Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cinemalaya 2012: Shorts A and B, Bwakaw, Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, Kamera Obskura

Last Day! Not counting Sunday, of course. I guess that's a thing right now.


WE GOT SHORT SHORTS SHORT REVIEWS OF SHORT FILMS AND SHIT


As He Sleeps

Sue Prado takes care of her husband, bedridden due to a stroke. My fellow med students, please tell me if the love scene in this film is medically possible. Subdued and bereft of words, yet enough visual storytelling panache to get the message across. 4/5


Balintuna (Irony)

It took me a while to figure out what really was ironic about these kids. Loved the slow mo thing going on with some sequences. 3.5/5


Bohe (sons of the waves)

A look at our brothers the Badjaos, sea nomads who live on houses on stilts. I've been to one of these communities before and it is interesting as hell to me. The plot doesn't really go anywhere, however. More of a slice of life thingy. 3/5


Pasahero (Passenger)

It was interesting, then a bit annoying, but it suddenly turns out cute at the end. Short but funny story about a lady on a jeepney. 4/5


Victor

A guy gets crucified as part of the Holy Week celebrations in Pampanga. I don't think this guy's motivations were fleshed out as much as I wanted it to be. Those wounds look painful, though. 2.5/5


Ang Paghihintay sa Bulong (Waiting to Whisper)

Despite some funny parts, I didn't really buy most of the humor and parts of it were a bit too vulgar to me. Meh. 2/5


Manenaya (Waiting)

Black and white film. Great composition in some shots. Contrast this to Victor; this lady's motivations are pure love. 3/5


Ruweda (Wheel)

Great production value, totally digging the non-linear narrative, slick and creative. There are winners and losers in life, and this just gives us a few examples. This one should be the film called "irony," IMO. 4.5/5


Sarong Aldaw (One Day)

This film was mostly a family affair. Very simple story. Some nice poetry set to lush visuals. Nice ending text. 3/5


Ulian (Senility)

Featuring Tausug dialog, a short look into a lady and her granddaughter and the effects of a mind no longer in its prime. 3/5


Cinema One Originals


Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay

What the Cynic in Me Expected: not gonna lie, I expected this to be awesome.
What actually happened: A funny, touching and very well done picture about the fickle nature of showbiz and one of its unsung heroes.


It was reported that during this year's festival, during the screening of Babae sa Breakwater on opening night, when Lilia Cuntapay's scene came on, the audience went nuts and cheered like crazy. Some even said it was a standing ovation. Similar reactions were made during her scenes in REquieme! What is with this outpouring of love and support? I say it's mainly due to the recognition she gained this film.

In the style of a mockumentary, Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay is a portrait of a woman who has worked selflessly for the film industry for around thirty years. Starting out as the lady who always portrayed witches and ghosts, most memorably with Kris Aquino in Shake Rattle and Roll III, Lilia Cuntapay is the quintessential 'old lady' extra. In the film's 'real life' she lives in a poor community, occasionally (and enthusiastically) answering the call of whatever interview, shooting of miscellaneous thing the industry has to offer. She is then nominated for a (fictional) award for best supporting actress.

Cuntapay herself is lovable, witty and affable. The walls of her house are adorned with movie posters of the films she's been in - sometimes replaced by drawings made by Lilia herself. Her enthusiasm for the job and dedication to the roles she plays - no matter how small -rubs off on the viewer. Her performance lights up the scenes she's in, making scenes far funnier than they would have been with a lesser actress.

But at the core of the film is a need, almost desperated at times, to be recognized. "I want you to know me," you can almost hear her say. After years of sulking in the shadows like many of the ghouls and ghosts she portrays, she is given an opportunity to shine in the limelight. These hopes and dreams are reflected in the 'podium' segments were she practices her acceptance speech. But nothing quite reflects this desire more than the last line of the film.

If this film's aim was to get her more recognized in cinema, I'd say it seems to have worked, at least a bit. During the Cinema One Originals Awards, Cuntapay did win an acting award - her first - as Best Actress.

Metaphor style rating: holding a party for that manong or manang who has served the hacienda for many years.


Director's Showcase


Bwakaw

What the Cynic in Me Expected: I expected to cry, to be perfectly honest.
What actually Happened: I did (but they were MANLY tears) but I laughed quite a lot as well. One of Eddie Garcia's best performances.

Eddie Garcia is Rene, a grumpy old gay man who has more or less given up on life. Life has taken a toll on him, and he has more or less accepted his fate. His house is in a state of disrepair, and his room is filled with boxes filled with his possessions, segregated by who will receive them as stated in his will. Periodically he updates this will via his local parish priest. His only companion in life is his dog, Bwakaw, who faithfully waits for him outside the house everyday. Soon, however, he begins to face death even more squarely in the eye, and things begin to change.

While looking at the above summary may seem like the film is depressing, the end product is actually quite funny and touching. Eddie Garcia delivers the performance of his career as Rene. Although irascible, you never really hate his character. He delivers his one liners like he does during shootouts in one of his manly action films. But this is a completely different dimension to the actor, and a performance you shouldn't miss.

Princess, the dog who plays Bwakaw, is also endearing. In every scene you see this palpable chemistry between her and Garcia's character. It's a chemistry that you don't even see in human actors. More than anything else, there's a fierce aura of loyalty and love that exudes from this dog. If you could give awards to animals for best actress, I'd give it to this fella.

People deal with death in different ways. Some avoid it, some confront it, some let it pass by like the wind. Bwakaw tackles how people deal with death, as sudden and unexpected as it may be. And how one deals with death reflects how one deals with life - that one should seize every day like it was their last, while living everyday for the promise of tomorrow.

It's the best entry in the Director's Showcase this year, and based on attendance by the public, I'm inclined to think I'm not the only one who thinks so. A must watch.

Metaphor style rating: like your loyal family dog who brings you lots of funny moments, lots of sad moments, and lots of life moments that change you.


Kamera Obskura (or, Money and Politics in the face of Artistic Integrity. There, I said it.)

What the Cynic in Me Expected: like the Artist, but more pretentious.
What actually Happened: an interesting take on film in general. Behind the political references, perhaps something else...?


As the festival winds down, I've decided to save this review for last. Why? Because I think it expresses various things about what is happening to this festival and the film industry right now.

I'm not going to go over the plot in detail, but long story short, a long lost short film was found somewhere by the national film archives. We then see the film itself, and we hear a couple of guys talking about it, with nothing more in their conversation than empty superlatives. While I think in the context of the film, the film is underrated, but it does have interesting layers of meaning underneath.

So the film itself is so so. Not one of Red's best films. The soundtrack was old timey for sure, and for some reason a lot of people hated it. The fake black and white silent film thing mostly works, with all the random artifacts popping out of nowhere. The editors clearly liked those iris wipes, but there was one unnatural fade to black that betrayed the film's modern origins.

I recommend a watch. This film will be polarizing and will gain measures of both praise and scorn. But discussions and reflections on the film are what the industry needs right now (at least from my humble outsider's view.) If it leads to a new way of thinking, or a chance for honest reform, it has done its job.

Note: don't leave immediately as the credits run out. You will miss a significant part of the film if you do.

Now about the message of the film:

Superficially, the film could be about how the ones working for Big Government and the supposed revolutionary working class are the same kind of animal, both wooed by money. But I interpreted the film a different way. I may be totally off base, and this film may not have anything to do with what I am going to say, but who knows? Art can be interpreted in different ways. Although I'm going to sound pretty pretentious saying it.


So SPOLERS BELOW ---------------------------------------






Pen Medina, the man with the camera, is the representation of the Filmmaker-as-collective. For long he is trapped in a dark room with no way to express himself, just as independent filmmakers had no way of expressing themselves through film (not necessarily by technical means, but in terms of getting an audience, thus the symbolism of the darkened room.)

For once he gets a glimpse of the outside world and is led to the camera store. He sees the camera (that ironically led him to prison in the first place) and begins to use it. The camera itself is a tool that exposes the truth; politically it can be used to expose the darker side of our society, much in the way that the camera absorbed the burglars and the corrupt politicians in the film. Thus the film is telling us that to be a filmmaker, one's obligations include the obligation to present the truth in society, sometimes in the form of social commentary.

The camera binds itself to the Filmmaker; one cannot exist without the other at this point. The Filmmaker is thus bound to his obligation to present the truth, whether he likes it or not.

Led to the eponymous Building, he is exposed to the politicians at the top, perhaps symbolism to big-name mainstream cinema. Although they have noble sounding ideals, and despite some of their ranks possessing integrity, their ultimate goal is corrupted by money. They try to co opt him and want to use his power of Filmmaking to their own means. Disillusioned by this inability to express the truth his own way (a metaphor for the inability to be creatively independent) he leaves.

He then joins the ranks of some other people who work with the working class, perhaps people similar to him. Under the guise of working for the laborers, or the people behind the scenes, it can be a reference to a separate independent collective from the studio bigwigs and mainstream people of today. Under the promise of using his power of Filmmaking for good, the Filmmaker seems swayed, but is still confused.

Again, we see these people receive money from the bigwigs. Money signifies everything, it makes the whole world go round. They are no different from the politicians we see earlier.

Irene Gabriel, the mysterious girl we see, can be a symbol for the muse of creativity. She advises the Filmmaker that to be truly able to use the power of Film, he must go it alone. And he does. He leaves the place, leaving the people to fight for themselves and decides to go back to his exile. He takes his camera with him, and realizes he is no longer bound by it. The camera's destiny was to be free of any kind of control, as Film is truly free if the artist is similarly unbound.

Upon returning to his exile, however, is a warning: his exile only signifies self indulgence and giving into hubris. While freedom in and of itself is liberating, it can also be seeds towards arrogance and self importance.




SPOILERS END -------------------------------


Ta-dah! There. What I wrote is either complete bullshit or a valid alternate interpretation of the film. Your mileage may vary.

Metaphor style rating: the whole film is a metaphor. You can't get any more meta than that.


Thus ends my week long cinematic journey through promising talents in the world of Philippine Cinema. Next, my closing thoughts on the festival and random shit on our industry in general.

Cinemalaya 2012: Qiyamah, The Animals

During the penultimate day in the festival, a few surprises.

Cinemalaya ANI


Qiyamah (The Reckoning)


What the Cynic in Me Expected: sorry, I went into this one blind.
What actually happened: A short but interesting slice of life and culture among our brothers in the south. Might I say the last slice of life, since it takes place at the end of the world.

In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful:

I swear by the Day of Resurrection
And I swear by the reproaching soul [to the certainty of resurrection].
Does man think that We will not assemble his bones?
Yes. [We are] Able [even] to proportion his fingertips.
But man desires to continue in sin.
He asks, "When is the Day of Resurrection?"
So when vision is dazzled
And the moon darkens
And the sun and the moon are joined,
Man will say on that Day, "Where is the [place of] escape?"
No! There is no refuge.
To your Lord, that Day, is the [place of] permanence.
Man will be informed that Day of what he sent ahead and kept back.
Rather, man, against himself, will be a witness,
Even if he presents his excuses.

Translation of Surah Al-Qiyamah (The Resurrection), Chapter 75:1-15, Holy Qur'an

I had heard about this film only shortly before I would watch it. It goes something like this. In a small rural community the sun suddenly rises in the west, which is a sign that Judgement Day is near. We then follow the lives of the people in the community, especially a family of three, as the hour nears.

Each member of the family has their own demons and regrets in life. The father was a former rebel and/or killer. The mother eloped with this guy, bringing pain to her parents. As for the kid, he is our untainted window into this world of last days.

There are a lot of films and stories about people dealing with the end, many featuring dramatic holding of hands and Michael Bay theatrics with explosions in the background. Here, the feeling is very subdued. The people, with their faith (or maybe due to something else), seem to have accepted the inevitable, like there's going to be a sale on Tuesday. Some just go on with their daily lives. But for many, past sins are reflected upon. "Did I do right?" "Will the deeds I've done so far get me to heaven or hell?" and so on. Aside from the family at the center of this film, other members of the community have their own issues to deal with.

The film is shot entirely in black and white, a harder medium to tell a film story with its various shades and shadows and visual limitations. The subtitles are a bit too abridged in parts (much like the translation of the Tausug dialog in Halaw) but they get the feelings across. Non-actors were used in most of the roles and it shows in some parts. There were a few sound issues, but nothing too major.

Although a bit short and not as tightly plotted, this is an interesting film to spend time with, especially if you are familiar with the culture. If not, some of the events in the film may seem alien.

Metaphor style rating: like waiting for the sunset, or spending time in the shower thinking of the mysteries of the universe.


New Breed Films


The Animals


What the Cynic in Me Expected: OMG mom I hate youuuu I wanted a Jaguar and you gave me a Ferrari!!! WORST BIRTHDAY EVERRRR
What Actually Happened: a unique viewpoint of today's generation from the point of view of upper middle class kids. Also, if this is our youth today, I'm getting a vasectomy. haha.

The Animals is a day in the life of three kids from affluent families: Albie Casino (no idea how to describe this guy), his klepto girlfriend, and her younger pot smoking frat joining brother. Aside from the usual high school hangups, relationships, entrance exams to the college of their choice, etcetera, everyone has his or her own teen issues in life. Everyone's stoked about the big party tonight, where everyone wants to drink some shit and get wasted. Shit then hits the fan fast after that.

We haven't seen something like this in Philippine Cinema since Batch '81 (bar a few forgettable sanitized teenybopper films.) But this film is unique in that it captures the shallowness and ennui of today's youth from a representative of the youth, not an observer from another generation. It's a fresh perspective that films in this festival, and films in general, rarely capture.

When asked why he is joining a fraternity and subjecting himself to useless abuse, one character answers, "wala lang, trip trip lang." Partly due to absentee parenting, a disconnect between children and parents, or as products of today's hollow society this generation is depicted as a lost one, buried in the throes of hedonism and momentary pleasures. Without guidance, they wander aimlessly through their youth, making rash decisions, trying to have a good time, or trying to belong. And ironically, perhaps back in their day the parents did these things too, albeit in a different way. Thus the sins of the parents trickle down into their kids.

There's a vibe I got when I watched this film similar to Larry Clark's films, like Kids and Ken Park, about teenagers basically going around doing stupid things. And there's one element that creeps into this film as it did in those films as well: none of the characters are really that sympathetic. In Kids for example, you really didn't want Telly to stop screwing around because you cared about his character, you wanted him to stop spreading STDs to some poor girls. In this case, I didn't really care about any of the characters, and whether they swam in their own vomit or not. I ended up watching the film to see who gets totally screwed up by the end, in a sort of morbid fascination.

Most telling, and probably my most favorite scene in the film, is when the family drivers of the main cast talk about how fucked up some of these kids are. Their jabs are frank and to the point, lamenting the senselessness of these kids' pursuits. And although by the end some seemingly get through scot free, there are consequences, perhaps most tellingly depicted in the last scenes. I don't think I'm the first and/or only guy to see some Gaspar Noe influences in some of those scenes (albeit not as well lighted in this movie's case.) Despite youthful feelings of invincibility, everybody's human, after all. The violence escalates and none of these guys are the same. I'm not really sure if that way is the way to go in this case, but in a weird sort of way it works.

There are some problems with the visuals, with some scenes not as clearly shot as others, as well as a few editing quibbles here and there. Otherwise the film isn't bad as far as first films go.

You will either like or hate this film. It depends on your own views on this generation and how you apply it to the film, as well as on how they resolved the story. But when all's said and done, I'm still looking for the definitive youth film for my generation.

Metaphor style rating: kicking your son in the balls. HARD.
Cinemalaya 2012: Qiyamah, The Animals


During the penultimate day in the festival, a few surprises.


Cinemalaya ANI


Qiyamah (The Reckoning)


What the Cynic in Me Expected: sorry, I went into this one blind.
What actually happened: A short but interesting slice of life and culture among our brothers

in the south. Might I say the last slice of life, since it takes place at the end of the

world.

In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful:

I swear by the Day of Resurrection
And I swear by the reproaching soul [to the certainty of resurrection].
Does man think that We will not assemble his bones?
Yes. [We are] Able [even] to proportion his fingertips.
But man desires to continue in sin.
He asks, "When is the Day of Resurrection?"
So when vision is dazzled
And the moon darkens
And the sun and the moon are joined,
Man will say on that Day, "Where is the [place of] escape?"
No! There is no refuge.
To your Lord, that Day, is the [place of] permanence.
Man will be informed that Day of what he sent ahead and kept back.
Rather, man, against himself, will be a witness,
Even if he presents his excuses.


Translation of Surah Al-Qiyamah (The Resurrection), Chapter 75:1-15, Holy Qur'an

I had heard about this film only shortly before I would watch it. It goes something like

this. In a small rural community the sun suddenly rises in the west, which is a sign that

Judgement Day is near. We then follow the lives of the people in the community, especially a

family of three, as the hour nears.

Each member of the family has their own demons and regrets in life. The father was a former

rebel and/or killer. The mother eloped with this guy, bringing pain to her parents. As for

the kid, he is our untainted window into this world of last days.

There are a lot of films and stories about people dealing with the end, many featuring

dramatic holding of hands and Michael Bay theatrics with explosions in the background. Here,

the feeling is very subdued. The people, with their faith (or maybe due to something else),

seem to have accepted the inevitable, like there's going to be a sale on Tuesday. Some just

go on with their daily lives. But for many, past sins are reflected upon. "Did I do right?"

"Will the deeds I've done so far get me to heaven or hell?" and so on. Aside from the family

at the center of this film, other members of the community have their own issues to deal

with.

The film is shot entirely in black and white, a harder medium to tell a film story with its

various shades and shadows and visual limitations. The subtitles are a bit too abridged in

parts (much like the translation of the Tausug dialog in Halaw) but they get the feelings

across. Non-actors were used in most of the roles and it shows in some parts. There were a

few sound issues, but nothing too major.

Although a bit short and not as tightly plotted, this is an interesting film to spend time

with, especially if you are familiar with the culture. If not, some of the events in the film

may seem alien.

Metaphor style rating: like waiting for the sunset, or spending time in the shower thinking

of the mysteries of the universe.


New Breed Films


The Animals


What the Cynic in Me Expected: OMG mom I hate youuuu I wanted a Jaguar and you gave me a

Ferrari!!! WORST BIRTHDAY EVERRRR
What Actually Happened: a unique viewpoint of today's generation from the point of view of

upper middle class kids. Also, if this is our youth today, I'm getting a vasectomy. haha.

The Animals is a day in the life of three kids from affluent families: Albie Casino (no idea

how to describe this guy), his klepto girlfriend, and her younger pot smoking frat joining

brother. Aside from the usual high school hangups, relationships, entrance exams to the

college of their choice, etcetera, everyone has his or her own teen issues in life.

Everyone's stoked about the big party tonight, where everyone wants to drink some shit and

get wasted. Shit then hits the fan fast after that.

We haven't seen something like this in Philippine Cinema since Batch '81 (bar a few

forgettable sanitized teenybopper films.) But this film is unique in that it captures the

shallowness and ennui of today's youth from a representative of the youth, not an observer

from another generation. It's a fresh perspective that films in this festival, and films in

general, rarely capture.

When asked why he is joining a fraternity and subjecting himself to useless abuse, one

character answers, "wala lang, trip trip lang." Partly due to absentee parenting, a

disconnect between children and parents, or as products of today's hollow society this

generation is depicted as a lost one, buried in the throes of hedonism and momentary

pleasures. Without guidance, they wander aimlessly through their youth, making rash

decisions, trying to have a good time, or trying to belong. And ironically, perhaps back in

their day the parents did these things too, albeit in a different way. Thus the sins of the

parents trickle down into their kids.

There's a vibe I got when I watched this film similar to Larry Clark's films, like Kids and

Ken Park, about teenagers basically going around doing stupid things. And there's one element

that creeps into this film as it did in those films as well: none of the characters are

really that sympathetic. In Kids for example, you really didn't want Telly to stop screwing

around because you cared about his character, you wanted him to stop spreading STDs to some

poor girls. In this case, I didn't really care about any of the characters, and whether they

swam in their own vomit or not. I ended up watching the film to see who gets totally screwed

up by the end, in a sort of morbid fascination.

Most telling, and probably my most favorite scene in the film, is when the family drivers of

the main cast talk about how fucked up some of these kids are. Their jabs are frank and to

the point, lamenting the senselessness of these kids' pursuits. And although by the end some

seemingly get through scot free, there are consequences, perhaps most tellingly depicted in

the last scenes. I don't think I'm the first and/or only guy to see some Gaspar Noe

influences in some of those scenes (albeit not as well lighted in this movie's case.) The

violence escalates and none of these guys are the same. I'm not really sure if that way is

the way to go in this case, but in a weird sort of way it works.

There are some problems with the visuals, with some scenes not as clearly shot as others, as

well as a few editing quibbles here and there. Otherwise the film isn't bad as far as first

films go.

You will either like or hate this film. It depends on your own views on this generation and

how you apply it to the film, as well as on how they resolved the story. But when all's said

and done, I'm still looking for the definitive youth film for my generation.

Metaphor style rating: kicking your son in the balls. HARD.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Cinemalaya 2012: Aparisyon, Give up Tomorrow

Back again with some new stuff.


New Breed Films


Aparisyon
 
What the Cynic in Me Expected: Like Sister Act, without the singing, and more Martial-lawey
What Actually Happened: a finely acted tale on morality and faith, if just a bit ambiguous at the end.

Set in the the turbulent year of 1971, on the precipice of Martial Law, Aparisyon is the story of a cloister in the woods where a group of nuns, led by Mother Superior Ruth (Fides Cuyugan Asensio) devotes their entire lives in the service of God. As a setting, the place is sheltered and seemingly serene, an oasis separated from the outside world. We see the world we know only in newspaper snippets and radio broadcasts.

Sister Lourdes (Jodi Sta. Maria) is the latest addition to the order. She begins to settle in her new monastic lifestyle and she meets Sister Remy (Mylene Dizon), a nun who has recently taken her vows. Soon the events of the outside world start to creep into the sheltered walls of the cloister and a sudden, violent and tragic event shakes the lives of the order.

From this point on, Aparisyon turns into an intense drama where every emotion hides beneath the surface, every ounce of indignation boils beyond reach, likening itself to the people whose eyes, ears and mouths were covered during the events leading to Martial Law. Will they exchange their peace to involve themselves more with this alien, lawless, turbulent world?

But aside from the likely metaphors, Aparisyon can also be a movie about a dire test of faith. With their orderly lives, sheltered from the world, this event shatters that world, giving the nuns predicaments that test the core of their beliefs.

Quite appropriately, I had heard this program on the radio before watching the film: One's burdens are not burdens that a person cannot bear, the man on the radio said. People can stay away from sin not because they are afraid of doing so, but because their viewpoint on life leads them to decide not to. And in this film the moral dilemmas (and each of the 4 main character's solutions to them) define them as characters. Perhaps, also as archetypes of something?

The four members of the main cast convey their acting talents quite capably, and without it, the film would have been a lesser experience. The ending leaves a lot ambiguous in my view, leading us viewers to decide for ourselves how these tests and crises have affected the people involved.

This is an intense, brutal film, filled with emotional violence, yet conveyed in silences. The director of the film noted that this film was about silence, and its different forms. And this film seems to take that point and give each silence a different meaning: guilt, acceptance, love, determination, or turning to faith.

Give this one a try. It's a surprisingly good entry to this year's roster.

Metaphor style rating: it's like your significant lady other giving you THE LOOK. It looks innocuous, but you know the jig is up.


Cinemalaya Documentaries


Give Up Tomorrow

What the Cynic in Me Expected: I honestly had no expectations for this.
What Actually Happened: A true crime docu that stabs at the heart of the ailing Philippine justice system. A must watch.

I vaguely remember the Chiong Murder Case back in the nineties. Two sisters in Cebu were kidnapped, raped then killed by a number of unknown men. In the face of sheer public indignation, the police rounded up a number of suspects, among them Paco Larranaga. I remember seeing his face as he was being led to the court. I remember the cheap dramatization of the case with Nino Mulach as Larranaga.

I thought back then that he was guilty. But seeing this film made me realize that the world doesn't paint things as black and white as we see in the media.

Covering the years between his arrest, his trial and imprisonment, Give Up Tomorrow weaves a tale of corruption and injustice like a yarn spun straight out of Kafka's The Trial. In the face of intense negative public and media attention, and powerful backers on the side of the prosecution, this man and six others are sentenced to life in prison for their role in a crime they may not have committed. Interspersed are segments by the media regarding the case, some offering an objective viewpoint; others, not so much, most memorably Teddy Locsin Jr's advice to the convicted not to drop the soap.

Appeal after appeal comes, but the verdict is the same. During the trial, evidence that clearly exonerates the accused is dismissed; dubious testimony from others is considered set in stone. In the screening for this film, you can feel the indignation from the audience from every single wrongdoing that occurs.

This is no mere miscarriage of justice, it is an abortion, blades spinning, carving up and destroying the lives of these men who have not gained the chance at due process. One, on the other hand, could argue that maybe some of them did do the crime. But this film shows that it was never proven the proper way.

The film's title comes from an interview from Larranaga who has more or less accepted his fate to be imprisoned for a very long time (this was after he was sentenced to death, with a repeal of the death penalty reducing his sentence). He talks about living his everyday life for today, deciding that if he'd give up, he'd rather do so tomorrow.

Although screened in many film festivals abroad, this is the first time the film has ever been screened in the Philippines. This film needs to be seen by people, everywhere. And perhaps we can see this film not just as something that can help in the reopening of this case, but also a way to see how rotten our justice system has become. The scary thing about it? This can happen to anyone. Even you and me.

Metaphor Style Rating: Finding out your significant other is a serial killer.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Interlude: I AM THE BATMAN

Given the recent release of the Dark Knight Rises, I think it is a good time to look back on the trilogy that revived the franchise and gave it new life.

I'd heard about Christopher Nolan back when he made Memento, a wonderful little film that I still consider one of my favorite films of all time. He had a knack of devising inventive and unconventional plot structures, and making interesting characters. But other than that he didn't really make many notable films. There was, of course, a film called Insomnia with Robin Williams and Hilary Swank that gained critical acclaim, but not many people knew about it.

Meanwhile, the Batman franchise was as good as dead. The final nail in the coffin was the deplorable Batman and Robin, whose return to 60's camp and general corniness destroyed the franchise that had been built on decent Tim Burton movies. The jury is still out on whether Batman Forever was any better or worse.

So a new film was made in 2005, Batman Begins. It reboots the franchise and tells the story of how Batman got his chops. It's an interesting story with a lot of nods to the comic stories, and brilliant performances all around.

What got me was how dark the whole thing was. This wasn't the bombastic showy Batman of the first two films. This was Batman as how he should be. We were coming off films like X-Men or Spiderman, films that, despite the relative seriousness, were still fun adventures for the whole family.

Then came The Dark Knight, and that was one of the greatest movies ever. Using the Joker and Two Face as villains, this movie was a deconstruction of the hero genre, redefining what it truly means to be a hero. Along with it came a performance by Heath Ledger that is so intense, people remember it to this day. It wasn't just a good superhero film, it was a good film, period. It also adapted itself from stories considered to be Batman's finest, such as The Long Halloween and The Killing Joke. The ending is especially chilling, as it describes Batman as what he is: a silent protector, a symbol that can be anything Gotham's citizens want him to be.

Finally we come to the recent movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Based partially on the comic series on the same name, we see an older Bruce Wayne, now in hiding after the events of the previous movie. It takes a terrorist named Bane to get him to don the cape and cowl again, but doing so is not as easy as it may first seem.

In the interim, Nolan sharpened his skills by making Inception, another very accomplished film and one of the most fascinating films of the last decade. It was blockbuster, sure, it was also action. But it was very cerebral and didn't treat its audience like ADHD-riddled mooks.

The last film goes back to the themes in the first, examining Batman's reasons for being Batman. While not as accomplished as the second film, it does its job capably. Bane is like Batman's antithesis. Trained by the same man, his skills and intelligence are more than a match for the caped crusader, and in the comics he is the only villain to have "Broken the Bat."

Speaking of that, my first real introduction to Batman was during the Knightfall storyline, which involves Bane. So there's a bit of nostalgia for me in that regard, despite the movie Bane being quite different from the one in the comics.

In the end, these three movies earned a ton of money in the box office and critical praise that the previous quadrilogy never got. Now that the trilogy is over, here's to better adaptations of comics in the future. Superman, I'm looking at you...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Cinemalaya 2012 Day 2: Diablo, Mga Dayo, Oros

Three New Breed Films today before I take a break for a week or so. Have fun and keep on watching...

Diablo

What the Cynic in Me Expected: Hippie Jesus saves the world through weed. No just kidding.
What Actually Happened: An interesting, albeit sometimes lacking, movie on faith, family ties, and anxieties.

Nana Lusing (Ama Quiambao) is the elderly mother of five sons. Although she once had a job selling stuff, she has since stopped working due to illness. She now lives alone in her quiet home. One by one we see her five sons, most of whom have varying professions: one is a miner, one is a soldier, one is a farmer, and one is a sleazy lowlife. The last son, Oscar, is some sort of religious cult member who kinda looks like Jesus.

Unable to sleep at night, listening to some weird religious program on the radio, the rest of the film depicts her life as she encounters her five sons again. Oh, and during those nights, a mysterious black figure appears in front of her.

There are lots of symbolic references to religion and what have you, and the overall message is pretty straightforward, although a lot of elements can be interpreted in many different ways. Nana Lusing has most of the spotlight in this film, and it comes along with a good performance by Ama Quiambao. Her mere presence changes the lives of the people around her, yet ironically her own unresolved issues bother her, and they manifest as apparitions and visions. Whether the visions are real or not depends on the viewer.

Oscar is an equally mysterious character. Lusing's youngest son walks barefoot, looks like popular depictions of Jesus, and carries around an oil lamp with mysterious powers. Although his appearances are sporadic, his actions and the events surrounding him enact change in the plot and characters.

While the buildup is nice enough, the ending feels a bit rushed and ties up many plot threads too quickly (or not at all.) Sometimes I get the feeling that the story could have been told in a much shorter time. Technically there were some issues with audio syncing but otherwise it was fine.

Diablo is just an OK movie. I probably enjoyed it more than I expected, which is at least good.

Metaphor style rating: imagine a cup of Yan Yans and not even halfway through you run out of dip.


Mga Dayo (Resident Aliens)

What The Cynic in Me Expected: an hour and a half of I WANNA GREEN CARD SO BAAAAAD
What Actually Happened: A very nuanced look at the lives of Filipino immigrants in Guam.

A lot of Filipinos live abroad. A great number of them live in the States and in its territories. With the promise of a better life and a better paying job, a lot of Filipinos try to get there.

This movie takes place in Guam, a place with flavors both American and Filipino. It shows a slice of the lives of three women: Alex, who plans to get married to get a green card before her impending return to the Philippines, Miriam, a former newspaper editor who just lost her job and is lost among a number of frivolous relationships, and Ella, a hard working hotel housekeeping supervisor who works to get her elderly mother in America.

While it seems at first that they would want citizenship and a life in a foreign land, not all of the girls are keen on staying there. There's a sense of longing for home in one of a characters, a sense of dissatisfaction in another, and for the other one, not so much a sense of staying there out of want, but out of need.

The Filipino communities portrayed in the film show that Filipinos are hardy and can live almost anywhere, as long as there is the promise of a better life. It also examines the various loopholes one can take in getting a green card in the States.

Although the plot is tight and doesn't drag (it's the shortest full length film in competition) there are some weird side plots that really don't go anywhere, most notably one that involves Ella's relative. The shortness of the plot does leave some things unresolved, but I think the film gave the message it wanted to give: that these three people have their own hopes and dreams regarding living abroad (or returning home.)

Technically there are no problems with the film. Guam looks great in these shots and I kind of want to visit there one day. The acting is superb, notably Ella's portrayal as this hardworking woman who only wants something better for her family. When she finally reaches the breaking point, the resulting scene is a fitting climax for the film.

I was a bit impressed with this film. I'd put it somewhere above middle ground in the movies I've seen so far.

Metaphor style rating: A trip to America 5 days long. Not long enough to really appreciate everything, but enough to get a general idea on what the place is about.


Oros

What the Cynic in me Expected: PO-VER-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE
What Actually Happened: An interesting story, entertaining to boot and decently acted, but these "social commentary set in poverty" films are starting to get a bit cliched.

Makoy and Abet are brothers living in a poverty stricken area in Manila. Makoy holds an illegal gambling ring that sometimes involves holding fake wakes with unclaimed cadavers to be able to hold an sakla (a card game) operation.

There are a lot of interesting issues in this movie. The most important to me is poignantly stated by one of the characters somewhere in the first third of the film: that a new life is often harder to deal with than death. Death is death, but a new life is just another mouth to feed.

The illegality of the gambling operation is not lost on the main characters, but they gotta do what they gotta do. When asked by Abet if they could prop up a carinderia instead, Makoy answers him that no one in their house really knows how to cook and the notion is dismissed. The relatively big money adds to the appeal of the business, even though it is illegal. At the same time, this activity is condoned not only by goverment officials, but also by some members of the police - as long as they get a share. The system allows for corruption to seep in like a cancer and, unfortunately, we find it entrenched in a system that refuses to change.

It's money that makes the plot revolve -it is the need for money that propels the characters towards their decisions in life, and eventual ruin. Although we may look at the business as something that doesn't hurt anyone, it does - very subtly we see posters of missing people - people whose bodies can be used in such illegal operations. It's the dark side of what we see in the film, and once you realize it it is quite disturbing. The movie resolves with a taste of irony that shows this dark side, and although it is mostly implied, it is not a pretty picture.

The 'poverty porn' genre is getting a bit stale these recent years, and this year's festival has kind of toned it down a little. But a lot of the staples that we've seen in previous films are still there. While this film is good and entertaining, it doesn't offer a lot of new stuff as far as these films go. I still want to see something fresh from the genre, but I think it needs a rest for a few years.

Anyway, go and see this film. It's still worth the price of admission.

Metaphor style rating: Eating at your favorite restaurant everyday for two years. You like the food, and the food is delicious, but ordering the same food again and again takes its toll on your palate.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cinemalaya 2012 Day 1: Ang Katiwala, Ang Nawawala, REquieme!, Kalayaan

Cinemalaya is on again, and I'm back again with more nonsense to spew. I'm going to add a few new features to each review to spice things up.


New Breed Films


Ang Katiwala (The Caretaker)

What the Cynic in Me Expected:
2 Hours of Dennis Trillo sweeping floors and washing windows.
What Actually Happened: A well thought out piece about our society and our place in it.

Ruben (Dennis Trillo) is a handyman who gets fired from his job at the local municipal hall mainly due to political reasons. Without much to sustain his wife and son, and with only a small patch of farmland to get by, he decides to take up his uncle's offer to serve as a caretaker of a large house. The house in this case belonged to Manuel L. Quezon, one of the founders of the Philippine Commonwealth, the transitional government that led us to finally taste independence.

As he goes about his job sweeping floors and washing windows, he learns more about this man and what he went through in life (complete with some interesting animated sequences) and starts to identify with him.

Much of the film revolves around this quote by Manuel Quezon himself (and I paraphrase, because I forgot the original wording) : it is better to have a hellish Philippines governed  by its own people than to have a paradise-like Philippines governed by the Americans, because, at least with our own power, we can change.

The film, however, sees the situation as a little more complicated. The film takes place around 2008, where our political system and officials are far from the idealistic vision Quezon had noted in his speeches. Ruben's family, including his extended family in Manila, are harassed by communist 'rebels,' government, and other people around them. Change is something that is hard to come by, because the existing systems are so entrenched in our consciousnesses that we cannot imagine any other system. It's this cynical view that I share, to be quite honest. It takes real guts to enact real and lasting change.

Ruben's position as a caretaker mirrors the US' position as our caretaker during the Commonwealth period, as foreshadowed at around the middle part of the movie. And extending the analogy, we simply either do not learn or ignore the lessons passed on to us by the Americans. And extending this analogy to its limit, as the US left when we could stand by our two feet, Ruben's stint in the house ends with an upheaval as shocking as it is unexpected.

Technically the film is well done, and with a very limited cast of characters the acting is superb. There were some humorous moments in between long scenes of Dennis Trillo doing, well, caretaker stuff. Don't get me wrong, the movie never gets boring.

This ended up being one of the better films of the day for me. Go ahead and take a look.

Metaphor style rating: Kinda like rice that gets more delicious as you eat and has meat at the bottom.


Ang Nawawala (What isn't There)

What the Cynic in Me Expected: A movie about a bunch of hipsters falling in love, being not mainstream, listening to indie music and talking about Kerouac. Or something.
What Actually Happened: Basically the above, but really, really well done.

Gibson Bonifacio (Dominic Roco) is a photographer, although I'm not really sure he has a job as one. Anyway, he just up and decided not to talk, ever. There's a reason for this, but I won't spoil it for you guys. Anyway, he returns to the Philippines after studying abroad (how he managed to finish without uttering a single word, well that's a story for another day.)

He meets up with an old friend, stuff happens, and soon he gets to fall in love for the first time. All this in between listening to indie music, looking at paintings, and lounging around in spas. In the meantime, certain aspects of his past and his family's issues begin to unravel.

Seeing the trailer and everything else, I thought I would totally hate this film. Why? Because EWWWWW HIPSTERS. But surpringly, it delivers in just the right ways. This film is actually my favorite film of the festival so far.

The best part of the film is the music. Throughout the film you hear songs from various names in the indie music scene. I have no idea who most of them are (but hooray for Hannah + Gabi) but they fit into every scene very well. An apt comparison would be to last year's Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa. Because the music is excellent, every scene has this palpable emotion that you rarely see in any Filipino film, anywhere. This is one film where I'd gladly purchase the soundtrack.

Visually the film delivers as well. You often see shots of slums and stuff in independent films, but here the cityscapes and roads show another side of Manila, and it is damn impressive. A later sequence during New Year's Day offers some great visuals too.

The characters are likeable and are not one dimensional, partly thanks to good performances all around. While it would have been nice to flesh out everybody, you have to prune some story here and there to make the story flow better, so it's not really a problem.

It's a great film, and one of the most unique that I have seen in the six years I've been around watching this stuff. If there was one gripe I have about this movie it would be...

Metaphor style rating: Giving your child a badass unique name. Anyone can do it, but it takes real talent to give your kid a badass name like MAX FIGHTMASTER instead of something like Kumquat or Friar. hehe

P.S. Plus points to you if you recognized the Bike From AKIRA, and a copy of Elmer and Basquiat.


REquieme!

(note: apparently we were not shown the final cut of this movie due to technical difficulties. This review will be based on the cut shown to us.)

What the Cynic in Me Expected: Funerals and fighting bureaucracy? Haven't I heard those things 9000 times before?
What Actually Happened: A funny film about... well I have no idea. Other than the fact that it's funny, it's a bit of a mess.

To describe the plot of this film is a bit of a stretch, but I'll try. There's this fashion designer who is killed Andrew Cunanan style. Meanwhile, his distant relative, a Barangay Captain, decides to hold a wake in his honor. MEANWHILE, her estranged gay son decides to help in the burial of an old guy who used to repair her shoes and bags. MEANWHILE MEANWHILE, a lady cannot get her OFW husband's corpse home due to some SNAFU or other.

This is the main problem of the film, actually. With too many major and minor plot threads and barely any connection between the two main plots, it's hard to make sense of the film. Add that to the fact that the film's central theme is a bit vague. What is the theme of the film? Is it about gays (and acceptance of gays) in contemporary society? Is it about the fallacious nature of politics and bureaucracy? Is it about our tendency to glorify anyone  just because they a) are Filipino, b) live abroad and C) did something of note, no matter how glamorous or heinous?

I actually find Joanna (the gay son)'s plot more interesting. The guy who repaired her shoes and stuff had no real family, no close relations. In a way, Joanna connected with this guy and identified with him. In a sense, she is helping to bury her old self in every instance that she pushes to get the guy a decent burial. And indeed, in the last act of the film we see just that happen in a metaphorical sense.

The film does have lots of moments of funny. The audience responded well to most of the scenes and delivers on the jokes quite capably. Technically the film is sound.

Again, the film tends to get quite convoluted, and you tend to jump from one thread to another trying to make sense of the film. While entertaining, expect nothing lasting from this one.

Metaphor style rating: The movie Signs. It's hella scary the first time you watch it, but in retrospect a lot of shit doesn't make sense. Replace scary with funny and there you go.

Director's Showcase

Kalayaan (Wildlife)

What the Cynic in Me Expected: 2 Hours of Ananda Everingham exercising, eating raw eggs and fapping to porn.
What Actually Happened: 2 Hours of Ananda Everingham exercising, eating raw eggs and fapping to pOHMYGODWHATTHEHELLISTHATSHIT

Julius Macaraeg (Ananda Everingham) is stationed on one of the largest islands of the Spratlys, a resource-rich island chain that is a subject of dispute between China and the Philippines. Taking place during the 2001 EDSA Revolution, his extended bouts of isolation slowly makes him lose his sanity... or is something else going on in this island that no one expected?

This movie is slooooooow. It's a slow burn for most of the movie until the last part. I've watched my share of slow movies and this one takes its place in the slow movies pantheon. It's a character study at times, then part horror, then part psychological drama. It's definitely not for everybody, as evidenced by the number of people walking out in the middle of the film. But the itneresting thing about it is when shit does hit the fan, it's terribly interesting. And extremely weird.

There are a lot of shots of the Thai Everingham (later joined by Zanjoe Marudo and some other person whose name I cant remember for the life of me) running across the beach, fishing, swimming, drinking and playing beach basketball. Ananda Everingham has like five lines in the entire film, which is explained in the story via traumatic past experience. In reality, he probably would have a heavy accent and make his supposedly Filipino character hard to believe. The silence adds to the loneliness and isolation depicted in the film, and is surprisingly quite effective.

Technically the film is okay, but some shots are too dark to see anything. Although this is supposed to build suspense,it doesn't work as well as it should in some parts where you see literally nothing.

As for the connection between the EDSA 2 thing and this situation? I'd make some sort of metaphor connecting duty on these islands with the Presidency or something like that, but it would turn out too contrived for my taste, so I pass.

The ending is simply something that has to be seen to be believed, and whose interpretation relies heavily on the viewer. That is, if you decide to slog through a lot just to get there.

Metaphor style rating: A walk through quicksand only to reach a place where the air is LSD.

Bonus Points: If you recognized Yua Aida as the lady in the videos Julius was fapping to.
EXTRA Lord of Hentai Bonus Points: If you recognized the video as one of her S1 videos, probably Samantha / Yua Aida Vol.3.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Eiga Sai 2012: Making the Rounds

One of the most recent (and popular) entries in this year's Eiga Sai is In His Chart, better known in Japan as Kamisama no Karute (God's Medical Chart) based on the novel by the same name, and written by a practicing physician. A winner at the Japanese Box Office, it actually edged out Harry Potter as the number one movie during the week of its release. 

Hearing about this movie sparked an interest in me because of my involvement with the medical profession, as well as being able to see a glimpse of the Japanese health care system.The film depicts an interesting dichotomy: overall, the standard of medical care is relatively high, but while large universal hospitals get the highest standard of care with state of the art facilities, other hospitals are often crowded, understaffed or both.

Ichito Kurihara, played by Arashi member Sho Sakurai, is a doctor in one of these latter hospitals. He deals with tons of outpatients every day, in often backbreaking, continuous work. As an internist, he sees a number of different cases: trauma cases at night, cases of people with failing livers, and patients with terminal illnesses. His duty nights are sleepless due to the sheer load of patients, and it's a stressful job. He is supported by his wife Haruna, who is a professional photographer, mostly of scenery and mountains.

Kurihara seems morose in the early part of the film and we are left to wonder why. As the film goes on, he meets a patient whose life he cannot save: a woman with inoperable gallbladder cancer. Through his interactions with her he finds a part of himself and he makes sense of what it really is to be a doctor.

The movie piles on the drama rather heavily and considering the subject matter it can elicit tears aplenty. Having experienced having patients with terminal illnesses in my own practice and training, I remembered all of those patients watching the film. There was no shortage of (manly) tears here. Also, there is an undercurrent theme of change and finding one's dreams that finds itself in the film. It is subtle but it resonates with the rest of the work.

The acting performances are good enough. I had my reservations at Sho's acting, but he was pretty good here. Aoi Miyazaki is Kurihara's wife Haruna... and what more can I say. She tends to pick the same types of roles but she does them very well. I'd like to see her experiment more in the future, however.

In His Chart is a good drama that doesn't fall into too sappy territory. Just get a box of tissues ready just in case.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eiga Sai 2012: Hands for the Future

I've had the opportunity to see the original Ashita no Joe anime, which ran for a staggering 126 episodes from 1970-71 and 1980-81. It's a great anime, if not oddly paced at times, and the respective finales for both parts are epic in their own right. It's easy to see from the anime (and the manga that it was based upon) that this series was iconic in the minds of the Japanese. Even in present times it ranks rather highly in "most favorite anime" lists. It's basically Japan's Rocky.

I saw the idea of a live action adaptation of Ashita no Joe with a bit of hesitation, because adaptations of such lengthy works to around two hours on the big screen tend to have problems. Somewhere along the way, a character, plotline or piece of character development is going to be lost. And in this film, that kinda happens... but it's not that bad.

The film distills the story of Ashita no Joe as simple as possible, adapting the first part of the manga (or the 1970-1971 anime.) Joe Yabuki is a drifter and vagabond who occasionally gets into fights. One day, while eating at a restaurant in the slums he grew up in, he gets into a fight. Danpachi, a former boxing trainer, witnesses his potential and offers him a chance to be a world class boxer. Although not at first, Joe accepts, mainly thanks to the presence of a rival: Rikishi, a pro boxer Joe meets in prison. Both then head towards a dramatic conclusion as they face off in the ring.

Yamashita Tomohisa, formerly of the Johnny's group NEWS, is Joe. He has the unfortunate reputation of some fans to be the Kirsten Stewart of Japan, but at least his acting is a bit improved in comparison to his other roles. The problem is for a character that tends to stick out in the world, Yamashita's Joe tends not to. Yusuke Iseya, on the other hand, steals the show as Rikishi. There's a bit of nobility and confidence in him that exudes in every scene. And in preparation for the role, you can see the man lost and gained weight like a boss. The supporting cast is also good.

Fumihiko Sori is no stranger to sports movies, having directed Ping Pong, which is a highly recommended film. His style and composition shows in the action and fight sequences, where effective use of slow motion and camera movement makes the fights flow really well. But adaptation decay does set in, and the film can only do so much to cover the cracks.

Despite some disappointments, Ashita no Joe remains a fun mainstream big budget film, especially if one is familiar with the source material. If you've watched this film and aren't afraid of looking up old retro anime, give the anime series a try.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Eiga Sai 2012: Moving On

Permanent Nobara at first looks like your run of the mill quirky and funny Japanese movie in the countryside, but by the end one realizes that most of the themes of the movie are subtle, and much can be lost if one loses attention.

The movie is about Naoko, a recently divorced mother of one. She moves back to her mother's home where she helps out in the only salon in town (the titular Permanent Nobara, wordplay on 'perm' and the family name.) While there she begins to hook up again with her old highschool teacher. At the same time, various relationships between Naoko's friends and family are revealed.

While technically a drama, Permanent Nobara delivers its content via understated comedy,which fills the film up to halfway through. Each person deals with losing their love in different ways; Naoko's stepfather remarries, Naoko's friend Mi-chan does some kicking of ass, and Naoko's other friend Tomo-chan goes and buries some pachinko tokens. Naoko herself tries to come to terms with her recent divorce and her relationship with the new guy.

This kind of execution often fails, but remarkably the film delivers, especially in the last third when the dramatic aspects of the film finally break through. Here we begin to think deeper into the conversations earlier in the film; whether certain lines and actions had some significance behind them instead of being funny fluff.

Much of the success in how this film worked its themes and story relies heavily on the cast. Miho Kanno does a superb job as Naoko, delivering a performance that matches the comedy of the earlier parts and the drama of the later parts without being overly melodramatic. I've only seen her in comedic j-dramas (although I didn't notice she was actually in Takeshi Kitano's Dolls!) so this is kind of a breath of fresh air for me. The rest of the supporting cast does just as well. Mari Natsuki is the hard ass proprietor of the salon and Naoko's mother, Eiko Koike does well as the mama-san Mi-chan, and Yosuke Eguchi gives a fine performance as Naoko's love interest, adding a bit of playfulness and mystery to his character.

This is one of those films that you have to reflect on after you've viewed it. While it doesn't start off frantically and it seems at times nothing is happening, everything within the film has a deeper meaning. Most of the real drama lies between the lines, behind every naughty conversation and behind every playful banter. It's quite a surprise, and unique for the films I've seen so far.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Eiga Sai 2012: Soroban-baka Forever

Whenever you hear of a jidai-geki film you often think of clashing swords, bloodshed and manly heroism - which is why this entry in this year's Eiga Sai is so strange: it is a period film (set before, during and after the Meiji Restoration) but it does not have a single sword fight. Replacing the clashing of swords is the clack-a-clacking of a abacus.

Abacus and Sword tells the story of the Inoyama family, most prominently Naoyuki, the 8th generation heir. This family consists of accountants who have served a noble house in Kanazawa for many years, and their skill is not with the sword but with the abacus and brush. Indeed, Naoyuki is 'hopless' in the sword arts, yet he is a gifted mathematician and uses his skill with the abacus to great effect. Aside from that Naoyuki is straight laced and filled with a sense of honor and fairness that is his defining quality.

The film itself is divided roughly into three acts: Naoyuki's early years as an accountant, establishing the many characters of the Inoyama family, then moving on to battles against corruption in the system to a very personal battle against a very dangerous foe: crushing debt. The final part deals with Naoyuki's later life and his relationship with his son Naruyuki as the age of the samurai comes to an end.

The film succinctly describes the film as such: the samurai's soul may be their katana, but for these people it has always been their abacuses. The Inoyama family go through hard times as the samurai class declines; frugality is emphasized, possessions sold. Aside from that, the shadow of shame from living in poverty looms over them, a very important thing considering their Samurai status.

The film portrays another side of the Samurai caste: instead of the retainers or high ranking warlords we see in many films of this type, we see the low class samurai, the 'salarymen' of the old world. The atmosphere of a different time is prevalent, yet the persevering culture of the Japanese people shines through as we see the levels of politeness and respect practiced by members of its society.

Masato Sakai, who was in last year's Eiga Sai offering Chef of South Polar is reserved and stoic in the face of hardship as Naoyuki, sticking to his moral and philosopical guns to the end. He's not doing this for himself, but for the longevity of his family, in a very efficient way, in the only way he knows. Popular actress Yukie Nakama, who J-drama fans may know as Yankumi from Gokusen (among others) portrays the dutiful wife, though no amount of makeup can age a lady like Yukie Nakama.

There are some times where the pacing feels a bit off. The whole middle part of the film could have been shortened to focus on the final part, whose heavy reliance on a knowledge of Japanese history may confuse some viewers.

While flawed, Abacus and Sword has some great moments and is genuinely endearing at points. If you didn't catch it on Eiga Sai, reruns are always showing on Channel Red.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Eiga Sai 2012: Life is Colorful

Suicide and depression are big problems among youth today, and probably none more so than in Japan. Faced with the crushing pressures of the school system compounded with other issues like bullying, it's not an easy place to live in.

Colorful, based on a novel of the same name, is an animated movie that tackles this subject. But it does not only focus on the act itself and the person's motivations for doing such an act. Instead, it also addresses the impact one's life has on other people.

Colorful tells the story of an unnamed soul who has committed a transgression in a past life. To be reintroduced into the cycle of rebirth, he is put into the body of Makoto Kobayashi, a third year middle school student who committed suicide by drug overdose. Given a second chance of life, the soul must find out what he did in the past before time runs out and he leaves Makoto's body for good. In the meantime, he learns a lot more about Makoto's life and why he committed suicide in the first place.

The rest of the film then delves into 'Makoto's' daily life, coming to terms with his new body, and unraveling the mystery of who the soul really is. At the same time, the secret threads of the people that inadvertently caused his suicide begin to unravel.

Overall the film takes an interesting approach to how we perceive life, and how we see death as a way out. It deals with a subject that can be prone to excessive melodrama, but the film does the drama just right, with a realism that you see more in live action films. Go and check it out.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Beauty in an Un-beautiful World


When I watched Poetry for the first time, I was not aware who directed it or what it was about. But for the whole 139 minutes of the movie, I was completely absorbed into the story. And even now, I am haunted by this spectacular film.

Poetry, as it turns out, is the latest offering of director Lee Chang-dong, known for such films as Secret Sunshine, Peppermint Candy and Oasis. It's the story of Mi-ja, an elderly woman who works as a caretaker of a stroke patient (other than living off government subsidies.) She takes care of her divorced daughter's son, who is distant towards his grandmother. In the meantime, she begins to have some episodes of absent-mindedness and decides to go to a poetry class to exercise her mind and be able to write just one poem. However, an unexpected tragedy (or rather a series of them) devastates this poor woman's world.

Without spoiling the film for you, Poetry is itself like a poem; Mi-ja's poem notes divide the film into chapters and stanzas, making the film flow along. As is flows, you are engrossed by the story and wonder how Lee can finish such a film. And it is in the closing sequence that the film consolidates its emotional power, a meld of visuals and poetry between Mi-ja and another character, signifying the bond that they now share (despite them not even knowing each other.)

Beauty is one of the main concepts in the film. In this context, Mi-ja sees poetry and making poetry as the search of the embodiment of beauty, but at the same time, in this film, beauty is something we do not see. The emotional violence and turmoil is mostly implied; and it may be lost to audiences not paying attention. In addition, this notion of holding on to a concept of beauty in a world that threatens not to have any reflects upon Mi-ja herself. She struggles in this film against the darkness of the world around her, a situation not unlike that of Secret Sunshine's protagonist, but she deals with this darkness in a different way.

Yoon Jeong-hee portrays Mi-ja and it is quite spellbinding. She is a veteran of Korean film, acting in numerous films in the sixties and seventies. Her last movie role was sixteen years ago, and despite the intervening time, she shines in this film.

This film went on to win best screenplay at the Cannes film festival and did well at the Box Office. At once a celebration and study of life, death and the human reaction to such things, it is evidence that Korean film may not be as prominent as it was the last decade, but it's still there, alive and kicking.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Trumbo

You may not know this guy in the bathtub, but you may be familiar with his screenplays: Roman Holiday, The Brave One, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, and Spartacus, among others. His name is Dalton Trumbo, and he is the subject of a documentary I've watched recently called Trumbo, based mainly on his many letters and correspondences.

These letters come at a dark and troubling time in Trumbo's life. He was part of a group called the Hollywood 10, a bunch of screenwriters and other people working in the film industry who refused to cooperate during the HUAC investigation of communist influence in the film industry. One may recall the origin of the term McCarthyism and a similar investigation carried out by senator Joseph McCarthy, during the time when the Cold War was nearing its peak and anti-communist sentiment was high.

Because of his refusal to testify or name any other members of the Communist Party, Trumbo was blacklisted from Hollywood. Deprived of income, and with a family to feed, he used aliases or fronts to get his work out. And one of those works won him (or at least his front) an Academy Award.

Trumbo's letters to friends, family, or the occasional random person (telephone company, principal) are eloquent, clever and full of wordplay. It's almost as if he had this urge to just write out his soul while denied the opportunity to do it for a living.

Several accomplished actors (Donald Sutherland, Liam Neeson, and Paul Giamatti among others) narrate Trumbo's many letters and speeches. And they paint a picture that disturbs me. For if you replace the word "Communist" with any other term or denomination, "Negroes," "Christians," "Jews," "Muslims," and so on, this level of discrimination borne from fear exists today, and it takes only one person in power to spark a similar fire once again.

But despite persecution, Trumbo faces his problem with determination, sticking to his guns all the way: he works harder than before, churning out story after story, often writing multiple stories at one time. In the end, he triumphs over these fears.

“The blacklist was a time of evil. No one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil. There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides. It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims. Some suffered less than others, some grew or were diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us — right, left, or center — emerged from that long nightmare without sin.” - Dalton Trumbo's acceptance speech as he received a lifetime achievement award in 1971.