Jude Defensor:

on the Spanish film “After”

Originally posted on We Talk About Movies:

I can see the DVD/Blu-ray blurb already: “Rashomon meets Irreversible meets Y Tu Mama Tambien!”  Alas, Alberto Rodriguez’s After never quite reaches the aesthetic or emotional heights of those cinematic touchstones, despite borrowing liberally from their filmic language and tropes. Relying on a chronologically-recursive narrative to make more profound what seems to be, on the surface, a shallow character study of three hard-partying Spaniards, “After” can be seen as both a cautionary tale and fantasy for people on the verge of midlife crises.

“After” also continues a proud Eurofilm tradition of more-or-less average-looking middle-aged guys (Tristan Ulloa and Guillermo Toledo) paired- (or in this case, triod-) up with a younger knockout female lead (Blanca Romero). The gist of this love triangle goes like this, one guy wants the girl, but the girl wants the other guy, who doesn’t know what he wants. We follow their frustrated ménage-a-trois through the especially…

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Jude Defensor:

RIP Marvin Hamlisch

Originally posted on We Talk About Movies:

English: Official Picture for Mr. Marvin Hamli...

Not just a rare EGOT, but an even rarer PEGOT (that’s with a Pulitzer as the cherry on top of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), Marvin Hamlisch and his music is sure to continue to be loved sincerely by romantics and liked ironically by hipsters the world over, with varying levels of appreciation from all kinds of listeners in between. Still scoring films as recently as Soderbergh’s crime comedy The Informant! in 2009, Hamlisch’s range went from dark and heavy dramas such as Sophie’s Choice, to marshmallow-lite fluff like Three Men and a Baby. But what he’ll be most remembered for are his  passionate love themes. The movies and the artists chosen to interpret his songs may be all over the place in terms of artistry, but the melodies themselves are top caliber heartstring-tuggers all the way.

Hamlisch hit an early home run with the inevitable…

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From Dust Till Dawn

 

High road to heaven?

When a volcano blows up, after the dust settles, you can expect some rather spectacular scenery. So the setting for one of the most powerful eruptions in history ought to be a show-stopper. With my Gallic trio aboard, we bundled into our trusty Toyota Vios, and went way further than Hertz Car Rentals had bargained for. After a twisty, coast-hugging, jungle-piercing journey across Bataan, we drove down the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Highway, with dramatic views of Laharland and the Central Luzon countryside whizzing past us at 110 kilometers an hour. Unfortunately, the minimum speed limit made it impossible to properly appreciate, much less photograph. When we exited at Concepcion, one town away from the Pinatubo Spa in Capas, Tarlac, we were still blissfully unaware that although we already stood in the shadow of the volcano, its crater was still a whole day’s adventure away.

After a bewildering circuit for an hour through sprawling Capas town, we pulled into the spa with relief, an hour later than the recommended crater trip cut-off time. It took some frenzied cajoling and solemn promises not to dawdle to convince the crew to take us on. By then, it was a race against the sunset, since we couldn’t be caught up at the crater by nightfall. So off we went on what our guides described as their fastest trek up, ever.

The 4×4 gods must have decided to smile down on us as we were assigned a none-too-pretty but seriously reliable beast of a vehicle for the climb. As we rambled through the tricky dunes of rock and ash, we came upon several fancier but not-as-brutish vehicles that were literally stuck in the mud. One even called out to us for help, but there was no stopping our advance. All’s fair in love and lahar.

The landscape, which via the transformative effects of time, weather and plant life, may have begun to look less otherworldly, but the sense of being in a former blast zone was just as eerie. The silver lining to our late start is that we had missed the heat of the day, which meant we only had the dust to deal with. But then rumbling forward through the random streams and puddles dotting the course would splash us clean with sulphur-y water.

After bugging our guide every few minutes asking “Are we there yet? Are we going to make it?” the ash flats finally gave way to the ascent. The driver even turned off the engine, refilled the water tank, and waited for the thermometer to go down to make sure our steed was primed to climb.

Ashen peaks unique to Pinatubo

With more of rough lurching than smooth coasting upward, by the time we broke through to the plateau, it felt like we had cleared the next level of heaven. Delicately sinuous ash formations alternated with lush jungle, the haunches of pillowy clouds. Various sections of the expansive crater resembled prairies, aeries, savannahs, fjords and coves in the sky, evoking an ashen, floating fairyland, with the small community of resilient Aetas its enigmatic guardians. We zigged and zagged around jagged mountain ridges that thrust sharper, and forded flowing waters that grew clearer, the closer we got to the source. If not for our rush, every turn would have seen us getting off, slowly sighing, and capturing the panorama with innumerable digital snaps.

Upon reaching the 4×4 parking area, we wasted no time dilly-dallying and zoomed straight up the path to the crater lake. This gash in the volcano’s heart presented a lost world of fresh green and crystal streams, no ash here, but maybe some fairy dust. The trail was surprisingly easy, and we set another record by speeding up and across in what could have been no more than 13 minutes, spurred on by the dying of the light.

Sunset over the lahar-scape

So there we were, our raison d’etre a mere hillock beyond, panting and breathless. But that was not a moment to catch one’s breath, when it had just been taken away by what was there to see. Random, frenzied impressions synapse around my brain as it tried to make sense of the imagery and sensations – water, air, earth and fire – here the elements have collided to birth something achingly, beautifully primeval. It was an experience that exhumed deeply buried ancient tribal memories of great catastrophes and barely comprehensible upheavals. We were at the scene of where the earth had once done her worst, rebooted the cycle, and now presented her creation in all its living glory.

Dusk falls on our dune buggy

One could rhapsodize forever, struck dumb by the sight, the rarefied atmosphere, or just the stress of the ascent. But alas, we had less than 15 minutes to do our orgy of touristic admiration. At least we were treated to one event most visitors, save those who spend the night, don’t get to experience – dusk on the crater. On our descent we gave chase to the sun, and it was then I thought that this must be what vampires feel, but in reverse, when the shifting light could literally draw the line at life and death.

Not-so-raging bull at the end of a dusty day

Safely back down on the lahar-laden flatlands, we realized that, however harried our trek, there still was no such thing as unfortunate timing. It was magic hour in the shadow of the volcano, and along with the sun and sky, it set out to put on a show that would blow us away. Blazing light licked at the peaks and valleys of the caldera, and glowing like a radioactive ruby, Sol bathed Terra in the colors of her fire. We stopped to pay homage, all shaky with relief, appreciation, and anticipation. We had paid call to Pinatubo, and she had deigned to welcome us. We tendered no sacrifice, yet she had offered us safe passage.

 – text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010

 

A Haven for Heritage

As a travel writer, one can get used to everything being laid out for you just so. The press junkets and familiarization tours are all programmed to maximize what the sponsors and organizers would want you to see and experience, and then bank on their hopes that you actually write about it as positively as possible. All well and good, we all need to take a living. But when each stop is just another item to be ticked off on an itinerary somebody else thought up, what happens to the sense of adventure, of discovery, the thrill that comes from cleverly figuring out how to find that special place?

Those were the questions I was asking myself as I and three French first-timers to the Philippines were driving around twisty mountain roads in the near dark still tens of kilometres away from where we hoped to end up. As we curved around yet another tricky stretch, dodging goats and barrio lasses, one of my wards asked half-jokingly, half-nervously: “What if after all this, we get there and it’s not very nice?”

But I get ahead of myself. Tasked to tour a friend of a friend and his friends around during the year-end holidays, it was up to me to formulate our game plan for a road trip. I decided to go for broke and look for a destination that was unique, off-the-beaten-path, and one I had never been to before. I already had a pretty good idea where.

Like a city of myth, secreted away from the madding crowd, shrouded by the mists of time, I’d heard snatches about and caught glimpses of the legendary Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar. Scooped by various websites and blogs, and even showing up as background scenery for the local production of Zorro, these tantalizing teases whipped me up into a must-go-there frenzy. This road trip was my opportunity, and I was gonna seize it, and I didn’t care if I had to drag three unsuspecting foreigners with me to satisfy my selfish whim.

One of my first beats ever as a writer was on architecture and design, and I was drawn to Philippine heritage architecture in particular. So knowing about a whole village composed of authentic 18th-19th century Principalia Mansions and original Bahay na Bato (Stone Houses), painstakingly restored and arranged around a cobblestone plaza and streets had me rabidly frothing at the mouth. Fortunately, I had fellow archi-enthusiasts and shutterbugs in tow, so they were keen on the adventure as well. I booked a room for four at the nearest deluxe resort, the rambling Montemar beach club, utilizing it as the starting point for exploring the region, and squeezing some R&R in between.

And that’s how we found ourselves in the dark, on the road, tracing our route on the map, hoping to get to Bagac in time for dinner. Mt. Samat, the supposed can’t-miss landmark to lead us to our destination, loomed to our left like an imposing black bogeyman. Thankfully, Montemar’s house restaurant El Meson just had its menu and wine list overhauled by respected chef consultant Ed Quimson, so we were properly sated and sloshed before turning in for the night.

After breakfast the next day, we decided to take advantage of our Bataan base camp and spend some time on the beach and in the sea. Though not lily-white, Bagac’s beach sand is fine, clean and algae free, and the clear water had just enough wave action going on to make swimming interesting. Swim out far enough though and you’ll be treated to an even more intriguing sight, the dome of the dormant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. This prompted a few jokes about radioactive fish, but being the world’s top consumers of nuclear energy, my French companions were nonplussed.


For lunch we explored the center of Bagac town and decided to tuck into a simple meal of noodles and sandwiches in a small kitchenette right by the plaza. Barring the Burger Machine cart, it was our only option in the area, but a taste of hearty, down-to-earth local fare was just what the tourists hankered for. But the quaint shop fronts and modest homes of Bagac hardly prepared us for what we were next to see.

Now, beyond the physical effort of getting to Bagac, however scenic, what appeared to be the more insurmountable obstacle to gain access to Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar was the seeming tight cordon around it imposed upon by its developer and management. From when I first thought of paying a visit to the site, letters, messages and phone calls flew at an increasingly furious pace between myself and various people in charge of different departments across two separate companies, just so I could guarantee my entry into this restricted area. There came a point where I almost surrendered and decided that no place would be worth the trouble, and another point where I imagined us having to sneak into the site like a Franco-Philippine impossible missions force. So when we finally hit the property’s gates, I was bowled over by two pleasant surprises.

Light streams through capiz windows in the U.P. School of Fine Arts building

One, despite our rather surreptitious arrival, the staff on-site were very welcoming. Our guide Mao, gamely toured us around the compound and even opened up some houses up for us to explore, offering some information about the development. Two, all the fuss was more than worth it, gaining a thumbs-up, even in its unfinished state, from my travel-jaded companions. This was a destination that was truly unique, beautifully thought-out, and exquisitely executed. If they can pull off the finishing touches, and all signs point to that coming to fruition, then not only Bataan, but the entire country, will have a resort that will put us on the must-see maps.

Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar goes beyond the warm beaches, watersports, and charming country scenery that most Philippine resorts are content to offer. By bringing together this unquestionably stunning collection of heritage structures and ensconcing them in an equally dramatic setting, mastermind developer Gerry Acuzar proves himself a genius, with a passion bordering on madness. But if this is insanity, then we need more crazily passionate people taking on projects like this. Whatever you may think of the resort’s concept, it is definitely not uninspired nor mediocre. They really went all the way with this, and it shows, from the intricate details to the big picture postcard-perfect view. What started as a lone vacation house has blossomed into a 400 hectare complex complete with a deluxe hotel (housed in a recreated Escolta building), plus villas, shops, a bar and restaurant, all carved out from the gorgeously gilded heritage halls and homes that Acuzar has personally plucked from the cream of the country.

As supervised by Mexico-trained restoration architect Mico Manalo, the painstaking reconstruction of each heritage house, at least 14 by the time of our visit, with several more (and a chapel) in the process of being scoped out, is not some slapdash uprooting and pastiche job, but a careful, respectful integrated preservation effort. Once seen in situ, it’s easy to dismiss his detractors and accept Acuzar’s rationale for relocating these heritage treasures. With the government or their former owners unwilling or unable to properly safeguard these endangered structures from the ravages of time and greed, their best hope for survival is really behind the safety of Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar’s fences. What he did was not a rape, but a rescue. Even the modern elements and fixtures that they unavoidably have to incorporate have been carefully designed or cloaked to harmonize with the architectural tenor. Anachronisms are avoided unless necessary. This devotion to authenticity can clearly be seen in the transplanted School of Fine Arts from Quiapo, the centuries-old columns have been left un-repainted, retaining the patina of age, while the new columns replacing damaged ones have been moulded from the originals and accurately display the original colors albeit in bright new enamel.

With the late afternoon sun slowly setting down into the sea, the lengthening shadows and warm light altogether cast an eerie glow on this enchanted village. As it was, with nobody around except for our small party, a few construction workers and random townsfolk who had wandered in for a stroll, we couldn’t help but imagine ourselves as temporal travellers stuck in a time warp, or ghosts come back to haunt the remains of their days.

-text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010

Originally posted on We Talk About Movies:

 

Using a spoof of the Gianni Versace-Andrew Cunanan case as a springboard, Loy Arcenas’ Requieme!  takes on the absurdities of Philippine politics and bureaucracy, and also comments on how media, culture and society all figure into how we Filipinos play out our lives, and keep messing with even our deaths.

Lamentably, Requieme! goes from being ambitiously sprawling to ending up all over the place. Its humor goes from broad to black, while the drama swings from melo- to meta-, and then back again, all in a messy progression that’s more dizzying than disarming. It’s rather frustrating because the bones of a great Dickensian satire are all in there – memorable characters with genuinely human interactions, a strong sense of place across two main settings, biting sociopolitical commentary – but the execution is just a tad muddled for it to really resonate. You can easily miss out on or gloss…

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Originally posted on We Talk About Movies:

For a film with such a sparse narrative and setting, it’s impressive how Kalayaan (Wildlife) evokes elements of so many other disparate works. At certain moments, I was reminded of The Thin Red Line, The Blair Witch Project, Splash, Castaway, The Secret of Roan Inish and Identity, among others. But such is Wildlife’s mutability, its rawness, that you could end up seeing or projecting all sorts of primal fears and doubts into the quiet, dark canvas it presents. If some recent Cinemalaya films appear to have commercial potential clearly factored into their production, this uncompromisingly abstract piece swims in the opposite direction. Not everybody, probably even just a minority, is going to appreciate its flawed and unsettling beauty, but we sorely need art like this. And it’s a bonus that it doesn’t just provoke, but also has a point.

Set in the geopolitical hotbed that is the Spratly archipelago, the…

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Originally posted on We Talk About Movies:

Emmanuel Quindo Palo’s StaNiña struck me as a gothic melodrama structured along similar lines to the work of Douglas Sirk, but filtered heavily through a very Filipino veil. Like Sirk’s multi-layered masterworks, Sta. Nina uses familial conflicts to explore social mores against a broad canvas. But instead of race and class, the emphasis here is on religion, particularly the fanatical Catholicism imbued with animist elements that’s unique to the Philippines. Beyond faith though, politics, the media, and even commerce all get some commentary in the sprawling stew of a story presented here. The simple summary goes: while digging at a sand quarry formed in the wake of the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo and the subsequent lahar flows that buried the province of Pampanga , a young man comes upon the long-lost grave of his daughter who died 10 years ago. Within her intact coffin lies her amazingly preserved…

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Bye to the Baltic

…continued from Turning Swedish

The tail-end of my trip was partly spent appreciating the simple mundane joys of Swedish life. I went to the church, library and market, and carbo-loaded with hearty everyday fare such as pyttipanna (a plate of pan-fried diced potatoes, vegetables and meats). The stored calories were then walked off around charming parks and neighbourhoods shifting from modern to medieval. In contrast to what may be deduced from the dark and depressing films Swedish directors are renowned for, and also the false myth of Sweden’s high suicide rates (actually lower than France and Germany), the best thing about Stockholm is just how pleasant everyone and everything seems. Even at its summer peak, it doesn’t seem over-run by hordes of package tourists and other itinerants. And you rarely come across the roving gangs of rowdy delinquents that have become worryingly common around some other European cities. Globalization and multiculturalism may have mixed up the city’s cosmopolitan colors, but they have yet to dilute the strong Swedish identity enough to make it seem like Anytown, EU.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

Danish sports fans in Sergels Torg

Yet all isn’t sunny in Scandinavia. Stockholm’s heart of darkness may beat in Sergels Torg, a 1960s-tastic plaza carved out by demolishing entire city blocks, the fever for modernity changing the city’s face far more drastically than any war could manage. Now the concrete crater plays host to a raucous collection of troublemakers and rabble-rousers – from militant pro-lifers, Native American and Amazonian tribesmen, Danish footie fans, and campaigning politicos, not to mention the odd grifter or gypsy (terms not mutually exclusive). But their openly flaunted freedoms show that at least in Sweden, socialism and democracy can coexist. It may not be the ideal Asgard for the ages, but while the sun shines it’s a brighter place than most.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Getting There: KLM flies between Manila and Stockholm via Amsterdam daily. For this trip, I was able to grab a preferred seat. This means that for only an additional 70 euros, you can choose a seat with extra leg room or a seat in a row of only two seats. On a 14+ hour flight, this can really make a huge difference in comfort.

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Turning Swedish

…continued from Upp & About

view of Lake Malaren from Drottningholm Palace

With a free pass to almost every museum and attraction in the city, I managed to browse through a lot of fine art, antique curios, and royal knick-knacks over the next few nippy days. I got a sense of this Baltic state’s rich maritime past at the Vasa museum, an impressive purpose-built structure sheltering the wreck of what was then the Swedish Titanic (mortalities notwithstanding, the movie would have been more of a comedy than a tragedy however, as the warship sank after sailing less than a mile).

The risen Vasa occupies its own museum where one can marvel at its size and detailed carvings

At Millesgarden, the home-turned-museum of famed sculptor Carl Milles on the island of Lidingö, mythical figures stand and soar amidst lush gardens and fountains. While exploring the grounds of Drottningholm Palace, the private residence of the Swedish Royal family, I realized that I had flown roughly 13 hours far west for the chance to admire the Kina Slot, a Chinese-inspired royal pavilion built in 1753 when everything from the Far East was all the rage. One installation that stood out among the modern masterworks and architectural marvels at the adjoining Museums of Modern Art and Architecture, was a hot mess of ketchup bottles scattered around the floor, their sticky red contents sandwiched between 30 plates of glass.

views of Millesgarden

Waiting for the train is no dull experience at Stockholm’s art-laden subway stations. Each stop is designed around a certain theme

Edifying and interesting those worthy displays of high aesthetics may be, one eventually hankers for something edgier but still accessible. Fortunately a Swedish architect friend pointed out a must-see that was literally below my very nose – the Stockholm Metro. A number of stations are designed and decorated in very striking themes, making the subway lines some of the longest art galleries in the world. From Viking patterns at Rinkeby, a pastel-colored timeline of world history at Rissne, to a psychedelic mix of actual ancient castle ruins and pop art at Kungsträdgården (my favourite), there’s probably  a station to everyone’s tastes. But try not to get too distracted by the dramatic surroundings, especially at the more remote stops, or you may lose more than just your sense of direction.

Both Sweden and the Philippines celebrate their National Days in June, so because of these special occasions, I was able to peek into parts of Stockholm which would normally be beyond ordinary tourists. On Swedish National Day, the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan is opened to the public for free, with puppet shows and free hotdogs for all in its broad central square. Swedes swarm the streets to get a glimpse of the royal family as they parade through town. For the Philippine Independence Day reception I trooped to the city’s edge at Djursholm, a seaside private enclave for diplomats, pop stars and tycoons. Some stately residences occupied entire islands unto themselves, all the better to appreciate the beauty of the archipelago.

Malmö’s pride, Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso

But I ended up going even further out of my way, far beyond Stockholm, just to check out one bridge and one building. It may seem counter-intuitive to fly down to Copenhagen, Denmark to be able to go back up to Malmö, Sweden, then cross back south to Copenhagen Airport to catch a flight up north back to Stockholm. But that’s exactly what I ended up doing. All this criss-crossing was to marvel at (and photograph) Calatrava’s Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia, famed for its 90 degree twist; and also to go over (both ways!) the Öresund Bridge, the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe and the longest border crossing bridge in the world.

Some natives of Stockholm and Copenhagen (among other places) may have none-too-flattering opinions of Malmö, but even they have to admit that the city has come a long way from its glum industrial past as a peripheral port. It stands as a lesson for Manila’s city planners (do they even try?) that an iconic structure that is part of a well-planned development can revitalize an otherwise moribund district and improve the image of a tarnished city with positive international buzz.

continued in next entry, Bye to the Baltic

The Oresund bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen

Upp & About

…continued from Stockholm When It Sizzles.

Uppsala Cathedral, Scandinavia’s largest, in the rain

Walking around Uppsala

I guess Loki himself took charge of raining on my parade as the next day, the thermometer plunged 10 degrees, the skies grew overcast, and chill winds from the Arctic blew down to the Baltic. Thus began the coldest June in Sweden in the last 100 years. Just my luck. Now I finally understood these northerners’ love affair with warm sunlight, a commodity we Filipinos are practically raised to shun. But cold and wet was more how I’d imagined Sweden anyway, and this was an opportunity for a more contemplative expedition. So we took the train up north to Uppsala, Sweden’s religious (both pagan and Christian) centre. As a city, Uppsala is quieter and more academic than its more prominent sister down south, sort of like the Bibi Andersson to Stockholm’s Liv Ullman. Its rich heritage is well represented in the opulent displays at the Domkyrka (Uppsala Cathedral), Scandinavia’s largest; and Uppsala University, Scandinavia’s oldest. The cupola-topped Gustavianum shelters the world’s best-preserved anatomical theatre and cabinet of curiosities from the 17th century. Monuments to such notable natives as diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld and scientist Carolus Linnaeus also figure prominently in the city. A sweet treat and cup of fresh brew amidst dreamy-eyed students at Ofvandahls, a 130 year-old cafe, is the perfect capper to a jaunt round this university town.

Even the escalators at the world’s largest IKEA store are not spared as a venue to display this couple’s desire, to expand their nursery maybe

The next day wasn’t any warmer so we decided to salvage it with some retail therapy. At only around 6 Philippine Pesos to 1 Swedish Kroner, Stockholm turned out to be one of the most cost-effective European capitals I’d ever swiped my credit card in. This being the birthplace of Ikea and H&M, one can hardly visit without at least a peek into these shopping institutions. Swedish design from fashion to furniture has clearly vaulted to the top ranks of style setters’ esteem and so everything on sale was a guiltless good deal even in this time of crisis. I scored an awesome find for Father’s Day with a half-off watch by Axcent of Scandinavia and bath accessories from Hemtex to make Mom merry.

Wallets lighter, the long daylight hours still left enough time for more touristy clichés. This meant a trip to Stockholm’s soaring Kaknas tower for splendid views of the city and archipelago. At the foot of the tower stretch forests and fields, formerly part of a shooting range. An eerie vista of swaying wildflowers leads to the pet cemetery, the quiet calm making my hair prick up as the theme to Tales From the Darkside played in my head. That is, until some cross-country racers zipped by from out of nowhere, almost knocking us off the woodland path. Acting for all the world like Alice’s White Rabbit bounding off with an “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!”, alarmingly fit Swedes of all ages ran around willy-nilly as they consulted their maps, watches and GPS, all while trying to avoid my click-happy camera’s sights. We ended up following them out of the woods on to a vast meadow filled with more racers and runners in addition to the odd horse-riders and kite-flyers — a wholesome, well-adjusted Wonderland if there ever was one.

Drottningholm Palace, the residence of the Swedish Royal family

continued in next entry, Turning Swedish

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

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