Friday, June 12, 2015

NEW FILIPINO CINEMA—The Coffin Maker (Magkakabaung, 2014)

You're in luck! For the fourth edition of New Filipino Cinema (NFC), Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) programmer Joel Shepard has elected to repeat screenings of the NFC line-up the following weekend, so those of you who missed last night's opening reception of Jason Paul Laxamana's The Coffin Maker (Magkakabaung, 2014) [IMDb / Wikipedia / Facebook], will have a second opportunity on Friday, Jun 19, 7:00 PM to watch the film heralded by Shepard as his favorite in the series.

As encapsulated by YBCA: "In one of the most highly praised Filipino films of the year, a hard-working father tries his best to raise a young daughter alone in a rural area, but he is ill-prepared for what fate throws their way. The film takes us on a deeply emotional journey, free of cliché and sentimentality, slowly unveiling the struggles of a man who must confront his guilt and remorse."

Chale Nafus, Director of Programming for the Austin Film Society has, perhaps, best situated the importance of Laxamana's films within the current resurgence of Filipino filmmaking: "Jason Paul Laxamana is a Filipino cultural warrior with a mission—to preserve and promote the Kapampangan language, culture, and identity through film, video, music, and online. The majority of Filipino films are in Tagalog, but the independent film movement based on digital technology has allowed filmmakers like Laxamana to make films in regional languages and in areas not usually explored by Manila-based mainstream media." Nafus's interview with the director is well worth the read and a perusal of Laxamana's website is likewise encouraged. But before checking those out, I need to offer a spoiler alert that it's near to impossible to discuss this film without revealing narrative details (which even the film's trailer cannot avoid).

So from hereon in: SPOILER ALERT.

Courtesy: Cinemalaya
Laxamana's third film The Coffin Maker premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and has since been on festival track. It won Best Asian Film at the 3rd Hanoi International Film Festival in Vietnam on November 2014. As recounted to Nafus, Laxaman's involvement with the film came about in an interesting way. His producers approached him to develop a story set in the town of Santo Tomas, Pampanga (the casket capital of the Philippines) based on the true story of a father who had to steal the body of his daughter from the morgue due to financial incapacity. One of his producers, Ferdinand Lapuz, was likewise the agent for Allen Dizon, and Laxamana was encouraged to develop a story with Dizon in the lead role. Dizon inhabits the character of Randy, the titular coffin maker, with a taciturn pathos that slowly builds to bewildered rage, exhaustion, and a cascading series of inescapably bad decisions. A genuine sense of affection exists between Randy and his daughter Angeline, as Felixia Crysten Dizon is the real-life daughter of lead actor Dizon (especially in a scene where he prepares her a sandwich and she smiles in delight with her first bite). While researching the material, Laxamana encountered other interesting true accounts—such as the buying and selling of cadavers and the costly and bureaucratic way of disposing the dead—which serves to texture a narrative wholly centered on death and its processes, both bureaucratic and physiological.

Courtesy: Cinemalaya
The film's technical merits are immediately engaging. Shot by Rain Yamson in handheld widescreen long continuous takes, The Coffin Maker provides a palpable sense of place and movement through space and—especially in the sequence where the children are playing—an immersive grasp of their innocent world, with the boys playing "bang / stab" and then, later, splashing around in the shallow waters near a dike. Much of the narrative consists of the coffin maker's mobility around the streets of his home town in a pedal buggy and, thereby, offers observational moments that are notably brilliant; particularly, a scene seen in passing where a young boy is being throttled for breaking a merchant's clay jars, introduced ahead of the visual reveal by the sound of their argument. Here, I shout out to Junel Valencia's layered sound design in effective collaboration with Diwa de Leon's restrained music score.

Courtesy: Cinemalaya
Perhaps the film's most satisfying elements are the way it frames the film's central tragedy against a background of disregard, frivolity and opportunism registered in an ensemble of minor characters from Neri (Chanel Latorre)—Randy the coffin maker's pretty, vapid love interest who likes him only for the credits he can load onto her cell phone—to the funeral home director (Emilio Garcia) who seeks to profit off Angeline's corpse. Equally effective are the film's touches of mordant humor, indirect justice, and its flourishes of magical realism to visualize Randy's torturous regret and guilt. Angeline's shrouded cadaver speaks up and asks her father, "Daddy, when do I get to go back to school?" The film's final scene sends a chill through the viewer as we see the coffin maker vigorously digging a hidden grave for his daughter, who stands silently looking down at his labor. A final moment of decency in a largely indecent universe.


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