Sunday, March 07, 2010

Lino Brocka, Paul Morales' 'Concerto,'

Lino Brocka (in glasses) on the set of Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag

From the San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival (March 11-20, 2010) blog, an essay I wrote:

The festival will focus on Filipino films, with a retrospective on some of Brocka's best-known works. The festival includes some shorts and Raya Martin's Independencia.

Finally got a chance to see Paul Morales' highly praised film Concerto (2008)--about a family of Davaoenos who lived in close proximity to a Japanese military camp during the Second World War. 

I found the film unsettling at first, and not in a good way--where were the wartime atrocities, the scenes of imprisonment, pillage, and torture found in classics of the genre, in this country and in others? Thinking about it later, though, I'd realized that part of Morales' achievement was to avoid treading on what's been done before, to tell his own story (he wrote the screenplay, based on his great grandfather's book Diary of the war: World War II memoirs of Lt. Col. Anastacio Campo), on its own terms. 

In a sense, the Japanese never invaded Davao; they had been there since 1903, as workers brought in to work the abaca plantations, among others. When World War 2 broke out Davao was bombed along with Manila and Japanese soldiers occupied the city, forcing Morales' family out of their homes and into the surrounding countryside--which didn't stop the family and the soldiers from developing less-than-hostile relations with each other.

The family never quite forgets its standing in the order of things--even when they enter the Japanese military camp selling fried banana treats, even when they are invited inside to talk to the camp commander, even when Japanese officers visit their home and sit down to dinner with them, you can see a wariness in their expressions, a watchfulness, as if they were aware that they are playing with dynamite, that all this may help them now but at any moment can blow up in their faces. I won't say Morales has achieved the subtlety of Ozu, but he does move in the master's general direction--a depiction of workday, quotidian relations that conceals a simmering underneath.

Morales the director manages to create a war film on no budget, with strands of barbed wire and tent for a military camp, a few  period houses for the Davao countryside, and an armful of lovely dresses to clothe the citizens. His digital photography is consistently beautiful, making full use of the bright Davao sunshine, its harshness screened by the thick foliage, the seductive beauty hiding an unspoken tension. 

Morales necessarily cheats on the battle sequences--a bombing is more heard than seen, so is a torture sequence (if anything, the ear is far more crucial to appreciating the film than the eye); as mentioned, he puts somewhat greater emphasis on the uneasy relations between civilians and soliders. If much of the film seems muted that may be because all the passion has been poured into the music; in a series of strikingly photographed and edited sequences Morales goes all-out, featuring compositions by Brahms, Beethoven, Abelardo, and a composition by Morales' own grandmother, Norma Campo Ezpeleta. 

You want to ask Morales what is meant by this unusual emphasis--was music a means to survive the hardships of war, a means of bridging the gap between man and woman, military and civilian, Japanese and Filipino? Lovely little film. 


Maya said...

Noel, thank you so much for your erudite guidance into the films of Lino Brocka. I'm excited to have the chance to see a sampling at this year's SFIAAFF. Watched You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting last night and was simply blown away. A bit like Flannery O'Connor, Fassbinder, Sirk and Bogdonavich all rolled up into one melodramatic roll.

Will you be attending SFIAAFF? I would love to interview you.

Noel Vera said...

I wish I could go! Nada dinero. I could answer questions online...

Anonymous said...


just saw >concerto< over the weekend. if only because it didn't have the de rigeur scenes of Filipino war movies(the likes of Anita Linda's nginig-baba) angst and brutality (babies thrown in the air and caught by soldiers' bayonets)i take my hat off to writer/director.

quiet d i g n i t y was how the morales family coped with the ravages and realities of civilized society.

it's peque g's >oro, plata, mata< on a smaller scale, minus the "gone with the wind" (southern) grandeur, hysteria/ hystrionics and special effects/prosthetics. i have to agree that the film's budget limitations is turned into a fair advantage. it pushes the auteur to turn to the power of imagination, thereby inviting the viewer to participate and contribute his own sensory (sensorial?)experience. which i think are what great works are all about.

>concerto<'s cinematography is rich. lavish. a garden of earthly delight HA!3x

Noel Vera said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say a war picture shouldn't deal with atrocities--Harp of Burma, Red Sorghum, Fires on the Plain, our own Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos covered that ground.

But it does deal with a special case, where the relationship between the Japanese and Filipinos wasn't completely adversarial, where they seem more like neighbors turned by circumstances into something less comfortable.

It's not perfect--I'd like to have seen more on what the rest of the town thought of the family, of difficulties if any in seeing them as collaborationist, or how they dealt with or explained away the issue, and what happened to the Japanese AFTER the war.

But yes, the cinematography was gorgeous.