Friday, October 24, 2014

Pridyider (Rico Maria Ilarde, 2012)

Chilling me softly

Let's settle one thing: this is not Ishmael Bernal's Pridyider, the master filmmaker's memorable contribution to Regal's monstrously successful horror anthology franchise Shake, Rattle 'n Roll (1984)--thirteen sequels and counting (they seem to propagate like the undead), its fifteenth incarnation to haunt movie screens this coming Christmas. Bernal's film was a throwaway, a trifle concocted with veteran screenwriter/bank officer Amado Lacuesta to, y'know, entertain the kiddies, so they came up with the nuttiest premise possible: a killer fridge that swallows its prey whole.  
And yet for all its disposable qualities it's solidly (if implausibly) built, its chrome trimmings gleaming under the kitchen flourescents with flashes of genuine wit. A cabbage head in a sink turns into a severed head; a household maiden yanks open the icebox door and cools herself in its lusty exhalations (talk about sensual and chilling at the same time). Does any of it mean anything? Probably not (well, maybe a sharp jab at Filipino consumerism), but sophisticated humor is so rare in Filipino films, sexy sophisticated humor even more rare, and sexy sophisticated horror-comedy rarest of all one is more than willing to forgive this short's weaknesses, its very improbability. It's like a snowball in hell--shouldn't be there, shouldn't last, but there it remains, defying all expectations with the stubborn fact of its existence. 

Which is why when the announcement was made back in 2012 that Bernal's minor gem of a classic was to be remade into a full-length feature by young-punk horror filmmaker Rico Ilarde I wondered; I had my doubts. But Ilarde is another kind of throwaway improbability--an '80s film brat who suckled on the milk of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter and Walter Hill, but works with the primitive sets and limited resources of a Filipino film studio, sometimes less (a significant portion of his output being no-budget independent digital features). His films have an arthouse cunning sprouting out of a pop-culture sensibility, are often a chimeran combination of various genres--comedy, romance, action, science fiction, fantasy, horror. Behind the bewildering facade are indie filmmaking smarts (creating action sequences and special effects practically out of spit and shoestring and off-the-shelf digital software) and behind that I submit is a kind of Spanish-Filipino mindset that (for one) tends to pit mestizo heroes against ancient (read: colonial/mythological/authoritarian) evils.

Only for this project the hero is not  mestizo but mestiza--Andi Eigenmann (daughter of the late great Mark Gil) as Tina, a beautiful balikbayan returning to her family home after an absence of years, trying to learn more about the mysterious traumatic event that vanished her parents and sent her to the United States to stay with her aunt. 

Ilarde complicates Bernal and Lacuesta's elegant setup, of predatory fridge claiming lovely lass' unwary bod. Here the lass still (unwittingly) offers her bod, but the spirit possessing the fridge is less predatory than it is jealous, setting up a crosscurrent of psychosexual drama streaming from that long-ago traumatic event (Ilarde in his recent scripts often locates the source of emotion in his horrors either in ancient family histories or long-ago personal tragedies, the memory of which is constantly being repressed). In this particular case possessive mother (Janice de Belen) and inquisitive daughter find themselves vying for the love of a melancholic father (Joel Torre)--shades of Mario O'Hara's Halimaw sa Banga, another horror psychodrama where the daughter-and-mother (stepmother, actually) rivalry erupts with supernatural fury. 

Interesting direction to go, not entirely successful (Ilarde's most effective, most moving work for me remains his claustrophobic / romantic / comic / tragic / horrific genre-bender Altar (2008)) but Ilarde piles on the improbabilities with prodigious enthusiasm, from a shamelessly endearing meet-cute between young lovers (Eigenmann's Tina with her childhood friend-turned-police officer James (JM De Guzman), to a series of disappearances punctuated by the fridge door swinging open to reveal the victims' heads screaming in obvious discomfort, to a scuttling spidercrab creature that seems to have wandered in from the set of John Carpenter's The Thing, to hentai-sized tentacles shooting out of either side of the fridge (the better to snarl you up with, my dear!). Ilarde's apparently a firm believer in that old adage: "if it's worth doing it's worth overdoing, oversplattering, overwrapping in slimy tentacles." There's something refreshingly retro--antediluvian, almost--about the filmmaker's faith in the genres he's so gleefully combining and recombining, a mad scientist playing with his mail-order gene-splicing set.

By the time Ilarde shows us the depths of depravity and despair festering within the appliance (said depths a metaphor for the complexity of the human heart--oh, the wonderful literalness of horror movies!) we've long since checked our sense of credulity at the fridge door and are free to wander about, have a disturbingly good time.  I'll say this much, though: Ms. Eigenmann is perfectly welcome to yank my icebox door open anytime, bask in the gusty exhalations of my admiration. Oh yeah.

First published in Businessworld, 10.16.14

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Let the Right One In; The Sky Crawlers

For Halloween, reposting an old article on one of the more original bloodsucker flicks out there; plus one of the better science fiction films this side of the new millenium:

Love is stronger than death
Lat den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008) is fondly remembered, apparently, less for Tomas Alfredson's bleak storytelling than for the low-key romance that blossoms between two-hundred-year-old vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson) and twelve-year-old youth Oskar (Kare Hedebrant).

I see it a little differently, however; I see the blossoming of a low-key seduction of Oskar. I see Eli eyeballing Oskar as a possible replacement for Hakan (Per Ragnar), her adult companion and facilitator. From what I understand about the source novel, writer John Ajvide Lindqvist makes it clear that Hakan and Oskar are in no way similar, and that Eli has genuine feelings of affection for Oskar. Alfredson chose to cut out Hakan's backstory, making his relationship with Eli more ambiguous, and pointing up the parallels between Hakan and Oskar. 
It's telling, how Alfredson views Oskar--basically as a serial killer-in-the-making. Central to Alfredson's take of the character is Oskar's brief scene with a knife and a tree; without a word of explanation, Alfredson makes it clear that this is what Oskar would like to be, this is how Oskar would like to treat his tormentors. Sad fact of life, but victims of bullying sometimes aren't martyred saints, but passive youths forced (by bullies, by authority) to repress their anger and frustration until they find some other outlet for their anger--or, ultimately, explode in a paroxysm of violence. In this case, Oskar finds a tree; in later years in a series of chosen victims, perhaps. I see this happening where I work. 
Does Eli love Oskar? I say--why not? One can love someone at the same time one is exploiting him or her. If there's anything I don't believe in, it's a pure, untainted love. At our best we try, as much as possible, as often as possible, to think of what's best for our beloved, and hope this is enough. 
Alfredson takes his cue from the cold, bleak weather and landscape; the camera rarely moves (as if frozen in place) and at night the snow seems to have its own faint glow, less fairyland than nightmare, less enchanting than chilling. Not the greatest vampire film ever made (you can see the influence of Abel Ferrara's The Addiction (1995), George Romero's Martin (1977), even of Ingmar Bergman at his most gothic), but easily one of the best recent examples of the genre. 

Sky's the limit

Mamoru Oshii's Sukai kurora (The Sky Crawlers, 2008) is, in a word, breathtaking. Based on the novel by Hiroshi Mori, the film tells the story of a group of pilots engaged in a series of aerial battles, their struggle enveloped in an air of mystery--how this happened we don't know; why, we don't know either; for whom isn't really made clear, other than the fact that they and the pilots flying against them work for opposing companies. This is corporate warfare pushed in extremis but beyond the canny observation (how many of the world's conflicts are inspired, abetted, maintained by corporate interests?) that's not really the film's point; rather, it's the pilots' psychological state, a (as Oshii noted) state of stasis where they don't know how and why they came to be fighting, and don't really care. 
I've seen these kind of people before, not in a movie but a novel--or rather, a series of novels; Oshii's film may be the first animated attempt to bring the works of J. G. Ballard to the big screen. All the hallmarks are there: the disaffected characters, the sense of alienation, of dislocation, the occasional surreal imagery against perfectly blue skies (maybe it's Magritte, but when I picture an image surreal, I picture it against flawless blue skies). The pilots don't so much gaze at each other as they do past each other, or past one another's faces at some unknowable, invisible goal; their priorities are all askew--serenity, not survival, some kind of equilibrium achieved by any means possible, seems to be the objective here. 
Animationwise, Oshii combines documentarylike digital animation (3-D planes with unusual propeller designs (double propeller and canard wing configurations) with more traditional 2-D animated characters--the solidity of 3-D for the fighter sequences, the expressiveness of 2-D faces for the dramatic exposition (no, Oshii's characters are not known for being expressive, but this makes their minutest gestures all the more important--where a digitally animated human face would seem robotic, a hand-animated human face would seem to be underacting). 
But one doesn't go to Oshii for seamless integration of cutting-edge technologies; one goes to him for a certain dry emotional tone, an austere look, a metaphysical sensibility. In this case, the results are what Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (1987) might have been like if the film were told from the pilots' point of view, totally in the spirit of Ballard's novel. An enthralling film.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Espiritu de la colmena (Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1973)

Reprinting this because--well, there's no reason not to read about Victor Erice either.

The greatest Spanish film ever made?

First saw Victor Erice's Espiritu de la colmen (Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) maybe seven or so years ago, on a poor video projection with a standing crowd in the way, and it looked impressive, but I wasn't moved--which was a pity; in a thirty-three year career, Erice has made only one film a decade, starting with this one (he makes Terence Malick look prolific). Saw it again in TCM recently (I just caught it by accident) and it's just tremendous--he plays with the metaphor of the Frankenstein creature, transforming Shelley's myth of hubris and failed responsibility into one of the lonely outsider (which is more in line with Whale's vision, and with what kids readily respond to). Over that is the metaphor of the beehive, which Erice has Fernando Feran Gomez looking at repeatedly like a god observing his subjects under glass. And over that is the developing consciousness of the children, which sees all through enchanted eyes, transforming the Spanish countryside into a fantastic dreamscape.

It draws from disparate sources: Spanish political history, Grimm fairy tales, Mary Shelly's novel, and I would say Swift in Gulliver mode (the creature is to the girls as the girls--or the father--is to the bees; perception shaped or modified by perspective), and I suspect Rene Clement's Forbidden Games. In turn, it has probably influenced films like Cinema Paradiso (a coarser, more sentimental treatise on the power of the cinema to fascinate the youth), My Neighbor Totoro (two girls exploring a lovely countryside, and encountering a mysterious figure (both have their threads of pathos, which the creators take in different directions)), much of present-day Iranian cinema (especially those that deal with children) and even The Shining (dysfunctional family in a large habitat; plus a shot of Ana at the typewriter, hearing a strange noise, moving away (along with the camera) from the typewriter into a series of doorways, to glimpse something terrifying behind a closed door). 

 Incredible complexity, and yet it comes across as hushed, simple, moving: you choose to see the connections if you so wish, but it works supremely well as the story of a young girl who wishes to make a friend and finds one, with all the attendant consequences.

Some notes: Erice rhymes and repeats images, sounds, textures, emotions. The day after the children watch Frankenstein, a schoolteacher unveils the figure of a man without internal organs; her lesson consisted of the kids putting the correct organs in place, a schoolroom parody of Dr. Frankenstein's work method. The sequence ends with Ana putting in the crucial component--the eyes--with which the figure, previously a collection of colored cardbored cutouts, suddenly acquires life and expression and perhaps even a soul. Ana looks on her creation with an ambigiuous expression: just what is she feeling? Longing? Fear? Pride? A masterful example of child acting. The mother writes to a French lover, posts the letter at a drop box by a train's side, spots a handsome young man seated in a cabin. When her husband prepares for bed, the camera remains focused on the mother's face as she pretends to sleep, the father heard clomping around much as Frankenstein's creature does; when he finally climbs into bed, we hear a train whistle, and we're almost certain we know what--or who--she's thinking about.

Erice creates incredible imagery (with the help of the great Luis Cuadrado, who started to go blind during this production, and took his life in 1980). There's one that stays with me, even if it has little other significance: the father comes out of the house, the day just dawning, the the windows still lit, the house beautifully framed in the strengthening light; we follow him as he crosses down the path to the fields beyond and suddenly it's another composition, this time of the sun breaking over the horizon, the camera moving slowly past some tree branches to get a better view.

I read a college website that considers Ana a representation of the innocent Republicans, the older Isabel a representation of the corrupt, materialistic Nationalists. Possible, but I can't help but recoil from such bald symbolism. Isabel tells lies and teases Ana, but they both seem equally innocent, equally caught up in their childhood world (Isabel just seems more capable of using it to her own ends). One startling image of her developing beyond childhood is a scene of her with the cat. She strokes it lovingly, then in a fit of childish pique or excess affection, squeezes it; it hisses and bites her finger. She goes to the mirror and, looking at her face, spreads the blood across her lips. Remarkable image of oncoming sexuality, with the blood on her lips forshadowing the blood that will come forth another time (it's her only film role, incidentally)

This is considered by some the greatest film ever to come out of Spain. I don't know if I disagree; at the very least, I think I understand where such people are coming from.


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