The Curious Case of Frozen
by Jansen Musico
D: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck
S: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Much has already been said about Frozen, which, to this day, is still generating one form of discourse or another. For an animated Disney film, this is no peculiar feat. These films have always relished in the residual buzz emanating from Disney’s golden age. But to brush off the company’s continuing success as an effect of nostalgia would be unfair. These recent years have given us some noteworthy films in like The Princess and the Frog, Wreck It Ralph, and Tangled—each lauded for their attempts to push boundaries of Disney storytelling. Frozen seeks to do the same. Though it makes heavy use of traditional Disney elements, there is a novelty in it that not only captures its audience’s attention but also, in some ways, moves them to exchange and dissect ideas.
The kinds of discussions Frozen generates are interesting. Like any film, Frozen can be processed differently by different people. No matter the filmmaker’s intention, how a film is understood, felt, and experienced will always be subject to the varying tastes and biases of its viewers. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall puts it, the encoded message and the decoded message will not always be the same. Since Frozen is a film that’s so rich in encoded ideas, the decoded ones come in vast numbers and in varying degrees of deviation. Put it simply, the film is polarizing. Though generally loved, Frozen is both praised and booed, but not for the same reasons.
Origins and Color
A lot of the flak Frozen’s been receiving is not for the film’s story or form, but for its characters’ skin tones. The portrayal of race has always been a controversial issue, not only for Disney but Hollywood as a whole. There isn’t much cultural representation in mainstream American film, and if there were, most often than not, people of color are misrepresented.
The backlash came even before the film hit theaters. The promotional images of pale-skinned characters caused several raised eyebrows. For the unaware, Frozen is based on the Danish tale “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen (one of my favorite stories as a kid), and is set in Norway. Much of the clamor arose when it was pointed out that the pale characters were a misrepresentation of the Sami, the indigenous people of Norway, who were not intrinsically white. This is where the period of the narrative should be considered. “The Snow Queen” was set in the late 1800s. By this time, Norway would have already been a melting pot of cultures and genes from Europe and North America. Given Europe’s history with indigenous people, the Sami were most likely displaced, and pale skin would have been a norm.
But then again, Disney has never really been known to be faithful to its source material. Its portfolio of animated films is proof of how much Disney likes to deviate. If they were set on having a Sami Disney princess, they would have done it, but they didn’t. Instead, they gave us their first two Scandinavian Disney heroines. A quick review of the old princesses tells me this: Aurora, Belle, and Cinderella are French, Snow White and Rapunzel are German, Jasmine’s Arabian, Mulan’s Chinese, Pocahontas’s Powhatan Pamunkey, Merida’s Scottish, Tiana’s American, and Ariel’s related to tuna. This means that though Elsa and Anna may not have darker skin, they still represent a culture different from those of the current roster of Disney heroines.
Though it would have been nice to see more diversity in color, it would be wrong to belabor Frozen for not adhering to the standards of all its viewers. To please everyone would be impossible. In the words of postmodern critic Craig Owens, “No one narrative can possibly account for all aspects of human experience.” This doesn’t mean to say that all sentiments about race are invalid. But it also shouldn’t be the sole barometer that Frozen is measured against.
As stated earlier, Disney took liberties in retelling “The Snow Queen,” drastic liberties, in fact. Disney has this habit of plucking out recognizable elements from stories and reworking them to make the end result more savory (read: kid-friendly.) In Frozen, they borrowed “The Snow Queen’s” titular queen, the troll, the snow, and the frozen metaphor and did away with everything else. Even though “The Snow Queen,” in its original form, is strong enough to withstand a full-length treatment, Disney has its reasons behind their alterations. And lucky for them, Jennifer Lee, screenwriter of Wreck-It Ralph, was tasked to make these changes. She, together with other story developers, and songwriter Robert Lopez, were able to infuse a spoonful of sugar into this revamped hard-hitting feminist tale.
Sisters Before Misters
Ever since Snow White’s debut in 1937, Disney has been on a mission to fine-tune their depiction of women to suit the times. The early days of Disney introduced the damsels in distress as delicate ill-fated women in need of a prince to find their happy ever afters. These women are treated as the objects of princely affection (whose stories are purely dependent on their external circumstances) rather than the subjects driving their own fortunes. The Disney renaissance of the 90s and its succeeding years saw these women trade in their passive selves for more active roles, ladies taking up the reins of their lives, pursuing their dreams, and making a positive difference: Tiana rescues her prince and builds her own business; Mulan breaks gender stereotypes and saves her country; and Merida and her mother Elinor save each other and abolish arranged marriage in the process. The latest in that growing list are sisters Elsa and Anna.
In Frozen, the two are introduced as kids. A sprightly Anna wakes her older sister in the middle of the night so they can play. An ensuing accident leads to a sequence establishing the relationship between the ladies and the rules governing Elsa’s choices throughout the film. From here on, Elsa’s struggle begins. With her ability to conjure ice, she’s automatically placed on the seat of power. Not only does she have this uncanny ability, she is also set to rule the kingdom of Arendelle. (This, in itself, is a step forward for Disney. Elsa is a queen, not a princess with a prerequisite prince to rule.) An older Elsa is governed by fear, not really of the harm that may befall her, but by the harm she can inflict on others. Her solitary confinement is her choice. It is an act of selflessness made to look selfish because of outside biases and preconceived notions of her.
On the other hand, Anna, having her childhood memories distorted, is unaware of her sister’s plight. As a result of her being sheltered and alone, she longs for affection, both her sister’s and of a man’s. Though portrayed innocent, her actions are brash and selfish. Anna is concerned of her own happiness. She sees herself as a victim of her sister’s supposed self-centeredness. It takes another accident during Elsa’s coronation to alter these sisters’ characters.
Elsa heads to the mountains to relinquish her royal responsibilities—as signified by the removal of her cape and crown. Her “Let It Go” is not only a celebration of her freedom from fear, it’s also the swan song of her old self, a momentary manifestation of self-regard, a shedding of old skin. Ironically, Elsa does not physically shed all of her old clothes when she transitions into her own woman. Instead, she covers herself up with fresh garments, a new skin.
Anna also makes her way up the mountains to rectify her sister’s mistakes. Cold and alone, she spots a trading post where she meets an iceman named Kristoff. Lacking in knowledge of the mountains, she commandeers Kristoff’s services as a guide. This, by no means, demonstrates Anna’s weakness. Her banter and adventure with Kristoff (notably the sled and giant snowman sequences) validate her status as a woman with her own mind and set of skills. Her moment of selflessness arises during the penultimate point of the film, when she offers up herself to save Elsa from certain death.
This expression of selflessness sets Frozen apart from its contemporaries. Anna, cursed with a frozen heart, needs an act of true love to survive. Normally, in Disney mythology, a curse would be broken with a true love’s kiss. Surely Snow White, Aurora, and Tiana are fully aware of its mechanics. But in this case, Anna needed no man to liberate herself and save her sister. Her self-sacrifice was the key to her own salvation. Sure, Merida, too, needed no man to lift the curse off her family, but unlike Anna, Merida didn’t have the option of kissing two men vying for her heart. (And no, Merida’s suitors do not count.) Anna ultimately chose her sister over a man.
Lee is a brilliant writer, seasoning the narrative with subtle details that make for poignant contrasts. In the scene where Anna is left to freeze to death in a locked room, Olaf, the animated snowman, comes to her rescue and starts a fire. Mid-dialogue, he begins melting and says, “Some people are worth melting for.” It’s a tender moment. Olaf, enlightened about his fate, would much rather stay with Anna to keep her warm. Minutes later, it’s Anna who freezes to death to save her sister.
The addition of Lopez’s songs adds another imperative layer to Frozen’s already plush narrative. It is evident that Lopez—whose works had catapulted shows like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon into Broadway and beyond—would treat Frozen as if it were a stage musical. He opens strong with “Frozen Heart,” an anthem for the icemen who regard the ice as if it were human, personifying it with adjectives that bear more meaning as the film progresses. Not only does the song describe the setting of the story, it also foreshadows the succeeding events.
Lopez follows this up with “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” a demonstration of his ability to stir emotions. Layered over a montage of passing time, the song’s lines, as if a series of switches, interchangeably and fluidly turn on feelings of joy, awe, and sadness. His wit is on full display in “In Summer,” perfectly performed by Mormon’s Josh Gad. Olaf’s naiveté coupled with playful rhymes and a clever pregnant pause make for a very funny break in the film.
But Lopez’s moment of pure genius comes in the form of Disney’s most nonthreatening villain song to date, “Love is an Open Door.” Compared to its predecessors, which are outright exhibitions of vanity and dominance, this duet shared by Anna and Hans is understated. Since the song brims with Anna’s optimism and earnestness, its true connotations are effectively veiled. When Hans sings “I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place,” it’s a forewarning of his true intentions of usurping the Arendelle throne. He repeats this when he an Anna exchange lines. He sings, “But with you I found my place.” Anna alternately sings, “But with you I see your face,” denoting that her judgment is clouded by his looks. Later on, it’s revealed that Hans had been deceiving Anna all along.
Another song worthy of mention is “Fixer Upper.” At first pass, it comes off as filler, as if its sole purpose is to give the trolls some activity before news of Anna’s fatal ailment is broken. The stone creatures take time showing off Kristoff, poring over each of his imperfections and good qualities for Anna to consume. Feminist texts have long pointed out how women are objectified by film and how they are demoted to an image for man’s consumption. For Kristoff, a man, to become subject to the viewer’s gaze, it’s innovative. Sure, Anna, too, is briefly placed under scrutiny during the song, but the criticisms of her are neither about her looks nor traits but rather the fact that she’s already engaged.
With everything going on in a film like Frozen, it is easy for anyone to gloss over its hidden merits or, inversely, obsess about the trivial. Regardless, the amount of discourse it has spawned since its release in November last year confirms Disney’s continuing influence. With its treatment of characters like Anna and Elsa, the company is showing signs of progression. Disney is willing to grow with its audience. But of course, this will be tested over time.
Horror by Numbers
by Jansen Musico
Pagpag: Siyam na Buhay (2013)
D: Frasco Mortiz
S: Kathryn Bernardo, Daniel Padilla, Shaina Magdayao, Paulo Avelino, Matet de Leon, Janus del Prado
Pagpag: Siyam na Buhay is a horror by numbers. It follows a no-frills template its predecessors had established. It forces gore into mystic tradition and, as an afterthought, builds a story to fit the theme. The result is a slightly different kind of the same: a wobbly horror flick that is more camp than thrilling.
In Pagpag, the tradition comes in the form of superstitions, the things one can’t do during a typical Filipino wake. When the characters break all these rules, they set off a chain of gruesome deaths which they try to stop. This story offers nothing new. The names and situations may have changed, but Pagpag merely rips off from the existing pool of films that clutter the genre. Over the past decade, similar films like Feng Shui, Sukob, and The Healing were produced. It’s disconcerting to see that, despite the wealth of references and examples, the film still fails to learn from its predecessors’ mistakes or do anything to improve the genre. The writers play it safe, choosing to pander to their target audience over creating anything of substance. They are preoccupied to sell.
Yes, there may be blatant promotions of a Korean mobile app throughout the film, but the real product being touted is a love team, KathNiel, the portmanteau of stars Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla. The movie is the result of the film’s producers wanting to give KathNiel fans something to gush over. There would be nothing wrong with this, if only the plot weren’t sacrificed to serve this purpose. Tender scenes between the young stars are written in, causing jarring shifts from gore to mush—and with the addition of stereotypical supporting characters—to comedy. The story is trite and underdeveloped. It’s plagued with loopholes and loose ends. The leads lack character development. The supporting characters are blown up into caricatures with horrible zingers. But perhaps the film’s biggest fault is how it spoon-feeds the mystery. Pagpag treats its audience as if they were passive, unwilling to think and easily swayed by the gimmicks on screen.
Refining the screenplay could have helped, because technically the film is solid. There are glaring problems with the continuity, the fake fire, and the lighting for the evening sequences, but overall, the cinematography and the CGI are almost seamless. Alas, there is only so much a competent production team and cast can do with weak material. When the MMFF wraps up, Pagpag will join the ranks of other campy horror flicks patiently awaiting their turn to be broadcast as a mediocre matinee.
On Equal Ground
by Jansen Musico
Ilo Ilo (2013)
D: Anthony Chen
S: Angeli Bayani, Koh Jia Ler, Yann Yann Yeo, Tian Wen Chen
There is something important about Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo that Filipinos need to grasp. And that is the way he frames his OFW character, Auntie Terry. Though a main character, he neither puts her on a pedestal nor hails her a hero. Instead, he does something foreign: he treats her as an equal.
Since the boom of the OFW phenomenon, we have seen movie after movie dramatizing the hardships of Filipinos working abroad and the families they leave behind. Many, if not all, are ethnocentric, skewed to champion the Pinoy. Rarely do we see an OFW film involving the employers. If ever they’re given menial back stories, they are either demonized, as in the case of Anak or the Flor Contemplacion films, or crafted to help out the Pinoy protagonists, like in Transit. The plot is almost always driven by the Filipino character. This is only natural, given that these films are produced by Filipinos. But it makes for very one-dimensional storytelling.
Having been raised by a Filipina nanny for almost a third of his life, Anthony Chen is in the perfect position to make a movie that gives us both sides of the story—the employee’s and the employer’s. By doing so, he gives us something different, a fresh perspective.
Ilo Ilo is about a Singaporean couple who hires a Filipina nanny to take care of their young son, Jiale. That summary isn’t alien to our typical OFW lore. The difference comes in the form of Chen’s treatment. His story is set during the Asian financial crisis. It hits the family hard and forces the couple to adapt to their circumstances. The father, Teck, is laid off and scrambles to find a new job. His wife, Hwee Leng, is made to juggle being a mother and an office worker. We are absorbed into their world, sharing their problems and seeing how they deal with the stress. In the same way, we’re also shown Terry’s struggle of having to raise a child back in the Philippines while looking for an extra source of income, not to mention also tending to Jiale.
It’s a very simple story made complex by Chen’s fictionalized personal anecdotes and rich characters played by a really good cast. Tian Wen Chen, and Yann Yann Yeo especially, are naturals. Angeli Bayani is spot on as an OFW. Not once does she come off as a martyr with a victim complex. She’s simply a hired professional, doing her job and settling her personal affairs on her day offs. Her chemistry with the young unbashful Koh Jia Ler is what ultimately carries the film.
Ilo Ilo may share the same pitfalls of many melodramas. At times it can be gloomy without hope of reprieve, but there are tiny moments of cheer and running jokes involving chickens that liven it up. Unlike many melodramas, though, Chen’s film has zero pretentions. It doesn’t aim to gain praise or beg for a certain emotional response from its audience. It’s merely a rekindling of his own memories. Lucky enough for us, they’re interesting. And for Filipinos, they shed a new light on the OFW experience.
Her turn as Aunty Terry in Anthony Chen’s Cannes Camera d’Or winning Ilo Ilo, has placed Angeli Bayani in the watch list of many film buffs here and abroad. She’s been in local and foreign movies for a decade now, and has been working on her craft for much longer. She may not be a local household name now, but soon, with just the right exposure, there’s no doubt she will be.
She was having a kip in the bathtub, of all places, a few minutes before I met her, this petite morena void of the stereotypical trappings of a movie star. After a quick splash of water, she was ready, wearing nothing but a simple blouse and a simpler smile. Though small, there was nothing meek about her. Angeli Bayani commanded attention.
Ilo Ilo is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
Tell us about your role.
I’m playing Auntie Terry. She’s a Filipina maid hired to take care of Jiale, this little boy, by a family in Singapore.
Auntie Terry is based on a real person. Have you ever met her?
Yes. We first met at the gala in Singapore.
How did she react to your performance?
Sa totoo lang, of all people, kung meron man akong gustong i-please talaga, eh siya. Iniisip ko, sana magawa ko ng tama yung role. Nahiya akong tanungin, kasi she’s kind of a quiet person. Pero, eventually, nung nagkalakas-loob akong tanungin, ang sabi niya, “Okay naman… Tama naman.” Ganun lang ka-simple yung sinabi niya. Parang tuloy akong tanga na nag-alala buong araw.
How was it working with Anthony?
It was a learning experience. Masaya… Magulo… Oo, ganun. Sometimes talaga, hindi maiiwasan yung conflict. Pero looking back on that, it was all for the benefit of the story. It was all for the benefit of the film. Personally, even if I seem difficult, if it will work naman, if it will be for the benefit of the story or the film, bakit hindi ko siya gagawin, di ba?
Puwede namang magtanong ng maayos. Puwede namang mag-usap ng maayos. I think that’s my biggest takeaway working with him. I learned to do that in a way na hindi abrasive, but in a confident manner. Hindi puwede yung “Ummmm, direk, uhhh, ummm…” [She twirls her hair with her finger.] Hindi. As in, “This is what I think… This is what I feel…” At valid, and you don’t come across as being obnoxious or a smartass. I would like to think that I did it in a way as someone who can bring something to the table.
Ilo Ilo is not your first international production, so having experienced working on both foreign and local movies, how would you describe the difference?
Sa lahat ng ginawa kong international film… Yes, parang ang dami [Laughs] Pero yung pinaka-common sa kanila, yung malaking kaibahan is yung oras. Sinusunod nila yung twelve hours, as in. As in. Finished or not finished, pass your papers talaga.
After twelve hours, uwi na, pack up na. At ang sarap nun. Alam mo kung ano’ng naisip ko nun, lalo na nung first days ng filming? “Ay puwede pa akong manood ng ganun… Puwede pa akong magabasa ng ganyan…” Ang dami kong naisip gawin ng gabi pag-uwi ko. Pero ang nangyari, hindi ganun. Kasi kaya pala nila ginagawa yun, ang nangyari sa akin pag-uwi ko, babasahin ko ulit yung script. Babasahin ko lahat ng gagawin for tomorrow. Aaralin ko na naman siya. And you need that time alone. Para pagdating mo bukas ng 9 o’clock, handa ka.
Tayo lang ang hindi sumusunod doon. Kaya dito pag taping, i-aabot sayo yung script, linya, gawin mo na lang the best way you can. Pero puwede namang hindi ganun. At mas mabilis sana kung rerespetuhin natin yung twelve hours kasi lahat tayo uuwi, pag-aaralan yung gagawin the next day, mabilis na tomorrow. Less friction pa dahil nakatulog yung mga tao.
You’re playing an OFW. There’s a long list of actresses who’ve played that role. How is your take different from theirs?
I would like to think that I didn’t do it the stereotypical way. Alam mo yun? Feeling ko, hindi stereotype si Auntie Terry. This is, for me, one of the most real characters I’ve ever portrayed. And that made it equally hard for me kasi, like you said, it’s a long list. Aminado ako na ang dami ko nang nakitang ganitong klaseng portrayal. Pero with Anthony kasi, we both wanted Aunty Terry to come across as a real, fleshed-out character.
Kung maiyak ka man sa kanya, it’s not because yun yung intention namin, or matawa for that matter. And um, I’m not saying that the other people’s portrayals were not real. But defenitely, yung amin, wala kaming intention to make you feel anything. And I think that is what’s important kasi. It comes from a sincere objective to just portray the truth, to just portray a real person.
Read the interview with her director, Anthony Chen here.