Review: ‘Bliss’ (Jerrold Tarog, 2017)

‘Bliss’ cuts deep, but the victim is numb.

Early in Bliss, as an eerie atmosphere encroaches on Jane Ciego’s (Iza Calzado) world, the camera directs its gaze on a few circular objects and establishes a visual motif. A compact smoke detector hangs from a blank ceiling. The froth on a cup of coffee gathers into a disc. A desk model of an atom spins silently in perpetual motion. Bothered by distant noises in the house, the wheelchair-bound Jane roams the empty rooms; a high, circular window emits a strange glow, framing her head like a halo; she is like a saint, venerated, but trapped in limbo.

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Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2 (2016): hilarious, perceptive, timely

The sequel is a timely, self-aware parody, justified in its adoption (and adaptation) of the original film’s formula.

The proposition of Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2 is simple: to parody mainstream romances, in the same way that the original satirized the indie ‘poverty porn’. (The parody begins in the subtitle, #ForeverIsNotEnough, a tongue-in-cheek take on recent rom-coms’ fondness for hashtags.) The final product utilizes the formula established by the original, but a combination of sharp, self-conscious execution and a perfect setting for the film’s release means that Septic Tank 2, like the first film, has the potential to be effective in a manner that goes beyond the work itself.

Warning: this review shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’, both for this film and the original, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank (2011).

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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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