‘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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QCinema 2017 reviews: ‘The Chanters’, ‘Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931’, ‘Medusae’

Films tackling tradition, history and mythology.

The Chanters

The Chanters is a comedy-drama film about Sarah Mae (Jally Nae Gabaliga), a 12-year-old school girl, the granddaughter of the last chanter of the Panay Bukidnon tribe. She obsesses with pop culture and readies herself for the visit of a sensational TV star to her school. As she perfects her dance, her grandfather, Lolo Ramon (Romulo Caballero) suffers the onset of dementia. As her Lolo starts losing his precious memories, Sarah Mae is tasked to help him complete the last of the remaining 12 epics, their tribe’s vanishing tradition.

The Chanters is presented in a peculiarly narrow (approximately square) aspect ratio. This allows for appealing compositions that look unique, though not exactly cinematic. Add in the bright, pastel coloring, and what we have is a film always poised for a screen-capture, to be posted on social media for bite-sized consumption.

The Chanters uses its unique format to communicate an idea. (Towards the end, it even manipulates the aspect ratio.) That idea is about the relationship between popular and traditional cultures, between the modern and the ancient. This recalls the themes of Respeto, and like in that film this relationship is personified: in The Chanters, Sarah Mae carries the future, Lolo Ramon holds the past.

When modern and ancient cultures meet, the representation is often one of conflict, of clash: the new against the old. This is where The Chanters does something different. Here, the initial relationship between the youth and the elderly is indifference—a situation more difficult than direct competition. Sarah Mae takes a lot of selfies with her phone, documenting only herself in the process of living her daily life, all while her grandfather struggles to record, with pen on paper, their tribe’s oral epics—that memorized document of countless generations.

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When the movies were still projected from film reels

I’m old enough to recall the time when couriers still zipped between moviehouses, reels of film on their shoulders.

Since 2008’s The Dark Knight, I’ve been anticipating every Christopher Nolan film with the excitement of a teenage girl waiting for the next One Direction album. Such is my confidence in the quality of Nolan’s films that I splurged on an IMAX ticket to see his latest film, Dunkirk, without reading a review or hearing anyone’s recommendation beforehand. (Dunkirk is a film that the aforementioned teenage girl would have also looked forward to, because One Direction’s Harry Styles is in its cast.)

I had forgotten how impressive, how immense, these IMAX screens were. I plopped down on my seat and, wild-eyed, gaped at just how immersive the projected image was. The screen was alarming in its vastness, in how it covered so much of my field of vision. Dunkirk began with a scene of soldiers running from gunfire; when the camera started shaking, I worried that my eyeballs also had to jerk around so much just to follow the action on-screen. Thankfully, the rest of movie had its camerawork done in steady hands. By the end of it, I was satisfied, thinking my cash was well-spent.

Wooden sculptures of a sitting figure (a Cordilleran bulol) and a movie camera, from an exhibit by Kidlat Tahimik.
A depiction of the Cordilleran bulol as a filmmaker: detail from a Kidlat Tahimik exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, during Cinemalaya 2014. (Photo by the author.)

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Review: ‘Water Lemon’ (2015)

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

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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‘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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