Utang ni Tatang (Daddy's Debt)
- Oedipal complex
And the Manila Film Festival is off to a less-than glorious start with an
odd misfire from Jon Red, brother of Cannes Palm d'Or winner Raymond Red.
"Utang ni Tatang" stars Joel Torre, Ronnie Lazaro, Jeffrey Quizon, and a few
others as a group of friends who are suddenly called together to go seek out
"Tatang" (Father, or some father figure) and, in response to some mysterious
debt he owes them, kill him. They go out in a pink jeepney (a kind of
bastardized version of the American jeep, often used for public
transportation) and sort of, well, wander around the Filipino countryside
(mainly Tarlac, Pampanga), generally gunning down strangers when they're not
wooing past girlfriends or sitting in some public toilet, defecating.
And that's the movie, more or less. A few men in a pink jeepney. Wandering
the countryside. Gunning people down. Defecating (For variety's sake they
sometimes break wind). There are stretches of rock music to keep one awake,
though more often the score sounds like someone on an electric guitar
strumming thoughtfully. There are moments of visual
inventiveness--slow-motion and fast-motion sequences, as if the picture was
a go-cart the filmmaker was trying out on the speedway of life.
Jon Red, who wrote and directed the film, directed possibly the first-ever
Filipino digital video feature, "Still Lives," about a robbery gone wrong
(shades of Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs"--which, in turn, was stolen
from Ringo Lam's "City on Fire"), shot entirely from a single camera set-up,
in one corner of the robbers' apartment. It's a fairly clever enough
conceit, though Red does cheat a little by using dissolves (he could easily
have done the film on a single take) and by inserting hilarious parodies on
anti-drug commercials. It's also puzzling that Red chooses a format--the
digital video--of which one of the main selling points is mobility and
flexibility, then locks the camera down for the duration of the film.
Ultimately "Still Lives" is a thin student's exercise laboring under
Tarantino's shadow (which is ironic, since Tarantino has to stand on the
shoulders of filmmakers he cribbed ideas from to actually cast a shadow).
In at least one respect "Utang" is an improvement over "Still Lives"--the
camera isn't locked down. Red does show an eye--he shoots through grills
and wooden slats whenever he can, and his lighting doesn't have the
overbright quality of the glossiest Viva Studios productions. Again, of
course, it's a style largely borrowed from Tarantino, from music videos, and
from their endless clones and mutated descendants--Guy Richie, David
Fincher, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ("Amorres Perros"), Erik Matti, Yam
Laranas, and now, apparently, Jon Red.
And looming over all--with feet planted not on anyone's shoulders but on
solid ground--is Jean-Luc Godard. It was one of Godard's maxims (the one
about a film needing a beginning, middle, end, but not necessarily in that
order) that inspired Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." It was Godard's jump-cuts
and ellipses and various gimmicks (like titles and Brechtian devices and
surreal imagery), that was the foundation of Tarantino's (and Richie's; and
Inarritu's; and MTV's; and so on and so forth?) storytelling style. And
above all, it was Godard's attitude that these younglings adopted--that
ironic, skeptical, above-it-all stance, half put-on, half Sage of Wisdom,
with casual nudity and violence and revolutionary philosophy thrown in for
spice. Jon Red is the latest piece of evidence of just how thoroughly
Godard rewrote the language of cinema; he's also the latest piece of
evidence of how, so many years later, Godard is still practically the only
fluent speaker of that language?
Jeffrey Quizon, who seems to be the darling of "Young-Turk" filmmakers (he
starred in Yam Laranas' "Radyo") delivers the most overt acting--if he's not
freaking out, he's looking at some girl with an expression of pained
anguish. Quizon gave an equally over-the-top performance in "Radyo," and
can be seen primping and flirting away in Gil Portes' "Markova: Comfort
Gay." Maybe it's not that he overacts per se, but that he's given such poor
scripts to act upon; whatever the reason, he still has to prove that he's
inherited any dramatic talent from his father (the legendary comedian
Dolphy) and not his father's lesser talent for hamming.
Ronnie Lazaro gapes and glares and pretty much tries his level best to act
as if he's in a comedy (which, actually, he is), but his efforts are
constantly sabotaged by Red's limp editing (Red would start with a vulgar
joke--a funny one--then seem to stall on a shot, usually lovingly composed
and lit, keeping it there for several minutes, unable to cut away from the
sheer beauty of it all?). Lazaro, who made an impact on Philippine cinema
with his leading role in Tikoy Aguiluz's "Boatman," has had an interesting
career as of late: he stood out as the only vivid figure (a Muslim
patriarch) in Marilou Diaz Abaya's otherwise muddled "Bagong Buwan" (New
Moon), and he made a menacing communist leader in Lav Diaz's intriguing
"Hesus Rebolusyunaryo" (Jesus the Revolutionary).
Joel Torre gives the most relaxed--hence, most distinctive--performance in
the film; aside from having the longest screen time, his character also has
the most to lose: a wife and son waiting for him back home. Torre the actor
has also had an interesting career in independent films, perhaps the most
obviously successful of the three--he plays Philippine national hero Jose
Rizal in Mike De Leon's "Bayaning Third World" (Third World Hero), and plays
the main role of police officer investigating the murder of a
Filipino-American boy in Lav Diaz's "Batang West Side" (West Side Avenue).
All three are talented, all three have shown in their past films that
they're willing to take risks, go where no Filipino film has ever gone
before?if only Red had written a script that actually went anywhere. As it
is, the entire cast is lost in some kind of provincial Twilight Zone, with
rock music (or at least a strumming electric guitar) playing in the
background. Is "Utang ni Tatang" worth watching? I'd say yes, despite
everything, if you want to see the kind of look Red can create with a
feature-film budget, and how he's able to light his actors (Torre, Lazaro,
Quizon) in a fascinating style, shadowy and expressive at the same time. And
maybe you can answer a question I've been asking since I saw the film--just
what WAS the debt Tatang owes those men? Was it money? Payback for abuse
inflicted way back in childhood? A particularly stinging Pampanguenan
insult? Or is it that old Freudian curse, of the son always needing to rise
up and kill the father...the way Red and all his mutated brothers are rising
up to choke the memory of their spiritual father, Godard? One wonders.
(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
Get your FREE download of MSN Explorer at http://explorer.msn.com/intl.asp.