Manila Wafers

The high point of the Walter Reade's last Philippine series in 1998 was its bracing Lino Brocka retro. Brocka, a brazen, openly gay filmmaker whose depiction of underclass life made him metteur-en-scène non grata during the Marcos regime, was the major figure of his country's cinema for over 15 years, until his untimely death in a 1991 car accident left a void that has never been filled. It's therefore no surprise that one of the most rewarding entries in this year's survey devoted to "the best works of the '90s," Woman on a Tin Roof (1999), was written and directed by Mario O'Hara, a protégé of Brocka who acted in several of his movies and scripted Insiang (1976), the late director's great breakthrough film.

Woman follows the troubled marriage of a young stuntman and his wife—both sleep with men for money. To save on rent, they move in with his aunt, a faded movie queen who squats in a mausoleum in Manila's North Cemetery, amid the tombs of the rich and famous. Much of the picture's charm lies in its unsparing portrait of a cat-and-dog community of dreamers and exploiters commingled with elegiac scenes recalling the good old days of the local movie industry. Anita Linda, a star of early Brocka flicks, walks off with the show in a bravura performance as the dithering boneyard diva.

Although Lav Díaz arrives touted as an important new directorial talent, there's scant evidence to support the claim in his two featured films. The eponymous protag of his Dostoyevsky-inspired The Criminal of Barrio Concepcíon (1999) is a naive farmhand who gets involved in a kidnapping that goes violently wrong. This plodding drama, laced with ludicrous English dialogue, is not a total dud—it draws a good deal of strength from Raymond Bagatsing's beautifully understated central performance. Díaz's next effort, Naked Under the Moon (1999), a somewhat Bergman-esque tale about the limits of faith, concerns an impotent ex-priest and his tormented family. A chronicle of agonized morality, it's carved in lead.

Another downer, Lore Reyes and Peque Gallaga's Gangland (1998), a herky-jerky teen-rumble saga, is a collage of hyped-up effects—humongous close-ups, tilted angles, and slo-mo bloodbaths. This exercise in crime-flick clichés is, sad to say, a far cry from Gallaga's stunning historical epic Oro, Plata, Mata (1983), one of the most promising debut films in Philippine cinema.

 
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