Respeto


Rapping is worldwide, son.

(2017) Drama (Arkeofilms) Abra, Dido de la Paz, Loonie, Kate Alejandrino, Silverster Bagadiong, Brian Arda, Thea Yrastorza, Nor Domingo, Yves Bagadion, Chai Fonacier. Directed by Treb Monteras II

The Philippines have had a rough go of it. After enduring years of dictatorship under Ferdinand Marcos, it seemed like they’d finally gotten past that and were on the right track – until they elected Rodrigo Duterte. Now it’s the bad old days all over again.

In the poverty-stricken Pandacan district of Manila, young Hendrix (Abra) aspires to be a rapper. He lives with his sister Connie (Yrastorza) and her drug-dealing boyfriend Mando (Arda). When Hendrix takes money from Mando without permission to use as an entry fee into a rap battle (and which he loses somewhat ignominiously), Hendrix and his posse Betchai (Fonacier) and Payaso (Bagadion) attempt to rob a local bookstore which ends up badly. Hendrix is ordered to help clean up the mess he made. Doc (de la Paz), the proprietor, is a poet himself and wrote protest poems during the Marcos regime. The two form an odd bond, as Doc becomes a mentor to the young would-be rapper.

There are parallels in their lives; Doc had to watch helplessly while his family was abused by Marcos’ thugs while Hendrix was forced to watch impotently while the object of his adolescent desire (Alejandrino) is raped by his biggest rival (Loonie). The frustrations of poverty in a crime-ridden world of drug lords, apathy and hopelessness lead to a shocking conclusion that even veteran moviegoers might not see coming.

First, the pluses; I was impressed with the social commentary here and frankly a little bit surprised; Duterte doesn’t exactly have a reputation of tolerating criticism very well. The film nonetheless got critical acclaim on the overseas festival circuit and even a brief theatrical release in the Philippines. I would expect that being compared to the rule of Marcos probably doesn’t sit well with Duterte.

Young Abra is also a very charismatic performer who on top of being ridiculously handsome also has a natural intensity that makes me think he could have a very distinguished career ahead of him. He keeps the audience’s attention whenever he’s on screen (which is most of the time). He stands out well above most of the rest of the cast, even de la Paz who has a couple of really good moments with the young actor.

Where there are pluses, there are often minuses and this being the debut feature for Monteras there are some of those. The most glaring of these is that in any ways this feels like an urban rap drama from the 1990s; it has a lot of the same clichés and while the ending of the film really rescues it, the rest of the movie feels very much like we’ve seen it all before. The movie also starts out a little bit bumpy as the plot feels a bit disjointed. Finally, the friendship between Hendrix and Doc feels very forced and while the characters have a lot in common, I never get the sense that Hendrix has the emotional maturity to befriend someone so much older. It just doesn’t feel natural.

Folks who aren’t into rap should be warned that there’s an awful lot of it on the soundtrack although to my definitely unpracticed ear it sounded pretty authentic and pretty good. This will be playing the New York Asian Film Festival on the 24th of July; while there are no immediate plans for an American release this may well eventually get something if a fearless distributor is willing to take a chance on it. There is certainly a market for this kind of film and even though I found it very flawed there is a lot that’s positive about it as well, if for nothing else to learn more about Filipino culture in the era of Duterte and Abra could well be a star in the making.

REASONS TO GO: Abra has a compelling screen presence.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie feels a bit dated. The friendship between Hendrix and Doc doesn’t feel organic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual references, a rape and some other disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the rap battle sequences, actual underground Pinoy rappers are used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 8 Mile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Age of Blood

Formosa Betrayed


Formosa Betrayed

James Van Der Beek goes in guns blazing.

(2009) Political Drama (Screen Media) James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, Tzi Ma, Will Tiao, John Heard, Tom Jay, Chelcie Ross, Leslie Hope, Kenneth Tsang, Adam Wang, Mintita Wattanakul, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Tonray Ho. Directed by Adam Kane

Most people are woefully uninformed. For the most part, it’s simply because we don’t want to be but even if we did we rarely get much truth from either the media or our governments. The way things appear to be are often not the way they are.

It all starts with what appeared to be a robbery gone bad. Professor Henry Wen (Foronda) is shot and killed by what appear to be ordinary carjackers. However, things begin to go sideways. The police discover that Wen was an outspoken opponent of the current regime in Taiwan (this movie takes place during the Reagan administration, by the way). The suspected killers appear to be Taiwanese nationals. The FBI is called in and Agent Jake Kelly (Van Der Beek) is assigned to the case. When the suspects flee to Taiwan, Kelly is sent after them – but as an observer, not a participant. The actual capture of the killers is left to the Taiwanese police.

This much is made clear by the starchy Susan Kane (Crewson), a liaison from the State Department. Kelly is immediately thrown into a curious charade that simply extrudes intrigue. He is sent to parties celebrating his arrival; the police are remarkably uncooperative when it comes to letting him in on any real investigation. Kelly begins to suspect that something is rotten in Formosa.

Kelly is contacted by friends of the late professor; Ming (Tiao) takes him on something of a tour of Taiwan’s underbelly, where the face of democracy is replaced by a corrupt military dictatorship. Ruthless and repressive, it soon becomes evident that the murder of the professor was in all likelihood ordered by the Taiwanese government. This is not good news; it would be a diplomatic nightmare if word got out that a United States citizen (Wen was of Taiwanese descent but was a citizen of the U.S.) had been murdered by a foreign government, particularly one we didn’t recognize.

I am pulled in different directions by this movie. On the one hand, it is about something that is not reported on often in the United States. For that reason, I admire the film’s content. However, the execution leaves much to be desired. The setting is done as a standard thriller with many of the clichés of the genre, with car chases, shadowy figures, shoot-outs and lantern-jawed heroes.

Van Der Beek, who is best-known as Dawson Leary from TV’s “Dawson’s Creek” is actually more than satisfactory in the FBI agent role. He gets across the character’s competency as well as his idealism while remaining a professional demeanor. It seems to me that an actual FBI agent in a similar situation would act with the same demeanor as Van Der Beek’s Jake would; however, his actions going all cowboy on the Taiwanese does seem a bit far-fetched, although it’s the kind of thing that gets forgiven in other movies with traditional action heroes in them. Crewson does a pretty good job as the diplomat who starts out by the book but ends up sympathetic. Heard is also a good fit as Van Der Beek’s superior.

I suppose because the subject matter was so compelling I wanted the rest of the movie to match up to it, and simply put, the writing seems a little bit formulaic to me. The actors try to work through it and do at least decent jobs in roles that are pretty much by-the-numbers, but the movie is rescued by a compelling story that is at least partially based on actual events, which makes the movie even more fascinating in my eyes.

WHY RENT THIS: Casts some light on events not well reported in this country.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfortunately, makes the setting a rather poorly executed potbroiler.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, some of it unexpected and jarring. There is also a torture scene that some may find disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released on DVD in Taiwan on November 10 and proceeded to set records for single-day and single-week sales in Taiwan.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $326,034 on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Fighter

Burma VJ


Burma VJ

A courageous videographer documents events from the Saffron Revolution.

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) “Joshua,” Aung San Suu Kyi. Directed by Anders Ostergaard

We take freedom for granted in a big way. While we can take the news we watch with a grain of salt, at least the government doesn’t completely censor any criticism of it with an iron fist. Our reporters don’t get thrown in jail and tortured for reporting the news.

That sounds far-fetched and yet it does happen in Burma, regularly. The country also known as Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta as repressive and cruel as any in the world today. Internet use is severely restricted and information flows at a sluggish pace. The news in and out of the country is limited; few in the West are truly aware of what takes place in Burma. In fact, many people in Burma itself are unaware of what’s going on in their own country.

However, there are a group of Burmese citizens, armed with small video cameras that are determined to make sure that the news of what’s happening in their country is documented and sent out for the world to see, including their own country. They are called the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The organization is headquartered in Oslo; the images and videos are smuggled out to them, and the news is then beamed by satellite into Burma and throughout the world. Those who carry the cameras risk terrible reprisals to themselves and their families if they are caught.

Few of them, such as “Joshua,” a young 27-year-old man who acts as our proxy in the DVB, have known anything but oppression and fear other than for a few weeks when there have been occasional uprisings. The junta, in place since 1962, has dealt with every challenge to its authority with absolute and merciless violence and arrests.

In August of 2007, the leaders of Burma added an arbitrary fuel tax that doubled the prices of gasoline and other fuels . This became intolerable to the average Burmese citizen and protests began to break out in the capital of Rangoon. At first, the government dealt with these the way they always did – by arresting those who would raise their voices against them. However, the people had reached a breaking point and thousands upon thousands took up the call.

Crucially, they were supported by the Buddhist monks of their country, perhaps the only other group within Burma that could take on the cruel military dictatorship. The powers that be in Burma allowed the Buddhists to protest, even allowing them to meet with Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a leader of the 1988 revolution who had been under house arrest since then and a woman revered by the Burmese people.

However, as it became apparent that the protests were growing in scope, the government began to do the unthinkable – a crackdown against the religious leaders of their nation. Hundreds of monks were arrested and many disappeared. Soldiers fired into crowds of protesters and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of peaceful protesters. The world would never have known if it weren’t for the images smuggled out by the DVB.

Director Ostergaard put together the footage, much of it never seen before, into a very compelling story that illustrates the incredible bravery not only of the protesters but of the videographers themselves. One gets a sense of the pervasive fear that dominates Burmese society, and the yearning for something better than what they all have.

This is a dictatorship that has stood for almost half a century and it doesn’t appear that it will be going away anytime soon. Watching this documentary makes you appreciate your own freedom and pray for the day when the people of Burma can enjoy their own. Perhaps we will see that day in our own lifetime; I sincerely hope so. Perhaps documentaries like this one will be the first step in that direction.

WHY RENT THIS: A depiction of bravery on a massive scale from a part of the world that is rarely depicted.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like powerful documentaries that teach you something about injustice in other parts of the world, you should go ahead and watch the next installment in the Twilight series.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film is unrated, some of the themes are rather adult and there are some scenes in which there is violence; teens who are interested in the region will find this suitable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several videographers depicted in the film have since been arrested and jailed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Crossing Midnight, a short document about Dr. Cynthia Maung who fled to Thailand in 1988 and founded the Mao Tae clinic along with several other medical personnel.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Crazy Love