Thursday, February 18, 2010

Lav Diaz: The Early Years to close the Pinoy Classics series

Since the end of January, Film Virus has been showing films by the likes of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal in the Pinoy Classics series at Thammasart University.

The series closes this Sunday with Lav Diaz: The Early Years and a chance to see two of the conventional-length features by the boundary-pushing indie director. They are his debut, The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion from 1998 and Hesus the Revolutionary from 2002.

Criminal (Serafin Geronimo, kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion) involves an investigative journalist (Angel Aquino) who gets sucked into the story of Serafin (Raymond Bagatsing), who claims he's an infamous kidnapper in a scheme that went horribly wrong.

One of Diaz's commercial efforts for Regal Studios, Hesus Rebolusyonaryo is set in a dystopian, military-ruled Philippines of 2011, though as critic Noel Vera pointed out in a 2005 review, "the film is really a commentary on the Philippines in the year 2002. Manila's streets have not changed; if anything, they look seedier and more garbage-strewn ... Diaz in effect took his budget constraints--no money for sets, or crowd extras--and turned them into a political point: that Manila in the future will be more of the same, only worse." The loner Hesus (Mark Anthony Fernandez) stirs up trouble.

I finally made the Pinoy Classics screenings in their second week, and caught Himala by Ishmael Bernal. This is the gritty and tragedy-filled story of a naive young woman (Nora Aunor) who claims she's seen the Virgin Mary. Soon, a cult springs up around her and people flock to the remote village to pray to her and be healed by her prayers. The spectacle is viewed through the eyes of a visiting filmmaker. On the fringes is a cabaret-brothel that opens to cash in on the tourist trade and serve the lower spiritual needs of the pilgrims. There's also a pair of young men -- one's a boyfriend of Elsa's best friend who's been caught up in Elsa's nightmare -- who are devising ways to get to the Middle East so they can find work.

Last weekend I was introduced to two films by indie pioneer Kidlat Tahimik, his 1977 debut Mababangong bangungot ( The Perfumed Nightmare) and his second feature Turumba.

Both blend pride for Pinoy culture with a critique of neocolonialism and a fascination for Western culture.

The Perfumed Nightmare stars Tahimik himself as a jeepney driver in a small town that has just one access road that crosses a small bridge over a small river. A Chaplinesque everyman dreamer who listens to Voice of America and has an obsession with space travel -- he's president of the Werner Von Braun Fan Club -- he's always thinking about crossing that bridge and many more bridges.

A meets an American Boy Scout leader, who was one of six attendees at a world jamboree planning function on a tiny, muddy island in the river. The Scouter wants to ship Kidlat and his jeepney to Paris. Kidlat then drives his jeepney around the French capital and works at the man's business of filling gumball machines. He eventually becomes disenchanted with the excesses of the Western world, turns down a chance to fly on Concorde ("be the first Filipino to fly supersonic") and he finds his own way back to his old life.

Turumba is a more mature and technically polished effort but is also about dreams and disillusionment when it comes to viewing the Western world. The comedy-drama is seen through the viewpoint of a boy in small village. He's the son of the town's song leader, who leads the annual Turumba festival parade. When the family isn't performing in its church band, they work at their cottage industry making papier mache toys to sell at the annual festival. The boy also hangs out with a local blacksmith, who fashions machetes from scrap metal and is always on the lookout for good steel -- Mercedes shock absorbers are the best. The idyllic, simple life is thrown into disarray when a German woman visits the festival and is captivated by the family's handicrafts. She buys all of them. Dad's eyes light up at the opportunity, and pushed by the foreign lady, he soon has the family working 'round the clock to make more toys for German department stores, and eventually has them ditching their traditional water buffalo and horse figures to make dachshund mascots for the Munich Olympics. Tradition is forsaken, just to make more money.

The screenings start at 12.30 on Sunday at Thammasart University Phra Chan in the Pridi Banomyong Library’s Rewat Buddinan Room. If you haven't been there before, you'll want to ask for directions. The entire library is a basement, and the AV center is in the basement of that basement. You'll have to check any bags you have and present your ID to the information desk.

This series is dedicated to Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, film experts who were killed last September in a robbery at their home in the Philippines.

Next for Film Virus is Salty Video Day, on February 28, with the Thai indie features Color of the Streets (director's cut) and The Cruelty of Soysauce Man (extended version).

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