‘Citizen Jake’ is not a movie

It is not journalism either, but, by bending fiction, it moves towards the same goal: a presentation of the truth.

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Citizen Jake is billed as a film about the present political landscape of the Philippines, but there is no news in what it reveals: politicians are corrupt, judges are unjust, dissenters suffer harassment, women struggle with patriarchy, and the poor remain powerless. It does not attempt to make its own politics neutral: the film is blatantly anti-Marcos, and for that reason it is bound to be denounced by citizens of certain convictions. In one scene depicting the everyday corruption of a low-ranking law enforcer, the camera pans to momentarily highlight the Duterte posters displayed outside his house.

There is no news either in this film’s plot of political intrigue, crimes and conspiracies. Jake Herrera (Atom Araullo), a former professional journalist, now teacher and blogger-cum-‘citizen journalist’, is waging a personal war against social evils while struggling with his familial relationships to the very kind of corrupt politician he is crusading against. There is nothing particularly surprising in its story and the verbal and visceral violence that comes with it. When Citizen Jake manages to say something intriguing, something that finally feels fresh, it is when it veers away from the overtly political, as when Jake contemplates his friendship with a household servant.

But while Citizen Jake’s politics is predictable, and most of its insights familiar and conventional, the way it presents them is not. In the opening scene, Jake speaks to the camera, introducing the film as a story enhanced by the techniques of Cinema. Early on, commenting on the setting of Baguio City, there is a history lecture presented through a slide show of old photographs. Throughout the story there are narrative interludes enhanced by intertitles that echo words from the voice-over, stark white on a black background, looking like newspaper headlines, or protest slogans. Supporting characters are often presented in quick cut scenes, portrait-style, with the actors looking straight into the camera—looking straight at you, the audience. Citizen Jake even has a montage of its own behind-the-scenes footage, showing the actors surrounded by cameras, microphones, lighting set-ups and the crew. This film is fictional, but it is often presented as if it were a documentary.

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‘Delia & Sammy’: despicable seniors

Delia and Sammy, the caricaturish anti-heroes, are obnoxious, devious bullies. Still, in the end, we find them endearing.

People do not just turn into saints when they grow old, a character says halfway through Delia & Sammy. She says it to justify the coldness she displays towards her uncle and aunt-in-law, but it is also a concise expression of what the film depicts throughout its story. It challenges what our society teaches the youth—that we should respect the elderly without question.

At first blush, there seems to be no reason for us to deny the protagonists—the titular characters—our full sympathies. Delia, proudly and sharply portrayed by Rosemarie Gil, is a former actress who avoids public transportation, perhaps because she does not want to be seen mingling with the masses, or perhaps because she does not want people pitying her and her faded career. She has cancer, and learns she has not much time left to live. Her husband Sammy—a mostly hilarious but terrifying, and also heartbreaking, Jaime Fabregas—is a once-formidable disciplinarian, now chronically ill and forgetful. The first time we see him, he has just wet himself, and is scolded by Delia for ruining his pants.

Soon, however, we see that this couple is not as pitiable as their circumstances suggest—not that they demand sympathy. They are too proud for that. Sammy is often aloof, wide-eyed, and confused by his creeping dementia, but at the slightest glimpse of ladies—nurses and doctors at the hospital, a provocative woman at an inn, teenagers at a bus stop—he would revert to his creepy, teasing and womanizing ways, much to Delia’s chagrin. At other times, when something displeases him, he would snap back into his severe, disciplinarian self, smacking hapless strangers with his cane. That is the trichotomy of his personality: if he is not confused, he could only be creepy, or cruel.

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‘Women of the Weeping River’: harmony and conflict, grief and forgiveness

Rivers are the arteries of nature, coursing through the flesh of landscapes with life-giving water. But in war-torn lands, they carry a further burden: they run with tears and blood, and like veins they drain scarred countries of mournful spirits.

In Women of the Weeping River, such a river is the meeting place between lands disputed by two clans. The anguished Satra Mustafa (Laila Ulao)—daughter, sister, mother, and widow—once comes to this river seeking refuge, immersing herself in its waters as if to cleanse herself of grief.

The river cuts through the middle of the conflicted lands, evoking dualities of life and death, war and peace, past and present. Indeed, the geography of the film mirrors that word we hear many times from the lips of its characters—harmony. The land that gives and takes, the country that is both the spring of wealth and the source of struggle for its people, is rendered here with reverence, the camera capturing the mystic and mythic images of sacred grounds. There is harmony in the blend between the countryside setting of most of the film (in the forests, rivers, plains and mountains of the Philippine south), and the intervening scenes set in the city (with a focus on the bustle and density of urban life).

Harmony, however, is a product of balance as much as of tension. In Women of the Weeping River, this is already explicit in the struggle between the feuding clans, but a deeper tension comes from the conflict between an individual and her society.

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‘What Home Feels Like’: finding unhappiness in the good life

With admirable restraint, the film shows that the Filipino Dream is not enough for happiness.

The first version of the Filipino Dream is indistinguishable from the American Dream, because many Filipinos would not think twice of any opportunity to migrate to a wealthy land of opportunities, or indeed any land where the government is known to care for its residents. The version of the Filipino dream for those who do stay is nevertheless an imitation of the American Dream, in its materialistic vision of middle-class comfort: a house, a car, and children with college degrees. Ironically, the common means for achieving this dream is, still, migration—overseas work, where the father or mother, or both, sails abroad for a living, sacrificing the chance to watch their children grow up, to share in their troubles, to attend their graduation ceremonies. Such is the Filipino diaspora.

What Home Feels Like, an entry to the 2017 ToFarm Film Festival, is a patient portrayal of precisely what its title suggests. The question that follows is, what kind of home is it? It lets us know in the very first scene. Antonio (Bembol Roco), a seaman, is calling home to his family in the Philippines, telling his son Julius (Rex Lantano) mundane details of his work onboard a ship. When he asks about Alison (Bianca Libinting), Julius rushes out to fetch his twin sister, leaving the phone receiver open. Antonio continues to speak on the line: frustrated, he says he is running out of credits, and eventually the connection is cut. The camera holds still for a quiet minute or so. From what little we see on the frame, a well-adorned piece of furniture, we can guess that they have a beautiful, middle-class house, built through the labors of a distant father—who finds it difficult to communicate with the very family he built the house for.

Warning: this review discusses plot.

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‘Sa Aking Mga Kamay’ (1996): the dual faces of crime and passion

The ‘Cattleya Killer’ thriller is intriguing for Aga Muhlach’s atypical casting, and satisfying for its intelligent writing.

In my recollection of the 1990s, a decade I had the questionable fortune of experiencing as a young kid, Filipino movies were generally of two types. They were either silly comedies that invariably included song-and-dance numbers at the beach, or drama-action flicks that were almost always about crime. The Philippines in the 90s was a society obsessed with crime; it had a dual fascination and dread for the drama and tragedy of heinous violence. Kidnappings and massacres (and frequent brown-outs) filled the news, and filmmakers responded by repackaging these horrifying stories for the silver screen. (Before the decade ended, audience-voters apparently also responded by electing a swashbuckling former movie star into the presidency.)

Sa Aking Mga Kamay (literally: In My Hands), a 1996 Star Cinema picture, fits perfectly into this latter category of my simplistic classification of 1990s Filipino cinema. But what sets it apart—its unique selling proposition—is its featuring of Aga Muhlach “not doing a pretty boy thing,” as a friend put it. Now, Aga Muhlach was quite the household name back then, the actor having enjoyed the status relished these days by, say, Dingdong Dantes. (Although I make such delicate comparisons only approximately, lest some pundits get mad at me). Muhlach was the premier leading man of the time, pairing off with such ladies as Dayanara Torres and Lea Salonga, and therefore to see him play a psychopathic serial killer is a true novelty.

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