An Attempt at Exhausting a Place on the Islands

How to Disappear Completely (2013), dir. Raya Martin

Kimsooja, A Needlewoman (2012)

I still feel bad about only having seen two of Raya Martin’s movies, the second being How to Disappear Completely (2013), his most recent work which was screened just last night at Green Papaya Art Projects. Anyone who’s been to Green Papaya probably might already know that screening in a room no more than 50 square meters in size sets an unstable binary upon which to base any definition of “alternative cinema.” If the alternative to this country’s studio system is the equivalent of a family affair, then what kinds of prospects are we left with in the development of Philippine cinema?

Yet, it’s too easy to talk about how much catching up we have to do in the development of a medium, case in point: there isn’t a single screening of Porno (2013), at this year’s Cinemalaya film festival, that isn’t completely sold out. There’s development and then there’s expansion, but there’s also development without expansion, and vice versa. In this case, there are options besides My Lady Boss and that thing about Kim Chiu not being hot (but we know she’s hot, because what else could possibly happen), but expansion…is…money…Anyway, I wanted to watch Porno. But nope.

I guess I should be happy that independent cinema, or what qualifies as the alternative, is being received so well; but this could just as easily shed light on questions of accessibility, in the most mundane sense of the word. Despite the impossibility of there not being enough of the film to go around (because HOW is that even possible in a country that blocks off full theaters for…Man of Steel), and even with perfectly evident demand, the product simply isn’t available. The economics of Philippine cinema, independent or otherwise, are completely illogical, but I was also told to “be patient. We’re trying to do this slowly,” by a prominent media person whose name may or may not rhyme with Bopez.

It may be assuming too much to claim these seemingly petty inconveniences have anything to do with How to Disappear Completely, and I could begin talking about it with a play by play account of what happens, with no spoilers. But nothing really happens in How to Disappear Completely: a viewing experience that is about as fun–and just as necessary–as having a tooth extracted. And I’m kind of a masochist, so there.

“What happens when nothing happens?” was a question posed by Georges Perec in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris – the result of an “experiment in the everyday”, which Perec carried out by spending three days in Paris’s place Saint Sulpice doing (what else) nothing. A similar trajectory is explored by Martin with this seemingly incoherent, yet oddly captivating, account of the casual loss of subjectivity, illustrating the unlikely similarities between first world boredom and the stagnancy that comes with literally being surrounded by water.

Aside from the title and the requisite setting of the stage, aka “The Islands. About a year ago.”, no other text is edited in to further clarify or tie the loose ends of How to Disappear Completely together. The rest of the film plays out as rural folklore, prayers, overheard conversations, and dreams, seen through the eyes of a surprisingly small child. We don’t even realize how small she is until we see her standing next to other children. At the beginning, we watch as she plays out her own death in a small, choreographed funeral–then somehow convinces us, for the next hour and a half, that she’s still alive.

It is through this resistance to narrative that Raya Martin is able to speak of the incomprehensibility of being everywhere and nowhere, dislocating his characters both spatially and temporally without losing the particularities of isolation. There is something both cruel and unsettling about having to see this through the perspective of a child, until it becomes apparent that everyone in this movie is a child.

If this sounds bleak–like another brittle thread to plait into the narrative of hopelessness and resignation that characterizes Philippine independent cinema–it’s because it is. Like in Shireen Seno’s Big Boy, we know that we’re just watching people slowly easing into death, but there is an exuberance and a playfulness to Martin’s storytelling, showing how having nothing can also mean having nothing to lose.

Girls, Etc.

Or, “Why Rigodon is my favorite movie in a year full of good movies”

A man who finds himself among others is irritated because he does not know why he is not one of the others.
In bed next to a girl he loves, he forgets that he does not know why he is himself instead of the body he touches.”
— Bataille, “The Solar Anus” (1931)

A “love team” is, by definition, never a married couple. They keep us on the edge of our seats by the prospect of whether or not they can keep it together, in a culture where marriage is considered a permanent bond. Love teams entertain us through the kilig factor of perpetual courtship; but once we’ve exhausted the discussion on what girlfriends do to maintain their post as girlfriends, we begin to look at what girlfriends don’t do. And coming up with nothing wholesome on that subject steers the conversation into what non-girlfriends do.

I don’t know why the local media finds single girls just being (and staying) single so uninteresting, thus leading to the choice to dig into this can of worms/pot of gold which resulted in this fairly recent proliferation of films about “other women”. I could be writing this now because I began the year by watching No Other Woman (2011 [Thanks Tara and Edu]), which surpassed its “so bad, it’s good” tag and just went straight into being bad. Very bad. Horrible, actually, and probably the primary reason why I can never get behind anything with Anne Curtis in it.

I remember having this discussion (with a classmate) about the archetype of Jilted Woman turned Angry Ghost/Ghoul/Bloodsucker in Asian horror flicks, and wondering if the “other woman” theme isn’t just running along the same track. It’s a very particular brand of misogyny that results in an industry producing an entire genre or segment so wholly committed to marking simplistic distinctions between women and “other women”. Women are already so saddled with the baggage of having to represent their gender, thus making it easy to get worked up about anything which oversimplifies or polarizes “what it means to be a woman”.

These aren’t even women, but caricatures defending their places relative to the men in their otherwise hollow lives. A woman can have the title role and still be another body in a bed, thus propagating this Taylor Swiftian notion that women are not allowed to reflect on their subjectivities and autonomy outside of their relationships (which isn’t even true for Taylor Swift, who tours all-year round, lives in a mansion made of solid gold, and probably gets to have sex with everyone she meets with no judgment, suckers).

These aren’t even women, and yet they are; or at least they are what women are continuing to become should the “other woman” mythology be kept up. And this is what makes a movie like Erik Matti’s Rigodon(2012)so refreshing. Forget that it was promoted as a movie that will (from the director of Scorpio Nights 2) bring sexy back; forget how easy it is to dismiss as “an excuse to show Yam Concepcion’s tits”. At its core, Rigodon is a love story, but it also reminds us of how the most brutal truth in these waters is that there is no absolute, objective, capital T “Truth” about love and relationships.

In what could be a nod to La Ronde (1950), Rigodon shows instead how easy it is for people to destroy each other without actually meaning any harm. Within the first few minutes, we see Sarah getting over a break-up, which leads her into the arms of Riki, who goes home to Regine. The success of the film lies in Matti’s careful avoidance of turning any of these characters into caricatures of themselves, neither glorifying nor condemning, thus making it difficult to lay any kind of blame or even distinguish between heroes and villains. This is a far cry from the fare peddled by a film industry already buckling under the weight of the star and studio system, in which some people are evil or funny or good just because they look the part. Rigodon is not a vehicle to introduce love teams which will jumpstart careers, but a means to tell a story. This preoccupation with narrative allows these three to each tell it their own way, deftly woven together through the soft focus of Sarah’s fairy tale, the hard edges of Regine’s tabloid reportage, and the overarching Greek tragedy drawn from the fatalistic turns in Riki’s life.

I don’t know how many love stories the local film industry makes each year (a lot?), but I do know our entertainment industry thrives on the mythologies perpetuated by what love and what people “in love” look like. We’re not watching “couples” or even “relationships,” instead we have a star system fuelled by the rise and fall of “teams”, leaving out any consideration for the nuances of narrative or the ironies of emotional truth, which arise in our attempts to actually define the terms. Rigodon’s preoccupation with these terms makes it clear that even in an entertainment industry so inundated with showing couples, we still know so little about the actual dynamics of being in a relationship, thus making it impossible to turn it into anything less than a game (or in the case of Rigodon, a dance).

The fact remains that we still don’t know what we mean when we say we’ll lie, cheat, steal, or take a bullet for someone, but we say it anyway for the sake of raising a score. Rigodon serves as a retreat from aimless, manipulative competition portrayed in the typical tandem drama, and into the nuances of literature, reminding us of how storytelling (at least in mainstream cinema) is a lost art.

Being There

Marie Jamora Grows Into Her Craft

photo from

I finally got to sit down with director Marie Jamora on a late night in the middle of July. Her friends, Mikey Amistoso, Justin Sunico, and Mitch Singson of Ciudad, had just released a new album, and the launch at Route 196 was taken as an opportunity for to screen a music video and trailer, both promoting her entry to this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.

Jamora is as personable as she is sharp, making it easy to see her commanding the dozens on her production crew, alongside a cast of both artistas and extras. Although she is visibly tired, she enthusiastically zips through her commentary on the dozen or so topics I had written on a stack of index cards – some about music, some about making movies, and some about being young and middle class in Metro Manila. All were related to her first full-length feature, Ang Nawawala, which roughly translates to What Isn’t There. As a literary trope, it can be described as a lacuna, or a presence that is felt only in its absence. In this case the film’s lacuna is a central character, one which bears the double burden of being both savior and adversary –a lot to expect of something that doesn’t even exist.

What isn’t there is reflected by the character of Gibson Bonifacio. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t sign either. Instead he drinks, smokes weed, and shoots videos on his camera. The obvious problem with never hearing Gibson say his own name is the recourse of character introductions to the bricolage forming his everyday life. Through his obsessive compulsion with capturing every moment on his camera, we are given a frame-by-frame recap of the things that matter to our otherwise silent protagonist: images and sequences through which he connects with the world and allows it to influence the way he thinks, feels, and eventually falls in love.

This integral element of Gibson’s character gives enough room to negotiate the differences between communicating and just talking; a distinction which is regularly tackled in Jamora’s profession as a filmmaker. A graduate of both the Ateneo de Manila University (where she now teaches part-time) and Columbia University’s film program, Jamora has entertained numerous commissions for commercial work and music videos. “What came in handy for this project that I learned in film school was directing the actors and creating proper motivations to make their actions believable,” says Jamora. “I mean I can tell an actor to cry because the scene requires it, but not only would that make me an a–hole, it would make the scene generic.”

Before Gibson, rougher renditions of the lovestruck shutterbug suffering from various degrees of impairment have appeared in Jamora’s earlier work. After more than a decade of allowing the characters of Ang Nawawala to incubate, Jamora finally had enough to build on a full-length script. “I would never have been able to do this film when I first came up with the idea,” she shares. “I was a very different person then. It would have been a very different story.”

“Much of the Gibson character was actually based on Marie,” shares Trinka Lat of Brainchild Productions, who is both Ang Nawawala’s Production Designer and a good friend with whom Jamora has worked with numerous times. The script was co-written with another good friend and Geek Fight teammate, Ramon de Veyra, who is a little less polite about the parallels between Gibson’s story and Marie’s life. “Yung shot sa ending? A basta, si Marie yon!” (“That shot in the ending? Whatever, that’s Marie!”) de Veyra half-jokingly yells into my recorder.

Thus, it’s no coincidence that many of the objects which speak for our silent protagonist are the same objects that Jamora herself identifies with. Books, records, movie posters, even names of characters all lovingly reference Jamora’s own surroundings. We see Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer on Gibson’s shelf, Apol Sta. Maria’s Alamat ng Panget tossed casually atop a coffee table, and in an obvious reference to “what isn’t there,” a magazine on Gibson’s desk with Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on its cover.

To complement this, every shot appears to have been colored and designed in the same manner with which we revisit our memories: wherein evocative objects come to the fore and images shift between hypersaturated and diluted color schemes. This is seen in the Bonifacio family’s carefully curated home environment, one which characterizes a desperate longing to return to a past that no longer exists, and reflects on their inability to fully inhabit the present.

Closely adapted from actual experiences of coming of age in Metro Manila, both the public and private settings written into Jamora and de Veyra’s narrative bring to mind places we can feel familiar with, whether or not we’ve actually been there.  These appear to be locations mapped into the collective memory of upper middle class Filipinos, however it is difficult to place them within any specific historical moment. This poses the danger of a depoliticized, ahistorical narrative – a fairly rare occurrence in Philippine cinema, especially on the festival circuit. A single reference to GMA (the former president, not the network) is dropped, but we see many other things that reference an altogether apolitical climate.

This is not to confuse the apolitical with the politically apathetic, for Jamora instead turns her lens on the subtler hierarchies and conflicts within the Filipino family – those which are especially prevalent in the roles we assume when we choose to be there as sisters, daughters, or guides to those we are bound to by blood.  “I’ve had this story on the brain since I was in school,” shares Jamora of a previous chance to get this film made while she was still at Columbia, “but there was a lot about it that wouldn’t fly. The script was in Filipino, the characters were Filipino.”

Issues not only of culture, but of class could undoubtedly arise when Metro Manila’s streets form a barely legible backdrop, as the film’s characters are shuttled from one location to the next, often by the drivers and maids who play pivotal, yet invisible, roles in the lives of both Ang Nawawala’s characters as well as its audience. “It’s possible to talk about growing up Filipino without bringing up social class, but other people will bring it up for you,” says Jamora. Through Gibson’s eyes, the streets of Metro Manila remain hidden, either in darkness or beyond the windows of parked cars, as we are transported through galleries, Korean spas, and bars – such as Route 196, the very same bar where our interview with Marie Jamora took place. “Most of the movie takes place at night because…those are my hours, baby,” she jokes. “But really, music happens at night. And love happens at night.” She smiles, “That’s the third beer talking.”

Cameos by familiar faces from the local music scene, a key element both in the film as well as in Jamora’s life, have raised comparisons between Ang Nawawala and Quark Henares’s Rakenrol (2011). While there are few parallels to be drawn between the plots of the two films, similar references are unavoidable given the appearances of the same musicians and the same venues; thus recreating a comfortable and familiar atmosphere, drawn from Jamora’s own experiences both in the audience and onstage, playing drums for Boldstar and Blast Ople (reunion gigs for both bands seem to happen randomly and rarely, but they do happen).

Like most independent filmmakers working on a budget of Nothing (even Cinemalaya and NCCA grants are no match for the actual cost of making a full-length feature), Jamora’s shots are filled with the faces of her nearest and dearest. “Everyone involved in this film grew into their craft and into better artists. There was no better time to do this project,” she says. This makes Ang Nawawala something of a family affair, in which the locations create an atmosphere that feels intimate and familiar to those who know Jamora. The youngest of five siblings Jamora grew up on the cusp of Gen X and Y, raised by a generation that notoriously equated success with serious professions like law and medicine.

The daughter of two doctors, Jamora shares that while her mother was always supportive of her choice to make films, her love for books had both parents hoping she would pursue a life in the law instead. “My dad saw that I would speed read four books a day, and, because of that, wanted me to be a lawyer,” she shares. “But both my parents LOVE MOVIES. My mom even used to sneak into the cinema in Cavite after school as a child.”

Inheriting this love of film gave Jamora a medium through which she could channel her love for the literary as well as the visual, with more than enough room for her music. Her work onscreen clearly represents her strong grasp of the all-inclusive and unbounded nature of art, translating this generation’s inundation with media and commoditized culture into something coherent and sincere. “The bottom line is the use of the imagination, and with this film, music became a voice. It became central to telling a story.”

Fully Booked magazine, September 2012

Eat, Sleep, Big Boy

Fake family photo from Shireen Seno's Big Boy (2011)

Big Boy (2011) takes place in the aftermath of the second world war, in Middle of Nowhere, Mindoro. The opening credits roll to the sound of 1950’s radio adverts, then cut immediately to water dripping into a milk can, and then what the censors would refer to as a “pumping scene” between a couple we will later find out are the parents of our protagonist: Julio, aka Big Boy.

Julio is the eldest in a brood that grows far too large to adequately sustain itself, and thus becomes not only the guinea pig but the poster boy for a growth serum that will serve as the family’s antidote to its despondency. Julio’s parents cure “cod liver” oil from fish guts in a makeshift lab, its effectiveness proven only in photographs that portray him as taller than average.

From a review by Noli Manaig

His growth spurts are notched on the bamboo poles supporting the family nipa hut. This way, approval from his father seems welcome, but Julio must pay for it according to the strictures of scientific method. His siblings run free; he has grown distant from the village. He seems mute, wearing a doleful look. Julio has become Big Boy, the mascot of his father’s entrepreneurial spirit, deep in the fastnesses of Mindoro. One day he stops growing.

At the beginning of Big Boy, the family finds a parachute filled with canned goods, vitamins, and other basic commodities “mysteriously” caught in a tree on their property. What should have been a source of temporary relief becomes a sole means of survival for the family, who increasingly derive a sense of value and dependency on American products and doleouts, which later becomes an obsession with a largely misguided reading of the American dream. Fixations on height, mestizo features, and U.S. Surplus goods abound in a plot that is slowly driven forward by the promises that await elsewhere.

Continue reading “Eat, Sleep, Big Boy”

Difficult Loves

Notes on Raya Martin’s Buenas Noches Espana

It tends to blur in my mind now: what happened and did not. the streets for the first time, the days, the nights, the sky above me, the stones stretching beyond. I seem to remember looking up a lot, as if searching the sky for some lack, some surplus, something that made it different from other skies, as if the sky could explain the things I was seeing around me. …

After much careful study, I can safely report that the sky here is the same sky as the one above you.

Paul Auster, “In the Country of Last Things”

In a short address before Buenas Noches España, Raya Martin apologized in advance to those who were “sensitive to light or sound”. Apparently an apology wasn’t enough to keep people from leaving not less than ten minutes into the film. By the end, approximately 60 people had walked out of the theatre for (what could only be presumed to be) “various reasons”, sensitivity to light and sound no doubt being among them.

The synopsis from the program of the 10th Spanish Film Festival described Buenas Noches Espana as the story of a couple that mysteriously teleported from contemporary Spain to the Philippines under colonial rule. Instead, what could be passed as a plot gave us two people taking the scenic route to the Museum of Fine Art in Bilbao, where they look at studies from Juan Luna’s Spolarium. Quick cuts and repetitions layered what was otherwise a spare (and arguably absent) narrative, and whatever coherence can be derived from the film had to be picked out from beneath and entire silo of edits and a droning score provided by Owel Alvero and Pat Sarabia.

To top it all off, it is impossible to distinguish if what you are watching is in black and white, or color. Of course this matters granted the kind of mood evoked by either option; but by negating either option, Buenas Noches maintains its status as an object. Light and sound, check; plot, incidental. Allowing that blank to be filled in by whatever is being evoked.
Continue reading “Difficult Loves”