It is a point of contention for many what the role of the critic is. Do critics uplift or diminish art? Are they gatekeepers? Arbiters of taste? Do they tell you what you're supposed to spend money on?
It is ultimately none of these things. The point of the critic, in all media, given a firm grasp of language, is to make sense of our experience of beauty.
Richard Bolisay made his first entry in his now formally closed blog, Lilok Pelikula, in September 2007, back when blogs were king, and a new generation of cultural critics were honing their voices into weapons. From there, and for over ten years, Bolisay has used the singular grace and deftness of his writing to talk about movies from pop to art house, proving himself an indispensable voice in Philippine cinema.
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As expected from the writer, advocated by the late and revered Alexis Tioseco, Bolisay's debut book Break It to Me Gently is a collection of essays that orbits around Philippine cinema but it is also more than that. With precision, wit, and a sense of perception that sees the heart of what it observes, Bolisay's writing captures the pulse of an important period in cinema, or what some have called its third golden age. The book is an endeavor of refraction—movies reflect the spirit of our times, and Bolisay reflects the beauty therein. As film director Dodo Dayao (Violator) puts it, Bolisay writes in such a way that "each film becomes a point of departure, into conversations larger that itself, into insights it may not be aware it had."
The book was published by small press Everything’s Fine PH. Launched only last October, it has since sold out its copies and is on its first reprinting—a feat for a local title on film criticism. Break It to Me Gently is a dazzling document, one where the language is so intimately entwined with cinema, and where the stories emanate off the page like pictures moving on a screen.
Below are glimpses from Break It To Me Gently
On Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay
It is appalling, however, how Mendoza regards politics as a filmmaker. In the Q&A, he mentioned that he is just a director, and as much as possible, he wants to distance himself from the political issues that his films deal with. If his films have political significance, then it is up to the people to interpret them. But how could that be? How could you make political films and not be concerned with real-life situations and consequences? How could the films be radical and its creator a wimp? How dare you use the suffering of the working class in your films and say, “Uh, I don’t want to discuss that”?
On Coco Martin
Coco Martin’s charm has always given him an excuse to be liked instantly. You never hate him in his films. When he is stabbed in Tambolista (2007), you secretly wish the guy who hurt him would be run over by a speeding truck. When he broods over his relationship in Daybreak (2008), you follow his deep stares into nowhere. When you see his boil pop out in Serbis, you feel his pain, and swear never to drink from a Coke bottle ever again. When he plays a crook, you wish he runs faster than the police. Even in his daily soap opera, you root for his deranged evil character. Sometimes his woodiness can get annoying. But his commanding presence in Kinatay, as well as the nuances he has given Peping, scales him farther from his contemporaries. The collaboration that started with Masahista (2005), Mendoza’s first film, in which Martin had his first major role, not only opened opportunities for his talent to be recognized but also gave the independent film community the challenge to raise the game.
On Raya Martin’s Smaller and Smaller Circles
Unlike Raya Martin’s previous works, Smaller and Smaller Circles is not likely to travel much around the festival circuit, owing primarily to its language. More than half of the film is in English, the kind of English that aptly describes Manila’s blurring of colonial and postcolonial ties. Although it revolves around poverty, its perspective does not purport to speak on behalf of the poor. It does not exhibit the aesthetics of Third World Cinema that most overseas programmers are keen on having. There is not much Payatas in it to entice them.
On Quark Henares’ Rakenrol
Its writers were too busy inserting cameos and references. This is fairly reasonable since Rakenrol is an attempt to bring back the excitement of the era, but they indulge in breaking the film in fragments, resulting in uneven pacing and hodgepodge plotting. The film resembles the apartment where the members of Hapipaks throw a party: Every person they know knocks and enters, and no one remembers who pukes on the couch or leaves early.
On KathNiel in She’s Dating The Gangster
She glows and lights up every corner of the screen, and acts without drawing too much attention to herself or her quirks. Her Athena and Kelay can easily exude the qualities of a manic pixie dream girl despite not being one. She is able to kill any sense of mystery and irony in her characters, her weak moments outshone by her strong ones. There is something regal about her overall appearance, how her clear skin, perfect teeth, and bright eyes convey a warm and pleasant feeling. As Kenji and Kenneth, Daniel is able to substantiate his matinee idol status, comparable to Rico Yan and Piolo Pascual in their heydays, and live up to a considerable measure of the adulation heaped on him. The scenes that show him dancing prove that he understands it. Silliness is not only part of the game, it also completes it.
On Art vs Entertainment
It is a frustrating ball game when the need arises to distinguish art from entertainment for the sake of favoring the former, with some people forgetting that entertainment is in fact an art: a discipline that follows a set of aesthetic principles for it to succeed, making use of skills and techniques to deliver its desired effect. It is unfair to look down on entertainment as a form just because the gratification it offers is deceptive, and a judgment is not any less convincing if enjoyment, no matter how short-lived it may be, is used as a focal point of critical discussion.
On the commercial film
Today it is hardly a matter of offering something new and different. Most viewers are not exactly looking for movies that are wiser than they are. Some take pride in liking stories that make them feel comfortable with their insecurities, entertainments that, to put it bluntly, drown in gravy.
Break It To Me Gently will be back in stores this January.