Monday, June 2, 2008

Last Films Standing (2004)

Last Films Standing

by Patrick D. Flores

Of the few but not precious 55 films released by the local industry in 2004, only a paltry number merits a closer look, and of these leavings only one stands a chance at serious scrutiny. This opinion, of course, sharply contrasts with the rosy projections of apologists who have taken pains to declare that the trade is not dying; they have even doled out tax incentives to films they have found excellent. Subjecting these sanctified titles to keener analysis, we will realize, however, that the public has been misled and that the system of supposedly revitalizing the industry is not only not working, it basically rests on a mistake. Subsidy given to off-the-shelf productions made by people whom granters cherish as friends and associates is entirely wrong, though it is only half of the story. The other half is this: subsidy that does not guide the development of a project, from the selection of the material, its research and refinement, and on to its actual filming is useless and wasteful endowment.
We have been on this road before and there are those who do not tire in treading it because the routine rerun is not without its gains. Take the exemplary case of Laurice Guillen’s Santa Santita, which was conferred an A rating by the Cinema Evaluation Board, an office well within the realm of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, the Chair of which is the director of the film. Before the film could be released commercially, a well-known reviewer of a mainstream daily, a member of the said Board by the way, praised it lavishly, short of naming it the most beautiful film on the face of this earth, and this is just based on the trailer. Further inquiry reveals critical connections among director, producer, reviewer, and other abiding relations that lead all the way to the Academy Awards in Los Angeles. Surely, these links do not make a straight line of conspiracy or corruption, but they hint at the system of intricate relationships that tend to compromise, either in perception or in actual deed, the independence of the very task of “evaluation.” The Spanish have a term for it, and it is not sin verguenza.
To be fair to Santa Santita, it builds its premise around an argument, a rare element in many local films, which insists on the possibility of miracle. To a certain extent, it offers itself as a foil to the discourse of Himala, the master narrative of the critique of the miracle yarn, and purveys the notion that, in fact, miracles can transpire and that they work through “flawed humanity.” The film seems to tell us that not because the institutional church is corrupt, its faithful could not achieve the grace of conversion, which is the basis of the miracle work performed by what Guillen would regard as a “modern Magdalene.” The allusion to Mary Magdalene is problematic, if only because the persona is actually a composite of so many rounded women figures in the Bible and was flattened by popular consciousness as a prostitute. Angelica Panganiban’s Malen is not a prostitute, but a young woman of typical mischief who is tormented by the guilt that she had caused the death of her mother, a prayer peddler in Quiapo church. A cult forms around her after several believers had testified to her fraudulent power to intercede, a turn of events that threatens the church and forces it to banish her from its hallowed ground. To dramatize this mystified conversion, Malen, now conscious of sin and the surveillance of the gods, confronts a priest in distress and her lover, a diabolical lumpen hustler who is duped by a matron and who tempts the heroine to revive his dead child. In crucial encounters with them, Malen comes out with a beatific smile, as if to mark epiphany. All told, the film sends vague signals of an emerging theology, initiated in the more tenable Guillen outing, Tanging Yaman. It seeks to lodge faith firmly in the individual, release it from the collective, and paradoxically, create casts of mind hospitable to the seductions of charismatic rabble-rousers.
Another A-film inflated without justification is the sorry Panaghoy sa Suba of Cesar Montano, which exploits the locale of Bohol and its language to prop up a pan-Visayan local history against the texts of national destiny. But the lofty fantasy fails to craft a credible story to support the scheme. The technique is unmotivated, the characters nearly cardboard, and the outlook is for all intents and purposes faux pastoral, complete with tarsiers and fluvial funerals.
Jeffrey Jeturian’s Minsan Pa, another tribute to those dear Cebuanos who had installed a beleaguered President, is another sad accident. Perhaps on the level of literature, it makes the cut, considering that it is able to achieve the height of abstraction and metaphor and the weight of character. A tourist guide, who refers his Japanese clients to sex workers, falling in love with a woman who sacrifices everything for the love of a blind, unfaithful lover occasions complications, with which a director of timid imagination could not cope; he merely resorts to devices that signal spurious subtlety and even more spurious silence. Spurious because all the tensions evoked are settled without negotiation: couples get married, families are reunited, and love is ensconced as if nothing else mattered. In the end, we feel that the symbolic universe (through the memory of photography pretentiously submerged in the depths of the ocean) demanded by the script is forced on the film, and vice versa, and what this ambition with no vision leaves behind, after hours of calculated dramaturgy, is the belabored paean to the age-old illusion that love cannot see.
In this heap of letdowns, it is Sigaw of Yam Laranas that attains a degree of difficulty and, therefore, solicits significant artistic interest. It is interesting because it is sensitive to dimensions. A story of a haunted decrepit apartment that shocks a young man and his girlfriend out of their wits is only one dimension. For around this plot is the real history that is repressed by a seemingly comfortable order; it is the tale of a demented military man who batters his wife, terrorizes his daughter, and kills them. The only witness to this sordid affair is a witless handyman in stupor, drowning himself in liquor to forget the violence and admonishing trespassers not to interfere. It is this sediment of life that is embedded in the Kafkaesque architecture, which is represented not in realistic terms but in terms that prompt us to construe it as a nightmare, a hell into which the innocent is lured, an irrational and impossible place which could only be made contingent on fiction to render it necessarily real. It is this “real” that differs from the reality of the lives of the middle-class, represented luminously by the poreless and virtually vacant face of Richard Gutierrez and the cluelessness of Angel Locsin. This sort of reality is vexed until the protagonist decides to make himself complicit by opening the door, which the previous tenant had refused to unlock for fear of his life; his room is now inhabited by the unnerved hero who is faced with the horror of making a decision to amend a crime of another time and to disabuse the suspicion that he is doing the same to his beloved. That the specter of history, through the restless mother, persists to haunt the apoplectic couple even in the movie house, a futile refuge of the indifferent, where a comic film is playing deepens the dimension of Sigaw. And that at its resolution, an alternative narrative is permitted to play out – with the woman shooting her husband and the daughter being able to hide – invests this kind of cinema with the chance to intervene in the production of the “real” as opposed to the idealizations of an actually harrowing society; needless to say, it also guarantees it a germ for a sequel.
In a year of natural and political disasters and of imperial powers ever more entrenched in their thrones, the motion pictures could have been inspired to do more than fill up the production slates of an incorrigible industry, which in recent years has yielded only diminishing returns. From the looks of it, Philippine cinema was a casualty of the catastrophe of its own creation. It is terrifying that no one seems to be scared.


Anonymous said...

Dear YCC, i really respect your awards. Can you post all your awardees since 1991 here? I couldn't find a complete list of your past awards. Thank you and mabuhay!

Trava said...

Thanks for writing this.

YCC said...

you may check them out here