Movie Review: Elise is a Funny, Bittersweet Epic About an Ordinary Man

TL;DR: Elise expands on its seemingly unassuming premise into a funny, bittersweet epic of an ordinary man finding love & self-discovery in unexpected places.

Elise starts out simple enough. Bert (Enchong Dee) returns to his hometown in the province with an antique music box in his hand. After visiting his former grade school teacher where he used to study, he was asked to accompany Remy (Miel Espinoza) – one of her young, irresponsible students – on her way home. She becomes interested in his music box, so Bert decides to tell its origins.

It came from his first love Elise, an athletic, aloof girl one year older than him who was his exact opposite. Even so, they still became a couple, escorting him in a traditional rite of tuli & indulging themselves at an ice cream parlor. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Elise & the rest of her family are moving to Manila. Elise breaks up with him, & hands him the same antique music box he’s holding in his hand in the present. Bert was so stunned by the sudden end of his first relationship that he didn’t even say a single word as she left their hometown.

eliseCourtship

That would’ve been the logical endpoint of his story, but he still kept going. What starts out as a small paean to first love grows into something more ambitious. It’s obvious that Elise made a huge impact in his life, and she continues to haunt his life in small ways. The movie even opens up to include other people who made a mark on his life. There’s his kind, supportive mother Mama Josie (Jackie Lou Blanco), his fiery grandmother Lola Jesusa (Pilita Corrales), his goofy best friend Gian (Victor Anastacio), & Rita (Laura Lehmann), a nurse in training in charge of taking care of Lola Jesusa, whose true passion lies in writing. He even crosses paths with Elise again, this time played wonderfully by Janine Guiterrrez, who now has a boyfriend (Miko Raval).

Elise slowly transforms into a story of a young man stumbling his way in & out of love & self-discovery that spans decades, marked with missed opportunities, branching paths, triumphs, failures, and even death; turning the life of an ordinary man into a sprawling epic. It’s amazing it can do this in under two hours, because it’s the kind of movie that feels much longer than it should. That’s not meant as an insult. It’s so engaging & affecting when it takes you on an emotional journey that it can be hard to keep track of time.

eliseWalkAway

It does this, surprisingly enough, by avoiding the tropes & clichés of biopics. Not every event presented in the film is declared with utmost importance nor does it reveal to be a building block towards Bert’s maturation. It makes time for those fine details & small moments that while may not change Bert’s life completely, but still reverberate throughout his life, acting as reminders for the people he crossed paths with or a way to reveal a tiny facet of their personality. When it’s time to showcase momentous events from Bert’s life, it does so with specificity & warmth that it turns something familiar as a graduation or a breakup into something that’s completely lived-in. It’s the kind of movie that would reveal that Elise would play a game of FLAMES when she had a fight with her boyfriend or a graduation picture that blocks out Bert’s then-girlfriend. It’s a marvel of editing that these never become intrusive or turn the movie into a sluggish mess.

It is far from a somber treatise on love & life though. Joel Ferrer & Miko Livelo’s script are peppered with silly, hilarious gags, which isn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with their work; both of whom have been making solid, underrated comedies with a heavy focus on the follies & struggles of men. The movie’s focus on small moments makes it easier for them to set up these jokes without distracting from the film’s gentle storytelling. It would show a scene where Bert, Gian & Lola Jesusa goofing off with fireworks & its consequences just because it would be funny & amusing. They feel like small vignettes that fill out the shades of the rich tapestry they have created, without losing its tender, bittersweet nature or its ability to move from one moment to another without a hitch.

eliseBothInTears

This tapestry they’ve built would have unraveled quickly if not for the excellent ensemble they’ve filled out throughout the movie. Pilita Corrales & Jackie Lou Blanco imbue their characters with so much life even in their limited screentime, which is a challenging feat to accomplish, that it’s easy to understand why Bert would feel so much love & affection for them. Miel Espinoza is a great foil to Bert’s earnestness, annoying him with her impatience & snarky comebacks, which makes it more fulfilling when she reveals the sadness that she’s felt for a long time. Victor Anastacio has carved out his own niche for playing silly side characters, & Gian fits him like a glove, even if he’s less manic compared to his other roles. Janine Guiterrez is captivating as the title character, a confident woman who couldn’t quite escape the whims of her parents or her boyfriend, until she finally does; it helps that the film doesn’t allow Elise to be seen only through Bert’s rose-colored glasses.

But this movie wouldn’t work at all without Enchong Dee. He’s at the center of the movie, holding everything together as Bert moves from one point of his life to another. It helps that Enchong Dee has a warm, Everyman presence, so seeing him embody Bert’s transformation from a shy, awkward man who just wants to hang out with his buddies into a mature, responsible adult who never lost his goofy side never becomes jarring or boring.

Elise is apparently based on a true story, but even without knowing this tidbit you can already feel from Bert’s journey that this is the case. Bert may be an ordinary man lucky enough to live in ordinary circunstances, yet his nearly aimless journey, one that can’t be grafted onto a three-act structure that easily, echoes so much of the pain & beauty that’s out there in a world ruled by an omnipresent randomness. We will face a constant string of beginnings, endings, and moments that will not mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but what’s important is to keep yourself open to love in all its forms. Sometimes, what we don’t expect to change our lives might’ve been right there all along.

eliseShock

Advertisements

Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Siargao is a Gorgeous Meditation on Finding Ourselves & the Places We Do Them

TL;DR: Siargao is a thoughtful, melancholic take on finding yourself in an enchanting foreign land.

The idea of going to an unfamiliar land in order to find oneself has always been a tempting idea. Removing ourselves from the stresses & comforts of our ordinary routine can give us a chance to reflect & find out who we really are & what we really want in life. It’s such an alluring idea that it’s a trope used in different kinds of movies from coming-of-age stories, romantic comedies, & even action-adventure movies. It even had a resurgence in Filipino cinema thanks to the huge success of That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny).

Paul Soriano’s first foray into romantic dramas dives head first into this trope – with a script by Anj Pessumal – but Siargao stands out from the rest by broadening its scope past its main outsider.

Laura (Erich Gonzalez) is a vlogger who ran away to Siargao to do some soul-searching after a life-changing moment didn’t go the way it should’ve. On the plane, she meets Diego (Jericho Rosales), a member of a famous band who escaped to his hometown of Siargao due to a scandal he caused. The two of them are at odds at first, but slowly become friends. Things start to get complicated when Diego reconnects with his old friend Abi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), who are linked due to their muddy past.

What Siargao does so well is subtly tackle the myopia inherent in stories like this. Journeys of Self-Discovery™ are about enriching oneself in order to become a better person, but it is selfish in nature. Not that it’s a bad thing – since taking care of yourself & improving oneself should be encouraged – but it can become a narcissistic ordeal, where a place & its inhabitants are reduced to vessels of self-improvement, stripping it away of its humanity & complexity. 

These are even more egregious in Western stories, where Caucasian men & women searching for themselves descend into “Orientalism,” seeing the East as an exotic place of wonder, mystery, & enlightenment. One of the biggest offenders include Eat, Pray, Love & Hector and the Search for Happiness; the latter of which has Simon Pegg writing “sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story” in a notebook with one of the letters turned into a sad face after witnessing a violent incident involving a prostitute & her pimp while staying in Shanghai.

Obviously, Siargao never becomes an Orientalist tale simply because it’s not a tale told from the perspective of a white person, but the movie can still turn Siargao into an exotic paradise full of wise, simple folks who will help realize the full potential of privileged outsiders who can afford to stay there. What Siargao does to mitigate this is to fill the movie with characters who are also trying to find out what they want in their lives, including the ones who live in the island. Laura is surrounded by people who are also lost or taking a break from their lives in Siargao; some of them fell in love with the island so hard they choose to stay longer. Abi is a native who’s already chosen a path for herself – setting up a business while helping out initiatives to preserve the island’s beauty & support other business ventures from fellow locals – but Diego’s return makes her question her past decisions. And while Diego never shed his roots, his controversies force him to go back to the island & examine old wounds. Not only does this open up other points of view we don’t usually see in similar stories, but it questions the need for an “exotic paradise” in order to grow & if we are doing anything to conserve these places.

And the stories are compelling, even if they seem small in the grand scheme of it all. There’s a raw intimacy present as these people try to rebuild their lives, while a heavy sense of loss & regret slowly builds up, receding & progressing, until it crashes down on them, forcing them to do what they think is right. Setting it in the gorgeous vistas & beaches of Siargao isn’t put to waste thanks to Odyssey Flores, who captures the grandeur of Siargao, its surfing culture, & the interior lives of its characters through a variety of wide, drone & handheld shots inspired by vlogging that make the personal look epic & the epic look personal. The indie rock soundtrack, while typical, is still effective at capturing the movie’s mix of romance & melancholy.

Great performances from the central trio are key to making it less flimsy than it seems. Erich Gonzales is fantastic as a tourist opening up herself to Siargao & its people. Jericho Rosales gives Diego the right amount of smugness & charm that makes him even more charismatic. Jasmine Curtis-Smith is more quiet & subdued as Abi, but you can see how Diego’s return has made it awkward for her. In fact, all of them are trying to hide their suffering under their facades, trying to hold onto it until they become vulnerable.

What Siargao deeply understands about people is we will be forced to face our issues sooner or later. While places like Siargao offer a temporary respite from our problems, neither the island nor its inhabitants will resolve our problems. The island is just a place that needs to be taken care of, full of people who are also lost & in transition. What matters most is to figure out what we truly want & have the courage to pursue it & face the consequences.

Mano Po 7: Tsinoy is a Gorgeous, Overstuffed Movie Reeking with Blandness

TL;DR: Mano Po 7: Tsinoy is a bland, beautifully shot movie full of plots that couldn’t develop properly for two hours.

The latest entry in the long-running Mano Po franchise begins with so much promise. It tells the story of a seemingly perfect Chinese-Filipino family & probes in the cracks within. Debbie and Wilson Wong, played by Jean Garcia & Richard Yap respectively, have been married for 25 years. They have three children: Wilson Jr. (Enchong Dee), Caroline (Janella Salvador), & Catherine (Jana Agoncillo). The celebration of their 25th anniversary is interrupted when Wilson Jr. gives a rambling speech while drunk & creates a commotion, causing embarrassment to his whole family. Wilson is having none of it, so he forces him to go to rehab once again. Inside, he meets a troubled woman named Jocelyn (Jessy Mendiola) that changes his life forever.

That’s not the only problem this family has. Wilson’s relationship with his family has been turbulent. He’s a cold, controlling man who focuses more on his businesses rather than his family & he forces his family to do what he thinks would be better for them instead of what they would rather do, because that’s the way he was raised, which we get to see in flashbacks. The lack of romance between Debbie & Wilson pushes her into the arms of a rugged, heartbroken man named Marco (Jake Cuenca). Meanwhile, Caroline has a passion for singing but instead studies the cello due to her father’s insistence. One of her classmates is Henry (Marlo Santos) which she finds annoying, and she starts to have a crush on her sleazy professor (Kean Cipirano). Amidst all of this, we also get to learn about Wilson’s relationship with her mother (Rebecca Chuaunsu) & his strained relationship with her gay brother (Eric Quizon).

Yes, it’s another tale set focusing on a multi-generational Chinese-Filipino family – it wouldn’t be Mano Po without it – but there’s a lot of weighty material to be mined here. Unfortunately, it wastes that opportunity, opting to go unsurprising places. This movie is drowning in cliches, from the strict Chinese father to the unloved wife, you can easily guess how the story will unravel.

This would’ve been fine if it told these stories with care, but that’s not the case here. There are so many stories not all of them can develop organically. The movie ends up moving to the next story beat because the plot demanded it. The casualties of this approach range from something little, like Debbie’s affair with Marco, since it hinges on Marco not having a single friend he can confide with his problems, to something offensive like Caroline’s story concerning with her professor & her classmate. The whole thing ends up bland & derivative, manufactured to induce emotions to the audience by being completely phony.

Still, the whole thing is tolerable to watch, thanks to the fine acting from the cast, which work well for a family melodrama. There’s no question veterans like Richard Yap, Jean Garcia, & Rebecca Chuaunsu can deliver the right performance for this kind of movie, but Enchong Dee & Janella Salvador can match them with the right amount of histrionics without pushing it over-the-top. Ian Loreños also deserves some credit from crafting beautiful images & sequences, like a single take taking us behind-the-scenes at the Wong’s 25th wedding anniversary, Debbie & Marco’s flirtation in the balcony which will lead them to the bedroom, & the family’s trip to Taiwan. And while the movie’s quick pacing botched every story in it, it does allow it to move smoothly from one scene another.

If only that were enough to turn it into something memorable. This is a bland, overstuffed family melodrama from another long-running franchise with a decent hook. This could’ve been wonderful, but the whole movie ends up nothing more than a shrug.