Tuesday, May 14, 2013

CINEMA ONE ORIGINALS 2009: The Year of the Misbegotten

The movers and shakers of this year's Cinemalaya must be congratulating themselves as the year comes to a close. A fruitful year, 2009, they must be musing as they pop champagne and toast themselves in jubilation. True enough, many of this year’s films have exceeded modest expectations and have done not just the filmmakers, but the country proud. Even as this is being written, many of these films are now making the rounds of the festival circuit abroad and initial news indicates they are coming home far from empty-handed. Pepe Diokno's Engkwentro won the Venice Horizons Award and the Luigi de Laurentiis Award at the recent Venice Film Festival and Alvin Yapan's Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe bagged the Gold Prize at the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival. At this year’s Cinemanila Film Festival, local audiences had the privilege to see the promising feature debuts of directors Christopher Gozum (Anacbanua) and Armando Lao (Biyaheng Lupa) and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see them invited overseas as well. Nor would it be surprising to see them grabbing some prizes along the way. 

When all is said and done, the same might not be said of the entries to this year’s Cinema One Originals. Featuring veteran directors at the helm, this year saw a forgettable procession of mediocre and uninspired filmmaking. One came away from watching the Originals with a sensation of malaise: the films were not bad, but not good, either. The films were either too safe (read: too commercial, too formulaic) or just too headlong (read: too enterprising but not too well thought-out). But the coup de grace that doomed these films remains the failure of the scriptwriting. Film critics have often harped on the short shrift afforded to Filipino film scripts, and this year's films validate this cutting observation and testify to the need for improved screenwriting. 

If nothing else, the Cinema One Originals this year seemed to dwell on the shallow end of navel-gazing. Self-flagellation has never been so symptomatic as now. And yet, like most of Lenten flagellants, these films open little more than skin-deep wounds, seemingly content and complacent at their exhibitionism. As humans, as a society, as a nation, we get little insight through these films into our essential maladies. The interrogation of our common plight dissolves ultimately into flippancy. These films don’t problematize our condition as much as take cheap potshots at it; hence many in this lineup of films are either comedic or fantastic. 

Lahat tayo may abnormality, declares a supposedly insightful character in Maximus & Minimus, the opening film at the festival, a comic film that proceeds to do nothing with its rehashed insight into the human condition, but concludes with a cynical ending. The eponymous characters must contend with distorted self-perceptions amidst a modern world obsessed with rigorous conceptions of beauty. Their shallow plight is telegraphed by their names: Maximus is an overweight beauty who has few problems – not even with her healthy sex life – except that a new lover has given her a reason to doubt her comfort in her own skin. Papu, on the other hand, derives his nickname, Minimus, from his lack of penile endowment, so lacking that he cannot possibly pleasure the fleshy and fleshly Maximus. He is consigned in this movie to find ways to remedy his physical shortcoming, illustrated by trope after trope depicting his failures. Lest we think that abnormalities depicted in this film are shallow, Maximus’ new lover will give Freudians a reason not to outrightly dismiss it. On second thought, forget it. 

Paano Ko Sasabihin is a romantic comedy that turns Maximus & Minimus' motif of dysmorphia into the motif of disability. This is strictly for the birds: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and well, you get the drill. Not many films delve into the sensitive issue of disability; but those that do often squander the chance at giving this subject a fresh, insightful spin. Practically trivializing its delicate subject and turning it into a substanceless subplot, Paano Ko Sasabihin, sadly, belongs to this majority. A cutesy tale about two people who know sign language (the boy works at a school for deaf-mute; the girl has a mute brother) and mistake each other for deaf-mute, it is little more than a vehicle for its stars, who are reprising their romance in an ongoing television serial. 

Wanted: Border is the film that comes closest to a serious distillation of some of our national maladies. But it’s not so much a social analysis as it is a stylish and richly embellished imagining of a story in the tabloids. Like much tabloid fodder, we get a gallery of grotesque characters -- yet identifying who corrupts whom is no easy task in a culture of violence that implicates everyone. At the center of its black, macabre comedy is Saleng, a woman who must run an eatery while military men turn her house into a halfway house for suspected communist rebels. Before long, the tortures Saleng and her mentally-challenged son witness turn them into butchers. With increasingly ghoulish faces, leprous sores, black circles under their eyes (remember Elem Klimov’s Come and See?), they butcher and cook their victims and feed them to the unsuspecting – not the least of which are their teachers in torture. As the first woman to be crucified during Lent, Saleng embodies the conflicts and traumas of a nation's tortured history. Whether her acts of butchery are the symptom of profound sociopathy or just the outcome of Pavlovian conditioning, whether her crucifixion is sincere penitence is left to the audience to decide. It is best left that way: Wanted Border neither trivializes nor judges. 

Bala Bala: Maniwala Ka is a fantasy that foregrounds our common irrationality, as if to acknowledge it would mean our redemption. At the heart of its story is a boy named Amiel, a mute child whose secrets are manifold. He has elemental origins and elemental powers, but he is also a child suffering from the abuse of his adoptive parents. He begins to use his supernatural gifts for good when he meets an agriculturist who has come to the boy’s beleaguered town on orders to investigate the source of a plague. The plague – not unlike a biblical one – has started to claim children and domesticated animals. The agriculturist, an arrogant cynic from the city, becomes the child’s instrument to heal sick children. The agriculturist also crosses paths with a curious witch doctor whose prophecies seem to be coming true. In the end, we are given to speculate (read: the film withholds too much) that the town is little but a playground for elementals who apparently harbor resentment for the mistreatment of their kind. Bala Bala: Maniwala Ka ultimately depicts the chastening of science, and revels in privileging what cannot be verified by it. With the logic of magic realism, with its espousal of the anachronistic, this fantasy further reinforces why we have remained in the dark ages for so long, why we have remained stubbornly polarized against an empirical,  modern world.

reviewed: November 26, 2009

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