Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The question seemed so innocent, trivial even.
“Where have you been in Osaka?”
It was a question that one would generally expect to be thrown by an excited host to his foreign guest. Director Jerrold Tarog, however, was not a first-timer to the Osaka Asian Film Festival. He has been here before, to represent “Sana Dati” (2013), a film that is a million times more jovial than “Bliss,” the film that he has just premiered to the world. The filmmaker taciturnly said, “Family Mart.” Everybody laughed.
Osaka has thousands of attractions and the famous convenience store is hardly special, even to Filipinos who have witnessed the Japanese-grown mini-mart grow from obscurity to necessity within a couple of years. Tarog briefly explained that he is working on the sequel of the historically profitable historical film, “Heneral Luna,” inside his hotel room and is only able to leave it for required public appearances and brief breaks.
Iza Calzado, the star of “Bliss,” quickly joked, “Family Mart is his vacation.” Again, everybody laughed.
It was the unlikeliest profound exchange of remarks, one that spoke more because Tarog’s film delves deeper than deep into the psyche of a tired artist, an actress who ever since she was a child has been in the cutthroat business of entertaining the masses.
In “Bliss,” Calzado plays 30-something Jane Ciego, who, while performing a stunt for a film that she believes will finally give her the laurels she deserves, figures into an accident which forces her to recover in a house where her only companions are her inutile husband (TJ Trinidad) and the heartless nurse (Adrienne Vergara) he has hired for her. The premise seems simple, with Tarog recruiting almost nearly all the elements of a run-of-the-mill psycho-thriller to establish the apt mood and atmosphere to evoke mystery and confusion. However, the genius of the film is that while it teeters towards being the type of film that teases its audience to predict the ending or to solve the puzzle that it is, it does so in a cheeky manner, in a way that strikes to the core of what it is trying to say.
The seductive mysteries of “Bliss” unfold seamlessly. Tarog is a very precise director. He knows when exactly the film’s primary revelations should happen. He acknowledges that while his film might be more of an intellectual experience because of its complex structure, it cannot just ignore the function of emotions. The film is appropriately funny, brimming with the right amount of sarcasm and irony to keep its observations about the film industry afloat without being too overbearing.
It is in the horror department that the film falls short. Mind you, “Bliss” is still a terrifying film, but the terror it imposes is not sourced from the supposedly scary sequences that Tarog crafts from the oppressive and narrow corridors of the enigmatic house where Calzado’s character has been conveniently trapped. It comes from what the film is about, from what it tells about us as human beings, from what it reveals about the milieu that it so fascinatingly recreates and exaggerates.
See, “Bliss” houses this world where abuse is both flagrant but tolerated within a narrative that puts the spotlight on a celebrity whose life revolves around routine and repetition.
Tarog carves his characters equally from stereotypes and real lives. Jane Ciego’s story is recognizable. She is Rita Gomez from Ishmael Bernal’s “Pagdating sa Dulo” (1971), the star who has experienced everything from humbling auditions to being in the limelight while being treated by adoring fans like an emotionless commodity. She is every child star who has matured in an industry that does not allow her to mature beyond products that sell. She is every big name whose outward glamor hides the fact that she needs to feed mouths belonging to family members who are sitting comfortably on talents that aren’t theirs.
Then there are the equally familiar supports. Vergara’s nurse seems to be molded from nightmares yet her background story is one lifted from every little girl who has had the misfortune of being too trustworthy of adults who turn out to be predators. Audie Gemora’s ambitious soap director-turned-arthouse filmmaker is a composite of every monstrosity the country’s film festival-addicted film scene has engendered from its devoted artists. “Bliss” simply pits all of these characters and more in a cycle where they relate to each other in an effort to exploit, for influence, for cash, for fame, or pleasure. Tarog is most effective and unflinching when he withdraws from the film’s genre elements to further paint a milieu that is at once realistic and nightmarish.
This isn’t to say that “Bliss” is a film whose intentions outweigh its cinematic merits. The film is handsome, a work that is so meticulously pieced together. There is a certain elegance in Mackie Galvez’s delicate cinematography that keeps the film from drowning in all its genre excesses. Tarog’s own music isn’t too overpowering. All of the performances are worth noting. Calzado’s turn as the embattled actress is sublime. She allows herself the vulnerability and defiance that a character in the middle of a tug-of-war needs to invoke. Vergara shape-shifts astoundingly, playing both victim and victimizer with hardly any effort. Gemora is a joy to watch. Shamaine Buencamino, who plays Calzado’s possessive mother, gives just the right amount of slight warmth to grant her character a certain semblance of humanity notwithstanding all the cruelty and indifference. It really is quite a well-crafted film, one that even outshines “Heneral Luna” in terms of consistency, and heck, even ambition.
“Bliss” is a film whose pleasures aren’t immediate. It isn’t as emotionally rousing as “Heneral Luna” or “Sana Dati,” whose themes of nationalism or romantic love, respectively, are things that provoke effortlessly. “Bliss” seems to be more cerebral, a work that forces its viewers to think before they feel. It is a commentary veiled as a horror, a critique of the onerous world of art and entertainment whose abusive behavior towards its workers is akin to the ones committed by sex offenders, where routine and repetition are keys to tolerance, to acceptance, and to further and perhaps more prevalent abuse. The nightmare simply cycles. We either wake up or die, or go to the nearest Family Mart for that much-needed respite.
"Bliss" will be theaters in May 2017.