‘Mandiriwa’: Seduction & Relevance

https://soloat65.me/2017/09/20/mandiriwa-seduction-relevance/

One generation ago, Joey Ayala’s songs—folksy, poetic, reflective—brought new followers to the brink of worship. Now thirtysomething fans sing along to his music, and his message is more urgent than ever.

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BAGONG Lumad for “Mandiriwa,” including originals Bayang Barrios, Joey Ayala and Onie Badiong all on front row.  (The better photographs on this page were taken by Lilen Uy using an iPhone camera, not hers.)

By EMMIE G. VELARDE

ON PAYDAY weekends, the road to Greenhills in San Juan is fraught with untold horrors.

But Joey Ayala was playing last Saturday, Sept. 16, at the Music Museum in a “homecoming” gig after 25 years (he launched three albums there). No way were we, three fan girls over 50, missing that. Media rumblings earlier in the week about a nationwide Martial Law Part 2 had merely stoked our resolve. One generation ago, Ayala’s songs—folksy, poetic and insightful— brought astonished converts to the brink of worship. Were those songs as seductive and relevant now?

The least we could do to survive the drive was elevate the conversation. What did the concert title, “Mandiriwa,” mean? Turns out, Ayala had explained this in a press conference that announced the event two months back. We didn’t know what he said at the time, but we came close.

We figured it had to be mandirigma (warrior) + diwa (idea, mind, thought) = one who fought the battle at hand with the power of ideas, thoughts. In the press con, Ayala reportedly said it was a word he had coined to collectively refer to “artists.” Really close.

At last, the GPS announced our arrival at the destination. Where was Uni-Mart? The complex is bound to look like a different planet to anyone who has not visited for a year or two. But once inside the Music Museum, it was as if we had stepped back into the 1990s. Except, it might be said, for the waves of full heads of grey hair shuffling toward the entrances.

The 29-year-old theater still seats 720; it was packed that night, SRO.

No sweat

Ayala wore what looked like running shoes (memorably, he performed barefoot at the Cultural Center of the Philippines early in his career), as though to indicate that, 25 years later, the battleground was a little more hazardous— best to secure one’s footing.

Or not. In the very least, it added to a whiff of youthfulness in the hall. The producers, Vandals Entertainment and Gabi Na Naman Productions, were young people, Ayala pointed out at the top of the program. And the set list was curiously familiar to the thirtysomethings, who could name most of the songs on three notes and sang along— a lot, with fervor.

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BAYANG and Joey. We really should have caught them on video while they danced.

For over two hours, familiar lines and melodies drifted from the stage— brighter than the lights and as vibrant as the set— and settled on the audience as revisited sentiments. No sweat there; it was a tacit agreement that little had changed.

“Ikaw na may baril… ikaw ba’y tagapagligtas o isa lamang mandarahas?

“Bundok ng basura…”

“Inutang na kanin at malamig na ginamos, busog na…”

“Ang hirap ng marami ay sagana ng iilan…”

The pleadings and prayers were still the same:

“Ang kagubatan ay unti-unting nawawala… Haring Ibon, nais kong tumulong (at) nang kaharian mo’y muling mabuhay…”

“Ang pag-ibig natin ay walang hanggang paalam… at kahit magkalayo, papalapit pa rin ang puso…”

“Bathala, ang bawat bagay na nagmula sa inyong palad ay may tungkulin sa mundong kinagisnan… sa pagtupad nito ang lahat ay tinitimbang…”

Well, they were the very same songs we remembered, and no one minded— if anything, they sounded more urgent.

Shaman/ drinking buddy

Onstage, Ayala was gifted musician, enthusiastic host, master storyteller, irreverent comic, shaman and drinking buddy— roles he deftly wove in and out of, by way of shifting gears from solemn to stirring to playful. The persistent subtexts to his lyrics and his famous support for the sitting Chief Executive notwithstanding, he steered clear of politics in his spiels, though he did say at one point that the thought of being a presidential speech translator had crossed his mind. “But,” he cracked, “only for the deaf.”

If he meant to make the audience focus on the message more than the messenger, it worked— even if this messenger had a long list of citations, including a TOYM (Ten Outstanding Young Men), tucked into the waist of his virtual malong.

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AWARDED rapper Gloc-9, guest artist, right, was welcomed and sent off with wild cheering.

He left the overt opinionating to younger guests, a gesture that the audience members apparently approved. Awarded rapper Gloc-9 was welcomed and sent off with wild cheering. The theater fell into a hush throughout fiery spoken word artist Juan Miguel Severo’s turn at the mic. Frequent collaborator Dong Abay was the only one who got to sing his own song— “Banal na Aso”— an option that should have been offered as well to the first guest artist, Bullet Dumas, if only for his distinctive, every-Pinoy style. Abay was applauded as much for his singing as for his spontaneous rhythmic dance.

Speaking of which, it was comforting to see that Ayala and Bagong Lumad original Bayang Barrios have remained graceful Maranao terpsichoreans. Another original Lumad, Onie Badiong, the two ladies at the kulintang and chimes, and the other support instrumentalists were vital components of the production, having recreated the unique Lumad sound. All their names should have appeared in the press notices.

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DONG Abay, right, got to sing his own song, “Banal na Aso.”

Tantalizing language

On the ride home, mellowed by perilous physical exertion throughout the show and audacious selfies with the star right after, us three older fan girls could find only one more aspect of the evening left to ponder: how tantalizing the Filipino language can be in the right hands, for example, the hands of a mandiriwa—whether rendered in Tagalog, Bisaya, Cebuano, Binukid or Ilonggo.

“Narito po ako, bunga ng pag-ibig sa palad ng mundo…”

“Ako’y milyonaryo sa buhangin, ingat-yaman sa aplaya…”

“Iisang pinagmulan… iisang hantungan… kamag-anak at katribo ang lahat ng narito… sa lupa, sa laot at sa langit…”

It would be great at this moment in our history, we imagined, to savor the full text of “Mindanao,” written in one of the region’s several dialects that are regretfully incomprehensible to us.

Meanwhile, it is difficult not to note that— were certain tables turned— one of Ayala’s most poignant songs, “Wala Nang Tao sa Santa Filomena,” would make a compelling theme for current anti-government protest actions.

“Nag-iisang lumilipad ang langay-langayan
Anino niya’y tumatawid sa nanunuyong palayan
Tanging sagot sa sigaw niya ay katahimikan
At kaluskos ng hangin sa dahon
‘Sang ikot pa, huling sulyap mula sa ibabaw ng bayan
Mga kubong pinatatag ng lupa at kawayan
Paalam na, paalam na ang awit ng langay-langayan
Nguni’t walang nakasaksi sa palayo niyang lutang
Pagka’t wala nang tao sa Sta. Filomena…
Nasaan ka at bakit ka nagtatago taumbayan
Panahon na, panahon nang balikan ang iniwan
Dinggin natin ang tangis ng abang langay-langayan.”

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That said, we have always found optimism in Ayala’s songs being not just about conflict and issues, but also about resolution and man’s spiritual core.

‘Imbisibol’ waits to be seen

Lawrence Fajardo’s awarded film visits the hidden otherworld of undocumented Overseas Filipino Workers in Japan 

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Linda (Ces Quesada), wed to a Japanese man, puts her marriage at risk by helping compatriots.

 

FILIPINO filmmaker Lawrence Fajardo and his team visit little hidden communities of Filipinos, most of them undocumented, in Japan and the result is “Imbisibol,” a compelling composite that is at once poignant, enlightening, ennobling and enraging—sentiments known to prompt even the gentlest (or even the most uncaring) people into action.

Yes, we can all come down now from a “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” high to this grounded cinematic account of what a specific otherworld— one that Overseas Filipino Workers inhabit— needs liberating from: despair and damning choices.

“Imbisibol” is passionately, and compassionately, put together. Fajardo deftly steers a main cast so skilled and technical elements so precise, if austere, that it feels like you’re right in the middle of things for every minute of over two hours. Individual stories are told with no more hysterics than necessary to propel an inevitable meltdown or signal the end of a confined existence.

I confess I may have read too much into what I thought was mood lighting. Five minutes in, I wonder why it is a tad too dark. I recall my first exposure to Fajardo via his action movie “Amok” which, in contrast, is a little too visually hi-fi for the squeamish. Ah, I tell myself, that’s because the characters in “Imbisibol” are, as the teaser says, “longing to remain unseen.”

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Manuel (Allen Dizon) is an aging male escort. His world is cold, cold, cold.

 

Or is it the dead-of-winter backdrop? Annie Lennox plays in my head whenever the nth character, an unmoving blanket of snow, is in the scene, and that’s often: “Dying is easy; it’s living that scares me to death—cold, cold.”

Fajardo has a simpler explanation. My “a tad too dark” may have something to do with the projection equipment at the movie house, he says, even as he admits that he applied an aspect of that theory to the camera work—“(that’s why) the characters are mostly like shadows.”

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Love is letting a friend sleep a little longer on a winter morning. Benjie (Bernardo Bernardo) and Edward (Ricky Davao) as rent-sharing roommates.

 

But they’re “like shadows” only as visual elements because, as narrative subjects—in the four tales strung together—they are carefully, almost lovingly, conceived and cut out. So real they seem, that: 1) It is stressful watching the has-been Manuel (a male escort, played by Allen Dizon) in a take-me-I-beg-of-you stage number with younger men for hire; 2) Edward (Ricky Davao) allowing his room mate Benjie (Bernardo Bernardo) to sleep a little longer on a freezing morning comes across as nothing less than an act of love; 3) It is perfectly understandable for Linda (Ces Quesada), wife of a Japanese man, to lapse into Tagalog in frustration over arguments about their apartment building being filled with illegals.

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In the company of younger boys for hire, Manuel goes unnoticed.

 

Further, my heart freezes when an irate co-worker confronts Rodel (JM De Guzman). I have read too many stories of the sort to not know that Rodel’s dreams are gravely threatened at this point. And when, trying to flee, he ends up eyeballing a befuddled Benjie at Linda’s door, I feel I can read the thousand thoughts racing between them, two total strangers.

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Benjie in a rare moment of levity.

The scene right before that is the one I choose to remember. Fast friends Benjie and Linda have some tea and quiet time, reminiscing old times and cracking old jokes. Bernardo and Quesada, both steady and dependable thespians, turn the otherwise mundane moment into an unbidden respite, but also a foreboding, the proverbial calm before the storm.

Fajardo shares notable tidbits from his pre-production research. “For many of the undocumented Filipinos that we interviewed, one strategy has worked for years: Just be quiet, wherever you are. As long as you stay away from trouble (that would put you on the authorities’ radar), you’ll be okay. The (Japanese) government seems to be (lenient) that way. Evaluation of possible deportees is often case-to-case.”

Many of their Pinoy interviewees, Fajardo says, are just saving up to go home and willing to take menial jobs, of which there are a lot.

Japanese bosses, immigration men and police officers are depicted well in the movie, far from being the enemy. Linda is asked for her identification papers and she complies, but then asks for the immigration man’s ID in return. It is a respectful exchange. A few other scenes echo this.

The neighbors are not a problem, either—not the fictional ones in the stories unfolding onscreen, and not the real ones. “While we were shooting,” Fajardo relates, “a Japanese man asked how he could help undocumented Filipinos.”

Just the same, Fajardo believes the “invisibility syndrome” afflicts more OFWs in Japan than in any other country that imports labor from the Philippines. Which makes “Imbisibol,” in the very least, an instructive reference point for everyone back home, especially the government.

Add to this the fact that the movie, originally written as a one-act play in 2013 by Herlyn Alegre (who worked on the screenplay with John Bedia), has been invited for festival screenings in six countries (Canada, Japan, Sweden, China Vietnam, France) and won an estimable number of awards, including the Netpac at last year’s Vesoul IFF, plus seven from the 1st Sinag Maynila in 2015—Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Production Design, Cinamatography, Actress (Quesada) and Actor (Dizon). As I write, Fajardo is named Best Editor at the 3rd Asean International Film Festival and Awards in Kuching, Malaysia. De Guzman has been cited by Gawad Tanglaw, and Bernardo was 2016 Gawad Urian Best Supporting Actor.

We should be looking at a box-office hit.

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Let’s make this right.

On the contrary, “Imbisibol” has screened locally only in special venues. It is currently screening in almost empty houses at selected SM malls, through Cinema Lokal, an initiative of the Film Development Council of the Philippines. We have enough time to make this right—the special run ends May 11.

Shimla on the side: Brain-frozen in the Summer Capital of British India

“SEE… THERE… YAKS!” Tuni, the driver/guide, blurts out in his tentative English. He is clearly excited. But he doesn’t slow down and the moment is too quickly gone. Seeing me crestfallen, he says assuringly, “Others coming now.”

The next two “others” are not getting away from me, no. Within the minute, we are pulling over to the side of the road where Tipsu and Batel stand passively, their handlers manning a small tent nearby. Fifty rupees (less than US$1) for a photograph with the animals, one of them says; 200 if I want to get into a Himachal costume.

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I may never pass this way again. My first, maybe my last, yaks. Tipsu lets me stroke his neck, but Batel is determined to ignore me. 

Day 1

I am not thinking at this point; I am in love. Or brain-frozen at 7,238 feet above sea level. The handler could have said 500 rupees and still I would have jumped. I may never pass this way again and never see another yak. Batel, the younger one at 5 years, is a little grouchy, but Tipsu, 8, seems docile, almost friendly. Then again, what do I know about yaks? Only that they are traditional beasts of burden in these parts. But because they are displayed along the tourist strip, these “others” are very clean, their coats well-trimmed and brushed.

Eagerly, I step into the costume, which looks a lot like Ifugao gear in my country, the Philippines. I start hugging Tipsu around the neck and can’t stop. (See the resulting photo here. That is certainly 200 rupees well spent.)

My first sight-seeing day in faraway Shimla is off to a good start. I have made the side trip to this hill station, Summer Capital of British India, on my way to Mount Abu in Rajasthan.

(“On my way to…” may not be accurate. From New Delhi, our port of entry, three companions and I have hired a van to drive up north for eight hours. We are returning to Delhi two days from now to take the overnight train going in the opposite direction to Abu Road.)

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At last, a glimpse of the Himalayan mountain range, which eluded me on a previous quest.

From Tipsu and Batel’s bend, we proceed to Kufri Snow Point. Tess, one of the girls, is determined to be photographed in the snow. The Himalayan mountain ranges, peaks softly glistening in the distance like vanilla cake frosting, is the bigger thrill for me. Five years ago, this sight eluded two friends and myself from a viewing deck in Bhutan, somewhere between Paro and Thimpu. So many ascending steps, and only thick clouds awaited us at the top!

But Tess is very distracted, disturbed by the muddy 25-day-old ice on the hillsides. At last we find a snapshot-worthy spot, she gets her fix, and we call it a day.

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Tess’ snapshot against a backdrop of  25-day-old snow.

Day 2

It is the end of winter, but still extremely cold for us Manila natives. Ellen has brought disposable time-release heat pads, the ones that come in paper packs, and they are proving to be lifesavers. We have had to devise a way to take quick bucket-and-dipper showers because the hot water turns cold in literally five breaths. Nette takes a shower every day at 2 a.m. I know why but I dare not ask how. I myself have resorted to laying under the sheets at night the clothes that I will wear the next day, so they don’t feel moist and chilled in the morning. Sometimes it works. As for my warmers, I have no intention of removing them at all.

We are staying in a six-story meditation center carved into the hillside as all the buildings here seem to be, one on top of another. Our room has a balcony from which we can watch the sunrise but only briefly, no matter that it is very picturesque. It is that cold.

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Our freezer-balcony at the six-level Raja Yoga Center, carved into the hillside like majority of the buildings here.
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View from the other side of the yoga center: Multi-level structures stacked like Lego pieces on the hillsides. I am very curious about the building code. 

Yesterday, my travel buddies, fellow Raja Yoga students, agreed to read study materials out on the balcony. To arrive at that decision, I thought, rolling my eyes, they must have been stricken with altitude sickness. There was no way I could get out there, thank you. I sat near the door. This morning is about two degrees colder than when we retired last night. We are all staying inside for the reading.

Today we’re off to the famous square whose image always came up when I Googled “Shimla, Himachal Pradesh” prior to booking all travel arrangements. A souvenir photograph in Christ Church Square is the main thing I want from this trip.

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Approaching the tourist district, a denser housing area

The square is upwards of another Shimla landmark, Mall Road. To reach Mall Road from the parking lots—motor vehicles are not allowed beyond this level—everyone takes two outdoor lifts. This, it turns out, is just rational, considering how narrow the roads are and how many visitors come here all year round.

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Construction sites are everywhere. No motor vehicles are allowed beyond this level, Everyone takes two lifts up to Mall Road and the famous Christ Church square. 

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Mall Road starts here. Souvenir shops galore. Best reserve a whole day for this. Below, a street musician. He had some trouble walking, but straightened up when I asked for this shot. 

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The colorful, buzzing Mall Road. Haggling is a little more challenging these days because the rupee has taken a dip at 65 to a dollar. But still…the bargains!
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My prize. This is what I came here for. Tipsu , my yak, is a bonus.

I keep thinking how the Philippines’ own Summer Capital, Baguio City, looked this magical, too, in the early 1960s when I first saw it, when everything and everyone, vehicles and pedestrians, stopped for the Angelus at sundown upon hearing the bells clanging from the Cathedral that is also atop a hill.

It is a busy square, with the Christ Church, a public library, and a monument to Mohandas Gandhi plus, today, an arts-and-crafts fair, but the quiet cheer with which the people are milling about is noteworthy. This level of calm in the square is something I have not experienced elsewhere in India (except the Raja Yoga main campus in Abu, but that is not a public place like this) and I have come to this sub-continent at least eight times in the past. I remember reading somewhere that Shimla, formerly Simla, used to be a part of Nepal, whose name could be derived from the Tibetan word niyampal, which means “holy land.” Maybe there’s something in the air.

We are the only Asians, as far as I can see, and we are ogled, smiled at a lot, and occasionally fussed over. A local TV crew tries to convince me to go on-cam for a street interview about Women’s Day. I decline; I am just a tourist.

 Day 3

It is our last day in Shimla, and by now I am certain that Tuni is not a very experienced tour guide. I have a list of things to do here and I’m not even halfway through it. Fortunately for him and for me, unexpected aspects of the experience have kept impatience at bay:

  • Two yoginis in charge of the center, much younger than I, practically nuns and who in fact have the Hindi word bhen (for “sweet sister” affixed to their names, are inexplicably happy to have us around. Sunita bhen and Durga bhen whip up authentic and delicious Indian vegetarian meals and are always ready to serve sweets and spicy hot chai. In white sarees and woolen jackets and shawls, they start and finish their daily chores silently and smiling all the while, as though lost in prayer or, in their case, meditation. Occasionally, they dissolve into giggles as they watch us devour platefuls of food. Their English is more limited than Tuni’s but we never wonder what’s on their minds; we’re sure they are good thoughts.
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    Girls’ night in–in the kitchen. From left: Sunita, Ritu, Nette, Durga, Tess, myself and Ellen.
  • Sunita and Durga make jam out of fresh apples, too, and chapati on demand.
  • A third yogi who lives out of the center is an intense 30-year-old lawyer named Ritu. She’s the only one within a 10-meter radius at any time who speaks English that sounds closest to ours and, as such, is constantly initiating and directing conversations. On the brink of being intimidated, however, we are treated one evening in the kitchen to Ritu’s spirited demonstration of the bangra dance (this is on my list!), flailing her hips like a high school girl on her first night out with friends.
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    Shyam and “Mom.” See some striking similarities?
  • The only male center resident, Shyam, has taken to calling me “Mother.” I let him. Yesterday, he brought us to a Buddhist temple nearby. Along the way, he spoke to a lot of people and dogs. Seriously, dogs. I said he could run for local public office, having so many friends. He said they were not his friends; he didn’t have friends. He is stranger than he is funny.
  • The intermittent sight of beaded teddy bears in toy kiosks along the roads. Only in India, I’ll wager.
  • The mercifully one-time-only encounter with a hungry oversized monkey helping itself to Ellen’s tray-full of grapes in the middle of our room. We all stand there transfixed, just eyeballing the rascal.

Also yesterday, I asked Tuni to bring us to the bird park. When we got there after a long drive, the park was closed. We saw a sign that said, “Open everyday except Tuesday.” Guess what day it was? Can’t be brain freeze. This is his hometown. To his credit, he is an excellent driver–very sharp reflexes–and the connections that led us to him are a hundred and ten percent safe, which is very important especially for an all-female tour group anywhere.

Day 3

Today, he attempts to redeem himself in our eyes (well, at least in mine). He is bringing us to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, former palace of the British Viceroy Lord Dufferin, and then of the succeeding viceroys and governors-general.

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The Indian Institute of Advanced Study. There are much better pictures in their website, I promise.

From outside, the 19th century palace looks straight out of a “Harry Potter” movie. I am immediately awed. Many historic meetings were held here during the Indian Independence Movement. (The decision to carve out Pakistan from India was also arrived at here.) Inside are numerous blown-up photographs showing British officials welcoming Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi to what is also known as the Viceregal Lodge. As I cross the threshold, the hairs behind my neck stand on ends.

I stay within two feet of the palace tour guide, listening, taking notes that I may find useful later, asking questions. How much of the Lodge has been successfully preserved? Ninety percent. Are these ceiling lamps original? Yes, those in the hallway, too and the ceilings, all the woodwork, etc.

What used to be the ballroom is now a library for a handful of scholars. Tourists are not allowed inside the library. My head spins just thinking about the wealth of knowledge in those precious volumes. The institute gives six-month study grants in the Humanities to applicants who pass stringent requirements. The good news is, there is no age limit. I find this out after asking, only half in jest, if I can work here. Mr. Tour Guide says, “Better to come as a scholar. (Myanmar’s most famous political personality) Aung San Suu Kyi studied here. Just visit our website!”

On account of this last outing, Tuni is officially redeemed in my eyes. For good measure, he takes pains to drive higher up in the mountain to a temple for the monkey god Hanuman. It is anti-climactic but earns him a few more brownie points just the same. In any case, if I ever come back here, maybe in another 66 years (hey, it’s not easy), I’ll be sure to get a professional guide plus Tuni as driver, and possibly stay two weeks. In the spring.

The drive back

Last year, to mark my 66th birthday, I went trekking on Mt. Pulag with an equally audacious friend to see for myself its celebrated “sea of clouds.” Of course I didn’t reach the summit and the sea of clouds that I got to view was another mountain range away, too far to take a selfie and fool anyone with it. I wondered why there were no stories anywhere about Pulag stormers who don’t even make it to Camp 2?

I remember this now as we drive down near-zero-visibility roads from Shimla. I am in a sea of clouds. And then, emerging from the first, I am eased into another, and then another, and yet another. I don’t have to pitch a tent, walk 50 meters to the toilet/bath or start climbing at midnight. In fact, I don’t have to step out of the van!

These pictures are taken from inside Tuni’s Toyota Innova.

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Post Script

Tess catches up with me in yoga class today, exactly a month after the drive down. “Did you know that it snowed in Shimla the day after we left?” She is showing me a video on her tablet, of people at Christ Church Square dancing in a fuzzy shower. Indeed! The first time in decades, the report says, that anything like it happened at the tail end of winter, leaving behind 26 cm of snow.

I’m quite sure that Tess is going back. Meanwhile, I can’t help provoking her, “Had Tuni done his homework, he’d have known about that and we could have stayed another day.” She doesn’t seem to hear me. She’s probably plotting that return trip already.

‘Seklusyon’ solution

 

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Running parallel to the main narrative of Erik Matti’s religious thesis “Seklusyon,” for me, are two propositions about faith that I always find exhilarating:

One, the closer one gets to achieving spiritual surrender, the stronger the temptation (as though feeding on the aspirant’s piety) to dart in the opposite direction. This tendency is attributed to the devil himself, or sometimes, more mercifully in other disciplines, to “illusion.”

Two, and this is where “Seklusyon” succeeds in freezing my blood—more than the deftly executed elementals and menacing santos—there are times when good does not triumph over evil, at least not in a way that leaves absolutely no doubt and therefore a way that is acceptable to even closet doubters. “Seklusyon” does not stand apart in this; Hollywood has tested the waters many times.

The faith I was raised in was pretty much black-and-white; in this end-part of a philosophical Iron Age, I have come to accept that there are more shades of grey, and that constant discernment is the only guarantee for salvation. I totally blame Philippine current events.

But I am careful to make it clear that these are personal insights because faith has as many expressions as there are faithful. To appreciate “Seklusyon” as a work of cinema art, a healthy respect for equivalent beliefs or non-beliefs is therefore requisite.

That said, and also given that any argument about forceful theological aspects presented here are not likely to be resolved casually, I choose to tackle only the more easily relatable parts.

“Seklusyon’s” Best Production Design and Best Cinematography wins are unassailable, but I’d have given Best Screenplay to “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” for its tightness and clarity. I do not trust myself to pick a Best Sound Design and/or Best Theme Song winner because, to the disadvantage of both viewers and free-lance reviewers, metro cinemas differ vastly in sound equipment grade, making it difficult to make those choices, specifically.

Lastly, call me old-fashioned, but I insist that Best Direction should cover all the actors’ individual performances, too. As an ordinary moviegoer, I saw better—at least two other stronger contenders.

Just the same, a close friend declared (only to me) “Seklusyon” a better piece than Best Picture winner ”Sunday Beauty Queen” because, he said, it (the former) made him think. Which goes to show, happily and in the final analysis, that it all boils down to why, at what point in his life and in what frame of mind anyone goes to the movies.

Babaeng Humayo sa Septic Tank

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AT times you pick a movie that you know you’re not going to bring home. Like you probably pick a job that you can leave at the workplace after punching out at 5. Like casual friendship, maybe warm, but unfussy. Easy lang, enjoy lang. Less drama, more fun. Fun is priority.

When you watch “Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2—Forever is not Enough” with this mindset, you are going to like it. More than like it, actually. You will laugh more loudly than you intended. You will recognize the references and laugh even when your seatmates don’t. Or you will laugh just because they do, because laughter is infectious.

Within the day, you will find that not everyone who saw the movie elsewhere liked it. (Why is that, you wonder? The cinema you went to, in a class-A mall, had crappy sound and stinky seats, and still you had a blast.) On your FB wall, you read the most extreme expression of discontent posted by a friend. “Panget!” Or, another friend “Not as good as the first.” You can’t decide which is worse.

You start to defend the movie if only because you remember laughing your scalp off. You type in the tiny reply box: “A little camp, but fun! There’s not much to take away but that’s just fine. Eugene Domingo is still a riot and the writing (by Chris Martinez) is crisp… which is more than you can say of many other local comedies. At least, the bar has been raised.” (Yay.)

You might add that the writing is also expertly cadenced, and that Uge is irreplaceable as this mad mutation of the Babaeng Humayo, returning heroine, and that the movie is a respite from vicarious involvement that more thought-provoking movies seem to demand—the kind that could be an affliction if done in excess.

The premise couldn’t get any simpler: Big movie stars can be insufferable and creatives often have to bend over backwards to accommodate them (giving the production assistant character Jocelyn, played by Kai Cortez, speaking lines was a great idea to underline this). It’s how the filmmakers (Marlon Rivera was at the helm, but you should not forget the producers) get all of that across that puts “Septic 2” several notches above the “Praybeyt Benjamin” and “Enteng Kabisote” franchises.

Yes, that bar has been raised. Martinez and Rivera should embark on a comedy writing workshop series. For the big screen. TV comedy writing is another story. Or maybe not!

Guns and gold

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I AM trying very hard to not want to tune in, however possible, to the announcement of the Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 winners, ongoing as I write this, at the Gabi ng Parangal.

It’s important for me to be able to say before the list is out that “Oro,” by filmmaker Alvin Yapan, deserves serious notice for raising serious issues in a seriously gripping way. I can’t tell if I was riveted because it was based on true and quite horrific events or because, if appreciation of a cinematic work was a matter of taste, dependable organic ingredients had gone into this recipe.

Why is it important? Because I’d rue any intrusion into my initial impressions of it. In a manner of speaking, it had me at “Hello.” Pristine white sand, incredibly blue sea and sky, enthralling greenery, uncomplicated human beings.

Then evil descends on the island and… please just go and watch. It’s really the only way to appreciate the feeling of panic, and then crippling dread, slowly creeping in and staying till the last few seconds, deftly stirred with dollops of rage and frustration.

Sounds eerily familiar, though served with poetic prose, characteristically Yapan. “Bakit laging may baril kung saan may ginto?” Why, indeed, should there always be guns where there is gold? (Okay, some lines of dialogue are repetitive; I still wonder why that is.)

Aside from these top-of-my-head notes, I told a few friends about some very capable work by the main actors, especially Irma Adlawan as “Kapitana,” evocative of the quintessential Filipino chieftain. I pray she wins a trophy tonight.

According to early reports, Yapan had grave second thoughts about accepting this project. We are all the better for his decision. Maybe “Oro” could help turn around the conditions depicted here. Maybe not. At least Yapan got the story to the “maybe” border, miles from “buried and forgotten.”

‘Die’ stunning

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BEFORE I heard of “Sunday Beauty Queen,” number 1 on my MMFF 2016 must watch was “Die Beautiful.” But, fearful that SBQ, being a documentary, faced the biggest risk of being pulled out of cinemas after two days, that’s what I went for first.

I have since kicked my own butt for that defeatist frame of mind; moviegoers cannot not see how good this docu is.

In any case, I walked into the movie house for Director Jun Lana’s “Die” with great enthusiasm. It was comforting to have a little crowd in there to laugh with, I thought. And laugh we all did at numerous points.

Paolo Ballesteros is the dream-come-true tranny beauty contesera Trisha, alternately pensive and petulant, and constantly tantalizing. All of the movie’s peaks involve his thoughtfully essayed character and the BFF Barbs, played endearingly by Christian Bables.

I must say I loved the colors throughout this movie—of both the outdoors and indoors, costumes and cosmetics—so utterly vivid and gay!

My issue is with the feasibility of the main premise, and I wouldn’t mind having someone give me a talking-to about this. Changing the dead Trisha’s makeup nightly might be easily explained away, but I imagine re-outfitting the corpse a few times presenting some very stiff challenges. Or maybe I shouldn’t be too clinical about this.

Also, “Die” might have benefitted greatly from more vigilant editing that would render the pacing a little more brisk and therefore make the guffaws seem a little less measured. But were the crests enough to cushion the drops? That would probably be a yes, were I to poll my fellow viewers that day, who spilled out of the movie house reciting funny lines and, with utmost relish, calling out to one another, “Bakla!”

My favorite MMFF 2016 entry

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By Emmie G. Velarde

AS AN OFW in Hong Kong in 1996, I kept homesickness at bay by heading to the Crown Colony’s (this was before the handover to China) first-ever Jollibee joint, in Central. I went most Sundays, with a singular craving for something that was not on the menu: the incessant chatter.

I didn’t even try to comprehend what I heard, an explosion of tongues at once familiar and strange. I was just happy to see women who looked like me. They were from my country and, though our paths might never cross anywhere in the Philippines and none of them spoke to me in that HK setting, I liked being there.

Sometimes I walked down nearby Chater Road for louder chatter and more color—manikyuran, kulutan, carinderia-style kainan (suman, palabok, dinuguan…)

The women looked almost carefree, and though I was sure I had a higher-paying job, I wondered why they seemed to have a better grip on the far-from-home syndrome. Or else, why was I deriving strength simply from watching them?

Comes a re-incarnated Metro Manila Film Festival and Babyruth Villarama’s “Sunday Beauty Queen,” about OFW domestics in post-handover HK and I get answers.

What I heard, witnessed and vicariously soaked in was the intoxication of freedom. Now, 20 years later, that spontaneous weekly tableau has evolved into purposeful gatherings that lead up to carefully planned periodic productions—beauty pageants! (Who would have thought?)

Once a week, yes; still with a bummer of a curfew hanging over the heads of enthusiastic participants and spectators both, yes. But these constraints, Villarama’s docu shows, only make the hours of momentary liberation more acutely vivid and urgent. And sweeter.

“Sunday Beauty Queen” is an unabashed tribute to the Filipina’s indomitable core which has crafted her smile, one that is like no other. I happen to still be informed of these women’s persistent woes through a lawyer-friend who is often sought out for help. But especially note the pageant sequences here: It takes more than a brief suspension of reality to summon that sparkle in their eyes; it takes grace and noble roots.

Because several stories unfold at the same time, SBQ has the luxury of both a happy ending and a poignant one. Never mind control over the storyline; I guess running into lucky breaks is a lot to be grateful for when making a documentary. I don’t like spoilers, so I’m not throwing in any. Suffice it to say that one of these involves the late Hong Kong filmmaker Jack Soo, who sings the praise of not just his Pinay help but of all domestics from her country. The whole world would be in trouble, he says, if they stopped working abroad.

SBQ is as engaging as it is easy on the eyes (and ears). Indeed, Pinoy indies have come a long way, technically. Best of all, it is obviously a labor of love, and the sentiment comes through loud and clear. And warmly. The thank-you for Villarama’s mother, who used to be a domestic worker, in the end credits is an unexpected heart tug and seals the deal for me: This is my favorite MMFF 2016 entry.

Mike George, atypical yogi

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TheBritish life coach and  bestselling author has written 14 books, published in 15 languages, on self-realization and the rewards of a meditation practice.

IT IS NOT uncommon for Mike George to ask his audience at the start of a program, “Have you come for the jokes?”

I am one of hundreds who do. I like jokes, even if they’re on me (preferably if they’re cracked in my presence) and, since my first Mike George class, also if they ultimately help modern-day yogis snap out of an imagined requisite form.

Technically, a yogi is really just someone who practices any type of yoga. For as long as he walks on terra firma, there is little reason for him to believe he is in better shape than other human beings. Mike George knows better than to make his listeners feel this way.

The British life coach, international speaker, best-selling book author and inspirational teacher has written 14 books (published in 15 languages) on the challenges and rewards of self-realization— the goal of yoga practice in the form of meditation, which he espouses.

Does he look the part? That depends on how one visualizes a person steeped in spiritual study as much as in teaching it. He wears not a shaved head or a monk’s robes. In fact, he sports an often unruly mop of light brown hair and is partial to khaki slacks. He doesn’t just laugh a lot; he enjoys ribbing participants in his classes, lectures and workshops. Sometimes he cracks himself up so hard, they are drawn into the guffawing, ahead of the comprehending. He routinely plays with words, deftly coins new combinations to bring some points across.

In the middle of a class, I half-expect him to break into a song, or a dance.

But being entertaining is not all the reason that, for the last 30 years, aside from writing books, Mike George has been a corporate and community workshop facilitator with clients and sponsors in over 30 countries. Some 250,000 people have attended his courses, retreats and seminars, which have covered what are regarded as “the three key strands of the 21st century—emotional intelligence, leadership development and continuous unlearning.”

Some of his biggest corporate clients are Mitsubishi, Siemens, American Express, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Barclays Bank, Bank of Kuwait and the Middle East, GlaxoSmithKline, British Telecom, Sheraton Hotels, Unilever, Shell and Nestle.

He has coached bankers, lawyers, judges, IT experts, and government workers on self-management, personal development and, as a teacher of Raja Yoga, on reaping day-to-day benefits from a meditation practice.

His style as speaker has been described as a “unique blend of insight, wisdom and humor.” This is pretty accurate. I have zeroed in on the humor aspect to describe my personal experience only because “insight” and “wisdom” cannot be casually endorsed, since every person should determine those for himself. Thankfully, Mike George makes them sound accessible, for example:

I should “spiritualize” my talents.

Nothing happens “to” me—everything happens “for” me.

The purpose of life, simply, is to be creative.

And then, at opportune moments, he throws in undisguised gems, like so:

“It is only when you understand love, infinite and indestructible, that you will fully understand life. It is only when you know love, invisible and yet unlimited, that you will know how powerful you are.”

I am a fan. So it’s not just for the jokes that I’m catching as many of his forthcoming programs in the country as I can.

(Mike George is Philippine-bound for a series of free public talks that starts on Tuesday, Nov. 15 with an invitational dinner-chitchat on how to “Release the Self from the Chaos Within” at the Brahma Kumaris Center on Bagtikan St., Barangay San Antonio in Makati.

On Nov. 16, he will be in Cebu to speak on, “Managing with Mindfulness,” also at the BK Center, 11-2 Forest Hills, Banawa; and the next day, Nov. 17, 3:30-5:30 pm, at Onstage, Ayala Mall Cebu, for “Why Me? Why Here? Why Now?”

He flies back to Manila on Nov. 18 to give the same lecture— “Why Me? Why Here? Why Now?”— at Hive Hotel and Convention Place, Scout Tuazon cor. Madrinan Streets, Quezon City, presented by the Brahma Kumaris QC center. On Nov. 22, he will be guest speaker in the dance concert “Being Yourself,” inspired by his book of the same title, at the Power Mac Center in The Circuit Makati.

He will conduct a private weekend yoga workshop at the Center for Spiritual Learning in Tagaytay City. For details about any of the events, interested parties may call 890-7960 or 414-9421. Call 032 254-5975 or 0917 677-0120 for Cebu programs.)