2011: The Year in Filipino Films

It’s a proclamation that heralds a new hope for the Philippine film industry: 2011 has been a pretty good year for Filipino films. Whether it’s the triumph of films like Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington over mindlessly offensive big studio productions, the success of Cinemalaya 7, or the spilling of independent filmmakers into the mainstream, these signs of life are indicative of a growing audience awareness that there is more to local cinema than formula films (read: taking a teenybopper love team to a banner movie with a title from a song that’s sure to be in every karaoke machine).

Apart from Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, and Cinemanila, smaller film festivals were also held this year, including Khavn’s .MOV Film Festival, which paid tribute to Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, and Sine Rehiyon, which proved that filmmaking is alive and well in different parts of the Philippines. The Metro Manila Film Festival proved to be the cinematic claptrap that it still is, with this year’s entries just as mind-baffling a display of big studio mind-fuckery as last year’s were. They also continued their indie/new breed category, which ran for almost a week but featured such hackneyed films with only one or two deserving to be seen.

The closing of Mogwai Cinematheque dismayed many, with rumors saying that it was all because of managerial dispute. But other film screening venues also cropped up, such as John Torres and Shireen Seno’s As In Shop and Jewel Maranan and co.’s Cinema is Incomplete. Both venues have no door charge and only ask you to share your love for local cinema. Up north, there’s Baguio Cinematheque, which screens both classic and contemporary masterworks of Philippine cinema.

Local films have also made it to several international film festivals. Auraeus Solito’s Busong(Palawan Fate) opened at Cannes Director’s Fortnight. Adolf Alix’s Isda (Fable of the Fish) and Lav Diaz’s six-hour opus, Siglo ng Pagluwal (Century of Birthing), both had their international premieres in the Toronto International Film Festival. Alvin Yapan’s Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (The Dance of Two Left Feet), Loy Arcenas’s Niño and Jeffrey Jeturian’s Bisperas(Eve) all garnered accolades in several international film festivals.

The largely praised box office smash hit Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank) by Marlon Rivera emerged as, what one film critic calls, “the indie film for those who don’t usually watch indie films”. Its cinematic misgivings however displeased many, hitting all the wrong spots in a culture where envy is a common mark of trade.

This year’s crop of Filipino films certainly yielded an encouraging result, enough to persuade us to devote an entire list for them.

10. X-Deal (Lawrence Fajardo)

That silhouette of John Hall’s massive erection means serious business. After the death of agricultural bomb flicks and the rise of gay sexploitation films, X-Deal’s sexual games and statement tee-worthy one liners (“Masama bang pagpahingahin ang kepyas ko?”) give us a new perspective on the dominance and volatility of the femal psyche. And hey, it’s not every day that we get a lead character that blogs for a living.

9. Isda (Fable of the Fish, Adolf Alix Jr.)

It’s a plot that could have turned for the worse: a mother (Cherry Pie Picache) believing that the fish she apparently gave birth to is her real son, a gift from God. The film’s strange sense of humor doesn’t cloud the point that this is a mother struggling her way through the strife, battling insurmountable odds without losing her sanity in the first place. Driven by Picache’s heartbreaking performance as a woman on the verge, Isda questions the normalcies of motherhood which in the end boils down to the need to love and be loved.

8. Sakay sa Hangin (Windblown, Regiben Romana)

Just like Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s sea-faring charmer, Alamar (To The Sea), Sakay sa Hanginblurs the line between truth and fiction. Romana gives us a sublimely engaging immersion to the music and rituals of the Talaandig tribe where a simple crafting of a flute or a guitar transcends the mythic and the conflict brewing around them. Sakay sa Hangin prods us to think that our country is far larger than what our school textbooks have taught us and that music will always be the universal vessel of peace.

7. Buenas Noches, Espana (Raya Martin)

The nuances of history hide in the flickering colors of Buenas Noches, España. Its seemingly endless loop of images exacts the inherent difficulties of our past, forcing us to grapple along with its shifts and meanderings. Owel Alvero and Pat Sarabia’s skittering soundscape serves as the film’s ignition point, using a map where teleportation and Juan Luna paintings form a pocket guide to our history’s netherworld.

6. Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (The Dance of Two Left Feet, Alvin Yapan)

Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa glides in elegant rhythms, dispelling the shackles of gender roles and artistic notions through the subtle guidance of the poetry of dance and glances teeming with possibilities. More than an unspoken love affair between its two leads (Paulo Avelino and Rocco Nacino), what Sayaw distills is an understanding of the place of art in our society and how we form and break values and traditions based on its heavy-handed maneuverings.

5. Big Boy (Shireen Seno)

Big Boy ebbs and flows like the static hum of our own memories. Parcels of recollections flood its stream of consciousness, where faces and voices dissolve and become disembodied. What unravels is a complex mapping of our own past and how we are led, however broken-limbed, to the present. Shireen Seno’s debut film sifts through unreliability that provokes our shattered reminiscences, evoking a hazy trip into the blueprint of our dreams.

4. Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Zombadings 1: Kill Remington with Fear, Jade Castro)

It happened. An upending of a woolly mammoth, proving that Filipino moviegoers are capable of flocking to a film with a solid story, little known stars and non-formula shtick. Zombadings 1 is born out of a sincere desire of the filmmakers to craft a film that challenges our cinematic perceptions while mining pressing issues (gay discrimination) that are put aside by banal big studio releases where life is always fluffy and ends with the swelling of a second-hand theme song. Through the guise of comedy and horror Zombadings 1 becomes a triumph in many different ways. And most of all, it makes audiences think, prodding them to reassess their pre-conceived (mostly Catholicized) ideas about homosexuality and how gay men and women shape our society as we know it.

3. Tundong Magiliw (Tundo Beloved, Jewel Maranan)

Tundong Magiliw’s strength is its refusal to ram the shitty side of slum dwelling down the audience’s throats. As a continuing documentary, the film unfolds precariously, taking time to familiarize itself into the life of a family deadlocked into Tondo’s inescapable labyrinth. It finds life in the family’s most intimate moments, as they chuckle at Hilary Clinton’s most controversial moments and construct films of their own through covers of pirated DVDs. Tundong Magiliwshows us that there is more to Tundo than its decades-old notoriety and that these people are just like us, looking for something to hold on to in the unlikeliest of places.

2. Lawas Kan Pinabli (Forever Loved, Christopher Gozum)

Lawas Kan Pinabli opens with a case of hopelessness: a statistic saying that an estimated six million documented and one million undocumented migrant Filipino workers are scattered all over the world and some four thousand more join their ranks every day. What follows is a bitter picture of the lives of overseas Filipino workers abroad. But instead of depicting OFWs in the usual light, as the new heroes of this era, Lawas Kan Pinabli shows how the hardships of some of our fellowmen abroad are mostly due to their own making.

Christopher Gozum paints two sides of the picture, presenting interviews with real OFWs (Gozum himself is an OFW working in the Middle East), detailing the ordeals that they went through, and discussions with OFW group leaders offering insights about the laws and regulations that Filipinos should abide to while working abroad, or at least in the middle east. Knowingly breaking rules and traversing ethical and cultural standards with reckless abandon, these Filipinos deal with realities that are far bigger than simply just realizing their dreams of giving their families the lives that they deserve.

1. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone)

What else is there to say about Antoinette Jadaone’s brilliant, meta-loving film about the most famous but nameless extra in Philippine cinema? A lot, really, especially on how it encapsulates the Filipino Dream into the life of its lead actress. But what we should mention is how it deserves to be seen by every Filipino, especially those who grew up with the toothless face of ‘Nay Lilia stalking them in their dreams after watching the Halloween edition ofMagandang Gabi Bayan or re-runs of Filipino horror films.

Taking a chance on an actress who is used to slinking into roles that demand mere minutes (or even seconds) of screen time, Jadaone creates a fascinating study of celebrity culture and how a community builds itself around a person who has represented their dreams of making it big one day. But more importantly, Six Degrees stems from a sincere, gimmick-free desire to recognize the life and legacy of an actress who has worked out of an earnest passion for the craft that she has dedicated herself in all her life.

Honorable Mentions: Mapang-akit (John Torres), Mga Anino sa Tanghaling Tapat (Ivy Universe Baldoza), Elehiya sa Bumibisita Mula sa Himagsikan (Lav Diaz), Boundary (Benito Bautista), Niño (Loy Arcenas), Busong (Auraeus Solito)

Originally published on Pelikula Tumblr 

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Wishlist: Impossible

In some ways, every wishlist is grounded by a certain degrees of impossibility. By its root word alone, the term “wishlist” already hints at something that is beyond the grasp of the person writing it, made in the hope that by some magical stroke of luck (which, more often than not means a genie will actually appear with a grant of three wishes) will make them come true, no strings attached.

The prevalence of ‘wishlists’ or ‘gift-guides’ on Facebook, Twitter or other blogging platforms say something about the our hopes this Yuletide season. Populated by expensive titles, hard-to-find goods or tough-to-order DIY finds on the Internet that you can actually make yourself in just under an hour (assuming you have the creativity and willpower to do it, something that exists in about 2% of our ADD-riddled population), these lists are only aspirational, meaning they’re good to be put out there but the chances of getting any of them are almost non-existent.

Wishlists are easy to make: they are customizable and they are the exact reflection of the list-maker’s personality. They provide a cursory glance into a person’s perspective whether they’re a materialistic cave dweller or someone who just really wants world peace above anything else, like a true beauconera.

So here’s a wishlist, in its simpliest sense. But getting one of them would mean the world to me.

Liz Lemon, eating her feelings since 1970.

1. Be like Liz Lemon

First: the absence of boobs, or the entire make-up of the female chromosome. Second: 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon is a fictional character. Although loosely based on creator Tina Fey (who, according to Family Guy, is better than Jesus), and her experiences in working at Saturday Night Live, there is still a twinge of hyper-reality that pervades her personality. She is the all out kook: she lords it over a bunch of nerds, has a good, non-sexual working relationship with her boss, and has a persistent eating disorder (read: the compulsion to eat her feelings). But she is what I aspire to be, primarily because she has the unerring capacity to produce stellar work under tough conditions (i.e., nutty cast, misbehaving crew) and ridiculous deadlines.  And she can do all this while still maintaining her wicked sense of humor (the most important thing in the whole world, next to a stash of chocolate bars on your bedside in times of midnight emotional crisis).

Pretties: the Criterion Collection's spines make for a pretty living room display.

2. The first 100 Criterion DVDs

Criterion DVDs have been called ‘film schools in a box’ boasting impeccable designs, high-quality transfers and well-researched scholarly notes. Getting the first 100 Criterion DVDs is a mean feat: some of them are out of print, not to mention expensive. Some of the out of print editions include Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (the first Criterion DVD), Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville, John Woo’s The Killer and Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop.

$800 worth of tuning forks: The Ultimate Edition of Bjork's Biophilia

3.  The Ultimate Edition of Bjork’s Biophilia

Sure, Bjork’s latest album Biophilia isn’t the best album of the year but it’s certainly the most ambitious. This musical project (note the term ‘project’) is an intensive study of music and its relationship with the universe. It is partly recorded using an iPad and was released in a series of apps for each of the songs which enhance the listening experience. Biophilia also includes concerts, workshops and new instruments specifically commissioned for the album. The Ultimate Edition boasts a pricetag of $812 (P36,000+) so there goes its impossibility. It includes a lacquered and silk-screened oak hinged case with a beautifully designed, cloth-covered, thread-sewn Biophilia manual and ten chrome-plated tuning forks  adjusted to the tone of each of the album’s tracks and covering a complete octave in a non-conventional scale. I don’t know what that really means but I want it, badly.

Zombies kick big-studio butt: Jade Castro's Zombadings was a big triumph in the box office this year. You can order the DVD online through zombadings.com

4. A discerning local film industry

The triumph of Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (out now on DVD) proves that an independently-produced, high quality film can triumph over stale-shoddily produced studio films at the box office. It was a David and Goliath scenario: the film didn’t have big stars as leads but Zombadings stayed in the theaters for more than a month. A few months later, the hopes for better films to go out in the market dwindled again, with films like Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa and Bahay Bata obscured by bigger but dreadfully banal local film releases. Big production studios should realize that audiences can flock to a good film that really has a story worth telling.

In Anatomiya ng Korupsiyon, Maricar Reyes plays Cely , an optimistic lawyer who hopes to get rid of the corruption that plagues the family court she works in.

5. A corruption-free society

Just writing that down made me laugh like a lunatic. But really, hoping for this is like asking God to restructure his blueprint of the universe. I’m exaggerating, of course but it seems that every year, the hopes of getting rid of corruption dwindles. It’s a game of cynicism, one that bears the same provenance as the plight of the central character Cely in Dennis Marasigan’s film Anatomiya ng Korupsiyon. Her awareness of the corruption surrounding her has only fuelled her desire to get rid of it, turning down bribes in her line of work whenever she can. But her case is hopeless: corruption has penetrated every inch of her workplace (a family court) and battling it isn’t as easy, especially when everyone, even your boss, is against you.

But really Santa, all I want for Christmas is a commercial release of Antoinette Jadaone's Six Degrees of Separation From Lilia Cuntapay.

But really Santa, if all of this is too much to ask, all I really want for Christmas really is a commercial release for Six Degrees of Separation From Lilia Cuntapay. Antoinette Jadaone’s mockumentary on local cinema’s “pinakamakasaysayang extra“, Lilia Cuntapay (the old lady who’s typecast as an aswang, witch or white lady) deserves to be seen by every Filipino.

Published on December 17, 2011, The Philippine Star, Special Features (P M1-2)

Vespertine (Big Boy, 2011)

Big Boy is a suitcase of memories, a water tank of images and sound that floats and floods our consciousness triggered by sigils. As flickering as they may seem, these images wait in our heads, swirling, cascading. A train of pearls, cabin by cabin. We insist in cocooning into these vespers of our own triumphs, engaging in little details that stretch into segments of our lifelong struggle to establish our identities.

But time, partnered with our own recollections can be tricky. Voices become disembodied, faces are worn down, parcels are fabricated, patched, in an attempt to prevent dissolve. They wear us up, we wear them down. Director Shireen Seno uses a bevy of devices to depict the slow show of memory: asynchronous dialogue, a rain of random images, vague dream-like sequences with Lynchian sharpness (dotted by balls of torch-fires, a burning emblem of bookmarks). The use of Super 8 only reinforces the unreliability of memory. Images become fuzzy as we go along, the sides are eaten by the decay of time but the core is still there, beating, brewing.

Childhood goes on forever, Big Boy insists. And we believe. We are trapped in the rituals of growing up: afternoon naps, fights inspired by komiks gangs, swallowing bitter concoctions, losing friends, the thrill of discovery and the threat of the real world. A blueprint of pleasures. And like the pared-down demo version of The Strangeness’s ”Cain Was Furious and He was Downcast,” Big Boy is a long sigh from an afternoon of recollection. The rocking chair sways and we listen to a cadence of words, forming images to go along with it.

Childhood with Invisible Serpents

These are nighttime tales in dream territory. Numerous apparitions culled from films of the supernatural, tales of the unexplained, and urban legends that whisper unto themselves. It’s never easy to keep your grip in their undertow. It has been a while since I closed the book, devoured by the stories of boxes that open portals into other realms (ala Lovecraft’s “Dreams from the Witch House”), horror anthology editors getting trapped in their own horror stories, non-romance brimming from the set of a horror film, and a sensual confession about ghosts that like to discuss films. I read the book on the train, but that wasn’t much of a hindrance, since every time I read each of the stories in Joe Hill’s excellent collection 20th Century Ghosts, my entire consciousness is transplanted into other realms.

A thick and unrelenting air of dread pervades the collection. Even in some of the stories without supernatural elements, there is an unexplainable sense of horror that attaches itself to the story. Perhaps it’s this subtlety that makes the stories in 20th Century Ghosts more effective. Even the lighthearted fare of “Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead,” which is a not-so-romantic tale set during the filming of zombiemeister George Romero’s cult classic Dawn of the Dead, becomes strangely eerie.

The stories are flooded with seemingly innocuous trinkets and elements: cardboard boxes, black phones, aspirators and masks. Most of the stories unravel like a confessional, unblinkingly laced with such tenacity, trembling from the fear of these encounters. While “Pop Art may be riddled with the terrors of adolescence such as school bullies and nasty folks with bad parenting skills, the story at its core is an intimate story of a friendship on the borderlines of life. The narrator’s friend, Art, is inflatable, suffering from a rare genetic condition. The heavy darkness of the premise is at times penetrated by the whimsical colors of innocence harbored by these two friends, punctuated by images of crayons, invented games ,and balloons. It’s haunting but nevertheless endearing.

At the center of 20th Century Ghosts is the collision of forces, supernatural or not, during childhood. The titular story is about young kids who come across a ghost inside a theater. Hill uses cinema as a vehicle to maneuver through the various encounters these children have, and the eventual impact throughout their lives. Abraham’s Boys deals with Van Helsing and the secret that he keeps from his two boys while Last Breath is a strange tale about an even stranger museum of silence, where last breaths are kept for display, seen through the eyes of a child. The eerie Twilight Zone-ish “The Black Phone is about an abducted boy trapped in a basement where the titular phone lurks, haunted by the ghosts of other abducted children.

The Cape” could easily fall into a trap of ludicrousness since it is about a cape that gives the character, Eric, the ability to fly. Comic book influences may be scattered here and there but Hill gives the story a strong atmosphere of disintegration and detachment. The same can be said of “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a disturbing Kafka-esque tale mashed up with old-school creature features and golden age science fiction fear-mongering.

Hill brings us to even stranger territory with his cataclysmic transformation of tired horror tropes into a fully fleshed monster. The collection’s opening shocker “Best New Horror chronicles the tale of Eddie Caroll, a professional editor of horror anthologies, who has been working on the same series for over a third of his life. His wife has abandoned him, not because he was cheating or some other vice, but precisely because of his job.I mean all your horror shit, and all those people who are always coming to see you, the horror people. Sweaty little grubs who get hard over corpses. That’s the best part of this. Thinking maybe now Tracy can have a normal childhood. Thinking I’m finally going to have a life with healthy, ordinary grown-ups,” his wife told him. We feel his exhaustion in reading old horror tropes, tired vampire tales, unspeakable horrors and chainsaw wielding psychos. One day, Carroll receives a story called “Buttonboy: A Love Story,” sick, misogynistic slasher porn. Carroll, elated by his discovery, goes on a search to find the elusive author, which proves to be a fatal mistake.

Strange as it is, “Best New Horror doubles as a critique on the genre but at the same time, it also follows the same path we were hoping it’ll tread. Hill’s execution is deftly subtle and it amazingly works, holding us to its bitter and ambiguous ending. There is a high chance that Hill might lose the reader with an ambitious story such as this. but he didn’t fail to deliver.

However, it is the novella “Voluntary Committal” that, in a very disturbing and unsettling way, emerges as the crown piece of the collection. An outright confessional of a fractured childhood, the story revolves around Nolan, his autistic brother Morris, and Nolan’s friend Eddie. Morris is unusually fixated on building vast tunnels and houses with cardboard boxes which mysteriously lead to portals to different dimensions. The story ticks like a psychological shakedown despite the carefully calculated narrative,  terror lurking just beyond the borders as the story moves toward its end.

These are the characters that populate Hill’s collection: broken-down spirits haunted by the ghosts of their childhood, be they tangible or not. With today’s frenzy of blood-and-gore shockers and generic broken-limbed ghouls, not to mention the daily terrors we see in the news, it’s not easy to find genuine tales that take you to places unknown, stripped bare in the face of these invisible serpents that plague our existence. Hill’s horror stories are crafted with such familiarity, it’s troubling enough to lose yourself in his worlds.

Originally published on The Philippine Online Chronicles (Aug 2010)

Faces of Evil: Shapes of Horror in Cinema

Perhaps, under the literature of the fantastic, the horror genre is the most curious. Shaping our fears and dreams into inhuman figures and bestial creatures, horror writers have sought to exercise demons by sifting through nightmares. Most of these horrors are coupled with despair, paranoia and loathing. Are these portents that the supernatural is as powerful more than ever? Or is it just the work of the devil?

But these days, the devil isn’t enough to spook people out of their wits, may it be super typhoons or convicted/deposed politicians clamoring for vindication, this era faces a new brand of horror. The following films tackle these modern horrors head on in their own terrifying terms and heights.

ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier, 2009)

Misogyny may not ring a bell to many but Lars Von Trier’s controversial Antichrist may be more than enough to shock you out of your skull. Earning jeers from the Cannes audience and film critics alike, Antichrist was met with resounding repulsion with only a handful applauding its courage to explore psychological horror through blood-stained misogynistic glasses. Starring Williem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (she won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival 2009 for this role) play an unnamed couple who seek refuge in their cabin in the woods (called ‘Eden’) after the death of their only son. With Biblical illusions running amok, not to mention exposure both of the actor’s genitals, gynocide and sexist overtones, Antichrist features a deep-seated kind of horror that exposes the fragile psychological nature of humanity when faced with such chaotic and sexual upheaval.

THE STRANGERS (Bryan Bertino, 2008)

Crime is nothing new if you’re living in the Philippines. Instead of living in fear and triple-locking our houses from stark raving madmen roaming our streets, we have learned to shrug off these kinds of things. Cashing on this complacency is Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008). Starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, inspired by true events, The Strangers is about a couple trying to rekindle their relationship while staying in a remote vacation home. This seemingly romantic evening, complete with low lighting and rose petals, is shattered when they are terrorized by three masked strangers prowling inside and outside the house. Building the film’s terrifying atmosphere is its pace, never kinetic, never slow, just enough to build a hair-raising tension. With the creepy use of country ballads, ominous tracks demonstrating the strangers’ uncanny capability to slip into the house unnoticed, and intense framing shots, Bertino’s film unerringly reminds us that the idyll complacency we often aspire for could be a perfect breeding ground for anxiety, fear and paranoia.

CARRIE (Brian de Palma, 1976)

Although nothing new, adolescence might be the most common stage of our lives swarming with existential anxieties and other kinds of nightmarish incidences. With horror being a perfect vehicle to peddle these kids of adolescent fears, Brian de Palma’s seminal film Carrie, succeeds in tackling varying themes such as religion, belongingness and sexual frustrations. Based on a Stephen King novel, Carrie tells the tale of the titular character’s (played by Sissy Spacek) struggle in high school while trying to come to terms with her telekinetic powers and her mother’s fundamentalist ravings. The film may be hysterical at some point but de Palma’s visual sensibilities and disturbing sense of humor gives us one of the most unforgettable high school year and prom night in cinema.

FUNNY GAMES (Michael Haneke, 2008)

The word unsettling doesn’t even cover how disturbing this film is. A shot-for-shot American remake of Haneke’s 1997 film of the same name, Funny Games retains much of its nastiness: a brutal portrait of a family terrorized by two psychotic kids (played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbett). For its entire 112 minutes, you will probably attempt to jump from your seat, yell at your TV and hurl something at it, berating the characters for their stupidity and lack of a sense of emergency.
But this is the kind of complacency that Haneke banks in this film. The idyll promises of a lake-side weekend in a bourgeois getaway leaves much room for deception. Set aside the questions for once, Funny Games does nothing to explain every motive (especially the two killers), which may just as well be the variation of Brian Bertino’s The Strangers ’ “You just happen to be home”.

Wrapped in such palpable tension, Funny Games never breaks its streak of mayhem and violence. You will feel sorry, you will feel like your heart is being ripped apart, you may even cry uncontrollably or will just simply be shocked by everything that unravels before you. Hide your wife, hide your kids. This kind of terror isn’t supernatural but it renders locks and bolts useless.

SCREAM (Wes Craven, 1996)

The plot of Scream is not exactly new for its time: some cloaked killer going on a bloodbath chasing this nubile girl. There are intentions, hidden in the folds of his cloak and underneath the mask. Everything plays out according to rules, both proclaimed and implied,  but there are still many times that the rug gets pulled under our feet. Coming from a long line of Z-list slasher films, gorefests and routine scares, Scream was a breath of fresh air or a shock right down the spine.

The script’s intelligence has always been something that has set itself apart from its predecessors: ball-dropping, film-checking smartassness as embodied by the film’s resident horror film geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy), stereotyped of course as a friend-zoned, scrawny dude working in a video store. The movie tests the audience: how much do we know about horror films? Are the numerous nights watching horror flicks enough to get us through this film?

In a way, Scream is actually a study of horror films. It maps out audience response; how we formulate theories as to who the killer is and who gets slashed next. The filmmakers want to play a whodunit and we’re part of the clever ruse to overturn our expectations of the genre’s tried and tested formula.

But that doesn’t make Scream a less enjoyable film. It’s one of the few remarkable films which mixes wit and fast-paced thrills and in the process, sets a higher bar for the succeeding films (both its sequels and the rest of the horror film industry). It’s relentless, pulling tricks one after another and as the body count goes up, we’re left wondering how quick the film’s quick wit will wear off until the last blood splatters on the wall (or someone’s face). But we have to wait for the sequels for that.

SESSION 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

A good horror movie always starts with an excellent location. Brad Anderson’s Session 9 is set in the sprawling Danvers State Mental Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, matching the terrifying eeriness of the Overlook Hotel and Rose Red. Tension rises as an asbestos removal crew unearth the past of the hospital, particularly about a patient suffering from a dissosciative identity disorder. With their personal issues in tow, each of them journey off into the darkest recesses of their minds where they discover deeply unsettling truths.

BOUNDARY (Benito Bautista, 2011)

It’s in Ronnie Lazaro’s face. His nerves bundle up like a frayed rope carrying a grand piano up to a 35-storey building. The pressure mounts, almost paralyzing viewers, daring them to squirm in their seats as they witness the slow unfurling of fates which, by the time Raymond Bagatsing sits in Ronnie Lazaro’s beerhouse bright taxi cab, can only end in an almost ritualistic bloodshed. Bautista plays with our fears, using the everyday dangers of riding a cab, and personal dynamics to wound us with his nihilistic worldview.

MISERY (Rob Reiner, 1990)

Misery has no room for sunshine. Throughout its 107-minute running time, Misery runs like a terrible train ride to the pits of hell. It’s not that the film has creatures from the underworld; it has the worst kind of villain: a deranged and frantically obsessed fan in the form of Kathy Bates’s Annie Wilkes.

The film tells the story of bestselling novelist, Sheldon, who almost dies in a blizzard. As luck would have it, he is rescued by his number one fan, Wilkes (who later reveals she ‘follows’ Sheldon every now and then). What commences is a riveting cat and mouse fight heavily imbued with madness and savagery. Propelled by Bates and Caan’s performances, Misery is a hardwired, blistering psychopath thriller. This is Stephen King (whose novel was the basis of the film) at his best: camp, gore and good old horror.

This article was published in the Halloween special section of The Phililppine STAR on 28 October 2011

The Element of Crime

Living in the Philippines has its usual terrors. While our culture is steeped in the fantastic and the mythic, our daily lives are plagued by elements that are all too real and threatening. The six o’ clock news is a repository of these evils: daily crimes of corruption, murders, robberies, rapes, and more killings. Ours is a country where a crime, as heinous as it is, goes unpunished and unsolved for decades. It’s a grim scenario, which is why crime goes hand in hand with horror in this country of ours. Crime stories may not be populated with ghouls and supernatural creatures but the feeling of dread and terror is more manifest than any great horror story of film.

In many ways, and as explained in guest editor F.H. Batacan’s welcoming letter, the stories in Philippine Genre Stories Crime deviate from the usual norm of crime fiction. The genre has been associated with CSI-style narrative, police procedural and the crime/gangster cult films which are all dipped with too much gore and gunpowder. Sounding an open call for a crime issue of a publication could possibly yield results, considering the fact that the Philippines is a country which has a crime rate that could possibly be on par with Mexico’s sleaziest towns or New York’s dank alleys.

Each of the stories in PGS: Crime issue (which unfortunately is the final PGS issue in print) mines a distinct aspect of crime: a missing relative, a family hiding a hard secret, a woman lost in the forest of her psyche, a kidnapping, and bureaucratic nightmares. Stories always have the capacity to reflect the characteristic of the country which the story is set. Fiction is something that is still rooted in something clear and real. Crime fiction presents a unique opportunity to reflect not only on the state of crime and police work in the Philippines but also on how the psychological capacity of each of the perpetrators in the story reveals an outlook that is never too far from some of the most evil criminal minds in the world.

In Alex Osias’s “Blogcaster”, set in a not so far-off future, bloggers who expose the negligence and crimes of the government gradually ‘disappear’. Told in a series of blog posts, comments and correspondence, ‘Blogcaster’ feels real and paralyzing, with the implications of internet journalism more relevant in these times of one-click publishing and high-speed trickery.

The crimes in Dominique Cimafranca’s ‘Grenadier’ and Maryanne Moll’s ‘God is the Space Between’ unfurl in different ends of the spectrum. The payoff in ‘Grenadier’ is as swift as its titular device, exploding in sharp fragments, making it a thrilling read. On the other hand, Moll’s ‘God is the Space Between’, although well written, slugs through its curlicues of words until it rips into bloodshed.

Remembrances flood Xin Mei’s ‘Less Talk, Less Mistake’ (which actually is one of the longest stories in the issue) and Crystal Koo’s ‘The Last Time I Saw Uncle Freddie’. Familial ties have always been the root of crime, with Cain and Abel being the primal examples. ‘Less Talk’ unravels a harrowing family secret hidden for generations while throwing in the relations and dynamics of a Filipino-Chinese family.

Of all the stories, it is Koo’s ‘Uncle Freddie’ that gives the meanest punch. Despite its pace, ‘Uncle Freddie’ is a haywire investigation of one man’s past, crisscrossing generations, immigrant issues and identities.  Koo uses a reverse narrative to thicken the intrigues which works in the story’s favor.

In this final print edition, Kenneth Yu’s PGS tidily summarizes its seven-issue run in his farewell letter. The stories published in the past issues have varied qualities and quirks but PGS has always been about Yu’s belief in good storytelling and giving writers a chance to tell their perspectives especially in genres overlooked by bigger publishing venues. Stories, after all, are but a small part of our cultural fabric, and with tales as harrowing as these, it’s undeniable that we face different forms of horror, no matter how disguised it is.

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This article was published in the Halloween special section of The Philippine STAR on 28 October 2011

Cello’s Doughnuts and Dips

MANILA, Philippines – Everyone’s crazy about donuts. Some people list donuts as one of their all-time favorite foods. Husband and wife Cello and Jutes Templo are two of these people. Their love for donuts prompted them to open up a donut shop of their own, especially since Cello had always wanted to open her very own bakery. A donut-making seminar and a several experiments and taste tests later, Cello’s Doughnuts and Dips was born.

Unveiled in the midst of the “donut boom” in the country in 2004, Cello’s originally started in the aisles of grocery stores until Cello and Jutes opened their first branch on Katipunan. Their popularity not only hinged on the quality of their donuts but also their diverse range of flavors (they have over 20). When someone mentions Cello’s it’s easy to identify them with their Oreo, Choc-Nut and Cheese donuts — flavors that are distinctly theirs.

“We were thinking of the flavors for our donuts, so Cello and I just browsed the supermarket shelves and grabbed our favorites like Oreos, Choc-Nut and M&Ms. They became one of our original flavors, along with Candy and Choco Sprinkles and Cheesy. Oreo’s one of our best sellers because how can you go wrong with Oreo?” Jutes shares.

Another thing that sets Cello’s apart in the trade is that their donuts are kept warm. “Donuts taste best when they’re freshly made. People are used to non-hot donuts. So we made it a point to keep our donuts warm as opposed to the other store-bought donuts. People are used to the cold donuts that they buy as pasalubongs. So we thought we should make different donuts. Warmer, fresher donuts taste better and we wanted our donuts to be that way,” Jutes explains.

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Published on October 27, 2010 in the Food & Leisure section of The Philippine STAR