mary or Magdalene
to the man who dressed your wounds, the hippie Messiah
presiding here. Perhaps this is all born of desperation, this
kinship kindled by having no one and nothing at all. What else
do you call it when, day after day, the police rouse you all from
sleep to ferret out the drug addicts and criminals? Where is peace?

Soon enough, this experiment starts to unravel. Desperation
does not become your Jesus: he cuts his member to dissuade
dissenters from leaving. But we see how some faithful remain
– the newcomers at least, while the old hands grow
aloof – and worship at this altar to hippiedom: how you,
Maria, for one, spreads kisses to all the cripples and needy
you meet. But how to sustain? All seems empty goodwill.

Above this crumbling dream, this dilapidated fantasy, we see
the majestic vision of Kremlin, its towering spires piercing the
sky. Had you glanced up, Maria, you’d have murmured
about its remote beauty, how near it is to heaven, and yet how
unreachably so, how forbidding.

Photographed in black and white, this is a documentary disguised as a poetic, fictional movie. It’s a living nightmare, and it’s hard not to flinch from watching sometimes. The faces of impoverishment – the cripples and the woman who essays Maria in particular – appear to be authentic people culled from the streets, lending this film the earmarks of neo-realism. Audiences might read an anti-authoritarian message into this urban dystopia, but that is a given, we are already in an era of skepticism, witnessing evangelists fall from grace. We can zero in on the failure of systems and forms of government, their suspect infallibility, instead. This is perhaps all about the sorry plight and fiasco of the fledgling post-Soviet democracy, where many are neglected and must organize and fend for themselves. Amid the scatter of lost souls, the contrasting grandeur of the Kremlin skyline at movie’s end bears noting.

Title in English: A Place in The World (aka A Place on Earth)
Reviewed: November 11, 2006

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Pillow shots depicting laundry hanging out to dry in the sun, blowing in the breeze, are easily among Ozu’s favorite transitional shots. They neither enhance nor provide an establishing shot for the scenes that they precede but they comprise moments of silence that allow meditation and reflection on the whole of a film --as the silences are as organically important as those that encompass human action. They feature no human presence, the better to induce tension with our anticipation of the progress of narrative. For this film, however, Ozu seems to delight in inserting a visual pun, as the long shot of a clothesline gives way to a close-up revealing a mattress out on the line with urine stains. (It’s that Ozu earthiness – the humanizing kind and not the vulgar variety -- that sometimes one overlooks but can definitely be found in many of Ozu's films, as in the abundant references to breaking wind in Ohayo or the many times we see Chishu Ryu, one of Ozu’s mainstays, paring down his toenails.)

But this is not about toilet humor. This is about human warmth. The metaphor embodied by the urine stains best sums up the emotional residue of this film: the stains are the marks of indelibility that could only emanate from a child, someone who will leave a lasting mark not just on
a plain mattress but on those who will have the distinct chance to know him. Seemingly abandoned by his father and wandering the streets, this child is brought home by the titular but nominal hero to his lodgings. But he is a painter who has little time to spare, so that it is the stern and humorless old lady next door who is asked to put up the child for the night – perhaps until a suitable home can be found or until the child’s father can be located.

The neighbors are no different from the old lady. They would just as soon dispense with the child as any unconnected stranger. They can only agree to draw lots in order to decide who will take the responsibility to locate the child’s missing father. The lots are rigged, of course, and the old lady is again left to assume responsibility. This prolonged moments together with the child start to grow on the old lady. While she warns the child that she would expel him if he keeps peeing on the mattress in his sleep, nothing could prepare her for his self-imposed banishment. At some irrevocable point of the film, she asks the child to call her his mother.

The characters, specifically the dyad of mother and son, are heart-warmers. The transformation lies with the old lady who starts with cynicism and and gradually becomes sensitized and ultimately humanized for knowing a child who awakens all the maternal instincts within her. Although he weeps as much as the next child, this story’s young character seems to be as near tabula rasa as can be – still untainted and practically angelic. (Perhaps even biblical: His father we come to learn is, wink, wink, a carpenter). The sometimes-unneighborly neighbors we get to meet may embody streaks of cunning, but they are all likable.

Record of a Tenement Gentleman comes just after the Second World War and midstream in the directorial career of Ozu, and it seems to reflect that transition. For those who prefer Ozu’s pre-war films, there is something here to recommend. “Warm and human” are certainly applicable adjectives to its scenario and cast of characters. For those who enjoy the home dramas in Ozu’s final cycle of films, this film also qualifies with flying colors – vis-à-vis, say, the “nonsense/light comedies” where the director got his start. 

reviewed: December 13, 2006

Monday, April 8, 2013

NAYAK (Satyajit Ray, 1966)

Posterity will likely remember Satyajit Ray for the three films that comprise the Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Apur Sansar, Aparajito) if one goes by the status quo prevalent in the last 20 or 30 years, thanks in no small part to the dictates of Western canonization and constrained distribution of Ray's filmic output. In the same breath, however, Charulata and Jalsaghar will be forwarded by those who are more conversant in the Bengali director's work as worthy coequals to the highly regarded trilogy. Granting that, the question begs to be asked: Do these above-mentioned works comprehensively round out Ray's most lasting legacy to cinema?

The encouraging answer is that the depth of Ray’s filmography may go deeper and wider in quality than what is hitherto conceded. Ray's filmmaking career, after all, spanned almost four decades, and turned out more than 37 films. With the growing availability and accessibility of Ray's lesser known films, this speculation is being put to the test, and finding an affirmative vindication.

While Ray's highly touted works center on the evocation of rural worlds, what many don't realize is that he made films that shift focus to a more modern setting: films that are either set in cities or contain urban characters in the central roles. If nothing else, this second variety of films reflects the director revelling in his element -- at home in his own times. Their authenticity cannot be questioned as Ray would personally write the scripts for these movies. Some who have sampled both strains of Ray’s work actually swear by the vibrancy and buoyancy of these films of this persuasion. Among these urban tales are Mahanagar and Days and Nights in the Forest, which can rival Ray’s more vaunted works. 

Another entry under this rubric of modernity is Nayak (The Hero), a meditation on the life of an actor. The story is set on a train bound for New Delhi, the characters are passengers whose destination is the only thing they have in common. It is an ode to modern times, to latter-day iconography, that the hero referred to in the title is a film actor. His ride on this speeding train provides the metaphor for an accelerated examination of his life and work. 

Arindam Mukherjee (played by Uttam Kumar) is an ascendant matinee idol on his way to collect an acting award in New Delhi. An assortment of star-struck passengers can’t help gushing about him, but a feisty, old man on a neighboring coach does not mince words to disparage the movie business. Aditi (played by Sharmila Tagore), a journalist who is about to publish her own fledgling women’s magazine, knows little about the actor, but is persuaded to seek him for an interview that would boost her magazine’s readership. What starts out as contempt for movie celebrities turns into a genuine interest in the actor. More importantly, it sets into motion a narration of an unexamined life – told in episodic flashbacks – that sets off a series of sobering epiphanies for the actor. 

The ultimate meaning is explicit enough and never lost on us -- that the actor’s recounting of life humanizes him, revealing the incongruity of an actor's actual life and his screen persona. Given the extent to which film celebrities are sometimes unduly, and perhaps undeservedly, lionized and romanticized by the masses in India, Nayak provides a measure of correction far ahead of its time. Now more than ever – at a time when moral relativism seems to apply to the indiscretions of the icons we idolize – this film can bear a revaluation.   

Title in English: The Hero
reviewed: October 4, 2006

Thursday, April 4, 2013

PARIS IS OURS (Jacques Rivette, 1960)

Paris has never looked and felt this eerie, this sinister, surcharged with quiet hysteria. For a dark moment, all the lights seem to have gone out on this eternally illuminated city. This city is in the grip of a maelstrom -- of paranoia, mystery and suspicion, erasing our bright, flood-lit preconceptions about it. Rivette conjures up this benighted setting out of nothing, a shoestring budget, but succeeds in pulling off a psychological thriller worthy of Hitchcock or Lynch. This feature debut by another Cahiers du Cinema critic, however, is not for everyone: it’s been described variously as “too hermetic” and “too impenetrable” for its own good.

The Paris depicted in this film is one inhabited by shadowy and marginalized figures: exiles, intellectuals, suspected spies and revolutionaries, struggling artists and immigrants, and sundry other characters with suspicious motives and sanities. The Paris of this film, however, is not to be outdone: it's a dark presence that pervades this film like a repeating motif, like another character. Whenever the camera probes its streets, a sensation of vertigo creeps in, heightened by an ominous soundtrack, full of dark foreboding. This defamiliarized city is made more pronounced with its choice of a central protagonist: a young literature student named Anne Goupil, a seemingly impressionable youth who becomes embroiled in the thick of dark intrigue and the influence of mysterious characters who may or may not be involved in affairs that have sinister, international repercussions.

Taking place among student circles and Paris intelligentsia, the story is set into motion by the mysterious death of a Spanish exchange student named Juan, a death rumored to be a case of forced suicide or murder by a shadowy international group. The subsequent disappearance of his sister, a student leader leading a campaign against the Franco regime in Spain, deepens the mystery.

But it is the angry and half-coherent ramblings of Philip Kaufman, an American writer exiled by the Mccarthy witch trials, that increase the sense of paranoia permeating the story. He is convinced that the death of the Spanish student is not suicide and his missing guitar recordings might provide a damning clue that will reveal the unseen hand (a MacGuffin?). Anne meets the babbling writer in a student gathering and immediately comes under his influence, seemingly made credible by the fact that he is a Pulitzer Prize awardee. When the student visits his hiding place, however, his bedroom walls are lined with manic sketches of cartoon-like figures.

Another character who seems to know more about the Spaniard’s death than she lets on is Terry Yordan, the dead student’s American girlfriend. It turns out, later on, that she, too, was previously involved with the American writer. The connection between the two Americans runs deeper -- this becomes clear soon enough, as we catch them conversing in riddles, something that only the ending will finally illuminate.

Terry Yordan’s present boyfriend, Gerard Lenz, a theatrical director trying to put together Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” adds another element of mystery. In the course of the film, Anne also enters his inner circle as an actress in his play, and as a close and concerned confidante. The American writer is convinced that Gerard, too, will suffer the same fate as the dead Spaniard. Before long, Gerard begins to show signs of breaking down, coming to a head when Anne receives a suicide note apparently from him.

Part of this film’s miracle is the fact that it was made at all. Some of the credit must go to Rivette’s friends at Cahiers du Cinema, who in true "la politique des copains" fashion – the Cahiers brand of solidarity – bankrolled part of the capital and provided technical assistance for this film’s completion. Everyone on the cast and crew were hired on credit, until the film’s eventual release in 1960 underwrote it. It’s a labor of love for Rivette, who had to juggle production as well direction capacities in its making, suspending shoots on Sundays to raise additional funds, before filming resumed on Mondays.

As with many of Rivette films, there’s more than meets the eye when we watch Paris Is Ours – more levels and intricacies than the literal one. Rivette’s fascination with theatre begins with this film, to be further explored in films like L’Amour Fou and Va Savoir, that film-within-a-film structure that provides a counterpoint to the themes of its movies. Politics is not the subject of this film, but there are enough references in it to derive an allegory: one that points to the harrowing consequences of fascism on a highly democratized society like France. The allusions to McCarthyism, Nazism and Falangism make sure of that. The casualty is measured not so much by a body count, but a massacre of minds.       

reviewed: October 26, 2006

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

MAN OF IRON (Andrzej Wajda, 1981)

Gdansk, Poland, at a crucial climacteric of this country’s history, serves as the living and breathing locus for this film. Forged by a hard life as a worker in the Lenin Shipyards of this city, the main protagonist, Maciej Tomczyk, takes up his father’s ideological beliefs and his working class convictions to lead the first labor strikes against the Communist regime in power.

This film charts the first stirrings of the Solidarity Movement, the workers’ trade union founded in 1980 that eventually forced the State to capitulate to its demands, and later on eroded communism and swept to power with Lech Walesa as president.

Tomcyzk, the eponymous hero, is a fictitious character, but his exploits are unmistakably those of Lech Walesa, who appears as himself at certain points in the film to reinforce the point. At film’s beginning, we are given to understand that much of the screenplay is faithfully lifted from actual events in Polish history, and it becomes clear that it’s a thinly veiled reference to the historical figure and movement. What is fictionalized, however, is Tomcyzk’s father, who in an earlier Wajda film (Man of Marble) served as an exemplary worker figuring in state propaganda and became a model after which state-commissioned statues were modeled. 

Man of Iron, its mostly factual sequel, traces the titular hero’s emergence as a full-fledged hero of the working class, transcending the unfulfilled ideals of his illustrious father. It is not so much a metamorphosis that changes him, but living in Gdansk, a hotbed of working class ferment, has forged his ideals and concerns in life. His father, whom everyone still reveres, is an influence on him, although Tomczyk momentarily grows disillusioned with him over his refusal to support workers’ strikes. Man of Iron presents a preeminent man in its portrayal of a man of praxis, while Man of Marble depicts a theoretical figure.

Andrzej Wajda fleshes out Tomczyk’s personal history almost too sensitively and idealistically, however. Near perfection, his only fault, it would seem, is his impetuousness, his youthful exuberance that leads him to question his father. Predictably, in the end, his youthful sacrifices are all vindicated, with the victory of the movement he almost singlehandedly brought to life.

Grounding this quasi-Walesa account of history is the fictitious account of a journalist who is under duress by a Communist publication to manufacture a damning report against the labor leader while battling bouts of alcoholism. This subplot provides the drama to telescope the whole labor leader’s life, captured in semi-documentary terms, but this man's fate, behind the scenes and ahistorical to begin with, seems, by contrast, pitifully lost in the shuffle, overshadowed by the grandeur of the titular hero.

reviewed: November 17, 2006