I didn't see "Duda," though some friends did, and they didn't like it. The Inquirer's Constantino Tejero, however, a hardcore cinephile who wouldn't suffer any lousy movie, surprisingly had something good to say about it. That was enough motivation for me to catch Mr. Pablo's next feature, "Bathhouse," which ran in Robinson's Galleria in January 2005.
Six months later, the first Cinemalaya Film Festival opened at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and Manila awakened to the exciting possibilities of digital cinema.
Cris Pablo's trailblazing films, "the first and second independent full-length digital video movies to be shown in local commercial cinema venues in their original video format," will be re-screened by The Independent Filmmakers’ Cooperative of the Philippines and Robinsons Galleria on March 28-April 10. (Call 4369348 or 0927-3613814 for inquiries.)
Let me take my own hat off to "The Queer Cinema of Cris Pablo" by posting below my review of "Bathhouse," which appeared in the Inquirer on January 30, 2005.
A CALLING CARD FOR THE FUTURE OF INDIE CINEMA
In his review of independent director Cris Pablo's first movie, "Duda," shown last year, the Inquirer's Constantino Tejero lauded the film for its "stylish technique that's very Wong Kar-wai, an exciting presentation of story, and non-professional actors who render involving performances."
The patina of arthouse class suggested by the association with Wong Kar-wai may have been lost on ordinary moviegoers, many of whom were lured to the cinema only by the movie's promise of gay carnality. But the formula itself seemed to work.
"Duda" turned out to be a blockbuster, attracting long lines of moviegoers during its extended SM Megamall run (this was before SM was struck by heavenly light on its way to the bank and banned R-rated films), and presumably earning enough for its producers to come up with a follow-up project less than a year later.
Pablo's second feature, "Bathhouse," opened last week on an exclusive run at Robinsons Galleria. In many ways, it reprises its predecessor's recipe, down to its two cult actors, Andoy Ranay and Rey Pumaloy.
Repetition may be fatal to sophomore efforts, but in "Bathhouse" it achieves a deepening, ripening effect. The movie succeeds on its own modest terms, and makes for a persuasive calling card for the future of Philippine indie cinema.
Shot on digital video format with the barest of budgets, "Bathhouse" often has the look and feel of an ersatz garage project. Color, sound and lighting fluctuate at intervals, the editing is graceless and perfunctory, and some shots are even pixelated.
Blown up on the big screen, the movie's technical limitations are glaringly apparent, and it may take moviegoers a while to warm up to the rough, stammering nature of the format.
But "Bathhouse's" virtues make up for its technical flaws. The Wong Kar-wai touch, for starters, is again apparent in the gauzy images set against a slyly purring ambient soundtrack and fast- or slow-motion camerawork. In many other movies this may come off less as an organic gesture and more an effect, but in "Bathhouse" it finds its natural groove.
The notion of urban (if Third World in this case) anomie expressed through hazy, neon-lit images of longing and melancholy is a signature Wong aesthetic. Yet transposed to a story about young, modern Manila gays, creatures living in the fringes and shadows of a fastidiously pious society and scrounging for their own erotic space in a landscape of banal everyday repression, the concept achieves a particularly poignant, bittersweet quality.
"Bathhouse's" coming-of-age story is nothing new, but its dramatic arc remains affecting. Rico, a young boy of 20 (played with great sensitivity by a real find named Ray-An Dulay), slowly awakens to his gayness and longs to make a connection with his peers.
His initial forays into eyeballs lead him nowhere, until he gets invited to Klub Hombre--a private bar for straight-acting gay men who come for their quickies in the anonymous comfort of darkness.
The guy who invited him, Chris (Jet Alcantara), is a gorgeous but jaded hunk who has conflated all hopes for love and emotional connection with his nightly descent into the bar's orgy lair. "Lust has no face, only bodies," he tells Rico, to fend off the boy's instant affection for him.
But Rico refuses to believe that love is not possible in such a desperate place, and proceeds to learn the hard way how social invisibility often renders bright-eyed gay men like himself embittered and lost--but also wiser, more purposeful in the end.
Rico and Chris' alternating stories are intertwined ingeniously. Their voiceover narrations overlap and bleed into each other, so that you may end up momentarily confused as to who is speaking.
Only in the end do you get the point, that Chris' long-ago loss of innocence prefigures Rico's, and their stories--one lonely soul's search for love is the same as another's, and the story of humanity, whether gay or straight, is that common, fundamental yearning for connection--add up to a full circle.
It's a device used most prominently by Terrence Malick in "The Thin Red Line," where he deliberately obscured all distinctions in his actors' voiceovers to universalize the insights and traumas of men at war.
Apart from its rather high-concept structure, the movie unfolds unpretentiously. It speaks of Pablo's sensibility that he refuses to milk the material of its latent emotionalism, as so many mainstream Pinoy movies and TV dramas are wont to do.
Rico's coming out to his family is swift and raw, and their reconciliation even shorter, done over dinner with spare dialogue and no music, punctuated only by laughs after an awkward silence. It's a lovely scene.
Another standout moment has Rico going back to Chris and breaking into song, finally tearing down the latter's walls and making him cry. It's a risky setup, rife with hokey contrivance, but the actors pull it off.
Dulay, from all angles an ordinary-looking fellow, is a remarkable newcomer, literally blooming before your eyes as he soars and plunges on a tempestuous ride to self-discovery. He joins Rebecca Lusterio of "Panaghoy sa Suba" as bright new lights in Philippine cinema.
Strong performances are also offered by Alcantara who's a smoldering presence, Pumaloy, John Lapuz and a very funny Ranay. The rest of the non-professional cast do their jobs with natural verve.
Simple and sincere
Pablo also wrote the script, and while it has its infirmities (you never know what Chris does for a living, for instance), the movie works by speaking simply, truthfully, without playing for sympathy or cheap righteousness. Sincerity, not earnestness, is its great virtue.
This is the kind of movie Jose Javier Reyes would have made under mainstream conditions--with better lighting, of course.
But it's true indie moviemaking, and if the promise that the likes of "Bathhouse" holds for local cinema means fresher stories, more transgressive approaches and new twists to hackneyed themes--by all means let's have more of it.