So far for this year, the local film that had the most pre-opening hype would have to be "Bliss." This latest film by "Heneral Luna" director Jerrold Tarog first gained buzz when star Iza Calzado won the Yakushi Pearl Special Performance Award at the 2017 Osaka Asian Film Festival two months ago.
However, this initial buzz escalated into controversy when the MTRCB rated it an X, causing public uproar especially among netizens. Eventually, after an appeal, it was reclassified as R-18 without cuts. When it finally opened in local cinemas last Wednesday, "Bliss" was showing in 75 cinemas nationwide, and that was without a single SM cinema on the list. I'd say that was impressive trust in the director Tarog and his material.
Jane Ciego is a famous actress, mainly doing light mainstream fluff movies. When she is offered what promises to be the "role of a lifetime" by writer-director Lexter Palao, Jane grabs the chance and even produces the "artistic and atmospheric" Cannes-quality film herself. While shooting the climactic "demonic possession" scene though, a freak accident happens that sends Jane into a nightmarish world she could not seem to escape from.
Tarog takes a very simple core story and weaves this mind-boggling maze of creepy visuals and psychotic ideations. He does not hide his cinematic inspirations for his disturbing imagery, citing Christopher Nolan's "Inception" (2010) and Rob Reiner's "Misery" (1990) by name. There were also scenes that clearly echo Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980) and Wes Craven's "Nightmare on Elm Street" (1985). All of these imply the blurring of distinction between the dream world and real life.
It is ingenious how this film was about a film with generally the same title and plot. Casting Calzado in the lead role as Jane Ciego starring as Abigail is another stroke of genius. Like the career of her character Jane, the steady way Calzado's mainstream career is going now, she needs a shocking edgy film like this to boost her stock as a serious actress. The parallelisms between reality and film were simply so uncanny. She's gone beyond anything I had seen her do as an actress prior to this.
To further heighten the psychological distress that this film evokes, Tarog thickens the plot with a sick yet significant subplot of sexual abuse. This sticky angle makes the already squeamish horror scenes even more upsetting to watch. In a large part, this extreme discomfort was thanks to the very unpleasant and frightening performance of Adrienne Vergara as the crazy home-care nurse Lilibeth, as well as the even crazier hospital bedside nurse Rose. Vergara was fearlessly perverse here in the scenes which most probably earned this film its notorious X-rating on initial review.
Seeing usually suave and elegant leading men actors play against their usual type is very surprising. As Jane's husband Carlo, TJ Trinidad played coño-speak jerk and loser. As Jane's co-star/Abigail's husband Joshua, Ian Veneracion plays a violent brute of a spouse. That scene where these two guys were drowning their sorrows in liquor seemed so realistic that it was quite amusing to watch.
Tarog might have watched 9 Works Theatrical's production of "La Cage Aux Folles" two years ago to get the idea of casting Audie Gemora as the loud flamboyant slave-driver director Lexton and Michael de Mesa as the gossipy Boy Abunda-like TV talk show host. Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino plays Mommy Jillian, Jane's stage mother, as stereotypically dedicated, doting and domineering as they come.
Being caught in Tarog's riveting web without figuring out what this mind-bending film was really all about -- that should be true bliss. Catching the twist before it is revealed can be a disappointing thing for films like this, but I thought Tarog did not really make it too difficult to figure it out on our own.
But then again, that twist may not be really the main point of it all. Being able to take its audience on a completely immersive ride into that perplexing paranoid limbo between dreams and reality -- that makes this film an extraordinary big-screen viewing experience. 8/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."