Saturday, December 15, 2007

Three Days of (Too Much) Darkness

Soothsayers say that sometime in the future, the world will be enveloped in what is called the three days of darkness. In this period, the sun will not shine and demons will be given free reign to roam over the earth. Anyone who is caught outdoors will immediately die. Anyone indoors will only find protection in the light of a candle and prayers. This will signify a great sifting of the believers and the unbelievers in this world.

This is the background of a recent independent film by Khavn Dela Cruz, entitled Tatlong Araw ng Kadiliman (Literally, Three Days of Darkness.) As ambitious as it was, in this honest blogger's opinion it ends up a bit short in delivering the atmosphere that it tries to establish. What ensues is a slightly entertaining mess that leaves you sauntering in the dark.

Precious Adona (who has now probably entered the public consciousness for her FHM cover appearance) Katya Santos and Gwen Garci are three women/halfies(didn't know this until I researched stuff about the film!)/friends who happen to stumble upon the apocalypse. Although the three nights of darkness figures prominently in the film, the film is actually more of a study of these characters and their convictions, their relationships with each other and with life.

It is portrayed early on that these three are sinners; each of them has their own personal conflicts and displays (or hides) their angst in their own personal way. I won't spoil you any of their issues, since the fun in watching this movie is in the discovery of these things.

(In a metaphorical way, you could say that the three women each represent the a certain point in time in our country with respect to our colonizers, with each one having their own sins and problems in this light. Try watching the film from this perspective and see if you can notice a connection.)

As a horror film the film does not deliver, because the atmosphere does not work as well as it could (and it could.) Digital films tend to capture darker images, and with minimal lights and the right sounds you get a convincing atmosphere of darkness. For most of the movie it works to an extent, but nothing scary or climactic ever does happen and it ends up being boring (until the climax does appear, and in this case it is too late.) A good portion of the end takes place in
complete darkness, and I thought that the implied horror of what goes on in that darkness could work. Unfortunately the scene lingers far too long inside the darkness and you are left checking your watch (that glows in the dark) waiting to see how long it has taken.

Another aspect touted by the movie is its "extreme" factor, in one instance showing its rating by the cinema ratings board for scenes of extreme violence and sex. To be honest, this movie is pretty tame in comparison to many other films of its kind, made by Miike or some of the Category III movies of Hong Kong (and as Miike can show, dread can be expressed minimally through silence and well-paced scenes) Many strange scenes abound but they are more bizarre than scary or 'violent.'

There is sex, but the titillating factor is kinda taken away (how can you see sex in the dark?) and the sex is used as a plot and characterization device, but like the scene with the total darkness, it tends to be overlong. This is considering that I enjoy the occasional random sex scene.

At the end of the world, instead of repenting, the three characters each succumb to their sins and suffer the consequences. In a way it tends to be a reflection of our own selves, and as flawed as it is, this film serves as a big mirror reflecting us.

If the world would end today, would you be ready?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cinejapan Interlude: Tony Takitani

Let's take a short break from Philippine cinema to take a look at this short simple film. Don't worry, we'll go back to the filmfest coverage... hopefully :p

Ever since I read one of Haruki Murakami's novels or short stories, I've always been entranced by the way his story unfolds. There is a recurring theme of alienation, of lost love, the emptiness of a material world, and the utterly surreal. He's one of the authors that can make moping around for months on end terribly interesting.

The complexity of his works means that a film adaptation (or any adaptation for that matter) is a daunting task. How can one capture the essence of his works? Thankfully, in this Jun Ichikawa-directed adaptation of his work Tony Takitani, whatever spark or element that makes Murakami's stories shine comes out here.

Tony Takitani (Issei Ogata) is a lonely illustrator with a peculiar name. He draws amazing depictions of machines, but his drawings are emotionless and have no life. Due to his name he is a shy and introverted person, and has few people he would call friends. However, one day he meets a woman (Rie Miyazawa) who becomes his life. For the first time his life seems fulfilling, and warmth enters his life. However, her obsessive shopping habits begin to bother him, and even a small decision turns out to impact their lives forever.

From start to finish, the movie is narrated by an omnipresent voice, as if one is reading the story to us. The dialogue slides back and forth between his narration and the character's own dialogue, which is a nice, surprising touch. Normally I would not like continuous narration in a film, but we must remember that this is a story more than anything else, a book come to life. This is also evident in the panning transition shots in between scenes, which lazily slide by as if turning the pages of a book.

The shots themselves are exquisite despite being simple; lonely hues permeate the screen as one screen goes to another. Attention is placed on Rie Miyazawa's lithe, elegant figure (and her feet!) as she waltzes up the stairs of the department store to buy another batch of designer clothes. There is great use of slow motion and close-ups to create a minimalist feel.

The acting is quite good, but spotty at parts. The film basically consists of only two actors playing multiple roles. Rie Miyazawa is great, but some scenes seem forced. Issey Ogata is great as both Tony Takitani and his jazz musician father.

The music is from Ryuichi Sakamoto, and is in its own right minimalist, yet appropriate. Using a single piano is perfect for evoking the emotions that show in both the story and the film. His piano clusters echo out at the right times, punctuating feelings and hopes struggling to break the surface.

In the end the film is a great little gem that most fans of Murakami should watch; and even if you are not a fan of Murakami and don't mind slow paced movies, this is for you.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cinemalaya 2007: Pisay

Pisay Trailer:

On the night of my elementary graduation, the mother of one of my classmates asked my mother on the way to the parking lot: is your son going to Philippine Science High School? Since I was attached to my old school, having studied there for eight years already, and because PSHS was an hour and a half trip away, two hours considering traffic, I didn't want to go there and opted to stay in my school for four more years, two of which proved to be the two most miserable years of my life.

But I digress.

After I entered college I heard about what the school is: a school composed of some of the Philippines' best and brightest students, subjected to subsidized, advanced education in the hopes that one day they will become leaders in the fields of science and technology. They took Physics in the first year! That was a fourth year subject for us.

I also encountered many students and alumni from the school and some are good friends of mine. So when I found out that there was a film depicting the lives of students from this school, I wanted to watch it, to at least gain a perspective on how they lived their high school lives. What came out is a great and heartfelt film by well-known filmmaker Aureus Solito, of Maximo Oliveros fame.

Pisay (the contracted slang form of the school's name) tells of the lives of eight high school students studying in the university. The film itself is divided into four parts, each representing one of the four school years of high school education. The film is set in the early to mid 1980's - smack dab in the middle of the social upheavals that surrounded the last years of the Marcos regime and the birth of a new Philippines under Cory Aquino.

Freshman year details the story of Rom, a brilliant student from a less off family whose father is an OFW and whose mother works in the market, and Wena, who comes from a wealthy family from Negros. Almost as soon as he enters the clasroom sparks fly and first love is born. But the things expected of the country's finest students soon get in the way of their romance. Also in this segment, the trials of being newbies at the school are explored. This chapter may be considered as introductory, and the various scenes between the two characters are nice. Kudos to the scriptwriter for not forcing Wena's actress to speak Tagalog lines all the time. It's really weird in, say TV when I hear actors like Sam Milby try (and I emphasize TRY) to speak all Tagalog lines.

Sophomore year revolves around Mat, whose life at the school is anything but stellar. He's faltering in one subject (Math,) he has trouble adjusting to dorm life, including being bullied by his dorm-mates and he is homesick. Add to the fact that he was the best in his old school, the dramatic shift in his life takes a toll. His only comforts are his friends, especially his bright and inquisitive friend Minggoy, and his Math teacher, who seems genuinely concerned about him.

I like this part of the story because I identify with the main character. I feel what he feels when he struggles with his new position, and I like how he faced his conflicts and how his teacher's advice really helped him - that it's all about being a big fish in a vast ocean - you're still a big fish, but you're still in a damn big ocean.

Junior year is my favorite - it focuses on Andy, who applies for the school's version of the Officer's Training Corps for CAT, and Liway, the socially minded daughter of activists and union leaders. As the chaos of the last year of the Martial Law era approaches, the two evolve from indifferent project partners to genuine friends. Plus there's some of that ol' social relevance in there as well.

Finally, Senior year tells the story of Euri, a boy with a predilection for the performance arts - which isn't a good thing, since the school stipulates that for the education to remain free - one has to pick a science related course or pay the entire expense of education at the school. As this part unfolds he is in conflict with what he wants to do with the rest of his life.

Nostalgia. If I were to express my thoughts about the film in one word, that would be it. Every High school student would relate to the events of the film - their first high school romance, their experiences with CAT, dealing with academic or other problems. You don't have to be a genius to have these problems - and that is where this film derives one of its strengths - that you don't have to be from the school to "get" the film. Everyone who experienced high school and all of its ups and downs can sit down, appreciate it, and be entertained.

The cinematography of the film is good, as one would expect. Film quality seems to have improved since Maximo and Tuli. The soundtrack is quite amazing, composed of songs from the period and some original songs. Buy the soundtrack if you can, it's good. There are no problems in editing or scene selection. Another amazing thing is the amount of cooperation the people from Philippine Science had in having locations for filming - most of the spots in the campus are featured in the school. As much as it was a labor of love from the crew, it was also a gift of love for the people in the campus to let them film.

The greatest strength of the film is in its ensemble cast, as these talented child actors deliver a remarkable performance as their respective characters. No hammed up or contrived lines (as I see in some child actors today and in the past) just natural, honest to goodness acting. Thank God for these people. The adult cast is not bad either, specially a great performance from the person who played the Science Teacher (whose name escapes me at the moment) in giving life to a teacher who, as a classmate related, is someone all of us have had in the course of our high school lives. If I could give all of these people acting awards, I would.

The film was made through the stories of the alumni of the school. In the theatre, I could see all of the appreciation the students and alumni had for this film - the theatre was jampacked with PSHS alumni and students, probably even faculty, and everyone showed that appreciation with wild, enthusiastic applause. Of all the four shorts, the fourth one seems to be a reflection of the director's own self, having been (if I'm not mistaken, correct me if I am!) an alumnus of the school.

Pisay is a film that deserves a wider audience. It is a heartwarming tale of youth and the joys and pains of an adolescent life. Despite its independent status it is a film that gains a lot of mainstream appeal (and indeed, it was voted as the most popular pick at the end of the festival) and is something that does not feel manufactured, but something heartfelt. It is, in my opinion, the director's most refined work to date, and also his most personal.

Cinemalaya 2007: Gamot sa Pagkabagot

Wednesday saw the world premiere of Ato Bautista's Gamot sa Pagkabagot. He is the director of another well known film in the indie scene, Ang Aking Pagkagising Mula sa Kamulatan (a film that, despite three opportunities, I have not seen.) Shot in murky DV, the opening of a film is screens of pure color interchanging in the background of strange music.

The film can be divided into three parts. The first deals with a woman being pressured by her companion into having a sexual experience. As this part goes on, we see that she has a dark past that she does not want to talk about. The second part deals with a boy who is being abused by his teacher. With no one to turn to or to vent his anger, he quietly fills himself up with hate, bound to explode, and the third and final half deals with a person who repeats a chilling yet mysterious mantra - Di ako mamamatay tao, Hindi ako mamamatay tao (I'm not a murderer, I'm not a murderer....)

To say more would be to spoil the whole film, so I'll leave that to some spoiler space later. The story is tightly written and is pretty straightforward, even though it might not seem that way at first. The acting is ok, especially the three (well, four) main characters (although there are other standouts in the supporting cast, especially the boy's boss in the second part of the film.)

Editing is okay in some parts but some of the editing in the other parts are, at the very least, strange choices. I attribute it to some technical error in whatever was used to edit the film. There are also a few continuity errors near the last part (hint: watch for T-shirts) but that happens in most films and is barely noticeable anyway. Sound tends to get repetitive at times but wraps up nicely at the end, and for the record, the best parts in the film sound wise in my opinion were during the transition sequences. Nice touch.

Being a DV film, the quality of the movie is decidedly not as high quality as the other choices, but that may also have been a directorial decision considering the topic of the movie. There are some nice shots composition wise, notably several scenes in the second half which give a picturesque quality to the scene being shot. The movie paces itself quite well and never drags or bores.

Overall, the film was quite good and a pleasant surprise to watch. After seeing this, I'm now really curious to how good Ato Bautista's other film is. I definitely have to see that one someday.

SPOILERS FOLLOW... don't read if you haven't watched the film

The three main characters in the film seem to all have one thing in common - they are denying something basic about themselves to the point that it drives them mad - the woman and her sexual inhibitions, the boy and his many, many issues, the murderer and his past. Each one manages to resolve this internal conflict, but only through some sort of process.

The girl does this by self-examination through a second personality, the boy does this by talking to his apathetic boss and the murderer does it by caring for a woman stuck in his home. The results are all strikingly different, but are definite resolutions: The woman ultimately integrates her second personality, and ultimately, dies in the process, (and ironically at that,) the boy lashes out at his parents who seemingly do nothing but ignore and abuse him, and the man returns to his old home and lets go of his past.

In this movie's case, the story is cyclical, and all the stories are connected. At first I didn't realize this, thinking the film to be an omnibus. But the way the three stories are intertwined is quite clever, and can leave the casual viewer a bit confused, but thankfully, not too much, thanks to the storytelling skills of the scriptwriter/director.

While thinking about the film, I thought about something interesting (albeit something probably completely unrelated) about the film. If you place the characters in the context of our society, the results are interesting. The woman could represent Philippine women in general, and the way their sexual expression is inhibited by the pitfalls of society. The boy could represent our youth, abused by society and often ignored when they need help. And what about the man? Does it represent us as a whole? Even more, what does that imply when we take that in the context of what ultimately happened?

I like the movie... it makes me think. I guess it really is a cure for boredom.

Cinemalaya 2007: Introduction

July 20-29 marked a special occasion in the Philippine independent cinema scene, the 2007 Cinemalaya Film festival. From all around the Philippines, the best talent in independent filmmaking gather together and share their works to the world. Nine full length films and ten short films have been selected for competition. The full length films are:

Ligaw Liham, a drama about interrupted lives set in Negros;
Pisay, a slice of life drama comedy about students of the Philippine Science High School;
Tribu, a movie about street gangs in Tondo;
Still Life, an offbeat lovestory;
Tukso, a Rashomon like village tale,
Kadin, a simple story about children living in Basilan;
Gulong, the life of a boy and a bicycle;
Endo, with love stories and contract jobs;
and Sinungaling na Buwan, a movie about the "end of the affair" for three couples.
In addition to the above films, they'll be showing a load of other films, mostly films and shorts from previous festivals and world premieres of other films. I'll try to cover as much as I can in the next few posts...

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Taking a Shit

"In his solitary throne, the man grasps at his midsection, his face a mask of discomfort. He strains and grasps at a goal that cannot be reached, young Icarus sailing to touch the sun.


He remembers a different life, a life where his current trial seemed trivial, where he knew nothing but comfort and a feeling of completeness.

Suddenly it rushes back over him: that dreaded feeling. He prays for resolution, that somehow his trial would end.

Alas, that would not come today.

Minutes pass. Suddenly the dreaded feeling subsides, thanks in part to his own power and to luck. He sighs in relief, but behind that sigh is a feeling of apprehension. It is because he knows that it would always, always be waiting for him, in the shadows, where it will come back for him again. And perhaps, the next time it comes, he may not be able to withstand it."

I have diarrhea and constipation.

It was one of the worst feelings I had in childhood, mainly because

1. It was the exact opposite of one of my best childhood feelings, eating out:
2. You lost control over something you had control of and took for granted, just like breathing was for asthma;
3. It was embarrassing and felt like hell, different than direct pain, but still extremely unpleasant. I think I'd rather live in a hell with skewers impaled in me than live in a hell where I would have perpetual diarrhea and I will never find a place to shit it out.
4. The smell doesn't help things a bit.

#2 plays a lot into who we are. We are beings who seek control over our daily lives. Otherwise we would not bother to keep the time, we would not have air conditioning, fans and loose clothes to escape the hot sun, and we would be content to run around naked without a care in the world. Diarrhea removes that control. You become a slave to your own body, limited by its own frailties and weaknesses. You are totally under its mercy, and it will release you (or not) depending on its whims.

Constipation is the opposite of diarrhea, but it removes the same kind of control we have over our lives. It's just as painful, but not quite as embarrasing as diarrhea, so at least some level of social functioning remains.

My past experiences with both entities have never been pleasant. Whenever I had to take a shit in school, I couldn't shit it out. The smell would travel the entire school and the school CR was for pissing, not shitting. I called it a "Gamma Emergency," the worst kind of emergency there was. (for the record, Alpha - forgetting to bring something to school, Beta - can't piss, Delta - overworked and ready to faint)

One of my most traumatic experiences was when I was still in kindergarten - I wanted to take a shit, but I was inexperienced in using another place's comfort room as a child. The only places where I felt comfortable taking a shit were in my own house and the house I grew up in back in the province.

Thus, I took a shit in my own pants.

The one thing that I remember was the silence. Everyone was listening to the teacher, but they weren't talking. Paranoid as I was I thought they were thinking about me. In the meantime, the nice old janitor/security guy/all arounder (bless his soul) was doing the dirty job of wiping my ass. For some reason I remember carrots in my shit. It was as vivid as if it had happened yesterday. I just... stood there. I didn't do anything, I just gazed blankly into space, as if I had been violated.

One time the urge came during Flag Ceremony - which doubles the strain since standing isn't exactly the best position to hold shit in. The teacher thought I was having a heart attack or something.

When it did come out, usually at the end of the day, it was the greatest feeling in the world. It was refreshing, relieving, even orgasmic. Taking a shit was good.

Imagine how I would feel if that didn't happen.

It happened just recently. Suddenly my bowels just up and decided to rebel against me. My entire bowel movement schedule was screwed - I was now prone to doing it every so often. And eating something, anything, triggered it. It brought chaos to my neatly ordered world. I, of course would have nothing of it - but when you try to fight your own body, you never win.

When I first realized I had it, it was a strange feeling, like I had never experienced such a sensation in my life, despite me having experienced it dozens of times before. I guess it has something to do with the body trying to forget bad experiences. So I try to hold it back. I had a busy schedule, and medications scarred me for life after I couldn't shit for more than a week after I took half a tablet of Imodium.

It remains a constant law in the universe that eventually, something's gotta give. And when it does, it is a veritable explosion. I have experienced this before, and no amount of horror quite simulates the feeling of accidentally releasing shit when you don't want to. Numbness sets in - denial. No, this is not my shit, I'm actually in a different place. Then, the creeping realization comes, and you realize that you are screwed. You start thinking of ways of escape just as the smell starts circulating, and you pray with all your heart that you make it the hell out of there before someone realizes.

My fear rests in the horror that I may not be able to hold it in. I feel dread every time my stomach churns and it slowly builds up in my system. Is this the last time? I ask myself. Will this one be the time that ends it all?

Strain, strain, strain, I think. Nothing comes out - and yet, my colon feels like it wants to burst at the seams. Something trickles out but it is nothing compared to the feeling you still have. It feels incomplete, and you know you have to try again.

After many, many trips to the bathroom, you manage to get something out - and the pain and the discomfort subsides. Normalcy reigns again in your cluttered yet organized little world. Control.


That is what we wish for.

My stomach has calmed down. The storm is leaving, but traces of it still remain. I long for pleasant days where taking a shit was the unassuming activity that it used to be.

I can't believe I just said that.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cinejapan 3: Rainbow Sky

Oftentimes it is the actions that we do not do that we regret, rather than the actions that we go and do. In the movie Niji no Megami (lit. Goddess’ Rainbow, English title = Rainbow Song) that very thing is explored – and through it we see a nice little movie carried by solid acting talent by some of Japan’s rising actors. At times conventional by standards of Japanese Drama it has some unconventional elements that make it an interesting film.

While most stories have a dramatic twist involving the maiming or death of one of the main characters near the end, this movie does it in reverse – it is presented in the beginning of the movie. Tomoya Kishida (an older and different looking Hayato Ichihara, All About Lily Chou-Chou) works as an assistant to a film/TV director. One day he sees a strange upside-down rainbow and sends a picture via cellphone to his old friend Aoi Sato (Juri Ueno, Swing Girls, Nodame Cantabile TV) who is in California at the time. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards Tomoya gets word that Aoi has died in a plane accident. As Tomoya grieves over her death, and as her family prepares for the funeral, we flash back to the time when Tomoya and Aoi were once college students, and the relationship they both had as friends.

The pacing of the story comes along smoothly, and is divided into several parts, each telling a separate yet connected story between the two of them. Also inserted within the narrative is a movie-within-a-movie, aptly titled The End of the World, starring both protagonists. The visuals of the movie are nothing much to talk about, but some do give a certain dreamy feel reminiscent of Shunji Iwai (not surprising since he was one of the producers.) The soundtrack is as expected of a Japanese Drama: simple and unassuming. The ending song is great too.

The structure of the film makes us consider the situation at hand, and lets us view the flashbacks knowing that this was the past, considering the tragedy that will unfold in the future. It makes the experience a little more bittersweet. This story structure has been used before in the adaptation of Crying Out Love in the Center of the World, but in a more subtle way.

Of course, the acting was superb from both leads. Up to this point I’d only seen Juri Ueno in happy comedic roles so it was a nice change to see her in something serious here. Yu Aoi (Honey and Clover, among others) as Aoi’s blind younger sister was great; she was also from All About Lily-Chou-Chou, and it was nice to see her and Hayato Ichihara together again (especially in the last scene, which brought back memories of the aforementioned film, while being a nice dramatic scene in itself.) I heard she won an award for her acting here.

As the ending credits rolled I couldn’t help but contemplate the film’s message of missed opportunities in life. So all you readers out there (all 3 of you, heh) seize the day and don’t be indecisive.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Cinejapan 2: Searching for Clovers

It is no secret that one of my most favorite anime of last year was Honey and Clover. Upon learning that there would be a live-action adaptation I was a bit excited, but worried at the same time, because there would inevitably be expectations coming consciously or unconsciously from myself regarding the film and how well it translated from the manga/anime.

Takemoto (Sho Sakurai, from the boys’ group Arashi) is a timid student of an arts school. He specializes in woodworking and creating sculptures. He lives in a little dorm house with fellow art students, including the eccentric Morita (Yusuke Iseya, Yomigaeri,) the hopelessly infatuated (to the point of being stalker-ish) Mayama (Ryo Kase, Cutie Honey) and the equally hopelessly infatuated Yamada (newcomer Megumi Seki) who is in love with Mayama, even if he is already much in love with another woman. When a new, talented student, Hagumi Hanamoto (Yu Aoi, All About Lily Chou-Chou) comes into the school, the relationships between these five individuals get even more complicated.

The movie depicts the lives, trials and tribulations of the four as they get through school, relationships, and life in general, a slice-of life thing if you will. The music of the film is enriched by legendary game/anime composer Yoko Kanno who gives a light-hearted yet apropos soundtrack, in addition to something I really liked in the anime adaptation: the insert songs! In addition to the customary Arashi song (since there was an Arashi member in the cast) there are a few other songs in the movie that accompany the film.

The character portrayals of the different characters are slightly different from what they were in the anime: Mayama is even creepier than he was before (or maybe there was a lot of implied stuff in the anime that I didn’t get) and his relationship with Yamada isn’t that pronounced here either. Yamada is spot on but she lacks scenes with Morita, and the interaction between the two was one of the nice things about the anime. Morita is less mysterious, not as eccentric (thus making the character a little more serious) and more open to selling off his works for money, which seems to have become one of the plot elements that the movie tackles. As for Takemoto, I can’t say one way or the other. He was okay in the movie, but I felt a bit different regarding him. Hagu in the movie was pretty good, still cute but as interesting a character as she was in the anime.

The movie covers everything it can from the first season of the anime, which is 26 episodes. Now, the trouble with having a movie adaptation of a manga series/anime is that despite all attempts to do so, you simply can’t squeeze all of 40 manga chapters/26 episodes of anime into a 2 hour movie without doing serious overtime. That means cutting out interesting side stories or integrating them (Lohmeyer, Mayama’s officemates) cutting out or reshaping entire main plot elements (the ferris wheel and an interesting take on the searching for clovers scene) inventing new ones to fill in the gaps (the car, the sea, the inn) and shortening others (Takemoto’s trip.) While others are fun (Hagu and Morita working together on a painting, Mayama snooping around, the soy sauce painting) the rest are not as fun.

I think Takemoto’s trip of self discovery was a bit too downplayed in this version (although, given that that particular arc lasted a few episodes, it’s a bit understandable.) It was a grand trip to discover himself, a trek to the northernmost part of Japan. Here the trip is a lot shorter and the experiences he had less important in my view. His meeting with the temple repairmen was also downplayed, which is a shame since that was one of the factors that built up to the emotional climax of the first anime season.

Also, one great moment with Mayama and Yamada in the movie doesn’t have as strong an effect as in the anime, because honestly certain things don’t film that well (like tears!) It’s still a nice scene though, even if the buildup to the scene wasn’t as fleshed out as in the anime. Even so, the movie is painted in lush, soft colors.

In any case, the movie adaptation of Honey and Clover is nice, but not must-see. For fans of the series it may serve as an interesting supplement to an already fantastic series, but otherwise, as a standalone romance, it isn’t that bad, but not that great either as viewers may not see the total meaning of some of the scenes if they haven’t seen the anime or manga.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Cinejapan 1: Sunshine after the rain

Without a doubt, Akira Kurosawa was one of the greatest and most influential auteurs of cinema, having revolutionized the medium in several ways (with the help of his longtime crews, actors and staff,) either through storytelling, cinematography, or even the usage of music.

In 1999 Takashi Koizumi, who had worked as an assistant for Kurosawa as early as Derzu Uzala, and had served as an assistant director for some of his last great epics like Kagemusha and Ran, directed a movie based on one of Kurosawa’s scripts, as a tribute to the director. The title was Ame Agaru, or “After the Rain.” With a cast of actors who had been in previous Kurosawa movies, especially from that of his last moviemaking period (where he usually sought foreign financial backing for his films) the movie ultimately turns into a very light, introspective yet simple film, reminiscent of both the master’s early years and of his last.

Ihei Misawa (Akira Terao, Dreams, Ran) is a ronin (masterless samurai) who wanders the land along with his wife, Tayo (Yoshiko Miyazawa, who was Lady Sue in Ran) one day they are stranded due to rains and forced to settle inside an inn until the rain stops, where other villagefolk are staying. There, Ihei risks his own honor as a samurai (by prizefighting, which is banned) to give food to the people and to make him happy. By this time, the Lord of the domain, Lord Nagai (Shiro Mifune, son of Toshiro Mifune) learns of a skilled ronin and invites him to become his sword fencing teacher.

The acting is solid – Akira Terao is humble, kind yet skilled with the sword – compare this with the samurai of the fiefdom (and Kurosawa’s similar treatment of the samurai character in Yojimbo and Sanjuro – unrefined, gruffy, yet honest and wise to the world, quite different from what was then the conventional image of the samurai.) Shiro Mifune is also solid, showing some of the brazenness and the intensity of his father.

Other Kurosawa veterans are also in the movie in supporting parts, notably Tatsuya Nakadai (take your pick!) and Mieko Harada (who was unforgettable as Lady Kaede in Ran) Hidetaka Yoshioka (Madadayo) among others.

The music is simple and is reminiscent of sountracks of previous Kurosawa films. They do not get in the way of the film, but help enrich it.

However, despite being in the spirit of Kurosawa, Kurosawa’s eye for the picture, the way he treated each shot like a painting (hence his superflat cinematography in most movies) is not here. That in itself is good, as at least Koizumi is not imitating Kurosawa, but treating Kurosawa material like his own.

The message of the film is simple, and basically the movie’s tone gives you a warm feeling inside, a message of hope. In one of the last shots of the film Ihei and Tayo look into the vast sea, illuminated by the sun. After the rain, there is indeed sunshine.

Love Story x 2

… I honestly cannot think of a good title for this one.

A few years ago a novel came out in Japan. Called Socrates in Love, it eventually became a bestseller among millions of Japanese readers, beating the record of one of my favorite Japanese novels, Norwegian Wood. It was a simple enough story of love and moving on. It was nothing too highfalutin, the novel was simply a tale of pure love. Now if you’re as jaded about the whole love thing as some people are, you’re better off passing on this.

Soon two movies came out adapting the material: a rather faithful Japanese adaptation with Kou Shibasaki (Battle Royale) and a later Korean remake of the movie starring Cha Tae-hyun (My Sassy Girl) and Song Hae-gyo (Endless Love.) Although both borrowed from the same source material, both movies approach the material in so very different ways. Don’t worry melodrama lovers, both are reasonably enjoyable.

Let’s start with the Japanese movie first. Crying out Love in the Center of the World (the title comes from the Harlan Ellison short story) is the story of Sakutaro, a man who comes back to his old hometown. He is going to get married to Ritsuko (Kou Shibasaki) but as something in his life seems incomplete. He seems to be searching for something elusive in his life: closure. After finding a bunch of cassette tapes in his old room, he begins to reminisce about the past and his first great love, Aki. As more of the plot unfolds we get to see how this girl changed his life.

The setting of the flashback scenes is Japan in the 1980s and the film does a decent job in portraying the era, the music and the sensibilities of the time (even old school Walkman players!) Add this to the great cinematography of the film, showing lush yet low key hues (lots of blue in there) in the present day scenes, and ordinary hues in the flashback scenes, yet often with a light-saturated feel, especially in the later scenes, evoking the pictures of, say, Shunji Iwai.

The theme of the movie dwells not only on how Sakutaro is striving to let go, but also how he is dealing with his fiancée with that context in mind. Compared with other Japanese Melodramas, the film fits in well. The mood of the film is somber, lacking the weirdness of some of its Japanese brothers, or the general wackiness or slapstick of its South Korean cousins. It is in this quiet that we feel the most emotion, the grief of a past love, the void left by one’s longing for someone, the experience of one’s first heartbreak. Many will find the pace slow, but this pace, in my opinion, is deliberate; as one’s emotional journeys are never fast.

The South Korean take of the movie, My Girl and I, is an entirely different take of the source material, although both films reproduce the same scenes. A number of big names were involved with the project; although Jeon Yun-su (who helmed the cinematic flop Yesterday) was directing, the touch of screenwriter Kwak Jae-young (famously known for directing My Sassy Girl, Windstruck among others) is definitely present. As stated before, the movie stars Cha Tae-hyun (My Sassy Girl) in the male lead, while Song Hae-gyo (best known in Korean Dramas in the first season of Endless Love) who give a good performance. May I also say that she’s quite gorgeous. Being in their twenties (I think) wearing school uniforms for high school students seem really weird to me (especially after seeing Cha Tae-hyun don one in My Sassy Girl.)

Kwak’s unique brand of situational/slapstick humor can be found early on in the movie; which is a common plot device in most Korean melodramas – soften em up before going in for the kill. When the tears do come, the movie will squeeze you for it with all it has.

With respect to mood, the movie feels much lighter than the quieter Japanese counterpart; whether this is a better interpretation or not is entirely on the viewer’s hands. We are introduced to the characters not through death (in the last film the first reminiscence scene was during a funeral) but by something else. The movie also cuts the fiancée subplot that was in the other film.

The theme of this movie is not as much focused on letting go as the Japanese adaptation; rather it is a fond, yet bittersweet reminiscence of a first love. There are still elements that do suggest Cha’s character as one seeking resolution, however, so it’s not entirely different. Thanks to its more conventional tone, it seems more accessible to the casual Asian romance fan than the other film.

In any case, love and life are both fleeting. Both movies teach us, or warn us to seize the day and treasure every precious memory you have to the fullest.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Present Confusion Awards 2006

Welcome back to the Present Confusion Awards!! It’s been a drought for me and cinema as a whole, having seen far less films over the past few months, but there’s still a measure of good films seen over the past year. Not much arty art films as last year, so there’ll probably not be as much a feature for that as before. The greatest disappointment for myself is the reduced number of local films seen. I’d have wanted to see something from the Philippines, but, alas, there was no time.

Best Watched Movie of the Year: Last Life in the Universe

sleeping on couches: bad for your neck...

I’ve been waiting to watch this movie for a very long time. When I finally saw it, what I saw was a revelation. Brilliant acting from both leads, and a great story that crosses the line between fantasy and reality. Plus, Christopher Doyle, which is pretty much icing on the very delicious cake. Shows us that cinematically Thailand kicks our ass.

Runner-up: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Last of the Park Chan-wook vengeance trilogy, and, in this writer’s opinion, a fitting thematic end to it. This deserves a spot in here. This is the most straightforward of the three films yet proves equally unsettling, and evidence of a maturing style from director Park. I hope to see more of his movies in the future.

Best B-Movie/Guiltiest Pleasure Award: Battlefield Baseball


This category had no contenders for a very long time, I admit. Who knew that at the very last day of the year this sprung up on me like a coiled viper. It has all the insanity of Japanese Comedy AND THEN SOME. Zombies! Characters reviving spontaneously AND changing appearance! An applause track walking in at inopportune times! RAMEN! Truly something that can only be made in Japan.

Best Romantic Film: Failan

Over all the formula and sugar of this year’s disposable romantic films comes this diamond in the rough. It is a story of two people, falling in love yet never physically meeting each other. It is a simple story, yet it can devastate you with the way it shows us its characters. Add great acting to that and you get a sure winner.

Asskicker Award – Tak Sakaguchi (Battlefield Baseball)

Who can kill a guy with a baseball pitch? He can. Well, in the movie, anyway.

Asskicker Award – Female Category: Lee Young Ae (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)

"Lord, please unglue my hands... they've been like this for months!"

She may not have the physical prowess of the others, but she does vengeance in style.

J-drama of the Year Award: Gokusen

kicking ass with style... and great hair

Sure, it’s formula all the way, but it’s pretty endearing and it teaches life lessons too. Plus it’s really funny. It’s easy to pick up and quite addicting once you get hooked. It’s an instant classic in j-drama and one that no one should ever miss.

J-drama actor of the Year Award: That guy who played the evil coach in Attack no. 1

I choose him because from the start you know he was really a creepy evil bastard, and he showed it every time he dragged some poor soul out of the training area. Plus, he’s unrecognizable from his other roles, specially with that beard on.

J-drama actress of the Year Award: Rosa Katou (Dance Drill)

Rosa-chaaaaaaaaaaannnnn!!!! \(^_^)/

Just because I can.


Runner-up: Aoi Miyazaki (Junjo Kirari)

I guess the frazzled look is in this year...

Aoi Miyazaki is a phenomenal actress; she was in my favorite short this year from Inu no Eiga, and recently in Suki da. Her performance in NHK’s 2006 Asadora Drama (Daily Morning Drama, like for housewives) was so good it gave them their best ratings in a decade. I hope to see more of her in the future.

Manga of the Year Award: Death Note

we had to put in the title... you know, just in case you mistook it for shounen-ai between that guy in the middle and the freaky thing beside him... no that was a lie...

Quite well written and astoundingly clever, this manga is quite an addiction, although dreadfully short. Who knew that reading through lines of dialogue could be exciting?

Anime of the Year Award (Finished): Honey and Clover

This anime is the little surprise of 2006. It’s funny and heartbreaking and bittersweet all at the same time. The last episode of the second season broke me like a twig.

Runner-up: Mushishi

Although episodic, this fantasy/light horror anime is quite good and surprisingly deep, and asks a lot of questions about ourselves and why we are the way we are. This anime is different from 99% of the anime out there, a true gem in the sea of anime.

Anime of the Year Award (Unfinished): Death Note

Basically they adapted the manga faithfully – and that’s a good thing.

Well, that's about it. See you folks next year, hopefully with more movies!

Maybe on Earth, Maybe in the Future

Having recently finished Tsutomu Nihei’s masterpiece, Blame!, I wanted to talk a bit about the various aspects of the world Blame! takes place in. They’re just comments about the manga and are not necessarily part of the manga canon. The following discussion contains spoilers on the story of Blame, so if you wish to read the manga and haven’t done so, skip this entry of mine until you’ve read it.

Here we go.

Beyond people

In the lower levels of the City where people still live, time and physical constraints have separated groups of humans from each other. This has led to a branching of peoples and the creation of human sub-species, some so radical that they become transhuman, no longer attaining human form. Some radical evolutionary (or devolutionary) branches of the series may be the organic creatures we encounter later in the series, or in the spear-wielding ‘skivvies’ that we encounter in the earlier volumes.

Through centuries, maybe even millennia of natural selection, humans in different levels of the City develop different traits. The Electro-Fishers are noticeably short - a dwarf race of humans, while the race where Cibo comes from is noticeably taller than the rest of them (and even then, one of the races that Killy encounters earlier on is taller than even himself.) Varying levels of gravity in the City may have influenced this.

(Ironically, it seems that the Planters, people inside Toha Heavy Industries, were of normal height, indicating a possible Earthlike gravity inside THI and a higher gravitational pull outside THI, where the Fishers live.)

It can also be said that the Silicon Creatures are a special offshoot of humanity, breaking through the barrier of purely organic evolution into something techno-organic. In one of the alternate realities of Blame! the Silicon Creatures have evolved into newer models; it’s not a long shot that the Silicon Creatures of this world may evolve along the same lines.

And there is a third possible line of evolution – transcending physical form and evolving as data. Personally I cannot fathom to what lengths a data-form can become when it evolves, since I know data is currently static, non-evolving unless converted into something else forcefully. But maybe in the future the time will come where data itself can evolve into new data. Of course, I think that along with that, hardware and software will also evolve to adapt to the new data, or vice versa.

The Netsphere

In the world of Blame! the Netsphere is a utopia of sorts, a place for the chosen few – and also a place where one can control base reality. It is also a place where people exist as data, connected via some sort of interface. In the manga, the type of interface is uncertain, but it seems to be a direct link to the brain (with the Net Terminal Genes as a method of authorization) or a transference of one’s personal data.

The Netsphere is the Eden of the Blame! universe. The Safeguards prevent access to it; the Silicon Life have the same purpose, for different reasons (for a human in the Netsphere invalidates the Silicon Life) and some, like Davinelulinvega, wish to access it, even if it is forbidden.

It seems to me like the Netsphere is an insanely advanced version of the Internet. Virtual worlds like this have been postulated before in science fiction works.

What if the Netsphere is an Omega System, and base reality is merely simulacra nested within an even larger virtual reality, and our tangible reality may not exist anymore? It would explain a few things, namely how the Netsphere manages to control base reality and the immense logistical requirements needed to create something as gargantuan as the City. It would also explain how structure conversion towers and Safeguards manage to manipulate matter.

Well, maybe that’s thinking too much into it.


The structure where Blame! takes place is postulated to be a huge, layered Dyson Sphere, whose dimensions are approximated to take it to at least the level of the orbit of Jupiter (!) this fact alone makes the City hundreds of millions of miles in diameter. Some have thought that the materials needed to construct something of this magnitude would encompass several solar systems. The number of levels of the City may number in the millions, although as the levels go higher, the space it occupies also becomes larger, thus, only a few levels may exist. It has also been theorized that the construction of the Dyson Sphere has completely used up the entire planet Jupiter, if not the rest of the planets as well, including Earth.

It may be possible that the City is not a complete Dyson “Sphere” in the perfect sense; it may be that the sphere “grew” out of Earth and involved itself around the Sun in a different way, a Dyson “Wedge” if you may. That structure would involve considerably less materials than a full-fledged Dyson Sphere (although the amounts involved would still be pretty staggering.)

The Builders, whose chaotic actions made the City this way, create things out of seemingly nothing. The fact that the Builders have been known to teleport rooms or entire structures from one level to another may indicate that they may have some sort of transference or energy/data conversion technology we haven’t developed yet.

If base reality is a virtual reality, then logistics will not become a problem, only data handling capacity, and I think with the advanced computers of that time will be able to handle it.

The Passage of Time

Although you will probably breeze through all ten volumes in a few hours, the story of Blame! spans hundreds, if not thousands of years. Travel through the City takes enormous amounts of time, especially if one is on foot, and it seems that that is, for the greater part of the manga, the only mode of transportation Killy has.

Even with assistance, it takes months for Killy to traverse just one Megastructure. That’s one among thousands of Megastructures – and he has to go to the edge of the City, a trek millions of miles long. The other thing is, it’s not just a trek forward, it’s a trek upward, in essence, Killy is climbing upward slowly a structure millions of miles high.

Even the large storage room the size of Jupiter would have been a long, long walk (although the elevator ride up would have been much, much higher.

It is not known how much time Killy takes in traversing the levels between chapters 1 and around 7, before he meets Cibo. It could have taken him centuries before he reached Cibo’s level.

For civilizations to have developed at that level independently also takes time, and countless generations of people and memory would have evolved since then.

Memetic Degradation

With time, all memory fades. Like the Net Terminal Genes, the Memes of the Characters of Blame! also degrade over time. The first chapter of the manga is quite telling. Killy and the person with the dog (who we now know is Iko from an earlier age) do not know what a book is, much less what the “Earth” is. With the passage from time and mankind’s alienation from Earth, it seems that people have lost the memory of what Earth is.

Another form of Memetic degradation stems from the admission from some of the other human sub-races that they have lost the ability to read languages, simply because their ancestors had no need for the old language or they developed one on their own. From memetic degradation comes a reset of sorts, leading to the creation of new cultures. The Fishers have forgotten the purpose of Toha Heavy Industries (it was a ship carrying immigrants to space) after having lived outside for so long and have established their own culture. Also, there are no Fishers alive with the knowledge on how to make their weapons (probably carried over from the Planters)

It’s possible that after being separated, the Fishers went into a mode of pure survival, where their previous knowledge slowly died out after generations. When they were self sufficient enough to snap out of that mode, it was too late – their memes had already degenerated.

Only persistent memes remain strong; those that aren’t, and are not connected to tradition (in contrast to how the African Bushmen or any other ancestral tribe manages to keep traditions alive even by word of mouth) pass into legend, then obscurity, then memetic destruction.


Cibo is one of the most interesting characters in the series. She changes form and goes from body to body as the series goes on.

One can ask, even in the beginning the Cibo we know in the series was just backup data compared to the actual Cibo who conducted the Artificial Net Terminal Gene experiment. Is she the ‘real’ Cibo? Is the Cibo in Sanakan’s body still Cibo or a new being? What defines one’s ‘self’ in the world of Blame? How will physical bodies be of importance in this world? If one accesses the Netsphere, what will happen to that body?

Physical reality like ours and the 'reality of data' in Blame is still technologically far away, but in the future, who knows? We might find the secret to near immortality one day.

Living On

In closing, one of the essences of Blame! was the drive of humanity to propagate itself, to survive even in a cold and unfeeling world. All of the characters in the series were fighting for their own survival. For that, the Silicon Creatures sought Chaos, Cibo wanted escape. The Governing Agency wanted order. Who would survive till the end? Who will prevail? You'll have to read the manga to find out...

Friday, January 05, 2007

Ye shall be as gods, part I

A few years ago I picked up what would be my first Playstation RPG. Most people would tell you that for their first experience, they played one of the three Final Fantasies in the system, most likely FFVII or FFVIII. I however didn’t get to play this on the Playstation at all (I played both FFVII and FFVIII on the PC, so it really doesn’t count.)

It was a game called Xenogears. I had heard of the game before, but I had no idea what I was getting into. Soon I would be knee deep in what would be one of the best RPG experiences in recent memory.

The main draw of this game is the overly complex, multilayered story. When viewing the opening sequence, once you get into the game you wonder what the hell does this have to do with the story – soon, however, things get very clear. At first I was introduced to a conflict between two nations – Kislev and Aveh. Our protagonist, Fei Fong Wong, is a humble painter living in a quiet little town named Lahan. He has little idea of the things going on in the outside, and he couldn’t care less. But a series of fateful events would drag him into something much, much bigger than anyone would ever think. He would tap on an ancient mystery, a conspiracy lasting thousands upon thousands of years.

Once the story goes on, we are literally drawn into the world of Xenogears. Playtime usually takes 60-70 hours. I personally took 100+ hours to finish everything, a record matched only by Final Fantasy VII. And this is a game made on only two CDs – compare this to the sprawling epic RPGs that are 4 CDs long – and take only 50-60 hours to complete. Aside from the normal battles, the game also has extensive sections concentrating on Gears, large mechanical robots capable of dishing out huge amounts of damage. And even then, there is a level of strategy within the game regarding these Gear battles – they rely on fuel to work – and with only a limited supply of fuel, one has only so far to go in a dungeon before fuel runs out, thus battles must be fast and efficient.

The characters of Xenogears are memorable. Most of the characters, whether major or minor, each have their own issues, and are likeable or hateable in that respect. From Fei’s trusted companion Citan Uzuki to the Demon of Elru, each has their own quirks and qualities that make them memorable.

Xenogears delves into territories other RPGs shy away from. Existentialism, violence, the examination of one’s psyche, and some sex and violence are all thrown into the mix. Various references to Jewish and Christian mysticism are present, as well as references to various pieces of Science Fiction.

The game does have a few caveats. The gameplay changes drastically on the second disc, and certain secret materials suggest that the game was unfinished when it was released in stores – and that it may have been much longer had it been finished. Most players may be turned off at the way the plot is unfurled at this point, where conventional storytelling is replaced by a series of internal monologues with a dungeon inserted in between.

Even so, Xenogears is a rare gem in RPGs. It remains an RPG that will forever be the subject of debate between lovers and haters of the series for years to come.