Friday, October 23, 2009

Cinemanila 2009 (final weekend)

Lav Diaz's Batang West Side

Cinemanila 2009 (final weekend)

The world on the big screen at Cinemanila

It’s that time of the year again, and again I’m not sure we appreciate the kind of bounty we get at Cinemanila. There are other festivals for foreign films (Cine Europa, Eiga Sai, the various embassy festivals); other festivals for independent films (Cinema One Originals, Cinemalaya), but seeing cutting-edge Filipino films screened side-by-side with the latest offerings from world cinema, that’s a different experience entirely. We see the best of what we have to offer alongside the best of what the world has to offer, and we can come to the conclusion that yes, there is much in the world that’s different and much we can learn from, the same time there’s much we can offer in return. The exchange of ideas, images, interests, cultures, stories and, above all, friendships--that’s the real value of a festival like this.

he world cinema programming in particular--it’s a relief to see programming that’s aware of what’s going on out there, instead of relying on distributors or popular hits or goodness knows what criterion to pick films for one’s festival. Here we have commercial hits (Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), the latest from any number of exciting filmmakers (Fruit Chan and Jian Cui’s Chengdu, I Love You; Steve McQueen’s Hunger; Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth; Francois Ozon’s Ricky). We have the latest from the finest Filipino filmmakers working at the moment (Raya Martin’s Independencia; Ralston Jover’s Bakal Boys; Pepe Diokno’s Engkwentro). We have screenings of two of Lav Diaz’s most important works, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family), and Batang West Side (West Side Avenue).

Batang West Side is as Diaz himself put it his “first film”--or, at least, the first where he truly realized his vision (I do like his earlier efforts, however flawed he may think they are, particularly the Dostoevskian Serafin Geronimo: Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Criminal of Barrio Concepcion)). Batang West Side explores the different levels of an entire community, the Filipino-American community, from its oldest to youngest generation, from its upper class to middle class to underworld. In its five-hour accumulation of detail, with a density and scope and leisurely pace very much like a novel, it achieves greatness; it even has room for deadpan humor (a gang boss’ trippy speech (“Shabu (crystal meth) is the salvation of the Philippines”) and surreal imagery (a nightmarish dream sequence). Diaz balances severe aesthetic with a novelist’s comprehensive storytelling in this film and achieves, I believe, his masterpiece.

bolusyon at eleven hours is an even bigger canvas, and admittedly more impressive (Film critic/iconoclast Olaf Moller, writing for Senses of Cinema, picked it as the Best Film of 2005 and, writing for Cinematheque Ontario just this year, as "Film of the Decade"). I would argue that Diaz had trouble validating his mix of 16 mm and video footage, and that the historical perspective doesn’t really integrate with the personal storylines that crisscross the narrative. But huge canvases and overreaching ambitions are often accompanied by considerable flaws, and there are more than enough themes and surpassingly moving moments here to make it worth one’s while--a grandmother lying among her photographs, spending her final moments in mourning; a man’s pathetic, agonizing death stretched out almost to eternity as the camera follows his dying crawl. Diaz attempts nothing more and nothing less than an epic retelling of thirty years’ of Philippine history, and the results are confusing, fascinating, altogether exhilarating.

These are difficult and essential films to see; if you are Filipino, or a lover of all things Filipino, or a film lover, or a lover of Filipino films, or a combination of any of the aforementioned, you must, must, must see these two works.

(Belated note: the Batang West Side screening apparently didn't push through, but festival director Tikoy Aguiluz hopes to have it screened at a later date)

As for the other films--Israel may not be the most morally upstanding country at the moment, but that doesn’t go for some of its filmmakers. Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is an animated documentary about an Israeli soldier (Folman himself) trying to recover his memories of what happened during the Lebanon War, in particular the Sabra and Shatila massacre--the animation acts as another level of stylization that helps the filmmaker deal with memories too painful to remember. Bui Thac Chuyen’s Adrift (Cinema 5, Saturday 12 to 1.50 pm) is a gorgeously photographed Vietnamese film much in the tradition of French erotic dramas, only the Vietnamese do the French one better by throwing a few virgins in the mix, to help recall what a surprise and terror and wonder human sexuality can be. Chris Chong’s Karaoke is one of the best films I’ve seen recently, an understated drama about the shattering of a youth’s illusions in life, with a great wordless sequence in the middle that reveals what it’s all about and why nothing the youth can say or do really matters.

First published in Businessworld, 10.23.09


optimistic said...

They were not able to show Batang West Side yesterday (had some trouble with the producer). But Sir Tikoy said he wanted to show it even after the festival.

I was reading your thoughts on Batang West Side, and suddenly realized, might spoil it. So I skip to Ebolusyon, which I saw and liked very much. I agree with the technical flaw, some scenes were distorted, and the sound uneven - but don't know which scenes were shot on video. I think the other (was used to differentiate flashbacks from present). One story (Fernando's family) was years ahead of the other, that's why the EDSA precedes the coup.

Noel Vera said...

Trouble with producer? Not surprised.

I'd think the video and 16 mm footage are easy to distinguish.

If I remember right, some flashbacks are video, some are 16 mm, so it's not consistent which is which (might be easier to scrap the 16 mm and shoot everything in video--find some other way to indicate flashbacks). Yeah, if I remember right, the chronology has Fernando's family's story years later, but it would help to give the audience a clue--otherwise (and especially with foreign audiences) they'll have a funny idea of Philippine history.

Anonymous said...

I watched two films in Cinemanila and both times there were but a handful of us in the theater. It's sad to see and note that, even as yet another edition of the festival comes to town, Cinemanila is nowhere near the world class--or even Asian-class-- festival its founders hoped it would be. The same kinks and faux pas seem to bedevil the organizers year after year. Maybe director Tikoy needs to foster a genuine culture of inclusion within the fest and nurture relationships with the filmmakers (and producers). He seems to play the erudite cinematic diplomat and the vengeful enforcer with equal aplomb, much to the point that it's unhealthy for the festival. One moment completely charming as host to Tarantino or Schrader, the next moment pummeling some hapless gay tabloid reporter. It's no wonder the prints to some films scheduled get withdrawn in the bat of an fake eyelash!

Noel Vera said...

The films are there for people to see. that's all I know.