Found Stories: Brillante Mendoza

nora-brillante

Note: This article was supposed to appear in The Phillippine Star around December 2012, in time for Thy Womb’s MMFF run. I have no idea though if this article ever saw print. 

Brillante Mendoza merely laughed when I told him that his film Kinatay, which won him the Best Director award in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, has become a benchmark in depictions of graphic violence on screen. In Slant Magazine’s review of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, John Semley cited Mendoza’s film in contrast with Bigelow’s violent scenes of torture. “The scenes are disturbing, but by cinema’s post-Kinatay or The Passion of the Christ standards, Zero Dark Thirty‘s graphic incitements are slight,” Semley wrote. Mendoza somehow finds this amusing, seeing how Kinatay has earned him a degree of notoriety in world cinema. Granted, the film had shocking displays of violence but Mendoza has since ventured on films that are less repugnant, particularly in his film Thy Womb.

Kinatay is perceived to be very violent and Thy Womb is [about] unconditional love,” Mendoza says. “Sa akin naman, nakikita mo yung pagta-tackle natin sa mga istorya, not just because gusto lang natin magpakita ng violence. If there’s an interesting story, yun ang mas tinitignan ko. With Thy Womb, affected ako when I first saw the place. Once kasi na-catch yung attention mo, yun ang gusto kong ikwento. The way I felt during that moment, yun yung gusto kong i-capture sa film.”

Thy Womb premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September and competed in the festival’s main slate against world cinema greats like Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, and Marco Belocchio. The film has since earned accolades and citations from critics around the world and is currently making rounds of film festivals. This December, Thy Womb is part of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the same festival that rejected it in the first place until another film pulled out of the competition, way after Thy Womb’s success abroad. But Mendoza is more than happy with the film’s selection to the MMFF, seeing this as an opportunity to share his films with Filipinos around the country.

A different perspective

The film also marks the return of Nora Aunor to the big screen. She stars as Shaleha, an infertile midwife who searches for a second wife for her husband so he can have a child. Thy Womb is starkly different from Mendoza’s previous films. Blue skies not only mark a momentary respite for the film but it is actually a reflection of the Tawi-Tawi island that the film is set in. Mendoza used this film as an opportunity to tell a different side of the people of South.

“The first time I went to Tawi-tawi was for me a great discovery of the place. I knew little about Tawi-tawi,” Mendoza recalls. “Like most of us here from Luzon na napaka-minimal lang ng alam natin. Ang alam lang natin diyan, violent yung lugar. We tend to have a lot of misconceptions and we tend to generalize Mindanao as a whole. This is a beautiful island. They Christians and the Muslims coexist peacefully. In the same community, from different tribes pa, you will see mosques and chapels in one street. So sabi ko if I’m gonna make a story here, dapat kasama itong community na ito, dapat ma-capture ito hindi lang yung story na hindi lang nakikita yung lugar. In my films kasi, the place is bigger than the ego. Whenever we tell stories of people, people are just part of the big community and somehow represents the community but this is basically the story of the place.”

Working with the superstar

Inspired by a true story of a woman from Tawi-Tawi, Thy Womb’s harrowing story of self-sacrifice and selflessness needed a mature and experienced actress to tackle the role. Mendoza thought of Aunor right away and the decision was met with a degree of negativity. Aunor is said to be a difficult actress to work with but Mendoza proved otherwise during the filming of Thy Womb.

“With Nora, kahit naman big [star] siya, siguro there’s a reason why she’s [called] the superstar, kung bakit siya nandito sa stature niya ngayon, because alam niya kung kalian siya magluluko-luko, kung kalian siya magpapakatino, kung kalian siya gagwa ng ganito, ng ganyan. She plays everything by heart, by instinct, and alam niya kapag napipinpoint niya yung tao. That’s how I read her. So when I worked with her siguro nakita niya rin yun so wala kaming problema. Kapag nakikita niya na you are really serious with what you’re doing, nakikita rin niya yung commitment ng mga actors, ng mga staff and crew, siguro nadadala na rin siya doon,” Mendoza explains.

A new experience

Filming Thy Womb opened Mendoza to a new experience. He spent months of research and immersion in Tawi-Tawi to somehow tell the story of its people, culture, and environment, through Shaleha’s story. He didn’t want the film to end up as a touristy photoplay or a haphazardly told tale about the South. He took his time in making the film knowing that he is dealing with a culture that is rich and captivating. He even made a cultural event the centerpiece of the film.

With each film that he makes, Mendoza is bent not just on showcasing our culture but also our capabilities as a filmmaking nation. “There’s such a thing as a Filipino filmmaker doing it in a Filipino way na hindi pwedeng gawin sa iba at hindi nagagawa ng iba. Whether we like it or not, iba tayong gumawa ng pelikula, dahil nasa kultura natin yun as Filipinos. People just love to share, they just love to help. Kultura natin yung tumulong. YungSige wag mo na akong bayaran’, ‘Sige pang-taxi na lang’. You can’t do that abroad. These are the things that I share and I’m proud. I’m proud that I’m a Filipino filmmaker. ”

Apocalypse Now and Forever: Lav Diaz’s Norte

norte

How do you end a world consumed by its own corruption? In Lav Diaz’s Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Fabian (Sid Lucero), a law school dropout, sees no point in continuing the morality imposed by societal conventions on a dying civilization. Fabian goes on to ramble about his philosophy to his professors — the coffee shop they’re in being the most innocuous venue for such discussion — how the negation of truth and everything society perceives as “wrong” is also an act of liberation in itself. After minutes of discussion, he then proceeds to borrow rent money from his audience. Fabian postulates his ideations as somewhat that of a radical’s, someone who is drunk on the power of living, enough to put his own theories to their own destructive course.

It is here that Diaz freely plays with Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment — the Russian author being a life-long obsession in Diaz’s filmography — transposing the Russian psychological warfare into the dust of a third-world setting. Fabian is Raskolnikov, Dostoyevski’s handsome dilettante whose loathing towards normalcy and ethics is the spark that sets off an upheaval of another world. High on the sway of his own call to arms, Fabian goes on to murder his pawnbroker (Mae Paner, devoid of her Juana Change contraptions) and her daughter, launching into ruin not only of his own but of another parallel universe. In Norte, the fall is taken by Joaquin (Archie Alemania, far from his comedic comfort zone), a DVD peddler accused of the pawnbroker’s murder, his ties to her include a mountain of debt and a short burst of a tantrum after she refused to return his wife’s pawned ring.

Fabian goes on about his life as if the act of killing is a necessary recourse of existence. He further isolates himself from the rest of the world, even from his closest friends. Joaquin’s family, on the other hand, suffers from the shattered life they are consigned to living. Joaquin’s wife, Eliza (the quietly powerful Angeli Bayani), tries to make ends meet, selling vegetables in a rickety cart around their town while Joaquin desperately lives his saintly disposition inside the prison, never crossing boundaries and keeping his mouth shut if needed. This is a set-up for a dreary exposition into squalor and defeat, but Diaz, never one to indulge in such games, opts instead to steer his four-hour film (which runs like breeze even for a millennial attention span) into an astonishing study of madness and its accompanying instruments.

Norte is Diaz’s first film in color for over a decade, and his first working with material co-written by another playwright, Rody Vera. The film still bears Diaz’s distinctive mark, its blood coursing through familiar themes that the filmmaker has closely explored in his career. Norte only occupies a unique place in his filmography, being his first Cannes Film Festival entry and one of his most lauded films to date, landing on top yearend critics list such as Sight and Sound, Artforum, Sense of Cinema, and La Internacional Cinéfila.

Praised for its epic scope and intimate look at the lives caught in time’s undertow, Norte offers up a relevant response to how our country has gradually been victim to our crimes, even those that we commit to the ones we hold dear.

Sumpa ang mabuhay, Joaquin. Dahil hindi natin hawak ang buhay,” a character ominously proclaims, the specter of death hanging like a palpable scent in the air the characters breathe in. Norte is never happy, despite the stark blue of the skies that follows its characters. Its novel-like length gives Diaz the freedom to explore his characters in more detail, allowing high-caliber actors such as Lucero, Alemania, Bayani, and the ever-reliable Mailes Kanapi, as Fabian’s Bible-thumping sister, to sink their teeth deeper into the turmoil. That Diaz’s direction allows his actors to roam freely into their characters’ psyche adds only to the film’s rattling thrum — the sound that echoes with the fury of our cries.

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.

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

In Ghost Colours: Buenas Noches, Espana

Bathed in the most vivid colors and the bittersweet tears of discovery, Buenas Noches, Espana (Raya Martin, 2011) careens like a skyrocket towards the infinite promises of the cosmos. It is a playbook steeped in the filtering reins of history. It finds joy in the most random moments until it totters to the jarring realizations brought about by the paintings of Juan Luna in the Bilbao Museum. However aimless it may seem, Buenas Noches stands beside Martin’s explorations of Philippine history, creating a continuing arc that ties the fictional strands of an ever-shifting narrative.

Inspired by the first documented teleportation account, where a soldier stationed in Manila suddenly appears for palace duty in Mexico, Buenas Noches is an approximation of a colonial experience sifted through foreign eyes, much like the parcels of our country’s war-torn history in books. As the film’s couple teleport through time, bookmarking Mexico, Philippines, and Spain as destinations, they weave a trail of reminiscences that silently concludes on a scraggy science-fictional landscape where history, life, and death go hand in hand with our own notions of relationships and personal journeys.

Buenas Noches gives a new meaning to the ‘road trip’ sub-genre. Igniting from the faint static of a television, to the tree-lined roads of Bilbao (or is it the Philippines?), the film unravels like a delicious psychedelic that grafts a lingering mark in your mind. The heavily processed film flips colors every now and then as the images shift in and out of time. Adding to the jarring cinematic experience is the wailing guitar feedbacks and sound effects from Saturday morning cartoons. It can prove unsettling at times, with the audiences strapped in their seats wondering where the images will take them or if there is indeed a destination, but Buenas Noches is more than a simplified history lecture or a scenic picture of two lost lovers.

In the film, the images skitter, skip, go on loops and recall the tricks of remembrances as if fact-checking they’re real or made up to patch the gnawing pain of absence. These images swirl in the droning soundscape (conjured by Owel Alvero and Pat Sarabia) until they crash and burn to the misty seas of the moon.

Of course, a film like this poses inherent difficulties for the viewers. There is no clear cut narrative and if there is, it is heavily buried in the film’s images and sound.  There are guides but we’re pretty much on our own once the reel starts unspooling. As hard as it may seem, the experience of watching Buenas Noches on screen is akin to a scraggly trip down to the metal machine music rabbit hole. And we’ll all tumble along just fine.

Buenas Noches shows our playful approach of history, treating it sometimes as a game of hide and seek with overwrought names, dates, and instances. But when faced with the weight of it all, we carry our identities on our backs like sculptures of forgotten gods emerging from our collective memories. Buried in the sinewy lines of Luna’s paintings, where muscles are contracted and flexed as if to depict the struggles of his era, Buenas Noches forges images that are both painterly in effect and devastating at the same time.

Originally published on Pelikula Tumblr

Futures

Futures
by Don Jaucian

In Remton Siega Zuasola’s Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria), a criminally underseen film and quite possibly the best Filipino film of 2010, the titular character is, in a sense, shooed of by her parents, particularly her mother, to Germany to marry one an aging, rich German and eventually rescue her family from the mounds of debts that they have incurred. It’s not exactly a circa-2000s scenario where Filipinas are still traded as mail-order brides (in the film, a woman actually arranges the marriages) as a possible gateway to a better life but in a sense, it embodies the ills and the heartaches that form the core of the Filipino Diaspora.

Teria’s cousin, who has been to Germany and has married a rich German, willingly flaunts the comforts of her new found life, even sporting a ridiculously accented English. The promises of a better life abroad can be gleamed through her brightly colored clothes, her seemingly endless romance with Germany and her expensive shoes, one of which she lends to Teria.

It’s as simple as shedding off the worn, discarded clothes that reek of poverty and donning shinier, new ones that bear the stamp of a progressive and forward-looking fortune. Amidst the backdrop of an unmistakably third-world coastal town, we witness the signals of Teria’s journey from her hometown to making her first steps out into the wild blue yonder.

The Great Filipino Dream 

Teria isn’t exactly going to be working as a domestic helper in Germany, although the woman who arranges these marriages give the, for the lack of a better word, unfortunate looking ladies a chance to catch a droplet of The Great Filipino Dream by working as helpers in the aforementioned country. It’s an opportunity laid out before their very eyes and it’s up to them whether to seize it or turn it down.

In many ways, Teria’s plight mirrors the hopes and dreams of every Filipino who has sought out a better life by working overseas. Seeing the opportunities brought about by the economic boom in the Middle East during the 70s, the Philippine government has since sent millions of Filipinos to work in oil companies, construction sites, hotels and hospitals and tend to the needs of the ruling class and rake in dollar remittances in return.

In their February 2011 issue, global affairs magazine Monocle has looked into the story of our Overseas Filipino Workers as one of the pumps that keep the heart of the Philippine economy going. Writer Liv Lewitschnik observes the astounding feats of our OFWs and the lengths that the government goes through to ensure their welfare and protection.

“Today, one in nine Filipinos works abroad, where they can earn salaries five or six times higher than they can at home. During 2010 alone, 53, 532 people left the Philippines while those nine milion already settled across 180 countries sent 17bn euros home to their relatives. Only India, China and Mexico receive more remittances than the Philippines. At 12 per cent of the GDP, it is a source of income the government is more than happy to see coming in,” wrote Lewitschnik.

OFW remittances has long been a core element of the Philippine economy. Just February this year, a healthy surge of 6.2% growth in overseas remittances has posited a positive gain for the economy, bolstering the confidence of local and foreign investors.

A long running plight

It’s a story that has been written so many times in national publications yet it perfectly reflects the attention that the OFWs warrant; an alarm call for the government to actually do something to preserve the brilliance of Filipino minds that has been slowly trickling away since the brain drain. Although the government has taken measures to pamper OFWs by giving them privileges, the increase in the number of people going abroad still reflects the tired attitude of the rest of the nation.

Like Eleuteria’s long and obstacle-ridden walk to the port, where her journey is yet to begin, Filipino overseas workers ultimately leave a lasting proof of our kind of bravery, withstanding challenges to give their families, and eventually themselves, a better future to look at.  

This article was originally published in the OFW Special Section of The Philippine STAR.