Chassis reconstructs the definition of home

Director Adolfo Alix Jr. is one of the most visible filmmakers in Philippine independent cinema, releasing three to four films each year. His breakout hit Donsol premiered at Cinemalaya and was submitted to the Academy Awards as the official entry of the Philippines for the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2006. He directed the slice-of-life dramas Adela and Aurora, the controversial gay films Daybreak and Muli, and a Cannes exhibition film Manila, a twinbill project that pays homage to Lino Brocka's Jaguar and Ishmael Bernal's Manila By Night.

Following three lackluster releases this year (Romeo at Juliet, D' Survivors, and Muli), Direk Adolf's latest project may just be the movie that lands him back on the good side of film critics. Successful screenings have been held in Pusan and Vancouver, and Chassis is currently competing in the 25th Mar del Plata International Film Festival in Argentina.

Home for Filipinos is wherever their loved ones stay, of course, given our high family values. The physical structure may be of secondary importance, though the affluent do boast a lifestyle in condos and mansions. In stark contrast, the poor make do with makeshift homes assembled with scrap wood and cardboard boxes. There's a worse scenario, however, which director Adolf Alix Jr.'s Chassis is all about.

For Nora (Jodi Sta. Maria), her daughter Sarah (Kimberly Fulgar), and her husband Lando (Lemuel Pelayo)—home is under the chassis of delivery trucks parked at the Manila South Harbor. Permanence is an alien concept here. From time to time, the family moves to another delivery-truck chassis for shelter. Despite her husband's meager income as truck driver, Nora dutifully sends her daughter to school. When Sarah asks for money to pay for a field trip and a set of angel wings as her costume for a school play, the devoted mother has to find a way to earn money.

Nora turns to prostitution without her family's knowledge. Her clients barely have enough cash to pay for her services, much less can they afford to take her to a motel. So, they just do business inside empty trucks and in between shipping containers. Under this set-up, Nora runs the risk of getting caught by Lando or by Sarah—her only source of joy—but she doesn't have a choice.

Chassis is shot entirely in black and white, which makes the setting even more drab. Nora and the other residents of Pier 16 are just trying to get by, merely surviving each bleak day. During her intercourse with men, the camera zooms in on Nora's face with its blank expression. No moans of pleasure or tears of regret. We see only a desensitized mother who has learned to compromise her whole life in exchange for a few pesos to buy instant noodles for supper.

A simple yet pivotal moment punctuates Nora's commitment to provide for her daughter. She takes her daughter to eat out and stroll along Baywalk on Roxas Blvd.. She confesses that she cannot afford to pay for Sarah's field trip. Despite Sarah's eagerness to join the field trip, the little girl seems to understand her mother's predicament. Nora promises that she'll make up for the disappointment by taking her to Star City—a promise that we know she will surely keep.

Jodi Sta. Maria performs in almost every scene. She is the spark that gives Chassis life. Her Nora is a portrait of a mother consumed by love for her daughter—a love powerful enough to drive her to the extreme. Similarly, Jodi pushes her limits in portraying a character radically different from anything she has done on TV and movies. She downplays the determination of her character for a haunting effect, and then bares her emotions in the heart-wrenching final act.

I consider the ending a letdown. I'd rather not go into the details of the much-talked-about climax, but I feel that it was shot merely to shock viewers. If Nora wants redemption, there are many ways this could be achieved more beautifully. The climax betrays her character and the central themes of the film. If the film's focus were on the abuse of women, the climax would have made more sense.

Chassis reconstructs the definition of home. It is a bittersweet ode to the depths a mother will go to provide for her daughter. Indeed, the film's central performance is compelling. Jodi Sta. Maria is the spark that gives Chassis flesh-and-blood realism.

Rating: 2/5

*published on PEP

6th Cinema One Originals Round-up

Cinema One Originals parades its bevy of interesting characters anew. We have a bolo-wielding vigilante, a balikbayan, a mail-order bride, a prisoner-for-hire, a runner for the Abu Sayyaf, a braggart, and two brothers looking for their father.

Below are capsule reviews of each of the competing films in the festival, together with cast information and honors received during the awarding ceremony held last November 14, 2010.

The films are ranked from my most to least preferred.

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria
Director: Remton Siega Zuasola of To Siomai Love fame

Awards: Jury Prize and Best Musical Score

Plot: Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria charts the last 90 minutes of Terya before she leaves her small rural town to marry an old German guy.

VERDICT: Like his award-winning short film To Siomai Love, Direk Remton shoots his first full-length feature in a single continuous shot. For the entire duration of the film, the camera is transfixed on Terya as she walks to the harbor. The story revolves around the conversations of the people around her: her parents, her cousin, her fisherman boyfriend, and the recruiter. Its appeal is rooted on the engaging dialogue that brims with authenticity and humor. As the audience, we go back and forth as to which side we are on. Are we rooting for Terya's mom who wants nothing but a good life for her daughter? Or do we despise her for sending Terya to Germany against her will? It's a tug of war of emotions as Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria provides convincing arguments from both sides.

Rating: 4.5/5


Director: Richard Somes of Yanggaw fame

Starring: Ronnie Lazaro, Mark Gil, Pen Medina, and Ria Garcia

Awards: Best Editing (tied with Dagim), Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design

Plot: After being imprisoned for 12 years, Ishmael decides to go back to his bucolic town. To his surprise, everyone has turned into religious freaks worshipping a powerful cult leader who calls himself Ama.

VERDICT: Direk Richard brings a rough-edged aesthetic to a story of revenge and redemption. He just might put action films back on the map. The climactic bloodshed sees the director re-creating scenes from the golden era of action flicks. It's messy, over-the-top, and brutal. Given a bigger budget, the action scenes could have been rendered more fluidly and executed more convincingly. With his lust for blood and style to boot, Direk Richard can be considered as the Quentin Tarantino of Philippine independent cinema. Click here to read the full review.

Rating: 4/5

Layang Bilanggo

Director: Michael Angelo Dagñalan of Isnats fame

Starring: Pen Medina, Jaime Fabregas, Miriam Quiambao, Will Devaughn, Sue Prado, Archi Adamos, Neil Ryan Sese, Bombi Plata, and Mailes Kanapi

Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for Pen Medina

Plot: A fugitive checks himself in a home for the aged to become close to the daughter he abandoned for several years.

VERDICT: There is no doubt that Layang Bilanggo is a well-crafted film, so it's no surprise that it won the top honors. It beautifully combines the elements of action, family drama, and comedy. It works best as an examination on the life of abandoned elders. My only problem with Layang Bilanggo is that it doesn't feel memorable enough to stand the test of time, like previous Cinema One winners; for example, Imburnal and Confessional. As I said, it's a well-crafted film but it's rather safe.

Rating: 3.5/5


Director: Joaquin Valdes

Starring: Marc Abaya, Martin del Rosario, Samuel Quintana, Manuel Chua, Cholo Barretto, Alchris Galura, Jojit Lorenzo, Luis Alandy, Rita Iringan, Daniel Fernando, and Mailes Kanapi

Awards: Best Supporting Actor for Marc Abaya, Best Editing (tied with Ishmael), and Best Sound

Plot: Two brothers, searching for their missing father, find a tribe in a secluded part of the mountain. As strange things happen, the tribe's dark secrets are unraveled.

VERDICT: On a purely visual level, Dagim is the runaway winner. Direk Joaquin creates vivid imageries of macabre tribal rituals and rotting corpses with a style that can kick some mainstream horror directors out of business. This is a director that we should watch out for. However, beneath the unsettling visuals is a story that doesn't really hold together.

Rating: 3/5

Third World Happy

Director: EJ Salcedo

Starring: Sam Milby, Jodi Sta. Maria, Melissa Mendez, Archie Alemania, Archi Adamos, and Richard Quan

Award: Best Supporting Actress for Jodi Sta. Maria

Plot: A struggling painter returns to the Philippines to attend the funeral of a relative and reunites with his family, friends, and the girlfriend he left for 13 years.

VERDICT: Third World Happy is a work of restraint. It could have easily opted to fill its scenes with cheesy and overly sappy lines, but it veered away from unnecessary sentimentality. Unlike other dramas, it leaves the audience trying to figure out what really happened. Why did Wes (Sam's character) decide to cut his communication from his friends and ex-girlfriend? Why did he put his painting career on hold? And the most important question of all, does he have a son with Aylynn (Jodi's character)? The script is rather inconsistent. Some lines verge on cliché and the comedic quips destroy the overall tone of the film. In the acting department, the movie belongs to Jodi as the docile ex-girlfriend. Her voice cracks at the perfect moment and we're left with our hearts breaking.

Rating: 3/5

Astro Mayabang

Director: JP Laxamana

Starring: Arron Villaflor, Megan Young, John Lapus, Marco Morales, and Hermes Bautista

Awards: Special Citation and Audience Choice

Plot: Astro wears Pinoy pride on his sleeve, literally. He meets a balikbayan who wants to explore her Filipino roots.

VERDICT: Astro Mayabang is an incoherent mess. Absurd events take place one after the other. Absurdity is the stuff that makes good comedies, but not in this film. Its social message is also vague. The film, however, will be most remembered for Arron in his star-making role.

Rating: 2/5


Director: Sigfreid Barros Sanchez of Ang Anak ni Brocka and Lasponggols fame

Starring: Dimples Romana, Mon Confiado, Bombi Plata, Shamaine Buencamino, Martin delos Santos, Neil Ryan Sese, and Pipo Alfad

Plot: A top news anchor and two cameramen are held captive by one of the most notorious breakaway groups of the Abu Sayyaf.

VERDICT: Tsardyer fails on so many levels. It is bogged down by technical deficiencies. The voice dubbing is off. The images are pixelated. There is an attempt to offer unusual angles by using aerial shots but it seems unnecessary. To top it all off, the film does not reflect the compelling nature of the true-to-life story it portrays.

Rating: 2/5

*published on PEP

Ishmael re-creates scenes from the golden era of action films

Director Richard Somes is no stranger to the Cinema One Originals Film Festival. In 2008, he helmed the horror drama Yanggaw. The film bagged seven awards during the festival's awarding ceremony, including Best Director and Audience Choice. Yanggaw is about a patriarch (played by Ronnie Lazaro) who discovers that his daughter turns into a blood-thirsty aswang—a vampire-like mythical creature in Philippine folklore—at night. As the villagers become wary of the numerous murders, he is forced to confront the demon that is his daughter.

This year, Somes returns to Cinema One Originals with his highly anticipated second feature Ishmael. If Yanggaw marks the return to form of the Pinoy aswang (which is castrated by its recent incarnations in Shake, Rattle, and Roll movies), Ishmael marks the return of action movies. So, if you miss the action of yesteryears, Ishmael is right up your alley.

After being imprisoned for 12 years, Ishmael (Lazaro) decides to go back to his bucolic town. To his surprise, everyone has turned into religious freaks worshipping a powerful cult leader who calls himself Ama (Mark Gil). Despite several attempts by the townspeople and his old pal Nestor (Pen Medina) to make him join Ama's church, Ishmael constantly declines their invitations.

But when a young, innocent girl named Agnes (Ria Garcia) seeks his help to escape Ama's church and eventually their town, he inadvertently unravels the cult leader's secrets. Ama may seem like the typical religious leader. But something is not right about him, something we can't point a finger at. Ama's façade slowly crumbles to reveal his true colors. When one of his followers questions his violent nature, she is slapped repeatedly by Ama himself as a form of punishment. He also orders the townspeople to ward off outsiders by any means, violence included.

Ama's methods are questionable, but what's more intriguing is the fact that Agnes is running away from him. Somes sets a brooding mood all throughout the film as these events unfold in a thrilling, albeit slow manner that will keep you at the edge of your seat. All thanks to a bad-ass score and suggestive cinematography.

With the slow burn that is the first half, you can't help but jerk at the chaos that soon ensues. With a bolo tied to each hand, Ishmael single-handedly battles Ama's band of blind followers, including his blind friend Nestor, in order to help Agnes escape. The climactic bloodshed sees Somes re-creating scenes from the golden era of action films. It's messy, over-the-top, and brutal. You can't help but root for our macho hero as he hacks everyone to pieces. Given a bigger budget, the action scenes could have been rendered more fluidly and executed more convincingly.

This is the second team-up of Somes and actor Ronnie Lazaro. Last year, Lazaro took home Best Actor trophies from Cinema One Originals and Gawad Urian for Yanggaw. In Ishmael, there's a possibility that this will happen again. Lazaro plays the title role with gusto. No sense of remorse is seen on his face as he wields his bolo and delivers the entire town to their final destination. With similar intensity, Mark Gil plays the villain with all its nuances and ironies. He quotes verses from the Bible as quickly as he orders his men to behead those who hinder his plans. I believe Lazaro and Gil essay their roles convincingly enough to put them alongside the likes of Fernando Poe Jr., Ace Vergel, Bembol Roco, and Tony Ferrer.

Somes is undeniably a skilled director. He brings a rough-edged aesthetic to a story of revenge and redemption. He just might put action films back on the map. With his lust for blood—and cinematic style to boot—Somes can be considered the Quentin Tarantino of Philippine independent cinema.

Rating: 4/5

*published on PEP


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