Cinematographer Yam Laranas, used to shoot for the independent films of Raymond Red in the '90s. His debut feature, Pussy Hairs (often politely referred to as Cat Hairs elsewhere), unfortunately forsakes his independent beginnings and goes for mainstream gloss. Critic Noel Vera tries to manage the schizophrenia.


The story of Yam Laranas's first full-length feature, Balahibong Pusa (Pussy Hairs), is simplicity itself - Joyce Jimenez plays a young girl living with her mother (Elizabeth Oropesa) and her mother's live-in boyfriend (Julio Diaz), who lusts after her (a hundred bonus points to everyone who yelled "sounds like Lino Brocka's Insiang!").

The film's real subject matter, however, is the war between two visual styles: the glossy music-video sensibility of Laranas's mentor Erik Matti (who helped write the script) and uber-mentor, Peque Gallaga (who presides in aesthetic spirit over all in a benevolent tyranny), versus the quieter, more compelling (remember the phrase "thrillingly mysterious reserve?") sensibility of independent filmmaker Raymond Red (on whose films Laranas once upon a time worked as cinematographer).

Laranas knows how to cut; he also knows how to shoot. Unfortunately, that's not all he knows, and it's his over-education at the hands of Matti and Gallaga that is Balahibo's downfall. There are scenes - entire sequences - of surprising loveliness: snatches of dialogue, gestures between characters that seem casual yet indescribably right; that look fresh and spontaneous and have the unmistakable spirit (cinema on no budget!) of the Filipino independent filmmaker.


Then the throbbing disco beat comes on, and the picture morphs into the polished style of a San Miguel Beer commercial, all overactive handheld cameras and flashing neon lights. I've never seen a movie so desperately schizophrenic, or so desperate, period, as if Laranas felt he was playing before a roomful of four-year-olds, and his life depended on holding their attention. Just to make sure you stay in your seat, he has a sex scene every 15 minutes (with Joyce Jimenez and/or Rica Paralegal's breasts swinging into view, dirigibles nosing up to the camera lens for their close-ups); every 30 minutes he has Julio Diaz peeping at Jimenez, or reaching into his own shorts for a quick jerk-off (witty meta-commentary on film, or revealing autobiographical detail by filmmaker?).

The ending is the kind of no-holds-barred climax that either has you gasping in disbelief or roaring in laughter, maybe both. Laranas called it his "tribute to Mike De Leon's Kisapmata (Blink Of An Eye);" I call it outright theft and an insult to the great original. Not only are the characters totally unprepared, either psychologically or dramatically, for this sudden plot twist, but the music-video/San Miguel Beer commercial style of filmmaking trivializes it, turns it all into a kind of cinematic sick joke - Oliver Stone trying to do Alfred Hitchcock trying to do Taxi Driver.

I said a few unkind words about the cautious, literary style of Gil Portes and Jose Dalisay Jr. - the kind of intelligent storytelling style that takes no risks, and feels flat; when I look at something like Laranas's Balahibong Pusa which is nothing but risks, I almost want to take back my words; there is something to be said about intelligent caution if, the moment you try reaching out, you avoid falling flat on your sorry, sorry face.

Note: Businessworld, January 12, 2001. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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