Monday, April 09, 2007

Eye of Welles, brain of Wood

Eye of Welles, brain of Wood

There are films that inspire passionate admiration thanks to their sublime beauty, or skilled construction, or honesty, courage, audaciousness at tackling difficult or taboo subjects; then there are films that are great not because they're beautiful or skillful or honest, but because they have this great something--not so much courage or audaciousness, but sheer cluelessness--that has led them to where, well, no filmmaker has ever trod before.

People misunderstand my intense regard for Carlos Siguion-Reyna's films. I don't think they're just bad (even if they are), and my articles aren't merely attacks on their artistic merits per se (even if they do). To be honest, I've actually grown to enjoy every new Siguion-Reyna film that came up, and am disappointed that he hasn't done anything (at least as far as I know) in the past seven years.

Filmmakers like Pedro Almodovar or John Waters earn critical praise for their shocking bad taste and outrageous comedy, but Almodovar and Waters are fully aware of what they're doing; they revel in bad taste and outrage. Siguion-Reyna belongs to a purer breed altogether: think Edward Wood, Jr., the legendary director of films like Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Wood's films are enjoyable because they're obviously labors of love, the same time they're excruciatingly bad; he thought he was destined for artistic immortality, and he was half right.

Siguion-Reyna is a Wood with real talent--he has huge resources at his disposal, he wields them with the confidence of a master, he's film literate and knows how to tell his story in visual terms. I remember a shot in Hihintayin kita sa langit (I'll Wait For You In Heaven, 1991), his version of Wuthering Heights, where Richard Gomez held the dying Dawn Zulueta in his arms, and a panoramic landscape unfolded below them--a deep-focus shot straight out of Welles' Lady From Shanghai. In Misis mo, misis ko (Your Wife, My Wife 1988) Edu Manzano attempts to seduce Dina Bonnevie in the background while Ricky Davao tries to do the same to Jackie Lou Blanco in the foreground--a scene that could have come out of Renoir's La regle du jeu. In Ikaw pa lang ang minahal, Siguion-Reyna's adaptation of William Wyler's The Heiress, Maricel Soriano is told by her father that she's an unattractive spinster; Soriano goes into her bedroom and in a single unbroken take trashes it, and you can't help but think of Welles trashing his wife's bedroom in Citizen Kane.

Ikaw pa lang ang minahal is his finest, most honest work in the conventional sense, possibly because Siguion-Reyna connects with Henry James' story of the insulated rich more than to anything else he's ever done, but for my money his outré masterpiece has to be Abot kamay ang pangarap (Elena's Redemption, 1996).

The film is based on the true story of a maid who was either seduced or raped and made pregnant by her Chinese employer; the baby was either killed by the employer's wife or by her own hand, depending on who you talk to.

The film begins with Michael de Mesa as the lawyer of the employer (now an upper class Filipino mestizo), urging the maid (again, Ms. Soriano) to sign a document releasing his client from all liability. Soriano signs; De Mesa grabs her round the waist, spins her about, rapes her on the coffee table she signed on, and spits on her face. Soriano goes back to her hometown, where her father (Pen Medina) slaps her face for bringing shame to the family; she starts bleeding between her legs and collapses. When she wakes, she's lost her memory; her mother (Daria Ramirez) begins reading all the letters she wrote from Manila, in an attempt to make her remember.

All this happens during the first ten minutes of the film.

The rest of the story takes its cue from the opening. We see Soriano (during the lengthy flashback that makes up the bulk of the picture) apply for the position; we see her throwing sidelong glances at her handsome employer (Tonton Guiterrez). When Gutierrez has a quiet dinner of shrimp and rice with his wife (Dina Bonnevie), Soriano suddenly picks up Gutierrez's shrimp and starts peeling it. Instead of staring at the maid with an expression of "Excuse me--why are you touching my food?" Gutierrez seems grateful; Bonnevie looks jealous. "That's enough," she snaps at Soriano, waving the maid away.

Soriano and Gutierrez have their affair; Soriano learns that she's pregnant by him. She goes to see an abortionist. She's sitting in the doctor's illegitimate home clinic when the doctor walks in and stumbles, dropping all his instruments on what looks like the world's stickiest floor. The doctor apologetically peels the tools off the floor, and asks Soriano if she will go through with the procedure; Soriano shakes her head in horror. The doctor snorts, calls in the next patient--a girl, head downcast, accompanied by her boyfriend. The girl looks up, exclaims: "Father?" The doctor exclaims: "Daughter?" and starts beating on the boyfriend "What have you done to my child? What have you done to her?" Soriano quietly lets herself out the door.

Heavy irony: Bonnevie learns she can't have a baby (Bonnevie is a fertility specialist). She starts stripping down her proposed baby room of its fixtures--mobiles, stuffed dolls--and Gutierrez is trying to talk her out of it when Soriano suddenly appears in the doorway, says "I'm pregnant. You can have my child if you want it," turns and walks away. Bonnevie, instead of asking the inevitable question ("Who's the father?") starts after her, is held back by Guiterrez, and shakes off his arm. "Don't you realize this is our only chance to have a child?" she tells him.

Soriano has the baby; since this is a Filipino melodrama, she delivers it on the living room floor. Bonnevie arrives, listens to Soriano and her husband talking, realizes just who the father really is, and does this (the action isn't as clear as I'd like; the image is drastically cropped).

I'd learned that there was an earlier edit of that scene which the producer had invited friends to watch: Guiterrez and Bonnevie struggled, the baby flew out of Bonnevie's arms, and bounced. The audience gasped--in laughter or horror, no one could tell. On subsequent edits, the bounce disappeared; when asked about it, the producer said, "Oh, I think it's understood what happened."

All this, of course, is faultlessly photographed, with lush production values and live sound recording (a luxury in Filipino productions). At one point Soriano tells Guiterrez "We have nothing else to discuss; the child is yours. But I fervently hope that every time you look at that child, your conscience pricks you; that is, if you still have a conscience left to prick!" I remember a filmmaker sitting next to me, listening, and whispering in my ear "The sound is so clear and crisp!" and me replying: "Apparently they want you to hear every word."

How to explain a film like this? I've often maintained that Siguion-Reyna's pictures look as if a band of aliens suddenly landed on Earth outside a film studio and started making films by applying their advanced techonological knowledge on available equipment and watching maybe three hours' worth of television soaps on the side. The film betrays no feel or understanding of common human interaction (the shrimp dinner), much less human psychology*, but that, for me, is the very source of their fascination--Siguion Reyna makes films like no one else on Earth; he is sui generis, and this, I submit is not a bad thing. Even the unusual to the point of grotesque has its value, I think, though I would probably feel differently if he had actually inspired a movement of like-minded filmmakers (which he hasn't to date--thank God--though filmmakers like Erik Matti and Yam Laranas, when writing their own scripts, seem to suffer from a similar cluelessness and disconnect from reality, albeit while wielding a lesser, MTV-derived style). I'm grateful we have him, the same time I'm equally grateful there's no one else who follows--or can follow, apparently--in his lead. Perhaps one of my dearest dreams--and greatest frustration--is to one day host a retrospective of his work that would tour the festivals, with me introducing each and every film, explaining why I think they're so special. Alas, it may never be...

*Take the ending of Ang lalaki sa buhay ni Selya (The Man in Her Life, 1997). Rosanna Roces is persuaded by her lover (Gardo Verzosa) to try blackmail her gay husband (Ricky Davao) into giving up the son she and Verzosa conceived under Davao's nose and that Davao is raising. They show up for tea at Davao's house one afternoon (Davao daintily pouring from a pot), demanding that Davao give up the boy; Davao refuses. Verzosa pulls out a gun, waves it in Davao's face; Davao again refuses. Verzosa mutters "we'll think of something else," gets up to leave; Davao suddenly stops them, declares "A boy must have his mother," and tells them they can have the child.

Davao goes upstairs to pack the boy's things. Verzosa, impatient, grabs the luggage and boy (now weeping), and heads out the door; Roces stops Verzosa: "You love my body, not my self," she accuses Verzosa, taking the boy away from him and shutting the door on his face. Verzosa is left glaring impotently, gun still in hand (everyone seems to treat the weapon like the movie prop it really is).

Motivations and convictions spinning three-hundred-and-sixty degrees at the least provocation, for maximum melodramatic effect, all breathlessly shot and edited, with magnificent sound design, a beautiful score, and a sumptuous large house of a setting--the very hallmarks of the Siguion-Reyna style of filmmaking.

(Parts of this post derived from articles first published Businessworld and reprinted in my book Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema)

(This post written for the Trashy Movie blogathon at The Bleeding Tree)

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