Friday, November 29, 2013

Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (Mario O'Hara, Cinemalaya 2010)

Among the films featured at the 6th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, this historical film is one of the most important. A faithful retelling of one of our history’s sourest incidents, in which a hero orders the death of another hero, the film is a lemon juice distilled painfully on Filipinos’ open, gaping wound.

As the film credits roll on, excerpts of various komedya plays are presented. We then see Andres Bonifacio (Alfred Vargas) playing a prince searching for the Ibong Adarna, an elusive bird with healing powers. Among the audience member is his lover, Gregoria de Jesus (Danielle Castaño). The next few scenes show the depth of the couple's love for one another. A bawling Gregoria is briefly detained after the arrest of her husband, Andres Bonifacio.

The trial of Bonifacio is dragging in most parts. The repeated questioning of the prisoners takes its toll on viewers' patience. Director O'Hara should have shortened the segment by showing successively similar responses to a single question. Limited budget obviously played a role in his inability to reconstruct the events narrated by the witnesses. The theatrical elements of the trial are a perfect fit for the moro-moro proceedings. At the start of the trial, the inept lawyer tasked to defend Bonifacio is already asking for forgiveness for his client's wrongdoings.

Angelina Kanapi steals the film with her portrayal of the Ibong Adarna and narrator. Instead of lulling the viewers to sleep, she is the one that energizes the whole film with her strong screen presence. Donning a semi-kalbo haircut and made up in white make-up, she eerily recalls Death in Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal. When she wears a red and yellow dress and performs a dance, I can't help but see it as a dance of death by Spain. The colonizing country can then be seen as the one responsible for Andres Bonifacio's death.

I love the music score for this film. The hymn Marangal na Dalit ng Katagalugan was played in the background during the execution of Bonifacio. The lyrics refer to the fight against the Spaniards. Again, the film seems to suggest that Spain was mainly responsible for the death of Bonifacio. The lovely kundiman Jocelynang Baliwag was given prominence in the early part of the film. It was the song sung by Gregoria and the captured soldiers of the Magdiwang faction. In the guise of a courtship song, the lyrics pertain to love for the motherland. Another song that serves as an outlet for nationalism is the song Sa Dalampasigan. It pays tribute to martyrs who served as inspiration of the Philippine Revolution.

It’s always a pleasure seeing O’Hara conjure wildly creative films like Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio. Marvel at how he showed the horrors, the bombings, and the killings during the revolution using minimal money. Heck, save for the interminable trial scenes, I was mesmerized with the film’s inventiveness and Filipino-ness. The band playing komedya music; poem readings; the folk dance pandanggo sa ilaw; all these things, and more, magically transported me to the late 19th century Philippines. O’Hara’s film reminds me of Raya Martin’s A Short Film About Indio Nacional. The latter is similarly structured in framing the revolution within the popular mediums of entertainment in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Even though Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio failed to received an award from the five-man jury at Cinemalaya 2010, it is a must-see film for Filipinos. It may spur them, as I did, to learn more about our heroes and history. If you’d enjoyed the film, then you’ll probably relish O’Hara’s offbeat masterpiece Sisa. A film that can only come from the wonderful imaginings of the veteran director, the movie suggests Sisa is the voluptuous morena lover of Jose Rizal.

Original online posting in July 2010

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Andrew Leavold's forum on Pinoy Grindhouse movies (or, the story of his search for Weng-Weng)

Blood (red, green, and splattered all over). Boobies (perky, taut, and free from silicone implants). Bullets (and bamboo spears and lots of bombings).

These are the elements of the B-movies, which were the focus of Andrew Leavold’s November 4, 2010 lecture at UP Videotheque. Popular fare in drive-in theaters, these movies also end up as the second, lesser film in a twin-bill offering. Ranging from horror films, women-in-prison dramas, post-apocalyptic revenge flicks, they have been described as trash, crass, and low class. But, to those hordes of people who grew up watching them in Betamax or VHS tapes, these films have been wonderful guilty pleasures. Judging from the audience response to a preview of Mark Hartley's documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed, a new generation of moviegoers is ready to partake of the sumptuous silliness of Philippine-made grindhouse movies.

Some of the more memorable cheesy exploitation films were made and produced in our country. Quentin Tarantino remarked that the Philippines is unique in being a filmmaking country with two distinct industries. There is a film industry that caters to local audiences. LVN Films, Regal Films, and Star Cinema belong to this group. There is another film industry that caters exclusively to international viewers. This segment is responsible for the Roger Corman-produced horror films, Eddie Romero's Blood Island trilogy, and the Chuck Norris actioners.

Leavold spoke of how Filipino visionaries and businessmen such as Conrado ‘Boy’ Puzon, Bobby Suarez, and Cirio Santiago dabbled into this goldmine of exporting films. Puzon bought local films for a pittance. He refurbished and dubbed them into foreign languages. He made lots of money selling them to video and film distributors all over the world. The Anthony Alonzo-starrer W is War made it to Europe. An IMDB reviewer described the film as ‘one of the bizarre masterpieces’ from Europe. Suarez initially started dubbing Chinese films into English. He then made a couple of films such as Cleopatra Wong and The One-Armed Executioner, both of which penetrated the almost-impregnable North American market.

Cirio Santiago is a name I grew up with. As a teenager I used to borrow tapes from the neighborhood Betamax rental store twice a month. There came a time when I have watched all the famous films (read: award-winners and commercial hits). I started venturing out with unknown titles. One of those obscure titles I saw was Cirio Santiago’s Stryker.

Theatrically released in the Philippines as Battle Truck, Stryker tells the story of a loner in a post-apocalyptic world. Good guys and bad guys fight it out over scarce water. They ride in armored-clad cars, gas-guzzling motorcycles, and a heavily-fortified truck. It had been years since that fateful viewing but I still remember the midget pissing on the lead character’s face, the scantily-clad girls, and the truck magically evading all sorts of obstacles (Shoot the wheels! Shoot the wheels! Aah, idiots). I didn’t know then that it was a rip-off of Road Warrior. I was just a high school kid having lots of fun watching it. My enjoyment of the film was amplified because the film was made in the Philippines. Wow! I became more proud because the international film was directed by a Pinoy filmmaker. Little did I know that those exported films will reach, and profoundly affect, other kids like Quentin Tarantino, who ended up as an ardent fan.

On the other side of the world, an Australian boy in Bahrain makes do with pirated tapes of films. He encounters some outlandish films with actors of unknown nationality. They don’t look like Chinese and they neither resemble Mexicans. A close encounter with a 2.9 feet midget named Weng-Weng sets the young Leavold to begin probing the origin of those films. Having identified them to be Philippine-made, he scours for more of those weirdly-attractive films. The decades-long passion for Pinoy B-movies resulted in a documentary, a doctoral thesis, and a humongous, to-die-for collection of 700 tapes/videos of obscure Philippine-made films.

Leavold is an engaging speaker with lots of stories to tell. He narrates how Cirio Santiago would usually bring a jeepney at Malate and hauls aboard a troop of almost drunk, sleepy Caucasians willing to join the day’s shoot. He also speaks of how marketing savvy people pushed up the name of local actor/s to top billing even if he/she appears only for a few minutes in the international film.

Leavold’s inexhaustible love and respect for those Pinoy B-movies has a magical way of rubbing on to his listeners. A UP Film graduate complained that she had a hard time getting access to those B-movies. Leavold then spoke of a magical place where nearly all the rare stuff that film buffs want to view is available. Quiapo is the place where he finally got a copy of Romero's The Ravagers. The pretty graduate then remarked that she may have to break her vow of not buying pirated DVDs. Those B-movies seem to be so irresistibly fun.

A Caucasian friend of Leavold told of how scared he was during their sojourn to Quiapo. On the day major western countries issued travel advisories, there they were in crowded Quiapo. He kept hearing 'Americans, Americans' in the utterances of the people. He might have been a new visitor who mistook the people's hospitality and over-eagerness to help for hostile acts. What about Leavold? Well, he didn't mention any untoward incidents. He just mentioned that he wants to learn Filipino in order to better understand the films of Chiquito. In fact, he will return to the Philippines in 2011 to shoot an action film with the members of what he affectionately calls the goon community of local cinema.

In 2007, Quentin Tarantino brought his stash of Pinoy B-films for screening at the Cinemanila festival. He also rode a pedicab in going to Malacañang Palace. In 2010, Andrew Leavold braved the throng in Quiapo to get his loot of priceless pirated DVDs. If these distinguished people were willing to risk their limbs just to put the spotlight on Pinoy B-movies, then those films must have been worth viewing.

Haven't seen a B-movie? Take the plunge and explore the fascinating flipside of Philippine cinema. The films are outrageously funny and adventurous, and just like comfort food, they are nice to devour once in a while.

Original online posting in November 2010

Update: Andrew Leavold's documentary The Search for Weng Weng premieres tomorrow, November 29, 2013 at UP Film Institute's Cine Adarna.

I've seen the Cinemalaya cut of the documentary and it is way, way better than the stodgy Machete Maidens Unleashed documentary. The Search for Weng Weng chronicles the huge Australian's obsession with the Filipino midget actor Weng-Weng. 

It eschews the boring heads-only interviews and takes the viewers across the Philippine island of Luzon. I had a big laugh over the filmmakers' misadventures at the lavish dinner by Imelda Marcos. I was intrigued with reports about Weng-Weng's magnetic charm with women. Ultimately, it made me search out for the Weng-Weng movies. I bet you will, too.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Blue Bustamante (Miko Livelo, Cinema One Originals 2013)

Steve, Mark, Big Bert, Little John, Jamie.

If you are familiar with the names above, then you're probably a fan of Voltes V, an ultraelectromagnetic popular mecha anime in the 1980s. That period was blissful years for me and my siblings. All five of us got no worries in the world then. However, several kids were not as lucky.

Blue Bustamante deals with a boy bullied by a classmate. His father just left for Japan. He seeks shelter and comfort in a Japanese superhero television serial Force Five. His idol among the heroes is Blue Force. Unknown to him, Blue Force will eventually be played by his father, George Bustamante.

How his father end up into the shoes of Blue Force is a wonderful plot device. It shows the extent Filipino parents go through to feed their children and send them to good schools. Long before they were called Bagong Bayani or New Heroes, scores of intrepid parents left for greener pastures abroad during Martial Law. They get out of their comfort zone and suit up different costumes. They solve problems on their own.

George Bustamante (Joem Bascon) does not want his wife to know about his unexpected unemployment. The 'kapit sa patalim' situation forces him to shed his blue uniform and don a new costume complete with a bladed weapon. He takes up the offer of his friend to work as a stuntman for the Force Five show. He ignores the pain and bruises he gets from the show's kinetic action segments. He is flabbergasted to learn that his son idolizes the costumed hero that he plays. Even from afar, he gets to inspire his son to team up with the bullied ones and fight off evil doers.

Blue Bustamante takes me back to my teen years. That era saw the reign of the Sony Betamax and Nintendo Family Computer machines. There was no Facebook then. Overseas Filipino professionals had a difficult time battling homesickness. I wrote countless letters to my father, an accountant assigned to countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. I relayed to him the results of the Philippine Basketball Association games. I shared the achievements of my siblings. I always sneak in a postscript to my notes. The letters from home eased the loneliness of my father. He complimented and praised my writing for being organized. That was a big boost to me then. 

June (Dimples Romana), wife of George Bustamante, uses the postcript in her letters to unleash her cariño brutal. She reminds him not to have affairs with other women. Her concern is not without basis because George has a good heart and good-looking as well. There's a hilarious scene showing male friend Ramon ogling over George's body. I also loved the diner chat between George and a cute Japanese girl.

The film do not show all Filipinos abroad as outright heroes. Ramon (Jun Sabayton) works in Japan because he refuses to care for his grandmother back home. But, he treats George as a brother. The mustachioed duo reminds me of my relatives in Saudi Arabia. If there is a sequel then let them work in Saudi Arabia.

Blue Bustamante is a nostalgic treat for the Voltes V generation. It will bring back wonderful memories of playing with a gigantic robot toy, and Super Mario Bros. on the Family Computer. It will make you yearn for the old Japanese shows. Several of my younger male office mates always relate how they anticipate watching the show Shaider. They had a kick peeking on the underwear of Annie. 

I had never seen an episode of Shaider but our family dog is named Shaider. Just goes to show how my siblings and I embraced Japanese pop culture. As I'm writing this, my mother unearthed my kuya's precious highly-detailed Gundam robot toy in mint condition. Pardon me, but I'll end this piece and take a look at that ultrafantastic toy.