‘Instalado’: knowledge is power, and power corrupts

Despite its problematic attitude to science, and its shortcomings as a work of cinema, ‘Instalado’ is full of ideas demanding discussion.

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The release of every new Filipino science fiction film is cause for excitement, because sci-fi is such a rarity in Philippine cinema. It does not help that the mainstream attempts are often trashy—figuratively as well as literally, in the case of 2007’s Resiklo. Science fiction, or speculative fiction in general, is an engaging medium for discussing important ideas about society. The genre holds great potential for our country, where the people are addicted to escapist entertainment.

We cannot blame a lack of talent and imagination. There is in fact a wealth of excellent speculative fiction in Philippine literature, but these stories remain obscure in a nation with no particular love of reading. (We have great authors like Dean Francis Alfar, who have published stories and books in fantasy, sci-fi, magic realism and every conceivable speculative genre, not just in the Philippines but internationally.) Films, with all their pomp and celebrity, are more effective at penetrating the Filipino consciousness, and thereby is a more powerful channel for disseminating meaningful stories.

Enter Instalado, an entry to the 2017 ToFarm Film Festival. (This festival is itself a fascinating and unique project, with its dedication to the upliftment of Philippine agriculture.) The genius of Instalado is in the premise: it was a brilliant stroke of creativity for its filmmakers to have come up with a science-fiction approach on its way to joining a film festival about farming. Agriculture immediately evokes the pastoral, the rural, and indeed many entries in ToFarm are traditional dramas set in the countryside. Instalado instead recognizes that the struggles of farmers can spill down the road to the city.

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‘2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten’ (Petersen Vargas, 2016): confronting nature and nations

The power of nature and the past of a nation lurk behind this story about the volatilities of youth.

It is the late 1990s in the province of Pampanga. Several years have passed since the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that buried so many of the province’s towns under massive volumes of debris. The volcanic material combine with rainwater from perennial typhoons to produce lahar; the government builds the Megadike in an attempt to contain its destructive power.

Meanwhile, American military forces have recently evacuated the bases in Clark air field and nearby Subic Bay, partly as a result of the Pinatubo disaster, and partly as a result of political decisions by a nation asserting its sovereignty.

This is the backdrop of 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten, though the film obscures the consequences of its setting behind blithe cinematography, frames color-graded to a fresh and hopeful palette. Even the aspect ratio is an unusual 5:4. The combined visual effect evokes the nostalgia of old Kodak photos—a nostalgia that tends to summon simple, happy recollections while conveniently forgetting painful, complicated memories.

Petersen Vargas, in a limited résumé consisting of such shorts as Geography Lessons and the music video for BP Valenzuela’s Steady, has already demonstrated a distinct style before working on 2 Cool. Sometimes, as with Steady, he paints a mood through the cinematic equivalent of sweet nothings—stylized, mesmerizing visuals with no particular statements. Sometimes, as with this film, his first full-length work, he maximizes cinematic language in telling his story, while still infusing it with his unique gaze. Combine this directorial reputation with young actors capable of competent, convincing performances, and we have a compelling film in our hands.

Warning: this review presents a reading of the film, and it necessarily shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’.

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Ninoy for our times

One of the things I have learned while working at a multinational company is that the Philippines have so many holidays compared to other countries. Aside from the regular holidays, such as New Year’s Day and Christmas, the national government has made it a tradition to declare special non-working holidays for all kinds of events. Some of these have been declared as such for so many years already that many people, myself included, confuse them for regular holidays. For example, All Saints’ Day.

But other holidays appear whimsical, almost as if the government is only too happy to save Filipinos from working: count in this category the additional non-working days adjacent to the regular holidays, such as January 2 and December 26. And then there are the many local government holidays. This year, three holidays have been declared for Metro Manila on the occasion of the Pope’s visit. Two more days in November will be observed as non-working holidays for an APEC meeting (seen by many as a drastic solution to ease traffic in the metropolis while the world leaders meet).

Most tragic, however, is the realization that the original intention of these special days—to commemorate special events in the nation’s life—are lost on many Filipinos. Some of those who do remember the significance are overcome with cynicism. “Wala namang nangyayari,” they would say, drawing from the spirit of hopelessness that possesses so many Filipino citizens. For others, especially many of the youth, the holidays are just another opportunity to ‘enjoy life’. Better is the holiday that creates a long weekend than the one that does not, because it allows us to spend longer trips to the beach, or abroad.

It is imperative though, for idealistic but heartfelt reasons, that we restore the honor of our holidays by properly reflecting on their stories. We can start with today’s holiday: Ninoy Aquino Day.

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In defense of boring books

When I was still a student, I’ve heard more than one friend complain about textbooks and how they can’t wait for the break, to be done with textbooks and finally be able to read the more interesting, “meaningful” books. As a booklover myself, I understand where the sentiment is coming from, though I strongly disagree with the rant against textbooks.

The defendant in this unfortunate case is the type of book that is cited in college course introductions, the kind of book that straight-faced, soft-spoken academics would enjoin their new students to get a copy of. (And they’re invariably expensive, so the resourceful student might go hunting for the requirement in Morayta and Recto; but, more likely in this day and time, the student will just look for a pirated PDF copy to download to his laptop or tablet, or to be copied from a friend’s USB stick.) The textbook is the usually-thick tome with the straightforward title, such as “Sociology,” or “Financial Accounting,” or “Film Art”. And while the non-textbook forgoes rigidity, being simply divided into chapters, the textbook is often crazy about structure: divided into sections, chapters, and sub-chapters; is decorated with boxes and sidebars; and often has end-of-chapter reviews, summaries, and exercises. The overloaded textbook wants it all, prose and poetry.

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