Monday, May 19, 2008

Cannes Film Festival: Pan-Asian roundup - The Philippines

Thai films are soooo 2004. They are over it at Cannes. This year, it's the Philippines' and Singapore's turn.

The Philippines has a film in the official selection, Serbis by Brillante Mendoza. It's the first in contention for the Palm d'Or since 1984, when Lino Brocka's Bayan Ko (My Country) screened there. Out of competition at this year's Director's Fortnight, Raya Martin's Now Showing is, uh, showing. Martin seems to be taking a cue from Lav Diaz, whose films I've seen clock in at between nine and 11 hours. Martin's is brisk by comparision, running only a mere five hours.

Singapore has its second-ever film as an official selection, following Ekachai Uekrongtham's Singapore-set Pleasure Factory, which was in last year's Un Certain Regard competition. This year, Eric Khoo's My Magic is in the main competition.

Independent film in the Philippines has been making a comeback on the festival circuit in recent years, with Brillante Mendoza among the favorites. Agence France-Presse via Google News offered a recent survey of the industry:

[O]verall, the Philippines movie industry -- once one of the largest in the world -- is struggling to re-emerge from the doldrums.

"At least that (selection for Cannes) is one piece of good news for the industry, because we have had all the bad news the past five or six years," noted Leo Martinez, executive director of the Film Academy of the Philippines.

Mendoza and Martin are hopeful their selection will boost the independent film scene and the industry in general, but admit there is a long way to go.

Serbis is about a family living in a movie theatre which shows sex films, the title referring to male prostitutes who ply their services to cinema-going clients.

Martin's Now Showing -- almost five hours long -- is about a young girl growing up in Manila, dealing with a grandmother who used to be an actress and an aunt who sells pirated DVDs.

Neither movie has big stars and both focus on the seamy side of life, which may affect their commercial value.

"Moviegoers will go to a theatre to fantasise," Mendoza told AFP.

"They don't want to see poverty, to see reality. They don't want to see what they see every day."


"We have high hopes (the Cannes selections) will spur more productions," the Film Academy's Martinez said.

"But realistically speaking, our masses do not care, or do not even know. They are unaware of these movies at all."

And mainstream movies too have their own problems. "In our heyday in the 1970s to the early 1990s we used to make 200 films a year. Now, we are doing 50 films a year," said Martinez.

He blamed it on the popularity of Hollywood blockbusters such as Iron Man, which most theatre owners prefer to book over Filipino fare.

While Filipino audiences might not be flocking to see homegrown indie films, they capture the imagination of critics at film festivals.

The New York Times' A. O. Scott was struck by the imagery of Serbis, and used it to lead off his color piece on Cannes:

Toward the end of Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis, the patrons of a dilapidated Manila adult-movie palace are surprised to discover that a goat has wandered in from the street, partly obstructing their view of the naked bodies on screen. The animal’s sudden appearance — which sets off one of several chaotic, hilarious chases in this rambunctious, noisy film — might be taken as a symbol. The cinema can be a place of fantasy and sometimes disreputable pleasure, but reality, as stubborn and hard to corral as that goat, has a way of intruding whether we like it or not.

At the Cannes Film Festival, however, the metaphor often works in reverse. The metaphorical goats, as it were, can be found in the screening rooms, where audiences gather, sheeplike, to witness the frustration, misery and disorder of real life in various parts of the world. The main competition (which this year includes Mr. Mendoza’s film) and the adventuresome Un Certain Regard side program share a tendency to exalt seriousness and suffering, and some of the strongest entries this year plunge viewers into worlds of private pain, family dysfunction, economic deprivation and social cruelty.

The noise of Serbis was seized upon by critic Glenn Kenny, who recently started his own blog ("thank you very g-ddamn much") after being unceremoniously dumped by Premiere. He writes:

Boy, Angeles City in the Philippines sure is frickin' noisy, at least if the new film from director Brillante Mendoza is to be believed. The hour-and-a-half of Serbis (translations: "service," as in sexual) unspools to an aural backdrop...well, no, actually, it's in the foreground—of non-stop traffic noise. All the action takes place in a spectacularly dilapidated movie theater on a particular busy corner. The down-at-its-heels family that runs the place also resides there, and the main business of the house isn't so much cinema as prostitution: when the lights go down, the fondling and fellatio, engaged in by a motley crew including pre-op transsexuals and alarmingly young-looking hooky-players, begins.

In the course of a day and early evening in the place, we're treated to such sights as a disgustingly backed-up bathroom, a detailed look at what appears to be a painful but effective treatment for a boil on the butt, and a wild goat chase. What we learn about the family itself, though, is pretty slim. As an environmental experience, Serbis has a peculiar voyeuristic draw, and that noisy soundtrack turns into a drone that has a near-trance effect. The hypnotic tedium of a life lived in underdevelopment and sensory overload and most likely oppressive humidity is, finally, effectively evoked. Beyond that, the viewer is out of luck.

The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt was similarly downbeat about Serbis, including it in his festival midpoint roundup, in which he mentions Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas' Linha de Passe from Brazil and Pablo Trapero's Lion's Den from Argentina as the competition favorites so far. Of Serbis he writes:

[W]hat would a Cannes Competition be without a head-scratcher? So far that would be Brillante Mendoza's "Service" from the Philippines. A 90-minute wallow in frighteningly bad sound and camerawork, nonacting, relentless degradation and sex, the film seems to be here for one reason -- to give the festival its annual jolt of graphic oral sex.

The Hollywood Reporter's Maggie Lee was more upbeat in her review, saying:

Director Brillante Mendoza continues the neo-realist vein of Foster Child and Sling Shot in Serbis, but displays marked improvement -- both the grunge aesthetic and film language now bear his personal handwriting. To this, he adds some bristling sexuality, both gay and straight.

Serbis contains elements of soap opera from popular Philippine cinema and TV, but without any of the froth and lather. Unspooling at an almost real-time pace, with a narrative that is all foreplay and no conventional climax, the film won't win any commercial converts to the Philippine new wave. Festival and art-house bookings are optimistic though.

Meanwhile, Eric Khoo's My Magic screens on Friday, so I hope to catch up on the Singaporean scene later in the week.

However, I feel I should mention the Chinese film in the main competition, 24 City by Jia Zhangke, which was shot in Chengdu, Sichuan province, where a severe earthquake struck a week ago, killing an estimated 50,000 people.

At a Cannes press conference, the director, observed a minute of silence for the earthquake victims, bowing his head with actresses Joan Chen and Zhao Tao. Here's more from AFP via Google News:

"I spent more than a year there," said the director, whose film is part-documentary and part-fiction. "What has happened there is extremely painful for us."

The importance for him of being at Cannes, he told AFP in an interview, "was to show the world the reality of Sichuan".

"The people in this film are the people of that province," added Chinese-American actress Chen.

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