A review of select titles of the series ‘A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema’ at the Museum of Modern Art, June 1-25.
The inside-outside divide denoting intra-/inter-national movement and migration in the following Philippine films featured in MoMA’s series ranges from a kind of crime road movie within the country; a comedy on domestic tourism and self-orientalism in the pursuit of cinematic acclaim; and an overseas worker drama set in Tel Aviv, in Filipino, Hebrew, and English. And it in this order that the films excel in storytelling, performance, and emotional impact.
Ato Bautista’s Expressway (2016) and Gemini (2014) are rather different in story – the former mixes together the buddy film and road movie in following two hitmen carrying out a night’s worth of jobs, the latter is a psychological thriller concerning female twins and the web of confusion and violence surrounding them. But they both posses what can be regarded as one of Bautista’s major characteristics: the dramatic reveal of one’s real identity and/or back story, preceded by a very stylish haze of menace and mystery and the illusion of being in control of one’s life. Both are also ever-so-strikingly photographed (by Gian Caluag and Rain Yamson, respectively), but between the two, Expressway is the superior film in overall execution.
The film’s opening credits/scenes are arguably the most notable and show what Bautista is capable of doing. ‘Silent Night’ on the soundtrack, a darkened house save for blinking Christmas lights, and a man is on a couch with a gun, waiting, thinking, breathing, the creases on his face a mark of a wearied life, drawn out by the play of light and darkness. What we have here is a film following the logic of contrasts. For Ben, what he has before him is a job, nothing more; and afterwards, he wants out of the business. But complicating matters is his partner Morris, a younger man, rash and energetic. One of the film’s best scenes occurs wordlessly at the gate of the house of one of their next targets and encapsulates their pseudo father-son relationship: while Morris athletically jumps on the gate to enter the premises on the right side of the frame, Ben matter-of-factly pushes the gate open on the left side of the frame. Their relationship really unfolds in the car, however. On the road from one site to another, Morris continually pushes Ben’s buttons and eventually leads to crucial information as to the two men’s connection beyond their profession. If early on Morris tells Ben, ‘You’re like my father,’ later, and in a moment of intense emotion between them, Morris clarifies, ‘I’m not your child.’ The film charts what happens between these two statements, between the two men, and between killings. Though it is obviously Christmastime, the seductive use of darkness and blinking Christmas lights in which their trajectory is enveloped makes it seem more like Halloween. Occasional jazz interludes on the soundtrack contribute another layer of contrast to the film’s nightmarish quality that darkness and crime bring. Admittedly, at times the cinematography steals the show (while in Gemini, it is the show), and even here the ‘insistence’ of rape as a way to elaborate male characters is deployed, a degradation in an otherwise fine film.*
*In some ways, Expressway is also the quiet, more interesting counterpart to Erik Matti’s busy city-set crime actioner On the Job (2013), also a part of MoMA’s series. On the Job is also about a pair of prison inmates hired as hitmen and a rising-in-the-ranks policeman investigating the killings and in pursuit of whoever is behind them. Like Expressway, there is a mentor-mentee relationship between the two hitmen, which is often tested by the younger man’s impulsiveness. Unlike Expressway’s more attractive contemplative, moody pacing and tone, On the Job makes frequent use of cat-and-mouse chases and shootings, through streets, trains, in the rain, and at night; quiet moments are reserved only for exposition. But both Alvin Ason in Expressway and Joel Torre in On the Job plainly outshine their younger acting colleagues in their portraits of men engraved with existential and physical weariness.
Surrounded exclusively by drama and crime, Marlon N. Rivera’s debut feature The Woman in the Septic Tank (2011), with screenplay by Chris Martinez[i], literally provides fantastic comic relief in MoMA’s series. And its comedy falls within the scope of the inside-outside divide in the sense that it possesses a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness as not just a film but specifically a Philippine film, a product that will become part of the global cinema market, and one that caters to foreign/international film festivals and programming. The story is of a young, Taglish-speaking trio – the director, producer, and production assistant – in the process of pre-production of Walang Wala (‘absolutely nothing’), a film that the three envision will reap domestic and international awards galore for its oh-so-raw look at the lower echelons of Philippine society and the sacrifices that a mother makes with regards to one of her children, all of whom live in the slums. With its film-within-a-film structure, including scenarios of casting (who looks ‘poorer’?), genre (musical? docudrama?), and performance style choices constantly being played out that feature the actual actresses in question, it is a savvy conversation about the complicity of Philippine filmmakers as figures of the third world/underdeveloped and international film curators as first world consumers of third world/underdeveloped hardships. If this last point sounds like an exaggeration, then the film’s first nearly 15 minutes will counter such a thought. Slices of slum life through the experiences of a mother and her children in a hovel immediately draw one into the suffering margins that are often the settings of films made by Philippine/diasporic and foreign filmmakers alike. But the film’s self-awareness also begins just as immediately through a male voiceover intoning over the scenes about shot selection and setting, essentially reciting script direction. The film’s self-reflexive smartness lies precisely in the different ways in which it addresses consumption of third world hardship, from the local to the global. When the trio arrives in the slums to scout for locations, they look and act like tourists (they even call their contact a ‘tour guide’), taking photographs, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the misery of it all, and then yelling in anger when such misery directly affects them. This self-orientalism then implicates the spectator in consuming the film, an observer-consumer role shared in the film by the production assistant – which is the only rational explanation I can think of to account for her not uttering one single word in the entire film.
From the local to the global, indeed, comes Transit (2013), Hannah Espia’s remarkable feature-length debut. ‘Transit’ denotes in-between, inside-outside movement and here the movement is specifically migration and the globe-spanning community of Philippine overseas workers. The film is ultimately a multiple character study whose sum paints the utter complexities involved in the daily lives of overseas workers, whose goal is nothing more than to have live decent lives, including the ability to work on a regular basis. The characters in question are two single-parent families who help out each other as fellow citizens: one a father, the other a mother, and their exclusively Hebrew-speaking children, a young boy and a teenage girl. Adding to this community is a mother’s friend, also an overseas worker. The film’s documentary style of shooting in various actual indoor/outdoor locations in Tel Aviv and the ensemble cast’s superb naturalistic performances (actors having studied Hebrew before production) provide an assured technical and emotional backbone to the events that unfold during an ambiguous period of time. The events are partly outside of their own making due to a deportation law targeting children under the age of five that prompts both families to keep the boy hidden. In the process, definitions of local and/or national identity, belonging, and family are constantly challenged and pluralised. What makes Transit stand out among the plethora of Philippine overseas workers films that are annually made by local and foreign filmmakers is that here no one is simply a victim – of a failed Philippine government or that of the host nation (though a critique is ever so slightly palpable); the emphasis is on people, who happen to be immigrants and domestic helpers, and not the other way around, which is so often the case with this sub-genre and its melodramatic martyrdom. Espia’s treatment of the two families’ experiences is much more subdued, allowing the drama to emerge organically.[ii] On this note, the film actually goes over the same series of events multiple times, but through each character’s point of view and back story. Such a narrative structure enriches the dramatic irony of events, for they reveal details to the spectator that characters do not get to find out about each other in the long run.
[i] As another addendum to the MoMA film series, also worth mentioning is Martinez’ own directorial debut, the drama 100 (2008), about a young woman who discovers that she has cancer and only several months to live. The film is extremely thoughtful filmmaking personified. It is therefore unfortunate that it remains the first and last truly remarkable film that he made, as he dove headfirst into mainstream studio productions afterward.
[ii] A film of similar subdued quality and subject, and released in the same year, is Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013). Though less subdued, Fruit Chan’s Little Cheung (1999) can be added into the conversation on regional representations of overseas workers, as could Wi Ding Ho’s buddy comedy Pinoy Sunday (2009). In this vein, my last addendum to this contemporary Philippine cinema series is Blue Bustamante (2013), directed and co-written by Miko Livelo. It is perhaps an even more standout film than Transit in its portrayal of a family that is part of the community of migration for its bubble-gum but effective comedy and pathos. In it, a young husband migrates to Japan to work as an engineer to support his family back home. But when let go, he finds the unlikely job of playing a stunt double in a Super Sentai-like television series, which embarrasses him to no end. Yet it is precisely this television series that connects his family between two countries, and also addresses in a residual way the consumption of Japanese popular culture at the regional level.