Thursday, May 31, 2012

YBCA: NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—AMOK (2011)

I'm reminded of Malaysian filmmaker-turned-publisher Amir Muhammad whenever I hear the word "amok", as he was the one who first informed me of its Malay origins. Wikipedia indicates that "amok" stems "from the Malay word mengamuk, which roughly defined means 'to make a furious and desperate charge.' "

The term has since taken on contemporary and cross-cultural inflections, including "running amok", which refers "to the behavior of someone who, in the grip of strong emotion, obtains a weapon and begins attacking people indiscriminately, often with multiple fatalities. The slang term 'going postal' is similar in scope. Police describe such an event as a 'killing spree'. If the individual is seeking death, an alternate method is often 'suicide by cop'. Amok is often described as a culture-bound (or culture-specific) syndrome, which is a psychological condition whose manifestation is strongly shaped by cultural factors." In some instances, those cultural factors have associations with male honor (amok by women is virtually unknown). ...Running amok would thus be both a way of escaping the world (since perpetrators were normally killed) and re-establishing one's reputation as a man to be feared and respected. Some observers have related this explanation to Islam's ban on suicide, which, it is suggested, drove Malay men to create circumstances in which others would kill them." [Footnotes omitted. Emphasis added.]

In the Philippines, "amok" likewise means "unreasoning murderous rage by an individual. In 1876, the Spanish governor-general of the Philippines José Malcampo coined the term juramentado for the behavior (from juramentar—'to take an oath'), surviving into modern Filipino languages as huramentado." As if to confirm the above Islamic reference, it's intriguingly suggestive that amok "has historically been linked with the Muslim Moro people of Mindanao, particularly in the island of Jolo." Others, however, draw a distinction between juramentado and "amok" as the difference between "religious preparation and state of mind." [Footnotes omitted.]

Such etymological indulgences are merely to suggest that in his film Amok (2011), Lawrence Fajardo is playing with the word's ongoing connotations, while updating them to modern-day Manila. Without question, the "man with a gun" (as identified in Amok's closing credits) is suffering from social conditions in the Philippines that have left him jobless and unable to provide for his pregnant wife. That he is an ex-cop only adds an ironic twist to the theory of "suicide by cop."

Fajardo uses the urban congestion of the Edsa-Pasay Rotonda, one of the busiest and most rugged intersections in Manila, as both his narrative setting and his framework (or as Dodo Dayao puts it at Piling Piling Pelikua "both milieu and metaphor"). As Joel Shepard describes in his program note: "It is a place of absolute chaos: people, cars, buses, motorcycles, jeepneys and trains all compet[ing] for space as they try to navigate the crumbling, complex geography of the city in the sweltering tropical heat. It is here that the disparate lives of the characters in Amok converge, their fates united by the violence that sweeps through the streets." At Variety, Richard Kuipers claims Edsa-Pasay Rotonda is "instantly fascinating" and "a kind of tentacled creature playing host to shifting masses of humanity."

Fajardo's Amok is a truly urban narrative where the warp and woof of the anthill weave consists of overheated congestion and co-existent anonymity. Fajardo purposefully samples the variety of people that might be found on any given day at the Edsa-Pasay Rotonda to assemble his cast of characters and further suggests that they all negotiate various levels of internalized rage regarding how life has placed them down at heel. Whether it's delinquent kids (almost innocently) rapping about the dangers of push come to shove on Manila's crowded streets, a mother at a food cart who suspects her customers are cheating her, an aging stunt-man who discovers the woman he's been fucking isn't quite the woman he hired, an uncle at odds with his nephew, a brother at odds with his sister, or a homophobic taxi driver who threatens his gay clientele with a metal pipe, disillusionment and discontent crank up the heat on an already sweltering day.

That "the man with the gun" is the one who unhinges and goes on a shooting spree is as random as the justice and/or punishment dispensed by his stray bullets, and blind as the man who crawls to safety during the film's havoc. In this regard, Amok is nothing new by way of narrative; but, remains vigorous in its editorial attention and precision, excelling more as texture than text. Its visual elements emphasize tactility. You can almost feel the sweat trickling down your neck and dampening your armpits. Indeed, Amok won awards for Best Editing and Sound at the 2011 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and Variety concedes that "production values and technical work are impressive on a lean budget."

If Amok is more concerned with surface detail and editorial tempo than psychological depth, it also knowingly emphasizes apparent incongruencies between laws posted on traffic signs and the lawlessness that contests them. Its final winking joke is that of "the man with a knife" standing anxiously in front of the word "AMOK" scrawled in graffiti on the wall behind him. Is the film saying that he will be the next to go amok? When he moves out of the frame, however, it's revealed that the graffiti is actually stating a tenuous optimism in the face of the city's relentless barrage of violence: "I AM OK." It's about as subtle as the speechmaking at film's end that, according to Kuipers at Variety, lessens the impact of what until then has been "a vivid snapshot of Manila street life", especially by way of "some poorly staged TV news footage in which characters' reactions sound more like press releases about social injustice than the voices of those deeply hurt."

My three Philippine colleagues have also weighed in on Amok. At Lessons From the School of Inattention, Oggs Cruz considers Amok "without a doubt, chaos in astounding consummate order." He writes: "The film is directed with meticulousness and discipline, moving from one character to another with commendable restraint in not telling too much and not showing too much, effectively teasing the audience of the predictable but still surprising havoc that is quietly being orchestrated by the elements at play in that time-bomb of a place. Fajardo peppers the film with delectable details, a bit of visual wit here and there, a nuanced shot, and those gems of subtle humor in the dialogue. Louie Quirino's precise cinematography communicates the sweltering heat that seems to demonize humanity in the anarchic setting. The film uses the city's noise as soundtrack, creating an uneasy atmosphere of spontaneity that complements the film's story and theme."

At Piling Piling Pelikula, Dodo Dayao describes Amok as "a well-oiled tumult" and a technical feat "of logistics and guerilla tactics and cutting. It's rigorous, precise." He finesses the obvious comparison to the "multistrand criss-crosser" (Kuipers) associated with Alejandro González Iñárritu, specifically Babel (2006).

At Lilok Pelikula / Sculpting Cinema, Chard Bolisay praises Amok's pulsating direction: "The rhythm builds up and is carried through the climax, not an explosion of some sort, but a gala of predictable outcomes and unpredictable victims." He uses Amok to stage the tension between content and form: "If you ask me what aspect of local independent cinema I dislike, I'd say it's the unabashed preference for content and dismissal of form. A good film strikes a balance between the two, but usually, movies that tackle social issues, no matter how sloppily made they are, are more appreciated than those that boast of technical excellence, as if choosing a pressing subject exempts a work from scrutiny and showing off technique is a display of arrogance. Whereas content is mostly a writer and director's piece of cake, determined prior to execution, form is mathematics: everyone in the production contributes to it, consciously or not, including luck and the lack of it." To prove his point, Chard continues: "Amok succeeds because Lawrence Fajardo, who serves as the film's director, production designer, and editor, has managed to put together a fantastic group of people—from writer John Bedia and cinematographer Louie Quirino to the movie's trailblazing ensemble of actors—whose slight misstep can actually ruin the unmistakable rawness of the film."

Amok will have its U.S. premiere as part of YBCA's "New Filipino Cinema" on Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 7:00PM. Ticket info can be found here.

YBCA: NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Carlo Obispo

Searingly succinct, Carlo Obispo's seven-minute short 123 (2011) is—along with Raya Martin's Boxing In the Philippine Islands (2011)—showcased in the "Sex, Drugs and the Avant-Garde: Filipino Shorts" program curated by Joel Shepard for his "New Filipino Cinema" series, screening at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) June 7 through 10, and again on June 17, 2012. It is 123's U.S. premiere. Ticket info can be found here.

123 counts out its steps from the seemingly innocent Fresh Steps dance rehearsal in the film's opening sequence to the door that opens onto one of the Philippines' most distressing social issues. Its staged brevity belies a keen focus on making its point without needless exposition. It hooks the heart and then swiftly breaks it.

Winner of the Best Short Film and the Ishmael Bernal Award for Young Cinema at the 2011 edition of the Cinemanila International Film Festival where it was commended for its "poetry, social conscience and courage to pull the rug from under our feet", 123's beauty and force lies within calm and assured camerawork by Marvin Reyes, an appropriately pensive sound design by Pepe Manikan, and evocative editing by Thop Nazareno (especially noteworthy in the film's portrait of Fatima).

My thanks to Carlo Obispo for taking time to respond to a few questions by way of email.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Introduce yourself. What kind of training or education have you had in film?

Carlo Obispo: Unlike many other directors, I did not go to a film school nor did I have any practical experience in film production. My passion for directing started in theater way back in college where I majored in Philosophy (which was my pre-course for, supposedly, Theology). I think I had always wanted to make films, though. But it was not easy to realize this, considering I was raised in a countryside where no one told me that filmmaking could be a career option.

After college in 2004, I went to Manila and worked as a writer for an entertainment production company. Having understood my intention, my boss sent me to the University of the Philippines Film Institute to attend a four-week video production workshop. This was the first time I saw how a video is made. After the workshop, the participants agreed to help each other out to make our own first films.

In 2008, I shot my second short film, Esbat, which was shortlisted at the 10th edition of the Cinemanila International Film Festival. This encouraged me to make more films. I gave myself more time to think over my plans in filmmaking. After three years, I finally came up with my third short, 123.

Guillén: How do you see yourself or situate yourself within the context of "New Filipino Cinema"? Who have been your influences? What kind of stories are you hoping to tell in your future work?

Obispo: I've always felt happy watching stories that make me feel sad. Those movies seem timeless. Whenever I watched a good film, I always hoped that I could be the writer of the story. I remember watching the screenplays of Ricky Lee [IMDb] and telling myself to write something like that too. I guess that's how the spark started. New Filipino Cinema tells us that the Philippines have more wonders than what we'd ever thought. And the international success of many Filipino directors has been a huge inspiration for new filmmakers like me. As a filmmaker, I want to continue to tell stories that will make viewers realize that something has been taken for granted.

Guillén: Talk to me about your short film 123, its genesis, how you settled upon its theme, and your approach?

Obispo: This seven-minute film had a long evolution. After Esbat in 2008, I attempted to write a full-length screenplay about a young street boy vis-à-vis the words of Philippine hero José Rizal who said, "Children are the hope of the nation." Along the way, I realized there were just so many possible issues to tackle that the screenplay would sound like a festival of conflicts. So I decided to split these issues into short films.

As a teacher, I initially wanted to write about education; but, one time when I was in Cebu City, I saw a poster at the land port that said,"STOP CHILD TRAFFICKING" with a picture of children being taken away somewhere in a truck. One of these children was a girl who looked deeply distressed, as if she had been silently weeping. I felt my heart explode. I decided then and there that the theme of my next film would be child trafficking.

As I drafted the script, I wanted the audience to share the same feelings I was experiencing during research and concept development and knew this issue had to be addressed quickly and as frankly as possible. I knew the opening scene had to involve the audience right away so that later on they would realize that the opening scene, including the title, were just the surface of something deep and dark.

Guillén: How has the win at Cinemanila encouraged or assisted your filmmaking?

Obispo: The recognition 123 has received has meant one thing to me: that I should be more bold and prolific in filmmaking. At first, I thought of making a film just when I felt the time was right or when I felt like doing it; but after Cinemanila, I decided to work more seriously in preparing for my future plans. 123 has made me realize that there are more hidden stories that have to be told. In this respect, filmmaking has become more of a responsibility.

Guillén: 123 is distinguished by a collaborative ethos. Talk to me about how you interacted with your editor, your sound designer, your cinematographer and, of course, your young actors.

Obispo: Artistic freedom, constant communication and our trust with each other played a very important role in this project. It was our first time to work under my direction and we did not have an actual pre-production meeting. Most of the crew lived in Manila, whereas I lived in the province that served as our shooting location. I would have to phone them one by one to talk things out. There was, however, no difficulty communicating ideas with them. After sending them the script, I asked them how they each wanted to go about their treatment? After exchanging a few notes with each other, we all arrived at a common ground. During the photography, it was fun and enjoyable. The same held true with the editing and music. Since we all lived in different places, we sent each other rough cuts and notes through email. I let the editor have the final touch on the project and—when I saw the finished output—I felt myself carried away, as if I didn't already know the whole story.

This was our same approach with our young actors, who were all first-time actors. The natural innocent look was very crucial so I did not want to give so many instructions that they would become self-conscious about their actions. One of the male dancers, Leo, choreographed their steps as simply and enjoyably as possible and I just let them move freely. To put them at ease, I constantly talked with them about their normal daily routines as if we were not filming.

The portrait of Fatima, however, was different in that she had to internalize a certain character who had a story of her own. I wanted the cinematography, editing and music to be distinct from the rest of the treatment, more dynamic, with more evident emotion. It took us some time to complete that sequence. The actress was very patient. We took as much footage as possible so that that we could accommodate editing and scoring.

Guillén: What do you dream for yourself as one of the new voices in New Filipino Cinema?

Obispo: It is such a precious fulfillment to have someone moved by a film I've made. Being one of the new voices in New Filipino Cinema poses a challenge for me to move on and dream bigger. It is my dream to find opportunities that will give me chances to dive deeper and bring up stories that have been waiting to be free.

Photo of Carlo Obispo by Ralph Eya.

YBCA: NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—The Evening Class Interview With Raya Martin (by Alex Hansen)

In the "New Filipino Cinema" series curated by Joel Shepard for San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), Raya Martin's seven-minute short Boxing in the Philippine Islands (2011) has been grouped into a program entitled "Sex, Drugs and the Avant-Garde: Filipino Shorts." Shepard synopsizes this shorts program: "With a lurid title but a serious intent, this program of new shorts will give you a taste of the work of nine younger artists from all over the archipelago. Featuring a little bit of everything—doc, drama, experimental, and even some student work—this is a great intro to the contemporary film scene. All films (except Boxing in the Philippine Islands) are U.S. premieres." Ticket info can be found here.

Raya Martin was born in 1984 in Manila, Philippines. He graduated from the University of the Philippines Film Institute in 2005 and worked as a writer and researcher in local television, newspaper, radio and online magazines. His short film The Visit (2004) won the Ishmael Bernal Award for Young Cinema at the 2004 Cinemanila International Film Festival, and his documentary The Island at the End of the World (2005) won best documentary at the .mov International Digital Film Festival 2005. His first feature film A Short Film about the Indio Nacional (Or The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos) (2005) won the Lino Micciche Award at the Pesaro Film Festival, Italy in 2006. He is the first Filipino filmmaker to be accepted into the prestigious Cannes Festival Cinefondation Residence in Paris, France.

Idaho filmmaker and Evening Class intern Alex Hansen—who has an admitted interest in all things avant-garde and experimental—conversed with Martin regarding Boxing in the Philippine Islands and enquired after Martin's craft and practice within the contemporary Filipino film community. The Evening Class extends its thanks to Alex for his welcome contribution.

* * *

Alex Hansen: Tell me about Boxing in the Philippine Islands?

Raya Martin: It was a commissioned work for a public park exhibit in Manila. At the time, I was obsessed with drugs after researching for my last feature Buenas noches, España (2011) but it was impossible to do something around that. So I thought about making something around sports or fitness, and it happened that a Manny Pacquiao fight coincided with the exhibition. I went to look for current boxing underdogs in the province and shot them with a pinhole that I made with a digital camera during their training. When I came to editing, we found footage of Pacquiao rehearsing and played with it using an analog camera. The analog dirt looked energetic enough to box our pinhole footages, so I thought, why not put them together? The work became a visual arena.

Hansen: Your shorts seem to lean more towards the experimental side, at least on the surface level—they "look like experimental films"—while your features seem to work these experimental tendencies into a more conventional appearance. Does your approach differ whether you're working on a short or a feature? Did your approach to Buenas noches, España, which "looks" like the shorts, differ from the previous features?

Martin: I'm a frustrated experimental filmmaker, but also because of my cultural background I have a love-hate relationship with the narrative. My "proper" cinema schooling was simultaneous art house and avant-garde works: discovering Tarkovsky and Brakhage at the same time while I was in film school. It just meshed into this consciousness in me and that's how I started seeing things around me. That's probably why I jump here and there: documentary, fiction, experimental elements... Buenas noches, España and Boxing in the Philippine Islands were made around the same time and that's probably the only reason why they feel related to each other; but, for me they're different. All of my works are different from each other, or at least they try to be.

Hansen: What prompted your interest in using history as creative fuel?

Martin: The blatant historical references come from my personal background. My parents, especially my father, were activists during the dictatorship era. He also happened to be a huge historical buff, mostly local, regional stories, which explains our modest library of Filipiniana books at home. Those were my childhood books, playmates, while most of my friends who I grew up with had other "timely" things to read or play with. I'm trying to grow out of it though.

Hansen: What is it about the filmmaking scene in the Philippines that has allowed it to become a breeding ground for such a surge of interesting and exciting work?

Martin: The Philippines is really a strange, beautiful country. It's neither Asian nor American, but we're also both in a lot of sense. Our lives are bound by American rules: we speak your language really well, and we dream of Hollywood all the time. But also we're a poor country, and we have to make do with what we have. So it becomes this bastard scene of your film industry. It's wretchedly beautiful. I don't think there's much difference with how we work as filmmakers here than in the U.S. I don't believe in national cinema. It's just become this monster, this ghost that exploded the past couple of years, but it's not there. It's also like sex tourism, they all come here and it's one big playground because we all look the same in bed, and we're like, hey this works, let's build this. But I don't feel we're critical with how we work here. Most of the filmmakers do independent works as name cards for studios. Sometimes it works, but most of the time they're just imitations. But maybe delicious imitations nonetheless.

Hansen: A commonality that all the work coming out of the Philippines seems to share is looking to the surroundings / environment, history, and local culture for subject matter and inspiration versus the "dream factory" Hollywood mindset that a lot of American independent filmmakers try to emulate. Do you think the lack of familiarity with these sources lessens the impact for foreign viewers? For instance, I wouldn't know Manny Pacquiao is a congressman if it hadn't been for a commercial I'd seen (and since I can't remember what was being advertised, it apparently wasn't a very successful one).

Martin: The beauty of working in the Philippines is that the creative minefield is really bottomless—we live on so many layers—but, at the same time we're never apologetic about our parochialism. We love our own little bubble, and it's up to all of you to take all those references and do your homework. We probably stole that arrogance from the colonialist mindset. It's some form of resistance, a backwards version, but a resistance nonetheless.

Hansen: What was the first piece of work you created that felt like you had successfully expressed something? In my work I tend to intuitively piece a film together as I go. As a result, while they've had certain qualities, I've never felt my early films have been completely successful (until my latest piece, which still feels like dumb luck more than artistic intent). Does the end result matter as much to you as the journey it takes to get there?

Martin: When I did my first short film in high school, which seems to be missing now, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I come from a family of writers, and when I did try it out it became this huge frustration. I needed my brother to double-check for me all the time, so then I couldn't operate on my own if he wasn't available. But working on images feels more natural to me, that's why I love it. I could be alone, but at the same time I'm very good working with people. Soul mates. I take the end product seriously. For me, it's like dressing up in public when you go out of the house. You want to be comfortable. You want to be respectable. But at the end of the day it's who you really are, how you've raised it. Shooting a film is probably the best feeling in the world. We can shoot for two days straight and still won't be unfazed. It's a really magical feeling.

Hansen: How do you feel about your work being shared on the internet? As a viewer, it's been a blessing for me. Living in Idaho, I wouldn't have any other opportunities to see your work. How much does it help or hurt your opportunities as a filmmaker? I can't imagine there are a lot of companies clamoring to release your work on DVD here in the U.S. (though if they did, I'd be the first in line).

Martin: I love the internet. I love piracy. That's how we got our early education of films because we couldn't just buy from Amazon every time. This was when the internet was just starting to boom, and then eventually we'd share each other's downloaded stuff. The whole idea of capitalism labeling piracy or the internet being a threat to creativity is bullshit. The artists don't get paid, sure, but they always haven't been paid or treated well before these things exploded. I don't have DVD distribution of any of my films. They're all just there floating. In the beginning I concentrated on just making them. There was too much coming out of me at the time that—whenever my producer wanted to sit down and talk about proper distribution—I would always delay it. I can breathe better now so hopefully we can do something about that.

Hansen: Perhaps a better way to have phrased my earlier question about the distinction between filming shorts or features would be to say that your shorts—Track Projections (2007), Ars colonia (2011), and Boxing) play more with the medium and the material aspects of cinema while your features play more with conventions (running time, shot duration, etc.). Buenas noches, España is more a mixture of the two different modes. Not sure there's a question there, but anyway.

Martin: I don't think I'm conscious about those things. I love my mash-ups. It's an elementary level of dialectics but I'm a kid like that and there's something pure about it. I could listen to Nine Inch Nails while watching Buster Keaton. I have to add that I'm also a frustrated structuralist.

Hansen: You mentioned earlier that—because of your cultural background—you have a love-hate relationship with narrative. Does your inclusion of radio drama, television, and old films (as elements in Now Showing (2008), for example) relate to this? Perhaps the frustrated experimental filmmaker in you subverts this material in order to reject how it fixes characterization and temporality into the narrative?

Martin: Our idea of time is much different than what is propagated here. Despite our stance, we are islanders. Our sense of time is dictated by nature. There's a lot of waiting. We are very patient people. I like finding odd things in different media, though. I grew up listening to radio dramas, and then moved on to a lot of television shows where they show all these classic local films. But my generation has encountered them in odd ways: dramas are interrupted intermittently by advertisements, as opposed to watching them on the big screen, or on stage. The more you fight this reality, the more it won't make sense. So I try to embrace this.

Hansen: Your description of the filmmaking scene in the Philippines—doing the work to get noticed by the studios; being enamored with Hollywood—sounds comparable to filmmaking in the States. I imagine the main difference might be that American independent filmmakers often resist making do with limited resources, waiting instead until they have enough money to shoot with this latest and greatest camera or that high-end piece of equipment. Everything has to be done "right" or why bother? "If it's not done right, I won't get to direct the next Batman." What do you feel are the benefits of simply getting out what needs to get out versus sitting on ideas until they can be executed perfectly?

Martin: It’s survivalism. There are just more institutions willing to support your laziness than there are over here. If we had the luxury of that process—which I actually learned during my stay in Paris and tried to apply in a project like Independencia (2009)—then I'm sure we'd be more alike as filmmakers. Unfortunately, the government is not as supportive in funding cultural works, and the idea of arts and culture for private funding is just more backwards than it is there. Our arts education isn't non-existent, but it's a few decades behind. I've encountered artists from the province who come to Manila and discovered that it's possible to do something beyond painting landscapes or sculpting politicians. Nudes are still considered progressive. Just imagine if we try to pitch this thing called "cinema."

Hansen: I'm one who enjoys putting in the extra effort after watching something to better understand it, but some audiences don't like to do their homework. Are you ever conscious of how a viewer (no matter where they're from) will respond to a film while you're making it? Does that influence you in any way? Does it matter to you how big of an audience your work gets? If two people "get" and enjoy your films, does that offset the thousands who might be baffled by what they've seen or disregard it shortly afterwards?

Martin: If I did succumb to the idea of an audience present from the beginning, I wouldn't be able to come up with these works at all. It was probably luck, anyway, being stubborn about this process of creation. One of my favorite stories comes from Kidlat Tahimik, who happened to be my mentor in college, and is a good friend of Werner Herzog. During their younger days, Kidlat rode with Herzog to some far-flung town for a screening and asked why they had to go all the way just for a screening, unsure if people would even watch there. Herzog said that one has to go to his audience and cultivate it. Only businessmen count their present paying audience. We never learn from Van Gogh.

Of related interest: Raya Martin's Tumblr page.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

YBCA: NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—REMINGTON & THE CURSE OF THE ZOMBADINGS

Just in time for San Francisco's June Pride festivities, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) includes Jade Castro's Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings, 2011) in their "New Filipino Cinema" program. As Joel Shepard synopsizes in his program note: "Bading is Filipino slang for 'gay,' referring specifically to flamboyant, effeminate homosexuals. A Zombading is the undead version, which the titular character has to deal with as he tries to lift a curse that is gradually turning him into a bading. This exuberant film satirizes the very idea of homophobia as it literally turns homosexuality into something to be feared. Blending the tropes of horror comedy, this film is a deliciously subversive piece of pop art."

At this juncture, it's fairly well-known that the iconic zombie can be a blank canvas on which any measure of social marginalization or political disenfranchisement can be painted in broad brushstrokes. Especially in the horror-comedy hybrid, the internationally popular zombie can likewise achieve satiric force through specific national and/or regional references, let alone subcultural ones. The laughs earned by a film like Juan of the Dead, for example, has as much to do with how it knowingly pokes fun at Cuban culture as it does with the fact that its generic tropes communicate to international audiences.

Zombadings is not the first gay zombie movie—Bruce LaBruce has already had controversial fun with Otto: Or Up With Dead People (2008) and L.A. Zombie (2010)—but it's quite possibly the first Filipino gay zombie movie. It's fascinating not only for its pop bravado, but also for its cultural affects, which remind me how comic timing and pacing differ from country to country, requiring a certain amount of spectatorial patience and accommodation. In other words, I have no doubt that a Filipino audience would be more privy to Zombading's in-jokes than an American one, yet the film still translates interestingly enough through its generic zombie tropes and its "gayspeak", which at the beginning of the 21st century has become almost as universal a language as English. Quite cleverly, if inconsistently, the "gayspeak" in Zombadings is telegraphed through yellow subtitling, perhaps to better indicate how its cute straight protagonist Remington (Mart Escudero) is resisting a curse placed upon him by an offended gay guy (Roderick Paulate) that has Remington gradually turning gay against his will.

This coming-out curse has proven especially dangerous because gays are being murdered one by one in Remington's small town by a nefarious homophobe and, as you have no doubt already guessed, it is all these dead gays that come back to life to wreak havoc and take vengeance; but, from the moment the first hand bursts up from the grave clutching a high heel shoe to a seance lit atmospherically with pink candles, you know that the mayhem is going to be more stereotypically mirthful than usual.

One of the main reasons I enjoy turning to my Philippine colleagues Oggs Cruz and Dodo Dayao to contextualize insight is that they have a working command of how Filipino films situate themselves within the history of their own national cinema. "If there's one thing a filmmaker needs to know about profitable filmmaking in the Philippines," Cruz writes at Lessons From the School of Inattention, "it is to acknowledge that the only kind of filmmaking that actually earns money is genre filmmaking. If the film is not horror, comedy, romance, or laden with homosexual themes and titillation, it would probably not arouse enough interest to earn enough box-office rewards to at least break even."

"Despite having a story where crazy-looking gaydars, rollerblading widows, vengeful drag queens, homophobic serial killers and the titular gay zombies miraculously cohere," Cruz continues, "Zombadings is actually very intelligently and carefully conceived and crafted. Castro directs the film like a maverick conductor, leading an orchestra composed of traditionally jarring instruments but eventually coming up with a symphony that is not so hard to enjoy and adore."

Cruz also praises the film's ingenious casting as an element of its popularity with Philippine audiences, emphasizing the credence granted Zombadings by veteran Filipino performers Roderick Paulate ("instrumental in creating the sub-genre of drag queen slapsticks"), and former macho stars John Regala, Daniel Fernando, and Leandro Baldemor to add muscle to the film's pointed equation of "homophobia as machismo." This sly critique of gender performativity is further extended into a predominantly female police force, where feisty deputy Mimi (Miles Canapi) made me laugh out loud more than any other character in the ensemble.

At Piling Piling Pelikula, Dodo Dayao concurs with Cruz: "Paulate is stunt-casting that's both preordained and genius. The queer act he's made his metier should've by rights gone stale after all this time but somehow it's even gained nuance and range. It's a shtick, sure, but it's a shtick that never ever gets old."

As for never getting old, Dayao points out Zombadings' reliance on "that old and old-fashioned Frank Capra trope—the comeuppance and enlightenment that comes from walking in the shoes of what you abhor, and more than anything, it's really subverting the very stereotypes it only seems to condone, much as it's hard to tell sometimes from the breathless velocity of the gags and the caricaturical swish and swagger of gay argot and affectation it relies on to make it fly."

Cruz concludes that Zombadings "becomes even more rewarding if enjoyed within the context of what it was made for, as a document of empowerment, a testament to the right of choice, and a blow against intolerance. It is packaged in a way that its freedoms and excesses should not be taken literally or too seriously, yet its jabs at still-existing constipated perceptions and opinions against homosexuality are too potent to be left unnoticed."

At Manila Bulletin, straight teenage hearthrobs Mart Escudero and Kerbie Zamora (who plays Escudero's sidekick Jigs) express their (to-be-expected?) jitters about the film's gay love scene, and at Inquirer Lifestyle several of the remaining cast members speak up about their roles while waiting to be made up as zombies.

Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings will screen Saturday, June 9, 9:30PM. Jade Castro has been invited but not yet confirmed. Ticket info is here.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

YBCA: NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—KANO: AN AMERICAN AND HIS HAREM

As Monster Jimenez explains on the website for her documentary Kano: An American and His Harem, "kano" (pronounced kä•nô') is Tagalog slang for Amerikano; i.e., American. But, Jimenez qualifies that Filipinos usually refer to any caucasian, regardless of ethnicity, as kano. The kano in question is Victor Pearson, a decorated American Marine who arrived in the Philippines in 1969 after surviving a bomb blast while fighting in Vietnam, thereby earning himself a hefty disability pension of $3,500 a month for his post-traumatic stress disorder. Considering that at the time the average monthly income for a Filipino was a mere $250, Pearson arrived a wealthy man by comparison, and was able to wield considerable influence and power. He set his sights on "living the dream"; one that "every heterosexual male dreams about."

Pearson swiftly discovered how easy it was for him to secure a Filipino wife and a plot of land in a poor, remote village in the Philippine province of Negros Occidental. He built a compound and filled it with a harem of wives and mistresses, many of them underage women as young as 11, all dependent upon his financial handouts. "It was like Christmas and birthday and holiday all rolled into one", he recalls proudly. With his disability fund, Pearson lived like a king in his compound for more than two decades, where the main activity was sex. In exchange for "love", Pearson offered his women allowances, jewelry, and shopping money.

But in 2001, Pearson was charged with 87 counts of rape against eight women, most of them reported to be aged 13 to 16 at the time, convicted on two counts the following year, and sentenced to 80 years in jail. Irregardless, the Sideways Films one-sheet for the film wryly asserts, "We think you'll like him." And there's no denying that Pearson has plenty of charisma—and rationalizations—to spare.

At Lessons From the School of Inattention, Oggs Cruz characterizes: "Pearson looks like a thoroughly unkempt Harvey Keitel and talks like a reflective but drunken Edward G. Robinson. He is an inevitable screen personality. His back story, with the possible barrage of psychological torture from a hinted torturous childhood and Vietnam War experiences, could have been a Kubrick thriller. His present story, as embattled villain in a legal battle against all odds, could have been a clever Lumet court drama."

At Piling Piling Pelikula, Dodo Dayao offers his take: "If it doesn't exactly plumb the same depths of malevolence as, say, Charles Manson, what he does exude is a similarly dangerous ambivalence: charismatic and diabolical in equal measure. And it leaks into the movie, irradiating it almost. The part where he sings 'Love Potion #9' smacks of both the quaint and the sinister, and not merely out of how creepy the subtext of the song gets, no. One second he's your boisterous uncle with one too many drinks in him hogging the family videoke, the next he's Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet. He is, in many ways, the quintessential pervert. He is also the perfect documentary subject."

At Spot, Ria Limjap describes Pearson as a fascinating character who Jimenez allows "to unfold with a gentle detachment. She catches Pearson's twisted charisma and his central tragedy, evoking revulsion and compassion in equal measure. The nicotine-stained and puffy-eyed sexual predator should be nothing but repulsive, right? Right. But sometimes he's just a lonely old man with screaming lambs of his own."

Although Pearson is now serving two life sentences in Manila, many of his women stand by him, surprisingly even those who testified against him in court. Pearson and his harem form an extended family bound together by codependency and power issues. Although still behind bars, he has since married five of the women who testified against him in court, keeping them in apartments in the neighborhood. Several of the women sport tattoos bearing his name. With considerable prurience, Jimenez explores the blurred line between generosity and exploitation. Whereas on one hand women sold their own children to Pearson, on the other hand he financed their education and provided opportunity they could otherwise never hope to have.

Unrepentant when confronted with his abuse of girls as young as 14, Pearson claims that the lifestyle and education he provided these women outweighs the charges leveled at him. This becomes the provocative litmus test of Kano—the filmmakers don't judge, both sides are presented as fairly as possible, and it's up to each audience member to determine "right" from "wrong" in this tangled and conflicted scenario. As Basil Tsiokos states it for Indiewire: "Giving equal time to both Pearson and the women's stories, the film gradually reveals a system of sexual subservience predicated on economic exploitation—a system that most women (or their families) may have entered resignedly, but, sadly, fully aware." But Oggs Cruz warns against too simplistic a reduction: "To simply regard their intertwined relationships as primarily economic is to disregard the complexity of human nature. Jimenez explores not only the cycle of financial dependency but also the continuously evolving emotions, no matter how misplaced, mutated and immoral they seem to be."

Dodo Dayao furthers: "At no point does the film slavishly demonize Pearson. At no point does it need to either. That's the bone to pick for many. Only its gut-punch, both as film and as argument, really gets its brunt from resisting the urge to editorialize, leveling everything past the point of being about one man's guilt to being more about an entire nation's cultural psyche. How deep our resident subservience to the white man runs. How every moral choice tends to boil down to money changing hands. How money is our enabler, our prosthetic, our elixir, our atonement. And more than that, how the beloved infidel may well be our prevailing icon of machismo. Pearson doesn't faze us too much, perhaps, because he is, in many ways, nothing new. He is every domestic action star who ever played a real-life philandering family man slash cop hero and spread the gospel of the other woman as a badge of manliness. And that he's a war hero, too, makes the embodiment even more perverse."

Funded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (Philippines), the Asian Network of Documentary (South Korea) and the Goteborg Film Fund (Sweden), Kano is the first documentary project of Arkeofilms, the independent film production company where Jimenez is managing director. It was selected for the First Appearance Competition of the 23rd edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), November 17–28, 2010, where it won. As reported by Isabel L. Templo to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, "The five-man international jury called it a film of 'disturbing power [that] explores a stunning mix of child abuse, post-traumatic stress syndrome, polygamy, co-dependence, sex addiction, criminality, and the lone voice of one woman whose testimony sends a troubled Amerikano living in the Philippines to jail.' " It likewise won Best Documentary at both the 2010 edition of Cinemalaya and the 2011 edition of the Gawad Urian Awards.

Though Victor Pearson is, as Dodo Dayao stated above, "the perfect documentary subject" and his story an undeniably compelling one, the documentary itself is more informative than artful and marred by indecisive camera work that struggles to position itself within the scenes, aggravated by quick zooms in and out that feel unsettling and amateurish.

Kano: An American and His Harem will have its U.S. premiere at YBCA on Friday, June 8, 2012, 1:00PM. Ticket info here.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

CANNES 2012: POST TENEBRAS LUX and COSMOPOLIS—By Ryan Lattanzio

Like a Freudian dream where logic is nil and cryptic symbols await us on every sinuous narrative turn, Post Tenebras Lux [IMDb] is Carlos Reygadas' most personal film to date. Themes of banal family life, boyhood, soured innocence, sin and self-sacrifice color this visually sublime cinematic experiment, all shot in the Academy ratio (a la Andrea Arnold). I mean "sublime" in the Romantic-era sense of the expression, as the film—with its dreary, waterlogged landscape sequences, its fuzzy POV shots and high levels of aesthetic artifice—captures nature's ability to exhilarate us, and to terrify us.

The film resembles a kind of arthouse home movie, illuminating private family moments, from waking up in the morning to having dinner together at the table, through an autobiographical lens. Reygadas is known for his slow, dreamy films Silent Light (2007), Japón (2002) and Battle in Heaven (2005), and Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for "after darkness light") plays like a survey of all the Mexican director's works and fetishes.

It opens with a little girl discovering the world. Running through wet plains, she points to and names cows, horses, dogs and trees. This goes on for about five minutes until a thunderstorm bellows from above, and Reygadas moves us into a domestic interior. As his parents sleep, a little boy (presumably the girl's brother) is greeted by a cartoonish, anatomically correct, CGI-rendered devil, composed of a glowing red light. Carrying a briefcase, the devil enters, stands in the child's room and stares at him. The sheer surreality of this moment brings to mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)—populated by talking red-eyed monkeys, ghosts and doppelgangers—snagged the Palme d'Or when Tim Burton was head of the jury.

But Reygadas is totally his own man, despite references to Tolstoy, philosophy and even his own childhood. Sonorous sound design, amplifying the rustle of leaves and mud and trickles of rain, paired with breathless visual style, make for a purely cinematic, expressionist experience.

Post Tenebras Lux has been derided by nearly every critic imaginable for its impossibly difficult (non)structure, its lack of linearity and its disjointed narrative that moves discursively from episode to episode. Reygadas will become fascinated with one thing (a criminal subplot, for example, that seems to be one of the film's turning points) and then will simply move onto another, abandoning that plot entirely.

If there's some bleary sense of a narrative here, it's the story of Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), a sex-starved patriarch who tries to do the very best for his family but ultimately lets his aggressions get the better of him. In one of the first scenes where we meet Juan, he beats one of his dogs to death, making it difficult to sympathize with this guy. His wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) is a beautiful, younger woman who lives with her husband and their two children (who we meet in the opening scenes) in an affluent home in some vacuum of space and time in the countryside of Mexico.

Like 2011 Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life, to which Reygadas is (however unconsciously) indebted, Post Tenebras Lux shifts back and forth in time, undulating and expanding to create new wholes while gobbling others. We see Juan and Natalia's children grown-up, looking pensive on a beach or running around a family party where pseudo-intellectuals discuss Russian authors. We see, unrelatedly, a team of English boys playing rugby (this is the film's most impenetrable scene).

In a moment as kinky and strange as anything this side of Buñuel, Juan and Natalia take a vacation to some indiscriminate European bathhouse. Traveling from room to room in this steamy hothouse, Juan and Natalia look for rooms called "Duchamp" and "Hegel" before Natalia has sex with a stranger while her husband watches. All the while, as Natalia's body is penetrated, a naked woman cossets Natalia, holding her head like a mother and sweetly telling her, "Your body was made for this." This disturbing and (unintentionally?) hilarious scene is one of the film's most bizarre, but we can see Reygadas's mastery of mise-en-scène at play. The bathhouse, tinged with pinkish hues, swampy and steamy and filled with grotesque naked bodies, displays his ability to carve imaginative interior spaces as well as exteriors.

I'm always a sucker for experimental, non-narrative cinema. There were a few moments where I dozed off and would wake up, completely lost, wondering, "Where the hell are we?" But I soon realized this was exactly what Reygadas aimed to achieve: a defamiliarizing cinema of a phenomenal world where anything can happen. Even if Post Tenebras Lux is a bit trapped inside its designer's head, the film has burrowed its way into mine.

* * *

This year at Cannes has been a great one for auteurs. I've been graced with works by Reygadas, Haneke, Kiarostami, Vinterberg, Audiard, Anderson and, finally, David Cronenberg. Bristling with energy, cold unfeeling and ideas, Cosmopolis [official site] is the Canadian director's best film since A History of Violence (2005), which also premiered at Cannes.

Adapted from Don DeLillo's 2003 novel of the same name, Cosmopolis is a heady plunge into a dystopian urban milieu of greed, corruption, technology, celebrity and nihilism. Robert Pattinson—who I had never actually seen in a film until now (yeah, I know)—channels Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) in his performance as Eric Packer, a dissolute 28-year-old billionaire who needs a haircut. The film tracks Packer's descent into mania as he rides in the back of a stretch limo trying to get across town in Manhattan the same day the president has arrived. Inside the soundproof limo, all is quiet. On the outside, the world roars with chaos and anarchy. Protesters tout the words of Karl Marx ("a specter is haunting the world") and everyone seems to be out to get Eric.

Eric holds an indiscriminate position of power as someone who deals in money, betting on the rise and fall of international currencies while living a life of debauchery and lawlessness. He drinks exorbitant amounts of liquor, has casual sex ad infinitum and discards people like spittle. Inside the limo, he is greeted by an idiosyncratic cast of characters played by Jay Baruchel (the skinny, stuttering dweeb from Freaks and Geeks and other Judd Apatow worlds), Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and even, in a gleefully mad little cameo, Mathieu Amalric. In one of Croneberg's career-best scenes, the film ends in a prescient encounter with Paul Giamatti, whose presence always looms in the world outside.

Like Cronenberg's last film A Dangerous Method (2011), Cosmopolis is insanely talky, written in brainy dialogue delivered with stilted unease. It is truly a language movie, structured like James Joyce's Ulysses in a series of episodic encounters built on lines that bruise and provoke. "Life is too contemporary," Binoche's character tells Eric. And that seems to be the main idea of this film. The world around Eric hurtles forth at lightspeed, where even the word "computer" is archaic and technology is at everyone's disposal, and is the cause of their ruination. Though Eric rigidly abides by ideals and obsessions—he gets a medical check-up everyday, he wants to feel something more than sex and empty human connections, and he doesn't even need that haircut—he is, at bottom, a nihilist. He rejects social conventions, makes his own rules and inhabits his own kind of enclosed utopia in that decked-out stretch limo.

Cronenberg shoots in tight close-ups with a wide-lens, so everything, like Eric's asymmetrical prostate, always appears a little off-kilter. A director known for his explorations of the body's (per)mutations, and its inevitable emergence with non-corporeal forms of capital, commerce and technology, Cronenberg is at the top of his game, here. Bouncing off one another like charged molecules, the ideas here are so plentiful that a second viewing seems paramount.

Cosmopolis will not succeed in the mainstream because it is too talky and too cerebral. But those who go the film looking to get their rocks off staring at Pattinson, the dark, chiseled prince of the Twilight films, won't be disappointed. The actor, in a brooding performance as Eric, is sexy-as-hell. Even the way he wields a revolver is erotic. And those eyes—my God, those eyes!—they could reduce you to a puddle of submission with one glance.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

CANNES 2012: AQUÍ Y ALLÁ, SOFIA'S LAST AMBULANCE, HORS LES MURS—By Ryan Lattanzio

The 65th Cannes International Film Festival continues to yield numerous, and numinous, pleasures on my eighth day into the festival. In my last few days screening films at Critics' Week—for which I am a juror under the stewardship of Céline Sciamma (director of Water Lilies and Tomboy)—I've traveled to a peaceful mountain village in Mexico, to a weary city in Bulgaria and to a nightclub in Belgium.

These are the respective settings of the films Aquí y Allá (Antonio Méndez Esparza), Sofia's Last Ambulance (Ilian Metev) and Hors Les Murs (David Lambert). Each is a standout from the Critics' Week line-up, which ended today with a screening of Sofia. Tomorrow, the prizes, including the Camera d'Or and the Visionary Award, will be announced at L'Espace Miramar, a little place I've called home for the past week. Here, I deliberate and discuss with my fellow jurors, schmooze with directors and actors and feel an overall sense of belonging amongst fellow cinephiles.

Aquí y Allá [Facebook] is a calm, plaintive film about working-class life in Guerrero, Mexico. Director Esparaza captures the swift ebb and flow of nature—its fields in which working men toil, the mountainscape that surrounds their quotidian lives—with a lyricism akin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Yasujiro Ozu. A mundane family dinner shared by Pedro (Pedro de Los Santos Juárez) with his wife and two daughters takes on immense significance and power when framed by Esparaza's patient, confident cinematic hand. Having just returned from working in the U.S.—a place of promise that constantly hangs over these people, who are content in their little lives but who still, like the rest of us, have big dreams—Pedro finds his two daughters older and wiser, and his wife about to have their third child.

There is no big drama in Aquí y Allá, not a voice raised, nor even a tinge of hysteria. The people in Esparaza's film understand the smallness of their existence and despite having little money and modest dwellings, they seem grateful just to be alive. Esparaza imposes no agenda on his film. He simply wants us to encounter people in a place we have not seen, and his cast is comprised of non-professional actors whose restrained performances provide the film's naturalist underpin. Here's hoping this wonderful slice-of-life gets picked up for distribution.

My last Critics' Week screening, Ilian Metev's Sofia's Last Ambulance, was also among the best. Shot in what I think must be 16mm, this is a visually exuberant documentary about three dedicated people who drive an ambulance in a fatigued city in Bulgaria. There's a dearth of medical professionals in the city, we learn, so the chain-smoking, unflagging trio is constantly in high demand. As they race through the day and night to rescue drug addicts, children and pregnant women, the possibility of a car crash or radio failure looms overheard with every screeching turn and careen of the vehicle.

Though some opening remarks on the film by one of the Critics' Week selection committee members suggested the metaphoric content of the film and its comment on an impaired Bulgarian society, Metev simply films what he wants to film, with no immediately grand intentions. Again, like Aquí y Allá, Sofia is a kind of slice-of-life, but it is also a harrowing reality, and a very compelling doc.

Earlier in the week, David Lambert's Hors Les Murs screened at the festival. Though the film is not perfect, it is certainly a solid new entry in a canon of gay cinema that seems to be getting better and better. No longer are we limited to the mediocre, tasteless selection on Netflix Instant. Lambert's lush, somber romance between two very different men in Belgium recalls the broken romance in Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a film the director himself cited as an inspiration.

Ilir (Guillaume Gouix) is an Albanian bass player moonlighting as a bartender. One night, he picks up Paulo (Matila Malliarakis), a young pianist trapped in a straight relationship. Ilir is masculine, beautiful and a little cold, while Paulo is overly romantic, needy, and wan. The two hardly seem a good match, and they get off to a rocky start, but eventually they fall in love but are faced with challenges when Ilir gets arrested for possession of drugs. The film veers off course a little in scenes about drug smuggling across the border; but, Hors Les Murs really shines in its depiction of a young gay romance which blossoms after a momentary hook-up. Lambert directs with a tenderness and respect for his characters, in whose plight we feel empathy, even some relatability. Though we don't always adore these men—they can be, at times volatile and frustrating and hypocritical—we can at least see within them the presence of real people living real lives. Hopefully there is more to come from Lambert, because Hors Les Murs, despite being a conventional love story, breaks new ground for gay film.

Thanks again to the San Francisco Film Society, the Consulate General of France in San Francisco, the French American Cultural Society and Semaine de la Critique for making my trip possible.

YBCA: NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—NIÑO (2011)

The 2010 edition of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) introduced me to Filipino cinema. I took a festival studies approach to SFIAAFF's Filipino sidebar (Filipino Cinema and "Imagined Communities") and compiled a critical overview of Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974) as a sampling of SFIAAFF's mini-retrospective honoring Brocka. Then I solicited and retained the cooperation of the three Philippine film critics championed by Alexis Tioseco in his piece "Wishful Thinking for Philippine Cinema"Francis "Oggs" Cruz, Eduardo "Dodo" Dayao, and Richard "Chard" Bolisay—all three who consented to interviews. Oggs and Chard further granted permission for me to republish their reviews of Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008). I enjoyed working with and learning from all three of these young gentlemen so much, that I continue to solicit their advice and counsel concerning all films Filipino to this day.

Thus, I was especially pleased when Joel Shepard advised of an upcoming program of "New Filipino Cinema" programmed for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), June 7-10 and June 17, 2012. Featuring 29 films, 24 of them U.S. premieres, "New Filipino Cinema" is the most comprehensive survey of contemporary Filipino cinema presented in the United States. Shepard explains: "New Filipino Cinema is a big fat snapshot of the diverse range of filmmaking going on right now—narrative features, documentaries, and experimental work. The clichéd images of the Philippines that most foreigners are familiar with are of poverty, prostitution, and crime. Those social ills are represented in this series, but they absolutely do not define this complex and extraordinary country. It's important to understand this. I was also careful to represent filmmaking taking place outside of Manila, and to include many women directors."

"New Filipino Cinema" kicks off on Thursday, June 7, 2012 with an opening reception to welcome director Loy Arcenas, who will be attending his opening night film Niño (2011). My Philippine colleagues Oggs Cruz and Dodo Dayao encouraged me to watch Niño when it screened earlier this year at the 2012 Palm Springs International Film Festival, and I found it to be an enjoyable and affecting melodrama about a family as worn about the edges as the delapidated house in which they live out their circumscribed lives. The patriarch has fallen into a coma and his sister Celia, a former opera star, tries to miraculously revive him by dressing her grandson up as Santo Niño de Cebú, the Philippine variant of Santo Niño de Atocha, seen here wandering whimsically far from his holy chair, running throughout the old house, and among the complicated—if not quite modern—lives of its inhabitants. The film's comic flourishes are its highlights.

Shepard deepens the perspective: "The image of the child Christ, the Santo Niño, holds special significance to the Filipino faithful. It is said to cause miracles, the idol a perfect representation of the country's strange conflation of religion and superstition. It is why a young boy has been dressed up as the Santo Niño in this clever dissection of a fading aristocratic family. With the patriarch fallen ill, the debts piling up, the house crumbling, and the family falling apart, all that's left is to pray for a miracle. With studied grace, Niño explores a social class rarely depicted in Filipino films, revealing a deeply human core to aristocracy."

At Lessons From the School of Inattention, Oggs Cruz details that exploration: "There is a reason why people are fascinated with ruins, despite the evident disrepair and decay. Ruins are permanent reminders of a distant glorious past. In Loy Arcenas' Niño, the Lopez-Aranda clan is portrayed with the same fascination, as if the family were ruins on display: the bits of opera that Celia sings to bedridden Gaspar with her aging soprano are the broken columns, the stories told by Gaspar of his blossoming political position are the damaged statues, and the rustic house, its remaining furniture and ornaments and the anecdotes of the loyal household help of the house's former prominence are the collapsed edifices, the wilted gardens, the burnt arcs, all of which are faint indications of the family’s expired extravagance." For a first-time filmmaker, Cruz finds Niño a "feat to behold", and stresses Arcenas' "disciplined craftsmanship."

At Piling Piling Pelikua, Dodo Dayao writes: "Fides Cuyugan-Asensio is indomitable as the lapsed diva and her temperament becomes the film's: skittish, fractious, wistful, elegant, and just the tiniest bit cuckoo."

Blurbs On Contemporary Filipino Films adds: "The effort to create an envelope-pushing film concocted over jaunty pieces of melodrama, gothic humor, opera music and camp with a Hallmark strain that’s too close for comfort, warrants some recognition. But it is through Rody Vera's excellent screenplay that we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the angst the characters lived through, with their varied forms of displacement and agony rattling in the most smoldering of friction."

At Pelikula Tumblr, Jansen Musico has a brief conversation with Arcenas, wherein he explains: "Rody and I love irony and we much agreed how much irony fills up our daily lives. We wanted to explore this in the film, within the context of a comedy of manners. But Filipino life is a hijinks of comedy and sorrow and so we decided that Niño should be a study of the present Filipino psyche walking the fine line between tragedy and comedy."

Preceding the film, Alleluia Panis of Kularts will perform "Ritwal" with vocalist Kristine Sinajon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

CINEMA GUILD: NE CHANGE RIEN (2009)—DVD Review by Alex Hansen

Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien (2009) is a glimpse into the abyss that is process: long hours spent pouring endless energy and concentration into minute details that the majority won't even notice, perfecting an expression, giving it a power to punch the viewer / listener in the stomach, wielding only a silence, a gesture, a cut, a word, an unexpected note.

Jeanne Balibar is presented as the creative driving force behind the music—it's her name on the album just as the films are "by" Costa—but both receive aid and inspiration from their peripheral collaborators. Balibar's music is co-written. She is guided by the musicians who play with her, patiently persisting, playing and replaying until she can find the tempo and get her phrasing right. Costa's films, likewise, are created with the input of those who appear in them. They bring to life onscreen versions of their own life stories, leading Costa and his films to their eventual expression. Both draw inspiration from material that's come before, which they use as a foundation to build on, whether it be a "Superfly" sample or a Jacques Tourneur plot. Even Costa's shooting methods mirror the musical process. Just because a scene's been committed to tape doesn't mean he won't revisit the material and shoot it again weeks later, allowing the atmosphere and "vibe" of the room and/or the day to imbue the performance.

Costa shed the baggage of celluloid after making Ossos (1997), feeling it constrained and imposed on his process too much. One can imagine him reacting similarly to Balibar as she rehearses La Perichole. She isn't in control of her process. She's stopped every other syllable to make adjustments. Her frustration visibly builds as she's forced to bend to another's will and the demands of the medium, much as Costa himself once had to bend to the needs of film (lights, crew, etc.).

Costa's latest work—this and the 2010 short O Nosso Homem, another variation on the footage used in Tarrafal (2007) and The Rabbit Hunters (2007) and included on the Masters of Cinema's must-have Colossal Youth (2006) set—looks towards the past, without a hint of the future. Compare that to a filmmaker with whom he is often compared: Lisandro Alonso, whose Untitled (Letter to Serra, 2011) similarly deals with the filmmaker's past work but dangles a few tantalizing possibilities about what is to come. Will there be another shift in his process? Where does Costa go from here? Where is there to go after In Vanda's Room (2000) and Colossal Youth? Perhaps the answer, or maybe just a hint, can be found in O Nosso Homem, which proves the malleability of images. Just because something's been done or seen before doesn't mean it's potential has been exhausted.

It comes as no surprise that The Cinema Guild's DVD release of Ne Change Rien is top shelf. Image and sound are stellar and the extras are plentiful with a few deleted scenes and a sampling of Balibar's "Tronomettes" (musical sketches featuring accompaniment by a metronome). Cinema Guild continues their habit of including short films when possible (and bless them for it), as their Manoel de Oliveira and Agnes Varda discs, and the inclusion of an early Bela Tarr short on their upcoming Turin Horse release attest. The real gem is Costa's short film The End of a Love Affair, a modest piece whose pleasures are derived from the simple act of viewing, much like how the subject of Costa's short watches the street from the window. The curtains billow in from the edge of the frame. Light dances on the bed sheet and across the chest of the man. The title song joins in after a spell; but, we learn nothing about the man. In the parlance of Billy Brown, we "span time" with him. And in many ways, that's all we should ask of the moving image.

CANNES 2012: AMOUR, LAURENCE ANYWAYS and RUST AND BONE—By Ryan Lattanzio

Thanks to the good people at the San Francisco Film Society, the Consulate General of France in SF, the French American Cultural Society and La Semaine de la Critique, I was sent last week to the 65th Cannes International Film Festival as a critic and jury member. Six days into the festival, and I have managed to see a ton of films both good and bad, and I am living the dream of the magpie cinephile.

To start, the best film I have seen so far in the Main Competition is Michael Haneke's Amour. Who knew that the Austrian provocateur behind such films as The Seventh Continent (1989), The Piano Teacher (2001), Cache (2005) and The White Ribbon (2009 Palme d'Or winner) was capable of feeling anything? Amour is the director's most emotional, tender film to date. It marks a shift in his career that resembles late Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer: restrained, pensive and deeply felt.

Amour is about love, of course, but it is also two hours of a woman dying. Yet Haneke renders this depressing material redemptive and utterly compelling. It's as good a rumination as any about getting old and getting on in life.

The film is also a tribute to seasoned French actors, starring Jean Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as Georges and Anne, an elderly married couple whose amour is put to the greatest test of all when Anne suffers a stroke that paralyzes half of her body. Georges, with the help of his daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), must care for Anne in the final months of her life. We know from the outset that she is going to die. The film opens with police breaking into the couple's apartment to find Anne splayed on the bed amid a funereal bouquet. Natch, in Haneke tradition, this image cuts to the title card Amour.

Trintignant is my pick for Best Actor at the festival, which ends on the 27th when the Palme d'Or and other awards are announced. As Georges, he is calm, sensible and devoted to his wife, yet we also see the personal toll Anne's condition takes on him in several unsettling dream sequences which punctuate this lovely, elegiac film.

With the exception of one crucial scene, Amour never leaves the apartment, which looks more like the chateau in Bergman's Cries and Whispers than a bourgeois flat. We are confined to these large rooms with Georges and Anne for two hours, but instead of suffocating, it's riveting. Haneke does not sanitize with cliches or sentimentality, and like all his films, Amour is starkly realized, but this time with more heart than head (something new for Mr. Haneke, otherwise known for his cinema of nihilism and dread). I walked out of the theater completely wrecked. I didn't know Haneke could make me feel such feelings.

Another excellent film, this one from the Un Certain Regard category, is enfant terrible Xavier Dolan's Laurence Anyways. With this glam epic, Dolan has made his most personal film yet. All he had to do was not cast himself in it.

With its huge, episodic structure spanning 10 years in the life of a couple, Laurence—shot with vibrant color in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio that immediately evokes Dolan's cinephilic nostalgia—smacks of '90s era Pedro Almodovar in telling, through broad brush strokes and intimate moments, the story of a man who realizes he was meant to be a woman. The title character, played with sensitivity and bravado by Melvil Poupaud (a regular cast member of Ruiz and Ozon), becomes a transsexual over the course of the movie but his girlfriend Frederique (the effervescent Suzanne Clément whose performance recalls Kate Winslet's as the manic pixie dream girl in Eternal Sunshine) decides to stick with him. She wrestles with this decision for the rest of her life, as Laurence and Fred are constantly on-and-off, hot and cold.

Given that the film clocks in at nearly three hours, and though it feels surprisingly breezy, Laurence, like Dolan's coiffed pompadour, is going to need a pair of scissors if it's ever going to find an audience across the Atlantic. But it's a big, beautiful film, where we really get the sense that these two flawed but endlessly watchable people are crazy in love with each other. Dolan pumps '80s New Wave tunes, sometimes ad nauseum, into the film and its uber-'90s aesthetic (the shoulder pads, my god those shoulder pads). Sometimes his tendency to smear his style all over his substance does a disservice to the characters and the story, but Laurence is leaps beyond Dolan's previous efforts J'ai tue ma mere (2009) and Les amours imaginaires (2010). Though the 23-year-old director is not quite ready to sack his punk sensibilities and aesthetic attitudes, Laurence is a mature film, a near-masterpiece that's been one of my favorites at the festival.

A film I was far less thrilled with but one that is generating a lot of buzz around La Croisette is Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, or as it is known in its very chewy French title De rouille et d'os. It is Audiard's follow-up to the 2009 political drama A Prophet. Like that film, Rust and Bone takes its characters and audience on a grand tour of emotional hell. Overwrought melodrama with some seriously good acting make up this otherwise flavorless picture about (you guessed it) two broken souls who come together amid the scraps of their personal tragedies.

As Stephanie, an orca trainer turned paraplegic after a random accident on the job, Marion Cotillard throws herself headlong into her stripped down, untreated performance. The role churns the actress through the wringer and finds her doing some brutal gymnastics of grief and otherwise. Cotillard, along with Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) as Ali, a single dad, amateur boxer and antihero par excellence, could potentially nab the Best Actress prize. In one scene in a hospital—as much as I hate screaming scenes in hospitals—she articulates her emotions with rare fluency. I refuse to dispel the nature of her accident, as forthcoming American trailers no doubt will, but the way she cries out mes jambes, mes jambes is some of the most gut-wrenching, heart-crushing stuff I've witnessed at the festival.

With its contrived incident-driven plot, which is overly determinant of the characters' lives, the film stinks of Alejandro González Iñárritu gone out of control. But there is also, undoubtedly, a reckoning with cinema Americana, like that of Darren Aronofsky, with the film's trembling camera and gritty lens filter. But at the beating bloody heart of the film is the love story of Stephanie and Ali, who meet at a club where Ali is a bouncer. Beneath all the film's ramblings about working class malaise, and a narrative momentum that's frozen in melo-molasses, there is something so moving about the film that I cannot shake. Plus, it uses Katy Perry's pop ballad "Firework" in such an unexpectedly tender way, I couldn't help but feel my heart strings pulse and pull a little bit. Rust and Bone will be nominated for Academy Awards, mark my words, and it's really going to work with American audiences.