Saturday, June 27, 2009

Aestheticizing Wars ‘Concerto’


Written by Reeling / Tito Genova Valiente /

Wednesday, 24 June 2009 18:55

WARS being epic masterpieces of annihilation and violence always get superstar treatment from historians and chroniclers. Wars are huge and the stories about them are massive landscapes without space for the tiny tales of individual victims. Then come documents and films that take on the challenge of the interstitial, the life and politics in the unseen middle. Concerto, by Paul Alexander Morales, is this kind of film.

Set in Davao during the Japanese Occupation, the film is based on the events written on the diary of Lt. Col. Anastacio Campo, Diary of the War: Memoirs of WWII.

Memories being selective and personal, this account of one of the most violent periods in our history becomes necessarily selective and personal. This situation then becomes a crucial point in appreciating this work and also having second thoughts about what the film implies.

What the film tells us is that the state can focus loudly on the main actions and on the actors representing almost the ideal types of nation-states that they entirely negate the intensely personal, hidden and private woes of those who saw the war. In Concerto, one encounters a family fleeing from the open dangers of the city—Davao—and moving into a farm. There in that landscape that is more pastoral than threatening, the members start to try to restore normalcy in their daily life.

Just a few meters from their home (or at least that’s what the film shows), is the camp of the Japanese soldiers. I do not know if this was real. I do not know also if a family would move out of the city and go to a place where the Japanese soldiers, the enemy, are a shout away. But the story does happen in a space that conflates the domain of the dangerous and the safe, the outsider and the locals.

The proximity of the family’s home to the military camp engages the two parties. The Japanese officers befriend Joselito, the son, who speaks the Japanese language, or at least is able to converse with them. What looks like a close relationship between the family and the Japanese soldiers is now a ground for familiarity. Foods are delivered to the camp and, even if the father of the family continues to ignore the Japanese soldiers, the family is given more attention by the Japanese. Then, one day, the piano from the home of the family is brought to the farm. Under a big tree, the piano sits and waits to be played on.

The night of the concerto comes. I am not diminishing the gravitas of this film’s theme but if one looks for the charm of this movie, it is in those scenes where the members of the two families—the Filipino family seeking refuge in the farm and those of the Japanese soldiers whose camp is their temporary shelter before facing harm and death at the battlefront—listen to music.

Talking about the difference between the violence in a documentary and in what he calls “fiction films,” Abe Nornes details out how the “direct representation of sacrifice violence” is found mostly in feature films, which, in turn, allow “vast control over lighting, camera movement and special effects.” The result of this control, according to Nornes, is in the ability of filmmakers to “aestheticize death.”

Concerto does not directly aestheticize death but for those whose experience of war did not allow the respite of piano-playing—in actual and in metaphorical form—the film, to borrow the words from Tsurume Shunsuke and Kogawa Tetsuo’s discussion, has lost the habit of “thinking from wounds.” One can say the film is now thinking from the heart.

War as a soft-focused memory has both good and bad consequences: the good is that it enables people to move on; the bad is that it lets go of the hurt that leads to truth. I, however, do not see these contradictions as harming the film. What the film does fill up is the gap about the personal memories people have of the last world war. Those memoirs where the lines between the enemies and friends are blurred are exciting departures for the rethinking of the value of history writ large. The monumental landscape where men and women become heroes is suspect and the events that are memorialized are open for questioning and even doubting.

There is no doubt, though, that the film Concerto touches us because in the inanities of nations fighting one another, people rise up amid the violence and violations, and become human again. True, they go into killings and lying and scheming, but in the end, what one sees is the splendor of the human spirit more powerful than the biggest war machine.

Like memory, the actors do not any more flesh out the story and their characters in it than they provide shades and—every now and then—shadow. Meryll Soriano as the eldest daughter Nina is a quiet soul in this film. Yna Asistio is heartbreaking and lovely. She is everyone’s girl who shows best the wear and tear on youth. When the war ends, she will be there but you know the years she has lost are all gone. Nonoy Froilan is the patrician father whose silence can stand both for nobility and, we dare not say it, resignation. The fact that we are lost in the nuances of those two principles outlines to us the impact of war on anyone’s ability to check reality out there.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: Shamaine Centenera is one actress who has transitioned from theater to film seamlessly. In this film, what appears to be an embracing personality simmers and suffers under the anxiety of a mother whose only aim is to protect her children. When a Japanese soldier offers her the sword as a dedication of his life to a real mother who is far away, Centenera’s quiet gesture convinces us that there is a passion in this almost embarrassing, even misplaced, militaristic melodrama, of the young fighter before a mother who is a mother first of all.

Jay Aquitania’s passion as the young man easily brings him into acts that are questionable and a patriotism that is irregular. I like the tentative character of this young man, because it is through these imperfections that one glances back through remembrance and discover the humanity and inhumanity of wars of any kind.

Concerto is just the right kind of film to remember when the celebration of Philippine-Japan Friendship Month in July begins. It is a friendship, after all, that is forged in the memories of peace and war, and then peace again.

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