Tag Archives: canon

Signal Rock and a Hard Place

Directed by Chito Roño
Written by Rody Vera

Signal Rock is a deceptively simple film whose complications begin with its current emergence in the public consciousness. It is released as an entry to the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, so to single it out as the excellent entry that it is should not be taken as a downgrading of the other entries. To make matters worse, the PPP follows yet another event, the older Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, so audiences who already splurged in watching this year’s entries might be understandably reluctant to spend further on the current (and pricier) lineup. PPP also features previously unreleased films from earlier festivals – this time a more definite guarantee of jury approval, notwithstanding the Cinema Evaluation Board’s weirdly moralistic downgrading of a couple of aspirants.

In fact, some of the PPP entries are also regional films like Signal Rock – Tara Illenberger’s Iloilo-set High Tide and Arnel Barbarona’s Manobo tale Tu Pug Imatuy come to mind, as well as the only one I’ve seen of the lot, Khavn’s CEB-victimized Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, which like Signal Rock is also set in Samar. A comparison of Balangiga and Signal Rock would be a useful place to start then. Where Balangiga’s narrative enlarges on the incomprehensible historical trauma of genocidally motivated colonial warfare, Signal Rock demonstrates the impact that globalization has made on even a far-flung Third-World island.

The movie is the director’s and writer’s second project set in Biri island, part of a municipality in Northern Samar – which makes it one of the Visayan islands closest to Luzon.[1] Their earlier Biri film, Badil (2013), featured a young man attending to his father’s unsavory (and ultimately bloody) vote-buying activities during an election period where the still-running mayor asks for support from his cohorts. Intoy, the Biri lad at the center of Signal Rock, is more recognizably provincial, by our usual cynical-urbane standards: laid-back, easy-going, content with helping everyone and indulging in occasional youthful hijinks, with an equally indulgent police chief making sure that he and his homies get their token share of punishment.

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His initiation into worldliness, in more ways than one, occurs when he falls in love with a local lass, whose father regards him as unworthy for a prospective in-law. Intoy’s naïveté catches himself off-guard: he could have known the kind of future he’d be facing if he reflected on the troubles that his sister had been struggling with as an abusive foreigner’s mistress, forced to seek refuge by herself in a foreign land. The lesson becomes even more pronounced in the dilemma of his best friend, whose childhood sweetheart returns as the now-prosperous wife of an elderly Caucasian, upon which his still-besotted friend is reduced to being his ex-girlfriend’s paramour. Intoy’s epiphany, that the women of the town are being groomed to work for – and eventually be claimed by – overseas masters, is something that most Filipino intellectuals have known for some time. Signal Rock’s first singular achievement is in restoring the sting to this revelation, by allowing the kind of Filipino we used to know to be overcome by it.

That insight alone would have been enough to add depth to any number of romantic comedies (and you might find it unusual for me to claim here that Signal Rock is, literally, a romantic comedy – more conventional in fact that the contemporary mainstream versions whose terms were set four years ago by That Thing Called Tadhana, Antoinette Jadaone’s indie-crossover hit). But the director-writer team have a better treat in store: where the usual melodrama, even the long-drawn-out telenovelas, would bypass a bureaucratic process and get by with merely mentioning it, the movie delineates the process itself and draws dramatic tension out of it, as well as some light comedy, essential suspense, and insightful glimpses into small-town relationships. Here the filmmakers manage to traverse the tricky depiction of desperation and corruption among the destitute without falling into the trap of poverty porn, via the still-rare culturalist strategy of refusing to pass judgment on any of the characters and by partaking of any instance in their celebration of their existence, no matter how paltry or seemingly pathetic.

This approach even enables them to engage in reflexive touches, as when the plot follows Intoy’s venture into Manila’s talons of neon, thereby equating his character with that of Julio Madiaga in Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag. In this particular instance, Signal Rock signifies its ideological superiority over Philippine cinema’s global critics’ favorite, just as Christian Bables’s performance as Intoy will prove to be more enduring than Bembol Roco’s still-impressive Julio M.: Maynila may remain one of the most technically accomplished Filipino film epics ever made, but none of its identity problems (sexism, homophobia, racial and anti-lumpen prejudice) mars Signal Rock’s engagement with a wide variety of working-class and lumpenprole types. A mother’s hard-heartedness toward her husband is explained via his past cruelty and negligence toward her; the said husband (Intoy’s father) is able to draw on his limited English-language expertise in order to redeem his daughter’s own standing as an overseas resident; a hotheaded fratricidal slacker retains enough of a conscience to surrender to authorities thanks to his close relationship with the parish priest, with whom he may or may not be lovers; and so on. The movie’s emphasis on mostly male characters derives not from a desire to heroize them (least of all Intoy), but from the circumstantial result of women abandoning the community in order to earn a living for everyone via foreign labor.

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The clue to understanding how the film can pull off the delightful hat trick of melding process, lead character, and community into one arresting narrative is in looking over the director’s background. I don’t refer to the fact that he happens to be a Samareño who acquired familiarity with the Philippine capital as well as with other global centers, or that his father was the longest-serving minister of Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law administration while he oversaw the “alternative cinema” screening schedule of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Chito Roño is generally overlooked in accounts of still-active survivors of the Marcos-era Golden Age, partly because of the progressive sector’s eagerness to reject anyone associated with the regime, but also partly because he devoted himself to so-called “low” genres, specifically those dealing with sex, horror, lurid melodrama, and action films centered on women.

Those who bothered to look more closely into his output were rewarded with some of the most innovative attacks as well as delectable performances in commercial cinema, in packages that weren’t burdened by the “prestige” imprint. More than Badil, Signal Rock would be the equivalent of David Lynch abandoning his usual offbeat material and methods in order to do his appropriately titled 1999 film, The Straight Story. Yet the same creative and critical sensibility infuses Signal Rock’s “regular” world. Intoy’s awakening to illicit relationships, for example, begins when he witnesses his friend resume his affair with his now-married girlfriend, and intensifies when the town mayor confides in him the paternity of his illegitimate son. When he starts witnessing people in similarly unexpected and possibly incriminating situations, he learns to practice discretion – a skill that comes in handy when he finally meets up with his girlfriend in the big city.

Roño’s directorial flourishes are more foregrounded in Signal Rock than they were in Badil, yet they remain unintrusive (as discreet as Intoy learns to be) – a sign of the filmmaker’s maturation. In the first few scenes with the title object alone, we already see expert overlappings of image and sound so that more than one event transpires in single scenes; the first time Intoy visits the place by himself, we hear the wind transformed into the sound of a woman weeping.[2] The movie is so full of these throwaway gems that the only advisable response I can provide for a first screening is to sit back and take in the pleasure of a conglomeration of talents who love what they do and know how to go about making it happen.

Note

[1] Because of the Northern Samar islands’ diagonal position in relation to Luzon, Capul island lies closer to Sorsogon Province although Biri is the northernmost Visayan municipality.

[2] Interestingly, the similarly named Signal Hill, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was named for its setting as the site of the first wireless transatlantic transmission, when Guglielmo Marconi awaited a signal from England on December 12, 1901. See Diana Lambdin Meyer, “Canada’s Vital Role in the Communications Revolution” (September 2, 2017).
[First published August 17, 2018, in the Philippine Entertainment Portal]

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Innocence Regained

Balangiga: Howling Wilderness
Directed [“not a film”] by Khavn
Written by Jerry Gracio, Achinette Villamor, & Khavn

A small town (now a municipality) on the eastern part of Samar island in the Philippines, Balangiga [balan-HEE-ga] was the site of the bloodiest conflict during the Philippine war of resistance against American colonization. In 1901, after the capture of “first President” Emilio F. Aguinaldo allowed Americans to hope that the war was nearing its end, Philippine revolutionaries succeeded in overpowering the 9th Infantry’s Company C soldiers stationed in the town, as a retaliation for the harsh measures it imposed to hasten the process of colonial attrition.[1] Less than 50 Americans were killed, but at that point it was considered the US’s worst overseas defeat, and evoked memories of the then-25-year-old Battle of the Little Big Horn (more popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand), where over 270 American soldiers died.

Little Big Horn had massive and far-reaching consequences for Native American opposition to Manifest Destiny, which by then had transmuted into “Indian removal.” The US’s overseas expansion was also premised on this mystical self-serving belief, with several veterans of the wars against Native Americans participating in the resubjugation of the first formal European territory in the Orient, then known as Las Islas Filipinas (translated by the next colonizers as Philippine Islands). General Jacob H. Smith claimed to be one such veteran, but had actually only seen action in the Civil War. Deploying racist and apocalyptic language, he ordered his subordinates to “kill and burn … [all persons] capable of bearing arms” on the entire island of Samar (the third biggest in the Philippines, after Luzon and Mindanao). Smith earned for himself the nickname “Howling” by announcing his intention to turn the island into a “howling wilderness.”

The US Army’s retaliation made American newspapers’ term for the account of the Philippine revolutionaries’ attack, the Balangiga massacre, ironic in contrast. A number of Filipino authors have called the retaliation the burning of Samar (with a 1974 Joey Gosiengfiao movie, scripted by novelist Wilfrido Nolledo, titled Sunugin ang Samar). The entire occurrence makes it the precursor of subsequent American atrocities in Viet Nam and the Middle East, but is lesser known than the later media-covered incidents or even the historical recounting of the “pacification” offensives directed at Native Americans. A recent release, titled Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, is premised on the retaliatory campaign, and made its own mark on local film history by winning best-film prizes in both the original academy as well as the original critics’ competitions. (Both groups have selected only five similar best-picture winners earlier, in over four decades of their rivalrous coexistence.[2] The version of Balangiga that they awarded, and which I also viewed, was a work-in-progress prior to being further trimmed to significantly less than its two-hour running time.) The film is scheduled for theatrical release mid-August in the Philippines and will be screened at a few major (non-Euro) festivals, with US screenings still in the planning stage.

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Balangiga details the flight of an old man and his eight-year-old grandson, from whose perspective and consciousness the entire narrative unfolds.[3] The boy’s name, Kulas, links him with another contemporaneous though older character from an earlier film, Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were] (1976); both share the (pre-automotive) road-trip structure encompassing their lead characters’ coming-of-age. But whereas the earlier Kulas was also a dispossessed peasant traversing the turn-of-the-century Philippine countryside, good fortune smiles on him at several points in his journey and adequately prepares him for participating in the anticolonial resistance movement suggested by a benevolent and committed Chinese Filipino that he meets along the way. Balangiga’s Kulas, despite his and his grandfather’s flight from conflict, cuts an even more radical figure. The fact that the movie resolutely refuses to share the feel-good humanism of Ganito Kami Noon and strews the otherwise ravishing archipelagic landscape with dead mammals (mostly human corpses) is only the starting point in articulating this difference.

What makes Kulas transgressive is the authenticity of his participation in the nightmare of war, whenever the opportunity presents or imposes itself. He saves a toddler, the only survivor in a village massacre, and successfully attacks an American soldier-straggler, by way of avenging the murder of Melchora, his beloved water buffalo. Yet in defiance of the war’s horrific reality, he persists in having playful, though understandably surreal, dreams, and plays childhood games by himself and with Bola, the kid he saved and calls his brother. Balangiga is, in a sense, simply a commemoration of Kulas’s rites of passage – confronting death, rescuing Melchora and Bola from harm, contending with older men’s cruelty, learning to pacify a traumatized infant and cook food properly, ministering to the sick, and burying the dead, among other skills that Filipino children have since then been forced to learn on their own.

The narrative also allows Kulas to be haunted by his memory of the massacre of his hometown, with the still-controversial church bells (confiscated by the US Army but being reclaimed by the Philippine government) worked in seamlessly via some of Kulas’s nightmares. The notion of haunting resonates with several turning points in Philippine history, most eloquently (and just as poignantly) with the still-contemporary reputation of Samar as a rebel-supportive territory during the period of growth of the New People’s Army.[4] The reconfiguration of hauntology to mark the end of Communism as a historical option and its subsequent spectral transformation that reminds resisters of neoliberalism and globalization that the past once held a reason to hope in the future: this may be, in a parallel sense, the lesson of Balangiga as well. The US Army retaliation convinced several anti-colonial fighters that resisting the advance of the Americans was futile, when in fact the Balangiga attack can be seen as one of the most forward-looking acts in the history of guerrilla warfare: the freedom fighters cross-dressed in women’s mourning attire and organized a procession of children’s coffins that actually contained the weapons that would be used in the attack.[5]

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The film’s director, Khavn (whose credit is preceded by “This is not a film by”), has made over fifty feature films and over a hundred film shorts (in a list he titles “This Is Not a Filmography”) since the 1990s. Aside from already being the most prolific Filipino filmmaker at such a relatively youthful age, he also has the distinction of presenting the temporally longest Filipino film, the 13-hour Simulacrum Tremendum, classifiable as a poetic, creative, or hybrid documentary screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2016, with the director accompanying the presentation, on the piano. Self-identifying as punk, Khavn collaborated on Balangiga with his partner, Achinette Villamor, as writer and producer, and the gifted queer author Jerry B. Gracio as co-scriptwriter. Villamor and Gracio are articulate, humorous, and (not surprisingly) unruly social-media influencers, while Khavn prefers a more low-key presence. In one of his rare past interviews, he had extolled the system of independent production for how it had allowed him to be extraordinarily productive; some of his more recent work, Pusong Wazak: Isa Na Namang Kwento ng Pag-ibig sa Pagitan ng Kriminal at Puta [Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory between a Criminal and a Whore] (2014) and Ang Napakaigsing Buhay ng Alipato [Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember] (2016), possibly even more impressive a work than Balangiga, already evince a longing to speak to the Philippine mass audience.

Yet it is Balangiga that manages the feat, with little better than a shoestring budget enhanced by percipient performers and audacious cameos by other Pinoy punk celebrities. Khavn deploys cinematic tricks (stop-motion animation, disorienting lenses, startling drone footage, ghostly superimpositions, etc.) as well as basic special effects that serve to emblematize the childhood world of Kulas. His persistent (though inevitably sordid) humor, tenderhearted embrace of Otherness, and contempt for everything represented by modern existence and its enforcement via wholesale genocidal-if-necessary violence – these make of Balangiga all that Filipinos can claim so far as their retribution for the incredible injustice visited on the country’s distant central island over a century ago. Its triumph as a work of art keeps the memory alive, marks the emergence of the first people’s artist from the high-art Valhalla of European film festivals, and calls for further progressive people’s initiatives that the still-ravaged nation will have to find ways of summoning.

Notes

[1] In a social-media post, Rolando Borrinaga, one of the prime movers in the campaign to recover the bells of Balangiga, recalled “what happened on the afternoon of Sunday, September 22, 1901”:

After a tuba store incident wherein two drunken American soldiers who tried to molest the girl waiting on them were mauled by her two brothers, Capt. Thomas Connell, commander of Company C, 9th US Infantry Regiment, then called for a town meeting and ordered the setting up of two Sibley tents off the northwest corner of the municipal building. When the townspeople had gathered, Connell ordered the arrest of all males, about 143 of them, and their detention overnight under the two tents without food and water. This act started the build-up of tensions that resulted in the famous attack one week later on September 28, 1901 and the subsequent taking of the now-returned bells. (Facebook, December 23, 2018, 7:20 p.m.)

[2] These five were: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak [When the Crow Turns White and the Heron Black] (1978); Lino Brocka’s Jaguar (1979); Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal [You Were the Only One I Loved] (1992); Gil Portes’s Mga Munting Tinig [Small Voices] (2002); and Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Magnifico (2003).

[3] “Howling Jake” Smith had originally defined people “capable of bearing arms” as those who were ten years old and above. In the frenzy of carrying out his command, however, US soldiers could no longer allow themselves the luxury of determining the precise age of preteen individuals, or trust the natives’ claims about the ages of their children. Hence a child such as Kulas was in as much danger as any other young teenager, and had to flee the site of carnage that had been his hometown (Facebook Messenger note from Khavn de la Cruz, July 21, 2018).

[4] More than a year prior to the attack by Filipino revolutionaries on the US unit in Balangiga, a guerrilla group laid siege to the town of Catubig, in what is now Northern Samar; the US Army’s efforts to regain control of the island accounted for the harsh measures that built up to the so-called Balangiga massacre (see endnote 1 for a more recent historical insight). From another period, in “The Fate of the People’s War,” an interview with Denis Rogatyuk in Jacobin Mag, José Mariá Sison said of the New People’s Army “that there is always a region which shines during a certain period. It shines in terms of being effective during offensives…. The most conspicuous development was Samar in 1976, with the NPA repeatedly taking over the police stations and construction companies in a few years’ time” (July 28, 2018). The most popular global impression of Samareños derives from the song “Waray-Waray” (recorded by Eartha Kitt and available in her 1965 live album, In Person at the Plaza), which uses the popular term for the people and their language, and reinforces their typology as a hot-headed and always battle-ready ethnic group. With regard to the bells confiscated from the Church of San Lorenzo de Martir, these were repatriated to the Philippines by the US Department of Defense in December 2018, after 117 years.

[5] In A Question of Heroes (1977, rpt. Mandaluyong City: Anvil, 2005), Nick Joaquin disputes the “[Gregorio] del Pilar legend: how [in 1897,] he and his men [supposedly] entered Paombong dressed as women, carrying their arms dressed as babies, and heard Sunday mass along with the unsuspecting guardia civil, on whom, at the bell of the Sanctus, they sprang with knife and gun, slaying the Spanish soldiers and making away with their arms” (p. 192). The fact that revolutionary sentiment at the moment of the inception of the nation found cross-dressing a feasible weapon against the invading American troops demands a scholarly treatment of its own.

[First published July 16, 2018, as “Amid the Nightmare of War, a Coming-of-Age” in The FilAm]

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The Storyline of Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980)

I wrote the following synopsis for my contribution to the well-received Queer Film Classics series of Vancouver-based Arsenal Pulp Press. The film I proposed to cover was (what else) Manila by Night. Since overshooting publishers’ expectations and revising by cutting down is easier for me than adding more material, I made the entry as detailed as I could. As expected, the editors (Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh) told me to drastically reduce what I presented – necessarily violating the plotline: the synopsis now found in the book is an enumeration of the names of the major characters and the most significant events that happened to each one. For those who wish to refresh their memory of the film without having to watch it all over, and who also won’t have the time to go through the full-length screenplay at Kritika Kultura, here’s the account of Manila by Night’s narrative as I had drafted it:

Virgie, a middle-class housewife, rushes her family so they can attend her son Alex’s folk-music performance. At the club, Kano, a lesbian drug pusher, sells some goods to Alex’s friends while Manay, a gay couturier, develops a crush on Alex – whose performance is interrupted by a gunshot and the ensuing melee. Kano proceeds to a massage parlor where a blind masseuse, Bea, is her girlfriend; Kano interrupts Bea’s profanity-laden quarrel with another masseuse, and offers her some weed to calm her down. Along with Gaying, Bea’s Girl Friday, they light up at the parlor rooftop overlooking the city lights where Kano declares her love for Manila.

Meanwhile at a Chinese restaurant, Febrero, a taxi driver, picks up Baby, his waitress girlfriend whom he keeps promising to marry. After Febrero drops off Baby and gets home, his wife Adelina arrives, takes off her nurse uniform, and starts having sex with him; one of their children wakes up and, their moment interrupted, they have to prepare baby formula. The next morning, Virgie prepares her children for school, scolding Alex for failing to budget his allowance and warding off her policeman-husband’s amorous advances. Her maid announces an unexpected visitor: Miriam, Virgie’s former co-worker in the sex trade, who requests that Virgie ask her husband to provide police protection for her circle of sex workers; Virgie scolds Miriam for being unable to improve her lot in life.

An assistant awakens Manay, the gay couturier, since some guests had already arrived at his atelier; among them is Evita, a name-dropping socialite who regales the other guests with her account of kinky sex the night before. Manay hides the man he brought home for the night and welcomes his lover Febrero, the taxi driver. Febrero asks Manay for money for his sick child and, as Manay hands over some cash, tells him he heard about Febrero’s new girlfriend, a bumpkin waitress. Alex, Virgie’s son, waits for his girlfriend Vanessa’s dismissal from her Catholic-school classes. They go to a motel for sex and drugs and Alex presents her with a necklace, from the money he bought using the additional allowance he wangled from Virgie.

Bea, Kano’s girlfriend, bids farewell to her live-in boyfriend Greg Williams, who’s going to Saudi Arabia as an overseas worker, Greg promising to send for her as soon as he gets a foothold in the Middle East kingdom. Nighttime, Manay has gone to Febrero and Ade’s house, to bring them some groceries. He discreetly asks Febrero for a date, helps Ade with her nurse uniform, and offers to take her to the public hospital where she works. In Manay’s car, Ade tells Manay how she loves Febrero for his willingness to take care of her and her children by other men. At the restaurant, Baby is accosted by Sonny, a customer who says she can make more money if she agrees to take on Japanese customers. Offended, Baby breaks away and tells Febrero what the man said; Febrero challenges the pimp to a fistfight but the stranger overpowers him.

Alex and his friends try to score some pot from Kano, who tells them to wait for her; the guys go to an outdoor disco where they watch working-class transvestites having a good time. After they complete the transaction with Kano, she recommends that they try out Bea for sex service. At Alex’s home, Virgie massages her husband, but because of her anxiety over Alex’s whereabouts, she pauses to take a tranquilizer. At the massage parlor, Alex, while enjoying a scrub-down and erotic massage from Bea, asks her about her blind condition; Bea replies that she has no regrets about her profession, and that she’s looking forward to working abroad when her boyfriend sends for her. In a slum district, Kano negotiates with some potential clients, then tells them to beat it when she notices plainclothes police trailing her; she evades them by disappearing up a narrow alleyway.

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At a crowded disco, Alex dances with Vanessa but acknowledges Manay’s signals to him. He excuses himself to go to the restroom, followed by Manay, the two of them agreeing to meet up after he brings Vanessa home. In a parking lot, Febrero and Baby are engaged in heavy petting in his taxicab, with Febrero convincing Baby to put out by claiming to love her and promising marriage as usual; their session (and those of other necking couples) is interrupted by a security guard who uses a megaphone to tell everyone to get off “private property.”

Meanwhile, after having had sex, Manay makes Alex promise to have no other gay lover; Alex agrees, but asks Manay to get help for Bea’s blindness. Manay goes to the massage parlor as a heart-attack victim is being carried out and bumps into Kano. The two of them have a discussion about true love, with Kano confessing that Bea’s her true love although she couldn’t extract the same level of commitment from her, and Manay stating that he doesn’t believe that love is more than just an illusion. While taking Bea to her home in Chinatown, Manay admits to being cynical about people’s claims while Bea tells him she just ignores anything that’s irrelevant to her; they agree to go later to Ade’s hospital to look for an eye specialist.

At the driveway of the hospital where Ade works, Manay, Bea, and Gaying are accosted by a mystic, who tells Bea that she (in an earlier existence) was an infamous 18th-century coquette who broke men’s hearts – hence blindness as her punishment. The three ogle a movie shoot being set up but are shooed away by a policeman. At the hospital reception desk, Manay approaches the head nurse to call for Ade, but the head nurse as well as the other nurses couldn’t find Ade’s name in the employees’ logbook, prompting an exchange of words between them and Manay. Ade is in fact at an abusive rich man’s home, quarreling with the guy because of his jealousy over her promiscuity.

At the Luneta, the people’s park, Manay tells Febrero that Ade has been deceiving all of them, while his friends discuss how in love he is with the taxi driver, and as some cultists pray to the spirit of light and a poet extols the city to street urchins. When Febrero gets home he waits for Ade but responds coldly to her advances, causing her to confess how truly she loves him. At Alex’s home, Virgie takes another tranquilizer and goes outdoors; her husband steps out to comfort her, and she tells him how she misses their son’s youthful innocence.

Late at night near a desolate slum canal, Kano encounters her girlfriend Bea, but the latter pushes her away. Gaying (Bea’s assistant) explains that Bea’s depressed because Ade turned out to be a fake nurse. Kano comforts Bea by giving her some cough syrup. They step into a pushcart and make love while Gaying steals some underwear from a neighbor’s clothesline. At the red-light district, Febrero and Baby are stranded in a traffic jam caused by a car collision; Baby tells Febrero that she’s pregnant but he erupts in anger, scolding her for failing to take precaution. While cleaning house, Virgie discovers a stick of pot and the stash it came from in Alex’s cabinet drawer, and she and her husband take turns beating him up; all bruised and bloodied, he runs away from home.

In the restaurant, Sonny, the same pimp who beat up Febrero, tells Baby that her lover won’t be returning now that she’s pregnant; he points out how the Chinese restaurant owner has thrown out his waitress-girlfriend in the rain, and tells Baby that she should play smart if she wishes to survive. In a residential slum district, as Bea quarrels with a neighbor, her supposedly foreign-based boyfriend Greg Williams suddenly shows up. She follows him indoors and he explains how his labor recruiter abandoned him and his fellow workers in Bangkok, en route to Saudi Arabia, and how he had to work as a waiter while borrowing money so he could come home. Bea snaps at Gaying for having been gone too long, then starts to blame Greg for his failure.

Religious devotees bring an icon of Our Lady of Fatima to Vanessa’s family. Virgie asks Vanessa where she could find Alex and Vanessa tells her that he’s staying with a gay couturier. Virgie goes to Manay’s atelier to fetch Alex; while waiting, she listens to Manay’s friend, Evita, narrate how she came down with vaginal herpes and had to fend off a horny doctor who wanted to take advantage of her in the hospital. Manay wakes up Alex and brings him to his mother, but Alex runs out and Virgie goes after him. Manay tells Evita and his gay chums how Alex’s mom used to be a former prostitute who became first the mistress then the wife of a powerful police officer. Outdoors, Virgie pleads with Alex not to run away again.

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At a side street, Baby sees Ade walking by and asks her to get Febrero to help her, saying that Febrero promised to marry her. Ade says Febrero’s married, but not to either of them, and that he also has a gay lover, so she (Baby) would be better off terminating her pregnancy. After unsuccessfully searching for drugs in his room, Alex joins his gang at the breakwater of Manila Bay. They discuss with Kano how exciting they find life in Manila. A troupe of costumed revelers arrives and the druggies decide to join in by undressing and jumping into the water, where they hallucinate about fireworks and being surrounded by floating candles.

Unable to share in the spirit of revelry, Baby stays home and, upon being advised by her mother to seek an abortion, confesses that Febrero (who should shoulder the expense) had stopped contacting her. Febrero in turn tails Ade to the inexpensive hotel she enters in her nurse’s uniform, and waits until she emerges, all dolled up for escort work; he continues to follow her to the whorehouse where she finds her clients. Greg takes Bea on a date to a working-class fairground and tells her how he found a job in the city, one which will enable them to work together.

At the restaurant, Sonny tells Baby to come with him to look for Japanese customers. He brings her to the same place where Ade works and fetches a Japanese john; when Ade arrives later and recognizes Baby, Ade drags her out to the garden and threatens to kill her if she tells Febrero about her illicit profession. Having selected Baby, the Japanese brings her to a hotel room, but while undressing her she gets nauseated, throws up all over him, and finally faints from the prospect of sex work.

In search of drug money, Alex visits Vanessa at her home and asks for the necklace he gave her so he could pawn it; when she refuses he attempts to pull it off her, they tussle, and Vanessa’s mother orders Alex to leave. Alex next goes to Sumpak, a gay bar where Manay and his friends watch go-go boys; after attempting to mooch some cash, Alex is taken by Manay outdoors where the latter berates him for his addiction. At Alex’s home, his family is having Christmas Eve dinner without him. Virgie’s husband tries to cheer everyone up by telling stories about a gay client in the courtroom, but Virgie erupts in anger at her youngest daughter for failing to use her utensils properly.

Meanwhile at the tourist belt, Greg is leading Bea to their new workplace, but she hears a hawker announcing a live-sex performance; realizing that she and Greg will be the performers, she kicks and screams but cannot escape from him because of her blindness. Outside the tourist belt cathedral, Baby spots Febrero and runs to him, asking him to help her with her pregnancy; Febrero runs away, and Baby curses him and screams about Ade being a call girl who services Japanese clients. Going home in her nurse’s uniform, Ade walks down an abandoned alley, gets dragged by an unknown assailant and strangled to death, with the New Year’s Eve fireworks drowning out her cries.

At the morgue, Manay with his gay friends, along with a grieving Febrero and a drugged-out Alex, asks the mortician to present Ade’s body so they could pay their respects; the mortician shows a corpse of an old woman wearing a nurse’s uniform, causing Manay to argue with him. After checking his records, the mortician apologizes to them and says it’s someone with a similar-sounding name, and that Ade’s body was flown to another island but the funeral parlor will arrange to return it immediately. Febrero faints when he hears the news and Manay runs out and has a nervous breakdown.

At the massage parlor, Alex is harassing Bea by borrowing money from her. Kano, being chased by plainclothesmen, runs inside to ask Bea to hide her but the latter refuses. When Kano, followed by Alex, escapes through the rooftop exit, Bea tells the plainclothesmen how to find them. Kano and Alex run through the streets chased by three cops. Alex eludes them by hiding in a dark corner but Kano (who’s their actual target) gets cornered and caught, struggling against her captors. Alex walks toward the people’s park, washing his face along the way in a pail of dirty water. We see glimpses of Baby, heavy with child, returning home from the restaurant, Virgie addicted to tranquilizers, and Manay turning desperately to religious worship. Amid the sunrise, with the city waking up and some people heading for work as others perform Oriental martial exercises, Alex lays down on a bed of flowers and falls asleep.

Á!

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Film May Be Dead, but Film Culture Is Alive and Well

Respeto [Respect]
Directed by Treb Monteras II
Written by Treb Monteras II & Njel de Mesa

A little over a decade ago, Philippine cinema succumbed to the inevitable: the outpacing of celluloid production by digital technology, with filmographic and critical evaluators resisting the shift, insisting on recognizing “real” films as opposed to (paraphrasing a Hollywood filmmaker) “TV on the big screen.” As it turned out, the change would be inevitable for the rest of the world as well – the Philippines was merely more vulnerable to this end-time development because it was weaker and poorer than most other active film-producing countries.

As in several other cases of national endeavors, our practitioners persisted in the new medium until the rest of the world took notice – almost the same time that our local taste-mongers did. A little-known fact is that the first Filipino video-feature film, Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim, was made over three decades ago, the same year that the Marcos fascist dictatorship was overthrown. Since the country’s full digital turn, all the exciting film developments have occurred in either independent production or in that liminal space where indies and mainstream keep attempting to coexist despite the unavoidable tensions between them.

The most prominent crossover examples would be where an indie release unexpectedly reaches a mainstream crowd, previously realized two years ago when Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna kept drawing increasingly larger audiences until it finally assumed blockbuster proportion – the opposite of the usual mainstream crowd-drawers, where the audience numbers tend to dwindle as the weeks go by. The latest example of this left-field conquest is Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Kita Kita, a romantic comedy set in Sapporo, Japan, with a “temporarily blind” Beauty (played by Alessandra de Rossi) falling for her unlikely Beast (comedian Empoy Marquez). The movie has been criticized for inadvertently validating a stalker situation, but de Rossi is such a confident and fearless performer that she manages to convince viewers that her character’s resistance and eventual capitulation to her co-performer’s insistent courtship was hers alone to make.

The second crossover type of movie is the one where a mainstream actor stretches, so to speak, by gracing an indie project with her or his presence. Of the younger performers, male stars like John Lloyd Cruz and Piolo Pascual have been able to boost their stock by appearing in the European festival winners of Lav Diaz. But when we speak of the previous Golden Age (roughly coinciding with the martial-law period of Ferdinand Marcos), it’s the women who reigned supreme. Local superstar Nora Aunor and her perennial rival Vilma Santos have added Cinemalaya entries to their filmographic lists, and this year it is Sharon Cuneta’s turn, with Mes de Guzman’s Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha. The film further enhances Cuneta’s bid as mature star-performer, and will be distributed by Star Cinema, the country’s primary mainstream entity, but might be revised based on critical responses from its Cinemalaya screenings (which were nevertheless always full).

A third type deserves to be mentioned: a movie that deserves to cross over but gets lost in the shuffle as well as the vagaries of audience preferences. This occurred in the post-Cinemalaya event, the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Pauwi Na is the kind of movie that could move you despite all your doubts about its surface qualities and its (literally) old narrative, drawn from an early 2000s newspaper report. Each performer is provided with her or his moments of grace, and as in all family histories, the mother is the one that holds the whole unit together. To say that Cherry Pie Picache outshines everyone is not to demean an excellent ensemble; it just affirms what has become increasingly evident since the turn of the millennium – that the former distracted and clueless “bold” newcomer has transformed herself into the performer to beat in local cinema, never hesitant about displaying raw emotions, but also consummate in processing those emotions so that they function in precise increments, in perfect consonance with her co-actors and the plot machinery. Sadly, the PPP screenings I attended of Pauwi Na were always less than half-full, which made the audience’s enthusiastic applause at the end feel like small consolation. If you haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and make the acquaintance of something that is whole and perfect after you’ve uncovered it, instead of the usual perfect-looking product that has nothing much worth treasuring inside.

The movie that generates the most excitement, in terms of our discussion, is the one that attempts the example embodied by releases like Heneral Luna: an indie production that, unlike Kita Kita, does not aspire to any existing commercial formula, but instead works out one of its own, introducing the audience to a new form that they could take to heart. In effect, this practice replicates the innovations successfully attempted by such past Golden Age masters as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal (to name the two most prominent ones). Serendipitously, one such release broke out in this year’s Cinemalaya edition, proffering music and street poetry, drawn-from-headlines incidents, and locales that the impoverished majority of movie-goers would be intimately familiar with.

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Titled Respeto, the film is directed by Treb Monteras II (introduced via a cameo in the movie as O.G. Birador), a long-time hiphop events organizer. The local rap scene has been documented in indie films before, most famously in Jim Libiran’s Tribu (2007), which like Respeto also won Cinemalaya’s top prize. This time around, the entry focuses on the YouTube sensation FlipTop Battle League, which is the talent competition (founded by Alaric “Anygma” Yuson, son of poet Krip Yuson) for aspiring Pinoy rap artists. The millions of FlipTop fans will recognize stars of the genre like Abra and Loonie (who play lead and antagonist) and several others, and will immediately understand why the movie has probably the biggest number of words ever uttered in any Filipino release: at the level of basic survival, when one has nothing to one’s name except a multitude of problems, the only wealth that one can lay claim to is one’s words.

This is not to say that Respeto has no visual acuity to speak of; on the contrary, it renders the slums of Manila as they’re rarely seen. To say that poverty becomes picturesque in the film would normally be tantamount to accusing the artists of denying the painful realities of depressed and congested living conditions. Yet the quotidian elements in the film help explain why people manage to survive despite poverty and degradation: what Respeto’s images celebrate are not the economic conditions, but rather the sense of community and the striving for betterment of slum residents. An early episode, where the government attempts to demolish the residents’ homes, depicts how the people in the neighborhood – employees, vagrants, even criminals – come together armed with potent yet not-illegal weapons (something that you’ll have to find out for yourself when the movie reaches your screen).

The scene ends an extensive expository section where Hendrix (Abra riffing on his comic bully-prone FlipTop persona) engages a hiphop gang in a street showdown and gets chased for smacking his opponent. He and his homies wind up being shooed away by an ornery bookstore owner whom they eventually call Doc because of his ability in improvisational (pre-rap) poetry, known to scholars and old-time enthusiasts as balagtasan. Doc recognizes Hendrix’s hunger for “respeto” and decides to mentor him in the craft of language. The unusual thing about Hendrix is that when he narrates his own experience, he’s able to rap expertly; but in competitive situations, he all but “chokes” (a term for a tongue-tied word warrior). Hendrix’s model, who also becomes his rival, is Breezy G, a mean and brutal champ who refuses to be outdone by anyone, even outside FlipTop scenarios. Driven to desperation, Hendrix decides to short-circuit his lessons from Doc by cribbing some verses tossed away by the old man.

The interaction between Hendrix and Doc provides the spiritual core of Respeto. Dido de la Paz compensates for his late introduction by investing Doc with a full range of quirks and contradictions that only become clear to Hendrix (and the audience) when he provides a backstory that turns his relationship with his biological son, a corrupt police officer, into a painful paradox (a word that Hendrix initially does not understand). Respeto moves in and out of anti-realist touches – an exchange between mentor and student that turns out to have been rhymed and metered, or between rapper and girlfriend that talks about each other’s pain entirely without words – but its self-assured stylistic expertise allows its audience to take pleasure, rather than feel resentment, in such liberties. Monteras, here making his feature-length directorial debut, has actually been an old hand in music videos, counting over 300 entries; Monster Jimenez, the film’s producer, had also been a writer and documentary filmmaker, and shares with Monteras a progressive political orientation even in such matters as gender issues.

Respeto is Exhibit A in how oppositional and critical politics, highly resisted (for now) by the local population, can be conveyed to the ordinary working-class audience: by using language they understand and places that are recognizable to them, enacted by characters they may have known all their lives. I conducted my own little experiment by bringing a couple of solid pro-administration youths to my second screening, and saw how their delighted response effected a new view toward the negation of due process in the Duterte administration’s deadly drug war. At a time when intellectual responses to policy debates no longer suffice, it is time for true artists, with their freedom from pre-existing ideological biases, to intervene; as Jimenez said in an exchange, “it wasn’t so much a system of ideas that [she and Monteras] were looking for…. We placed the story where violence is so ingrained in the characters’ narratives, they find it no longer shocking and it becomes part of their everyday life.” What Respeto heralds, in an immediate sense, is the emergence of fully formed talents who had been paying their dues in overlooked or disrespected formats. What it may succeed at best is in initiating a long-overdue historical demand for a humane approach to addiction as a serious health problem. This is how change is gladsomely achieved.

[First published August 18, 2017, in The FilAm]

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Searched For, But Not Missing

Ang Nawawala [What Isn’t There]
Directed by Marie Jamora
Written by Marie Jamora and Ramon de Veyra

After over a decade of existence, the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival has garnered its share of controversies, many of them centered on differences between officials and practitioners, often proving beneficial to both sides because of the publicity that inevitably attends such spectacles. Lost in the shuffle would be an increasing number of titles that deserve as much (if not more) attention, but that get shunted aside because of jurors’ preferences and the festival audience’s tendency to take their cue from media mileage. Among the titles I had the good fortune to stumble across, I remember Arah Jell Badayos and Margaret Guzman’s Mudraks [Mom] (2006) and Vic Acedillo’s Ang Nerseri [The Nursery] (2009), well-observed modest films whose central performances by established actresses (Rio Locsin and Jaclyn Jose respectively) apparently could not lift them out of the cycle that regularly smothers the entries that do not generate their own hype. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Boses [Voices] (2008) was a special case – an entry locked out by the jury but that proved so popular among audiences that it became, via a series of still-continuing special screenings, the festival’s highest income-generating production.

Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala (2012) possesses its own special package of scandal. It was denounced during the festival period by organized critics from academe (overlapping categories, in the case of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication and the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino Film Critics Circle). Rolando Tolentino, the then-concurrent UPCMC dean and MPP chair, published a review in Filipino whose title described the film as “Burgis na Juvenalia” or bourgeois juvenalia (see screen capture) – a serendipitous error when we realize that juvenalia is not the same as juvenility (the reviewer’s likely intended word), but rather that it refers to the celebration of Juvenal, the Roman poet and satirist. Moreover, in a separate article (excerpted in my entry, Fallout over “A Lover’s Polemic”), Tolentino recounted the dissenters to his review by way of downgrading “film bloggers” as presumably inferior to critics like him and his fellow MPP members.

Burgis na Juvenalia

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While I take care to avoid responding to specific reviews, and regard Ámauteurish! as primarily an archival blogsite, my recent viewing of Ang Nawawala convinced me to make an exception to my personal policy of watching a film at least twice, with at least one theatrical screening, in order to provide some (admittedly limited) critical intervention. Tolentino’s review mistakenly opens by stating that the film has “Walang self-reflexive [sic] gesture o take sa pagiging mayaman at pribilehiyado” [no reflexive gesture or take on being rich and privileged]. One would wonder what movie the reviewer managed to watch, when the entire narrative of Ang Nawawala, anchored on a main character who refuses to speak, turns on reflexivity at every opportunity. The reviewer worries that he might be mistaken for “minamaliit ang ganitong uri” [demeaning the members of the (wealthy) class] – quite disingenuous considering the circumstances of the MPP members’ pelf and power; and begins his conclusion by saying that “May ipinapanganak na problematiko ang ganitong pagtahak ng buhay ng maykaya, lalo pa bilang binary oposisyon sa pangkalahatang tema ng indie cinema, ang abang uri” [this treatment of the life of the wealthy gives rise to a problematic, especially in the form of a binary opposition with the general theme of indie cinema, which is the poor class].

Not surprisingly, Tolentino disapproves of the warm Cinemalaya audience reception to Jamora’s film, since he insists on his preconceived notion that “indie cinema” should preoccupy itself with the poor, and imposes this bias in literal terms – i.e., once a filmmaker turns her attention to the higher-than-poor classes, then she has wound up betraying his cherished Cinemalaya ideal. The implication of Tolentino’s premise is astounding in its vulgarity, not only because of its (vulgar-)Marxist origin, but also because it winds up dismissing the vast bulk of global art and literature, if we were to regard only material about “the poor class” (let alone the question of whether these were produced by the same class) as worthy of serious consideration.

Fortunately, Ang Nawawala stands a good chance of outliving such prescriptive guilt-by-association. It invokes the haunting of history by allowing a specter from the main character’s past, in the form of his long-dead twin brother, to engage him in debate regarding his recent actuations, including his decision to remain mute to everybody else; the living brother finally manages to score his own point by telling the ghost (or memory) that if he had been alive, he might have turned out gay – a rather weak riposte, considering how queerness has no longer become the devastating insult it had once been. By this means the brothers maintain a comic-melancholy balance between affection and regret, complicated by their awareness that their mother would have preferred the dead brother to survive.

The fact that the brothers are played by real-life twins adds resonance to the performances, with Jamora providing Dominic Roco (as the survivor) with a distinctive opportunity to play out his man-boy vibe, reminiscent of (and for me, preferable to) the persona that Aga Muhlach once purveyed. Their mother, who wreaks inadvertent cruelty in her performance of heartbreak, is essayed with a surprisingly fragile expertise by Dawn Zulueta; her resolution, one of several in the film, brings the proceedings to a head and rewards the curious viewer with an emotional satisfaction rare in familial depictions in indie cinema.

The aforementioned series of resolutions would be regarded in proper narrative classes as a weakness, but then each succeeding one manages to build up on what had preceded it, and Jamora would not be the first potentially major filmmaker who didn’t know, or maybe didn’t care, how to effectively end a genuinely fruitful journey. In fact one of the biggest lessons that could be drawn from the work of possibly the best local director, Ishmael Bernal, lies precisely in this direction: that once you have taken your audience on a trip that they never had before, you may be excused for worrying less about how the trip should end. (When I accidentally found out that Jamora had been mentored by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, a lot of her aesthetic choices suddenly invoked an unbearable nostalgia, as well as a solid logic: Diaz-Abaya herself had been mentored by Bernal.)

Ang Nawawala should have been recognized as the best debut film by a Pinay filmmaker (with the best pop-music soundtrack of all time as bonus), possibly exceeding even Laurice Guillen’s Kasal? [Wedding?] (1980), and it doesn’t detract from its achievement when we acknowledge that Hannah Espia’s even more impressive Transit arrived the year after, in 2013, along with Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita [Anita’s Last Cha-Cha]. With the only successful contemporary film studio, Star Cinema, already dominated by women directors, we may just be witnessing the indie scene starting to mimic one of the mainstream trends worth emulating.

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Á!