Friday, June 30, 2017

My genetically modified organism Totor... I mean Okja

"Translation is Sacred," an activist (through a tattoo) proudly declares in Bong Joon-ho's latest film, Okja. And its story about a girl trying to rescue her "super pig" friend from the hands of an evil corporation, is trademark Bong, this time infused with a certain madcap, wacky quality that makes it one of the more comedic turns of his body of work.

The first part of the film, where we are acclimatized to the relationship between Mija, the girl, and Okja, is cute and idyllic, somewhat reminiscent of Ghibli films - not necessarily Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, but more Isao Takahata's Pom Poko. When things finally get on the ground, we are quickly thrust into the rest of the world, who mostly views cuddly animals like Okja as nothing more than food (note that almost everyone else - the mainstream media, the Mirando corporation, etc - calls Okja a "product" and nothing more.)

This is where the film's ideas on translation manifest themselves in full force. Okja is a film about communication and the common language of society. It was made as a movie with a cast of South Korean and Hollywood actors. It's mostly bilingual, with dialogue in both South Korean and English (sometimes cleverly mistranslated.) The notion of 'translation' cleverly inserts itself into the story as well - the main storyline conflict stems from a failure of communication, a long line of 'little white lies' ranging from a grandpa that lies to cover up an uncomfortable truth, an overzealous activist, or a corporation that tries to hide their practices under kitsch, garish, 'we're relate-able' marketing. Also, it also touches on languages that are wordless, but nevertheless universal - an appreciation of nature, empathy towards others and selfless love (and in the case of greedy corporations and the film's finale, cold, hard cash). 

This ties into the more obvious, anti-capitalist subtext that we see during the film's second half. Bong has done it before in his previous films, whether it be an anti-imperialist sentiment under the pro-environmental themes of The Host (2006), or a treatise on class struggle and conflict in Snowpiercer (2013.) Okja and Mija are both subjected to this overly commercialized world (with Mija often rebelling violently - the kid has no chill) filled with PR events and what have you, while more sinister, disturbing things happen beneath the surface. Anyone who has worked in advertising knows most of the stuff advertisers do is spin, translating corporate desires to make companies and products more palatable to consumers.

The acting is generally good across the board, with Tilda Swinton and child actress Ahn Seo-hyun's performances being particularly superb. The CGI work on the film is neat and seamless, and Okja feels lifelike, even though she looks like this hippo-pig that we've never really seen before. Bong manages to balance the film's tone from deadly serious to wistful or darkly comedic.

Overall, this is a nice place to start if you are not familiar with the director's body of work. It's an entertaining film with multiple layers of meaning.

Okja is available now via streaming on Netflix. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Can We Still Be Friends, Star Cinema? I guess so.

One of the best things going for Star Cinema's latest romantic venture, Can We Still Be Friends? is that it doesn't feel like a Star Cinema rom com. This is the third movie of directing-screenwriting team Prime Cruz and Jen Chuaunsu, after 2015's Sleepless and 2016's Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23b. Like those two movies, this film has a distinct visual style and tone that is quite different from the loudly colored, noisy kind of film I've come to expect from the Star Cinema behemoth.

Can We Still Be Friends? does not start with showing us two lovers discovering each other for the first time; instead, it starts off showing two people in a long term relationship cracking under the strain. Sam (Arci Munoz) has tried to put up with Diego (Gerald Anderson) for eight long years, but Diego has proven to be a less than ideal partner: he's inconsiderate, he has close to zero life skills, and he pretty much lives like a  deadbeat in the condominium they both share. Sam's decision to end the relationship seems justified in this case, but she just can't let go. She feels remorseful about it and she decides to let Diego stay in their apartment even though they have separated. Thankfully, the film veers away from this premise before it becomes too silly.

A friend noticed that Anderson and Munoz seem to be getting more serious, less cutesy storylines, and in my opinion, it suits them both. Their first venture, the Dan Villegas-helmed Always Be My Maybe, is above average as far as these rom coms go. Arci Munoz in particular has delivered great performances in both films; she has a certain je ne sais quoi that sets her apart from other female leads in her acting generation.

The film's examination of relationships touches on one particular point - that relationships are built on compromise and equality between partners. Even with compromise, compromise has to be balanced between partners, as relationships built on one-sided compromise tend not to last very long. The problem is that the film stops short of delving into this more deeply, thanks to a third act that hurries through its conclusion. We are shown that personal change can help mend a broken relationship, but the film barely shows us the effort and effects of that change. Also, Arci's character is shown to be hopelessly (perhaps even pathologically) attached to Diego, which is slightly off for me, but I do admit these things do happen (and this being a Star Cinema rom com, the status quo has to be preserved in one way or another by the end.)

Other production details are top notch. The 80's synth inspired soundtrack got me going, while the film is gorgeously lensed. It's by no means a perfect film, but if you're tired of seeing the same thing from Star Cinema, this is a refreshing turn. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

June 2017 Reviews: The Lost City of Z, Fabricated City

I'll be the first to tell you that I'm not as sold on James Gray's The Lost City of Z as other people have been, but I think it is undeniable that it is a film that tends to stay with you whether you like it or not.

The book is based on the book of the same name, which details the life of British explorer Percival Fawcett as he tries to find an ancient city he calls Z. He goes repeatedly to the unexplored jungles of the Amazon in search of it, all while the great war looms ever so closer.

The cinematography is hypnotic, drawing us into the rainforest. Perhaps, even, in the same way Fawcett was entranced by the Amazon jungle. His quest is not only to clear his family name, but also to disprove entrenched colonial myths of savagery. His entrancement becomes obsession, as he takes the jungle with him wherever he goes. He also experiences surreal sequences in the jungle evoking films such as Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982).

While the film can be interpreted as a text on colonialism, it is so much more than that. The film excels in telling us about the hubris of imperialism in scenes which show the irony of aristocrats and socialites scoffing at the idea of an older, perhaps wiser civilization than the one they inhabit. Its irony can also be seen in what it doesn't show us directly - the suffering of capable women forced to rear baby after baby while their husbands go off on some misguided, even foolish adventure. (Apparently Fawcett's progressive ideas don't extend to his wife.) The film's final sequence, where Victorian England and the Amazon rain forest seem to merge in a mirror image, gives us the notion that one should look inward, as dangers still lurk within 'civilized' society.

Sienna Miller and Robert Pattinson end up being the pillars that hold the movie up, with Pattinson's performance being particularly interesting given that while he isn't given a lot of screen time, I found his character just as interesting as the other main players. Charlie Hunnam felt a bit flat. I think his character would have ended up more engaging had he let go of his restraint a bit more. For me, the film's real shortcomings stem not from the fact that it's too long, but from the fact that it feels truncated; as the film covers a large volume of material, it has to pick and choose which parts stay in. The last act of the film is especially guilty of this, and collectively it hurt my experience of the film.

The Lost City of Z is a film rooted in a very classical sensibility. It's ambiguous and lush with layers of meaning. While it's flawed in my eyes, it has moments that strike me as deeply profound.

Kwon Yu (Ji Chang-wook) is a dedicated online gamer who cares for his team. In the real world, however, he's an unemployed deadbeat who wastes his time and money in internet cafes. All that changes, however, when one day he is framed for a gruesome murder and sent to prison for life. Soon after, he embarks on a quest to clear his name and find out who framed him.

There's a certain amount of irreverence in Park Kwang-hyun's latest film Fabricated City. While its basic structure has been the topic of many Korean films before, it's populated with a number of interesting characters and thrilling moments of suspense that had me on the edge of my seat. While it could have been heavy handed in its examination of socioeconomic divisions in South Korean society, it approaches these topics with a devil may care sensibility. Park's approach to genre has been in place ever since his first feature film, Welcome to Dongmakgol (2005), which manages to tell a feel good tale about something as grim as the Korean War of all things.

And so, against the elites of Korean society, who have control over the media and the police, our ragtag team of protagonists and their allies consists mostly of society's fringes and marginalized members: the unemployed, the retirees, the sex workers, the hikikomori. What we see in the film's near-future setting is a dystopia that is far more subtle in its character than what we normally see: a society perpetually in surveillance, where justice can be easily miscarried in the wrong hands, and where the haves treat the have-nots like disposable garbage. The ensuing rebellion feels justified in its case, and it only heightens the suspense.

The film has its share of flaws as well. The film gives us nary a moment to breathe, especially during the climactic final part. The story is at turns pretty predictable, though it doesn't affect the tension that happens all throughout the movie anyway. Some character abilities (such as Kwon Yu's amazing driving skills) are handwaved away for the sake of coolness. The tone sometimes shifts from funny to dead serious on a dime, which can prove very jarring.

Fabricated City is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve; it's a film that can elicit mixed reactions from its viewers, and it can feel over the top at times to the point of exhaustion. But for some (including myself,) it's a thrilling ride from start to finish. I feel that one has to approach it with a certain mindset to be able to appreciate it fully.

Monday, June 12, 2017

[Reflexive Cinema] Two Nick Deocampo Documentaries on Philippine Cinema

For this month's edition of Reflexive Cinema, writer and film historian Nick Deocampo presented two of his documentaries about Philippine cinema, Cine>Sine (pictured) and Film. The two films deal with how the Spanish and Americans influenced our cinema as a whole.

Compared with the rest of our Southeast Asian neighbors, our cinema has a distinct je ne sais quoi that sets us apart from them. We are shaped by our historical and national traumas, assimilating much from our colonizers in terms of style and symbolism. The Spaniards gave us religion; the Americans, a love and dependence on Hollywood that we have not totally shaken off. After gaining independence, we have begun shaping our own national identity, and one part of that is through our culture, which includes film.

The documentaries employ computer generated images that try to recreate what our cities (and by extension, our cinemas) looked like back then. The CGI is a bit dated, but it is way cheaper than, for example, shooting on location at heritage sites or creating sets. Considering that these documentaries are small scale, often one man low budget productions, it's not really a problem.

The real meat of the material is when Deocampo cites examples for his theses, often using films by the masters of Philippine cinema such as Lino Brocka, Eddie Romero and Ishmael Bernal. While probably reams of paper have been written about these three greats in dissertations and other academic works, almost no one has ever analysed their works in critical form in a documentary style. If you count the number of local documentaries that have been made about local films in this manner, I doubt you'd count more than 20, perhaps even less. What Deocampo is doing here is important work.

Deocampo's style is light and informative. I was sometimes reminded of Carl Sagan when watching his documentaries. Sagan, whose works helped popularize science for laymen all over the world, showed high concept scientific ideas in an easy to understand manner. While watching Deocampo's two documentaries, I felt the same way, and I can see the importance of film and cultural education for moviegoers young and old. I can only imagine young people being impressed by the films of the Philippines' new wave of independent cinema while remaining ignorant of the fact that we have been making fantastic films for decades now, and that we do have a rich cinematic culture and history.

Lately, when you look at the internet, you can find tons of videos that help promote film, teach about film, and add to the critical discourse about film. There isn't really anything like that for Philippine cinema (my joke video about Querido notwithstanding.) It is my hope that in the future this will change and that one day, Filipinos will really start talking about their own movies. Maybe I am too optimistic, but one can hope.

Reflexive Cinema happens at the CCP Dream Theater every second Saturday of the month until next year (except August 2017 and January 2018). Deocampo's documentaries are also available in book form at your local bookstore through Anvil Publishing.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Baahubali is a classic Hero's Journey, Tollywood style

More than a month ago, the second part of S.S. Rajamouli's Baahubali premiered in cinemas around the world. Outside of India, there was little buzz about the movie: mainstream audiences watched the summer movie season with several boring derivative remakes or reboots, while cinephiles were anticipating the feature films of the Cannes film festival. But this film was the little film that could; it destroyed several local box office records and is now the highest grossing Indian movie worldwide, even debuting at number 3 at the Hollywood box office at the time of its release.

After seeing both parts, Baahubali is an amazing experience; it is in many ways a finely crafted series of movies, and both are now among my favorite films of the year. While it tells a story as old as time, it is in the sheer ambition and audacity of the film's craft where it truly shines. It's action packed filled with romance, comedy and drama, combining these ingredients into a fresh and tasty masala.

It should be noted that Baahubali is not a Bollywood film, which many people equate with Indian cinema. Baahubali is a film made in Tollywood, the Telugu-language film industry operating mainly out of Hyderabad. As I've noted in some of my previous posts, Bollywood's southern brethren, producing movies in the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada languages, collectively make up the South Indian film industry. While producing more films per year in terms of output compared to their Mumbai counterpart, they operate mostly in the shadow of their more well-known brother.

And if you look at the basic story structure of Baahubali as a whole, it mirrors the common structure of a South Indian action revenge film - an introductory setup, a climactic interval sequence, a lengthy flashback showing the protagonist's intentions and backstory, and a climactic conclusion. This story within a story storytelling device is popular with, but not new to Indian cinema - it predates movies and dates all the way back to the great Sanskrit epics.

Baahubali is heavily inspired by these epics, especially the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It's woven into a Hero's Journey type of story with a modern cinematic sensibility that is easily palatable for modern audiences. And while the film may look conventional, in the context of Indian cinema, this is a daring experiment. Rajamouli has been known to push the boundaries of mainstream filmmaking with some of his recent films. His 2012 film Eega recontextualizes the South Indian revenge film by having a man reincarnated as a fly as the enactor of revenge, while his 2009 film Magadheera contains some of the conceptual seeds that would become Baahubali, as it tells a tale of a bike racer who has visions of a tragic past life. Magadheera, at the time, inspired a wave of other films in the other regional industries which explored similar themes.

The film is buoyed by an exceptional ensemble cast. Prabhas, who has starred mostly in romantic comedies and some action flicks before this, is perfect as Baahubali, a hero virtuous to a fault. He's worked with Rajamouli before in one of his early films, Chhatrapati (2005). He is balanced out by Rana Daggubati, whose character is driven with more complex emotions of guilt, jealousy and anger. Ramya Krishnan, Tamannaah Bhatia and Anushka Shetty are capable female leads, especially Krishnan and Shetty, who play very strong female characters for an Indian production. my favorite role has to go to the esteemed veteran Tamil actor Sathyaraj, who plays Baahubali's loyal companion Katappa. His character arc of loyalty, betrayal and redemption is the film's most powerful in my opinion.

M.M. Keeravani does the soundtrack. It uses leitmotifs and songs in very interesting and poetic ways. As any layman probably knows, many Indian movies tend to be musicals. The musical intervals may be used to illustrate a person's viewpoint, introduce a character or substitute for a romantic interlude like a love scene. Here, the usage of songs does not only that, but it also adds several more complex layers to the narrative.

And here is where the film really, truly shines. It's true that the movie is not perfect and has its faults. You could fault it for having uneven CGI: the film was made at ~30 million dollars each, which is a pittance compared to modern Hollywood blockbuster budgets.The action sequences could be described as over the top, but in this context I think the action sequences are justified, as we are seeing demigods on the battlefield, of course I would expect things to be ramped up to almost silly levels of awesomeness. (Not to mention it's very entertaining.) The film builds up some characters, while under-developing others, especially during the duology's final climactic act. Despite all of that, there are moments in this film that shine like magic.

One of these magical scenes is my favorite scene in the entire movie series. Notice the picture above. It's from one of the earliest musical sequences in the film. The main character, Shivudu, has been trying to scale this wall of water for almost all of his life, never succeeding once. He is haunted by the apparition of a woman after seeing a mask fall down from the waterfall, and he becomes a little obsessed by it. This sequence sees him attempting to scale the mountain for the last time, guided by her spirit. Employing a mix of live action footage and CGI, it's absolutely gorgeous to watch. It's accompanied by Keeravani's song Dhivara (the title of the song changes depending on the language version, this is the original Telugu title), whose lyrics are mixed in with Sanskrit chants. These chants themselves have multiple poetic layers of meaning, and to the person that understands these layers, it gives him or her a deeper understanding of the scene. By the time he scales the mountain, there is a palpable feeling of triumph, and a sense that the Hero's Journey has just begun.

In the end, this daring experiment has proven fruitful to the filmmakers and cast. It seems to have an appeal that is pan-Indian as it has reached Indians from all over the country, even members of the Indian diaspora scattered all over the world. This is a big deal in light of the fact that India is a large country of many provinces and many languages and cultures, often entrenched with their own film industries. What this film has done is it has given the Indian people something to be proud of as one of the world's oldest and largest cinematic cultures.

Monday, June 05, 2017

With DC's new film, (Wonder) Woman is the future of Man

It seems apt that the very first popularized superheroine in comics, Wonder Woman, be given a movie of her own. Superheroines in film haven't always been met with the warm reception that this film has been getting; films like Elektra, Catwoman and the reprehensible Supergirl (1984) have been critical and commercial failures. What Wonder Woman does right is it sticks to a tried and tested formula, it does it right and it does it really well.

Wonder Woman takes place in the backdrop of the first World War. Diana (Gal Gadot) is part of a tribe of warrior women separated from the rest of the world. When the realities of the war reach their isolated island, Diana goes to the frontlines to defeat the God of War, Ares, who she thinks is behind all of it.

The first half of the film, where Diana experiences a society completely unfamiliar to her, is quite clever. We often view superheroes as modern day gods; here, we see Diana as superhero and modern day god experiencing the folly of mortal men. She becomes this metaphorical magnifying glass that helps us see the absurdity of the society we have created, where rooms full of men (and only men) wage war and affect the lives of innocent men and women. To Diana (and the audience) the senselessness of it all shows itself in full force. 

The period where the movie takes place is also proves quite resonant, because it is during the interwar period that women gained the right to vote in countries like the UK and the US. People saw how women contributed to the ongoing war effort, and this started to shift popular thought. In this context, Diana's appearance coincides with this paradigm shift where women were no longer seen to be too weak or inconsequential to decide the fate of their country.

Diana is portrayed as an ideal (if a little naive) hero, poised and ready to help those in need and serve the better good. On the battlefield, she exudes power and courage, embodying the qualities of what we want our heroes to be. It's a far cry from the previous installments of the DC Cinematic Universe, composed of films filled with wacky antiheroes or brooding superpowered men who can't help but whine about how sad they are. The mere fact that this film doesn't pretend to be a dark, edgy deconstruction highly works in its favor, and I hope it sets a precedent for future films in the same universe.

Diana's naivete ties into one of the most interesting themes in the movie. Diana comes to know that war does not stem from a single cause; as her friend Steve Trevor points out (and I paraphrase), war is messy. She comes to learn the inherent nature of humanity, and her idealism is challenged by this notion. However, the ending of the film seems to undermine this theme, as it scapegoats the source of the conflict with a simpler explanation.

Wonder Woman is a fun movie. It goes back to the roots of what superhero movies can be, and it plays a few things a bit safe, but this is the film that DC and Warner Brothers need right now.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Belated May Reviews 2017 (2): Ang Araw sa Likod Mo, Colossal

Well, this was late.

Ang Araw Sa Likod mo takes us through two narratives: one involves a group of soldiers on the hunt for a notorious terrorist leader, the other involves two brothers trying to make sense of it all by either trying to leave or trying to join said terrorist group. It's reportedly based on true stories from our Scout Rangers. I've a few relatives who joined the Rangers and their training is tough, their job challenging. Like any job in the armed forces, their lives are perpetually at risk.

The movie does tackle a few interesting things. It immerses us into the war zone, where families are displaced thanks to constant strife. The relationship between the military and civilian population is also explored, showing us civilian attitudes towards the military and their role in the conflict.

I've heard that this is an advocacy film, but what is it exactly trying to advocate? Regarding the struggle down in Mindanao, the film frames it as milieu rather than a simple problem. It addresses radicalization among the civilian population, but it doesn't really show how or why these people become radicalized. The ending also leaves the brothers' story in a rather ambiguous place. Then again, that may be the point - that the struggle in Mindanao has become so entrenched that the reasons behind the conflict, and the why the conflict continues, collectively do not have a satisfyingly simple explanation. The conflict itself becomes the reason for radicalization in this regard. The film's complex treatment of its characters as shades of gray rather than mustache twirling bad guys works in its favor.

If we consider the story of the two brothers as a side story to the main plot, I'm guessing the film tries to humanize its soldier protagonists, portraying them as flesh and blood human beings with their own stories to tell. Here we come across a problem, as the film seems to be more interested in showing us the military operation taking place instead of developing its characters. Few of the soldiers are in any way memorable, and to be honest I could not remember any of their names just a few days after watching the film. I still remember Mabalasik-1 and Mabalasik-2, however.

And while it gives a lot of attention to military details on procedure, the film is crafted with some weird decisions. Soldier characters are seen ignoring trigger discipline. Some characters brandish rifles and point them at other people, but you can clearly see that the rifle isn't loaded with a magazine.* The film's title also refers to feeling the sun behind you during the morning prayer of Fajr; while in reality you should pray it before the sun comes up.

Ultimately the film does have some interesting things going for it, and in my own opinion it's not that bad a movie; however its noble aim is marred by strange storytelling decisions.

Proceeds from ticket sales go to the HERO foundation, which helps the families of soldiers that were killed or injured in the line of duty. It's definitely a good cause, and watching this film can help, though if you're not interested in the film, you can still help by donating directly to the charity and  give tribute to our men and women in uniform.

*granted, you can technically load a round into a chamber of an M-16/AR-15 one at a time without using a magazine, but it's IMO impractical in a combat situation like this.

Nacho Vigalondo's latest film, Colossal, is about Gloria, a woman who loves going on parties and getting wasted drunk. The constant hangovers and her erratic behavior drives her relationship with her boyfriend Tim to the breaking point, leading him to kick Gloria out of his apartment. Gloria moves back to her childhood home, intending to piece her life back together. Meanwhile, strange things begin to happen on the other side of the world as a giant monster starts attacking Seoul.

Colossal explores a lot of topics: there's the obvious story connection between giant monsters and one's own personal neuroses, where real flesh and blood monsters are scarier because they're part of the people walking among us. There are also allusions to the power people can wield over other people and the anatomy of the abuse that inevitably forms within this hierarchy.

The first half of the movie sees Gloria on a path towards rehabilitating herself. It's clear here that she's trying (and not always succeeding) to take control of her life. The second part, on the other hand, shifts completely to something else. It becomes less of a (slightly) romantic comedy and feels much closer to a thriller. I'm not exactly on board with the shift in tone, but I eventually liked what eventually came of it. The only real problem I had with this shift was that it gave me the impression that the movie was trying to cram in too many things into its structure, leaving a lot of things out (Gloria isn't held accountable for some of her actions, for example, and her alcohol abuse is mostly handwaved away during the second half of the film.)

While not perfect, Colossal is still an enjoyable film, which again brings a human perspective to the limitless possibilities of fantasy and science fiction.