Monday, March 28, 2016

Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis

A Case for Art in a Darkened World


Anyone who has heard of Filipino Independent Cinema will most likely have run into the name Lav Diaz. His films, often sprawling multi-hour black and white epics, are lush with ideas and a clear, persistent love for our country. However, his body of work can often be challenging to watch (though not impenetrable). His filmmaking style is not conventional in the least, breaking the shackles of what we normally think about when we watch movies. There are no Hollywood-style visual or audio clues. We get pure story in Diaz's unique style instead. Before his introduction to new audiences with Norte, screenings were sparse, and  even then, only people in the industry, film students, and the most dedicated cinephiles would attend and stick it through to the end.

This is why it's something of a minor miracle that his latest film, Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery) is being shown to packed theaters, distributed by one of the largest film distribution companies in the Philippines, known more for producing and distributing formulaic rom coms and comedies. The release of the movie was accompanied by a campaign framing the task of watching the epic movie, which clocks in at over eight hours, as a challenge. Of course the movie is far more than a simple ordeal;  Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis is more of a ritual, an experience that one shares with other people.

The story is is composed of multiple plot threads, but there are two that stand out. On the whole, Hele is basically a sequel to Jose Rizal's El Filibusterismo: following on the heels of Simoun's failed plot to eliminate the ruling elite during a wedding, he is despondent and on the run from authorities. Isagani, who was responsible for foiling Simoun's plan, is beside himself with guilt, lamenting every Filipino loss to the Spaniards in the ensuing revolution to be partly due to his actions. This continuation of fiction is framed within the historical, as our protagonists learn of the impending death of Jose Rizal, and later mourn his passing - immortal literary creations lamenting the death of their mortal God. Meanwhile, Gregoria de Jesus searches for the remains of her husband, the revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio. She is joined by three other characters, each with their own reasons for helping Gregoria in her quest. 

Throughout the film we see a mix of the historical, the fictional, and the mythological. In the world of Diaz's Hele, all three are real - all of them are stories that we create from truth or or own selective biases.We use stories, fictional or not, to teach ourselves, to learn, to get over past mistakes. In a way, the film represents an evolution towards an end of history, though not in the exact sense that Marx and Fukuyama intended, but rather a paradigm shift from a traditional way of making sense of the past into more postmodern forms, something that was touched upon in Diaz's earlier Norte. 

Film has a way of emotionalizing and personalizing history, in the words of historian Robert Rosenstone (whose work, The Historical Film as Real History, has been cited in this blog before.) He continues: "The aim is not to tell everything, but to point to past events, or to converse about history, or to show why history should be meaningful to people in the present." Also, on the experimental approach to historical films: "Experimental films may help to revision what we mean by history. Not tied to «realism,» they bypass the demands for veracity , evidence, and argument that are a normal component of written history and go on to explore new and original ways of thinking the past."

Through this melding of stories both fictional and real, the film posits the problem of our country's curse of being oppressed by foreign entities, and later by our very own people; and our subservience to a ruling class - an oligarchy rather than a true democracy. And it places the solution into our hands, with one such solution expressed through the very notion of freedom as expressed in our literature, our art, our music. The film is filled with art through its frames, music (very uncommon for Diaz's films, which usually have no kind of soundtrack at all) and poetry, punctuated by Jose Rizal's very own Mi Ultimo Adios, which is told in two voices: that of Rizal's version in Spanish, recited by Simoun, and that of Andres Bonifacio's translation to Tagalog, recited by Isagani.

The film also shows how this art can be taken from us, destroyed like a Guardia Civil throwing a wrecked guitar into all consuming fire. It also shows us how art can be privilege rather than right - where only the elites and the antagonists of El Filibusterismo view the newly birthed power of the Cinematheque, expressing mirth at the plight of the indio in frames within frames. The power of stories and art is also a double edged sword. We have a tendency of selectively forgetting the past, denying it, even glossing over it to serve our own biases. We have a tendency to create our own stories and delusions to search for supermen and heroes that can save us from our problems, only to realize that no such supermen exist - only we have the power to elicit change through our own actions - to make people remember our past mistakes.

And Diaz seems to be taking these lessons to heart himself: despite being eight hours long, Hele is easily one of his most accessible films. There's a certain kind of musicality to the film that his other films didn't have in abundance. His long meandering shots are less indulgent, and the editing on the whole is now mostly restrained, perhaps so that people can focus on the frame and the emotion without being too distracted by anything else. 

The acting is great across the board: dialogue-wise, the meatier roles are that of Simoun (Piolo Pascual) and Isagani (John Lloyd Cruz), though Gregoria de Jesus (Hazel Orencio) is amazing as well. Props have to go to the three tikbalang characters that pop up every so often, especially Bernardo Bernardo as the male tikbalang. There are some weird technical moments, such as one sequence where there was something in the side of the frame (a finger perhaps?) Though the editing means that there aren't many distinctive long travel shots as before, there are some really gorgeous scenes that are further enhanced by the monochrome palette: one scene in particular, a tracking shot where Susan Africa's character walks in mud, evokes (at least in tone) shades of Tarkovsky.

People seem to have responded to the campaign and the marketing of the film: the theater I attended was packed (and I would later learn that the theater was sold out, despite the fact that a wildly popular mainstream Hollywood film was up against it.) These weren't just film students or people working in the film industry, these were people from all kinds of backgrounds.  Imagine that - from sparse screenings with an attendance of five or less to now - we've come a long way.

People who have seen other films from Lav Diaz's filmography may not find this film to be their favorite (mainly due to its speculative fiction properties, my personal favorite is still Hesus Rebolusyonaryo). But for people just getting into the man and his unique brand of cinema, this is a good place to start.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cinefilipino 2016: Ned's Project, Ang Taba Ko Kasi, 1st Sem, Forever Bridgeless, Shorts A/B

Set in the quiet town of Sampaloc, Quezon, Lem Lorca's Ned's Project is a finely made character drama, going forward from last year's Water Lemon. The premise is simple: Ned, a lesbian tattoo artist, wants a child of her own, and sets off to try to get pregnant through natural and artificial means.

Her desire to have a child stems not only from an innate sense of motherhood, but also out of a fear of being alone. Ned's friend and mentor, Max, tells her that people like them are destined to die alone, and this statement haunts Ned for the rest of the film. We see this throughout the film as Ned goes through the relationships in her life, breaking some while strengthening others.

Her determination to get pregnant leads to her auditioning for a local talent contest. The contest itself sort of reflects how the Philippines views its LGBT population: relegated to the fringes and treated as some sort of side show. Throughout the film characters look down on lesbians like Ned, their prejudices rooted in old cultural ideas and religion. Ned's performance tries to counter that, and it's a way of saying that she isn't some freak or oddity, she's a real person with her own hopes and dreams.

All in all it's a character study that's handled competently, and while it has its fair share of drama it manages to balance it with some lighter moments. 

As an overweight guy myself, much of what Ang Taba Ko Kasi says hits close to my (cholesterol-choked) heart. I appreciate the fact that it portrays relationships between people that are different from the usual hunky and sexy types. It can be viewed as a companion piece to Jason Laxamana's Love is Blind, where in both works, people are treated as people with their own positive and negative qualities and not as stereotypes, for good or worse.

The film is enjoyably funny, and overall it's light fare. There is the issue of the development of the relationship between Olga and her swim teacher Noah.  It develops too fast to be believable and I'm not totally sold on it. The points raised during certain dramatic confrontations in the film show (at least for me) that fat people can think and judge superficially too and that not every negative thing in a person's life is necessarily due to how fat they are.

There's nothing too remarkable in the technical side of things, in any case it's decently made. Ryan Yllana and Cai Cortez are great in their respective roles and they have great chemistry together. Of all the lighter films in the festival, this is the best one.

The last feature film in the Cinefilipino lineup is 1st Sem. It's an odd beast - it mixes drama and comedy but I can't reconcile the two. It features a plot that could have been solved if the main characters would just sit down and just talk to each other. I guess this lack of communication between parents and children is kind of the film's point.

While the film's framework looks solid I'm not sure if the end result works. The film could have delved a bit more into the mother-son relationship, but the scenes consist mostly of the two of them fighting. The film then suddenly extends the relationship drama from just the mother and her eldest son to all three kids, which indicates a lack of focus.

The film meanders into a conclusion that, in the context of everything that happened, is relatively satisfying, but the film muddles through a lot to get there. I'm not really sold on this one.

***

The simple lack of a bridge that connects a remote barangay to the town center creates ripples that resonate throughout the small town of Suba. While the case looks open and shut (meaning: just build the damn bridge already,) the documentary film Forever Bridgeless shows us that things are far more complicated than it seems.

If I wanted to show outsiders how the byzantine machine that is Philippine politics works, I'd show them Forever Bridgeless as a case study. Arguments for and against the building of a bridge are presented via interviews with townsfolk. If a bridge were made, travel to and from the town would be cheaper and easier compared to the riskier use of boats. People would get better access to health care and education. The place may even be viable as a tourist spot, boosting the local economy. But decades have passed and no bridge is in sight. It all boils down to conflicts of personal interest and opposition from parties that benefit from the status quo.

What's missing from the film is the perspective of the local government, the one entity that technically has the power to have this bridge built. Any answer would be helpful. In fact, even a statement of declining to comment would have strengthened the film's central thesis.

The film ends with a personal justification from the director for making the film that could have been fleshed out and integrated with the rest of the documentary, but ends up feeling tacked on, like a footnote. I feel the docu could have ended more conclusively if it had been succinct.

***

We Want Short Shorts Cinefilipino 2016 Edition

This year's shorts program features a very strong lineup; I even think that based on the collective quality of all the shorts, I like them more compared to this year's full length features.

Shorts A:

Oktopus: 4/5
Really funny, despite the film having someone die. It's poignant in some moments too. I want a longer version of this with the grannies going on awesome senior citizen adventures.

Kung Ang Ulan ay Gawa sa Tsokolate: 4.75/5
From the makers of last year's Sleepless comes this gem. It's just my kind of thing because of the genre and the way the story and themes (which, if you are a parent, are universal regardless of circumstance) are adapted for the genre. Out of all the films in this fest, short or long, this is my absolute favorite.

Katok: 4/5
It's very effective, even with no dialogue. (Although when someone asks for alms in traffic I do jazz hands instead.)

Dipa ning Alti: 4.5/5
This fascinating film is relentlessly dark, and by dark I mean pitch black. It made me regret the fact that I haven't seen Dayang Asu yet.

Saanman Ngunit Dito: 3.5/5
I felt a bit lukewarm on this tale of moving on and climbing mountains together. It's still nice anyway.

Luna 3.25/5
I liked the film and thought it discussed its central theme well. It almost feels like a poem in the way it was constructed. However I'm a bit iffy on some aspects of the presentation and I wanted more from the film that what it gave me.

Shorts B:

Aki: 3.5/5
First of all, this was directed by Milo Tolentino, who is known for a making a different kind of film. This cannot be further in tone and subject from those films. I liked the idea of the two parallel narratives, but I think the connection between them is too tenuous, making their pairing almost random.

Chicboy: 4.5/5
I laughed. The film is short, but it has a point.

Not Applicable: 4/5
This is one of those films about a situation where everyone loses. There's so much subtext under the table (pun intended...?) with these two characters that it enriches the experience.


Punla: 4/5
It's really well done. There's a tinge of sadness to the whole thing, and luckily the film doesn't delve into cutesy theatrics just because the protagonists are kids.


XXX: 4/5
I liked the way the narrative was executed via radio broadcasts. The voices sounded more or less the same sometimes, which can either be a bad thing, as it indicates a lack of variety or a good thing, as it emphasizes the fact that the showbiz gossip industry is this amorphous beast that judges everyone under a grotesque eye.


That's it for me and this year's Cinefilipino festival. I was unable to watch all of the films, and there's a good reason for that. Next: my overall thoughts on the festival itself and its films. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cinefilipino 2016: Buhay Habangbuhay, Van Damme Stallone, Straight to the Heart

Buhay Habangbuhay begins with an ending - the sudden, tragic death of Sandy (Iza Calzado.) While her physical body has passed on, her spirit remains, tethered to the house she shared with her husband Joel. She tries to move on, and meets several characters along the way. That's more or less the premise of the whole film. The magic lies in the way it is shown to us.

The film relies on strong visual storytelling to tell us these things; a lot of plot points are shown rather than expressed through dialogue. it helps that the film's source material is a graphic novel, a medium where a few succinct panels are better than numerous speech bubbles explaining everything.

Sandy meets fellow spirits along the way, and thanks to the way everything is done, a lot of it is implied and we can fill in the blanks and tell their backstories in our own thoughts and words. A silent ghost could either be a grandparent watching over a beloved grandchild or a teacher looking back at her cherished job; a child spirit could be fixated on happy days in school even after death.

Sandy's ghostly exploits are filmed with a mixture of underwater greenscreened shots (to give the impression of a floating spirit), normal greenscreened shots and cleverly blocked normal shots. The effect is overall okay, but I wish the floaty and normal shots would be a bit more consistent in which is used where.

The ending of Buhay Habangbuhay makes the whole thing feel like an origin story. In a way that makes it all the more interesting. In fact, so far it's my favorite of the festival. Buhay Habangbuhay shines exactly because of its simplicity and in the breadth of its images.

Star Na Si Van Damme Stallone, a tale about the struggles of a mom and her son with Down Syndrome, was advertised as a light drama-comedy through its trailers. And in many ways that's right: there are numerous comedic elements that respect its subject matter.  But above that, the most powerful scenes in the film are its dramatic moments, where the film delves into the darker aspects of its subject matter.

Raising a child with special needs is extremely taxing, financially and emotionally. Children with Down Syndrome don't only have varying levels of learning disabilities, they are also at risk for other things like heart disease and leukemia. Multiple times throughout the film Candy Pangilinan, who plays the mother, struggles with this fact. It's partly out of worry of the inevitable fact that she will not be able to take care of her son forever. Sometimes she wonders what it would feel like if her son didn't have the condition. Many times she is pushed to the breaking point, and Pangilinan brings out those feelings in a standout performance. Her battle is full of dark paths, but hers is obviously not the only battle. Vanvan's brother Tano also wonders what it would be like to have a sibling without the syndrome, and sometimes he grows resentful of the extra attention and love his brother is getting from his mother.

On the other hand, these moments of doubt and bargaining give way to a sense of immense love and dedication. It may stray a bit into being overprotective, but it's a very human reaction. Her anxieties are perfectly framed in one of the last sequences (the buttoning of the shirt scene), as it shows the wish that every parent has to protect their child from the outside world, regardless of his or her condition. 

There's a lot to like in Star Na Si Van Damme Stallone, and as someone in the medical field I think it's a topic that needs to be discussed. Its heavier emotional moments are balanced with moments of levity, and it respects its subject matter.

Straight to the Heart seemed straightforward, but it felt more like a zigzag. While it's nice that it tries to address a few topics on gender identity, its story often left me lost by the wayside.

The premise starts off promisingly: a gay hairdresser has an accident and suddenly turns straight. While it could be done as a light comedy with some drama, the movie quickly turns into heavy, angst filled, unnecessary drama. It ended up leaving me lost and disappointed at the result.

There's also the (unintended?) implication from this story structure that being straight makes one into a hypersexual, amoral person. Of course that isn't true, and the ending of the film counters that by emphasizing that you are what you are regardless of orientation. It's confusing.

The film often segways into random subplots and random affairs that come out of the blue. Characters come out of nowhere, are introduced long after we wonder who they are and their interactions with our main characters feel shoehorned in. It's distracting from the central plot and in the greater scheme of things it's not necessary. In many ways, just as Buhay Habangbuhay mastered making things simple and making it mesh well, this film tries to overcomplicate every single thing about itself that it ends up being a confusing mess.

The film tries to discuss some interesting topics. There's a short part in there about the gay community having support groups for people with HIV. Traditional gender roles in things like relationships, jobs and marriage are also discussed. But all of these things often feel like out of the way detours rather than stops along a straight road. The thing is, with a premise like what this film had, there's no need to keep making it as complex as it is.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cinefilipino 2016: Ang Tulay Ng San Sebastian, A Lotto Like Love, Sakaling Hindi Makarating

Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian opens strongly, with a premise similar to that of Cinema One’s Bitukang Manok: our two protagonists are seemingly trapped in an endless loop, unable to cross the titular bridge. The atmosphere is built up right as effective camerawork bathes the frame in darkness, forcing us to scan the frame for ghosts that may or may not be there. The soundtrack, a dissonant mix of conventional horror sounds and the Koto (a Japanese stringed instrument) really gives off a vibe that echoes Akira Yamaoka’s work in Silent Hill.So far so good. 

However, during the middle third of the film, things get really weird. The film loses much of its narrative focus and the story is reduced to our characters going from one seemingly unrelated situation to another. One idea, which I found tantalizing, turns out to be a red herring. Sometimes the individual scenes work, sometimes they don’t. The CGI is a mixed bag, but on the whole it doesn’t hold up compared to other horror films (I do commend the VFX team for at least trying given budget constraints.)

From a metafictional standpoint, in its first third, the film makes a point about the power of individual stories. Stories, urban legends, what have you – they grow and vary over time, but are rooted in the same narrative soil. The same can be said of horror movies in general – most of them can be categorized into the same familiar varieties. It takes a new tale, perhaps what this film is trying to do, to figuratively cross that bridge. Unfortunately, this point is soon left by the wayside, and the overall attempt is only partially successful.

The search for a missing lotto ticket; vomiting passengers and the fear of pointy things; sudden romance. A Lotto Like Love feels like a story out of Wattpad: the banter between the two characters feels familiar, there's a modicum of comedy with some drama stuffed in, and the female heroine is probably one of the most histrionic characters I've ever seen. The comedy and the dramatic aspects of the film were lukewarm for me, but the film does have some nice touches nevertheless.

Itot's relatively calm demeanor serves as the foil to Kayela, and in a weird sort of way they balance themselves out. To be fair, I liked Kayela's character a lot more when she acted less crazy. When I got to know these characters better, I surprisingly found myself relating to some of their troubles. It also made a certain dramatic scene the most effective scene of the film.

The lotto numbers, part of the film's central point, are used as a narrative device to develop both characters. Every number has a special significance to each character's respective pasts. It's a good idea, but these individual scenes don't mesh as well and the end result feels a bit clunky. The film finds its footing during moments of  introspection, when the usually wild and boisterous characters dial down their antics. A Lotto Like Love has a few good ideas, but the execution falls a bit short.

At the outset, Sakaling Hindi Makarating looks gorgeous; it's the best local DOP work I've seen this year. Cielo's roadtrip in search of a mysterious postcard-sender, rife with scenery porn, could almost be called It's More Fun In the Philippines: The Movie.

The cinematography works not only with wide sweeping shots, there's also an eye for composition in many of the shots in this film that take place in closed spaces, in rooms lit with paintings, in characters separated by the space of the frame itself.

Of course, the movie is much more than that. There's something romantic in the way the story unfolds, with the film using the lost art of letter-writing as a central concept, the process of self discovery and change in Cielo's trip, and in the stubborn hope of the anonymous postcard-sender. 

Road movies are often a means for characters to recover their identity, or find connections to others that were invisible before. The quest like structure of the road trip is often done for characters to search for truth, or in other cases the truth may be irrelevant in the face of the journey itself. In this case, the road trip serves not only to find connections, but to break them; through a constant state of travel, one finds their true home.

The film is not perfect; some of the sound design choices are iffy, and acute ears can hear artifacts, obvious dubs and the lack of background sounds in some scenes. The film suddenly takes an abrupt change in its last third, robbing the mystery's conclusion of some emotional heft. But these are minor nitpicks to what is otherwise a very entertaining film.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Garm Wars The Last Druid

It's far too easy to dismiss Garm Wars: The Last Druid as incomprehensible fluff, and I can't blame you for thinking that way: the barebone essentials of its fictional world are dumped on us in the first fifteen minutes, the film (while clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes) drags at some points and the film lacks a definite beginning or end. It may understandably come off as frustrating.

However, we are talking about Mamoru Oshii here, and his works should rarely be taken at face value. For example, Ghost in the Shell can be seen as a reflection on our evolution of 'self' in the modern age; Sky Crawlers can be viewed as a critique of otaku culture. Garm Wars is a movie that needs to be seen more than once; getting through the seemingly impenetrable plot and deciphering the meaning of the film is where half the fun lies.

Garm Wars takes place on a planet ravaged by war. What once was eight tribes has been reduced to three thanks to endless battles waged by soldiers who live, fight, die and are redownloaded unto new bodies. One day a mysterious man, an even more mysterious figure, and a dog are intercepted by a cruiser belonging to one of these tribes. This sparks a journey by an unlikely group of characters to find the secret of the Garm and the reason their people fight.

Oshii's motifs and themes from previous films abound in this movie. The dialogue hints that the film takes place in a virtual construct, perhaps a world related to the settings of previous Oshii live action films Avalon (2001) and Assault Girls (2009) - for all intents and purposes, this may be a shared universe. The movie tackles themes of identity, evident in his adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (1995); as well as its main theme: the burden of neverending conflict as seen in Sky Crawlers (2008). There are also a ton of Judeo-Christian religious symbols through both visuals and dialogue, and Oshii's favorite motif - the Basset Hound, makes an appearance, almost as a supernatural, godlike figure.

The war is hardly personal to us viewers, as we are not invested in the conflict of these tribes. Instead we look at the war as a concept. Garm Wars approaches the theme of war in that it robs us of our identity as a people or culture. The collective memory of the tribes makes them homogenous, making them lose their individuality. A query about a certain clone's first memory is met with derision. As we learn during the climax of the film, the war itself can have no intrinsic meaning; the Garm are basically fighting for nothing. The movie concentrates instead on how war dehumanizes its participants, forcing them to become literal machines of war, (in our protagonists' case) becoming living weapons that "reload" themselves with literal metaphors for ammunition.

Oshii's movies usually frame homeostasis, whether societal or not, as one of its principal antagonists. The Garm tribes' focus on war has stagnated their society, degrading it slowly. Our main characters search for the truth in the hopes of changing the balance, just as the Kildren fight to defeat the Teacher in Sky Crawlers, or how the Major evolves with the Puppet Master in GITS, or how Ash achieves access to Avalon. The results in all of these films are pretty mixed.

Without any true ending, the film takes a very eastern storytelling approach - with the journey, including all questions asked along the way, being more important than the destination. It's more esoteric compared to Oshii's other works and more in line with his experimental stuff. Still, it's quite interesting fare and it's something of a miracle that local distributors picked this one up.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Cinefilipino 2016 Schedules (Per Venue; Updated)

Cinefilipino is finally coming next week! The schedules that Cinefilipino released were kinda hard to plot  (and sometimes contradictory) so I made tables.

(Update: Gateway Schedules now included. It may have a lot of mistakes since the source is a bit confusing, so check with the local operator before you start planning.)

(Update 2: apparently Robinson's Place Manila is no longer a venue, so I removed the corresponding image.)

(Update 3: Additional schedules for the following venues: Eastwood, Festival Mall, Shangrila and Robinsons Galleria. This is now accurate as of 3/10/2016 4am)

(Update 4: Corrected a mistake with the schedules for the Robinson's Galleria schedules. If you are downloading the pictures, the filename should be rob galleria_rev_2 and for reference, the earliest March 16 showing should be Kulay sa Labas ng Linya.)

Note that schedules may change without warning and may not be final.

I color-coded the features as well:
Blue is for Feature Films
Green is for Documentary
Yellow is for Short Films

Robinson's Galleria (click to Enlarge)
Eastwood Mall (click to Enlarge)


Festival Mall (click to Enlarge)
Shangrila Plaza (click to Enlarge)
Greenhills Cinemas (click to Enlarge)

Robinson's Metro East (click to Enlarge)

Newport Cinemas/Resorts World Manila (click to Enlarge)


Gateway Cineplex A (click to Enlarge)

Gateway Cineplex B (click to Enlarge)