Friday, February 22, 2013

Botong Francisco: A Nation Imagined (Peque Gallaga, 2012)

Imagination becomes imagined nation

From the fertile mind of the National Artist for Visual Arts, Carlos 'Botong' Francisco, bursts forth iconic images of a nation struggling to be free and progressive.

A stupendous three-panel mural highlighted in the short film shows these images in a grand manner befitting the stature of Botong. We see the rajahs of Tondo in all their splendor and majesty. We see Francisco Balagtas tormented seemingly by his fictional characters. 

Then, there is arguably the definitive depiction of Andres Bonifacio, with a bolo in his right hand and a gun in his left hand, leading the impassioned charge against the Spanish forces. And interspersed, along with the famous heroes, are countless Filipinos pushing forth with the fight for freedom. 

The mural, titled Filipino Struggles Throughout History, is a national cultural treasure that can be found in the Bulwagang Katipunan of Manila City Hall. The short film is a convenient and fantastic way of appreciating the highly-detailed mural. You don't have to strain your neck ogling at the piece.

Peque Gallaga, in a brilliant creative decision, brought these brave Filipinos to life in the short film. Foregrounding them in the festive, historical plaza across Quiapo Church, Gallaga alludes to Francisco’s two major visual themes; larger than life historical paintings and personal portraits of his hometown of Angono in Rizal. The Filipinos later thanked the Maestro for teaching them to see and remember their past.

Bestowed the nickname 'Botong,' from a dark-skinned character, the young child never outgrew his fondness for doodling and sketching. He preserved into paintings the dying traditions, fiesta events, and rituals of his townmates. A dancing couple gets morphed into a colorful fiesta scene. A boy wakes up from his siesta and walks out of the painting. The latter painting is notable for being half of a double-sided painting. It was an early work and there must have been a dearth of material to paint on for the young lad. 

Years later, Botong will no longer have to deal with scarce material. He will get to work on gigantic panels and murals. My school memory and recollection of Botong's images was that they were all life-size or larger-than-life paintings. But, when I saw several actual works such as The First Mass at Limasawa and the Introduction of the First Christian Image, they were not gigantic at all. 

I wasn't disappointed, though. The theme and composition of the paintings make them seemingly large. Most of Botong's images seem to sprung out from a CinemaScope film production. The martyrdom of Jose Rizal, the role of the babaylan in health care, Bayanihan, and the Blood Compact, among other images, will always be widescreen big in my mind.

Botong also got involved in the field of filmmaking. He was production designer for the classic film Genghis Khan, directed by Manuel Conde. The short film didn't tackle this fact although Ayala Museum's exhibition has a couple of watercolor works showing Genghis Khan-like characters. There is also a poster sketch for a period film titled Apat na Alas.

Catch the short film and exhibits celebrating the birth centennial of Botong Francisco at the Ayala Museum. They run until March 31, 2013.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Bladed Hand (Jay Ignacio, Cinemanila 2012)

Rizal Park is packed with people every day. Several groups wield canes for their arnis training. Towering over them is the bronze statue of Lapu Lapu, a master in eskrima. Further across the park is  the monument of Jose Rizal, a fencing aficionado. Although there is no concrete evidence of his having been trained in eskrima, Rizal was portrayed in the film Rizal sa Dapitan as having taught arnis/eskrima to local kids.

With an illustrious history and heroic practitioners behind it, arnis was declared as national martial art and sport of the Philippines in 2010. That event pushed various Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) groups to set aside differences and work together on a common goal: popularization of arnis/eskrima/kali.

The documentary film The Bladed Hand shows the growing clout of respected arnis/kali experts around the world. They help foreign police groups with their self defense training. They choreograph jaw-dropping action sequences for film productions.

Clips from the Jason Bourne film series showcase the efficiency of kali as a form of self defense. If only I’ve been exposed to these types of footage early in my life, then I would have enjoyed my arnis lessons in high school. Back then, I thought arnis is useful only with sticks. Boy, was I wrong. A mere ballpen in the hand of a kali expert is more than a writing implement. It becomes a deadly weapon. That scenario gives new meaning to the saying ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’

With or without a weapon at hand, a kali expert uses blinding speed and coordinated movements to thwart enemies during close combat. In the documentary, politician Juan Miguel Zubiri shared his secret in winning an arnis competition. He narrated that he practiced learning one movement until it became second nature to him. He repeated it with every new movement. It is akin to the training regimen of Ralph Macchio’s character in the Karate Kid. Zubiri was responsible for the passage of the arnis bill into law.

There had been a crucial change in the world of arnis since 2009. In that year, a documentary titled Eskrimadors by Kerwin Go dealt with in-fighting among the numerous FMA groups. Nowadays, the focus is on standardization of techniques and forms and the creation of a unified system of rules. Those are major challenges to the popularization of arnis as a sport.

The task is doubly hard as other close combat sports such as taekwondo and wrestling, both of which risk losing their Olympic status, try to improve their own popularity. Another issue for arnis is the need for competitors to wear protective gear which hinders some movements, thus taking away the potent, enchanting mix of breathtaking speed and dangerous blows.

Still, arnis as an art is a wonder to behold. With the dazzling sequence of attacking and parrying movements and side-steps, it is akin to a dance. It is tinikling, self-defense, komedya, and cha-cha rolled into one. Now, that is what I call a beautiful, lethal concoction of mixed arts.

The Bladed Hand, just like its subject Filipino Martial Arts, is a work in progress. At the time of its screening at Cinemanila 2012, director Jay Ignacio came across more footages of interest. But, as it is, the work screened at the Market Market cinema is striking enough to lure more people to the world of arnis. So, who wants to take up arnis/eskrima and join the company of Matt Damon, Professor Felipe Jocano, Dan Inosanto, and the legendary Bruce Lee?

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Obscured Histories and Silent Longings of Daguluan's Children (Gutierrez Mangansakan II, Cinemanila 2012 Best Picture)

This film is the first ever project of Mindanao-based filmmaker Teng Mangansakan. It must have been so special and important to Mangansakan that it took him three long years to finish it. At least three other feature films of Mangansakan were released before we ever got a glimpse of the film titled The Obscured Histories and Silent Longings of Daguluan’s Children.

The film’s initial scene has a prostrated girl by the sewers. From that grim image alone, I sensed the influence of Sherad Anthony Sanchez. Sure enough, other scenes and segments seem to have been culled from Sanchez’s experimental epic Imburnal. A trio of gossiping girls by the river recalls the exchange of rated-R stories of juveniles by the mangroves. The non-narrative style is similar to that of Sanchez’s Imburnal film. The credits listed him as producer although he must have also acted as creative consultant, even though indirectly.

There’s a memorable, gripping image of a male child riding a bent trunk of a coconut tree. Towering nearly five meters over his playmates, he clings precariously on to the elephantine trunk without a care for the world. Meanwhile, his playmates seriously vow to attend his funeral in case he falls to his death. That image of the reckless child struck me as representative of people risking their lives in order to leave the southern island.

The war in Mindanao may not have been shown directly but its effects are there alright. Scores of people are leaving for greener pastures. Socioeconomic services do not reach people in war-torn areas. Human trafficking is rampant. Young girls nonchalantly talk about cherry popping. Water and electric utilities are scarce. The woven stories and tapestry of images portray Mindanao as a lost paradise.

While Imburnal showed dead-end, cockroach-laden paths for the doomed juvenile delinquents, Mangansakan’s film shows glimpses of hope in shots of wide-open fields and verdant mountains. The seeds of peace and progress are waiting to bloom. 

Friday, February 01, 2013

Anac Ti Pating (Martin Masadao, Sineng Pambansa 2012 Best Picture Winner)

This charming little film tells the story of an ambitious Baguio kid aiming to make it good in Metro Manila. Armed with a few hundreds of pesos and a story manuscript, the intrepid Sixto Mangaoang takes the city bus in order to meet up with a publisher.

It had been quite a journey for the bullied fifth-grader. He gets encouragement from his English teacher and hones his writing skills. He manages to come up with an amazing tale about a highly adaptive shark that runs away and lives in the boondocks.

Highly adaptive students have been featured in two excellent films, Mes de Guzman’s Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong and Auraeus Solito’s Pisay. The former had a pair of siblings so focused on their studies that they can endure walking for miles in ruthlessly cold mornings. Meanwhile, Solito’s film featured a teacher asking his class of brilliant students, ‘why did the fish leave the seas?’ The answer was it had to leave its oxygen-poor surroundings and adapt to new feeding and breathing conditions.

Just like the bullied, chubby Pisay student Mat who’d needed a breath of fresh air, Sixto needs a breather from bullies and parental abuse. He draws inspiration from his shark tale and decides to run away. He is, I hope I get it right, what Ilocanos call ‘anac ti pating’ or one who is fearless, and wily. He is determined to pursue his dream even if it means leaving his family.

Sixto, who’d thought of going to Philippine Science High School, is a smart kid who knows how to fight his battles. He might not have relatives in Metro Manila but he sure has an ace up his sleeve in Doctor Rayos. The latter is the same person who’d shown him pictures of flooded Baguio, which makes the shark tale somewhat believable.

The film Anac Ti Pating has genteel warmth and wicked humor that makes it likeable. I loved the kodakan moments on Christmas eve. There’s something funny with the way Sixto engages in a swear word jousting with a Korean neighbor. Watch out, too, for the cameo of Kawayan de Guia.

The kid who portrayed Sixto is not the abrasive type of brat. His command of English is just right. English-speaking kids, most often, mar films made by Fil-Americans (e.g. Ron Morales' Santa Mesa and Tyrone Acierto’s The Grave Bandits). Poor Filipino kids are made to speak fluent English because it is convenient for the films’ target non-Filipino audience. On the other hand, Sixto is believable as an intelligent, English-speaking student. He is also the type of kid who can survive in the jungle city of Manila. Yeah, with his street smart ways and Ilocano blood in his veins, he’ll go places just like the Ilocano shark, Teófilo Yldefonzo, and reap literary honors and awards just like F. Sionil Jose.