Thursday, June 11, 2015

New Filipino Cinema ’15: Esprit de Corps

Frankly, the cadets of a Marcos-era military academy would probably prefer to be water-boarded than endure Maj. Mac Favila’s Hell Week interrogations. It would be quicker, cleaner, and less complicated. Ritual, abuse, and seduction intermingle in uncomfortable ways throughout Kanakan-Balintagos’ Esprit de Corps (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 edition of New Filipino Cinema at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Under his tribal spirit-name, Kanakan-Balintagos (a.k.a. Auraeus Solito) has adapted his play for the big screen, but its stage roots definitely show. Arguably, the central showpiece interrogation scenes would better function as short, discrete one-acts than as building blocks for a larger narrative. However, Kanakan-Balintagos strives to boast their cinematicality with his impressive long takes. There is also an ambiguity to them that is rather intriguing (but also a little disquieting).

In turn, Favila will haze the living daylights out of Pvt. Abel Sarmiento and Pvt. Cain Fujioka, two cadets who “aspire” to his position. It starts out with the basic basic-training dressing-downs, but matters soon take a sexual turn. It is not entirely clear whether this is about power or sex. In fact, the clear implication Maj. Favila experienced similar treatment at the hands of his Commandant ought to suggest the former, but he might take things too far. The not so subtly hinted attraction between the two Privates further muddles the picture.

Inadvertently, Esprit nearly vindicates pre-“don’t ask, don’t tell” arguments against gays in the military. After all, Favila’s attraction to cadets Cain and Abel certainly manifests in problematic ways. Regardless, the significance of the Biblical name-checking is not readily apparent. Symbolic appearances of a diwata and the Tree of Life further muddy the waters late in the third act. Frankly, the film works best when it simply lets Favila duel it out with the overmatched Privates.

As the Major, John Carlo Santos is commandingly hard core and appropriately pumped up. He is like an R. Lee Ermey teenage girls would want to pin up on their walls, were it not for his predatory sexual behavior. Sandino Martin is also suitably intense as Sarmiento, the shier striver, but Fukioka’s les well-defined character and backstory leave Lharby Policarpio with considerably less to work with.

It usually leads to good things when filmmakers lose control of their political messaging. That sort of happens with Esprit. Still, it works best when Kanakan-Balintagos anchors the film in Avila’s subterranean office. The verbal sparring crackles even if the big picture remains somewhat murky. Recommended for those who seriously follow Filipino film and theater, Esprit de Corps screens this Saturday (6/13) as part of New Filipino Cinema 2015 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.