It seems that one of the strengths of filmmaker Jerrold Tarog is an astute understanding of the pulse of pop culture.
Sana Dati, his 2013 romantic drama that starred Lovi Poe and Paulo Avelino, was a pre-hugot melodrama that preempted the whole emotionally driven movement long before Angelica Panganiban was screaming her lungs out in the mountains of Sagada. And when Heneral Luna premiered two years ago, to critical and commercial acclaim, the young gun sealed his status as one of the country’s most visionary, contemporary directors. People were actually buying tickets, creating viral memes online, and going to see a movie that didn’t involve some sort of ridiculous studio-built loveteam. With its entertaining depiction of Philippine history, stellar production qualities, and ingenious marketing, the retelling captivated an eager audience in need of a deeper sense of nationalism. Tarog captured and penetrated the zeitgeist of the people—a restless public craving a central figure that represented a new breed of heroism.
His latest endeavor, the psychological thriller Bliss, was recently slapped with an undeserved “X” rating by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB). Truth be told, the movie is more than deserving of being shown to the general public. Yes, it’s disturbing and uncomfortable to sit through, but also shit-loads of fun—qualities any fan of genre cinema can appreciate. It’s not a perfect film, and that’s beside the point, because if you’re old enough to grasp its content, you shouldn’t be robbed of the choice to see it for yourself.
'Yes, it’s disturbing and uncomfortable to sit through, but also shit-loads of fun—qualities any fan of genre cinema can appreciate. It’s not a perfect film, and that’s beside the point, because if you’re old enough to grasp its content, you shouldn’t be robbed of the choice to see it for yourself'
Bliss follows the tragic situation of Jane Ciego (Iza Calzado), a local actress and superstar confined to a wheelchair in a spooky house after suffering an on-set injury. With only her mysterious husband and a terrorizing nurse for company, she struggles to keep her sanity intact as there may or may not be malevolent hands at work. With pressures mounting from her manipulative director and her greedy stage-mother, both of whom are cashing in on her success, the whole setup suddenly morphs into a Kafkaesque nightmare, where true horror is other people and the mundane cyclicality of existence is a painful nightmare. Jane becomes a prisoner of her own celebrity, her dreams and reality like oil and water sharing the same cup, coexisting in an inconceivable yet totally acceptable fluid state.
It’s hard to discuss the movie in detail without spoiling important revelations, which is why certain aspects must be left in the dark. One thing, however, is clear—Jane must somehow escape, if not for her safety, then for her peace of mind.
Calzado, who was recently awarded the Yakushi Pearl Award at the Osaka Film Festival for her performance, is effective in her ennui. There’s a lived-in quality to her being that adds an air of sophistication to any project she lends her talents to. And her supporting cast doesn’t disappoint. TJ Trinidad, a constant Tarog collaborator, delivers another convincing portrayal fueled by misguided hyper-machismo. The character actor has shown such a specific attraction for these kinds of roles in the last few years that it’s hard to believe he’s a great guy in real life. Ian Veneracion’s silver screen magnetism needs no introduction, while Audie Gemora and Shamaine Buencamino can do no wrong. But the breakout star here is Adrienne Vergara as Lilibeth, the nurse from hell. Her character becomes a canvas for both fear and pity, emotions that are powerful when properly packaged into a memorable villainess.
'The movie being cockblocked from theaters is certainly an issue of censorship. And like Jane’s existential crisis, the film’s current situation represents a monotonous trap we Filipinos are finding ourselves in, where the powers-that-be are slowly twisting our liberties with no consequence'
Horror aficionados and film buffs will immediately recognize the protruding allusions in the storyline. Stephen King’s Misery, which was adapted into a film by director Rob Reiner and won Kathy Bates an Oscar in 1994, is the most prominent. Both tell the tale of artists struggling with their craft forced to confront their dormant demons—in wheelchairs, no less. And in weaving its enigmatic tapestry of clues and red herrings, Bliss references Hollywood cult classics like Inception and The Usual Suspects—sometimes, maybe a tad bit too much. Tarog is also keen in adding some dark humor into the pot, a timeless strategy for cutting the overwhelming tension and suspense. There are moments when the storytelling gets clunky and repetitive, but if you suspend your disbelief long enough and throw your logic out the window, it’s easy to find the thrills.
Last night, an advance screening was held at the UP Film Center to help bolster the movie’s chances in its appeal for a rating that would allow it to be screened commercially. Anyone with a discerning sense of judgment will easily see that the themes, nudity, and violence present in the narrative can be managed by an adult audience. These have been used in many a foreign film and aren’t even all that new to the canon of cinema in general.
Do Iza Calzado’s breasts or a female simulating masturbation onscreen merit a stripping of your freedom to choose what you can and can’t watch? Is it fair to let an outdated board dictate what art or entertainment you should or shouldn’t patronize? The movie being cockblocked from theaters is certainly an issue of censorship. And like Jane’s existential crisis, the film’s current situation represents a monotonous trap we Filipinos are finding ourselves in, where the powers-that-be are slowly twisting our liberties with no consequence. Seeing and supporting this movie means a lot more than what they’ll lead you to believe, the reasoners hiding real intentions under the guise of medieval mores.
In the end, Bliss is about opening one’s eyes and waking up before it’s too late. It’s about refusing to be crippled by sinister forces.
Editor's note: Bliss was recently reconsidered by the MTRCB and given an R-18 rating with no cuts. The movie is set to premiere commercially on May 10.