Review: Elwood Perez Returns to Filmmaking With Frustratingly Enigmatic OTSO (EIGHT)

Various colorful images of Manila open Otso (Eight), Elwood Perez's first film since Lupe: A Seaman's Wife and Ssshhh... She Walks by Night ten years ago. 

Lex (Vince Tanada), a returning Filipino writer who is commissioned by a director to draft a script for an upcoming independent project, gives perspective to the seemingly unconnected displays of Manila's sights. Nothing has changed. The truths of the Manila that he grew up in are still the same truths that Manila grapples with. After a tour of the unchanging metropolis, Lex moves into his home for the next few months, a remarkable apartment building owned by Anita Linda, a local screen goddess. Otso suddenly switches to stark monochrome.

Otso is perhaps Perez's most impenetrable film. Perez, however, has always demonstrated a flair for experimentation, to break traditional narratives with illogical and unexpected turns. Waikiki (1980), a sordid melodrama about a mother attempting to reunite with her daughters who grew up in Hawaii, is laced with full sequences of actresses gyrating to hypnotic beats and suggestive chanting. In Silip (1985), regarded as Perez's most famous film after being distributed in foreign markets under the title Daughters of Eve precisely because of its outrageous content, he manages to induce titillation within the perspective of sex that exists under very Catholic clutches. Whether fuelled by Perez's actual creative impulses or just fits of adventurism, the films he makes have an energy that arouses curiosity, at the very least.

Otso seems to be beyond comprehension. It's a myriad of perplexing images and incongruent atmospheres. At the center of the chaos is one compelling artifact from several decades ago: Lex's apartment building. It simply could have belonged to another dimension, one that is unrestricted by real world reason and logic. Its narrow corridors are littered with stories and sleaze. Its cramped units are airtight boxes brimming with secrets. It has a solitary lift, a contraption from a forgotten era that is good enough to transport fragile Anita Linda into her private roost where she keeps an eye on each and every one of her tenants.

The building manager (Vangie Labalan), an old maid who busies herself campaigning for her political candidate, becomes impossibly infatuated with Lex. Lex, on the other hand, fancies Sabina (Monique Azerreda), the mysterious woman who is either the mistress of an incumbent congressman or the doting granddaughter of Alice Lake. Sabina may also be having an affair with Hans (Jordan Ladra), one of Lex's neighbors whose wife is severely ill, leaving their son (Gabby Bautista) to become Lex's constant companion. Elsewhere, a pimp and his hookers attempt to stage one of Jose Rizal's famous stories, and politically-motivated goons are on a rampage for votes.

Perez's motivations are defiantly unclear. There are traces of noir, of Lex's guileless writer stumbling towards a web of crime and politics. Then he steps out of the stereotypical gloom, and starts playing peeping tom, indulging in the imagined escapades of his neighbors. Madness ensues. The film escapes conventional reason, and just becomes a series of scenes tied together by a figment of an idea. It transforms with every twist it takes, never really cohering. At one point, it arrives at the climax of a mystery it so vividly paints, before abandoning all that to become an unhinged tribute to the great Anita Linda.

By its very end, Otso never really succeeds at being anything except a nagging riddle, one that begs to be solved despite the scarcity for any real answers. The film's belated revelations, coupled with what could be purposeful haphazard filmmaking and histrionic acting, point towards a message of caution from the maverick filmmaker about being drunk with too much freedom, too much truth, too much fantasy, and too much cinema. In a building where Anita Linda lords over desperate writers, amateur performers, prostitutes, and political lackeys, it is that sober grey area between cinematic fantasy and reality in which the ancient actress so comfortably lives in that is the unwonted cure to life's infectious confusion.


(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)
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