Thursday, August 8, 2013

DEBOSYON (Alvin Yapan, 2013)

Henceforth, a compact between him and us -- both sides sustaining, in each other, a mutual faith. 

Keeping faith, pledging belief in the praxis of this writer-director as a creator of cinematic art, as a storyteller, as a purveyor of native knowledge. In return, he vows not to shortchange us in an effort to keep us in the thrall of "enchantment." I’ve never met Alvin Yapan, nor have ever heard any anecdotes about him, but this appears to me is Debosyon’s secret thesis. Yapan is in search of his twin – the poet in search of his steadfast reader, a kindred audience. Yapan has proven to be an enchanter, a thoughtful fabulist, literally the interpreter of our native fantasies and folklore amid our backtracking stance from the phenomena of the mythic and the supernatural. Yapan embodies the dwindling breed who can still shift shapes with the times, even in monstrous ways, in the hopes of exhorting his viewer to keep faith and not abandon him.

The director of Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe is very much the director of Debosyon. Both films convincingly transport us to Yapan’s realm of fantasy and unreality that we are gradually relinquishing and crowding out, metaphysically and spatially. If Ang Panggagahasa shows a kapre's earthly incursion as an act born out of territorial marginalization and encroachment, Debosyon is likewise that -- where forests once lay untouched, they are now crawling with flower gatherers and rebels -- installing the legend of Daragang Magayon and the Virgin of Penafrancia as the last bastion of our spiritual and mythical culture.

Myth and religion, and their final stand. We must stay the course and keep faith in it. Yapan seems to say this in ways that never sound too desperate, but always with a modicum of grace and artistry. Debosyon may one day be no more than a relic of a forgotten time, an anachronism in the age of shifting cultures and ideologies, but the artfully heroic and tenacious holding onto a fast receding epoch is where Yapan commits and casts his lot.

Devotion, to tease out the connotations of this word, is a heroic, even mystical, attribute, after all. Yapan, by the way he has reconstituted our narrative heritage and returned to something that exerts lesser and lesser influence on us, is a heroic, perhaps quixotic, yet nonetheless dedicated director. Thus he hopes nothing less from us: that we, his audience, will reciprocate his own devotional and votive efforts. Yapan, after all, is a university professor whose intrinsic tendency is to impart knowledge. Devotion should be a two-way avenue: the teacher instilling knowledge, as the student processes his every word and converts it to usable wisdom.

Yapan’s Debosyon proves no less as a shorthand for a leap of faith, no matter how the fantastic half-human, half-mythical chimera takes form. No matter what shape and shift Oryol, Daragang Magayon, the Virgin of Penafrancia assume, the viewer must stand firmly by and not lose ground. Debosyon, if anything, is almost certainly a repudiation of the literalism of verifiable science, in contradistinction to the way Yapan has come to end his films with double or multiple meanings. That is the realm of poetry, not cut-and-dried certainty always reduced to a unitary resolution. But even as Yapan exhorts us to pay heed and keep faith, he will endeavor to show all his cards, his own human nature perhaps, out of his own good faith as a steadfast educator. Debosyon is his confession of not being infallible, that he can be a monstrous entity, but his monstrosity is not ill motive but simply a rigorous eagerness to profess and be learned from.

As Debosyon culminates in the intertwining of man and myth, both in metaphorical and literal ways, a more intense confession takes place. Why man has kept faith in his supernatural beloved is the result of a devotee’s instinctual epiphany through intuition – again a reproach of the growing scientificity of civilized and modernized life. Debosyon, by contrast, stands as an earthy, all but bestial reproach of the strict morality that science props up -- the monism of science dovetailing with the monotheism of religion -- a science which finds no virtue nor value in the union of man and myth, man with anyone. (What might be the most chimerical sex, the most chimerical union, the film seems to rhetorically ask.) As with Yapan’s Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa where the prospective male lovers face each other eye to eye in a meaningful way, Debosyon does confess how the transcendent glint in the eyes tells the whole story. Cinema, it bears repeating after all, is the kindred medium for the eye, and this is Yapan’s newfound medium to instruct us, never too literally, but with a creatively sinuous and shape-shifting dexterity.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

PUROK 7 (Carlo Obispo, 2013)

Once I relished a fonder -- or perhaps vaster -- recollection of childhood. I remember the names of streets of my old hometown. I remember the vistas of dirt road and the wilderness surrounding the house I first called home. I remember how Indian mangoes, guavas and cacao fruits could be plucked from its unguarded trees. Those places were wide open spaces. Those spaces were a universe all their own, and every day did not pass without a sense of adventure. Those were idyllic times, and I would cherish through the years their presence in the mind’s eye. Characters of unforgettable attributes would jump out of my memory: the tattooed jailbird who brandished his paltik whenever drunk; the mistress whose house smelled of sardines; the so-called village madman, a gentle giant who roamed the streets, there, in a predominantly Ilocano enclave mingled with the Gaddang tongue. Years later I, would return here to try to revivify those memories, only to be blindsided by the distortions of time: my conception of my first milieu, to my dismay, had become severely disproportionate to actuality. These spaces had shrunk and had lost some of their virtuous dimensions. Gone were the characters that populated them. Memory all these years had flattered my sense of first habitation, and expanded its reaches of wonder, it all now seems.

Carlo Obispo’s Purok 7, a bittersweet portrait of the wonder years set against a backdrop of tragedy, seems to operate on such a prospective view of a time inextricably entwined with the happy hyperboles of memory. Two children, Diana and Julian, are left to fend for themselves when their mother undertakes a journey abroad she is bound never to survive. Their father, by then, has separated from her, and has started another family. Purok 7 concerns how a small village closes ranks and, actuated by sympathy, nourishes its virtual orphans. Later on, the truth may shed its disguise and dawn on them, as many adults come to realize, but time may by then have also healed their tragic loss. Time would have expanded and romanticized the landscapes and homescapes of the past. This is Obispo's hopeful thesis. Memory’s idealization of distant times will have cushioned the impact of the past's severities.

All but abandoned, Diana, 14 years old, and her younger brother Julian remain on the surface unaffected by it all. Approached by Obispo with a measure of mirthful sympathy -- Diana wears an unusual smile as Julian points out at one point -- their lives of feasting on nothing but swamp spinach or humble viands, however, are not without a sense of wonderment. Diana, the budding adolescent, receives unusual fondness from her childhood friend, for whom she fosters a palpable crush. Obispo’s observation of early youth is more or less precise, anchored on an uncanny sense of the idealization of childhood against a time of overarching loss. His sense of memory does not overly sentimentalize, but orchestrates proceedings with a very gingerly touch – almost to the point that his movie feels unstaged or unsimulated; its tone and acting are both grounded in lighter-than-air spontaneity. The director's intention is to counteract the depiction of a childhood of potent hurt with one filled with the more caring influence of benevolent humanity. Obispo’s compassionate concern invests faith in the resilience and self-healing attributes of the young, forging a film that stands more blithely and obliviously than such unsparing depictions of childhood as Miyazaki’s Grave of Fireflies, Jang Sun-Woo’s A Petal, Amir Naderi's The Runner, and Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows.

Purok 7’s tangle-and-twist-free plotline, however, seems both to work for and against it. Combined with its close immediacy and intimacy, on one hand, it works because there is a sense of unhampered, almost real-time take on its subjects, but from the standpoint of conventional dramaturgy, it seems like dead time. Dedramatization is not bad, but when the material is overly familiar as in this case, it can impoverish the experience. (Watch So Yong-Kim's Treeless Mountain for an illustration, a film with a very, very, very similar dynamic, set of themes and subjects, but with much deeper, more immersive and more complex emotions involved.) A predominant chunk of Purok 7 regrettably plays as a form of dreamy-eyed puppy love that we have seen elsewhere and often. Besides, it all feels unrealistic for the most part: the rich city dream boy all but requiting the shy presence of a plain, provincial Diana stretches it a bit, long before sympathy for Diana comes in and justifies his solicitous attentions. Instead of relegating us to adolescent pining too often frequented, the film could have been better served with a more thorough exploration of spaces and people of the village -- not this generic purok devoid of character and characters (not the overly familiar stuttering best friend, please) -- all in the manner that Gaston Bachelard describes as a sense of home that "protects the daydreamer." Only during short intervals is its underlying social issue touched upon: one or two underplayed scenes that haunt with the apparition of the absent mother. Despite this, the concentration on adolescent infatuation feels too central and minimizes attention from its bigger theme – the familial sense of distance from many overseas parents. This must be Obispo's way of showing his weariness with the less-than-subtle representation of the death-row subject itself. The effect is that of a metaphorical reverse shot of the melodrama and hysteric spectacle of films featuring overseas Filipinos on the verge of execution: the focus is, instead, the steadfast and spontaneous day-to-day life of those left behind. Still one can't shake the feeling that the existent material, as it stands now, can be further rendered more compactly and freed of extraneous matter, and work just as effectively as a short-to-medium-length film.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

AMOR Y MUERTE (Ces Evangelista, 2013)

There is more than a titillating hint that Amor Y Muerte is meant to be a vehicle for the exploitation of Althea Vega’s shapely and buxomly body. The film is constructed in such a way that her character named Amor, a free-spirited native Tagala married to a repressive Spanish insulares named Diego in 16th century Bulacan, has multiple drawn-out sex with different men. Not only does Vega’s character have numerous steamy -- noisy, for everyone to hear -- bed scenes with her husband, she also has indiscretions with a g-stringed Tagalog native in every conceivable nook and cranny: there's even the all-but-compulsory moment against the backdrop of a cascading waterfall: "artistic sex," so must think its director. After all this sexual galore, however, one is left with a static and stagnant affair: its temporal setting is sketched with monotonous exposition; its mise-en-scene -- a few native houses in a leafy, watery rural backdrop in the Tagalog region -- is a given even to this day; but its thespian cast are acting tyros who can't shoulder the onus of authenticity necessary for this film.

These deficiencies are only symptomatic of the systemic failure of the film. The main crux of its problems seems to be undue diligence, its over-reliance on the fragmentary, unholistic literature from and about those times, as filtered through European eyes. Most, but not all, of what we know of precolonial times are derived from the handful of books left behind by Pigafetta and de Morga. These European prisms suspiciously appear to be what the film's researchers rigidly used as their frame of reference. Rizal's annotations may help to some degree, but it must be noted that our hero himself was not immune to his European education and imaginary. Thus a predisposition to exotica and Orientalism can be discernible in Evangelista's film.

More of archetypes than flesh and blood, its characters bear these traces of Asiatic exoticism and othering. "Carnality" is supposedly the main attribute of pre-colonial women. Amor obliges and embodies this typification, converted to Catholic faith but without a sense of sin. She seems cut out of the erotic and sexual natives Pigafetta claimed to have witnessed in orgies during Magellan's expedition and passage through Cebu. (Another Pigafetta footnote that makes it into the film is the supposed use of sexual toys and accessories by pre-Spanish natives.) But the telling question is this: Does Amor really love her husband as she claims while committing infidelities with another man? Monogamy was already practiced and well in place, it must be noted, before Spaniards arrived. The motivations for Amor's actions are amorphous if not incriminatory; her actions are indiscretions in all their promiscuous erotics, and thus not equate to virtue, let alone a metaphor for native rebellion, as the filmmakers may wish to imply.

Amor’s aunt, meanwhile, is another Christian convert but who secretly practices pagan convictions. She is also in cahoots with Amor’s father, a local rajah who conspires with Lakandula's revolt. Apitong, Amor’s lover, is an unthinking cipher who converts to Catholicism, and incriminates himself and Amor through a Christian confession. Here the native characters are either idiotic, treacherous, scheming or depraved, motivated with unvaryingly unsympathetic traits.

All of these details seem to create an intractable picture of the times. The characters are uniformly created as rebellious, but none of them show an ounce of redemptive quality. The motivations of Amor are inscrutable and contradictory in the way she professes love for her husband but is not beyond committing infidelity. Amor's father brazenly lies to his son-in-law about Lakandula's revolt and affirms that he is "his son" now. Amor's aunt double-deals even in matters of faith -- hinting at her sense of duplicity and expediency.

Amor Y Muerte repeats proud contemporary assertions that the pre-colonial natives were rebellious towards Spain, but that is only half the story. Pre-colonial natives also freely and willingly collaborated with them in order to battle common enemies. This film simplistically, one-dimensionally depicts those times. Meanwhile, the thrust of the movie is obviously elsewhere – towards the loins. Alongside the unnatural performances, a movie meant to have a handsome period and costume sweep descends into amateurism and bathos. 

By the time, the movie winds up in a violent and bloody conclusion, there is less than a dramatic urgency to be felt and be moved by. Despite the omnipresence of sex and a smattering of violence, there is just too great a deal of lethargic action, not the least worsened by the somnolent delivery of dialogue -- whether in Spanish or Tagalog. The supposed rebellious freedom of its characters is thus ironically hampered, constrained by the lack of thespian capacity and presence.

Amor Y Muerte. Sex and violence, in other words, and then where are we? Even the ending – a freeze-frame in the middle of Amor’s vengeful wrath  -- is a sorry symptom of an overall directorial aporia.