Monday, August 24, 2020

Best of 1995

The end

EVERY film is guaranteed to have one, somewhere between the last explosive climax (nuclear chemical sexual) and the final crawl of credit. Prophets with placards declare its proximity: so do churches, religious sects--anyone with a vested interest in it and what happens after. All good things come to one eventually; you have one, I have one, everyone has one. It can be as remote as the universe’s edge, as close as the tip of your nose.

Welcome to The End; in this particular case, of the year’s crop of films. Has it been a good year or bad? 

Star Cinema began the year right. Chito Rono’s Eskapo could easily have been a vanity production, being the story of the Lopez-Osmena escape (Lopez money funds Star Cinema), only Eskapo is also a crackling good thriller: a true story told intelligently, with little sensationalism, and an attention to character and details (those 70’s clothes make you want to say “When did I ever wear that?”) rare in a Filipino film. Rono’s work for the rest of the year doesn’t rise to the same high level: his remake of Patayin Sa Sindak Si Barbara is a mess; his Di Mapigil Ang Init had to be finished by another director and isn't much better. Even so his films are watchable (waiting for his Dahas to come out) for Rono’s distinctive visual style, his fascinating Gothic sensibility.

Eskapo made a little money touring Philippine cinema’s New Frontier, the international market, nd well it should: the clean filmmaking, the understated storytelling would appeal to foreign audiences (not to suggest that such virtues pass completely over Filipino heads; Eskapo did brisk business locally). Reyna films aimed for this market when they made their big-budget gothic extravaganza, Carlito Siguion Reyna’s Inagaw Mo Ang Lahat Sa Akin and you see their efforts on screen: Inagaw is visually sophisticated and flawlessly edited, with an ambitious, complex script and impeccable production design.

The real hit on the international circuit, however, was Mel Chionglo’s Sibak (Midnight Dancers), a film that seemed to come out of nowhere. Though the second half degenerates into second-rate melodrama, the first half contains as compelling a portrait of an urban underworld as any I’ve seen recently. The shaky, hand-held shots, the casually caught dialogue, the loosely constructed screenplay is miles away from Inagaw’s studio glossiness; yet Sibak is the clear international success (incidentally doing SRO business the few times it was screened here.) The surprising popularity of Sibak seems to say: big budgets and ‘export-quality’ production values get you only so far; what's really needed is passion, imagination, and a good story--even half of one--well-told.

If Star and Reyna managed to make ambitious, ‘export-quality’ films, Carlos J. Caparas’ Golden Lions outfit churned out some of the year’s worse. Their The Delia Maga Story told the Flor Contemplacion story from the point of view of the victim, Delia Maga. The film used closeups of model buildings and toy cars to depict Singapore; the script and photography weren’t much better. As happens more and more often in local films, it’s the performers that shine: Gina Alajar was a simple, earthy Delia Maga and Joel Torre was her shy saddened husband (When I had the chance to tell Joel this, he stared at me and asked: “Are you serious?”).

The year might be considered The Year of the OCWs; no less than three were made on Flor alone, including the unfortunate Delia Maga. And why not? Overseas workers are the great untold story of our country. They leave husbands, wives, children for jobs in strange lands. They are as often as not abused, raped, and murdered. They have pumped an economically significant amount of foreign exchange into our country, for which we repay them with negligence and contempt. What could be more fertile ground for drama?

The second film on Flor was Joel Lamangan’s The Flor Contemplacion Story (Viva). Whatever else you might think of the film, in terms of budget and boxoffice it was the biggest local film of the year. It re-established the pre-eminence of Nora Aunor as a dramatic actress (about time, too), and won best picture and best actress prizes in the Cairo International Film Festival. Which, intentional or not, was a much-deserved slap at Singapore’s smugly superior face.

The third was Tikoy Aguiluz’s OCW: Ang Bagong Bayani. Bayani was made on a shoestring budget and featured actual footage outside and inside Changi prison (where Flor was held). It had a taut, beautifully effective script by Pete Lacaba and wonderful performances by Chanda Romero (as Delia Maga), Irma Adlawan (as Virginia Parumog) and Helen Gamboa (as Flor). And no one has seen it yet! Aguiluz has yet to find a theater willing to exhibit the film; apparently no theater owner has had the courage (read: a pair big enough and hairy enough) to take a risk. Festivals abroad (The Hongkong Film Festival, for one) have shown more interest; the irony of the film’s situation is beyond belief.

But if the lack of good local films (and the lack of people interested in watching them) makes you want to howl at the moon, there’s a savage satisfaction in realizing that Hollywood imports aren’t much better. Batman Forever, Die Hard 3, Judge Dredd, Assassins all display seamless production values and a near-total failure of imagination. Disney’s Pocahontas, riding on the high expectations of The Lion King, took a nosedive off a high waterfall and made a mediocre splash (though the shameless selling of merchandise tie-ins--T-shirts, bags, shoes and the like--would eventually turn a profit. Parents! Do you consider Disney’s view of your children as so many consuming units a good thing?). There are the star-driven productions: Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Demi Moore’s The Scarlet Letter; despite all the blooming explosions, flying gore and heaving breasts, the most fascinating sight were all the Hollywood egos on display.

The really good stuff were made guerrilla-style by independents that didn’t know the prevailing fashion in Hollywood and couldn’t care less. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite, about the Chinese Cultural Revolution as seen through the eyes of a child--epic in scope and emotions, and so simply and quietly told that you never realize till the film’s end how moving it is (another Chinese triumph, though officially China disapproves of the film). Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a lesser though no less potent brew of imagination, wit, and wonderful performances. The Last Seduction featured a ferocious, no-balls-barred performance by Linda Fiorentino and expert direction by John Dahl. Clueless was surprisingly clued-in comedy by Amy Heckerling, loosely inspired by, of all things, Jane Austen (Austen is making a comeback, if you haven’t heard; no less than three films are out, based on her novels). Luc Besson’s The Professional was a violent, lovely and totally valid retelling of Beauty and the Beast (there was a Disney version, I think). Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado was mindless fun, but O, what fun! David Fincher’s Seven was an intense film, as much for the gritty, despairing atmosphere (and Morgan Freeman’s great performance) as for the grisly serial killings based on the Seven Cardinal Sins. The Quick and the Dead features Sharon Stone’s best performance to date, and lots of visual wit from director Sam Raimi. Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy (aka The Great Pretender) featured a dream Manhattan inhabited by such wonderful actors as Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Paul Newman. Little Women featured a subject for which I’ve felt little enthusiasm--female bonding in the eighteenth century; but under the direction of the great Gillian Armstrong, the film has a grave, austere beauty. Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter (Ready To Wear) was almost universally vilified by critics here and abroad, but I found it loose and funny (despite having its climax cut out by the MTRCB); if it’s a lightweight film, it's exactly the film the fashion world deserves.

If prodded, I would include Apollo 13, Quiz Show and The Shawshank Redemption, though with serious reservations (Apollo almost didn’t make it off the ground, what with Ron Howard’s flat-footed direction; Quiz Show is almost paralyzed by Robert Redford’s impeccable good taste; Frank Darabont’s Shawshank has “I’m an Oscar contender!” pretensions written all over).

The cutting of Pret-a-Porter’s climactic scene is as good a place as any to illustrate the idiocy of the MTRCB (more fondly known as the Censors Board). The point of all those nude bodies was to remind us of where fashion began and, through the years, forgot: the unclothed woman. When the MTRCB forced the cuts, the film lost its impact. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we’ll never achieve artistic maturity with a band of narrow-minded conservatives deciding what we should or should not see. The ouster of MTRCB’s head Ms. Mendez was a step--a small one--in the right direction.

Mowelfund also figured prominently during the year, as in that silly brouhaha over the banning of French Films at its Centennial Celebration. More productive was the Centennial itself, which showed great old films (Manuel Silos’s Biyaya Ng Lupa, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2, Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos) and good new ones (Wong Kar-wei’s Chungking Express, Tikoy Aguiluz’s Bagong Bayani). Mowelfund also helped conduct short film workshops, of which two stand out: Tad Ermitano’s Tributaries, and Aureaus Solito’s Suring at ang Kuk-Ok. Watch these names; I predict good things from them. And watch Mowelfund, which is becoming an important force in creating and exhibiting good films.

Instituto Cervantes helped celebrate the Centennial with the screening of five often funny, often sexy Spanish films (nearly, but not quite, touched by the MTRCB), the best of which was the funny, sexy, intensely bittersweet Amo Tu Cama Rica (Love Your Sexy Bed, or words to that effect). The French Embassy celebrated the Centennial in its own modest way by exhibiting the first films shown by the brothers Lumiere, who supposedly held the first public screening of a motion picture ever in December, 1895 (Variety magazine contends it was done six months earlier, by Americans).

The best of the year? The Blue Kite, Bagong Bayani, with Pulp Fiction and The Last Seduction a distant third and fourth; the rest as mentioned above, in descending order. The worst? Oh, take your pick, though Caparas massacres are not necessarily worse than Hollywood or Disney flicks. Another thing I’ve said before, and I’ll say again: we have the talent to go global. I would match directors like Joel Lamangan, Carlitos Siguion Reyna, Mel Chionglo, Maryo De Los Reyes, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Chito Rono and Tikoy Aguiluz against any six mainstream Hollywood directors any day; that’s not including our screenwriters, actors and actresses, lights and sound technicians. I met a sound man who helped a famous Hollywood director get his Oscar for Best Sound. The director? Oliver Stone. The film? Platoon. The sound technician? Never shared the Oscar; he wasn’t part of a Hollywood union. He’s still working though, on what may be the most promising film of 1996, local or foreign. Not a definitely good year or a definitely bad one, but we definitely have hopes for the next.

First published in The Manila Chronicle (2.2.96 approx)

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