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11.25.2011

TIME'S A GOON AND SOMETIMES IT WINS

Niño
Directed by Loy Arcenas
Written by Rody Vera






Shutting yourself off from the world swings both ways, and one man's idyll can be another's cabin fever. These are the defenses built and the lines drawn, when the future turns bleak as the present starts corroding the past. The question that bears down on the Lopez-Aranda family is how much of their corroded past should they give up and what bleak future will they get for it? There's a lot at stake with the question because the past in question has to do with the massive, crumbling house they live in and whether they can keep doing so. And the past tends to get pushier if it's one as fulsome as theirs. The gravely ill paterfamilias, in his own advanced stages of molt, used to be a congressman. And his sister, often lost in a cloud of her own making, was a rock star among opera singers.

She's the whirlpool around whom everything and everyone revolves and bounces off : her brother who owns the house she now runs as if she did, the reckless son who's a has-been even before he becomes an also-ran but who remains her favorite, the grandson in whom she sees a glimmer of hope not least when he puts on a Sto. Niño cape and crown as if it were a superhero costume and refuses to take it off, the ignored daughter who only wants a little more of her mother's love than she's getting, the niece returned from abroad determined to move on and sell the house that hovers like a ghostly weight. Fides Cuyugan-Asensio is indomitable as the lapsed diva and her temperament becomes the film’s: skittish, fractious, wistful, elegant, and just the tiniest bit cuckoo.

Cut from the same genteel cloth as Ang Lee at the height of his infatuation with no-round-limit cross-generational family wrestling matches, but reined in to frustrate the demands of melodrama, Niño hones in on something more delicate, something averse to bluster and way naughtier and funnier. It hardly vacates the premises, but it never lets the air stultify or thicken into must, but rather finds a phantom power in the way the forward motion of youth and the luxuriant torpor of old age stare each other down to the same uneasy truce that is the emotional stalemate of the film, whose  tangle of estrangements reaches an impasse that you can see coming and resolves nothing, but gets unexpectedly magical anyway.


11.10.2011

TROPICAL MALADIES

Aswang
Directed by Jerrold Tarog
Written by Aloy Adlawan and Jerrold Tarog






If you go by the way he juiced up last year’s edition of the haggard Shake Rattle & Roll franchise with Punerarya, and also by the pop vibrancy of his independent non-genre work, Jerrold Tarog seems to have enough pedigree for remixing the beloved Peque Gallaga-Lore Reyes chestnut. And Aswang is ostensibly a monster movie, but it’s one that seems more interested in things other than its monsters: in the way revenge can transform you into the object of your violence, for one, in the imperatives of a species determined to arrest its extinction, in a small town living perpetually under threat, and above all, in the dissonances between the urban and the rural, the modern and the ancient, the natural and the supernatural, and the point when the lines between them blur.

It pivots on a teenage boy and his baby sister witnessing the cold-blooded massacre of their household. And having your parents murdered violently before your eyes turns out to be the shared tragedy of its principal characters, and also the tragedy that cracks everything open for a potentially bloodier, more mean-spirited sequel. But it’s a subtext that goes neither viral or nova, simmering rather under the skin of the piece, a trauma that never gets enough room to fester and seethe, nor gets to go anywhere really, as everyone is too busy running for their lives, if not from hired assassins, then inevitably from monsters, who shapeshift into crows, burrow under the ground like moles, sprout nasty fangs, eat live flesh. Aswang is also from Regal, after all. And it wants its monster movie to be interested in its monsters.

It doesn’t take a genius anymore, these days, or much intel for that matter, to second-guess the processes that transpire when a studio makes a film, much more one meant to be a tentpole. And Aswang is beset by the sort of push-pull that occurs when you wring a filmmaker used to being left to his own devices, or a filmmaker who simply has his own devices period, through the knotty caprices of our studio matriarchies, as auteurist sensibility and studio directive constantly arm-wrestle for dominance. And it can be its own bit of fun trying to figure out which is which.

That dream slash love sequence does smack of pure Regal. And the stable newbies as well as the not-so-newbies are perhaps why the affectless, effortless performances that have enlivened every single one of Jerrold’s films before this is alarmingly nowhere to be found and nearly breaks the back of the piece in its absence. The bristling attack by the river does spasm with Jerrold’s skittish vigor. And much as I can’t figure out why they bother when they can fly anyway, the burrowing under the ground to catch prey is a splendid effect that accounts for at least one breathtaking money shot. But it’s not so much the jittery brio of Confessional that Aswang taps into, but rather the meditative languor of the underrated Mangatyanan. And there’s a gravity to Aswang that slows it down some, possibly slower than it should be, but thickens the mood, too, until it gains, particularly in the sequences at the abandoned ranch where the monsters hole up, this weird, pungent density.



*Originally Published in Lagarista as Tropical Maladies.