JESSICA ZAFRA | Elwood Perez's 'Otso' (At Kalahati)
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In some countries eight is a lucky number; in ours, at this time of pork barrel revelations, it is the number of the beast. Otso, the new film by Elwood Perez, opens with Lex (Vince Tañada), a balikbayan, getting reacquainted with Manila at the height of election season. Perez, who has not made a film in ten years, has lost none of his skill at evoking a sense of place: We don't just see those familiar streets, we can smell them. Otso may be an art film as its director has said, but it has the vibrancy and the unstoppable forward movement of the melodramas he is best known for.
Lex moves into a condominium on Leyte Street, Sampaloc, and gets to work on an indie movie screenplay for a Director (Jun Urbano) he met on Facebook. What is he going to write about? The building is populated by what seem to be stock characters: the flirtatious hag Ms. Abdon (the hilarious Vangie Labalan); the sympathetic neighbor Hans (Jordan Ladra) and his ailing wife (Cindy Liper); their precocious little boy Brent (Gabby Bautista); the Congressman's aide Chris (Chris Lim) and goon Ato (Kevin Posadas); a pimp (Art Gabrentina) and his hookers (Cherry Bagtas and Patrick Libao). In the penthouse, looking over this motley crew, lives the owner of the building: Alice Lake, who is also the actress Anita Linda.
The sight of his alluring neighbor, Sabina (Monique Azerreda) getting into a car with an "8" license plate gives Lex the subject for his movie. Surely Hot Girl plus condominium plus "8" plate equals Congressman's mistress. It is the first of many predictable assumptions that Lex makes about his neighbors; at one point the 10-year-old Brent complains that his script is corny, and suggests an action sequence. Lex agrees to the suggestion - The audience wants bloodshed! Brent becomes Lex's collaborator, and in one of the movie's funniest scenes, the two screenwriters read their script aloud, doing all the voices.
A common conceit of moviemaking is that it is "true to life". Lex believes that his version of his neighbors' lives is authentic and accurate: is he seeing things as they are, or is he just seeing things? He seems to be connected to a boy (Mark Joseph Garde) who keeps turning up in the building, trailing his promiscuous mother (Adelle Ibarrientos). Is this a ghost story? When Sabina declines his clumsy attempts at friendship, he becomes convinced that the Congressman's mistress is having an affair with Hans. Elwood Perez has directed some bizarre sex scenes in his career - he made the Isabel Lopez-Sarsi Emmanuelle starrer Silip, which cult film fans have declared "the wildest movie ever made" - but the one in Otso is still impressively bizarre.
Throughout the movie you may find yourself asking, "What the hell is going on?" and it is to the filmmaker's credit that walking out of the cinema is not a real option. Perez throws a lot of things in the air - the movie switches from color to black-and-white, Anita Linda makes some crazy old lady statements ("You don't have a mother, but I have played mother to Fernando Poe Jr., Joseph Estrada, Nora Aunor, and Vilma Santos, and I can be your mother…"), the acting borders on staginess - but weirdly enough, they all fall into place.
Lex may be the writer (in fact Vince Tañada co-wrote the screenplay with Perez), but in Otso the storyteller is the camera in constant movement, swooping down the stairwells, sneaking into doorways, sidling along the corridors, finding some demented angles. Six or seven people are credited as cinematographer - I suspect mass exhaustion.
So what the hell IS Otso? Peel away its many layers: the political drama, the obsession sex-drama, the disintegration psychodrama, the reality vs illusion meta-drama, and you’ll find a real freak: an entertaining art film about the creative process.
Otso is regularly described as Elwood Perez's comeback movie after a ten-year hiatus. Perez has said that the long break was not entirely his choice - there were movie projects in the interim, but all they fell through. He cites the support of the Film Development Council of the Philippines and his collaboration with Tañada's Philippine Stagers Foundation as the factors that made Otso happen. Philippine Stagers is a professional theatre group that puts on 330 performances a year - and its actors still had the energy to do all but three of the roles in the film.
When we talk about the most important Filipino directors of the 1970s and 80s, we usually zero in on the pair of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal. But as the critic Rafael Guerrero pointed out, there was another vital pair of directors from that era: Joey Gosiengfiao and Elwood Perez. Perez is often lumped with Gosiengfiao as a director of camp, but while he certainly made some campy movies (the Valentina episode in Lipad, Darna, Lipad; the kangkong episode in Zoom, Zoom, Superman; Sari-Saring Ibong Kulasisi), the label does not cover his far-ranging, eccentric body of work. Perhaps Otso will spark that delayed assessment of Elwood Perez's films. In the meantime, Perez should be forbidden from taking a long break again.