Monday, July 13, 2015

2015 New Filipino Cinema

The 2015 New Filipino Cinema series ran from June 11 to 21 at the YBCA.  As in previous years, they tacked on a rump session.  This year, they screened Lav Diaz's film From What is Before (2014) which ran 338 minutes with a 40 minute intermission on June 27 & 28.  I passed on the Lav Diaz films so I could go to the Sacramento French Film Festival.

I saw four films at this year's New Filipino Cinema series.

Reptilia in Suburbia; directed by Timmy Harm; Tagalog with subtitles; (2013)
T-Bird at Ako starring Nora Aunor & Vilma Santos; directed by Danny Zialcita; Tagalog with subtitles; (1982)
Esprit de Corps; directed by Kanakan-Balintagos; Tagalog with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
Dynamite Fishing; directed by Chito Roño; Tagalog with subtitles; (2013)

I listed the films in the order I saw them but it turned out to be reverse order of preference too.

Dynamite Fishing is a cryptic title.  The literal translation of the Tagalog title Badil, is Casualties.  I should note that Joel Shepard of the YBCA & Philbert Ortiz Dy, a film reviewer in the Philippines have been the co-curators of the New Filipino Cinema for the past few years.  The took turns introducing the films.  I believe Dy introduced Dynamite Fishing and explained the term was slang in the Philippines for fixing an election.  The reference is foreign to me but after watching the film, I suspect it refers to a sense of overkill as when you use dynamite to stun/kill the fish in a lake or pond.

Dynamite Fishing is the story of Lando (Jhong Hilario), the son of the political boss in a small village.  When his father has a stroke, Lando is forced to assume some of his father's typical duties in the upcoming mayoral election.  Sensing weakness, his candidate's opponents launch a counteroffensive.  Some shady characters from a different island show up and villagers get paid to not vote.

When did elections in Third World countries start using indelible purple ink on the index finger to denote a voter had cast a ballot?  I don't remember it before a few years ago and now it seems ubiquitous.  Anyway, in Dynamite Fishing, the payoff is to have one's finger dipped in the ink prior to the election.  That way, it looks like one voted when in fact they didn't.  This allows the villagers to double dip on payoffs.  Once from Lando's father's machine and once from the outsiders.

Heretofore rather unambitious, Lando earnestly tries to step into his father's shoes as the election seems to be tilting towards his opponents.  Lando's actions have fatal consequences which Lando will long regret.

Not quite as gritty as some of Brillante Mendoza's films, Dynamite Fishing captures the casual and deep-rooted corruption in the Philippines that is Mendoza's stock-in-trade.  There are some tense moments and Lando looks like he is in over his head throughout the film.  The film is an indictment of Filipino society in that it is easier for a decent man like Lando to purposely and inadvertently perpetuate the corruption than to fight against it.  The corruption is also insidious.  It seems like a way of life until the machine is threatened and fights back with deadly force.


Esprit de Corps was based on a play and it felt like a play that had been adapted for the cinema.  Much of the film takes place in a sparsely furnished armory room.  Director  Kanakan-Balintagos (a nom de plume for Auraeus Solito) was in attendance for the film and introduced the film.  He mentioned that he was among the last cohort of men who had to serve compulsory military service.

The setting of the film was confusing to me.  I believe it was set at a military academy or ROTC equivalent organization.  The major plot line is a triangle between two cadets named Cain & Abel and their commanding officer, another cadet named Lt. Mac Favila.  Cain & Abel are among the candidates being considered to succeed Favila as commanding officer for the next semester. The selection process includes a one-on-one interview/interrogation with Favila in the aforementioned armory room.  These interactions (which are extended scenes) form the crux of the film.

As depicted, the scenes begin like so many military films.  The subordinate assumes a subordinate position but slowly the necessary tensions and conflicts come to the surface.  In Esprit de Corps, Favila adds a decidedly "civilian" aspect to the interactions.  In addition to the verbal abuse and displays of physical fitness, Favila has an unusual criteria in determining his successor.  At one point, he orders Abel to kiss him.  Taken aback, Abel eventually manages a peck on the cheek.  Favila is unimpressed and shows Abel the proper way military personnel of the same gender kiss each other.  Ever obsequious, Abel compliments his superior officer on his kissing abilities.

For several scenes, the film veers to the unbelievable but I guess it represents Solito's experience in the military or perhaps exaggerates it.  The gist of the films is that homosexual tendencies come to the forefront in the cloistered, hypermasculine atmosphere of the military.  In Esprit de Corps, the homosexuality is not just at the forefront but it's tacitly approved by military superiors and understood to be necessary in the promotion process.  In fact, one of the implications is that the homosexuality is inculcated in the troops or at least, any latent desires are brought to fruition.

It was an interesting film; too doctrinaire to be concerned with plot.  Solito also uses non-linear story techniques which can be confusing.  The distinction between Cain & Abel (starting with their names) was too obvious for my tastes.  The finale takes place in the hollow of a tree and reminded me of two things - first is the mental image I have of the Garden of Eden when Eve accepted the apple (which is probably based on some Renaissance painting) and a scene from John Boorman's Excalibur between Lancelot & Guenevere.


Like Dynamite Fishing, I wonder what the T-Bird in T-Bird at Ako referred to.  Apparently it is a slang term for lesbians in the Phillipines.  I wasn't sure if it referred to all lesbians or just the bull dyke variety.

I am not a devotee of 1980s Filipino cinema but apparently the two biggest female stars of the era were Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos. Aunor still acts (she was in Brillante Mendoza's ThyWomb in 2012).  Santos has been a politician since 1998; first as a mayor and since 2007 as a governor in the Phillipines.  Apparently, the actresses or at least their fans had quite a rivalry back in the day.  None of that is relevant to the film although I suppose it could affect the viewing experience.

One piece of trivia - Lando's father in Dynamite Fishing is played by Dick Israel.  In T-Bird at Ako (32 years before Dynamite Fishing) Israel plays a rapist whose death kicks off the film.

In T-Bird, Aunor plays a criminal defense lawyer who gets involved in a murder case.  The defendant is Santos who plays a cabaret dancer accused of murdering her rapist.  The highlight of the film is Santos dancing to a preposterously simple song while she seduces Aunor in the audience.  I have to admit that Santos certainly swayed her hips effectively.  Aunor's character is repressing her bi-curious thoughts and she is unable to withstand the charms of her client.

The courtroom scenes are a hoot as well since the prosecutor can barely contain his contempt for the filthy lesbians.

Ultimately, T-Bird is an example of a time and society that I'm unfamiliar with.  Rather than having universal & timeless appeal, the films appears dated and provincial.  I couldn't tell if the parts I found funny were intentionally funny.  T-Bird is an interesting diversion but I'm too far removed from it to give its proper due.


Reptilia in Suburbia is best described as an experimental film.  There are scenes set in the 1980s at a family dinner table.  There are scenes in some prison/dungeon with a bound person/mad scientist.  I can't recall the film to be honest.  Within 20 minutes, the film lost my attention and it's easy for me to tune out subtitled films because there are no verbal cues to refocus my attention.  Perhaps there was more to the film but it lost me at the beginning and never caught my attention again.


The director Lav Diaz appeared on screen in Lorna which won this year's Audience Favorite Award.  The film was directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo who made Anita’s Last Cha-Cha which screened at last year's New Filipino Cinema and Frameline.  I was on the fence about Lorna but now I regret missing the film.


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