Thursday, September 25, 2014

Percival Intalan's "Dementia" - Deafening versus Horrifying

After 37 years, Mara (Nora Aunor) makes an unexpected homecoming to a remote town in Batanes. She’s suffering from Dementia, a clinical condition where cognitive and intellectual functions are sufficiently impaired, thus requiring close supervision and care. She’s mostly in the fog, forgets people and things, and is unable to function productively. Her cousin Elaine (Bing Loyzaga), along with husband Rommel (Yul Servo) and daughter Rachel (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), has flown back from the U.S. for a 7-week sabbatical to facilitate Mara’s discharge from the hospital as well as her transport to the tempestuous islands (Batan, Sabtang). Rommel is understandably peeved, and Rachel is mostly indifferent. But Elaine, the only person Mara remembers, grew up under Mara’s care, and owes her elder cousin a great deal.

In a somnolent town where electricity shuts off at 9 PM, Mara is left to meander this vaguely familiar house made of stone and thatched roof. 

Hopefully, this would steer her to remember things from her past. But in a creaky old house incessantly fanned by strong winds from the Pacific, there’s more to Mara’s abandoned memories, encapsulated in a journal she’s been keeping.

Mara starts seeing visions of a girl wearing vakul (a traditional Ivatan head gear made of straws used for protection against the sun, wind and rain) and a ghoulish maiden wearing a wedding gown. Mara also gets hold of a mysterious amulet with a hole in the middle. Then flashbacks start rushing by.

As a young girl, orphaned Mara was taken in by the Fabre couple who, unknown to the young girl (Althea Vega), has been keeping an intellectually challenged daughter named Olivia (Chynna Ortaleza) away from the prying eyes of the public. Mara soon realizes how she would figure in the household - as Olivia’s guardian and friend. The girls grew up affectionate of each other until Mara falls in love with a young man who then proposes to marry the dusky lass. In a fit of jealousy, Olivia stabs Mara’s beau. The situation briskly escalates into one of morbid consequences.

There’s much promise in Jun Lana’s story. Unfortunately, megman Percival Intalan’s directions leave much to be desired. Laid out as a psychological suspense thriller, the sluggishly told narrative soon falls prey to the wornout Asian horror cliché that makes use of sudden – and excruciatingly loud! – music/sound that eventually annoys more than it terrorizes. 

A door opens then a loud noise suddenly plays, and so on. Effective horror plays to our psyche, not bullyrag our auditory senses. And a story teller creates an atmosphere of impending doom. Lesser equipped film makers resort, on the other hand, to cheaper artifice, by creating “sudden noises” – the ones that actually break eardrums! Becoming deaf from movie watching isn't my idea of entertainment. I want to get pissing-in-my-knickers petrified, not deaf. This is why Von de Guzman's’ music and Addiss Tabiong's sound design contribute to Dementia’s faux pas as a cinematic chiller. Music and sound should enhance cinematic atmosphere, NOT call attention upon themselves. They shouldn't drown out the visual canvas. Of course, Intalan will be grateful to De Guzman and Tabiong because the pair was able to “jolt” the audience out of their ennui when this should have been the job of the story teller.

Plot crawls in dilatory fashion. Even as an atmospheric drama, Renei Dimla’s script should be circumspect. Instead it was nothing but patchy. One scene tries to explain Olivia’s relative “anonymity” through a sound byte from one of the characters, “Batang bata pa kasi sila nung namatay si Olivia” (thus most barrio folks weren’t made aware of Olivia’s presence). But even if you doze off between Mackie Galvez’s confoundingly underlit scenes, you would know that Mara and Olivia both grew up into adults. How else would Mara find romance? Was Olivia really kept behind the stone walls of the Fabre abode? Highly unlikely. You see the girls playing around the vast wind-swept landscape of Batanes. In a small town with a population less than a hundred, can you really keep a moving, breathing, living being under wraps?         

Bing Loyzaga unexpectedly keeps the story together as much as her character strings her otherwise divisive family. Loyzaga’s portrayal is so consistent you feel her strength amid internal strife. Jasmine Curtis-Smith is a joy to watch. Unlike her older sister, Jasmine never “overbakes” her characters. She’s temperate; and she steers clear from dramatic indulgences even when she’s already “possessed”. Truth be told, she is a gifted actress, managing to hold her ground and shine even in under-the-radar roles (Nika in Mike Alcazaren’sPuti”; Yael in Hannah Espia’sTransit”). Yul Servo, on the other hand, suffers from a one-note performance, making his presence disposable and forgettable. In fact, when Olivia’s ghost finally stabs Yul with a knife, Bing immediately abandons and forgets him. She instead runs after Jasmine and the wandering Nora. Bing was inconsolable when she realizes that Nora’s “gone”. Meanwhile, she forgets her husband Yul altogether. Didn't I say “disposable”?   

Perci Intalan's directorial debut is one blustery noise and blundering ambition. I was more horrified watching the video of a young Indian man being attacked by a white Bengal tiger in a Delhi Zoo. That didn't require sudden loud noises, blood spurting out of stones or crawling anophthalmic brides. What's better, I didn't have to pay a dime for it to scare me.  

Nora Aunor's grasp of the clinical condition seems dicey. Cognition, which refers to the "quality" of knowing, perceiving, recognizing, sensing, reasoning or imagining, isn't the equivalent of "amnesia" or "Alzheimer's Disease". Nora, on the other hand, refuses to interact with her surroundings, unless they're fueled by visual or aural hallucinations. She doesn't listen to people talking to her and sees way past them even when she's directly facing them. You'd somehow suspect she was "deaf and mute" more than demented. Or just maybe she's revisiting her role in Lamangan's "Sidhi"? She would occasionally look at their faces, smile a half-second grin, then it would disappear as fast as it came. Now that was scary. I heard someone whisper, "Ay, parang baliw!" This doesn't bode well for a narrative that necessitates a glimpse of familial articulation. More than her illness, Mara is too disconnected not just from her relationship with her family or her environment, but with the whole story as well.

La Aunor has had a spate of movie roles that showcase her thespic chops to unflattering light. Yes, the Superstar is Philippine show business’ most intuitive actress, and the capacity of her eyes to highlight man's nethermost empathy is stuff made of legends. Her acumen is mostly based on instinct. She takes to the vision of her director then she brilliantly expounds and creates from it. But her instinctual proclivity also places her at a disadvantage when her director has but a mere incipient grasp of his vision.

This year, Nora Aunor has appeared in Joel Lamangan’sHustisya” where she inhabits the persona of a foul-mouthed Biring who facilitates the human trafficking business of childhood friend Divina (Rosanna Roces). In the movie, Nora navigates the backwaters of an intricate underground syndicate while constantly worrying about her missing son Michael (Jeric Gonzales, who's also in "Dementia" playing the helpful trike driver Vincent). 

Though Nora may have won her Balanghai trophy for "Hustisya" as Best Actress for the Director’s Showcase, this was mostly due to the dearth of female lead parts in the showcase category. In fact, the film was dubious all the way through. At best, La Aunor was a fish out of water. If you believed her characterization in it, you’d be the most impressionable dingbat this side of Lala-land. I kept wincing on how acutely awkward she was with her half-baked profanities. One couldn't help but consider Gina Pareno (playing Amy) who essayed a character congruent to Biring's in Jeffrey Jeturian’s “Kubrador”.


Now imagine Vilma Santos donning Biring’s shoes. Wouldn't that create gargantuan sparks – no, make it fireworks! - where Aunor was only able to spew fumes off a dying chimney. Get my drift? So much has been written about those legendary eyes but when Lamangan chose to end his convoluted story with a close-up of a severely wrinkly protagonist laughing away until screen “freezes over”, I was transported into a maelstrom of epiphany. Some extreme close-ups aren't meant to be. There's just too much of them even here in "Dementia". 

Nora Aunor, in all her legendary glory, has limitations. Wasn't she miscast in Leroy Salvador’s 1985 ouvre “Beloved” while portraying the rich and sophisticated heroine? In Jun Lana’s Barber’s Tale”, did anyone smoothly swallow Aunor’s character as a guerrilla leader “hook, line and sinker”? I didn't. She was (again) miscast. The “special role” was so fallacious it would have benefitted the film if it ended up in the cutting room floor. Truth is, you can’t just place Nora Aunor on an apple box and let her transform herself into someone else she’s not. Not everything in cinelandia is applicable to her smoldering pair of Laura Mars eyes.

My point here is, while it is true that Nora Aunor is a brilliant actress, she isn't the most versatile. Comparisons are inevitable with Vilma Santos who, of late, has been overshadowed by Aunor’s spate of lifetime achievement awards and National Artist ascriptions. But while Aunor has “Dementia”, Santos appeared in the better-crafted “The Healing” which raked in P110 million, 2012’s 3rd Filipino film to gross over the P100-million mark. Which film was Cinemalaya 2013’s “box office champion” – Santos’ “Ekstra”.

As I was challenged and asked by a bungling idiot: How much did "Ekstra" earn during its commercial run? Insiders place it at P67.3 million. Let's conservatively round that up to P60 million. Surely that's way, way over what "Thy Womb" earned at the MMFF where it was unceremoniously and heartbreakingly pulled out from majority of the cinemas just 3 days after it opened on Christmas Day. Director Brillante Mendoza had to "beg" the cinema owners in public, on TV news and on print to retain it in cinemas. The 7-day haul amounted to an embarrassing P13 million, a far cry from the second "kulelat" (tailender), "El Presidente" which earned P33 million. And if you aren't "demented", you'd readily remember that both "Thy Womb" and "El Presidente" had Nora Aunor in the cast! Even their cumulative earnings of P46 million could hardly compare to "Ekstra's" P67.3 million.


Those irascible, irrational and blindly loyal Noranians could ride on their cumulative P46 million vehicle, "sumakay pa silang lahat" , it's really a no-brainer. How much did  "Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti" earn when it had its one week run at the Gateway last year? Drum roll, please! You bet, they were ecstatic to earn less than P50,000 - for ONE WHOLE WEEK screening! Divide that with the ticket price of P200, that's a mere 250 people occupying a 500-seater cinema hall that has 4 screenings a day for 7 days! Makes you wonder - how many die-hard Noranians are existing today - 250? How miniscule. Even if each of them would watch the film 3x in one week, they couldn't recoup expenses for the use of cinema, electricity, payment of ushers and projectionist, and airconditioning. Do they know how to count? The Philippines has a population of 100 million. And Nora can only coax 250 to watch her movie? It just makes me cry. Cinema, after all, is still business. People making films and screening movies should also earn. Otherwise, the cinema as we know it would die a natural death. That's a sad reality that people who love movies would have to cogitate on.


Just mere two days after its opening, Dementia has already been pulled out from majority of its theaters, including places where you'd expect bigger Aunor patrons, like SM San Lazaro, SM Fairview and SM North Edsa. One guy wrote about his movie watching today and he shared, "There were just seven of us in the cinema," then corrected himself, "Ay, anim pala." On a busy Saturday? Maybe it was a block screening? LOL. If you say you're a Noranian, watch it now while it's still available in few cinemas in Metro Manila. Otherwise, you'd have to fly to Misamis Oriental, Pangasinan, Baguio, or worse, South Cotabato just to catch a sleep-inducing, closeup-rich movie. Ironically, even in Aunor's hometown of Albay, they choose not to screen it anymore (Bichara Silverscreens and Pacific Mall) preferring to show the comedic "Maria Leonora Teresa" (on its 3rd week), the name of the doll given by Nora's erstwhile boyfriend Pip to the then-phenomenal singer sometime in the 70's. Yes, Virginia, even three ugly dolls do better than La Aunor at the box office. Ouch.

Now, which other actress from the 70’s has the same mainstream-drawing power 5 decades later? But we’re not talking about box office clout, right? It's an exquisitely sensitive matter for some. (wink wink) On record, Santos is believable playing rich, poor, middle class, prostitute, nun, half-fish, superhero, bit player. Let's add governor to that varied resume. Aunor is believable playing pauper, abused or the down trodden and... errr, Super Gee? (Of course there's a few more colorful real-life "resume" worth adding here, but let me refrain from doing that for now. Tee hee.)

Nora Aunor may have made herself relevant in the contemporary independent film scene, but she should be careful when picking projects that gravely compromise her strength as an actress. Not every indie film maker has the aptitude of Brillante Mendoza (“Thy Womb”) and Mes de Guzman (“Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti”). Remember Mark Meilly’s “El Presidente”? Remind me again who looked laughably ridiculous playing Aguinaldo's aging wife? Or maybe the interchangeable indies no one came to watch prior to La Aunor’s jubilant  homecoming: Suzette Ranillo’s Home Care” and Joey Romero’sIngrata”? Bad films don’t exactly contribute to becoming a “National Artist”.  I hope Adolf Alix’sPadre de Pamilia” and “Whistle Blower” do better.    


manny said...

Nonsense blog..It DOENT make you smart using "high-falluting " just to impress reader.. pity...

Cathy Pena said...

Poor, poor Manny dear,

There is no such thing as "high-falluting" in the English dictionary. Promise.

Maybe you meant "highfalutin" which is actually one word, single "L" and more importantly without a "g". Haha.

Your simple mindedness actually brings me a LOT of joy. Haha. I needed the laugh today (such a comedian!) because traffic was so bad. My yaya was getting impatient already and even my driver was cranky. Heaven bless the nitwits and birdbrains. Aww, soooo cute! ;)

"Just to impress reader?" Try "readers" - This particular post has been read and shared by so many people already - a LOT MORE than the long-dwindling number of Noranians who are as noisy while "Dementia" is gathering eggs in cinemas.

The travails of a simple minded dingbat who considers my blog "a nonsense" yet takes his sweet time to actually and "painfully" write to it.

Clearly, I do NOT write for imbeciles. Besides, there's barely anything fancy in the words I use unless you're an idiot who considers simple,albeit precise words as complicated. Level up na, 'Te. Getting a dictionary won't kill you. (Yes, that little book that defines English words?!) Or I can pay for YOUR basic elementary education. Hahaha!

Cathy Pena said...


"One more thingS?" ONE na nga, plural pa! Hahaha! Your teachers must have lost their hair teaching you simple English, hon! Tsk tsk tsk!

"Someones's...?" Bwahahaha! Hesusmaruyahusep! Tagalugin kasi kung di kaya ang English, 'Te. Hahaha!You just might croak from hypovolemia secondary to nose bleed! Hahaha.

You are right, my dear. Am not gonna allow you to pepper this space with your IDIOCY and embarrass yourself further. But I have to give it to you, you are way too funny. A natural comedian indeed. Awww shocks! Sooooo cute! Hahaha. Keep sending your comedic borborygmus! Ooopsss, nose bleed country again. Hahahaha! Calling Red Cross! Calling Red Cross!