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Review: The Red Shoes (2010), directed by Raul Jorolan

17 March 2010 1 comment

The Red Shoes. Dir. Raul Jorolan. Perf. Marvin Agustin, Nikki Gil, Liza Lorena, Tessie Tomas, Tirso Cruz III, Tetchie Agbayani, Iwa Moto. Unitel, 2010.

*

A self-styled demigoddess who descended from her mountain of fantasy to preach her Platonic gospel of truth, beauty, and goodness, as well as distribute her divine largesse, former First Lady Imelda Trinidad Romualdez Marcos is muse, madwoman, and monster—a veritable Medusa whose very gaze, her age notwithstanding, may still have the power to stop the heart.

Although she appears to waver past the point of plausibility, especially when she purports to explain the secrets of the universe in arcane arrangements of circles, hearts, and non-sequiturs, Imelda is unavoidably real. How is one to make sense of her? After all, to be “Imeldific”—to be all that she is—is to be outsize, outlandish, and outrageous—to seem nearly unreal, because far, far beyond the pale of merely human imagining. How does one begin to approach, much less apprehend, Imelda—she who amassed thousands of shoes and precious gems, held countless night-long singing and dancing parties, went on manic million-dollar shopping sprees, had pilots circumnavigating the world for white sand and French cheese, claimed that the name “Romualdez” indicated lineage traceable to the rulers of ancient Rome, banished informal settlements behind whitewashed walls, erected a village of toilets on a lonely hill, transformed a farming village into a grandiose colonial town, miniaturized an entire archipelago into a theme park by the airport, and ordained a cultural queendom by the bay where once there was nothing but a wilderness of water? How does one start to understand a woman who, sometime last year, cried piteously that she was terribly poor, that she had been utterly ravaged, and then, a few months later, glided majestically into a concert in her honor during the 40th—the ruby—anniversary of the Cultural Center of the Philippines dripping with rubies?

This is the dilemma that The Red Shoes cannot help but grapple with, albeit in a significantly attenuated form: only the ghostly presence of the glittering Madame is present: as the titular pair stolen after the flight of the Marcoses from Malacañan. And yet the film, despite its admittedly laudable attempt, quails and fails before the specter of Imelda.

The beginning of the story is calculated to enchant: in 1986, when the presidential palace was invaded by protesters during the People Power Revolution, ten-year-old Lucas stumbled upon the massive shoe collection that Imelda left behind and took the red shoes. This early, however, the movie already stumbles, courtesy of a heavy-handed voice-over from Lucas: To his mother, he gave the right shoe (“Para sa katarungan“), while to Bettina, his first love, he gave the left one (“Para sa pag-ibig“). After that, The Red Shoes never manages to recover.

When the film flashes forward to 2009, it is revealed that Lucas (Marvin Agustin) and Bettina (Nikki Gil) are no longer together, while Lucas’s mother is still in deep mourning for her husband—a construction worker who had been among those lost during the Manila Film Center collapse—and continues to indulge an expensive obsession with talking to his spirit by consulting espiritistas. The events that have taken place in between 1986 and 2009 then clumsily and confusingly weave in and out of each other, interspersed with cutesy captions, an intrusive score, and very literal cinematography.

In such an environment, the relationship between Lucas and Bettina, while occasionally touching, never becomes completely believable. The highly artificial dialogue, for instance, drains the drama from a climactic confrontation and turns it into farce. The endlessly repeated motifs of feet and footwear do not help, particularly when Lucas’s father,  Domingo (Tirso Cruz III), appears in one 1980s scene wearing what seems to be a pair of Crocs flip-flops.

Worst of all, events of national significance are used in an instrumentalist manner—as little more than an inert backdrop to give unearned weight to a mostly conventional romance. In the end, neither the provenance of the footwear nor the historical auspices summoned matter at all.

Perhaps appropriately enough for a story that invokes Imelda, it is a campy medium, Madame Vange (Tessie Tomas), that gives the film its best moments.

That said, The Red Shoes is a wonderful portent of what can be done in Philippine cinema. If nothing else, the movie should be credited, and henceforth emulated, for attempting to mine the rich veins of the past—that complex edifice upon which the present is built—in order to create new material. As the former First Lady once said, “People want someone they can love, someone to set an example.”

Review: Estasyon (2009), directed by Cesar Apolinario

Estasyon. Dir. Cesar Apolinario. Perf. Mon Confiado, Klaudia Coronel, Christian Galindo, Diana Alferez. Huge Screen Small Pictures, 2009.

*

Directed by GMA-7 reporter Cesar Apolinario, the film is an exploration of the lives of two men who first encounter each other at the Feast of the Black Nazarene, an annual event that revolves around a wooden image that was brought to the Philippines on May 31, 1606 by a group of Augustinian Recollect missionaries. Opening with an awkwardly deployed comparison of life to travel by train (“Parang MRT ang buhay natin, maraming estasyon.”), Estasyon is unable to traverse the often considerable distance between intent and outcome—stuck, as it were, on its way out of the station due to lack of craft.

Martin (Mon Confiado), who provides the narration—or perhaps “pontification” would be more accurate—is a director making a documentary on the feast. While reviewing some footage in his van, he meets Christian (Christian Galindo), a young criminal on the run who has arrived in Quiapo all the way from Laguna. Christian, bearing a towel imprinted with the face of Jesus, wants to wipe the Black Nazarene with it, an act by which his sick mother, Hermie (Klaudia Koronel), might be miraculously cured.

Martin takes an interest in Christian’s quest, and offers his help in exchange for an interview, which establishes Christian as a central figure in the documentary. Some time later, wanting to round out his project, Martin goes to Christian’s hometown, and discovers what have befallen Christian and Hermie since the day of the feast.

The narrative seems to assume a highly credulous audience over the course of its development. For instance, when Martin and his crew, guided by Hermie, set off to find Christian, they leave their van behind and trudge for hours through fields and over hills, because Hermie knows no other way. It turns out later that the location of Christian happens to be along a busy street. The useless journey is embarked upon merely for expository purposes.

The allegorical pretensions of the story are apparent as early as the opening credits, and the trials of Christian are not so much parallel to the Passion of Jesus as they are forced to be parallel. That his surname is “De Jesus” is the very height of contrivance and condescension: Does the audience need to bludgeoned into understanding and appreciation?

In addition, although ostensibly a commentary on the futility of Filipino folk Christianity, Estasyon has several bad meta-filmic moments: Martin regularly expresses bitterness and frustration at the stifling, because profit-oriented, demands of the movie industry, as if profit and merit were mutually exclusive. In one melodramatic scene he is shown breaking apart discs of what he considers inferior work. Such a judgment does not appear to be based on considerations of artistic excellence, however: Martin just takes the much-worn moral high road and condemns both “bold” movies (i.e., soft-core pornography) and gay movies as meaningless—the silent assertion being that the two are might as well be interchangeable—while valorizing the documentary, as though genre were a guarantee of the significance of the final product.

Why Estasyon has been touted as subtle is, to put it frankly, incomprehensible, unless one believes that a runaway freight train hurtling off a cliff and into a canyon with several resounding explosions, which then cause the mountainside to blaze up in a conflagration that only goes out after several hours of dedicated firefighting, finally resulting in thousands of deaths, not to mention severe damage to wildlife, is subtle.