‘Quezon’s Game’: playing it safe

History is important despite its unfortunate repetitiveness. The way it is retold should be more inventive.

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Films are one solution to the problem of tedious history lessons. This medium of sights and sounds, combined with the factual liberties afforded to dramatizations of historical events, makes the past real, turns staid accounts and lifeless facts into visceral sensations—and refashions the study of history from a mechanical transfer of data into a transformative human experience with emotional gravity. That is the idea, at least.

First there is the complication of films as vehicles for history lessons, lessons being quite a controversial concept in the context of art. Filmmakers are storytellers first and foremost, but in the process of making historical movies, they involuntarily have to take on some of the difficult functions of preaching and teaching. The very act of selecting a subject, and choosing which details about that subject is presented, is a statement bound to generate dissatisfaction one way or another. The filmmaker may choose to present history in a straightforward, agreeable manner, and then be accused of naivety. She might also choose to deconstruct history, to subject the past to critical scrutiny, revealing heroes to be not so heroic, revolutions not so revolutionary—and then be accused of being unpatriotic, of blasphemy. Tasked with telling a story from the past rather than from imagination, the filmmaker cannot then proceed with her work without implicitly staking a position between these two extremes.

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‘Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon’: a world of their own

Five years later, Sam and Isa find themselves pulled back into each other’s worlds.

Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa was the study of a relationship coming to its end, and had its characters in constant motion, through trains and taxis and the corridors of a college, echoing the transient, restless nature of their romance. The theme and motif evolves in the sequel, Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon: Nestor Abrogena, the man behind both films, shares that in making the sequel, to convey its visual philosophy, he came up with three keywords—flight, orbit, and gravity. But these concepts do not merely manifest in the cinematography; they also enrich the essence of a film that could easily have been just another heartstring-puller.

(Tey Clamor, the director of photography, executes the vision well, exemplified in such shots as of Emmanuelle Vera where the camera hangs at an oblique angle, seemingly floating away from her, but also inducing a sense of vertigo. Also, whereas Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa had cold colors, Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon is rendered in rich, worldly tones.)

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‘Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral’, a romantic elegy

The film we deserve, not the sequel we wanted: on ‘Goyo’ as essentially a romance, and how the historical film works against expectations.

After the surprising success of Heneral Luna, that historical achievement of a film that came out at a time when historical epics appeared to be firmly things of the past, Jerrold Tarog embarked on a heroic campaign of his own, working on a sequel that is bigger in all the ways that mattered. Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral is larger in scope, tougher in logistics, and more damaging in its budget. It is a riskier project, and not because the executive producers are financially more exposed—they have repeatedly claimed to not care about incurring losses, gallantly, for the sake of art—but because big-budget movies are less like banks (“too big to fail”) and more like warships: overlook one fatal flaw, one little vulnerability in its massive architecture, and the entire mighty artistic endeavor sinks.

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‘Oda sa Wala’: the morbid fragrance of emptiness

An unsettling portrait of death—of the body, and more so of the spirit.

Death is an appalling thing. Between the moment of demise and the white nothingness of bones, a corpse suffers a disgusting process of decay, giving off foul odors as it becomes more and more disfigured and discolored. Perhaps it is as a distraction from this reality that funerals have always been accompanied by flowers, which—more than being hopeful symbols of rebirth—are a fragrant and beautiful counterpoint to the hideous transformation of death. It is an ironic distraction, however, because ornamental flowers are also dead things, presently radiant but also doomed to decompose, as even embalmed corpses are.

Oda sa Wala (‘Ode to Nothing’) begins with a familiar Chinese tune playing over an image of a lone white light bulb, attended by a small swarm of flies. As with writer-director Dwein Baltazar’s previous film, Gusto Kita with All My Hypothalamus, this opening combination of image and music is an iconic expression of the film’s themes. (Oda’s opening shot is mirrored in the final scene, like in Hypothalamus, but in a metaphorical way: the light bulb replaced with the moon, the flies with something more troubling.) The Chinese song is Mò Lì Huā, meaning jasmine flower, and like the subject of that song this film is awash with whiteness: an ode to nothing rendered in the color both of purity and of emptiness, an absolute lightness that is as much the color of death as black is.

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Reviews: ‘Mamang’ and short films (Cinemalaya 2018)

A heartfelt film about a forgetful mother, and a diverse set of shorts: from the bleak to the charming, even the experimental.

Mamang

Direction & Screenplay: Denise O’Hara

Mamang depicts an old woman’s struggle against the senility of old age.

In Mamang, the eponymous character (played by the renowned Celeste Legaspi) confronts the relentless hallucinations brought by her creeping dementia. These visions are populated by personalities from her past: her husband, his mistress, a suitor, even a constabulary officer—the ghosts of her memory, characters summoned by the failing faculties of her mind rather than haunted beings coming from a supernatural realm. It is a familiar unreliable-narrator story, where the narrator is an elder beset by senility, although the film interestingly frames its conflict as the choice between normal reality and a more vibrant, more colorful memory-dream world. The reappearance of people long gone confounds Mamang at first, but in the end, the film tells us it is up to her which world she desires to live in; she is a victim, but she is not helpless. Her disability gives her, more than mere suffering, a choice, an option that would in fact be unavailable were it not for her affliction. This way, Mamang places senility under a different light.

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