QCinema 2017 reviews: ‘The Chanters’, ‘Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931’, ‘Medusae’

Films tackling tradition, history and mythology.

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The Chanters

The Chanters is a comedy-drama film about Sarah Mae (Jally Nae Gabaliga), a 12-year-old school girl, the granddaughter of the last chanter of the Panay Bukidnon tribe. She obsesses with pop culture and readies herself for the visit of a sensational TV star to her school. As she perfects her dance, her grandfather, Lolo Ramon (Romulo Caballero) suffers the onset of dementia. As her Lolo starts losing his precious memories, Sarah Mae is tasked to help him complete the last of the remaining 12 epics, their tribe’s vanishing tradition.

The Chanters is presented in a peculiarly narrow (approximately square) aspect ratio. This allows for appealing compositions that look unique, though not exactly cinematic. Add in the bright, pastel coloring, and what we have is a film always poised for a screen-capture, to be posted on social media for bite-sized consumption.

The Chanters uses its unique format to communicate an idea. (Towards the end, it even manipulates the aspect ratio.) That idea is about the relationship between popular and traditional cultures, between the modern and the ancient. This recalls the themes of Respeto, and like in that film this relationship is personified: in The Chanters, Sarah Mae carries the future, Lolo Ramon holds the past.

When modern and ancient cultures meet, the representation is often one of conflict, of clash: the new against the old. This is where The Chanters does something different. Here, the initial relationship between the youth and the elderly is indifference—a situation more difficult than direct competition. Sarah Mae takes a lot of selfies with her phone, documenting only herself in the process of living her daily life, all while her grandfather struggles to record, with pen on paper, their tribe’s oral epics—that memorized document of countless generations.

What motivates Sarah Mae to start paying attention to her heritage is, ironically, Danica Reyes, the pop culture star. Danica is set to visit their town and Sarah Mae, desiring to impress her idol, takes up her grandfather’s chanting seriously. The film makes another observation along the way. Sarah Mae, to help her learn the traditional chant, starts recording her lolo’s performances using her phone; what was presented earlier as a distraction is now a tool in aid of remembering. Many fear that modern technology is destroying ancient cultures, but The Chanters presents an alternate—and in fact more realistic—vision of cooperation. From indifference, the film skips conflict, and arrives at harmony.

This is not yet The Chanters’ most important insight. It is related to Danica, who is merely a foil. The pop star is Sarah Mae’s initial inspiration, but such an obsession provides a weak, short-lived motivation. In the end, Sarah Mae finds a deeper, stronger source of strength for her new-found passion, and the true star in the story is revealed.

The Chanters’ premise could have easily led to sentimentality, but the film chooses to take a bolder path. It tells its story delicately, and keeps a lighthearted tone (the film pulls off many comic stunts with Lolo Ramon, whose fading memory leads to some eccentricities), a tone that makes it all the more effective as a sensitive, nuanced homage to tradition.

A girl covers her face with a record book in ‘The Chanters’ (2017).
‘The Chanters’.

Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931

A filmmaker (Fe GingGing Hyde) revisits the town of Tayug, Pangasinan in preparation for a new feature film she is making about the folk hero Pedro Calosa (Cedrick Juan, Perry Dizon) and the Tayug Uprising of 1931. As she revisits the actual sites in Tayug where the infamous uprising had taken place, she imagines scenes in her new film about the subject. As she goes deeper in her research at Tayug, she uncovers the memories of the townspeople about Pedro Calosa and the Tayug Uprising of 1931.

Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931 is a film full of meaningful history, but one that denies an affecting story. It is to be pondered, analyzed, dissected, but not quite felt, sensed, or experienced.

The first fact about Tayug 1931 is that it is an experimental film. It requires patience, not because its form renders the content particularly challenging to understand, but because of its disinterested, academic attitude, which can be tedious.

Tayug 1931 is part narrative and part documentary, with an element of metafiction—the filmmaker character speaks about the making of the film itself. Tayug 1931 has three intercutting threads: the first set in the late 1920s, the second in the 1960s, and the third in the present day. The first two segments faithfully reproduce their eras’ styles. The 1920s sequences chronicle Pedro Calosa’s involvement with the Tayug Uprising in silent film format (complete with intertitles); the 1960s storyline is grainy documentary-style cinema, depicting writer F. Sionil Jose’s visit to the elderly Calosa in the mountains. The present-day scenes are something different: long sequences of still photographs with voice-over narration, a cinematic photo-essay of a filmmaker’s tour of the town of Tayug in 2017.

Each of Tayug 1931’s threads is well-crafted, and includes some enchanting images. All the sequences are in monochrome, even the present-day ones, maintaining a sense of unity across the disparate formats. Yet, the parts do not feel like they build towards a greater sum: they are merely careful segregations of concerns, a separation driven by cold analysis rather than by a desire to weave together an organic, compelling narrative.

Nevertheless, the depth and breadth in the material presented in Tayug 1931 is admirable. Its exploration of Calosa’s account treads several layers: first, the presentation of the uprising’s legend, then the interrogation of its legacy, and finally its reformation and ultimate hope of restoration; there is always the tug-of-war between forgetting and remembering. Along the way, the film remarks on American colonial legacy. Calosa himself is always depicted as an enigmatic figure: he is a revolutionary as much as he is a mystic.

The problem with Tayug 1931 is that it becomes unreasonably tiring to watch. At some points, it feels interminable, giving neither comfort in the present nor an ending in sight. The film bombards with details and narrations, but does not leave enough space to breathe, does not give the material enough time to steep in thought until the subtleties surface, unforced. By its end, it leaves a feeling of being barraged. Among the film’s three threads, the present-day scenes are the worst offender. The voiceover reads verbose paragraphs from literary accounts on Calosa and the uprising; the viewer is tasked to imagine the scenes behind the words, which can be quite complex because of their written origins, while the eyes are bombarded with a picture-show of great variety.

None of this is to deny the significance or noble intentions of the film. But the presentation of Tayug 1931 is self-defeating. If it aims to educate—and it does pose challenging questions of history and heroes—why does it speak in a language understood only by those already willing to listen? It is as uninviting as a serious history lecture. By being experimental, it risks shunning all but the most generous audiences.

Tayug 1931 could be called a postmodern film, and maximizing this approach would have remedied its tedium—compare Mike de Leon’s Bayaning 3rd World, which lampoons as it questions Jose Rizal’s legacy. Unfortunately, that is not even an option for this film. Pedro Calosa’s legacy is the legacy of being forgotten. A film cannot afford irreverence while it tries to restore a hero to his rightful place in national memory.

A scene from ‘Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931’.
‘Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931’.

Medusae

A documentarist’s son goes missing when she films a story on the disappearances of the firstborns in a remote island.

Filmmakers love to tell stories about filmmakers. Medusae is another one of those tales, but it weaves the subject so thoroughly into its narrative that the vanity is forgiven.

An artist is expected to pour her soul into her craft, but in this film, the documentarist, Alfa (Desiree del Valle) pays a further price: an ironic sacrifice, when her son Luni (Carl Palaganas) vanishes while she is interviewing the parents of lost children. The road she takes in search of her son is paved with mythology: locals stories of the baconaua (sea serpent), of the sea calling for the moon’s return, of cults devoted to the goddess Haliya with their shadowy summoners.

Medusae elevates its mythology beyond playing a mere background role. Alfa and Luni at first feel like outsiders doomed in a bizarre island, but as the mystery deepens, their peculiarities become the pieces that begin to connect the dots. Their fate may have been more a matter of fate than random circumstance, after all. This is a clever, adept film: not too cryptic so as to be opaque, but still ambiguous enough to be inviting to various interpretations. It refuses a clear explanation but does not discourage, and for that we could thank the film’s strong use of motifs.

One of those motifs is the luminescent moon; another is the dreamy depths of the sea (the film features some truly gorgeous underwater shots). A third is the image of evanescent jellyfish. These come up several times in Medusae, as a physical hazard on the beach, as a metaphor for life—and as the subject of Luni’s science class projects, in pseudo-flashbacks. In those sequences, Luni matter-of-factly narrates about the science of this enigmatic creature, about asexual reproduction and the law of conservation of matter, while hallucinatory images of jellyfish fill the screen. During these interludes, science feels stranger than mythology.

Indeed, a mystical world-view is the premise in Medusae’s world. It is the unchallenged fact of life, and if mythology brings bad fortune to people, the victims are expected to simply accept things, to greet fate with open arms. Alfa comes to a distant island to document a phenomenon of disappearing children, but finds a community whose prime trait—fatalism—is not so unique in our society at large.

If this makes Medusae sound like a bleak film, it must be noted that its most astute aspect is a habit of deflecting ridicule by making a joke out of its weirder or clichéd moments. This happens, for example, when Alfa begins a motherly speech for Luni, only for him to cut her short with a curt “Baduy.” (Shortly after, Alfa tries again by telling Luni why she named him like so; Luni rebuffs her again, criticizing her filmmaker’s tendency to find meaning in everything.) The sense of humor in the film prevents it from forming a coherently mysterious tone, but the end product—something stranger and more colorful—is perhaps a more rewarding result.

A boy afflicted with albinism is sitting on the beach under the sun, in ‘Medusae’ (2017).
‘Medusae’.

Stills taken from the films’ respective official Facebook pages.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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