Thursday, March 26, 2015

Ang Mahiwagang Daigdig ni Pedro Penduko (The Magical World of Pedro Penduko, Celso Ad. Castillo, 1973)

Some notes on Celso Ad. Castillo's Ang Mahiwagang Daigdig ni Pedro Penduko (The Magical World of Pedro Penduko, 1973)

Watching Celso Ad. Castillo's fantasy epic you can't help but think the whole thing was basically thrown together, the film morphing like a doped-up lycanthrope from musical to fantasy to domestic drama to action-adventure, to epic fantasy. A coherent response, then, is difficult if not impossible--perhaps even unjust--to this bizarre, yet often compulsively entertaining, work.


Song and dance - music by Ernani Cuenco, lyrics by Levi Celerio, the kids' dance sequences are bright and cheerful, basically simple band numbers you imagine were written in the style of Small Seaside Town. Not sure who did the choreography--possibly Celso, last-minute--but it's equally kid-friendly, and later (when circumstances call for it) inventive.

The bridging songs--which describe the action onscreen and the characters' thoughts--seem laughably literal, but similar charges have been leveled before, at the songs in Enzo Castallari's lĖ†Keoma (possibly where Celso got the idea). Didn't buy it then, don't buy it now; I see this as less gratuitous repetition (Pedro goes to sea while the singer wails about his sea travels) and more audiovisual reinforcement, less narrative clarity and more poetic effect. It's like being in a fable where you hear the storyteller announce Aladdin about to enter a cave, and gaze at a picture of both him and cave; or like a Robert Bresson film where you see a priest writing into his diary the same time you hear the words he writes.  
Laughs - broad, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I remember Erik Matti's Pedro Penduko, Episode II: the Return of the Comeback (2000) as being a (relatively) more sophisticated comic work, a parody of the fantasy and action films of the time; the concept wore out quickly--the fantasy and action films of the period weren't all that good--and maybe the best moments are when Pedro (Janno Gibbs) would do an (I assume) last minute ad-lib. Celso's approach is more haphazard but lightly applied, easier to take overall.

There are a few comic gems here: Panchito as Mang Tasyo mugging for the camera does rise--or fall--to the occasion (as when he confronts his supposedly dead son). Sometimes Tasyo does more than rise--for most of the film's first half, we see him as a bellowing bully of a father, often verbally abusing Pedro (Ramon Zamora). When Pedro is pronounced dead--assumed drowned during a storm--Tasyo gets soakingly achingly drunk, and the dialogue is inspired:

Igno: Sir Tasyo, don't take it so hard. That's life. When it comes to death, whoever gets there first, right?

Mang Tasyo: If we all get there the same time there'll be no one to bury us.

Townfolk: Sir Tasyo, what Igno means is that death comes for all of us. It just so happens your Pedro got there first.

Mang Tasyo: You're wrong!

Townfolk: Why sir?

Mang Tasyo: All his life Pedro's been a screw-up, so he's going to screw his death up too.

Not sure if this was scripted, or if Celso had mostly asked Panchito to improvise (imbibe?) as he went along, but it's exactly how a drunk would talk, complete with slurred dignity and circular logic, and you feel exactly how Panchito would act, if he'd actually lost a loved one.

Drama - Unspoken through most of the film: Pedro is an abused child, constantly humiliated and beaten by his father; he's also simpleminded, if basically goodhearted (One wonders if he was born that way or if Mang Tasyo was responsible, thanks to the beatings).

What gets me--the sting in this little melodrama--is that they do care for each other. When the father believes he's lost his son, he gets mournfully drunk; when the son drinks too much in turn he (in a scene that sticks out, yet is all the memorable for being so intense) screams his frustration at how his father treats him. "I dare you! I dare you!" he yells, the father knowing better than to call his bluff. Pedro acts like a child having a tantrum; startling to see the protagonist of a fantasy act this way, but then you think: why yes, it makes sense--powers and magical talismans often fall in the hands of the unlikeliest people, shepherds and farmer's sons and totally clueless youths. Even young men with the mind of a child.

Monsters - Far from ideal. Thanks to what I assume is a modest-size budget the creatures are hardly recognizable and can barely move (the liveliest of the lot, a merman, looks as if The Creature from the Black Lagoon had grown obese from marathon sessions of cable TV and snack chips). The dragon though breathes real fire (which doesn't seem to frighten actor Ramon Zamora for a second) and is big enough an onscreen presence to inspire genuine awe.

Action - The film's true source of poetry. When Eddie Garcia as the Kapitan and his goons step in, Celso puts aside the pratfalls and does straightforward action, complete with a sadistic torture session (two men holding a third and attempting an impromptu full-spinal manipulation) and intricate sequences (Pedro and his kiddie friends playing band music while they weave in and out among goons and townfolk in a desperate rescue attempt). His style shines through clearest here, his lenses isolating the combatants under an airless sand-strewn, blue-tinted dome, like a pair of fighting fish tussling in an aquarium. On occasion the camera tilts up to catch a gloriously perfect halo of light round the noon sun (an image he confidently repeats in Return of the Dragon)--as if  reminding us of the source of all that light he puts to masterful use.

Celso isn't the first Filipino filmmaker to adopt Franciso V. Coching's classic comic series;* Gerardo de Leon did so in 1954, and while I haven't seen that version (print unavailable assumed lost) I can guess (on the basis of films like Sanda Wong and Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo that 1) the special effects are jawdroppingly realistic, the style--which Celso acknowledges without even trying to hide the influence--memorably dynamic, all tilted unstable compositions linked by smooth-as-silk editing.

That said, Celso also has something to bring to the party--an eye-popping palette of colors (De Leon worked mostly in black and white), a whimsical comic-book sense of fun (De Leon couldn't crack an onscreen joke to save his life), the grip of an artist (fellow filmmaker Mario O'Hara once called him 'the finest eye in Philippine cinema") who doesn't exactly know what he's doing, but knows he'll do it like no one else has ever done before. Or ever will.

*(yes, we Filipinos also look to comics--or 'komiks'--for inspiration, and I submit that our output (Pedro Penduko; Dyesebel; Stardoom; Tubog sa Ginto) is comparable if not superior in quality to Hollywood's (Daredevil and Catwoman anyone?))

Conclusion - Not perfect but memorable (which can pretty much be said of most all of Celso's films). If you can accept the papier-mache monsters, the inconsistent level of filmmaking (from soaring lyricism to strictly amateur hour), the wildly swinging emotional tone, it's actually enormous fun.

First published in Businessworld, 3.19.15

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, Isao Takahata, 2013)

Little girl lost

Call him Hayao Miyazaki's dark elder. Where Miyazaki has earned a small but enduring popularity--not to mention a gold-plated doorstop--in the West, longtime collaborator Isao Takahata was content to toil in relative obscurity (if anything Takahata has earned the respect of a handful of Western critics despite his apparent lack of interest in drawing their attention). You see a trace of the latter's sensibility in the former's work: an awareness of larger forces--social, political, historical--swirling around the protagonists; a sense of responsibility towards more than just one's own survival. Where Takahata differs most from Miyazaki I'd say is in his pitiless regard--his tendency to bring a story to its conclusion no matter how cruel or unhappy the conclusion may be.

Takahata is also the more overtly political filmmaker; where Miyazaki's first directorial effort was an oversized heist caper (Castle of Cagliostro), Takahata's was an epic fantasy (Little Norse Prince, 1968) that celebrated the power of collective action. His best known work Grave of the Fireflies (1988) depicted a government too obsessed with winning (or honorably losing) a war to properly care for its people, and the harrowing fate of said people when they cut their ties with the general community. Only Yesterday (1991) describes the emotional pull an idyllic farming family exerts on a young woman; Pom Poko (1994)--ostensibly a fantasy about magical animals warring on intruding humans--reveals itself to be the record (pitilessly told, as always) of a genocide, the passing of an entire people.  

After the 1999 domestic comedy My Neighbor the Yamadas--easily the happiest (though no less complex or rewarding) film Takahata has directed--silence for fourteen years. Then this: The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguya-hime no Monogatari, 2013). Takahata being 78, Kaguya may be his last film, and it feels like a last film--a summing up and restating in as impassioned a manner all his themes and animation styles to date. Kaguya evokes the dreamy heroine of Only Yesterday; the uneasy relationship between villagers and supernatural stranger in Little Norse Prince; the sense of overwhelming tragedy in Pom Poko and Grave of the Fireflies. From a restrained use of digital animation (mostly hastily sketched objects sliding past each other in a startling (if subtle) display of depth) to images inspired by the fine detailing and muted color palettes of the ukiyo-e style of woodblock printing, to at one point a breathtaking realization of the sumi-e style of inkwash art, Takahata draws not only from his own work but from much of Japan's visual history.
A clue to the film's style is the seeming carelessness of the graphic line, the way Takahata has his animators sketch out the main figures leaving the background edges unfinished. One can call it a too-precious mannerism that smacks of overconfidence--as if he's saying his film's so good he doesn't have to be so thorough--or one can say he's focused with laser precision on what really matters: the telling of a spare, long-ago tale in a way that engages our modern sensibilities. 

The film is based on one of Japan's oldest stories. In the original version the baby found in a cut-open bamboo grows up without much fuss; the bamboo cutter grows wealthy from the gold nuggets found in succeeding poles of cut bamboo and introduces the girl to society, attempting to marry her off to five eligible bachelors.  She makes impossible demands of her suitors (suggesting that the girl has an unyielding nature) and they either fail miserably or die trying.

Takahata takes this simple story and with it does something remarkably simple: creates a vulnerable, recognizably human young girl, to be inserted into the narrative's center. 

Doesn't sound like much of an achievement--the first half hour is mostly idyllic, with Kaguya learning to walk and talk at an accelerated pace; later she comes to know the village folk, particularly a rough-mannered big-hearted boy named Sutemaru. When her father, Sanuki no Miyatsuko, finds the fine clothes and gold nuggets, he decides that she must rise up in the world--hence the move to the city and introduction to her five suitors

Sanuki is the crucial character in the film; with gold as catalyst, he starts thinking beyond his station in life, from lowly proletariat to aspiring bourgeoisie. To Sanuki's credit the climb is intended to benefit not him but his beloved daughter; the pain he inflicts is as selfless and unintentional as it is real. This girl, this real girl (as opposed to the sketched figure in the tale) wants nothing to do with fine clothes, gold nuggets, or marriage;* but she loves her father, and she must obey.

*(Well, she might want to try on the clothes--just to see how they'd look on her)

The five suitors' courtship of Kaguya plays out like a comedy; Takahata mercilessly skewers the noble classes--their hypocrisies, their pretentiousness, their insatiable avarice. His Kaguya's response to their attentions isn't all hilarity though: she hands out impossible demands not because she's exacting but because she wants to be left alone, to put herself beyond their reach. When they come to harm, she feels responsible; our own laughter dies and we recognize the suitors to be who they really are--basically us, only with better means to pursue bigger folly. Like us, they scrabble after the newest, brightest bauble dangling before them; like us they overreach, and are hurt when they fall. 

Perhaps the key scene in the film is when the now-wealthy Kaguya overhears partygoers gossiping about her father. For once the truth, unvarnished; the mask slipped, the divider between classes taken away, she sees how ugly people can be. Her response inspires one of the most expressive passages in the film, when the world turns tremulously charcoal dark, and her sense of self-disgust is powerful enough to drive her out of the city and into the countryside, where she feels at home.

But where is home? When she arrives the village is empty; all the people have left including Sutemaru, now a young man. If the nobility are drawn by pleasurable attractions the lower classes are driven by plain necessity--in this case the plain need to find employment; Kaguya belonging to neither finds that in evading one she has lost track of the other. When she meets Sutemaru again he asks her to run away with him, she throws her arms around his neck, and-- 

Kaguya's flight with Sutemaru is more than just a virtuosic animation exercise; the sequence helps crack open the boy's character. You might say Kaguya provokes people into acting out their true natures--scratch a nobleman and you expose a lifelong social climber; scratch a prole and you expose a dreamer yearning not for more (more things, more money, more power) but less. Like Sutemaru the ordinary working man wants to shrug off the bonds of marriage, the obligations of a working man, the very laws of gravity; he wants to clutch the hand of a beautiful girl who loves him and take off with her into the endless blue. 

Might be too much to ask for a second key scene, but in the back of Kaguya's mansion is a little garden plot on which her mother Ona insists on raising vegetables (unlike Sanuki, Ona hasn't lost either her agricultural roots or her sense of proportion). Kaguya invites Ona to lie down and look through the grasses--at ground level, the garden looks like their old village: dirt mounds for the nearby hills, mugworts for the surrounding forest, grass blades for the bamboo grove (what looks like a mushroom cap stands for their little shack). It's a magical moment that paradoxically involves no magic at all, just the willingness to see things from a different perspective--a lesson Sanuki has forgotten (when he says 'it's me Heaven's blessed!' he doesn't realize exactly how he's blessed, or how he's throwing said blessing away with both hands). Also a lesson Takahata teaches his characters and the audience again and again, his camera wordlessly asking the question constantly in Kaguya's mind: What's her purpose in life? To which social class does she truly belong? From what angle must we view Kaguya, and why?

By film's end Kaguya learns all, steps up to assume her proper position in society (you might say the film is really a fable about finding one's proper level in life). It's a bitter lesson all around: that some social classes are fixed so high (as in astronomical) they're impossible to reach; that some social expectations are so impossible to meet they're (literally) inhuman, enforced in an inhuman, implacable manner; that all things change, and pass, and fall away (the Japanese call it mono no aware--the tragic beauty of transience, if you like). And that Takahata has--again--skewered our expectations (and hearts, for that matter) through the simple act of bringing a story to its inevitable, unforgettable conclusion.

First published in Businessworld 3.12.15

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey, 2009)

(Reposting--maybe I can't celebrate St. Patrick's properly, but I can at least pay some kind of tribute)
Book crazy

Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's Secret of Kells was a nominee for the 2010 Oscar for Best Animation Feature, but don't let that discourage you--this isn't some Pixar wannabe, all ingratiating characters and a storyline designed to wring tears from your eyes, done up in soulless digital animation. There's real passion here, not just directed to the heart but to the mind, and enough ravishing imagery for one's mind and heart and eye to feast on till overflowing.

The film is told mainly through the eyes of Brendan (voice of Evan McGuire), a novice monk living within the fortified walls of the Abbey of Kells. Outside, it's the latter half of Christianity's first millennium, with Viking raiders burning down villages, and the abbot (voice of Brendan Gleeson) devoting considerable time and manpower and resources on the abbey's defense. Enter Aidan (voice of Mick Lally), a famed illustrator who studied under St. Colum Cille (St. Columba); he is fleeing the Scottish island of Iona, which has been sacked by Vikings, and carries with him a partly finished Bible which he himself has been illuminating. Celebrity artist with a secret treasure, telling a story of destruction and escape--how is a young and innocent Celt like Brendan to resist? To add complication Aidan needs green ink for his work, and Brendan volunteers to find the rare berries required in the surrounding forest; he ends up befriending Aisling (Christen Mooney), an apparent wild child / forest spirit / wolf girl.

The film does feel like your average animated fantasy feature at first, like the Star Wars series or any dozen Disney or Pixar extravaganzas--lonely young hero, forbidding father figure, wise old mentor, possible love interest, dangerous quest; in the margins are jokes a-plenty and action and hairbreadth escapes galore. But not many fantasies prominently feature a book at the heart of their narrative and as object of adoration the Book of Kells, as this particular book eventually became known, is as fabulous an object as any you can possibly think of--it's a real book, an illuminated bible, the prized possession of the Old Library in Dublin's Trinity College, and widely considered to be the single most precious artifact in all of Irish culture.

The film opens with a chase--Brendan and three men hunting down a panicky goose across the abbey courtyard, presumably for the cooking pot. Neat slapstick action immediately captures your attention but also pointedly illustrates (in comic form) the monks' obsession with the film's true subject matter (not so much goose meat as goose quills). At one point we see the book's cover, which closely replicates the intricate details of the actual book (Moore has a glint flash across the book's surface to suggest its brilliance); Brendan eventually finds himself working on a crucial page of the book's calfskin, lovingly rendered by animators--this page later becomes a beloved keepsake, hidden away for years. Difficult to find a movie, much less an animated feature, that invests so much emotional intensity into the bound volume, and its accompanying painted images.

Sneaking out of the abbey, Brendan tells Aisling "Aidan is my friend. I'm helping him make the most incredible book in the whole world! He says it will turn darkness into light. Wait until you see it!" To which Aisling replies: "Wait until you see the rest of my forest." If the monks can only think of the illuminated page (aside from the killjoy abbot, who can only think of the coming barbarians), outside the walls is an entire world being shut out, the forest surrounding the abbey. It's as if the film has a split personality--half its energy and running time is devoted to the abbey with the book as its emotional and dramatic core; half is spent on the vast, mysterious forest, full of wolves and spirits and marauding hordes and the occasional Celtic god. And here's the true mystery, Tomm Moore's visual coup--the two are linked. The forest trees' branches spiral and swirl in graceful curves, festooned with leaves and fruits and birds and insects and the same spirals and swirls, similarly adorned, are found in the book's pages; Brendan confronts the Crom Cruach, and it takes on the form of a massive serpent that might have slithered in and out of the letters of the book's alphabet. Moore acknowledges that much of the forest's design was taken from the book (which uses designs not just out of Celtic art, but from all over the world--some were found to have been taken from Moroccan art, for example, hence its richness), but one can easily imagine it the other way around, that the book's wondrous artists had looked around them, and were inspired accordingly.

I love the transitions. Characters moving from one place to another, or experiencing the passage of time are often treated as mere filler in animated features; here Moore regards the transitions as a chance to shine. He wipes the screen with falling leaves, or divides the screen into three tree-lined boulevards, like a triptych; in a later triptych he has characters pass from one section to another, and as we see them pass we notice them growing older, more bent.

I love the encounter with the Crom Cruach which apparently occurs deep underwater (aren't anxieties--such as the ones crippling Brendan's confidence and sense of self-worth--often described as 'free floating?'), and that Brendan battles the serpentine deity with a last-minute improvisation, a struggle by the graphic line for control over the storyline. I love it that the abbot, so grim, so self-contained, so disapproving of Brendan and Aidan's adolescent enthusiasms, reveals himself to be a closet artist as well, sketching intricate plans and blueprints for his massive abbey defenses all over the walls of his personal chamber, obsessing in effect on his masterwork.

Most of all, I love the way the story turns, or doesn't. This is when the film starts becoming more than just an animated fantasy and starts to become great--the Vikings hack and slaughter, the abbot builds and fortifies, Brendan and Aidan dream of their emerging book. The plot unfolds relentlessly, with destinies determined by the shape of one's character; Moore doesn't give us last-minute miracles or heroic rescues. In this he approaches the emotional relentlessness of Hayao Miyazaki, or even Isao Takahata (whose Grave of the Fireflies in its plainspoken honesty is possibly the single most heartbreaking film ever made about the Second World War)--he allows the drama to play out as it will, and should. Easily one of the finest and most moving animated features to come out this year, or several years; more, it should be seen again and again, just to catch all the little details one might have missed the first time around.

First published in Businessworld 10.14.10
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