Monday, December 22, 2014

Jason Paul Laxamana's "Magkakabaung" - A Gem in a Festival

Randy Alcantara (Allen Dizon) lives a facile, albeit joyless life as a single parent to sickly 8 year old Angeline (Felixia Crysten Dizon) in bucolic San Vicente where dust settles on crops and its murky river. Randy is a coffin maker in nearby Santo Tomas where he takes home P285 for a day of carpentry work. A devout father to his child, Randy’s only vice is mischievous town beauty Neri (Chanel Latorre) who mostly takes him for a ride in exchange of phone load and the occasional night out at the cinema. One day, Randy, along with his colleagues, gets hired for an overnighter to rush 60 coffins for a Congressman’s charity project. This will earn him P800 and a day off work thereafter.

Before rushing to work, Randy buys antibiotics (Amoxicillin) for Angeline who’s febrile and coughing, and tells her to take the medicine while he’s out to work. Later that night, Randy comes home to a child who’s barely breathing. He rushes Angeline to the hospital, but it was too late. Fraught with guilt for having given his daughter a drug she’s allergic to, Randy is helplessly unhinged. What’s worse, his P800 salary doesn’t suffice to claim his daughter’s corpse. Where will he get P1,500 to pay the hospital bills?

But like an expeditious reply to his cry for help, Pablo Canda (Emilio Garcia) comes along offering him P2,000, saying “We’ll settle this loan later”. Canda turns in profits by peddling corpses, albeit illegally, to medical schools in need of cadavers. Now, Randy is torn between selling his daughter’s dead body for a P20,000 profit or paying Mr. Canda P10,000 so Randy could finally take home Angeline who now lies in Mr. Canda’s funeral home.

In the morning, Randy makes an unexpected visit to Mabel (Gladys Reyes), Angeline’s biological mother, now blissfully married to an American. He asks for her help so they could claim Angeline’s corpse. Mabel acquiesces. After all, Angeline is her daughter too. But she wants Angeline’s body to undergo autopsy. “Ako na’ng bahala,” she insists. This presents a dilemma for the still-discombobulated Randy who’s aware that he could be pinned down for his daughter’s untimely demise. What to do?

The film tells its story like a slow burn, thus you won't miss any of the salient points the film tries to convey. This richness of ideas thrives within the story: lessons on self-medication; single parenthood; desperation of people who treat corpses like salable commodities; that sending a dead body to a hospital can cost you P2,300; and the anecdote of the coffin maker who eventually ends up making one for his own daughter.

Allen Dizon, as Randy Alcantara, makes a career-best performance that unusually reeks with cinematic paradox, i.e. emotive vulnerability and confidence we’ve never seen from the actor’s previous works. Without any hint of awkwardness we usually find him in (e.g. Joel Lamangan’sKamkam” and Joven Tan’s “Paupahan”), Dizon immersively loses himself in portraying the beleaguered father who may have caused his daughter’s death. His character is adequately entangled in a bind where the harder he tries to extricate himself out of his self-inflicted predicament; the deeper he digs himself a hole. And there seemingly is no light, or ladder if you will, at the end of the tunnel.

Director Laxamana makes adequate use of the region’s local color, giving the film a crisp atmosphere that’s typically rural and a visually fresh scenography. He likewise succeeds using local language to convey a deceptively laidback atmosphere without alienating his audience (i.e. those who don’t understand Kapampangan or are allergic – not just to Amoxicillin – but to subtitles as well). What’s better, his ensemble is a commendable lot: Gladys Reyes, Chanel Latorre, Emilio Garcia, Bor Ocampo and even the comebacking former-sexy star Tonio Ortigas all contribute to a suspenseful cautionary tale. 

Jason Paul Laxamana’s “Magkakabaung” (The Coffin Maker) benefits from the script’s anti-drama swerve, refusing to spiral down into melodramatic sentimentalism despite obvious avenues into the story. Laxamana deftly employs long takes to tell his narrative sequences; a ploy that usually requires patience, precise blockings and time-consuming rehearsals or re-takes. What unravels before you is an organic flow of events - and a very cohesive story telling that’s hard to shake off. Laxamana’s compelling yarn-spinning feels like the perfect delivery of a promise seen in his earlier works, “Astro Mayabang” and “Babagwa”. There are a few misplaced snippets (like the scene showing the “possessed or convulsing girl”) but most of the details harmoniously settle into a fully realized cinematic work. Without a doubt, “Magkakabaung” is my favorite; it is undoubtedly this MMFF New Wave edition’s best picture, and one the year’s finest.


While we're at it, you may not want to miss Zsa zsa Padilla's delectable turn as the cancer-stricken, foul-mouthed lawyer Bella Monteclaro in Zig Dulay's  "M (A Mother's Maiden Name)" where Nico Antonio likewise delivers a spot-on portrayal as Joven, Bella's gay son. Dulay's film is peppered with hilarious one-liners that render this film its stab of irony, i.e. to be funny despite its theme tackling morbidity and mortality. Get this: Bella dresses down her secretary with a caustic one-liner: "Mas madami sigurong tanga sa mundo kung hindi mo sinasarili." Nga naman. Or when she says, "Allergic ako sa pretensions. Nangangati ako sa plastic." Or when Bella discusses the essence of real beauty with son Joven and he says, "Ang ganda ay di nakikita sa labas, kundi nasa kalooban ng tao." Bella counters this with, "Yan ang argument ng mga pangit."

The film eventually takes a road trip that uproots Bella to a small town where her mayordoma, Manang Minda (Gloria Sevilla) lives to tend to her sick daughter Liway (Sue Prado). This chapter somehow meanders, but is leavened by scenes involving Joven and a strapping barrio lad named Anton Tumacder, middle named "Malaki" played with flirtatious mien by Marx Topacio and the adorable Nico Antonio who never resorts to thespic excesses common among "screen fags". Yes, not all gays are screaming, flaming fags. Antonio's restrained act smacks of discipline. His performance frames Padilla's acerbic disposition; Antonio's "yang" to Padilla's "yin". And they make a truly complementary pair too pleasant to ignore.  

Arlyn dela Cruz's "Maratabat" is a cautiously made, must-see flick that should remind people of the excesses of power. While Kristoffer King is rightfully sinister as doped out Mayor Ismael, we have trouble picturing his deportment as mayorly, and we require just a hint of this. You get no argument from me though on the fact that he was vicious and scary. His rape scene with Chanel Latorre is particularly jarring, and should not be watered down by mere suggestions. It deserved to be captured on cam. Ping Medina (playing Ronwaldo Maharlika) may have an uncanny semblance to Mr.Toto Mangudadatu, but Medina's performance is compromised by a technical flaw in his delivery of lines - a bothersome breathing technique. His inhalatory excursions are placed midway between sentences, and are thus disturbing. This is most obvious in his speech before his supporters to announce his candidacy as governor of the province running head-on against a sturdy political nemesis Salvador Abubakar (Julio Diaz). It felt like he was going into an asthmatic exacerbation.

We're not quite sure how to "digest" Ma. Diane Ventura's "Mulat" and it's confounding vicious cycle of arguments and counter-arguments about relationships. At some point, it got too exhausting I just wanted them to break up already and just shut their yappers. Take your dose of lithium already, Samantha. One thing's sure though, Loren Burgos is a cinematic find though she needs to work on her "crying technique". You cannot sob away like there's no tomorrow sans tears, unless you have Nasolacrimal Duct Obstruction, but then that's remediable. An ophthalmologist can irrigate on your lacrimal duct for 5 minutes and then you're good as new. If however, for some reason you want to acquire a slice (or two) of tension headache amid lush cinematography, try Ato Bautista's "Gemini". And bring two boxes of super-strength, extended release Ibuprofen with you.   

Guaranteed tension headache.

Mabel receives news of her daughter's untimely demise.


Nico Antonio said...

Thank you. Hope you enjoyed :-)

Cathy Pena said...

Hi Nico. Congratulations are in order. Your Joven is one of the year's finest. It was a pleasure watching you beside the divine Zsa zsa Padilla. :)

Skilty said...

I think, though, that King's "unmayor-like" deportment is one of the film's messages, that some people really have no business being politicians, but they get elected only because they are children of trapos.

What did you think of Julio Diaz? Medyo cartoonish pero natatawa ako sa ginawa nya, in a good way.

I agree with your take on Burgos. She's ok in non-crying scenes pero teh, pwede namang mag-Visine kung wala talagang lumabas na luha!

Cathy Pena said...

Hi Skilty,

Yes, I considered that it could have been the film maker's deliberate move to show King as such, but you see, mostly, the political platform is one big "showbiz" affair. At some point, these politicians will show to their public what their public wants to see, i.e. to "give them a show" regardless of how transient it is. This was what I was looking for; even a glimpse of this. Even the worst of them will "pretend" to have deportment congruent to their elected position. Thus my commentary on King's.

Julio Diaz was okay. I think the scene where he and son King were "actively snorting cocaine" before a not-exactly-great-supporter commandant was a bit of a farce. It sort of pushed the envelope.

Burgos is great with her spoken lines (and she registered impressively on screen) so she could be a great "theater actress" where a spoken-and-heard exposition is paramount. I was just bothered with a couple of scenes where, despite her sobbing, there were no tears. I did forget to mention that Jake Cuenca was great in the movie and so was Ryan Eigenmann.

Happy New Year, Skilty. :)