Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Inquirer Indie Bravo Fest 2014: Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap?

Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap?
part of FDCP Sineng Pambansa 2013

The katulong or house help is, in my opinion, one of the most integral parts of a middle class Filipino family, yet one of the most overlooked. Jose Javier Reyes' treatment of this often overlooked member of the household is simple, yet emotionally devastating; it is a tragedy unfolding silently and inevitably.

The premise is very simple: after the death of their mother, three siblings who are based abroad go back to the house they grew up in, in order to sell their assets in the Philippines. There is one problem: they do not know what to do with Teresa, their ageing housekeeper who has served the family for at least two generations.

While the siblings argue and fret about her fate, Teresa feels convinced that things will somehow be taken care of, even though this is far from the case. And the three siblings feel obligated to the elderly lady who has taken care of them for many years, they are unable to do anything to help her. Even telling Teresa about their plans becomes a frustratingly difficult exercise, partly out of guilt over what they are planning to do. Interspersed with this are flashbacks to Teresa's past, which shows the extent of her sacrifice for this family, which makes everything all the more tragic.

Rustica Carpio really does a fantastic job portraying the elderly Teresa. A veteran of film and theatre since the golden age of Philippine Cinema in the eighties, she brings a certain pathos to the role that would fail had it been performed by a lesser actress. Her pain is invisible but palpable, her regrets unseen but felt deeply. I have to admit that this movie really affected me emotionally, as I have experienced kindness and love from many house helpers, some of which I consider to be family.

The film ends with a great sequence where we are asked the question: how important are these people  who help us? To what extent can we help them? How do they really figure in this gray area, where they are strangers yet family?

RED Quickie: Lorelei

Lorelei is based on a novel whose premise hasn't been explored as much in Japanese media as other movies: it's basically a work of speculative historical fiction. Set in the dwindling months of the Second World War, a submarine crew gains an advanced submarine from the Germans. What looks like a simple mission becomes a race to save Tokyo from a third atomic bomb attack. Also, the secrets of the submarine and its Lorelei system are slowly revealed.

Lorelei is directed by Shinji Higuchi, who directed a number of kaiju films back in the day, and has dipped his hand in anime as well. His experience with both genres shows here with lots of dynamic scenes and reliance on (rather average for 2005) CGI. The acting is okay, but the script tends to go a bit overboard on the melodrama a bit at some moments.

It's an ok film at best, with a number of plot holes and not enough tension in some other moments. I often felt a bit of difficulty connecting with some of the characters as well. The CGI and effects are hit and miss for a film made almost ten years ago. It's worth watching only if there's nothing else on.

RED Quickie: Eight Ranger

Johnny's Entertainment and its army of boy bands used to be a force to reckon with in the early 2000s. Now, not so much; but they are still
a significant presence in the Japanese entertainment industry. Eight Ranger is based on a series of skits by Johnny's group Kanjani Eight. If it feels like a TV drama extended into a larger feature film because of this, it's understandable. 

The film is primarily a comedy and there area definitely some great funny moments especially in the first half. Props have to go to Hiroshi Tachi as an aging member of a dwindling number of tokusatsu-like superheroes protecting a town from evil. The tokusatsu references abound in this movie, but some are more subtle than others. The story is predictable and anyone with a sense of what's going on will figure everything out by the end of the first half of the film. As far as plot points go, the movie hints at a sequel (and indeed, a sequel to Eight Ranger premiered in Japanese cinemas just this year.) It's fun, but ultimately forgettable unless you're a fan of the group or of tokusatsu in general.

Cinema One Originals: Black Coal, Thin Ice (Featured Asian Film)

I'm a fan of neo noir whenever it shows up. Drive in particular was a film that I particularly liked that came out recently, and it helps that some of my favorite all time movies could be considered neo noir.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (the Chinese title is "Daylight Fireworks") is a recent neo noir film by local Chinese director Diao Yinan. It covers a mystery that spans six years: a series of grisly murders occurs with body parts showing up in a wide variety of places. A disgraced cop, Zhang, is our antihero. And in the middle of both mysterious deaths is Wu Zhizhen, our femme fatale, whose emotions are hidden behind that unexpressive face.

Soon our hero and our leading lady form a relationship. This relationship is far from conventional as both parties seem to be damaged in some way or another. As much as I want to know more about the couple, the more the film seems to dangle it right in front of my face.

The China of Black Coal, Thin Ice is a dreary place, filled will run down buildings and vast wastelands, befitting the best that noir can offer. There is almost no soundtrack from beginning to end, and some parts are paced very deliberately. This is not a film for the impatient, and in a way, that is where the movie gains its appeal. There's something exotic about this film, much like finding a tiger staring at you in the wild. This slow pace is punctuated by acts of violence or bursts of action. These bursts happen at such unexpected times that they are terribly startling.

 This is a film that is not going to be for everybody, but it is a pearl in the rough as far as movies go. If anything, it is a very fascinating take on a great genre that needs more attention.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cinema One Originals: Bitukang Manok

Bitukang Manok takes its name from the tortuous roads to Bicol, reminiscent of a chicken's intestines. And quite like the titular road, Bitukang Manok takes us round and round and down through a rabbit hole through the blackest of human emotions.

The film follows three groups of people: a pair of truck drivers, a group of young adults, and a family of three. They find themselves going around in circles. As the hours turn to days, the experience begins to take its psychological toll on everyone involved.

It's to be expected that with this many characters, a number of people are going to be underdeveloped. We never really get to know some of these people. Some make decisions over the course of the film that seem rash or out of the blue, thanks to the lack of character development.

There's also something about the atmosphere of the whole place; there is something sinister in the air during the night and in places unseen. The forest and these roads seem almost like an additional character, keeping its eyes on our hapless characters like a predator. The director does a good job in creating this atmosphere, quite different from that of Violator. There is a sense of tension that is always present in the film as it draws towards the inevitable conclusion. Darkness and clever lighting helps obscure some elements of the scene - making the overall effect far more terrifying.

Bitukang Manok makes the case over the first two thirds of the film that despite the fear of the supernatural, the darkness of the human psyche is far more fearsome. And here's where my biggest problem with the film is: the last act of the film appears out of the blue, and undermines this thesis somewhat. It's full of hammy acting and the ultimate conclusion feels a bit incomplete, although I do concede that 1) the scene that facilitates this last act is masterfully shot and 2) the last few moments of the film tell us that nothing will ever be the same regardless.

It may build up an atmosphere of terror towards something underwhelming, but despite some flaws, Bitukang Manok is a worthy thriller/horror film at least worth the price of admission.

Cinema One Originals: Soap Opera

Here in the Philippines, Soap Operas are used as a means for escape from a life that is far from picture perfect. In this film, the distinctions between fiction and reality are blurred together and the result is quite effective.

Noel and Liza are both trying to make ends meet, but a very sick child makes that almost impossible. Liza manages to snag a rich foreigner, Ben, as a partner. Ben honestly just wants to start a family with his new Filipina girlfriend, but Liza has the inconvenient problem of already having a husband in Noel. A parade of lies and deception ensues. It ends up as well as you'd think. Or does it?

Meanwhile, in soap opera land, the ongoing saga of Amor and her life in a small island is dramatized nightly. People watch the stars of the show with rapt attention and relish. Also, a boy from the slums becomes a superhero...

Soap Opera weaves fiction and reality into a very interesting concept. As the relationships between Liza, Noel, Ben and their son get increasingly complicated, scenes from the Soap Opera are shown alongside them, paralleling their own lives. Perhaps some of the decisions made by Noel and Liza reflect their how they view their lives - filtered through the saccharine melodrama in soaps. But the artifice of that reality breaks down during the third act, which needed a lot more space than it was given.

There are a lot of very humorous moments (the fact that I shared the cinema with a number of young enthusiastic moviegoers helps) and some really sad moments as well. But such is life - filled with moments both happy and sad.

I liked Soap Opera, whose clean execution and sympathetic characters charmed me. The rushed resolution to the film is a bit of a problem but does not detract from the rest of the film as a whole.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cinema One Originals: Violator

It's probably just the luck of the draw, but I managed to get on that particular day when most of the films on the day's program are horror, post-apocalyptic, or something of that sort.

Violator is a curious little film: even now, 12 hours after seeing it, I'm still trying to process it. At times I felt like I was watching two different movies.

The first half of the film introduces the main characters, interspersed with seemingly unrelated happenings throughout the city. This patchwork of scenes or vignettes builds a steady atmosphere of dread that builds to the second half. To say that these scenes are creepy is an understatement. The first half of this film is probably the creepiest thing I've seen in cinema for a long time. The scenes are unsettling, and there's a constant feeling that something is just... off. This culminates in a series of scenes, mostly silent and shot with what looks like an old handycam, that really eats at you (I'm still getting that unsettling feeling thinking about it 12 hours later.)

The atmosphere really reminds me of old Harmony Korine, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo or Sion Sono where things aren't overtly scary, just really, really unsettling. This atmosphere of almost nihilistic dread isn't too related to the plot, but it really works in setting up the second half.

Enterprising (or just curious) moviegoers might have come across the short synopsis of the film. A good majority of that actually takes place in the second half of Violator, which is far more conventional. Joel Lamangan basically proves that while I'm not a fan of his films, he's one hell of an actor.

So do both halves work together? At first glance it seems like a disjointed mess would be expected, but it somehow works. It does leave a lot of questions unanswered and I wish that the characters could have been developed more than what little time they were given in the last hour of the film, but despite its faults it's quite a remarkable film. There are some images that I will probably never unsee - like that one at the beginning of the post. *shudder*

A Ninja's Journey Ends

Naruto has been a very big part of my life ever since I started watching and reading it around 2004-2005. It was an interesting premise: it's a story about this kid who was shunned or feared by the community he lived in, trying to make his way in the world and realize his dream of becoming the best ninja out there. It's an idea that appeals to the lonely kid in many of us, and it's an idea that appealed to me when I first watched the anime.

This week marks the end of fifteen years of serialization of Naruto in Weekly Shounen Jump, and in a way, the end of a phase of my adulthood.

I was in my early twenties when I first started following the adventures of Naruto and his friends. I had a very different outlook on life back then, forged by a number of negative experiences in my turbulent high school years. 

Naruto was the kind of stubborn kid that never gave up even in the face of adversity. He never really killed anyone; he always found some way to win them over with the power of friendship.

There were times where I wanted the manga to just get it over with, and there were times where I didn't fully agree with the way Kishimoto was developing the story and characters. But then there were real great moments in the series, moments of awesomeness where you can't help but cheer Naruto and friends on.

And it's not just limited to the titular ninja: Naruto's world is full of characters with full and deep backstories. Even the villains have their own past traumas and motivations. Some sacrifice their all for love; some become the series' worst villains for the same reason. It's a world with a history that spans generations. I'm a sucker for worldbuilding.

Naruto was a bridge that helped me gain friends through our mutual appreciation for the manga. One glance at my profile and you'd know.

Much like the other great shounen manga before it, Naruto is a story that will resonate for many of this generation, and hopefully for more generations to come.

Believe it :3

Cinema One Originals: Woman of the Ruins (2013 Entry)

It's time for the Cinema One Originals film fest, and despite a ridiculously busy schedule, I've decided to take some time off and watch a few films. Before tackling this year's entries, let's start with something from last year.

Woman of the Ruins starts with a passage from the Book of Revelations, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the piece. It takes place in an isolated island after an unknown cataclysm.

The island is populated with a number of characters, including young Sabel (Chanel Latorre,) who is attracted to Pasyon (Art Acuna), who pines for his lost wife Maria. An elder who was alive during the cataclysm (Peque Gallaga) watches over the people of the island. Then Maria mysteriously returns and things really start getting interesting.

The look of Woman in the Ruins is fitting. The film is viewed through this grainy filter which really adds to the overall presentation. We see the husks of houses and buildings as testaments to a ruined world.

But it may be telling that the most 'ruined' aspect of the community of this film is the community themselves. Like the survivors in the bible quote mentioned above, you can say that these people been left on earth for a reason. (There are many ways of interpreting the passage, but I'll use this one for the sake of comparison.) These people are not saints. Instead of adapting and thriving, they rot underneath old precepts and norms. The physical and mental torture of one character is largely ignored because of these traditions, and the act that serves as an impetus for the last part of the film is left to gain momentum because of sticking to tradition and superstition.

There is a lack of physical religious imagery in the film. Try looking for a cross, a picture of a saint, or some religious statue - you can't find anything like that. But I feel the religious allegories are with the characters themselves - in my interpretation, perhaps the characters' names carry some sort of religious meaning within them.

Woman in the Ruins is a parable of sorts, a twisted tale of people caught in their own purgatory, with no clear way out. It's atmospheric, at times slow, but worth a watch.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Capsule Reviews: November 2014 Edition

Here are three movies seen over the past few weeks that warrant at least a passing nod:

 If you're going into the cinema expecting something deeply profound from a movie like John Wick, you're barking up the wrong tree. That doesn't make it a bad watch, however. This is one of the most entertaining actioners I've seen in a long time. It features Keanu Reeves finding his groove as a retired assassin who gets screwed over by some people. These people realize that Keanu is the absolute last person anyone should screw over. It has slick choreography, an interesting use of subtitles that ranges from comic-book like to outright cartoony and one of the most adorable performances by a dog in recent memory. I'd like to see more of the criminal underworld featured in this film as all of the mysterious goings-on in this world are a treat to watch, a rare case of worldbuilding in a mainstream action film.

The Trial may be a bit hokey for some people, but the concept is pretty unique given contemporary local mainstream cinema. It's about this person, played by John Lloyd Cruz who is mentally slow. He is accused of rape and to make matters worse there's a tape of him having sex with his teacher (Jessy Mendiola). It seems like an open and shut case but there's always more than meets the eye. It's up to Richard Gomez to defend him and get to the truth of the mattter. At times the script dives into melodramatic territory which drags down the film. In other places, the story is engaging enough. Props have to go to the persons portraying John Lloyd's parents, who turn out to be the most interesting characters in the movie. (The opposite of props) have to go to the person playing the lawyer representing the other side, whose theater-style acting does not serve the film well at all. And here, Gretchen Barretto gives us a performance that tells us she still has it in her. While at turns the plot becomes predictable, 'legal' movies like this have rarely been done in our setting. If anything, it's a breath of fresh air to watch for me.

If you've watched Star Mandarin or are familiar with Hong Kong cinema in its heyday, you might be familiar with the Mr. Vampire film series. Rigor Mortis is a tribute of sorts to that film series, but while Mr. Vampire was a lighthearted comedy, Rigor Mortis is anything but. The film stars the original actor from the Mr. Vampire series playing a washed up actor (a distorted version of himself?) He goes to live in an apartment complex where there are a bunch of weird and creepy personalities. It turns out he's gotten into deep supernatural crap, and it's going to take a lot of effort to get out. The film is a visual feast, with great visual effects and some creepy looking monsters and ghosts. That, unfortunately, is all the film has going for it. The rest of the film is a weirdly plotted mess that only starts to make sense 3/4 of the way in. The ending makes up for it a bit as it leaves itself open to a wide range of interpretations, but the overall effect is, personally, disappointing.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Horror PLUS Filmfest: T'yanak

The original Tiyanak was one of the most memorable Filipino horror movies of its time. I don't remember much about the film other than a few famous lines and the titular monster, crude by modern standards but quite horrifying in the day.

Now more than 20 years later, Director Peque Gallaga goes back to this 1988 movie and remakes it with years of new special effects and cinematic knowledge to bring the story to a new generation.

Judy Ann Santos takes the lead role of Julie, a woman who takes the Tiyanak in her wing after a series of improbable events. She begins to form a maternal bond with the Tiyanak and protects it, despite everyone else being really really suspicious of the weird things going on. Meanwhile, Joven (Sid Lucero) has lost a lot to the Tiyanak and is out for revenge. And in the middle of all this is Maddie (Solenn Heussaff) who slowly treads the line from skepticism to belief.

The titular monster disguises itself as the most defenseless of creatures - a small baby - and it is in preying on the maternal instincts of others that it feeds, much like how some predators lure their prey into traps, like anglerfish and their illicium. Yet the movie does not pass judgement on its monster; it treats it like an amoral force of nature, given neither to reason or a sense of good and evil; it is a proverbial scorpion, left with no recourse but to kill for its own survival.

Deep in its core, Tiyanak is a statement about motherhood. In contrast to, say, Rosemary's Baby, where the very act of fitting into societal norms seems terrifying, this movie presents the 'terror' of motherhood via the dichotomy of its two protagonists. Julie embraces motherhood but cannot achieve it on her own, and indeed the presence of her husband is virtually nonexistent (I assume she is either separated or not on good terms, either way it's a dysfunctional dynamic to start a family on.) In contrast, Maddie has a fiancee and the means to create a child but chooses not to, and this influences her to turn against the Tiyanak (of course counting the many bizarre occurrences and murders.) It is worth noting, on the other hand, that she possesses the same maternal instinct as Julie, as she is the one who initially "rescues" the Tiyanak from the cave.The crux of the film now rests on how these two women deal with their own internal problems.

While Judy Ann steals the show (with a performance few actresses can match,) kudos has to be given to the baby. It's hard to make a baby act, or the more appropriate statement may be: it's hard to make a baby NOT CRY. There are also a few very nice cameos near the end that are impossible to miss.

The visual effects are mostly effective, but there's a certain charm about the old Tiyanak, like the old skin suits are to Godzilla. There's a lot of gore, but the best shots of Tiyanak are those left to our imagination. Technically the film is solid. One very memorable scene happens in the middle of the film, after the death of an important character. The scene is framed in one continuous shot, and it's packed with information - a testament to the technical prowess of its filmmakers.

It may be too late saying this (as the Horror Plus filmfest is winding down) but Tiyanak may be the only film worthy of the festival. Hopefully someone comes and picks this up on a distributable format - preferably bundled with the original film. Wink, wink.