REVIEW: ‘Bliss’

ADRIENNE Vergara as Lilibeth, the scary nurse who encountered Calzado’s character.

Disturbing the eyes more than the mind.

If you missed Jerrold Tarog’s talk-of-the-town Bliss last year, then you have a chance to see it at arthouse theater Cinema ‘76 in San Juan City or Anonas, Quezon City. They are currently screening it for a week or so.

Tarog, if you are aware, is also the director of the current box-office hit Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral. And if you’ve become a fan of the 41-year-old director for his reimagining of Philippine heroes, starting with 2015’s Heneral Luna and now with Goyo, then you might want to explore the filmmaker’s 2017 indie hit.

Groundhog Day meets Misery meets Inception in Bliss, a psychological thriller that almost got slashed out of the cinemas last year for its display of female genitalia and a masturbation scene, plus elements of violence and lesbian rape. After fighting for public exhibition, Tarog finally got the movie stamped with an R-18 rating and released last 10 May 2017 nationwide (except in the “family-friendly” cinemas of SM).

Bliss tells the tale of actress Jane Ciego (Iza Calzado), who is a product of Pinoy showbiz. A superstar since childhood, she’s now a burned-out celebrity pining for a boost in her career.

Hence, she produces and stars in a movie called Bliss, helmed by first-time movie director Lexter (Audie Gemora).

Lexter, Jane and Jane’s mother (Shamaine Buencamino) dream of making it to the Cannes Film Festival (Lexter pronounces “Cannes” with an “s”), but one wonders why Jane would pick a soap opera director to direct a film seriously intended for the arthouse festival.

Tragedy happens when Jane meets an accident on the set of Bliss and wakes up in a boring minimalist home, confined in a wheelchair, with only her uncaring husband Carlo (TJ Trinidad) and an ugly pugnacious nurse named Lilibeth (Adrienne Vergara) as her companions.  But, wait, the house is also inhabited by supernatural black limbs swarming with flies, which block Jane whenever she attempts to wheel towards a door down the hall.

IZA Calzado plays a burned-out celebrity pining for a boost in her career in ‘Bliss.’

It’s literally Groundhog Day for Jane since then. She wakes up to the same scenarios, trapped in the same weird, isolated, sometimes violent and sexually infused handicapped life.

And, boy, there’s no TV, no Internet, no cellphone to escape from it all. There are books, though — but perhaps Jane is no reader. So, what is all this? A dream? A nightmarish reality? Or has Jane gone bonkers? The viewer has to guess.

Meanwhile, we are also given a glimpse of a clear reality outside of Jane’s world. We see the interaction between the self-serving, disgusting people that surround Jane: her director, mother and husband.  And then we are presented with the sub-plot of Rose, a female sexual predator working in the healthcare industry.

The opening scene is exhilarating; so promising, clean, smart, with a larger-than-life Iza Calzado in what would become a sterling performance all throughout the film (she won Best Actress in last year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival for this role). In fact, the entire cast is excellent—effortless and masterful, fully transforming into their characters.

But Jane’s nightmare-on-loop is dull. With a dreamlike quality to her environment, there is no sense of horror. Also, it’s not really difficult to understand what’s going on. This predictable film has no sense of claustrophobia, panic, or fear. You are just ferried through by your curiosity for the great reveal—and when it finally happens, you are not surprised.

Lilibeth the Nurse is not threatening. Sure, she once humps Jane, but she stays mostly far away from her, residing in invisible rooms in inaccessible parts of the house, as if repulsed by Jane. And as a one-dimensional character (she’s more like your bitchy high school classmate), she doesn’t feel like a psychotic captor. Lilibeth has no intimate, troubling relationship with her patient, unlike Kathy Bates’ deeply disturbed nurse in Misery, the 1990 thriller that Tarog is paying homage to with this movie.  But Vergara is excellent in delivering her lines, no matter how trite they are. Perhaps her most effectively abrasive line is the condescending way she calls Jane: “Madam.”

Since Tarog decided to go for a non-linear approach, with the happenings in and out of Jane’s House of Horror jumbled, there’s no sense of build-up. And the strange sequences only confirm the obvious. He also throws in familiar horror visual elements, like a growing pool of blood behind Jane’s head, Jane swallowed by her bed, Jane pleasured by multiple hands underneath a tight blanket—but these are more of an artistic expression rather than tools to terrify. They are more amusing than disconcerting.

IAN Veneracion stars as Joshua, Jane’s fellow actor and love interest in movie production.

Let’s go to the exposed private body parts. No, it’s not pornographic, because Tarog made Rose/Lilibeth ugly with body pimples, so the effect is gross rather than erotic. And Calzado’s full-frontal nudity is a necessity for that big final appalling scene.

Jane is a victim of abuse—literally and figuratively. She is raped, violated, manipulated by despicable people, by a ruthless industry. And although Tarog creatively and neatly expresses this sentiment in the form of a controversial thriller, giving the Filipino audience something cinematically new and different, Bliss is still overrated. With elements borrowed from familiar Hollywood flicks, it’s not really a new experience. The movie disturbs the eyes more than the mind.

2 out of 5 stars

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