Thursday, December 02, 2010

Cinemanila 2010

Movie, movie

From December 1 to 5 at Robinsons Movieworld, Robinsons Galeria in Quezon City it's the 12th Cinemanila International Film Festival--still, for my money, the best and most varied offering of World and Philippine cinema available locally.

So what to watch? Everything. But if you have limited time and budget, I have more specific recommendations:

December 3 (Friday):

Cinema B, 8 pm: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010). The first ever video game movie I've ever liked (actually, a manga-style graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley) samples from all kinds of bright-colored, bright-sounding games, committing to no single title (and managing to be all the better for it). Perhaps key to its success is the premise, a teenage variation of one of the funnier gags in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve, where the geeky hero discovers that his lady love has more than one skeleton in her closet (seven, in fact; "Seven Evil Exes," as she calls them), and that geeky hero must vanquish each and every one before he wins her.

Throw in Edgar Wright's inventive sense of visual humor (when Scott urinates in the men's room a "pee bar" empties above him) and pacing and use of cheesy digital effects and the result is like a souffle--it'll deflate once you leave the theater, but while you're enjoying it it's an inimitable experience.

December 4 (Saturday)

In Cinema A at 10 pm: Thirst (Park Chan Wook, 2009). Forget Twilight and even Tomas Alfredson's otherwise excellent Let the Right One In feels thin and timid in comparison. The bad boy of Korean cinema takes a stab--hell, tears a few hunks of steak--off the necrotic carcass of onscreen vampirism. He basically junks most of the paraphernalia (no garlic, no crosses, no changing of form or inviting people in or any of that silliness) and has his Catholic priest hero (Song Kang-ho) infected through an experimental vaccine. The priest sucks and is miserable about it--bad enough, until he meets a beautiful woman (Kim Ok-vin) trapped in an unhappy marriage whereupon the whole thing transforms into The Postman Always Rings Twice with fangs.

Song's fatalism contrasts vividly with Kim's feral will to live, and the results are hilarious, creepy, erotic, and bloody beyond belief even for a bloodsucker flick, thanks to Park. It's also surprisingly poignant, taking on as its subtext the unhappiness of two people trapped in a troubled relationship. If you like vampires, if you like gore, if you like horror, if you like comic horror, if you like stormy love affairs that leave both lovers either unhappy or dead or worse and if you like all this stirred into a delirious mixture (Park has rarely showed much restraint when it comes to sex and violence and judging from the evidence on hand he's not about to start any time soon) delivered hot and steaming in a tall glass, this one's for you.

December 5 (Sunday)

In Cinema B at twelve noon: Bontoc Eulogy (1995) is Marlon Fuentes' haunting mock documentary about Markod, one of the thousand plus Igorots carted off to the St. Louis World's Fair to be exhibited as fascinating 'primitives'--live exhibits for naïve Midwesterners to point and gawk at, marveling at the assumed superiority of American civilization over theirs.

Fuentes uses archival images and film footage to tell Markod's story, the wrenching changes he had to undergo to adapt to the weather and culture. He digs deeper, his narrator (who remains nameless) ruminating over his own fate as an immigrant, a fellow savage traveling from tropical rainforest to temperate grasslands, from Third World poverty to First World decadence with barely a moment's pause to adjust. Fuentes in effect tells three stories at once: Markod's leaving his pregnant wife; the narrator, leaving his native soil; and Fuentes himself, leaving home and family never (reportedly) to return. He captures them at a pivotal moment, when they are in the process of assimilation, of dissolution, of fading into the ever-rising hum of America's multicultural society, a kind of simultaneous death, fusion and transcendence that carries its own sense of tragedy, loneliness, and loss. A great film, undeservedly neglected--it would make a fascinating companion piece to Floy Quintos' play St. Louis Loves Dem Filipinos (now a musical, with music by Antonio Africa). Where Quintos tells the story of Bulan, a Bontoc prince reduced to being lonely and poor as high tragedy, Fuentes turns the story into an intimate portrait, makes it part of his own story (or his own part of the larger story). 

At 8:45: Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (2009) is a crash course in prison life who are the gangs, which one to join, what is of value and available for buying, selling, smuggling in and out of the prison walls. Audiard and his writers (Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Peufaillit) take a page from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather--Michael Corleone's transformation from fresh-faced college graduate to stone-cold gang lord--and transposes it here, with fresh-faced Malik coming under the wing, protection and eventually tutelage of gang leader Cesar. What breathes unruly life into the film are the bits and pieces you haven't quite seen before, not even in Coppola's epic (which in my opinion is overfamiliar, perhaps even overrated)--the hostile faces--Arab, Corsican--staring at each other from across the courtyard; the DVD players and radios delivered by cart to one's cell; the everyday delivery of fresh baguettes, as if hot bread were a right every bit as guaranteed as your weekly phone call.

If Malik is the central consciousness in the film, Malik's knotty interaction with Cesar is the film's central relationship. Certainly there's a father-son affection there, as Cesar lets his mask of brutality slip to reveal a lonely, insecure old man (mind you, this doesn't dilute Cesar's more monstrous qualities, merely makes him grotesquely fascinating). Malik seems to count on Cesar's patronage, but when Cesar at one terrifying point turns on him, pressing a spoon into his eye, the affection seems to shatter. That said, one is never surprised that Malik for all his softness grows into his criminal shoes: the boy is a physical and intellectual sponge, starved for knowledge (in school he learns reading, writing, basic Economics, Arabic; he learns--this on the fly--the problems of negotiating with people, dealing with disparate, distrustful groups) and activity. He catches some unbelievable breaks--ever so often he manages to turn a swift ambush into a golden opportunity to network or make connections--but not once does he doubt his good fortune, or question the general velocity of his life; with the swiftness of the very young (and utterly ruthless) he makes his bloody progress up the pyramid. Also showing on December 6 (Monday) at Cinema B, 9:15 pm.

And then--as it turns out--on December 6 (Monday) Cinemanila is extended! At Cinema A twelve noon is Brillante Mendoza's Kaleldo (2006), a lovely slice-of-life melodrama, where the three interweaving stories of three daughters is captured in bits and pieces over seven summers in the daughters' lives. Of the daughters it's Cherry Pie Picache's story that leaves the strongest impression--Cherry Pie, a character actor of considerable skill who has played supporting roles in films often unworthy of her talent, shines as the quietly suffering tomboy, unwanted and largely ignored by the family patriarch. Mendoza's handheld camera, much in the fashion of the Dardennes brothers and cinema verite, gives the stories a distinct caught-in-the-moment feel.

At 4:15, Yang Ik-Joon's Breathless (2010) at times induces that eponymous state, especially when debt collector Sang Hoon (the director doing triple duty by writing the script and playing lead actor) goes into action. I don't know what Yang is like in person but onscreen he's a singular presence, small eyes taking a steady bead on you (a moving target), jaw settling into a particularly grim line, hands working themselves into fists, prior to letting them fly. He talks insolently, contemptuously, his language a string of firecracker profanity; he collects debts by beating the money (and will to resist) out of his clients. He's dedicated enough (or unstable enough) to work overtime, pummeling his next-door neighbor or even a passerby gratis, without even expecting a fee.

This portrait of a near-sociopath bully would be compelling on its own but Yang goes a step further by introducing Yeon-hue (Kotbi-kim), a teen-aged schoolgirl who, as it turns out, is his match in foul language and possibly his superior in perverse fearlessness (he has his fists to back him up; she has nothing but sheer attitude). She defies him, wins his respect, and later his trust; the film plays out like
Beauty and the Beast with the lovers suffering a severe case of potty-mouth; the effect is startling and unsettlingly funny at the same time. 
At 9:30 Bong Joon-ho's Mother (2009) is terrific fare, possibly his best work. Where his The Host worked in stops and starts, careened all over the place in terms of emotional tone and genre, in Mother Bong seems completely in control. Hard to see the comedy here, but it is dark comedy, nevertheless--Bong pokes not-too-gentle fun at the stereotype of the smothering Korean matriarch as he spins out for us the tale of one mother's love for her mentally challenged child, the determination and ferocity involved when said child is accused of the murder of a young woman.

On December 7 (Tuesday) at Cinema A is a twelve noon showing of Jeffery Jeturian's Pila Balde (1999) a multi-character, multi-storyline film of modest virtues and modest pleasures, possessed of keen intelligence and a recognizable soul.

So--what are you waiting for? Go forth, and see much more.

First published in Businessworld 12.3.10

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