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2001 Metro Manila Film Festival

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  • Noel Vera
    Three war films Noel Vera Don t you get the feeling that in this 2001 Metro Manila Film Festival, the competition is especially fierce? Okay, so Uro de la
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 27, 2001
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      Three war films

      Noel Vera

      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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