People Power Bombshell: A Diary of Vietnam Rose (Philippines, 2016) [Aperture 2018]

In Philippine Cinema, rarely do we see a film as ambitious as People Power Bombshell: A Diary of Vietnam Rose in terms of experimentation. Like many of John Torres’ works, it demands a lot from the audience. Unlike Lav Diaz’s long films, we are not enamoured in watching sustained long hours of contemplative ennui. Torres demands from us full the attention to the illogical, to the obscure, to images that no longer bear any grandstanding within contemporary film practice today. To put it simply, People Power Bombshell is Torres’ attempts on exhumation and reanimation of remains, of things lost and found: human remains, image remains, cultural remains… What resulted from Torres’ experimental reanimation of the dead – the dead Celso Ad Castillo and his multiplicities – are zombified images, or images that are already dead but resurrected through the material effects of digital conversion.

Aside from harbouring zombified images, People Power Bombshell is also populated by images that bear no proper address. For example, a shot snapped 1 hour and 13 minutes into the film shows a group of armed civilians holding the Vietnamese flag. This shot arguably does not belong to the film, yet it comes from there, from its interstice, possessing its own materiality as a moment of the film, as a slice of its filmic time, an intruder. And yet, in relation to the whole, one grapples at its relevance, its narrative importance, for most of these images fall of the grid.

People Power Bombshell: A Diary of Vietnam Rose is filled with these non-images, images that resist to be understood in relation to the whole. It derives its visual power from the tactility of in-betweenness, of being in a state of geographical and temporal suspension. Torres’ images are shifters, interfacers, intertistial, in-betweens, always caught between two opposing forces and seemingly forcing two disjunct worlds into one.

One of the noticeable interstices in Torres’ film is the violence shift between two media. People Power Bombshell is a film that combines celluloid film (the unfinished film of Celso Ad Castillo titled A Diary of Vietnam Rose) and digital film (a recreated digital film made by Torres himself). In an attempt to bridge the two media, Torres aesthetically copies the rough celluloid scratches of Celso Ad Castillo’s unfinished film applying it as a stylistic layer to his digital shots. On the other hand, he maintains, in its poor state, the celluloid look of A Diary of Vietnam Rose to blend the visuality of the two media. The result is an abstruse flow of cinematic time in the film.

The redubbing of sound in the film also contributes in stitching the two media. Torres is infamous for his experimentation on sound and subtitling. In Torres’ earlier work Refrains Happen Revolutions in a Song (2010), we are led to believe that the subtitles deployed in the film are direct translations of the actual sound. However, Torres revealed afterwards that the subtitles were entirely made-up based what he apparently heard. In a similar fashion, People Power Bombshell is redubbed anew, without any reference to the old material. In redubbing the major scenes from the original film, Torres was able to create a new layer of auditory narrative, forcing the audience to compensate for the incongruous image-sound relation.

This complex film practice rallies towards abandoning pre-established narratological boundaries. Since the original film was shot in the 1980s, the obsolescence of celluloid medium prevents Torres to reshoot the film in its original form. There is also a conflict in the cast, crew and location of the original film. A three-decade gap between its production and Torres’ attempt to resurrect it from the dead would impossibly render some of its cast and crew to aged. Some have left the country, while some cast like Celso Ad Castillo, with a titular character in the film, have died. The location used in the film has also changed.

In some ways, this gives us a hint of another interstice present in the film – the interstice of time. The film achieves its rigour of creation and invention by reaffirming incommensurable flow of time itself. Torres’ principle of exhumation is therefore hemmed in the destruction of the ‘old’ in lieu of the ‘new.’

In People Power Bombshell, cinematic time approaches an enigmatic resolve, neither linear nor circular, with no beginning or end. Time is inexhaustibly caught in the interstice of the interval of its images. The film captivates its audience first with a new form of visuality, then leads its audience to linger in an enigmatic trap of being thrown in the middle of a waterspout with indiscernible dimension, offering no possibility of ejection or escape.

Although it is its most distinctive aesthetic feature, the stained and damaged look of the film is not reassuring. A layer of suspicion and pretension haunts Torres’ method while it attempts to question the very idea of anchoring or grounding. Much like the films of Stan Brakhage, People Power Bombshell refuses to be seen as a film. It refuses to be anchored on a conventionally logical grounding of what a film is, as it heaves, shifts and thugs the eyes while ornamentalizing what it supposed to show. The ornament and its shadow cast a dire external look of the film. As much as one can hate the film for its lack of transparency and clarity, for its ornamentation and pretension, this is the visual purpose of the film – to let images perform an archaic dance of light.

The ambiguity caused by splintering and fragmentation of the film’s images leads us to believe that the film lacks its sense of discernment for authenticity and clarity. For Torres, clarity and authenticity are the film’s last resort for wholeness. For him, collisions are more important.

Torres, in an attempt to remove the barrier between analog and digital, actuates a triple destruction of conventional filmmaking. First, he destroys the hierarchy of the celluloid and digital through his act of refusal to recreate the celluloid parts as celluloid. Second, he destroys the hierarchy of time by building upon the old narrative using new pathways and direction. And third, he denaturalizes the authorial command of film by disarming Celso Ad Castillo’s aesthetic control of the film. Through this triple destruction, the film’s intended meaning undergoes dynamic shifts.

This brings us to the question of wholeness. In making an effort to emulate the tactility of in-betweeness, Torres corrupts the metaphysical concept of wholeness. He announces, through his film, that cinema is incapable of coming to terms with a whole. What Torres introduces is the dialectical opposite of the Whole: the fragment – neither whole nor complete, always announcing itself in the film as the site of becoming-new.

People Power Bombshell: A Diary of Vietnam Rose is showing as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival which is touring across the UK during spring/summer 2018. See the festival website for more details and screening dates.