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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Friday, January 07, 2005

entry arrow1:41 AM | Without Spirit, Without Flow

Somehow, perhaps beyond the wildest expectations of its organizers, there is a certain expectation now with regards patronizing the movies of the Metro Manila Film Festival. Many people actually seem to look forward to the movie fares of December, marking it as that one month to signal a return to patronage for a beleaguered local film industry. The unlikeliest people -- like my dentist, for example -- amaze you when they talk of Kris Aquino's surprisingly mature effort in Mano Po, or Piolo Pascual's stirring performance in Dekada '70, or Eric Quizon's understated turn as a mourning son in Crying Ladies. They talk, too, of course, about the controversies, the walk-outs during Awards Night, the usual showbiz brouhaha. And finally, they talk about their likes and their dislikes like any other cineast: "Why did this thing win Best Picture? It is a piece of crap!" some comments may go.



But the important thing here is this: people actually talk about the MMFF.



With that comes a much-needed jolt to a dying industry. Still, the numbers may be too small to signal a going back to the heyday when local movies ruled the movie marquees. As director Jose Javier Reyes put it succinctly to The Manila Times recently: "[Filipino moviegoers] actually hate Filipino movies. They don't really care for the industry. Do you know only how much did the last Manila Film Festival make? Only P26 million in the 10 days of the festival. But do you know how much Spiderman 2 earned when it opened the day after the festival? Twenty-seven million pesos. That foreign film earned in one day what all the festival entries took pains to earn in 10 days! So who loves Filipino films in this country?"



A sad thing. But if the MMFF plays its cards right, there may be hope. This festival, after all, has produced such brilliant movies as Eddie Garcia's Atsay, Eddie Romero's Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon, Celso Ad. Castillo's Burlesk Queen, Lino Brocka's Ina Ka ng Anak Mo, Marilou Diaz Abaya's Moral and Karnal, Mario O'Hara's Bulaklak ng City Jail, Mike de Leon's Kisapmata, and Ishmael Bernal's Himala-many of which we now consider as Filipino film classics.



The festival has had its bumpy times, starting in 1986 when only a Third Best Picture was proclaimed (O'Hara's Halimaw). The next year would see Artemio Marquez's cheesy biopic The Untold Story of Melanie Marquez winning second honors, while the years following that saw commercialization polluting the very existence of the festival. (Think Magic Temple and Okay Ka Fairy Ko.) By 1994, the quality of the films ran so low the jurors proclaimed no Best Film or Best Director.



[click here for the MMFF database]



Lately, there has been some hope, jumpstarted perhaps by the seriousness of Abaya's Jose Rizal, which won the top prize in 1998. While largely a lavish epic that fell flat on its didactic face, it spawned Muro Ami (again, by Abaya-the second film of what I call her Serious Hectoring Trilogy, capped by Bagong Buwan in 2001), Gil Portes's Markova: Comfort Gay, Laurice Guillen's Tanging Yaman, Erik Matti's Mano Po 2: My Home and Gagamboy, and Chito Roño's Dekada '70 -- not exactly top-caliber filmmaking, but you could see that these films were hungry with ambition.



Then I saw Mark Meily's Crying Ladies and Jeffrey Jeturian's Bridal Shower. They wowed me despite obvious flaws. Young and still full of promise, Meily, Jeturian, Portes, Matti, Roño, and Javier Reyes -- along with Lav Diaz, Carlos Siguion Reyna, Fruto Corre, Robert Quebral, Raymond Red, Yam Laranas, and Quark Henares -- may be the hope, the very future of the Filipino film, barring only Joel Lamangan, whose perplexing ubiquity during festival seasons runs parallel to his ineptness as film director. (To explain why would take another article.)



Thus, it was with some misgivings that I looked forward to this year's crop. Of the eight films in the roster, three were by Lamangan: Mano Po 3: My Love, Aishite Imasu 1940, and So Happy Together. I told myself: "Why, why, why?" and ended with a half-hearted assurance that there were still other choices. Laranas -- whose Radyo was a revelation -- has one entry, and Javier Reyes another. But the biggest expectation of all came in the form of the directorial debut of Cesar Montano.







I started out with Spirit of the Glass, Jose Javier Reyes's second take of the horror genre. While his Malikmata of the previous year had disappointed with its weak story, flat horror, and a horrendous performance by the always undertalented Rica Peralejo, Mr. Reyes is still not someone to take lightly. Any movie with his name as director, or writer, never goes down the fires of cinematic hell, although -- like I said -- he occasionally disappoints. (Perhaps his being too prolific waters down the quality of his work?)



I have always considered Mr. Reyes as one of the industry's best film directors, and whose talent in scriptwriting may even be greater than his gift of directing. Consider what may be his obra maestra, the taut storyline of Oro, Plata, Mata, which was eventually megged by the equally-talented Peque Gallaga. From that initial promise, he has gone on to make a name for himself as one of the best storytellers of Pinoy Generation X. His Pare Ko still rings true today, and even his commercial efforts like Batang PX, Radio Romance, and 9 Mornings always contain that touch of whimsy and wit that inform the lives of his young characters. His comic touches can be felt in Makati Ave. Office Girls, and even the flat-out glorious inanity of Pinay Pie. And when he does want to get serious, you get the subtle Masikip, Mainit, a brilliant reworking of the Orlando Nadres play "Paraisong Parisukat," which most people sadly dismissed as another ST vehicle for Joyce Jimenez; or Luksong Tinik; or the superlative effort of Live Show, the unsung greatness of which has been blunted by the uninformed outcry of moralists.



So here comes Spirit of the Glass, which at the start bears the markings of some conscientious directorial effort -- an impressive title sequence, for example, that scanned through old sepia photos, setting the tone for the "horror" to come. Were it not for the overlong prologue involving the torture of Marvin Agustin's character, it would have been perfect.



The story is this: a group of Manila friends -- one or two of whom are infuriating caricatures of cosmopolitan kikay-ness -- finds their Boracay vacation for Holy Week cancelled, and ends up making do with a trip to the probinsya, to Ms. Peralejo's ancestral home which, by first look, immediately informs us that, yes, this is another haunted house movie. But of course.



Bored and with nothing to do, they dig up an Ouija board, and summons the spirit of the dead Mr. Agustin, who soon wreaks havoc to their lives by ... well, in kikay-speak, by making ramdam. Very cute. The rest of the story follows the age-old formula revolving around a tale of spurned lovers and love lost, and the eventual piecing together of clues from the past to explain the hauntings. Eventually, bones and deadly secrets are dug up from the family closet, complete with Ana Capri playing a medium with whitish contact lenses playing arbiter for past hurts. It's really Maruja given the old haunted house twist. But not so effectively.



In the end, all you can do is ask yourself: Why am I watching this glorious mess? And can't they tell this story with less characters? Or is the movie just a vehicle to give too many actors some semblance of a job in these trying times? I can do without Drew Arellano or Paolo Contis or one those "young stars" whose roles are nothing save to occupy space and movie frame. Peralejo is not half-bad, but thirty minutes into the movie, anybody is about ready to slap Ciara Sotto and her feeble acting back to obscurity. The only redeeming grace seems to be Alessandra de Rossi who gives this lameduck of a movie some life; but even that is not really saying anything, because Ms. De Rossi's character, really, is useless.



And is the movie scary? No.







I wanted to redeem my initial impression of the entries of the 2004 MMFF by going to see Mr. Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba. The expectations ran high because of the laudatory press that followed its premiere, and its Second Best Picture finish during the Awards Night.



This was, after all, the much-awaited revival of the long-dead Cebuano film. That it was alone among all the entries to garner an A rating from the Film Ratings Board (giving the producers a hundred percent tax free ride) cemented all those expectations. Ultimately, it was the novelty of watching a movie in my own tongue that kindled the decisive interest.



And so we went to see it in Park Theater last Thursday night. And then we went home perplexed. Because how does one say something about a movie one wants to praise to high heavens -- but couldn't?



If one could only grade for effort, then Mr. Montano's film deserves all the praise it has been getting. The passion of the director and star is evident in every inch of the film. The script, too, had a satisfying dramatic arc of setting a love story on a beautiful Visayan river, bookended by the beginning and end of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. And there were moments of sheer cinematic pleasure, small acting turns that gleamed (mostly by the naturalness of Best Supporting Actress Rebecca Lusterio), or a mise-en-scene that awed. My favorite has to be the slow close-up of Daria Ramirez's face as she looks out the open window, all of us knowing that is drawing her last breath. It is a beautiful shot, in a movie that doesn't know what to do with its potential.



Which is surprising, considering that Mr. Montano won Best Director. I hesitate to use the word "inept"; perhaps all can be explained by the freshman effort of the director. But one must base judgment on the quality of cinematic storytelling. Panaghoy had too many flaws; they flowed like a river, and the film eventually drowned in all of that. The technical aspect alone was disappointing: it had an uninspired editing, showed garish changes in picture quality, had a lazy production design, and displayed camera movements which became too jerky for comfort. Only the fighting scenes showed some muscle.



The wonderful Caridad Sanchez is surprisingly shrill and unconvincing, and Joel Torre is wasted in a thankless role. There's no meat to Reiven Borlado's character despite the young actor's furious efforts, and Mr. Montano's Tagalog accent distracted. But the bomb has to be Juliana Palermo who absolutely has no presence. She acts like a mannequin that talked once in a while, completely devoid of any humanity -- which is sad since hers is the pivotal role. What I liked best was Lusterio's winning performance, and the subtle rendering by Jacky Woo of his Japanese officer role.



In the end, the movie wins because of its dismantling of stereotypes. Visayans, we are told, "have brains" -- a refreshing assessment after all those infuriating Tagalog movies and TV shows starring Manilyn Reynes as a hapless maid with a clipped accent. Woo's Japanese soldier, too, is a good man with noble intentions, while the American actor playing the businessman escapes the usual magnanimous caricature we usually give his kind by giving us a villain who is, worst of all, a racist.





That's two films down, and six more to go. And yet, from this beginning, the whole thing doesn't look so enticing anymore. Perhaps next year?




[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich





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