Tag Archives: Commentaries

Peerless Vampire Killers

Vampariah
Directed & written by Matthew Abaya

In contrast with politics, the consensus among Filipinos is that 2016 has been an unqualified triumph for cinema. Not only did we have a second major prize at the Cannes Film Festival, we also won big at A-list European and Asian filmfests, topped by the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Even if we concede that using foreign acclaim as a measure of achievement might be problematic, the output of local film artists has been no less appreciable. Whatever else one’s position on Rodrigo Duterte might be, one will have to acknowledge that the first Metro Manila Film Festival during his presidency recalled the better MMFF editions of the Marcos years – which were some of the few positive contributions the dictatorship ever made.

Because of my status as an Overseas Filipino Worker, it takes me a while before I could watch all the significant Pinoy film releases of any given year. The unusual distinction of 2016 is that no single film, or even a couple or three, is or are front-running for that dubious credit of being “year’s best.” Even if one extends this insight further, by including Filipino films made outside the country, one could still have a noteworthy sample like Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, a documentary made in Hong Kong that turned out to be the MMFF’s surprise winner.

My own contribution to the list of memorable titles in the batch of 2016 is from even farther afield, a movie made in the US by Fil-Am talents, tackling the usual issues of national identity and alienation, but using the unexpectedly “trashy” genre of horror, in its even more reviled goth-punk configuration. Titled Vampariah, the film, directed and written by Matthew Abaya, has been earning raves from viewers who had seen it in various US festivals (including San Francisco’s FACINE, where I first watched it as the event’s closing film, and where Abaya’s short films had been screened over the past two decades). In resorting to a format that had proved useful for a long list of discourses on Otherness, Abaya manages to break out of the usual Fil-Am film’s stifling and predictable realist mode, and kicks open a Pandora’s box of lower mythology, colonial excess, racialized cross-cultural conflict, volatility of identity and desire, and (literally) posthuman development.

Vampariah was intended as an expanded version of Abaya’s short film “Bampinay.” In Abaya’s full-length debut, Bampinay becomes one of two lead characters – or, one could also argue, half of one. The title more likely refers to Mahal, a Fil-Am vampire hunter who sets out to avenge her parents’ death by tracking a specific type of supernatural predator, one that has started attracting the attention of American celebrity ghosthunters. The most notable instance of the latter is that of John Bates (a “whitesplainer,” per Abaya) of Crypt Hunter, who keeps hilariously enunciating “ass-wang” – the Midwestern twang makes it sound even more risqué – before being unceremoniously devoured on-cam. While wondering why her minder (Michele Kilman, intended to resemble Michelle Malkin) refuses to grant her more challenging assignments despite her superior vampire-killing abilities, Mahal manages to track down a particularly pernicious manananggal (a self-segmenting viscera-sucker) from a rural town through Manila to San Francisco.

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The monstrous entity in question turns out to be Bampinay, and it would be no big surprise for horror aficionados to predict that hunter and hunted discover that they have more in common than they realize. Their sisterly bromance (womance?) is in many ways preferable to the guilt-ridden treatments in more famous samples such as Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), while the 300-year-old Bampinay’s critique of colonial history, derived from firsthand experience, would be the envy of the bloodsucking dissertation candidate in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995). Vampariah herself calls to mind a whole lot of other generic predecessors, notably the title character in Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) and Selene in Len Wiseman’s Underworld (2003).

The intertextual possibilities in Vampariah are even more extensive than the titles I’ve listed, an inherent attraction of the typical B-movie product. Yet where the B-movie generally rests on this attribute, Vampariah takes the extra step of inculcating an awareness of local and regional cross-references, a challenge that can best be formulated and achieved by our mixed-blood compatriots. Not since the Blood-Island movies of Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon have there been alien monsters (not necessarily a redundancy) in Filipino horror films, and if for nothing else, Vampariah deserves to be remembered for featuring a first-ever showdown between a manananggal and a jiangshi, an East Asian reanimated corpse that moves around by hopping and that extracts qi or the life force from human victims.

The film’s ultimate achievement is in its exploitation of the genre’s ability to conjoin disparate ideas and sentiments in order to enhance what would otherwise be difficult or unpalatable messages. Vampariah distracts the potentially hedonistic and self-involved millennial audience with a surfeit of humor, surprises, frights, and irreverence, if not outright profanity. What this nonstop delirium effectively enshrouds is a pathos of profound proportions, ensconced in the permanently diasporic condition of individuals who can never be considered fully human anywhere they go, and who figure out ways of coping by wisecracking and ass-kicking their way through a hostile environment – whether that happens to be the home country from which they had fled or the host country that resents their presence as Others. If anyone had told me that a film embodied a certain Derridean principle, I would have steeled myself for an encounter with barely bearable high-art perorations; yet the demonstration in Vampariah of hauntology, of nostalgia in permanently effaced futures and possibilities, would be capable of sustaining a paper, perhaps even an entire panel, in a high-powered academic conference.

Abaya thus takes full advantage of the B-movie’s subversive potential as well as its ability to supply guilty pleasure, and the sadness in the experience of watching this fine little sweetmeat is in the awareness that it may be destined to subsist in the liminal world that its own characters inhabit. (Anyone who finds out that a game based on the film is currently under development would find the notion amusing yet logical.) But then we can always take heart in Bampinay’s assurance to Mahal that “We’re aswangs. We can do anything.” In the perfect world that these intrepid characters envision, they and people like them would be capable of dominating cinema screens everywhere. If the movie happens to breeze by your vicinity, don’t hesitate to give these ravishing monsters your (life)time. It would be a drop-dead occasion that could reanimate any vestige of movie love you still possess.

[First published January 13, 2017, as “Vampariah as Subversive Aswang Film” in The FilAm]

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The Reviewer Reviewed

I responded to a review of my work only once, with decidedly mixed feelings. I would have preferred to keep quiet, as I had earlier, regarding more vicious and unfounded attacks on my work and person. At this point, however, I felt that I could not bypass the opportunity to point out the differences between the reviewer’s expectations and the objectives that should have been readily discernible in the book being reviewed. Unfortunately (probably because of the bad blood I had accumulated from enduring earlier attacks), my response had an unnecessarily sharp edge that I now wish I could have blunted before sending the letter. For this reason I decided to conceal the details of publication, which I am certain the author, a senior colleague, would have preferred as well.[1]

Unfocused View of RP Cinema
[Author anonymized]

Reading Joel David’s Fields of Vision can produce a feeling like that generated by a lively intellectual conversation: the sense of challenge and excitement that comes from an encounter with a fine mind thinking deeply about important matters. One may disagree with some of his opinions and applications, but one can hardly avoid being stimulated by the scope of David’s scholarship and reasoning.

This book is a learned and provocative work, precisely because it raises so many questions that get at the heart of the challenges on the study of Philippine cinema. That it does not answer all the questions it raises is far less important than that it calls the reader into the conversation on different terms.

The book is neatly divided into three parts: Panorama, Viewpoints, and Perspectives. Part I is an overview of the New Cinema in retrospect, tracing the effects and influences of neorealism, cinéma vérité, film noir, and surrealism on Philippine cinema. This chapter is the most informative and a welcome contribution by the scholarly author to our deeper understanding of our own local cinema.

The big problem I encountered not only in this chapter but throughout the book is, David’s train of thought is something difficult to follow because of his peculiar style of writing and his penchant for unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases, such as “imbricated” (ix), “multiplicity of participations” (3), “high-gear editing” (40), “shimmying exoticism” (13), “overscaled meddling” (108).

Part II contains the main body of the book. It is divided into sections with some titillating subtitles: “Demachofication,” “Sequacious Cebuano,” “Movable Fists,” “Mudslung.” Under each heading are listed the movies under consideration.

This chapter, though, creates some problem for the readers who are not familiar with the movies of the 1970s and ’80s. For instance, how could the reader understand what the author is talking about a certain a movie, if he does not know anything about the movie?

Take this example: “Nevertheless the device in Hot Summer has been wisely confined to the movie’s expository portion. Once the entire framework has been set up, the finishing touches admirably point up to a sound internal logic at work, employing the same principle of sensible character-based development observed in Paano Kung Wala Ka Na” (53).

I myself have not seen either Hot Summer or Paano Kung Wala Ka Na. An example of a scene or scenes from either or both of the movies cited would enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.

David could have given an excerpt from the movie Biktima to illustrate what he calls “an excessive cocksureness of approach” (95), which he averred victimized that movie.

For me, the best part of the book is Part III, where David proposed a list of Filipino film highlights (“Worth the While”) to prove that film as a medium still contains the country’s most consistent artistic achievements.

Noteworthy also is “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990,” a credible selection of the ten best collated from the individual choices of more than thirty respectable film artists, film critics, directors, producers, and academicians.

The Ten Best list is sure to generate controversy. David himself, after collating and tabulating everything, concluded that the number of respondents was still not exhaustive, that there is still a critical community somewhere left untapped. But the list should be regarded as the beginning of a healthy debate, rather than the final word on the matter.

Taken as a whole, the book is a gold mine for which film students and film buffs can only be grateful. What the book perhaps lacks in focus is amply compensated by a wealth of informative material about Philippine cinema. It will be a most welcome addition to any film library here and abroad.

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Letter to the Editor

[Date & addressee anonymized]
Dear [Editor] –

I received a copy of a review of Fields of Vision in [your publication] through my publisher, but I didn’t have the time to write a response until today’s US holiday, Independence Day, ironically liberated me from my work sked. [The] review was appreciative and encouraging, and also evinced an attempt to be critical at the same time. I have not had problems with critics expressing reservations about my books, although for the first time, I feel that I need to contest a number of [the reviewer’s] premises.

To begin with, [the reviewer’s] complaint that the writing uses “unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases” is something that may be expected from a layperson. However, any academic ought to be able to determine the meaning of a word like “imbricated”; a media professor ought to be able to know what “high-gear editing,” “multiplicity of participations,” and “overscaled meddling” refer to, unless film, performing-arts, and cultural-policy terms happen to lie outside her or his sphere of expertise. Someone urgently needs to introduce the poor fellow to that basic research tool called a dictionary, upon which he might realize that whatever is “unfamiliar” and “ambiguous” about these examples may have all been a function of his hazy sensibility.

Even more serious is the clear possibility that [the reviewer] may not have been reading carefully enough. For one thing, he misquoted one of the book’s articles’ titles – i.e., “Sequacious Cebuano,” which is meaningless, was a mix-up of two different titles, “Sequacious and Second-Rate” and “Sedulously Cebuano.” Furthermore, he ascribed to me the phrase “shimmying exoticism,” when in fact in the published text it is in the plural, enclosed in quotes, and attributed to John Grierson in the latter’s description of the work of Robert Flaherty. More glaringly, “multiplicity of participations” is not only similarly quoted and attributed, but is also immediately followed in the book by a paraphrase of Roland Barthes’s semiotic redefinition.

The surest indicator that [the reviewer] may have been expecting a book of reviews when in fact he was presented with a body of criticism was when he demanded that the articles should have presented “an example [sic] of a scene or scenes from … the movies cited [to] enable the reader to understand and appreciate what David is trying to say.” The premise in reviewing is that the reader may be encouraged in or discouraged from watching a current release; in criticism, on the other hand, the reader is expected to have seen the item being discussed (or eventually make the effort to watch it), regardless of the author’s appreciation of or antipathy toward it.

Moreover, when did serious discourse ever make a claim to accurately represent the texts it was dealing with? A critique of, say, Crime and Punishment or The Bridges of Madison County (either the books or the films made from them) could never hope to fully recount their texts’ contents, and would only waste space and printer’s ink in trying to do so, when a journal or index or annotated bibliography might be able to provide that same function more effectively. If supplying a plot summary were necessary to the discussion, then by all means such a summary should be expected. But when [the reviewer] gripes that he does not understand what an “excessive cocksureness of approach” means and expects to find it in the movie’s narrative, he just might be in the dark regarding the embarrassingly antique insight that film is primarily a visual medium.

I would not even bother to speculate as to the possible reasons why [the reviewer] thinks that an anthology should have “focus,” and what he thinks this focus should be. It saddens me to note that [the reviewer] has not grown much in the intervening years. Is his notion of film theory still a matter of (mis)taking the elements of film in the context of classical Hollywood practice as the theory of film? Does he still refer derisively to Philippine movies when searching for samples of “bad” or “failed” applications in relation to the Hollywood model? Does the fact that a university press decided anyway to publish my manuscript indicate anything to him about how far gone the times have changed in relation to his ideas?

Thank you for providing this opportunity to engage in dialogue with one of your reviewers. I could have hoped for a more constructive exchange – a “multiplicity of participations” in effect, post Barthes – but my responses were imbricated in the excessive cocksureness, resulting in overscaled meddling, of the said reviewer’s “shimmying exoticisms,” to borrow once more from the late great Grierson.

Sedulously yours,

Joel David
New York City

Note

[1] The demise of Nicasio D. Cruz, SJ, in 2017 has made it possible for me to identify him as the author of the review, without worrying about any possible repercussion for him at his educational institution.

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