Tuesday, April 28

Review: Pssst...T.2. (2009)

Directed by Chito Roño
Starring Maricel Soriano

Rating: 2.5

Roño pulls a Shyamalan in the last installment of his horror trilogy. What T2 lacks in scare, it makes up for with ambition.

I'm rarely surprised by commercial Filipino movies mostly because of its penchant to play it safe. T.2. stands out from the rest of the recent releases mainly because it took a huge risk with its portrayal of two worlds colliding---our reality and one more fantastic---and though it stumbles in the end, the movie does represent something of importance and that which is sorely lacking in commercial cinema: ambition.

T2 opens grandly. A boy is out in the field looking for his pet goat when all of a sudden an aircraft appears from above and the field dissolves into a runway as the distant mountains transform into a majestic city, something similar to the cityscape in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The movie then follows determined Save an Orphan volunteer Claire, played by the invincible Maricel Soriano, protect a child who appears to be chased by a group of engkanto (elementals). The showdown takes place in T.2., a dilapidated tenement whose center is the gateway to the world of the elementals.

Chito Roño is at his best setting up genuinely creepy scenes in the superstitious-heavy air of the countryside, more effectively displayed in his previous effort, Sukob. Without the glaring lights and noises of the city, the elementals felt more menacing. I was also hoping that T.2. would dwell more on the intriguing occurrences that took place when the elementals' world overlapped with ours; a shipping liner (?) cruising down a tiny river is one of the movie's visual coup.

But even before the screams are delivered, T.2. reveals its secret: the child Claire is protecting is a half-breed (half-faerie, half-human) and the elementals are rallying their (stoic, rotting green) troops to help convince the child to choose to live in the Elemental City. I felt duped that I was misled to believe that this was a horror movie; it's the Shyamalan syndrome, when the dénouement makes everything less spectacular, like turning on the fluorescent lamp in a dark room, all the shadows disappear and the phantom you suspected standing in the corner was just a play of light.

Still, I admire Roño for going where no other local horror movie has gone before and for going against the expectations set by his previous movies. Hopefully, his ambitions will lead to better reveals in the future.

Friday, April 24

TRAILERS: Sabongero and Manila

a Project Kaleidoscope Production
© Cebu, Philippines 2009
Official Selection to the Short Film Corner - Film Festival de Cannes 2009

Written and Directed by Janice Y. Perez
Produced by Ruel Antipuesto and Janice Y. Perez
Director of Photography: Ruel Antipuesto
Starring: Patskie Abing, Anbern Rodis, Reo Felia, Ranz Andri Medina, Frank Tagalog
Official Site: http://sabongeromovie.multiply.com/

Film Festival de Cannes 2009

Directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr. and Raya Martin
Bicycle Pictures and MJM Production
Written by Ramon Sarmiento and Adolfo Alix, Jr.
Executive Producers: Piolo Jose Pascual and Edgar Mangahas
Producer: Arleen Cuevas
Associate Line Producer: Maxie Evangelista III
Director of Photography: Albert Banzon
Production Designer: Digo Ricio
Editors: Jay Halili and Aleks Castaneda
Music: Radioactive Sago Project
Sound Design: Ditoy Aguila

Cast: Piolo Pascual, Rosanna Roces, Jay Manalo, Alessandra de Rossi

Manila trailer via Pixelated Popcorn

Four Filipino Films at Cannes 2009

This is definitely great news for the flailing Philippine cinema. Here's hoping that our government takes notice and starts supporting local film makers, heading toward something similar to what the Koreans have accomplished. (Go read Kim Hyung-jin's speech at the Audiovisual Industry Seminar held in Geneva for some insight on the Korean Wave.)

And that the big two (Star Cinema and GMA Films) begin producing actual movies.

*Slaps face awake*

Here's an excerpt from an article that came out in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Four Filipino films have been included in the official lineup of the 62nd Cannes International Film Festival, a first for the country.

This “historic” development was confirmed by three filmmakers whose films were chosen as entries in the world’s premier movie festival that will take place on May 13-14 in the French coastal city.

Three independent films made it to the Official Selection, in three different categories: Brillante Mendoza’s “Kinatay (The Execution of P)” in the Main Competition; Raya Martin’s “Independencia” in the Un Certain Regard section; and Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix Jr.’s “Manila” in the Special Screenings category.

“Sabongero,” by Filipino-American Janice Y. Perez, was selected for the Short Film Corner.

There were unconfirmed reports that Filipino films would also compete in the fest’s parallel section, the Directors’ Fortnight, as in the past two years.

“It’s an exciting year for the Philippines,” said Mendoza, who added that the inclusion of the four entries bode well for local cinema.

Mendoza is staging a comeback in the Main Competition, after his entry “Serbis” stirred controversy last year.

“Kinatay,” his entry this year is “equally controversial” and delves into the world of hitmen who cut up the bodies of their victims, said Mendoza. The film features Coco Martin, John Regala, Julio Diaz, Jhong Hilario, Lauren Novero and Maria Isabel Lopez.

“I believe it’s the first time for an Asian filmmaker to submit entries in the Main Competition for two consecutive years. US filmmaker Joel Coen also had back-to-back entries in the competition in 2000 and 2001,” Mendoza told the Inquirer.

Does Mendoza consider his return to the competition a way to vindicate himself after last year’s intrigues and negative reviews?

“I feel no pressure. I try not to worry about those things and I only focus on making my film,” he said.

Also of interest are Park Chan-Wook's vampire movie, Thirst, Bong Joon-ho's Mother, which also marks the comeback of actor Won Bin, and Pen-Ek Rathanurang's Nymph, the latter two both up for Un Certain Regard.


Via Philippine Daily Inquirer, Korean Bug

Wednesday, April 22

Review: The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (2008)

The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela

Directed by Olaf de Fleur Johannesson
Starring Raquela Rios, Stefan Schaefer

Rating: 4.5

A bittersweet heroic journey of a Filipino transvestite from the slums of Cebu to the streets of Paris that cleverly blurs fantasy and biting reality.

Raquela personifies the stereotypical Filipino transvestite: excessively made-up, amusingly flirty, dangerously promiscuous, with a brightly shining heart of gold. She earns money for her family and dreams of visiting Paris one day. It was painful to watch all the cliché come to play in the first part of the movie. Director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's point of view is unapologetic; there is no escape from the third world poverty (resources, ignorance) that barricades Raquela's world, vivid in her thoughts and shaky on the screen. But it is this Western eye that would later on transform Raquela's experiences into a modern myth. With a news-feature documentary style, the plot that is mostly fiction achingly breathes with a stubborn but tired heart, a heart that's all too familiar for the local audience that it makes it nearly impossible to tell apart which is real and which is not. Raquela is real and the journey she goes through, from zero to hero, might as well be.

In laying out the monomyth, Joseph Campbell, in The Hero of a Thousand Faces, studies the fundamental structure of a hero's journey: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man. Raquela's call to adventure---"A blunder–apparently the merest chance–reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood"---happens when she joins an internet porn site that specializes on lady boys, which is owned by Michael Ardilo (Stefan Schaefer), an American staying in New York. Raquela, who is lively and witty in speech, exceeds the company's expectation so much so that even the site's Thai counterpart have heard of her success.

Raquela's supernatural aid comes when she befriends Valerie on the internet, a lady boy who is based in Iceland who offers Raquela the opportunity to work in Reykjavik. When Michael hears about this, he promises her a rendezvous in Paris. The first threshold Raquela had to cross was the HIV test. Here, she begins her transformation into someone more self-aware, which equips her with the necessary "inner strength" to survive the cold landscape of Iceland.

Valerie brings Raquela to the fish factory where she works; for Raquela it meant the opportunity to permanently stay in Iceland. It is in her small apartment in Reykjavik, among her new flea market clothes, where she changes. A butterfly emerging from her cocoon, so to speak, more flamboyant and stylish than ever but also more cautious. In a very intimate scene, as her visa expires and Raquela prepares to meet Michael in Paris, she confesses to the camera, with her mascara smeared down her cheeks, that she is not a gold-digger and merely wants an alternate way to improving her life.

In Paris, Raquela discovers that Michael (woman, or in this case, man as temptation) was not the man who would sweep her off her feet. Michael, a stereotype of the ugly American in philosophy and manners, was ominously demanding but did rightfully blurt out (before leaving for Amsterdam) that Raquela, it seemed, would enjoy Paris more if she were by herself. And she did.

At once apotheosis and ultimate boon, Raquela---she who used to desperately wait for some phantom knight-in-shining-armor in airports---relished in her independence, sashaying down the streets, sipping coffee in cafes, watching an Audrey Hepburn movie, in the city of her dreams.

Back in Cebu, she reveals the amazing truth about Queen Raquela: that she was borne of royal blood but a jealous stepmother had given her away to a poor farming family and now that she is aware of her royal lineage, she is doing everything in her power to reclaim the life she was supposed to lead.

The really amazing thing is that the fairy tale she tells herself is no grander than her own journey from the slums to Paris. She may have left a queen but came back a Queen, as master of two worlds ("Because of the boon or due to his experience, the hero may now perceive both the divine and human worlds.") who has conquered armies of discrimination. In the movie's end, as Raquela and her friends gossip the night away with a sprawling view of the city below them, I would like to imagine that she is surveying her kingdom. And that she is dreaming where to go to next.


Tuesday, April 21

Review: Les Chansons d'amour (2007)

Les Chansons d'amour
Directed by Christophe Honoré (Dans Paris)
Louis Garrel (The Dreamers), Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool, Girl Cut in Two), Chiara Mastroianni (Paris, Je t'aime)

Rating: 4.5

A French musical that transcends love, gender and death set to sparkling indie pop. Nouvelle-Vague Cinema has never been this enchanting.

When a fashionable threesome breaks into a song under the streetlights and puddled alleys of Paris, magic happens. If The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the inspiration then Les Chansons d'amour is the celebration, casual in its grace and involving in its meditative melancholy.

Ismaël Bénoliel, played by the effervescent Louis Garrel, contemplates love, loss and the possibility of happiness in three acts. "The Departure" shows the youthful trio of Ismaël, his girlfriend Julie (the always stunning Sagnier) and Alice (Clotilde Hesme) in bed and down the streets, ecstatic yet harboring insecurities with and within the simmering complications of their relationship. Tragedy strikes without warning, in the middle of a smoky love song, leading to "The Absence," where Ismaël grieves and unexpectedly finds solace in Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringue), a young university student who smells like the sea.

Even if it is a musical, there is nothing theatrical about Les Chansons d'amour. Christophe Honoré shifts from understated to crisp realism to surreal structures seamlessly; his nod to the French New Wave of the 60s and to the unique devices of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy among others have infused the film with a strangely dreamy riff, fantastic and achingly corporeal at the same time. The characters break into song when reality is too much; the angst resurface when the singing gets too dreamy. This push and pull keeps the pacing fast, and along with Honoré's succinct writing, Les Chansons d'amour is that rare French romantic drama that doesn't leave space for atmospheric silence.

In the third act, "The Return," the agony and the ecstasy of the singing take center stage. In what could be the best balcony scene since Romeo and Juliet, Ismaël finally gives in to the possibility of love even if it meant a second death to the relationship that tragically ended. Louis Garrel and Grégoire Leprince-Ringue have an endearing chemistry that is authentically eager and comforting. With Honoré's precise direction, the blossoming homosexual relationship is refreshingly low-key even if it is controversial in nature considering Erwann's adolescence. Les Chansons d'amour ends with Leprince-Ringue's character, breathless from a kiss, pleading: Love me less but love me a long time. Beautiful, non?

Even with the moral gravity of themes, Les Chansons d'amour is uncompromisingly romantic with love songs silly, needy, hesitant, and wider than a mile, sung in the most romantic city on Earth. What more could you ask for?

Les Chansons d'amour trailer:

Friday, April 17

Review: G.P. 506 (2008)

G.P. 506 aka The Guard Post
Directed by Kong Su-Chang (R-Point)
Starring Jeon Ho-Jin, Cho Hyun-Jae

Rating: 3.5

Fiercely gory military horror/pychological thriller set in a remote guard post along South Korea's demilitarized zone, which chronicles the spread of a mysterious virus that turns infected soldiers insanely violent . I want more zombies.

Turn to John Carpenter's remake of The Thing for high-pitched paranoia, the kind that eats your insides; a slow but sure consumption that is more torture than attack in a desolate, lonely terrain. G.P. 506 strives for this gnawing fear. And almost succeeds.

The guard posts along Korea's DMZ are brooding relics of the Cold War frozen in a dark past. Heavily armored, armed and self-contained, it is prison-like in its demeanor; some of even the bravest soldiers are told to have gone mad from the severe discipline it decrees. And this is what the film suggests in its disquieting opening. A group of soldiers break into Guard Post 506 and find its walls splattered with blood. The guard post is a maze of sharp corners and metal piping and it takes a few moments before they find its occupants strewn across the floor of a large sleeping quarter, limbs scattered, skulls cracked open. A man holding an axe stands in the middle of the room, drenched in blood and laughing.

Sergeant Major Noh Seong-Gyu (Jeon Ho-Jin) later arrives to investigate the deaths, he is given 10 hours or until 6 a.m. to gather evidence. Comparing the corpses with the number of soldiers stationed in the GP, he discovers that one more man is missing. After a thorough search which further heightens the dungeon-dark intricacy of the post, his team finds a soldier who identifies himself as 1st Lt. Yoo (Koreanovela star Cho Hyun-Jae), the son of the army chief and the head of GP 506.

Part detective-mystery, GP 506 reveals through chopped-up flashbacks several versions of what really took place. As Noh puts pieces of the puzzle together, new versions surface and can be confusing at times. This also dampens the momentum of the investigation, which just goes back and forth particular incidents in the past, some redundant to what has been already revealed. A tighter editing and a more focused storytelling could have propelled the movie to new, suspensful heights.

The nature of the virus is also unclear. It turned one into a zombie, another had a craving for raw flesh, while most have clusters of abscesses and become violently murderous. A nitpick really since Kong Su-Chang focused more on the growing paranoia that divided the ranks. As the present and the past collide, Noh's team begins to implode. Each one of them had the symptoms but the heirarchy was still in place; it was a matter of letting the virus run its grotesque course, allowing the senior officers decide who gets to live or killing each other of. There are great moments of desperate tenderness seen through an unflinching critical eye that weighs the inhuman discipline that the military demands from its soldiers while serving in the GPs.

Then, there is the gore, oh how it sings! Commitment or simply fascination, Kong's carnage is sticky. It's on the floor, on the shirt, on the walls, dripping and splattered. The texture is syrupy, the feral frenzy---that bit with a soldier progressively pounding his own hand with a metal pipe---dizzying. G.P. 506 may be inferior to Kong's previous movie, the army vampire horror R-Point, but it still imposingly commands. Looking away is the easy part. The unsettling sadness echoing in the guard posts may be more difficult to forget.

Thursday, April 16

American Idol Goes to the Movies

If you see me walking around today with bruises on my face, don't panic. I fell on the remote control a couple of times from brain deadness. Alas, even Quentin Tarantino's all-powerful pointy chin (the night's mentor) has no effect on the bland and blank-faced top 7 finalists of American Idol. A quick rundown of song choices, which might put you to sleep, so clear your desk of any sharp objects:
  • Allison Iraheta, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" from Armageddon. She seemed a little lost in the orchestral arrangement and the pitch was way too low that she kept tucking her chin in. Sorry, obsessed with chins today. Predictable song choice, David Wipe-That-Smirk-Off-Your-Face did it better. My song choice for Allison: "For Your Eyes Only" by Sheena Easton (Awyeah!) from movie of the same title, Blondie version from the album Hunter.
  • Anoop Desai, "Everything I Do (I Do It for You) from Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. Tarantino's shifty eyes says it all, COVER YOUR EARS NOW! Another wide-eyed puppy performance. He has a great tone and all but the runs didn't hide the fact that this is a Bryan Adam's ballad. First bruise of the night. My song choice for Anoop: Anything not Bryan Adams. Maybe "Kiss From a Rose" by Seal from Batman Forever. Or "Change the World" from Phenomenon.
  • Adam Lambert, "Born to be Wild" from Easy Rider. Thank you, Adam, from being your old, screechy self. Relatively great performance. Freak on, alright. Simon said the entire thing felt too Rocky Horror Picture Show. Which Adam took as a compliment. My song choice for Adam: "20th Century Boy" by T. Rex from 20th Century Boys. Do foreign-language films count? I would love to see him go all emo on this one. Hmm. Maybe not.
  • Matt Giraud, "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" from Don Juan DeMarco. I never really really really got this song. And I'm guessing I'm not the only one. He starts off nicely but ends with contradicting runs. Quite a mess, unfortunately, since I like this guy. I'm guessing he'll be voted out later. My song choice for Matt: "Til I Hear It From You" by Gin Blossoms from the movie Empire Records.
  • Danny Gokey, "Endless Love" from Endless Love. Ehem. Not as painful an experience as I thought it would be. But it made me sleepy. And bored. So bored that I began to hurt myself just for fun. My song choice for Danny: "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney from the James Bond movie, Live and Let Die. Or "I'm a Soul Man" from The Blues Brothers.
  • Kris Allen, "Falling Slowly" from Once. No, he wasn't singing about the ratings of American Idol, silly. It's falling quite fast. But I agree with Tarantino, Kris, for all his boyish melt-me-I'm-butter-You're-the-bread cuteness (obviously getting hungry at this point), was the only contestant who took the theme to heart, in other words, everyone else's song choices frakking sucked. Kris can't compare to Glen Hansard's soaring, pain-drenched vocals but he did sing it with enough tenderness that it worked. Worked on me quite a lot. My song choice for Kris: "I Can See Clearly" from Cool Runnings. Just to sell the Jason Mraz vibe he's got going.
  • Lil Rounds, "The Rose" from The Rose. Lil strikes back! And fails. She was defending her song choice, that she went all gospel and R&B with the arrangement, but Simon goes, "But it's a Bette Midler song." Simon for the win! Lil should really go tonight. My song choice for Lil: "Son of a Preacher Man" from Pulp Fiction. A little nod to Quentin's reservoir of patience with the kids.

Wednesday, April 15

Review: Coming Soon (Thailand, 2008)

โปรแกรมหน้า วิญญาณอาฆาต
Coming Soon
Directed by Sophon Sakdaphisit
Chantavit Ter Dhanasevi, Vorakarn Punch Rojjanavatchra

Coming Soon is compellingly bland. A movie within movie, the meta is unimposing but wonderfully palpable; the experience sells stronger than the fright.

Chen (Ter Chantavit) and Peoll, who work as Cineplex projectors, record preview copies of "coming soon" movies for film pirates. But the movie "Vengeful Spirit" strikes back when the reel villain, Chaba, crosses over to the real world. First time director, Sophon Sakdaphisit, who co-wrote Thai horror hits Shutter and Alone, should have drawn a stronger contrast between the two movies that went beyond set design and costumes. Perhaps the danger music that cues the scare should have been limited to "Vengeful Spirit" to set it apart from the actual movie, the real dark alleyways and dimly lit apartments where ghosts creep up on you menacingly quiet. As it is, I was more interested to see "Vengeful Spirit" in its entirety. Chaba is the witch of our nightmares, with piercing eyes, ratty gray hair and a dead leg that she drags when she walks; the creaking floorboards and the heavy weight of her crooked foot lagging along is what I would imagine to be the sound of a corpse being dragged to a shadowy corner.

For all its predictable set-ups and flat macabre, Coming Soon is surprisingly engrossing. The actors are relatable; boyish Ter Chantavit easily gains our sympathy as the man torn between making a living from piracy and the ex-boyfriend (husband?) who struggles to be a better person. The movie-within-a-movie idea is also carried out without much pretention, making it more involving and real for the audience; the merchandising of the film---posters, streamers, popcorn buckets---are characters themselves in the movie. I can only imagine what it must've felt like to be a moviegoer, to see the cineplex you're comfortably seated in become the setting of a horror movie that shares the same posters as the one you're watching. (I bought a DVD---loved the packaging---for my collection and borrowed a fansub for the English subtitles.)

Coming Soon is also about making movies. If Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on independent film-making, then Coming Soon carries the scar left by the rigid Thai censors. The cut scene of "Vengeful Spirit" holds the secret to unlocking the mystery of Chaba's haunting, possibly a metaphor for all the stories left untold.

The real horror now is this: Who knows how many more turning-points, revelations and point of views are left to be forgotten on the cutting-room floor?


Monday, April 13

DVD Short Cuts: Friendship, Me...Myself

เฟรนด์ชิพ เธอกับฉัน Friendship
Directed by Chatchai Naksuriya
Starring Mario Maurer (The Love of Siam), Apinya "Saipan" Sakuljaroensuk (Ploy)

Coming-of-age gone awry with impossibly soap opera-ish finish. Former high school friends meet up and set reunion. One of them, a TV producer, reminisce about his first love whom he hasn't heard from since high school ended. The flashbacks are infused with energy; Maurer, Sakuljaroensuk, and the rest of the kids enthusiastically attack their roles and more than makes up for the limp writing and stilted lines. But director Naksuriya appears confused with the over-all tone of the movie. It is both teen rom-com and heavy melodrama, awkwardly slicing the film in two parts. Think High School Musical with a more tragic An Affair to Remember ending. The movie worked best when it meandered and winsomely captured the aimless after-school afternoons spent with friends and the casual adventures in between. With extensive making-of featurette. 2/5

ขอให้รักจงเจริญ Me...Myself
Directed by Pongpat Wachirabunjong
Starring Ananda Everingham (Shutter),
Chayanan Manomaisantiphap

After being beaten up by thieves, a man staggers down a dark road and gets hit by a car. Ohm, the woman driving the car, brings the stranger to the hospital and is forced to give him shelter when he wakes up with amnesia. She decides to call him Tan, after the name on the pendant around his neck. Ananda Everingham gives Tan the fragile vulnerability of a man trying to recall his past while falling in love with his present. He is eager to please Ohm and later on becomes the reliable center of Ohm's life. Tan's memories come back in mysterious flashes, vividly colorful and blaring. When Tan's memories surface, the mystery of why he was wandering down the road revealed, it is surprisingly crushing. There are hints of his identity (the movie poster reveals too much) scattered all over the movie---Tan's too graceful gestures, his fascination with lipstick---but Everingham and Manomaisantiphap's chemistry works so well that one can't help but cheer on for the blossoming relationship to succeed. The ending is a little too drawn out; even first-time director Wachirabunjong seems hesitant to give up on the wonderfully fleshed out characters of Tan and Ohm. Still, reality and logic get its way and I couldn't ask for a better resolution. Or lack thereof. The Thai DVD release blurs Everingham's "nude" scene which quite distracts. 3/5

Sunday, April 12

Pchy returns favor

After Mario Maurer made an appearance in the first major concert of August Band, it's now Witwisit "Pchy" Hiranyawongkul's turn to wish Mario luck on his new movie Buppah Rahtree 3.1: Rahtree Reborn. What, no hug?

With The Love of Siam still having legs in the festival circuit two years after its initial release (recently shown at the 27th San Francisco Asian American Film Festival last March), it's no wonder that the Pchy/Mario or Mew/Tong team-up continues to illicit screams from girls and confused boys alike. And a few thirty-somethings, too. Heh.

Pchy was last seen in the lakorn Sai Sueb Delivery and continues to perform with his band, August. Mario, the one first thought of more likely to succeed, seems to be making bad movie decisions while being in the middle of a messy lawsuit against ex-manager Coco. His follow-up to The Love of Siam, Friendship, bombed at the box office and was panned by critics across the board. I've seen it, and I agree with the negative reviews, to put it kindly. Buppah Rahtree 3.1: Rahtree Reborn, which opened last Saturday, appears like another disappointment.

  • Video of Pchy's appearance in Buppah Rahtree 3.1 press launch here.
  • Wise Kwai's Buppah Rahtree 3.1: Rahtree Reborn review here.


Review: Departures (2008)

Okuribito (Departures)

Directed by Yojiro Takita
Starring Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue

We talk to our dead during a wake. We converse with them as if the dearly departed could reply back. Oftentimes, we answer for them.

Oftentimes, we like to pretend that the dead are only asleep and it's crucial that they look that way.

The Japanese encoffinment ritual that is the heart of Departures is the most affectionate gesture I have ever seen on screen. It is graceful yet precise; concealing the difficult task of cleaning and disrobing the dead with a hypnotic, almost celebratory dance, knees firmly tucked under, arms rising and falling and fingers fluttering. Fussing like a mother; rigid like a father. Playful like a child. The bereaved family watches closely and become part of the corpse's transformation, from a cold, empty shell to a familiar face that they've woken up to or watched fall asleep in the years that have passed.

As a child, I used to watch my mother suit up for work and I've only remembered recently how I have memorized her morning routine: the perfume behind the ears before anything else, the skirt that she carefully smooths out, the watch, her only jewelry, that she gingerly clicks into place. Watching the encoffinment ceremony feels like watching someone go through his daily ritual one last time.

In refined, thoughtful strokes, Departures paints different scenarios of last goodbyes with such unpredictability in the details that it feels painfully real. The ceremonies do tend to end in tears (quiet, howling) but it's the subtle change in atmosphere---the slightest tics of recognition and submission to fate on the faces of husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters and lovers, and the wistful look of committing to memory the contours and the imperfection that once loved them back---that director Yojiro Takita carefully captures with polite elegance.

Much like us unfamiliar with the Japanese cermony, Daigo is the outsider, the watchful eye that is slowly drawn into a career of encoffinment. Played brilliantly by Masahari Motoki, who first thought of filming Departures ten years ago after reading the memoir of an enconffinment master, Daigo is an awkward mess of insecurity and unfulfilled dreams. Recognizing his own limitation in playing the cello, he and his wife Mika (the luminous Ryoko Hirosue) move back to Yamagata to look for a new job. He stumbles upon an ad on "Assisting Departures" and thinking that it was a travel agency opening, applies for it.

His introduction to corpses is a gag but as he is drawn deeper into the refined precision of the ritual, almost similar to the fret play on the cello, Daigo unravels into his own person and confronts memories he has been running away from all his life.

I'm forgiving the movie for its singular, obviously-staged montage (Who plays cello in a rice field? Even the kurosagi seem to be bothered by it.) because as a joyfully heartbreaking whole, Departures is one of those rare movies that transforms into a shared experience. The movie poses through images difficult questions about life and death, contemplates the answers, and leaves it to us mull over. It's loose structure gives the string of encounters breathing space, making room for Daigo's own personal battles, his struggle to remember his estranged father's face, the quiet brevity it requires. And what I love most, for all its thematic weight, is the movie's light footed humor, most of the time rolling with the funny down its melancholic twists. Unpretentious, the humble film that could, Departures wistfully offers us the gift of how to say goodbye.

(And yes, it is better than any of the 5 nominees for Best Picture in this year's Oscar race.)


Saturday, April 11

Review: Hormones (Thailand, 2008)

ปิดเทอมใหญ่ หัวใจว้าวุ่น
Pidtermyai huajai wawoon (Hormones)

Directed by Songyos Sugmakanan (Dorm)
Starring Ter Chantawit (Coming Soon), Charlie Trairat (Dorm), Sirachuch Chienthaworn, Sora Aoi

Hormones smells like teen spirit: sweaty, giddy, nervous. It's close to impossible not to get carried away with the film's electrifying youthfulness, and for us thirtysomethings, it's a nostalgic replay of days being wild, wild equals the abandon to make mistakes.

Director Singyos Sugmakanan knows the addictive riffs of young love all to well. Whether it's competing with a friend to get a girl's number, obsessing over a pop star, confessing love to a popular girl at school or contemplating cheating, Sugmakanan cleverly balances tenderness with shameless stupidity, the guy thing and the girl thing pinned down without the complexeties of melodrama.

Pu (Charlie Trairat) and Mai (Sirachuch Chienthaworn), dickheads for hearthrobs, fall at the same time for Nana (Ungsumalynn Sirapatsakmetha), a plump former schoolmate who has blossomed into a sweet, shy stunner. Both compete for her number, both fall quite hard. (There's a scene where Nana cuts her finger from opening a soda can and Mai, out of instinct, sucks the blood from her finger, wraps a band-aid around it and draws a heart on the blood stain. My adult mind was taken aback by the relaxed sensuality; my overworked memory understood but could no longer grasp such innocence.)

Oh Lek (Best Supporting Actress winner Focus Jirakul) is obsessing over Taiwanese singer Didi (Lu Ting Wei), obsessing so much that she picks up Chinese language lessons just so she could understand the lyrics to his songs. Though the weakest plot of the four when it comes to character growth, it does paint the loneliest kind of love, completely loyal, completely unconditional, and utterly impossible.

Bespectacled class geek Jo (Ratchu Surachalas) is in love with popular girl Cee (Chutima Teepanat) and resorts to mimicking a scene from Love Actually to confess his love, to which Cee replies, "That's not how it works." Really? I liked this the most---stubbornly molding reality to be as picturesque as fiction myself---the reality check that separates the hormones from growing pains.

And finally, the most adult of the bunch shows the endearing Chantawit "Ter" Thanasawee as Hern, a boyfriend who is tempted to cheat on his girlfriend Nuan (Thaniya Ummaritchoti) when he meets Japanese tourist Aoi (Japanes adult AV star Sora Aoi). I can already hear my girlfriends drawing the line but, it's really a guy thing. A momentary lapse is all it is. (Hides from under the table and waves white flag.)

Hormones rages with muscular verve, seamlessly cutting from one story to the next, to the tune of catchy, guitar-driven Thai pop. It only slows down when Sugmakanan attempts to wrap a bow around the fairytale ending of the fangirl storyline but still manages to finish with determined optimism that only comes with youth.

In the end, most characters are running toward a brand new chapter in their lives while some take a step back, content at the way things were, teen spirit in all its awkward glory.


Tuesday, April 7

Review: The Unseeable (Thailand, 2006)

Pen Choo Kub Pee (The Unseeable)

Directed by Wisit Sasanatieng
Starring Suporntip Chuangrangsri, Tassawan Seneewongse, Siraphan Wattanajinda

"All seeable things are alike; each unseeable thing is unseeable in its own way." - Leo Tolstoy

Old-fashioned fear is organic in the hands of flashy Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng. Organic like reflex memory, the groaning shadows and fleeting shapes of things that go bump in the dark that make your heart skip a beat. Organic like cautionary tales, cob-webbed ghouls and pale, clawed hands that pull you into the darkness when you've been disobedient. Organic like love, the heart of darkness that pushes us to do foolish things that later come back. Oh, and do they come back.

The Unseeable is thick with ghosts, so thick it's impossible not to beathe in the dusty, musty smells of locked closets and abandoned rooms heavy with beauty. And of course, secrets. The attention to detail poured over to recreate the romantic 1930s is obssesive compulsive accurate. The looming high roofs, the ornate doors and tapestry, the grandly spacious rooms that echo the glory of Hollywood, a nostalgic lushness that at first seduces a young pregnant woman, Nualjin (Siraphun Wattanajinda), who is in search of temporary lodging while she looks for her missing husband. Madame Somchit, played with Gothic glee by Tassawan Seneewongse, is the grim caretaker who sternly forbids any trips to the main house where the mysterious widow, Runjuan (Supornthip Choungrangsee) lives.

The labyrinthine gardens and hallways beckon Nualjin out of her room and into the maddeningly crowded night. With only a low-burning oil lamp throwing, stretching, and distorting shadows, the unseeable surfaces.

There is macabre magic at work in Wisit Sasanatieng's frames. The ghosts are barely visible; glimpses above Nualjin's shoulder, a pale hand reaching out for moldy offerings from the mouth of a jar or a thorny shrub, a half naked man sitting on the roof, crawling down the walls---blink and you miss it. But if you do see it---them---the shivers go down the spine like mad.

Scripted by Kongkiat Khomsiri who also wrote Art of the Devil II, The Unseeable reveals itself like a mystery-thriller with bits and pieces of flashback that get less and less scary as it reaches the end, a twist that is not much of a surprise but still deftly, err, executed. What the script lacks in sophistication Sasanatieng makes up for with dazzlingly claustrophobic camera pans and a precise eye for capturing the slightest ghostly gesture, which has made the unseeable desperation and montrosity of a past that haunts deliriously cinematic.

Old-fashioned fear is organic, the haunted houses of our youth that we occassionaly visit in our nightmares. Organic like the quickening of the pulse when the street lights go out and we are walking alone in the dark. Organic like a lamp burning out. Organic like not turning off the lights after watching The Unseeable.


  • Stumbled upon Leo Tolstoy quote here, SEED Magazine article on Dark matter.
  • More photos and a review here, Coffee Coffee and More Coffee.

Thursday, April 2

Review: Best of Times (Thailand, 2009)

Best of Times
(Kwaam Jam San..Dtae Rak Chan Yaao)

Directed by
Youngyooth Thongkonthun (Iron Ladies)
Arak Amornsupasiri (Body sob 19), Yarinda Bunnag

Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it. ~Michel de Montaigne

Memory is a whimsical beast. It surfaces without warning, submerges without a sound as if it never made ripples. Memories being unique to a person, we can assume that we own them, that we can subject them to bend to our will, chronologically sorted and easily pulled out as needed.

Keng (Arak Amornsupasiri) is a snobbish, awkward veterinarian who never got over his first love, Fai (Yarinda Bunnag), who married and later got divorced to his best friend. Keng pretends that he doesn't remember her when she stumbles into his clinic carrying an injured dog.

Kind and eternally compassionate Fai can't forget her ex-husband and secretly wishes that they would get back together soon. But she also remembers Keng, the once shy, admonishing high school kid who had recorded a love mix for her, and is now showing her the kind of affection and attention that her ex-husband couldn't give.

Sompit and Jamrat met at a computer club for the elderly. Eventhough her family doesn't agree with her blossoming relationship with Jamrat, Sampit flees to Chumporn to be with the man she loves; she insists on staying with Jamrat even if her family is relocating to the U.S. But Jamrat, due to an illness, is slowly losing his memory. He will soon forget every memory he holds dear. Pretty soon, he wouldn't even recognize Sampit.

Best of Times is a thoughtful, lighthearted examination of memory and its ironies. Director Amornsupasiri is in no rush to tell a story and there is a languid, relaxed flow to the mistakes and realizations that the characters make along the way. Beyond a logical progression from point A to point B, Best of Times is fattened with moments that make each character more endearing----Fai rushing off to a bookstore to buy her ex-husband's missing DragonBallZ vol. 18 manga but ends up getting the entire set because the books weren't sold individually; Keng pretending to be asleep and secretly smiling when droplets of water from Fai's newly washed hair trickle down his cheeks---moments not exactly integral to moving the story forward but in themselves are memories waiting to be kept.

The movie also keeps it real as much as possible and veers from romantic-comedy predictability right from the outset. Fai and Keng make an odd couple; they never really become comfortable with each other's company with Fai still attempting, maybe even faking, to move on from her divorce. And I like it that the movie leaves it at that, with one still unable to forget and the other quite willing to never forget and continue waiting.

If there is a weakness to the movie, it is the contrived metaphors (the tree, the goldfish) that weigh down Sampit and Jamrat's story, the almost too obvious emotional anchors that cue the melodrama (of which I am not immune to because I admittedly had to pretend to clean my glasses when I was really quickly wiping off tears).

The existence of forgetting has never been proved: We only know that some things don't come to mind when we want them. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

I liked Best of Times more than I should. Memory is triggered randomly and the DragonBallZ manga bit hit too close to home. Out of nowhere, with one hand freezing from holding a soda and the other half-buried in a popcorn bucket, there it was, this thing I thought I had forgotten.

If there's one thing that the movie is successful at it is making us remember that the past is as fluid as the future and that all we can do when it does rear its head---nostlagic, regretful, or whimsical---is sit back and enjoy the view.


Official website: www.kwamjumsan.com

Wednesday, April 1

Wabi-Sabi Art: Motion, picture, and not at all edible

Now will you look at that.

I think I actually can feel my heart slowing down from all the peace and goodwill that the swirly water is creating.

Japanese artist Shinichi Maruyama is creating waves with his midair photography of colliding black ink and water; giddy, graceful and incoherently magical at the point of convergence.

I can look at this for hours.

To look at more of Maruyama's work or to order prints, visit his official site.

Via: urlesque