A fictitious Filipino silent film is unearthed and unspooled in “Kamera Obskura.” Creating a “lost” movie about a prison escapee who acquires a magical movie camera and becomes a political pawn, helmer Raymond Red succeeds marvelously in conceptual and visual terms, but his soundtrack strategy is likely to sharply divide audiences. World-preemed at Cinemalaya, where it won a director prize, “Kamera” looks set for limited theatrical exposure locally and high visibility on the fest circuit.
Real-life Filipino film archivists Teddy Co, Cesar Hernando and Ricky Orellana call a press conference to announce that an old film has been discovered in a warehouse. Minus credits and its final reel, the technically sophisticated black-and-white feature is thought to date from the late 1920s or early 1930s, a barren period in Filipino cinema. With tantalizing mystery surrounding its authorship and precise date of production, the movie is presented without interruption for approximately 70 minutes.
Red and his technical team expertly capture the look and feel of silent cinema with the first images of Juan (Pen Medina, also co-scripting), a bedraggled prisoner who has served 20 years in solitary. Crawling through a tunnel into a dank cell, Juan uses a tiny shaft of sunlight and his spectacle lenses to create a camera obscura effect and “see” the outside word.
Managing to escape, Juan ventures into a striking vision of Manila that mixes postcard-worthy colonial-era landscapes with futuristic design, recalling Everytown in “Things to Come” (1936). Drawn to a photographic shop called Kamera Obskura, Juan foils a robbery with a movie camera that emits a ray, causing the offenders to disappear. Given the magic device and led to a monolithic office block by the shop’s owner (Abe Pagtama), Juan is told to enter this place where “everything will come true.”
What follows is an engaging yarn about power and corruption, as Juan’s journey through the maze-like building brings him into contact with a fat-cat politician (Joel Torre), an apparently honest champion of workers’ rights (Nanding Josef) and a slinky mystery woman (Irene Gabriel). Visuals evoking classics of German expressionism and Russian formalism are marvelous to behold, but some auds may be put off by the musical accompaniment.
Eschewing piano music, composer Diwa De Leon opts for electronica, reminiscent of 1950s synthesizer experiments, and heavy slabs of ’80s-style European industrial rock. An announcement in the opening seg that a brand-new score has been added would easily have paved the way for auds to accept such a radical departure from what’s generally accepted and expected when watching silent films. As it stands, the music draws unnecessary attention to itself and frequently breaks the spell — so beautifully cast elsewhere — of a buried treasure being opened for the first time.
Pic closes on a lovely note celebrating the wonder of cinema and underlining the importance of film preservation.