01 January, 2011

Still Can't Get Over It: Bali-Bali ang Baler

since today is a date of multiple ones and repetitions, let's repeat this one:

Does the lack of period cinema pieces reflect the poor cultural state of a nation’s film industry or does it represent an industry’s collective practicality with the lack of interest in mounting these admittedly expensive projects? I am far from really knowing the zeitgeist of filmmakers these days; while there are many that say the Filipino film industry is either dead or dying, on the other hand some dare say that it is being resuscitated by the rise of independent digital cinema. Well, you will have to forgive me for saying that an expensive digital SLR camera does not make a photographer nor can a high end digital motion picture camera make a true filmmaker [I‘m just wired to think that way].

For at a time when I am at my neck’s end with the nth sequel to Enteng Kabisote, or am truly amazed at how the Filipino public laps up badly written fantasies like Exodus: Tales from the Enchanted Kingdom, or finding Jinggoy Estrada winning film festival best actor as the first biggest joke of 2008, there’s a part of me that is hoping and praying that somehow, next year, a well written period piece executed with such commercial viability can truly reflect the direction this nation’s cinema is taking.

Not long ago, I decided to watch BALER as it was the only movie that seemed to interest me with the roster of films from the 2008 Metro Manila Film Festival; also the fact that it was a period film stirred by curiosity. I have this fascination with recreating the 1890s and the novecento period of Philippine history. Credit that to a fine-tuned olde worlde sensibility which I more often than not cling to.

In a nutshell BALER is based on the historical account of The Siege of Baler which began in 1898 and lasted for about three hundred or so days. In the midst of this, is the romance between an India [female native of the islands] woman named Feliza [The film’s press release used the term ‘Filipina’ which was pretty much incorrect for that word was used to call a female of Spanish blood who was born in the islands; also called Insulares.] and a soldier named Celso -of Spanish and Indio descent- played by Jericho Rosales. Right there and then let me point out that there’s such a thing we call color-blind casting [casting actors despite of race or color] which has been applied in the theater for quite some time now when the need arises. But when it comes to the cinema, and since this was a period piece, I was taught that we were governed by certain casting aesthetics to retain the suspension of disbelief. As much as there were fair-skinned Indias at the time, the choice of Anne Curtis as Feliza gave off the impression that she was a Mestiza rather than a daughter from an Indio family. And on the other hand, Jericho Rosales might pass off as one those half-breeds descended from the dregs of the Spanish military ranks that were not influential enough and were sent to the islands in their service to Spain, but there was something I could not put to words about his casting which I can only describe as an odd aftertaste.

On the other hand, the other actors they cast as pure-bred Spaniards, as Mestizo as they were, were an odd bunch of too foreign and not too foreign looking to begin with [Sorry, PJ -he was cast as one of the soldiers]; ergo I somehow understand that to have put Jericho Rosales together with Mark Bautista and Jao Mapa as half-breed Spanish soldiers would justify the casting. Speaking of which, I shall point out the first cultural cliché of the movie: Jericho Rosales plays the role of a soldier with a Spanish father and a Pampango [Capampangan or native of Pampanga province] mother. It has been common knowledge that the Spaniards have an affinity for the Capampangans because of all the Indios, they were always on the side of the Spaniards.

So, in this melting pot of complications, let me add that Feliza is the daughter of a revolutionary leader played by veteran action star Phillip Salvador and acclaimed actress Rio Locsin. She has a brother named Gabriel played by Carlo Aquino, who is more interested in serving the Church rater than picking up a gun to fight for his country. It is for this reason that the romance between Feliza and Celso remain a secret.

Now, let me get to the nitty-gritty of the film. I have learned that if in the first five minutes you have not acquired the interest of your viewing audience, then the film will have a hard time keeping their attention. The first few shots of BALER, [portraying the massacre of Spanish soldiers the year before 1898], as much as it tried to establish the premise of a crumbling colonial power in the midst of quashing a revolution, seemed a bit ubiquitous and rushed. This short-lived prologue would seem to be a foreshadowing of the cinematic pace the director chose for the film which is best defined as “erratic”.

There was nothing special I could remember from the camera work nor was there anything I could say that took me from my seat into that time and place they were creating. Even in the love montages featuring Feliza and Celso [the first of which the audience was treated to seemed like the pace of the jump cut from the Hans Montenegro segment of the Jojo Veloso VHS scandal], I felt as if there was no fluidity in the incorporation of the romance into the historical nature of the film. As a viewer, I felt as though I was bombarded by ubiquitous visions of lovers strolling or running by the beach and end up kissing; only this time, they were in period clothing. But seriously, no India woman would be caught dead wearing a sleeveless camison and a saya like that by the beach in 1890s Philippines, as far as my education takes me. Perhaps the only scene that drew a curious smile on my face was when the lovers used the church’s confessional to pass the message of the time and place where they are to meet. Call me nit picky but if the writers already took so much cinematic license to begin with, why did they not portray their courtship with the secret language of gestures using fans, kerchiefs, and flowers used by lovers during that time to emphasize the authenticity. To the least, I’m sure an Ambeth Ocampo book was not unavailable to them.

Also, what I found lacking in this cinematic experience is this sense of urgency brought about by the changing of flags, the excitement of the birth of a new nation, and the last stand that the Spaniards are about to take inside that church as if it were the Alamo. I mean there are scenes that established thus but they seem to have been missing that intensity to contrast all that love against the impending battle. For when I was on my seat I was going, “So there’s supposed to be this big siege that’s about to take place, why don’t I feel the gravity of it?”

And I don’t know what they wanted to achieve with it, but a cinematic device that got lost to me were these two film clips in black and white that showed two events: the Battle of Manila Bay and Aguinaldo’s declaration of Philippine Independence. They look like lost parts of a Charlie Chaplin movie, in their choppy crude texture that found its way into the film. Okay, if they had intended for it to be a narrative device to display the coinciding historical events by using that early film reel effect, they would have been better off using that from beginning to end to give it another dimension to period standards. But unfortunately, they make up a one-time-small-time sequence that never amounted to anything.

From the way I see it, there was a lot of opportunity to explore blocking, cinematic shots, and creative camera work. But as one pointed out to me, “The blocking was high school velada. Everybody facing an invisible proscenium.” Later would I concur by saying, “There’s only so much you can do with blocking it like a firing squad.”

When it came to the film’s Production Design, I have but one word: Texture. I think the film tried as much as it could to use the natural scenery it was able to film in. You don’t see that much green anymore just anywhere in this country. But when it came to the constructed sets, even without any design background, one still knows by the look of it what they had were literally sets. It’s like when you watch a Filipino sitcom and you know that the concrete walls are actually made of plywood. Like in one scene showing the church interior, the wall and those stairs look like they came out of an AngTV fantasy set. The church, which was supposed to be the centerpiece of the entire design template, looked as if it used up Divisoria’s Styrofoam supply from the outside. I have no idea if that was the actual architectural façade of the church therefore I have to stop criticizing the odd shape of the structure which does not fall into the usual silhouettes of a turn of the century church that often doubles as a stronghold. And was that a statue of Our Lady of Fatima they mounted inside the central niche of the church’s façade?

Also, in one montage, they used a “parol’’ [a star-shaped lantern that has always been associated with the holidays in this country] hanging by the window of a “bahay kubo” to signify that it was Christmas. This has always been a pet peeve of mine. You see, the five pointed star “parol” never existed until about the 1920s. The shape of which was an American import copied off from their flag. Believe it or not, in 1898, there were no Christmas decorations; and if there were, they were only limited to the church in the forms of the crèche and the Niño dormido which came out only on December 25th. And don’t argue that the Americans were already here at that time because even by 1930, the concept of decorating Filipino homes for Christmas had yet to catch on.

When it came to the Costume Design, the biggest question I had was with the uniforms of the Spanish soldiers. If I remember my Philippine costume history correctly, the revolutionaries wore a uniform called the “Rayadillo” which was a pinstriped light blue and white uniform. So, if that was the case, why did the Spanish soldiers then wear the stripes of the “Rayadillo” and the Indio revolutionaries wear the light blue linen uniforms of the Spanish colonial army? I have not been living under a rock, and I have yet to read a paper that says I am wrong about this thing. That’s not something that can be easily overlooked if one is doing a period piece about your own country.

As for the rest of the costumes in this film, they were just that: costumes. They all look like they came straight out of the costume department, crisp and newly ironed. Then there’s the Franciscan robe, the clerical vestments, the altar boy robe… I mean, they have not changed much since the Byzantines and surely with Pope Benedict XVI reviving the use of traditional church vestments in the Roman Catholic Church, they could have at least gotten the silhouette right. But then again, they could argue that these were provincial clerical robes and that would be one excuse to use.

Now, I’m not the best Spanish speaker out there, but listening to the Spanish they used in this film, they would have done better to say the least. There is a nuance to the Spanish they used in the 1890s that is not found in the sprinklings of the Spanish dialogue they tried to inject. Even the character of Baron Geisler who plays a Spanish officer suddenly shifts to speak Tagalog while addressing the character of Joel Torre in accent moderne.

I had this summation about Baler midway through the film: I told myself that the movie’s heart was in the right place yet it seemed to beat the wrong way.

Like the second cliché of the film uttered by Mark Bautista [hated the mustache they made him wear for the movie] as the other half-bred soldier named Lope who was in-love with another India in the movie, “Mahirap umibig sa panahon ng digmaan.” [Love is difficult in a time of war] the film is not without stock characters that defined the generation of revolutionary leaders played by Joel Torre and stage and screen veteran Leo Martinez; the latter whose performance seemed to be the saving grace of this film.

Also, I think the writers did their best to portray both sides of the conflict. I sympathized with the plight of the Revolutionaries attempting to gain recognition with their sovereignty over the islands under the Spanish and American tug of war, the dynamic of having multi-racial soldiers that can be seen as traitors in a colonial army as well as their sentiments of being stationed in the islands, and the impatience of the revolutionary forces against the resolve of the Spaniards to stand their ground all contributed to the multi-faceted plot line. Even with that, it seemed to me like the editing would make an effort here and then suddenly just move on to the next one out of necessity. As I said earlier, I can’t seem to figure out the cinematic pace of this movie.

I’ve been having a hard time composing my next point but here goes: I used to think that when it came to doing period movies about your country, you’re supposed to have a grasp of the things within your own backyard. I mean, if Ngila Dickson could design costumes for the Last Samurai and she’s not even Japanese, imagine what the Japanese themselves -like Akira Kurosawa has done with Emi Wada for Throne of Blood or Ran for that matter.

Also, I was taught not to insult your audience’s intelligence. The true measure of artistic integrity lies in not settling for whatever is acceptable and getting away with it but in taking a truth and keeping to it [a lesson I admit to have learned the hard way]. In all fairness to BALER, it gave it a good try but somehow midway, they seem to have just settled. By the way of period films, I can’t judge if we actually took a step back from the period pieces of recent vintage but as per BALER, I wasn’t taken from the world I knew to this world they sought to create. And there I was expecting to be somewhere else, but like the Parabasis of a Greek play, I was constantly reminded by all the things I was seeing, that I was watching a movie [It‘s Lapu-Lapu all over again…with shields and spears mounted on walls like in Urdaneta lanais]. If that is the case, then we had better stay away from doing period films lest we hang ourselves.

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