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9.17.2018

DEVILS YOU KNOW

Panahon Ng Halimaw
Directed and Written by Lav Diaz




My Twitter feed regularly explodes with governmental disgruntlement. Sometimes I weigh in, too. I don’t have many Twitter friends from the other side of the outrage and the ones I do have are rather sober, nuanced, rational even, quiet mostly. This gives me a rather inaccurate lay of the land in that I only see the outrage, in all its permutations, and the source of the outrage, without annotations. I realize that Twitter is a pocket universe and not the whole of the country. But from this lopsided, perhaps even insular, vantage point, I sense the lack of a cause-and-effect with traction, an echo chamber that preaches to the choir, a hole of indifference where a robust and determined opposition should be.  I sense, really, and ultimately, my own helplessness, and perhaps it’s our sense of helplessness as well.  I sense, too, the usual wag-the-dog theatrics all regimes dabble in and how we keep falling for it. Lav Diaz doesn’t have a Twitter account but his new film, Panahon Ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil), ostensibly addresses this lack of a conduit to channel our surges of indignation, to weaponize our clamor. The poet-hero is a recurring figure in his cinema but the poet-hero here, played by Piolo Pascual, and his works, are ineffectual in rousing a population mired in their own complacency. Halimaw seems to be questioning, too, if all our rages really amount to anything, whether as woke tweets, as soc med pulpits, as protest songs or as art-house cinema. 

Perhaps because he was there, and perhaps, too, because it constantly threatens to re-animate itself in a potentially more sinister, more dangerous form, Marcos-era Martial Law is something of a recurring milieu with Diaz, first re-purposing it as a science-fictional totalitarian dystopia in Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Jesus. Revolutionary) then many years later, as this pall of almost sentient darkness hovering over a small town that eventually eats itself in Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon (From What Was Before).  Panahon Ng Halimaw may be set in 1979 Mindanao, during Martial Law, but it’s obvious that the bleak landscape, with its rash of extrajudicial killings albeit targeting straggler revolutionaries, insidious dog-wagging as a form of mind control, not to mention a charismatic leader who blathers indecipherably and literally wears two faces, is meant not just to parallel but to overlap with the present regime.

Panahon Ng Halimaw had a brief domestic theatrical run. Twelve years ago, when I first stumbled on and became an adherent of his cinema, coming in blind into what turned out to be the first half of the still uncompleted Heremias, the notion of a Lav Diaz film having a theatrical run would’ve been nothing short of absurd, certainly miraculous. But this is the fifth Lav Diaz film to have a theatrical run in as many years. At this point, one would like to think there would be a significant drop in the number of people you need to hand-hold and disclaim to when it came to Lav Diaz, when it came to so-called slow cinema, which one can argue his films don’t necessarily fall under, and when it came, really, to any film that isn’t the over-stimulated franchise pulp that has become the only normal in cinema nearly every movie-goer is willing to swallow. That isn’t the case, sadly. But then again, Panahon Ng Halimaw is a slightly more difficult Lav Diaz film to shill, let alone metabolize, even for Lav Diaz stalwarts like me. It is perhaps his less allegorical and certainly his most urgent, most forthright, arguably his most serious work. But it never lapses into pulpit nor anachronism. It may in fact be his most formally playful. Panahon Ng Halimaw is, after all, a rock opera, but not in the way an Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera is a rock opera, of course.

The argument over whether form should trump content in socially-aware cinema is low-key enough to make it seem as if we’re not even having the argument at all,  but Panahon Ng Halimaw is  all but demanding we do. Deconstructed musicals are not virgin territory for arthouse cinema, of course. But this is more than a mere deconstructed musical. Borne out of urgency but shot through with resignation, its entire libretto is sung a capella in the recitative style by a cast that’s vocally uneven on purpose.  There is no rouse in its call to arms, there is no hook in the songs to distract us from the tenor of its narrative weave, given over as they are to the transformative whim of  the characters singing them:  Bituin Escalante’s benevolent narrator and Shaina Magdayao’s crusading doctor, coming on like snatches of  emotive, melodic beauty,  while Hazel Orencio and Joel Siracho’s government henchmen, are ominous, somnolent, atonal. It takes some easing into, give it that, but perhaps easing into it isn’t the point, and coming in a form that you expect to ease into is. Conflating the Marcos regime with the present one is perhaps Diaz’s way of telling us that history will teach us nothing except that it repeats itself, and what he’s trying to tell us is something we ought to already know, but perhaps having it sung might make us lean in. “Mahirap gisingin ang nagtulug-tulugan” ("You can't wake up someone pretending to sleep") says a character in Lino Brocka’s Orapronobis, a film that was also about the cyclical nature of the political violence that besets us. We’re not quite there yet. But you can feel the stupor singing in our bones.


*Originally published in Esquire.




2.13.2018

SOME HAVE ENTERTAINED ANGELS UNAWARE

















Our house was haunted for 24 hours many years ago, mostly the garden. It’s a story I have told many friends over the years with a sadistic glee. My brother witnessed all of it. A few of us felt some of it near the end, most likely psychosomatically. I promised to one day make a film out of it. He left before I could. When the Astro Shaw people came foraging for stories, I pitched something called Some Have Entertained Angels Unaware, in which a retired policeman's wife dies in her sleep and the garden she built in their backyard becomes haunted. I was writing it as if it were Dialogue With A Woman Departed by way of Robert Aickman, the ghost story as a rumination on mourning. Somewhere along the way, the long, unwieldy title metamorphosed into Nephilim and the old cop became a youngish sound designer. The wife stayed dead, though, and the garden stayed haunted, but this time not by ghosts, the sudden loss of the love of one's life a trembly emotional underbubble. True to my intertextual tendencies, the soup in my head that I was drinking to feed the film swam with varieties of gristle (Lovecraft, Mexican haunted house films, various oddments of UFO lore, Philip K. Dick) but this is really, mostly, a film about what happened in our garden that day and I've been crossing every finger I can that I somehow pulled it off. Of course, it's entirely possible my brother made all of it up. If he did, either he was on shit with such potent head or he had a more out-there imagination than I give him credit for. Either way, he's probably laughing his ass off right now. The fucker.

UNDERRATED ASIAN HORRORS








What Asian horror cinema seemed to understand a lot better than Hollywood horror ever will is that fear is irrational and the more irrational things get, the more terrifying things are. The pull Asian horror always had with me, aside from obligatory defiance to the hegemonic narratives, are the specific varieties of irrational unease that have become rough ordinance with most Asian horror cinema but which Hollywood has nothing but disdain for, perhaps residue from how Eastern cultures have a more pervasive, more insidious spiritual firmament than America: the spatial displacement, the overhang of dread, the dreamlike languor and casual surrealism, the often brutal lack of closure and this gnawing sense that the supernatural was a matter of fact. Asian horror isn’t above solving its own mysteries, sure, but Hollywood horror seems in the grip of a compulsion to constantly whip the mask off the monster to reveal a backstory. Indian burial grounds, Scooby Doo endings, whistling past graveyards, all that. Western critics gregariously upheld the heady, volcanic surge of Asian horror films in the 90s as a “new wave” poised to rehabilitate and reinvigorate the genre, which it was and which it did, even if the exaltation smacked of hegemony and hubris, if only for the implication that Asian horror had somehow “caught up” and that Hollywood was somehow “in charge” of the genre to waylay it, circumventing the fact that Asian horror has been trumping Hollywood horror for decades, and still does. I’d go so far as argue that the two 90s horror films that game-changed the genre didn’t come out of Hollywood, Myrick and Sanchez’s Blair Witch Project and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, and that most post-90s horror films run on the modified engines of either of these two films, and sometimes, oftentimes a confluence of both. Japan, Thailand and Korea has been undergoing fluctuations in quality since. The combined output of Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia is still occasional at best. The Philippines, meanwhile, remains stupidly, stubbornly determined to bash out the same old wine without even bothering to put it in new bottles, mainly vengeful spirits terrorizing young actors that no amount of workshopping can make worthy of being called one.

Despite this, Asian horror cinema is still an embarrassment of riches, if you know where to look and what to look for. The list below is meant to be a spanner in the works, throwing props long overdue and much deserved, but also as an index of possible new pleasures. Obviously, they barely scratch the surface, but if you’ve had it with the same old and your curiosity is piqued by the list, here’s a few more to look up, of varying quality and flavors and temperaments: Mystics In Bali (H. Tjut Djalil), Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi), Pasiyam (Erik Matti), Exte: Hair Extensions (Sion Sono), How To Disappear Completely (Raya Martin), The Red Shoes (Kim Yong Gyun), The Forbidden Door (Joko Anwar), Pridyider (Rico Ilarde), Salvage (Sherad Sanchez), Matangtubig (Jet Leyco), Dream Home (Pang Ho Cheung) and Noroi (Koji Shiraishi).

 Akumu Tantei (Nightmare Detective) (Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005, Japan) Pivots on the pulpiest of setups: an emotionally crippled and borderline suicidal young man who has the ability to walk into people’s dreams and somehow fix them is recruited by the police to thwart a creepy serial killer who has the ability to walk into people’s dreams and coerce them into suicide. The surprise here is not that Shinya Tsukamoto would take on such relatively straightforward material. Nor is it in the way he finds much to mine within the parameters of his outlandish premise, not least being its discomfiting overlaps between waking life and dream state. But rather, it’s the fearful symmetry he strikes between his usual transgressive surrealism and his newfound pop efficiency. Tsumakoto, of course, also made the Tetsuo movies, which is to say that the few times he does, he makes the sort of superhero movies we deserve: deranged, chaotic, resonant, thrilling as fuck.

 Di Ingon Nato (Brandon Relucio and Ivan Zaldarriaga, 2011, Philippines) Rough around the edges, sure, but you can argue that it’s more appropriately primitive because of it, given how everything hinges on its transposition of First World zombie tropes into far-flung Third World boondocks, where people get around on cheap mopeds, an under-manned and under-equipped clinic passes for a hospital, combat-readiness boils down to jungle knives and single-shot rifles and no one knows zombie lore enough to go for a head shot, not to mention that the zombies here are not the undead of legend, the sort these superstitious folk have names for and dispatch with magic, but rather the ones borne of contagion, the sort these medically naïve folk can’t quite fathom. The first half, set in a remote forest, is all bucolic desolation. The second, almost meta-recursive apocalyptic desperation. For all their social-realist pontifications, I can’t think of a single poverty porn indie that has tapped as potently into how fatally ill-prepared we are for calamity quite like this under-seen zombie riff has. 

Marebito (Takashi Shimizu, 2004, Japan) . No pun intended but I slot this in here grudgingly if only because the nonchalant misogyny bugs me still but also because it is a terribly flawed and terribly shallow work and one I hesitate to recommend heartily. Approach with caution, then. But after thrashing this the first time I saw it, calling Takashi Shimzu the Gore Verbinski of J-Horror of all things, though I’m not sure if that’s unfair to Shimizu or to Verbinski, I’ve reconsidered my position and now go as far as claiming that I might actually prefer its Lovecraftian dissonance to the routine spookiness of his beloved, and certainly more polished, Ju-on/ Grudge films. The anxiety and displacement evoked by the subterranean world the perverted cameraman hero stumbles on remains every bit as distressing as the last time I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Pascalina (Pam Miras, 2012, Philippines) Pascalina, the eponymous social klutz, is a fuck-up of the poignant sort, well-meaning and down on her luck. Her aunt is the only one who loves her enough to say it, but is not only dying but may or may not be a monster, which means she may or may not be a monster, too. Pam Miras tends to rub her fluency with the genre against her bigger fish to fry, harnessing horror tropes to slant the realities she wants to confront at an angle, for a view that’s oddly purer and truer the more heightened it gets. Shooting with a toy camera comes off as outlaw impulse at first blush, but the jittery muck it attains becomes both verisimilitude and metaphor, elucidating the dance her stumblebum heroine does with the devil she knows, as she comes into her own by springing the catch on her own secret monstrosity. The film won a Best Picture prize then all but vanished without a trace. That’s one way to boost your underrated stock. Another is to be as good a debut feature as it is.

 The Unseeable (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2006, Thailand) Atypical Wisit Sasanatieng but only if you go by the velocity with which his candyland visuals ran riot in his last two films before this. But look at Tears of the Black Tiger and Citizen Dog again and you realize what he really has a knack for is the way he twists over-familiar environments into weird off-key shapes, like balloon animals. If this rather traditional ghost story is a lot more sedated, the mood dripping rather than shouting, that’s mostly out of how ghost stories are supposed to get by on the sedated drip of mood alone. The gorgeous crumble of that haunted countryside manse, and its sprawling garden, may be a calmer palette than we’re used to from Wisit but is every bit as florid and intoxicating an artifice as any he's ever manipulated. Oldfangled but thick with feed.

Uzumaki (Higuchinsky, 2000, Japan) Lazy as it sometimes is to brand Junji Ito as the Japanese Lovecraft, it’s also rather apt, right down to how much of a bitch it is to adapt his work to film. Those ubiquitous Tomie films, about a dead schoolgirl who regenerates over the centuries to wreak all manner of revenge, often feel homogenized, and as gorgeous as Kakashi was, it was a little too complacent, even for a film about haunted scarecrows. Uzumaki is by far the only film taken from his work that perfectly nails all his potencies: the bleak nihilism, the demented strangeness, the psychedelic rot. This is the one about the seaside town driven mad by an invasion of spirals, and there really is no way to approach any work that boils down to that synopsis except to take it literally.

*Originally published by CNN.

HORRORS IN THE SLIPSTREAM










What’s a slipstream? A category, but one that constantly resists being one, reaching to go beyond making one necessary. The science fiction writer Bruce Sterling coined it to codify the interstices, mongrel works that hover between speculative and realist fiction, that mash up genre tropes with mainstream temperaments.

There’s a surge of interstitial activity in horror cinema of late, its own neither-here-nor-there slipstream hovering between genre and arthouse, and someone less clever and less adept with words went and gave it names, too: Post Horror, Elevated Horror, all that. Like any genre, horror is bordered by its own perimeter fence, rigid with protocols, The Rules, as they’re called. But Post/Elevated Horror isn’t some new strain, all it means is horror that doesn’t play by The Rules, and it’s been going on for decades: Lang, Roeg, Teshigahara, Bergman, Lynch. The new films are fine: It Comes At Night, A Ghost Story, Personal Shopper, Beyond The Hills, Neon Demon. OK, maybe not Neon Demon. The tinge of condescension does bug me, the implication that horror needs “elevating”, but then again, when asked why I make horror films, my answer was how porous and fluid and pliant it was, how I could bend it to any shape I saw fit, how it lends itself to be , ummm. . .elevated. Yeah. I should talk.

But it’s a different sort of interstitial horror film I want to talk about here, the sort Clive Barker and Peter Atkins were talking about when they sought to expand the genre, finding trace elements of horror in films that were ostensibly not, settling on the intent to horrify and make us complicit in the perversity of that intent as the crucial pre-condition. They name-checked Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Fassbinder’s Fox And His Friends and Bergman’s Shame as tangential horror films. I agree. You don’t gauge your responses to these films the way you would, say, The Exorcist. But anyone familiar with the genre is bound to taste similar flavours in the soup. Here are five more.


 A Field In England (Ben Wheatley, 2013): A war film, a period film, a drug film, a fever dream, a hallucination. By virtue of Wheatley being a “horror” filmmaker, some circles make no bones over slapping the label on this. Suffice to say, it isn’t The Conjuring. That’s a sales pitch, incidentally, not a disclaimer. Also, I like how the title is also its location brief.

Kynodontas (Dogtooth) (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009): You can see this through the cracked prisms of its metaphors, sure, and it has many, from the claustrophobia of families to the subtle totalitarianism of home schooling, but better to come in without blinders and let the weirdness snowball in all its excruciating languor until it smothers you. The last shot still gets under my skin in ways few horror films can.

Leviathan (Lucien Castiang-Taylor, Veronica Pevel, 2012): A documentary that fulfills the terms of the form, immersing itself thoroughly in the environment it’s observing, but by doing so to the degree that it does, planting cameras in the oddest crannies of a fishing trawler, discarding the annotative comforts of talking heads and an editorial that holds your hand as it walks you through, it leaves us open to harm, making a routine night of fishing in the open sea feel like a descent into Hell.

Medusae (Pam Miras, 2017): A young documentarist and her cranky albino son go to an island to make a film about a mysterious cult that summons firstborns as offerings to the ocean. Two thirds of the way in is the point where you recognize Pam Miras, when the strangeness seeps into the mundane with disarming stealth, and disarming poetry, and inexorably takes over the piece. The horror was a lot more overt in her Pascalina, though, perhaps out of how this has a lot more on its mind, and perhaps, too, out of how it taps into a horror that’s too real for her: the horrors of motherhood. Misunderstood and uncategorizable. In other words, totally slipstream.

Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon (Lav Diaz, 2014): Lav Diaz has incurred debts to the genre throughout his career in spurts but here, as if to buffer us from the palpable horror that was Martial Law, his allusive, lo-fi parable, perhaps the most daring, and certainly the most poignant, of his post-Norte renaissance, comes suffused with strange goings-on: a constant hum of existential dread, mysterious cattle mutilations, rumors of an aswang on the prowl and a town that eats itself. . .sort of. The quietly spine-tingling ending to his short Nang Matapos Ang Ulan evoked a quality of unease horror filmmakers would kill to evoke. The sequence here with the mentally-challenged girl writhing while the windows move by themselves one-ups that.


 *Originally published by Esquire

3.12.2017

ALTERED STATE







Almost three years ago,  I dragged myself out of the soft bed at the Hotel Palacky in Karlovy Vary earlier than I should have  and, without sufficient doses of coffee, took in a late morning screening of James Benning’s natural history, and left the cinema famished but giddy with what has by now become a familiar sensation of uplift.

Like every Benning film I've had the pleasure of seeing, natural history, set inside the Vienna Museum of Natural History, frees you up from your fixation on pre-determined narrative shapes while sneaking in a new way, or ways, of seeing a story.  The images are intoxicating in and of themselves, but what’s delightful is the almost musical syncopation of the piece, from the asymmetrical editing, with some cuts lingering while others gone before you can blink almost, to its sound design, the industrial hum of the museum’s veins (storage rooms, boiler rooms, etc.) acting almost as a melodic counterpoint to the relatively hallowed quiet of the museum spaces. Benning's films are ruminations on duration, not merely the passage of time but also the passage of space, and natural history is in many ways the same, but obviously Benning's playing around with his normally rigorous structuralist maneuvers.

We tend to consign the capacity of art to change our lives to our formative years as connoisseurs of whatever culture we consume, when it really should be, and often is, an ongoing proposition. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is the weak shit of the time-trapped. Needless to say, the effect natural history had on me was exactly the same as the effect Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes had on me five years ago: life-altering.

A year ago, my head was swimming in more than its usual soup of anxieties, thinking of time mostly and the speed in which it steals days and people and love and dreams. Then I wake to a Facebook algorithm reminding me it’s been a year since I was a third world country hick at the other end of the first world  and time and love and dreams were my allies. Time flies. Then you die, right. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that: it’s ONLY been a year. Or, rather, it's ONLY been three years give or take. I’m not quite sure why I find that oddly soothing nor why I find this film oddly hopeful still. I know it’s only a movie, and a strange one to attach such emotional and existential baggage to,  but sometimes it’s all I’ve got and some days, man, some days, it’s all I need.

5.06.2016

THE GHOSTS OF WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN

December 2015. I land in Singapore a little past midnight and recognize nothing. The last time I was here was also the first time I was here. That was twenty years ago. Of course, everything had changed. I don’t think I’d recognize the person I was back then anymore either. He was flying out of the country for the first time, a poor boy doing rich boy things. He gaped a lot, if I remember right, mostly at his luck. But then I’ve been gaping a lot lately. Last year was the year Violator underwrote a wanderlust i never thought I had. I flew everywhere with it. Thinking about those seven cities now, I feel a specific permutation of pure, unfettered joy for each. But coming as I do from a middle-class third world household that toes the poverty line on a daily basis, the inept prisms through which I processed them were primarily cultural but also mostly economic. I was still, in many ways, that poor boy. I felt like a country hick bombarded with city awe every single time.

This was different. I flinch a little as the cab leaves the airport and enters the city on the way to Jalan Besar, where my hostel was. The reflux of what felt like nostalgia was so immediate, and so glancing. I wasn’t quite sure why. Not at that moment, at least. This is my second time here but it’s changed so much it might as well be the first. It was like having memories of a place I’ve never been. It only got more severe over the next few days.




The sentient city is a useful myth I milk when I travel. The only foreign city I’ve been to more than twice is Hong Kong.  Hong Kong feels like a favorite chair. The city-tourist give and take is hinged on a warm, worn familiarity. New places feel different, and each new place feels different from the others. No patterns of habit have calcified yet. But the give and take is there. Every bit as intoxicating. As it was now. Only odder.

Oh, nothing extraordinary happened during my five days in Singapore. Yet here I am, looking back and swooning a little. I was determined to make it my eighth and last stop before the holidays. I had my reasons. It was my first foreign city, after all. I have friends coming here with me, too. I  have friends who live here and promised to come and watch then later ply me with drinks, which they did. Then there was the matter of promises I never made but squandered anyway.

People who mean a lot to me had come here in the middle of the noughties, to seek their fortunes, to run away, all that. I almost lived here myself. I always hoped to come around and pay them visits. It was so close. But I did none of that. Now I can’t. And here I am anyway. Wandering around between duties, soaking up the city like I would any other city, only this one seemed more haunted than the others, tinged with a luscious, unforgettable bittersweetness. Nothing was familiar yet somehow everything was. The hawkers, the museums, the galleries, the vinyl shops, the bookstores, the hipster cinema, the vine-encrusted university, the ornate restaurant, the colossal hotel, the posh shoe stores, the posher after-party, the videoke lounge, the old buildings, the prickly heat. I realize it's the itinerary of the visit that never was but should have been. Turns out it wasn’t nostalgia after all. Singapore used to embody the first time I rose above my station. Years later, it embodies instead the time of my life that got away.

4.10.2016

BLADE OF GRASS

















The last film of a dear old friend who is sorely missed is screening tonight (April 10), 7 PM at the Green Papaya for free. Please come if you are.

1.01.2016

LET'S KILL MAINDIE: MY YEAR IN CINEMA




2015 was like a crack den for cinephiles. On a more personal note, a lot of my friends made films, debuts and otherwise, and am proud of them all, at least those that I was able to see. I was nominally "involved" in a couple and even "acted" in one. I did miss a lot, domestic and foreign both (All three Arabian Nights and Journey To The Shore are my gravest sins of omission but there's more). I did somehow see more than I usually do on any given year, despite moving around a lot, most of them in cinemas, most of them in Manila. I was awed by some, entertained by the rest, don't remember hating anything.

The films on the list below go beyond petty star ratings and the usual dichotomies of good/bad. I don't necessarily love all of them. Most of them am wildly ambivalent about. Some, in fact, I have a lot of issues with. Issues that I'm still grappling with. They're just the ones that, months later, still cling to me and won't shut up. Not my favorite trait in people but what I usually look for in my favorite films. The only other thing they have in common is that I saw them in a cinema. No torrents here.

The Benning film (in picture) stays permanently on top. God, what a beautiful, beautiful film that was/is. The rest tend to shuffle in preference, and at such a skittish rate as to make the ranking moot. I'll probably write at length about the domestic ones on the list (and a few more from this year) at some point. But for now, this'll do.

1. Natural History (James Benning, USA, KVIFF)
2. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumbuoi, Romania, Cinema One Originals)
3. Right Now Wrong Then (Hong Sang Soo, Korea, Cinema One Originals)
4. Cyber D3Vil X Ahas (Timmy Harn, Philippines, Cinema One Originals) / Ruined Heart (Khavn De La Cruz, Philippines, Special Screening)
5. Sicario (Denis De Villeneuve, USA, Domestic Release)
6. Apocalypse Child (Mario Cornejo, Philippines,QCinema)
7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia, Domestic Release)
8. Honor Thy Father (Erik Matti, Philippines, MMFF) / Dayang Asu (Dog Nation) (Bor Ocampo, Philippines, Cinema One Originals)
9. 100 Yen Love (Masaharu Take, Japan, BiFan)
10. The Fourth Direction (Gurvinder Singh, India, SGIFF)
11. The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers, UK, Jio Mami)
12. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA, Domestic Release) / The Witch (Robert Eggers, USA, KVIFF)
13. Matangtubig (Jet Leyco, Philippines, QCinema) / Kapatiran (Pepe Diokno, Phiilippines, QCinema)

11.27.2015

THE DEVIL IN LION CITY




Singapore was my first foreign city. I’ve never been back but it has since had resonance  for other, deeply personal reasons. Needless to say, I’m excited to return.

Violator screens next Friday, December 4, 11:59 PM, at the Projector. Come over and say hello. I’ll buy you a drink.

11.24.2015

PHANTOM POWER IN TAIPEI CITY










On my last day in Taipei, we had started showing each other pictures of our family on our phones. We being festival volunteers Lily and Daniel and myself.

It has come to this.

“You’re strange,” Daniel tells me. He meant it as a compliment. “I think I’m going to miss you.”  Likewise, man.

I almost didn’t make it here. I missed my flight on Monday, thanks in part to the epic disruption APEC smugly wreaked on all our lives. Come Tuesday, though, it was all sorted out, but at the expense of a forfeited ticket and with only three whole days to take in as much of Taipei, the city, and Taipei, the film festival, as I could.

But time in other countries turns to jelly, the way it becomes slower and faster at the same time. And Lily, it turns out, was the consummate guide. She had mapped out a wall-to-wall, and off the wall, itinerary that had us steering clear of the beaten tourist tracks and instead taking in, among others, the new Tsai Ming Liang short, an artist space with a balloon floor, an election campaign headquarters that looked more like a design boutique, a 24 hour bookstore, a calligraphy lesson, a secondhand vinyl shop, a Hou Hsiao Hsien exhibit, Hou Hsiao Hsien himself, endless walls of vibrant graffiti and an odd detour talking about The Act of Killing on the rooftop of a bar run by a beer gourmet named Brandon who had bicycled around the world and had the book to prove it. That night at the bar alone would have sealed this trip. But on my last night, we went to a gig at a local livehouse (the Taiwanese term for club) called Sappho where a young fusion band tore through a scorching cover of Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly. If Mumbai was all seduction and opulence, Taipei was pop-up and agog.













In a world where life is measured by what you have to show for living it,  this has become the only currency left to me: the soaking up of experience for the sake of soaking up experience and the soft, often sentimental, traction of strangers you meet and connect with and who are gone before your friendship calcifies into permanence.

This is not the life I was used to. Soul-delay and displacement, brief encounters and magical thinking. Half the time, I feel like a ghost haunting myself. But I don’t want it to end.  It will end, of course, but knowing that can be its own phantom power, too. If nothing else, it blurs the future enough that I don’t live in it as much.

Not that I don’t fear the future anymore, its inevitability and the disease it carries. Every night, when all the noise dwindles, I give in to my anxieties. This is, I suppose, the inescapable fate of the chronic, aging over-thinker. But the cosmos has thrown me a bone. All this started from an irrational fear that I was going to die soon, and two years since my inadequate prophecy, everything remains in blissful function. My dead-of-night bartering these days is ultimately out of some greed for continuance. I asked for renewed vigor so I could keep working. Because, at fucking last, work has become a font of joy.

I feel myself getting older but also sort of growing older. I hope that this is somehow enough. I hope, too, that when all this ends, it will end well, away from the crowd and with grace and composure and a lack of complaint.

We left Sappho with the lush, sexy strains of Feel Like Making Love still ringing in my ears. Lily asks to have one last cigarette in the rain before we parted ways. She was going off to meet her boyfriend. Daniel was taking me back to the hotel.

“You tired?” Lily asks me.

“No.”

“You’re lying.” She laughs.

It was half past midnight. I had been up since 6. We had been walking since 2. I had an early flight and needed to be up by 5. I was tired, sure.  But I also wasn’t lying. This was, I realize, the time of my life. I wanted to be awake for every minute of it.

11.01.2015

GO-TO HORRORS

Asked what my go-to horror film for Halloween is and I gave five, two of which aren't exactly films.



THE DREAMLIKE LANGUOR OF THE SUPERNATURAL

Bogna Konior interviewed me about Violator, horror, cinema, horror cinema, ghost stories and typhoons. You can DL the PDF of our conversation here.

5.25.2015

FIGHT CLUB : 10 UNDERRATED PINOY ACTION FILMS

The original version of a shorter piece I did for Spot.PH which you can find here.





We laugh now, at least I hope we do, at the incoherent bluster Hollywood has turned their iteration of action cinema into, all shaky-cam confusion and cartoon violence like some bastard love child of Michael Bay and Luc Besson with a videogame for a brain. But in its heyday, our own, and rather ubiquitous action cinema gave us a few things to laugh at, too, even vilify, not least being the laziness of its set pieces but also the lurid caricatures, the sexist double-standards, the casual misogyny, the same old eye-for-an-eye claptrap. Growing up watching these films on TV, though, I was in gleeful thrall, taking it all in with virtually no shred of irony. A tremendous amount of it was crap, sure, but nostalgia tends to be a lot more forgiving.

Our combat aesthetics are of course nowhere near as intoxicating as the balletic anti-gravity of Hong Kong or the ultraviolent minimalism of Japan. It’s closer to the graceless brutalism of Don Siegel with a lot of street thrown in. And in the right hands, it can and does attain a brutish poetry all its own. Lofty words, perhaps, but this isn’t merely the nostalgia talking. If it were, the list below would be rife with films like Muslim .357 (FPJ), Ulo Ng Gapo (Rudy Fernandez) and Notoryus (Victor Neri), personal favorites that hold up rather well, notwithstanding my biases and their excesses. But instead, the films on the list are, give or take a few, the ones that go off tangent, that are underrated by dint of being underseen, that you probably didn’t realize were action films, and would hotly debate its inclusion. The fun stuff, if you will. Some still indulge the clichés, sure, a cackling villain here, Old Testament retribution there, but this time in the service of characters less hewn from cardboard. And much as the hand-to-hand still tends to go on forever, in the few instances where there is actual hand-to-hand, it’s often glorious. The right hands, yeah. The list detours at one point into the 70s, takes in two mongrel specimens that expand the definition of what an action film can be and ropes in a few post-studio independent films that genre purists may balk at for being included but are at the very least spiritually kindred, nailing the essence of the genre long after it’s been proclaimed dead.

 Let’s do this, then.

 10. Kastilyong Buhangin (Mario O’Hara, 1980)

Only Mario O’Hara would be nutty enough to graft a pop musical onto a prison melodrama, package the odd cocktail as a Lito Lapid vehicle about doomed love then make it all somehow mesh. The scene where Lapid takes down a roomful of goons by sliding on the wet tiles of a communal shower room should be enshrined in set piece nirvana. Even if your first response is to stifle a chuckle, the sequence is so amazing that when you at last let that smirk loose, it would’ve turned into a whoop of joy.

 9. Ang Utol Kong Hoodlum (Deo Fajardo Jr., 1991)

He got more range when he got older but in his bad boy prime, the younger, coltish Robin Padilla could play that one note that was the whole of his range like a gunslinger, milking his street cred into iconicity, not so much a mere action star but almost a folk hero of the thug life. My favorite scene here is when he casually strolls into the enemy’s lair drinking kerosene from a gin bottle then spews fire on them. Enter the dragon, something like that. Far from under-rated perhaps but sort of essential.

 8. Utol (Toto Natividad, 1995)

This one sticks closer to the genre playbook than anything else here but is somehow shot through with more nuance and pathos than you’re used to. Ricky Lee and Jerry Sineneng, who wrote the screenplay from parts of an obscure American TV movie, bring an outsider sensibility to bear on the catalog of tropes it indulges, leeching it of its dimwitted crudities, leaving its stars with a lot of room to maneuver. And the chemistry between Montano and Neri was so electric, you could hang everything on their swagger and get away with it. Action Film 101, really, which is what the film mostly does anyway. Like Ang Utol Kong Hoodlum, this is nowhere near under-rated, and certainly not under-seen, but it’s become one of those genre touchstones that’s stupid to omit from lists like these. That, and the final act train shootout is a blast.

 7. Engkwentro (Pepe Diokno, 2009)

 Essentially an extended chase scene through a gangland slum oppressive with an evil presence you never really see except as a blurry photograph on a campaign poster and a disembodied voice on the radio. If its making the list rubs you the wrong way, think of it as stripping the genre down to its guts, all anxious motion and the constant threat of violence.

 6. Ishmael (Richard Somes, 2010)

Somes has been working this patriarchal strain of male cinema from the get-go that when he calls this neo-Western-in-all-but-name his valentine to the domestic action film, he only means it’s the one that wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. Works best as a showcase for his fluency in expressionist delirium and mythopoeic hyperbole, and when Ronnie Lazaro duct-tapes two machetes on his broken arms before going postal on what seems like an entire town, you’re either given over or beyond its reach. I’d succumb. 

5. Carnivore (Ato Bautista, 2008)

Another left-field choice, sure, and one with tangential parallels to Batch 81, which no one would qualify as an action film, not least because it doesn’t have the visceral immediacy Carnivore does. But where Mike De Leon was using fraternity culture as a lens to interrogate fascism and torture and the regime it was made under, Bautista and collaborator Shugo Pracio are using it to delve into the male psyche and its predisposition to violence and brutality: the macho posture as primal scream, which, taken one way, is the quintessence of action cinema.

 4. Dugo Ng Birhen: El Kapitan (Rico Maria Ilarde, 1999)

 Rico Ilarde makes horror films with a weird, lurid, Lovecraftian imagination no one else can touch, that tends to overshadow how much of a pulse he has for action, despite the way he flaunts it in nearly every film he’s made. This is where he full-hogs the mash-up, a zombie film that’s also a pulp adventure, closer to Doc Savage than George Romero, with a full-on action star at its center. The film is almost two decades old but its action scenes still have a rigorous coherence that make all those shakycam fetishists come off like the wankers that they are.

 3. Ekis (Erik Matti. 1999)

His maximalist aesthetic notwithstanding, something the sinewy noir of OTJ served well, Matti has arguably more game scaled down, and despite one set piece in this ensemble piece about small-time crooks on the lam (a shootout in a swimming pool) defying logic to the point of almost pulling you out of the film, the rest of it, from the testosterone dynamics of the exceptional cast (Martinez, Raymond Bagatsing, Ace Espinosa) to the way it assumes you’ll catch up without expository pandering, is conceived with such a raw, almost fearless enthusiasm, you tend to overlook what is most likely the clammy hands of studio interference.

 2. Return of the Dragon / Revenge of the Dragon (Celso Ad. Castillo, 1974) (see picture)

Ramon Zamora was a comedian who parlayed his resemblance to Bruce Lee into an auxiliary career as an action star, making a string of soulless but profitable chop sockey pastiches and at one point, being shortlisted to play Lee in the biopic (Dragon) that would star Jason Scott Lee decades later. The trump card Celso Kid pulls here is tonal, the way everything is saturated in this bleak, humorless, fatalistic gravity, taking the standard revenge plot and twisting it into a grueling exorcism of trauma. Not that he forgets he’s making an action film, of course. The entire final act is set in a desert where Zamora takes on . . .well, everyone, which is to say, he takes on the world.

1.Bagong Hari (Mario O’Hara, 1986)

O’Hara again. In the beachside fight sequence that opens Bagong Hari , the conspiracy thriller that many proclaim is his lost masterpiece, two shirtless men fight to the death over a golden butterfly knife. There are at least two more action set pieces with arguably more bristle but it’s what O’Hara does here that remains his most striking inversion of genre tropes. The way he abstracts the action by closing in on the combatants, then freezing the frame on every contortion of pain, not only creates this glitchy staccato that would foreshadow the film’s own peculiar narrative rhythms, but also deconstructs the action film for what it really is but often refuses to assume: an apotheosis of pain.

This is by no means a complete list and if any of this tickles your fancies, you can slake your thirst further by looking for Celso Ad Castillo’s Asedillo, Lino Brocka’s Santiago, Tikoy Aguiliz’s Biyaheng Langit, Chito Roño’s La Vida Rosa and Boy Golden and, of course, Erik Matti’s OTJ, which you really ought to have seen by now.

4.09.2015

LAST CHANCE TO SEE




Violator screens on April 14 at 7 PM. School of Design And Arts Theater, College of Saint Benilde. Tickets at 150 per head.

Because people STILL keep asking me where, when and how they can see this. Here you go, then. This really may be your last chance at least until November when the 2015 festival rolls out. I hope some, if not all, of you can come. Much as we'd like to have more screenings, it's really not up to us, and the truth is, it really isn't that simple. I'd like to see Soap Opera, Esprit D'Corps, Red and Seoul Mates on the big screen myself, since I missed them during the festival. But I understand why I can't. Believe me, the filmmakers would like for you to see them, too. That Thing Called Tadhana (April 10), Soap Opera (April 13) and Lorna (April 15) will also be screening at the same venue.

See you there.

1.31.2015

ZERO COMMENTS

I gave in to TinyLetter. Subcribe if you please. I'll be sending out my first letter before night falls. And hopefully every morning from here on.




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11.02.2014

THE DATES

TITO BOY

THE DEVIL AND THE DETAILS

POST-PARTUM POST

Violator has been like a cocoon. It’s a week before our gala and it’s a week packed with work to do but I am more relieved than stressed out. I may be the only one who feels this way. I think everybody else on the team just wants to get this over with and move on to whatever’s next, mainly sleep. I still want to work. Because if there’s anything I’m dreading over the next two weeks, it’s really the void you’re left with after finishing something. I’ve always been flippant about the whole process, perhaps out of fear that I may lapse into the icky preciousness that comes attached to filmmaking these days. Truth is, we lucked out. We lucked out when we got picked. We lucked out when we finished. Hopefully, we’ll luck out when it shows. Skill and passion had fuck-all to do with it, much as we may have had both in some measure. Despite all my nonchalance, though, I can’t deny how cathartic it’s been. But more than cathartic, it’s been incredibly comforting, the comfort that comes from constant company and a sense of purpose. And when that comfort bottoms out, I know how terribly, profoundly empty it can be. Fellow filmmakers refer to it as a post-partum depression of sorts. And right now, I’m feeling the first murmurs. It doesn’t look promising when it comes into full bloom. Oh well.

On the last day of the shoot, I was asked to make a speech to the staff. I got shy and asked everyone out to drink instead. All I really wanted to say, then and now, were three things: Thank You, Sorry and Let’s Do It Again. I may be romanticizing this just a bit but much as we’ve been shooting for four months, it really feels, for me, like a culmination of the last seven years. I don’t want to make too much of anything. Pfft. We just made a film, we didn’t cure a disease. But folded into this context, my gratitude and apology and desire for continuance does extend far beyond the cast and crew, beyond the people who weren’t part of either but gave hands-on/vocal/moral support, and to the friendships I made in the last seven years that have been, directly or indirectly, influential to my so-called creative life. If you happen to watch the film and wonder why your name is on there, you know you are among these. If I never get to make another film, at least I’ve completed the narrative of the last seven years, hopefully without getting too precious or too sentimental, even if it’s just names on a credit scroll. Thank you, sorry and let’s do something together as soon as possible. Time is short and life is running out. See you in a week.

10.23.2014

VIOLATOR


First trailer is live. Dig in, people. And see you on November 9-18.

10.22.2014

ALMOST ALMOST-THERE




















The question I was asked most after the Cinema One gig became public was, predictably enough, the one about transitioning from “film criticism” to “film making” and how it felt, or to be more blunt about it, how it felt to turn the tables on myself, as if by making a film I was also making a stick for people to punish me with, as if the transition was a violation (no pun intended) of some clandestine transaction.

Outside of the French New Wave point men and Roger Ebert writing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for Russ Meyer and the latter-day emergence of Kleber Mendonça Filho, cinematic history has no active paradigm for the variety of cross-over I am apparently undertaking, Which is not to say, by any means, that I place myself in such esteemed company, as a reflection of caliber or even of taste,  just that the phenomenon, if you could call it that, is rare and  there is some dissonance in the notion of film critics (or film bloggers, as I often correct people when they refer to me as one) flip-flopping between film writing and film making that isn’t there when people of other disciplines do it: musicians, actors, comic book creators, novelists, visual artists.

I presume, and it's possible I presume wrongly, that this dissonance comes out of how critics are regarded as the nemeses of artists, a view reinforced with even more anatagonism than it deserves in our  tiny film scene, where the default setting seems to be  to boil everything down to a sports rivalry. Arthouse vs. commercial, indie vs. mainstream, Nora vs. Vilma. All that. Sleeping with the enemy is a "no-go". Incidentally, the only other question I was asked as often was if the baggage of expectations makes me afraid.

Ah hell. This could all be disproportionate bluster on my part. And I do have an answer to both questions: I don't know.  Not to be coy but other matters have been running enough interference to distract me and are far more pressing. For one thing, the series of processes getting here, from the physical writing to the pitching, was  a series of  severely tunnel-visioned whirlwinds of activity stacked upon one another with little airlock inbetween, and that’s even before shooting started, which brought with it a new series of tunnel-visioned whirlwinds. A filmmaker friend of mine predicted my life would stop once we started and he was more right than I gave him credit for. Only, the rest of my life didn't stop along with me and neither did the incessant nag of all my current non-Violator issues, from livelihood to health. These days, as we edge closer and closer to dubout, I can't help but feel a bit like that old director in Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! who couldn't finish editing his film knowing he would die if he did.  I'm not implying anything as melodramatic, and a huge part of my not wanting this to end has to do with how fun and cathartic it's been. Come November 20, though, I wake up, hopefully with a hangover, but most certainly without an excuse to defer a more thorough confrontation with my issues. You can understand how backlash is the least of my concerns.

10.14.2014

10.12.2014

10.11.2014

HARMONY



First teaser goes live. Raise the roof.

More on what Violator is in a few days.

6.29.2014

THE DAPPER BOND








Call me weird but in the speculative frenzy over who the next James Bond was going to be after Pierce Brosnan broke loose from the franchise, my draft pick was never the crowd favorite Clive Owen but rather Tilda Swindon. Tilda had the bone structure and the sartorial cunning and the acting chops for it. If Cate Blanchett can pull off a convincing Bob Dylan, 007 would be a piece of cake for Tilda. And an androgynous Bond might just be precisely the sort of trangressive endorphin the franchise needs. In my wildly, wishfully hallucinating mind, I pictured Grant Morrison writing the script, Portishead scoring, John Woo directing and Tilda totally rocking the ubiquitous tux, the de facto uniform of Bond. If she got the job, this entire piece would have been all about her.

Roger Moore, though, he never did quite rock that tux, did he? I bring him up first because I really liked his Bond, possibly a bit more than Sean Connery. Moore had a tinge of smarmy perv uncle to his look, and I always thought he should come back to the franchise as a villain. His Bond films are the Bond films I seem to go back to the most.  Live And Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, even Moonraker. They were the most fun, the most self-aware, at least. And that’s mostly out of how Moore always had a comic mischief about him, a sense almost of his own silliness, and if nothing else, it fed a unique current through his run, and somehow neutralized the potential horrors his horrible wardrobe might have wrought had he been on the wrong side of dour. A function of era, perhaps, his dress code, but there is a reason he’s almost always singled out as the worst-dressed Bond. It wasn’t just all those leisure suits. But they sure didn’t help. Specially that blue one.

Connery, on the other hand, gets the good grooming thumbs up almost by default, perhaps as a testament to the wonders of Brylcreem, perhaps as a concession to his universal exalting as the Bond to beat. The first two Connerys, Dr. No and From Russia With Love are superlative, sure, both filmwise and fashionwise, but it was his third, Goldfinger, that broke through the roof, but it also had that horrifying blue toweling playsuit (see picture) which no amount of nostalgia can re-assess, not even forcibly. Connery did have the advantage of having the sort of lean frame on which any piece of apparel will hang with some measure of style. But there’s an anonymity to his suavity, a dapperness without flair, almost generic, by-the-numbers.  Years later, and Pierce Brosnan would have the same dilemma, which isn’t surprising given how his fundamental approach to playing Bond was to channel as much of Connery as he can, despite being the one Bond actor who feels as if he was born to play the part.

I’m not being merely contrarian, then, when I say I proclaim affinity for the remaining three Bonds, in terms of what they brought to the films and in terms of what they brought to the styling. I’ve always rooted for Timothy Dalton, but his brief two-film run was saddled largely by indifference: lackluster scripts and even less enthusiastic filmmaking. Daniel Craig was, in a nutshell, Jason-Statham-As-Bond, and did take getting used to but if nothing else, his Bond is a visceral upgrade and with  Skyfall, gave the world the only other Sam Mendes film that’s actually any good. (after Road To Perdition) Also, the man can wear anything. But it’s the one-off Bond, George Lazenby, that gets the maddest props from me and this is no underdog vote,  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service just happens to be my favorite Bond. Lazenby’s disadvantage was that, for more than half of the film, he was undercover, pretending to be a character that was the diametric opposite of Bond, at one point even wearing a kilt.  But none of the Bonds before and after him gave that tux as much justice as he did and when he abandoned his disguise just before the climactic ski chase scene, it may have been a sleek jet-blue ski suit he changed into, but he made it feel like a badass superhero costume.


*Originally published in Vault

ORIENT PEARLS






Hong Kong was the first kiss in my eventual, and undying, romance with all cinemas Asian. I call it a romance because that’s precisely what it is, a love affair. And because, well, there are women involved. I’m talking about movie star women, of course, opulent peacocks, dream girls on parade. My first movie star crush was Nora Miao, whom I’ve only seen in the Bruce Lee film Return of the Dragon and nowhere else. I should’ve known that was the start of something. Much later, there was Joey Wong and Shu Qui and Zhao Wei and Karen Mok and Gigi Leung and Miriam Yeung and Jo Kuk and Kelly Chen. There was Sammi Cheng bustling through the Johnnie To/Wai Kai Fai office rom-com Needing You. And Cecilia Cheung grieving her way back to love in Derek Yee’s tearjerky Lost In Time. Some of them were ghosts, as all women you love eventually become. Some of them could take me in a fight. Some of them melt you with a gaze. And some of them flew.

Brigitte Lin did a lot of transgender flying, and fighting, in Tsui Hark’s hectic and wondrous 1986 wu xia inversion Peking Opera Blues. When Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon emerged in 2000, it all but brokered the mainstreaming of wu xia cinema outside of Asia and the cinephile fringes, but you only thought hoary old paradigms of the Asian leading lady shifted in its wake. That was really nothing more than the flex and fallout of American hegemony. Brigitte, and really, Michelle Yeoh, among many others, had, at this point, been doing it for years. Ang Lee himself was merely riffing off King Hu’s 1966 masterpiece Come Drink With Me, going as far as casting its feisty leading lady Chang Pei-Pei as Jade Fox. China, and HK, and really Japan and South Korea and the Philippines, have long-standing traditions when it came to the prominence of their leading ladies, a lot of their films tend to be centered by women as a result. Peking Opera Blues had no less than three.

Before she retired, in a canny bit of stunt casting, Brigitte Lin gleefully subverted her own image as HK showbiz royalty, by putting on a trashy blonde wig and an even trashier raincoat straight out of John Cassavetes’ Gloria for Wong Kar Wai. It was an iconic last bow. But Chungking Express, if you press me to a corner, was all about Faye Wong, whose character, also named Faye and arguably the prototype for Sinitta Boonyasak’s Noy  and Apinya Sakujaroensuk’s Ploy in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life In The Universe and Ploy, respectively, as well as Jun Ji Hyun’s nameless girl in Jae-young Kwak’s My Sassy Girl, was every bit the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before Hollywood coined the term and claimed it for their own. Only none of them had the self-aware affectation that makes it such a grating trope. Faye, hair shorn to that of a boy and making pink gloves sexy as she sneaks into heartbroken cop Tony Leung’s apartment and stealthily insinuates herself in the minutiae of his life before turning it on its head, was, aside from being almost intolerably cute, effortless and unfussy and fresh.

 You could tease a meta throb from the casting of Brigitte Lin and Faye Wong as two halves of a diptych, a sense of a torch being passed perhaps, with Brigitte being the last of her generation of leading ladies and Faye being the first of hers. When Joseph Campbell said the condition of a movie star is also the condition of a deity, he was mostly talking about Hollywood movie stars and how they can exist in several places at once, that is, on the screen and in real life. But he was also talking about this heightened, almost otherworldly, glamour you associate with them, how they were larger than life abstracts. Asian movie stars were, by refreshing contrast, life-sized. I’m not just talking about Faye here, of course, or for that matter, Hong Kong, but also of Japan’s Chiyaki Kuriyama and Taiwan’s Chieng Shiang Chyi and Korea’s Lee Young Ae and Yunjin Kim and our own Angeli Bayani and Alessandra De Rossi. These are women with presence, stars with wattage, but with a girl next door vulnerability and naturalism.

Even Gong Li and Maggie Cheung had this earthy quality. These two, were, for a time, the Western embodiment of the Asian leading lady. Gong Li’s work with Zhang Ymou and Chen Kaige were world cinema game-changers. And Maggie Cheung had her own formidable arthouse cachet with Stanley Kwan’s Actress, Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story and, more prominently, Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood for Love. Despite the profile and the overtures, Maggie never succumbed to the Hollywood cross-over that all but dismantles the careers of Asian filmmakers and actors, with the possible exception of Ang Lee. She did make one Hollywood art film with Gong, Wayne Wang’s middling Chinese Box, but that was as far as she got. Gong Li, too, had said no to Michael Mann the first time. She said no, in fact, to Heat, because she didn’t want to be a prop, which may come off a little harsh, except she totally would’ve been one. She did eventually say yes, to Mann’s reboot of his own Miami Vice, and to a part that was more fulsome, had more consequence. The film was thoroughly excellent if sadly misunderstood, but her dalliance with the refurbished Crockett and Tubbs was unnecessary. The only thing it proved, apart from the impeccable taste Mann has in actresses, was that she didn’t need Hollywood. None of them ever did.












1. Faye Wong : I’m biased. And tremendously so. Chungking Express happens to be my favorite film. Of all time.  Oh, but Faye is so puckish and adorable here as to be almost indelible. She was last seen in 2046 and has since focused more on her music than on films, realizing perhaps that she can never outshine this with any other film role. Even one that’s directed by Wong Kar Wai.

2. Sammi Cheng :  Sammi’s acumen for screwball makes her a shoo-in for rom-coms. That’s her winning streak, all those Johnnie To comedies, of which Love On A Diet, where she acted through a fat suit, was the funniest, and Romancing In Thin Air, from just a couple of years ago, the most sublime.

3. Angeli Bayani  and  4. Alessandra De Rossi :  The only time they were together was in Ka Oryang playing embattled activists.  But they’ve cut their own respective swaths through domestic independent cinema on their own, not to mention laid claim to serious Cannes pedigrees: Alessandra, significantly, in Raya Martin’s Independencia and Auraeus Solito’s Busong, and Angeli, as a semi-regular member of Lav Diaz’s rotating ensemble last seen at the center of his exuberantly-praised Cannes film Norte.

5. Cecilia Cheung : For my money, HK cinema’s prettiest face.  That she has the acting chops, too, seals it. Her work in the Korean drama Failan was her calling card to the world. But I’m a huger fan of her heartbroken single mother in Lost in Time.

6. Chen Shiang Chyi : Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl flies to Paris. Boy starts changing all the clocks in Taiwan to Paris time. What Time Is It There? is another lifelong favorite. Which is to say I’m tremendously biased here, too. But she’s only been in nearly every film by Tsai Ming Liang, and one with Edward Yang.  Tough to argue with credentials like that.

 7. Jun Jy Hyun:  Last time we see her was part of the massive all-star ensemble of  The Thieves but sometimes all it takes is one iconic role to seal your fate. She had two: My Sassy Girl and Il Mare, classics of modern Korean cinema made more essential by the dreadful American remakes.

8. Chiyaki Kuriyama  : As Go Go Yibari, she was Kill Bill's entire surfeit of cool. But you’re really better off going to Sion Sono’s Exte Hair Extensions, Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale.

9 .Maggie Cheung and 10. Gong Li : Before she wore all those opulent cheongsams in In The Mood For Love, I succumbed to Maggie Cheung when she walked on the rooftops of Paris dressed as the cat burglar Irma Vep. And much as Zhang Ymou had a hand in it, Gong Li converted me to Chinese period drama as the longsuffering wife in To Live.  A little predictable to name-check them, perhaps, but ultimately foolish to omit.


*Originally published in Vault

ZERO FOR CONDUCT


Apologies. This is terribly late and worse, this isn't even how I usually write these year-end pieces. I never expected the other writing I'm doing to take up  as much of my time as it did. My only consolation, for those seeking some, is that most of the films on this list have been written about more exhaustively elsewhere and don’t need my endorsement. I was also going to rant at length about the culture of versus that domestic cinema flies like a flag and flaunts like a cause and continues to retard us in  far worse ways than nostalgia does, out of how it draws and quarters the holistic joy of cinephilia into a rigid picking of sides, a sports rivalry, if you will, between arthouse and commercial, independent and mainstream, genre and non-genre, narrative and experimental, this festival and that festival, this studio and that studio, this filmmaker and that filmmaker, this batch of filmmakers and that batch of filmmakers, filmmakers and film critics, digital and analog, Golden Age and New Wave, Nora and Vilma. But I’ll leave the bulk of it for another, more exhaustive piece except to say that if our sensibilities, as an audience and as a culture, don't have the latitude to make room for all of the above, then dumbed-down really is an understatement.

My rules are stringent and geographical. Everything considered for the list must have been shown publicly in Manila during the year, be it a domestic release, a brief festival run or a special screening. And both local and foreign films must share the same list. Recently, for fun, I've even ranked the films, although the ranking tends to be a lark that's open to change and is, in all likelihood, inconsequential. Part of why I made these rules up is as a deterrent to the cloying sameness with which (predominantly Western) lists lapse into every time the year ends. The other reason is to force me to watch as many Hollywood and local studio films that saw a domestic release as I can, to level the field, if you will. And this year, I saw , if not everything, a lot more than I have on any given year, and if they're not here, that means I have no opinion on them, or they were awful. I was as visible as I ever was at all five film festivals in Manila. And last year was a terribly exciting time at the movies, specially locally. But through some mishap of time and traffic and life, there were a few films I meant to see but was not able to, my annual sins of omission, if you will. Which is to say that the only reason no mention of Ang Huling Cha Cha Ni Anita, The Guerilla Is A Poet, Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin, Purok 7, Porno, Babagwa, Woman of the Ruins, Otso or Shift is made here is because I didn't see them.




A few shout-outs are in order, for the films that, for some reason or the other,  I didn't have space for, and some of which have found their own measure of traction and their own measure of love and fandom and which deserve a second look. My honorable mentions, then, most are flawed, some terribly so, but they were nevertheless, for various reasons, bright spots. Alphabetically: Alamat Ni China Doll (Adolfo Alix Jr.),  Kabisera (Borgy Torre),  Man of Steel (Zack Snyder), Pantomina Sa Mga Anyong Ikinubli Ng Alon (Jon Lazam), Puti (Mike Alcazaren), Sana Dati (Jerrold Tarrog), The Search For Weng Weng (Andrew Leavold) and The Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell).

Oh, and I do realize that #4 on the list below constitutes a glaring conflict of interest. But what can I do? I loved the film, despite my involvement. So fuck it. My  best films of 2013, then. Intolerably overdue and in an order that tends to change every day.

1. LEVIATHAN (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, USA, Fete De La WSK!)

2. ISKALAWAGS (Keith Deligero, Philippines, Cinema One Originals)

3. NEIGHBORING SOUNDS (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, Cinemanila)

4. LUKAS NINO (John Torres, Philippines, QCinema)

5. OTJ (Erik Matti, Philippines, Domestic Release)

6. NORTE END OF HISTORY (Lav Diaz, Philippines, Cinemanila)

7. ANG PAGBABALAT NG AHAS (Timmy Harn, Philippines, Cinema One Originals)

8. HOW TO DISAPPEAR COMPLETELY (Raya Martin, Philippines, Cinemanila)

9. BUKAS NA LANG SAPAGKAT GABI NA (Jet Leyco, Philippines, Cinema One Originals)

10. HELI (Amat Escalante, Mexico, Cinemanila)

11. THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark, Cinamanila)

12. BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Richard Linklater, USA, Domestic Release)

13. THE HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG (Peter Jackson, New Zealand, Domestic Release)

3.23.2014

IN THE SUPER AVILYN OF YOUR LOVE




"Every mixtape tells a story. Put them together and they add up the story of a life." - Rob Sheffield, Love Is A Mixtape


I am a tiny master of mixtapes with battle plans and The Distance Between Us was my ground zero. It had a Fra Lippo Lippi title track and the songs ran out of air on Side B. Corny, melodramatic, unremarkable but primordial. And a hit. Also, I got better at it.

I came to mixtapes with no guru nor method. I just knew to make them and what to make them for. I thought myself alone in the endeavor, a lonesome freak. And it wasn't until much later that the point of making one veered away from the romantic and that I would meet others with passions just like mine. But back then, everybody else around me just bought greeting cards. Some took the trouble to write love letters. I wrote some of my own, too, and ghost-wrote a few. But I couldn't help myself. Mixtapes verged on the sort of social deficit that makes ordinary people give bedroom shut-ins like me odd looks. And I do have some way with words. But there are spots they can't hit that words with a tune under it can.

" . . . that's how you tell (someone) you like them, you make them tapes of songs that are secretly about how you feel . . ." - Mary Jane Watson, Sensatonial Spiderman Annual 1 : To Have And To Hold

I make mixtapes for the world, old friends, new friends, future friends. With toil and trouble. And a programmers' zeal. But it's the type Mary Jane talks about that's my original bill of goods, my kung fu . This type of mixtape is the shared conspiracy of the tongue-tied and terrified, smoke signals to possible lovers, coveting your attention if nothing else but can I carry your books and walk you home and can we talk from time to time and maybe dance a little and how did you like the third song on Side B? I was born with benign stage fright, the quintessentially and at times painfully shy guy with a slightly overdeveloped mush gland. I came to mixtapes naturally. I never figured Mary Jane to be the sort who would,though.

That bit with the mixtape's from when she and Peter Parker were still teenagers stumbling into each other. She overcame her shyness, Peter never quite did. But in tracing their invincible history Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca's To Have And To Hold nails their dynamic - - -and makes me believe in the social anomaly of their union more than Douglas Sirk can: headstrong movie star who can have anyone she wants marrying her nerdy high school science teacher childhood friend. I've re-read this too many times to count and not only does it still get all swoony but it still leaves no shred of doubt that the title would have been better off had Joe Quesada not put the marriage asunder.

Fraction milks everything J.Michael Straczynski believed in one last time here and gives it throb. And the throb will have to do until the next status quo. "I'll be back," Peter tells himself as he says goodbye to Mary Jane in one of many flashback sequences. "I swear. For you, I'll always be back." Leaving is chickenshit and staying takes guts. Superhero guts.

Rob Sheffield and his wife Renee in Love Is A Mixtape had the same dynamic as Peter and Mary Jane. Like me and like Peter, Sheffield's a semi-reformed bedroom shut-in prone to backslide, too. And Renee was the girl whose lust for life lured and kept him out of it. Tornado and her wallflower. It's the same . . . no, it's the only dynamic I can aspire to.


"Girls take up a lot of room. I had a lot of room for this one." - Rob Sheffield (Love Is A Mixtape)

" . . .there was nothing about her that promised to be easy but I couldn't keep away . . maybe that's why she fascinated me so much,I couldn't explain her, that girl confused me to the core . . ." (Peter Parker on Mary Jane Watson, Sensational Spiderman Annual 1:To Have And To Hold)

Rob saw Renee from a distance. That's how it almost always starts. With a sighting and the minutest tic that means nothing to anybody else but is the world to you and throws your chemistries slightly out of whack right before matters get worse. "The bartender put on Big Star's Radio City. Renee was the only one who perked up." Not to say that liking the same music foolproofs a relationship or that it should matter, really, but even the littlest overlap tends to fuel-inject it. And it isn't as hell on the mixtapes.

"I don't know what your type is. I don’t know what your deal is. I don't even know if you have a boyfriend. I know I like you and I want to be in your life, that's it, and if you have any room for a boyfriend, I would like to be your boyfriend, and if you don't have any room, I would like to be your friend. Any room you have for me in your life is great. If you would like me to start out in one room and move to another, I could do that." - Rob to Renee

Rob and Renee had more than a little overlap. They had the same favorite band (Pavement) , the same favorite Meat Puppets album and the same favorite songs as kids (Andy Gibb's I Just Wanna Be Your Everything). And they constantly spoke their love through the mixtapes they made for each other during their brief 5 year marriage. Love Is A Mixtape is like some wish-fulfillment fantasy for me, if only for that part. But, unlike Peter and Mary Jane, Rob and Renee are real people. And it's no secret that halfway through, Renee dies of a pulmonary embolism.

Love Is A Mixtape is a long goodbye that hurts terrible bad near the end with a hurt that gets sticky and gains weight long after. Like To Have And To Hold, it's all about the gravities of the past, how you cling to it for oxygen, how you sometimes have to discard it for diesel. But as you reel from the wallop of its immense sadness, it's easy to overlook the positivity it exudes. Five years, five days,five minutes,who cares. True love found Rob and Renee in the end , like Daniel Johnston predicted, and 'til death did they part, singing songs until the last last minute. I find that . . .well, beautiful. And not a little comforting. Cynicism is society's cop-out. It's too easy. And you're no less lost anyway. "I'm scared . . . " Renee tells Rob the first night they come together and aren't we all? Love Is A Mixtape doesn't let you off the hook, it raises the stakes and makes it scarier. I used to snicker at exes and their beloved chick flicks. But I sort of get them now when I re-read this and it restores my perhaps naive faith in the second (third?fourth?) coming of a perhaps false god: the tornado that loves you and the perfect mixtape you can' wait to make for her.