Wednesday, April 30, 2008

VCDs of two major Mario O'Hara films (Bakit Bughaw and Kastilyong Buhangin); plus other DVD releases

Tremendous news--kind of. But still.

Two of Mario O'Hara most highly regarded films--largely unseen for over twenty years--are finally, finally available on VCD format (that's the 'tremendous' part), but unsubtitled (that's the 'kind of' part):
Kastilyong Buhangin (Sand Castle, 1980) and Bakit Bughaw ang Langit (Why Is the Sky Blue? 1981).

Basically, Kastilyong Buhangin was a pop vehicle for drama queen/music diva Nora Aunor and rising stuntman turned actor Lito Lapid, so the film is a mix of melodrama and action setpieces--a cross, in effect, between George Cukor's A Star is Born and Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire. Stuntmen choreographing their own stunts, Nora Aunor singing a George Canseco classic (if you've ever been to a karaoke bar in Manila--or any Filipino home with a karaoke set--you've probably spotted the title song in their catalogue). What's not to like?

Bakit Bughaw is even better, a Lino Brocka melodrama played with an understatement and laser-beam focus I submit Brocka never achieved in his own films. Some say this is O'Hara's masterpiece; I may not agree, but I understand their regard.

I've written on both films--on Kastilyong Buhangin
here and on Bakit Bughaw ang Langit here, and I cannot, can not recommend them highly enough. VCDs work on my Philips DVD player, so there's a chance they'll work on yours; the video quality will be bad, but this may be the only way the films are ever going to be seen (the prints and negatives are gone, as far as I know, and believe me I've looked). If you're not fluent in Tagalog chances are you'll have trouble understanding the story, so now's your chance to either learn the language or befriend a Filipino, take him or her to your home, and have them watch two of the finest films in Philippine cinema, translating the dialogue benshi-style for your benefit.

Abel Gance's J'Accuse (1919) is great, and moving in ways Napoleon (a more visually spectacular and complex film) is not. The storyline is pure melodrama, but the way it's carried out is hard to resist--Gance's hokiness is so much more sophisticated than Griffith's, or even Murnau's, at least in Sunrise (1927) (which can be off-putting, if you're not ready for it).

Again and again Jean Diaz (Victor Francen) proves himself self-sacrificing, totally unselfish and sensitive to the needs of the people and of Edith, the woman he loves (Line Noro), who happens to be married to another man. Your eyebrows rise but you can't quite bring yourself to laugh--Gance has Francen underplay his acting so well, largely subordinates his not inconsiderable visual style to the story so completely that Diaz's deeds come across as simple expediency, dictated by circumstances, with only a trailing whiff of nobility in the air. I for one was completely seduced by this plaster saint posing so effectively as a human being.

The truly three-dimensional figure in the film is Edith's husband Francois (Marcel Delaitre), who makes for a magnificent peasant brute; with his howitzer of a shotgun and battleship prow of a nose, when he glares at the camera (often at Diaz or at his own erring wife), you expect the theater screen to singe a little. All the more moving, then, when he is confronted with his own implacable sense of honor, and his granite facade cracks a little.

Great scenes combining actual combat with reenacted footage, and I don't know if it's an accident or conscious decision on Gance's part, but the soldiers captured on film are faceless figures, foreshadowing the harrowing sequence where the dead rise up to judge the living (Romero's entire work, and even Dante's Homecoming (2005), anyone?). That final scene, with the dead in long shot, even in bright sunlight, is unsettling--they're solid, not phantoms, but you still get this hair-raising sense that they're not completely of this world.

Again, again, that's why I think Romero's slow-shuffling undead (or Kurosawa Kiyoshi's in Kairo, for that matter) are so disturbing. They're don't quite move to our beat--don't swim in the same currents of time. The more recent, faster-moving ghouls (28 Days Later; the Dawn of the Dead remake) are just wild animals on the loose; Romero's (and Kiyoshi's) cry out from beyond.

Finally: Desu noto (Death Note, 2006). Tetsuo Araki's adaptation of the manga by they psuedonymous Tsugumi Ohba. John Powers reviewed the series in NPR, quoting someone as saying this is the best thing to come out of Japan in reecent years.

It's fascinating for the intricate plotting, mainly, and the jawdropping twists introduced along the way. And of course for L, the bug-eyed pale-skinned, honey-voiced (Alessandro Juliani who, if they ever remade 2001: A Space Odyssey, would be a shoo-in to play HAL 9000) genius behind the the manhunt for Kira, the unknown killer who strikes down criminals the world over just by looking at their faces, and writing down their names in an ordinary notebook.

It's not particularly profound, and it doesn't make any grand statements on the human condition; it's just a fantasy of two youths possessed of extraordinary abilities (as Powers notes, the two main characters represent two distinct types: Kira (a.k.a. Light Yagami) is the handsome honor student, ladies' man, and athlete, while L (real name unknown) represents the weird otaku, or geek). L and Kira are alike, they're deadly enemies, they're also, strangely enough, tentatively good friends, mainly because they are the only two people in the world, apparently, intelligent enough to truly appreciate each other (in a late episode, perhaps the creepiest moment in a series full of creepy moments, L washes Kira's feet).

I don't agree about that 'best thing to come from Japan recently' bit--Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Takeshi Kitano are still working (haven't seen their latest, though), and Oshii wowed me with his last picture--but it's defintely interesting, addictive stuff.


Dan Sallitt said...

Noel - if you want a benshi gig next time we're in the same city, you've got it.

Noel Vera said...

Dan, the guy organizing the screenings isn't doing so anymore. If I go to the city, I can bring my VCDs and DVDs and what have you and play them in your machine...

Mr. Schizophrenic said...

There's a DVD copy of Bakit Bughaw ang Langit in AstroPlus SM. Just purchased my own copy =)