Becoming ‘transcendental’: Filmmaker Paul Soriano finds his voice

Miguel Dumaual, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 02 2019 02:52 AM | Updated as of Nov 02 2019 08:41 AM

‘Mañanita’ director Paul Soriano answers questions from the audience after the world premiere of his film at the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival. Alfredo Ruzol, ABS-CBN News

TOKYO, Japan—Filmmaker Paul Soriano has finally found his voice.

It’s taken over a decade, directing 7 films and producing a dozen, but now he can claim, “This is who I really am today.”

Soriano made the declaration before an international audience after the world premiere of his latest offering, “Mañanita,” a main competition entry at the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF).

“Transcendental” was how he’d call this newfound voice, inspired by masters of the film style such as Yasujiro Ozu, Paul Schrader and the Philippines’ own Lav Diaz, known for his take on slow cinema.

Since he co-produced Diaz’s acclaimed “Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery)” in 2016, they’ve formed a mentorship of sorts which, for Soriano, has been instrumental in having a firmer grasp of his identity as a director.

“I’ve been a filmmaker for 13 years, and this is my style. I’m finding my voice, and it’s somewhere along these lines,” he said, referring to transcendental cinema.

With mere 8 pages of screenplay penned by Diaz, “Mañanita” was ripe for that treatment.

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Transcendental style is characterized by deliberately long, uninterrupted, often stationary shots, meant to elicit a more active involvement from the audience, according to Schrader in a 2017 explainer.

A film usually “leans towards” the audience with details that sustain attention, Schrader said, but in transcendental style, the film “leans away” so the audience feels the need to participate.

Once the viewers are “activated,” the film, in a key moment, sets them “free” after consistently withholding. Schrader said this could be in the form of the unexpected, such as the swelling of music after hours of near silence; the use of a tracking shot after a succession of lingering, stationary angles; or a character’s burst of emotion after keeping it contained. This way, the moment is earned, and powerful, Schrader said.

“Mañanita,” starring Bela Padilla as a dismissed military shooter, checks many of these established criteria in transcendental cinema.

The Viva Films co-production is scheduled for release in the Philippines on Dec. 4, so Filipino moviegoers can see for themselves which ones.

One of Soriano’s goals, in fact, was to make the viewers “feel they were also with Edilberta (Padilla) on her journey.” This was evident in Soriano’s generous depiction of the lead character navigating an open field, for instance, with the singular shot lasting minutes.

That said, “Mañanita” managed to have a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes, just a fraction Diaz’s “Hele” with its 8-hour unfolding. “Mañanita” is also significantly shorter than Diaz’s most recent release, “The Halt,” which runs for 4 hours and 43 minutes.

“Of course, I study the masters, but at the same time, you want to take what you’ve learned from these masters and make it your own,” Soriano said. “This is a step towards that, and learning how to be a better filmmaker, a better storyteller with every film that I do.”

'Mañanita’ director Paul Soriano and actress Bela Padilla attend the 2019 Tokyo International Film Festival. Alfredo Ruzol, ABS-CBN News

Soriano credited Padilla, whom he collaborated with for the first time in “Mañanita,” for helping him accomplish his foray into transcendental cinema.

“Hopefully, it’s not the last,” he said. “She’s a great artist, a great actor. The trust that she gave me was the most I could have ever asked for from any actor that I’ve worked with. She said yes to me without even reading a script. It’s the trust that she gave me that inspired me to do my best to tell this story. I admire Bela for taking that leap with me.”

Soriano has already finished writing a screenplay which, he said, might be the basis of his next feature film. That, too, will likely have the transcendental treatment.

“Definitely, it’s going to evolve. I definitely love the style. It’s who I am,” he said.

That a film embodying his identity as a director has taken him to TIFF has been “really humbling,” Soriano added. 

“During the first part of the screening, I couldn’t believe I was actually watching my film in the main competition here in Tokyo. I was still dreaming, but I had to get myself back to reality and just embrace the moment, soak it in,” he shared.