Thursday ∗ 27 Aug 2009

Manila and the ghosts of directors past

The lady at the ticket booth asks me: “Ok lang po bang black and white yung movie?” When I say yes, she promptly informs me that they’ve received many complaints about the independent film Manila’s lack of color. Produced and starred in by commercial actor Piolo Pascual, this should’ve been expected. The world is in color after all. And all the films that Pascual has done so far have showed all his hunky glory in color.

And yet, there is more to grapple with in Manila than just its lack of color. Made up of two films both entitled Manila by today’s more productive independent directors, this movie had a lot going for it. It’s an ambitious project that wanted to retell classic Martial Law movies City After Dark by Ishmael Bernal and Jaguar by Lino Brocka. With Pascual as producer, Raya Martin became director for a shorter retelling of Bernal’s classic, and Adolf Alix for Brocka’s. Both films had Pascual in the lead, with a supporting cast to reckon with.

Old characters, old narrative

Martin’s and Alix’s Manila were to be distinguished not just by the films that influenced their existence, but by light. Martin’s Manila was mostly in daylight, and the bright lights of accidents and hospitals; Alix’s Manila was dark, noisy and dirty, figuratively at the dance clubs and the Remedios Circle and literally on side streets, squatters’ areas and garbage.

And yet, more than how these two films would’ve melded together into one big film on the urban landscape that is contemporary Manila, it is how they existed independently of each other that seems more important. As a whole, Manila says that its characters are based on the creations of the original movies’ writers.  The question then becomes, how do these characters – and their stories – change?

In Alix’s Manila, it barely does. There is the poor ambitious young man, who believes that the brotherly treatment he receives from a politician’s son is not premised on his employment as driver and bodyguard. The politician’s son is the typical bully and power-tripper who doesn’t follow rules and thinks in terms of guns and gold. The conflict: the slave kills someone for the master, his master leaves him to die.

Here, it’s the faithfulness to the original Jaguar that leaves much to be desired. Yes, the story might continue to speak of the Manila of the present, but no, it can’t be this simple anymore – not for the characters and not for the audience. When the lead character decides to hide in a garbage dump before going to the province, it seems strange: why couldn’t he just get on a bus to anywhere but here? And when, on that first night, the police come to conduct a SONA on the place, why does he run away scared? Why was there no sense of hiding on the roof of the house, or the silong for that matter? Why wasn’t there more guts and glory here?

The problem is that this character seems to be of the 1970s instead of the present, not allowing for a history of poverty that would’ve informed the protagonist of the ways in which to run and hide, if not to survive in the face of a politician-master.

Old characters, new perspective

Dated characterizations also ail Martin’s Manila:The addict looking for drugs, the girlfriend who leaves him, the mother who prays for her son’s return, the mother who is an ex-prostitute turned religious.

What saves Martin’s Manila though is that it experiments with narrative structure and sound. For most of the movie’s beginning, the protagonist walks around Manila, with barely a word spoken. And even when characters start speaking, they’re articulations seem secondary to the space they are part of. Instead there are the sounds of city: traffic moving in the streets, water rushing through a poso, the sounds of children playing at the park, a woman watering her plants, a throng of people on a busy intersection, the solemn noise in church, the chaos outside of it, the silence of a hospital.

This works with Martin’s experimentation with narrative structure, refusing as it does to happen in one straight line of a beginning, middle and end. Instead the narrative is a circular one, introducing characters extraneous from each other, but tying all of them by the circumstances in which they encounter each other. The taxi driver who gives the mother a ride figures in a vehicular accident; the addict-son encounters that accident on his way to seeing his mother. The blind masseuse in the spa that’s raided at the start of the movie, is the same masseuse who helps the addict near the end of the movie.

This non-linear narrative allows for Martin’s Manila to be a reconfiguration of Bernal’s City After Dark, without it being a mere retelling or a mere (dis)placement of an old story into contemporary times. In this way, Martin’s Manila seems to be the more successful project.


Star power and the indie

What can’t be faulted though is the kind of star power and acting Manila has. In Alix’s Manila, Jay Manalo expectedly plays the politician’s son well, while Alessandra da Rossi’s sensitivity shines through in her portrayal of the model-wannabe who uses Manalo’s character for her own ends. In Martin’s Manila, it’s Rosanna Roces’ acting that takes the movie’s silences and makes it palpable emotion. Now playing the mother to Pascual’s addict-son, there is still something compelling and truthful about Roces’ presence onscreen – despite the weight gain.

Of course Pascual expectedly does both protagonists justice. But for once, it seems like his good looks did him a disservice. For Alix’s Manila, he just seemed too damn handsome to be driver to Manalo’s character, even with darkened skin. In Martin’s Manila, at least, the darker Pascual with bleached hair looked perfectly in context: the urban druggie of the times.

And of course there’s Pascual-as-producer and his good intention of doing a paean to two directors who changed the landscape of Philippine cinema. At the same time Manila reminds us that good intentions are not all it takes to make a good movie.

Posted in: bayan, iconography, kultura, pelikula, review, sa kalye

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