MOVIE REVIEW: Memory Channel (2016)

Existentialism is perhaps the most appealing subject to young artists. It’s quite a tempting habit to get into, and it may lead to abuse when you realize how easily you could make yourself appear intelligent with very little effort simply by asking “Why do I exist?”

In saying this I think I speak from experience, being that I have a background in film school where everyone seems to be making a film about the same substance. Admittedly, I’m also guilty as charged. But I’m not saying that existentialism is bad for your artistic health. I mean, hey, we’re all fans of Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard aren’t we? All I’m saying is engaging in the subject matter exposes you to the risk of sounding trite and perhaps even lazy. Because like a History Channel documentary investigating the possible existence of extraterrestrial beings, in my observation existentialist literature has the same tendency to come up empty handed. What I’m saying is you can do absolutely anything you want and think you can get away with it simply because no one really knows the answer to the question “why.” Being fully aware that everything is permissible–because “why not?”–it’s easy to become tempted to make lazy artistic decisions. I’m not saying you will, but you might.

Having said this, the subject matter of existence is both easy–in the sense that it’s effortlessly intellectual–and difficult–precisely because it takes a ton of effort to answer an essentially challenging question. And being an artist and not only a philosopher, one has an obligation to answer the question creatively. Which makes it harder to achieve genius-status and not merely be a pseudo-intellectual.

With that lengthy introduction out of the way, let me talk about the film Memory Channel by Raynier Brizuela which I had the privilege of watching at the World Premieres Film Festival 2016. It’s got a catchy name that sounds as if it could easily be a classic (or, I don’t know, I like how it rings), and looking at the SNES-themed publicity materials published on social media, the film does look quite appealing.

memory channel poster

Now, I don’t like reading the synopsis for any sort of literature, whether it be a book or a movie, fearing that it might take away the element of surprise. So when I sat down to watch the film, and was immediately greeted by the narration which inquired “What is my purpose in this world?” I thought, Oh, here we go again.

Basically, the film is about an ex-celebrity-singer Leo La Torre (Gerald Santos) who suffers from amnesia and is unable to recall much of his past life, as such he is afflicted with anxiety disorder. He lives alone, receiving monetary support from his mother abroad (whom, we never hear about, except that she’s living with a different man). In the film, Leo meets a sketchy character who appears out of nowhere and claims to be a retired psychiatrist (Epy Quizon) able to heal Leo if only the boy would just give him his trust. It’s an okay plot, not a very grand one, but it’s okay. I mean, it’s not about the volume of the plot which determines a film, but how well that plot line is actually expressed. And in this film, it’s done rather experimentally.

I admit this makes it hard for me to determine which questionable aspects of the movie are merely ‘mistakes’ and which are ‘intentional.’ To illustrate my confusion, let me begin by dissecting the movie.

At some parts it is obvious that the rough camera work is intentionally designed to confuse the audience (i.e: when Leo goes crazy with a panic attack). However I find that in other sequences (i.e: when Leo doesn’t go crazy with a panic attack) the rough camera movement feels a bit accidental. It’s not easy to recall at which points exactly, but I also felt that some shots weren’t properly woven, and given that the film is not trying to be conventional, it’s hard to say whether or not these were just mistakes.

The color grading is also uneven, and some sequences look as if they come from an entirely different film. One could observe, however, that at times there are attempts to establish a uniform color palette, such as in the character of Oella (Michelle Vito) who either wears bright green or teal. But the attempts are quite lacking, and when you hear the title Memory Channel, it doesn’t bring to mind a set of colors the same way mentioning Moonrise Kingdom would. I’m not saying it should try to imitate Wes Anderson’s iconic production design, all I’m saying is, I wish it could have been better.

I also have a bit of an issue with regards to the writing. I understand that the heavy use of narration is intentional, which kind of reminds me of Stranger than Fiction. But at times I also felt tired hearing that all-knowing voice, and I wonder if it’s really necessary that they abuse it to that degree. I also can’t quite grasp why the video-game character who poses as the narrator for the story deserves to even be the narrator. Just because Leo plays his video-game in the opening sequence does not mean that character is relevant to the whole narrative. But I get the underlying metaphor, that life’s like a game and it has a script and so and so, but if they really wanted to push through with it as a grand theme, they should have focused more on developing this character. For me, the way it was lacked any meaning.

That being said, I felt that the character development was unmotivated, and it was hard to connect with Leo’s struggles and the psychiatrist’s inner suffering, not because the actors weren’t good enough, but because not much attention was paid to holistically make their characters come alive. As an example, I can’t forget that sequence when Leo hands out flyers trying to find his muse Oella, an action which seemed to me as illogical. The psychiatrist mentioned the internet, so wouldn’t that have been the first logical step to finding the missing person? And how exactly are you supposed to find a person just by specifying on a flyer that that certain Oella has red hair? Not to mention, Oella and Leo’s little love story lacked the required motivation to push it forward; how did they even manage to get from a carinderia to a beach-outing when Leo doesn’t even want to talk? There are many more examples of this, but I don’t want to be the one to spoil them.

memory channel oella

To be fair the animated sequences in the film were excellent, and the SNES-inspired sequences looked well on screen. I just wonder why the filmmaker chose that look instead of using modern video-game graphics when the film obviously isn’t set in the 90s–or if it is, I’m not aware. With every artistic decision, there must be an underlying reason, and I am yet to grasp any meaning with using outdated graphics for a visual-style. If it has something to do with ‘uncovering the past’ (after all, it’s a film about amnesia), then I wish the film could have pursued that theme more and made it more apparent. If it were trying to accomplish that sort of meaning, then to me the attempt felt a bit raw.

I also find the film’s ending to be a bit shaky. There’s quite a number of turns in the plot, and I guess it’s okay. What I don’t like however is that by the time the film ends, there’s still a few loose threads that don’t get tied up. For instance, what of Leo’s singing career? Was that merely an accessory to his character background or was it important? If not, can we do away with it? Why does it have to be in the film? How is it relevant to the whole narrative? And how exactly did Leo get amnesia? I can’t say I’m satisfied.

Whether or not this piece of existentialist literature is genius or not, I can’t say for certain. The film is trying to be new, and it’s obviously trying to get rid of established rules and norms for telling a story… Honestly, I’m just not sure if it works. I mean, It’s a formidable attempt to be different from mainstream cinema, but I guess there’s a very thin line between trying to be French New Wave obnoxious and just being downright obnoxious.

Although I can’t say that I fully liked the film, I would still watch out for the filmmaker Raynier Brizuela’s future projects. For me, creating a film that aims to experiment takes a lot of courage and guts, and if you know anything about filmmaking (or in the arts for that matter) then you’d know that ‘learning’ how to break the rules takes an immense amount of time and dedication–and one should respect that. I am hopeful that in time Brizuela’s work will be more refined and creative. Or rather, if not meant to be polished like a piece of work obedient to the rules of cinema, at least edgier, but in a good way.

Memory Channel premiered June 30, 2016 as part of the World Premieres Film Festival which will run from June 29 to July 10 at SM Megamall, SM North EDSA, Greenbelt 3, Uptown Mall, Shangri-La Plaza Mall, and Cinematheque Centre Manila.

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