J. Pilapil Jacobo
A mode of production that attended the rise of independent cinema in the country is a practice of filmmaking that would aspire a first screening in a festival of cinema somewhere, as long as the city hosting the event could claim global or post-colonial pertinence. This critique is not saying that there is something essentially wrong with such an attitude of motion picture technology, but, at the very least, the mentality that has been bred among a few, if not most, of our Filipino film practitioners in search of their metropolitan audiences can be described to be counter-productive. The idea of a “world premiere” that must be situated “elsewhere” elided the public that also needed to be transported with the concept of “independence.” The converse to this problematic is of course an inauspicious reality to a portable cinema always already overpopulated with self-proclaimed advance guard aesthetes: that local spectatorship was abandoned with the movie in our directors’ minds desperately seeking to be played in a theater somewhere else, like in Northern Europe…anywhere, as long as it is not North Edsa, the premiere shall have been perfect. This effort of the Film Development Council of the Philippines to program a sizeable number of local films in sections like ASEAN Skies and in a set exclusively devoted to Filipino New Cinema aspires toward a corrective of sorts, particularly when spectatorial consciousness is conditioned to believe that the “world premiere” will be held “here.” As a critic who labors with the genre of the review, and intends to subject the “second look” under severe erasure, I choose to write about film, not with a “deliberate intent of being difficult and nothing else” (as my detractors have conveniently phrased), but with the idea of difficulty itself as a category of critique, particularly as the circuits of exchange that our species of cinema in these parts have traversed impossibly entails a form of writing that merely tracks form and its appreciative resonance when disseminated in the public spheres of neo-imperial Filipino democracy. How can one receive a text “with difficulty” when it is expected to be accepted as such, a product that effaces its own material precarity, because it is always already “beautiful,” “different,” “inventive” (the idiom of current review adjectivation is limitless). So now I ask: What recalcitrance is proposed to screen a Filipino world film “here” in a particular conjuncture already monopolized by a culture industry that preempts every other broadcast opportunity through a network of misrecognizing identitarian polities? What primal scenes have our filmmakers narrated so that a cognition of the contemporary could at least insinuate is coming into sound and image? How does one resist the facility of reception? How does one take pleasure in a “dissensus” of taste?
In “Da Dog Show” (2015), Ralston Jover revisits abjection as a rubric of social analysis through the figure of an animal under the duress of spectacle. As in “Bakal Boys” (2009) and “Bendor” (2013), constraint is embodied by the lack of access to the culture of commodity, forcing a lumpen family to reside in a mausoleum in the Cementerio del Norte, and earn a living in the metropolis through their practice in an itinerant troupe centered on a canine duo domesticated to perform humanoid games for city folk begging to be entertained in spite of the vigors of their own aspiration toward urban excitability. The lure of abjection somehow becomes persuasive in the endearment of the animal into a social unit where maternal absence gains a spectral argument and where the embodiment of progeny remains incomplete with a son estranged with his mother abandoning patriarchal protection in search of better domiciliary equipment. Feminine desertion is represented to effect the debilitation of the body of a formerly virile father, the exposure to the erotic of the elder son, and the initiation of the daughter into female forms of reverie, an imaginative mode that can only be perceived by her public as an irreparable foray into madness. This maniacal moment lends the film a phantasmatic patina that was last seen in Mario O’Hara’s “Babae sa Bubungang Lata” (1998) and “Sisa” (1999), arguing for a surrealist turn within the social realist agenda. The finale resolves the case of the estranged son, but only after an act of exchange discharged in a scene that occurs off-screen but whose violence we hear with the most fearful, the most tremulous ache. As he has consistently asserted in a filmography that embraces the open end, Jover argues for the calculus of indeterminacy whenever a somatic predicament is encountered. In this case, the question of a soul that comes and goes, like the “monsoon,” is allowed to howl, and then abruptly fade, to that point of rhetorical facture, before all manner of despair. Hence, Mercedes Cabral’s pursuit of the irrational must assay a path into a tender understanding of a lingering breakdown that refuses sheer breakage.
Genesis Nolasco’s “Maskara” (2015) is a competent piece of cinema, insofar as it offers an intelligible critique of governmental surveillance in the age of information technology, through a conjuncture of conspiracy whose coordinates are plotted out in print and broadcast media, military intelligence, and Sinophone imperiality. The complexity of such an anatomical scrutiny of socio-political ills is held together by the folk tropology of secrecy and truth disseminated in the island of Marinduque during its Longinian rites of passage in the Lenten summer. Such directorial control over a materiel of sociological texture is complemented by an ensemble of actors who manage to infuse the mood of thriller with a serendipitous ambience of romantic comedy, the uncanny triangulation delightfully calibrated by Ina Feleo, Ping Medina, and Lance Raymundo.
Just like “That Thing Called Tadhana” (2014) and “English Only, Please” (2014), “Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa” (2015) is a failed attempt at subverting the Filipino romantic comedy genre. Nestor Abrogena labors to achieve the exception by investing on a screenplay that imitates the flânerie of bodies as well as the aimless speech that engenders them to inhabit amorously the collective trauma that is embedded in a metropolis, a la Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (1995/2004/2013). It would have been instructive to screen a method of romance that could argue for the post-coloniality of feeling while the amorous subject negotiates one’s place in a city that decays in “combined and uneven development,” but what the film affords to depict is a portrait of bourgeois entitlement evinced by the antipathetic face of Emmanuelle Vera, who is too committed to an imperturbable pretense to sentiment, driving an inherently expressive Nicco Manalo to develop a histrionic technique that intimately resembles a normative strain of attention deficiency. The interdiction against such a romantic entanglement finds a convenient alibi not only in art but also—and this is more significant—in an aesthetic regime that prohibits all the more because purveyed by academe. What this premise contributes to the claim to romantic exception is a form of assault to the narrative groove that essentially provides for a defense of the amorous arrangement: a sentimental education through cinematic technology, particularly through an apprenticeship in the schemes of screen/writing. If the singular screenplay that is submitted at the end of the film chooses “the story that never was” rather than “the story that could have been,” “Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa” is not only a reactionary work, it is a piece of cinema that is afraid of its own claims, and of itself, ultimately: erotophobic, in the sense that it must repress the exception that it is capable of conceiving…if at all, even as a passing reverie. That said, there is one moment worth one’s while: a bed scene where the anticipated deshabille no longer belongs to the body but to the narrative written all over bodies reluctantly disengaging from a protracted engagement with affection and the terms which further impede its release. Here is where the film becomes an index to a zone of cinema that can already be gleaned in 1) a mise-en-scène that demonstrates the amplification of longing in such a Procrustean space and 2) the sound engineering of breaths by turns cleaved and tethered until a pointillist arrangement of silence. As well, one is finally allowed tactile relation to strombolian registers within the subterranean tension between Vera and Manalo; their choreographic intimacy convinces one that a gesture held back, and held back till lost and forgotten, like a touch that can no longer perch on the Other’s skin, is what takes us to erotic gnosis.
Craig Woodruff, Jr.’s “Piring” (2015) arrests ideology as the misrecognition of one’s relation with the modes of production, with a metaphor of the fold that blinds the eye from perceiving reality separate from the effects which make it more real than itself. The originality however ends where this trope is initiated, for the rest of the film is a rehearsal of a Philippine species of the pornography of poverty, particularly through a thesis of destitution that drives bodies of distress to turn to prostitutive acts of survival. When the blindfold materializes in the finale, Philippine cinema might have descended into a nadir like one other, and one that is difficult to overcome, especially when the failure of immanent critique reveals a concominant penury in the aesthetic plane; the piece of cloth is that which allows the incest taboo to be violated in a spectacle that inadvertently affirms the sanction of poverty as economic essence as far as the third world lumpen is concerned. This is where contemporary cinema’s adherence to naturalism proves to facilitate the breakdown of an ethic when one is found out eroticizing an impasse that arrests the irrevocable passage of crisis.
Set in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Siem Reap, Charliebebs Gohetia’s “I Love You. Thank You” (2015) aspires to configure a gay Southeast Asian romance from a diasporic Filipino perspective. The vision that this position yields is a Philippine enamoration with the capital that is circulated in the Southeast Asian mainland, just because the Filipino aspirant has not subjected his neo-imperial entitlement to an auto-ethnographic account of the post-exotic. Whatever modicum of affective labor is written over the Filipino characters, they remain consumers of an alien culture that is refused engagement. Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia are not contact zones where a solidarity against the global could be forged through the Philippine; instead, they are prostitutive spaces where the Filipino can generate disposable income, access sexual licence, and invent a triumphalist version of the self while eliding the national predicament. Just like the film itself, Joross Gamboa, Prince Stephan, and CJ Reyes are tourists who trample upon the ruins of Ayuthaya, Saigon, and Angkor; their pillage is implemented in a misreading of homosexual affection as effeminate affectation, and one that cannot rise to the dignity of feminist insight, because of a melodramatic sensibility on victimage that further debilitates the narrative to arque for queer affect. Effeminacy does not turn into male femininity—the male actors are just staging their homophobic rehearsals of bakla embodiment; no amount of pouting, catwalking, and screaming along the gay district of Bangkok can persuade any self-respecting advocate of gender sentiment that these performers have any regard for the history of trans-subjectivity this region of queer possibility has painstakingly, and painfully imagined.
Fifteen minutes into Jonah Lim’s “Sino Nga Ba Si Pangkoy Ong?,” (2015) one should already know that the rest of movie will be a waste of synaptic employment to anyone who can muster enough patience with a bourgeois apology for its male subjects who refuse to participate in an economy premised on the possibility of dignified labor through unalienated work. The guiltless swindling and scamming that the characters resort to in order to generate income make the wantonness of the gambling in Ian Loreños’s “Saturday Night Chills” (2013) a forgiveable case of adolescent felony. That Kiko Matos, Paulo de Vera, and Elston Jimenez fulfill their fantasy as best-selling authors in the end not only purveys a condescending notion of the literary through a rationalization of the populist ideology that the works of Bob Ong and Marcelo Santos III have perpetuated; their purported success as writers also misrecognizes a possibility of the popular that can be derived from forms of pop culture which can legitimately permeate national consciousness through aesthetic movements intercepting networks of investment and pre-empting circuits of profit.
In “Of Sinners and Saints,” (2015) Ruben Maria Soriquez stages the limits of the Roman Catholic missiology that Europe still fantasizes to be current by having Spanish and Italian friars curate the Mother of Divine Providence Parish in Payatas. Such an assignment exposes the Roman priest to hapless cases of child labor and domestic violence, while holding comparative language lessons in Italian and English during Sunday School and proto-feminist modules within sessions on catechism with the Legion of Mary. Engaged with this brand of ethnography, the film deftly covers an ambit of compassionate social analysis, with a cinematographic grain that is uncompromising in its exposure of the affects which make a congregation unravel alongside the fringes of an already worn out social fabric; ecclesiastical intervention in the social sphere is convincingly articulated to abrogate state custody of bodies invested with deleterious political destiny. Just when an Italianate predicament comes to grips with Latin American liberation theology in the Philippine post-colony, Castilian neo-conservatism interferes with the screenplay, and reveals a miscegene to have been born and raised between the Roman when he was still a deacon and a Filipina in her nights of harlotry. This complication afflicts the narrative with a sense of criminality, which consumes the last third of the movie in an indulgent raid of the syndicate’s lair and a chase within the slum’s labyrinth. Together with Genesis Nolasco’s “Maskara,” the film announces Philippine Cinema’s return to social realist form. Miss Chanel Latorre’s previous attempts at dramatic versatility might have illustrated a cloying eagerness to be noticed as an indefatigable executor of serious actressing, but with the range of susceptibilities she has exhibited in this piece, I can be persuaded to revisit impressions of her incapability. At last, her face can register a gamut of agonistic sentiment without descending into the abyssal negativity of victimage. Again, Althea Vega, with that Nazarene sufferance, is stunning.
As written by esteemed children’s short story writer and playwright Christine Bellen and inimitable theater actor and director Jethro Tenorio, “Filemon Mamon” should have been a radical piece of cinema. It situates the obese child (at the outset awkwardly acted, but finally calibrated well by Jerome Ignacio) within a dietary regime (the bombast is played like no other by Nanette Inventor) that is a symptom of diaspora (portrayed by an affectively migrant Sue Prado) and dissent (essayed by a subtly melancholic Smokey Manaloto). This figure of alterity is further subjected to radical insight in the context of theater itself, when he is tasked to play Andres Bonifacio, the revolutionary. After the birth of the clinic in the film set, Ignacio is diagnosed with a risky condition that can only be dramatized in a parody of the nineteenth century’s queer friar curate. The director Will Fredo squanders this cinematic opportunity through a scenographic sense whose norm is horror vacui, an editorial technique that seems to cut down on longevity by way of a dietary logic, and a cinematographic mannerism that only turns characters into talking heads, scenes into tableau-vivants any freshman from some reputable high school can acquit with respectable flair. An animation sequence should have been sent to any of our film schools for a visual overhaul. The music is also forgettably orchestrated, except for a bar that Guji Lorenzana somehow sings with the requisite tonal augmentation when scoring disagreement.
Finally, like Ralston Jover’s “Da Dog Show,” Alvin Yapan’s “An Kubo sa Kawayanan” (2015) tackles domiciliary equipment. Mercedes Cabral plays Michelle, an embroiderer who lives in a bamboo hut by the Bicol River. Cabral portrays such residency with lackadaisical nonchalance, embodying the drawl of Bicolanos in the peninsular interior, as if she has truly understood the “tristes tropiques” that turns anyone at home at world’s end into the “gens beatissima” of absolute autochthony. Of course, this indigenous innocence can only be false, but Yapan makes it a point to furnish the error with a folk intelligence that finds joy in what the outside may deem as faulty sentiment. At the very least, there must be a domesticated form of outrage in this persistent anti-modernity that entitles Yapan to allegorize the cubistic hut as an infrastructure of nativity where alienated labor is foreign to the craftworker, while calibrating an atavistic rule of metaphor to deface distinctions even surrealism would not dare to retrogress into, so that affective labor may be fully experienced as the only acceptable way of wordliness. Yapan avoids the perilous path of noble savagery through a recourse to cinema as “object-oriented ontology,” where earthly matter takes precedence over human agency. I am not sure yet whether the cinematic language the director has experimented with can be said to apprehend the neo-impressionism this kind of paradigm shift must evince, or if such a metaphysics of the tropical can take us to an analysis of historical modernity through a critique of empire that has coopted even the sensorium Yapan himself protects with impunity, but yes, at least, this spirited instance of possibilization; a tactile programme might have been laid out for our cinema from Yapan’s torrid zone, where worldly objects have always been waning beside earthly things witnessing our contemporary habitude from their truth only most anterior.