Sunday, October 20, 2013

ANG TURKEY MAN AY PABO RIN (Randolph Longjas, 2013)

Don't laugh, don't gag, or maybe you should, but I sat through Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin with my prejudicial notions of a lowbrow film, and came away with a serviceable smile at the end. The film's got the surface of comedy all right, but the trajectory is one of both fantasy and reality, the better to keep us on tenterhooks. Yet what comes to the fore, in the final reckoning, are the ricochets of all its spoken details -- the whole seemingly made to subordinate to its parts (its paroles) -- teased out with a fine-toothed comb for what they are comically worth and how they finally cohere into a repeatable picture of a not-so-uncommon reality: our unique relationship and transaction with the American White through language and logos.

Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin begins with a frantic search for a turkey, to be cooked and made ready for an American-style Thanksgiving Day on Filipino soil. The searcher is a twenty-something Filipina (named Cookie Bigoy) who, along with her trusty best friends, crisscrosses the city to purchase this relatively uncommon variety of poultry in order to surprise her new American husband (named Matthew Adams). The couple are depicted as a success story: poster children for an online site revealingly called KanoLovesPinay. com. It’s not, however, what one might cynically think. While a lot gets lost in the cultural and linguistic translation, this is no one-way street, not a marriage of convenience for either side: the couple seem to genuinely take pains to meet halfway as they adjust to one another’s cultural idiosyncracies and language barriers. 

But will it all be enough? Will the marriage of miscegenation work out? Many an utterance here lays, piece by piece, a brick on the wall of sound dividing the couple. Every instance of verbal communication between them represents an everyday (mis)adventure: transliterations, homonyms and multifarious puns, idiomatic malapropisms, even twang and diction, among other linguistic pitfalls, become an occasion to confound the couple, and translate to comical recognition for us with a dramatic -- or rather, comic -- irony that we so cherish. Even when the American seems to be catching on to the quirks of the Tagalog tongue: his wife unwittingly springs the trilingual trap on him (the average local is uniquely trilingual, of course). The Filipino, it bears observing, switches signs and codes almost unconsciously to the consternation of the foreigner.

That's what's at the tip of the tongue. Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin sustains a steady stream of consciousness, a laugh-a-minute pace for much of its duration. The Filipina at the center is not glibly alone: she has an equally uproarious set of friends and an equally uproarious set of parents, who among other things, display their inability to memorize the foreigner’s name, while spouting their supernatural superstitions.The Filipina's brother, meanwhile, has traded his jeepney for a career in rapping while curiously resenting the American and his sincere overtures of friendship.

Longjas' film, however, can sometimes be a mixed bag of new and hackeneyed hilarities, all too ready with its scatter-shot approach to comedy, so that even the lisp, that hoary old trope of comicality, gets another insufferable ventilation here. (Didn’t we just suffer through another stuttering character in Purok 7?) But side by side with another comedy watched on the same day, Bingoleras, Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin seemingly has few comedic pauses. That might be a dubious sign – its over-eagerness  to please -- but in hindsight the crude mixture is the kind of chatter one encounters day after day. Just as one says that, the film mixes tones, switches gears and takes on the touch of the serious -- when the Filipina presents herself at the American Embassy to get a much-coveted visa, a passport to Pennsylvania and a much-cherished anticipation of snow. 

With a scenario negotiating interpersonal and interracial relationships, the onus is on enunciation and acting, and both its leads, Tuesday Vargas and Travis Kraft, come up aces. Vargas, for one, has expressive diction which, coupled with rubbery facial expressions honed on tv and in stand-up routines, seems all but second nature. Kraft is no slouch either, he may have the seeming package of a Superman but he has the comic prerequisite, the much-mocked and much-imitated, iconic twang. Both come across with upstanding personalities for roles that entail wholesomeness (squeaky-clean, albeit already conditioned by American-ness by the time the film opens). Together, they pull off a genuine couple, despite their disparate backgrounds: the American, a white-collar professional, and the Filipina, a deboner of milkfish, with a son by another man. Somehow, key to bridging the linguistic chasm remains, paradoxically, true understanding. Watch, and yes, listen, to see and hear why.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

LUKAS THE STRANGE (John Torres, 2013)

Lukas The Strange bears an alias that's hard to live down -- the odd one, the solitary one, the alienated one -- as inscrutable as the circumstances surrounding his life. Even as the luster of tinsel -- in the form of a film shoot -- comes to his village, partway a source of hurtful jouissance, part bittersweet pleasure, the shy, withdrawn Lukas grapples not just with adolescence but with his strange knowledge and conception of his father. The-Name-of-the-Father, it seems, preoccupies him as a source of bewilderment, of troubling resonance. In an opening sequence of this new, beguiling film by John Torres, the father intones to his 13-year-old son, as in a dream, a father finessing his son into the acceptance of a stigma, a confession of a cardinal sin: he is half-horse, half-human.

"A tikbalang." Well-understood. Well, almost. The tikbalang, after all, is the indigenous, folkloric, centaur-like trickster that leads travelers astray. Through this dream-like admission made by the father, Lukas is made to learn what it all signifies, not just the negative tenor behind his father's voice: is the symbolic confession a shorthand for a serious crime (say, of causing people to disappear as tikbalangs do, a euphemism for doing away with the era's desaparecidos, the enemies of the state, as Torres intimates in an interview?) or is it just as much a shorthand for the father's indiscretions having to do with women (another Torres motif) ? Lukas thus begins to parse adult language to enter the symbolic terrain – and how the sobriquet starts to become him! On closer reflection, is the father's condition an inheritance to be passed down to his son who will duplicate it in his adulthood? In this realm of the boy's growing psyche, there is seemingly, as yet, no law, society, or a grasp of adult language: indexes which the psychoanalyst Lacan sees as necessities to confirm the boy's place in proper society.

The father, someone once said, is often a source of centrifugal power. He is often the disruptive presence within a dysfunctional family and breaks up Oedipal bliss. Torres' film may be viewed for its mythopoesis or its historicity but it lends itself well to a psychoanalytic cartography of the unconscious. The film, in essence, is auto-psychoanalysis, as it tries to triangulate what Lacan conceives to be the human psyche and its attendant tensions (1) The Imaginary Order, the narcissistic side, sees Lukas participating in auditions to land a role in a film being shot in his village. (2) The Symbolic Order – the assimilation of language and the rest of what he needs in order to assume what "The-Name-of-the-Father" stands for -- sustains the threat of disruption (possibly, in Lacanian terms, a psychosis) borne out of a father's damaged example. (3) The Real Order, the locus of anxiety, the antithesis to fantasy that is ultimately beyond symbolization, is interwoven with the imaginary: Torres, an artfully deceptive analysand projects it onto a social turmoil (e.g. the film's dark historico-political aspects) but not without the bittersweet overlap of the imaginary of the pastoral myth, the ethos of a celluloid-hungry psyche. If one pursues this to its conclusion, Torres proves to be his own Lacanian theorist, and Lukas The Strange is his impossible attempt at the Real.

The crux, in the artificial realm of tinsel and make-believe, remains how the father’s virility overshadows the growth and upbringing of Lukas. The father, as the movie and the movie-being-shot-within-the-movie wear on, becomes an object of rumor, that of being intimate with Melanie Moran, the actress, a figure of fantasy, the object of desire, for Lukas. While a pining voice on the soundtrack, Lorena, the confidante who uniquely understands Lukas, is full of longing for her strange, bosom friend. The film is fraught with the object of unattainable desire, what Lacan calls the "objet petit a" -- a lack in a person's life that mostly remains unfulfilled.

Circumspectly choosing the predominant gauge of 35 mm intercut with sparing digital video, the better to bear the cicatrices and artifacts of his visuals, Torres interweaves this psychoanalytic fable – about absent, wayward fathers, that dieu obscur -- against the backdrop of a time of authoritarian monstrosity in the person of the tyrant Marcos. Such diegetic aspects add to the pathos of longing, yearning, desire, loss, pain and a kind of orphanhood.

Despite the dolorous themes and undertones, however, Lukas The Strange is not strictly a clinical study at all, if one shuns its subcutaneous significance: it is grounded in true cinematic and artistic finesse and dexterity in the way it weaves in and out of its narrative tenses; it has a wealth of low-key but diverting dedramatized sequences that straddle the modes of narrative and documentary; it is simply an enchanting faux-naif film to experience, almost like a companion piece to Shireen Seno's feature debut Big Boy. The story of a colorful if beleaguered youth is assuaged with eidetic imagery -- from bucolic shots of the North, to a natural occurrence of a tornado, to the auditions happening in the village of Lukas: children being cued to tumble and roll downhill, men firing away with imaginary guns, a row of pretty village lasses filing in and out of the frame. There is also a formidable river that must be swam and crossed as in a trial by ordeal, its tributaries flowing the same way downstream, bearing a box of pornographic videotapes, the father's legacy -- like an ominous pattern floating away, to be salvaged or to be let go, like a bloodline, like a message in a bottle inscribed with the deepest sense of loneliness and void.

Title in Tagalog: Lukas Nino

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

ANG KWENTO NI MABUTI (Mes de Guzman, 2013)

Money connotes evil. Not just that, money has come to denote evil. Entirely evil. Lopsidedly that is how Robert Bresson coldly dissects the figure and presence of money in L'Argent: a manipulative demon with its accompanying materialist ideology, a trail of murder and crime lying in its wake. Nothing good can come out of it: money reeks. Enter Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, a film that reimagines this signifier of sin, repurposing money for yet another intention. The old aura of money seems to invert and shift colors in this new and commendable film by Mes de Guzman: foregrounding the question of what is virtuous in a world where nothing is unalloyed, where ethical and moral absolutes are a pipe dream even for utopians among us. Here many of the dependent characters are deeply flawed and face an unpromising earthly future, their sins wearing out their originality and mortality, by the time the virtuous Mabuti is placed in the hot seat, tested by poverty's ineluctable problem and a bagful of money.

In its searching of worldly deliverance, Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti is not unlike an old morality play, where its title character has an agon with her sense of right and wrong, whether it will serve an individual or a social good (at least her own society), but the stakes are less otherworldly and sublime, more immediate and mundane: terrestrial salvation. Forget the world to come, it seems to imply. Pragmaticism and consequentialism are not untenable, it whispers. Mabuti must read the fine print that comes with the money and the semaphores of circumstance: isn't it value neutral?

All but a truism to say that everything Nora Aunor touches turns, even from dross, into gold: the alchemy of Mabuti is no exception. Nora lends tremendous cachet to it by her stellar thespian presence, reaffirmed here with understated perfomance in the Ilocano idiom. But what must be equally recognized is how Mes de Guzman’s authorial achievement lays equal claim to this movie, based on a story he wrote some time ago without an explicit wish of making it into a medium for a Nora Aunor. Everyone around de Guzman, however, simply couldn’t help discerning the bright adumbration of the great actress in the role of Mabuti. De Guzman kept his fingers crossed and one day, with a connection made and consummated, she simply showed up on the set.

Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti may present a scenario so well-trodden as to be negligible -- how to transform the matter of money, the crux of conscience? -- but de Guzman handles it in such a way that we simultaneously shake and nod our heads by the time his film concludes. Chances are, most will agree with its signals of predestiny, but not without a sneaking question left hanging silently somewhere within. But it is all part and parcel of Mabuti’s own passion. Along the way, she, like a pilgrim in progress, is tested and tempted, and when we suspect coming on an obligatory Christian ending, de Guzman inverts the influence of religion: Mabuti’s own definition of virtue comes to the fore. Remember how the devilish son gets thwarted time and again in de Guzman’s earlier film, Diablo? This time the progress of Mabuti’s journeys gets often interrupted, but all is stoically shouldered. That is Mabuti’s deceptive grace. Mabuti, like a ministering saint, fields and keeps the needy under her wings: the daughters of her errant daughter, the equally cavalier and wayward son, and the many neighbors who need her faith and shamanic succor.

But in greater moral terms, if Bresson fingers money as filthy lucre, passed around as a gun in a genuine Russian roulette, de Guzman elevates the matter of money beyond something like a Kantian category, although we might be convinced we are trapped in one with all the crookedness and immorality surrounding Mabuti. Perhaps when, in the hardscrabble, poverty-stricken life that must be waged in the mountains of Nueva Vizcaya – where Communist insurgency remains; bankrobbers, too -- Mabuti’s countenance seems to change at the sight of money, hinting at the vortex it represents, money that's not rightfully hers, the dangers of fate she thinks are playing tricks on her prove to be self-perpetuating and self-terminating. Fate seems here to tempt and ultimately withhold its own dangers and risks. That is perhaps, the one of two knocks on the film - along with its raft of piggybacking characters. -- Or is it simply the nature of fate?

Mabuti, in this sense, is the incarnation of sainthood made pragmatically attuned to the times. Far from a daughter who has children by many different men, a son who adds another, Nora's Mabuti remains resilient and earnest reminiscent of a Giulietta Massina through it all: she has a shy smile behind a dusky and weathered exterior. When not minding her many granddaughters, she has always enough time – the patience of a saint -- to dispel the incessant threat of rabies and venom with some spit and her magical poison-sucking stones.

Local color proves both bane and boon for the film: the mostly non-professional characters, Novo Vizcayanos, come off as mostly wooden if you speak their language, but they also have the unique presence, the sui generis, to enchant you by their strangeness – even as de Guzman makes no secret of his enthusiasm for his home province, his intent to democratize filmmaking in those parts. Sometimes, however, the movie's stab at equal opportunity threatens to spin off to many loose ends and subplots that divert with their seeming function of dedramatized anthropology. On the other hand, indigenous details may divert in a good way -- e.g. the playthings of the forest, the sumpak, the proliferation of shops for secondhand clothes or wag-wag stores, the corruption of local officials with jueteng, the many military checkpoints, the superstitions around faith healers. Somehow, it all works -- all accretes to texture. Forget how de Guzman passes off the town of Aritao as a city, because these are the ramifications of a journey of fate where, from de Guzman’s perspective, nothing is simply as it seems. Even as Nora has expressed an earnest interest in a film about villainy, the seeds of evil have been subtly planted here, only justified with a benevolent end, deep within Mabuti's bosom. Think about it. Light, after all, may never occur without its underside of shadow.