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Friday, August 28, 2015

Binisaya 2015: Shorts A

All good things must come to an end, and today's Binisaya's last screening day. Unfortunately the screenings were cut short because of outside events, but I did manage to catch the other set of shorts in competition. How was it?

Atong Mga Kanta is a short docu about the Mandaue Children's Choir, a group of kids that sing internationally. Being only nine minutes long it feels more like a summary; while we hear about the choir as a whole from the choirmaster we don't really hear from the children themselves. This could be an interesting idea for a full length docu that follows them around.

Mga Handuraw Sa Kahilitan feels weird and creepy at first, but given that it's viewed from the mind of a mentally ill person, it makes sense. It's basically a story about a girl who shuns any connections to other people; only a stuffed bird named Chickie talks to her. There were times during the screening where I couldn't hear Chickie speaking, and I'm not sure if it was intentional or due to a sound problem. The story does explain itself at the end, which reveals Chickie as something more than meets the eye.

ADDENDUM: Based on the comments from Director Amaya Han below, and after a rewatch of the film using speakers and headphones, it's clear that the sound problem was a technical problem - the sound for the film was probably recorded in stereo, and the theater's sound system probably only played the right channel for some reason. This led to around half of Chickie's lines unspoken, as well as two crucial sound effects during the corridor scene that were silent during my first viewing of the film. Also, it's especially creepy watching this alone at 2am in the morning. Hehe.

Ale Alejandra is my favorite short of the set. It's a bit tongue in cheek, telling us a story of a barbecue-stick wielding assassin on her roaring rampage of revenge (also, her search for her missing sister.) It really impresses thanks to a very interesting usage of flowing transitions, composition and framing that I have rarely seen anywhere else. While the story is relatively simplistic, the visuals really sell the idea.

The title of Dymphna is a reference to Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of the mentally ill. It tells the story of Laine, a nurse who works in a mental hospital. As anyone who has worked in a mental hospital can tell you, the work is taxing, both physically and mentally. She is assigned to a patient who is for all intents and purposes, catatonic. She cares for him and considers him a sort of respite; in a way, they both treat each other. There are other hints from Laine's past that Laine herself may have St. Dymphna as a patron saint as well...  albeit in a different category. The payoff is quick but it reveals itself gradually in the last sequence, with the payoff in the very last shot - a field of manufactured flowers as a sign of healing.

Memorya is the sole animated entry in the lot, done in the style of anime, using rendered real life pictures as background. The story tries a bit to draw inspiration from works like 5cm Per Second, but the end result isn't as effective as the stories they are inspired from. It did, however, garner the best audience reaction from the relatively young audience, so I guess it hit its intended audience. The sound recording was a bit off, but I saw that there was a remastered version in the credits. I wonder if this wasn't the remastered version. Watch it purely for the sake of seeing a rare animated feature from a Filipino filmmaker.

***

That ends UP Manila's run of the Binisaya Film Festival. I hope Binisaya comes back soon; I had a great time watching all the films. It's refreshing to see this new wave of Visayan filmmakers do their thing; their works have a different, almost bold feel compared to some of their northern counterparts.

Red Quickie: Yellow Elephant

Out of Ryuichi Hiroki's oeuvre, his 2013 offering Yellow Elephant (Kiiroi Zou) is one of his emotionally lighter works. It's about a happy married couple (Osamu Mukai and Aoi Miyazaki) who got married really quick. They call each other Muko and Tsuma, a wordplay on their surnames which come to mean husband and wife, respectively. A strange letter upsets the balance of their marriage and the couple face their first true relationship test.

There's a bit of magical realism in this film; Tsuma is sort of an oddball and talks to a tree behind her house once the marital rift manifests itself. There are also crayon-illustrated scenes that serve as counterpoint to the events going on.

The true test of a relationship is how it can adapt to stresses; here, communication between the two is strained almost to the breaking point - their relationship evolves and a conclusion is reached only when the two open up to each other and persevere. Much like the molting of a snake, the old, naive skin of early love is shed, revealing a tougher, more resilient relationship underneath.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Binisaya 2015: Iskalawags, Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, Extra Announcement

Originally part of the 2013 edition of the Cinema One Originals film festival, Iskalawags begins with a sendoff to Filipino Action movies  and just takes off from there. Iskalawags bathes in nostalgia as our unseen narrator recalls his younger years as a kid living in a quiet coastal village.

He and his friends, the titular Iskalawags (named off of a 1997 Jun Posadas actioner starring Raymart Santiago) do what many kids do during the prepubescent years: they go on adventures, they watch action movies and porn together, they chase after pretty girls, and in the process they start to discover their own sexuality. For children born before the internet and texting like myself, regardless of background, the experience rings true.

It's a tale that works thanks to the performances of its seven young lead actors, who seem like naturals at this sort of stuff. The camera seems content to film them as they are, taking us from slice of life to slice of life. Their eventual quest to find a legendary fruit larger than their dad's bellies (and one that looks like a huge pair of balls) is also a metaphorical search for their own adulthood, a Garden of Eden deal that goes awry. And as innocence is lost, in their final escape away from harsh realities and hidden truths, our narrator knows that there is no going back, literally and figuratively.

Iskalawags is a great film, and proof that 2013 was a damn good year for Philippine Cinema.

It's perhaps by chance or fate that I managed to see Remton Zuasola's other works before his feature film debut, Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria. Many of the trademarks of his filmmaking style are evident here, most notably his usage of the single take. Compared to Swap's use of the single take, however, this one brings about even more logistical challenges as it takes place in a wide open space and not in a closed set. For a first time full length feature effort, the result is nothing but impressive.

There is a scene near the beginning of Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria that sticks in my mind; Eleuteria (Terya for short) walks along the beach with her sister and her parents. They are met by the town crazy, Carlito, who wants to plant a tree on the beach. Terya remarks that the tree is not meant for the beach, but crazy people being what they are, the tree is planted anyway.

Terya is like that tree, as we soon find out: before the film ends, she is to leave the island to wed an older German man. She leaves for her family's sake, as they are mired in debt and have difficulties securing money to send Terya's younger sister to school. But certain things still bind her tightly to her home: a fisherman boyfriend who chases after her, warnings from her cousin Merle that she will be a fish out of water abroad and life will be difficult, and the family whom she loves. The film walks us through her decision to leave or stay.

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria literally means "Eleuteria's Dreams," meaning her aspirations in life. And the true tragedy of the film is that, we really don't know what Terya's own dreams are. Throughout the start of the film we see and hear other people projecting their own aspirations and dreams onto the poor girl, but her own thoughts are a cipher. In fact, we don't even get to hear Terya speak until 15-20 minutes into the film. And in the middle of the movie, this comes to a head as Terya's own emotions boil over and we get to see her ultimate decision. Depending on how you view events, there's a sense of either despair and acceptance (or perhaps both) in what Terya decides to do.

The film takes place during the Baliw-Baliw festival in Olango, Cebu. The festival itself, where village men dress up in one piece dresses, give birth to cats who fight roosters, and so on, is a way for people to show their struggles and hardships in life in a rather colorful way. In a way, the island itself is telling Terya that while she may have her own dreams in life, people like them don't always have the means to live them out - even if that means making (or not making) a decision that is, on its face, baliw.

***

Friday is the last day of the festival. Today's screenings were held at the UP Manila College of Public Health Auditorium. As the CPH building is relatively new, with revamped facilities, the auditorium is far better than the CAS Little Theater in terms of picture quality and sound, and both screenings went off without a hitch. The seats were very comfortable as well. it's a bit of a change of pace being a spectator, as the previous few times I've been to the CPH auditorium was to give lectures or exams.

***

Okay, time for an extra unrelated announcement: I've been revamping the Cinemalaya Reviews Aggregator, (which compiles all of my Cinemalaya reviews) that you can access at the sidebar to the right. Users viewing the mobile version of the site can access these by either switching to the web version, or by clicking the gray thingy that says "home" right below the picture. Major changes include the addition of years 10 and 11 of Cinemalaya, as well as conversion and re-assessment of all previously viewed films from a 10 point scale to a 5 point scale. A Rating Criteria Section has also been added so that you can figure out what a particular score means. 

Also, after the festival ended, I've been getting questions from friends on how to access some of these films on DVD or other types of distribution. I've updated the "Copy Available?" column on the review aggregator to indicate if a particular Cinemalaya film is or was available on digital or physical media. So the next time you ask, "Is (insert name of Cinemalaya Film here) available on DVD?" you can find that out.

For the lazy or confused, here are direct links to these pages:

Also, I've edited the "Ask John T a Question!" part to link to an Ask.fm page, so if you have any questions on what I wrote or just want to chat about something, you can ask me over there. I'm a bit of an introvert, but talking with people is nice once in a while, so go there if you are curious about something.

A section on the short films is forthcoming, but only when I get around to it. I currently don't have plans to make review aggregators for Cinema One Originals, mainly because I've only started watching that festival from 2013 onwards, and that means I haven't seen a significant number of movies from their lineup yet.

Anyway, that's it, and see you again next time.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Binisaya 2015: Shorts B, Sabado Sabado


Binisaya is a film fest that goes around the Philippines, showing us new and promising Visayan filmmakers who have established a bold and innovative film industry. As part of UP Manila's Buwan ng Wika, Binisaya comes to Manila with screenings in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Public Health.

I saw a shorts program and an omnibus film. How were they?

Shorts B

Sanctissima - yes, this is the Cinemalaya 2015 short by Kenneth Dagatan and company. However, for some reason this felt like a shorter cut. I don't remember seeing the lesbian couple and some other introductory scenes (admittedly the jittery, boisterous crowd was a bit of an amusing distraction.) On second viewing it still is a really well done film, and the audience response was really great.

Lagkaw - Lagkaw, according to the short synopsis, means "rendezvous" in Bisaya. The film has no conventional narrative structure and shows multiple scenes of urban life and people exchanging money. There's also a singing guitarist somewhere singing about affairs with centenarians. The film makes its message a bit more obvious by the end, lamenting on how we are led astray by money and petty distractions, and how the call to the right path (perhaps indicated by an Angelus broadcast that grows more distorted as the short goes on) is often ignored.

Julie - Julie was Shorts B's crowd pleaser, and a great way to end the set. The titular character, Julie, is a gay single father who has difficulty getting a job, so he decides to become a construction worker. Albert Chan Paran, who plays Julie in this movie, had a similar role in Cinemalaya 2014's Ina-Tay, which was also a Cebuano film. Julie, however, sports a more robust narrative and is generally more enjoyable. The multicolored subtitles that indicated Julie's macho act and his true feminine side was a nice touch, although the pink subtitles were hard to read at times. It's overall a nice film.

***

Sabado Sabado is an omnibus film consisting of seven short films by a variety of filmmakers. There seems to be no overlying theme, and most shorts are under 20 minutes long. The results predictably vary wildly from enticing fare, to experimental stuff, to a mix between the two. (Note: I wasn't able to get the titles for all the shorts, but I will update my entry if I find out what the titles are.)

The first short, Kantil, is a slice of life of two boys living near the seaside and the streets of Cebu. The ending is a bit baffling, but I guess it could mean that it's a dog eat dog world in this place. Certain shots were a bit overexposed but there were few other technical concerns.

The second short is titled Banabana, and is probably the most engaging of all the shorts. Along the streets of Cebu, a fortune teller gives eerily accurate predictions, most of them bad. The secret of his fortune telling powers and his true identity are revealed over the course of the film, and things go to a head when he meets a mysterious woman. It's an interesting premise that really creeps up on you by the end.

The third short is untitled. It intercuts between a person playing out a story with a wooden figure and an Incredible Hulk action figure, and a woman walking around hilly fields. The play-story is about how Hulk and Chau-chau get together but are separated by fate; its connection to the other story is tenuous at best. The two stories try to connect at the end, but it's buried so deep in metaphor that it lost me and probably most of the audience, (guessing by the confused murmurs.)

The fourth short involves a one sided dialogue between a woman and her on and off lover. It's obvious she really loves the guy a lot, and by the middle of it you kinda figure out what it's about. It's short but effective.

The fifth short has a bunch of weird trippy moments. It's about a man who tries to escape his responsibilities in life, but can't fully run away from them. In the end his mistakes catch up to him. His downward spiral is sometimes presented in a abstract action. Two characters (one in a Santa costume) wax poetic about his situation. Overall it's just ok.

The sixth short, Fr.ostitute, is a conversation between a prostitute and her client. It's rather obvious that both parties are hiding secrets, as the lighting obscures their faces and bodies at the start. They start to unravel as the short goes on, with the light of the lamp slowly illuminating both characters. Attention is placed more on the prostitute rather than the client -  her situation is one brought about by fate, and they are circumstances from which she can't readily escape. It's probably my second favorite out of the omnibus.

The final short is really strange. It could either be interpreted as the product of a suicidal dying dream, or something else entirely. It's main conceit involves the main character meeting herself. It uses a number of interesting techniques to convey this fact. It ends rather abruptly which was a bit jarring - overall, quality-wise it was in the middle of the pack.

***

That was an interesting experience. With only 25 pesos a screening (50 for other screenings) it's a definite bargain. There was a noticeable sound problem at the little theater which reared its head in the middle of the screening of Sabado Sabado, which was unfortunate. Thankfully the sound problem was corrected later on. The crowd was enthusiastic and loved many of the short films, which was great to see.

It's an interesting and diverse lineup of films, and I am excited for the rest of the festival offerings. Till next time~

Capsule Reviews, August 2015 Edition

Pixar's latest, Inside Out, is marvelous if only for the fact that it doesn't coddle its audience- both kids and adults alike.

Superficially it reminded me of the old 90's series Herman's Head, where several characters, personifications of a certain emotion or character trait, exist inside the titular character's consciousness, directing and/or messing up his daily life.

Inside Out is far more complex, framing the story as a coming-of-age tale. The lead character, Riley, is a kid on the cusp of adolescence, and our story begins as many big changes in her life occur, most notably, her family has uprooted and has moved to a new city. With the move, Riley has to adjust to a new and alien life.

Her struggles, childhood problems that we no doubt can relate to in one way or another, feel tangible. And within our head we see her transition from a child with simple emotions to a more emotionally complex adult. Its treatment of the subject matter brims with imagination as we travel through Riley's abstractions, her endlessly fluctuating store of memories, and her dreams. Joy and Sadness' journey through Riley's emotional landscapes are full of novel animation techniques and representations. At the same time, the concepts are simple enough to be understood by both children and adults alike.

The film imparts a lot of messages that I think are very important. On one side, it shows us that all our emotions are essential for our overall well being. Even emotions like sadness, fear and disgust are means for us to protect ourselves and to heal from many emotional wounds. More importantly, it's a jab at our contemporary culture where everyone's a winner, where constant happiness seems to be promoted. Inside Out tells us there's absolutely nothing wrong with feeling fear or sadness; they are part of what makes us what we are.

Writer Alex Garland's directorial debut, the science fiction thriller Ex Machina, is a solid exploration of the quickly blurring line between man and artificial intelligence.

Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a coder working for a near future version of Google, is given the task of participating in a Turing Test for a secretly manufactured AI named Ava (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.) Ava's creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) seems friendly at first, but we soon find out that everyone seems to have an ulterior motive.

Ex Machina sports a tight script and accomplishes a lot with a minimalist approach and a small budget. It asks questions about what really constitutes a sentient being. Much like the Jackson Pollack painting featured prominently in the complex, the answer seems to be instinct; senses borne from chaos and hammered into  ordered thought. 

Lies layered on top of each other obscure the truth; Caleb soon engages in a cat and mouse game as he tries to figure out the truth. At the same time, he begins to doubt his own humanity as it becomes less clear who exactly it is being tested.

Ex Machina shines thanks to an ambitious yet simple premise that doesn't resort to high budget theatrics to get its point across. It shows us that the best science fiction concentrates on great ideas, leaving the presentation to grow organically out of it.

And finally, time for something completely different. From the very start of Star Cinema teenybopper wet dream Just the Way You Are, when the two faux cops crash a party only to say "You're under arrest! By our charm... and sexiness," you know EXACTLY what you're getting into.

Based on another Wattpad story that, to its credit, surprisingly doesn't have too many over the top moments, Just The Way You Are is as generic and derivative as any movie of its type can be. There's the popular guy, the unpopular girl, the premise that was ripped off She's All That, and your garden variety personal issue (TM) that both characters suffer from.

The movie is also shameless in inserting blatant product placements wherever it can. To be fair the scenes are almost always in context, so at least they weren't shoehorned in... that much.

So, what makes this movie even remotely watchable? Well, the love team of course. Enrique Gil and Liza Soberano are a great love team, and both have great chemistry together, borne from their hit TV series Forevermore. Enrique Gil acts a bit better than his two other contemporaries, and Liza Soberano is a good actress, not to mention that Liza Soberano is one really gorgeous young lady. No amount of bushy eyebrows, gangly braces or leprosy like lesions will make her ugly. (I have no way of saying that without sounding creepy.) Fans of the show and the love team were no doubt entertained, and based on reports of the film earning a gazillion pesos at the box office, I'm not really surprised. A really good turn from veteran "Dramatically Misunderstood Dad" actor Ricky Davao really helps as well. Seriously, please stop making us cry with your amazing acting, dude. You already clogged our sinuses in Mariquina, not here too. Ricky Davao is the best eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

I fervently wish for the day when a love team this talented gets a decent vehicle without pandering too much to the lowest common denominator. It feels like such a waste sometimes.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Attack on Titan Live Action

The announcement of the Attack on Titan Live Action movie gave me a mixed feeling of hype and worry. One one hand, it would be given to the capable hands of Shinji Higuchi. Higuchi is well known in the realm of anime; he is one of the founding members of the legendary anime studio Gainax. Apart from that, he has worked extensively in tokusatsu (special effects) movies, especially in the Kaiju subgenre, as he is responsible for a trilogy of Gamera movies and has at least some involvement in one Godzilla movie. The cast looked really interesting, featuring a bunch of newcomers, some veteran actors, and some actors who have been featured heavily in tokusatsu productions.

On the other hand, the vaguely European setting has been replaced with a post apocalyptic Japanese setting, and although the trailers were beautiful, they seemed to omit several plot points. I was worried on how effective an adaptation it could be.

I'm personally a fan of the anime and manga with a slight preference towards the anime. The manga posits the plot a bit better, but the art style is not very good. Also, the voice actors really give life to many of the characters, and as for the music, well, one look at Guren no Yumiya and its endless remixes will tell you why this anime opening was the runaway hit of that year, even to fans who didn't watch the anime.

In this piece I'll be talking about the live action movie as a standalone film (no spoilers) and as an adaptation (which will be rather spoiler heavy.)

Attack on Titan the standalone film

By itself, how was the film? Attack on Titan is a workable special effects-laden extravaganza that features almost nonstop action at a breakneck pace. It's impressive in the face of its SFX budget,which is minute compared to Hollywood's special effects-heavy extravaganzas.

It works mainly like a post apocalyptic horror film; there are copious amounts of blood and gore present as our resident Titans consume humans by the hundreds. It's not as extreme as other Japanese gore movies or even the anime (perhaps to secure a more family friendly rating) but there are still a lot of horrific scenes that will delight fans. The baby Titan scene, for one, is sure to freak some viewers out.

The SFX of the titans comes out really well, with giant sized actors and actresses as the Titans (instead of some weird all CGI thing that would probably not look as good). The integration of the Titans and human actors is probably the best feature of the movie.

At first I was concerned that the change of setting would be a problem, but the movie works fine even without it. Faced with adapting a work with a deep world and an expansive backstory, Higuchi and team seem to have decided to just make their own thing and run with it from there. That, in itself, is quite an achievement.

For the moviegoer with no knowledge of the series, as a standalone movie Attack on Titan is entertaining, although a little forgettable. It leaves open a lot of mysteries for us to mull over until the second film, Attack on Titan End of the World to come out around next month.

Attack on Titan the Adaptation

To make it short and simple, Attack on Titan the Live Action Movie is not a good adaptation. I'm not even sure if it's an adaptation at all. It's as if they took the core premise, some of the character names, and removed everything else. In the process of viewing the movie I was often reminded of M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender. That is not a good thing, by any stretch of the imagination. It also doesn't help that the finished product ends up far inferior to the source material.

From here on in, I'm going to talk about why this film is inferior to the anime and manga. SPOILERS FOLLOW.

Characters are Everything
Attack on Titan works mainly because of its characters. These are characters with developed stores, and with their own hopes and fears. You care for them, and then you get really bummed when they die. The movie could have worked with these characters' motivations and backstories intact, but instead, with such a radical revamp, you're left with no character development at all. And with that in mind, you really don't care if most of these characters live or die. I wouldn't have minded if the Titans had eaten everybody; it's that bad.

Take Levi. Levi is the most popular character in the series. He is even more popular than the main character. In the movie, Levi has been taken out. His replacement character, a man named Shikishima, is nothing like Levi. Levi has a cold hearted exterior, is blunt even when talking to superiors, and is pragmatic, thanks to a traumatic history. In the movie, he has been replaced with a creepy dude (WTF is that apple scene for?) who acts all smug. He isn't a character I would care about. I hope he has a leg bit off or something in the next film. I don't even know why Levi was removed; I had heard that the reason was because his name wasn't Japanese enough. So Armin, Eren, and Sasha (all preserved for the movie) are Japanese names then? I don't buy it.

The center of the anime and manga Attack on Titan is the Shiganshina Trio, what can be called the three main characters of the series: Eren, Mikasa and Armin. The dynamics of this trio really shapes how we view the series through their eyes. Mikasa was the peerless warrior who cares deeply for the other two (especially Eren), Armin was the brains of the operation, and Eren was the hot-blooded guy with the guts and spirit to fight for humanity. Plot points in the movie separate the three, effectively eliminating this character interaction, and the movie suffers because of it.

Mikasa is one of the most popular female characters in the series. Her reasons for joining the Survey Corps is because she wants to protect Eren, who is the only family she has left. She's Eren's adoptive sister, and in the past Eren had saved her from a group of bandits. Ever since then she has vowed never to let Eren protect her again, and in doing so has become one of the strongest fighters (probably second only to Levi) in the series. Here in the movie, we don't really know her motivations. She's Eren's friend, but she's not that close to him anymore. Since she is separated from the others early in the story, her character is an enigma. Her presence in the story is reduced to a caricature. She's the token badass babe with no backstory.

Eren, our main character, is driven by revenge against the Titans after seeing his mother get eaten by a Titan in a very dramatic fashion. His rage for the Titans is so great, it fuels his own transformation into a Titan, so much so that Mikasa remarks in the anime/manga that Eren's Titan form is a "reification of man's anger against the titans." In the movie, his parents are long dead.  He really has no motivation to join the anti-titan forces except for Mikasa disappearing. You couldn't even give that as an excuse for his transformation by the time he transforms in the movie, he knows Mikasa is alive (and eating random apples.) If you do, the excuse isn't even that good. He does get hit on by a random new character who quickly dies five minutes after she gets anything meaningful to say, but her death is nothing compared to Eren's original anime/manga motivation.

As for the rest of the characters -  they've either been reduced to gross simplifications of their complex anime/manga counterparts, or are utterly forgettable. Jean in the anime/manga? A born leader who struggles with his self worth compared to others. Jean in the movie? A quarrelsome asshole. Sasha in the anime/manga? A boorish hunter girl (who eats a lot) with her heart in the right place. Sasha in the movie? The girl who eats a lot.  There's also Axe Guy, Lovey Dovey Karate Girl (who the hell has sex in the middle of Titans?) Single Mom Escape (Go-Busters fans woo), Annoying Chick Who Almost Gets Everyone Killed and Guy Who Gets Eaten #7, whose names I can't remember because I really don't give a flying fuck about them.

No Training Day

We empathized with a lot of the characters in the anime/manga because of the short training arc, which introduced us to most of the main characters, showed us how the 3D Maneuver Gear worked, how to kill Titans, how motivated Eren was to kill Titans, and his interactions with his fellow cadets. In the movie, we get almost nothing. Not even a montage. We get a short lecture by Hange (who is an instructor now for some reason) but nothing else. No training - no bonding. No bonding - no character development.

The Survey Corps

The Survey Corps (also known as the Scouting Legion) is one of the three groups of soldiers in the Attack on Titan universe. The other two are the Garrison and the Military Police. Tasked with the dangerous job of taking expeditions outside the wall - and safety - to gain an advantage over the Titans, it's full of eccentrics, insane people and genuinely good soldiers who are adept at killing Titans. They suffer the highest death rates and are the least desirable group to join (cadets choose one of the three groups to join at the end of their training.) A lot of Eren's motivations towards killing Titans are directed towards joining the Survey Corps. They wear the uniform seen below.

In contrast, cadets wore a shield emblem with two crossed swords.
In the movie, all of the cadets wear the Survey Corps uniform for some reason. There is no choosing scene (again, it would have been a decent way to build up character.) Instead it makes the Survey Corps look like a bunch of ninnies since all they do during the subsequent mission is scream and die. But wait, I hear you say, maybe all of the soldiers in the live action movie wear this uniform. Nope, that's not true. Souda, one of the soldiers introduced earlier (probably a replacement for Hannes) wears the Garrison uniform, which is a shield emblem with two roses.

This is the equivalent of giving Navy SEAL uniforms to Boy Scouts. That's how absurd it is. None of the cadets in the squad in the live action movie are given cadet uniforms, nor are the differences between the three groups of soldiers clearly explained.

Worry-free Titan Invasions

In the anime/manga, you can really feel humanity's dread. Their lives against the Titan invasions has been one never ending sequence of retreats and defeats. These are people that are being humiliated on a regular basis, with their best chance at victory (the soldiers with the 3DMG) being only partially successful at best.

It's a sense of despair that you see all throughout the ranks of the soldiery; there are often attempts to mutiny, some commit suicide instead of being eaten, and many are stricken by grief or PTSD. Instead of seeing a clear path to victory, they see one of many routes to defeat.

In the movie, there's one suicide scene out of nowhere - that's it. The soldiers are more forced into their position to be able to provide food for their families, but they seem to mostly not mind fighting against the Titans. You don't feel that this is a race on the brink of extinction.

Casting and Actors

Satomi Ishihara's Hange is probably the only character that I could tolerate in this movie; I wish she had more time to act crazy, but that's okay. Second place would be Sasha's actress, Nanami Sakuraba, but you only really get to see her (when she's not eating potatoes) one or two times. Kiko Mizuhara, who was great in movies like Norwegian Wood, is nothing more than a pretty face here thanks to lack of character development. They also wasted a good opportunity on Rina Takeda, a.k.a the girl from Karate Girl, who could have been made into an Annie counterpart. You know, because martial arts. Instead becomes the live action counterpart of Hannah, she has an awkward love scene and dies minutes later.

I would have liked to see more from Hongo Kanata, who plays Armin, but we see like a few short scenes since the movie dismantles the Shiganshina trio. (Catch him in the still-airing Akagi live action adaptation). And finally we get Haruma Miura's Eren, who sounds like a sometimes smug, sometimes whiny dude that never really does anything until the end. This is a shame since Haruma Miura did some great work on TV, especially in Samurai 17, the third season of Gokusen and also in movies like The Eternal Zero. 

In Conclusion

Is the Attack on Titan live action movie a good adaptation? No. I hesitate to even call it an adaptation. It is as much an adaptation of the source material as Dragonball: Evolution was an adaptation of its source material. As a fan, I feel it doesn't work in the slightest. Keeping an open mind might help, but I predict most fans will probably leave the theater disappointed in the result. This is in stark contrast to another recent anime adaptation that did work despite large changes in the storyline - Rurouni Kenshin. That's because while Kenshin still kept the characters - the heart of any adaptation - intact, this movie throws that all away. Your mileage on this one may vary.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Cinemalaya 2015 Winners and Cinemalaya 2016 Finalists


Congratulations to all of the winners of Cinemalaya 2015. My comments are in italics.


Audience Choice: Sanctissima
 I personally voted for this film, because it was a definite crowd pleaser (and my other two picks would probably get other awards anyway.)

Best Screenplay: Papetir
I honestly don't remember the dialogue for this film.  All I remember was the puppet was very angry at the dude. Maybe the judges saw something I didn't.

NETPAC Award - Wawa
Special Jury Prize: Wawa 
It wasn't exactly my thing, but this is a gorgeous movie that needs repeated viewings. So I guess it's ok.

Best Director- Petersen Vargas, Lisyun qng Geografia
The reason this movie won was because it was a technically sound and refined execution of all the elements of cinema (paraphrasing here.) In that sense I agree.

Best Film - Pusong Bato
I was rooting for either this film, Lisyun or Sanctissima to win. The judges got this one right.



After giving the awards, they also announced the finalists for Cinemalaya 2016. Speculation is in italics:

Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching, by Inna Salazar and Victor Villanueva
The poster looked like rows of smartphones each with a letter on them. Maybe this is a film about how one's online friends can become their second family. 

Ang Mga Bisita ni Mamang by Janice O'Hara and Denise O'Hara
The O'Hara twins were responsible for last year's Sundalong Kanin, which had a generally good reception. I have no idea what this is about.

Dagsin, by Atom Magadia

The poster of Dagsin shows some sort of statue of justice. Atom Magadia is better known as a photographer, so we may get a visually stunning movie.

Hiblang Abo, directed by Ralston Jover
Ralston Jover recently directed Da Dog Show, which was a good social drama. I'm going to guess this is also going to be a social drama.

I America, directed by Ivan Andrew Payawal
Based solely on the title, the movie could represent Filipino expats or the Fil-am community. We haven't got a lot of the latter (Batang West Side comes to mind, but there are a smattering of other examples too) so this could be interesting.

Kusina, by David Corpuz, Cenon Palomares
This poster brazenly proclaimed Judy Ann Santos as its main star. Well, that's one reason to go to next year's festival firmly in the bank. I've only seen experimental stuff from David Corpuz so I don't know what to make of this film. I sincerely hope that this isn't two hours of Judy Ann just standing in the middle of the kitchen. I kid.
 
Lando at Bugoy, by Vic Acedillo, Jr.
A veteran to Cinemalaya, Vic Acedillo wrote 2006's Batad: Sa Paang Palay and directed 2008's Ang Nerseri. The poster was really rudimentary so I don't know what this is about.

Mercury is Mine, by Jason Paul Laxamana
Director of Cinemalaya 2013's Babagwa, and MMFF New Wave's Magkakabaung, which was one of last year's best Filipino films. There was like a drawing of some guy and a woman on the poster.  I don't know exactly what they were doing. Perhaps like Babagwa and Magkakabaung this one also takes place in Pampanga.

 Pamilya Ordinaryo, by Eduardo Roy, Jr. 
I bet two pesos this family is anything but ordinary. Roy recently directed 2013's Quick Change.
 
Tuos, by Derick Cabrido
Another former Cinemalaya finalist, most recently for last year's Children's show. The poster shows a woman in the middle of a dense forest. Anything goes for this one.

These filmmakers have one year to prepare their film. Hopefully the extra prep time means grander ideas, broader concepts, more exciting and polished films.

Cinemalaya 2015: Cinemalaya Film Institute Shorts, Endo

This was an exhausting week, but totally worth it.

As an aside, I watched The Tale of Princess Kaguya (again) on the big screen. I will be writing something about this and The Wind Rises in a future post.

CINEMALAYA INSTITUTE SHORT FILMS

The Cinemalaya Institute was founded recently, and it offers intensive courses in filmmaking. The institute is currently headed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna. Near the end of this year's Cinemalaya, the filmmakers' output in the form of short films were shown to the public for the first time.

One more thing before I start: for the sake of transparency, I must disclose that the director of Litson, Jojo Nones, is my first cousin. I try to be as objective in my reviews as possible, but still, please keep that in mind while reading this.

These short films are mostly 5 minutes long, are in black and white with one exception, and aim to tell a narrative with little to no dialogue. With those restrictions in mind, here are the CFI short films:

Run and Hit is a clever short that plays with your sensibilities. It was shot seemingly at the CCP parking lot, which I guess is taking it close to home. I wish the gunman had better aim though. 3.25/5

Timpi kind of flew over my head at first, but it makes itself clear towards the end. People have different coping mechanisms for a tragic event. Simple as that. 2.75/5

Sampung Piso is one of the two comedies in this program. Simply put, it's a tale of karma. I love the sound effects on this one because I'm eight years old. Just Kidding. 3.5/5

Te Amo Adios is probably my least favorite short of the lot, maybe because it felt longer that it really is. The story doesn't help a lot either - I had to look at the synopsis to find out that the two men were best friends. 2.5/5

The Tax Collector - My favorite short of the lot. I guess they hired non actors for this one. I wish the person who played the beggar could emote more, it would have added to the impact at the end. 3.75/5

Sa Taas - Feels like the ending to a longer movie. The ending is slightly implausible but it's still kinda sad even if you have that in mind. 3/5

Serbisyo Publiko - This movie has a far more interesting premise than what I expected from its relatively short first half. This is one of the films that I think could be expanded. 3.75/5

Litson - the second of the two comedies featured in this program. It's witty, it has broad audience appeal, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. I love the little cutbacks during the end credits. 3.75/5

Pitik - I watched the color version of Pitik during the Saturday screening (the original version was in black and white.) I'm sure most of us has thought of doing what Pitik's protagonist did in the film at some time in our lives. The muzzle flash effects look really weird and a bit unrealistic, but with a limited (maybe even zero) budget, what can you do, right? 3.25/5

Mercedes - An okay short, but uses a lot of techniques I see often on television. The slow motion was a stylistic choice that I didn't particularly agree with, but to each their own. The scenario itself is kinda sad, especially the big reveal near the end. 3/5

Chicken - once you get to the last few seconds, you know exactly what's going to happen. I guess this could be the third comedy, but the laughs are darker and less overt. That sound at the end really jolted me though. 3.25/5

Apart from the full length shorts, other shorts by the directors were shown. These shorts are part of the requirements for the Institute's curriculum and is an exercise in a particular film style or technique. There are too many to mention, but some notables include Muse, which is an exercise in making a Cine-roman, the slightly disturbing Order Ni Mayor, Sakdal Laya which has Ina Feleo in it, the post apocalyptic short Deserted, and video prank gone horribly wrong Sangandaan.

All in all it's an impressive program, with most of these directors being first timers, having been involved in either TV or other media previously. I look forward to next years input and possible future full length films for these directors.

I really wanted to see this film way back in one of my first years of watching Cinemalaya. I guess it is appropriate that everything has come full circle and I finally am able to watch Jade Castro's Endo as my last film for this year's festival.

Endo is a story of love. Love gained, also love lost. But it also tells another story - the stories of the men and women who work short contracts - usually three to five months at a time - to make ends meet.

The film follows Leo (Jason Abalos) and Tanya (Ina Feleo) as they build a romantic relationship. Both are contract workers; Leo has just broken up with his girlfriend Candy because their respective jobs have ended, and because of distance issues. Tanya immediately takes a liking to Leo and romance blooms.

Of course, this balance can't last forever. Like the temporary jobs they both work in, Leo and Tanya's love is tested by their own beliefs and the transience of fate.

Leo represents this generation of drifting workers. Because they lack the luck and experience to get a more stable job, they risk their work benefits to become a short term contractual worker. They flit from job to job, never gaining any sort of familiarity with anything. Coworkers come and go, and while some keep in touch, some are never seen again.

Leo and others like him work merely to survive. Their generation is a generation devoid of hope, with a life that is dictated by the end of one work cycle and the start of another. While Tanya actively tries to break free from this never-ending cycle, Leo is trapped in it. His stagnation proves destructive and he runs the risk of being left behind by everyone he cares about.

The chemistry of the two leads works greatly in favor of the film. This is a believable romance, with believable twists and turns. And their ultimate decisions, whether to stay or move on, are completely understandable. Endo takes its time to build their love, and it takes its time to make the relationship run its course.

Endo is a capable romance that sheds light on a workforce that has lost the ability to dream. Perhaps, the movie tells us, something like love or the promise of something better can make these transitory workers want to dream again.

And that's it for this year. One more post for the winners, but this is the last review post for this year's Cinemalaya. See you next time at the movies.

Cinemalaya 2015: An Kubo sa Kawayanan, Anatomiya ng Pag-ibig

Penultimate Day of the Festival. I think this is the year where I've written the most stuff.

Alvin Yapan's films mostly talk about connections, whether it be between man and others (Sayaw, Gayuma), one's past (Mga Anino ng Kahapon), or faith (Debosyon).

His latest, An Kubo sa Kawayanan, can either be an extension of his films about our relationship with nature, or a metaphorical exploration of we as a people and our relationship with our home.

Michelle (Mercedes Cabral) lives in a small hut beside a bamboo grove. She makes ends meet by doing embroidery and selling the bamboo growing near her house, but otherwise her life is pretty mundane. During the course of the film, fellow villagers and outsiders try to urge her to leave, to no avail. We also find out that Michelle has a strange relationship with the hut, who behaves like it has a consciousness. We see it jealous, protective, even loving in a way.

An Kubo ng Kawayanan thrives in its simplicity; Michelle often engages in small things to pass the time. She is content with the rhythms of her life, and this comfort is often the reason she decides to stay. She is, in a way, a gatekeeper; she believes that without her presence the house would quickly fall into disrepair. Her thoughts, counterpointing her speaking voice, record her inner feelings about her house and her place in it.

The use of magical realism is subtle compared to Yapan's other films, with many of the overt scenes occurring as dream sequences, which may lead to differing interpretations of the film. Is Michelle imagining everything or not? The film leaves this open to discussion.

An Kubo sa Kawayanan tells us how we sometimes hold on to things because we sense that life itself  is fleeting; because life is fragile and prone to disappearing.

Composed of twelve short films, the omnibus Anatomiya ng Pag-ibig varies all the way from more conventional fare to experimental stuff. Overall, the experience is a mixed bag; some parts may end up better than others depending on one's preferences. Let's talk about them one by one.

Julia is structured as one long dialogue that skips from scene to scene. Julia talks about her uncertainty towards love. We realize that in every scene she is with a different man. Each iteration's 'I love you' seems less truthful than the one that comes before it. Also, maybe vampires.

Ding is probably the most accessible short in the whole bunch. It's a short meditation on second chances and how we unconsciously or consciously inflict heartbreak on each other.

Anyone who has petitioned a higher power in the name of love will get what Ferdie is trying to do. Minimalist in tone, with a sense of desolation, it ends exactly where it should.

Rudi at Divino is hilarious and cute. The 'pag-ibig' connection seems tenuous at best. You do get a sense that the glamourized artifice of love is far removed from reality. Also, Soaplands are nice. I think.

September at Simon has a daring scene by Lilia Cuntapay. I'd never think I'd write something like that, ever, but here you go. It's a treatise on how love survives in a couple's relationship despite the burden of children and work.

Maria lays on the metaphors so thick, you can see where it comes from a mile away. If you take Chynna Ortaleza's character to be Maria's lover instead of a Gabriel-like figure, it takes on a different meaning.

Lope is about a boy and his grandmother talking. While it seems to be a simple argument about tinola, it reveals far deeper wounds from the grandmother's past. Despite her wounds, her love for her grandson persists. Also features a daring scene by Erlinda Villalobos, also among the things I thought I would never write, ever.

Tisoy is plain weird, but is one of the funniest shorts in the lot. Not surprising considering that the directors are behind Asan si Lolo Me? and Pusong Bato. Were there any evil librarians in Diliman? I thought we only had them here in Manila. Heh.

I want to say Delia at Weng took my pre-nup video idea, but its depiction of a battle of affections for the hand of some groom is different from my idea of random explosions and car punching. It's short and sweet.

Every full blooded man who has a "stash" somewhere in their room (if you know what I mean) knows exactly what Paula is about. Part of the fun is figuring out who the hell Paula is and why does she want her panties so bad. I mean, you could always wear shorts or go commando...

Kiko Matos stars in Eva, which shows us love's twisted side. While looking at the synopses at the individual films, I learned that Eva was his estranged lover, something I didn't pick up while watching the film. It's meant to be disturbing, and it may not be to everyone's taste.

From the director of last year's The Ordinary Things We Do, we get another experimental short with Dencio at Meng, which encapsulates the eternal game between man and woman, chasing after and finding each other, then losing them, then chasing after them once more. 

One's mileage may vary when watching Anatomiya ng Pag-ibig; fans of experimental or theatric fare will probably like this, while moviegoers with more mainstream sensibilities may end up confused. Also, who can pass up the opportunity to see Lilia Cuntapay's daring scene. Come on, dudes.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Cinemalaya 2015: Niño, Da Dog Show

Today's a bit of a lean day thanks to commitments and overall malaise. Watching movies is tiring, yo.

Loy Arcenas' debut film, Niño, is a tightly scripted work, and an astonishing output for a debut. The Lopez-Arandas were once a solid part of the upper class establishment; a family built from Old Money. Their splendor is now lost, the money is mostly gone, and most of the remaining family members live in a dilapidated house. 

While some of the family members, such as faded opera star Celia (Fides Cuyugan Asensio), try to bask in their own nostalgia in a futile effort to reclaim their former lives, others like her sleazy son Momvic (Art Acuna) want nothing more than to sell the house and leave it all. In the middle of it all is Momvic's son, Anthony, who becomes our eyes and ears into the family's many intricate relationships. Soon, however, Gaspar, Celia's older brother and owner of the house, falls ill, irreparably shifting the dynamics in the family.

I've seen Arcenas' subsequent film Requieme! first, and there is no doubt in my mind that Niño is the superior film. Much of the credit can be traced to Rody Vera's script and amazing performances, with special mention to Fides Cuyugan-Asensio, who uses her talents both in singing and acting to create a tragic, human character.

Inevitably, conflicts arise , which culminate in the fantastic final act, a party that seems to symbolize a celebration of things past, but evolves into a ritual of acceptance and change by the final frame. A tehcnically adept work, precisely told, Niño really is worth the accolades.

After a production history beset by numerous roadblocks, Da Dog Show finally premiered at the World Premieres Film Festival earlier this year. This week, the film makes its Cinemalaya debut.

Based on a true story, Da Dog Show is the story of Sergio (Lou Veloso,) a former fisherman who has taken up doing dog shows in the streets of Manila to make money for his children.

His life is not a walk in the park, either, his eldest (Mercedes Cabral) is mentally disabled, they live inside a mausoleum at the North Cemetery, and his estranged wife has their son.

Da Dog Show is a tale of how one man can be dedicated in his craft, and how his love for his family drives him forward. His struggles for his family are palpable, whether you are rich or poor. Lou Veloso is a good fit for the role of Sergio (the actual Sergio was slated to play the role but was unable to do so because of health concerns). Behind Sergio's words is anguish and a lifetime of regrets.

The movie leaves a number of plot points hanging, and the dogs' role in the film are pushed to the side to focus more on the family drama. The ending, where a metaphorical exchange is made between one 'child' and another, seems a bit rushed.

It may not be to everyone's taste and it has its share of flaws, but Da Dog Show is an interesting film with a touch of social realism.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Cinemalaya 2015: Last Supper No. 3, Shorts B, Esoterika: Maynila

There were two conflicting feelings in my head as I watched Last Supper No. 3, part of 2009's Cinemalaya. One was mirth; the film is, on the surface, quite hilarious. The other is a deep seated unease. The remarkable thing is the film makes it work. Based on true events, Last Supper No. 3 refers to a Last Supper tapestry that is the center of the film's events. Once Wilson Nanawa (Joey Paras) loses the item in the course of a film shoot, he soon gets entangled in a legal kerfuffle that slowly eats away at his time and money.

While Wilson patiently goes through each tedious and excruciating step of his legal journey, we are shown the rotting innards of our justice system, which through corruption, a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy and a lack of facilities, has turned into a labyrinthine nightmare, a shell of the system it was supposed to be.

His tribulations over the resulting legal proceedings (which in the movie and in real life took the better part of two years) wear him down, and apathy and even dread begin to set in, always with the threat of incarceration looming over his head. We sympathize for his character, and while we laugh at some very well placed jokes, we feel sorry for Wilson and his plight.

Last Supper No. 3 is a capable comedy, but it also reveals a systemic social problem simply by presenting a case study without resulting to theatrics or melodrama.

CINEMALAYA COMPETITION SHORTS B (a.k.a.  We Want Short Shorts Short Shorts Reviews 2015)
 
The second and last of two sets. Overall the quality of this set is far better, but I'm betting on Set A's Sanctissima to get at least the audience choice award.
 
Lisyun qng Geografia (Geography Lessons) - Simple in concept, and everything is so well done and polished. A small capsule of friendship, heartbreak, and loss. 4/5
Wawa - Probably the most gorgeously filmed short in this year's program, Wawa is a meditation on death and moving on. Tells a lot without saying much at all. The cinematography makes the locale ethereal, otherworldly. 3/5

Mater - Mater takes an experimental approach, which is not really my cup of tea. Some uneven sound design at times hinders the work. I interpret it as a film that tackles the dangers of overabundance, be it religious zeal or a wanton lifestyle. Sometimes, after passing through one extreme, you end up on the other side. 2.25/5

Pusong Bato - absurd, funny, and ultimately entertaining, one of the main draws of this short is how it manages to recreate the look and feel of footage from the Second Golden Age of Philippine Cinema (a feat that, I've learned, was done mostly in post production.) Mailes Kanapi nails it on the head. 4/5

Papetir: Sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Simplistic premise and a bit short, but is purportedly part of a bigger, as yet unproduced film. It still manages to tell a lot of backstory with the constraints it places on itself. 2.75/5

I had a really weird thought when I was watching Elwood Perez's swan song, Esoterika: Maynila. For some reason, this film felt like Querido. You know, Mystika, Neil Nilaga, etc etc. A few hours after watching I think I know why. (No, it's not because both have a macho dancer at the end.) 

Querido has been a film that I have come to respect, in its own kooky way. For that film and this one, the similar feel lies in the exuberance of the filmmaking at hand, at times delving into the absurd, and a sense of self-awareness that enhances the overall experience.

It's hard to nail Esoterika: Maynila down. It's basically a man's journey to finding his craft, meeting many of Manila''s art scene along the way. Sexuality also comes into play, with many characters engaging with both male and female partners. There are vampires (ish) too. There is an action scene which feels like something out of a bloody revenge film. It all feels so surreal that imagination and reality blur.

And yet, it treats its material with a healthy dose of self awareness, where we see some characters noting (even with just their facial expressions) the absurdity of some of the situations they are in. This film knows exactly what it is, but it really doesn't care. And that brazenness is kind of charming in a way.

This is not to say the film is perfect: the dubbing has a number of problems, some scenes are edited weirdly and the story meanders at some points. The acting by some of the first timers is uneven, with Ronnie Liang coming out on top among his fellow co-stars (no pun intended.)

It might be a reflection of our country's pop culture and its cinematic history from the post colonial period onwards. It might be a treatise on sexuality and accepting one's self. It might be a silly 'road movie - like' tale of a man finding coming to terms with his own art. Whatever Esoterika: Maynila may be, it was one hell of a weird ride.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Cinemalaya 2015: Summer, Kyoto, Six Feet High, The Night of Silence, Esprit de Corps

Hiroshi Toda's Summer, Kyoto is a meditation on the fragility of being. The Nakamuras, an elderly couple living in Kyoto, make little fragrant bags for a living. Mr. Nakamura has a huge Samaritan streak, trusting and helping anyone he comes across. And this time it's an old man, whom he takes into his house. The old man and Mr. Nakamura then contemplate on life and their state in the world.

Life for the characters in Summer, Kyoto is a string of regrets. Mr. Nakamura occasionally plays a kotsuzumi (a small Japanese shoulder drum) and reminisces from time to time. The old man has some issues about his past, a mysterious golden fish and a strange fascination with fish (it makes more sense in context.) Yet while one eventually stops reminiscing and moves on with his life, the other runs away and is left in a rut. It is only through each other that both characters gain some sort of newfound insight from the whole thing, experiencing life anew.

The movie looks very low budget, and most of the camerawork is also simple. Some influences from filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu, with a lower seated camera for example, seem to creep into the work. It's a very solemn film that captures the essence of Japanese cinema's existential explorations.

Six Feet High (also known as Oraalpokkam) may be a glimpse into the future of independent cinema. Hailing from Mollywood, the Malayalam film industry, it figures into a new wave of filmmakers whose topics vary wildly from the mass entertainers we see from Bollywood and South India. It is also supported mainly by crowdfunding, an idea pioneered in India by the Kazcha Chalachitra Vedi film movement, to create a "cinema for the people." As such, in terms of funding support, this is the first Malayalam film of its kind.

As for the movie itself, Six Feet High is a lush contemplation of love, loss, and the smallness of our being in the light of the world. Mahendran and Maya are live in partners. But after a series of spats, Maya leaves him and goes to a place that suffers a natural calamity soon after. Mahendran is soon compelled to chase after Maya and go on a journey of self discovery.

As the film goes on the dream images and the abstractions in Mahendra's journey blur the lines of reality even further, sometimes as far as to give the film an experimental feel. This is helped by capable cinematography, amazing for a small indie work. Other shots (much like fellow Asian Section's The Move) are wide and expansive, making its characters feel minute and powerless in the scheme of things. Mahendra's uncertainty becomes a lingering question within the labyrinths of his mind. Along the way he encounters a number of other people, who share their problems and views on life with him.

His journey takes him all over India, and finally to the site of the disaster. There we see how his relationship with Maya developed over the years, and the state it was during its last moments, perfectly encapsulated in one jeep driving scene near the end: Mahendra wants control over his life and Maya's, even though this is nothing but destructive. Maya realizes this, and thus, leaves.Yet by this point the movie has outgrown being just a meditation on love. It then becomes a search for meaning itself, in the end perhaps symbolized by a ritual purification by water and the ambiguous ending.

It's a film that begs to be seen again, with images that may stay indelible for a long time. At the same time, as a film financing concept, it brings about a fresh new way of looking at how films are financed from the ground up.

The Asian Section's most compelling film may well be The Night of Silence (Lal Gece) by Turkish filmmaker Reis Çelik. A bride and a groom meet together in a room. The groom is in his sixties; the girl has barely hit puberty. This is an arranged marriage, still practiced in many places around the world.

Minimalist in its presentation, the film takes place mostly in a single room. The atmosphere is uncomfortable, uneasy, unnerving; the bride, the groom, and we the audience know what they're in that room for, and we constantly ask ourselves if they will do the deed before the sun rises. Both characters are under unbelievable pressure by the society that they are in to consummate the marriage.

The movie could have taken the easy route and portrayed the groom as a sleazy, greasy old man, but as the movie goes on we realize that he is just as human as our bride, with his own faults and regrets. He treats his new bride with all the gentleness his gruff exterior can muster. The reluctant bride, on the other hand, channels her inner Scheherazade, using her wit to put the groom at bay as she tries to come to terms with her situation. As the story reaches its climax, we see that the groom, too, is as much a victim of traditions and notions of family honor as the bride is. Both try to conform to duties and responsibilities that they themselves do not want, imposed on them by a patriarchal society. 

Some stories are indeed enchanted, as the young bride tells her groom, and like the tale of Shahmaran The Night of Silence plays itself up to its inevitable conclusion. It avoids being overwrought with drama. It avoids being preachy about its touchy subject matter, while shedding light on it still.

Aureus Solito's (a.k.a. Kanakan Balintagos') Esprit de Corps feels like theatre, and indeed it is based on one of his plays, written at age 17. Its use of long takes, especially a remarkable one at the very start of the film, and a moving (somewhat shaky) camera that makes you feel you are in the middle of a theater scene being played out.

Abel and Cain are ROTC cadets during the Marcos Martial Law days. They vie for the position of their training officer, Major Mac Favila. As they struggle during the last three weeks of their training, they are pushed to the limit by the Major as they start to do anything to get the position.

Much of the film is steeped in allegory, most obviously the references of the film to corruption, which trickles down from the top of the hierarchy all the way to the bottom. Cain and Abel play a psychological game with Mac and each other, where they may be baring their all (literally and figuratively) but they still have something to hide. There is also an exploration of desire and ambition explored subtly (and not so subtly) in the film. As the characters reach their individual truths, at one point in the film, the fourth wall is broken as Abel talks directly to us, hinting at his own truth and enlightenment.



It's a film that I'm still trying to process even now. While it has its flaws, Esprit de Corps is fascinating, and something that I probably need to see once more to see all the connections subtly hidden beneath its images.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cinemalaya 2015: The Monk, Pepot Artista, Lorna, The Move

In one particularly iconic scene in Myanmar's The Monk, our titular monk Zawana is struggling in vain to retrieve his robe, while passengers in a passing boat try to persuade him to join them. This scene encapsulates Zawana's struggle in this film: a choice between an austere and spartan life as a Buddhist monk, or the carefree life of a normal teenager.

Throughout the film, his temptations are many: he has an eye for a local girl; his fellow novices are leaving the monastery, and the abbot is strict and stern with the young man. He comes at a crossroads in his life, and through his actions he ultimately tries to gain enlightenment and acceptance of the thing he really wants to be.

The Monk offers us a glimpse of Burmese culture that has rarely been seen in contemporary Southeast Asian cinema, thanks to a lengthy dictatorship and a cinematic culture that was shackled thanks to the regime and the subsequent 8888 Uprising. It's interesting to see how villagers interacted with each other, how Buddhism figured into the community, and how different the city is from the rural areas.

The film is beautifully shot, showing the serenity of the monastery and the relative quiet of the village, contrasted with the chaos of the city. And yet, there is also a feeling of familiarity - some of the city scenes look like they could be shot here in Manila.

Myanmar itself, a country only beginning to realize its future after the end of its dark dictatorial days, may be likened to Zawana and his own struggle. Will the country empty itself of all its past attachments and reach enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Buddhism? Only time will tell.

C
Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr.'s Pepot Artista is a film from the early years of Cinemalaya; where digital video was not as sophisticated as it is today. Despite the technical limitations, it still makes an interesting point at the end.

Set during the seventies, Pepot is a boy who wants to be a movie star. His daydreams of making it big often overflow into parodies of Philippine Cinema's second Golden Age. But his life is far from perfect - the family struggles to make money, and he isn't very good at school either. He then embarks on a series of adventures to try to gain stardom.

The film is chock-full of references to Philippine movies and celebrity culture from the era. At times scenes segue into clips from films by Guy and Pip, FPJ, and others. There are even some appropriate cameos from mainstream actors (given that this was released in 2006, this was a novelty for a Cinemalaya film.) Seeing this in 2015 makes me a bit sad for some of the performers who have since passed away, notably Yoyoy Villame, who plays a blind guitarist, and Tado, who makes a memorably funny turn as an obstinate female teacher.

The film delves into the Filipino fascination with stardom and showbiz. Many of our countrymen want their entertainment as escapist, thus most of our media is escapist as a result.  It's understandable; with a life as hard as it already is, it's hard to keep up morale. But there's also a certain fascination with the prospect of somehow making it big and entering a world many think is financially lucrative. Thus, the flood of talent shows and the popularity of shows like Star Circle Quest and Starstruck. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky.

The visuals may be dated, but Pepot Artista still has a message that is relevant to today's showbiz culture.

Shot through the heart and you're to blame / Darlin' you give love a bad name

Lorna is a movie about love. That is, looking for love, perhaps in all the wrong places. Our titular character (played by Shamaine Buencamino) is already sixty years old, but age doesn't stop a person from wanting to love.

Her journey to find love is stopped at every turn, each setback punctuated by a metaphorical shot to the heart. She seems to finally find someone in the form of Rocky, her old highschool classmate, played surprisingly by famed director Lav Diaz. Will true love last?

The movie is brimming with charm thanks to great performances from the cast. From the supporting cast, Lorna's friends (Raquel Villavicencio and Maria Isabel Lopez) bring out a ton of laughs. Shamaine Buencamino carries the bulk of the film on her shoulders and does a marvelous job at it.

The film does get a bit long, bloating the running time a bit, but in this particular case, I'd excuse it for the sake of proper character development and indulge the film's indulgences. It paces the comedic events just right and doesn't drag. 

In the end, Lorna is a film that tells us of the universality of wanting to fall in love; it tells us that sometimes it's okay to be just the way you are right now. And it tells this to us as honestly as it can, a fact that enhances its enduring charm.

The opening shot of Kyrgyz film The Move is a shot of two rocks standing still in a river. The water's current buffets the rocks gently, almost as if it were trying to drag it along, giving me the impression that slowly, over time, these rocks may be swept away.

An old man and his young granddaughter live beside a pumping station river, peacefully living every day. It's not an easy life, but they have each other. The sudden appearance of the man's daughter puts their lives into flux: she invites the old man to live with her in the city and sell the old family house where they, as a family, spent most of their lives. Things are not as simple as they seem.

The Kyrgyzstan we see in The Move is a country slowly moving out of its Soviet past; many characters have friends or loved ones who were lost in Soviet conflicts in Afghanistan. It is mired in poverty with few economic opportunities for its citizens. And while its younger citizens flock to neighboring countries or the city centers to seek economic benefit, the villages and the old folk are left behind. The family's many problems could have been solved by living back in the village, or in the house of a long neglected aunt (whose spacious house could shelter all three family members), but this stubborn city-centric mentality prevails. (or perhaps things are done differently in Kyrgyzstan.)

The Move uses many of the conventions of slow cinema - it takes a minimalist approach and its scenes are mostly long, sweeping shots of the Kyrgyz countryside and its surrounding mountains. Mahat Sarulu and his DOP Boris Troshev create frames of desolation and deceptive tranquility - a minimalist meditation on life's impermanence, a South Asian mono no aware. Contrasted with scenes from the countryside and Kyrgyzstan's alpine terrain  are scenes of giant industrial facilities, monolithic and looming, yet empty.

Hidden behind its ominous spaces and silences is an interesting family drama that, despite its long running time and slow-paced approach, is simple in concept yet still emotionally devastating.