Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Minsan Pa: The Camera Obscured and Luna’s Vision

At the heart of the film Minsan Pa is a camera, a repository of visions, in the realms of real and symbolic, of Luna (Ara Mina): her past, present, and potentially her future.

Filmed entirely in Cebu, it stars Jomari Yllana as Jerry, a tour guide to the “Queen City of the South” for local and foreign, mostly Japanese, tourists. He sells not only the sites and sounds of Cebu, but also pimps the women and eventually prostitutes himself. He sustains his role as the patriarch of the family through commissions and tips, and has mastered the art of bartering favors. There is goodness in Jerry as he sacrifices his own needs and wants for his mother and two siblings. But there is no such thing as a free lunch for him; everything has a price, including how much he helped his younger brother. Jerry, the tour guide, knows the landscapes of Cebu but is misguided in the landscapes of the heart.

Luna is a pre-school teacher who joined one of Jerry’s tours and is apparently running away from her philandering boyfriend, Alex. The whole trip, she holds her camera almost all the time, like a security blanket, ready to shoot (and even used it to shut up an irritating boy). Alex follows her to Cebu to woo her. On a boating trip, the camera accidentally falls off the boat (which could have been avoided if she had the good sense to put the strap around her neck). Alex proposes marriage but reneges on his marriage proposal as he is blinded, physically and emotionally. Luna goes back to Cebu and, with the help of Jerry, goes on a mission to recover the camera.

Jerry’s affection for Luna grows as he misinterprets Luna’s trip as a sign of reciprocal affection. Thinking that Luna is weakened when Alex left her, Jerry professes love and protection to Luna. Sadly, for Jerry, his love is unrequited. He is weakened by his inability to give, to help, and to love without expecting anything in return. His selfish notions about love blind him.

To be photographed is to bear witness to one’s presence, as Pierre Bourdieu posited. Luna photographs Alex, to affirm his presence in her life, to affirm a time of happiness, as Luna’s presence in Alex’s life is also affirmed. The camera is a witness of, and an affirmation, of Luna’s visions of happiness and the potentials of a future. As the camera is symbolically obscured underneath the deep dark sea, the vision grows dim. The loss of Alex’s vision is symbolic of his loss of power and the ability to gaze. Alex thinks that his blindness weakens him, and he doubts Luna’s love for him. For Luna, the recovery of the camera, and the images of their happiness it contains, is evidence that they shared a past and have a chance for a future.

Luna’s strength shines through the movie despite the very macho Jerry who thinks she is a damsel-in-distress to be saved. She who stands at the door of the hotel, deciding whether to invite Jerry to dinner, or not; she who has the strength to repel the advances of Jerry. It is the same strength that remains steadfast in her vision of a life with Alex, with or without his sight. It is Luna who holds the camera; the woman is the bearer of the gaze.

Luna’s name (moon as light source, photography as “light writing”) bears her vision: to shed light on two blind and weak men. Luna sheds light on the obscured goodness in Jerry’s heart blinded by selfishness. Her love shines bright through the blinded heart of Alex. It is Luna who enables the two men to regain a vision of themselves, and inevitably, to “see” again.

Defying the laws of probability and even of possibility that the camera and the film will survive the ravages of the sea, it is the audience, who will behold the visions of Luna - images etched on the silver coated negative, projected on the silver screen of the cinema house at the end of the film. In Minsan Pa, cinema revisits its predecessor and pays homage to the camera (and the camera obscura) as it embarks on a journey of enlightenment, on a fulfillment of a woman’s vision, of a truth it wanted to reveal: what is essential is invisible to the eye.

(Appeared in Young Critics Circle Film Desk’s Sine-Sipat: Recasting Roles and Images-Stars, Awards and Criticism for 2004, March 2005.)

Angels in America

It was a cold, rainy night in 1995; I was feverishly watching Monique Wilson in a Philippine theater production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, the 1st part of a 2-part, 6-hour epic. Angels in America is set in 1980’s America as it deals with living, and ultimately dying, with AIDS. The story revolves around Prior and Louis, a gay couple torn apart due to AIDS, Louis’ cowardice and Prior’s hallucinations. They are surrounded by friends, lovers, bosses, and families whose lives are intertwined more than they know or would like them to be. I was captivated for three hours and I vowed to come back the week after for next 3-hour installment. But, alas, my bronchopneumonia got the better of me and I, instead, languished in bed wondering what happened to Louis, Prior, and the rest the Angels in America.

After a decade of wondering and waiting, I would like to thank HBO for finally completing my Angels in America experience. HBO produced Angels in America in 2003 with Mike Nichols at the helm with a dream cast including the triumvirate of Al Pacino (playing Roy Cohn, a powerful homophobic gay lawyer), Meryl Streep (playing multiple roles as a mother, a ghost, and a surprise unrecognizable character), and Emma Thompson (as an angel and a nurse). This marks Pacino’s first foray on the television and the first time Streep and Pacino work together. My 10 years of waiting finally ended on December 1 and 2 as HBO aired the Philippine cable television premier of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika.

Millennium Approaches, though, was a bit of a disappointment as it rambles aimlessly through prophetic pronouncements, AIDS-induced hallucinations, middle-class depression, and closet gay Republican nightmares. Uneven, uninspired, incoherent and confused, it badly needs an editor. Bordering on boring, it wallows in its own decadence and excesses. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, at its worst, plunges to the depths of narrative purgatory. Part I is truly a test of patience.

But I suggest you sit through it faithfully. For the faithful shall be rewarded with the full force of Perestroika, the 2nd installment, packed with the full might of Tony Kushner’s pen, Mike Nichol’s deft directorial touch, Pacino’s last tremors and gasps, Streep’s subtle yet seamless character transformations, and Thompson’s angelic apparitions. The less popular but equally brilliant actors such as Mary Louise Parker (as Harper, depressive wife of Joe Pitt), Justin Kirk (as Prior Walter, a young man dying of AIDS and proclaimed as a prophet), Ben Shenkman (as Louis Ironson, a guilt-ridden Jewish gay guy), Jeffrey Wright (as Belize, a flamboyant drag queen yet compassionate nurse to Roy Cohn), and Patrick Wilson (as Joe Pitt, a gay Mormon Republican Mr. Clean reincarnate and husband to Harper), do not let the triumvirate of Pacino, Streep and Thompson eclipse and overpower them. All the characters shine brightly in Perestroika, each one of them getting the compassion and closure they needed and deserved. Perestroika makes me forgive, and unfortunately, forget Millennium Approaches. Perestroika is engaging, thought-provoking, intense, and totally captivating.

Angels in America: Perestroika is a riveting, exhilarating and unforgettable cinematic experience on television. Like the angels, it soars to the heights of narrative redemption.

The Hero in Let The Love Begin

On the surface, Let the Love Begin appears as a run of the mill romance movie. A pretty actress and a handsome actor comprise the love team in a typical rich girl-poor boy story. There are the staple accoutrements of the genre: comic sidekicks for friends, a scheming and not so charming prince pretender, a popular song for the movie’s title, and the perfunctory celebratory scene in the end complete with raindrops falling on the protagonists’ heads. However, despite this rather stereotypical mix of plot, characters, and events, the film succeeds in that it provides a rather refreshing take on what it means to be a “hero” or “savior” in this day and age.

Our hero in the story has a mission – to win the heart of the girl he loves. He tries to do this by helping her out with schoolwork, specifically by leaving finished homework under a school chair they share, she by day and he by night. The girl is enamored with her “savior,” yet his true identity remains obfuscated from her. He is hesitant to reveal himself and his intentions, so he takes his time until events overcome him: she leaves for the United States after graduation. A few years transpire and they meet again; she is now a corporate executive, while he as a janitor in her office. A friendship develops between them, yet she remains ignorant of the fact that the janitor used to be her “savior.” In a moment of desperation, she prays for her “savior” to save her again. And once again, our hero comes to save the day. Finally, our hero decides to divulge his identity and intentions to his beloved, but a prince charming pretender steals the glory. As our hero’s beloved finally recognizes that the pretender is not heroic, she realizes that she loves the janitor. She sees in the janitor the heart of a true hero, ultimately realizing that the janitor is her “savior.” With this realization, our hero’s identity and intentions are finally revealed.

Working within the confines of the romance genre, the film triumphs in the characterization of our young hero. He is a typical teen-ager with teen-age concerns and angst, coupled with the fact that he is poor and orphaned. Yet, he is intelligent enough not to allow his poverty to deprive him of a good education. What he lacks in material things, he makes up for in kindness in that he is always willing to help, albeit anonymously, his beloved. His heroism shines in his willingness to sacrifice his chance to study in a top university abroad for his grandmother. He is a diligent, hardworking young man who, at the same time, is a conscientious and intelligent student. His heroism is in his every day life—in his capacity to overcome the temptations and vagaries of youth, in his efforts to educate himself out of poverty. No, he may not be our typical knight in shining armor on a white steed; but his intelligence and kind heart shine through, making him a knight in an armor all his own.

He is not faster than a speeding bullet, nor is he more powerful than a locomotive and he cannot leap tall buildings in a single bound – he is as human as he can get but is an everyday hero, a savior, who fulfills his mission set at the beginning of the film. Let the Love Begin ends with what most of us yearn for in life – a happy ever after.

(Appeared in Young Critics Circle Film Desk’s Sine-Sipat: Recasting Roles and Images-Stars, Awards and Criticism for 2005, March 2006)