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Filipino director Elwood Perez has long been known in his home country for his mostly titillating cinematic romps — the titles such as his 1985 hit Silip: Daughters of Eve or Lupe: A Seaman’s Wife, his last film from 2003 — are very self-explanatory. His return to filmmaking after a 10-year hiatus betrays as wild a creative streak, but in a very different way: a multi-layered social drama drenched with meta-textual threads about Philippine cinema, Otso is flawed, sprawling but intriguing in its scope and ambition, an achievement in itself given the story unfolds mostly within a nondescript tenement block in Manila.
Perez’s decision to cast his steamy aesthetics aside probably lies with his creative mesh-up with the theater troupe Philippine Stagers Foundation. Born out of a script jointly penned by the group’s leader Vince Tanada and boasting a cast drawn nearly entirely from the ensemble — with the most glaring exception being veteran actress (and latter-day indie-film champion) Anita Linda, who appears as a version of herself — Otso uses the story of a struggling screenwriter’s real and imagined encounters with his unruly neighbors to comment on politics, art and how the two spheres might converge.
Making its international premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival as part of its “Glories of Filipino Cinema” sidebar, the modestly budgeted film could appeal to festivals seeking films making self-referential statements about filmmaking as an art itself. Its mix of genre codes — it could variably be seen as taking after political film noir or realist social drama — should also play well to audiences seeking yet another perspective on Philippine cinema beyond the now much-traveled gritty treatises on the country’s corruption or poverty-stricken state.
Not that Otso doesn’t make any references to this — but only in more knowing terms. Beginning in color, images of the Philippine capital gradually turn black and white as a voiceover muses about his failure in Los Angeles and how he is now returning to capture images of “the Manila of my birth”; cue horse-tugged cabbies on cobblestones, memorials marking the country’s Spanish colonial era and subsequent independence struggle and then frenzy electioneering by a candidate promising free education and the like.
It’s amid this that Lex (played by co-screenwriter Tanada himself) arrives at a downtown building, where he has rented an apartment to finish a screenplay crucial to the maintenance of his career. Just as voices on the radio promise how “it will rain cash or bullets” in the run-up the polls, Lex gets acquainted with his neighbors: the building manager, Mrs. Abdon (Vangie Labalan), who spends her time either campaigning for his congressional candidacy or making passes at the young writer; Hans (Jordan Ladra), the man who struggles to attend to his ailing bed-stricken wife; his son Brent (Gabby Bautista), who looks to Lex as a surrogate father/brother, as the pair spend time together spinning yarns and play-acting these tales for their own amusement.
But it’s the people from the penthouse which leave a mark on Lex’s consciousness. Frequently entering and exiting the top floor is the statuesque Sabina (Monique Azerreda): the tall, young woman’s daily routine of being chauffeured away and then returned home in a lavish Cadillac leads Lex to think of her as a mistress or someone’s “gift to a congressman”. This train of thought, which he converts into erotica for his script, is consolidated by the remarks made about the woman by the local pimp and prostitutes who, incredibly, is trying their hands in staging Noli Me Tángere, the definitive anti-colonialist novel by the Philippines’ founding father Jose Rizal.
Presiding over everything, however, is Linda. An enigmatic figure for the tenement’s tenants, she would soon be revealed as the mysterious owner of the building who spends her days seated in front of a bank of monitors showing surveillance camera footage of lives being lived below her. Looking at this and hearing Linda’s mad maternal consolation towards the difficult times he was having — if she could have been the onscreen mother to all the veterans in the business, she says, she could be his as well — Lex discovers his insanity hitting overdrive, especially after how his wild imaginations of sordid goings-on around him are revealed as delusions in a party held to honor Linda’s birthday.
It’s a twist which could serve as Perez and Tanada’s jesting at how some of their peers became festival darlings with their excessively dark representations of Philippine society: Towards the end, Lex’s finished screenplay is rejected by his director, with his assistant suggesting the young man to give his script to the Croisette regular Brillante Mendoza (“It might even go to Cannes!” she opines). With Perez intent to make up for lost time by playing with as many rambling threads as possible, Otso thrives on these odd comical highlights, and the manic energy and wildly varied visions provided by its team of cinematographers (ranging from oddly-framed camerawork showing cramped spaces and long corridors, to the erotica nods of the sex scenes unfolding in Lex’s head).
But perhaps the one underlying statement in the film — if there’s one, that is — is who’s actually in control of the narrative and the fate of these characters and the country they live in. Directors and politicians play with the careers of their writers — Lex is seen compromising again and again on his work, adding some risque element here and the out-of-place action sequence there — but these big shots are also the prey of market forces and their own puppetmasters; the tenement boasts of a distinct class hierarchy, but there’s invisible hands ruling this realm from within and without. At the end, who’s actually the master of Otso‘s narrative is left unclear too: It could have been Lex with his writing, or Linda with her god-like panoptical view of her world, the unseen narrator at the start of the film or Brent seen typing away at Lex’s computer at the film’s end.
This beguiling ambivalence could be at once frustrating, as if Perez is playing about with the viewer’s mind, as one confronts the meaning of, say, sex workers tackling a heavily political literary text; or whether Anita Linda’s presence is homage to the iconoclast, or just a move to add some art house cachet to the premise itself. These contradictory suggestions may be exactly what the maverick wants, like he reveled in how people saw his commercial fare as either exploitative fare or a rebellious gesture against the establishment’s moral orthodoxy.
Production Company: Earth Moving Pictures Production in a presentation by the Film Development Council of the Philippines
Director: Elwood Perez
Cast: Vince Tañada, Monique Azerreda, Anita Linda, Gabby Bautista, Jun Urbano
Executive Producer: Elwood Perez
Screenwriters: Vince Tañada, Elwood Perez
Cinematographers: Pavel Villagrador, Radin Rodriguez, Justin Santos, Cesca Lee, Randy Cura, Jowee Morel
Editor: George Jarlego
Production Designers: Elwood Perez, Jeffrey Ambrosio
Music: Jethro Joaquin, Nolan Diosana, TJ Ramos
International Sales: Film Development Council of the Philippines
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