Monday, November 10, 2014

Elwood Perez's "Esoterika Maynila" - Contemporary Realities

In Manila, there’s a healthy dose of mayhem and magic.

Who knows this better than Mario (Ronnie Liang), a naïve nursing student who's on a trail of self discovery. While working as a cook in a Chinese restaurant, he meets Donato (Federico Olbes) and Mona (Adelle Aura). In their presence, Mario discovers his penchant for the arts and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Enamored by the beautiful Mona, the strapping lad starts a relationship with the besotted “widow”. Meanwhile, Donato introduces him to a motley of eccentric characters, including a photographer, a tourist guide, a writer, and a graphic artist. Then comes Raul (Vince Tanada), a frustrated opera singer who’s desperate for work. 

Donato is in love with Raul who begrudgingly sleeps with his elderly benefactor in exchange for favors: Donato lends him a car; takes him to meet prospective producers; offers a room in his apartment, etc. But unknown to Raul, Donato has plans of moving overseas. To make matters worse, the elder gentleman’s fortunes are fast dwindling. 

Out of Raul’s chagrin, he submits himself into the dark corners of the city, losing himself in drugs and the lure of seedy cinemas where the flesh trade takes him to a netherworld.

One day, while on a train, Mario sees Solita (Solita del Sol), an enigmatic girl who has infatuated him so. He breaks up with the disgruntled Mona (who turns out to be a transgender), and starts pursuing the elusive Solita. Mario is further introduced to exciting experiences so foreign from his sensibilities - and he likes them. He meets Carlos (Carlos Celdran), a tourist guide, who reminds him that what molds people is his past. This is a country that spent “300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood”. Carlos takes Mario to his lover Tessa (Tesa Martinez), a photographer who convinces Mario to model for her. But what Mario belatedly finds out is that Carlos and Tessa are “frustrated vampires”. On occasion, they wear fangs and role-play the part.

Things come to a head when Mario gets pursued by Raul who’s agonizing over his sexual relationship with Donato, unaware of the latter's love for him. Things downspiral when Raul learns that his movie project isn’t pushing through. Will Mario find his way in the realm of artists and the elite? How will Raul survive without Donato’s money or influence?

Elwood Perez’sEsoterika Maynila” isn't for everyone, thus the apropos titling. But its unlikely charm rests in its idiosyncratic story telling and psychedelic vibe. It is whimsical and occasionally bewildering. The script, co-written by Perez and Jessica Zafra, has an astute sense of dynamism and intelligence. The story could have benefited from a judicious splicing of a number of narrative strains. But Perez imbues it with adequate verve and dedication that despite its flaws, the audience is taken for a capricious, albeit captivating ride. It veers into “Crying Game” territory (and you see this a mile away) then gets right back to its intended course.

You can’t miss the film's homoerotic flourishes. Three of its characters are transgenders (Gilda played by Boots Anson-Roa, Mona and Solita); there are fellating scenes between Raul and Donato, then again between Raul and a male prostitute inside a cinema; and there’s Solita’s full frontal revelation. (Yup, no need to blink. It hangs down in its full flaccid glory.)

Liang’s liplocking scenes with the epileptic Tanada feel irrelevant. You have a sneaking suspicion that they're set up for Tanada's amusement than to move the narrative. It would have been easier to swallow if Tanada studied his convulsive fits more realistically. Like a true patron of modern day Pink Cinema, Perez unnecessarily includes a nocturnal scene with Liang waking up while one of his cousins masturbate on his bed. And the point being...? But the film’s brave indulgences are refreshing. If anything, this is largely unforeseen because I absolutely hated Perez’s pretentious opus “Otso” (2013).  

Ronnie Liang has an imposing presence. His handsome face and sculpted frame make him a worthy protagonist because despite his passive demeanor, he is able to command attention. While it is true that Liang is occasionally too stolid and too tentative to persuade us of his character, he benefits from the early “innocent demeanor” of the naive provinciano. After all, his character is on a journey of self discovery. On paper, it's easy to believe that he represents the chaste soul who eventually gets corrupted by the inherent vices and conceit of the big city. He required coaching in some scenes, like when he suddenly jeers, "Abominable! But that's sodomy!" It was too awkwardly and painfully delivered that for the rest of the screening, I suffered from diction-induced visceral toothache.

Vince Tanada, on the other hand, continues to repel us with his over-the-top histrionics. It would be instructive to tell him to temper down his theatrics because his emotive skills are too obvious, too crass that at some point he comes off as either annoying or just plain silly. Federico Olbes, in his geriatric debut, is a find. His skill is raw and at times gawky, but his look and stance (not to mention his vacillations to French, Spanish and English lines) provide a delectable character to the twisted story.

The film likewise gathers an enviable line-up of personalities doing cameos: John Hall, Snooky, Serna (her scenes are from Lance Raymundo’s indie flick, “Fidel”); Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, Jessica Zafra (who looked too pained to be in front of the camera), Tessa-Prieto-Valdez, singer OJ Mariano,  

Perez has painted a cinematic canvas of an urban landscape where impossibilities unravel. It isn't always a pretty picture, but they are part of contemporary reality. In the film, there’s an unsettling acknowledgement of the presence of fetishes and of what others would deem as deviant. Somewhere in its exposition is a subtle appeal for acceptance or tolerance. They don't make hindrances to one's notion of success.   

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