Friday, December 14, 2007

Tukso (Temptation, Dennis Marasigan, 2007)

Fracturing reality

Dennis Marasigan's Tukso (Temptation, 2007) from a script by himself, Mara Paulina Marasigan and Nikki Torres, is his sophomore effort at filmmaking following his marvelous adaptation of Tony Perez's Sa North Diversion Road (North Diversion Road, 2005), and it's evident he knows a thing or two about filmmaking, or at least film editing. The first few minutes--images of a fall, of talking heads, of silence and foreboding--are cut together with a strong sense of drama; Marasigan has had a long career in theater, and the showman's flair gained through long experience has helped, I think. He doesn't simply escalate the intensity of the imagery; he knows when to pause, to prolong, to punch home with the right words for maximum impact.

I'd go so far as to say that "Tukso" is proof positive that Marasigan wasn't just coasting on the excellence of Perez's classic theatrical piece but possesses a talent for filmmaking all his own. Perez's play posed special challenges--how do you present a theatrical conceit (two actors playing ten different characters) on the big screen? Onstage the constant shift of story and setting kept the viewers off-balance, guessing at what's happening and what's going to happen, and this held their interest for the play's relatively short performance time; onscreen you only had to change car, costume, highway exit and it's obvious where you are, who you're with, and why. Marasigan solves this by shifting emphasis away from said conceit and relying on purely cinematic devices--employing a restless cutting style that maintained the tension, shooting (on the near-nonexistent budget these digital films usually enjoy) from as many angles as he can manage, treating the car as a little theater venue (the windshield and side windows act as surrounding proscenium arches), using stylization (special lighting and costumes and even acting styles) when necessary, and essentially leaving center stage clear for his two lead actors (John Arcilla and Marasigan's wife Irma Adlawan) to shine (not as easy a feat as you might imagine--tempting for a first-time director to try show off, demonstrate how much he's learned from his cinematographer, film textbook, DVD collection).

With Tukso the challenge is in a way even greater--how to stimulate (again with a tiny budget) visual interest in a screenplay that evokes memories of a legendary Japanese film (Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1952)). He draws from documentary and crime procedural conventions (including those used in Kurosawa's film)--the talking heads, the overlapping event (in this case, a woman leaving her lover's Range Rover), even the falling woman that opens the film. Does he succeed? Not quite, but it's a worthy effort.

Perhaps the picture's biggest problem is in allowing itself to be compared to Kurosawa's unforgettable statement on the unreliability of perception and impossibility of objective truth (this isn't even the first Filipino film to make the attempt--there's Laurice Guillen's Salome in 1981). It plays the game cleverly, in no small part thanks to Marasigan's talent as filmmaker, but doesn't play it cleverly enough--the testimony of each witness, for example, includes scenes that he or she can't possible have seen or known, or more crucially would never admit to an investigating officer of the law (Shamaine Buencamino); some clues practically scream out portent and significance (doors slowly closing on the camera lenses, implying that the people behind them are Up To No Good). It's a brave attempt but unlike, say, Brian De Palma's stylish thrillers, which gleefully invite comparisons to Hitchcock, it isn't able to present to us a fully persuasive justification for its homage--an entertaining spin on a classic tale, say, or a way of taking the original's premise a step beyond where the earlier picture was prepared to go.

All that said, the script is a clever enough construction, and in a genre that Philippine cinema rarely if ever tackles (I can't remember Lino Brocka or Ishmael Bernal ever doing a whodunit thriller, myself; when Mario O'Hara did try something in that area with Condemned (1984) it was I thought a well-done but rather minor element in a memorable noir vision)--kudos to Marasigan, then, for at least doing a decent execution, for keeping the whole complex plot coherent in his head, that he may transfer it with full clarity into ours.

But it's in the details of mood and tone and character that Marasigan excels--the way, say, Bal (Soliman Cruz), looks at his daughter Monica (Diana Malahay) in a manner that sends spiders crawling up your spine (Rashomon, meet Mike de Leon's in my opinion far more unsettling Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981)); or the way ambitious architect student Carlo (Sid Lucero) looks charmingly fresh-faced in one scene (when receiving praise for his work), distant and duplicitous in the next (thinking of Monica while embracing fiancé Gail (Anna Deroca)); or the way Gail's father David (the always excellent Ricky Davao) smiles while his eyes steal sidelong glances at Carlos and Monica, calculating possibilities, dangers, consequences.

Might as well add that one might accuse Marasigan of nepotism re: Ms. Adlawan for the way he seems to find her roles in his films, but the plain truth is that Ms. Adlawan is one of the best if not the best actress working in Philippine cinema today (one only has to see her brief but vivid moment as Virginia Parumog in Tikoy Aguiluz's Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish, 1995), or as the suffering Perla--raped physically, then metaphorically--in Jeffrey Jeturian's Tuhog (Larger than Life, 2001), or most impressively as half the acting coup in Marasigan's own Sa North Diversion Road). Adlawan here gives arguably the film's finest performance as Fe, the spinster who desires Emer (an also excellent Ping Medina (let's face it, the entire cast is terrific)), Monica's childhood friend (and unrequited admirer). With a few sidelong glances and a tentative way of delivering her lines, the actress effortlessly sketches for us a soul tormented by loneliness, attempting to reach out to someone incapable of seeing her as a woman, a sexual being. Tukso isn't quite as impressive as Sa North Diversion Road--easily one of the best of the Filipino digital films I've seen to date--but it's impressive enough, and it shows the growth and development of a promising filmmaker.

First published in Businessworld 12.7.07)

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