Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Dear Other Self, or: for want of a nail, consequence was lost

Dear Other Self owes a lot to the 1998 film Sliding Doors, where the simple act of missing a train leads to two wildly diverging timelines. In this case, it's a bunch of noisy neighbors that cause protagonist Rebecca (Jodi Sta. Maria) to either lose sleep or sleep soundly. The sequence of events that follow lead to her either staying at her job or leaving her job to pursue her dreams of traveling the world.

The premise sounds interesting on paper, but ultimately Dear Other Self disappointed me. Neither of the two timelines made an impact on me, and to be honest they could be interchangeable. There is no real consequence to Rebecca's actions; and any sort of dramatic tension is handwaved away for the sake of a convenient ending. These sorts of movies thrive with experimentation; the fact that the movie mostly played it safe ultimately doomed the whole enterprise. The movie has the opportunity to show us how fate can be capricious, such as how Sliding Doors ended, or (to take it to extremes) how this divergence can affect our entire worldview and political standing, such as in Kieslowski's 1988 film Blind Chance. But it doesn't really do that; I felt that the film didn't take any risks, and removed the consequence of that choice. Without consequence, the stories of Dear Other Self aren't really that compelling.

On the other hand, the film tries to explore the dichotomy of either living for one's self or for family. Rebecca experiences both alternatives through both timelines. While the absence of consequence again makes the eventual outcomes of both stories pretty much irrelevant, the film posits some interesting questions. Rebecca's travel is done mostly at her own expense, but as the breadwinner it may come off as selfish, especially within the context of Filipino culture and ideas of filial devotion. On the other hand, being the breadwinner in the first place can be seen as unfair to Rebecca, who is unable to reach her own dreams. To its credit, the film has a number of solutions to this problem in surprising ways.

In closing, I feel I've been too hard on the film, perhaps due to expectations that were too high. While it does have a number of interesting ideas, the film's subservience to convention ultimately makes it an inferior movie. And while it may be a step in the right direction, during this movie, sometimes I wished I was in a parallel universe, watching a movie that had a little bit more ambition behind its promising ideas.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

[Reflexive Cinema] Pinoy Blonde: still 'swabe at mabango' 12 years later

As part of a year long centennial celebration of Filipino film, the Society of Filipino Archivists of Film (SOFIA) in partnership with the CCP, will be showing several films about filmmaking with its "Reflexive Cinema" series. The first film on the lineup is Peque Gallaga's 2005 film Pinoy Blonde, and yesterday I decided to attend and take a look again at the film. So today, I'll be giving a short re-review of the film and telling you all about a few things that have changed since then.

This film holds a very special meaning to me and this blog, because it is the very first Filipino film I ever reviewed on Present Confusion. Looking back, 2005 was a really interesting year for Philippine Cinema: output was down in the doldrums (around 30-40 movies a year) and even commercial blockbusters were feeling the sting. The sexy 'bomba' films of the late nineties/early 00's were winding down too. The movie theaters were then dominated by Hollywood blockbusters and Asian Horror.

At the same time, we were slowly seeing interesting local films coming out: these were smaller scale dramas or comedies that tended to eschew normalized conceptions of what local cinema had become. The one film I distinctly remember from this time was Mark Meily's Crying Ladies, which was a hit with audiences during the 2003 MMFF. When Pinoy Blonde came out, we were still months away from the first edition of Cinemalaya, which showcased Filipino independent films to audiences in a major way. (Sure, programs like Gawad Alternatibo had been on the scene for far longer, but it had not really received much mainstream attention, if at all.) Also later in 2005, Cinemanila would be showing foreign art films and local independent films in ALL Manila cinemas. Filmmakers like Khavn and Ato Bautista were either releasing or making their own films such as Ang Pamilyang Kumakain ng Lupa or Ang Aking Pagkagising mula sa Kamulatan. Other films coming out later would include the Villaluna/Ramos directed Ilusyon and a film called Masahista, the debut feature from a relative unknown named Brillante Mendoza.

Twelve years ago, I was your average student-type person. I was obsessed with films from neighboring countries in Asia, but I had a limited knowledge of films from my own country. My filmic education was mainly through watching movies via VHS rentals and Sine sa Dos, and hearing stories from my mother about films from the Marcos era such as Kapit sa Patalim, Himala, and so on. When I started this blog, I honestly wasn't sure where it would go (the blog wasn't even  exclusively about film at the time.)  Twelve years later, and I'm a professional (more or less), I've accumulated a good deal of knowledge about local cinema (but still severely lacking, to be honest) and my writing style has changed (though it's still not very good, in my opinion.)

So while you couldn't exactly say Pinoy Blonde caused any of what was to come, and you couldn't really place it as the fulcrum of contemporary local cinema, it's placed in a rather interesting position, in the middle of a paradigm shift from old 90'/00's aesthetics to what we have today.

Looking at the film (and my review of it) today, the film has aged surprisingly well. It's no longer as 'unconventional' as I thought it was back then, and it still has its share of flaws, but it was overall just as entertaining as it was when I saw it in theaters for the first time. It's an odd yet interesting combination of homage, comedy, and 3D and 2D animation. It's also an examination of the collaborative and creative processes that take place when one makes a film.

We see this quite clearly with the imagination sequences that happen frequently with the two protagonist filmmaker characters. They often look at certain things as frames in an imaginary movie. Though they have aesthetic differences, they share a love of cinema that is undeniable. In the post-screening Q&A, Peque Gallaga conceded that the two characters could serve as reflections of himself and longtime directing partner Lore Reyes. Their exchange of ideas is a process that filmmakers go through all the time. Epi's later encounter with Ricky Davao's character, an intelligent hitman with his own opinions on cinema, helps him realize the true meaning of this very process and the process of creating flesh and blood characters that elicit true emotions rather than just creating caricatures that spout cliched lines.

The tributes really come out in full force. I remember the stylized parody of our films as seen through the archives of international film festivals past. In my first review, I make the point that it's ironic that many of our old films are being discovered in foreign lands - while in our country, the same classic films are lost, used as filler for fireworks, or consigned to some other horrible fate. Since then, a dedicated effort has come up to preserve and find classic films and restore them to crisp, high resolution quality.

A rare few other references are now a bit dated. Most of the scenes referenced in dialogue refer to Hollywood blockbusters from the early 2000s. While some have gone on to be classics in their own right, I don't think many people will find, say, The Scorpion King memorable. In retrospect, some of the other parodies are funny or ironic in retrospect, such as the character of Salonpas being a parody of Alfredo Lim (who would eventually become Mayor of Manila again two years after the film's release.) It's also interesting to rewatch the film and see references in how certain scenes were shot, mostly from action films from that particular time, such as Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill. The pacing of the film was fine for me this time (strange how I felt Hong Sang-soo was slow paced back then - I clearly hadn't seen enough slow cinema at the time!) 

Ultimately, to be honest, my opinions on the film haven't changed. I guess in some cases, the more things change, the more things remain the same. So I end this with my ending paragraph from my 2005 review, which I still believe today:

"In closing, Pinoy Blonde is far from a masterpiece - yet among recent Filipino releases, it ends up as a mishmashed, intelligent, quirky little film, probably one of the best of the year, so far. It ultimately feels like Peque Gallaga's love song for Philippine Cinema, one that treats its subject matter in the Filipino way - that of hallowed reverence with a little bit of that trademark Filipino humor sprinkled in. Watch it. You may come out of it with something you never expected."

The Reflexive Cinema series runs every second Saturday of the month, except for August and January 2018. Stay tuned for more articles on the subject.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Kuroko's Basketball: The Last Game is filled with shounen sports action and Lewis Carroll (no, really)

Kuroko's Basketball (Kuroko no Basket) is a relatively popular sports anime and manga series. It's about the unlikely pairing of brash and headstrong Taiga Kagami and unassuming Tetsuya Kuroko. As it turns out, Kuroko was a member of the Generation of Miracles, a legendary team of basketball players that dominated Japan. Kagami and Kuroko set out to defeat all of the members of the Generation of Miracles, who are now all in separate high school teams.

Kuroko's Basketball: The Last Game takes place after the events of the main series. It's based on a manga story, Kuroko no Basket Extra Game, that serves as a sidestory/epilogue to the entire series. After the events of the main series, a genius streetball team called Jabberwock comes to Japan and humiliates an all-star college team made up of former allies of Kuroko and the others. For revenge (and national pride), a rematch is set between Jabberwock and the combined forces of Kagami and the entire Generation of Miracles team (collectively called Vorpal Swords) to settle who is the best in basketball.

It should be pretty evident that maximum appreciation of this film depends hugely on being familiar with the series it is based on. Otherwise, most of the movie will not make any sense. Non-fans of Kuroko's Basketball may ask themselves: who's the young lady with the baseball cap? (she's the coach/manager of Kuroko and Kagami's HS team.) Who's the girl with the pink hair? (She's the coach/manager of Aomine's HS team, and coach of the original Generation of Miracles.) Who's the blonde chick who speaks English? (she's Kagami's friend and mentor from the US.) Who're the random people cheering Vorpal Swords during the matchup? (they're former enemies, teammates and friends of the Vorpal Swords members.) Who is that other person Akashi is talking to? (It's kinda like a split personality. Long story.)

Jabberwocky is pretty one-dimensional as far as villainous teams go. The manga has a couple of backstories for these characters, but for the purposes of watching the film, the enemy team is more or less composed of a bunch of cartoonishly evil, kinda racist caricatures. The only thing the audience should know is that they may be stronger than our protagonists, and they have to be defeated. They aren't really interesting or compelling villains.

That said, that probably isn't why many Kuroko fans will watch the film. As a fan myself, the real reason I wanted to watch the film was to see the Generation of Miracles + Kagami as a team, in action. Non-fans would not understand, but to a fan this is pretty big. To a fan, the film is ninety-ish minutes of fanservicey joy. Every time one of the Vorpal Swords members did their signature moves, there were claps of excitement in the theater. It's all lovingly animated by Production I.G. who have worked on many gorgeous anime in the past (Ghost in the Shell, Evangelion among others).

The film ends the series with a sense of finality (be sure to catch an after-credits scene at the end.) To the uninitiated viewer, Kuroko's Basketball: Last Game is an incoherent mess. But to the intended audience of the movie, it's a fond farewell to a fun and entertaining anime/manga franchise.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Reviews May 2017: Our Mighty Yaya, One Step, more thoughts on A Silent Voice

(My initial review is here.)

Note: may contain some spoilers. Skip to the next review if you do not want to get spoiled.

A Silent Voice is now showing here in the Philippines and I watched it again recently. Long story short, it's great, and it seems to be doing well in cinemas from what I can tell. (Unscientific data, but I asked a lot of ticket sellers.)

I'm reminded of something the Observer film critic Mark Kermode said when he watched the film. Kermode's one of the few critics who watches anime films whenever they come out and doesn't prejudge them just because they're anime. Anyway, in his review, he notes how the film is shot from Ishida's point of view; most of the time he looks down on the ground and we see a sea of legs, hands, bodies and pavements - consequences of his guilt and self loathing. Ishida (and the film, by extension) cannot properly look anyone in the face. During the end, Ishida (and we, the viewer) look at the characters we have befriended along the way in the face, when Ishida finally decides to come out of his shell.

Like I said in my earlier review, the characters of A Silent Voice are shaped by their guilt in one way or another; these are character traits that are emphasized more thoroughly in the manga. Their guilt hampers their ability to communicate with each other, more than any state of deafness could. A Silent Voice may be filled with imperfect characters, but the film teaches us to appreciate them, warts and all.

Watching this film is worth it, guys. That makes two films you need to watch this week (the other one being Bliss.)

Due to financial challenges, Virgie (Ai Ai Delas Alas) decides to work under a well to do family. While at first she has trouble with the two kids and one teen under her care, they get along and she becomes attached to them. This, however, leads her into conflict with stepmom Monique (Megan Young) who is also trying to get along with her new husband's kids.

Films about house help, especially films about the plight of the yaya or nanny, are nothing new in local cinema. These films are mostly done using a dramatic approach. For example, in Rory Quintos' Anak (2000) the film focuses on the effect on the family the nanny leaves behind; in the 2006 film Inang Yaya, Maricel Soriano's nanny character is forced to balance her love for her ward and the love of her real child, and in Jose Javier Reyes' own Ano Ang Kulay ng Mga Nakalimutang Pangarap? the dramatic focus is placed on the dreams that are sacrificed by these people in the name of serving their amo and the inherent tragedy in these relationships rooted deeply in our social hierarchies.

Our Mighty Yaya takes the opposite approach, and deals with the subject matter as a mainstream comedy. Some of the jokes don't land, but those that do, do so because of Delas Alas' comedic timing. Thankfully, she doesn't use her buckteeth or ugliness as a point in her comedy, something that would have demeaned her character even more.

The film tries to create some dramatic tension between Virgie and Monique, but the payoff is pretty perfunctory. This is a film that has decided to play it safe and go through the motions instead of showing something meaningful in its dramatic moments. Perhaps you can argue that in this context, meaningful commentary is the last thing one should be looking for, but the results from being complacent often result in a shallower overall experience. To be fair, I did enjoy parts of this film, and yes, it might serve as a decent crowd pleaser for the usual moviegoer, but you've probably seen everything Our Mighty Yaya has to offer somewhere else.

(note: this review contains a few spoilers.)

One Step bases its premise on the 2013 romantic comedy Begin Again, where a young woman befriends a music producer so that they can make beautiful music together. In the case of One Step, however, Si-Hyun (Sandara Park) suffers from amnesia and a form of synesthesia where she can "see" music; she collaborates with music producer Jee-Il (Cho Dong-in, complete with Cumber-lock hair) in the hopes of regaining her lost memory.

It's a treat seeing pambansang krung krung Sandara Park in a Korean movie, and she really gives her all to the role of Si Hyun. That said, while competently acted for the most part, One Step struggles to keep its story together. The movie plays with several plot points but doesn't really go anywhere with them: even the main mystery of the film - Si-Hyun's search for her lost memories - fades into the background as the film enters its last act. In the end, barely anything gets resolved at all, which can prove a bit frustrating for people invested in these characters. Then again, it's always been more about the journey rather than the destination for most of these films, so your own personal mileage may vary.

The film's major highlight is the soundtrack, featuring many songs from Sandara Park and other artists. They range from colorful and relatively light K-pop to some rock-based tunes. Fans of Park  may find something to appreciate here, though the tunes here are closer in tone to the songs of her solo career instead of her stint with girl group 2NE1.

While the film reaches considerable levels of schmaltz and hokeyness, I found it overall pretty entertaining. One Step struggles to keep its plot together, but its negatives are balanced by a nice soundtrack and decent performances all around.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Jerrold Tarog's Bliss is a subversive trip down the rabbit hole of entertainment culture

Popular actress Jane (Iza Calzado) is left to recuperate in a rest house after an on-set accident while filming her latest movie. She is soon tormented by strange occurrences within her house and feels trapped somehow. But what is really happening?

Bliss is best described as a psychological thriller, but the film itself defies convenient classification. It traces its lineage back to films that traverse the line of reality and fiction, as protagonists view their own dark reflections (usually through the performing arts.) I felt echoes of Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (1997) and Millennium Actress, Rob Reiner's Misery (1990; the title of Bliss even references this film) and Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) among others. But it is Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) that resonates with this film the most: in Bergman's film, a nurse takes care of an actress who has decided to stop speaking; through their interactions and stories their personas merge and mix into something amorphous and abstract. Persona acts as a template for this film, though Bliss does something interesting with its premise that makes it more than just a copy.

While we are shown the stories of the different people involved in Jane's life, the film centers around the stories of Jane and Rose (Adrienne Vergara). Rose's character is a dark mirror of Jane's, a nurse with a twisted, perverse streak. Her screen image is off-putting, even grotesque, with streaks of Annie Wilkes and Perfect Blue's Rumi. Her existence and that of Jane's mirror Alma and Elisabet Vogler in Bergman's film. In this case, both Jane and Rose are characters eaten by the monstrous system of showbusiness, withered into insanity, husks of their former selves.

This portrayal of the true monster behind the film - that of our local entertainment culture - is something that is rare in our local cinema. Our entertainment culture has been examined before as satire, but rarely, if at all, through the lens of a psychological thriller. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence that this film was conceptualized during the period where some prominent local directors died, directly or indirectly through overwork. In the films of other countries, the lure of showbusiness proves to be self destructive; films like Mika Ninagawa's Helter Skelter (2012) even manifests this self-destruction in the form of actual bodily damage, her protagonists slowly disintegrating from the inside. Here, the exploitation of Jane takes on two forms: her deteriorating mental state and her body, which has been exploited physically (as seen in her various injuries) and in other, perverse ways.

Perhaps to serve local audiences, Bliss holds our hand through its enigma; one can easily figure out what's going on with Jane in the first 10 minutes if one pays enough attention. Like with most of Tarog's films, we see the inherent irony of the film's ending - while people supposedly 'concerned' with the well being of Jane bicker with each other, darker things happen out of sight.

While not my favorite Jerrold Tarog film, Bliss is an interesting experiment, a perverse subversion of genre and structure, and a film that will keep local audiences talking for years to come.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Luck at First Sight doubles down on its concept, with mixed results

Joma (Jericho Rosales) is a professional gambler who believes in luck. Diane (Bela Padilla), on the other hand, doesn't really believe in it. By some quirk of supernatural fate, they produce abnormally good luck whenever they touch each other, and Joma proposes to use this to their mutual advantage, as they both need the money. There is a catch, though: if either one falls in love with the other, the luck disappears.

Luck at First Sight takes this admittedly silly premise and just runs with it. The movie requires a significant suspension of disbelief. Soon, the duo are making decent coin betting on small time gambling enterprises and illegal casinos. Perhaps betting on larger casinos or on the lottery/sweepstakes would make them more money faster, but plot needs to happen.

So we have this strange milieu where two characters bond together through gambling. There's a certain kind of logic in that, considering that there's an adrenaline rush that comes whenever one bets big and wins big. For one, it's certainly a unique concept.

It soon becomes clear that Joma has a gambling problem, especially with regards to self restraint. He's racked up a ton of debts and he keeps on losing money because he doesn't know when to quit. Rosales' performance is actually my favorite thing about the movie: he subverts the trope of a charming, handsome love interest with a winning smile when he uses that same charm to try to extort just a few more pesos from Bela Padilla's character during the film's major dramatic turn. His expression mixes just the right amount of desperation and faux charm that he really pulls it off.

The movie could have gone to interesting places with this, but it unfortunately opts for the safe route, and it does so by doubling down on its concept. Its main dilemma, created by a gambling problem, is solved by EVEN MORE gambling (and even then, it becomes an unnecessary non-solution). It has the unfortunate effect of downplaying Joma's problem with gambling. The end effect feels rushed when the conversation at the end of the movie neatly tucks away any hanging plot threads. It feels too clean, too neat for a narrative like this. And, the ending backtracks from the premise of the story, implying that luck really doesn't matter after all.

While I don't think Luck at First Sight is bad, it takes a couple of weird turns and the final product suffers as a result.