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Monthly Archives: December 2015

No Cheap Thrill

Nonoy Lauzon

Most likely inspired by Needful Things, a Stephen King’s 1992 novel (eventually adapted into a major motion picture in the United States), Randolph Longjas’ Buy Now, Die Later emerges as one of the more palatable official entries in the mainstream slate of this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival.

Prior to his latest release, new-breed filmmaker Longjas has only one other full-length feature to his credit with the Cine Filipino 2013 title, Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin. Needless to say, the newbie director sustains the promise of his film making break with a quantum leap for a reboot and refinement of the art of omnibus cinema in a flashy elocution of hybridity that combines the disparate elements of the bizarre, the macabre and the sardonic with the usual fantasy-cum-horror-cum-suspense-cum-comedy fare.

The film with its acting ensemble can be said to have some of the
more annoying performances on the big screen for the year but not to the extent of distracting from its more meritorious attributes. It upholds radical thinking in rejecting the prevalent scheme of things that allows for the cult of celebrity, the allure of fame and preoccupations of vanity. It exposes the pretension of the capitalist system in the world and demolishes its claim to provide for every single human need. The creepy little curio shop of more than apparent horrors in the film is a metaphor as well as a device to serve as its springboard to dismiss the ideology of capitalism at large as diabolical handiwork. The movie succeeds primarily as an affront to consumerist society and an expression of outrage and disgust over people’s penchant in this age for instant gratification.

The situations that audiences are confronted with as they watch the film may seem to be mindlessly superficial as intended. But the more discerning could easily recognize the Faustian stirrings of its intertwined narratives. It is replete with moments of adroit dialogue. Particularly clever is actor John Lapus’ gay character’s scene with the proverbial neighborhood brutes where he ends up punching with a verbal castigation unparalleled in its volley of sarcasm and witticism.

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In similar light, the stage mom character of Lotlot de Leon gets a retort of comeuppance from Alex Gonzaga in her rising-star turn. All in all, the film owes its satisfactory finish with the good editing work put in it. Each of its collected tales imparting horrendous caution is rendered to respectively and effectively correspond to the five senses for just one more instance of evidence of the film’s undeniable astuteness.

One could not help but look forward to director Longjas’ next feature. After being done with belles-lettres allusions to Pygmalion with his take on interracial romance previously in Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin, he has now made a bold dig at Faust with Buy Now, Die Later – taking viewers for a ride of not necessarily cheap thrill. Beyond the rib-tickling and farcical gesticulation somewhat characteristic thus far of his individual cinema, Longjas may just prove to be the more erudite from the ranks of the country’s emergent filmmakers.

Note: This review was originally posted on Glitter.ph.

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Posted by on 26/12/2015 in Uncategorized

 

The Vacuous Comedy Bane: A Review of Wenn Deramas’ Wang Fam

Nonoy Lauzon

While certain quarters may not find anything wrong with it, the opposite is evidently true. Why further oppress the hapless populace?

Studio productions in the country are obviously in dire straits with costly event movies requiring even costlier returns that fail more often than not to materialize. With their producers impaired by a kind of desperation to draw huge turnout of audiences, these event movies have no option but to pander to perceive mass preference for mindless entertainment fare.

Case in point is Wenn V. Deramas’ Wang Fam. The horror-cum-family comedy feature has no aim but to elicit laughs from viewers, thinking that it is only but the right way to do them favor, in exchange for their patronage and provide, so to speak, a respite from the drudgery of their daily lives. What gets in the way of the film’s pronounced tasks to deliver the laughs, however, are lapses of logic in its storytelling and too much suspension of disbelief that it demands on the part of the viewing patrons.

When is comedy a menace to society? The sure answer is when it is made in the Philippines – what with slapstick, toilet humor, political incorrectness, cultural insensitivity as the norms then as it is now! In Wang Fam, for example, its fixation is to lampoon –instead of the powers-that-be behind the dreary existence of much of the people in the country living below the poverty line – the less privileged and the marginalized.

They are already in real life exploited with persisting social conditions. And for some reasons, they again have to be exploited in reel with the movies they are tricked to patronize as their plight and predicament turned into fodder for jokes and object of ridicule on the silver screen. This in itself is an instance of injustice and sadly, a carry-over from a mindset shaped by popular predilection for a noontime-variety-television culture that capitalizes on empty fanfare and cheap thrills just to win a gory battle of the networks.

Wang Fam is packaged as a film that puts premium on family values and solidarity. But one has grounds to suspect its actual agenda. Its interest is to keep the “disorder” of things and the status quo. By such, people are otherwise urged not to so much think and to avoid at all costs to be discerning – just so they can derive pleasure and have seemingly innocuous fun with vacuous comedies that embody everything that is wrong and twisted with the world.

(This review was originally posted on Glitter.ph.)

 
 

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Ari, Of Creatives and Culture Bearers

Nonoy L. Lauzon

Certainly among the most notable full-length feature debuts in Philippine cinema this year is Kapampangan filmmaker Carlo Enciso Catu’s Ari, a poignant character-driven drama about a province’s poet laureate and his encounter with a youngster who, in common with his peers, has no practical sense of culture and heritage.

The film is one of the entries in the New Wave indie section of this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. In more ways than one, it is a story of awakening and transformation, not only for a boy trying to secure identity for himself but also for a man in the twilight of his life searching for affirmation for paths he had taken and pursuits of his choosing. As people these days have no faith, much less find value, in prospects for a lucrative creative industry, the film assumes great significance. It’s high time that the world embark on the paradigm shift with regards to the artistic professions and open people’s eyes to the reality that a life lived best, and to the fullest, is one enriched with meaning by virtue of tangible engagement with the arts.

It is some heavy stuff that one would not expect from a film by a first-time director. But fortuitously, such film is here to curiously exhibit the boldness and the courage to make the stand and take up the advocacy. Making heroes out of culture bearers is a most welcome cinematic agenda and a noble act reserved for true films of distinction. The “ari” (Pampangan vernacular for king) of the film’s title is one such culture bearer and the tradition he embodies is most crucial for a country that may rightfully and fruitfully thrive with the quest to preserve the healthy heterogeneity brought about by the diverse cultures and peoples that altogether define its very nationhood.

This brings audiences to a realization that the lack of appreciation for artists and creatives as productive members of society is the prime culprit for the prevalent squalor in the world more inclined to destruction and destructiveness in direct antithesis to the very principle that underlies all art and endeavors of imagination. The urge for progress, development, modernity can’t be an excuse to discard or do away with artists and their craft. A society can only advance and remain sane if it gives due recognition to the contribution of its artists beyond the rhetoric and the honorific gesture of conferring plaques, trophies, medallions or crowns.

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It is this kind of epiphany that one youth’s journey in the film enables. Performances ring truer with a cast of predominantly non-professional actors. Ronwaldo Martin as the teen protagonist particularly shines for a screen acting that wonderfully blends rawness and edginess with one-hundred-percent characteristic sincerity. One can completely empathize with his portrayal of a lost village lad festered by a deprivation of kinship with an absentee family he appears to have and by a sheer despair for a cultural rootlessness symptomatic of a disease and a curse that his generation is somewhat fated to suffer and endure. When he chances upon the possibility of forging ties with a venerated poet and his common-law wife, audiences get to share his silent rapture for a found connectivity that, for all intents, serves as the needed antidote to the existential angst at the core of his being.

Ari  boasts of an all-too culture-specific and peculiar scenario that viewers wherever else in the world can relate to and identify with after all – in an exact testament to the immense power that the medium of cinema retains to this day, precisely, to bridge cultures and bind peoples regardless of class, color and creed.

Note: This review was originally posted on glitter.ph.

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Nonoy L. Lauzon is the Programmer for Screenings at the U.P. Film Institute. He has double degrees in Philosophy and Humanities from the University of the Philippines. He has previously worked for a number of national newspapers including the Philippine JournalPeople’s Journal and The Manila Times. He used to contribute a column for the old Mirror Weekly and now regularly writes for two of the country’s leading national tabloid dailies. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Media Studies (Film) at the U.P. College of Mass Communication.

 
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Posted by on 20/12/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Neutering the Transgender Threat in Miss Bulalacao (2015)

Emerald Flaviano

Ara Chawdhury’s Miss Bulalacao (2015) begins familiarly enough: gay teenager Dodong competes in a local byukon, and despite a minor hiccup (an uncomfortably long silence to the question, “What is the essence of being a woman?”) wins the Miss Bulalacao title. Much later, with makeup running down his face, Dodong flees from his furious father Poldo. He hides in his flight in a dark stand of trees, only to drown in a flood of celestial light. At this point, things take a weird turn—Dodong glimpses creatures clearly not of this planet and some weeks after the incident, Dodong discovers himself pregnant, to the utter disbelief of Poldo, his stepmother Lisa, and the rest of Bulalacao.

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Dodong wakes up disheveled after his celestial visitation. Source: Miss Bulalacao‘s official Facebook page.

 

Two strategies of gender appropriation preoccupy Miss Bulalacao, the now-commonplace fiesta byukon and the fantastic pregnancy, and asks where the young transgender growing up gay in a small town locates himself. Complicit in objectifying bodies as its close relative the beauty pageant does, byukons—particularly those held as part of celebrations of small-town fiestas like in Bulalacao’s—are received by the general public as a carnival of curiosities and ultimately serve to marginalize even as it compartmentalizes gender identity. For Dodong sans the byukon title couldn’t be more different than the caricature of a woman “Miss Bulalacao” is (in a frothy ball gown with a padded bust, wearing thick makeup and a tottering wig, parading in front of a sniggering audience): Dodong is a diffident teenager whose crush on Peter, the young son of Bulalacao’s richest and most influential matron Mercy, is expressed in the most familiar terms. He braves shy greetings and smiles to the somewhat unsociable Peter, the highest point of which is a serendipitous meeting at the beach.

As his appropriation of Donna (Cruz) is taken to its fantastic extreme culminating in the improbable mother, Dodong initially becomes a freak in the eyes of Bulalacao, a confirmation of the town’s wariness of his aberration. Only when his burgeoning stomach is deemed miraculous that his pregnancy is tolerated, and Dodong becomes the embodiment of the ideal Catholic female figure, a blameless virgin mother. The mythical story of his pregnancy becomes part of a belief system that explains Peter’s adolescent sulkiness in a childhood episode involving a spirit in a balete tree and Dodong becomes Bulalacao’s common property. He is ambushed by neighbors seeking divine intervention in earthly problems (that Dodong is actually the vessel of a different type of celestial get is beyond the wildest dreams of the town’s inhabitants). As the Virgin Mother 2.0, he is dragged by Mercy—most avid disciple of the Church—as a living relic of her dead religion. “I always strive to be near the Lord,” Sister Mercy intones as she keeps Dodong and Lisa in the best room in her huge house, substitutes her old altar for a new one featuring a grainy selfie of her new virgin mother, and decks the pregnant Dodong, like a beloved santo, in a creamy floor-length dress. Though at odds with the other members of Bulalacao’s religious laity who think that Dodong’s pregnancy is the devil’s work, Sister Mercy persists.

Meanwhile, another wrangling unfolds in a different quarter of Dodong’s life—the reentry of Poldo’s old sweetheart Esme and the added strain of his child’s bizarre pregnancy intensify the latent tension between Poldo and Lisa. It is in Dodong’s unintended hand in the underlying insecurity of his family that Miss Bulalacao confirms the general social unease with regard to LGBTs and meaningful social relationships involving them—the Filipino family, especially. Dodong is to blame for his mother’s death, and to blame for the soured relations between Poldo and Lisa who each take opposing positions concerning him. He is referred to as ilo (orphan)—a label which at first confuses because he calls Lisa “mother” and Poldo is still very much alive. His stepmother treats him as her own child, but Dodong feels sorely the void that his absentee father leaves in his life. Aside from discounts in his fishermen friends’ fresh catch and going to mass with Dodong and Lisa on Sundays, Poldo as father is the volatile drunk who almost always turns to Dodong with impotent violence for being the root cause of his unhappy domestic life. For Dodong, his pregnancy is not only about being finally, essentially a woman, but is also his shot at a proper family, of having a child of his own to love and who will be raised in an environment different from the one he grew up in.

That Miss Bulalacao tackles a complex issue—the LGBT vis a vis traditional social structures in a still undeniably conservative Filipino society—in bizarre, fantastic terms (i.e. extraterrestrial impregnation of a biologically male teenager) is also reflected in the conspicuous contrivedness of small-town scenarios and the deliberate shunning of realist markers in its stylistic elements. There is the eerily quiet, almost reverent, opening of the Miss Bulalacao byukon, the austere stage, and the polite applause following the introduction of the contestants—not quite what would expect in a surely much-anticipated event held only once a year. Bulalacao housefronts are painted blue, obviously solely for the film, and a techno soundtrack befitting a sci-fi film and that sometimes seems to be always on the verge of opening Drake’s “Hotline Bling”. Each component of the film’s mise-en-scène is carefully positioned, sometimes in an obvious tableau of an important event, such as when a neighbor’s stricken realization that Dodong’s swollen belly really is full of child is silently witnessed by three other Bulalacao residents. A subtle challenge to Sister Mercy’s officious good-deeding is posed by one of her household helps, a young woman who is constantly either on the foreground to make faces, or in the background dancing.

The holy child stirs

Screengrab from Miss Bulalacao’s trailer

 

In the end, however, the termination and consequent demystification of Dodong’s pregnancy (as part of a struggle among entities whose motivations are way above and beyond the concerns of Dodong and the rest of Bulalacao) defeat the transgressive possibilities that Miss Bulalacao poses to the dominant discourse on the Filipino family: Dodong loses his child to the robotic priest who may or may not be working with the aliens, while Lisa the nominal mother becomes an actual one as she is, finally, after many barren years of marriage to Poldo, pregnant with his child. The family is complete and the unnatural transgender threat to it neutralized. Dodong’s new puppy, a gift from Sister Mercy, provides cold comfort: his cuddly new pet is not a good enough substitute for his real child, however unnatural. It is the quiet but obviously deep disappointment with which Dodong receives the caged animal from Peter that upsets more than his anguished cry of loss after learning that his child is dead.

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Emerald Flaviano is a Research Associate of the University of the Philippines Third World Studies Center. She is currently involved in a study on social memory in Mendiola while conducting her own research on Cinemalaya and Philippine independent cinema. Her research interests include political culture, popular culture, and Philippine film.

 
 

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We Are All Stupid For Love!

Nonoy L. Lauzon

[originally published here]

The film shamelessly ratifies the paternalistic preconceptions that govern the institution of heterosexual union and in effect becomes instrumental in strengthening the conventional view of women as inferior to men. 

Upon watching Cathy Garcia-Molina’s A Second Chance, audiences would not take one minute to realize and be completely convinced that the sequel to the hit romance drama in 2007 is some kind of a sexist film. For all the complexities pertinent to the expanding and ever-evolving gender discourse now in the world, all that Philippine cinema could bother itself with is a celluloid embarrassment of a trite tale involving spouses whose idea of individual self-worth emanates from a simplistic notion of what it is to be male or female, and the respective role-playing that comes with such as prescribed by social norms.

The film is consumed with the singular thesis that a marriage only works if the husband is able to provide and the wife is able to conceive. Hell breaks loose when one or both of these conditions are not met – exactly the case with this studio melodrama drumbeated to have broken box-office records in cineplexes across the country.  It didn’t help that the film laid the stage for its leads John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo’s over-the-top performances obliterating all grounds that one may have to allow compassion and empathy with the protagonists they essay.

Notwithstanding, the male vulnerabilities that the film finds the occasion and merit to itemize, it remains the interest of the film to uphold manly supremacy. What is elided in the process is the reality that much of sorry human circumstances are brought about by patriarchal standpoint that is inconsistent with rational thought, the dictates of common decency and the everyday exercise of discernment.

Prime cinemas in other parts of the world have no use for this type of romantic flick – which is, to say, why the Philippines lags behind other nations in pushing for the cause of film as fine art. All that this big-screen yarn manages to be good at, is to get stuck on cliché after cliché and stipulate a gamut of platitudes that all boils down to how we can all be stupid for love.

 
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Posted by on 13/12/2015 in Uncategorized

 

Best Picture Material

Nonoy L. Lauzon

[originally published in glitter.ph]

The film, so to speak, deserves better than a badge of a motion picture in regular distribution as it requires audiences receptive to equally daring, profound and stimulating subject and ideas.

If the award from the international federation of critics at Vladivostok in Russia for Jun Robles Lana’s Anino sa Likod ng Buwan is any indication, the film could be considered as one of the best, if not the country’s best for the year. But more than being best picture material, the indie drama with the troika of LJ Reyes, Luis Alandy and Anthony Falcon has to be esteemed for far more reasons other than the readily apparent.

More than the steamy sex scenes that have everyone raving, the real asset of the film is its reconstruction of a chapter in Philippine history that much of the world may have not known at all. The plight of internally displaced Filipinos has acquired a face that prompts one to realize that the world’s present refugee crisis has far even darker counterparts in the country in the 1990s at a time that its people was supposed to have won back democracy after the Marcos dictatorship.

The film poses a challenge to notions of the gains of the People Power Revolution and heavily hints at the serious need to examine the socio-political conditions of Post-Marcos Philippines, especially in the light of the lack of awareness from the ranks of today’s youth of the actual national situation brought about by their elders’ bouts with years of Martial Law.

In terms of style, the film proves to be inventive with its approximation of the feel and look of a film shot in a single long take and projected in 16mm print. Location shoot is shunned in favor of a sound stage just perfect for a harrowing tale of a threesome engaged in an erratic battle of wits – luring each other into each other’s lair of both personal and political demons. The film is structured as a juggling and ensemble of dramatic acts with each leading to another in a build-up of momentum for a volatile finale.

It is unlikely that the film gets to avail of a wide release. It is way far too daring, profound and stimulating to screen side by side with the usual larger-than-life blockbusters for one’s weekly trip to the cineplex. Sadly, in this nation, a regular theatrical run in the commercial circuit can never provide that at all.

With Anino sa Likod ng Buwan, it is further manifested that there is a more meaningful, nobler and worthier motivation to film history or depict history in film, other than petty and empty aspirations to mere epic. More commendable is its representation of a kind of gritty cinema that truly probes the national soul and confronts the traumas of one country’s past in order to arm its people with the weapon of enlightenment, by which to contend with the chaos and disorder of current society.

 
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Posted by on 13/12/2015 in Uncategorized