The film, which just screened at the Dragons and Tigers section of the Vancouver International Film Festival, recently screened from Oct. 29 to Nov. 4 at Indiesine, Robinson's Galleria.
My article on the film:
Rico Maria Ilarde's an odd creature of a filmmaker. From Z-Man (1988), his comic-book no-budget independent-action-flick take on Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, to Dugo ng Birhen (Blood of the Virgin, 1999), his fantasy throwdown between zombies and Taekwondo champion Monsour del Rosario, to Babaing Putik (Woman of Mud, 2000), his unholy mutant union between Brian de Palma's Carrie and John McTiernan's Predator, to Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Under the Cogon Grass, 2005), his lyrically spare reinterpretation of H.G. Wells' classic novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (grass; silence; monster), Ilarde (son of Filipino radio and TV personality Eddie Ilarde) mixes and matches genres and movies till the films feel as disorienting (and disoriented) as he himself must at times feel, his narrative spinning and hurtling in many directions at once.
The results are by turns cheesy and memorable and unique. You can see that his is an unrepentantly pulp imagination, full of pop references and borrowings much like Quentin Tarantino's; unlike Tarantino (who it must be remembered made his debut feature some four years after Z-Man), there's a purity to Ilarde's enthusiasm that's appealing, even infectious. He takes his genres and their mixing seriously; you don't see quotation marks, or irony or even any postmodern posturing in the fantastic scenarios he dreams up. As such he might be less like Tarantino and more like fellow pop purveyor Joss Whedon, who has also shown he has the courage--and power, and magic, if you will--of his romantic convictions. He believes, and that's what makes us believe in his unlikely concoctions.
Given his circumstances, Ilarde is caught in a rather unenviable bind. He's no Hideo Nakata or Takashi Shimizu (or, I suppose, their approximate (very loosely approximate) Filipino equivalents Yam Laranas or Erik Matti), content to be run-of-the-mill type horror filmmakers who at most want to scare the pants off of you for the sake of boxoffice dollars or--most prized of all--win financing for a mediocre Hollywood remake. On the other hand he's too obsessed with the trappings of genre filmmaking--the monsters, the martial-arts action, the gothic atmosphere, the music and sound effects--to want to do straight "arthouse" films.
Ilarde doesn't seem to care about categorizing himself as one or the other; fact is, he doesn't seem to care much about anything beyond his filmmaking--doesn't care if you're a horror junkie or film snob, doesn't care if you recognize where he borrowed this image, filched that monster gimmick or plot device, doesn't even seem to care if you see the zipper holding together the seams of his rubber-suited creatures. If he holds a genuine passion in anything, you feel, it's a passion to share his bizarre stories, his even more bizarre sensibility, with you. Watching an Ilarde film is an interactive, even collaborative, effort; recognizing his influences and grooving to the mélange of flavors created is part of the fun. You appreciate his varied sources of inspiration the same time he appreciates your appreciation of it, and you find yourselves involved in a mutual conspiracy to believe in the latest bit of nonsense he's cooked up for your amusement.
His latest, Altar (2007) is his most accessible yet. It's the story of Anton (Zanjoe Marudo), an ex-boxer who seems to have stepped straight out of John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952), complete with boxing flashbacks. Anton is hard up for a job; in the film's understated yet haunting opening (haunting because it ties into the film's final sequence, brings the entire story back in a full circle), he wakes up in an airless room, seemingly without any sense of direction or purpose. A fateful breeze wafts into the room; a tabloid newspaper opens to a specific page: "Help wanted." He ends up watching a dilapidated old house in the lonelier outskirts of Metro Manila.
Anton is the latest in a long line of Ilarde hard-luck heroes: modest and quiet, yet possessed of a deadly fighting ability that gives him little comfort, much less protection, against the unearthly opposition he must eventually face. In this case Ilarde (working with producer and fellow scriptwriter Mammu Chua) hits upon the inspired idea of providing Anton with a sidekick--Lope (Nor Domingo) a motormouth funnyman who attaches himself to our hero, thanks to a (rather misplaced) gut feeling that Anton represents good luck. And while Marudo has the physical eloquence and looks to play the lead (he has some of John Wayne's passive--read: cowlike--gentleness), Domingo de facto owns the picture. Not because of any particularly special quality--well, perhaps one: a constantly brimming optimism that treads the fine line between overconfidence and arrogance. Lope comes on as if he's God's gift to women, has the survivor's cunning to help (through various gestures and asides) his reputation along--and flashes an extra-wide, extra-appreciative smile when (once in a blue moon) his luck manages to work out.
Rounding out the odd couple's cast of supporting characters are Angie (Dimples Romana) as Anton's pretty if standard-issue love interest, Giselle (Kristalyn Engle) as Lope's considerably more spirited partner (she's a lively mix of spicy skepticism and comic sensuality), and Erning (Dido de la Paz, channeling Johnny Delgado at his most villainous), Anton and Lope's faintly sinister employer, who may know more about the house than he lets on.
Beyond Ilarde's storytelling and grab-bag influences, however, is his imagery. Ilarde's a master of that old-school style of filmmaking, where carefully planned camera angles and leisurely paced (if crisply precise) editing take precedence over shakey-cams and overediting and computer digital effects (to quote David Bordwell quoting Chinese cinematographers: "The handheld camera covers three mistakes: Bad acting, bad set design, and bad directing"). Add to that the virtue that a relatively still camera offers, its ability to hold long enough to allow one to realize both the full horror and full beauty of an image (I'm thinking of the carved doorway full of runes and Latin spells; the little girl standing by the archway, an enigmatic man in a demon mask beside her; the eponymous altar, all dark wood and deep shadows, the figure of an angel standing silent guard over it). On occasion he will hit the striking surreal note (a man falling across a room, sideways); on occasion he will allow the odd inexplicable detail that sends chills up one's spine (a room with windows in the shape of crucifixes; a wood-carved face whose eyes, when painted over, bulge outwards; a hand peeling lacquer from a face, revealing gruesome secrets) There's something refreshingly unpretentious about Ilarde's earnest desire to both thrill and tell his story through cleanly staged, largely wordless sequences.
By film's end we enter a new stage in Ilarde's unusual career. He's developed the capability of creating characters we care for; he's also developed the ability to move beyond horror to a kind of pathos, answering with dramatic force and poignancy the question implicitly presented to Anton at the beginning of the film: what kind of man are you, what is your purpose, what are you willing to devote the rest of your life towards preserving, maintaining, defending? The answer is not one he--or we--may have been looking for, but it's an answer in response to several questions we might have put to both film and filmmaker: yes, Ilarde is one of the best digital filmmakers around; yes, Altar is not only his finest work to date but one of the finest films, Filipino or otherwise, to come out in the past few years; yes, this is highly recommended when and if available, and very much worth watching.
First published in Businessworld, 10.31.08