THY WOMB_Cinematic; How About EL PRESIDENTE?December 30, 2012
Brilliante Mendoza’s Thy Womb’s timeframe is short; Mark Meilly’s El Presidente is long. Literally, the former is shorter in duration; the latter, nearly double its length. The former is an indie film with a budget obviously minuscule compared with the latter which reportedly spent P130 Million to produce. Perhaps because it is a period picture that entailed a lot of costumes, and needed many actors as it covers different phases in our country’s history –from the latter part of the Spanish period c. 1896-97 [excluding the childhood flashback of young Emilio Aguinaldo] up to time he died in 1964. It is a star-studded film while Thy Womb has but a few actors who so powerfully and naturally acted, you’d feel they were just plucked out from the actual Badjao community in Tawi-tawi.
Asiong Salonga [DC Version] Director Tikoy Aguiluz, my associate editor Yuka and I were together at Resorts World to watch One More Try hours before the MMFF Award’s Night was to be held . The 10 pm show tickets were sold out however so we just chatted during and after dinner. We first talked about how Tikoy is credited in El Presidente which he hasn’t yet seen. The film actually started with Tikoy’s shot of Aguinaldo writing in his study room. Tikoy is acknowledged as Second-Unit Director which is not proper. Let’s be clear about this. Tikoy was the film’s original director. How can he be possibly acknowledged as such when Meilly was nowhere and was “inexistent” or not in the picture at all when Tikoy shot Nora Aunor’s sequences last July in between post-production of Asiong Salonga 2011? Tikoy was the Director of those film sequences sans Meilly, so why should he be credited as the second-unit director??? Moreover, I asked Tikoy if he shot the meeting of Aguinaldo and Marcela Agoncillo sequence [first appearance of Nora Aunor]. Tikoy replied “No!” She looked so funny in it and she doesn’t reflect the grace of a Marcela Agoncillo. That’s a hilarious scene as it appeared to me. Mukhang ewan si Nora dun, wala akong masabi! Filler na filler ang dating.
Anyway, we ended up talking about Ang Sugo, the 2014 Centennial Anniversary film about Felix Manalo, the founder of Iglesia ni Cristo which Tikoy will shoot in 2013.
Of the two MMFF entries that I watched, I consider Thy Womb as cinematic gem; El Presidente is a fancy jewel or a raw gem which should have been polished better. Nanghinayang ako sa El Presidente for the following reasons, all subjective of course:
1) CINEMATOGRAPHY. As I’ve previously posted, I wanted to see the difference between Tikoy and Meilly’s “style. Cinematography is one film element that can give lead to it. As Carlo Mendoza, Asiong and El Presidente’s cameraman himself told me, it is actually what the director wants NOT HIS that shows on the film. It’s the Director’s call in other words. By saying so, I expected concrete differences in Carlo’s work from two different directors. And yes! their style and preferences actually showed. Tikoy’s Nora sequences were said to have been graded to go or balance with Meilly’s because of clear differences.
Tikoy in all his film has always controlled the look, composition and lighting of his film. He is not afraid to demand extreme close-ups and wanted chiaroscuro lighting; the more contrast in light and shadows the better. On the contrary, El Presidente scenes are largely well-lighted, giving it the TV movie quality and look common in our TV network productions. Whether in wide forest shots or on actor’s midshots, you’d feel the presence of lights and reflectors. Dramatic lighting where mostly needed wasn’t maximized to give the proper mood. Nowhere akong napa-WOW [except perhaps in Cecille de Mille wideshot of the fight between the Americans and the Revolutionaries, but not on how the fights were edited predictably with effects]; also the wideshot of the forest when the revolutionaries were evacuating Cavite. Unlike in Thy Womb where handheld shots and close ups, beautifully framed composition, available lighting were used to give the documentary feel, the reality and naturalness of the environment, El Presidente coverages and scene compositions are generally ordinary. In the former, the lighting helps a lot in giving character and texture to the film. The Tejeros Convention sequence for ex. could have been better dramatized if the lighting mood was proper, with Angry Men as a peg perhaps, so that the build up of tension parallels with the rising anger of Bonifacio character as played by Cesar Montano. So does the part when Aguinaldo joined the Katipunan. Dramatic lighting was absent in one of the most important event in Aguinaldo’s life. Cinematography in El Presidente is uneven. In some, there are even loud video noises. Inserting unnecessary photos also contributed to photographic inconsistencies making the segment like an AVP. Choosing Thy Womb for Best Cinematography is right judgment. [MMFF Winner for Best Cinematography: Odyssey Flores, Thy Womb]
2) STORY / SCREENPLAY – content is epic in proportion, fine! But by putting so much, El Presidente loses a lot more. It gave more emphasis on events, on action scenes to show perhaps the production costs and producer’s expenses. It failed to dramatize more the conflicts of the man, his person, his dilemma, his psyche so that we could have ride with his feelings deeper – his difficulties as catalyst of Philippine revolutionary forces. The highlight of his life is Philippines independence; that’ s what he lived and fought for in the first place, it was his and the country’s turning point. But the build-up is seemingly lacking, it felt like it was just an ordinary sequence in the film when it appeared. The nationalism fervor could have been more sparked, more built up as we see them fight that led to the triumphant waving of our flag, and hearing the national anthem in 1898. Aguinaldo lived during such time when atrocities were committed by Americans, when spies were aplenty. There were lots of room to work on surprise and suspense to make the story more gripping and interesting. If you are not aware of it, there are many secret doors to exit or enter Aguinaldo’s house which could have been utilized to add drama and show the dangerous life our heroes had to go through. After the Spanish period, there’s sense of urgency to finish the film, it is like shuffling of cards fast to bring Nora Aunor onscreen, and who disappeared just as fast, to finish off the movie. Thy Womb’s story is actually a simple love story — what a woman could do for a man she loves so much and wanted to be happy. El Presidente is also a love story, and a more complex one — what a man did for his Mother Country. With the latter’s story complexity, more could have been done to make it better. It had all the chance to be the best but unfortunately meeting MMFF deadline is the culprit. I don’t want to react about the historical accuracies or inaccuracies since they already claimed that it is either only 95% accurate, or “fiction based on a historical character.” I’ve seen some of the changes but there’s no point talking about them out of respect for the filmmaker’s “creative freedom.” I just wonder how they affect descendants of heroes focused on. [MMFF Winner for Best Story, Henry Burgos for Thy Womb; Best Screenplay, One More Try]
3) ACTING – No variations in the acting or performance, even the looks of Jeorge Estregan from the time he pledges as Katipunan member to the time he declares Philippine independence. He is obviously acting; Aguinaldo’s soul or just his aura was not in him except in the few shots taken in his house in Kawit, or when he was already old and rarely some in between when he has no dialogues. Happily, walang timba nang luha sa puntod [tulad sa Asiong] nang nakaluhod pagkamatay ni Candido Tirona. O dahil wideshot ang kuha? Yun nga lang bakit hinimatay pa? But then there’s a shot while he was in the cabin, wailing…dun kaya??? Ewan ba! Tikoy would prefer silent, and mellowed acting there, I am sure. And I would love to edit out unnecessary melodramatic acting too. Favorite stances from Asiong surfaced as follows: the way he pointed at the picture of Queen Christina to Baron Geisler, the way he stopped [forgot the character] when two of his men were about to fight and of course, using two guns a la traditional cowboy [a la Asiong, more so a la FPJ] while fighting when we know that guns were scarce during those days; and just a gun was commonly used. Oh well, “creative license”?
Moreover, I have witnessed that using comedians in serious roles wasn’t effective. As Baldomero Aguinaldo, or Lolo/grandfather of former Prime Minister Cesar Virata, Bayani Agbayani’s first appearance alone elicited laughs, though he wasn’t making a joke. So does, Epy Quizon. In one sequence where Gerald Ejercito as Crispulo Aguinaldo died, his expression with matching slow motion made those seated beside me to laugh and exclaim: Ano ito comedy? [MMFF Winner for Best Actor, Dingdong Dantes; Best Actress: Nora Aunor, Thy Womb]
4) EDITING – It was refreshing…a sigh of relief for me NOT TO SEE the Fade In/Out to Black that they used to destroy Asiong Salonga. Either narendahan ng director or natauhan sa senseless and stupid use of those devices. Nevertheless, the slow / fast motion and freeze effects in fight sequences were used again, but this time too overly done that they became predictable. They were fine to a certain extent but they should have been sparingly used to maximize the effect and heighten the drama. Another funny cut [just to shorten the already long film perhaps] is when Gregorio del Pilar was shot. He fell down from his horse. Shot on top-angle, hands presumably of the Americans enter frame and shown in the act of destroying his rayadillo or undressing him. That was the impression the shot gave. The problem is: the scene faded out at that point that it gave the impression Del Pilar would be raped. Many in the audience laughed, including me…the historical fact is Del Pilar was divested of his personal belongings. But that’s it, the shot was cut too short it gave another meaning and “malicious” impression to the audience. For every cut that you do, there is a reason…[MMFF Winner for Best Editing,Vito Cahilig, One More Try]
5) PRODUCTION DESIGN – Costumes, art design in general are good, clearly the art department researched but in many scenes, even at the height of fighting, the general’s uniforms are SOOOOOOOO clean and white, SOOOOOOOOO new that my feeling was that they have just come from the tailor or from the laundryhouse. Niluma man lang sana bago suutin. In fact, among the first trailers the producer came up with and released, it was as if they were advertising Tide bar and soap: “Ano ang mas malinis, mas maputi?” The settings are good; location is the same place where some of the Asiong’s scenes were shot. Moustache in some sequences were not properly glued, they look they’d fall anytime; or they were just too big for the character’s face, they looked so funny. It has not the naturalness in costumes, and settings of Thy Womb, complementing with the natural acting of the main players that contributed to overall design giving the film its right to win the award. [MMFF Winner for Best Production Design, Thy Womb]
6) MAKE UP – I don’t know why they won when the first appearance of the “old woman” had been very disconcerting because of bad makeup, so much so that I wished they used a real, old woman there. The same with the actors who were so tidily made up…with faces looking unblemished. Probably, quantity of casts to put the make up on mattered, or in their criteria. [MMFF Winner for Best Make Up, El Presidente]
7) DIRECTION – My guess was right, it was Best Direction for Brillante Mendoza. Afterall, he succeeded in really making his cast, especially Nora Aunor get into the character and soul of a barren midwife, who worked hard in looking for someone who could fulfill the wish of her husband to have a child. The choice of image sizes, extreme close ups, and handheld movements make the viewers part of their world or become the characters themselves. The use of silence and wide shots when needed; the concentration on the character’s soul; which in Jeorge Estregan as Emilio Aguinaldo, Meilly failed to achieve. There is distance between the audience and the character. You do not get “into” the character. There is no emphathy. At times, Estregan’s dialogue delivery are so reminiscent of Asiong Salonga, astig ba? There is something missing in Aguinaldo’s character the way he was portrayed. The director has a big hand on this. And with the use of cursive scripts to caption or introduce the scene, the film turned out to be like reading a history book. Kulang na lang ng turning a page or page peel transition.El Presidente is like Baler, only better because of the important subject it tackled. [MMFF Winner for Best Picture, One More Try but Best Direction for Brillante Mendoza; Best Second Picture, El Presidente]
I watched the first screening of Thy Womb at SM MOA with less than 15 people in there last December 26; El Presidente in its second screening with nearly fully packed seats. Kulelat pareho sa takilya ngayon but worth seeing especially Thy Womb which despite winning the major awards, some theaters have pulled the film out because of poor revenues. But I hope many more could watch it, if only to know the culture of our Badjao community… really appreciate La Aunor, and get a surprising treat from Mendoza. For a change!!! Unfortunately, if last year it was grand slam for El Presidente producers who also produced Asiong Salonga, it was probably grand sla_ for them this year for not winning the major awards they were targeting and for sure expecting deep in their hearts. But I still laud them for producing it…as I’ve said, realizing an epic and a dream film is in itself is a big FEAT. Defeating the other purposes for which the film were made is another matter. There are other award-giving bodies, aesthetic values of jurors vary, as well as their criteria. Hope is there for those who didn’t make it this time.
Lastly, I do not know whose bright idea it was to put the Memoirs of Aguinaldo at the the end of the film. By doing so, they have limited or suggested a biased and one-sided version of his life… Di nila naisip yun?