Fever Dreams

Don Jaucian

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True escapist films lie at the fringes of our film culture. Don Jaucian explains why these aren’t just barrages of boring images for cinema aesthetes

True escapist films lie at the fringes of our film culture. Don Jaucian explains why these aren’t just barrages of boring images for cinema aesthetes

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Anak Araw, a flim directed by Gym Lumbera, 2012

 

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Colossal, a film directed by Whammy Alcarazen, 2012

 

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Jungle Love, a film directed by Sherad Anthony Sanchez, 2012

 

Judging by the box office returns and the consistent profitability of the Metro Manila Film Festival—a film festival that brands itself as a showcase of escapist cinema—Filipinos tend to veer towards a cinema of entertainment. Ours is a country partly raised by Hollywood and dramatic bombast through television dramas, so it’s only logical that the majority of our celluloid dreams are ones that recount low-grade fantasies, comedy bar fun, and recycled soap opera plots. In 2012, five of the top-grossing films in the country were summer blockbusters (The Avengers, Breaking Dawn Part 2, and The Amazing Spider-Man), an MMFF Vice Ganda comedy (Sisterakas), and a “kabit” movie (The Mistress). The rest of the top 20 reads like the previous summer’s box office list with a few local films tossed in for variety.

But as the MMFF plows on as a moneymaking venture, film festivals like Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals act as grant-giving bodies to films with little or no monetary returns in sight. These are small “independent” films with limited week-long screenings. Even if you’re a star-studded vehicle from a known director (say Jose Javier Reyes’s Mga Mumunting Lihim which starred Judy Ann Santos, Iza Calzado, Agot Isidro, and Janice De Belen), your future outside the festival circuit is uncertain: it’s either you push for self-distribution or wait for an invitation from international film festivals. Other than rare exceptions like Ang Babae sa Septic Tank or Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (both Cinemalaya films), chances are, festival films will remain inside the film festival.

For the past few years, the country’s two prominent independent film festivals have taken on personae of their own. While Cinemalaya positions itself as our local version of Sundance, Cinema One Originals tends to dabble with experimental filmmaking. In last year’s competition, we saw a film that was shot with a lo-fi camera (Pam Miras’s Pascalina, which was awarded the Best Film), a black and white film that resists narrative (Gym Lumbera’s Anak Araw), and a contemplative take on death and waiting (Dwein Baltazar’sMamay Umeng).

But “experimental” and “neo-narrative” don’t always have to mean boring long takes, epic running times, static shots, and messes that don’t make sense. It’s films like these that remind us of cinema’s capability to carve different perspectives, ones that aren’t easily eroded by momentary pleasures and comedic sleights of hand. Here are three recent experimental films, all of which have been lauded by critics and opened to screenings that seemed more like private exhibitions.

Jungle Love: Sex and Trees

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Still from Sherad Sanchez’s Jungle Love

Jungle Love opens in darkness, with only a few shafts of light peering, demanding to be let through the walls. As the house’s inhabitant opens the door and windows, much of its contents are still hidden in the dark, with only disembodied voices signaling life and activity. Jungle Love operates in a kind of haze, toying with the distinction between reality and eroticized dreams. But Sanchez is smart enough not to fall into the trap of taking his subject too seriously. This is a film that parses sexual terrains as a form of sexual healing and release; a probable minefield of expositions, but Sanchez resists the temptation to dive into the deep end. Instead, he gives us a guidebook for the forest of our primal instincts.

What’s interesting about the people running through Jungle Love is that they look more like imprints of restless souls, trapped within the jungle’s playground: a woman seeks the forest’s refuge after being rejected by her lover, taking his child with her only to discover that it has disappeared after she leaves it alone for a couple of seconds; a writer, her partner, and their guide find themselves lost in search for a lost tribe, while playing sexual games; and a group of army cadets wander aimlessly until one of them is lured by a forest spirit. These characters trek up and down the jungle like pioneers conquering the untamed countries of their bodies until they become masses of energies that sustain the jungle’s life force.

Sanchez makes use of the landscape to sculpt his grim fairy tale. Gnarled roots, gnawing caves, and rattling trees nudge these poor souls into the heart of erotic darkness and back, doomed to repeat the cycle of rejection, isolation, and freedom, whatever form it may present itself. Jungle Love posits the hold of nature in our worldly desires. Rough, animalistic sex isn’t an aberration; it’s a byway into the strange realms of our subconscious and beyond.

Anak Araw: Object Lessons

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Still from Gym Lumbera’s Anak Araw

Gym Lumbera’s take on colonial identity and language seems to play patintero with our notions of history. Here, a rundown chalkboard, lined by Western equivalents of the alphabet (‘A’ is for ‘Apple’, ‘B’ is for ‘Ball’, etc.—our earliest introduction to the English), and a Tagalog-English dictionary serve as maps to the inroads of our language that we’ve never bothered to explore. Lumbera comes up with a means to deal with the eccentricities of the past and the present without the heavy-handed requirements of a textbook lecture.

In one of the screenings of the film, Class Picture, Lumbera’s short “photographic film” with Timmy Harn, precedes Anak Araw. Both films depict the building and rebuilding of memories: Anak Araw through the dissolution of language and Class Picture through photographic fragments. Lumbera is a filmmaker who uses a polarized method of romance to flesh out his ideals.

Anak Araw mainly works through distortion. Confused townspeople mimic a goat call while aimlessly following a parade band, the titular albino bleats and walks on four limbs, and an idyllic mountainside is disrupted by an eruption of a funnel of microbes. But these things aren’t often what they appear to be. What we are seeing is a land lost in time—a land in transition.

What echoes in Anak Araw’s reverie is its end note: Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Dahil Sa’yo”, which plays with a long take of an undertaker driving a hearse, lip-synching to the song beside a seemingly lifeless passenger.  Cole’s version is a sweet display of our mother tongue’s disfigurement and at the same time, a jab at the cultural woes of the prevailing powers of the 70s. Coming from a trip to the Philippines, Cole sings the serenade with words that might sound alien at first (“Dah-heel sah-yooee/Nah-is kowng ma-bu-hoyh”), softening the vowels and bending every syllable to fit his Western tongue. But the music sweeps through his shortcomings; the aching plea pouring through every note and warbled words.

And then, Lumbera bookends the film with a six-minute rumble of a boat desperately trying to start, set against a black screen. Now you really know he’s teasing you.

Shot on 16mm and 35mm film, Anak Araw playfully revels in its own randomness without being too trite or indulgent. It also helps that the film is an extension of Lumbera’s charming personality. All quirks aside, Anak Araw is like Lumbera approaching you with an anecdote (or a joke, more likely) on colonial illusion: he dresses it up with his sense of humor and unleashes the punch line at the right time. It might seem like harmless at first but you find yourself thinking about it long after he’s dropped the bomb. “Ang deep, pare.”

Colossal: The Myth of Man in Electronica

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Whammy Alcazaren’s Colossal

Six minutes of darkness open Colossal accompanied by a clash of electronic pulses and the clanging of some faraway bell. From here on, Alcazaren establishes the depths that he is willing to mine. Youthful ambition burns bright in Colossal, but to pigeonhole Alcazaren in the pitfalls of his age doesn’t do his film justice, however flawed it may be.

Colossal is languorous trip into the dunes of age-old myths, longing, and memory. Wide empty spaces give way to a city in its adolescent years, brimming with hope and promise; dreams radiate from the shelter of the jungle, shuttling through the constellations and the cold, dark of space. All this imagery, at once grand and nebulous, shape the narrative’s progression, with the occasional pop song beckoning us back down to our feet.

‘Oh, how I love you in the evenings/When we are sleeping/We are sleeping/Oh we are sleeping,” the narrator utters by way of Interpol. He summons Celine Dion, the Righteous Brothers, and The Bangles (or maybe Atomic Kitten) among others as a means to draw out our sense of history and its capability to birth revolutions. It’s in these neat little tricks of pop cultural evocations that Alcazaren strings together his greatest view of the universe; a patch of space where isolation breeds enlightenment, even if it means the only thing you have with you is a compilation of top 40 hits from the 80s and 90s.

But it’s in Colossal’s verse where we encounter the resistance. Words, no matter how well they might comingle with each other, form an impenetrable barrier when juxtaposed with such arresting imagery. It doesn’t help that the narration (in Bisaya) clashes with the English subtitles, which act mostly like flashcards hinting at the grand themes of the film, fluttering in and out of our consciousness as we travel along with Alcazaren. And as his central character comes back down to the earth, we settle with him, we crawl back into our bodies like the grizzled phantoms that we are.

Like any great piece of cinema, films that share the experimental strain of Jungle Love, Anak Araw, andColossal beckon us to listen closer to the hum of the world we live in. Their haphazard sense of narrative and visuals might not share the idea of cinema that we have gotten used to, but the stories that these films deploy expose the chaotic logic that we grapple to sift through in our daily lives.