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Utang ni Tatang (Daddy's Debt)

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  • Noel Vera
    Oedipal complex Noel Vera 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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 14, 2002
      Oedipal complex

      Noel Vera

      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@...)

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