Review: ‘Water Lemon’ (2015)

A young man with Asperger’s, his esteemed mother, and other characters populate this contemplative small-town drama.

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In Oggs Cruz’s roundup of 2015 Filipino films (Rappler, 12 best Filipino films of 2015), Lemuel Lorca’s Water Lemon does not make it into the top 12, but it receives this passing ‘also worth watching’ citation:

From QCinema International Film Festival, there is Lem Lorca’s Water Lemon, a somber examination of rural boredom…

It is quite a misleading summary. True, Water Lemon is a story about small-town (rural) blues, but it is neither thoroughly somber, nor is it largely about boredom. (Perhaps Cruz found the film a little too slow for his taste, which would be unfortunate.) True, Lemuel Lorca’s latest work has its share of extended shots and slow gazes—but it never comes close to the painful uneventfulness of long shots in such epic works as (for example) Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan. It is seasoned with several lighthearted moments, and succeeds in squeezing genuine laughs out of its audience. Like the small-town characters populating its story, who in their solitude are brooding, but in social gatherings turn lively and humorous, Water Lemon has both contemplative and hilarious moments.

The rural community that Water Lemon explores is the coastal community of Mauban, on the coast of the province of Quezon. This is director Lorca’s hometown. The location is so prominently billed in this film that we are led to think of its characters, primarily, as inhabitants of this coastal town, and only secondarily do we explore their individual differences. But the film does not disappoint, because the variety and relationships of its characters, in fact, is its greatest beauty.

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‘Sleepless’ (2015): a pleasant non-romance about urban insomnia

Sleepless only pretends to be a romantic film; in truth, it is a story about brokenness and healing, set against the charm of the city at night.

The call center industry, well-known for employing its workers in graveyard shifts, and which is ironically called one of the nation’s sunrise industries, lends Philippine cities a unique claim to the title of the city that never sleeps. While contenders for the nickname in other continents are havens of endless leisure and nightlife and luxury, Manila (or Cebu or Bacolod) are inhabited by night dwellers who forgo sleep not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Many of them, that is, but not all. Sleepless, an entry to the 2015 QCinema (Quezon City) Film Festival, is ambivalent about the call center industry. It is tempting for a film with such a premise to be an echo chamber of critical sociopolitical sentiments: that this outsourcing industry disadvantages our nation in a neo-imperialist world order, that it enslaves its workers under alienating working conditions, et cetera, et cetera. But for Sleepless, the graveyard shift, the darkness of ungodly hours, is just a backdrop to its story, the circumstances that its characters happen to inhabit.

Note: this essay is an in-depth commentary on the film, and includes spoilers by necessity. It is meant for those who have seen the film.

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‘Honor Thy Father’ (2015): a gripping, grounded crime drama

Strong acting, a metaphorical setting, and resonating themes bring this John Lloyd Cruz-starrer to excellence.

Honor Thy Father begins with a shot of the protagonist Edgar (John Lloyd Cruz) breaking the ground in a lawn in the Cordilleran highland city of Baguio. It is foreshadowing, both in a visual sense as Edgar later in the story breaks into a different territory with his brothers, and on a metaphorical level, as he would in the course of the story break and shake up his relationships, with people and with the land.

The setting maintains a strong, and beautiful, presence throughout the film. Baguio subtly comes to represent both the hopes of his family, and the instability and chaos they find themselves facing. Edgar’s wife, Kaye (Meryll Soriano), at one point talks about going to the mountains to escape their problems (a genius bit of characterizing detail, because for most Filipinos who live in lowlands, Baguio is a mountain city, and only highland urban residents would talk of going further up the mountains). Edgar does travel to still-higher and remoter lands of the Cordilleras, where he seeks his parents and brothers for help; his brothers, meanwhile, make a living as miners, blasting their way deeper into the mountains in search of minerals. In Honor Thy Father, the rolling urban terrain is a symbol of conflict; the dusty mine lands, of refuge and strength.

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‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ (2014)

The cult of vampire films get a horrifyingly beautiful addition with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

The centerpiece of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the titular character, a “lonesome vampire” (from the film’s official descriptions) who stalks a sparse Iranian town called Bad City.

This particular vampire is neither the stiff, bloodshot-eyed Dracula type, nor the pale yet sparklingly beautiful undead of Twilight: for one, she wears a chador, an encompassing piece of clothing traditionally worn by Muslim women, although she wears it loosely, as if it was a cape, and underneath she sports modern Western garments.

This Girl also prefers to prowl the streets at night on a skateboard. In her basement dwelling, a comfortably hip room full of art, she listens to Lionel Richie and house electronic music.

Actress Sheila Vand as a chador-wearing vampire on the streets at night.
Sheila Vand as “The Girl” in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. (Image from vice.com)

“Weird,” was one of my friends’ summary comments on the film, as we came out of the film’s screening in the recently-concluded 2015 Quezon City International Film Festival. I partly agree to this descriptor, though some synonyms describe the film better: eerie, bizarre, unsettling.

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‘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.

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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