Cinemalaya 2012: Thoughts on Kamera Obskura and Mga Mumunting Lihim

In Kamera Obskura, Raymond Red seemed like he wanted to say something about the current state of Philippine politics, but he certainly didn’t say it well and I’m not even sure if he said it at all.

This silent film boasts of excellent cinematography, with Red showing his masterful eye for visual direction with the film’s great play on light, darkness and the shadows that mark their interactions. The opening sequence, in particular, was well-shot and featured a clever take on perspective. But the film is weighed down by the heavy-handed use of vague political metaphors and the film’s crutch on title cards. I spent a lot of time reading the long, verbose written dialogue instead of letting the action speak for itself, which is what makes silent films great to begin with. And the movie’s cast including Pen Medina and Joel Torre was surely more than capable of conveying thoughts and ideas without the use of words.

Furthermore, there was something very off-putting about the structure of the film itself. The silent movie is actually a movie within a movie. It is book-ended by scenes featuring the critics and archivists who supposedly found the reel hailing the film as a great piece of subversive art instead of the movie leaving it up to the audience to decide its merits. Because if you ask me, the film’s incoherent political message, unoriginal critique on government (yes, we know that Philippine bureaucracy is rotten and corrupt — what are you adding to the conversation?) and sense of self-importance make Kamera Obskura fall short of greatness.

Joey Reyes’ film is a refreshing dramedy that showcases fine acting from the film’s four actresses. Upon the death of Mariel (Judy Ann-Santos), she leaves behind a box of diaries to her best friend Carla (Iza Calsado) containing her thoughts and feelings towards her and their two other friends, Sandy (Agot Isidro) and Olive (Janice de Belen). This movie is about the purging and exorcising of the secrets that lay hidden in their friendship, and the catharsis that comes along with the unveiling of these truths that may be better left unexpressed.

What makes this movie work is its script that realistically captures the complications that normally come even with the best of friendships. The backstabbing, the competitiveness, the toleration of each other’s flaws — these are all ironically part and parcel of any barkada, especially those that have lasted for a very long time. The movie examines the underlying bases of real, enduring camaraderies and the extent to which we can take crap from the people closest to us.

Great care has been taken in the writing of the four main characters, with each of them having distinct personalities and faults. Janice de Belen definitely steals the show, with her character’s frank humor and moments of tenderness and genuine sincerity making her irresistible and entertaining to watch.

Where the film falls short is in its final act where you can feel the movie overextend its stay. There are lots of moments when the movie could’ve ended, but it just goes on and on even if its not progressing the story in any way. There are also some scenes that employ shaky camera work, perhaps to achieve a sense of realism or authenticity, but it makes the quality of those sequences amateurish. But overall, the film’s tight script and the way it reaches back to its characters’ personal histories and condenses it all in the present proves that if you have a good story, you just need to tell it well to make a good movie. If only mainstream Philippine cinema were more like this.

4 comments
  1. targrod said:

    i doubt if JJR would allow the same type of technical work and storyline in any of his MMFF films. the studio might not allow it. and i definitely agree with De Belen stealing the show.

  2. I’ve always been a fan of how Joey Reyes can wring honest emotional truths and some great or just plain enjoyable moments out of Regal/Viva/Star Cinema-friendly plots, casting and settings in his films, no matter how mainstream. In my opinion, that sometimes takes more artistry than taking on the now-hackneyed over-wrought/over-examined indie/artsy go-to themes.

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