Bridge of Spies (2015): lessons on citizenship

Bridge of Spies (2015, Steven Spielberg) is both an entertaining thriller about the Cold War, and a meaningful lesson about citizenship.

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If we are to treat Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies in the same manner children are taught to handle any story—like a fruit to be squeezed for juicy moral lessons—we do not have to look further than lawyer James Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) first scene for a bountiful first harvest.

In some dim, smoky venue that is definitely not a courtroom, Donovan, an American lawyer representing an insurance firm, discusses an accident with a claimant’s attorney. The incident under consideration involves a single vehicle crashing onto five motorcycles. The question they are debating is, does it constitute a single accident, or can the claimant seek damages for five accidents?

Donovan, confidently delivering his sober arguments, carefully points out that the person who was in the offending vehicle is not his “guy,” but rather a client of his actual guy, the insurance firm. It is as if he is persuaded that the first order of things in any legal discussion is the establishment of identities and affiliations. Then he makes the crucial point: if the accident were to be counted as more than one insurable incident, then all accidents would be liable to be arbitrarily counted; then insurance firms would lose money, the industry would be undermined, and nothing would be insured anymore; “No one would be safe!”, he ends emphatically.

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Perfumed Nightmare, Neocolonialism and Kidlat Tahimik’s Experiment with Film Form

Perfumed Nightmare by Kidlat Tahimik (1977) is a successful experiment in using film form to deliver a message about neocolonialism, progress, and Filipino identity and aspirations.

It will be useful to first think about which type of film Perfumed Nightmare (Mababangong bangungot, 1977) really is, because it does not comfortably fall under the definition of fictional narrative film alone. Many sequences in the film are, or at least appear to be, shot as cinéma vérité; a few examples being the hoisting of the Zwiebelturm in Bavaria, the visit to the Sarao Motors jeepney factory and the images of the townspeople doing penance. And yet, other sequences are obviously scripted, such as the parodistic meeting scene in which Kidlat Tahimik blows away the Western leaders.

The film does have a plot, and several scenes are set up and executed to advance this narrative. We have scenes, such as when Kidlat wakes up one morning to talk to the photos of beauty queens beside his bed, which are shot in a manner similar to what we would expect in mainstream fictional films. At other times, however, the film breaks suspension of disbelief by looking like a documentary; in multiple scenes, Kidlat plays around while smiling and looking directly at the camera, clearly implying awareness of the cameraman.

By having both fictional and non-fictional elements, the film straddles the boundaries of film types, and elicits credibility in what it presents while at the same time enhancing the impact of the messages it purports. But what is this message that Perfumed Nightmare emphatically carries?

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Cinemalayà 2015 Shorts B

Five short films by young directors make up the second set of competition pieces in this year’s Cinemalaya festival.

Lisyun qng Geografia (Geography Lessons)

Writer and director: Petersen Vargas

In Lisyun, Tib finds an old map as he sweeps his belongings into travel boxes, in preparation for some unmentioned journey. The handcrafted map, however, distracts from his future plans and sends him to a detour, an intimate journey to his past. This is how the viewer is introduced to the centerpiece of the film: a beautiful parallel between the geography of the outside world and the terrains of personal relationships.

Tib’s map is not a mass-printed, scientifically-accurate guide but a personal record of the landmarks of his younger years. With the quaint sheet on-hand, he retraces memories of his hometown in Pampanga: afternoons spent on a dirt road, evenings outside his old home, a twilight at a secluded corner of his high school. It is not difficult to imagine the crushing nostalgia that Tib experiences as he revisits the physical triggers of his memories. After all, memory is intertwined with location; and Lisyun shows us that identity is a function of geography.

Crucially, Tib’s map is also filled with pictures of himself and his high school best friend, Tric. We learn through flashbacks that the map was made by Tric, and the night when he gave it was the turning point of their tragic relationship. Their friendship used to be innocent, joyful, and comfortable—but it developed into a tense attraction that left them both groping uncharted territories of their personalities. Tib’s eventual reaction was denial, and rejection; and Tric, confusion and desperation.

The flashbacks end here, and we imagine how the relationship fell into neglect after that passionate confrontation at night, and in the intervening years as Tib left for university. In the present, the map leads Tib through town, and he finds some structures gone, constructions sites replacing the familiar landmarks. Places are dynamic: no matter how intimately we may come to know places at some point in our lives, they will inevitably change, sometimes subtly, sometimes violently. And they will become both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like an old face, or a faded relationship.

In the end, when Tib comes into the place that witnessed some of his old friendship’s happiest memories, he runs into Tric, who by appearance alone is now a changed person. After a long silence, they simply acknowledge each other’s names—and a new, unexplored path of redemption opens up. Somehow, we know that areas of Tib and Tric’s map will have to be redrawn, with brighter colors.

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Dagitab (2014): counter-romantic, poetic

This is a review of Dagitab, a film by Giancarlo Abrahan that competed in the New Breed section of the 2014 Cinemalayà independent film festival. It is a rather difficult film; of course what I present here is merely my personal experience of the work. I imagine the film easily yields to many different interpretations.

Official movie poster for Dagitab (2014) by Giancarlo Abrahan

Before dealing with what the film is about, I’d like to take note of the film’s style. It is partly defined by vague sequences: whatever visual clarity Dagitab possesses is counter-balanced by the subtlety of their meanings. The scenes do not always have a causal follow-up, nor do they always have a sensible precedent. The film’s last scene exemplifies this: we find the characters nonchalantly discussing their next plans, and these are plans that seem to utterly disregard the build-up of the last few scenes. I was left with the feeling that after all that had happened, I still didn’t know the characters. The incongruity is likely meant to be a subdued twist, a subtle surprise that is unfortunately difficult to make sense of. Delightfully though, Dagitab is complemented by its poetic quality. There is a striking shot in the middle of the film of one of the main characters where, after turning on the radio, he sits on his working chair, leans back and closes his eyes. The camera lingers on the scene. It was quiet, and yet it was brilliant as a characterization of this mysterious character. I never understood what was going on in his mind at that point, but never did I feel the urge to know. It was a moment meant to be taken without question, a poetic image to be enjoyed on its own.

A movie still of Dagitab (2014) showing actor Nonie Buencamino sitting on a chair and leaning back
Nonie Buencamino in Dagitab (2014). (Image from cinemalaya.org)

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Kidlat Tahimik’s Balikbayan #1: a quintessential Filipino indie film

Balikbayan #1 has nothing remarkable for the average Filipino moviegoer, provided he actually gets the unlikely opportunity to watch it. The film would probably come across as a bad movie even, given the Hollywood-satiated audience’s expectations of a ‘movie’: thrilling, spectacular, and highly entertaining.

A miniature galleon art piece on exhibit at the Asian premiere of Balikbayan #1
A miniature galleon art piece on exhibit at the Asian premiere of Balikbayan #1

This is a sad assessment that unfortunately rings true for many of the Filipino films simply called indie. Ironic, given that Kidlat Tahimik is widely recognized as the father of Philippine independent cinema. And here we could nod in agreement before moving on to the next spectacle if it weren’t for a crucial difference: Balikbayan #1 is actually mildly entertaining for its would-be Filipino audience, and this audience wouldn’t even have to know film art to be able to grasp it.

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