Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shake Rattle And Roll 13

Shake Rattle & Roll 13
Directed by Richard Somes, Jerrold Tarog and Chris Martinez
Written by Richard Somes and Aloy Adlawan, Maribel Ilag and Jerrold Tarog and Roselle Monteverde-Teo, Jerry Gracio

Part of the fun, and the frustration, in watching a studio tent-pole taken over, in the loosest sense, by someone outside its rank and file of yes men hacks is second-guessing where the auteur ends and the studio head begins. That’s three times the fun, and the frustration, when it comes to what is being roundly exalted as the last of the Shake Rattle And Roll milking cows, 13.

But, restraint having never been a prominent facet of Chris Martinez’ aesthetic, and much less so the literal sturm and drang of his episode, Rain Rain Go Away, it gets tough to tease him from all this grim J-Horror slow burn, or slow damp if you will, tougher when his muse Eugene Domingo reins in all her funny, too. Tough, and not a little disorienting, at least at first. But this may be the most cohesive of all three, and the one with the least signs of interference. It uses for grist the collateral damage of Ondoy, a tragedy that’s possibly freighted with as dreadful a resonance for us as 911 has for Americans, and certainly weighs heavily on the characters. And there’s a meta eeriness to having it come out in the fresh aftermath of a similar catastrophe. You can see where it’s going almost from the get-go, but it’s not so much the reveal here as it is the languid gloom with which we get there.

Richard Somes is really the one with the most vivid auteurist imprint, if only because it’s more immediate and apparent by dint of being largely visual. His Tamawo is anorexic, falters in the telling, and takes its time to finish, but there’s an energy unique to him at work here, a feral, pulpy vigor. Returned to the familiar terrain of his aswang inversion Yanggaw, with some of its supple expressionistic sexiness, as well as that mixture of the brutish and the maudlin that leavens his sense of drama and takes getting used to, you can tell it’s the knotty dynamics of the fractured family that he’d rather tap into, but settles for a siege film in which Maricar Reyes is a young mother whose ramshackle house in the jungle is surrounded by monsters. She also happens to be blind. And it’s a trope that Richard gets to exploit brilliantly once, in a scene that amounts to your bang for the buck in hardcore creepout.

Creepier still, and possibly more terrifying than water ghosts and albino monsters, in real life as it is here, is the ferocious boil riled-up estrogen can come to. This is what Jerrold Tarog buttresses Parola with. It does bear some of the strain from all the shape-shifting the script was likely made to undergo, apparent not least from how the eponymous haunted lighthouse has become incidental to the point of extraneous, buckling here and there from its multiple tiers of subtext lacking enough running time to layer cohesively. But it gets palpably malevolent when it reverts to its high school setting, and Kathryn Bernardo and Louise De Los Reyes get to play out their protracted supernatural catfight, with all that heightened and pent-up spite and malice and venom that leak out when best friends turn archenemies. Voodoo plus hormones, yeah. That’s not only a log line for a tween horror movie, that’s also the quintessence of what it’s like to be a girl.

*Originally published in Lagarista as The Last Horror Show

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Big Boy

Big Boy
Directed and Written by Shireen Seno

Shireen Seno isn’t joking, or being flippant, when she says Big Boy is about the tonic wonders of cod liver oil, as it sort of is. And she herself can vouch for its efficacies, having been made to drink it every day while growing up. She is now the tallest of her brothers and sisters. She is also the youngest. Her father underwent a similar regime and a similar surge of growth and is, in fact, the eponymous character. And if it comes on all gauzy and fugitive, the way memories do, it’s out of how that’s what it ostensibly is. An entire hope chest of them, really, strung together as if like pearls, or family heirlooms if you will, in this case Shireen’s, and more particularly, her father’s.

Memories of his life as a boy living with his parents and siblings in the sticks of postwar Mindoro, where every sun-baked day seemed to vibrate with the potential for benign incursions of the magical to occur, and time and again did. Memories, too, of the blissed-out inertia that occurs between transitions. Of the anxieties in finding your place as your country recuperates from its own brush with chaos and navigates its own displacement. And, more than anything else, of growing comfortable inside your own body even as it grows faster than you thought it would, leaving the rest of you behind as it does. Her father had always found his way into her work before but only here is his presence this specific, this situated. Rather than wander into one of his daughter’s stories, she’s wandered this time into his.

And she’d been, in fact, foraging in there for years. These are a mere handful of the fragments she’d been curating of her family’s oral history. But in nearly every one of them, childhood being eerily consensual, is a flicker of recognition, deepening resonances, brokering empathies. Big Boy does have a wobbly rope of plot if you get queasy from the lack of a graspable shape but it’s from the irrational un-structure that all its cathartic voltage emits. It’s not so much about memories as it is about the way memories behave and the way they look and feel and also the way they sometimes blur into their own autonomous dream soup. And much as the period detail has a severity of precision that often belies its minimalism, it gains from it, ironically enough, not a sense of historical accuracy, but an atemporal disconnect, as if we were watching home movies from some parallel world past, undercutting the homespun intimacies of the Super8 footage, not with a surge of nostalgia, as you might expect from the way it evokes at first blush the lulling voyeurism of Jonas Mekas but rather with a low hum of otherness, at turns spooky and beatific, which evokes not so much Mekas anymore but, well, Shireen’s own similarly haunted short work, all furtive rhythms with the consistency of ghosts.

Originally published at Lagarista as Mysterious Objects At Noon.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Di Ingon Nato (Not Like Us)

Di Ingon Nato (Not Like Us)
Directed and Written by Ivan Zaldarriaga and Brandon Relucio

Pretty much everything you can say through the mouthpiece of zombies, George Romero has: consumerist satire, dystopian nihilism, anti-science screed, first person shooter stress relief. You have oddments like Robin Campillo's terrific Les Revenants (They Came Back) that pass the trope through a sieve of melancholia, becoming instead a meditation on the dynamics of grief, but nearly everything else is a haggard riff of some law Romero's laid down, no matter how vibrant, how agog, how beloved.

Di Ingon Nato (Not Like Us) is a riff, too, but one that gets escape velocity from transposing its doomy sense of isolation to a rural milieu, and rural here means our far-flung Third World boondocks, where people get around on rickety diesel mopeds and beatup pickups, what passes for a hospital is an undermanned and under-equipped clinic, combat-readiness boils down to jungle knives and single-shot rifles, and no one is as steeped in the lore enough to know that head shots save bullets and buys time. And the zombies here are not the undead of legend, the sort these folks have names for and dispatch with magic, but rather the ones borne of unfathomable contagion and go viral at cheetah speeds. No social realist indie for miles has tapped into, as this has, the backward conditions and fatal ill-preparedness of half the country for any sort of calamity.

But its second half, set in a nameless town, where all this panic and vulnerability is meant to curdle into a delicious hysteria, is a badly-acted gruesomely-imagined crudely-staged shambling lack of anywhere to go. Granted, the version I saw was a work-in-progress, and you could snipe a volatile shape in all that meander and confusion, but many darlings need to be killed, and the editing prudent to the point of unmerciful, if any of this were to cohere, let alone survive its first half hour or so. Set in a nearby forest, where a farmer and his wife and their son eke out what meager life they can from the land, and an interloper darkness creeps in to upset their fragile balance, that half-hour is a gumbo of bucolic desolation shading inexorably into apocalyptic dread. It's an amazing, fearsome mixture. And a zombie riff with legs. Just too bad they had to go to town without it.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Directed by Loy Arcenas
Written by Rody Vera

Shutting yourself off from the world swings both ways, and one man's idyll can be another's cabin fever. These are the defenses built, the lines drawn, when the future gets bleak and the present starts corroding the past, and the question that bears down on the Lopez-Aranda family is how much of their corroded past should they give up and what bleak future will they get for it? There's a lot at stake with the question because the past in question has to do with the massive, crumbling house they live in and whether they can keep doing so, and the past tends to get pushier if it's as verdant as theirs. The gravely ill paterfamilias, in his own advanced stages of molt, used to be a congressman. And his sister, often lost in a cloud of her own making, a rock star among opera singers.

She's the whirlpool around whom everything and everyone revolves and bounces off : her brother who owns the house she now runs as if she did, the reckless son in partial has-been rot even before he becomes an also-ran but who remains her favorite, the grandson in whom she sees the most fervent of hopes not least when he puts on a Sto. Niño cape and crown as if it were a superhero costume and refuses to take it off, the ignored daughter who only wants a little more of her mother's love than she's getting, the niece returned from abroad determined to move on and sell the house that hovers over everything like a ghostly weight. Fides Cuyugan-Asensio is indomitable as the lapsed diva and her temperament becomes the film’s: skittish, fractious, wistful, elegant, and just the tiniest bit cuckoo.

Cut from the same genteel cloth as Ang Lee at the height of his infatuation with no-round-limit cross-generational family wrestling matches, but reined in to frustrate the demands of melodrama, Niño hones in on something more delicate, averse to bluster and way naughtier and funnier, hardly vacating the premises, but never letting the air stultify or thicken into must, finding rather a phantom power in the way the forward motion of youth and the luxuriant torpor of old age stare each other down to the same uneasy truce that is the emotional stalemate of the film's tangle of estrangements, bequeathing an impasse that you can see coming, resolves nothing, but gets unexpectedly magical anyway.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Directed by Jerrold Tarog
Written by Aloy Adlawan and Jerrold Tarog

If you go by the way he juiced up last year’s edition of the haggard Shake Rattle & Roll franchise with Punerarya, and also by the pop vibrancy of his independent non-genre work, Jerrold Tarog seems to have enough pedigree for remixing the beloved Peque Gallaga-Lore Reyes chestnut. And Aswang is ostensibly a monster movie, but it’s one that seems more interested in things other than its monsters: in the way revenge can transform you into the object of your violence, for one, in the imperatives of a species determined to arrest its extinction, in a small town living perpetually under threat, and above all, in the dissonances between the urban and the rural, the modern and the ancient, the natural and the supernatural, and the point when the lines between them blur.

It pivots on a teenage boy and his baby sister witnessing the cold-blooded massacre of their household. And having your parents murdered violently before your eyes turns out to be the shared tragedy of its principal characters, and also the tragedy that cracks everything open for a potentially bloodier, more mean-spirited sequel. But it’s a subtext that goes neither viral or nova, simmering rather under the skin of the piece, a trauma that never gets enough room to fester and seethe, nor gets to go anywhere really, as everyone is too busy running for their lives, if not from hired assassins, then inevitably from monsters, who shapeshift into crows, burrow under the ground like moles, sprout nasty fangs, eat live flesh. Aswang is also from Regal, after all. And it wants its monster movie to be interested in its monsters.

It doesn’t take a genius anymore, these days, or much intel for that matter, to second-guess the processes that transpire when a studio makes a film, much more one meant to be a tentpole. And Aswang is beset by the sort of push-pull that occurs when you wring a filmmaker used to being left to his own devices, or a filmmaker who simply has his own devices period, through the knotty caprices of our studio matriarchies, as auteurist sensibility and studio directive constantly arm-wrestle for dominance. And it can be its own bit of fun trying to figure out which is which.

That dream slash love sequence does smack of pure Regal. And the stable newbies as well as the not-so-newbies are perhaps why the affectless, effortless performances that have enlivened every single one of Jerrold’s films before this is alarmingly nowhere to be found and nearly breaks the back of the piece in its absence. The bristling attack by the river does spasm with Jerrold’s skittish vigor. And much as I can’t figure out why they bother when they can fly anyway, the burrowing under the ground to catch prey is a splendid effect that accounts for at least one breathtaking money shot. But it’s not so much the jittery brio of Confessional that Aswang taps into, but rather the meditative languor of the underrated Mangatyanan. And there’s a gravity to Aswang that slows it down some, possibly slower than it should be, but thickens the mood, too, until it gains, particularly in the sequences at the abandoned ranch where the monsters hole up, this weird, pungent density.

*Originally Published in Lagarista as Tropical Maladies.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Salvage Detectives

Rumor has it that there’s a lost Martin Scorsese film out there, a crime film shot on the cheap from before Mean Streets, that exists in the form of a grimy bootleg VHS. Lost films are the yeti footprints of film geeks, our ghost stories, our fuzzy UFO photographs, our obscure objects of desire. And there certainly is a touch of the arcane to the notion of an under the radar film few have seen, tenuously held together by the duct tape of failing memory, its potentially vital cultural data hostage to the processes of decay. Exotica like this is the vitamin of geeks. But Scorsese hasn’t gone on record to confirm or deny the film nor has anyone bothered picking up its trail. It’s not as if the world is in desperate need for any more Scorsese films, anyway. We have too much as it is, if you ask me. And it’s not as if we’re talking about Citizen Kane either.

But what if we were? Or something of similar exaltation? The few people who’ve seen Gerry De Leon’s lost film Daigdig Ng Mga Api have unanimously proclaimed its magnificence. It had me with that title, sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it lives up to it and turns out be our Citizen Kane after all. Except we might never know. Just as we might never know, too, if Manuel Conde’s Juan Tamad films deserve the legend they’re freighted with. Or if Ishmael Bernal’s Scotch on the Rocks To Forget, Black Coffee To Remember is anywhere near as tantalizing as its title. No prints have survived. No copies exist. Not even on tape. The number of films we’ve apparently lost out of neglect and indifference is a gut punch that can make even the most stalwart of resolves buckle at the knees. And folded into the context of our film history, the stakes are raised and our lost films become more than mere esoterica, gaining instead a sheen of minor tragedy. And, if anyone from SOFIA could have their way, a throb of emergency, too.

Founded by the late Hammy Sotto and a handful of like-minded colleagues in 1993, SOFIA is the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film, a non-profit task force of volunteers whose station is to salvage whatever lost films of ours they can. It’s not yet too late but time is running out. Entire strains of history are literally and inexorably turning to vinegar. There are piles of films past the point of rescue, and there are piles more getting there even as you read this. SOFIA is not exactly bereft of trophies, counting among their triumphs the rediscovery and restoration of films like Giliw Ko, Noli Me Tangere, Tunay Na Ina, Sanda Wong, Kundiman Ng Lahi, and White Slavery. But this, their members will be the first to tell you, barely scratch the surface. And the work that needs to be done is regularly curtailed as SOFIA are continually beset by troubles that swing from the usual lack of funding to the crippling vacuum of a National Film Archive that should exist but doesn’t. Help does come from all sides. Foreign organizations have lent a hand in restoring some films. Even film producers and branches of government are weighing in. But it’s a precarious situation, all told. Still, never say never is their default mantra. Daigdig Ng Mga Api is SOFIA’s Holy Grail. But so were Gerry de Leon's The Moises Padilla Story and Lino Brocka’s Wanted Perfect Mother, both thought forever lost in any format. And if these films can resurface, as they have, suddenly anything is possible.

A few months back, after years of basking curiously in its outsize myth, I at last saw Mario O’Hara’s previously lost noir Bagong Hari for the first time, as part of SOFIA’s Overlooked Films Underrated Filmmakers series of screenings. Cobbled from grungy U-Matic elements, its condition was far from pristine but this was probably the best the film has looked in years. More to the point, though, it surged with energy, felt thrillingly alive - - -dense, ballsy, vigorous. Direk Mario was there and so were the film’s stars Dan Alvaro, Robert Arevalo, Perla Bautista. This was the first of the screenings I attended, and regret missing Jun Raquiza’s Krimen and Danny Zialcita’s Masquerade, regret missing nearly every screening, really. This was how it was each time, I’ve been told. An unsung film retrieved from the fringes, a relatively fervid audience, its director and stars rekindling glory days and meeting new generations of admirers. It’s terribly encouraging. And it makes sense that a generous amount of SOFIA’s energies are now being poured into them.

We are largely a culture who has routinely trivialized, neglected, ignored and vilified our own cinema, elevating our revulsion to a class schism even, while kissing the ground foreign cinema treads. This flippant, often disgruntled, apathy has been more or less crucial to the state our cinema is in now. But, in its own modest way, these screenings embody the almost violent tidal shift in attitude and enthusiasm. And it’s tough not to feel even the tiniest glimmer of hope. The mash-up archaeologist detective mercenaries of SOFIA will not shirk from their first mission , sure. The lost films need to be found and restored. But these screenings are, in and themselves, restorations, too, of the very things that bought SOFIA , and those of us who champion their efforts, here in the first place: the jubilant obsession, the keening passion, the relentless love.

Originally published at Lagarista.
Picture courtesy of SOFIA.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

San Lazaro

San Lazaro
Directed and Written by Wincy Aquino Ong

Wincy Ong’s first film feels like one all right, but not in the sense that it comes together crudely as if under the nervy thumb of some self-entitled film school amateur groping sloppily for a clue and passing it off as style. He’s put in the hours, Wincy, directing a tonnage of music videos and a television show before this. And all that toil shows in the restraint and temperament, in the shape and sheen, of the film.

No, it’s more in the way it seems to be organized around the twin notions of this being something he’d been waiting and wanting to do for so long and that the next one may not be as easy to come by, and the way he leaves nothing out, throwing in what feels like the entire filmography he's already shot and dubbed out in his head, as if they’ve been pent-up and gestating all these years and maybe they have, as if he might never get the chance and who knows if he will. But by cleverly parsing them out as flashbacks, flashbacks that frankly have far more vigor and crackle and weirdness than the one-note present-day through-line it all hangs on and feeds, he calms down the tendency of everything to violently shift tones. It does still buckle a little here and there, but mostly it fills out the characters and the piece, giving both density and cartilage.

San Lazaro is a no-brainer: a horror slash road movie slash buddy comedy. Pitched somewhere between Chito Rono and Edgar Wright, albeit with little of the former’s visual acumen but thankfully even less of the latter’s slavish and annoying geekiness. And prone as these things are to the self-referential hubris of such geeky impulses, it’s first grace note is in how all of that is reined in to zero, how it takes the time to build its own universe, contains everything there, and not nod to some pop-cultural in-joke for comfort every time things get iffy - - -even Ely Buendia’s too-brief cameo is sharply hewn, doesn’t feel extraneous nor like a wink, probably could fork off into a subplot with more legs than the plot on top.

It’s a spindly one, such as it is, that plot on top, with Wincy himself multitasking as a flighty slacker roped in to help old high school classmate Ramon Bautista drive his possibly demonically possessed brother to the eponymous small town of the title. Ramon and Wincy do play their odd coupling, the wacky lout and stoic foil respectively, with all the chemistry and dynamics, the thrust and parry if you will, of the stalwart comedy duos, from the Dolphy and Panchitos to the Maverick and Ariels, if not as given over to the funny as you’d want, the volume never cranking up above room tone, the repartee never getting as spry nor as gregarious. If nothing else, though, this measure of sobriety does make the twist it all boils down to more lancing, gives it brunt. But there's an even more piercing but far subtler twist in the epilogue that might shark under your radar if you so much as blink. San Lazaro is not much but not bad, a genre mashup with much pop torque and a load of fun, but that last line has a creepy poignancy that gets under my skin a bit more.

*Originally published in Philippine Free Press as The Devils You Know.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Zombadings 1:Patayin Sa Shokot Si Remington

Zombadings 1: Patayin Sa Shokot Si Remington
Directed by Jade Castro
Written by Raymond Lee, Jade Castro and Michiko Yama

Zombie screwball should cover it if you feel the need to wrap a code around Zombadings 1: Patayin Sa Shokot Si Remington, the way it runs on the same odd tracks as both the lowbrow tomfoolery of Chiquito movies and the affectionate B movie crudities of Sam Raimi and all the self-aware postmodernism such a mashup implies makes it so spot-on it's as if that was the actual log-line Jade organized his film around, except it only really turns zombie on us in its final third and is more a werewolf film up until then, in which our eponymous homophobe falls under a hex that gradually turns him gay even as a serial killer is picking off everyone in town who is.

Homosexuality as a curse can be misconstrued as demeaning and actually has, as the off-point and far-fetched outrage flung this way bears out. But the germ that feeds it is that old andold-fashioned Frank Capra trope
- - - the comeuppance and enlightenment that comes from walking in the shoes of what you abhor, and more than anything, it's really subverting the very stereotypes it only seems to condone, much as it's hard to tell sometimes from the breathless velocity of the gags and the caricatural swish and swagger of gay argot and affectation it relies on to make it fly. The character actor stalwarts, from Janice De Belen to John Regala with his game face on to the mighty but under-used Odette Khan, buttress the superstructure to prop up what they can of the third act sag that besets it. And for the shapeshifting by degrees at the heart of matters, Martin Escudero is like some one-man army of goofy, a bravura act of pitch. But it's Eugene Domingo who detonates every scene she's in with surreal delight. And Roderick Paulate is stunt-casting that's both preordained and genius. The queer act he's made his metier by rights should've gone stale after all this time but somehow it's even gained nuance and range. It's a shtick, sure, but it's a shtick that never ever gets old.

Friday, July 22, 2011


Directed by Lawrence Fajardo
Written by John Bedia

"What,like a bullet, can undeceive?" (Herman Melville)

Amok is well-oiled tumult, a chaos mechanism of wrong place-wrong time dynamics fed through a portmanteau that has everybody looking to Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu as point of reference, if only for how both hew to similar tropes of threading a line through disconnected lives suddenly thrown in the glare of blood and harm. But where Inarritu gets overwrought in preaching a grand design, not to mention a troubling hard-on for closure, Amok is more haphazard, has little to say that hasn't been said before, but so much to say it with, neither overreaching nor belaboring. If nothing else, it's a technical feat, of logistics and guerilla tactics and cutting. It's rigorous, precise.

The bustling intersection where it all comes down is both milieu and metaphor, and the one thing shared by the motley ensemble of has-beens and also-rans it corrals: they all just happen to be in the area. The cocky cop on the walkway waiting to rendezvous with an asset (Efren Reyes Jr., funny), the faded stuntman living alone with his rancid nostalgia and a rent girl sleeping in his bed (Mark Gil, funnier), the put-upon brother driving his cranky sister around and stuck in traffic (Archi Adamos), the ex-cop with a baby on the way and a chip on his shoulder (Dido De La Paz, a walking tour de force). If it wobbles here and there, it's mostly from spasms of bad acting and the patois ringing false. But in never lingering on one character longer than it should, it blurs the chinks into forgiveness. Brief snatches are all we get to see of these brief lives, not so much arcs as they never get to complete any. It's the point of everything here: how our stories don't so much end but are cut short halfway through the telling and often in a random blast of doom. There's a weariness to its nihilism that's more wounding for being so resigned. The world is a clusterfuck. And God is a bullet.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Tisoy Vs. The Punks: On MTV, Philippine Cinema And You Can Dance If You Want To

Google “music video” and you can trace its origins as a practice as far back as the late 1800s. Oh, it was performance footage for the most part, but isolated pockets were going out on limbs, laying in the ramparts. Jean Luc Godard had an indirect hand in matters, about as much as the direct hand Richard Lester had with his Help!. That entire syntax he came up with in A Bout De Souffle, the shakycam and the jump cutting and the whiplash rhythms, it was all prescient without knowing it, virtually the cloth from which music videos would be cut. You go to it and you go to films like Bob Rafelson’s Head and Nicholas Roeg’s Performance and to little oddments like Dylan’s iconic Subterranean Homesick Blues and the Who’s Happy Jack and the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever and to the lab experiments Todd Rundgren and Devo were conducting. You go to these not just for the DNA signatures, though. You go to these for having the bright idea that you can make little movies from songs without having to pick through Hollywood musicals for surplus or training a camera on some guy and having him sing to it.

They were all taking from other, myriad strains of cinema instead, or even other, myriad strains of culture in general, and in many ways, were pushing the form even before they had a name for it, and really, even before they were even aware there was a form to push. Pushing it closer to short film, to experimental narrative, to conceptual piece, closer to the music video as we know it today, notwithstanding all the excesses it accrued. Boiled down, all those primordial music videos name-checked back there, among others, were borne out of the need of independent filmmakers (D.A. Pennebaker, Peter Goldman) to do something and bored rock stars to feed blood back into their pulses, tiny little spurts of experimentation to while away the time waiting for the zeitgeist that would detonate all of what they were doing to calcify, blissfully unaware of the footprints they were making.

The task at hand here is to find, if any, similar overlaps between Philippine pop cinema and Philippine music videos, the bearing of one on the evolution of the other. But I’m not sure if I can say some parallel evolution took place. Ever since the local music industry appropriated the form, there has been a steady increase in production values and with the outbreak of the digital revolution, a proliferation of music video careerists, the music video becoming a refuge for Filipino film school graduates with nothing to film and, down the line, for anyone with a digital camera. Oh, there was already an active independent experimental cinema in the country lining the fringes back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when MTV first broke, our own Pennebakers and Goldmans if you will, in Raymond Red (Manila Skies) and Joey Agbayani (Lola) and later in Aureus Solito (The Blossoming of Maximo Olivero), but by the time they became the emergent bands’ go-to men, the music video had more or less become the global music marketing parlance it is, meaning the template was set, the laws laid down, leaving no room for a learning curve.

Not that any was needed, the short film being the métier of nearly every independent filmmaker recruited to make a music video—and something like Aureus’ longform video for the Eraserheads’ Ang Huling El Bimbo (aka The Last El Bimbo) almost instinctively went against the grain anyway. For the most part, there were catalogues of tropes to nick, styles to mimic, concepts to retro-fit, rules to break and unbreak. A learning curve would only amount to a lot of fuss you didn’t need, moreso when the form practically came with an instruction manual. All you had to do was crack it open and dig in. Other than the most rudimentary transfer of energies, there really was little significant overlap between cinema and music video. Go to Maryo J.De Los Reyes’ iconic but crummy Bagets (1984), though, and the argument turns a slightly different shade. Its gaudy colors, its editing rhythms and its incessant fondness for montage was a template in and of itself for the local youth comedies of the ’80s, that misbegotten horde, whose most beloved trope was the tendency to suddenly break into elaborate song and dance at the oddest moments and not in the culturally endemic manner of Bollywood, would count among its vile ranks such epics of trash as Hotshots and Campus Beatand the almighty The Punks among many, many, far more misbegotten others. Bagets and the rest of its sort seemed suspiciously and terribly influenced by MTV.

Not to dismiss leakages and osmosis, not to mention how slavish appropriation of whatever’s working for the West has always been domestic mainstream studio-made cinema’s particular brand of kung fu, but there’s a sudden breaking into elaborate song and dance too, in Ishmael Bernal’s (Himala) postmodern-before-there-even-was-such-a-thing-as-postmodern Tisoy!(1977). But it comes in at an even odder time, just after the title credits, so it’s not as if you’re ready and it’s not as if he throws a rope before plunging us into it but there you go—street sweepers in full-on Busby Berkeley mode! It’s nowhere near as well-oiled as the Busby Berkeley invocation would suggest, sure, there’s another proto-MTV sequence involving a traffic jam that’s more wittingly and precisely realized, but it’s a ballsy move even for someone who has built a career on ballsy moves. It throws you on enough of a loop so you start expecting that nothing here will settle into a groove you can see coming. And it doesn’t.

Nobody talks much about Tisoy!. Not when they talk about Bernal, not when they talk about the heights of ’70s comedy, not when they talk about ahead-of-its-time. Which is a bit of a shame. Rather, and rightly so, everybody talks about Mike De Leon’s Kakaba-Kaba Ka Ba? (1980), which starred Christopher De Leon and Jay Ilagan too, and came three years later and has the same subversive energy and has one or two dance numbers as well but feels a lot less anarchic and a lot less funny and a lot less fun put up against this.My aunt remembers Tisoy from college, back in the late ’60s, in all its iterations: the Nonoy Marcelo comic strip, the play that came out of it, the eventual TV show, the Lauro Pacheco movie with Jimmy Morato and Pilar Pilapil, all that. Tisoy was their youth cult, their generational totem, their Scott Pilgrim. Their Bagets, if you will. But even she hadn’t heard of this. And even if she did, it’s possible she wouldn’t recognize it. Nonoy Marcelo wrote the script for this one, sure, and roped in his comedy titan cousin Bert Marcelo, who has been the constant through all the versions. But the Bernal Tisoy!was not so much a remake as a turning on its head. It’s a relic of its time—it’s near-topical in jokes, mostly pivoting on local cinema at that time, only working after some digging into, for one—but I saw it just a few weeks ago, some 33 years too late, and it’s temperament is weirdly fresh, weirdly now.

I bring it up and Kakaba-Kaba Ka Ba?, too, because they both predate MTV but both too are uncannily possessed of a grasp for its rhythms and energies and language, as if they were as prescient without knowing it as Godard was. And who knows if maybe they are. That something as arch and irreverent and out-there as Tisoy! would have bearing on something as safe as milk and dull as bathwater as Bagets and the rest of its sort may be a little too much to suggest but the membranes that connect them make sense. It’s something far older than MTV here. And might have its roots in something embedded in our cultural psyche and in the psyche too of Philippine popular cinema of the ’50s and ’60s and even the ’70s, in the vaudeville aesthetic it sucked at the teat of, in the belief of entertainment as being everything to everyone, in that urge to put on a show… right now.There is something oddly, sweetly, wondrously intrusive every time someone dances in a movie that isn’t a musical and it’s done right or even if it isn’t but feels like it was or even if it plain isn’t. A breaking of the fourth wall almost, a spinning off into another planet, even the ones that enmesh themselves in the action through a sieve of logic, like the Madison bit from Godard’s Band of Outsiders or when John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino dance to Marvin Gaye in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam; but more so when it doesn’t, like the exhilarating coda to the Takeshi Kitano Zatoichi and that lovely bit near the end of Quark Henares’ Keka that feels kindred with the dancing in Tisoy! and Kakaba-Kaba Ka Ba?. They’re all digs, sure. But you can parse a hum of affection coursing through it. Not obviously and, really, I’m mostly just guessing. And possibly projecting my own peculiar affection on it, itself most likely colored by an idiot love for crap and a tinge of nostalgia for it. Oh, it’s silly and naïve but it’s this naïve silliness, this utter disregard for everything, that counts for its untrammeled enthusiasm, for the purity of its unwitting anarchy, and for my screwy fondness for it.

Originally published at Cinelogue.

*Image taken from Video 48.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Past Lives And The Beauties Summoned: My 2010 At The Movies

"My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware the beauty is summoning him." - Andrei Tarkovsky

In a way, a catalogue of downfalls, having missed out on most of the Cinema One Originals and Cinemalaya and the "indie" section of the MMFF and some of Cinemanila and the stray Star Cinema fluke or two, and on the polar opposite, having seen nearly everything Hollywood saw fit to dump on us save for Skyline but I doubt if that counts as a sin of omission. Not that this caveat is anything new. As this is more of an indulgence than a civic duty and isn't really a job, it's perpetually been at the mercy of things like sloth and not having the time and the making of money and the getting of a life.

Mondomanila, it must be said, comes on like some Makavejevian depression musical only Khavn can hallucinate. I champion it heartily even as I hold back from placing it on my list out of my involvement in it and the implied nepotism that comes with picking something you were a part of. Also, I liked at least three other foreign films enough
- - -Unstoppable, The Ghostwriter and The Social Network - - - to honorably mention them. The rest of 2010's domestic and foreign cinephile fad gadgets remain unseen to me, until 2011 at least, when these things tend to remedy itself.

Geography has a bearing on my imperfect system, such as it is. 70% of the list must have been publicly screened in Manila during the year, regardless of screening venue or nature of run or if it even had a run, as long as it was in country and in public. The other 30% will be given over to 2010 films that weren’t screened nor released domestically regardless of format, with enough room for that stray 2009 film my radar picked up a little too late. The only criterion I uphold is love and that got me as far as 20 this year, making it a 14:6 ratio. This year, I also tried ranking. It’s a superfluous business, all told, but not without its moments. Still, I might consider going back to alphabetical next year. This is in descending order, but if you're the type who's prone to obsessing on rank, know that I urge you to watch all these with equal fervor, if only because you really owe it to yourself to bite into something more nutritious from time to time before you go back to making do with Jon Favreau tentpoles and Katherine Heigl rom-coms.

The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia, Russian Film Festival) : A bit of a cheat but we can cut Andrei some slack here, can't we? This was, after all, a film event, if not the film event of the year. Certainly was for me if only for how, after being inundated with 3D and HD and IMAX, none of it was still half as glorious as watching Tarkovsky - - - specifically this Tarkovsky - - - in 35mm.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand): All the serene arcana we've come to expect of Joe is here, of course, gorgeous and charged in the ways they usually are and also in ways that they usually aren't. An epistle but not so much to death but to the grace you find in dying right.

Ang Damgo Ni Eleuteria (Remton Suazola, Philippines,Cinema One Originals/Cinemanila): The single take technique counts as insanity, and as a plus given how insanity gets factored in less and less in films these days, but it doesn't show off so much as gives the piece buoyancy and in doing so attaches a sensation to the nonchalance with which we shrug off in real life the social malaise - - or any social malaise for that matter - - - at its heart. Plus, it's funny as all hell.

Agrarian Utopia (Sawan Banna) (Urupong Raksasad, Thailand): Of course, the title's meant to be ironic. These peasant families will toil the land until they're no longer able but will never attain the heavenly home in the fields the film's Thai title literally translates into. Like some Third World Days of Heaven and every bit as ravishingly envisioned.

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, France, French Film Festival): In which the divvying up of a family inheritance turns into a consensual dissolution of mundane history and every single member an accesory to their own obsolescence. If anything, an epitaph to the impermanence of things and the eternal hold they have on us.

Ang Ninanais : Refrains Happen Like Revolutions In A Song (John Torres,Philippines, Tioseco-Bohinc Film Series, Netpac/Cinemanila): After twisting a tongue he neither speaks nor understands until it's nothing but pure sound , John Torres proceeds to feed his elusive, sometimes poignant, often lovely, terribly mysterious object through its badly broken codes.

Sketches of Kaitan City (Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, Japan, Cinemanila): Starved of levity as these bleak tales of ordinary sadness are, there's something in its wintry air that keeps everything gauzy and afloat, a metaphysical helium perhaps, that at points almost passes for hope. Almost.

Kano: An American and His Harem (Monster Jimenez, Philippines, Cinemanila): There is that implied metaphor on how we as a country have always been beholden to the smarmy wiles of America but this is almost an anatomy lesson in the machismo that is often flown like a flag of male virtue here. The fiendishly charismatic Victor Pearson may have struck a lot of people as virtually diabolical, and enraged a few enough to want to do the filmmakers bodily harm, but in some circles, he could well be some kind of hero.

Cameroon Love Letter (For Solo Piano) (Khavn de la Cruz, Philippines/Africa, Tioseco-Bohinc Film Series): Every word like a dagger drawing blood, every complaint freighted with loss, every memory leaking toxins, every line of worst fit, all tangled up in blue and threaded by that mournful, gorgeous piano fugue. Funny how you can't tell a breakup letter from a suicide note sometimes.

Vox Populi (Dennis Marasigan, Philippines, Cinemalaya): The naysayers weren't being merely pissy when they said this looked ugly and tacky, it is ugly and tacky, but then that's a function of the milieu and also the whole point. Ugly and tacky as our cities can get, they're even uglier and tackier during elections. But in nailing the Philippine condition on a surfeit of comic energy and without exoticizing anything, it pays the price by disappearing into an obscurity it doesn't deserve.

Summer Wars (Mamoru Hosoda, Japan): Turns out Jens Lekman got it wrong
- - -the end of the world is not bigger than love. Anime video game endorphin for sating my inner geek the way Scott Pilgrim can't quite do anymore.

Madeo (Mother) (Bong Joon-Ho, Korea, Cinemanila): Essentially a returning to the territories Bong covered in The Host
- - -the tensile strength of family members and the loosing of monsters on a placid community, only this time the family member and the monster is one and and the same.

Police Adjective! (Corneliu
Porumboiu, Romania): A police procedural that delights more in the tedium of procedure and where every conversation - - - be it about the lyrics of an inane pop song or the moral fallout from arresting a teenager for breaking a law that will most likely not be one soon - - - blows up into a discourse with equal degrees of gravity and consequence.

A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France, Cinemanila): It's a bit like The Wire transposed to the French penal system, that is, if you go by how the overlapping ethnicities bear heavy on the power struggles of the underworld and also if you go by the ferocious dispersal of energy in charting the apotheosis of a crime lord from the ground up.

Detective Dee And The Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, Hong Kong): Just when you think all the chaos and opulence couldn't get any more berserk and contaminated, there's Andy Lau doing martial arts battle with magic deer. Oh boy. Sure is nice to have you back, Mr.Hark. Please don't go off and make things like Missing anymore. Or anything with Jean Claude Van Damme in it.

Love In A Puff (Pang Ho-Cheung, Hong Kong):
Boy meets girl during their smoking breaks - - -
now there's a rom-com high concept with universal appeal that it seems only Asians can pull off , as it's the lack of hurry and the lack of the need to rub everything in and the insistence on actuality as a style that make this warm and lithe and
swoony. The
Rohmer vein a lot of people insist it taps isn't just for
the way Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue talk in circles but also, and more so, for
the sensual causality of their brief encounters.

Senior Year (Jerrold Tarog, Philippines, MMFF): The effect is less of rekindling that rarefied and possibly false sense of magic we inflate our high school memories with but more like observing the social dynamics of a species seemingly removed from us yet somehow not. Were we ever this impetuous in our youth, this oblivious? Jerrold is actually saying we still are.

Monsters (Gareth Edwards, USA, Domestic Release): Either the lack of resources forced its hand or there really is an aesthetic at work here that warrants looking out for as Gareth Edwards may turn out to be that rare thing in Hollywood, an ex-FX man familiar and possibly even infatuated with the virtues of restraint. More than the dreamy and shapeless and awkward languor of his lo-fi sci-fic love story, it's really the world
he builds from parts of ours and parts of something else, and of which he only shows us the parts made of rustle and shadow, that makes this such an immersive trip.

Piranha 3D (Alexander Aja , USA, Domestic Release): The dismembered penis scene towers above all but then again I haven't seen Jackass 3D yet. Alexander Aja pees in Hollywood's punch.
Lap it up, fanboys.
Anarchic, almost.

Art & Copy (Doug Pray, USA, Special Screening): The making of scam ads is like masturbating in front of a mirror pretending that noodle in your hand is bigger than it really is, only more deluded because you also pretend you're a genius when you're really just another sad wanker. No sad wankers here.