Thursday, December 18, 2014

DIRECTOR'S SERIES - Rian Johnson

It’s often said by respected and not-so respected writers that Generation-Y is the worst generation to come into maturity. Our never-ending need to document our lives on social platforms like Facebook, our apathy for anything that is not within our purview, and apparently the worst sin of all, the fact that we are devoid of originality and must mine the past for our much maligned hipster sub-culture. Add to that people from our parent’s generation describing Millenials in the workplace as “demanding too much and not pulling their own weight” all contribute to Generation-Y being labeled by many in the press as the Me-generation. Our only contribution to culture, if one were to pay attention to the critics, is a brand of irony leaden work that is painfully self aware, chock full of navel gazing protagonists, and endlessly referencing something far older and more obscure than the derivative final product that corporations market to us.
In the case of Rian Johnson’s film output one could superficially say that the man is merely copying and pasting familiar genre tropes onto carefully art-directed backgrounds. His debut Brick (2005) explored the harshness of high school life through the prism of film noir while his sophomore feature The Brothers Bloom (2008) utilized the much loved conman/hustler archetype to tell an idiosyncratic love story and sibling bromance. And his most current feature to date Looper (2012) melds elements of sci-fi dystopian literature with the cliché “protect the homestead” trope found in a lot of Crime dramas and Westerns.
As the artist Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” And though many references abound in each of these films Johnson isn’t some hack re-appropriating the cool bits he likes from film, TV, and literature and rejiggering it to fit his movie. The references in his films appear organically and serve the story being told on screen. In an age where information and intellectual property is widely available to the masses the three films that make up Rian Johnson’s oeuvre are all set in hyper-stylized worlds which quote heavily from other media but within these extraordinary settings he explores such prescient themes as family, the impossibility of creating long lasting relationships, and most importantly the nature of storytelling itself.
Pressing play and stepping into any of Rian’s films it is easy to get lost in the art direction. In Brick the milieu is a small Southern California ghost town where high school teens roam free nary an adult in sight. And as in all films about high school there is a clear hierarchy and caste system; the top being occupied by the jocks and rich brats who can afford all the best drugs while the bottom rung is populated by the outcasts, loners, and pariahs who belong to no tribe. It’s within this caste that our protagonist Brendan (Joseph Gordon Levitt) belongs to.
Opening the film on Brendan’s eyes staring at the prone body of a teenage girl in front of a dark abyss, a long shot quickly reveals it to be the mouth of a sewage tunnel. The tunnel will play a prominent role in the film and images of dark caves and black abysses will recur throughout Johnson’s later films. It is a site linked with death and violence. As the inciting incident in Johnson’s debut begins with the death of Brendan’s ex-girlfriend, the teenage girl that Brendan is staring at the start of the film.
Her death forces our lone hero to navigate through a small town’s drug underworld. Of course, whereas the typical depiction of the drug trade pre-Breaking Bad often relied on a dead serious almost documentary presentation of the inner workings of cartels and drug dealers. Johnson’s Brick mines crime literature’s hardboiled past where everyone spoke in a specific street patois and criminals had a lot more personality; utilizing these conventions to satirize the rituals, codes, and slang that teenagers often employ to create their own sub-cultures that ironically built on the foundations of older popular culture.
As Rian Johnson stated in various interviews the primary inspiration for his debut was the pulp crime writer Dashiell Hammett whose literary creation Sam Spade became synonymous with the private eye detective. For Brick though, instead of the morally righteous anti-hero Spade, Johnson takes for his inspiration an earlier Hammett creation, The Continental Op.
Appearing in a series of short stories and two novels The Continental Op is a loner employed by the San Francisco Continental Detective Agency but in reality has no allegiance to anyone. In one of Hammett’s first masterpieces Red Harvest the Op arrives in a town torn apart by two competing gangs. Instead of waging a holy war against crime though Hammett’s anti-hero plays both sides against one another all while getting paid in the process. The Op is not above cruelty and in fact whereas Spade and later gumshoe incarnations would embody modern day knights-errant the Op could often be mistaken for the villain in the piece.
Adapted for the screen Hammett’s original story has been transposed to locations as varied as the Wild West and Edo period Japan, and the Op himself has been played by celebrated actors like Clint Eastwood, Toshiro Mifune, Bruce Willis, and Gabriel Byrne. In Brick the character of Brendan is clearly The Op’s progeny. Incapable of trusting anyone he becomes cut off from what might be considered a healthy relationship.  Brendan moves through the various high school cliques and though it might be safe to assume that he learns to assimilate into the wider world the conventions of the hardboiled novel prevent such things from occurring for our lone hero.
Playing the various players in the drama against one another the final climax and denouement don’t offer much closer for Brendan. The “bad guys” may have been dealt with, the femme fatale punished for her transgressions, but like Oedipus Brendan’s narrow-minded quest to learn the truth and punish the wrongdoers results in his discovery of an ugly secret that would have been better left buried. Whereas most gritty expressionist crime dramas like for example David Fincher’s Seven (1995) would have their characters violently react and do something rash, Brendan just quietly digests the information being told to him. Our lone hero impotent and powerless in the face of great tragedy is proven to be just a mortal.
In The Brothers Bloom the eponymous brothers origin story is centered on Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), the oldest brother, devising intricate scenarios involving his little brother Bloom (Adrien Brody) inhabiting various roles in an effort to bilk unsuspecting victims of their fortunes. While Brick reveled in the ethos of the lone detective making their way through a morally compromised world the setting for The Brothers Bloom is far less dour.  Though Stephen and Bloom may have their issues with each other the chemistry between Ruffalo, Brody, and Rinko Kikuchi, playing Bang Bang, the Explosives expert in the group, is apparent the first moment they’re on-screen together. This is a drama about the trials and tribulations of a gang of gentleman thieves and rambunctious smugglers.
It’s interesting to read many of the reviews for Johnson’s sophomore effort since many critics label this film as Wes Anderson-lite or a poor man’s Ocean’s 11 and yet those reductive comparisons completely miss the point. The film’s meticulous art direction and quirky characters do share a similarity with Wes Anderson’s visually unique dramas but that is because Johnson and Anderson are quoting from the same filmmakers. It’s no secret that both directors have an affinity for European art cinema from the 50s and 60s and Brothers Bloom and practically all of Anderson’s output bear this out. Yet whereas in Anderson’s film the characters are allowed a moment of catharsis that leads to a personal epiphany and the coming together of a once broken family Johnson’s film allows for none of that. Bloom, by the end, does get what he wants but at the cost of the disintegration of his makeshift family. He may walk into the sunset holding hands with the girl he loves but he hasn’t really changed. He is still an empty shell devoid of any personality other than the ones his brother created for him. He may love Penelope (Rachel Weisz), his wannabe smuggler girlfriend, but their love has only lasted as long as it has because of her tenacity. This trope of having a woman play savior and emotional anchor for our male protagonist would return again in Looper. In Johnson’s film universe men are the weaker sex compared to the strong vivacious women that populate his films.
What carries The Brothers Bloom along and adds a lot of levity to the drama though is Ruffalo’s Stephen who is not just the leader or better yet ringleader of the group. If Bloom is the audience surrogate than Stephen is the stand in for the director. His meticulous web of lies could be seen as a post-modern commentary on Generation Y’s hyper awareness of genre tropes and narrative expectations. Our generation is so well aware of the inner workings of the various genres and sub-genres of literature, TV, and film we rarely watch something to experience something radically new but rather to have our expectations met. The cons that Stephen comes up with are so intricate that they require flow charts and a well-organized notebook to keep track of all the plot points but because Stephen, like Rian Johnson, relies on a shared knowledge of both high and low brow culture it all feels new and familiar at the same time, as Stephen says, “The perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted”, a perfect summation of the power of film and storytelling itself.
For Johnson’s third outing as director Looper is set in a dystopian world where time travel hasn’t been invented yet but assassins known as Loopers working for an unknown cartel kill and dispose of victims who’ve been sent back in time. It’s never quite clear how this world came about though one could see parallels with our own current history, i.e. rise in unemployment, the housing market crash, the ascendance of China as a major world power, being the inspiration for Looper’s setting. And a lot of background information is thrown at us, so much so that the unresolved threads could feed countless sequels, prequels, and sidequels. Referencing work as varied as Japanese anime, the conventions of time travel movies, and even Peter Weir’s Amish crime drama Witness (1985) miraculously all these varied influences don’t have the negative effect of making Looper just another derivative blockbuster picture. In fact, the film bares all the hallmarks of a Rian Johnson picture.
Aside from the fact that Joseph Gordon Levitt returns as the lead character it’s not such a stretch to say that Joe is the type of man that Brendan, from Johnson’s earlier film Brick, could have grown up to become. Both characters embody the traits of a typical loner, and both Joe and Brendan share a strong desire to be a hero to a young woman who initially didn’t ask him for help. Though in Joe’s case this desire is tied to a selfish need to get his old life back.
Looper like Johnson’s second feature The Brother’s Bloom or even Brick is a story about family and the consequences of not having the proper nurturing influences. During the film’s second act when we move away from the city and spend more time in the rural backwaters where Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt) and her little boy Cid (Pierce Gagnon) the narrative slows down a bit and the family drama between mother and son unfurling on-screen is just as interesting the shoot’em up action set pieces. Cid is, like most young children, unable to control his emotions. Unlike typical kids his age though Cid has been gifted with telekinetic powers, an ability he is unable to wield unless in great stress and even than he can’t quite control it. Joe, a man who was sold to a gang while still a young boy, must protect this boy from his older self, played by Bruce Willis, since Cid will grow up to be a murderous tyrant in the future. Yet the reason for Cid’s cross over to the dark side is because of the death of his own mother, an act ironically caused by Joe’s older self. This cyclical “chicken or egg” scenario is only broken with the younger Joe sacrificing himself, literally not just ending his loop but the cycle of death and destruction.
The narrative employment of orphans and abandoned children can be seen in Johnson’s other pictures like in Brother’s Bloom where the brothers in the film are orphans who’ve been shuffled around from one uncaring foster parent to another until finally coming under the tutelage of a brutal gang leader. Of course, unlike Joe who is merely a single child the strong emotional bonds that the brothers share with one another making it possible for them to grow up as fairly well adjusted adults. The kids in Brick though, left to their own devices, create their own sub-cultures and hierarchies that result in kids mimicking antiquated and often dangerous modes of behavior.
In both of these earlier films the characters deal with this sense of abandonment by retreating into affectation. The characters talk and dress in atypical and anachronistic ways as a way to show their affiliation to a group, lifestyle, and/or philosophy. For Joe, his well-ironed suit, nice ties, slicked back hair, and blunderbuss are a symbol of power by way of its wearer being identified as belonging to a specific organization. To take any of that away from him is tantamount to killing him. Yet the props and costumes that these characters use to craft their identities are more often than not restrictive; preventing Brendan from caring for anyone other than the dead, blinding Stephen to the pain he’s caused his brother, and validating Joe’s violent actions as befitting the role of killer he’s chosen for himself.
Whereas contemporary American cinema is constantly mining comic books and video games in an effort to provide the audience with as much bread and circuses as they could want films like Brick, Brothers Bloom, and Looper will outlive a lot of those superhero franchises because the fictional worlds each film depicts is whole and complete, tapping into a shared cultural narrative. We all know what a noir is even without having seen a single Humphrey Bogart picture. We all know what happens when a group of criminals get together to plan something. And we are all well aware of the conceits of time travel stories. It’s part of our pop culture heritage and now so is Rian Johnson.
Filmography (feature films only)
Brick (2005)
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Looper (2012) 

(First Published in Issue #1 of The Post American, January 2014. Illustrations done by freelance artist Yuri Kim. You can reach her at either her website, www.yurigeurim.com, or by e-mail, yrholiday@gmail.com.)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Rigodon (2012)

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Erik Matti is a very popular mainstream filmmaker in his home country of the Philippines. The man has worked in the movie industry since the mid-1990s as a writer, director, actor, and even producer. He has embraced the tenets of commercial filmmaking and though his belief that craftsmanship and storytelling trump highfalutin ideas and delivering well-worn humanist messages these beliefs have divided the director with many Filipino cinephiles and indie filmmakers who are struggling on a day-to-day basis to complete their own films. Whether or not one espouses Matti’s viewpoint about cinema and art it’s hard to ignore the man or his work. He has slowly gained quite a lot of attention these last few years and many people, foreign and domestic, have shown support for the man’s work.
Although I have not seen a majority of Matti’s oeuvre, I must say that the attention that his films have garnered is a positive move forward for the national cinema of the Philippines. The country’s film industry has had to endure a lot of over the decades and the shadow of Hollywood has always loomed large over the entire country. What few films that emerged for viewing to foreign audiences were often noirish melodramas usually directed by men like Lino Brocka or Brillante Mendoza that showcased the squalor and moral corruption prevalent in the Philippines. Now even though a majority of the population does live well below what many in the First World would consider the poverty line a cinema that only shows the bleak and dire is a dishonest cinema. The country, its people, and its art scene are multifaceted and sometimes splintered into various sub-groups due to the various dialects spoken in the country. In fact, due to its long history as a colony, be it Spain, Japan, the US, the Philippines is an amalgam of Old World and New World influences.
As for its cinema, with the invention of DV cameras there has been a renaissance within the indie film scene there. Fueled by pioneer masters like Kidlat Tahimik, Raymond Red, and Lav Diaz young filmmakers in the Philippines are going out onto the streets, imbued with a DIY aesthetic, and starting to craft their own personal films. Sadly though, for every art-house success like Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (2011) there are mountains upon mountains of high concept but low budget arthouse pictures, poorly scripted but interesting genre fare, and head scratching contemplative films. And as highly lauded as these films are they do not make a dent in the local box office. Now of course, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Filipino that would label Erik Matti as an arthouse director but whether you love or hate him he makes profitable well-made pictures. And as South Korea has proved a solid commercial industry is the bedrock of a strong national cinema.
Rigodon is an erotic melodrama that tells the story of three flawed and emotionally damaged characters. There is Riki (John James Uy) a manipulative narcissist whose sense of self-entitlement is rivaled only by his insatiable sexual appetite. Established at the start as a Z-grade celebrity, Riki though is not a one-dimensional despicable character, he may lie and cheat but he is not driven to be bad because he is a bad character. Instead as the film unfolds we see the desperation and hunger, akin to Tony Curtis’s Sydney Falco character in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Playing Riki’s put upon wife is Regine (Max Eigenmann), a housewife who must have had dreams of her own before meeting Riki but now is relegated to baking cupcakes for Riki’s mistresses. And finally there is Sarah (Yam Concepcion), the mistress figure in the movie and honestly the most sympathy of the three. She is young, beautiful, and worst of all desperate to give her love to whatever man is willing to take it.
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A lot of what raises the film above the level of titillation is the amount of screen time that Matti devotes to showing the inner lives of these characters, not just through expository dialogue but through quiet moments when they are just going about their day-to-day business. Though we only see one of Riki’s affairs the movie has scenes that give us clues that this man is a habitual adulterer and has plenty of secrets he’s been keeping. One of which involves a debt to a creepy spinster who commands a gang of muscle that do her bidding while she grooms her paraplegic father. As for Regine, her isolation and dependency on Riki’s erratic paychecks has forced her to consciously ignore all the signs that Riki is a total scumbag. Their marriage is broken but the thought of leaving him has never crossed her mind. In a telling scene where Regine attempts to talk to her family in Cebu, the strained expression on her face while attempting to make small talk says it all, there is no place for her other than the home she has built with Riki. She is shackled to him, emotionally and financially.
Similarly, Sarah also suffers from an overbearing male figure, but instead of it being a husband or lover it is her father, a man who cares for her but shows it by constantly questioning her judgment. Going from boyfriend to boyfriend she attempts to build something of a relationship with men but in the eyes of Sarah’s father no one is good enough for her. When she finally does break free from him she runs into the arms of Riki, hoping that this man is a far better protector and lover, but her emotional dependence on Riki eventually makes her unattractive to the man.
Aside form the love triangle Rigodon can be seen as a statement about the noive riche in the Philippines. Riki may not be a big star but he lives an upper class lifestyle. His clothes, his car, the food his family eats, and even the way he speaks is completely foreign to most Filipinos. In the Philippine language he would be described as a mestizo, a term used to describe a person who has White European ancestry. Trying to keep up with the Joneses Riki’s home life resembles an American middle class existence. He is a native foreigner, too white for Filipinos, and he is even made fun of due to the way he speaks Tagalog in an “American” accent. Regine, on the other hand, is the typical Filipina wife and mother. She keeps the house in order, takes care of her child and husband, and pretty much has no life outside of her home. She lives in a golden cage unlike Sarah whose innocence damns her at the end.
Whereas in previous years Filipinos had to leave the country to earn a decent wage and feed their family Matti’s film shows us that globalization has made the “American Dream” possible no matter what shore you land on. Rigodon is an erotic film that doesn’t just sexualize bodies writhing in ecstasy, but salaciously shows us the power that money has in masking lies as truth and sex as love.
(Originally published on January 20, 2014 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Blind Detective (2013)

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Johnnie To’s Blind Detective (2013) is  by no means a perfect film. It lacks the trademark grit and noir atmosphere of To’s earlier crime pictures and reeks of bad plotting. Yet with that said, if you shift your expectations away from the procedural elements and revel in the pleasures of the film's screwball comedy, then Blind Detective can be considered as a funny enough addition to To’s romantic-comedy oeuvre.
Starring To veterans Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng as buddy cop partners, Blind Detective begins with a kinetic chase scene as Sammi Cheng’s Goldie is tasked by her commanding officer to tail Lau’s Holmesian private investigator, Johnston. Through media coverage, we find out that an anti-social citizen has been dumping sulfuric acid from the roofs of Hong Kong’s high-rises. Johnston is on the trail of the culprit but the local cops have all eyes on Johnston and within minutes a showdown between cops, criminal, and Johnston ends with the bad guy captured and Goldie and Johnston having their meet-cute.
With this initial meeting we get a good handle of exactly who these two are: Johnston, a prodigy in solving crimes but completely lost in the weeds when interacting with people, and Goldie, an against the grain female detective who’s athletic prowess is tempered by her inability to solve cases like a “real” detective. The two come together when Goldie asks Johnston to help find her friend who disappeared, without a trace, 20 years ago. Johnston agrees to the case and then begins using Goldie as his assistant; having her run after criminals, doing surveillance work, and, most importantly, reenacting the last moments of murder victims whose cases have been left unsolved.
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The scenes between Johnston and Goldie as they piece together the how and why of several brutal crimes are the real reason to see this movie. The chemistry between Lau and Cheng has always been strong. After working together on so many Johnnie To romantic comedies, both actors seem to be sufficiently comfortable with one another that, even when Lau and Cheng are bashing each other’s heads in with a hammer, slashing wrists, or getting into slap fights, one can’t help smirking as both are clearly relishing their Grand Guignol reenactments.
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Though Blind Detective has a threadbare main narrative, the film is also is riddled with episodic sub-plots that are either introduced and then forgotten, or just left hanging in the air. If the central concept was executed as a television series, thereby enabling Lau and Cheng to stretch their comedy muscles the while giving the viewer a new murder that Johnston and Goldie have to solve, it could work wonders. Its popularity would inevitably make Andy Lau’s Johnston character one of the top television sleuths with a disability, right up there with Gregory House and Adrian Monk. However, what we have here is a half-formed work from an established master. There are better Andy Lau-Sammi Cheng collaborations out there, many of them directed by To himself, and Blind Detective, through no fault of the two leads, falls short of being anything but a curiosity item.
(Originally published on January 13, 2014 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Sana Dati (2013)

vlcsnap-2013-08-08-02h09m28s104Romance, like any well-established genre, has several well-known tropes that must always be followed. Clichés usually involve a man and woman accidentally bumping into each other, the man pursuing the woman even if she happens to be engaged to someone else, and a third act climax where the male protagonist musters up all his strength and professes his love to the pretty female lead and drags her away to live a supposedly happy life together. Reality never lives up to fantasy, though. The unknown variables of life and the simple fact that those in relationships don’t have the luxury of a fade-out right before life gets too hard make “happy endings” a rare commodity.
In Jerrold Tarog’s Sana Dati (2013), which premiered at this year's Cinemalaya Festival, the film isn’t hampered by the need to have the “happy ending”, though the tropes of the romance genre are respected. Instead, Sana Dati is a naturalistic story about what happens after a relationship has ended, and the emotional struggle that goes with re-committing one’s heart to another person again. Unlike many forgettable and downright insulting romantic dramas and comedies, Sana Dati isn’t a tearjerker, even as Tarog imbues the entire film with a bittersweet air.vlcsnap-2013-08-08-02h21m43s29
Opening on a quote by Voltaire, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd”, the film begins in an empty store, devoid of furniture, merchandise, or people. A man enters followed by a woman. From the dialogue, we learn that the two are a couple and that they’ve bought the place. They are happy and the young woman discovers a pleasant surprise left by her boyfriend, a rose in a vase and an engagement ring. The scene ends with the woman looking at the camera toward her boyfriend and giving us a big smile. After that opening, we get a series of short scenes of a videographer going to a hotel to film a couple getting married. Our expectations are that the couple at the start is tying the knot, but as the story unfolds, we learn that the young man, Andrew (Benjamin Alves), is dead and that Andrea (Lovi Poe), his ex-girlfriend, is now with a different man.  Tarog’s film, just as much of a detective story as it is a romance, presents the beginning and end of that opening couple's relationship through a series of unedited video clips and flashbacks. The videographer Dennis (Paulo Avelino), the audience surrogate, who has a connection to Andrew, acts like a detective investigating the films requisite femme fatale.
The crux of the story is the familiar trope of the woman, Andrea, having to choose which man she will be with. Of course, the twist is that she must either choose to be with her dead ex or tie the knot with a man that is still very much a stranger to her. The contrast between Andrew and Andrea’s relationship and Andrea’s impending marriage to her fiancé played by TJ Trinidad can’t easily be boiled down to who is the “better” man. All these people are damaged, physically and emotionally, yet Andrea can’t escape the responsibility of having to choose between her joyful past and unknown future. Whereas Hollywood love stories cling onto antiquated notions of the “one true love” Tarog eschews such juvenile notions. Lovi Poe portrays Andrea as a woman who is painfully alone yet is apprehensive about betraying Andrew for another man. The conflict going on in her heart and mind is so eloquently portrayed by her, it’s impossible to imagine what the right choice is in her situation.vlcsnap-2013-08-08-02h22m13s51
Sana Dati might, from my description, appear oppressively dark or bleak, but it is nothing of the sort. Whereas typical melodramas milk the sad moments for all the tears they can, Sana Dati’s voyeuristic visual style never lingers too long on a scene. We get impressions of these characters and their pain, but Tarog never exploits the moment and the cinematographer Mackie Galvez gives the film a gauzy romantic look even as the story turns tragic.
It seems that since the start of the new millennium the romance genre, at least the not-so mainstream entries, have evolved to be more contemplative and have striven to portray situations that are more emotionally realistic. Sana Dati deserves a place in that canon alongside Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and the talky dramas of Eric Rohmer. Foregoing big emotional scenes, a requisite villain, or even a conclusive ending it’s not so hard to imagine the story continuing on, the characters going about their lives in a constant cycle of pain and happiness.
(Originally published on September 7, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

The Animals (2012) [NYAFF 2013]

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The teenagers in Gino M. Santos’ The Animals belong to the 1% of the Philippine social stratosphere, living an American dream that most Americans would envy. They drink, smoke, pop pills, erupt into violent rages, and like all teenagers are driven by their raging hormones. Chauffeured from place to place and coddled by their rich parents, these kids embody the very definition of “spoiled brat”.  However, nothing about their behavior would startle a normal First World audience. The cinema is filled to capacity with rich jerks and stuck-up snobs, but Santos’s film takes place in the Philippines, a third world country where government corruption is public knowledge and free speech is oftentimes curbed.
With a national cinema that has often been labeled and accused of perpetuating poverty porn to film festivalgoers it’s rare that those living outside the Philippines get to see another reality. Luckily, as far more adventurous cinephiles dive into the country’s film scene, both past and present, we get a chance to see how "the other half" live.  Instead of a cliché focus on slackers, geeky nerds that are beautiful on the inside, or hipsters with an encyclopedic knowledge of every obscure band that ever existed, Santos depicts teenagers who are just dead to anything that is outside their own purview. Whereas many teenage dramas and comedies spend a great deal of energy charting their pubescent characters loss of innocence, The Animals shows kids corrupted long before we ever met them. Instead, what Santos does is have us, the audience, witness one day in their lives. Of course, as the rules of drama dictate, this is no ordinary day for any of the characters involved.
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Jake (Albie Casino) is the epitome of the upper class male. His parents cater to his whims, doling out cash even before he gets a chance to ask, and supporting his extracurricular activities that include drinking, smoking, and popping pills. When we first meet Jake, he seems to embody everything middle class audiences hate about the rich, though Casino does allow for Jake to have some sympathetic qualities. He seems to love his girlfriend, has a very amiable personality, and one can’t help but notice that, aside from a breakfast scene at the start of the film, Jake is devoid of any sort of parental figure in his life. In fact, when Jake’s father brings up the party that his son is putting together, he thinks it’s a school event and even jokes about the entrance fee Jake is charging to his guests. You feel sympathetic for this young man who may just be bored and in need of a little parental guidance.
Of course, Jake’s issues pale in comparison to those of Alex (Patrick Sugui), who’s a sheep lost in the woods. Toking up before school and having hooked up with a gang of older high school kids who dangle membership to their fraternity in front of wayward teens, Alex is painful to watch as a scared boy who struggles to fit in as he is viciously hazed by his upper classmen. In Santos’ film friendships are, at best, superficial connections that are based on supply and demand; meaning loyalties shift when one can’t get what they want.
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The third character we follow, Trina (Dawn Balagot), is not only Alex’s older sister, but also Jake’s girlfriend. Of these three, her fate is the most tragic. Though she suffers from kleptomania, a character trait introduced in the beginning and left to wither on the dramatic vine, she is the most levelheaded character out of the three.
When the action moves to Jake’s party the strobe lights, loud music, and jump cut action can get very tiring. It’s all very rote. These kids may talk the talk, but they are still kids and Santos makes sure to linger on shots of puke, be it staining bathroom floors, dribbling onto chic dresses, or erupting from pubescent mouths. It’s also interesting to note that it’s mainly women who were blowing chunks while the men are silent observers laughing or enjoying the feeling of female flesh rubbing up against them.
Although The Animals has gotten a lot of attention as being critical and damning of the rich, the film is actually far from that. Yes, the film does portray these privileged teenagers in a very negative light, but in the end Jake and Alex aren’t really admonished for their “bad behavior”. In fact, both characters in the end are allowed to return to the comforts of their warm beds, a far cry to the fates of the film's female characters. The Animals in the film's title are not the idle rich but men, young and old who rule through aggression.
(Originally published on July 1, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

The Grandmaster (2013)

The GrandmasterThere is a lot of critical weight attached to a Wong Kar-Wai picture. Like all auteurs, Wong has, over the last three decades, crafted a public persona that has put the man front and center whenever one of his films is released. For fans, his films are visually stunning and introspective, about two people suffering from a terminal case of unrequited love. For detractors, his films are slow, pretentious, but visually stunning pictures about pretty people with conflated problems. His latest picture, after his underwhelming American film My Blueberry Nights six years ago, continues his longstanding obsession with amour fou, but with over a decade since his last major masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (2000), the man’s visual style and penchant for non-linear storytelling has matured and been incorporated into several mainstream critical hits since then.The Grandmasters
With his latest picture, The Grandmaster (2013), Wong delves back into the wuxia genre and tackles a very popular real life figure, the Chinese martial artist Yip Kai-man, or as he is known by many Ip Man. For those with a passing interest in Hong Kong cinema, the story of Ip Man has become rote due to the seemingly never-ending run of biopics about the man in recent years, the most famous being the eponymously titled Ip Man and Ip Man 2 released in 2008 and 2010 respectively and starring Hong Kong megastar Donnie Yen. With the man’s trials, tribulations, and achievements already well known to the public-at-large, Wong forgoes textbook historical accuracy and focuses his film on trying to illustrate exactly what it is to be a grandmaster.
In basic linguistic terms, a grandmaster is a teacher who has honed their craft for several decades and amassed not only a technical mastery of their art but also a particular philosophical viewpoint. Thus, the title of grandmaster takes on both a religious as well educational meaning.  In Wong’s film, unlike previous adaptations of the Ip Man story, we are inundated with an ensemble cast of grandmasters, each with their own unique specialties, back stories, and personalities. They oftentimes overtake the frame and engulf Ip Man, though not in a threatening way. They operate more like a Greek Chorus, interacting with Ip Man, guiding him along on his journey, but never interfering with his fate. As is true of most Wong Kar-Wai pictures, the conflict is not centered on a protagonist having to defeat a flesh and blood character or a nefarious organization. Instead, the major conflict between Ip Man and all the other grandmasters in the picture is their own mortality.The Grandmasters
Though The Grandmaster is set in a more fantastic universe with balletic fight choreography and pseudo-mysticism, it is still grounded in reality, specifically the early 19th century in China at the cusp of revolution as it is invaded first by the Japanese and then by the Communists. Wong’s Ip Man, played by his muse Tony Leung, must contend with wartime rationing, protecting his family, contending with gung-ho fighters, and also his own emotions. Ironically, although the earlier Ip Man films are rooted in realism and go out of their way to follow history to the letter, Donnie Yen’s Ip Man is far more one dimensional, more of a symbol than flesh and blood character, compared to Tony Leung’s laconic interpretation of the man. Though Leung is pushed to the background for a large chunk of the film’s runtime, the scenes with Leung do allow us some idea of who this man might be, a credit which must be given to Wong’s skills penning the poetic monologues which Leung beautifully reads in voiceover.
During these readings, in-between the pregnant pauses and spoken lines, is a very real man trying to make sense of everything around him and the feelings he has for a mysterious woman played by Zhang Ziyi. Seemingly replaying their relationship from 2046 (2004), Zhang and Leung dance around their feelings for one another. Like the couples in Wong’s earlier films, Leung and Zhang are from the start fated to be apart but that does not stop either of them from playing the role of tragic lovers. While watching The Grandmaster, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe all the couples in Wong’s films aren’t perhaps the same lovers reincarnated in different bodies and time periods but still forced to reenact their doomed romance.The Grandmasters
The closest thing there is to a traditional wuxia conflict in the film is between Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) and Ma San (Zhang Jin). Set up as a battle between a vengeful daughter and her father’s wayward disciple, Wong takes a page out of the Sergio Leone and John Woo playbook by presenting the fight as a series of close ups on body parts in languid slow motion. Of course, because of Wong’s interest in non-linear storytelling, we already know who wins, but the stakes are far higher than life or death. With this match, as in every match fought in this film, what is at stake are the martial arts themselves.
A grandmaster’s defeat irrevocably means his style of fighting has run its course. This “there can be only one” mentality means that there is only a finite number of true grandmasters and as the old ways are paved over to make way for the modern world of trains and bombs the martial arts themselves have become a pale shadow of themselves. Whereas the grandmasters of an earlier time smoke, drank, and conversed in posh brothels the postwar era has reduced many to drinking cheap booze and smoking filthy cigarettes in makeshift shacks. In a decade, their skills will be used to train actors and entertainers, not warriors or philosophers.
The Grandmaster continues Wong’s obsession with mythologizing and eulogizing China during the postwar era. Neither a bold new step in the man’s oeuvre or an unimaginative retread of past projects, the film will absolutely polarize action film fans looking for kinetic brawls. However, Wong has never been about pleasing his audience and for disciples of his work, The Grandmaster will be a film watched, quoted, and pored over for decades to come.
(Originally published on June 12, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)

Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

Rurouni KenshinKeishi Ohtomo’s Rurouni Kenshin opens like many historical pictures, in pitch darkness with the year and conflict telegraphed to us through white on black intertitles. It is 1868, the closing moments of the Boshin War, a turning point in Japan’s history as the country took its first steps to Empiredom. Our hero, Battosai the Manslayer (Takeru Satoh), is an assassin for the Imperialists but he doesn’t share in their happiness as his side defeats the remnants of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Instead, with the war won, he abandons his sword on the battlefield and seemingly relinquishes his license to kill.
Ten years quickly pass in the blink of a well placed dissolve and Battosai the Manslayer has changed his name to Himura Kenshin, the sword with a heart. Japan is in the throes of the Meiji period, earth-tone kimonos being replaced with powder white naval uniforms, and our reluctant hero has joined the ever-growing mass of wandering directionless samurai. Though having vowed 10 years ago to never take another life a series of murders that were done under his old name push the former manslayer to uncover the culprits. Along the way he befriends a series of quirky allies and fights an army of theatrically dressed villains.Rurouni Kenshin
If this plot sounds rote and almost cartoonish then it most likely will not surprise you to learn that Rurouni Kenshin began it’s life as a popular manga, written by Nobuhiro Watsuki, then translated onto television as a 95-episode anime before finally transplanted onto the big screen. Straddling the tropes of the jidai-geki/chambara and the superhero genre, sadly Ohtomo’s picture leans far more heavily towards the strained seriousness of commercial blockbuster cinema.
Lacking the bleak atmosphere and complicated anti-heroes that were synonymous with chambara auteurs like Kenji Misumi or Hideo Gosha, Rurouni Kenshin only reminds fans just how far the genre has fallen. Whereas previous films of the sort never shied away from exposing the violence and brutality possible in all men, be they samurai or otherwise, what we get in Rurouni Kenshin are bloodless and antiseptic duels. Blood may stain the carefully art directed sets and scenery but we never completely believe that the actors katanas make contact with one another. No longer is there the excitement that comes from watching two morally compromised characters dueling to the death. Instead, sound effects of clashing swords and carefully edited cuts are what we are left with for excitement. And replacing moral ambiguity, there is a comic book simplicity to the plot. The bad guys, for the most part, all wear black and on the side of good are the good-looking ones who have only the best intentions at heart.Rurouni Kenshin
Takeru Sato, famous for his recurring role as the superhero Kamen Rider, does a decent enough job playing the reformed manslayer Kenshin. His soft somewhat androgynous features make it easy for the viewer and the cast of characters in the film to let down their guard when he appears. When blades are crossed though, it is quite a chore to believe that Sato is a menacing threat for anyone who dares cross his path.  Sato plays Kenshin as too much of a blank slate. His dreamy-eyed stare may make a few girls swoon, but he’s no match for a Tatsuya Nakadai, Tomisaburo Wakayama, or Raizo Ichikawa, all of whom made their mark in chambara cinema playing wounded masculine characters.
The only actor that stood out from the relatively humdrum cast is Teruyuki Kagawa, an actor that ironically made his bones in the Japanese film industry playing subtle oftentimes repressed characters. In Rurouni Kenshin though he hams it up as Kanryu Takeda, a Snidely Whiplash-esque archenemy that has far more in common with mid-Twentieth century Bond villains than he does Meiji era business tycoons. And, taking a cue from Tony Montana, Takeda makes basking in his own self-important glory a true art.Rurouni Kenshin
As underlings, Takeda has a posse of pseudo-supernatural thugs dressed in middle-eastern garb. However, their role as henchmen is relegated to being punching bags for the good guys. The only character under Takeda’s employ that had a shade of depth was Megumi (Yu Aoi), who vacillates between femme fatale, tragic heroine, and girl-next-door. The entire story pivots around the relationship between Megumi and Takeda, making their love-hate co-dependent relationship far more interesting than the white bread prim and proper romance between Kenshin and Kaoru (Emi Takei) that the film trots out as its sorry excuse for a subplot.
Those with a deep love and affection for exciting chambara pictures or introspective and artistically minded jidai-geki films will find a lot wanting with Rurouni Kenshin. Ohtomo’s movie caters more to the J-Pop/animation crowd, and though I find nothing wrong with either art forms after seeing Rurouni Kenshin you might want to cleanse your cinematic palette with something far more “substantial”.
(Originally published on April 9, 2013 at VCinema Show Podcast and Blog.)