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.