Noel Vera

Film critics sometimes like to strike a pose and say: I’m objective and above it all. Which isn’t true at all: everyone has his prejudices, preferences, and blind spots, and anyone who says otherwise is an idiot or a hypocrite. I think the best way to deal with one’s biases–possibly the only way to deal with them–is to lay them out in the open, where everyone can see. Then people can decide whether they want to take you seriously or not.

So–talking about prejudices: I was faced with two Filipino sex films opening this week. One had a decent budget, featured three interesting actors, and was done by a proven, commercially successful young director. The other was shot on a non-existent budget, by a filmmaker who hasn’t had a hit but otherwise is an original sensibility. Guess which one I liked better?

Erik Matti’s “Ekis” is a handsomely produced sex thriller with nary an original bone in its handsomely produced body–it’s really “Reservoir Dogs” done by John Woo crossed with “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” A kidnap ring has abducted a Chinese boy and is holding him ransom for three million pesos; meanwhile, one member of the gang (played by Albert Martinez) is having a torrid love affair with the wife of a next-door neighbor (Sunshine Cruz).

It’s an unlikely premise–but okay, let that slide; John Woo never let an unlikely premise stop him. Matti probably felt confident he could solve his problems the John Woo way, by covering the gaps with pure style–but just how much style did he think he’d need? His kidnap gang’s strategies are sheer idiocy–they wait for the ransom money all day in an empty stadium without once posting lookouts; when crossing the field to get the money, they don’t have any signals ready to use in case the pickup goes wrong. When the pickup does fail and one of them is arrested, they have no fallback plan, or alternate hideout; they go back to their original hideout and make more ransom demands (never mind that the arrested member could be leading the police to them right this minute).

Matti has everyone pass the time by pointing guns at each other’s heads and shouting insults (if they spent as much time planning as they did yelling, we’d have understood the plot more, and we’d have felt more confident that they actually knew what they’re doing). The gang members look half-hearted about the ransom anyway; maybe they never really believed they’d get the money. Maybe it’s the director who’s being half-hearted about the kidnap scheme–and judging
from the amount of time the film spends with said neighbor as compared to time spent with the kidnap gang, I’d say the second guess was correct.

But let it all slide, even the hilarious scene at the swimming pool–half a dozen NBI officers surround the perfectly clear water and no one can spot Albert Martinez swimming inside–after all, John Woo never depended on realism. But Woo can confidently pour his style over the holes in the plots because his is a tremendous style–a sort of gliding dance between actors and camera, cut to the rhythms of rapid-fire violence. Matti has an eye and at times he can afford the occasional camera glide, but rhythm seems to be a totally alien concept to him.  Simply put, he can’t cut footage to save his life; he can’t build a sequence and make it gather any momentum or suspense. In a way he shares this defect with his mentor, Peque Gallaga (who produced and wrote his first feature, “Scorpio Nights 2”)–they’re too much in love with their beautiful imagery to pay attention to the story.

Which is too bad–Matti wastes a perfectly good cast of talented actors. Albert Martinez is intense and compelling as always; he looks good beside Sunshine Cruz, whose personal architecture–100% natural–puts the sagging superstructures of most softcore porn actresses to shame. And Raymond Bagatsing is a total delight playing a macho, Joe Pesci kind of character who walks about with a short fuse.

Martinez produced the project himself; he’s canny enough to make Matti’s name prominent, and even cannier to make the words “from the director of ‘Scorpio Nights 2′” even more prominent (anything with the words “Scorpio Nights” on it is bound to have an audience). Martinez is too smart to lose any money, especially on a film like this, but if he wants to work with Matti again–this time on something really worthwhile–he should get Matti a better scriptwriter and a better editor both, or he should put Matti on a tighter leash.

Lav Diaz’s “Hubad Sa Ilalim ng Buwan” is an altogether different creature, about a young girl (Klaudia Koronel) who sleepwalks naked under the moonlight. Her parents (Elizabeth Oropesa and Joel Torre) are worried but have problems of their own–like the money they owe a friend (Julio Diaz), and their failing charcoal business.

Again the film has flaws, but–and here my prejudices show–the flaws in “Hubad” seem more forgivable. “Hubad” was shot on a much smaller budget than “Ekis,” about three to four million pesos. And while you can spot practically every movie and music video that has influenced Matti’s style, you can’t quite guess where Diaz gets his visual ideas from–they actually seem to sprout from some personal vision of his.

It would be nice if Diaz made that vision more accessible. The film’s pacing is lethargic at times, and he seems stubbornly unwilling to make commercial concessions of any kind–a welcome change from Matti, who likes to paw and dribble saliva on you–but sometimes Diaz can swing too far the other way, to emotional opaqueness. A more serious flaw is casting Koronel in the central role–granted she’s playing a sleepwalker, but must she take the role so literally? You feel like slapping her face so she’d wake up, or at least giving her a good spanking…but that’s another subject entirely.

The supporting roles fare better. Elizabeth Oropesa is very good as Koronel’s mother, and she figures in the one sex scene that has any punch–a quick and urgent sexual encounter that may leave you slightly stunned. Julio Diaz is perfectly loathsome as the family’s so-called friend–Diaz seems well suited to playing bastards. Joel Torre isn’t given much to do most of the time, but by
film’s end, you feel you understand him–the man who thinks he’s a failure at everything he’s done.

“Hubad” is long, depressing, and cheaply done, but at least it’s something different. It’s something to look at, and sometimes it gives you something substantial to chew (or argue) over. Which is more than I can say for the glossier, more popular “Ekis.” I remember watching the film at its UP Film Center premiere with the man beside me continually breaking wind; I wanted to
tell my neighbor to “go ahead and fart away–you can’t smell worse than what
we’re watching onscreen.”