Monthly Archives: September 2013

Spherical Sympathy

J. Pilapil Jacobo

A world is imagined to be more shapely when the geometric configuration of the sphere takes over the idea of landscape. Or else terrain falls back into that ancient conceit of flatness. Of course this historicizing belongs to the colonial order, but the cartographic claim is enabling for those whose place on earth is threatened by the techne of, let’s say, geodesy. Such is the rift that needs to be resolved by the eponymous character played by Nora Aunor in Mes de Guzman’s Ang Kwento ni Mabuti.

The narrative pursues the labors of a peasant woman who forages what remains of the verdure of a piece of land that belongs to her clan but now needs to be ransomed from certain laws which demarcate the earth and expel those who have long nurtured it. Mabuti’s mother (Josephina Estabillo) dreads the day that will find them living in a hut suspended from a tree at the edge of a cliff, but Mabuti refuses to succumb to that banishment from a sphere they have already emplotted as sacred.

To anticipate the good that is to come, and to internalize this practice of patience, Mabuti assumes the role of the shaman: summoner of the spirits, interlocutor of the elements, Aeolian harp on Nueva Vizcayan earth that plays the music of the spheres. With saliva and stone, Mabuti converses with the pharmakon (poison) of venom as the pharmakon (antidote) of devotion, bargains with the universe to remove the contagion, and restitutes the order of benevolence. All shall be well, because the world is enfolded into a state of grace. It may not be visible, but the good, in God’s time, shall foreground itself. The figure that completes the sphere is an embrace from the firmaments. Mabuti is a widow, and her son (Arnold Reyes) and daughter (Mara Lopez) have been taken away from her by metropolitan commerce and diasporic exchange, but with crone-mother and four elfin girl-grandchildren, the shaman asserts the insurmountable place of sympathy in a world that must wax in fortitude when fortune is on the wane.

Mes de Guzman has crafted a film whose milieu musters the enclosures and the extensions of what could be the scope of a cinema of a considerable degree of independence: the sphere of a locality whose roots and rhizomes can only allow the cosmos to open itself up to both providence and peril, which includes a bridge that is never completed, and military checkpoints which must delay travel into the city. The agon that emerges out of the depths must tilt fate toward disaster or away from it. This cusp allows the hailstone to hold within its core a precipitate of insight on cosmic change. As well, such a time commands the swarm to hover above the ambivalence of an ethic. This “dialectical image” empowers the writing to pursue the mystique against all manner of mystifying. The crisis then is only fomented not to threaten the place of the good but to test the ground on which its matter could speak.


The money that Mabuti inherits from Nelia (Sue Prado), a woman summoned and surrendered by the local insurgency, is not so much a metaphor of corruption but a metonym of corruptibility. The spell around the cash stolen from possibly the same bank that is keeping the title of Mabuti’s ancestral land may enchant the shaman. It is her misrecognition of the sorcery that must be apprehended. The good is intimated in the promise of goods, but only after the fetish about capital decays. Hence, two prospects from within Mabuti’s sphere appeal as objects of the gift: the four girl-children’s collegiate education and the crone-mother’s recovery from metastasis. And yet, these options remain improvident. When Mabuti finally resolves the compromise, the categorical imperative divorces itself from any possible imperial category. Mabuti is not turned into a philanthropist. At that moment, the exchange value is hinged upon another girl-child, Marife, the daughter of the insurgent who sneaks the money inside Mabuti’s bag before she is killed by the military. Marife’s term of ransom may be fiscalized by a known amount, but it can only be accounted for by an interminable capacity—Mabuti herself—the only sympathy that can correspond to the girl-child’s subaltern state.

The sanction of this ethic is suffered with an elegiac pace by the syntax of the sympathy, Nora Aunor. Her understanding of the pastoral is accurate, and almost exact in calibrating a sense of biome whose radii are aware of catastrophe and attentive to the fulfillment of the shamanic mandate. It is a range that understands both limit and infinity. Aunor’s formal attitude is most assured here, then. Her late style has become an archive of attunements that can relate with either primordial kernel or final foliage. Earthen is the range. Because she is comfortable treading the reed-path with swine, we forget the contempt we have attached to the animal, and our zootropy recuperates.

We have been instructed well on how Aunor enacts a moment of conviction to tell a truth or to release oneself from victimry, but the method of her act in this film homes in on crisis: the tentativity that surrounds its valences, the articulations of a dilemma that nonetheless electrifies the spirit, and that static moment where the only charge that matters is the epiphanic self.

Is anyone else capable of shifting into tenses of terror perfect and progressive upon finding out the excess in one’s baggage is money, money, money?

The ensemble of women that accompanies this performance must be celebrated for providing Aunor with formidable foils to her character’s predicament. Josephina Estabillo, the termagant, is such a levity. Sue Prado, the renegade, is imperturbable. Mara Lopez, the lovelorn, is by turns melancholic and sanguine. Not every seasoned performer knows the difference.

Ang Kwento ni Mabuti reveals to us that there are still stars, and the stars are still, in Nora’s eyes. Superstars, they remain. And we must gaze, gaze, gaze.


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Posted by on 28 September 2013 in Film Review


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Counterpoint of No Return

J. Pilapil Jacobo        

The cinematic articulation of the Philippine diaspora offers a historical opportunity to foreground the insertion of such an instance into the global narrative of migration. As a scopic device that maps out the economies of scale which retard the movements of Filipino migrant work, cinema, especially when it heralds itself as independent, can speed up the telling of the lives which have fallen out of the traffic. It can also report the coordinates of the displacement as well as the elliptical routes of engagement shot through the cartographic palimpsest. Diasporic cinema can then enliven the discourse, as, pace Edward W. Said, a counterpoint that syncopates the manner of the dispersion. A counterpoint elects interpretation into the order of contemporaneous histories across contemporary spheres. It is an indigene of critique.

Accomplishments in the diasporic imagination have been single-handedly modulated by Gil Portes, in ‘Merika (1984), Minsan May Isang Pangarap (1995), and Homecoming (2003). In all three, the right to take exception from the protocols of departure is paramount, as long as the individual assumes a position on the world-historical after engaging the “anti-conquest” in the contact zone. Efforts like Sana Maulit Muli (1995), Milan (2004), and In My Life (2009) have relegated the Filipino immigrant to a lachrymose figure that belabors the national melodrama of community and its concominant estrangements. Hannah Espia’s Transit (2013) is Transitconfident that it has proposed a counterpoint to the habits of diasporic cinema by situating the Philippine predicament in Israel, an originary locus of global migrancy that has troped itself into a translational zone despite its modern inception as a strategic neo-colony. Filipino migrant work, in various phases of documentation, is set to be told, for sure, with some degree of facility, within this milieu, and yet the fetishistic commitment to describe the ethnicity of this locale falters in engaging the trauma that besieges the Israeli state—the Palestinian question, a most peripheral but the least distant counterpoint to the Philippine predicament. The failure to determine the truth of this confluence accounts for a perspective on the diaspora drafted from the script of xenophobic neurosis.

The structure of the narrative masks such insipidity by repeating a short story of a rather single effect in five episodes, each one devoted to a character. The technique of recurrence is at times persuasive in visualizing a leitmotif of entrapment within the urgency to move in and out of quotidian intransigence, but the quintuple rhythm is incapable of building up resonances. The inclination toward an insight on sequence and simultaneity is detectable, but that aspiration remains within the realm of conjecture.  The story repeats but tension does not accumulate. Scenes are appended sometimes to extend an affect, and when that happens, the effect is less ironical than hyperbolic. A collective experience is diffracted into five vignettes, and yet, there is nothing contrapuntal in echoing denials of a single perspective. An errant thought that can be contested in the name of the multiple-argument never takes shape, because the point of view is not altered. The characters delineated after Janet (Irma Adlawan) must nonetheless discredit the feminine insight that somehow charges the Philippine presence in Israel with a certain deliberation. The paranoiac (Ping Medina), the passive aggressive (Mercedes Cabral), the depressive (Jasmine Curtis Smith), and the hyper-active (Marc Justine Alvarez) mark out the coordinates of despair that endangers Janet’s agency. The actress’s hysterical investment is arguably earned. Adlawan needed to compensate by aggregating a repertoire of shrill sentiments to overwrite that rather stentorian judgment on the futility of maternal suffering.

To excise the idea of Palestine from an image of Israel seen through Philippine eyes is to occlude the complex historical circumstances which have made possible the visibility of Transit as a Filipino film production shot in the Middle East. With “Palestine” entirely out of the picture, it becomes easy for the film to represent the Israeli state as dismissive of the possibility of a legal Filipino presence. And without a counterpoint to its precarity, the Philippine predicament fails to find a ground where a claim to relevance can be demarcated. We are not asking a rewriting of the screenplay. A moment where a metonym of  an “outer” space “within” appears should be enough to open up the film as a persuasively global engagement. A text must allow some scissions into its surface to allow a totality of traumas to emerge as vital to the analysis of a problematic.

Arising from the impasse are two risky figures of transnational subjectivity: Joshua (Justine Alvarez), the child who is interpellated into the rites of the Torah in Jerusalem and Haifa but is doomed to endure listening to monsoonal tales in Manila; and Yael (Jasmine Curtis Smith), the Filipino Israeli who is entitled to the Jewish homeland but rejects her entanglement with the Philippine post-colony. The racial consciousness nurtured by these enchantments can only breed a species of Filipino racism. Alienated from contrapuntality, neither Joshua nor Yael will think through the split in their identities through what W. E. B Du Bois calls as “double consciousness.” How does one respond to the cheer hanging upon Alvarez’s voice, and the incipient vacancy all over Curtis Smith’s face? There is hatred deep within them. Its particulate object is the Philippine.


Posted by on 21 September 2013 in Film Review


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Nobility and Degradation: A Conversation on On the Job

This exchange, begun in the interest of exploring a different format for evaluating films, was conducted from September 4 to 14, 2013 via e-mail. The messages were then compiled into a single document, edited, and sent to the participants for review before posting.

The goal of this exercise was not so much to form a consensus, but to bring to the surface observations, questions, and concerns that the participants, as well as the various audiences of On the Job, could think through and about.

For readers who have not watched the film, what follows contains spoilers.


Tessa Maria Guazon

Taking off from our after-dinner chat last night, I initiate the thread on Erik Matti’s latest film, On the Job [henceforth OTJ]. I watched it on opening day and was initially thrilled by the idea of Gerald Anderson being cast in the role of a prison inmate. And who can ignore such a film, when my television news screen was peopled by the many versions of a beaming Anderson?

Anyhow, let us get the conversation going.

As I recall, we agreed that the merits of OTJ were its superb editing and sound design, but Jason sharply noted that its screenplay was its biggest flaw. I found discomfiting OTJ’s “sleekness”; the title for the review I have yet to write is “The Lures of Sleek”. The apparent gloss is what made it tick, yet it was also what made it weak. And the biggest fissures were in terms of narrative and characterization.

JPaul was right to note the sudden revival of action films, but compared to those from the eighties, the current spate of mainstream action films are inherently flawed. JPaul, can you remind us again why you said this? I think this can lead us to the comic presence of Piolo Pascual’s character, the wisp that was Shaina Magdayao’s OTJ persona, and even the contentious appeal of Joey Marquez’s hardened police officer.

Thinking back on the melange of the big-name actors: it reminded me strongly of Hollywood or NYPD dramas!

Jaime Oscar Salazar

I saw the film last night. The visual and aural aspects are what drew me in—it is indeed slick and sleek—but in the wake of the thrill, I found the screenplay, despite its intriguing premise, rather inept. The characters are generally badly developed; the attempt to provide expository information on all of the main players has a flattening effect. Also, many of the events are simply unable to withstand logical scrutiny.

The performances of Joel Torre and Joey Marquez are noteworthy, but everyone else was miscast, or had poorly written parts, or both. Considering the size of his role, Gerald Anderson was particularly grating in my view. His playing eager puppy to Torre’s battle-scarred wolf lacked the grit and the hunger that I would expect from someone who has presumably been imprisoned for a long enough period to establish his potential as a hired gun. That there is a training sequence, which includes lessons on jailbird decorum, is just one example of the poor writing; shouldn’t Torre have tutored Anderson in all these areas even before the latter started coming along as back-up on assassination assignments?

Tessa Maria Guazon

Thanks for the sharp insights, Jay!

Jason has crafted a beautifully written review; I think he plans to post it today.

Indeed, such sleekness is intriguing. It can even be riveting. However, such surfaces may also appear lifeless, even dead. Donald Kuspit makes a similar observation of hyperrealism in contemporary art.

Yet the very same forms are alluring for some reason, and I must admit there is ambivalent joy in cruising along such surfaces. I am intrigued by the affect birthed by this motion—viewing/cruising, skimming the film image.

Jay says he was “drawn in”. Did anyone else feel the same about the film?

JPaul Manzanilla

First, the slickness/sleekness: “sleek” is always a come-on in the action genre. It makes violence attractive and, more importantly, worth doing in the pursuit of justice. Indeed, the gloss of guns, cars, and the manners of enacting crime are material pictures of the hired gunman’s professionalism. These are not his resources, though, but his bosses’ (the “bosses” in this country as stated by Leo Martinez’s character)—the latter provide the polish, the sleekness in the enactment of crime. Still, they just give the raw materials but it is Joel’s character’s intelligence and efficiency that craft the sleekness. There is a class divide in this making of sleekness. The smoothness of the politician’s image is superficial—slick, relying on the hard and cruel labor of the hired gunman.

We need to attend to this sleekness because the materiality of the image is its meaning. Had the film shown at considerable duration the political economy of its violence, we would have gained a significant moral benefit from it. Sadly, the politics was just that, politicians, and the economy we had was the transaction between the politicos and the gun-for-hire prisoners and the diffusion of financial benefits to their families. Aside from sending allowances to their families, do Torre’s and Anderson’s characters invest in the future, of a life possibly without crime?

Tinatanong ko ito kasi ang character ni Joel Torre ay lalaya na, kaya kailangan niyang tantiyahin kung irereporma pa ba niya ang sarili. Sana naipakita pa nang maigi ito. Kapani-paniwala naman na makapapatay siya dahil sa pangangaliwa ng asawa, pero puwede naman silang mabuhay nang maayos ng anak niyang nag-aaral maging abogado, bilang kalaban-kakampi ng mundo ng kriminalidad na kinapapalooban nila.

Was the choice to remain a murderer for such a calculating man brought about by the emptiness, the hopelessness, outside of the prison, in the real world where he is not simply a hired killer anymore but subject to the degradations and nobility of normal life?

Wala kasing nobility sa paggawa ng karahasan. Sa mga pelikulang bakbakan, igagalang mo ang ibang gumagawa ng krimen dahil ginagawa nila ito para sa kanilang mga pamilya, na temang Pilipino naman talaga. At dapat ipinakikita na wala na silang mapagpilipilian, kaya ginawa nila ito. Hindi ko naman sinasabing dapat maging squeaky clean (again: glossy/sleek) ang karakter ni Torre pagkatapos, pero dapat kauna-unawa at katanggap-tanggap ang desisyon niya sa bandang huli.

Or, was he rational and professional to the very end because killing Anderson’s character wins him the competition, preserves his life and makes him the best hired killer after all?

I need to watch the film again. Ito na lang po muna.

Tessa Maria Guazon

I am thinking, the “sleek”/”slick”/”smooth” also translates to “hype”, especially in the context of producing and promoting the film. While it is an overarching trope within the film, it permeates the film beyond material form. I watched numerous interviews with Gerald Anderson, director Erik Matti, more Gerald (until his unusual “lisp” assumed a certain appeal), and these prove my claim.

I will have to disagree with the idea that Joel Torres’s character should strive for a life of so-called nobility—or a life of redemption, if we wish to put it another way. Perhaps that is our moral aspiration. And I really liked the thought of you ending the piece with a question.

I think Torres’s character’s choice of carnage at the very end earns him a chance at nobility. In the end, while he remains alive, he is transformed into Atlas who bears the burden of the world’s excess and amorality, who lives through this burden—someone who has to strangle every last morsel of conscience within his person. And this painfully transforms him into an unfeeling machine who suffers the rest of his remaining years.
Can this be resonant with typical action film characters—this twisted Robin Hood persona?

Jaime Oscar Salazar

Though Mario does assure his family, particularly his daughter, that he will soon retire from his work, giving rise to the impression that he looks forward to a peaceful life, there is also a scene where he informs Thelma of his imminent parole and manifests his eagerness to take on more jobs, which suggests to me that Mario is uninterested in a life free from crime—after years of assassinations, perhaps he is so hardened as to be irredeemable? Certainly the film is not a hopeful one; the most that one can aspire toward is a beautiful death under the bougainvillea. (Were they bougainvillea? Some kind of flowers, at any rate.)

Mario is immediately rebuffed, of course: Thelma tells him that, to the interests she represents, his freedom will make him a greater liability than an asset, as he will be much more difficult to control—if nothing else, he would become a loose end in the entire operation, just like the people whom he has been assigned to eliminate, and might be marked for death at any time. Hence, his later decision to turn against his apprentice, Daniel.

Mario’s expectation that he will still have a career as a killer beyond the bars speaks of incredible naïveté, especially in light of his experience, though he is not unique in that regard—it is possible to argue that many of the characters suffer from this baffling affliction (witness, for instance, Francis and Joaquin), notwithstanding the circumstances of their lives, which brings us back again to the glaring deficiencies of the screenplay.

Skilty Labastilla

“…beautiful death under the bougainvillea”! Like na like!

Kagaya ni Jay, gusto ko rin ang teknikal na aspeto ng pelikula. Akma ang paggamit ng masilakbong editing at propulsive photography sa istorya at hindi lang siya ginamit na gimik dahil kaya itong gawin ng mga filmmakers (at dahil may pera ang Star Cinema). Medyo naingayan lang ako sa music, na ginawang masyadong in-your-face, kaya minsan nagmumukhang rock music video ang pelikula.

Kahit sang-ayon ako sa karamihan na may kahinaan ang screenplay nito, na-appreciate ko naman ang istruktura nito—’yong pag-juxtapose ng good vs. evil (na hindi kailangang black-and-white). ‘Yon nga lang, hindi masyadong nagalugad ng mga manunulat ang mga posibilidad ng kakaibang senaryo na kanilang hinulma.

Siguro mas forgiving ako sa inyo kasi sinusuri ko ang pelikula sa konteksto ng Pinoy action film genre, na ang priority kadalasan ay hindi naman talaga ang paglalahad ng nuanced na kuwento at mga tauhan kundi ang pagpukaw sa mga prurient interests ng mga manonood nito. Kung tutuusin, kahit ginastusan ang at maayos ang craftsmanship ng OTJ, B-movie naman talaga ang sensibilities nito: it revels in its hypermasculinity to the point that you can smell the testosterone from your seat. At siyempre sa Pinoy action genre, par for the course ang sex scenes na wala naman talagang silbi maliban sa pag-pander sa mga kalalakihan, kaya obvious na tacked on lang ‘yong karakter ng old girlfriend ni Gerald, at dinagdag ang bed scene nina Piolo at Shaina para sa Pinoy audience.

Sa madaling salita, hindi ko siya masyadong sineryoso kaya siguro hindi ako nadismaya.

Tessa, ‘di ako sure kung tama ang pagkaintindi ko sa issue mo ng sleek/sheen ng pelikula. Mas gusto mo ba na rawer and grittier ang production values?

Tessa Maria Guazon

Thanks, Skilty, for your thoughts!

On the contrary, though, I think that the soundtrack and the editing are the redeeming points of the film.

Regarding “sleekness”, I think it is not about what one expects from a film of a certain genre. It is not that I wanted it to have more grit or rawness.  I am looking at “slick”/”sleek” as a given characteristic of form, and because it is to some degree alluring, I doubted it. There is devious seduction in OTJ’s use of gloss. And much to our disappointment, this very same slickness weakens, flattens its inherently weak structure.

Sure, we know the much vaunted good and evil trope; it has been worked to death—how else can they be presented in an ambivalent manner?

Skilty Labastilla

In terms of performance, consensus yata ang papuri kay Joel Torre, hati kay Joey Marquez, at thumbs down para sa natitirang cast. Isa ako sa humahanga sa pagganap ni Torre dito. Buong-buo ang characterization niya at makikita ang emotional investment niya sa karakter. Tingin ko ito ang pinakamagandang role ng kanyang career.

Kay Marquez medyo on the fence ako: kahit bilib ako sa kanyang pagganap, ‘di ko maiwasang maisip na nagawa na niya ang ganitong klaseng pagganap—ang nakakatawang everyman—sa iba niyang pelikula, most recently Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles (Erik Matti, 2012).

Sinubukan naman ni Gerald Anderson na maging kapani-paniwala bilang preso, pero ipinagkanulo siya ng kanyang pisikalidad. Ibang-iba ang hulma ng katawan niya sa mga katawan ng mga ka-edad niyang preso. Tingin ko’y walang gym sa ganoong klaseng kulungan. Kung susundin ang sinabi sa script na matagal na siyang nakakulong, hindi kapani-paniwala na ganoon na kalaki ang katawan niya noong nakulong siya. Iniisip ko na lang ang mga posibilidad kung ibang aktor ang gumanap sa role niya: unang nasa isip ko ay si Alex Medina—ordinaryong mukha/katawan, pero nakakatawag-pansin pa rin dahil sa husay ng pagganap.

Wala naman akong problema sa performance ni Piolo Pascual. He did what he could with the role, which only means that his character is not fleshed out very well. Masyado siyang ginawang goody-two-shoes to the point of being boring.

Regarding the script, Jay, can you cite other events that you believe are illogical?

JPaul Manzanilla

Quotable quote: “Ipinagkanulo siya ng kanyang pisikalidad…”

Lisa Ito

I finally watched OTJ last weekend, with a still fully packed crowd.

I’m still trying to follow the thread (naipon ang e-mails, sorry), but offhand, I was blown away, so to speak, by the weight of Torre’s performance. This was balanced by the unease and occasional comic tension between Joey Marquez and Piolo Pascual.

I am ambivalent about Gerald Anderson’s casting. It also strikes me as unbelievably, painfully naive. But this is a quality that dovetails with his intended character, as it is precisely this naïveté which makes his downfall imminent. As for the other characters: too many problems to mention one by one! Gerard’s love interest, for instance, seems to have been inserted for the sole purpose of having a sex scene to offer, fading away after the act.

What I do particularly appreciate about this film is its timing, aired during the height of the Napoles scam brewing outside the cinema. For all its narrative gaps, it aptly conjures the complex web of real-life collusion by the military and police bureaucracy with the so-called bureaucrat-capitalists who dominate the scene, capped by their mercenary enlistment of the lumpenproletariat. Furtive reference is made to how the web reaches “all the way to Malacañang”, but this remains largely hidden and unexplored, for to know is to become a target oneself.

A bit of coincidental trivia: I think the film’s opening sequences included a news clip of my husband joining a protest march. The faces of those who joined are pixilated, but I spotted him right away holding a placard. Pleasant surprise!

Jaime Oscar Salazar

That’s a good point you’ve made, Lisa, regarding how OTJ resonates with the PDAF scandal; it may well be one reason that the film has become so popular. However else it might be understood, it certainly confirms, and may even deepen, the widespread suspicion and distrust with which people view our political system. Finally, though, it seems to me that OTJ suggests that opposing said system is futile, which is objectionable.

Skilty, here are the other illogical events that I observed, in no particular order:

First, the sex scenes—which we all agree on, I think. Even the slightly more believable one with Gerald was introduced clumsily. (These scenes, to my amusement, have been made much of in the press: Gerald and Dawn’s scene apparently took eight hours to shoot, while Piolo and Shaina’s took two days.)

Second, the ability of Joaquin to make connections, despite being a bungling cop. He is able to track Mario down merely on the basis of a cartographic sketch—are our criminal databases that good, particularly considering Mario has supposedly been in jail for the past 13 years?—and, toward the end of the film, just happens to come upon the general (Leo Martinez) and his henchmen while madly driving around.

Third, the confrontation scene between Francis and the general. As you’ve already pointed out, Francis is insufficiently fleshed out, and so his motives do not register clearly. Sure, there are references to his father, whose bad reputation he would like to shake off, and whose wrongful death he would like to avenge, but these fail to come across as persuasive drivers of his behavior, which may be the result not only of weaknesses in the script, but also in the performance.

Fourth, the decision of Michael de Mesa’s character (his name escapes me at the moment), supposedly a veteran politico, to trust an impossibly naïve Francis in the first place. Francis doesn’t display any real venality or greed or ambition, just vapidity.

JPaul Manzanilla

Thanks, Jay, for reminding me of parts when the possibilities of hope were given, which are, again, the problem of the screenplay’s plausibility. Napanood ko ang Eseng ng Tondo (Fernando Poe, Jr., 1997) sa Channel 2 noong Sunday, at masasabing simplistikong Manichaean ang pakikibaka ng mga tauhan sa Pinoy aksyon. Masama lang ang masama at mabuti lang ang mabuti, at hindi pinalalalim ang pagsama at pagbuti nila. So OTJ is a progressive step, Skilty, in presenting a nuanced playing out of the nature of crime.

I’m thinking of nobility here, Tessa, as central to the contradictions of the Philippine action genre. We are given Torre’s character as a coolly calculating one; hence, his decision for a perpetual life of crime is determined by the loss of hope in a post-prison scenario. In this case, his is the most solidly grounded struggle of all the characters in the movie—hardened by crime, as Jay said. And this is perhaps the strongest point of the screenplay. His frustrated attempt to have sex with Angel Aquino’s character is more believable owing to the changing nature of their relationship, compared to the two tacked-on sex scenes.

What is excellent in the film’s making is the representation of the fraught nature of crime and violence in this country, which almost all people know, and ought to be presented to us in myriad ways. Crime is pervasive because those that have already been punished are illegally set free by legally constituted authorities in order to execute their own kind of justice. It seems that crime is always about to happen, because it comes from everywhere: a poor people’s fiesta, in the dirty kitchen of a legitimate business, on the streets, in the presumably safe domesticity of homes. And yet justice comes from nowhere, because those elected to uphold it as part of the affairs of the state—Martinez’s and de Mesa’s characters—preclude the meting out of such.

The film at least gives us spaces of hope, found in Joey Marquez’s character who clumsily—and therefore, “truthfully”—ferrets out the truth. His character doesn’t die in the end. It is Piolo Pacual’s character who is killed, which may be taken as a kind of critique of all those failed attempts to resolve corruption from deep within, in the hierarchy of police and investigative bodies, and the thick blood of family relations.

Nagustuhan ko ang pelikula at malaking abante nga ito sa Filipino action genre. Iyon nga lang, nakulangan ako (na repleksyon pa rin ng patuloy na pag-aaral ng mga pelikula) kaya may kritisismo, at layunin naman ng kritisismo ay ang pag-unlad, ‘di ba?

Skilty Labastilla

JPaul, I wouldn’t exactly describe the ending as hopeful. Buhay nga si Joey, pero tinanggal naman siya sa trabaho, at walang nahuling higher-ups.

The very last scene, with Rayver Cruz taking Piolo’s cell phone out of the file box, can be interpreted in two ways: that Rayver, on a noble personal quest, will act as a whistleblower; or that he has been requested to destroy the phone by his higher-ups.

JPaul Manzanilla

Kaya nga “space of hope” lang, Skilty. At nakita ko iyon sa karakter ni Joey Marquez, kahit paano. And even then, the ending with Rayver Cruz’s character has, at least, a glimpse of freedom, or further entanglements.

Skilty Labastilla

I agree. Hindi siya totally hopeless. Baka may Part 2!

JPaul Manzanilla

Hopefully. Or other films by Matti and others which we expect to be as highly, if not more, attentive to form as this one. The cinematography is exceptional for me.

Jaime Oscar Salazar

We are told little about Rayver’s character, but I am disinclined to entertain the notion that he might become a whistleblower in light of what precedes his act of retrieval. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I think that OTJ ultimately proposes that resistance is useless and reform is impossible. If there is a space of hope to be had, it lies in rejecting this vision of monolithic malevolence. #

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Posted by on 21 September 2013 in Film Review



Mga Gawi ng mga Sawi

 Francis A. Gealogo, PhD
Ateneo de Manila University

(Talumpating binigkas sa 2013 Young Critics Circle Awards Ceremony, 3 Setyembre 2013)

Maraming salamat sa Young Critics Circle sa pagpapahalaga sa akin bilang panauhing tagapagsalita.  Bagaman nagtataka pa rin ako hanggang ngayon kung bakit ako ang napili ng mga kasapian ng YCC na gumampan ng ganitong atas, inisip ko na lamang na lagi namang makasaysayan ang mga panahong pinagdadaanan ng lipunan at pelikula, lalo na ngayong ipinagdiriwang natin ang sesquicentenaryo ng kapanganakan ng Supremo ng Katipunan na si Andres Bonifacio, kinailangang historyador ang maging kaniig ng mga batang kritiko ng pelikula upang maiangkla ang gawain sa kabuuang kontekstong pangkasaysayan na ating ginagalawan.

Kaiba rin sa mga naging ginampanan ko bilang tagapagsalita dahil ako ang paksa ng aking talumpati.  Maraming salamat sa YCC dahil napilitan ako ng pagkakataong ito na dumanas ng introspeksyon sa aking pang akademiko at pang intelektwal na buhay na hinubog ng panahon at mga institusyong aking ginalawan.

Kung mayroong hahanaping Martial Law baby sa ating kasaysayan, malamang sa hindi na mapabilang ako sa henerasyong ito.  Ipinanganak ako apat na buwan matapos maluklok sa unang termino si Ferdinand Marcos sa pagkapangulo ng Pilipinas.  Apat na buwan pa lamang ako sa Grade One nang ideklara niya ang Batas Militar noong 1972.  At sa huling dalawang buwan na lamang na nalalabi sa aking pag aaral sa kolehiyo ko lamang naranasan na hindi na pangulo si Marcos noong 1986.  Masasabing ang buong panahon ng batayang pag aaral na naranasan ko at ng aking henerasyon ay ipinaghele ng batas militar, ng awtoritaryanismo at diktadura.

Maraming personal na ala ala ang ganitong kalagayan.  Iba ibang nibel ang magiging lapit ko sa karanasan ng martial law ng diktadurang Marcos.  Lumaki kaming ipinasaulo ang mga awit ng Bagong Lipunan, at sambitin ang mga katagang isang bansa isang diwa, at ng pangangailangang tingnan ang the true, the good and the beautiful sa buhay at pag iral.  Ilang ulit na gumawa ng mga banderitas at mahabang panahong tatayo sa gilid ng kalsada kasama ang iba pang mga paslit na mag aaral sa paghihintay na darating si Madame sa aming bayan kasama ang mga kaibigan.  Masilip lamang ang maraming convoy ng mga magagarang itim na kotse ay sapat na sa amin upang makakuha ng dagdag na puntos sa klase.  Ilang suspensyon din ng klase sa elementarya ang naranasan upang makapanood ang buong bayan sa Miss Universe at Thrilla in Manila.  Sa aking paglaki at pag aaral sa mga publikong paaralan sa Cavite, halimbawa, hindi katakatakang magkaroon ako ng pitong kaklase na Ferdinand ang pangalan, apat naman ang kaklaseng may ngalang Imelda.  Sa pamayanang malapit sa base militar ng Sangley Point na nakaranas ng pag alis ng mga hukbong Amerikano, naging malapit ang reyalidad ng digmaan sa Mindanao dahil sa higit na malaking bilang ng mga batang sundalong nagsasanay sa pakikidigma at naghihintay ng deployment sa pakikipaglaban sa gyera.

Pero ang lahat ng mga ito ay naranasan sa panahong marami ang bawal.  Bawal manood ng kinagiliwang Voltes V sa kadahilanang hindi mawawaan ng murang isip.  Bawal magpuyat at lumabas ng bahay dahil may curfew.  Bawal magsalita ng laban sa pamahalaan dahil babawasan ng grado ng mga gurong bumibilib kay Marcos.

Kaya nga kakaibang karanasan ang magiging kalagayan bilang probinsyanong gradwado ng pampublikong paaralan sa pagpasok ko bilang freshman sa Unibersidad ng Pilipinas.  Lahat ng bawal ay pwede palang tanungin.  Lahat ng hindi pwedeng makanti ay pwede palang ipagsigawan at maaari palang sumama sa napakaraming kolektibong naglipana sa Diliman.  Sa ikalawang taon ng pag aaral sa unibersidad, lalong naging matingkad ang pagtantao na pwede palang sambitin at gawin ang mga bawal matapos ang pagkakapaslang kay Ninoy Aquino.  Sa kontekstong ito maaaring sabihing napakababaw ng dahilan kung bakit pinili kong mag aral ng Kasaysayan – dahil isa ito sa mga kursong maikli ang pila tuwing registration. At sa pamantasang madaling maging trahedya ang karanasan sa pagpila sa pagkuha ng mga subheto, lohikal lamang na piliin ko ang kursong walang gaanong pila sa rehistrasyon.  Magkagayunman, ang kalayaan at kritikal na lapit ng akademya at pamayanan ng UP ang nakapagbigay ng lalim at lawak sa mga pinagdaanang karanasan.  Napagtanto ang pangangailangang iugnay ang mga pananaliksik  sa mga usaping kinakaharap ng kasaysayan at lipunan.  Ang pagpapalalim ng pag unawa sa nakaraan ang magiging susi sa higit at ibayong pakikisangkot sa lipunan.

Dahil dito, ang pagkahilig sa pag aaral ng mga kilusang gerilyero matapos ang pagsuko ng tropa ni Aguinaldo ang naging tutok sa pananaliksik sa mahabang panahon.  Sa una, binalak ko lamang na pag aralan ang Republika ng Katagalugan ni Macario Sakay bilang salamin ng kabalintunaang lumalaganap sa ating kasaysayan kung saan ang mga tunay na bayani ay binabansagang tulisan at ang mga pinunong bumabandila ng kanilang sariling kadakilaan ay mapag aalamang maraming pekeng medalya na sila sila rin ang gumawa.  Sa impluwensya ng kilusan, ang pagbaling sa kasaysayan mula sa ibaba, mula sa pananaw ng mga pinangingibabawan at pinagsasamantalahan, hindi lamang sa aktwal na karanasan sa nakaraan kundi sa pagturing ng mga historyador sa kasaysayan ang magiging tutok ng pananaliksik.  Hindi lamang si Macario Sakay ang dapat kilalanin.  Naririyan din sina Faustino Guillermo, Luciano San Miguel, Lucio de Vega at Felipe Salvador na pawang mga biktima ng nakaraan at ng pagturing ng kasaysayan.  May talaangkanan itong makikita sa kasaysayan at kaisipang popular.  Kaya nga, ang usapin ng pagiging kriminal at tulisan ay nagiging usapin din ng kung sino ang tumutingin sa kasaysayan.  Hanggang sa panahon ng pagkilos na Nardong Putik sa kasaysayan at sa pelikula, na magiging paksa din ng aking pananaliksik, magiging inspirasyon ng maraming pag aaral.  Malaki ang impluwensya ng mga kasaysayang sinulat nina Amado Guerrero, Teodoro Agoncillo, Renato Constantino at ang nagsisimula pa lamang na maging kontrobersyal noong si Reynaldo Ileto – mga gurong hindi ko naging guro kailanman –  sa mga ganitong usapin ng pagpapalawak ng pag unawa sa nakaraan.  Hinubog ng kanilang mga ideya ang maraming mga kaisipang dala dala ko pa rin hanggang ngayon bilang historyador.  Ang tunggalian ng mga uri, kalagayan ng pakikihamok at istruktura ng pangingibabaw – mga batayang kaisipang Marxista – ang magiging pundasyon ng mga pagsusuri at pag unawa sa nakaraan.

Bilang pagpapalawig, marami pang kuryosidad pangkasaysayan ang mapagtatantong kailangang saliksikin.  Sa pangangailangang unawain ang buhay at karanansan ng mga itinuring na mga tulisan at taong labas sa kasaysayan, nakita ang pangangailangang sumuong sa pag aaral ng mga tinatawag na pang araw araw na kasaysayan (history of the everyday).  Ang pagkahayag sa mga historyador na Pranses mula sa mga gurong kababalik lamang mula sa kanilang pag aaral sa Pransya ang magiging daan para dito.  Ang lawak ng saklaw ng kapangyarihan na hindi lamang makikita sa mga istruktura ng pamahalaan kundi sa mga istruktura ng kalusugan, paaralan, piitan at hospital (impluwensya ng noong naging sikat na si Michel Foucault) ang isa pang magiging pananaw na pagkakaabalahan.

Dahil dito, susundan ang kapalaran ni Macario Sakay mula sa larangan hanggang sa Bilibid na magiging pook ng bibitayan.  Ang kalagayan ng mga detenidong politikal ng kasalukuyan ay pagpapatuloy lamang ng mahabang panahon ng kasaysayan ng detensyon at pagkakakulong bilang isa sa mga napipipilang tinig sa ating kasaysayan.  Ang kasaysayang panlipunan ng mga piitan bilang lokus ng ugnayang pangkapangyarihan ang magiging lohikal na inanak ng mga naunang pananaliksik.  Bibigyan ko ng pagtatangkang tingnan ang mga institusyon ng Bilibid, Iwahig at San Ramon hindi lamang sa kanilang operasyon at istruktura, kundi sa paggamit nila ng espasyo, ng mga regulasyon ng paghuhubog ng gawi at pag uugali kaugnay ng mga usapin ng imperyal na kaisipan ng kontrol at pagmamatyag.

Bukod dito, marami pang ibang mga pagtatangkang palawakin din ang aking pag unawa sa kasaysayang panlipunan sa kanyang buong lawak at lalim.  Tinanggap ko ang hamon ng demograpiya upang makita naman ang kalagayan ng populasyon, pagbubuo ng mga kabahayan, pagkakasakit at epidemya sa panahong kolonyal.  Magiging isa ring paksang malapit sa aking pag iral ang mga pag aaral ukol sa kasaysayang demograpikal ng iba ibang bayan sa Pilipinas, sa paggamit ng mga teknikal na metodolohiya at teorya ng demograpiya, sinimulan ko ang pagsusuri at pag unawa kung paanong ang kalagayan ng populasyon ang isa sa mga hindi kinikilalang paksa sa kasaysayan.  Muli, ang kalagayan ng mga pinangingibabawan, ng mga pinaghahariang uri ang magiging tutok ng pananaliksik.  Paano nga ba kinakaharap ng mga maralita ang pagkalat ng mga sakit at epidemya?  Ano ang kalagayan ng mga kababaihan at mga bata sa kalusuang pangreproduksyon at pampamilya?  Paano nga ba, gaya ng sinabi ni Constantino sa kolonyal na edukasyon, ginagamit ang kaalaman sa kolonyal na kalusugan sa bilang pamamaraan ng pagpapalawak ng kolonyal na kapangyarihan.  Ito ang mga pangunahing tanong na nagpalapit sa akin sa iba ibang dimensyon ng mga pag aaral sa kasaysayan ng populasyon, medisina at epidemyolohiya.

Ang ilang personal na pakikisangkot din ang naging daan para palalimin ang pag unawa sa iba ibang usapin at kilusang panlipunan na magiging paksa ng iba iba pang mga pananaliksik.  Ang kilusang guro ang magbibigay sa akin ng ilang espasyo upang muling balikan ang mga usapin sa edukasyon, pagpapalaganap ng teksbuk at ang ideyolohiya ng pangingibabaw na sinasalamin nito.  Ang pagiging mason ang magbabalik sa akin sa pag aaral ng mga kaisipan ng mga ilustrado at rebolusyonaryo, mula kina del Pilar, Jaena, Bonifacio, Mabini at Aguinaldo – na magpapakita ng panibagong pagtingin sa kasaysayang ideyolohikal at organisasyonal ng huling bahagi ng ikalabingysam at unang hati ng dalawampung dantaon.  At higit sa lahat, ang pagiging Aglipayano ang maghahawan ng landas upang tingnan muli ang mga kasulatan nina Isabelo de los Reyes, Gregorio Aglipay, at Felipe Buencamino.  Sa mga nabanggit, hindi na kasaysayang panlipunan kundi kasaysayang pangkaisipan ang magiging pagkakaabalahan.  Paano nabubuo ang mga ideya ng bayan at nasyon; anong larangan nagtatalaban ang paniniwala at modernisasyon;  ano ang papel ng agham at rasyonalidad sa paghuhubog ng kaisipang makabago sa bayan – ang ilan sa mga katanungang kinaharap sa mga pananaliksik.

Ang paggunita sa kasalukuyang taon ng sesquisentenaryo ng kapanganakan ng mga bayani ang mga huling pinagkakaabalahan.  Dahil palasak nang sabihing nakapagbubuo ng mga bagong cottage industry ang mga historyador sa panahon ng mga seremonyal na pagdiriwang, sinikap kong sakyan ito nang hindi lumalabas sa dati nang kinasangkutan – na ang pananaliksik at pakikisangkot ay may maigting na ugnayan.  Dahil iisang henerasyon naman ang kinabilangan ng mga ilustrado at rebolusyonaryo, ang sesquisentenaryo nina Rizal noong 2011, Bonifacio ngayong 2013 at Mabini sa 2014 ang naging malawakang tutok sa mga bagong pananaliksik.  Mayroon pa bang bago na mababanggit sa mga ito?  Hindi kataka takang masasabi kong marami pang bagay na hindi nasasaliksik sa mga ito, at marami pa ring mga bagay na matutuklasan habang may kuryosidad pangkasaysayan na umiiral na naghahain ng mga katanungang kasaysayan lamang ang makapagbibigay ng diwa.  Gaya ng sa kasalukuyan, ang mga pagdiriwang at paggunitang isinasakatuparan ay mga paalala sa kalagayan ng nakaraan at kung paanong nabibigyan ng dokumentasyon ang mga karanasang ito bilang salamin ng mga inihaing posibilidad ng kasalukuyan.

Gaya ng mga gumagawa ng pelikula, nakikibahagi lamang ang mananalaysay sa pagtalunton ng mga kaganapang siya lamang ang tagapaglimi gayong lipunan ang lumikha. Kabahagi ang historyador sa lakarang hiniram lamang sa mga paksa ng pakikibaka at tunggalian ng bayan. Sa panghuli, ang pakikibahagi at panghihiram na ito ang maghahayag ng mga tunggalian at trahedya, ng mga gawi ng mga sawi, ng mga saysay at istorya ng lipunang saksi sa napakaraming sangandaang kanyang pinagdaanan para lamang matamo ang mga posibilidad ng ngayon.

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Posted by on 16 September 2013 in Philippine Film



The Way of All Flash

Review of Lihis (Joel Lamangan, 2013)

Skilty Labastilla

Lihis wants viewers to care so much for the travails of its protagonists without bothering to ensure that said protagonists are worth caring for in the first place. These days one never expects to enter a cinema showing a Joel Lamangan feature expecting subtlety (see, for instance, Medor de Edad, The Bride and the Lover, The Mommy Returns), and, sure enough, the director elects to dwell on the predictable melodrama generated out of Lihis‘ controversial topic rather than on pursuing heretofore uncharted possibilities inherent in the material. It’s quite a shame because Ricky Lee’s script has the potential to traverse junctures between private and public, personal and political, and show the irony of the Left’s rejection of the dominant political ideology while repressing sexualities that deviate from the dominant sexual regime.

The film recounts the doomed story of Ador (Joem Bascon) and Cesar (Jake Lihis-Poster-1Cuenca), two rebels who fall in love in the mountains of Quezon Province during the Marcos dictatorship. The story is told in flashback from the perspective of Ada (Isabelle Daza), the grown-up daughter of Ador, and a fellow rebel, Cecilia (Lovi Poe). For the first act of the film though, we are treated mostly to unnecessarily lengthy love scenes (in slow-mo for maximum erotic effect – note to Mr. Lamangan: there’s nothing less exciting than overly directed sex scenes.) between Ador and Cesar, between Ador and Cecilia, and between Ada and her boyfriend, at times intercut with one another. Even if this film fails on so many levels, at least it can boast of a memorable, if laughable, scene of Bascon pounding away at Cuenca on a huge river rock.

In the heat of the two men’s romance, Ador decides to marry Cecilia mainly because, up until that point at least, homosexual relationships are frowned upon in the movement. For a substantial portion of the screentime, we are made to see Cesar beg and cry and flail for Ador to not leave him.  This pathetic behavior would have been a little bit more palatable for viewers had Cuenca not been both so comical and so annoying in his portrayal of desperation. He falls right into the trap set by Lamangan, who is known for eliciting capital A ‘Acting’ from his actors (which is baffling because Lamangan is an excellent actor himself). Here, Cuenca goes beyond capitalizing just the A to making it all caps ‘ACTING!’ He grimaces, grunts, groans, and grovels, and through it all, his expression reminds me so much of a pained version of Zoolander’s Blue Steel pose.

blue steel

I feel though that this is more Lamangan’s fault than Cuenca’s. Of the three lead actors, Cuenca has the least experience in acting in indie films. Bascon and Poe are both able to give appropriately textured performances here mostly because they have been handled by less stagey directors in previous indie films. Even newcomer Isabelle Daza (who fares better than her mother here) acquits herself well, though it’s pretty obvious that she’s still having a hard time speaking in straight Filipino. Cuenca hasn’t had much experience in non-mainstream films, and it is Lamangan’s task to remind him that he is almost always trying too hard in most of his scenes. Cuenca could not even be bothered to modify his in-fashion hairstyle (shaved sides, longer top) to something that resembles 1970s men’s hairstyle, as if he just came from a Bench photoshoot.

Lee and Lamangan have been reminding everyone in press interviews that Lihis was conceptualized way before Brokeback Mountain (2005), to which the film has been compared to, not unfairly. Both films have straight-acting gay men whose intense love for each other consumes both even when one of them gets married and builds a family as a result of societal discrimination. Yet Lihis does not possess even a tinge of the power of Ang Lee’s film because of two reasons. First, its lead characters are not even likable: aside from the cloying neediness of Cesar, Ador doesn’t seem to be motivated by anything, making his relationship with Cesar seem one-sided; and Cecilia knew before marrying Ador that he was gay and in love with Cesar, yet leaves him when she realizes he is still… well, gay and in love with Cesar. In Brokeback Mountain, viewers understand Jack Twist’s neediness because Lee painstakingly shows us the devastating impacts to Jack’s life if he would spend it sans Ennis del Mar.

Which brings me to the second point: Lihis fails to establish to the viewers the two men’s spiritual connection, why they need to be with each other against all odds, beyond the momentary call of the flesh. The first time they meet, they are seen vehemently arguing about how to pursue their armed struggle against the regime. The next scene has the two of them alone at night on some clearing where they, again, fight, physically this time, until they kiss. The following scene has Cesar give Ador a pair of boots. The next scene introduces Cecilia flirting with Ador while Cesar is seen sulking in the corner. Then Ador tells Cesar that he wants out, that he is now with Cecilia. Cesar refuses to accept this and stalks him in the river, where they eventually have sex. That’s it! Where is the love? Lamangan makes the viewers assume the inevitable without giving us visual cues of attraction between two souls. That is why that overly melodramatic final shootout scene (where Ador and Cesar are surrounded by soldiers firing at them) not only fails to elicit the intended emotions out of viewers: instead of feeling sorry for the lovers whose lives were about to end (simultaneous last breaths at that!), viewers were laughing out loud at the predictable lines and slow-mo last hurrahs: once one of them is hit by a bullet, the other rushes to him then stands up in super slow-mo to face the soldiers and shouts “Mga putang ina niyo!” Ador and Cesar do this exactly four times in the scene, alternating between each other.

It’s fair to say that Lamangan’s direction is one of the production’s weakest links because most of his production crew bring out their A-game: the cinematography, editing, sound and music are commendable. The other weak department is the production design, specifically make-up. The characters are supposed to age by more than two decades, yet Raquel Villavicencio and Jim Pebanco only had their hair dyed white without the accompanying wrinkling of facial skin. The casting choice of the Putol character is also confounding. He was about ten years old in the 1970s but they cast a 60-year old man to play his contemporary counterpart.

My biggest disappointment with the film though is with its failure to explore the exciting possibilities of its premise. Lamangan, a former political dissident, has always been critical of government and the military in his serious films (see, for instance, BurgosPatikul, Deadline, Sigwa, Dukot). In Lihis though, both are not targets, at least not directly (a side story on extrajudicial killings only serves as weak backdrop). Because there’s no clear-cut “villain”, the film channels all its angst inward, particularly in the Cesar and Cecilia characters. Ador, because he is an indecisive gay man, is made the unwitting villain. Cesar gets so hung-up when Ador leaves him and Cecilia’s failure to convert Ador to heterosexuality leaves her too frustrated.

As it is, the film is not unlike a National Geographic special that features a cheetah and a lion battling for a piece of meat (Ador) in the savanna. It’s all very carnal. The film never attempts to show how the larger sociocultural forces are at play in the private sexual politics of its characters. Lamangan and Lee should have realized that there is actually an obvious villain: society at large, that the Left’s struggle against hegemonic political ideologies would not mean anything if it would still succumb to the dictates of hegemonic masculinities, of homophobic patriarchy.

Just when we need Lamangan to be critical/political, he settles for the tried-and-tested, because flashy, appeal of bedroom melodrama.



Posted by on 13 September 2013 in Film Review


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Statement of the YCC Film Desk on the responses to “Frisson Break”

Criticism involves separation, which takes place not only in the realm of its production where distinctions are established between specific objects of interest, but also in the realm of its reception, where these distinctions, though deployed in the interest of generating concurrence as to their validity, may instead invite dispute—and all to the good. If criticism is to be vigorous, meaningful, and responsive to its times and climes, then it requires dissensus as much as it does consensus.

This is not to make a case for careless commentary, sophomoric opinionating, gratuitous provocation, or vicious harassment in the expression of disagreement. Nothing ought to be beyond remark, and everyone, as the old saw would have it, may be a critic, but these are not pretexts to dispense with a sense of accountability for what one says or does.

It is in view of the foregoing that we, the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle (YCC), condemn the spate of mindless hatred and hostility that has been unleashed in the wake of the publication of “Frisson Break”, a recent review of On the Job (Erik Matti, 2013) by one of our members, J. Pilapil Jacobo.

We believe that Philippine cinema—an arena, we realize, where we are merely one of many publics—deserves keen, insightful, and, most importantly, responsible exchange, which we seek to cultivate by way of our essays and our annual citations. That the situation here has not been so, given the decision of many reactors to refuse engagement on the level of argument, to participate in the fomentation of a mob mentality, and, worst, to cloak their identities, as has happened in the comments section of the review in question, speaks of cowardice and is deplorable in the extreme. While we have never considered our work exempt from scrutiny, we fail to see how vacuous savagery can help the discourse on cinema to prosper.

We stand by the entirety of “Frisson Break” as written, uphold the right of each of our members to evaluate films in the manner that he or she sees best, and underscore our commitment to sober, thoughtful, well-informed dialogue.


Posted by on 12 September 2013 in Philippine Film


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Frisson Break

Review of On the Job (Erik Matti, 2013)

J. Pilapil Jacobo

On the Job preoccupies itself too much with the techniques of cinema which make “action” a legitimate object of Filipino film that its so-called treatise on Philippine violence barely works even as police reportage. Recent cinema is entitled to its own illusion—that it is intelligent enough to launch a “critique” of establishment, but as far as commentaries are crafted, this attempt is bad writing.


However enervated, the film tracks the Bildung of Mario Maghari (Joel Torre) in his last days as an assassin who eliminates, without deliberation, but with utmost derring-do, enemies of a military general whose grand ambition is to swagger and stutter at the Philippine Senate. I write Bildung (a German word that means “maturation” or “development”) as the story pertains to a life at the cusp of  integration into the social or alienation from its space. And I write “last days,” because Mario, the inmate, has been granted his date of release.  Two documents signify two stipulations of  “freedom” then: 1) the photograph of the target that orders a occasional foray into the “outside” and 2) the parole that sends Mario back into the life before penalty and all manner of privilege projected from the semblance of power distributed to those singled out as deft from among those punished. The rewards of the latter release may be amorphous, far from pecuniary, but it should be worth a shot for Mario, who is still able to hold on to the assurance of an idea or a prospect becoming concrete in spite of its abstraction. The love from a wife and a daughter is a chance to be finally free from mercenary subsistence.

Without a doubt, there is thrill, frisson (French this time), in the demonstration of the ethos that is born and bred from this character who slouches, with de rigeur conviction, toward soulful deliverance. Notwithstanding the temporal promise that is hinged upon the date of release, that calendrical sign becomes a premise to digress into melodrama, particularly the defiles of the domestic lumpen, and into the Bildung of the apprentice Daniel (Gerald Anderson). The writing could have just concentrated on the scenarios which persuade Mario to train Daniel into becoming a death machine, and on the sequences which drive Mario to meet his “social” death on the verge of his reprieve, but a final digression sends the story spiralling into its nadir: a heroic narrative dramatized by lawyer Francis Coronel, Jr. (Piolo Pascual). This is where the thrill becomes cheap; the action that is produced by such titillation is found out as derivative of what has been done in more rigorous,albeit less lustrous lifetimes of the action film. Coronel’s Bildung proposes the figure of the redeemer who is only fulfilled after going through the motions of a naïveté that will be subjected to an epiphany on the crisis of the republican state and revised by a savoir-faire that drives the practitioner of skill to self-destruct in righteousness.

The way Coronel’s deplorable character is essayed sends the film to the pits. Pascual tackles the role as though he had the finesse to acquit himself in the polytropic milieu of a crime scene. He poses and tries too hard to pass as investigator, resorting to musculature, apparel, coiffure, gadgetry, choreography, all manner of gimmickry that his studio allows him to claim just to be legible as suave hero. His hysterical sheen is the film’s principal technical achievement. The gifts of Jay Halili as editor, Erwin Romulo as musical scorer, and  Ricardo Buhay III are wasted here. Their sophisticated knowledge of the state of film art has been instrumentalized to conceal the deficiencies of Michiko Yamamoto’s writing, the imposture of Erik Matti’s direction, and the hallucinations of Piolo Pascual’s acting (he is almost endowed with extra-sensory perception when the smoothest of criminals is within a strut away). As far as technical excellence is concerned, On the Job should prove that cinema in these parts has come a long way. And yet, one must call out expertise, when its role is merely prosthetic, dissimulating the offenses of a visual politics whose hermeneutics of suspicion is an ideological chore that “manufactures consent” through the erotic appeal of a hyper-realized metropolis. Ishmael Bernal must be turning in his grave,after that allusion to his “tropical traffic.”  The disarray is sensuous, but it does not mark out a sentient cinema complex.

The supporting actors need to be cited for their participation in this folly. There was something facetious that worked for Leo Martinez as the irreverent politician in a forgotten satirical film. None of that comic timing should have been transported into this film. Michael de Mesa languishes as the senator who has invented a philistine lexicon of political savvy. Shaina Magdayao’s exposures can be compared to her sister’s futile campaign to intuit the possibility of an actress in an obscure Viva Films experiment. Angel Aquino is a banshee, but her shriek could have been calibrated by no less than the premier technician of today’s vocal contest (even if she doesn’t have the range to show for it).Gerald Anderson looks and sounds the part of a Filipino American deprived of his Adidas in a Palawan penitentiary. Joey Marquez interprets the ineffectual policeman type along the lines of imbecility. Vivian Velez botches an opportunity to bring the film into noir terrain. One must remind her that wearing black and speaking in a smoky tone are not enough to resurrect the femme fatale image.

Lito Pimentel’s vignette on fear is instructive, a counterpoint to Joel Torre’s opera on the menace that devours all manner of hope in a man who discovers that freedom taken away can never be taken back once one commits to the occupations of violence.

The selection of the film at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes is a travail to the mind. Can sheer technical tenacity elide the most alienated consciousness of crime and punishment in this hapless country? The surface is enthralling, yes, but only because visceral content that is inevitably bloated has been neutralized, if not almost “always already” negated. Such technology of thought can only be savage.


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Posted by on 08 September 2013 in Film Review, Philippine Film


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