Hong Kong was the first kiss in my eventual, and undying, romance with all cinemas Asian. I call it a romance because that’s precisely what it is, a love affair. And because, well, there are women involved. I’m talking about movie star women, of course, opulent peacocks, dream girls on parade. My first movie star crush was Nora Miao, whom I’ve only seen in the Bruce Lee film Return of the Dragon and nowhere else. I should’ve known that was the start of something. Much later, there was Joey Wong and Shu Qui and Zhao Wei and Karen Mok and Gigi Leung and Miriam Yeung and Jo Kuk and Kelly Chen. There was Sammi Cheng bustling through the Johnnie To/Wai Kai Fai office rom-com Needing You. And Cecilia Cheung grieving her way back to love in Derek Yee’s tearjerky Lost In Time. Some of them were ghosts, as all women you love eventually become. Some of them could take me in a fight. Some of them melt you with a gaze. And some of them flew.
Brigitte Lin did a lot of transgender flying, and fighting, in Tsui Hark’s hectic and wondrous 1986 wu xia inversion Peking Opera Blues. When Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon emerged in 2000, it all but brokered the mainstreaming of wu xia cinema outside of Asia and the cinephile fringes, but you only thought hoary old paradigms of the Asian leading lady shifted in its wake. That was really nothing more than the flex and fallout of American hegemony. Brigitte, and really, Michelle Yeoh, among many others, had, at this point, been doing it for years. Ang Lee himself was merely riffing off King Hu’s 1966 masterpiece Come Drink With Me, going as far as casting its feisty leading lady Chang Pei-Pei as Jade Fox. China, and HK, and really Japan and South Korea and the Philippines, have long-standing traditions when it came to the prominence of their leading ladies, a lot of their films tend to be centered by women as a result. Peking Opera Blues had no less than three.
Before she retired, in a canny bit of stunt casting, Brigitte Lin gleefully subverted her own image as HK showbiz royalty, by putting on a trashy blonde wig and an even trashier raincoat straight out of John Cassavetes’ Gloria for Wong Kar Wai. It was an iconic last bow. But Chungking Express, if you press me to a corner, was all about Faye Wong, whose character, also named Faye and arguably the prototype for Sinitta Boonyasak’s Noy and Apinya Sakujaroensuk’s Ploy in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life In The Universe and Ploy, respectively,as well as Jun Ji Hyun’s nameless girl in Jae-young Kwak’s My Sassy Girl, was every bit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before Hollywood coined the term and claimed it for their own. Only none of them had the self-aware affectation that makes it such a grating trope. Faye, hair shorn to that of a boy and making pink gloves sexy as she sneaks into heartbroken cop Tony Leung’s apartment and stealthily insinuates herself in the minutiae of his life before turning it on its head, was, aside from being almost intolerably cute, effortless and unfussy and fresh.
You could tease a meta throb from the casting of Brigitte Lin and Faye Wong as two halves of a diptych, a sense of a torch being passed perhaps, with Brigitte being the last of her generation of leading ladies and Faye being the first of hers. When Joseph Campbell said the condition of a movie star is also the condition of a deity, he was mostly talking about Hollywood movie stars and how they can exist in several places at once, that is, on the screen and in real life. But he was also talking about this heightened, almost otherworldly, glamour you associate with them, how they were larger than life abstracts. Asian movie stars were, by refreshing contrast, life-sized. I’m not just talking about Faye here, of course, or for that matter, Hong Kong, but also of Japan’s Chiyaki Kuriyama and Taiwan’s Chieng Shiang Chyi and Korea’s Lee Young Ae and Yunjin Kim and our own Angeli Bayani and Alessandra De Rossi. These are women with presence, stars with wattage, but with a girl next door vulnerability and naturalism.
Even Gong Li and Maggie Cheung had this earthy quality. These two, were, for a time, the Western embodiment of the Asian leading lady. Gong Li’s work with Zhang Ymou and Chen Kaige were world cinema game-changers. And Maggie Cheung had her own formidable arthouse cachet with Stanley Kwan’s Actress, Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story and, more prominently, Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood for Love. Despite the profile and the overtures, Maggie never succumbed to the Hollywood cross-over that all but dismantles the careers of Asian filmmakers and actors, with the possible exception of Ang Lee. She did make one Hollywood art film with Gong, Wayne Wang’s middling Chinese Box, but that was as far as she got. Gong Li, too, had said no to Michael Mann the first time. She said no, in fact, to Heat, because she didn’t want to be a prop, which may come off a little harsh, except she totally would’ve been one. She did eventually say yes, to Mann’s reboot of his own Miami Vice, and to a part that was more fulsome, had more consequence. The film was thoroughly excellent if sadly misunderstood, but her dalliance with the refurbished Crockett and Tubbs was unnecessary. The only thing it proved, apart from the impeccable taste Mann has in actresses, was that she didn’t need Hollywood. None of them ever did.
1. Faye Wong : I’m biased. And tremendously so. Chungking Express happens to be my favorite film. Of all time. Oh, but Faye is so puckish and adorable here as to be almost indelible. She was last seen in 2046 and has since focused more on her music than on films, realizing perhaps that she can never outshine this with any other film role. Even one that’s directed by Wong Kar Wai.
2. Sammi Cheng : Sammi’s acumen for screwball makes her a shoo-in for rom-coms. That’s her winning streak, all those Johnnie To comedies, of which Love On A Diet, where she acted through a fat suit, was the funniest, and Romancing In Thin Air, from just a couple of years ago, the most sublime.
3. Angeli Bayani and 4. Alessandra De Rossi : The only time they were together was in Ka Oryang playing embattled activists. But they’ve cut their own respective swaths through domestic independent cinema on their own, not to mention laid claim to serious Cannes pedigrees: Alessandra, significantly, in Raya Martin’s Independencia and Auraeus Solito’s Busong, and Angeli, as a semi-regular member of Lav Diaz’s rotating ensemble last seen at the center of his exuberantly-praised Cannes film Norte.
5. Cecilia Cheung : For my money, HK cinema’s prettiest face. That she has the acting chops, too, seals it. Her work in the Korean drama Failan was her calling card to the world. But I’m a huger fan of her heartbroken single mother in Lost in Time.
6. Chen Shiang Chyi : Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl flies to Paris. Boy starts changing all the clocks in Taiwan to Paris time. What Time Is It There? is another lifelong favorite. Which is to say I’m tremendously biased here, too. But she’s only been in nearly every film by Tsai Ming Liang, and one with Edward Yang. Tough to argue with credentials like that.
7. Jun Jy Hyun: Last time we see her was part of the massive all-star ensemble of The Thieves but sometimes all it takes is one iconic role to seal your fate. She had two: My Sassy Girl and Il Mare, classics of modern Korean cinema made more essential by the dreadful American remakes.
8. Chiyaki Kuriyama : As Go Go Yibari, she was Kill Bill's entire surfeit of cool. But you’re really better off going to Sion Sono’s Exte Hair Extensions, Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale.
9 .Maggie Cheung and 10. Gong Li : Before she wore all those opulent cheongsams in In The Mood For Love, I succumbed to Maggie Cheung when she walked on the rooftops of Paris dressed as the cat burglar Irma Vep. And much as Zhang Ymou had a hand in it, Gong Li converted me to Chinese period drama as the longsuffering wife in To Live. A little predictable to name-check them, perhaps, but ultimately foolish to omit.
Aberya (Christian Linaban): Difficult as it is to dismiss how jacked up with promise this is and how its reach has balls, only one of the four separate lives that inevitably intertwine here has juice: a drug dealer experimenting with ways to travel through time using narcotic cocktails. The rest, which include a boxer and a whore and a wannabe socialite, lose me a little and most of this loses to my issues with the post-postmodern aesthetic Linaban favors, dangerously verging on either MTV sensory overload or hipster self-awareness but both of which, to his immense credit, he rejects falling back on. Anak Araw (Gym Lumbera): Despite its undertow of melancholia, and its fragmented structure, it's not difficult to parse the ethnographic schisms at play here, the yearning for the bucolic and the pull of the urban, schisms that obviously preoccupy Gym. Like Taglish, language is a metaphorical stand-in and its duplicities, not to mention the entropies visited on it, illuminate his own duplicities and entropies. But where Taglish is the darker, more sombre film, Anak Araw is almost intolerably light-hearted and shot through with whimsy and tenderness. The way the song that plays near the end gives the piece its necessary emotional uplift and at the same time elucidates the conceptual point of everything is quite the feat.
EDSA XXX (Khavn de la Cruz): It's a film freighted with many things, not least of which is Alexis Tioseco's portentous wish to see it come to fruition, and the irony that the perpetually independent and self-sufficient Khavn's dream project turns out to be his first under a corporate aegis, his first that he doesn't own rights to, acquires a special underlayer of subtext. Khavn's reaction to the emptiness the revolutions we celebrate have come to represent is to laugh at its absurdities and lay in a delightful array of music under it, veering from girl group doo-wop to quasi-flamenco to smoldering swamp-blues. A work-in-progress sustained in its current form by the propulsion from the joyous racket it makes and shaping up to be his most hopeful work yet.
Mamay Umeng (Dwein Baltazar): Mamay Umeng is in his 80s and has nothing left to live for except dying, only he's in the pink of health and death has been everything but cooperative. The risk you run with a film about tedium, a film that's ultimately about the lack of anything happening, the slow action of life going on and on and on, needs no elaboration, but in drawing out the minutiae of the old man's waiting, often with dollops of funny, and not to mention a couple of tiny and poignant semiotic gestures, it proves sound the premise behind slow cinema that stillness is conducive for stumbling on epiphanies.
Mariposa Sa Hawla Ng Gabi (Richard V. Somes): It's saying a lot to pin this down as hitting some ceiling with regards to how visually sumptuous it is, as every Richard Somes film looks good enough almost to eat. His alternate universe re-imagining of Manila as a gaudy noir carnival of color and grime, through which a feisty young country woman tries to get to the bottom of her sister's brutal murder not to mention her mysterious body modifications, smacks of equal parts Fellini and Sion Sono, and does gain the relentless, fucked-up weirdness that implies.
Mater Dolorosa (Adolf Borinaga Alix Jr.): Granted, it trawls over little that's new, but then again, every big-boned post-Godfather gangster saga, from Election to We Own The Night, doesn't necessarily trawl over anything new either, all being essentially iterations of the politics of family, Shakespearean being the go-to qualifier, meaning they're knotty and messy and operatic. Only here, everything is subdued to the point of nonchalance, even its colors are muted to the brink of gray you assume is the moral tenor of its characters, achieving a sense of the equilibrium you also assume is how you give yourself over to this sort of life.
Ang Paglalakbay Ng Bituin Sa Gabing Madilim (Arnel Mardoquio): It boils the intricacies of the Bangsamoro conflict down into the plight of a lesbian rebel couple and the suddenly orphaned nephew of one of them, still reeling from the murder of his parents and whose backpack is bursting with ransom money, as they make a break for friendlier territory and evade the soldiers bearing down on them. Not so much minimalist as it is almost graceful in its restraint, it slows the chase film down into a road movie and achieves, in the subtle shifting of tones from urgency to languor, a dreamlike reverie that poeticizes their own futile yearnings to free themselves from the strictures of both their revolution and their religion.
Palitan (Ato Bautista): Sure, it gets its softcore jollies down pat, but just like its spiritual forebear, Scorpio Nights, this is really about the simmering desperation that comes from sustained ennui and claustrophobia, re-imagining the cramped milieu as an ever tighter space with even flimsier walls, both literal and metaphoric, through which slithers the devil at the heart of matters, embodied gamely and diabolically by Mon Confiado, with all the threat and malice of a coiled snake.
Pascalina (Pam Miras): Here are the things you don't notice when seen through the bland prism of the everyday: how your self-absorbed sisters are grotesque harpies, how distant and arrogant your boyfriend is, how the only person who has the courage to say she loves you is dying and probably a monster. But the opaque sheen that comes from shooting on a Digital Harinezumi not only gives everything a timbre of often intoxicating ambivalence but lathers the hellish melodrama in which the eponymous stumblebum is embroiled in, until the soup gets so oppressive, it makes her eventual descent into the secret monstrosity languishing under her well-meaning social deficiency feel more like a transcendence, into a shadow life that's perversely more promising.
At home he's a tourist. Gibson (Dominic Roco), that is. After seeing his twin brother Jamie fall to his death, he has spoken to no one, except, that is, for Jamie (Felix Roco), who's all grown up and smokes as much pot as he does but is probably a ghost and most likely a hallucination, and is what the title of Ang Nawawala may be referring to. What isn't there, right. He's the void in Gibson's life. He's the void, too, in the lives of his left-behind parents. His father (Buboy Garovillo, underused) has taken to sleeping in his room. And his mother (Dawn Zulueta, radiant) regards everything with an icy remove, particularly Gibson, who is the wrong son who died the way Timothy Hutton was in Ordinary People, only he mitigates his pathos not by slashing his wrists, but immersing himself, much like everyone his age tends to do as a default, in the comfort zones of his bohemia.
The film takes after him, swaddling itself in often intoxicating artifice: from the gregarious color schemes and hyper-stylized dress codes to the endless parade of scenester gigs and haunts to the first world problems we wish most of us would have and the reliance on such fashionable youth film tropes as MPDGs. All this reinforces its candied, faintly self-reflexive milieu, its characters defined by their totems, their longings charted in their denials. This is how we shield ourselves from having to deal with the real world sometimes. And it's as if the film were itself daunted, like Gibson, to confront the anxieties at its core without protective covering. But no matter how festive and bright and exuberant its young noise gets, the sense that it will eventually lose to the ennui it's trying to stave off, to the emptiness it's trying to fill, tinges everything with a gauzy melancholia. This push-pull between how empowering those totems we exalt in our youth are and how transient that power can be is, of course, the shared tension of all youth films and the most crucial thing Ang Nawawala shares with The Animals.
The class divide is as rampant in this country as the poverty our cinema is fond of making porn from. But it rarely gets tackled full-bore that it counts as one-up for these two films that they do, and with such an assured verve at that. The farthest Ang Nawawala goes in approaching the schism, though, is a montage of people on the streets celebrating New Year's Eve seen from the back seat of a car on its way to a posh party. It's gaze is detached, curious at best. The Animals is more brazen about it, more arrogant, more without remorse. And it comes to a troubling boil when it hangs the most corrosive burst of aggression on an economically-challenged outsider, which might be better read as a cop-out than a measure of its worldview, even if it makes contextual sense if the latter is what it is.
The Animals is not about wistful hipsters, after all, but rather their diametric opposite, a strain of upper-crust youth with no pop cultural co-dependencies for shaping their selves.What music they have is faceless to the point of anonymous, their fashion extravagant but off the rack. The future bores them, the present is just time that needs killing, debauchery and violence are just things to do. Their cocksure hedonism feeds off their privilege and knowing how high it makes their place in the pecking order and how this is some license to get away with almost anything.
Directed by Emerson Reyes written by Emerson Reyes and Ade Perilla
*Note: an FX, for those who aren't aware, is one of the staples of public transportation in Manila and is, essentially. a mash up of a cab and a very small midibus.
The bigger fish fried, with regards to Emerson Reyes' MNL 143, a loose-jointed portmanteau pivoting around an FX* driver's fruitless search for his longlost love, has to do with how its brief but tremulous history has brought to harsh light what has become the quintessential discourse of Philippine cinema in the noughties: when is an independent film truly independent? Cinemalaya has long basked in a glory that has re-purposed what was really a confluence of media muscle and high-impact branding, that name being a particular stroke of genius for coinage and connotation, into its highly arguable equity as the layman end-all be-all of independent cinema. At least up until it disqualified Emerson and his film over, of all things, casting issues. At least, for a brief time, back then.
At the gregarious height of the very public furor, even before a single frame was shot, MNL 143 had become provisionally known as the film that outed Cinemalaya for misrepresenting itself as a grant-giving body, and the sovereign one at that, when its dynamic and philosophy was closer to a boutique studio, beholden as it was to the show business caprices of its selection committee and the purse strings of its benefactor. Predictably enough, now that the festival is fast approaching, status quos have been restored and not a rustle heard about the scandal. MNL 143 will always be a cautionary both of what happened and what may be happening still, but on its shoulders now unfairly rests a tremendous amount of polemic that it shouldn't bear, at least not anymore, as it unwittingly hangs its failure or success on the wrong things. And the irony is that, for something so freighted, it's an almost diametrically modest work: plotless, lackadaisical, blithe.
MNL 143 sidelines its diffident Romeo, and his ordeal, for the parade of strangers who flit in and out of his cab, casting the same laconic, slightly curious but mostly transient eye on them, as those of us who've ridden cabs like these day after day have. The effect is like watching someone else channel-surf. And if nothing sticks perhaps that's out of how nothing is really meant to. This temporal, claustrophobic, often uneventful, and familiar pocket universe of our lives as commuters is the universe of the film, and one suffused with the random, from the banal to the amusing to the touching but never the truly momentous. Even when things actually start to happen, and despite the satisfying surge of endorphin near the end, they happen with a peculiar lack of fanfare, as if to say that the love of your life is just another fare who gets on your cab and gets out at her stop, another unfinished story, another interrupted arc, another brief life with no closure. It's also Emerson's canny way of throwing us off the film's scent.
But there is a scene halfway through, where the lovelorn cabbie (Allan Paule), who is the film’s center of gravity or rather its disarming lack of it, turns on the radio and breaks down to a lovesick ballad. Granted, it’s a reined-in breakdown, overwhelmed yet understated, but even as it smacks, at first, of something plucked out of a glossed-up studio rom-com, it slowly and inexorably becomes discomfiting as it lingers longer than it should and even longer than that, until the ickiness spills over from mushy verging on mawkish to something approaching poignancy. It is the first and only time in the film he confronts how much of a cross his longing has become, how much it bristles with deep-seated regret, but it's enough to reveal its hand. The unmistakable emotional timbre of MNL 143 really draws from the kitschy jukebox pop you hear when it opens, thusly distilled as country music by way of 50s balladry by way of unguarded sentimentality by way of shameless corn, which is how we also dismiss our feelings when we wear our hearts on our sleeve, perhaps for fear of giving ourselves over to the harm that comes from doing so.
We are a people who not only succumb to mawk when no one's looking but whose reflex action after we've cried our hearts out is to shrug. And the nonchalance that makes MNL 143 so breezy, so amiable, is really this casual, perhaps even endemic, optimism we conduct our lives with, the passive belief that everything will turn out OK and even if it doesn’t, well, that’s OK, too. It’s a sentiment that dovetails neatly into the real-life backstory of the film, which almost never got made but eventually was, under duress and with less than a quarter of the original budget, and becoming, too, in the process, a de facto figurehead against the artistic repression we had foolishly thought we were rid of. The making of MNL 143 may be a lofty achievement but the film itself is a triumph of under-reach.
There is a glint in Victor Pearson’s eye, a boyish one but also a devilish one, as all glints tend to be at some point, mischievous, smarmy. It’s why filmmaking cohorts Monster Jimenez and Mario Cornejo invoke the same catch-all caveat about the subject of their documentary Kano: An American And His Harem. “You have to meet him.”, they tell me on separate occasions. I sense a slither of faint awe under the revulsion and I get it. Pearson is the expatriate American who maintained his own private harem of wives, and who languishes now in a country jail under the weight of 80 counts of alleged rape, all of which he vehemently denies. If it doesn’t exactly plumb the same depths of malevolence as, say, Charles Manson, what he does exude is a similarly dangerous ambivalence: charismatic and diabolical in equal measure. And it leaks into the movie, irradiating it almost. The part where he sings Love Potion #9 smacks of both the quaint and the sinister, and not merely out of how creepy the subtext of the song gets, no. One second he’s your boisterous uncle with one too many drinks in him hogging the family videoke, the next he’s Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet. He is, in many ways, the quintessential pervert. He is also the perfect documentary subject.
Monster, who directed, and Mario, who produced, amassed a nosebleed of interview footage to sift through: interviews with the plaintiffs, with the parents of the plaintiffs who insist the plaintiffs were lying, with the women who stayed loyal to this day, with Pearson’s estranged sister, rumors of deviant activities that threw political figures into the mix, which videotapes that have since gone missing allegedly bear out, of tiny conspiracies between the cracks. In the time it took for the film to reveal its shape, as documentaries are wont to do with this one taking five years, a tremendous amount of sides to the story emerged. Monster and Mario simply felt it would be unfair not to show all. Trouble is, Pearson seems to demand nothing smaller than a burst of indignation, his right to a fair shake long since waived. You go soft on someone as notorious and you’re at best an apologist , at worst a conspirator. Two women have gone so far as letting Monster know they wanted to throttle her after watching the film, for allegedly casting Pearson in a sympathetic light. It does no such thing, of course.
Kano is more than just watchable, though. It can be, and often is, terribly and compulsively entertaining, and it’s not from making light of matters but from how funny some of the people in it can be, it’s that levity with which we confront everything, endemic to us, peculiar to others. But at no point does the film slavishly demonize Pearson, at no point does it need to either. That’s the bone to pick for many. Only its gut-punch, both as film and as argument, really gets its brunt from resisting the urge to editorialize, leveling everything past the point of being about one man’s guilt to being more about an entire nation’s cultural psyche. How deep our resident subservience to the white man runs. How every moral choice tends to boil down to money changing hands. How money is our enabler, our prosthetic, our elixir, our atonement. And more than that, how the beloved infidel may well be our prevailing icon of machismo. Pearson doesn’t faze us too much, perhaps, because he is, in many ways, nothing new. He is every domestic action star who ever played a real-life philandering family man slash cop hero and spread the gospel of the other woman as a badge of manliness. And that he’s a war hero, too, makes the embodiment even more perverse. Those two women have every right to their shock and vitriol, of course, and to its ferocity. It’s worth noting, though, that they’re both foreigners. Obviously they’ve never seen a Bong Revilla film.
Mondomanila Directed by Khavn De La Cruz Written by Khavn De La Cruz and Norman Wilwayco Based on the Novel by Norman Wilwayco
It had me with the thalidomide anti-drug hip-hop number and there was no doubling back after that. Nearly every Khavn (not a) film draws a non-negotiable line in the sand, either you’re in or you’re out and half-assed gets you nowhere. And this is the one with the outsize myth. The one that gestated anxiously for five years, which, for someone like Khavn, counts as a lifetime, given how the unifying mean of his diverse, divisive ouevre is its velocity and volume and how they tend to exhaust both the word and paradigm of prolific. Mondomanila is the one, really, that almost got away.
Blame the vagaries of fate, as these things happen. But who knows if fate was pulling a few strings in its favor, given how the sense that Khavn's deceptively brash and reckless filmography was building up precisely to this point becomes tougher and tougher to ignore, not so much in the way that it feels like everything he’s done before while also feeling nothing like it, but more in its sense of culmination, in its vibrant throwing down of favorite tropes: the sociopolitical rebuke, the blackly-comic ultraviolence, the freaks on parade, the unabashed sentimentality, the deviant sex, that would be the dwarf orgy and goose porn, the bubbly pop sing-a-longs, particularly its climactic production number. Even the magisterial last bow of Palito feels serendipitous if not orchestrated.
This is not the first time Khavn has staked out Everyslum, of course, except that in severely condensing the dense sprawl of its source code, Norman Wilwayco’s prize-winning cult novel, everything gets heightened even more than Squatterpunk, heightened into polemic, into poetry, into opera, into shock-pop, coming on like some exploded depression musical slash dysfunctional family comedy, obnoxious and color-mad and surreal. And the more it reaches its own boiling points of surrealism, the more it one-ups the earnest social realism of the poverty porn you can mistake it for at first blush, uncannily nailing, too, the genuine throb of its milieu, which has nothing to do with the exoticized despair that has become a haggard trope but this lust for life anyone who’s been to Anyslum can parse off the bat, and will recognize through the cartoon sheen. It's a joyful defiance almost, or a defiant joy if you will, the sort that comes from living a life with nothing to lose.
Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved) Directed and Written by Christopher Gozum
That melancholia of displacement running like a hum of current through Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved) poeticizes the OFW experience partially as a maddeningly obtuse but gorgeously dreamlike reverie of transience and separation anxiety and the longing that comes from it: a man, nameless and fictional, searches aimlessly, possibly fruitlessly, for his missing OFW wife in a foreign country tellingly fraught with secret perils, the very same foreign country, it turns out, that Christopher Gozum has been working in all these years as an OFW.
Rising above one’s station is the aspirational default of the Filipino have-not, and working abroad their go-to golden ticket, the Middle East their Canaan. And the way we ritually valorize OFWs as unsung, working class heroes is not just out of how they significantly boost the economy like a periodic sugar rush but also, and mostly, for the backstory of tremendous sacrifice they go through to get where they are. Rags-to-riches is the true opiate of the masses and everybody loves a melodrama of struggle that pays off in dividends.
The bruising subversion here is in the way it dispiritingly, and shockingly, lays bare how steep the cost of that sacrifice can get, and how they often are each other’s worst enemies. It's not all blight, no. The sequence with the transplanted rockhound is, if nothing else, soothing. And there is a bracing loveliness to everything. But, give or take one or two, the real-life OFWs in the numbing, revealing interviews that intersperse the cul-de-sac detective story, and meld ghostly narrative with brooding documentary until the joins dissolve into each other, are, in varying degrees, victims: of workplace mishap, of mistaken identity, of abandonment, of treachery, of the malfunctions in our cultural psyche. This is not the public face of the OFW-as-hero, with his head held high all robust with hope and friends with the future, but rather its evil twin, slinking in the shadows, looking away if you gaze at it too closely. Diaspora is such a lonely word and Lawas Kan Pinabli is at turns a begrudging valentine to that loneliness. Diaspora is also a necessary evil, or at least an evil we have made necessary. And the ruination of these OFWs, as well as their desperation in the face of it, is the horribly disfigured face it refuses to show the world.
I have a confession to make, and in making it, I could well be painting a target on my forehead: I don’t believe I’ve seen a single Gay Film. Oh, I’ve seen Aureus Solito’s Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros. I’ve seen Raya Martin’s Next Attraction. But I’m not exactly sure they’re what I meant. I’m not sure if I meant Charliebebs Gohetia’s The Thank You Girls either. Or Brillante Mendoza’s Masahista. Or, indeed, Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together and Andy Warhol’s Blowjob. Or New Queer Cinema - - -that was a genuine movement of 90s American independent cinema, as aesthetically diverse as the French New Wave, sure, having counted Derek Jarman and Gregg Araki and Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant among its proprietors, but unified by an explicit sociopolitical schema: to tackle the permutations of queer culture explicitly, intimately, from the inside looking out.
The Gay Film I mean is its own odd, unique phenomenon. It is, in many ways, a permutation of Queer Cinema philosophies and aesthetics, but in the thick of the whole domestic independent cinema boom, the Gay Film detonated into a boom of its own, sprouting like haywire mushrooms and with such a maddening profusion that it was a task to be oblivious to them. And, perhaps as fallout from the push and pull of supply and demand, or perhaps from the incontrovertible fact that these things did moderately brisk business , or perhaps through sheer ubiquity, or perhaps because laymen tend to be shortsighted and tremendously lazy about fact-checking things they don’t give a shit about, or perhaps all of the above, the Gay Film has become the de facto definition of what an indie film is, or rather what indie film is full stop.
It isn’t, of course, but what exactly is an indie film? The coinage isn’t ours,mind. It’s mostly American, and you know they have this hard-on for coinage. Indie films, back then, meant films made outside the rigid studio system, meaning films made with far less money and no kowtow to formula at all, meaning films with more aesthetic wiggle room, meaning films with more experimental nerve, meaning that other superfluous coinage: art films. But as is its wont, the mainstream co-opted and housebroke the indie film into its own bland make and model, mutating them into little more than slightly edgy mainstream films. Where Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise used to be the working definition of what an indie film is, these days, that would be Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine, or worse, Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer.
Given how much we share with Hollywood, particularly the rigid studio system, our indie boom, facilitated and democratized by cheapjack technology, underwent the same thing. But rather than studio indies, which do abound but not as much anymore, the default make and model of indie film is a lot more robust and enduring than it seems. Cris Pablo, easily the most prolific director of Gay Films thinks “Indie is associated with gay films perhaps because the gay audience has the stronger voice in the independent scene.” He also notes that with the rapid emergence and growing profile of independent films such as those by Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz that are making the international festival rounds and getting the media mileage, the associations are starting to blur and divide. “Still, it’s the gay films that are making the mark.” Pablo remarks. Having never seen anything longer than a random trailer, I have no idea if it has an aesthetic stance and I shall go by wild rumor and conspiracy theory and hearsay and reputation here. The Gay Film I’m talking about, the Gay Film as we know it, the Gay Film that people equate with indie films, is unified by the same sociopolitical schema as Queer Cinema ,sure, but more than that by tawdry production values, samey soapy plots, horrible acting, excessive and explicit and unnecessary sex scenes. Allegedly. That,and a palpable exploitative fervor.
This exploitative fervor has to do with the alleged roping in of young, often talentless, nubile male hopefuls psycho for the blare of the spotlight or the mere promise of bathing in it for a living, whose only credentials are their physiques and willingness to show it off. All it takes sometimes is a minute of trailer to tell that the vacuum of talent is not so alleged. Everything else,though, is conjecture, although sometimes you can tell that from the trailers,too. Pablo makes his films with all the rigidity and stricture of a business deal, leaving very little room for its participants to be exploited unwittingly. “There will be members of the team who go overboard and there are actors who do things you don't ask them to. I always advise them to be very careful and to never do anything they do not want to do.” But he doesn’t discount the possibility that exploitation does occur.
Which is to say that all of this, in and of itself, is nothing far-fetched nor new nor shocking. The unholy communion between cinema and exploitation is a longstanding one. Before there was such a thing as independent cinema, anything made outside the studio system , anything made with no money and all the freedom to do whatever the hell it pleased, gravitated to sex and violence but mostly sex. And if looked at one way, the current vogue of Gay Films has very little to distinguish it from the Japanese Pink films of the 60s, or really, the local bold movie explosion of the 70s and 80s, and if you push it a little, has little to distinguish it either from Kerry Fox giving Mark Rylance a real oncam blowjob in Patrice Cheareau’s Intimacy or the unsimulated sex that make up two-thirds of Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs, unless you factor in aesthetics and philosophy and taste and ratchet the noise to a whole new platform of discourse.
I liken it more myself to the Blaxploitation films of the 70s, which refracted the African-American experience through a sieve of transposed genre films. It’s the more promising, and really, more apt parallel, in terms ,at the very least, of its bullish, insulated sense of community. And it is a community under siege. Targets of ire and revulsion and mostly of internet twats with no lives and no balls who like to lob insults online anonymously. The fans have been stalwart in their defense. A friend of mine who watched Pablo’s Duda remembers how fervent the audience was in their love for the film. Like the Blaxploitation films, the Gay Films are similarly transposed (only by gender) pop films. But more than that, they are a society unto themselves upheld by a die-hard and often fiercely protective constituency. More than you can say for the rest of the fractured, factionalized indie community.
But do Gay Films really, truly deserve the vitriol? And if so, why? For misrepresenting independent cinema? For exploiting their actors? For being little more than softcore porn in disguise? For having an overly sensitive fan base? For being annoying? These are all valid complaints. And yeah, I do find some of those trailers annoying. But many many films and filmmakers and film producers have been guilty of all of these at some point then and now. Not having seen a single Gay Film, of course, means I have no place defending it nor condemning it. But, in the end, if all the piss and vinegar is out of how these films are just flat-out horrible, isn’t it all just a little . . . meh? “TV exploits. Radio exploits. Print exploits. So does film. So does independent cinema. So why point a finger?” Pablo says and he has a point. Do we really need to isolate an entire subgenre with a genuine cult to feed, just to take potshots at bad cinema that’s successful? Don’t we have Michael Bay films for that? And Star Cinema?
I am still, it turns out, terribly susceptible to the delirium of festival fever, and in 2011, the temperature cranked past even my own thresholds, with the demented overlap in the last quarter making matters even more grueling. At the end of that week and a half, I was down with a particularly vicious strain of influenza.
Cinemanila was still the sovereign colossus, as domestic festivals go, Cinema One Originals the squirrely daredevil, Cinemalaya the tasteful prude, although they seem to have grown an extra set of balls to let films like Amok slip through. All three had a robust year. And, despite the persistent and exasperating lament that local cinema is on a downward spiral, and despite bully tactics from the big studios, who got their ass handed back to them at one point, and by a delightfulindie zombie film at that, things have settled into a groove of comfortable productivity. The year was copious with moments, still not enough perhaps, as it never always is. But at least now there's an envelope to push.
I flew to HKIFF just as the year begun and co-programmed the 4th .MOV a little after half of it had come to pass. And these were the twin piths of my festival year, the latter slightly moreso. I also curated an exhibit for it, designed posters, translated parts of the poetry anthology we launched, had a hand in marketing, got wrung through the logistical brouhaha, was as privvy, in as hands-on a manner as possible for someone a few jurisdictions away from the main team, to the exhaustion, and exhilaration, of running even a festival as small as ours, not to mention the spate of Club.MOV screenings leading up to it, abolished by default with the sudden, saddening foreclosure of Mogwai Cinematheque. After this, I vowed to never again grumble over another festival's snafus and glitches. But I'd do it all over again in a snap. And three years from now, if the world doesn't end as scheduled, I will be.
Movie-going, the communal experience of going out to a screening and watching a film with people, remained my advocacy. And I try, as much as I can, to disqualify torrents and DVDs from my list, charitably allotting one slot for it, with this year going to a film I almost saw in a theater. I did cheat a little with a couple of films I saw publicly, albeit in another country, but the rest of the list are films shown in Manila, never mind the nature of its run, never mind if it even had a run. As long as it wasn't at home on my TV, or worse, on my laptop. I did see a lot of films that way, and I imagine a few could've possibly made the cut. But with or without these rules, I suspect the list won't be too far off from this one.
I did miss Lav's Century of Birthing. I missed Adolf's Isda (Fable of the Fish), too. I missed Teng Mangansakan's Cartas De La Soledad. I missed Victor Villanueva's My Paranormal Romance. I missed Regiben Romana's Sakay Sa Hangin (Windblown). I missed Jewel Maranan's Tundong Magiliw. These are some of my sins of omission, if you will, prey to my usual deficiencies of stamina and time and resources and singled out because they're filmmakers I like. I did get to see nearly all the locally shown foreign product, arthouse staples and commercial tentpoles both, which ran the usual gamut of odious to tepid to fits of spunk here and there that tended to dissipate the further away you got from the works, with only Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, Wim Wenders' Pina, Justin Lin's Fast Five, Gore Verbinski's Rango and Tarsem's Immortals having sufficient traction and exuberance to deserve a shout-out, not to mention Todd Haynes' foray into longform TV, Mildred Pierce. I liked them all, sure. I liked a tremendous amount of films this year, mostly local. But for my 2011 list, anything less than love I had little room for.
1. 20 Cigarettes (James Benning, USA, HKIFF): James Benning asks 20 of his friends to smoke in their respective environments and films what happens to them in the time it takes to finish a stick. His first work that has to do with people rather than landscapes or architecture, has a strand of voyeurism that can't be helped but is also partially the point. As knotty to parse and even knottier to push, this, like all his films, behaves like an installation but it's the conditions of a theater that are conducive to what it ultimately asks of us: the acute observation of duration in stillness.
2. Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, Cinemanila): As disingenuous, and as lazy, as it is to invoke the word "magical" for something shot through with secrets and lies and regrets and deaths and the banality of the everyday, regardless of how wryly funny it can sometimes get, no other word feels more apt, even if it's only to describe what random lightning turns the otherwise barren Turkish countryside into. The search for a dead body becomes, for a posse of crusty and haggard civil servants, a night, and eventually a day, of going round in circles, of straying off paths, of detours, the oddest and loveliest being a small village they repair to where the lights go out and an angel appears to serve them coffee.
3. Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times) (Michelangelo Frammartino, Italy, HKIFF): Later on, when the nature of its metaphysics becomes apparent, you tend to marvel at the purity with which it was poeticized, not least with that single take everybody who's seen it is frothing in the mouth about, and rightly so, and with what is hands down the finest goat acting in the history of cinema. The four times of the title refers to the four lives that supposedly live within us and that we go through during rebirth: man, animal, vegetable, mineral. It is also, incidentally, the cast list.
4. Breather (Pahinga) (Khavn De La Cruz, Philippines, .MOV) :The cancer diary it started out as became something more after Khavn's father passed away during the editing, something closer to exorcism, to magical thinking, but not to eulogy, as it's loss is not so much given over to the part of nostalgia that aches but more to the part that exhilarates. A love letter, really, as much to the filmmaker confronting his own mortality as to the parent who left a hole when he succumbed to his, but also to that brief and immortal time they both spent in the shadow of their longest goodbye.
5. 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, Japan, Cinemanila): Having long parted ways withSeven Samurai as both my Kurosawa and jidaigeki touchstone, here, then, is my substitute, itself a remake but enthusiastically so. The density of the nihilism with which the enemy here is fleshed out demands such an outsize catharsis in his climactic taking down, that no less than half an hour of glorious comeuppance would seem to suffice. Miike knows this. And gives us 45 feral, bloody minutes of it.
6. Big Boy(Shireen Seno, Philippines, Cinema One Originals): A certain warm and often lovely and also familiar strangeness runs through here, as it's not only a film that's both about memory and like a memory, in the way it looks and feels and sounds and threatens to recede or disperse, but also about how every generation's experience of growing up has connective tissues that make them all kindred.
7. Mga Anino Sa Tanghaling Tapat(Ivy Universe Baldoza, Philippines, Cinema One Originals): Three girls grapple with the thorny changes their bodies undergo, as ghosts and portents pool in the luxuriant and poisonous forest around them. Ivy's polarizing but undervalued rumination on sex and death re-imagines the carnal processes of brutal youth as a creepily erotic , maddeningly obtuse horror movie.
8. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA, Domestic Release):
Pitched below the requisite volume of panic and spectacle, of course it's going to go over many heads spoiling for crackle, for racing against time and eleventh hour salvation. But its' grim, procedural sobriety has that low hum of unease and exposure. It starts with a cough in the dark, disembodied and nearby, as if saying here is your doom in small, the littlest of things you can't see, loosed now in a world that connects like a network of veins at the speed of god. If none of this makes you very nervous, you really ought to be.
9. Six Degrees of Separation From Lillia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone, Philippines, Cinema One Originals):
If nothing else, for not being the one trick pony I always felt it was prone to becoming, at least on paper, cynical
as I was
t first about how deep the cachet of its subject ran and if it could sustain more than a couple of gags. Antoinette calls this a mockumentary but it veers closer to that freak overlap of documentary and fiction,
and in exalting
Lillia Cuntapay, the iconic bit player, certainly a phenomenon unique to us, it
subtly lambasts how stuck-up the showbiz industry is and how intolerably embarrassing, and distressing, our thrall to it remains regardless. That, and it's also a hoot.
Time's a goon, it's been said, and it is, and sometimes it wins.
Emptied-out desperate things palpitate against
obsolescence and all its useless beauties
, not least being the centrifugal matriarch whose opera star has faded but also the religious finery leeched of their divinities but for the wild hope she hangs on it.
Buenas Noches España(Raya Martin, Philippines-Spain, Spanish Film Festival):Raya's experimental opiate is a bit of a quandary for me, hence its position, as I do like the form, but I like the idea of the form even more, and absolutely love the idea of the form in the context of where hisouevrestands, on the cusp of either repeating himself into perpetuity or going so far out on a limb it's likely to wind a lot of people up, which it did, which it should. Painters and musicians get to color outside the lines the way he does here, sometimes to fanfare, sometimes to indifference, but filmmakers are routinely frowned upon, often by other filmmakers, for merely being curious as to what's on the peripheries of the three-act narrative convention we box the medium in, and are all but lynched when they act on that curiosity. This is also where our national cinema stands at the moment, trying to figure out what it is, and slowly fitting itself into safe absolutes in the attempt, when what it needs to do is to maybe wind a few people up. Cinema is the youngest art, and Philippine Cinema even younger. Too young, in fact, to get all wussy about going out on limbs.