Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Looking Back: The Best Filipino Film of 2005

INDIE PAVES THE WAY. As big studios continue to raise a stinker, squirting puss at the eyes of Filipino filmbuffs, upcoming independent artists are thumbing down their noses at the dinosaurs in the movie industry. Look how the past three years saw independent films raising the stakes for the world to see. Digital fares like Lav Diaz’s 10-hour epic Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino, Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater, Maryo de los Reyes' Magnifico, Cesar Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba, Rico Ilarde’s Sa Ilalim ng Cogon, Mark Reyes’ Last Full Show, Khavn de la Cruz’ Lata at Tsinelas, and Brillante Mendoza's Masahista drew critical raves abroad. And then came one gem titled Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros. Hands down, it's the best Filipino film of 2005, the banner year of indie filmmaking.

Here's a reprint of my review titled "A miracle called Maximo" in my opinion column for Sun.Star Cebu (6 December 2005):

CUTTING THROUGH a slum colony, a hearse adorned with wreaths passes along a mound of garbage near a bridge. The camera, panning along the sludgy river below, zooms in on its surface with its surfeit of the city’s trash. A hint of purple ripples across: a flower floating among the flotsam.

This is how Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros begins. Gritty, yes, but gracefully does it cut into a scene of an assured hand, that of the limpwristed protagonist, picking a discarded orchid from the rubbish. With flair, the pubescent Maximo puts the flower at his ear and sashays through the squalor of his squatter’s neighborhood. Aptly, it might as well be a metaphor for this movie: how it rises or blooms above the country’s rotting celluloid industry.

That independent filmmaking is blossoming hereabouts is nowhere more patent in the fierceness of panache and originality so striking about this cinematic gem directed by Auraeus Solito. A coming-of-age tale, it focuses on the gay Maximo caught in the crossroads between his fascination for an idealistic greenhorn cop in his neigborhood and his filial love for a family, the sort you’d like to spray insecticide at (the widower father is a small-time criminal like Maximo’s two elder brothers). But extra-ordinary is the way Solito’s deft hand transforms Maximo’s home out of its horrid circumstance with scenes iridescent with understated tenderness and humor, crackling under the family’s tough surface like stone flickering, as if its tough skin were made for spontaneous combustion.

Not a spark of melodrama here, nothing overstretched. Not here are the run-of-the-mill grists for movies where the gay character providing the narrative ballast wallows in the banality of gender issues and all that hohum.

As written by Michiko Yamamoto (she who penned the simply magical film Magnifico), Ang Pagdadalaga… is a triumph in sidestepping the stereotypes even as it nimbly dances around and kicks headlong into the viewers’ hearts. “Passionate, fascinating and extraordinary,” so raves New York-based critic Godfrey Cheshire in his reviews for the New York Times and Village Voice. Small wonder why the Cinema Evaluation Board has thumbed it up and regarded it as “Rated A.”

More than well-deserved, indeed, is the film’s cache of international accomplishments so far. Aside from being hailed as Best Film at the festivals in Montreal and Singapore, it also has the distinction of being the first Filipino masterpiece to be included for competition at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

To watch this film is to see how Filipino filmmakers— despite the dross long after the likes of Gerardo de Leon, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal are gone— continue to do wonders.

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