Friday, November 23, 2007

Endo (Jade Castro, 2007)

A film about the transience of contemporary Filipino life, Endo is yet another indie-digital film to come out of the recent digital new wave that is taking over the country and some would argue, the third (fourth, maybe? But the pre-war years don’t really count, simply because no one has seen the most significant movies from the era, thus no one can really argue for that period’s greatness) golden age in Philippine cinema. Having not seen some of the most significant films since the inception of this new wave, I can’t really make a judgment of the quality of the films of this new movement, nor can I compare Endo to its contemporaries. However, if Endo is an indication of the things to come, we can definitely say that the future both looks bright, and has a very, very long way to go.

Endo is one of those rare movies that never wore its ideology (too) flamboyantly. The film never brazenly displayed any indication of what it is “about,” only that it is a film “of.” Sure, it is a film about capitalism, rootlessness, and poverty, but it has the great qualities of a Mike Leigh film, where the politics and ideologies are so imbued into the character and action that these “issues” never demanded to be called or named to be felt. In Endo, Leo (Jason Abalos) deals with the impermanence of family, love, relationship, and home made fleeting by capitalism, poverty, and the lack of an “identity” brought forth by a history defined by conquest and depersonalization. “Endo” stands for “end of contract,” or a temporary worker whose brief contractual job (usually in the service sector) is about to come to an end. These workers usually jump from one meager job to another, and Leo’s relationships follow the pattern of his career changes. Girlfriends change as jobs change, family dynamics change with the amount of money coming in, and friendships formed revolve around the drinking parties thrown by “endos” about to enter another job.

Leo’s habit of changing women like he changes shoes is complicated with the arrival of Tanya (Ina Feleo), who is a bit more conscious of the weariness of a life of a contract worker, but is still incapable of escaping the allure of having a “comfortable life.” The connection between Leo and Tanya is defined by its compartmentalization into categories, which stand as meeting points through which the two are allowed to interact. Not only are their lives drowned by the jobs that define them—their everyday flirtation involves looking out of their respective storefronts to look at the other across the mall, at another store—even their private moments are defined by the painful realization that nothing in their state could ever be permanent. Their most tender moment occur after work, when they listen to Leo’s bootleg CDs in his CD player that always threatens to fall apart at the most crucial moments. In one scene, they listen to music as they dance in the streets at night (who says Manila nights look bad in digital films; it is not a matter of making Manila look beautiful at night, it is a matter of redefining the beauty of a city by night), after realizing that the cover fee for a trendy bar is too expensive for them. Leo and Tanya become two lonely souls right out of a Wong Kar-Wai milieu, but instead of being merely wandering souls looking to belong, the scene is most heartbreaking because these two simply do not belong. Whereas Kar-Wai’s sensual lighting and color palette romanticizes loneliness, Castro’s separation of his two characters through his color palette (two blue characters amidst a warm, sepia city) is downright damning.

One scene however that exemplifies the film’s entire theme is Leo and Tanya’s meeting a hotel, blasting the room’s air conditioning and sleeping under sheets, naked after making love. The two have met at a hotel to have sex before this scene, and the room’s impersonality is merely underlined by the scene and not established. But when their conversation turns to their dreams, what is most shocking is the revelation of their incapability of discussing a future rooted in a certain place. Instead of a house, a family, and pets, their dreams turn to meager jobs somewhere else, in Canada or Australia. They happily discuss a comfortable life of dustless existence (“Dust in Canada is probably different compared to dust in here”) without a place to define them. The inevitability of foreigness emphasizes a context that has already ousted them, a context that rejects its people as much as the people reject it. This one simple scene filled with innocence and the imminence of the painful awakening is a more sophisticated treatment of the issue of Filipino immigration than a more recent film, La Visa Loca, or the 1984 Gil Portes classic, ‘Merika. Whereas these two latter films were too fixated on the capability of a racial and/or ethnic identity to define people, Castro chose the more complicated approach of questioning the systematic identities that defines people.

Like its French 60s counterpart, or even its 80s Regal Films-conceived older siblings, Endo brims with the energy and exciting possibilities of youth. Leo, Tanya, and everybody else’s awakening, although painful, nevertheless comes with the force of promise and the surprise of things learned (sometimes anew, like the love for a father). However, although the film’s script is fun and insightful, the visuals are ultimately the movie’s downfall. To the point, the movie looks like crap. The entire time I sat to watch the film, my constant reaction was, “this would be great with my eyes closed.” Not to sound like the cinematic version of Joseph II, Castro employs far too many cuts. Unlike the elegance of the long takes in Jeturian’s Kubrador or Keith Sicat and Sari Raissa Lluch Dalena’s Rigodon (2005), Castro chose to mangle his already suffering camerawork by cutting for angle-changes and other visual flourishes that really amount to nothing. True, it may be limiting to suggest that the long take is video/digital’s primary function, but freedom to cut should come with it the intent of creating meaningful montage rather than just creating “flow” and “dynamism,” effects that the engaging story did not need in the first place.

Castro’s ADD-inflected editing seems to me points to his inherent mistrust of his incredibly talented actors. See, John Cassavetes already demonstrated that mediocre photography could be more than salvaged by deeply-felt sincerity and the effort made to translate this sincerity on-screen. Cassavetes had the sense to stay on his actors long enough until they register those subtle, Cassavetes-trademark acting that reveal the world in small gestures. When he cuts, he cuts to expand this world. In other words, he cuts—or moves his camera—to his actors to reveal meaning. But Castro does the exact opposite: just when Feleo’s face becomes most expressive, he cuts to Abalos’ face or some other actor’s face to see their reaction to Feleo’s undisplayed flutters. In one damning scene, when Tanya waits for the results of a pregnancy test, Castro shoots the scene through a mirror, showing Tanya’s reflection—and a co-worker next to her—rather than her face itself. When the unease—and relative inaction—of the wait begins, he pans sideways, preferring to show an unflattering and unrevealing profile of the co-worker looking at Tanya. Instead of finally adding a bold underline to the idea of transitory identities and the pain of the wait, we get…well, nothing but an underlit and meaningless medium shot of a character who in turn is never fully fleshed-out because of her unremarkable position in relation to the camera. It’s a preposterous camera movement that ultimately added nothing to the story, and criminally kept Feleo’s acting from elevating the movie’s core emotions.

At this point, I would have liked to argue that I finally decided to shut my eyes and just listen to the film. But in reality, by this time the story has so devolved into yet another love triangle that one cannot help but be sorely disappointed at the downturn the film took in its last half hour. When Candy (Karla Pace), Leo’s former girlfriend who left him when her contract expired, returns, her character is portrayed as materialistic, as if her aspirations for a “comfortable life” is any different to those of Tanya and Leo’s. It was an easy choice to degrade her character as a fallen woman made bad by her attempts to reclaim Leo, but it is condescending and out of touch with the film’s earlier premise of understanding people’s private experiences in a public context. But I guess it only makes sense because by this time, Leo’s (overdramatized) attempts to get Tanya back are played for drama and seemingly nothing else. The movie’s final third is so disconnected that it managed to pull down the genius of the first hour and turn its conflicts asinine. The film could have easily ended when Leo’s old cell phone started ringing again, suggesting circularity as well as yet another transition, but the ending is so odious that it managed to degrade what could have easily been an instant classic to yet another mediocre and forgettable production.