Thursday, May 29, 2014

Happyland (Jim Libiran, Cinemanila 2010)

Who is the all-time highest goal-scorer of the Futbol Club Barcelona?

Is it David Villa of the World Cup 2010 winning team Spain? No. Is it exciting-to-watch Argentine player Lionel Messi? No.

The answer is Paulino Alcantara. The early 20th-century footballer scored a phenomenal 357 goals in 357 matches! He is one of the legendary players of the venerable club. And, he is a Filipino.

Flashforward to the 21st century. The sport of football is no longer on the radar of most Filipinos. Despite cable television bringing live broadcasts of World Cup 2010 matches to local viewers, football did not make a huge dent in the consciousness of the Filipino people. It seldom dominates headlines and front page stories in our basketball-crazy country. So it is quite surprising and gladdening to read news, and see television coverage, of the Philippine football team's entry into the semifinal round of the AFF Suzuki Cup 2010.

On the night the film Happyland had its world premiere at Cinemanila 2010 in Robinsons Movieworld Galleria, a spunky football team from the Philippines pulled a stunning 2-0 win over the AFF Suzuki Cup defending champion team from Vietnam. Phil Younghusband, who had a cameo role in the film, scored the second goal for the defense-oriented Azkals. The extraordinary good news is a perfect assist to the advocacy of non-profit organization Futkal Inc and filmmaker Jim Libiran.

Futkal is an acronym for Futbol sa Kalye (Football on the Streets). The group passionately teaches children the game of football in an alternative way. It takes away the notion that football should be played only on soccer fields. It is definitely not a game only for rich kids. Anybody can play football in an abandoned street, open space, or vacant lot.

Jim Libiran returns once more to the streets of Tondo in Manila for his second film Happyland. Just like his debut film Tribu, he focuses on a group of young people. These impoverished young boys are no longer rappers but futkaleros or street footballers. A Spanish missionary priest named Fr. Jose manages the group and zealously preaches the gospel that football is the sport for Filipinos. He always tell the amazing exploits of footballer Paulino Alcantara in Europe to prove his point.

Shunning the edgy story, dark milieu, and raw violence of Tribu, Libiran molds a more mainstream film for his target audience: the youth. His new film deals with the problems of a varied set of young characters such as a neighborhood basketball idol, a fleet-footed snatcher, a pedicab driver, and a pair of solvent-sniffing friends. The straight-forward story traces how this odd group of resilient misfits rise to redemption. 

The best parts of the film are the football match segments. They give valuable insights on how the futkaleros play the game and how they behave. Their unorthodox playing style may not be the beautiful game played by the Spaniards or the Brazilians but it produces good results for the team. In March 2010, a Tondo futkalero was part of the Phl team that won a trophy at the Street Child World Cup in South Africa.

Happyland may not be a beautifully slick film, marred by still-to-be-refined blurry shots, but it gets an A for advocacy. Libiran plans to show the film to schools and youth clubs all over the country. The film screenings will hopefully result in more kids getting out from a drug and crime-filled life and getting into the wonderful world of football. Local teams winning tournament matches are mere bonuses.

Updated (May 2014):

The above piece was posted online in December 2010. A lot had happened during the three years or so of football seasons. Lionel Messi dislodged the Filipino legend Paulino Alcantara as FC Barcelona's all-time top scorer in March 2014.

Football is very much in the local news these days. All of us are excited over the Azkals' championship match against Palestine in the AFC Challenge Cup on Friday, 30th of May, 2014. We are just a win away from entering the 2015 Asian Cup.

Good luck, Azkals. Make the Philippines a happy, happy land!

Photo credit:

Temptation Island (Joey Gosiengfiao, 1980)

The original version of Temptation Island is one of the craziest and funniest local movies ever. The dialogues are truly hilarious. Here's a sampling of memorable lines:

Suzanne: 20/20 yata ang vision ko
Bambi: Sorry ha. I thought that was your bustline

Ship stowaway: I'm a latecomer
Azenith: Latecomer?!? Sa gitna ng dagat? Ano'ng sinakyan mo, taxi?

Suzanne: So what else is new? Everybody needs a shipwreck once in a while.

Can't get enough of these delectable lines? Watch the film and you'll get lots and lots of similar sumptuous dialogues. What makes them doubly funny is the way they were delivered by the superb ensemble. Aside from the witty comic quips, the movie also boasts of memorable blazing hot visual images such as Suzanne’s lotion scene with her girl Friday and the mouth-watering ice cream/chicken fantasy scenes.

The film does a neat job of introducing the colorful characters. A plethora of promotional spots for the Miss Manila Sunshine contest convinces several ladies to join in the hunt for the title. Four beauties get selected in the pre-finals night of the contest. Miss Body Beautiful is the innocent Dina Espinola (Dina Bonnevie). Miss Photogenic is the social climbing crybaby Bambi Belisario (Bambi Arambulo). Miss Friendship is the bitchy burgis Suzanne Reyes (Jennifer Cortez). Miss Talent is the self-confessed con artist Azenith Tobias (Azenith Briones). The four finalists are then whisked off to a yacht to start their month-long interaction with the beauty pageant judges.

As fate would have it, a fire breaks out in the yacht. The occupants jump overboard for safety. The four lovely ladies end up in a desert island devoid of potable water, food, and shelter. The hot summer season compounded the woes of the ladies.

Five other people also share their misfortune as castaways. Joshua is the gay coordinator of the beauty contest. Ricardo is the current flame of Joshua. Stowaway Alfredo is an ardent admirer of Dina. Umberto is a hunky cruise ship waiter. Maria is the loyal girl Friday of Suzanne. Their interactions with the finalists spell out who will survive and who will not survive the horrendous ordeal. The castaways get to throw away their petty quarrels, biases, material riches, and even their panties.

I adored the performances of Azenith Briones and Jennifer Cortez. The scheming Azenith Tobias is a joy to watch. When she confesses to being a crook, she did it with style. Briones’ cool delivery of her spiel is sheer delight. Her natural confidence is also seen in her wonderful speech at the coronation night. I also enjoyed her 'shit' moment with the hunky waiter. Wow! Those are excellent, profound dialogues from Umberto.

However, it is Cortez’s Suzanne Reyes who ends up with the lion’s share of memorable dialogues. From ‘Komunista!’ to ‘My panty stays right here’ to ‘Hindi nga, eh. Parang nag-jogging lang,’ her retorts are outrageously funny. Her outspoken character always gets downright dirty in the ground due to a series of cat-fights but her optimism and sunny attitude helps her to stand tall at the end of the film.

Several films have been inspired by Joey Gosiengfiao's classic howler. A 2011 remake of the film failed to approximate the original's audacity and sensuality. Another film, Kung Fu Divas, does a better job of paying homage. Both movies featured Marian Rivera, a lovely actress with a tinge of kookiness in her veins. Yep, she is easily on par with the dazzling beauty queens of the original Miss Manila Sunshine contest.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Superfan (Clodualdo del Mundo Jr, 2009)

Generations of Filipinos have lined up for movies and shows of the Superstar, Nora Aunor. Legions of fans have bought her albums. A devoted few followed her every move. From among these avid, passionate fans, none was as obsessed as Armando ‘Mandy’ Diaz Jr.

Superfan is based on an essay written by Diaz for the book Si Nora Aunor sa mga Noranian: Mga Paggunita at Pagtatapat, edited by Nestor De Guzman (Quezon City: Milflores Publishing Inc., 2005). In the essay titled Himala, Diaz narrated his miraculous devotion to Nora. He started adoring her when he was only 6 years old. The decades-long obsession with the Superstar resulted in a humongous collection of Aunor records and memorabilia. 47 volumes of clippings chronicle the odyssey of Nora from Albay to San Francisco Bay. 10 photo albums capture the highs and lows of the petite actress.

Near the end of the essay, Diaz, who was then only in his late 40s, mentioned that if he dies ahead of Nora, he wants the burial to be postponed until Nora visits his wake. The self-confessed number one fan of Nora died on June 7, 2008 at the age of 48. Nora was then, and still is, residing at the United States of America.

Did Nora visit his wake? The film ingeniously says yes, yes, yes! Three Aunors (a singing child sensation, a popular matinee idol, and a multi-awarded actress) pay respect to their ever loyal fan, Diaz. To paraphrase the title of Nora’s first single under Alpha Records, the Aunors ‘only came to say goodbye.’ With their visit, they rekindle memories of wonderful performances and songs by Nora.

The short film features generous amount of video clips and songs. We see Nora and Tirso Cruz dancing in Guy and Pip. Then, there's the silent showdown between Nora and Vilma Santos in Ikaw Ay Akin. And, who can't forget the scalding bath given by Nora to Phillip Salvador in Bona. The latter film dealt with a superfan who hooked up with a bit player in films. Bona became angry after learning about her idol's plan to migrate to North America.

In Superfan, Mandy Diaz Jr. (Nonie Buencamino) remarks that he will never follow Bona. He will stay loyal to Nora even if she migrates to the United States of America. Nora is, and will always be, in his heart and mind.

The 23-minute film failed to capture the near-mystical devotion of Diaz to Aunor. Only a small part of Diaz’s collection was seen onscreen. The film made up for that weakness by sharing an incident that tells a lot about the relationship of the two. After a big fight with his idol, Diaz threw out some of his collection. He then proudly narrated how Nora went out of her way to make amends. They made peace and he resumed his collection of all Aunor things.

I adored the neat device of having three Aunors visit the wake. That was a nice tribute to Diaz. I thought he really deserved that. After all, Diaz is, in his own words, alone in the ranks of Noranians that truly loved Nora ‘super-to-the-max.’

Original online posting in August 2009

Paalam Aking Bulalakaw... (Khavn de la Cruz, 2006)

So far, this is the only film of Khavn that I truly love. Yes, that's the proper term: love. 

Paalam Aking Bulalakaw... (Goodbye My Shooting Star) deals with all permutations of that powerful four-letter word. The film is also an ode to the people, food, icons, and landmarks of the University of the Philippines. And, it took an Atenean to show the charms of the national university.

Just what it is in the waters of Ateneo? Brilliant Atenean filmmakers Khavn and John Torres create unconventional films (Paalam Aking Bulalakaw and Todo Todo Teros) that make you fall in love, or if you’re already in love, will make you love more. They blend picturesque poems with poetic pictures. They conjure images of pretty, smart ladies in their stories. If John had Russian student Olga, then Khavn has Pinay actress Ana Maria.

Ana Maria (played by Meryll Soriano) is a frustrated violin player still hurting from her break-up with an American boyfriend. She meets up with friend K one afternoon because it was getting to be a bore at home. The duo starts their tour of the University of the Philippines at Sunken Garden.

A cool, loony optometrist teases K about his crush for Ana. He answers that having a crush is against his religion. It had been years but K wasn’t ready to reveal his feelings for Ana. Not yet, anyway.

The young man drops subtle hints by bringing up the subject of love frequently. He asks friends what they thought about love. Egay states that sex is a better trip than love. Elmo says love is an amalgam of hate, lust, and sex. Ana opines that love is sadness and happiness in one person.

But, for K, love is Ana. This unrequited love of K shows up in his heart-wrenching songs and poems. And, boy, are they potent! Songs dealt with shooting stars, lonely moon, wanting, and eternal devotion. On the other hand, poems tackled endless waiting, love letters, and goodbyes.

This extraordinary film shows the wildly romantic side of Khavn. A devastating blend of hardcore mushy songs and heart-core poems will also bring out the hopeless romantic in you. Sheesh! Just when you thought you were over that special someone, this film will make you pine for her/him.

So, still interested in this achingly beautiful film? Proceed with caution. You’ve been warned!

Original online posting in November 2009

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Imburnal (Sherad Anthony Sanchez, Cinema One Originals 2008 Best Picture Winner)

Cebu, Boracay, and Davao City are the top tourist destinations in the Philippines. In the case of Davao City, visitors must have felt safe and secure with the city’s almost crime-free tag. Davaoeño filmmaker Sherad Anthony Sanchez shatters the city’s image with his latest courageous film.

Imburnal is the best local film I’ve seen in 2008. A brutal and unflinching statement against the death squads of Davao City, the movie portrays a city plagued by extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances. In a ruthless bid to cleanse the city of crime, vigilantes exterminate juvenile delinquents and suspected criminals as if they were mere cockroaches.

The rancid lives of the poor kids and teenagers were fleshed out in gory details. They shoplift clothes. They freely narrate their experiences in bed. They indulge in group sex inside the filthy sewer pipes. They roam aimlessly the well-lighted streets of the city in the middle of the night.

The sewers of Punta Dumalag in Barangay Matina Aplaya end up as favorite hangout spot of two boys (Brian Monterola and Allen Lumanog). The pair spends countless hours in the sewers. They sleep there. They play with cockroaches. They swim in the murky waters. The sewerage system is the place where they witness loveless sex and lifeless bodies of teenagers. Childhood laughter gave way to fear and apathy after corpses started to sprout like mushrooms.

In March 2009, three months after the release of the film, the Commission on Human Rights initiated a much-delayed probe into the unexplained killings of 814 people in Davao City since 1998. Most of the vigilante-style killings have been attributed to a shadowy group called the Davao Death Squad (DDS). City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte denied that the local government was behind the DDS. He said the killings were the result of gang wars, drug trade rivalries, and personal grudges.

Imburnal compares Davao City to a well-maintained, white-painted tomb. On the surface, it is so peaceful, clean, and nice to look at, but inside, it stinks and is full of rotten things. A memorable scene from the film shows a trio of juveniles traversing the city’s expansive cemetery. The cemetery is so big that they eventually got tired trekking the place. They will encounter dead bodies outside the cemetery as well. Davao City is pictured as a humongous, stinking cemetery.

The 210-minute film contained other highly memorable scenes. The initial scene surprised me because I never knew that a kid was lying on the concrete sewer pipe. The kid blended so well with his environment that he became invisible. A similar scene showed another marginalized young denizen sleeping on a pathway along the river. He became visible only when the camera started to zoom in on him. With this film, Sanchez is doing his share in exposing the gravity of rampant salvagings in his city.

The fantastic last sequence shows the playful two boys aping Tarzan atop a tree along the river. I had a hearty laugh after hearing and seeing a tree branch break. I was laughing so hard that when another branch broke I was caught unaware. I gasped and it took me some time to gain back my wits. Childhood dreams are easily broken in Davao City.

If you’re game for a different kind of viewing experience, then try to see the director’s cut of the film. Just prepare, really prepare, to get in the flow of Sanchez’s hellish and pitch black vision of Davao City.

The film won the Best Digital Lokal Picture Award at the 10th Cinemanila Film Festival and the Best Picture Award at the Cinema One Originals 2008. It also nabbed two major awards at the 10th Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea. 

Original online posting in June 2009

Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Sherad Anthony Sanchez, Cinema One Originals 2006 Best Picture Winner)

The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is getting lots of bad press these days. The entire nation still have not recovered from the shocking massacre of 58 people in Maguindanao, and days later, we also have to deal with the hostage-taking of 75 people in Agusan del Sur and the escape of 31 inmates in Basilan.

Violence in Mindanao is also getting ample screen time with several feature films and Cinemalaya short films such as Angan-Angan and Latus dealing with the topic. The award-winning Engkwentro, filmed in Metro Manila, alludes to the death squad of Davao City. Another film on desaparecidos and extra-judicial killings in the city is Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s experimental film Imburnal.

Davao-born director Sanchez came to prominence with his debut film Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other). He utilized an unconventional way of essaying the effects of violence on the people of Mindanao. Two narratives converge but one narrative seems to be an allegory. This extraordinary film specifically deals with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-led rebellion. It tells the intertwining stories of people wounded by the armed conflict.

An elderly babaylan wakes up to find stigmata in her arms. She struggles to find her place in a world transformed by modernization and wrecked by rebellion. The likes of her is no longer given the honor and respect accorded to them in the old days. Long before the coming of the Spaniards in the Philippines, a babaylan is a well-respected priestess and healer. Spanish colonialism marginalized the female babaylans. The latter-day surviving babaylan gets no respect as she tries to fend off a horny teenager who eyes her as a sex object. The soldiers make fun of her singing.

A young girl and her brother scour the forest for their parents. They probably symbolize the children orphaned by the rebellion in Mindanao. The verdant scenes in the forest highlight the excellent cinematography.

A member of the New People’s Army (NPA) accidentally kills a comrade. He hastily leaves their camp and crosses over to the camp of the government soldiers. He is not treated as an enemy. He later jams with the soldiers on a couple of videoke songs. Music as a unifying element was folk group Asin’s suggestion on bridging the gap between opposing armed forces.

In the film, a comrade teaches her colleagues that the NPA does not treat a government soldier as an enemy. There are three enemies of the group: imperialism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and feudalism. The female comrade then mentions two of the nation’s abhorrent feudal oligarchs, the Aboitizes and the Lopezes.

Lopezes?!? Aren’t they connected with the Cinema One channel? Isn’t Cinema One the group which gave seed money for independent filmmakers? Isn’t filmmaker Sanchez one of those given seed money? Yes, Sanchez was, and still is, a beneficiary of the despised feudal lords, the Lopezes. Last year, he was a winning finalist for the poetic film Imburnal. This year, he was the main creative consultant to finalists of the Cinema One Originals Digital Movie Festival 2009.

Sanchez is one of the more courageous independent filmmakers out there. I’m eagerly awaiting his third film. It will probably tackle once more issue/s in Mindanao. Meanwhile, if you’re brave enough to try out unconventional films, then watch his feature films Huling Balyan sa Buhi and Imburnal. Check out the first film and if you sort of like it, then try out the more experimental Imburnal. Graphic images of poverty and hopelessness from the latter film will leave you scarred for life.

Original online posting in December 2009

Sheika (Arnel Mardoquio, Cinemalaya 2010 Netpac Winner)

The film Sheika, a captivating and haunting valentine to the beautiful but violence-wracked island of Mindanao, is my favorite at the Cinemalaya 2010 festival. The powerful images (including an 'imprisoned' Gary reading Shie's journal) and life-affirming stories crawl their way into your head and stay embedded there along with your cherished memories.

Fe GingGing Hyde comes up with a devastating performance as Shie, a Tausug widow who lost her mind after the deaths of her sons. I cannot forget the part wherein she attempts to shield her son from an assassin’s coup-de-grace. Her unexpected action at the bridge is the best I’ve seen yet of maternal love and sacrifice in local cinema. Until the very end, she fiercely protects her children from the snares of the devil. Diablo. That is the word she used to describe the goons. It bespeaks of the deep hatred she had for these fiends.

Combining the sensuality of Charito Solis, the fierceness of Nora Aunor, and the subdued acting of Lolita Rodriguez, Hyde is so awesome that I can’t think of any actress that may do justice to the role of Shie. I was wondering who the festival officials had in mind for the main character. It was said that a pair of Cinemalaya officials voiced out their preference for a mainstream actress.

Filmmaker Arnel Mardoquio did the right thing in withdrawing his film from the New Breed competition. He refused to heed the 'suggestions' of the powers that be. He stuck with his decision to film with a purely Mindanao-based crew and actors. In the end, he was vindicated. The resulting film eventually won the Netpac Award.

The bittersweet movie boasts of a brave, gripping script and lovely soundtrack. It is the first indie film to deal directly with the notorious Death Squad in Davao City. Previous films, such as the excellent Imburnal and Engkwentro, only allude to extra-judicial killings by nameless death squads. Sheika takes the issue head on. It presents the true story of a mother who’d lost her four sons to the heartless assassins of Davao City. It indicts the local business group for supporting the death squad members.

The soundtrack does not seem to include a song by Joey Ayala, but his song themes are very much apparent. Davao City and Mindanao in the film were not unlike the places depicted in the songs of Ayala. Gun-related violence and bloodshed mar the beautiful city and the bountiful island. Hamletting and discord are widespread. With corpses springing out from nowhere, the city is slowly turning into a cemetery. Pastilan! Pastilan... Ang Dabaw ay sementeryo!

However, just like Shie, Davao City and the rest of Mindanao can still recover from a traumatic past. Twisted loving care from a friend helped Shie to get well. Local songwriters and filmmakers seem to agree that love can overcome violence and hatred in Mindanao. The Cinemalaya 2010 standouts Limbunan and Sheika both utilized Asin's immortal song Himig ng Pag-ibig in their soundtracks. Amidst all the misery and ugliness brought by the war, the Mindanaoan filmmakers are still hopeful that beauty, peace, and love will reign someday in the southern Philippine island.

Original online posting in October 2010

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (Remton Siega Zuasola, Cinema One Originals 2010)

Days before the start of the Cinema One Originals 2010, there were high expectations for the film entries of Richard Somes and Remton Zuasola. Somes gained a well-deserved reputation for his film Yanggaw, which won majority of the awards at the Cinema One Originals 2008. Zuasola won raves for his Cinemanila 2009 short feature winner To Siomai Love. I haven’t seen the latter, which was said to be a one-take wonder, so I wasn’t sure if he deserved some of the buzz. I became more curious about his Cinema One entry when I learned that it was also done in one take.

One-take full-length feature film? Can Zuasola really pull it off?

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria exceeded all my expectations. The phenomenal film is a knockout combination of adept filmmaking and caustic portrait of a Filipina mail-order bride and her debt-ridden family. Imagine mixing some of the colorful female characters of Noli Me Tangere, the craziness and wittiness of a Joey Gosiengfiao comedy, the savvy skills of a real-time method filmmaker, and the competence of a Cebu-based crew and actors, and you've got yourself a potent brew of pure indie film goodness. It is so good that as the end credits roll on you cannot wait to watch it all over again. It is simply the must-see Pinoy indie film of 2010.

The film begins with a mother searching for her daughter, Eleuteria. Along with her husband and her other daughter, they scour the area for traces of the lanky teenager. The latter is seen trying to drown herself in a creek.

Eleuteria is a mail-order bride who, until the last minute, dillydallies with her decision to go to Germany. She has a local boyfriend. This fact, along with the thought of being ruthlessly shoved into marrying an elderly foreigner named Hans Kirschbaum, makes Eleuteria hesitant to go abroad. Ironically, these two factors become crucial decision changers in the end.

The spine-less boyfriend desperately coaxes her to elope but eventually surrenders because of strong opposition by the parents, relatives, and friends of Eleuteria. Another spine-less male figure is her fisherman father. The latter objects to his daughter's impending marriage but doesn't want to impose his will on the matter.

When she decided to drown herself, Eleuteria tries to call attention to the fact that she does not want to go away. Locked in a psychological battle, she just doesn't want to give in to the whims of her mother. However, constant nagging by her mother made her decide to accept her elder's wish. The belated decision is not so much a daughterly obedience but more of a rebellious, contemptuous act against her mother and the spineless male figures in her life. In a chance meeting with a childhood friend, she says she will never set foot again in their small hometown.

But, just like migratory birds frequenting it, they do come back to Olango Island, Cebu. Cousin Merle, recently separated from her German husband, comes home for good. With her savings, she is able to build a three-storey house. She is the one guiding Eleuteria every step of the way.

The film captures the long, eventful journey of Eleuteria from a creek to the boat terminal in a masterfully orchestrated one take. The ensemble acting is so natural and realistic that the local residents don't mind the shooting happening in their midst. The actors are just like members of a regular family out to send off one of their family member. Even the crazy guy seems to be not out of place. 

Most barrios in the Philippines have their share of loonies. In this film, the barrio has craziness as its theme for a fiesta. Aside from the crazy guy, there are other interesting characters in the film such as the scene-stealing father and the Paris, Italy-based (!?!) recruiter. Their interaction with one another produces loud guffaws from the audience. The witty screenplay is based on a novel by Maria Victoria Beltran.

Zuasola deserves all the hoopla (and awards) for his film. On the other hand, Somes' film Ishmael didn't live up to expectations. Its best scene shows a fallen alien unsheathing his blades on his arms and whooping up hordes of Decepticons. Oops, I think that is from the film Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. See, I can barely remember good things about Ishmael. Somes loses his magic touch with his second film. I hope Zuasola doesn't succumb to the so-called sophomore jinx.

Original online posting in December 2010

Friday, May 23, 2014

Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Lav Diaz, 2004)

October 24, 2009.

Several malls observed United Nations' Day by holding events. Some of you may have celebrated their birthdays or anniversaries on that day. For a dozen or so moviegoers at Fully Booked's U-View, they spent half of that special day watching Lav Diaz's majestic story, Evolution of a Filipino Family.

It was a mini-celebration of United Nations' Day at U-View. Two award-winning Filipino filmmakers, a Filipino-Chinese film critic, a middle-aged Caucasian male, and a smattering of local cinephiles patiently sat through the 11-hour epic film.

11-hour film!?! Who would have thought of doing that?

Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino
is epic storytelling at its best. Only a genius like Lav Diaz can consistently create films that are more than 5 hours in length, and win acclaim and awards in the process. This film is Diaz’s response to Lino Brocka’s dictum of creating films for fellow Filipinos. It is a film in which local moviegoers will identify themselves with the aspirations and travails of the Filipino family.

The story initially focuses on a rural family. Three female siblings take on farm jobs because their father was incarcerated for theft. As the film progresses, we get to know of two more families. There is the family of treasure hunters in Benguet. A father and his adopted sons try their luck looking for gold. The third family is a fictional and dysfunctional one. The radio-based family is made up of a lecherous stepfather, his wife, and his stepdaughter. Just as the family of treasure hunters keeps track of a favorite radio program, the audience also anticipates the continuing drama and adventures of the three sisters and the gold prospectors.

Lav Diaz utilized various tricks to keep the audience wide awake. He inserted scenes of voice talents doing work for a melodramatic radio program. The loud, booming voices and emotional faces keep the audience enthralled. There are also footage of grave political mistakes captured on video. Watching this film is probably your only chance to see unexpurgated video versions of the Ninoy Aquino assassination and the Mendiola massacre of farmers in 1987. These videos were stunningly powerful and rabble-rousing.

But, ultimately, the harrowing tales of the families are the ones that will keep the viewers glued to the screen until the end. There is a killing here and a massacre there. There are incarcerations. And, then, there are those family reunions. There will be a happy ending for one family and a sad ending for another family.

As the end credits roll on, the cinephiles lingered. When the lights came back, a spontaneous, overwhelming applause erupted in the small room. The audience obviously loved the film. Almost half of the attendees that night came back the next day to watch another Lav Diaz film, Agonistes. That is the effect of a Lav Diaz film. Once you've seen an epic film by Diaz, you'll be begging for more.

Evolution of a Filipino Family is a highly recommended film. It may have a problem with synchronized dialogues but it is a film worth celebrating and worth allotting 11 hours or so of your precious time.
The storytelling is so intense and gripping, you will not notice the minutes quickly passing by.

The Cinemanila group must be commended for exhibiting three Lav Diaz films during the festival in October 2009. Now, the question on local cinephiles’ minds is ‘when is the much-awaited screening of Batang West Side?’

Original online posting in November 2009

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Walang Alaala Ang Mga Paru-Paro (Lav Diaz, 2009)

Tasked to create a short film for an omnibus project of the Jeonju International Film Festival (JIFF), Lav Diaz came up with the 59-minute film, Butterflies Have No Memories. He is always pushing his films to the limit. A minute more and it would no longer have been considered a short film. However, the JIFF organizers trimmed it down to 40 minutes in order to make it fit in with two other short films. The longer version is available in the DVD box set released by JIFF.

In the extremely loaded film Butterflies Have No Memories, a bearded man named Ferdinand ‘Pedring’ Belleza is yearning for the return of mining in his town. He worked as chief security officer of a multinational mining company for decades. When it closed down, he lost a well-paying job, as well as his family.

The long-legged beauty Martha is a scion of the mining owners. The family closed the mining company after toxins heavily polluted the river. Their hasty departure turned the former prosperous place into a ghost town.

The return of fair-skinned Martha fuels irritations among local residents. She is likened to the so-called snow from Canada (mine tailings) that triggers skin rashes among the residents. Her former playmates, Carol and Willy, no longer have time to accommodate the young Canadian lady. They are so busy doing household chores or eking out a living. It is ironic that Martha, named after the Biblical character known for her hospitality, is treated badly during her visit.

There is a tinge of envy for the rich, single, and carefree visitor. Some people are more hostile. Pedring hatches a plan to kidnap Martha. His love for money reigns supreme over memories of good times with the family of Martha.

The short film alludes to the destructive effects of mining in Marinduque. Mine tailings caused the biological death of Boac River in 1996. The mining company left the place after decades of operations. Subsequent proposals to re-open the mining site are repelled by the Church and environmentalists.

The hellish effects of mining/treasure hunting were earlier tackled by Diaz in his majestic epic story Ebolusyon Ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino. A female character from the film admonishes her husband to give up mining. 'It is hell,' said the sight-impaired woman. Indeed, the mining area became a burial ground for gold prospectors and treasure hunters. Diaz will return once more to the issue of treasure hunting in a film project titled Agonistes.

Butterflies Have No Memories contains elements one would expect from a Lav Diaz film. Shot in bleak monochrome, the abbreviated film includes a couple of long takes. The lush ambient sound is also here along with scenes featuring animals/insects. I always look forward to the last two elements, ambient sound and inclusion of animals. They play a big part in making Diaz’s films so natural and realistic.

What I didn’t expect is the peculiar, dream-like ending. It features three adult men donning Moriones masks. Their epiphanic encounter with a swarm of butterflies triggers a change of heart for one of them. The sublime last shot is that of a prostrated young man in the middle of the forest while a pair of Roman soldiers looks on.

Lav Diaz is truly a great filmmaker and storyteller, equally adept with short features and epic stories. Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-Paro is his best short film so far and one of his most symbol-laden films. It is a wonderful amalgam of mundane and insane images.

Original online posting in October 2009 

Now Showing (Raya Martin, 2008)


Now Showing captures the joyful and carefree ways of a young Filipina in the time of That’s Entertainment, a popular talent-variety show hosted by German Moreno.

A fledgling, and possibly young, filmmaker shares a fervent wish via an animated message. The filmmaker/animator wants to be just what every body else wants…you know, to be a star and to be always in the spotlight. The film’s initial scene cuts to a shot of a spotlight. Wait, it is a series of headlights. But, where is the performer? A precocious good-looking tween named Rita comes out from a closet and proceeds to belt out a song. In her birit-best performance, she does a heartfelt interpretation of Celine Dion’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now. She then segues to acting. This segment is a bittersweet nostalgic trip. Yep, it reminds one of the amateurish talent workshops of That’s Entertainment.

Filipinos are obsessed with celebrities. Several of them join talent shows to pursue their dreams of making it big in the world of showbiz. The world of Rita is a similar world of stars and performers. She was named after sultry Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. Her grandmother was a former actress. Filipino kids like Rita are coerced to perform in front of relatives during parties.

Director Raya Martin creates a perceptive, three-part coming-of-age story of a post-Marcos baby. The excellent first part features Rita mimicking her favorite celebrities, playing street games, studying at night, and searching for a neighbor’s dog. We do not see her cry even if she was not included by fellow kids in a Christmas presentation. She refuses to let her disappointment with a lackluster birthday party get in her way. The only time we see Rita cry is during an out-of-town vacation. It is not clear what exactly triggers her outpouring of emotion. It may have something to do with Rita’s absentee father or Rita’s grandmother-actress. The segment following Rita’s emotional outpouring gives us some clue on what Martin wants to convey.

Part two of the film deals with the black-and-white movie Ang Tunay Na Ina. The 1939 movie is one of a handful of extant local feature films from the pre-World War II era. Rita’s grandmother might have been one of the characters in the movie. There is a scene in which a group of children performs a song-and-dance act. This scene echoes a similar Christmas scene in Part One.

The second part of Now Showing will most likely be a head scratcher to casual moviegoers and Raya Martin newbies. It consists of black-and-white film images played randomly, backwards, and upside down. It should be noted that Martin is a director obsessed with early twentieth century films. He is fond of using archive materials and found footages in his films. Martin may have been lamenting the poor state of film archiving in the Philippines. Just like the excruciating part two of Now Showing, most of the early local films are incomplete and barely viewable.

Part three of the film shows an older, less fearful, and still staunch entertainment devotee, Rita. The nubile girl tends a pirated DVD stall in Quiapo. Her mom always reminds her to be cautious of boys. At the end of the film, a pregnant Rita shuns the spotlight hoisted on her. She rides a bus back to the province.

Just like other Martin films, Now Showing can be enjoyed at different levels. Running parallel to Rita’s coming-of-age story is the evolution of home entertainment videos. From the distorted audio and video images of a well-played VHS tape, the film looks back at the faded audio and scratchy images of the1939 film Ang Tunay Na Ina, and fast forwards to the crisp audio and crystal-clear images of digital video. Another topic tackled was the irony of entertainment-obsessed Filipinos lacking appreciation for film heritage and film preservation.

If you've slept through the film or walked out during a screening, give the movie another chance to work its charms. Based on my experience, several Martin films get better with every succeeding viewing. From an initial bewildering/exasperating experience, my third viewing of Now Showing has made me a fan. It is so far my favorite work by Martin. 

Original online posting in 2008

Independencia (Raya Martin, 2009)

Maverick filmmaker Raya Martin groped for words in an impromptu speech before the start of the June 12, 2009 Philippine premiere of the film Independencia. 'Anong sasabihin ko?,' he muttered to his companions. The 24-year-old director may not be the best speaker out there, but he speaks volumes with his consistently excellent films.

Independencia is Martin's latest masterpiece. The 77-minute film is the second in a trilogy of films depicting the Philippines under colonial powers. Martin uses dominant film formats and popular entertainment fare during each period to frame his stories. The first film Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional utilized kundiman, theatre plays, and silent films to depict the Spanish period. This time around, Independencia employs newsreels and early 20th century studio films with false backdrops to show the destructive effects of the American colonization.

The Americans saw the potential of films as propaganda. They utilized films in their battles. Popular newsreels shown in the United States depicted American soldiers stopping an insurrection in the Philippines. The fighting was pictured as an uprising against an established government and not as a war between two countries. Most of the newsreels were just re-enactments showing American soldiers in good light.

Martin is a young man obsessed with early Filipino films. Most of his films deal with silent films, early 20th-century newsreels, and pre-war Filipino films. In this film, he recreates a movie that counters the jingoistic intent of an American newsreel. He indigenizes the movie’s format and content. The movie features three dark-skinned actors portraying characters fleeing from American troops. The characters speak in an old-fashioned local language. Local myths and superstitions are depicted in the movie.

The false backdrops of the movie riled two viewers seated near me. They complained about the obvious studio sets, which they perceived to be a result of the producers' stinginess. Another one blurted out 'The film is boring.' I expected this kind of reaction from them because I've overheard them saying it was their first time to see a Martin film.

The film Independencia is Martin’s most accessible film so far but it is still arty fare for casual moviegoers. The film is in black-and-white. The film is not talky but speaks a lot about heavy stuff such as colonialism, propaganda, and native resistance. The film does not feature a popular actor. Vilma Santos was originally set to play the mother but later backed out. In hindsight, Tetchie Agbayani is the right and better choice for the role. She is a morena and closely resembles Sid Lucero, who plays her son.

The theme of native resistance was enhanced with the film's utilization or visualization of lines from protest songs such as Marangal na Dalit ng Katagalugan. The song Bayan Ko dealt with an image of a caged bird crying and struggling to break free. The film featured several released birds flying straight to freedom. The last line of the country's national anthem was enacted at the stunning, blood-stained ending of the film.

Martin may have stammered in his introduction but he managed to greet the audience with 'Happy Independence Day!' It was a happy day too for independent films and independent filmmakers. His courageous film was a perfect ender to a whole day of local film screenings at the 14th French Film Festival at Shang Cineplex.

Original online posting in June 2009

Manila (Raya Martin & Adolfo Alix Jr, 2009)

‘Sir, black and white po iyung pelikula,’ reminded the ticket seller at the movie theater. Cineplexes must have received complaints from avid fans of Piolo Pascual during the first few days of the film's screenings. I bought a ticket and went in to see this two-part film. Lo and behold! There were just a handful of moviegoers at the movie theater. This is the only Piolo movie I’d seen that failed to bring in the crowds at a theater.

More than the black-and-white images of Manila, I thought the junkie role of Piolo must have turned off fans. Manila’s Day segment, helmed by Raya Martin, takes off from the last few scenes of Manila By Night. Drug addict William (Piolo Pascual) is able to elude cops chasing him and Cherie (Aleck Bovick). He spends the night at Luneta. He wakes up and loiters aimlessly. The rest of the segment, which shows William being rejected by people, is entirely new material based on a script by Ramon Sarmiento.

I didn’t like the Day segment of Manila. Martin took a big risk creating a sequel to what he considers the best Filipino film of all time, Manila By Night, directed by Ishmael Bernal. The time frame is too short to give some meat to the story. The acting and casting are not that good. Cry-baby Piolo is not credible as a hopeless druggie. He is simply too healthy to portray a young man desperately hooked on drugs. Rosanna Roces seems too young to portray his mother. John Lapus is no match to Bernardo Bernardo.

Martin knows every sequel or homage film will pale in comparison with the Bernal classic. I think his real objective, then, is to espouse the original, pre-censorship ending of the Bernal classic. As far as I know, the ‘happy epilogue’ ending, which was tackily attached to the DVD version of Manila By Night, was a concession made by Bernal to censors. In his Day segment, Martin rejects the ‘happy ending.’ He posits a bleaker ending for the character played originally by William Martinez.

The Night segment, directed by Adolfo Alix Jr., is based on another film classic, Jaguar by Lino Brocka. Never did I imagine liking an Alix film over a Martin film, but, in this case, I loved the Night segment more than the Day segment. My minor complaint with the segment is Philip (Piolo Pascual) was too much of an idiot. Director/scriptwriter Alix should have given the character stronger reason for blasting away. There is a major difference between this segment and Jaguar. Alix veered away from the latter’s ending. Just like Martin, he presented a bleaker ending.

The two segments present a dark, almost one-dimensional portrait of the city of Manila. The bleak endings give a scary, heartless picture of the city. There is nary a tinge of hope left for the main characters. The beautiful black-and-white images of police road blocks, flooded streets, mounds of garbage, and filthy ocean trap the protagonists looking for the exit. Death seems to be the only way out.

It is a good thing that jazzy and cheesy segments involving a film shooting were inserted at the middle and end of the movie. The film City of Love is an over-the-top romance story between a nurse and her remorseful boyfriend. The cheesy reconciliation of the couple happens in the middle of the night at the Ospital ng Maynila. The funny romp was a nice ender to an ambitious but uneven project of producer Piolo Pascual.

Original online posting in August 2009

Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional (Raya Martin, 2005)


‘Know yourself first,’ said the old man. And thus, the brilliant, multi-storied film Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional unfolds the history of the common man. For more than 300 years of Spanish rule, the common man was fed with tales of miraculous cures, manna, and promised deliverer. He was taught Christian teachings such as loving your enemies and being patient.

The first story features a young bell ringer, who grows up steeped in religion and miracles. Even a natural occurrence like a solar eclipse is seen as a miraculous event like the raining of manna. The children with their mouths wide agape seem to be in the act of receiving communion. The darkened sun may have been enticing as a eucharistic host.

There is a remarkable shot of elderly women streaming out of a church. In all of Martin’s films, this sepia-tinged shot was one of a few times wherein Martin got the effect he always wanted: an early 20th century picture coming to life. What makes it doubly memorable was the preceding segment dealt with a religious statue that allegedly comes to life.

Another story deals with an actor involved in a theatrical presentation of the Legend of Bernardo Carpio. The legend, as propagated by the Spaniards, tells the sad fate of an insurrecto trapped between two moving mountains. Every time Bernardo Carpio tries to break free, the earth shudders. The people content themselves with the thought that some day, Bernardo Carpio will successfully break free and lead them out of bondage.

The theatrical people participated in a game wherein they come up with words that define nationhood for the common man. One word seems to encompass all given words; and that word is yearning.

The penultimate story focuses on the yearning for freedom. Abuses by the friars and the Spanish government took its toll on the patient indios. A stunning and highly effective shot sees a group of indios throwing a Spanish friar into the river. A young man enlists to become a member of the revolutionary army. Unfortunately, the proletarian revolution failed because of lack of arms. An illustrado-led revolutionary army continued the fight against the Spaniards.

Raya Martin's A Short Film About the Indio Nacional ends with the sidetracked indio contemplating on his ideas of freedom and nationhood, while bourgeois-led events unravel on. These events will lead to the prolonged sorrow of the Filipino nation. Until now, the masses still yearn for a Bernardo Carpio, a hero, or a leader who will lead them out of poverty.

With allusions ranging from Jose Rizal’s novels to Andres Bonifacio’s failed revolution, the film works on various levels that it needs to be seen repeatedly to fully grasp its beauty and intellect. Every viewing unleashes new things. I can’t wait to see it for the nth time!

Original online posting in September 2009

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How to Disappear Completely (Raya Martin, Cinemanila 2013 Digital Lokal Best Picture)

I'm happy to see two award-winning films being screened outside the film festival circuit. Lav Diaz's Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan have had at least 10 blockbuster screenings so far at regular movie theaters. Raya Martin's How to Disappear Completely got a handful of screenings at UP Film Institute's Videotheque.

I was wary about Raya Martin's dabbling into the film horror genre. His previous works do not suggest an expertise in horror films. Playing a big part in my apprehension was Brillante Mendoza's horror film Sapi. I had high hopes for Mendoza's film because his Kinatay was a fantastic chiller. Unfortunately, Sapi is as boring as my bookish university professor.

On the other hand, How to Disappear Completely is your usual delicious Raya Martin film. It is a bit difficult to digest but the implosion of wonderful flavors linger.

A couple of genuinely funny moments intermingle with spooky scenes. The father (Nonie Buencamino) has an excellent scene telling the story of a royal couple who was blessed with a son. That son gave rise to a courageous breed of warriors. The father then knelt and pleaded before a cocky warrior. The kneeling harks back to a drinking session joke about a man kneeling to get back his girl.

The dinner table spat between the father (Buencamino) and the mother (Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino) is a delight to behold. The acting chemistry between the two actors is sublime. Meanwhile, their characters' daughter is in full view of the ongoing jousting. We seldom hear the reticent tween speak. But, once we get to peek into her young mind, she is brutally frank and as loud as your neighbor belting out an Aegis song in the middle of the night.

The poster, inspired by the iconic image of a peeping tom in Scorpio Nights, hints of sensuous goings-on in the film. The mother does a reading of how the daughters of Lot conspired to have sex with their father. That biblical story clouds the viewers' perception of the film's father and daughter relationship. Every interaction between the two reeks of suspense and foreboding. The viewers think of incest when there is none.

The masturbation scene of the daughter is steamy because the viewers felt like they were there at the bedside. Martin sets up viewers with a camera shot showing the room with widely-opened windows. Outside the house, we see trees and imagine several night creatures looking at the girl. Then, the camera cuts to the girl inserting her hand inside her shorts. A further cut shows the girl's orgiastic face. The viewers end up not only as voyeurs but also trespassers who have violated the privacy of her room.

The trespassing goes to a higher level. We get to enter the mind of the girl. We see the desperation of the girl to cut relations with her drunkard father and pious mother. One horrifying scenario of the girl reminds me of a real-life horror story. The missing students get me to thinking about the fate of female students kidnapped by bandits in Nigeria.

The first scene showing the girl threatening to kill all of them sets the whole tone of the film. I begin to imagine deaths in scenes even where there is none. The set-up shot of the Islands showing hundreds of coastal houses had me thinking of the destructive wrath of Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda).

Raya Martin is so good in setting up viewers for a scare. Stories told by characters send the viewers' imagination to run amuck. He is also good in setting up viewers for a hearty laugh. I can't hardly wait for him to dabble in comedy films.