Thursday, December 03, 2020

Best of 1998

1998: the good, the bad, and the ugly 

1998 is a good year for films, but the good weren’t the ones you’d expect, and  didn’t come from where you’d expect. 

Take the Oscars. After voting one independent film after another for Best Picture in 1997--Fargo, The English Patient, Secrets And Lies, Shine (The English Patient won, the first in a long, long time that actually deserved the award)--in 1998 the Academy Awards took a giant step backwards and chose feel-good movies: Good Will Hunting, As Good As It Gets, Titanic (Titanic won, though Good Will seemed more deserving). 

Goes without saying that Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has a reserved slot in the 1999 races. Saving is a terrific example of in-your-face filmmaking: lots of handheld shots, lots of grainy closeups, lots of intense acting. What’s missing is the in-your-face attitude to go with the filmmaking: Spielberg’s still reaching for higher human values, and still flinches at humanity’s darker side. Saving likes to think of itself as the film that deglamorized World War II, but the claim is only partly correct; the packaging is grittier but inside it’s still the same standard-issue moral uplift. Put it this way: think of what the movie might have been like if, say, Brian De Palma or Martin Scorsese had directed (think of what Schindler’s List would have been like if Scorsese had directed, which he almost did). Spielberg’s still a boy playing at adult games; it works for the battle sequences (his playful staging of the carnage at Omaha Beach is genuinely shocking), but a tougher mind was needed for a tougher-minded film.  

Peter Weir’s The Truman Show is another strong candidate for Best Picturedom and overall a much better film. Andrew Niccol’s script (he also wrote and directed the unusually intelligent Gattaca) makes engaging use of a science fiction premise--what if your entire world was a television set and you were the star? Disciplined by Niccol’s rigorously logical script, Weir is forced to set his gaseous mysticism aside and make a tight, visually inventive film. I might call The Truman Show the year’s best--except I’ve seen the concept done before (and better) in Philip K. Dick’s Time Out Of Joint, written back in the 50’s.  

Overall there’s muscle and sinew in Hollywood’s Oscar contenders, but it’s the genre pictures that really get your blood going. Movies from Elmore Leonard novels seem to inspire above-average filmmakers to do above-average thrillers: Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown represent some of the best work they’ve done in years. Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man, the most intelligent film ever made to sport John Grisham’s name above its title, also happens to be Altman’s leanest, most atmospheric picture since The Player. And John Woo’s Face/Off is a terrific (if not quite total) return to his wilder Hongkong days.  

Fantasy, horror and science fiction are fertile grounds for Hollywood, which has the technology and budget (and occasionally, the talent) to do them well. X-Files, The Movie features smart dialogue, spooky atmosphere, and pleasantly understated sexual frisson between FBI agents Scully and Mulder. Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic, nominally about mutated giant cockroaches, is really about Del Toro capturing New York City sewers in lovely golden-hued lighting (Del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker--funny how most of the more interesting Hollywood films are being done by imports--did the critically acclaimed vampire flick Cronos). Andy Tennant’s Ever After is a surprisingly winning reinterpretation of the Cinderella story, with a spirited Drew Barrymore in the title role. Alex Proyas’ Dark City is a stylish descent into film-noir Hell, complete with telekinetic aliens--and incidentally one of the most vivid (if indirect) interpretations of Philip K. Dick’s reality-shifting novels ever put onscreen (to be more precise, Dick's short story "Adjustment Team").   

Possibly the best picture I’ve seen this year in Manila theaters was made back in 1996, was released only because of the sudden fame of the female lead, and wasn’t even shown under its original title. Michael Winterbottom’s Jude (retitled Naked in this country) features Kate Winslet of Titanic fame (the eponymous role is played by Christopher Eccleston)--the fact that Winslet exposed her breasts in Titanic, then her breasts and pubic hair in this movie helped pack the theaters. Panting moviegoers expecting a cheap sex flick, however, got something entirely different--a swift, enthralling version of Thomas Hardy’s most uncompromising novel, Jude The Obscure (Hardy retired from writing fiction after critics violently condemned the book).   

It’s Michael Winterbottom’s first period film, and you get the impression that he knows little about period films, nor does he care much about getting them right--the complete opposite of a Merchant-Ivory production, where every flower vase is lovingly framed. Winterbottom is intense, but isn’t obvious about it; for most of the film, you’re lulled into watching this sad, strangely fascinating couple descend the rungs of English society. When tragedy strikes, Winterbottom doesn’t flinch or play coy with you; he gives you the brutal facts, full in the stomach.  

The ending has been criticized as a dilution of Hardy’s original: Jude suffers a horrific death, alone and choking in bed (Hardy is infamous for being hard on his characters). Perfect for the novel, but movies tend to die on prolonged endings; Winterbottom took the risk of filming Hossein Amini’s revision, and I think it works--you feel the breathless speed of the new ending like a second punch in the belly, just when you’ve recovered from the first. Jude may be the best foreign film ever to become a commercial hit in this country, thanks to the success of James Cameron and Winslet’s pubic hair--an irony Hardy himself might have appreciated.   

For 1998, local films have gotten more expensive and sophisticated, to appeal to foreign audiences; quality, however, doesn’t necessarily follow. With greater sophistication comes a greater measure of pretentiousness; what makes a Filipino film distinctly Filipino--its simplicity, its down-to-earthedness--is lost along the way.  

Take Pusod Ng Dagat (In the Navel of the Sea), an expensive remake of Ishmael Bernal’s Nunal Sa Tubig (Speck in the Water even the cadence--and meaning--of the two titles seems similar). The film is a lavish photo album filled with beautiful seascapes, magic realism, and exotic (to foreign eyes) religious rituals. But the mystical-nostalgic tone feels like an assumed pose, and the less-than-stellar lead actors (Jomari Yllana and Chin-Chin Gutierrez) are so reined-in they’re listless, denied the energy of their usual bad acting.  

In Chito Rono’s Curacha we get a guided tour of the sordid streets of Manila, complete with coup-de-etats, acrobatic sex, a child hermaphrodite, and Rosanna Roces dying in the middle of Luneta Park (appropriately, she’s ignored and left alone on the sidewalk--leftover trash for the Metro Aides to pick up). The nonlinear narrative and casual (if grimly unerotic sex) of films like Curacha and Pusod are supposed to mark them as experimental, but they’re only repeating tricks Jean-Luc Godard and Luis Bunuel discarded years before--Nouvelle Vague for the Nineties, only vaguer.   

Peque Gallaga’s Gangland is a tighter, more intense exercise in style; if films were judged on technicals alone, Gangland is the Filipino film of the year. Actually, a quick glance at the films Scorsese, Oliver Stone, David Fincher will tell you where Gangland’s style comes from. And the premise of the film--hip-hopping gangs killing each other in Sta. Cruz and Binondo--seems all right until you realize hip-hoppers don’t really kill each other in Sta. Cruz or in Binondo (you’re likelier to find them in a shopping mall, spending their parents’ money on earrings and baggy pants).  

Chito Rono’s outdone himself this year; it takes energy and determination to make one outlandishly bad movie after another. After Curacha came his take on Lualhati Bautista’s feminist classic Bata, Bata, Paano Ka Ginawa? (Child, How Were You Created?) with an endlessly whining performance from Vilma Santos; then Rosanna Roces (again) in Babae Sa Bintana (Woman in the Window)--the story stolen wholesale from Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window, with bits of Peque Gallaga’s erotic masterpiece Scorpio Nights thrown in.   

Then there’s Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, self-appointed champion of the sexually mariginalized (to the embarrassment of said marginalized). Ang Lalaki Sa Buhay Ni Selya is about male homosexuals, while Tatlo…Magkasalo is about lesbians; both are eminently watchable for their excellent production values and unintentionally hilarious campiness. Selya, incidentally, was screened (with Pusod) at the recent Berlin International Film Festival, where it won--not a Golden Bear, not even a Silver Bear, but a Teddy; this was taken as a sign of the film’s quality. Actually, it was 1) a second-place award (the first-placer, according to someone who’s seen it, was God-awful); 2) an award restricted to gay or lesbian films; and 3) an award that in all probability was given not because the film was any good, but because it had been banned by local censors.  

Perhaps one of the better films of 1998 was one of the least regarded. Tikoy Aguiluz’s Tatsulok came, made its P5 million budget back plus a modest profit, and quietly went. The film deserves better: despite problems with the soundtrack, it’s worth seeing for Aguiluz’s intense, documentarylike rendering of Olongapo and Subic, and for Elizabeth Oropesa’s sensual portrayal of a married woman who still enjoys an occasional walk on the wild side.  

If--as Godzilla’s ad campaign asserted--size does matter, then the biggest Filipino film of the year--of all time, actually--is Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal. The film cost a whopping P70 million (according to latest press statements), took six whole months to shoot, used the latest in digital special effects, and included almost every member of the DGPI in its cast. It’s already the highest-grossing film in the Metro Manila Film Festival, and has won every award except Best Actress (which--as one movie writer cattily noted--the picture might have if Rizal wore a skirt). But that’s not all; Rizal is gunning for the two highest honors a Filipino film can ever hope to earn--a screening at the Cannes International Film Festival, and a nomination from the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. Rizal, as its numberless admirers are fond of putting it, is the Titanic of local films: an award winner, a top-grosser, and a great film.  

Never mind the small voices crying otherwise in the wilderness. Lito Zulueta in Inquirer called Rizal too anti-church; Professor Lapuz in Manila Bulletin claims it left him “flat,” and that Cesar Montano as Rizal was miscast, with a fatal flaw of a smirk. Diaz-Abaya, not content with her armload of awards, answered the two critics, accusing them of being connected to UST (which is run by Dominicans), and therefore pro-church.  

For the record, I’m from Ateneo (run by Jesuits), and if we want to pursue this line of argument, Diaz-Abaya hails from Assumption College--both perfectly good Catholic schools. And I’m not exactly the perfect objective outsider; I was involved in Rizal Sa Dapitan, an earlier production, and anything I say against this Rizal can easily be taken for sour-graping.  

But if Messrs. Zulueta, Lapus, and I are unqualified to lick Rizal’s shoes, then who is? Wouldn’t it be more sensible (and more democratic) to read what we say, then judge us according to the merits of our arguments? Because I happen to agree with Messrs. Zulueta and Lapus: Jose Rizal is a P70 million misfire. Students are urged to see the film because it’s like a complete college textbook on the man, which is exactly the problem--this is textbook Rizal. There’s not much interpretation, much less imagination, to the film--the most original idea we get from the film is that tired old cliché that Rizal’s life shows close parallels to his novels.  

And Cesar Montano smirks; not often, but enough to be annoying. I like the idea of an egotistic Rizal (he was), an arrogant Rizal, even a Rizal played by an arrogant, egotistic action star, but Montano’s smirk here has the special quality making him look smug without making him look smart enough to back up his smugness. Montano seems woefully overconfident, not a quality you’d normally associate with Rizal.  

The film’s climax has Simoun and Rizal conspiring to rewrite El Flibusterismo in favor of a more explosive, more revolutionary end. It’s a nice enough conceit, but it comes too late; the film should have been leading up to this scene, instead of wasting time touching on every highlight in Rizal’s life--Rizal’s Greatest Hits, in a rambling, three-hour format.  

In a late-breaking development, Inquirer columnist Conrado De Quiros weighed in with his take on Jose Rizal; too reverential, he notes, and hews too closely to a conventional view of him--but overall, he approves of the filmmakers trying to do something different, and of millions of people flocking the theaters to watch. The Filipino audience, he believes, is ready for something different (which just may be true--how I wish it’s true). De Quiros seems to have the coolest, most objective opinion on Rizal so far; I wonder--which college did he came from?  

But the film’s greatest sin may not be in its quality, or historicity, or lack of it; it may be the one thing the filmmakers are proudest of--its P70 million budget. Word has it that maybe P50 million came from the Centennial Commission (in which case, we’ve paid for Rizal twice over--once through taxes that fund the Commission, and once through the price of admission). I can’t help feeling that the money could have been better spent elsewhere--on five or seven P10 million films, for example. Given the range and depth in talent of our filmmakers, the films could have displayed a wider variety of storytelling styles; they might have covered other aspects of the Philippine Centennial--the Katipunan, say, or Aguinaldo’s campaign against the Spanish, or the role of women in the Revolution (Rizal, for all his greatness, wasn’t the entire revolt). Lav Diaz, for whom Marilou Diaz-Abaya herself professed admiration, was to receive P12 million for a Centennial project when the money was suddenly taken from him (he went on to make the flawed but brilliant Kriminal Ng Baryo Concepcion). What happened?  

It’s a disease of the mind, to which people have been especially susceptible this past Centennial year, a disease called gigantism. It’s the need to do something big and grand (even if we don’t have the money for it) when small and well-done could have served just fine--maybe even lead to better films. Gigantism is rampant among the members of the Centennial Commission; look at the Centennial Expo--did anyone actually go see that white elephant?  

In the end, we probably can’t blame Diaz-Abaya for her rather timid treatment of Rizal; she was sitting on top of P70 million, and the thought of all that money must have made her freeze up, kept her from do something wildly experimental. In the end, we probably got the Rizal that we deserved: tasteful, extravagant, not a little lifeless.  

But what’s the alternative? How about Mario O’Hara’s Sisa? Done for ten days and for about a thirtieth the budget of Jose Rizal, the film (which O’Hara wrote and directed) makes the case that the Sisa of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere was a real person, and that it was she--not Leonore Rivera, not Josephine Bracken--who was the true, great love of Rizal’s life.  

There’s something in this Rizal movie to offend everybody. The nude scenes, with Rizal on top of Sisa, should shock the morally constipated; the scenes of Rizal practicing black magic should annoy historians. The bare-bones production, with its styrofoam sets and sorry-looking special effects, should earn the hisses of people brought up on lavish period films like Gone With The Wind, or Dr. Zhivago. Sisa may end up alienating so many people no one will be left to watch, but there’s fire and imagination here, a near-kamikaze need to tear away the godlike reverence that’s grown around the subject. Sisa, despite its crude effects and occasionally awkward acting, may finally be the film that shows us Rizal’s all-too-human face--and all for the bargain price of P2.5 million.  

As if to add insult to injury, O’Hara wrote and directed Babae Sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on a Tin Roof)--also in ten days, and also for a niggardly P2.5 million. O’Hara took the slim but potent one-act play Bubungang Lata by Agapito Joaquin and turned it into an elegy for the Filipino film industry. He sets most of the film in the North Cemetery, where people too poor to afford houses actually live. It’s a brilliant conceit, a visual tour-de-force: among the tombs and monuments of famous statesmen and presidents, O’Hara shows us the grim, hardscrabble lives of writers, stuntmen, bit-playing actors--the people trying to survive on the outer fringes of the filmmaking business.  

It’s an honest, unsparing self-portrait; ironically, what undermines its theme--that the film industry is dead or dying--is its very existence. Babae Sa Bubungang Lata shows there’s real hope for Filipino filmmakers--not in huge superproductions that try rival Hollywood, but in little pictures shot guerilla-style, with guts and heart and sheer imagination. It’s easy to admire films like Saving Private Ryan or The Truman Show, but there’s a special kind of excitement in seeing a film like Babae Sa Bubungang Lata--something we can call ours, done on a budget that would barely cover a single day’s catering bill for either Hollywood production--succeed as a work of art. It’s the best picture of 1998, and possibly the best Filipino film ever made since 1986. 

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