Monday, December 27, 2010

The Korean Bug Year That Was In Asian Cinema

My official yearend list has 20 films in them. Since I measure all (feature-length) films with the same stick as God intended, these are merely the Asian ones, ranked in order, but prone to changing, and under one caveat: that 75% should have been shown in public in 2010, regardless of screening venue or nature of run as long as it was in Manila.

Annotations forthcoming. If it's the last thing I do.

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)

2. Ang Damgo Ni Eleuteria (Remton Zuasola,Philippines, Cinema One Originals/Cinemanila)

3. Agrarian Utopia (Urupong Raksasad, Thailand)

4. Sketches of Kaitan City (Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, Japan, Cinemanila)

5. Ang Ninanais:Refrains Happen Like Revolutions In A Song (John Torres, Philippines, Tioseco-Bohinc Film Series/Cinemalaya/Cinemanila)

6. Kano (Monster Jimenez, Philippines, Cinemanila)

7. Cameroon Love Letter (For Solo Piano) (Khavn de la Cruz, Philippines/Africa, Tioseco-Bohinc Film Series)

8. Vox Populi (Dennis Marasigan,Philippines, Cinemalaya)

9. Summer Wars (Mamoru Hosoda, Japan)

10. Mother (Bong Jun-Hoo,Korea, Cinemanila)

11. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, Hong Kong)

12. Love In A Puff (Pang Ho-Cheung, Hong Kong)

13. Senior Year (Jerrold Tarog, Philippines, Metro Manila Film Festival)

Saturday, September 04, 2010


Halaw (Ways of the Sea)
Directed and Written by Sheron Dayoc

It's a sort of porn, too, the valorizing that domestic cinema makes OFWs undergo, much like the way they valorize the poor. Let's truss it up, then, and pelt it with ridicule like we do poverty porn, but then again let's not as that's petty and a bore. Not to say that there's nothing to exalt about OFWs but when a demographic becomes too profitable to upset, the patronizing tends to get laid on a little too thick even for melodramas. And as a trope, all those films - - - Caregiver and Anak and Dubai- - - say little about working away from your family in another country other than that it takes a tremendous sacrifice and that it can get terribly lonely and that it's heroic almost. Sheron Dayoc's Halaw taps a bleaker, richer vein. The grist that feeds his film may be the rampant people smuggling that sneaks out of Zamboanga and into the back door of Sabah, but it's really about the desperation and banality of the Faustian bargains that are as much at the heart of the OFW experience as the heroism and the melancholia. And how deep they run into the systemic malfunction of a country that fails time and again to sustain its workforce and into the seductive glamor of anywhere but here.

Following a ragtag group of stragglers that include a returning and bejeweled middle-aged whore (Maria Isabel Lopez, hilarious), a brother and sister (Arnalyn Ismael, a little pushy but a grace note regardless) hoping to reunite with their mother and John Arcilla, who threatens to center a piece that doesn't want for one but calms his trademark seethe down into a fitful languor before he does, Halaw only looks like an ensemble piece but doesn't behave like one. Working abroad under any conditions, but moreso under these conditions, is a last resort without coordinates. And it is this random and aimless meander to the way Halaw denies its characters any room to bond into a group dynamic nor milks them for anything more than a passing empathy and to the way it picks up strands of plot and subplot it doesn't pursue and parses everything in loose ends and half-measures, that nails the interior rhythm of what every OFW goes through, the numbing tedium of waiting under which anxiously simmers threat.

Less than a third of the way in, though, as night falls and the rickety outrigger sets out to sea, Halaw lapses into montage - - - anxious faces, blackened tides, maudlin ballad playing over it all. It's wistful,sure, but not a little at odds tonally and also not a little corny and not a little phony, too. It's a freak burst of weakness and a mere nit I wouldn't have picked if the suspiscion that the film has been cut against its will didn't get more and more persistent after this. If there's anything Halaw needs, it's at least another half-hour to breathe, not to have more room for more things to happen but rather to have more room for more things not to happen. Tedium and threat, right. And much as every scene seems determined to acquiesce to this necessary torpor, something curtails it before it gets to do so, cuts it short, hurries it up, hews it to a shape. Its unfortunate English title (Ways of The Sea) may come off like some drab tourism AVP but Halaw does benefit from not having the temperament of your average Cinemalaya film: that would be earnest and cushy and prudent and no coloring outside the lines. And I wouldn't necessarily mind truncation if it didn't have the worrying nag that much of it is done to fold the film into the weary comfort zones of the Cinemalaya house style it's been evading and doing a valiant job of it,too.

But it's the last shot nearly everyone piles on,though - - -the outrigger disappearing into a dark grove and the series of expository title cards telling us nothing, at least nothing the literal translation of the title (deportee) hadn't told us already. It's the loosest of loose ends, all unease and displacement and with the severity of a stump where a hand should be. I have no idea if the Halaw we have is a Faustian bargain struck with the forces that be, right down to the terrible subtitling, all I go by is how tough it is to shake the sense that the ending came out of some reverting back to carte blanche. Not only is it the film's most triumphant moment, aesthetically, but as a singular, damning epitome of the pointlessness in it all, it is also its truest. * * *

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Possible Lovers

Possible Lovers
Directed by Raya Martin
Sound Design by Teresa Barozzo

There's almost only one shot in the whole of Possible Lovers. That shot is a static single take of a young man staring longingly at another fast asleep on a couch. They are dressed semiotically, commoner and bourgeoise. You come to that from the found footage of 1919 Manila that came before it, as if grasping for echoes, or straws. It is not acting they do, these two on the couch, not really. It's performance art, almost. It's an endurance test, certainly. Possible Lovers is an experimental film. It's even more experimental than Raya's Next Attraction. But it's not bullish about its experimentalism, Raya's experimental films never really are. The label on the tape says, cheekily, Autohystoria 2. And like Autohystoria, there is an inertia and passivity about it. Unlike Autohystoria, it doesn't build up to anything but rather folds in on its own inertia and passivity. That can be terribly frustating for most people. It's the way an installation piece behaves and at first, it makes sense to come to it as if it were one, but not really. It fails as video art in that, notwithstanding a disregard for structuralist rigor, it's like a James Benning landscape film, and sound is where what little story it's telling is being told, making it co-dependent on the immersive properties of the cinema setting, demanding at some point that you close your eyes and prick up your ears. That may seem like a peculiar demand for a movie to make but it's not as if it hasn't been asked before. There are five ways you can react to Possible Lovers. You can be bored. You can be pissed. You can be at a loss. You can be heartbroken. You can be spellbound. You can go through all five, like I did. You have 95 minutes. There's enough time to run the gamut and back again. Every reaction is valid. Every reaction is correct. It is, in varying degrees, both conceptual hubris and avant mindfuck. It is also a love letter, not a valentine as the love is unrequited, and like all love letters, only one copy of it exists. That copy is on a haggard MiniDV. Every time it gets played, the image remains pristine as it can be but the sound goes to seed. This is the third time it's been played. And the rot is already a lot more profuse. The dropouts and glitches, they're almost like atmospheric conditions, ghosts. Break the title down and that's what this is about. The finitude of love and the cruel ecstasy of possibility and all the ghosts that flit in and out of that dreadful suspension between the two. I wonder how many more times the film will get played. And I think about how one day there will be almost no sound left at all. Almost no story, no love, no possibility. Only that pristine image of longing. And the empty, futile stasis that comes with it. * * *

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Trial of Mr. Serapio

Filmless Films Presents This Is Not A Film by Khavn

The Trial of Mr. Serapio (Ang Palilitis Ni Mang Serapio)

with Teo Antonio, Mike Coroza, Vim Nadera and Jess Santiago as Serapio

Directed Written and Produced by Khavn De La Cruz
Based on the Play by Paul Dumol
Edited by Lawrence Ang
Director of Photography Albert Banzon
Music Jess Santiago
Production Designer Lena Cobangbang
Production Manager Kristine Kintana
Sound Design Arvie Bartolome
Stills Allan Balberona

A beggar is put to trial for taking an orphan girl under his wing. Paul Dumol's beloved classic one act play, considered by many as the first modernist play, may be more than 40 years old but in its inevitable transition to film in the hands one of its most ardent fans, filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz, its meditations on justice and equality remain disturbingly, eerily relevant.

July 15, Thursday 9PM CCP Little Theatre (Tanghalan Aurelio Tolentino).

A Shared Love And A Shared Art We Are Complicit In

PHILIPPINE NEW WAVE: This Is Not A Film Movement

Edited by Khavn De La Cruz with Dodo Dayao & Mabie Alagbate
Introduction by Bienvenido Lumbera
Profiles by Chard Bolisay, Oggs Cruz, & Dodo Dayao
Published by Noel Ferrer, Instamatic Writings, & MovFest
Book Design & Layout by Gerard Lico

"I just need to say THANK YOU for making this! It's a major read for me as we share similar cinematic visions and, among others, political instability. Your book is gold." — Apichatpong Weerasethakul

"The most prominent internationally-acclaimed and wildly divergent digital filmmakers from the Philippines answer questions on filmmaking and beyond: from humble beginnings, to first adventures and unforgettable experiences, to influences and philosophy and process, to what the power of film is, to the true meaning of independence, to what the future holds for cinema, locally and worldwide.

Filmmaker and festival director Khavn De La Cruz throws the questions at them, and gamely answers them himself. The results are at turns informative and insightful, inspirational and illuminating, revealing how diverse the landscape of Philippine Cinema has become, and how much of it is a shared love and a shared art in which you are complicit in."

EDIT: Book launch will be on July 20 Tuesday, 4 pm at the CCP Little Theater. And yes, you will be there.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens)

Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens)
Directed by Raymond Red
Written by Raymond Red and Ian Victorino

NOTE: The real Ang Himpapawid was to be Raymond Red's first feature. It is to this day unmade and exists in two forms. One as the short film A Study for the Skies. And the other as a glimmer in the filmmaker's eye. The following speculates on how the film might have been had it been made the way it was intended. The piece was originally published in the UNO April 2010 fiction issue.

“Poetry is nearer to vital truths than history.” – Plato

History’s always been more toy and maybe riddle to Raymond Red, something to play with and crack, to ransack and suspect, to bother and tweak. The doyens of the mainstream always come to history as if it were plutonium or dogma, that is, with wariness and reverence, and the fallout is blah, wimpy, cushy, safe - - - Jose Rizal, right. Raymond’s three historical fictions run less on set design and textbook exactness but more on dialectical fumes, not buying into the perceived truths of the subjects it hones in on, cross-examining the scuttlebutt, inventing wild theories. And each one feels, in varying degrees, like some aesthetic cage match between the budding classicist and the berserker experimentalist in him. Granted, Sakay (1992) was a stalemate. And the avant-garde tingles in Bayani (Hero) (1991) will crank up empathically, Raymond tells us, in the new cut he’s readying. It’s his obscure first feature, Ang Himpapawid (The Heavens) (1990) - - - the one that almost never got made, the one that Roman Coppola came this close to producing, the one that started life as an aborted fairy tale installation piece made up of slides - - - that fully realizes this delightful frisson. Conceived in embryo as a Super8 feature and at first given over to the organic tangents that specific pairing of form and format anticipated, Raymond shot it finally on 16mm, perhaps to save himself a few headaches, but without sedating its fevered exoticism.

In thumbnail a historical fantasy, but envisioned with a finicky verisimilitude, Ang Himpapawid, set in the twilight of the Philippine-American war and sheathed in dreamy expressionist tangles, is centered by two childhood friends turned freedom fighters - - - Julian (Rene Aquitania) with his head in the clouds and Pedro (Jeffrey Tigora) with his hand on the rifle trigger. Both have a vivid dream of freedom and an even more vivid dream of taking flight to attain it. And in lulls between the spurts of gorgeously-realized conflict, both conspire to jerry-build - - - with little more than a gusto verging on the naïve and spilling over into the nutty and whatever spoils and detritus they can amass - - - an aeroplane that can fly them away to the freedom of their dreams. As one flying contraption after another fails, their obsession turns fevered and combative , embroiling themselves unwittingly in a secret war of their own making against the enemy. Less a historical pastiche as it is an allusive parable on the mechanisms of beautiful failure, Ang Himpapawid could well be Raymond’s sneaky allegorization of his filmmaking process and the turbulent backstory of his film .

No work from the birth pangs of indie seemed to cry for a second look more. Or a third. And a third of many, at that. The noise the critics made was enthusiastic, but sparse for something as freighted with expectancy, with pedigree. But I missed this one in its first run out of having neither the age nor the will nor the curiosity. All that would come later but by then it had flown under the radar, and into a cultural fog, and I would finish up infatuated, for years, with a ghost.

The good news, of course, is that the centerpiece of the new Raymond Red retrospective, which swings from his first battery of shorts to his sinewy new Himpapawid (Manila Skies) is the belated return of Ang Himpapawid ,out of mothballs and back into the light at last. A film this loaded with vulnerabilities, it might help to leverage expectations a little before going to see it, undo the ribbons of fabulous rumor that has since mummified the piece, but not really by much, and I know this because that’s as far as I get. I was still dosed up coming in, prone to letdown. And I kept waiting for it to drop. And it wouldn’t. Not with the pulpy arcana of its parade of aeronautic malfunctions. Not with the stumblebum band of guerillas. Not with the way you can’t tell the corporal from the corporeal. Not with that coup de grace sleepwalking sequence that it turns out wasn’t in the script. It feels like one long mysterious and beautiful and maddening surge of cognitive dissonance. It also feels like his masterpiece.

Ang Himpapawid folds itself into a wrinkle in time with as much speculative fervor as Ang Magpakailanman (Eternity) (1983). And more than Raymond’s later, more sober historical fictions, it is this meta-textual and meta-textural faux-antique, predating Guy Maddin and equal parts Brakhage and Murnau and apparition, and more historical science-fiction than anything, that Ang Himpapawid feels of a piece with, trembling, as it does with the same metaphysical solemnity, the same aesthetic nerve, the same puckish mischief. In its sublime final shot, where everything is explained and nothing is, the film opens up a brand new universe of possibility and in the gap between two worlds - - - classical and experimental, mainstream and independent, fact and fiction, captivity and emancipation - - - crosses over from the wounded lie of history into the vital truth of poetry. * * * * *

*First published in UNO April 2010

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Directed by Raya Martin
Written by Raya Martin and Ramon Sarmiento

The enchanted forest that predominates Independencia, set during the first days of the American occupation, is a spooky and exquisite fake and closer to delirium than setwork - - - pattern recognition with counterfeit rain and skies made from paint.

Into its verdant recesses repair a mother and her son bedeviled by invaders and forced to flee their home- - - Tetchie Agbayani in full-on voodoo seethe and stumblebum Sid Lucero - - - and later a young girl - - - slightly anonymous Alessandra De Rossi - - - raped by soldiers with Roosevelt handlebars, who begets a half-breed boy. The story it’s telling has the aura of vapor. A ghost story, really, like nearly everything Raya does. A story of an exile so utter, a freedom if you will, that everyone who undergoes it all but disappear completely, consumed, become like ghosts. And much as it may pulsate and tremor and eventually breach, from inside this tenuous adoptive Eden, history- - - erratic, rogue, malleable history , the conspirational lie we’re all complicit in - - - is all rumor and smoke.

What Raya is in the middle of here is his vividly referential historical trilogy with its deceptively simple and rather elegant conceit - - - run three specific periods of our history that have been colored by struggle through past pre-eminent, almost anachronistic cinematic vocabularies. Then mine the dissonance. Ignore, then, any dismissals - - and there are quite a few floating around, you’d be surprised - - - that it looks artificial, that in parts it looks half-finished, that it’s the pitfalls of not having enough money to shoot in an actual forest. That’s a little like whining that porn has too much nudity. That’s a little like missing the point. That’s a little, like, dumb.

Form has always been crucial to his aesthetic more than you think , making it always crucial to look at form squarely in the eye. And Raya is often at his most vivid and his most alive,and really his most joyous, when he indulges his fetish for manipulating form, which tends to shift shapes from one film to the next and with a perverse and devilish changeling glee, too, that juices up his manipulations. Not so much assimilating these archaic tropes as re-purposing them into vectors of postmodern strangeness. Like the silent film textures that blanket Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional, set during the last days of the Spanish occupation, once so quaint, now possessed of this eerie unsettling beauty, putting Raya on the map but loosing, too, a tumult of lazy if not entirely avoidable Guy Maddin parallels. And Independencia has its fairy tale soundstage of a forest, effervescent throwback to Masaki Kobayashi ,to FW Murnau, to Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies.

As taken as I am with the camcorder crudities of Now Showing and the way it evoked the fickleness and banality and warmth of nostalgia , not to mention the grimy and petrified snuff film sheen that bears out the claustrophobic nihilism of Autohystoria, the fever dream forest here has enough hallucinatory torque to thrust you whole into that immersive otherness, into that alternate reality, where tree gods bask in the rivers and you hunt for food dressed as bamboo birds and sometimes you lose your way and need to turn your shirt inside out to get back home.

Both allusion and illusion and throbbing with metatextual vigor, it could well be Raya’s most ravishing manipulation yet, and also his most disquieting, if only for how it’s both milieu and metaphor, and for its determined insistence that everything here - - - the very notion of independence alluded to in the title included - - - is nothing but a seductive, bewitching lie.
* * * *

*Originally published in UNO.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Head Above Water: Live From Planet Rox

It had all the come-on of a museum installation, that random labyrinth in Roxlee’s backyard, made from the junk Typhoon Ondoy made of things. Stacks of laserdiscs, vinyl records, cassettes, DVDs, CDs, all bereft of sleeve, strewn all over. The machineries that would have brought them to life lined an entire wall, meshing into a single sculptural mass of wire and cord and parts, water-damaged beyond usable. Resting against a far corner is an unlabeled can of 35mm film - - - with the film still inside. All this actually makes me cringe a little more than the sight of SUV roofs protruding from black water.

Rox and his wife and kids and his brother Romeo live in this five storey tower block. And Ondoy had laid waste to the whole of the ground floor. At the height of the storm, with power outages and communication breakdown amplifying the anxieties of everyone who knew people in the submerged areas, worried texts from friends asking how they were and had they made contact flew in frantic ricochet from one mobile to the next. But the place is a stronghold. Higher ground was always just one flight of stairs away or two. Virtually everybody who knew the brothers has been here at some point. And hung out on the roof deck that overlooked everything. If the place was under water that would mean the entire city was. So of course it wasn’t. In the thick of the deluge, it even doubled as a refugee ark for their waterlogged neighbors. Rox was, at some point, if you remember, a kind of indie cinema Moses, bearing not 10 but 13 commandments for every aspiring D.I.Y. filmmaker. Picturing him as a kind of monsoon Noah fits.

Rox is giving me a sort of guided tour of the detritus. Here are the tools of his trade - - -a 16mm projector, an 8mm camera, two Handycams - - - all wearing the patina of fatal gunk, beautiful in death. “Wala na ‘yan.” ( “They’re gone.” ) he says. He seems unfazed. Could be he’s had time to get over it. The Mini DV camera he’s been shooting his new films with was spared, after all, along with the Bolex and that warhorse 35mm camera. But then, Rox always wore this aura of unfazed. I’m the one who feels tiny pangs of regret, which spike a bit when he shows me an actual 16mm print of an untitled 11 minute collaboration with his brother Mon, fused into an unplayable wither. I wonder aloud how the film would look if we projected it in this condition. Rox just laughs the laugh of a man who has done that sort of thing before. And, it turns out, he has.

It was this other film, years ago, the title of which escapes him as he tells me the story. He was delivering a 16mm print to UP for a screening and was running a little late when the can of film fell from his bag. The lid came loose un-spooling the print onto the street where it lay, vulnerable as a tongue. Before he could retrieve it, several cars had already ran over it. Ever heard the one about imagining yourself sliding down a banister that suddenly turns into a razor blade midway through? This is the equivalent of that cringe-making joke for filmmakers - - -heavy traffic grinding your film into the asphalt minutes before people see it. But Rox, he just calmly spooled it back into the can, headed for the venue and screened the damaged film. “Mas gumanda pa nga e.” (“It actually looked better.”) he laughs. It’s like something out of Cesar Asar, the sly and absurdist and surreal and immortal comic strip he did with his other brother Mon.

For all its unhinged cheek, Cesar Asar, was a cross-generational touchstone that both boosted his mainstream stock, nestled as it was in the pages of the conservative Manila Bulletin, but also further insulated his cult. Nobody thought to qualify its subversive peculiarities as ahead of its time out of how much of its time it was - - -some rather strange fans at some point even pored regularly over the strips for codes, secreted allegedly in the art, from which to decrypt jai-alai numbers to bet on, numbers which, funnily enough,won. “Hindi man lang ako nakatanggap ng balato” (“I never even got a cut”) Rox laughs.

But here we are in the thick of an indie comic boomlet and that handsome volume curating the Planet of the Noses arc is often blithely passed over for the transliterated superheroes and supernatural mysteries and secondary world tripe (yawn) that excite domestic comic geekdom. “I sell more books in Japan.” Rox says, as he should - - - it’s not much of a reach to imagine Planet of the Noses tickling wild fancies there. Suddenly, though, ahead of it’s time doesn’t ring like the mother of all clichés. “Nobody who could push for it pushed Cesar Asar for syndication back then.” Rox laments the possibility stunted. “I think it had a strong chance of being picked up. It’s universal because it’s very visual.” I agree. Dialogue would be the downfall of the film Rox made of it. He tinkers with it from time to time, hoping to find a way to make it work a little better. But it’s the rest of the Cesar Asar oeuvre I’m interested in. I mention anthologizing it but Rox fears most of the strips have been waylaid in the chaos of moving house. Shame. Hands down the mightiest local comic strip ever, then and now, Cesar Asar deserves a full-hog anthology, if only to trap a moment in his career that Rox looks back to with a giddy fondness.

An exhaustive - - - albeit incomplete unless he agrees to play that soggy print - - - film retrospective is more promising, as future prospects go. Two years ago, Rox was one of the objects of tribute at the .MOV film festival. And a handful of his films were screened - - - including the out-there Lizard: Or How To Perform In Front of a Reptile, which I saw for the first time then and was a brand on my brain since. But his corpus is vast. Animation has always been Rox’s métier and his irreverent, evocative, hand-drawn shorts are mostly glorious. But I’m more partial to his films - - -the experimental brio, the wry looseness, the vigorous glee. And the way some of them got under my skin. Like Lizard. And like Juan Gapang (Johnny Crawl), which was my first blast of Roxlee’s non-animated cinema. Pre-indie, pre-digital, pre-everything, it was made under his own steam with a little help from his friends. D.I.Y. filmmaking was , even back then, fortified by such communal ramparts. For a time, the only filmmaker who owned a 16mm camera was Kidlat Tahimik, and everyone borrowed it to make films they would later watch in some basement, projected on a sheet - - - a literal underground cinema. What I would’ve given to see Juan Gapang for the first time under those conditions. But no, I saw it in college. But it was still full-on synaptic broil.

What Juan Gapang meant to me at first was being fed through the disorienting crackle of some alien voltage, a sensation I would eventually associate with every experience of stumbling into a hitherto unseen mode of cinema. Experimental cinema of any make and model was zero footprint to me back then. Lynch and Brakhage and Warhol would come into my life much,much later. And to someone with a headful of nothing but the crassest Hollywood pop, Juan Gapang was like a hit from some truly arcane opiate stash. I honestly didn’t know what to make of it at first. Nor how to feel after. Creeped-out, amused, a little seasick. It is, to this day, my favorite work of Rox’s.

What Juan Gapang meant to me later, along with Kidlat Tahimik’s Sino’ng Lumikha Ng Yoyo? Sino’ng Lumikha Ng Moon Buggy? (Who Invented The Yoyo? Who Invented The Moon Buggy?) and Raymond Red’s Ang Magpakailanman (The Eternal) - - - both of which I remember seeing for the first time within that same year - - - was my first glimmer of an Other in Philippine cinema, the height of which for me, at that time, was a handful of comedies and maybe one or two pop Brockas. It was a seminal moment.

There’s always been a schism between mainstream and independent. But is blurring the divide the point? Or are we better off sharpening it, instead , into relief? The mainstream will always have its insurgents, the independents its fence-jumpers. But overlap is a utopia in need of a reality check. And the presence of an Other in art is almost necessary. Kicking against the pricks, spanner in the works, ghost in the machine, all that. Not that I get confirmation but I’m sure Rox would agree. His Sinekalye seemed to pivot from this stance, ripening an exclusive environment for filmmakers to cook their work and make it sing without intrusion and qualifiers. Much as they’re welcome to crash the party, I’m not sure his 13 commandments were aimed at anyone looking to be careerist teleserye directors and would unlikely sway them anyway.

Rox beams a little when he talks about younger filmmaker friends who have struck out on their own,as if they were charges, or sons - - -Brillante Mendoza,who was his PD for a few of his early films, Lav Diaz, whom he’s known as far back as their days at Jingle when Lav hadn’t even shot a single second of footage, Khavn de la Cruz, who was an acolyte and whose aesthetic hews closest to Rox’s.

Rox himself continues to work, imbibe his ethos. He tells me he’s finished a new and better cut of Romeo Must Rock, his valentine to brother Romeo. And he plans on tinkering with 35mm Man next. His experimental documentary on Juan Baybayin, Green Rocking Chair , fresh off a stint at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival a few months back, may be a kinder, gentler universe removed from,say, Juan Gapang or Lizard , but it is a warm and funny and in parts even touching piece. More than that, he made it in 2008.

The day I swung by to visit, it’s been almost a month since Ondoy and the house has been wiped clean of all its traces - - - no more mud on the walls, no more refugee neighbors. Rox is reclining on one of the many hammocks hung all over the place. Fatherhood and domesticity may have warmed Rox, but I’m not sure the old saw of how these twin poisons bring aesthetic ruin to artists applies to him. Go by the way he howls as Akira Brocka in the noisepop un-band the Brockas and the wild man peg is easy to come by. But brother Romeo is the wild thing in the family and even then, not by as much as you might think. Passive nonchalance has always been Rox’s default setting. On one hand, it’s the purest iteration of cool I’ve seen. But it’s also the nexus of his aesthetic - - - Rox is a man who doesn’t try too hard. And it colors his work to a refreshing degree.

He’s shooting his next film in Lubang and he’s shooting it in January and according to him, “Maganda doon pag ganung buwan.” (“It’s lovely there that time of year.”) He’s not sure where he’ll get the funding but no ripple of worry mars his visible eagerness at the prospect. It’s the way Rox is. And this is what filmmakers do. And more than his 13 commandments, it is this unwritten 14th commandment that matters above all: thou shalt shut up and make films.

*originally published in Phil. Free Press

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Fire of Conscience

The throb of old school Heroic Bloodshed mayhem is making my heart go pitter patter.

Also, Leon Lai. Sweet.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Let's Get Lost

You asked me if I planned all this, I could sense a hum of worry in your voice, as if regretting the question even before you finished asking it. This was when I could still sense things like that. I meant it when I said no. And maybe you felt that I meant it. I hope you did. You kissed me before you went to sleep. Pink neon as a kind of mint with murmurs of nicotine was how it tasted. Also, relief. It was a kiss that would have taken us to such great heights if the timing had been different, timing being everything. But that night in Chungking, that night I lay awake until morning listening to you breathe, that would be the whole of our brief encounter, that would be the first and last time I went there, that would be the last time I saw you. I always thought I’d see you again. And no, I didn’t mean it to be that way either.

Sinatra was wrong. HK, not NY, is the city that doesn’t sleep - - -and doesn’t let you get much either. I sleep light when I’m there, so light that it doesn’t really count as sleep anymore. I’m not sure why that is and how much of it is merely my biology reacting to the telemetry of a foreign city nor why it happens every time I’m there nor why it only happens there. Everywhere else, I drift into baby sleep. Here, I sometimes don't sleep at all. All the foreign cities I’ve been to tend to activate some measure of displacement in me and that comes, of course, with some measure of giddiness. But this is special. Could be it’s the constant blare of neon like some rogue filament of caffeine in my blood. Could be it’s the tumult of endorphin all of us get from going to places we haven’t been before only I’ve been here too many times and every time it’s the same. Could be radiations of a collective pre-millennial anxiety except little seemed to change during my post-millennial trips. Could be I’m over-romanticizing matters. Could be it’s all in my head. Whatever it is, this groggy and vibrant out-of-body wake state has become my default setting for HK. But I am, I suspect, alone in this. My HK is not likely everybody else’s HK. But it is, in many ways, the same HK as Wong Kar Wai’s. This groggy and vibrant out-of-body wake state is the climate and tenor of his lovelorn cinema.

The bleed between the two HKs was eventual and the reasons for that are more banal than anything else. I came to both at roughly the same time and under roughly the same emotional weather. I stayed, more by accident than design, at Chungking Mansions my first time there and a few weeks later, I saw my first Wong, Chungking Express, which was set in Chungking Mansions. The equivalences, if not cosmic, are quintessential Wong. I was heartbroken my first trip to HK and through some divine arrangement, or divine cruelty if you will, I would be in a heightened emotional state, not necessarily heartbreak but some permutation of it, every time I came back. The converging of opponent sensations until they taste the same - - rapture and agony, ecstasy and despair - - - has always been the sumptuous tang of Wong’s cinema and the sumptuous tang of every trip I take to HK. The overlap could be mere coincidence. But things are never as simple as mere coincidence in Wong’s HK.

Wong’s HK isn’t the HK of Johnnie To and Fruit Chan, no. I love their HKs, too. As much, sometimes more. But Wong’s HK is a skittish organism all its own, a city that seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, amok with dilapidated lovelifes, persistent with memory, translucent with melancholia, hopelessly devoted to the frantic pursuit of fugitive and maddening and slippery love and where the random collision of strangers is not as random as you think and sometimes it can be a bitch to tell where happenstance ends and fate begins or if there’s any difference between the two.

HK is perpetually alive with a siege of ghosts , coloring the aura, configuring the atmosphere.

Foreign cities emit sensations of getaway and bewilderment. I get that from HK,too. But pickled with a rarefied quality by the sensations I associate with these ghosts : a kind of heightened catharsis that invigorates even the most melancholic of situations. I've come here twice, deep in romantic harm ,and HK always had a way to make it hurt so good.

HK is ,simply put, my hot zone for all the colours of romance : metaphoric and abstract, specific and displaced, wistful and heartbroken.
(excerpt from Episode of China Blonde)

“Do you believe in love?”

Not as simple to answer as you think as it falls prey too easily to cynicism. It’s a cop-out but it’s not as if you can blame anyone who succumbs. Love isn’t exactly making it easy for anyone to believe in it, and it doesn’t seem to give much of a shit either, which might be the whole point. I do, of course. And that’s about as defiant of fashion these days as the allegiance I pledge to Wong Kar Wai’s cinema. Wong seems to believe in it, too. Every regret is just a stopover, muses the forlorn hitman in Fallen Angels, and everybody needs a partner. That this sentiment prevails as the sovereign locus of Wong’s work outs me more than it does him,though. There’s an exquisite sadness to his endings, sure - - -the serenely devastating Angkor Wat sequence from In The Mood for Love milks me dry every time. But the malfunctioning desire he traps has always, for the most part, evoked inexorability more than futility for me. Everybody’s lost in space in his movies, fumbling to master that inarticulate speech of the heart, waiting for some emotional rescue or the other, and when it comes, if it comes, you get this sense that it’s fated even if it gets hurtful and confusing and messy. After all, Bacharach did say that " . . . true love never runs smooth". And the loveliest things in life are the ones that are a bit of a mess. And his bad-hair-day lovefools, his wistful bittersweethearts, his romantic depressive misfits - - - if they weren’t so beautiful, I could be one of them.

Somewhere between the Sarah Records compilation There and Back Again Lane and the Magnetic Fields’ The Wayward Bus-Distant Plastic Trees twofer, the speed takes hold and dim sum breakfast thoughts slide into oblivion, vertigo decompresses.

I should’ve known better, seen it coming. Hong Kong was my favorite piece of geography on the planet. I made love to three women there. Three women who broke my heart. Three women equal in my desire for, fealty to, fear of. Three women whose gunk had seeped into the cracks. And the last of them was still radioactive. Stepping out of the Causeway Bay subway terminal, I was hit with that gush of bodies, a gush she had felt weirdly comforting. I was feeling something else right now. More like a pang swelling like dough in my gut. Not hunger, no. I knew. Stranded during a weekend lunchtime in Tsimshatsui last time we were here, it had taken nearly three hours for us to find a place to eat and not the Chinese she wanted. She was seething throughout the meal. Coming home hours later, exhausted from walking and from settling for so-so Japanese, we spot this little noodleshop next door to the guest house in Fu Kuong, and laugh ourselves silly. Never got the chance to try it, though. Waking up with a craving for sharksfin dumplings and beef wanton noodles and almond jelly, I remembered the place. I was starving the entire train ride from Mongkok. This pang was on top of that. A more bullheaded, a more ruthless, a more indomitable pang to quell. Clairvoyance would help, time travel, amnesia. This pang, this distress signal, this spider sense warning me about the nearness of things going dogshit, of the ghosts about to whack me with flashback of that weekend, the happiest weekend of my life, the foregone conclusion of for keeps. Then, despite all the warnings, it hits me, without warning, like a prizefighter’s mean hook. Mentally, my teeth rattle.

I took out an old film canister from my jacket pocket. Inside were four capsules of prescription speed. I swallow one dry and take refuge in the nearest HMV I could spot.
(excerpt from the unpublished short story A Song For Whoever)

For a time, the ceiling of my movie love would be everything Wong Kar Wai did. The groovy ellipses, the jittery swoon. There was something narcotic in the manner of the way it sucked me in but little to do with the way Chris Doyle could light a scene so it attains this benign psychedelic sexiness, which would make my drug allusions a little trite. No, it had more to do with the mechanisms of addiction, the way I would voraciously consume and re-consume the works, as if trying to crack an uncrackable code. His is a cinema devoted to the mesh and magnetism of stories, to the pattern recognitions of love and heartbreak, to the poetry of people. His is a cinema after my own heart and after my own heartbreak. And I’ve seen and loved nearly everything Wong has made - - - I uphold even his erratic 2046 and his much-reviled My Blueberry Nights but not so much his BMW ad- - - and in a mildly blasphemous inversion, it was his work that brokered my love for Jean Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais, rather than the other way around. But it’s Chungking Express that I’ve seen more than 12 times. At least. Not only is it my favorite Wong Kar Wai movie, it’s my favorite movie full stop and who knows for sure why that is. Others supersede it time and again with as much fervor and as much love - - -Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, Tsai Ming Liang’s What Time is It There?, Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, Antonioni’s L’Ecclise - - - and all of these seem to converge on the same playful surrealism, the same wistful melancholia and for at least three of them, a guarded but won-over optimism about the nearness of happiness. But that’s as close as I can get to parsing my love for it and it’s not as if you can actually parse the mad, unstable love you feel for anything. I keep coming back to Chungking out of loving it just a little bit more than the others, though. Equal parts Godard and guerilla, it hangs brightly in some pre-millennial HK of the heart, it’s the most kinetic movie about stasis and the most romantic movie about breaking up, a love letter to the tiny spaces that connect and disconnect people. It orbits around two cops navigating the tailend of a jilt. Cop 223 finds fleeting solace in a henchwoman wearing a blonde wig out of John Cassavetes’ Gloria. And Cop 663, in the girl he buys his ex’s dinner from, embodied luminously by Faye Wong.

I fell in love with Faye at first sight just as she did when she first sees Tony Leung’s cop, which is the first time we see him, too, through her smitten eyes. Faye may have something to do with my Chungking devotion. Not Faye herself but the way her arc articulates the romantic confusion that is the story of my life. Chungking is almost a romantic comedy but one untethered to the protocols of dating and the rules of attraction and all that social drudgery that makes chick flicks and modern day big city romance such a drag. It's surrendered instead to the machinations of a grander design. More poetic, more cosmic. After Cop 663 comes to his senses that she’s in love with him, he asks her out on the date she can't wait for him to ask her out on. Faye promptly stands him up and goes off to see the world, leaving behind a boarding pass drawn on a table napkin. When she returns a year later , the napkin is soggy and the pass unreadable that she has to write him a new ticket. “Where do you want to go?” she asks him. “Wherever you want to take me.” Wow and flutter.

I haven’t been back there in a long while. Someday, someway, I will. And maybe I’ll see you there, whoever you are, whoever you will be. And maybe this time you’ll leave with me. We can go deep into the city, with its din of color, where the ghosts and the stories are. We go there without a map. And without a plan. And maybe this time, we get so lost, we’ll never have to say goodbye.

*First published in
Philippine Free Press

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Future X Cops

Sometimes all it takes for the world to right itself is a new Wong Jing movie. With Andy Lau. And killer robots.