Tuesday, July 30, 2013

REKORDER (Mikhail Red, 2013)

Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar authored the originary short story entitled "Las babas del diablo" which in 1966 was first adapted to film by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni with the title Blow Up. In 1981 it was given a fresh spin by Brian de Palma and he entitled it Blow Out. Both movies recommend themselves, even as they take liberties with the raw material provided by Cortazar's story, supplementing and transplanting it accordingly (in Blow Up, the hedonistic Britsh Sixties; in De Palma, the politcal conspiracies of Eighties Philadelphia). Today, Mikhail Red locates his own version in present-day Manila and updates his predecessors by choosing the character of a former cinematographer from the 1980s over Antonioni’s effete fashion photographer and De Palma’s sound effects technician. The results, it must be said, are not unworthy of Cortazar, Antonioni or de Palma. This effort will do the illustrious cinematic name of the Reds proud.

In raw and graphic detail, a montage of surveillance footage that depicts actual crimes caught red-handed prefaces the film. Homicides and robberies are documented unawares through CCTV cameras. These, we realize later, are not throwaway imagery but germane to the story. Rekorder starts in earnest in a police patrol car, where a man named Maven is being transported to a lineup of suspects while the police officer intimidates him with a story about a rabid dog he run over. Stark-eyed, Maven remains po-faced throughout.

The truth is, Maven remains either stoical or unaffectedly dazed in a kind of deadening dream for most of the film. For someone who was once a thriving camera man in the golden age of cinema in the 1980s, he exhibits the look of someone shell-shocked. He speaks with a hollow, spectral voice that feels out of step with the times. He has seen better days and he no longer, presumably, looks at the world with a tinsel gleam in his eye, but perpetually through the lens of an old, obsolete video camera. His last remaining means of living is to illegally record films in theatres, and his last remaining employer is a film pirate who pays him more out of friendship and charity than anything else.

Maven's camera is not as obsolete nor without value as it first seems: it provides him a kind of illusory lifeline, it is like a holographic device that projects a time warp, and serves as his effective lullaby. What does he see? What does he hear? The sight and sound of an absent daughter. There is a genuine sense of consonance between her absence and the captured desolation of the metropolis. Seemingly made up of fragmentary images that would cohere in time, a great deal of the beauty of Rekorder lies in Red’s own version of a city symphony – more moody, more sorrowful, less thorough, rather rough and ready, but no less evocative than Dziga Vertov’s or Walter Ruttman’s.

Maven's estrangement from a sense of committed or principled witness seems total: the camera serves as a partition and mediation through which he explores a dark and lugubrious city. That is the kind of city he has chosen to document day after day – a city that seems to have let him down, a city that is darker than it is bright, a city that seems perpetually dark. So we see captured images of blind minstrels, the stagnant traffic of Edsa by night, the bright lights of high rises that must illuminate happy gatherings, except that they all seem too remote to Maven. He lives alone in a cramped apartment, cocooned by walls full of movie posters, and shelves of his personal archives. Something has estranged him, and perhaps traumatized him, in the past.

But one fateful evening, with his camera perpetually running, he comes across a mortal crime in the streets. Even when he is confronted by this certainty, howewer, he refuses to volunteer the truth and surrender his camera. Perhaps because the rest of the contents of his video cartridge – the results of his movie piracy -- will also incriminate him. There are also other reasons in his refusal to help -- perhaps an anomie born out of wounded witness -- no, not in the service of society’s amelioration.

The question that Red poses with Rekorder seems to be the same question posed by Antonioni and de Palma in their respective films: the burdensome nature of guilt, of suspicion, of truth. But Red forwards his own dimension of decisive conscience, personal as well as social, as an option. Red maybe less metaphysical than Antonioni, but he is no less eidetic and poetic: his protagonist knows what he has witnessed, it is no illusion or a trick of light, or a trick of photography. Videocameras are by nature less prone to falsehood, after all. De Palma’s sound technician, on the other hand, is not certain and must grapple with technology to ascertain the truth. Red identifies his protagonist as a refugee from a more proactive, activistic era, when the first Edsa Revolution took place. If he is meant to redeem himself, Maven must confront the ghosts of the past, a sense of guilt and hurt, deep moral and ontological questions: the personal, or could it be perhaps the historical that feels too personal?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

DAVID F (Emmanuel Quindo Palo, 2013)

David F is short for David Fagen, the mythic and speculative omnipresence in Emmanuel Quindo Palo’s second feature film. What is underscored in his makeup is his skin color: stigmatic black. To enact his sadly unchanging and unvarying fate for more than a century starting with American colonization, David Fagen is also depicted as a series of kindred, if not related, namesakes. He is not just the fictional present-day David, a gay stand-up comedian working the Pampanga nightclubs who is made aware of his roots and thus initiates a search for his African-American father. His earliest known ancestor, it turns out, is a historical figure, a member of the Buffalo Regiment -- troops composed of African Americans, eight-thousand strong, deployed in 1901 here, America's new but restive colony. Palo’s film, though, is not merely a speculative chronicle of the historical David Fagen and his fictionalized descendants but a painful intimation of the unofficial history of African Americans who chose to strike roots in this country.

The search for David Fagen is not a happy one but one that uncovers raw wounds of rootlessness and voicelessness. Although proud alterity and resilience can serve as the proper antidote, the world postulated here remains one that is mediated by strong exclusions and prejudices. As Palo envisions him, the actual (but imagined) David Fagen is one of the Buffalo soldiers who deserts his ranks after witnessing the subhuman regard of White Americans towards Filipinos, and defects to the local revolutionaries. Even as he rises to a respectable rank of captain among the Philippine Army and marries a native lass, there remains a thankless regard for the colored man. The price on his head only tempts betrayals against him, an undervaluation of his contribution of solidarity to the Filipino cause. Later on, he fathers a girl named Elena who is born with dark skin and is incapable of speech. Elena marries a guerilla during the Second World War, and gives birth to a dark-skinned boy, who is promptly disowned because of suspicions over her chastity and the circumstance of the child's black features.

To White America, we are the Other, the inferior race. To White America, however, so are the African Americans. In David F., worse, our co-option by this colonial mindset is evident as if to deserve our stature as the "noble savage." Thus the Filipino, to position himself in a respectable pecking order, is guilty of othering the black man, too -- a manifestation of the jaundiced outlook persistent to this day. A sense of homelessness is what the African American faces wherever he finds himself in a Westernized territory. Among us, he stands as a casualty of our imaginary which has absorbed not just American education but a pervasive Western thinking. We remain in the thick of taking out our frustrations on our minorities due to prolonged colonialism that once branded us as “indio” and “salvaje.” There are shades of that in Palo’s film, a parallel mentality that is articulated as in a scene where among part-Filipinos and other "hyphenated" nationalities, David Fagen is cussed as a “nigger.” As he finds out about his past and his heritage through the help of a sympathetic man of a similar ethnicity, he begins to become more sensitized to issues of identity, e.g. the racially insulting stand-up routines committed at his expense. David F. is a reminder that the question of race remains regrettably unresolved in contemporary times. If we think that our race feels the brunt of American prejudice and oppression, we too have long been co-opted by their thinking.

Predicated on his first two films, Palo demonstrates a shrewd and complex film practice. He is a master at simultaneous and subtle representation that might misdirect us, a sly feint where to shepherd our attentions and sympathies. Is David Fagen of contemporary Pampanga not just a victim of the so-called incorrect skin color but partly that of his sexuality or perhaps his job that exposes him to irreverence? An over-determination keeps us on the backfoot. Another moment that is loaded and telling is when the dark-skinned Elena fleeing with her child, abandoned by her husband and his family, crosses paths with a family of Aetas; on a sudden, the element of human appearances almost makes us second-guess with Elena. We seem to ask the same question: If the Malay-descended natives disown her, is her proper world with the one that mirrors her and her child in likeness? This social stratification hints at the the levels of hierarchy that segment our society, now and then. Similarly, Sta. Nina operates on this double bind: Pol is a kind of heretic who, after revealing his true colors, repudiates his profane acts, and aspires for the sacred. Palo employs a kind of doublespeak -- a sleight of hand in which we think we know where the object is hidden, but where Palo has subtly, discreetly emptied both -- for us to keep on second-guessing.

The only detail of irony and regret is the decision to use "blackface" makeup for the character of Elena. Blackface makeup has been historically associated with the elimination and effacement of black actors/performers from American cinema and entertainment. With the abundance of part-Filipinos in this film, were there no suitable actresses to play the role of someone with both Filipino and African-American descent? Otherwise, one wonders how the striking logistics (both period and contemporary) for this film has been put together ed on a shoestring budget.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

VOX POPULI (Dennis Marasigan, 2010)

Vox populi, vox dei.

The voice of people, the voice of God. In Dennis Marasigan’s frank but comic political satire Vox Populi, these ancient words are turned on their head and undergo the worst ironies and corruptions we in modern times are not exactly unfamiliar with and not exactly unaffected by. For all intents and purposes, we have rendered passé the spirit of this Latin saying, made extinct as Latin itself. For politics, Philippines-style, implicates and indicts us, who take on the term political animal with savage literalism. Our brand of politics, to amplify the metaphor, is a disgustingly tentacular beast that corrupts and depraves everything it touches.

In Vox Populi, the vantage point is recomposed and refreshed yet again – through the eyes of a blank-slate character straight out of a Frank Capra political comedy. Connie de Gracia, a first-time candidate in mayoralty elections in a town called San Cristobal, displays an unsophisticated, all-but-naive manner, with still youthful features that belie a past she terms disgraced. It’s a wise and ingenious character makeup, the tabula rasa, the innocent eye that might as well be that of a child. And it is just as well: Electoral candidates have a way of devolving into self-conscious and docile creatures who lose their ability to judge themselves and their public acts correctly

Everything happens on the last day of the campaign – the meat of this film and the subject of hand-held cameras following Connie de Gracia’s every move – packed as it is with gross incident and shockingly frank exposition that reveal the putrefying cross-section of Filipino politics. Around Connie de Gracia are a retinue of supporters who seem more naturally pragmatic and more politically wise than she could ever be: Tony, the political strategist who does most of the dirty work performing electoral sleights of hand behind her back; Ricky, Connie’s younger brother, who will use traditional electioneering tactics and personal charms to sway wide swaths of voters like religious groups and friendly block-voters, and Letty, her personal assistant who simultaneously feeds her voter psychology and sandwiches for missed meals.

Even in these all-too-cynical times, there remains a lightly off-putting power about the campaign transactions that go down in Vox Populi. They proceed shamelessly with the same audacity of commercial barter and bargain. Barefacedly, potential voters make known their problems that need to be resolved in a strict, reciprocal transaction of quid pro quo. Even Connie de Gracia without fully realizing it is already being sucked into this vortex of corruption. Asking about the technicalities of the electoral rules, she makes sure that her every campaign move is legal, although it may involve something so immoral and unethical as the subtle disenfranchisement of her opponents’ voters.

Essentially, Vox Populi goes over familiar but factual terrain, but Marasigan is an adept operator negotiating his material with controlled satire and refuses to milk his situations for easy laughs. When the moments do come, they are well-earned and authentically funny. The diverse and motley characters that Connie de Gracia encounters on the last day of the campaign are just as familiar: her brother’s grizzled godfather who only wants her to acknowledge all of her past – both their shameful parts and the reflected glories of her politician father – before he pledges his support; the pastor who has control of a block-voting religious group; an old professor of Connie’s who tests the true idealism and mettle of his old student; and a business tycoon who hedges his bets by supporting all the candidates with the agency of money. Marasigan weaves all these characters and their contexts with assured and masterful insight and confidence. A gifted farceur in this instance, Marasigan could have been a vulgar humorist if he didn’t exercise tranquil restraint. The laughs could have come fast and cheaply, but fortunately that isn’t so. He measures and weighs all his effects and the result is a potent film that doesn’t last one second more than it needs to.

Vox Populi is a refreshing satire with an old soul. We may know in advance the social types and social ills the film acidly presents to us but we shake our heads with as much outrage as the first time to its corrupt and savage truths. After all, these compromised and concessional truths define for us the hulking juggernaut known as the Filipino realpolitik. Redemption comes for the much-aggrieved audience at a crucial moment in the film when a group of youths approach candidate Connie – to pledge their support. Her strategists ask automatically, In return for what? The answer is a gentle reproach – or perhaps a stinging rebuke – of youthful idealism, a moment of exclamatory significance for a crowd awaiting sweet deliverance.

ENGKWENTRO (Pepe Diokno, 2009)

Sure we’ll grant that Pepe Diokno’s first feature-length film, Engkwentro, is daringly conceived. Everything is orchestrated in such a way that the story wraps up in a handful of takes, marshalled in a surprisingly brief running time. Sure, too, it has its metaphors right: characters inhabit the locale of the story – the shantytown of an unnamed city – like small trapped animals in a terrarium. We get that much. But these descriptions are misleading and hollow: Engkwentro is, we must say in advance, a well-envisioned but myopically executed film.

Engkwentro is prefaced with the sobering facts in an epigraph detailing the number of extra-judicial executions perpetrated by death squads in the Philippines: 814 victims in the last decade or so – mostly at the expense of petty criminals. The film quickly opens in a slum where Richard, a small-time gangster, is anxious to raise money for his escape after word gets around that he has been marked for execution by the vigilantes. Jenny-Jane, his girlfriend, is amenable to his plan and has agreed to get away with him. Richard, however, can’t seem to get through to his younger brother to join them. He is slowly falling in with the wrong crowd, in particular, the gang of Tomas, who also happens to be Richard’s rival in love. Tomas is not about to become a cardboard nemesis for Richard.

Engkwentro, thankfully, mercifully, ends in almost exactly an hour. Produced, written and directed by Diokno, it is meant to be a kinetic and restive ride that would have worn out its welcome had it gone on too long, what with the director’s decision to use handheld cameras. But this is also perhaps its weakness: there seems little time to individualize its characters. The cameras seem consumed to trace all the dead-end alleyways of the slums, the unlit, pitch-dark nights, and the rattling textures of corrugated rooftops. Diokno and his cinematographer seem too caught up with their whiz-bang ethic for this film at the expense of story and characterization. Contrary to advance write-ups, Engkwentro is not done in a single take. No, Sokurov’s Russian Ark has no rival at the moment.

Perhaps the main achievement that Engkwentro will be known for will not be its technical bravura and wizardry but its sociopolitical commentary (the references are suspiciously familiar that it borders on being propaganda against Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao City.) Superimposed on the soundtrack throughout the film are excerpts from the political speeches of the city mayor speaking in an unknown dialect, who vows to fight criminality with an iron hand and usher in progress. These speeches are edited and interwoven so wittily and ingeniously that they sound frighteningly like maniacal, self-incriminating confessions of a madman, recalling Hitler and the rest of his speechifying Nazi henchmen. Their exhortations for a new society (rubbed in by ‘Bagong Lipunan,’ that Marcosian soundtrack, at the end) contrast grimly and humorlessly with what goes on in the slums.

Most of Engkwentro, however, has been an afterthought. Some scenes look severely underlit – this might be the cinematographer’s contribution to create a spiritually dark environment for this hell on earth. Shot supposedly in high definition, some scenes just take place in the dark as the cinematographer, going a la intrepid documentarist, tries to catch up with the warring gangsters chasing after each other in the narrow mazes of the slums. Combined with its other visual and narrative deficiencies, Engkwentro comes close to being unwatchable. Shots are fired, some characters fall dead, and we simply shrug our shoulders. We are almost glad that it ended so soon.


Alvin Yapan’s Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe is set in a seemingly sleepy and serene town, secluded enough for its realities to engender a suspension of disbelief, but not so secluded as to be hermetically sealed from the world outside. While the world undergoes shifts and upheavals of economic paradigms, this film's setting throws us back to primal and elemental times. Yapan's story comes in the shape of a fable that recalls the tales of the Brothers Grimm, Greek myths, or better yet, our own rich folklore. In a word, the eponymous woman's rapture is an allegory on the plight of the Filipino woman, her bewildered stance at self-preservation in the face of many undesirable choices. 

Begin then with a disquieting scene in a quiet wooded town, a young man walking home witnesses to his horror a vision of three women hanging under a banyan tree. Seeking an explanation, he consults the local shaman, who explains that the three women were raped and hanged by Japanese soldiers during the occupation, apparently to demoralize their husbands who had taken up guerilla arms against the occupiers. Are these cries for help or are they coded messages from another world? Something is terribly amiss. 

This disconcerting prologue intimates the possible realities encompassed: the physical, the paranormal, the supernatural. The eponymous character Fe has just been repatriated from a job in Singapore, a casualty of a world in an economic tailspin, not realizing that her return may not mean a bucolic peace. The film segues into Fe’s reintroduction to the hard life in her hometown: while she works as a weaver of rattan baskets, her husband works in another department of the same small-scale factory. What Fe doesn’t know is his husband Dante’s dalliances with a co-worker. The proprietor of the handicraft factory is Arturo, a young man who was Fe’s onetime secret lover. Arturo and his family now also own the couple’s land, mortgaged to pay for Fe’s expenditures to secure an overseas job.

The poverty Fe experiences upon her return is both economic and spiritual. What she faces is a life of privation, a hand-to-mouth existence, so that when a basket of black fruits keeps appearing at her doorstep, she can only welcome it without question. Dante is suspicious of a suitor and beats her up for a confession. Fe confronts Arturo, whom she suspects of sending the fruits but who is as equally puzzled. This, however, rekindles their passions and leads to trysts. Fe’s worldly fate has boiled down to a choice between two undesirable choices, two heavily-flawed men: Dante, an adulterous, abusive and possibly impotent man; and Arturo, a weak-hearted man who can’t stand apart from a possibly abusive father. The local shaman, however, soon informs Fe of her secret suitor: the kapre.

Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe disquiets – and disquiets well – on myriad levels. On its most literal level, it not only foregrounds a story of adultery and infidelity but a story of institutionalized human indiscretions through generations. On a symbolic level, it depicts an allegory of a universal and modern theme: the struggle of women to assert their hard-won subjectivity. Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe also becomes the arena for the dialectical struggle of modern thought and the primal and mythological psyche.

Alvin Yapan is a fabulist who knows to tell his story with the right pitch and detachment – to achieve the proper effect and affect and never strain for the sensational, the melodrama of fear and horror. When the elemental kapre finally materializes, he is not a 10-feet-hirsute creature smoking tobacco with a horrifying, otherworldly presence, but a man of modest human dimensions, his face wreathed in tattoos, his voice full of solemnity and fierceness. He is almost like an emissary of our tribal ancestors sent to rectify modern permissiveness and wayward morality. But the colors we attribute to him are dark and her presence evokes eerie feelings.

Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe is mysterious without being overly mystifying. It lays down its narrative in a linear, straightforward way, set in concrete reality interspersed with calculated intimations of the otherworldly and the supernatural. Folklorists and mythological purists may not agree with the liberties the writer-director has taken in fleshing out his kapre, but this decision enhances the disquieting ambiguity inherent in the role of the elemental. Working from his own screenplay, Yapan achieves the fine overlap of realities, women trying to play bigger roles versus traditional subjugation and patriarchy, modern thought versus traditional superstition, world realities versus small-town life. Stories like Yapan’s remain common in the rural countryside, but are gradually disappearing in an increasingly urbanized society. Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe, however, ends on an eerie note, as though to uphold the irrational past, times when the rapture of a woman may only mean little reprieve and certain doom. 

Title in English: The Rapture of Fe