Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Cinemanila Diaries 5: Final Thoughts

Cinemanila 2005 has come and gone. I've watched quite a lot of new, great movies and I hope to do the same next year.

Well, just a few closing thoughts:

1) I thought the price reduction was great (it inspsired me to watch as much as three a day,) but I was a bit saddened that not a lot of people went to see it. Only a few people went to the screenings (the most being Ilusyon and Ala Verde Ala Pobre) and I was dismayed to see only a few people appreciating cinema of this quality and caliber.

2) Perhaps some segments of the festival could be made more audience friendly. Perhaps crowd pleasers would rake in more people.

3) There sure were a lot of gay men watching Masahista...

4) My pick of the festival, as far as the digital competition was concerned, was Ala Verde, Ala Pobre. When I saw the winner was Tuli, I wondered why - it really wasn't all that great.

5) I'm glad Korean cinema is being given attention this year. I was glad The President's Last Bang won an award.

6) My biggest regret was that I never got to see the films I really, really, really wanted to see. There were three: Pen-ek Rataranuang's Last Life in the Universe, The President's Last Bang, and Better Luck Tomorrow.

7) I'm glad, however, from the films and talent that I saw, that Philippine cinema has a bit of promise for the future. Good luck to all the filmmakers making films out there independently, following their dream and creative calling. Rest assured I'll always be there to watch them (or, at least, want to watch them.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Cinemanila Diaries 4: Masahista


Okay, we're wrapping up now, and here's the last new film I saw at Cinemanila 2005:

Masahista (2005)

Brillante Mendoza's independent film Masahista caught my attention when it won a prize the Locarno International Film Festival, tying with another movie. Once I saw that it was screening at a nearby theater I went over to watch it.

The film might look like a gay film, but it isn't. The film might look like it consists of one raunchy scene after another, but it really doesn't. These facts turn out to be the greatest asset of the movie - we'll come back to this later.

The story of Masahista is shown to us in a fractured manner: Coco Martin plays Iliac, the titular 'masahista' of the title, giving massages and a 'little extra' to their clients. When Iliac learns that his father is very sick, he comes home to Pampanga, only to learn that he is too late. The movie cuts back and forth between the night before Iliac leaves as he serves his last and only client of the night and the days after his arrival at Pampanga where he copes with his father's death and prepares for his burial.

The movie is bilingual (trilingual if you count English) between Kapampangan and Tagalog, the first time I've seen another Filipino dialect in a movie since Panaghoy sa Suba. The film is quite well made, and I have no problems with anything regarding its production.

Okay, let's get back to that part I'd say I'd go back to. This film's strongest point is that it doesn't glorify or romanticize the sex going on in this movie. Instead, it portrays the act as something that takes something away from Iliac and his fellow Masahistas. One of the most striking set pieces in the film is the scene where scenes from a funeral are juxtaposed with scenes with the Masahistas doing their job. It kind of implies that this exacts some kind of death of the spirit in these young men.

This film is a very introspective character piece that surprised me quite a bit. Although it's not as good or thorough in portraying the main characters past and inner turmoil as, say, This Charming Girl, it still serves up a good dish of drama and social commentary. It's a great way to end my run.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Cinemanila Diaries 3: Together, Dilim


More Cinemanila goodness. This time it's a bit of football and darkness for all.

Together (Lukas Moodysson, 2000)

Let's begin with the reviews. Together comes from Lukas Moodysson, director of such films as Fucking Amal and the recent A Hole in My Heart. Thematically, this movie follows the mood of the Moodysson's earlier films - light, warm dramas with focus on character development. Set in Stockholm in 1975, the film is about how a housewife, Elisabeth ends up living with her two kids in a commune headed by her saintly brother after getting into a fight with her husband. Of course, each character has their own problems to deal with: Goran, the saintly brother, basically lets his partner get away with sleeping with another man in what they call an open relationship; Rolf, Elisabeth's husband, faces the prospect of losing his family, Elisabeth gets used to the situation of living in new, awkward surroundings and explores her life; Lasse, one of the member's of the commune, is concerned with his wife's newfound homosexuality; Klas, himself a homosexual, tries to let Lasse liberate himself, Eva, Elisabeth's daughter, befriends the son of a couple across the street who are critical of the commune; and the kid, whose name I can't remember, tries to make some friends.

The movie seems to tell us something about society and a bit on how we some of us are so politically idealistic. I look at the news and I see people trying to make a change in the way we live with these 'perfect' societal systems. The thing is, these things are made assuming people are not corrupt and totally unselfish. As we see the film unfold, the tightly-ordered commune lets go of its rules and gives in to a little capitalism. There is compromise. Also, one of the more telling segments of the film is when the zealous politically-inclined man tries to talk to Eva about the wonders of his political system. Eva doesn't care; she just wants to do something else. Much like most of us: we're all talking abut how this can change our society and how revolution is important, but the thing is, most of us just want to live our lives.

The look and feel of the film, from the editing, the art direction, the fade-outs and even the title credits, makes the movie feel like a film from the time period in which it had taken place.

The movie ends with football and a warm and fuzzy feeling - the game a fitting symbol for the change the characters went through in the movie, towards a hopeful ending.

Dilim (2005)

At first, I was expecting Dilim to be a serious drama of some sort. As I found out, the film turns out to be a superhero movie. The director of Dilim, Topel Lee, is a well-known music video director - and it shows. Dilim is a movie that visually fits it's title: not only does it take advantage of the darker pictre DV gives, it is almost completely bereft of color - with most coloers in dark violet or shades of gray.

As befiitting a superhero movie, Dilim has all the cliches - the troubled anti-hero protagonist, the straight cop who witnesses the effects of the hero's antics, the leading lady, the evil-as-hell villain. Dilim does not innovate on these stereotypes; the film aims more to present a visually interesting story.

The action scenes are edited with varying quality - the action sometimes seems choppy or perfectly fluid. The action is also heavily borrowed from films like the Matrix, and with sub-par computer graphics (understandable considering the drastically low budget) the effects do nothing but to give the action an amateur feel. Nice ambition, limited means.

The acting is theatrical - which would be fine in a theater, but would otherwise feel hammy, overacted and plain weird in a medium such as film, which is what happened here. I feel this is one of the weaknesses of our local actors: they are excellent in theater but the acting doesn't translate as well as it should into a medium like film.

Dilim wraps up its story in a clean, nice manner - but it leaves this viewer partly unsatisfied. At least I can say it was a nice try.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Cinemanila Diaries 2: The King, Tuli, Ala Verde Ala Pobre

Day 2 of my Cinemanila exploits: M1 Garands, Circumcision, and railroad tracks.

Oh, and I think I'm going to use the word dichotomy. Watch out for it. Be warned, spoilers abound!

The King (2005)

This feature film starts with a young man, Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal, in one of his few English-speaking roles) who, after leaving the Navy, seeks out his biological father. His father, David Sandow (William Hurt), has now become a preacher in conservative Southern America, and has a family now, with a son and a daughter. Soon Elvis begins to interfere with the family's affairs, actions that increase in intensity and destroy the Sandow family dynamic until the film's nihilistic finale.

Early on we see the dichotomy between Elvis' life and the life of his half-brother Paul: Elvis with his old car and seedy apartment, with no future in sight, and Paul with his comfy room, brand new SUV and bright future. The latter half of the film sees events go into a downward spiral as Elvis usurps Paul's place in the Sandow family in true biblical fashion; throughout the film I thought of the number of comparisons this movie had to some biblical stories. However, although we see the implications of Elvis' destructive actions, we never see what motivates him to do these things. Is it left ambiguous? Or is it an allusion to it being the will of a Higher Being, a test?

Bernal portrays Elvis ambiguously; an enigma that is never explained. Kind of like an semi-antithesis to the titular character of Takashi Miike's Visitor Q: where the visitor in that movie would passively influence the family to its eventual relative benefit, Elvis directly influences his family to its eventual destruction.

By the way, he speaks English perfectly, with no trace of Spanish accent whatsoever, something that surprised me quite a bit.

The King is a hard movie to get through. It is disturbing and quite unsettling as things come towards the inevitable climax. Whether it is effective in delivering whatever message it was intended to convey, I leave to you.

Tuli (2005)

Aureus Solito may be a familiar name to some Philippine Cinephiles; he was responsible for the indie film Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros. His entry to the digital film competition, Tuli, is also a coming of age film; and it sorta involves circumcision (Tuli is a verb that means to circumcise in Filipino.)

Daisy (Desiree del Valle) is a girl who lives in a quiet, sylvan barrio, whose isolated locale promotes the impression of a world closed to everything else around them (and perhaps, modernity?) The people there possess traditional beliefs and are deeply religious (in fact part of the movie takes place during holy week.) After a lot of bad juju with the barrio's male population, she swears never to fall victim to the wiles of a man again. In short? She becomes a lesbian.

This does not make the residents very happy, and Daisy and her lover, also betrayed by men, must stick together and persevere.

The main problem is that the above doesn't really happen until the last third of the film - more than half of the film is reserved for exposition, which bogs down the film a lot. It also made the film quite hard to understand for the casual viewer - until things get into gear. It's the awkward pacing that turned me off from this film a bit.

No complaints about music of visuals - visually the cinematographer takes advantage of the naturally dark look of DV and exploits light to make the impression of a barrio that is isolated from the rest of the world, shrouded in strange, hazy, almost supernatural, forces.

Desiree del Valle does a decent job as Daisy, although the angst in her character does project a little too powerfully for my taste. The rest of the actors involved also do a decent job and don't enter the 'theatrical' category.

This film, despite what I see is its obvious faults, is nevertheless an interesting exploration of sexual discovery. I look forward to seeing more of this in the future.

Ala Verde Ala Pobre (2005)

Briccio Santos is a name I haven't heard of before, but when I asked my mother, she knew he had made films before. Upon looking at the paper describing the movie outside the theater, I found that he has been out of the limelight for a long time.

If you want a short review, here it is: out of the eight films participating in the digital cinema category, this is my favorite.

Here's the long review: Ana Capri is Jessica, a former Japan entertainer who lives with his ex-NPA husband (Ebong Joson.) Together they live in the houses built beside the railroad tracks somewhere in Manila, and try to survive.

The opening sequence is kinetic, and at once we see the first thing I like about this film - it's bright, unlike all the other entries I saw. Somehow Santos' cinematographer has circumvented the effect of having a darker picture naturally shown in DV and given us a light-infused vision of the houses by the train tracks. Even darker scenes are given light, perhaps by effects and clever lighting. This is an irony, because the film and the themes it deals with are very dark. There are no corny comedic moments like we see in other films. The world our two protagonists live in is a world anyone would get out of. The thing is they have no choice, and they have to live with their wits and skill to survive. More often than not, however, they find that the world outside their own may not be as good as they thought, and more often than not they find the elements of society exploiting them.

The music is pounding, sometimes darkly elegant and apropos - as simple as it may be. There are some short noticeable moments of silence, and they complement the film's tone as well.

The fact that Ana Capri and Ebong Joson can pull off great acting performances (in many levels - I won't spoil it for you) is one of the high points of the film. Their acting is more or less natural, non-theatrical (a pitfall for most productions) and is a refreshing departure from what I've seen these days.

That's all I can say about that. Well, next time, more Cinemanila goodness, plus a little bit of something else. Watch out for it...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Cinemanila Diaries 1: Cut, Ilusyon

October 12-25 is time for the Cinemanila Film Festival, and in this time, movies from around the world will be shown in selected Manila cinemas. Imagine my unmitigated excitement upon hearing this news.

Unfortunately, I was unable to watch the opening film of the festival, Yoji Yamada's The Hidden Blade. A shame, since I found Yamada's earlier film (and first in a trilogy of films in which The Hidden Blade is the second) one of the best in that year.

Today I'm going to tell you something about what I think of two digital Filipino films being screened in the festival. Both are connected by one more thing: Jon Red, brother of acclaimed filmmaker Raymond Red, is involved with both.




Cut

Firstly, we have "Cut," directed by Red and starring Joel Torre. The film is about how a film editor (Torre) slips in and out of reality while he makes a feature film - his great opus, perhaps his last. Of course, I only got the bare essentials of that summary from watching the film itself - the rest was from a description of the film posted outside. I knew there was a film editor, and he was making a film of some sort - quite a testament to how the film itself translates onto viewer interpretation - which, in this case, falls into the category of 'kinda confusing.' Interestingly there is an undercurrent of humor that pervades the film and I am not sure if it improves the film or not.

It's also evident that the film is highly experimental - not only is the narrative non-linear, the entire movie has no spoken dialogue whatsoever. Now to me, this would be no problem, but for me to like it, the remaining power of the film would have to come from excellent sound and visuals.

Let's tackle the visuals first. Cut definitely has an eye for camera angles and composition - the digital medium is exploited here to good effect. Camera angles abound that remind me of Hideaki Anno's Love & Pop (1998) that get scenes at odd angles. As for editing, the style is fast, with lots of quick cuts - which probably has an (unintended?) use of preventing the audience from getting bored to death.

There is one thing about the visuals that I don't particularly like - the way the camera is handled. There is an overabundance of sudden zoom ins and zoom outs that it gets rather irritating. My opinion on the use of zoom is this: if possible, avoid. Manually move the camera closer instead. If you do want to use zoom, don't use it often. If you do it slow, you risk making the movement and flow look artificial. If you use it too fast, it becomes a music video-like feel. Once or twice is okay. More than 40 times and it turns into a cheap gimmick. At times the camera moves so much I was forced to look away to prevent myself from feeling uneasy. (It's nothing like the vomit-inducing Irreversible, but that film is in a class all into itself.)

Ironically, the few static, lingering shots in the film are those that I find the best.

Another disappointment is the sound - the synthesizer score is repetitive and really, really loud at times with the strings. I would have found the movie far better if there was no synthesizer score at all and replaced it with ambient sounds instead.

In any case, it's impossible to recommend or rate such an experimental film, but I can say that I was a bit disappointed with Cut. Approach only if you're into Jon Red or experimental film.

Ilusyon

The second film is Ilusyon, starring Yul Servo and Jaycee Parker. The film is a very strange concoction; it is partly written by Red and is directed by Paolo Villaluna and Ellen Ramos.

The film is set in 1958 and starts as a surreal comedy; Miguel (Yul Servo) is an aspiring painter who moves to his father's small apartment in Manila to follow in his father's footsteps. He arrives only to find out that his father has fled in order to do a little bit of soul searching. With no talent whatsoever in painting art, he is relegated to painting houses. One day a mysterious beauty named Stella (Jaycee Parker) enters his life and he immediately falls in love with her. As he lives a lie with Stella, he gets deeper and deeper into a hole he may not get out of.

The second half of the film is more dramatic and deals with the repercussions of Miguel's love affair. It becomes evident as the film goes on that Miguel is living a reflection of the life of his father, culminating in the final scenes of the movie.

The surreal tone of the movie is a refreshing departure from normal Philippine cinema; however some scenes intended for comedic effect turn ridiculously corny thanks to ill-placed dialogue.

Visually the film is excellent; most of the scenes have a murky, dreamy feel - one of the advantages of DV is how you can use light to create that effect. It's wonderful how a static camera can capture a scene in such nuanced ways, and with DV you can fit those cameras into tighter, more exotic spaces. Composition wise the film is excellent, with imaginative uses of color and space.

There are two scenes in the movie that I find jarring - they are transition scenes that show our protagonist/s walking around a montage of black and white locales from the 50's. It was done in Pinoy Blonde and it was okay there, but it feels out of place here. It's the transition from filmed DV and processed scenes like this that probably did it.

The music is an excellent mix of old songs of the time to piano music that sets the mood beautifully. There isn't really much else to say except that I haven't seen music used this well in a Filipino movie before.

Props have to go out to the two actors for acting as decently as they did. Of note is Jaycee Parker who surprised me. Sure, the acting isn't sublime, but her screen presence is amazing. She is like a specter, a force of nature that goes in and out of the movie and you know she is there.

Thematically the film, especially the second half reminds me of the kind of love explored in films like 2046 or Pisces. Although Ilusyon is not as accomplished as these films it manages to reach a level that few Filipino films on love dare to reach. Upon exiting the theater my first impression was that the surrealism and the themes of love reminded me of something by Haruki Murakami.

Ilusyon is a rare gem in Filipino cinema. You may not like it, but it exhibits an originality and a sense of bravura that is rarely seen in Philippine cinema these days.

Until next time!

Monday, October 10, 2005

We Never Change

Hi folks.

Last May or so I spent my vacation in Zamboanga City, where I was compelled to write the ninth part (of ten) of a short short story compilation, all connected by one thing - the titles are all titles of Coldplay's Parachutes album. This particular one, entitled We Never Change, was about a man who met his lost love one day in an amusement park whilst dressed in a panda suit. The inspiration came from events from my own life, things that really took a toll on the last few months of my college life. Eventually my cousin pasted the first draft in his blog and posted it as his own (which didn't make me happy at all) I went home, cleaned it up a bit to make it fit in one page and removed a few repetitive parts. Here is the finished result, from the original source:

We Never Change

I notice that she has cut her hair a bit, yet neither her demeanor nor her manner of acting has changed one bit. Two years have passed; and I thought to myself: we never change. No, I had thought with a bit of confidence, the past was the past: faded, gone.

And yet here she is in front of me again.

She doesn’t see me, underneath the suit, suffering under the heat of the summer sun, aware of her presence; instead, she sees a cute panda mascot for a local amusement park, fodder for endless photographs: temporary memories. I am invisible, trapped in my own personal prison- and yet I would not have had it any other way. But I know that I had revealed myself to her now, she would probably react very differently. Today, for both our sakes, I am Mr. Panda Man.

Now where do we begin with a person like Marie? She loves sleeping. She comes into school in her van wearing sunglasses on sunny days. She likes to eat lots of food yet never seems to gain a single pound. She hates large crowds yet loves a bit of company. She loves to talk, and loves to listen at the same time. We were different, she and I. We never exchanged glances for months, years prior. I knew her as this somewhat strange, attractive girl with a strange quirk everybody seemed to like. She seemed to see me as this kind, introspective fellow with a weird streak of his own, basking in the various reveries of his own imposed silence.

I didn’t know exactly when it began, but it happened fast. Suddenly we would spend lunch together, having little excursions into the city walking side by side, a pair of sojourners lost in a sea of people. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, being with her. When we talked about nothing in particular, it felt like we had everything in the world to share. When she crept up behind me and held me from behind, I merely smiled, a strange warm feeling coursing through me. When she rested her weary head on mine during chemistry lab class, I wouldn’t move an inch. She needed the rest, I had thought. Once she had told me about how she loved pandas – I had once given a little panda trinket to her as a gift. My nights were often sleepless, full of waking dreams and endless thoughts of Marie and how I would spend tomorrow with her.

Then, as suddenly as we had discovered each other, we drifted apart. I don’t really remember how or why it ended up that way; memory is a strange thing, you know. It seems infallible, unchangeable like stone. But emotions mold the stone tablets of our memories, muddling them as if mixing some strange concoction, until eventually something different and exotic emerges. We try to hold on to them, these poor, tattered memories, yet they fade away into the recesses of our minds like the print on old books, or the print of fading photographs.

By the end of the year we were no longer speaking to each other. The few times we spoke were formal concerns when we simply needed to talk. She had turned to face the crowd the last time I saw her, to her family and friends, far away from me and her past.

She poses beside me, hugging the fake fur and sighing in her own cute way. She pats my costume’s head and thanks me for posing with her. It was like nothing had ever happened between us, as if we were friends again, I had thought at that moment. Yet I know she was talking to Mr. Panda Man, and not me. If she saw me now, what would she have said? Would she even talk to me? I wished a million different things to happen, but there are no time machines or Deus ex machinas in this life. Only missed opportunities and fake, altered memories remain.

She walks away with her friend, disappearing in the crown, and I walk the opposite way. I begin to notice that my heart had been fluttering ever since our little exchange had started. No, I thought. I could not move on. She still holds me in place, a stranger bound by doomed love, lost in time, suffering under a cute, furry prison of solitude.

Two years from now, I will still be in love with her – and Marie will still love panda bears.

---

It's been two years since I've seen "Marie," and since that moment in time we haven't spoken directly. No, nothing will change.

Here's to you, my friend.