Islands in the Film Stream

Recent films from the Philippines unspool for the Austin Film Society's next Essential Cinema series

<i>Norte, the End of History</i>
Norte, the End of History

Anyone who caught Mark Hartley's 2010 documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed! will be forgiven for believing that most films shot in the Philippines are either low- or no-budget blood 'n' gutbusters like Cirio H. Santiago's Naked Vengeance; vehicles for Roger Corman's New World Pictures to shoot fast, dirty, and cheap; or Apocalypse Now. But as the Austin Film Society's upcoming Contemporary Filipino Films series proves, there's a whole lot more to the island country's film industry than bullets, babes, and bad guys. (Although there are plenty of all three exploitation-film hallmarks sprinkled throughout this series.)

Debosyon (Nov. 11), by Alvin Yapan – the prolific director and winner of several Gawad Urian awards (the Filipino equivalent of the Oscars) – is drenched in the magical realism and sumptuous rural colors of the Bicolandia region. Effectively an allegorical love story between a country boy (Paulo Avelino) and the incarnation of a venerated religious icon (Maria Lopez), its heady, dreamlike tone should be a revelation to viewers who only know the Philippines via Manila.

A visceral take on the malaise that's endemic to modern Filipino politics, On the Job (Nov. 20) is rife with clattering shell casings and micro-epic action sequences. It's also based on actual events wherein the mega-city's corrupt bosses employed assassins to whack their political opponents. Director Erik Matti has style to burn, and the resulting conflagration is a twisted, bloody ballet laden with a bleak, nihilistic sort of social criticism and standout performances by Joel Torre and Gerald Anderson as the hired heavies. Cinematographer Ricardo Buhay III wields his handheld camera like, well, a machete, actually, thwacking the audience head-first into pitched gun battles, hyper-choreographed car chases, and all manner of mad Manila mayhem. It's no advertisement for life in the big city, but it is a nail-biter of the first order.

Graceland (Nov. 25), a Fantastic Fest fave and Drafthouse Films pickup in 2012, was the breakout film for director Ron Morales. This is some seriously badass cinema that combines elements of family drama, kidnapping, and grimy political intrigue with a superbly stylized visual sense and extremely high-caliber pacing. Arnold Reyes, as a chauffeur tasked with guarding his boss' preteen daughter while simultaneously keeping an eye on his own little girl, is riveting as chaos erupts all around him and no good deed goes unpunished.

Filipino auteur Lav Diaz's recent magnum opus, Norte, the End of History (Dec. 4) is, with its four-plus-hour running time, nearly as monumental as the Dostoyevsky novel it seeks to mirror, Crime and Punishment. Diaz crams the storyline full of intellectual musings on the precarious state of the Philippines, as seen through the eyes of Fabian (the amazing Sid Lucero), an ex-lawyer with a louche, hipsterish mindset – the murderous Raskolnikov updated to match equally sinister times – and Joaquin (Archie Alemania), the poor DVD bootlegger(!) who languishes behind bars for crimes he did not commit. Diaz paints the state here as a draconian idiot, incapable of ever getting the facts straight, much less working out the finer points of economic growth. Potential audience members who find themselves feeling wary of the film's 250-minute length need not worry. Diaz delivers cinematic magnificence and a darkly idealistic running commentary and subtext about man's inhumanity to man and the doomed fate of the species worldwide that is picture-perfect, engrossing, and altogether spot-on.

Rounding out the AFS series are Jason Paul Laxamana's The Coffin Maker (Dec. 11) and Hannah Espia's Transit (Dec. 18), which veer from the melancholic magical realism of Coffin to Transit's all-too-real plight facing Filipinos abroad. Transit focuses on the situation faced by Jewish Filipinos living and working in couldn't-be-farther-from-home Israel during 2009. That's when Israel instituted harsh new laws governing who can – and cannot – be considered a citizen. As a state founded by refugees, the inherent paradox between Israel's increasingly right-wing government and its initial open-door policy to Jews of all nations presents a natural drama. Borderline avant-garde editing makes Espia's anxious style even more gripping.

All films screen at 7:30pm at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre, 6226 Middle Fiskville.

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Filipino cinema, Austin Film Society, Debosyon, Alvin Yapan, On the Job, Erik Matti, Graceland, Ron Morales, Norte, the End of History, Lav Diaz, The Coffin Maker, Transit

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