Tuesday, May 28, 2013

IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (Hong Sang-soo, 2012)

Certain poets, it is said, are fated to write one and only one kind of poem during their entire artistic lifetimes. Implicit in such an adage is that they are doomed to produce nothing but simulacra, a body of work consisting of iterations and repetitions: variations on a singular, obsessive theme. On the face of it, the South Korean writer-director, Hong Sang-soo, may appear to fit into this mold of narrowness, engaged as he seems in a film practice of redundancy and tautology observable in the many commonplaces permeating his films. Granting for a moment the plausibility of this reflexive assertion about Hong's work, is this destiny such a misfortune? Does the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, for instance, ever receive the critical flak for his recurrent return, time and again, to his theme of familial dissolution? Does variety in theme or subject ensure a filmmaker's greatness? What about Louis Malle who has been critically punished and ignored for not pursuing a common, identifiable style and thematics in his otherwise excellent career? Suspicion surrounds the ambidextrous. Instead, a focalization on a common vein and constancy running through an artist's work is what distinguishes him and immortalizes him in the end.

Outwardly it may be true that Hong returns again and again to many striking commonalities: protagonists are all too often artists and intellectuals (e.g. poets, actors, painters, film directors), often caught at rest or at play, sightseeing or wandering around, often temperamentally embroiled in embarrassingly confrontational and heated arguments during merry-making or drinking sessions, often on the lookout for sex, thus suggesting the pivotal role of women, to be "stripped bare by her bachelors," but often the more evolved "future of man." 

However, such characters, narrative patterns and set pieces pervading Hong's work are well-calculated and well-deployed, serving to dramatize an intricate web of interconnected themes and subjects: the fallibility of man and the relative apotheosis of woman. From masculine sexual obsession and eros (On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (2002)) to romantic triangles involving jealousy and rivalry (Woman is the Future of Man (2004), A Tale of Cinema (2005), Hahaha (2010)) to Nouvelle Vaguish depictions of invariable repetition of female destiny and reptilian male tendency (In Another Country (2012)), Hong has featured his own tropes and topoi around male and female dynamics. Whether or not they are reflections of the Korean man or woman, it must also be noted that his own conceptions of man run parallel to those of Antonioni's or Nuri Bilge Ceylan's depictions of anomic protagonists, even as Hong admits, self-deprecatingly, that his work simply reflects "the attitudes of men" he has encountered while amplifying them with his own traits and idiosyncracies.

Absent such a prior knowledge, an appraisal of Hong's contribution to cinema may be misleading, wanting in perspective and penetration. What Hong brings to Asian cinema is unique and unprecedented in its capacity to harmonize and reconcile classicism and modernism. In this light, Hong may even be said to transcend the cinematic contributions of the modernist but rigid minimalism practiced by such filmmakers as Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien. The works of these Taiwanese auteurs, it must be said, reflect an obsessive engagement with stylized and mannerist aesthetics, sometimes too caught up in self-conscious formal and technical devices, like the long take and the disavowal of close-ups, sometimes to the detriment of crafting a well-rounded narrative. 

In a significant and crucial contrast, Hong never neglects the classical definition of a full-fledged drama. However, here's the twist: Hong runs away with it, plays around with drama's old-fashioned definition. He knows the rules -- or at least the rules he has learned, by his own confession, from having read Robert Bresson's Notes On The Cinematographer prior to conceiving and shooting his first film -- and thereby breaks them. After each of Hong's films, one comes away with a feeling of a narrative satisfaction, a sense of not being fictively shortchanged. And yet an enigma slowly dawns on him: a process of estrangement is  at work when one tries to describe its inner workings, recomposing his memories of the said film he has just seen until its mechanics become ineffable and inexplicable. This indescribable transformation that Hong's films undergo is a complex one that David Bordwell attributes to Hong's "geometric narrative structures," his dramatic designs (oddly enough, he calls them "non-narrative" structures, owing perhaps to their protean nature) that instantiate anachrony and therefore defy a straightforward and linear description. 

From his first film, The Day A Pig Fell into the Well (1996), Hong has fiddled around with the rigid idea of conventional chronological sequentiality and synchronicity. He couches his stories, what he modestly calls "fragments", in several defamiliarizing ways: dreams (Night And Day (2008)), film within film (A Tale of Cinema (2005)), figments of imagination (In Another Country (2012)) and reminiscence (Hahaha (2010)). Most of the time these anachronies have no forewarnings -- for instance, no black-and-white or sepia sequences for memories, nor are there dissolves -- so that the effect can be jarring but often enough self-clarifying. Not content, Hong complicates and subverts linearity by an episodic narrative structure, introducing and foregrounding one or two characters at a time (The Day A Pig Fell into the Well (1996), The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)), their paths crossing briefly or by episodic themes or timetables (Night and Day (2008)).

This time around, Hong returns to his affinity with the film mecca of France. Catalysed by his fast friendship with Marin Karmitz, the French movie mogul, his Night and Day (2008) was predominantly set in Paris. In Another Country may be set on home ground, but the film looks, sounds and feels indebted to French New Wave director, Eric Rohmer. In this way, it is unlike any other Korean film, with most of its dialogue delivered in English. The script warrants it – with the presence of Isabelle Huppert in each of its three looping and recursive storylines, making the lingua franca necessary. This is easily Hong's most artifice-laden film of all -- a macaroni of languages and influences permeates it -- or at least the most self-conscious in the potentially double-edged barriers and games that language may wittingly or unwittingly create: Language as an almost musical and unmusical locus of Hong's modernity.

In Another Country foregrounds the self-reflexivity and inorganic nature of a foreign language, almost like a musical gone wrong, something that he avoided in Night and Day, where even in Paris, all characters remained Korean. But again Hong constructs episodic geometries, and again, in trademark fashion, centers on women, not one, not two, but three women – the axes around which Hong's male characters crazily revolve and spin. This time it’s Isabel Huppert, the illustrious French actress of many world classics, who plays three characters, similarly named Anne to our confusion, almost uniform in character to our added bewilderment, and to cap it off, only capable of communicating in English. She is the almost oblivious constant -- a beguiling creature to beady-eyed men -- as in most of Hong's films. The composite of a flawed man is straightforwardly caricatured yet again, lust-driven, prowling for sex. But this time, Hong elides the display of uncomfortable, mechanical sex and the verbal violence, or at least tempers it with comicality, opting for a sometimes-singsong, sometimes-stilted delivery of lines in an attempt to domesticate the foreign tongue.

Hong's latest film may best be noted for many dramatic ironies born of language, the sometimes unnatural diction of which is almost like a satire of perfect Hollywood English: the three Annes  -- whether in the person of a French director, an abandoned, divorced wife, or "a charming Frenchwoman" meeting her famous director lover in a tryst  -- has never learned, by virtue of her provenance or insulation -- the Korean language and is therefore never privy to the conversations around her, whether hurtful, impolite, public or personal. Huppert plays all her three characters with breezy and tongue-in-cheek uniformity, perfect for the seaside town she repairs to in each of the three segments, only distinguished with almost imperceptible touches like an umbrella or a different expression or gait, which adds to our sense of delicious bewilderment born out of the absence of narrative linearity. By the time the end comes, the three Annes have conflated confoundingly into one and the same.

Central to this film is the leitmotif of similar recursive dialogue in the borrowed language. At one point a character points it out and self-consciously asks, “What is this play with words?” Nuances of Hong's Korean dialogue in the past have often regrettably been lost in translation, but here much of the ludic play on words is rendered in English, making it one of the most transparent and humorous of all Hong’s films, the most joyous to watch and to listen to. At one point Anne the abandoned wife has a tete-a-tete with a Buddhist monk and it leads to a humorous and burlesque banter of existentialist questioning. Yet another dramatic irony does not spare Hong's usual targets: the lustful, amorous male. In one episode, a Korean colleague who warns Anne, the French director, of the Korean males' lusting after foreign women, turns out to be such a man. Meanwhile, sexual musical chairs are ongoing in the background.

Elsewhere, instead of Hong's usual genuflections to Antonioni's theme of ennui, there are nods to Resnais' themes of memory and synchronicity, nods to Jacques Tati (Monsieur Hulot), nods to Charlie Chaplin and Federico Fellini (Chaplin's mannerisms and Giulietta Massina’s demeanor are evoked by Huppert) and Luis Bunuel (in a reverse of That Obscure Object of Desire, where two females play one character) among the identifiable and noticeable references, expanding and enriching this film into something more far-ranging and playful than usual in a Hong outing.

But In Another Country, a story essentially about female consistency, is once again surrounded by male irresponsibility and turpitude. The story of the three uniform Annes is but a figment of the imagination of one teenage girl, passing time by writing a screenplay as she awaits for word on her criminal uncle. This is her last diversion and solace, confounding yet entertaining, as in the wildest of imaginations, her only remaining freedom, in a young but stigmatized life. 

ANACBANUA (Christopher Gozum, 2009)

Somewhere deep in the night in distant Middle East, the present year, a Filipino writer, burning the midnight oil, is suddenly seized by a creative paralysis, a profound crisis of identity. He is a poet of a dying breed, as if being a poet is not a losing battle in itself, laboring as he does to write in his mother tongue, Pangasinense. We get a sense of his literary interiors by the books at his elbow: The Age of Reprieve by Sartre, Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, The Stranger by Camus. There seems to be the streak of the existential loner in him – a foreign legacy that doesn’t sit well with his antipodal upbringing. 

At a crucial climacteric of his creative life, the poet decides drastically: abandon his overseas job and return to his faraway roots, literally and figuratively, in order to retrieve his generative bearings. Accompanied by no one but his sullen Muse, the poet surfaces in Pangasinan, brooding about his spiritual estrangement, thinking he is the last Filipino poet writing in the vernacular amid a welter of borrowed languages. Starting on this fairly worn premise -- the artist in creative limbo -- Christopher Gozum’ feature debut proceeds to a literally poetic and lyrical odyssey in the life of an embattled poet, as he tries to retrieve himself through an exploration of his native Pangasinan, its culture, its artisanal and creative industries. 

Will the poet recover the heartland that underpins his creative spirit? What illuminations and epiphanies are in store for him? The poet journeys from town to town, Bayambang, San Carlos, Lingayen, among others, his destinations dictated by the salient features and textures of Pangansinan: the Agno River, its plentiful rice paddies, San Roque Dam, the baroque edifice of the provincial capitol, the brick makers, clay pot factories, the bagoong industries, the metalworks specializing in cleavers. 

Anacbanua complements what the camera sees with fighting words and poetry. The first Filipino film to be shot entirely in Pangasinense, the soundtrack is a groundswell of sonnets and villanelles (the fiery an-long of Pangasinense poet Santiago Villafania) as though to document the creative and spiritual struggle and resurgence of the poet and the tempering sway of the Muse. Pangasinense has never sounded so fierce and fascinating, sacred and earthy. 

There is a mystical and metaphysical edge to how the journey influences the poet. His Christian background, for instance, seems to make him confess to his sense of sin, his affinity with the fallen angel. His Muse in the meantime is impelled to make ritual offerings at the Sacred Agno River. Epiphany comes at the mere vision of paddy fields, and sets him into running like a child in boisterous, euphoric circles. Is he any nearer to the "Caboloan of old," that "parnassus of Pangasinan"? 

Director Gozum's experimentalism, thankfully, eclipses the didactic and overly hortatory summation of Villafania's poetry at the end. The director's eye for the poetic seems attuned to the work of visual stylists like Sergei Paradjanov (tableaux vivant compositions) and Bela Tarr (the textural qualities, the tactility of the images, and the monochromatic photography). The film's imagery forms a disparate diversity that ultimately finds cohesion in their theme of renewal, regeneration and creation. 

Tonight, at the 2009 Cinemanila International Film Festival Awards, Christopher Gozum marked his feature debut with an auspicious bang: Anacbanua won the Lino Grand Prize, the grand prize for the Digital Lokal category, besting five other entries including Armando Lao’s Biyaheng Lupa. The director, who conceived, shot and performed practically all aspects of post-production, made it a sweet double by bagging the best director award. It’s a pity he is not here but in faraway Saudi Arabia to receive his much-deserved prizes. Distance must indeed give this director perspective, in addition to what we presume are pangs of homesickness contained in Anacbanua. The great artist must indeed suffer for his art.

reviewed: October 23, 2009

Friday, May 24, 2013

MELANCHOLIA (Lav Diaz, 2008)

There is, up to a certain point, the exclusion whereby we short-circuit those who are sick and reintegrate them in a sort of marginal circuit, the medical circuit.

                                                         - Michel Foucault

Melancholia, the latest masterwork from revered Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, smolders with the embers of black emotions and delivers on the promise of its portentous title. A film about bereavement and loss, Melancholia documents the tragic plight of desaparecidos, those forced to disappear, and those dispossessed by their disappearance. While there is a dark lingering on personal and private sorrows, the sorrows emanate and resonate equally from social and ideological solicitudes. 

Running at a meditative and heavy 450 minutes, Melancholia proceeds ponderously and woundedly in this saga of the bereaved and the disappeared, recalling such films on the same theme and subject as Luis Puenzo's The Official Story. In Melancholia, however, there is the likeness of a double madness -- one born out of the sorrows of its characters and the other born out of their artificial efforts to overcome these sorrows. Meanwhile, the imagining of the dead is close to idealization, sheer heroes in the fictive mind (romantic even to the very end). So there lies the emotional crux of the living in this film: how to move on, how to forget, against the cruel tenor of memory. 

Memory here is conscience itself, a burden but a necessary evil. It is not just an unshakable scourge that will not let up, but a kind of register, a document of history that will never let injustice go uncommented and unvindicated, certainly not those inflicted by the muscular fascism of a government. Here, the coercions of artificial solutions such as psychology – a kind of ideological state apparatus, Orwellian and Althusserian, that returns those who deviate and dissent to the control of society – is no match for the inexorable onslaught of painful remembrance. There is no forgetting. Time, with all its clichés, is no healer.  

When we meet them at the outset, the bereaved are not unlike fugitive characters from a Pirandellian play, converging on the amphitheater of Sagada: Alberta, Rina and Julian, all bereaved by the loss of their revolutionary spouses. They have sought refuge in psychological treatments, as well as support groups meant for their kind, but they remain tormented by grief and and anguish. Immersed in one character after another, Alberta as a prostitute, Rina a nun, and Julian a pimp – all assume characters in the hope of reorienting and reconnecting with life. By any appearance, their experiments are ill-advised: Rina is inconsolable with despair and uncertainty; Alberta breaks down in tears while in bed with a customer; and Julian has scrambled his moral compass, assuming the persona of a procurer, a character straight out of his fantasies. 

Characters in Melancholia – like the learned and literate artists in Death in the Land of Encantos – have a literary cast to them. There is little chance of encountering them in everyday life. But for once, it is reassuring to see a filmmaker redefining what is possible in film, and the splendid thing is, his characters are convincing in their sharp individuations, whether they be artists, writers, widows, or rebels. Through long, unflinching takes in unrelieved monochrome, these characters take shape and come full circle, full of fierce wit and learning, raw feeling and emotion, dark bile and vitriol, making their own tormented humanity much more tragic and lacerating to witness.  

Thus we find Melancholia’s characters reassuming their real lives in the capital. Far from the prostitute of Sagada, Alberta is the youthful principal of an elementary school while Julian is an established writer and the proprietor of a publishing house. Rina, by now, is prematurely dead, presumably of suicide. Between Julian and Alberta, who must also reassume a difficult role as a mother to Hannah, a young girl also orphaned by the disappeared and severely traumatized, the dynamic of hope and capitulation will play out. As Melancholia traces the threads of its dark denouement, we sense that many of its expositions are no less important and relevant. 

Here, as in its companion piece, the equally vitriolic and similarly themed Death in the Land of Encantos, Lav Diaz uses various mouthpieces to lay bare his various indignations and convictions, personal and social, ideological and political. Diaz has no want of strong opinions prompted by the abuses of the establishment and the entrenched. In Death in the Land of Encantos, there are stinging rebukes against the fascistic military, thieving government officials, and even artists blatantly lobbying for the National Artist Award. This time, aside from skewering the big targets, Diaz levels his criticism against the corruptions in the educational system and those in the realm of commercial cinema.  

But, while crying injustices remain, and while towards the end of Melancholia, repressive state apparatuses are overwhelming and ruthless, Diaz tries to leave us with subtle reassurances. We see a quiet and lyrical imagining of how Renato, Alberta’s husband, must have coped with the prospect of death. Trapped on all sides in a remote forest by advancing military troops, he lays down his gun by his side as rain falls like a reprieve. Exchanging it with pen and paper, he writes a letter never to be sent, a haunting letter about his greatest sorrows. About the fate of his country, its numberless pains, never seeing Alberta again… Thereafter, a bittersweet moment as we see his remains, and those of his comrades, borne in a procession by villagers on his way to a modest burial. There is no better way to die. Let his sorrows be our own too.

reviewed: January 6, 2010



For madness unleashes its fury in the space of pure vision.
                                                               - Michel Foucault

Persistent rain falls, reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s rains, supplied by dark, ponderous skies overhead. Desolate landscape, stark diorama: Rock, sand and boulder. These are, in truth, a wasteland of lava and volcanic debris. Farther behind looms Mayon Volcano in the background, an imposing, threatening monolith of nature. Here and there, trunks and stumps of trees stand, battered, windswept, leafless and lifeless. Suspicious calm, suspicious rondure of newly turned terrain: something else fattens and bloats this land. Except for the percussion of rain, nothing now stirs, until we see a speck of life in the distant background, a man we learn shortly, slowly making his way across difficult terrain. This man is Benjamin Agusan, a former activist and a poet of some renown, returning from a long exile in Russia to his hometown of Padang in the Southern Luzon region of Bicol. We see him weeping, disconsolate, not unmoved by the dark spectacle he has witnessed, and the grave irony is: these are his last, desperate days of sanity and reason.

Understand that this man returns to an unrecognizable land in the aftermath of a natural catastrophe that has devastated his native ground and much of the neighboring countryside. Understand that he returns with a heavy personal freightage: the dead of the past, the deceased of the present, the onset of madness and the madness of conscience. Like a ghost, with no fanfare, he returns to the bosom of childhood friends, Catalina the sculptor, a former lover, and Teodoro, a man of many artistic talents who has opted for a simple life as a family man and a fisherman. Each one has sustained a familial or personal loss in the wake of this calamity, but we gradually realize through the thicket of dialectical discourse, their favorite pastime, that their sense of loss is made doubly bitter by intense resentment with a corrupt and callous regime.

Filmed in stark and brooding black and white, Death in the Land of Encantos catalogues not just the casualties of natural calamity but the casualties of state repression and dereliction. Enacting the tragic but possibly heroic story of one Benjamin Agusan with many personal and political overtones, writer-director Lav Diaz intersperses his 9-hour epic with damning actual documentary footage taken in the aftermath of Typhoon Reming, a super typhoon that unleashed not just its own fury but Mayon Volcano’s destructive wrath. What these footages invariably paint, through a series of interviews with locals in December 2006, is a portrait of a people devastated by wrathful nature, degraded psyche and dehumanizing regimes. This is the Bicol region, but it could just as easily be Basilan or Baguio in this miserable archipelago, it wouldn’t have mattered. 

Benjamin Agusan’s story embodies a story that is all our own, his is the allegorical tale of one long-suffering nation. Little by little, we learn through snippets of flashbacks and exposition about the painful verities of his life: his mother going mad and dying in an asylum, his sister subsequently committing suicide; his father abandoned to die alone; and Hamin himself, while sojourning in Russia, developing the symptoms of lunacy. We learn through Hamin’s confrontation with a shadowy military operative that his activism and political poetry have earned him arch-enemies among the military. We learn of his torture at the hands of this same man. We learn of the probable death of Amalia, Hamin’s lover, at the height of the typhoon. Hamin is embattled on all sides, his tormentors encompass all kinds: man, himself, nature. 

The descent into madness, thus, figures prominently in Death in the Land of Encantos. Madness here is not a simple determinism of heredity but a function of unbearable witness. What overwhelms Hamin is not just the anguish of personal tragedies but that of havoc on a nation. He is not a faultless soul, but we witness that neither is he a poet insulated in an ivory tower. Towards the end, the strain of madness becomes more frequent. We see him sleeping in ungodly spaces, wedged between rocks, sprawled on waysides. We hear him literally addressing his ghosts. We hear of him wandering aimlessly in various stages of unreason. But his last few moments of lucidity are defining, none more so than what transpires at denouement: a recitation not of his poetry but of his most profound creeds and allegiances. 

Against this backdrop of mental collapse, of death and devastation, however, is the story of friendship. Hamin, Teodoro and Catalina are veritable kindred spirits: friends and ex-lovers who know each other’s darkest secrets and even recite poems to each other. These friends virtually talk in codes, their conversations are the stuff of scholarly discussions. They may have outgrown some of their idealistic ardors but they remain socially attuned: theirs is a bitterness against “crocodiles and rapacious kind” who prey on the country. They deplore the latest political killings, but what of their involvement? Token? Gestural? 

Corrupt artists, as much as corrupt politicians, come in for stinging critiques here. Cultural ciphers, seekers after fame, socially myopic – these are what artists are, according to Catalina and Teodoro. Beyond heroic commitments to causes and ideologies, artists merely seek the cult of the self. Yet there is a strong suspicion of a redemptive moment at the end for Hamin and what he stands for. In Heremias, Diaz, with almost didactic intent, gives his title character a defining moment to salvage and transcend his passive soul and he obliges. Here, in Death in the Land of Encantos, redemption has an ambiguous edge: as Hamin braves the last moments of torture, he recites the most defiant poetry he knows, the National Anthem. Whether this is a martyr’s act or his death wish as imminent madness confronts him, the truth might just vindicate him.

reviewed: January 27, 2010

Monday, May 20, 2013


The films of John Torres are forever striving and aspiring for intimacy, it seems. They are not unlike an ongoing series of cinematic billets-doux meant for a secret addressee, defying the impersonality of communal viewing spaces. All of Torres’s films, so far, prompt such an impression, confirmed by the position of privilege given to his speaking voice. In an era of stylized aesthetics, depersonalized poetics and large-scale logistics in filmmaking, the gesture of this speaking voice is a rare virtue that should not be altered, tempered or faulted. It is a meditative and reflective presence that contributes to a cinema of confession, of a persona laid bare, of sincerity. To quote the late Alexis Tioseco: (Torres’s voice)… is deliberate in its cadence but always sincere—and that sincerity is the key. It unlocks the secret to the beauty of John as a filmmaker, but also John as a person. It's a sincerity so tangible, so real, that it's disarming. 

Hardly surprising then that Torres has chosen to valorize a voice, a shibboleth of sorts, that fabled and mellifluously singsong timbre of the Ilongo language, in his latest film. At the outset, the director makes it clear, however, that everything is grist for the creative mill, that even speech and language are sheer premise in the filmmaker’s modus operandi of playing with cinematic forms. Refrains Happen like Revolutions in a Song is not simply meant to uphold the orality and epistolarity of his chosen tongue (s) but to put a premium on the many cultures that underpin it. It is the director’s most ambitious work so far, as it also attempts to transcend the confessional material of his previous films (though he has been quoted that certain aspects of this latest film struck a very personal chord with him) and explores, instinctively, matters as hefty as the study of native signs, and the vitality and utility of culture in the face of acculturation and other threats.

His point of departure is the mythical island of Panay. Torres essays the role of a poetic sort of benshi who makes an epistolary dedication at the start to a complicit other – perhaps a twin, a lover or an alter ego? – with whom he inhabits the liminal, interstitial spaces within myth, history, folklore and the pertinent arenas of the abstract. Intertitles soon inform us about the oral tradition of the Sulanon tribe of the island: how certain female children are made to learn the Hinilawod epic by rote and by heart, essentially a love story between two elementals who meet only in dreams. This commitment to memory takes many years to master and the child is kept away from society, and is hence called a binakod. Her consecration to her calling somehow idealizes her in the eyes of common folk and is hence mythicized as much as the elementals.

In present-day Panay, the focus is on a beauteous lass named Sarah, who uses her charms to perform the ruthless job of a debt collector. But her job entails much waiting and frustration, so that she and her assistant while away the tedious time by telling stories – with Sarah assuming the role of a binakod, and later on, a tamawo, the elemental in search of her love. This role-playing, these make-believe moments are not too-far-fetched owing to the nature of insularity. Panay islanders remain steeped in and attuned to a mythic/folkloric collective imaginary that permeates everyday idiom and vocabulary.

History then weaves another thread into the film's story. We read about anecdotes of two factions of revolutionaries fighting for leadership of Panay Island at the start of the 20th century, while American colonizers try to crush or pacify them. These accounts feed the imagination of Sarah, a welcome distraction as she goes from one job to the next. The intertitles soon inform us that Sarah becomes intertwined with history and saves the lives of revolutionaries. Toward's film's end, she disentangles herself from work, and heads to the cane fields of La Carlota, looking for the man she has never met except only in her dreams. Much like the myth she enacts in make-believe.

Much of the film translates as a conundrum, starting with its title in Filipino. Ang Ninanais may be translated as “the desire” or “the intended,” an adjectival noun whose very intention is left a question mark. In semiotic terms, this film can also be entitled "the signified," whose cognitive or concrete identity, again, proves elusive. This titular referent could be a variety of things: an elusive other as much as an elusive gesture or an elusive abstract. As in much of the film, one is continually kept guessing – the temporal collapse connects the past and the present, the world of abstraction and the world of the concrete are commingled as the ontological and epistemological boundaries are erased – to the dangerous edge of losing the point and the plot completely.

Skeptical minds could be tempted to dismiss this filmmaker’s methodology as verging perilously on free association. To wit: he takes two disparate narrative or ideational elements, and weaves an arbitrary connection between them, and repeats the process all over again. Valid, perhaps. What is undeniable is the difficulty of pulling off this improvisatory propensity with conviction, and somehow there is enough sleight of mind and heart from Torres to eke out a worthy film.

If Todo Todo Teros and Years When I Was a Child Outside focus on overtly personal hurts and human failings, Refrains Happen Like can be said to be more inclusive, more multifocal: It explores dualistic conflations (past and present, myth and reality, history and contemporary) and parallels of ontological and epistemic phenomena (the tracing of contours of the collective ethnic imaginary/unconscious and how it threatens to obsess Sarah's own life), which give a glimpse into the difficult but rich, inner lives of multicultural and multilingual Filipinos. There is a wealth of phenomena at work here, the collapse of the past and the present, the mirroring of the historic and the contemporary, the mythical and the folkloric, the make-believe and the real – all illustrating the complexity of establishing human identity – and perhaps illustrating the difficulty, if not the improbability, of human connection and intimacy.

Refrains Happen Like Revolutions is a film of ever-changing, protean forms and guises. One is never too sure where he or she stands as realities interpenetrate. Torres just manages to weave together an ontological and epistemic quilt that reveals the complexity of Filipino identity and psyche, while remaining true to his experimental nature. The balancing and juggling act of this film is a difficult task -- a fact that, in turn, may confound viewers -- but even as a transitional film for the filmmaker, it is a much more layered and much richer work than any analogous film ever attempted -- even, say, that well-regarded Thai film, Mysterious Object at Noon, by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul.

Title in Filipino: Ang Ninanais
reviewed: August 5, 2010 

MONDOMANILA (Khavn dela Cruz, 2010)

These body fluids, this defilement, this shit, are what life withstands… Any crime, because it draws attention to the fragility of the law, is abject, but premeditated crime, cunning murder, hypocritical revenge are even more so because they heighten the display of such fragility.
                                  - Julia Kristeva, An Essay on Abjection

This is not another masterpiece by Khavn dela Cruz. This is not guerilla digital filmmaking at its finest. This is not the stuff of cinema: Certainly not about the high-jinks of the juvenile and the poor; the foisting upon audiences of the taboo and the abject; no, there is no subversive import lying just beneath the surface. No, this is not a film by Khavn dela Cruz. This is not his 28th film. This is not Mondomanila Filmfest Motherfuckers. 

Leaving aside frivolity, Mondomanila represents one of Khavn’s best films to date. Here is a flower of evil plucked from the fertile dung of the margins, blooming among the dregs of society; here is a work of uncompromising and unwavering vision, a film that was almost stillborn, but now here in our midst, jumping out at us like a jack-in-the-box, thumbing its nose at us who cower behind blinders. In a word, be prepared for a frightful but rollicking ride through a no-man’s land that we, the coddled, hold our breaths against and turn away from.

At the rotten core of Mondomanila are teenage layabout Tony and his juvenile posse, Paranoid X, pleasure-seeking delinquents without a future but never to be taken for pushovers. Here in their neighborhood of slums and garbage dumps, they are kings, and the cameras observe them in very close proximity, rendering them through hallucinatory filters, washed-out colors, split screens and strange lighting. These Bunuelian olvidados exhibit few inhibitions: young, brash and compliant, they mouth their syntax of obscenities and perform outrageous acts that straddle the lines of morality. They sing and rap, some of them break-dance, some hold small jobs, some don’t, but what makes them gravitate together, what defines them, are common misery and drug-induced fantasies. 

Much of their adolescent fantasies, predictably, revolve around sex. Among them is a compulsive masturbator, who uncontrollably does his thing even in the group’s presence. Another literally engages in bestiality: easing himself on a live, squawking goose, just before he chops off its head. Lumped together, their sexual obsession is even worse: they peep on fornicating midgets and lesbian twins. Meanwhile, menace lurks in the background: Whiteboy, a Caucasian pedophile, makes no bones about his perverse ideology and submits the young kids of the neighborhood to “sexual slavery.” Soon his deviancy hits very close to home.

Figuratively, yet all but literally, one gets buried neck-deep in Mondomanila’s proverbial bodily fluids. The immoral. The criminal. Few taboos remain unscathed here. Combining the abrasive aspects of his recent films namely Squatterpangk and The Family that Eats Soil, Khavn transvaluates Julia Kristeva’s notions of the abject and turns it from a source of horror to something darkly humorous. Instead of horrifying us and making our skin crawl, Khavn numbs and etherizes our sensibilities into a catharsis: blood, piss, excrement, bestiality, sodomy, and mutilation are here in plentiful doses that erode our guards. At some point we start to laugh; we wallow and luxuriate in it. Numbed and etherized in the abject, Khavn paves the way for his film’s subversive end.

Cunning murder, hypocritical revenge, to borrow Kristeva’s words, this is what the film deems its logical coda. Guile, cunning, hypocrisy are exactly the words that befit the crime, subsequently a composite of several crimes. The fact that the crime is compounded raises the acts to the level of the abject, many times over. We laugh nervously and must do a double-take, as the so-called heroes dance and sing for joy after the fact: We realize our rank complicity, our blurring concepts of right and wrong. We argue curiously: But doesn't the crime -- done as it is at the expense of someone draped with neo-colonial trappings -- translate to a symbolic act of patriotism? And how to explicate the aggravating actions after the crime? Reparations? Somehow it is so morally wrong; somehow it is so viscerally right.

Alternate Title: Mondomanila Filmfest Motherfuckers
reviewed: December 6, 2010

TODO TODO TEROS (John Torres, 2006)

John Torres’s Todo Todo Teros is a film that will outlive us. That much this writer will boldly predict for this instant classic. Eros and terror, its twin concerns, will be relevant for the indefinite future, long after we're gone. (Terrorism for Torres is more universally quotidian, and not so much about suicide airplanes or car bombs.). But to repeat and acknowledge this film for what it is: it’s a classic. Not many of today’s films – perhaps the works of Lav Diaz and Raya Martin – will ever attain such a rarefied ontological status, but this one has it: the quality of the classic. Serendipitously shot, few films will approach the surprising and unexpected moments of Todo Todo Teros again. Not by Torres, not by anyone else.

If Lav Diaz is the moral conscience and borderline ideologue, and Raya Martin the postmodern historian among the ranks of Filipino independent filmmakers, John Torres may be christened as the confessional poet. We say that half in jest, of course: he is far from the self-destructive kind – on the contrary, he can be romantically celebratory amidst adversity – but his confessions are sublimated in literally inventive and lyrical ways. These confessions stake out a territory all their own – the intimate and the poetic – and Todo Todo Teros, a work that is prefigured by four early shorts, is the film that brings this aesthetic to a culmination.

Todo Todo Teros defies easy filmic categories and deploys many styles and forms of expression. It’s a collage of creative affinities that have shaped the director, weaving together not just home movies, film diary and other found footage but also a penchant for musical performances and felicitous poetry authored by Palanca Awardee Joel Toledo. There is wizardry in much of its editing that reveals a certain do-it-yourself ethos and a nod to latter-day aesthetics. These double-edged tonalities are far-ranging, for instance, contrasting a militarized city under surveillance with the romantic longings and inner conflicts of a pensive protagonist. Much of the first half of the film happens in the dark and restless nights of Manila, while much of the second happens in the daytime outdoors of Berlin.

To see Todo Todo Teros with traditional conceptions of what a film should be can be a trying experience. There is little to no plot to follow here: a filmmaker who leads a double life as a terrorist is torn between women and allegiances. We see him traipsing through an almost hushed cityscape as though through the stealthy cameras of state police. As a performance artist visiting Berlin, he falls for his Russian guide named Olga. There should be no trouble except that the filmmaker is a married man. Artists can be such bastards, and that is almost certainly the film’s more primal statement of terrorism, the bombed-out relationships.

What is sweet and poignant are not the mechanics of Todo Todo Teros’s plot, but the fact that it features very intimate footages from Torres’s personal archives: his romantic interlude with the real-life Olga. Constantly framed and kept on her toes by Torres’s attentive lens, she is an endearing and mesmeric presence. Everything has been reverse-engineered to feature Torres’s moments with her, and still this reality-within-a-film all works magically. No seams show at all. As the courtship unfolds, we marvel and gasp at the intimacy Torres affords us. Tantalizing is the moment when Torres tries to trick Olga into saying “Mahal Kita” (I love you) to the camera.

Todo Todo Teros has few precedents in recent memory. Torres’s tactics and thematics can perhaps be likened to those of Ross McElwee, an American independent documentarian who played out his romantic efforts before the camera in films like Sherman’s March (1986) and Time Indefinite (1993). The young Filipino filmmaker, however, stylizes the passages of documentary, his results more fictional and more artifice-laden than McElwee’s efforts. With his non-conventional aesthetic and the non-reliance on traditional narrative, Torres’s film is consciously avoiding the methods of commercial filmmaking. His fascination with found footage seems to point towards a conscientious study of film history, not dissimilar to the immersions of the Cinematheque Francaise habitues of the 1960s (better known as the French New Wavers). Torres shares this diachronic learning of film history with Raya Martin, who often references structural and underground films in his works.

Still memorable moments are rife in Todo Todo Teros. The home movies of the streets of the metropolis during New Year’s Eve exploding with the thunder of firecrackers find consonance with the specter of terrorism. The car ride where Lav Diaz, as himself, talks about passages in Pigafetta’s chronicles (in particular, those about the sexual precocities of the natives in the 15th century) is priceless and fits in well with the notion of the filmmaker-terrorist’s hold on women. Poignant and haunting is the moment when the filmmaker-terrorist’s wife, in utter despair, projects his husband’s indiscretions, the footages of Olga, onto walls and all manner of surface. And of course, there is Olga. More haunting. Beguiling. Todo Todo Teros, in the end, is a valentine of sorts, a valentine to the other, East to West, West to East, in these bigoted and belligerent times. 

reviewed: February 11, 2010

NEXT ATTRACTION (Raya Martin, 2008)

Probably more famously known for his cinema of the historical (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional, Autohystoria, and more recently, Independencia), Raya Martin is very rapidly making strides in another direction in what might be called his cinema of the topical. After inaugurating his Box Office Trilogy in 2008 with a film entitled Now Showing, the 24-year-old director has quickly followed it up with its second installment, Next Attraction, a film about the current state of the local film industry and about the young director’s conversations with his favored medium. In Next Attraction, we get for the most part the supposed neutrality of the cinema-verite documentary that is used, but the nature of what is being documented can be sometimes indicting. 

Right from the start, we are asked to ruminate on a sequence shot – a long static one – of a house built circa 1970s. More precisely, this first scene happens in the poorly-kept backyard of this house, grass unmown, the roof water-stained, suggestive, perhaps, of unsettled, troubled thoughts. Winds buffet the coconut and palm trees and the other ornamentals in the background as a woman saunters out of the house and sits in one of the wrought-iron chairs in the yard. From a distance, her slow, deliberate manner, running her fingers through her hair, is indicative of wistful, pensive thoughts. We aren’t too sure, however; her face is a blur. The winds soon die down. As the minutes pass meditatively, the strange detail of a klieg light standing in a corner, beaming brightly in broad daylight, becomes apparent. What is this film up to now? Then we hear the empathic word: Cut! This has been all a take; the woman is an actress in a film. 

It’s a film within a film. Director and writer Raya Martin, however, is not content with this tried-and-tested conceit. Francois Truffaut (Day for Night), Abbas Kiarostami (Close-Up) and Andrzej Wajda (Everything for Sale) have tried their hand at this narrative device before, but Martin goes one better: Next Attraction is a film within a film within a film. What results is surprisingly an intricate but coherent work. Three realities, three verisimilitudes in one film: one conveying a fictitious film crew being documented; another conveying the fictitious documentarians who never become visible other than through their scrupulous hands covering camera lenses, indicating cuts; and the third conveying the apparently “true story” being filmed. What we ultimately see is the documentarians’ point of view chronicling a film crew in action. 

As might be expected when cameras are rolling, the film crew being documented are a picture of efficiency and synergy. They pull off the naturalism of a tight-knit group going about their business through a day of exacting work. Although they seem oblivious of anyone documenting them, they seem too eager to work with each other. No tantrum-throwing directors here, only modest actresses who don’t mind posing with admirers for pictures and such. This film crew is exemplary, bent assiduously on their tasks and everyone, from the director down to the technicians, is on his best behavior. 

Complementing this film crew very well are the documentarians: very discreet and unobtrusive, as they chronicle the long, grueling but not necessarily unsatisfying shoots of a film crew. Using cinema-verite methods, the documentarians position themselves in the least intrusive positions on the set, shielding their lenses and turning off their cameras when needed. They almost shy away from the filmmakers’ shoots, and seem to home in on the dynamics of this film crew instead. What they capture is by turns reflective (conveyed through simple cuts to black) and frenetic (or perhaps tedious) (conveyed through jump cuts). 

The overall tone of Next Attraction is, for the most part, tongue-in-cheek as it captures the controlled chaos of a film shoot. The fictitious film director (J.K. Anicoche) has time for small talk – jabbing playfully at Raya Martin the famous director in one of his overheard conversations with his crew. But if this is a time for a little humor, this also the time to pay homage to the capacity of the camera to fictionalize, to create its own truths. With simple editing trickery, this documentary of sorts is suggestive of ars cinematica – whose visual zeal and robustness echo the self-referential mannerisms of Godard. 

And the film being shot? When the resulting film is tacked on and shown at the end, it might seem like anticlimax: it seems too aestheticized, too prettified compared to the relatively grittier realism of the actual shoot. But this fictitious film embodies many of the truths about what goes on in local cinema. The penchant for melodrama, the current predominance of indie aesthetics and production values, and the commodification of homoerotic acts are but some of the salient points of this fictitious film. And what is it about? Suffice to say that it features a troubled relationship between mother (Jacklyn Jose) and her 17-year-old son (Coco Martin). 

Next Attraction is perhaps as much about the struggling (moribund?) state of one national cinema as it is a meditation on the nature of filmmaking, of what is true and what is not. Nothing (or perhaps everything) is what it seems: the truth is filtered through so many intervening mediations that might influence it. What may come billed as “a true story” is ultimately amplified, modulated and refracted by actor, film crew, director, editor and so on – subject to their synergy, the smallest eventuality, the smallest whimsy of everyone on the set. If there are passages that apotheosize an actress in bygone times in Now Showing, Next Attraction is more inclusive, it congratulates everyone who is (was ever) involved in that backbreaking endeavor called filmmaking. And perhaps that’s the note on which Raya Martin ultimately wants to leave us – not a scathing satire but an oblique homage to filmmaking.

reviewed: June 28, 2009

CHASSIS (Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr., 2010)


A truck. A homicidal, ten-ton truck. To see Adolf Alix’s Chassis is to step figuratively into the path of such an oncoming, runaway vehicle. For good measure, the same truck will back up on your convulsing body just to make sure it does the job. Alix’s latest film is just that, unforgiving. Unforgiving; it spares nobody. Not the film’s diegetic characters who must endure the grinding forces of poverty and harsh circumstance. Not the viewing audience, no matter how prepared it believes it is for a film like Chassis.

But don’t get me wrong. The same uncompromising virtues are what makes Chassis an ultimately commendable film. And I’m beginning to like it for the same reasons that may ultimately discourage a wider patronage. As with any genuine art, after all, common sensibilities are meant to be shocked and scandalized. It’s often ahead of its time. This is not to say, though, that Chassis is a work of such ground-breaking originality. One will recoil from this realization: that it’s a pauperized version of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.

I say “pauperized” for several reasons. One, Chassis is a literal pauperization, the story is transplanted to an impoverished scenario. Unlike the domesticated Jeanne Dielman, the heroine of Chassis is a woman without a home. Nora inhabits no living space of her own, but a parking lot in a harbor compound, where the underside of her chosen cargo truck serves as her roof. Like a hermit cab without a shell, she must look constantly for a home to live under. She must lug her few belongings – a cardboard mat, a few clothes, a few cooking utensils – from one chassis to another, at the mercy of the trucks’ brisk schedules. Two, what Akerman takes a monumental 201 minutes to dramatize and make a statement, Alix accomplishes in a dense and intense 73 minutes, a veritable slice of life.

Chassis, like Akerman’s film, however, is about self-sacrifice, an entrapment in helpless circumstance, and what happens when one’s reason for it ceases to exist. In Chassis, Nora is a woman trapped in a cycle of poverty and prostitution. She resigns herself to selling herself very cheaply in order to support a hand-to-mouth existence for herself, her lover and her young, uncomprehending daughter.

Her daughter represents the last consolation, a final lifeline, for whom she can sustain her state of indignity. She will put her through school on any pain. She will promise her what she can only grant through acts that degrade her in the eyes of everybody. Her smile is reserved just for her child. Never for anyone else, not for her lover, not for the truck drivers who use her like so much latrine, not her demi-monde kind in this compound, not for the Mormon missionary who tries to evangelize her.

Everything about Chassis is grim and dreary. Depicted in ominous tones of black-and-white, it seems forever set in a twilight hour. One never knows whether it’s lightening or darkening. All one senses is its sepulchral nature. The gargantuan specters of cargo ships and maritime industry, meanwhile, tower in the distance, as though never to stop for the negligible fates of humanity. But what stays with us, more crucially, is the film’s chiaroscuro portrait of a woman with nowhere to go: Nora, with her funereal mask of a face, her sleep-walking steps, her lifeless stance – the shorthand of wretched resignation. 

While the last drastic gesture of Jeanne Dielman is born out of a long, cumulative process of prostitution and thankless domesticity, we can pinpoint the last straw that produces Nora’s act of rebellion. With Nora’s raison d’etre intact, however, it is foreseeable that she could go on and on indefinitely as a martyrized woman. Whether, like Jeanne Dielman, Chassis will become a feminist favorite, however, remains to be seen. Viewers have been reportedly put off by its unrelieved bleakness and hopelessness, remarking how utterly different Alix has turned out to be since the days of Donsol and Kadin. But that’s beside the point. To repress the reality depicted in Chassis just to humor our squeamish bourgeois sensibilities is just wrong; more mistaken when we do nothing from the comfort of our armchairs.

reviewed: December 5, 2010

Friday, May 17, 2013

AGONISTES (Lav Diaz, 2009, work-in-progress)

The ancient Greeks invented and defined the term apropos of our everyday fate. Agony. Ours is one born out of a myriad of cataclysms – both natural and auto-inflicted. Lav Diaz’s Agonistes, an admitted work-in-progress but already fully formed, meditates on the Filipino’s most pressing worldly struggle, his struggle to break out of material poverty and the non-material consequences of poverty. Hints, however, point to a more eschatological theme – the centrality or the simultaneity of the spiritual struggle.

Directing from his own script, Diaz transposes the ancient term agonistes to latter-day Philippines. He singles out the classic strugglers of contemporary times, the working-class men and the peasants, to shoulder grinding poverty. In truth, it can be said that the agonist has been a favorite fixture of Diaz’s other films: Heremias is both agonized and anguished, so is Hamin in Death in the Land of Encantos, tortured and demented at once. Epic but individual in scope, mythological and biblical in character, Diaz’s stories are veritable stories of struggles, sagas of agony.

Agonistes opens with a grandiose sequence of robust buildings under construction in Manila. This is the magnificence that, on a sudden, contrasts with the slumped figure of one construction worker, a young man named Juan. As he narrates what he has witnessed to Manoling, an older, brotherly fellow worker, he has been traumatized by the sight of one of his co-workers being buried alive in wet concrete at the construction site. But the occupational dangers are not the end of it – the rainy season soon floods the metropolis and makes it impossible for them to reach their workplace.

These two become so desperate that, over a drinking session, they latch on to a kind of Pascalian wager. Manoling has revealed a secret of treasure supposed to be buried in his family’s land somewhere in Bikol. If they find it, they are set for life. If not, it’s just a matter of a few days’ work and a matter of looking a little silly, perhaps. They aren’t even thinking of that: Manoling is just “tired” of the daily grind.

Quitting their jobs, they emerge in Bikol one day, purchase digging equipment and get to work. They meet Manoling’s brother who farms the land but whose wife Loleng is terminally ill with a lung disease. As the trenches deepen, Juan and Manoling only manage to turn up rusty metals and an old military boot. Manoling’s brother seems content to live a farmer’s life and jokes in the background about a share of the spoils. At dusk, all of them often – including the bed-ridden Loleng -- gather to watch the magnificent – otherworldly? – sunset.

Agonistes is a miserabilist ode to materialism – or an oblique one to spiritual “reorienting.” Or perhaps, their unresolved dialectic. As the almost Syssiphian diggings go on, the crash and crunch of shovels against sand and gravel alternate with the sound of Loleng’s deathly and fatal coughing. As Juan and Manoling pursue their treasurely dreams, they seem oblivious to the specter of death, the possibility of afterlife. Like a colossal god, Mayon Volcano towers in the background to shame their pointless efforts. The Pascalian wager of the search for treasure can thus be read as an allegory on misplaced faith itself, the pursuit of false gods.

Even in this rough cut, Agonistes holds up as an excellent film. The layers of meaning are already robust. The simplistic notion, for instance, of the materialistic agonist (represented by Juan and Manoling) is elevated by the presence of other kinds of agonists: Loleng, the terminally ill agonist whose struggle is physical illness and presumably coming to terms with her faith; and Manoling’s brother, outwardly content, but something else deep down.

It’s a world of lingering shadows, and Diaz complements his classic themes with black and white cinematography. It serves him well again – appropriately eerie and reminiscent, among others, of the work of Bela Tarr. Diaz’s compositions are painterly -- he must have studied classic portraiture in preparation for this -- which reinforces the timelessness and universality of his themes, whether it is a reckoning of the ills of the contemporary Filipino or not. Diaz’s work will transcend the borders of time and space and nationality, our agony aunt for all time.

reviewed: October 26, 2009

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

THE MARTYRDO(O)M OF WOMEN: A Tendency of Filipino Films in 2010

 The term misogynistic implies a view which treats women like idiots.

                                                                                          - Claire Denis

In the just concluded year, yet another bonanza year for independent films, there was a remarkable bumper crop of films centering and foregrounding the various fates of women. Now more than ever, the running theme of these films was a suspect, misogynistic form of martyrdom, as though for women, it is far preferable to a nondescript fate consigned to the background.

Women as martyrs then, women as sufferers of hapless circumstance – economic, socio-politcal, religious, cultural and otherwise – if only to feed the sadistic fantasies of the other half of the gender divide, and perhaps the male-interpellated impulses of the filmmakers themselves. Offhand, one can reel off the following films that in varying degrees illustrate the focalization of beleaguered women: Limbunan, Chassis, Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, and Sheika.

Surprisingly, these independent films were not there to make the numbers up. In many instances, these portraits of women attracted the full breadth of the spotlight and received the loud clamor of lionization. They have not just made the rounds of the local independent circuit – Cinemalaya, Cinema One, Cinemanila – but have been invited to appreciative festivals abroad.

But to return to the crux of the matter: a good majority of these women films are apt to reveal a sadistic streak; they project their subjects in hopeless and helpless distress. An entry to the Cinemalaya Festival in 2010, Limbunan is a tale of anguished betrothal, counting down the last days of sequestration before a woman’s wedding, held hostage by circumstance and culture. Chassis, newly minted under the auspices of the Cinemanila Festival, is about a homeless woman who lives under cargo trucks and is forced to provide for her child through prostitution. A Cinema One production, Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria charts the travails, by turns suicidal and cynical, of one woman who is forced to ransom her family’s future with marriage to a foreign man. In Sheika, the title character and her two teenage sons – refugees fleeing war in Mindanao – meet a tragic fate worse than what they had left behind. It was screened out of competition at Cinemalaya.

Common wisdom suggests that these films may have, at this point, gone beyond scrutiny and question. They are decorated world-beaters, says one kibitzer. They have become instant classics, says another. They have passed the rigors of academic discourse, says a third. Aye, they are beyond reproach, they all say in unison. That’s that.

Then again, maybe not. Exploitation films have not so infrequently put us on the world map, but often for vulgar reasons. In a way, many of the 2010 films aforementioned are no different from exploitation films. Each spotlights and exploits a social problem that features the suffering and brutalization of women, but the cards are so stacked against these distaff protagonists as to offer little circumvention and subversion of their sorry plight. The heart of the problem always proves bigger and more insurmountable than any woman protagonist can ever handle.

The philistine platitude is that cinema proffers no panacea, so the atrocities against cinematic women should not be taken too seriously. Cinema corrects little and resolves little – not the enormities against the world, not the sad plight of women. But the truth may be closer to the contrary: we, for one, have sworn by cinema like nothing else. In our country, so much faith and esteem are projected onto the icons of cinema that we see them as saviors and liberators from poverty and mundane hardship. We give them pride of place, in more ways than one.

In France, Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or and Isidore Isou’s Venom and Eternity have had such galvanizing power on audiences as to have caused riots at their premieres. In Belgium, the so-called Rosetta Law was enacted to shield and protect its young workforce, all because of a little but potent film made by the Dardenne brothers. In Iran, filmmakers are so feared and regarded as threats by the state that they suffer harsh repression, are imprisoned or exiled. (Jafar Panahi is now serving a 6-year sentence in jail, while Mohsen Makhmalbaf has to go abroad to make films.) That is the transformative potency of cinema.

Meanwhile, our independent filmmakers are still grappling with the Weltanschauungs of the past. Limbunan, Sheika, Chassis and Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria: these films, in various gradations, are still peddling antediluvian characters with mostly antediluvian motivations. What is regrettable remains how they naturalize the image of the suffering woman. To say the least, it is not easy to sit through these films. Martyrdom, our films keep repeating, becomes women.

In Limbunan, the notion of extreme self-sacrifice on the part of women extends to Muslim societies. When Ayesah questions her enforced betrothal in Limbunan, she is operating along a sound understanding of her predicament, but curiously she submits meekly to the antiquated traditions of her society. Could she not have made the liberating gesture of flight? No, the film argues, Ayesah has bigger roles to fulfill – hers will be a marriage to ensure peace pacts -- a soothing balm in an uneasy landscape. It is worth looking into a film like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh for a refreshing contrast, a tale that brooks no parental and cultural edicts stacked lopsidedly against its female character.

Suspiciously analogous to Limbunan is Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria. Central to this film is the specter of another unwanted marriage; this time Terya, the main protagonist, is a mail-order bride, about to be shipped off to her would-be husband in Germany. The trade-off, for Terya’s family, is practical and financial security and prosperity. Terya is inconsolable at first – to the extreme extent that she tries to take her life at the start. Like Ayesah, Terya is presented with the option of flight: she has a man that she can elope with. She doesn’t take it.

Towards film’s end, Terya's family -- that is, her domineering mother -- has a change of heart, and presents the daughter a way out. But Terya, again, opts out of it. Instead, she mysteriously becomes compliant, and agrees to the ruinous marriage after all. As though sleepwalking to the overtures of a headlong script, she goes from attempting to kill herself to becoming a resolute bride-to-be in the space of one schizophrenic hour. Part of the blame goes to director Remton Zuasola's intent of doing it all in one plan sequence. (The one-take poetics may be impressive, but it also highlights the jarring transformations of characters and the zigzagging of motivations.)

Cynical, benighted martyrdom has entered into it: through this marriage, she will be acceding to her family’s requests, but her deeper motive seems to have the weight of scorn and accusation, with the design of disowning her family afterwards. There is the suggestion that Terya will go the same route of her supposedly exemplary cousin who has enriched herself from the same prospects Terya is facing. By implication, Terya has become an exchangeable piece of commodity. Her decision is not just one of senseless self-sacrifice, assuaged with the prospect of hefty monetary recompense, but one that seems to have destroyed her soul.

If women are so frequently threatened and harmed by external forces, Sheika presents a portrait of psychological annihilation and extreme bereavement. Sheika has been variously trumpeted as the latter-day Sisa, or our version of Mother Courage. Like her predecessors in the realm of drama and literature, Sheika loses her children in incomprehensibly violent ways; her life story is so traumatizing that she ends up mute and catatonic in a sanatorium. Even there, her tribulations are not over, she must endure being raped by the janitor, with his masculine act, his masculine seed, consequently stirring her back to life. (For this, Mardoquio obviously steals a page from Almodovar's Talk to Her.)

Chassis, a film about a homeless woman’s extreme poverty, may represent the darkest of the entries here, its tone one of unrelieved hopelessness, but surprisingly, albeit narrowly, it justifies its bleak outlook on the world and its very subject. Nora, a homeless woman, is forced into low-rent prostitution to make ends meet and to provide for her child, but something happens to dispossess her completely. Her final gesture, a symbolic act of emasculation, must be parsed as one of revolt, against a world that offers little, but takes and dispossesses what she has. The violence, too, could be symbolically against us, voyeurs who provide so little succor.

Here then is an array of women painted with a narrow ontological palette, all so martyrized as to seem dramatically interchangeable (Ayesah and Terya: unwilling brides-to-be; Sheika and Nora: bereaved and vengeful mothers). There has to be a hidden page or chapter on creating characters in that slim volume our independent filmmakers keep consulting. But make no mistake about it: there is no invoking here of the dramatic paradigms of, say, socialist realism: the emphasis on hyper-positive characterizations, all rose-tinted portraitures, all idealized and heroic figurations.

Diegetic women, this side of identity politics, can only hope for the same variety of fortunes reserved for the privileged other. Perhaps it remains more naturalistic – and more cinematically dramatic – to depict these women in threatened circumstances, especially according to Third World settings. But, in the final reckoning, let them not be lost causes. Let them transcend passivity and impossible subjectivity. If they go down fighting, if they are vanquished in the end, afford them some measure of moral victory. If they trump their adversaries, let them for once keep their souls intact. 

The function of art, after all, is not just about the reproduction of realities, but perhaps more importantly, the production of possibilities.

THE LEAVING (Ian Loreños, 2010)

Everything is changing, leaving, and returning. There is always a constant transience in this world.   -- The Leaving, program synopsis

Strange, but one comes away from The Leaving with a very little sense of its vaunted transience. The film promises movement and what we get is stasis. If nothing else, everyone here is trapped in purgatorial states, a state of imprisonment, which makes transience synonymous with escape. Escape, that’s all – and perhaps a dastardly one. Let’s recite a precis of their life stories one by one. Martin, unable to fend for himself, literally hightails it to the loving arms of his parents in the States. Grace sees transience by giving up on her marriage. The line of least resistance. And those who supposedly make the existential  transition – the transient ones? The lovers, William and Joan – they do so through violence. Violence also takes another neighbor; they find her all broken like the rag doll that is supposed to stand for her missing younger sister. Sick. And how about the ghosts trapped in this haunted apartment building? This film defines transience in the most perverse terms: A function of flight and defeatism. The frightening part is, it seems done in solemn earnest. As such, one tries to see another film altogether. Another review instead, written before knowledge of those lines about transience – unearned, never made concrete.

Popular notions, whether ill-informed or not, are such that the Chinese in this country are so clannish and tight-knit in their ethnicity that it's hard to single out anyone of them who is struggling in life. Mention the word Chinese and this immediately conjures up lofty and grandiose images of a business tycoon, or a rich, well-connected fat cat, or a kid studying in the most exclusive schools. In Ian Loreños’ The Leaving, one gets to see the other side of the tracks: Tsinoys who are economically vulnerable and subject to moral and human susceptibilities.

But Loreños -- who wears a number of hats as writer, producer and director for this film -- locates his characters almost exclusively within a middle-class spectrum, which short-circuits some of the exercise. Still, in a film set in a haunted apartment building in the enclave of Binondo, it’s a good college try. Perhaps, there aren’t really impoverished Tsinoys around after all.

Three intertwining stories make up The Leaving: subtitled Martin, The Lovers, and The Wife. In Martin, the eponymous character is the scion of a once-wealthy family who have since emigrated to the United States, leaving him alone to fend for himself. In the ensuing fall from grace, his girlfriend has left him, while he goes applying in futility from one job to another. In The Lovers, Wiliam, a married man, is embroiled in a volatile affair with travel-agent Joan and they tussle with deadly results. In The Wife, one sees a long-suffering character who discovers her husband’s indiscretions and starts a close, almost intimate relationship with the next-door neighbor, Martin. These overlapping lives must also coexist with the ghosts and ghostly ones trapped in the apartment building.

A nagging feeling of familiarity, however, sours an appreciation of this film. What condemns it is an unbridled wearing of influences on its sleeves. The Leaving is a pastiche of all-too-identifiable sources -- from Asian movies, mostly Hong Kong derivations, particularly Wong Kar-Wai, and still more specifically In the Mood for Love. Read above for the plot toThe Wife. From the very Asiatic color motif – red, all shades of red, curtains, calendars, fruits, dresses, and blood, copious blood – to suspiciously familiar shot compositions to the presence of ghosts recruited from Asian horror flicks, Nakata’s The Ring among others, this film is like a shameless collage that would put Picasso and Braque to shame.

It would have been all compensated for had this film recounted fresher, more novel stories, but that, too, is not forthcoming. Aside from slavishly quoting In the Mood for Love in one part, the other two stories are not compelling enough to sit through either. They are trite tropes that one might generate in a scriptwriting workshop – e.g. someone looking for a job to no avail; a pair of lovers fighting and leading to the most logical extreme. If Loreños feels so compelled to tell stories about Tsinoys, he is better off adapting stories by authors like Charlson Ong, Mario Miclat and other Tsinoy fictionists. Admittedly, Loreños had a good premise – the notion of the struggling Filipino-Chinese – but somewhere along the way, he just lost the plot, and ended up paying homage, not to Tsinoys, but old and rehashed representations of Asian filmmaking. 

reviewed: July 10 ,2010