Tag Archive: independent films


ROTONDA — MISERY OVERKILL

 

Life is a never ending cycle of misery.

 

            This rather pessimistic outlook, seems to be the unifying element of Ron Bryant’s third digifilm “Rotonda.” As some of you may already know, Rotonda is the Spanish term for circle. In layman’s term here in the Philippines, Rotonda refers to anything on a road that is circular or oval-shaped (the borders of Quezon City and Manila as well as Manila and Pasay City both have such a structure). The digifilm revolves around the lives of thieves, street thugs, whores, drug addicts, and crooked cops and the similarly tragic events that intertwine all of their lives.

 

            The principal character of the film is Abner, portrayed excellently by Mark Gil. Abner is a tabloid reporter who, in the first few images of the film, is seen walking aimlessly into the filthy and clogged streets of Manila. This rather aimless walking typifies Abner’s existence in the whole film, and come to think of it, the rest of the characters throughout this bleak and dark movie. Abner, half consciously entering a cheap nightclub, is drawn to Racquel – a professional whore who has pinned her hopes and dreams on her younger sister, whom she later finds out to be a victim of sexual molestation and pimping by Racquel’s own live in partner, the heartless and avengeful Dima, played by theater actor Mario Magallona. Dima, on the other hand, is planning to get back at his former kingpin who unsuccessfully tried to liquidate him in the past and is now a cripple, the character played by Celso Ad Castillo. Being a cripple, he is now under the care of an amateur drummer, Chito, played in the film by Jeffrey Quizon. Chito, on the other hand, while religiously performing his onligations to the now crippled godfather, is also a drug pusher and one of his regular suppliers is a rather wealthy colegiala who  in turn is under the not so welcome protection of a crooked cop, played by Emilio Garcia.

 

            If the storyline seems complicated, maybe because it really is. The director aims to show the abject hopelessness, desperation, and moral depravity of the characters in the dog-eat-world that is the city of Manila. In the end, some of them are killed, the others manage to escape, and yet others find some artificial form of redemption and thus continue to survive in the city’s dark, filthy streets. Yet, they find no release from their hapless conditions, and there would surely be a day when tragedy or the liberating pangs of death would get them. The title of the film reflects this vicious cycle of desperation and hopelessness, with one character who happens to play an idiot is seen curiously wearing a filthy dress of blue, red, and white, hence alluding to the reality that the lives of these miserable characters are directly connected to the national condition.

 

            The characters in the film are all real and realistic. Perhaps once could find an exact equivalent of each character in the film in any slum area within Metro Manila. However, while the actors perform their parts in an above average manner, the fact remains that the characterization is thin and even caricaturish for some. The character of Celso Ad Castillo is thread-thin in terms of characterization, and the part played by Emilio Garcia is forgettable, if not ridiculous. Nevertheless, Mark Gil is perfect as the desperate journalist. He fits his role to a tee that his every facial expression and acting nuances effectively communicates the deep emotional scars of this wounded man. Truly, he is one gifted, if not underrated thespian who happens to come from an illustrious family of highly respected actors. Jeffrey Quizon is in his usual competent self. This actor is admirable in the sense that he can turn a short role to a meaty and engaging performance. Personally, this author would even dare say that this Quizon is better than all the other Quizons who went before him – even his father!

 

            But perhaps the greatest revelation in this film is Merryl Soriano. When she entered the indie scene, it is already clear that she had the makings of a fine actress. In Rotonda, she sheds her black and white image as the prostitute who has been numbed by her troubled past but has retained an all too human heart.

 

            It could have been much better if the script has been fully realized to include a deeper characterization for all characters. Admittedly, this could slow down the pace of this tautly edited picture. Unfortunately, to some extent, the sacrificing of characterization over pacing spells a sort of missed chance for this film, turning it into a well disguised melodrama on urban poverty.

 

            While the cinematography is competent, the film is overscored at times. Initially, the sound may be irritating as the noise of the streets and the verbal jousts of the characters combine with diegetic music emanating from the radio or the television set. But towards the middle, you get the idea that the film seems noisiness parallels the chaotic lives and emotional clogs of the characters. The production design is rather impressive. The motel room where Abner and Racquel checks into underscores the feeling of imprisonment, paranoia, and desperation that both characters are facing. The mammoth house where Chito and the ex-kingpin live also resembles the disparate treatment of the two residents to one another as their disfunctionality and neediness also becomes the source of their alienation. The film could only hint at the true relationship of both characters.

 

            Ron Bryant’s direction in this indie film is a big improvement from the heavy handed Baryoke. And though his film may carry a very dark message, he drives his point to the fore and through the heart.

 

            All in all, Rotonda is ultimately a competent melodrama masquerading in the tough exteriors of the gangster film. And though the director of this independent film may frown at the thought of classifying his film, it can be said that the film doesn’t really communicate much in the end – or at least something that we are still unaware of.

Hey everyone! How’s everyone doing?

Enough of the Brown Raise Movement for the moment. Let’s now take a peek at Philippine cinematic output of 2007. I am an avid movie fan and thank God for independent films and digital technology, Philippine Cinema is now coming out of its half-dead state. It’s a joy to finally see the quality outputs of younger and more daring filmmakers, who dare to challenge the formulaic tendencies of mainstream Philippine Cinema. It is just my fervent hope that these new auteurs, while already making their presence felt in numerous international film festivals (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, etc.), are accorded a wider patronage locally. It is still a sad reality that the Filipino audience in general still has an aversion for films with no prominent stars on the cast and they also tend to shun films that feature more innovative ways of storytelling aside from the usual linear method.

While these realities continue to limit the advances made by these new talented thespians, there is plenty of hope that Philippine Cinema will soon take its rightful place in world cinema. This, I firmly believe.

Below is my obviously subjective list of the most notable Filipino films of 2007. I know that we are already in the last 4 months of 2008 and this list is rather overdue. However, it still quite interesting to look at the landmark films of the paste year – a year wherein independent films completely outshone their mainstream counterparts.

The list will feature film synopses first. Detailed reviews of each film will be posted in my upcoming posts. Feel free to leave comments. Enjoy watching, er, reading!

1. Foster Child by Brillante Mendoza (screened at the Directors’ Fortnight of the 2007 Cannes Film Festival) –

Director Brillante Mendoza tells the affectionate tale of a poor family living in the Philippines that is hired by a local Foster Care Facility to provide temporary care and shelter for abandoned babies. Thelma and her husband Dado live in Manila with their two teenage sons Gerald and Yuri. Despite the fact that her family lives in abject poverty, Thelma receive a fair amount of fulfillment in life by serving as a surrogate mother to abandoned children who are awaiting adoption. A young three year-old named John-John is Thelma’s latest charge. Now, as the kind-hearted foster parent prepares to turn the child over to his adoptive American parents, every moment spent with the precious youngster becomes something to be cherished.

2. Tribu/Tribe by Jim Libiran (screened at the 2007 Pusan Film Festival)

The dangerous unlit streets and labyrinthine alleyways in the ghetto district of Tondo in Manila, serves as a claustrophobic backdrop to a random killing that triggers a wild and bloody gang war.
Through the eyes of a 10 year old boy, we are immersed into the normal, impoverished, tough life of Tondo. Through him, we encounter the juvenile yet murderous leaders and members of various gangsta tribes — adolescent thugs and petty criminals whose past time is sex, drugs and their eloquently poetic street rap, delivered in their own unique tongue-twisting machine gun-style.

3. Tirador/Slingshot by Brillante Mendoza (won at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival) –

A tribute to the real potential of digital cinema, Slingshot is a slum epic on steroids. It weaves stories left and right into a shocking tableau about life for the lowest of the low in the Philippine’s poorest and most crime-ridden districts.

National elections are coming up so in the usual attempt to appear “tough-on-crime”, The Big Boys have been sent in to crack down on the local squatters, thieves and miscreants who litter the film like broken bottles. And since no sweep is ever a clean sweep, the cops’ brutal shock-force tactics quickly ripple outwards with jagged repercussions. Starting from the film’s amazing night time raid and climaxing with a candle-lit vigil by those insulted by the empty words of the politicians, director Brillante Mendoza uses the camera’s apparent attention deficit disorder to maximum effect, investigating lives at every turn and blending their true fictions right onto the city streets of Manila for a rich and incredibly immersive feel.

4. Endo/End of Contract by Jade Francis Castro (screened at the Nantes Film Festival)

Graded “A” by the Cinema Evaluation Board (CEB), Endo is the story of Leo (Jason Abalos), a temp worker who is used to the temporary. Typical of many young Filipinos, he hops from one contractual job to the next in order to earn a living for himself and his family. His relationships are similarly fleeting. When he meets the spirited dreamer Tanya (Ina Feleo), he is suddenly faced by the promise of a better future, but he doesn’t seem equipped to handle it.

5. Confessional by Jerold Tarog (won at the Osian Film Festival)

Lies + Lies = Truth.

Ryan Pastor knows this by heart. As a small time filmmaker, he knows
how sound and images can be manipulated to say anything. And he’s
tired of the lies—the lies at work, in his relationships, the lies one
must keep in society just to exist. On a whim, he decides to go to
Cebu to document the Sinulog festival. There he stumbles upon a truth
he didn’t ask for and is reluctant to touch. One of his subjects, a
former politician who may or may not be dying, decides to confess his
sins—all the crimes he committed while in office—before Ryan’s camera.

What follows is a story of revelations and bitter truths, of buried
secrets and sweet lies. CONFESSIONAL takes you to the heart of a
criminal…or an honest man.

6. Death In The Land of the Poets by Lav Diaz (won at the Venice Film Festival)

The main character of Kagadanan is a Filipino poet named Benjamin Agusan (played by Roeder Camañag). He is the hapless native who returns to his hometown Padang to witness the aftermath of a super typhoon. Director Lav Diaz shot Kagadanan in Padang, Legazpi City, where a village was buried by landslides caused by super typhoon Reming that hit the Bicol region on November 30, 2006.

For the past seven years, Benjamin had been living in an old town called Kaluga in Russia. With his grant and residency, he taught and conducted workshops in a university. The poet published two books of sadness and longing in the process.

In Russia, Benjamin was able to shoot video collages, fell in love with a Slavic beauty, buried a son, and almost went mad. He came back home to bury his loved ones–father, mother, sister and a lover. He came back to face Mount Mayon, the raging beauty and muse of his youth. He came home to confront the country that he so loved and hated, the Philippines. He came back to die in the land of his birth. He wanders around the obliterated village meeting old friends and lovers.

7. Tambolista/Drumbeat by Adolfo Alix Jr. (screened at the Jecheon Film Festival)

Ever wanted something so bad that you would do anything just to get it?
Tambolista focuses on one boy’s simple dream of owning his very own drum set. Set in the different slums of Manila, the film is taken from the point of view of 14-year-old Jason. A boy on the verge of manhood whose biggest passion is playing drums.

When his older brother Billy (Coco Martin) impregnates his girlfriend, the brothers and their streetsmart friend Pablo (Sid Lucero) try to come up with any means possible to get money to pay for the abortion. These three men show how the struggle to survive amidst their lives of poverty can also be a struggle for keeping their humanity in this intimate portrait of two brothers living in deprivation. The movie also shows how life is similar to the beat of drums, both having high and low points.

Where every beat counts…

8. Selda/ The Inmate by Paolo Villanuna and Ellen Ramos (competed at the 2008 Montreal Wolrd Film Festival)

Set in two contrasting enivronments that undeline the same premise of imprisonment, Selda tells the story of Rommel, a young man who accidentally kills a boy, resulting in his incarceration. Inside the jail, he befriends another inmate, Esteban, who becomes his rock and protector. Seven years later, Rommel is living in the province as a farmer together with Sita his wife. Esteban tracks down Rommel in hopes of renewing a brewing love affair. Rommel and Sita welcome Esteban into their lives, until their intimacy crosses borderlines and results in the undeniable scourge of self-discovery.

Selda is a return to classiscist forms and delivers a stylish, deliberately-paced treatise on love. At moments strange, Selda is a sublime and disquieting portrait of a young man whose search for happiness, innocence and true love is laden with guilt and doubt.

9. Katas ng Saudi/ Toil From Saudi by Jose Javier Reyes

An overseas worker (Jinggoy Estrada) comes home from Saudi and finds that coming home is harder than he thought it would be. He has to reconnect with his children who have all grown without him, and readapt to a lifestyle that includes his family.

10. Maling Akala/Wrong Assumption by Veronica Paraiso and Pablo Biglang Awa

The bittersweet love story of JP and Teta gives us a glimpse of how a gay man/straight woman relationship works… or doesn’t. JP is a fugitive on the run, after having accidentally killed his lover. On the bus, he sits next to Teta, who is 9 months pregnant. When Teta gives birth, JP accompanies mother and child home to their fishpond in Sasmuan, Pampanga. Teta impulsively introduces JP as the father of her child surprising both JP and her parents. When JP and Teta agree to play-act husband and wife, their queer, dysfunctional tale begins.