The mini-Philippines film renaissance began in earnest with Tikoy Aguiluz's Tatsulok (Triangle) during the early part of 1998; it came into full bloom with the Good Harvest Festival, which featured at least four exciting new films by Jeffrey Jeturian, Lav Diaz and Mario O'Hara. Before the movement faded, Jeturian entered the ring again with Fetch A Pail Of Water (Pila Balde), a faithful step into Lino Brocka's social cinema. Critic Noel Vera reviews.


THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Last year there was a small yet significant spurt of worthwhile Filipino films. The mini-renaissance began in earnest with Tikoy Aguiluz's Tatsulok (Triangle) during the early part of 1998; it came into full bloom with the Good Harvest Festival, which featured at least four exciting new films.

There was Jeffrey Jeturian with Sana Pag-Ibig Na (Enter Love) and there was Lav Diaz with his flawed (but brilliant) Kriminal ng Barrio Concepcion (Criminal Of Barrio Concepcion). Then there was Mario O'Hara with not one but two new films - the possibly great Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman On A Tin Roof) and the insanely imaginative, possibly even greater Sisa.

Then nothing. Not a peep, though there were bigger, more ambitious (and sadly, less imaginative) productions. The Filipino film industry, after displaying so much promise, slumbered for most of the first half of this year.

Pila Balde (Fetch A Pail Of Water), a soft-core sex film about people in a low-cost housing development and neighboring squatter area, finally (if belatedly) fulfills that earlier promise. It's another collaboration between Jeturian and the quietly formidable Armando Lao - who, judging from his two latest scripts (this film, and Sana Pag-Ibig Na) and the excellent Takaw Tukso (Temptation) way back in 1986, has to be one of the best (and most underrated) screenwriters still active in the Philippines.

Pila Balde has a look - the slums are a marvel of a location, full of tight alleyways and plywood shanties, a huge maze where any number of rodents can lose themselves and hide. The loose narrative is complemented by Jeturian's equally loose camera - it peeks into corners, sidles along besides the characters, and peers over their shoulders to overhear what they're saying. Jeturian doesn't send the camera into acrobatics - he'd do Lao's script a disservice if he did that - it's just that there's care and intelligence in the film's visuals, if you care to take a closer look.

The large cast is impressively handled - Jeturian shows a flair for ensemble acting. Ana Capri and Marcus Madrigal in particular are a physically handsome lead couple - she's a laundry girl and he's a water-bucket boy - but there's also a thoughtfulness and vulnerability to them that you don't see with actors in soft-core sex films. They work well together, too - when they're in bed together their chemistry is so natural it doesn't jar you that Madrigal is actually several years younger than Capri.

It helps that Lao has given them real characters to play, and that they're acting in a superbly realized context - that of a community of upper-lower to lower-middle class families, living in close proximity to a community of slum dwellers.

Lao throws in a few sharp social observations - a tenant teaching at a nearby university notes that the squatters provide a source of cheap and ready labor - but has him do so in character, without unnecessarily heavy pontificating. Lao's script is a not-quite-as-dark version of Lino Brocka's squatter films (Jaguar, Insiang); you tend to miss Brocka's intensity. But Lao is also wittier, with an effortless sense of humor - which is something Brocka, despite his greatness, sorely lacked.

The ending, a squatter fire, is more spectacle than resolution - but what kind of resolution can you have that won't seem too neat, or too obviously structured? The sex scenes tend to stick out, which bothered some who've seen the film - but these are minor complaints. Pila Balde is a movie of modest virtues and modest pleasures, possessed of keen intelligence and a recognizable soul; it's superior fare to the brainless, soulless, standardized sludge that pours out of Hollywood (and into our shopping mall theaters) nowadays.

Note: Cinemaya Magazine, Issue #45, Autumn 1999. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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