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.