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Comic book hero

LAMBERTO AVELLANA’s Lapu-Lapu (1955) is about as straightforward a biopic as you can get about the famed Mactan warrior, other than the fact that this was adapted from Francisco Coching’s highly romanticized (to put it mildly) komiks (comics) serial.

Springs eternal

MIKE DE LEON mentioned in passing that “Huk, despite the propaganda, in my opinion, remains one of the best Avellana films. Along with Pag-asa.”

Quietly, delicately breaking our heart

GIVE IT to master Filipino filmmaker Lamberto Avellana: he knows how to start a picture. Badjao had a horn blown to gather a village of house canoes, forming a seaborne village; Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay began with a detonating grenade; Anak Dalita evoked Roberto Rossellini in neorealist mode, tracing the ruin of a church from its fractured belfry to the people teeming at the base of its crumbling walls. Kundiman ng Lahi (Folksong, 1959), Avellana’s last film for LVN studios, trumps them all I think: no blown horn, no explosives, no church ruins, just the monotonous thumping of a wood pestle milling rice in a mortar. An obvious symbol — we’re the rice, the husk (our innocence, our sensitivity) pounded out of us by the relentless pestle — but also a sexual one, the phallic pestle pounding into the accepting mortar, turning hard seed into tender food.

Survivor type

YET ANOTHER Lamberto Avellana film on Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake vimeo site, this one arguably his most famous: Anak Dalita, or Child of Sorrow (1956).

Waterworld

THE FILM Badjao or The Sea Gypsies (1957) starts with an image of waves lapping onto shore, the divide between land and sea stretching diagonally across the screen. With his first frame Lamberto Avellana (collaborating with the great cinematographer Mike Accion) summarizes what the film will be all about: the tension between sand and surf, between people of differing loyalties, communities, ethnicities. A man standing beside a roof of dried palm raises his horn against a clouded sky and blows; cue the bombast (and lovely lilting melody) of Francisco Buencamino, Jr.’s theme music.

Sex tape

JOSELITO ALTAREJOS’ Jino to Mari (Gino and Marie, 2019), about a pair of sex workers hired to do a Japanese porn film, is (to put it mildly) fairly explicit — about as explicit as a Filipino independent film probably gets nowadays without actually being porn.

Rebel yell

AVAILABLE ON filmmaker Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake Vimeo site: Lamberto Avellana’s postwar drama Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life, 1953), about a wartime guerrilla who, out of desperation, joins communist forces seeking to overthrow the Filipino government. Produced by De Leon’s grandmother Doña Narcisa de Leon, it was unabashedly anticommunist pro-American propaganda, the third such effort by Doña Sisang’s LVN Studios. The print on this website — a not-especially-clear recording from a DVD — emphasizes the slant: some of the dialogue is in English, and much of the Filipino dialogue is overdubbed with English narration, reportedly by Avellana himself, carefully explaining the motivation of characters and significance of each scene: “If I had known then what Maxie (Joseph de Cordova) really represented, things might have been different.”

Breaking bad

STEVE MCQUEEN’s Widows is a sketch of urban corruption, a low-key indictment of racism and (a touch louder) misogyny, a rich character study. It’s also a hell of a crime pic.

Family business

HIROKAZU KORE-EDA’s latest film Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku, 2018) begins with as unremarkable an opening as possible: a father and his son enter a grocery, split up to walk down separate aisles. Only father and son keep throwing each other sidelong glances and hand signals; only son does a little finger twiddle that we’ll see from time to time; only when a clerk working nearby glances at son, the father walks up to block the clerk’s view while the son drops several packets of instant ramen into his backpack. Graceful bit of choreography, made casual by long practice, understated yet captivating in its intricacy.

Bifocal

It isn’t as if the life of Vincent Van Gogh hasn’t been adapted for the big screen before. Lust for Life was Vincente Minnelli’s lustily melodramatic take (based on Irving Stone’s novel), with Kirk Douglas holding little back as he strained to suggest Vincent’s intensity; Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo focused on the relationship between the Van Gogh brothers and their destructively parallel course; Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh — easily the most unsentimental of the group — presents a harsh, uningratiating view of a harsh, uningratiating artist, avoiding the traditional highlights (including that ear thing) and focusing on more quotidian activities — Pialat doesn’t even make much effort to show the paintings, or approximate Vincent’s unmistakable style onscreen.

Swamped

FIRST the title: Kangkungan — literally, swamp (or water) spinach patch. A highly nutritious green that flourishes in canals and fishponds all over the Philippines, often sautéed with fermented shrimp paste and minced garlic. What’s the significance?

The apple of her eye

YORGOS LANTHIMOS’ latest film The Favourite may be his oddest yet if you stop and consider his work so far, from breakthrough feature Dogtooth (about a family teaching a skewed view of the world to its walled-in children) to the recent The Killing of a Sacred Deer (about a curse hovering over a physician’s family), where metaphorical fantasy and (better yet) the much odder machinations of human nature give his films a memorably loopy spin.

Gone girl

I CAN’T think of a more ambiguous, more elliptical, more unsettling film last year — or, for that matter, the past several years — than Lee Chang Dong’s latest, Burning. Like its eponymous action, the film transforms itself several times over, from a chance encounter to a budding affair to an intricately constructed and frankly mystifying triangle to something else entirely (among other things, a missing person search and a stalking) — each stage combusting material, releasing volatiles, sending soot and ash and smoke tumbling upwards to form suggestive shapes.

Odd couple

A FARRELLY movie up for the Oscars?

Reprise

HERE’S A pretty pickle: how do you follow after the work of arguably one of the greatest animated studios in recent decades? With the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki and the shuttering of Studio Ghibli (actually old news: he has come out of retirement and the studio has since unshuttered) many of the people who worked there established their own outfit, Studio Ponoc, and this film — Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Meari to Majo no Hana), helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There, Secret World of Arrietty) is their debut offering.

Angerman

PANOS COSMATOS’ Mandy is a trip through a tabletop landscape dotted with scenic views and sudden detours, with long sessions of intravenous pleasure, with jolts of hilarity and horror.

The hate list

FROM WHERE I’m standing it’s been a fearful year, an angry year, a hateful year; a rollercoaster ride, a terror-filled plunge, a horror show.

The immortal story

ORSON WELLES died in October 1985; his latest film, The Other Side of the Wind, was released in November 2018.