2001 Metro Manila Film Festival
- Three war films
Don't you get the feeling that in this 2001 Metro Manila Film Festival, the
competition is especially fierce? Okay, so Uro de la Cruz's "Bahay Ni Lola"
(Grandmother's House) will largely be considered a horror film, Chito Rono's
"Yamashita Treasure" a big-budget adventure film and the Mikey Arroyo
vehicle a concession to President Macapagal-Arroyo's son, who apparently
dreams of becoming an actor (dream on, Mikey). But there are at least three
entries in the festival that seem meant to be taken as actual quality fare:
Tikoy Aguiluz's "Tatarin" (Summer Solstice); Joel Lamangan's "Hubog" (A
Woman's Curve), and Marilou Diaz Abaya's "Bagong Buwan" (The New Moon).
Lamangan's "Hubog" trods very familiar territory: the war between the haves
and have-nots, between the oppressors and the oppressed. Assunta de Rossi
plays kept woman to Jay Manalo, while taking care of her retarded sister
(real-life sister Alessandra); her real love, however, is played by Wendell
Ramos. Rossi occupies herself for a time with trying to find out who has
sexually abused her younger sister; when she does find out, Manalo gamely
has the offender beaten up and killed. Later, Ramos offers to take Rossi
and her sister away with him; all hell breaks loose when they escape, with
lots of yelling, shrieking, and poorly staged action sequences, including a
barely coherent car chase.
Adding to the interest (or rather puzzlement) is a subplot involving former
President Joseph Estrada's sympathizers--how they were seduced, organized,
and ultimately betrayed. Ostensibly, this is the political background
against which de Rossi's sexual dramas are played out, but the two stories
have so little to do with each other that you wonder what they are doing in
the same movie theater--were the reels mixed up, or something? Estrada's
diehard supporters and the way they cling to their illusions in the face of
all facts are a fascinating enough group to merit a movie all their own;
this rather crude portrait, complete with a suicide bomber on loan from the
Taliban, hardly does them justice.
Which is a pity; Lamangan's hugely emotional heart is in the right place,
and he himself has lived through enough experiences to warrant a biopic or
two...but his enthusiasms often get the better of his storytelling sense and
as a result, his pictures get swamped. Lamangan needs more objectivity,
more of the ability to step back and ruthlessly decide what he should or
should not put in his movies.
When this actually happens, however, I may end up having mixed feelings. I
suspect that this heedless, headstrong determination of Lamangan to
communicate what he feels is what moves his films--if we lose that driven
quality in favor of some coherence, we may lose the heart of what makes his
films so alive.
Marilou Diaz Abaya's "Bagong Buwan" on the other hand, is about a literal
war, the longstanding one being fought in Mindanao. It's about Cesar
Montano as a Muslim doctor, called home to his village because his son was
killed. Montano decides the best thing for the community to do is pack up
and look for a refugee camp, which they do; along the way, they pick up a
Christian boy whose companions died in a raid, and promise to take him back
to his parents.
This is Filipino filmmaking at its most earnest, and if sincerity and
nobility of purpose were enough to make a film great, this would be a great
film; they aren't, and this, unfortunately, isn't.
The film would like you to think it's informing you on the issues involved
in Mindanao (which, incidentally, was the film's original title). Well and
good, if you happened to have lived in a cave all your life, but anyone else
within reading distance of a newspaper, or hearing distance of a television
or radio set would already know that things aren't going well in that
troubled island. What's more urgently needed is a way of breaking through
the apathy, of tearing away the scabs so that the wounds bleed afresh.
What's needed is a way of making us care again about an old and apparently
incurable issue, by the simple means of using imagination and storytelling
The film would like you to think it's introducing you to Muslim culture but
it isn't, not really; it's introducing you to a politically correct way of
viewing Muslim culture. It's a whitewash view, much as Kevin Costner's
"Dances with Wolves" was a whitewash view of American Indian
culture--presenting them as harmlessly colorful and picturesque folks. Just
like you and me, only wearing bandanas and veils. Muslim culture is much
more complex than that, their faith as flawed and as finely wrought as our
own Catholicism. True understanding only comes with complete
understanding--with seeing them in the round, virtues and vices intact.
The film would like you to think that it's well made, and it is, up to a
certain point--the sound is crisp and clear, the photography and production
design excellent (they have a real tank, and even a real helicopter--which
refused, however, to land or even come close). More important than these,
however (which can be achieved with a lot of money--possibly as much as
thirty million pesos' worth), is the filmmaking talent to do battle scenes;
and while director Marilou Diaz-Abaya is a talented filmmaker overall, her
war sequences are wretchedly staged and shot--a serious weakness, I think,
especially when you're doing a war movie. To be fair to her, Lino Brocka
and Ishmael Bernal are two of the Philippines' greatest filmmakers, and I
don't think they could direct action sequences worth a damn, either.
Finally, the film would like you to think that it is new and unique when it
isn't--another film made recently that also showed the ravages of war on
innocent civilians was Mario O'Hara's "Pangarap ng Puso" set in the Negros
islands. "Pangarap" does everything "Bagong Buwan" fails to do. It uses
imagination (a combination of magic realism and poetry) and old-fashioned
storytelling (a moving love story) to make its audience care about the
issues; it looks at its characters "in the round," with their flaws and
virtues inextricably linked; and it is a piece of well-done filmmaking (in
terms of skill, not size of budget). It did all this earlier, and it did it
all for a mere 3 million pesos.
The standout by far among the three, I think, is Tikoy Aguiluz's "Tatarin."
Based on Nick Joaquin's play "Summer Solstice," the film is about the oldest
and longest-running war known to man, the war between the sexes. Joaquin's
problem then was how to make this war relevant again to jaded audiences (the
play was written in 1975); his solution was to set the play in the 1920s,
when male-dominated Western Culture was just beginning to tremble.
Aguiluz's adoption of Joaquin's stratagem is, I think, a smart move--this
way he captures the very roots of the war (or at least of the 20th century
edition of the war) as waged by our grandparents and great-grandparents; he
photographs the combatants at a time when the battle is still urgent and
raw, the stakes desperately high.
And the battle lines are drawn, of course, around a married couple--Don
Paeng and Dona Lupe Moreta (Edu Manzano and Dina Bonnevie), on the evening
of the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, on the third night of the
"Tatarin"--a pagan ritual where for three days out of the year women hold
ascendancy over men.
I can't think of a better Filipino filmmaker than Aguiluz to evoke the
living past--especially in a production like this, where immersion in a
long-gone age is crucial to the success of the film. Combining the
considerable resources of Viva Studios (which are usually poured into banal
glamour productions) with his keen documentary filmmaker's eye, Aguiluz
(with the help of production designer Dez Bautista) evokes the remarkably
authentic, miraculously detailed world of the Moretas--from the flourmill
that produces their dried noodles, to the 1920s-style kitchen hard at work
on dinner, to the luxuriously appointed family mansions with their
incredible painted ceilings. And it's not just a matter of having an
enormous production budget; it's the intelligence to pick out this
particular detail, the wit to shoot from that particular angle--then the
judiciousness to cut it all up so that you only glance at the images, and
are left wanting more.
But more than the ability to recreate a historical period, Aguiluz (again,
with the help of writer Ricky Lee and editor Mirana Medina) is able to
streamline Joaquin's play, to focus on the struggle between Don Paeng and
Dona Lupe. The three have tinkered with Joaquin's married couple, made
delicate adjustments, crucial revisions--the Moretas, for one, have lost all
warmth and affection for each other, where in the play they still show signs
of tenderness. Don Paeng has become a psychologically immobile, sexually
impotent monster (kudos to Edu Manzano for the courage to portray such a
thoroughly unlikable man) while Dona Lupe (Dina Bonnevie, in possibly the
performance of her career) has become more submissive, more withdrawn (the
better to highlight the climactic reversal when it comes).
Then there is the dialogue, which has been pruned, made less explicit, made
more functional than decorative. Besides the careful pruning, Aguiluz
manages to locate the drama in the moments when words are not
spoken--through shots that encapsulate in a single image the tension of the
scene, like the one where Dona Lupe's foot is kissed by Guido (Carlos
Morales), with Don Paeng watching from the balcony. Don Paeng, the shot
says to us, is ascendant by virtue of his standing in the balcony, but is
also rendered remote and helpless by the distance.
Then the "Tatarin" ritual itself. Moved offstage in the play, the ritual
occupies center stage in the film: a wordless, ten-minute orgy of pulsing
drumbeat, flaring torches and convulsing women. Aguiluz wanted the sense of
a real location turned theater set, and he got it--the dance, staged at the
foot of an actual balete tree, feels nightmarish, surreal. And
obscene--though nudity is at a minimum, there is no lack of lewdness to the
drumming and dancing, which at times is reduced to frank rutting. "Pagan"
is a polite and inadequate term for what happens at the foot of the balete
"Tatarin" feels more lighthearted than Aguiluz's earlier works, if only
because he doesn't end the film with a life-or-death situation (meaning: the
protagonist didn�t die). More, it's the first really comic film Aguiluz has
ever directed, and he handles the material with admirable lightness and
vigor. One of the best Filipino films of the year, and my vote for best of
the festival, hands down.
(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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