Friday, June 29, 2012

Of Broken Records and Promises

Of Broken Records and Promises
Eloisa May P. Hernandez

It was a record-breaking year for Philippine cinema in the box-office. Star Cinema’s No Other Woman starring Anne Curtis, Derek Ramsey, and Cristine Reyes generated buzz among the Filipino audience, replete with one-liners and quotable quotes enriching, or diminishing, the lexicon of many teenagers. What the film lacked in profundity, it made up for in the box-office income – it grossed 278.39 million pesos setting the record at that time as the highest grossing Philippine film of all time. It did not hold that record for long. Barely a month later, Star Cinema’s The Unkabogable Praybeyt Benjamin starring Vice Ganda earned 331.61 million pesos and broke the record previously held by No Other Woman, making it the highest grossing Philippine film of all time. What does it say about us Filipinos as a film audience that the highest grossing Philippine film of all time is a grossly humorless and unintelligent portrayal of gay men in the military? Certainly, it is time to strengthen film literacy in the country.

The number of regular commercially released films in 2011 totaled 29, including seven films released during the annual Metro Manila Film Festival. Of the 22 films released before the MMFF, Star Cinema/ABS-CBN Film Productions produced 13 (with a few collaborations with VIVA Entertainment, APT Entertainment, etc.) while GMA Films made four (two collaborations with Regal Films), Regal Films did two films and VIVA Entertainment had one. The dominance of the media conglomerates and mainstream film companies is apparent with only one film produced by an artist-run moviemaking company, Origin8 Media. The record-breaking box-office year for Star Cinema/ABS-CBN conceals the fact that the films produced in 2011, especially the independently produced, did not do as well at the box office and had abbreviated runs in the cinema complexes often replaced by Hollywood blockbusters. Only Zombadings and Ang Babae sa Septic Tank fared relatively well at the box-office.

In addition to the films released regularly, many films, mostly digitally produced, were screened in several film festivals. Cinema Rehiyon showed 5 films while Cinema One Originals featured 10 films; Cinemanila International Film Festival screened 7 films (4 Digital Lokal plus films by Lav Diaz, Raya Martin and John Torres). Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival showed 22 films (9 films in the New Breed section, 4 in Directors Showcase, 8 in Netpac Competition and the opening film). Of the eight shortlisted films by the Young Critics Circle Film Desk for 2011, five are from Cinemalaya . Even the MMFF had a New Wave section with 5 films including Haruo, YCC Film Desk’s Best Film for the year. Boosting the number of films shown in the Philippines in 2011 are the more than 50 digital films shown in various movie houses and alternative spaces. Some were part of film festivals and were picked up for regular release.

Last year displayed indicators of the diffusion of digital cinema in the Philippines. Allen and Gomery posit, “The process of diffusion begins once the technology begins to receive widespread use within an industry” (115). Digitally produced films have outnumbered 35mm since 2005 with several film festivals and competitions funding and showcasing them such as Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, .mov and Cinemanila’s Digital Lokal. Though not yet widespread, mainstream film companies such as GMA Films have already produced films such as Yam Laranas’ The Road using the Red Mysterium X camera, edited in HD, mastered on 2K and while it was transferred to 35mm for its Philippine release, it was shown internationally on Digital 2K format. There is an increasing number of digitally produced films and cinema complexes equipped with digital projectors. There is also a marked increase in the participation in local and international film festivals of digitally produced films. Award-giving bodies have also recognized numerous digitally produced films through the years. In fact, all the eight shortlisted films by the Young Critics Circle Film Desk this year are digitally produced.

The introduction of the digital technology in Philippine cinema in 1999 addressed problems in film production; it made filmmaking cheaper and more accessible. The more daunting challenge now is in distribution and exhibition. Several alternative venues for screening films have closed shop such as Robinson’s Galleria IndieSine (in 2010) and Mogwai Cinematheque (in August 2011). The Internet in the Philippines remains slow and unstable, preventing filmmakers from using the Web as a major platform for distribution and exhibition (such as live streaming, pay per view, paid downloads, etc.). Filmmakers and producers need to device alternatives to mainstream modes of distribution and exhibition so that digital cinema can finally fulfill the promise of accessibility.

The records broken in 2011 at the box-office by films from the media conglomerates and mainstream film production companies sound hollow if one considers the fact that these films offer nothing new and radical in terms of ideas and nothing transformative in terms of ideology. As former YCC Chair Dr. Eli Guieb said in his report last year, “dati naman nang maraming basura buhat sa sektor na ito.” And what of the so-called “independent” films? Most of their films are “digital adult romance” and “digital same-sex romance.” Dr. Guieb says, “Marahil, ang mas higit na kailangang pagtuunan ng pansin ay ang nawalang pangako ng mga independent films na, ayon sa mga apologist nito, ay siyang nagbibigay ng bagong pag-asa sa industriya ng pelikula sa bansa.” Where is the promise of more liberative and transformative “indie” films? The prognosis on the state of Philippine cinema sounds like a broken record.

Fortunately, there are still promising films and filmmakers in 2011. The YCC Film Desk had to adroitly sift through the more than 100 films shown in cinema houses, film festivals, and alternative venues in the Philippines in 2011, to arrive at an initial long list of 35 films and narrowed down to 8 short-listed films. Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay stages a critique of Philippine cinema and its star system in an entertaining fashion. Bisperas is a deft portrayal of a family victimized by robbery during Christmas Eve, and the inner workings, internal conflict, and power play among the family members. Tirso Cruz III and Raquel Villavicencio lead the ensemble in a performance tour de force.

For the first time in 22 years of the YCC Film Desk’s existence, six different films won in the six categories. Diana Zubiri’s portrayal of a nurse in the country’s busiest maternity hospital is transcendent in the film Bahay Bata. Her quiet, sensitive yet powerful performance conveys her empathy for the expectant mothers while she walks around the corridors of Fabella Hospital carrying a personal burden and moral dilemma. Rody Vera’s screenplay for Niño is an intelligent, penetrating, nuanced, and layered telling of the fall of an elite family and/in their grand house. The decadence could not conceal the decay consuming the architecture and family. Señorita is an attempt at portraying corruption in the local government level through the eyes of a high-class transvestite prostitute who acts as finance manager of a mayoral candidate as well as surrogate mother to a young boy. In Teoriya, we bare witness to a journey as a man searches for the grave of his father, searches for his identity, and searches for a past in hopes of knowing, reconciling, and forgiving. Delicately shot, the film does not merely show us the journey, it makes us feel we are part of it - we are with him through his travails and discoveries. Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa glides in the use of dance as a metaphor and as a plot element, a confluence of literature, pedagogy, music, dance, theater and sexuality. The film receives the Best Sound and Aural Orchestration award but it is in the silences where the film is most poignant. At the heart of the film is love – love for art, poetry, dance, music, and love for life. Love for everything that is important and essential to survive the travails of daily life. It is not a perfect film, but the object of love never is.

The YCC Film Desk’s Best Film for the year is Haruo, a film by Adolf Alix that portrays an ex-Yakuza’s attempt to escape his past by living an anonymous life in the populous and hurried city of Manila. The title “Haruo” means “springtime man” in Japanese – the quest for atonement, for forgiveness, for a new life - a promise of a new beginning for the eponymous character. Sadly, that promise will be unfulfilled - Haruo’s past catches up on him. Alix triumphs in incorporating several Japanese motifs in the film such as the haiku and ikebana while following Haruo’s almost silent and invisible life in the environs of Manila. Haruo is an example of Philippine cinema being inflected by a different aesthetic, a promise of Philippine cinema becoming global.

Allen, Robert C. and Douglas Gomery. Film History: Theory and Practice. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1985.
Guieb, Eulalio R. III. Paglipad, pag-iwas, paglayo, paglisan: Pagpapakatao sa di-makataong lipunan. 21st Annual Circle Citations for Distinguished Achievement in Film, December 2011.