Friday, December 13, 2013
LPFF 2013 reviews: Mater Dolorosa, What Isn't There, Rising Sun on the Horizon, Contradiction
Mater Dolorosa – Film blogger Oggs Cruz, the Philippines' Motion Picture Ambassador to the Luang Prabang Film Festival, introduced this screening, noting that director Adolfo Alix Jr. has made something like seven feature films in just the past year or so. At least that's what I thought he said. I couldn't hear for all the jaws dropping to the floor.
Alix is a practicing filmmaker, and with each film, he gets better. Mater Dolorosa, a Cinema One entry, is his Godfather. No, really, it's The Godfather, only instead of Al Pacino or Marlon Brando you have Gina Alajar as the classic domineering matriarch and head of a small crime family in Manila.
Two sons are in the business, with the more clean-cut of the two running a "carnapping" ring and the tattooed and thuggish other one running dope and gambling. A daughter is a police officer and early warning system. And a third son is the family's great hope – he's a medical student.
It's Christmastime, the most wonderful time to set a Filipino film, and the mother is trying to herd her family together for the holidays. Meanwhile, the mayor has promised a war on crime for the new year. But behind it all is a rival gangster.
The mother, a widow of a gangster who took over her man's rackets after he was gunned down beside her, works hard to keep the status quo and the peace. She uses money to smooth things over. When her husband's drug-addicted mistress stops by, there's no screaming. The mother just hands over a stack of cash and asks when the other kids can see their brother. And when the tattooed hothead younger brother beats up the rival gangsters' henchman, the mother pays him off too, and tells him to get out of town. The two sons want blood, but the mother will have none of it.
The New Year's holiday is the backdrop for the climax. The sense of dread is palpable as the family sits down to dinner while outside the streets are filled folks milling around carrying sparklers and fireworks are going off. Then the real fireworks start to happen. It's all made eerier because it's in black-and-white – Lav Diaz style. It really is The Godfather, but is perhaps even more remarkable in that it's done on an indie budget and in under 90 minutes. (4/5)
What Isn't There (Ang Nawawala) – Marie Jamora directs this lively portrait of well-off hipsters in contemporary Manila. It channels in the preciousness of Wes Anderson, though not overly cloying, and also recalls the movies of Cameron Crowe (thanks to wall-to-wall music) and John Hughes (thanks to its star Dominic Roco looking almost like Ferris Bueller).
Roco is Gibson, a 20-year-old overseas student who has returned home to Manila for the holidays. He's met at the airport by his worrywart sister, and he can't get a word in edgewise because she doesn't stop yammering.
Then Gibson arrives home and greets the rest of his family – youngest sister and parental favorite Promise, doofus sweatervest-and-bowtie-wearing dad (Boboy Garovillo) and cold, distant mother (Dawn Zulueta). And Gibson doesn't say a single word. "Still not talking Gibson?" says mom.
He goes to his room, pulls out an old lunchbox and rolls a joint. And then he starts talking to his alter ego (Felix Roco), a more fashionable, slightly less dorky version of himself. Turns out it's his twin brother Jaime, who died 10 years before in an accident, and Gibson hasn't said a word since. He instead takes in all he sees with his ever-present little digital camera.
Somehow, even though he doesn't speak, he manages to have at least one friend, the lovable goofball Teddy (Alchris Galura), who introduces Gibson to the latest swinging music scene in Manila. And there he meets Enid (Annicka Dolonius), a Ramona Flowers-like vision who forms an instant bond with Gibson. They have similar tastes in music and movies. "I'm thinking of dressing as Margo Tenenbaum for New Year's," she tells Gibson, her hipster cred zooming off the charts. He writes on his smartphone notepad that he and Teddy are going as Thompson and Thomson, and she should be Tintin.
It goes on like this. Gibson clamps on his oversized headphones, leans back and closes his eyes while he listens to a vintage nugget of Filipino pop, on vinyl, of course. And I am not sure if its adorable or annoying or adorably annoying. There's a heart and sweetness to it all, and that's what's appealing. (4/5)
Rising Sun on the Horizon – I fell asleep during this old-fashioned social-problem drama from Myanmar. But, with exposition telegraphed by sledgehammers, I don't feel I missed out.
It's about a pair of young fishermen in a Coral Islands village. They are happy as heck, hauling their catch from the sea and spearing rays with their tridents. U Bant Nant, his sweetheart Hla Htaik Khaung and his best friend, her brother, all skip along merrily on the beach.
But then gangsters come to the island try to pay for the fishermen's catch with opium. One of the guys, Michael, wants to make Hla Htaik Khaung his own. U Bant Nant vows to stand up against them and improve the lives of the villagers. Salvation comes through knowledge when an elderly professor comes to visit and takes U Bant Nant under his wing.
With the sun reflecting off the sea, a felt drowsy and drifted off. When I awoke, the simple, long-haired fisherman U Bant Nant was now a bespectacled businessman and head of a fish-canning empire. He is no longer U Bant Nant.
He heads back to the island. Hla Htaik Khaung has died. But there's a young girl who looks just like her skipping merrily about. And those gangsters are still around, making trouble. Fisticuffs and sound effects ensue, leading up to an explosion. (3/5)
Contradiction (Kontradiksi) – This moody Malaysian drama was the closing film, and was an edgy choice for the outdoor screen, given the depictions of violence and drug use in contemporary Kuala Lumpur.
Directed by Nazri M. Annuar and Aloy Paradoks, it's in two segments, with interlinking stories about different women.
First up is Mira, an artist who has broken up with her gangster boyfriend. Then another guy, a cohort of her ex's, starts hanging around. And Mira is dragged down. A finger is chopped off. And someone ends up dead.
The other story, which is more positive, is about Fynn, a young musician who earns a living busking on the street next to a hamburger cart. She develops a crush on a customer at the hamburger stand, follows him to his apartment building and leaves a note in his mailbox. That's the only way they communicate. Eventually the guy figures out who his mysterious admirerer is, but nothing comes of it. Fynn has more going on. (3/5)