Jerrold Tarog’s Bliss is that rare thing in Philippine cinema: an honest-to-God risk-taker of a movie, a flight of dark fancy that intentionally unmoors the audience after a fast-paced, breathless opening that establishes a context before upending it.
Iza Calzado stars as Jane Ciego, a popular actress hungry for a challenge. She embarks on an ambitious, risky project of her own: producing a serious film for herself to star in, one aimed at a sophisticated, international audience as opposed to (one assumes) the less… intellectual fare an artista of her stature might be overly familiar with.
An accident on set leaves her wheelchair- and housebound, with an odd nurse (Adrienne Vergara), who behaves in a hostile manner. TJ Trinidad and Ian Veneracion alternate as her husband and leading man. Shamaine Buencamino is her mother. Audie Gemora rounds out the main cast as the director who convinces Jane to invest in his vision.
There are several layers at work in Bliss. Set in the local showbiz scene, it gets in a couple of digs at outsize personalities you might recognize: arrogant divas, two-faced social climbers, and toxic masculinity are par for the course. Superficiality and brown-nosing, pettiness and backstabbing. The levels of artifice pile on top of one another: What’s real? Who’s lying? It even references itself: The film Jane and crew is working on is called Bliss.
When Jane wakes up in her bed, facing what looks to be another similar day in a torturous cycle, she remarks, “Puta. Eto na naman,” echoing the audience’s sentiments (and allowing for one of the rare moments of levity). There’s a strange corridor in the house Jane is convalescing in. She’s seeing things. It’s all a bit surreal. It’s not full-on Charlie Kaufman levels of meta, but it’s there.
Writer/director Tarog is a multi-hyphenate. Other hats he wears on this production are editor and composer, which results in a strong cohesion present in Bliss. His overall command of the film is obvious in how considered and thought-out the sound design is, to the match-cuts, to the blocking. With the tone of a psychological horror story, he has to thread the needle carefully as it can so easily tip over to camp. He does so admirably, keeping several plates spinning.
The conceit and structure of the film is not without its downsides. Such a plot doesn’t leave a lot of room for much in the way of character development. Jane Ciego is not the deep, nuanced vessel that Calzado could really sink her teeth into.
While we get where her character’s at emotionally and in her career in the opening sequence, the rest of her personality is told to us by the other characters in her orbit, the ones left suspended in animation, as it were, while she has to recover. These people depend on her, not always in reciprocated or positive ways, and that push/pull adds to the tension of the more literal danger that Jane is actually in.
Scenes of Jane are, because of her predicament, pretty much all about her trying to get out of the said predicament. But Calzado gets to showcase her range: from interacting with fans to colleagues to family to the eerie nurse in charge of her care, each wanting something different from her. She gets to go nuts for one scene and relishes it.
Her scenes with Veneracion bespeak the chemistry that has seen them paired together three times this year alone (in Dan Villegas’ Ilawod and their TV show A Love to Last), while the more abrasive interactions are with TJ Trinidad, who acquits himself well and is having a banner year: with this and his recent turn in Red Turnip’s The Nether, plus the forthcoming Smaller & Smaller Circles adaptation, Trinidad’s showing up in all the most interesting projects of 2017.
Though the specific endpoint chosen for the film leaves a bit to be desired, the rest of Bliss is a tightly-controlled unraveling of unconventional story. A style that we don’t see much of: no spoonfeeding of blatant exposition, clues and hints seeded throughout that would reward further viewing, a prestidigitator’s act of misdirection that forces the audience to keep up, to pay attention. Tarog brings to bear influences from Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, Stephen King’s Misery, as well as directors Satoshi Kon and David Fincher (Seven’s reverse end credits crawl gets a nod).
While not everything in Bliss lands as well as it could, it’s still remarkable to see Tarog try, to risk narrative complexity laced with a subplot of sexual violence with an unpredictability that carries through its running time.
None of Tarog’s films resemble each other, which is a strength: He is interested in many things, and he can tell stories in different ways. And the last thing you want one of the more interesting Philippine directors currently working to do is get lazy, coast by. It’s much more rewarding seeing him hungrily stretch and reach for something that may well exceed his grasp, rather than contentedly spinning in circles over well-trod paths.
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