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Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2017 (Part 3) September 8, 2017

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.


NABUBULOK (Sonny Calvento)

Nabubulok works best when it is depicting its small provincial setting and emphasizing the people’s natural tendency to gossip, their keen investment in the lives of others, rooted in a family’s apprehension when one of its kin goes missing. This portrait of a neighborhood appearing to move in oneness can be familiar to those who have lived in one, where every little thing gets noticed and exaggerated, where it’s impossible to keep a secret and truth is pursued through relentless idle talk. The film, however, touches only on this momentarily and does not go any further, preferring instead to deliver suspense and, towards the end, social commentary.

It also works slightly as a mystery, in which clues are scattered throughout the story and some of which succeed in underscoring the ambiguity, in creating puzzles within puzzles, in substantiating the stifling darkness and shaky camera movements. But the film also leaves this hook the way it leaves its observation of the community: It solves the mystery quickly, for it seems to be so averse to tightness — as seen in the repetitive dialogue, uncreative staging of scenes, and confusing character development — that when the text in the ending comes out, when those words pronouncing the characters’ futures are revealed, one logical response is to laugh out loud despite the seriousness of it all. Such gesture, well intentioned may it be, comes across like a joke, a prank that proudly bares the film’s failures, its inability to tie up the loose ends after allowing the narrative to go in so many directions. It gets lost in its own maze, and when it arrives at the exit, it decides to do the lousiest thing: to prophesize.

Contrary to the claim of the GMA head writer Suzette Doctolero in a Facebook post calling it ugly and rotten — a bad example of someone in the industry pitting one film against another, displaying the kind of self-importance that imposes one’s taste on a general audience instead of encouraging them to see the film and judge it on their own — Nabubulok offers something worth seeing: a palette consisting of varying tones and textures, a love story masquerading as a crime story, an alarming reminder of the times. Although it may not be satisfying as a whole — as some of its actors tend to go over the top and shatter its authenticity (JC Santos, Gina Alajar) — the film’s currency and identifiable political context bring about relevant discussions on present-day social issues that can make up for the coherence, and steadiness, it lacks.



If it’s true that writing about bad movies is bad for the skin, then it’s only wise to keep this short. If the faults of Ang Guro Kong ‘Di Marunong Magbasa were purely technical — cinematic language, lighting, narrative design, casting, acting, editing, sound, music, costume, or all of these combined — there could be a place in one’s heart for forgiveness. One can simply shrug it off and chalk up the misfortune of seeing it to experience. An enlightened viewer is capable of understanding life’s many challenges that would allow this poor thing to happen. But the film has far bigger problems than technical: It supposes an audience that would be so dumb to accept its oversimplification of concepts — war and peace, youth and maturity, rebellion and patriotism, politics and religion, kindness and cruelty, life and death, etc. — just because it pursues the noble act of showing the significance of education. It is so blinded and crippled by its intent that it ends up not only being terrible and irresponsible — showing farmers, rebels, Muslims, and Mindanaoans in a bad light, and drowning them in stereotypes with characters acting very stupidly — but also offensive and disturbing, particularly with how it portrays kids holding guns and supporting the war, torturing people and killing them. There is no point of raising subjectivity here, there is no excuse that can defend its wrongness. Seeing that the film, like its titular character, is incapable of grasping accountability, what more can be expected of its filmmaking? In what world is this perspective acceptable? It’s a disservice to writing to even grant an analysis, but this guidance must be given: Guro is a dangerous film that promotes dangerous ideas, and it’s every wise man’s obligation to make its beguiling atrocity known to the best of his ability.


SHORTS B (Various)

Shorts B does not live up to the fullness of Shorts A, and it owes both to the quality of the individual films and to their effect as a whole that sitting through it feels a bit of a chore. It’s disjointed, uneven, and underwhelming, incapable of sustaining strong interest but offering occasional pockets of surprise and bursts of brilliance. Its strength is its variety, in the richness of the stories and how they are told, in unexpected moments of boldness and restraint. The ambition is there, but is not always fully realized.

The best of this set by far is “Hilom” by Paul Patindol. It starts rather conventionally with the establishment of its characters and location: twin brothers on a picturesque island in Samar, the seeming quietness of their relationship echoing the seeming quietness of their surroundings. But in these first few minutes — with the sound of the wind, the wave of soft music, and the hushed spaces of their intimacy — the emotional grip is already strong, and one can feel the imminence of something about to burst, or something about to be tainted. When this turning point happens, when the story becomes too fragile and delicate that one fears a misstep would shatter it, the film manages to carry it through beautifully, gently, and thoughtfully, without needing sweet words or grand gestures but simply an agreement of sensations.

“Juana and the Sacred Shores” by Antonne Santiago is also set near the waters, but its emphasis is on form. It uses dance to express its female character’s freedom, curiosity, longing, and subjugation, relying on choreography to put forward symbolisms through which the story is told. It’s a very mannered film, one that can be too inscrutable and opaque at times that its being overly calculated and conceptual can be tiresome. Meanwhile, “Maria” by JP Habac is driven by its strong subject: a household full of children, at the center of which is their mother who is pregnant with her twenty-second child. In their world, humor and drama are the same, and they suffer together and alone. The use of bright and flashy colors looks deliberate, and this overemphasis on the production design draws too much attention to itself. “Maria” is able to present the multifaceted issues of poverty, and this awareness brings to light important concerns, but the core of the film seems underdeveloped and, as far as effect is concerned, feels incomplete.

The expectations for “Nakaw” by Arvin Belarmino and Noel Escondo after its participation in the Short Film Corner in Cannes and recent win in Urian are high, and sadly it only half-delivers. What it’s trying to say about the cycle of violence through echelons of theft are made loud and clear, and in seven brisk minutes it manages to convey the frightening fleetingness of life, showing a person alive in one minute and dead in the next. This is admittedly striking. However, considering that the crudeness of its method is intentional, a quality that also serves as its reason for being, this one-take performance is impeded by subpar execution, by the glaring artificiality of its form that ruins what would have been a powerful piece against the merciless murder of the poor.

Like “Nakaw,” “Nakauwi Na” by Marvin Cabangunay and Jaynus Barbee Olaivar confronts the alarming rise of state-sponsored killings, and the best thing about it is that these young filmmakers are aware of this terrible problem and standing against it. The film is marred by the clichés of student work: tiring flashbacks, heavy use of music, excessive drama, and lack of technical sophistication. It is buoyed by its compassionate heart, its belief in the cathartic effect of sentimentality, but it is also what makes it trite and drowns it. Meanwhile, “Bawod” by TM Malones is set up interestingly — a girl and her grandpa live together in a remote town, and she raises her juvenile frustrations about his being overprotective, while he makes a living for them, to help send her to school, through bamboo farming. But the film decides to add strange details — Is someone following her? What is she seeing? Whose corpse is that? What is that fire at the end? — and the ambiguity doesn’t quite translate into effective storytelling.


RESPETO (Treb Monteras)

One will look back on this year’s Cinemalaya five, ten, or fifteen years from now and remember, with a degree of fondness reserved only for inclusive experiences, the gleam on people’s faces after the screening of Respeto, the buzzing noise as they walk towards the exit and exchange thoughts, the strong energy that bounces across the theater revealing not only the immediate impact of the film but also the reason for eliciting such response. One can’t just walk away from the film without acknowledging, even internally, the scale of ambition felt in its entirety. Such hugeness of feeling is warranted: It creates a world that connects to bigger worlds both from the past and present, and in doing so also imagines a future filled with more doubts than certainties, with far more worrying questions than reassuring answers. And with the timeliness, the relevance of its issues, the gnawing pain coming from the mental and emotional proximity of the film to the here and now, how can one with a strong sense of social awareness and responsibility not be shaken? How can one merely suspend disbelief?

Respeto banks on the truth of its sentiments, and the major truth of 2017 in the age of Duterte, in the age of fake news and dwindling morality, is that people are getting killed — over 13,000 of them and counting — with human lives, many of them coming from the poorest sector, being used as targets and collateral damage of the state-sponsored war on drugs. It is no longer survival of the fittest; it is mainly survival. Respeto provides a clear picture of this time, a context that is unmistakably present-day, and sets its story in a community where Filipino hiphop culture thrives and its lead character, Hendrix, dreams of making it in the scene. The use of microcosm is obvious but necessary. It is a place of resistance: against government systems aiming to displace people, against social conditions that force young ones to become shabu couriers and put their lives in danger, against the cruelties of a milieu that enables harsh competition, against the terrible realities of being born poor and lacking the opportunities to succeed.

Admittedly, Respeto works more convincingly if one looks at the “bigger” pieces of its story. The linking of Marcos and Duterte is a striking feat, a vital political gesture for which the film will rightly be remembered, especially in light of having a co-writer who is a known Duterte supporter. The rap battles are a delight to watch, and there is so much nuance in them that speaks critically of the depth and superficiality of being Filipino, the contradictions and paradoxes attached to being one. Doc, played by the great Dido de la Paz, is a character of lasting relevance, one whose passion for poetry, faith in humanity, and strength to live embody the manner and mindset of the film, one who can be quietly arresting at one point and gracefully bursting with rage at the next. It’s easy to understand the glowing reviews: The film does not rest on intent alone; it has the balls to show the cycle of violence and point at the very institutions that are at fault for the continuing decay of moral scruples in Philippine society, while also honoring the richness and dignity of people whose main struggle every day is to find food to eat and live their lives safely.

These merits, however, must be weighed alongside some aspects of Respeto that are not exactly satisfactory. One of which is the way Hendrix is written and developed. To put it bluntly, it is hard to root for him. Or yet: He is not a character to root for, after all. Which is fine in a general sense, except that the film underscores his journey, humanizing him from being a lowly shabu courier to a performer with a purpose, one who tries to do what is right despite his difficult situation. Hendrix’s characterization isn’t particularly on point, and a scene that marks him is when he allows the rape of a woman to happen, a woman he is attracted to, a woman he is supposed to fight for as far as rules of romance are concerned. But he only stands there and lets it happen. And the film lets him let it, too, which is not a matter of being realistic (yes, it can happen) but of being right (because in this case, doing what’s right supersedes whatever the effect of portraying reality is). This could also explain why the attempt at a poetic ending isn’t as impressive as intended. In the film’s context, Hendrix’s killing does not feel earned — not that all killings have to be earned to be acceptable, but killings in cinema are subject to writing design, to technical execution, to be effective — and the flimsiness of his characterization impedes the achievement of catharsis.

If there is one thing that Respeto nails with utter believability, it is the fact that making art in a time of crisis is not the solution, that art is powerless in the face of thousands of dead people. But at the same time it also asserts that it is important to make art nevertheless, if only to make the viewers realize that taking action is needed — going to the streets to protest, refusing to yield to all machineries of deceits and dishonesties, avoiding neutrality in words and in deed, recognizing one’s privilege and helping the marginalized fight systemic oppression — if only to make them see the injustice and do something about it in their own way. Good art does not spoon-feed ideas, but enables reflection on one’s surroundings. Respeto must be seen for its contribution to the discussion, for its aesthetic merits and political courage, and for what it portrays: a society that fights back. With the brutal deaths of Kian delos Santos, 17, Carl Arnaiz, 19, and Reynaldo de Guzman, 14 — all of whom could have been Hendrix, young and hopeful, driven by modest dreams and accepting of life’s terrible challenges at an early age, kids who plead for their lives but are tortured heartlessly, shot dead, stabbed 30 times, denied of their right to live by the very institution that should serve and protect them, with bullets in their bodies and faces covered in tape, buried with immeasurable grief by their parents — one hopes that it is still not too late to do something about this country’s fate.


Post-script: It is with a heavy heart that I say good-bye: Lilok Pelikula is now signing off. Thank you to everyone who has visited this site over the past ten years. It has been a fine time (for me, at least), and I will miss it and the few readers who have made this space, now littered with cobwebs, meaningful. There’s a much bigger battle outside, and let’s do our best to defeat the monsters. I’ll be around xoxo


Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2017 (Part 2) August 13, 2017

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi, Uncategorized.
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It’s not as awful as those bad films that deserve to be crucified for making nearly two hours of one’s life a total misery, but Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig is almost there. Maybe a few more outrageous dream sequences, or another thirty minutes of alternating between a verbal explanation and a flashback of a similar thing, and blood will be spilled.

That the film is a test of patience is an understatement. It’s riddled with too many problems both big and small — from the production and continuity glitches as well as absurd cuts and transitions, to the inappropriate use of music (every time it comes on, one instinctively looks for a knife) and unstoppable pursuit of the superficial (flashbacks! dialogue! shadows! religious symbols!) — but the biggest hurdle of all is being forced to believe that Mercedes Cabral is the mother of Jess Mendoza. How can one simply accept that without twitching? And if that’s not enough, she is said to be married to Ricky Davao for more than twenty years. Just basic math. How can the above-the-line people, seeing that there is nothing in the story and narrative that would substantiate such casting choice, let that happen?

This is not nitpicking: This is bringing to light an example of extreme desperation, a disastrous creative decision that points to the kind of filmmaking made evident in the output, that one thing that affects everything. And if the viewer lets that slide and musters the strength to suspend disbelief, there remains the difficulty of understanding the habit of the film to overexplain, its tendency to always iterate motivations and put thoughts into words and words into actions. At some point, the constant use of lopsided mise-en-scène no longer works to suggest inner conflict or turmoil, so it resorts to terribly staged dream sequences which, instead of complementing the drama, only mess it further. The reliance on flashbacks and voice-overs also shows how much it suffers from lack of ideas. The viewer is expected only to watch the film happen, literally, without being given the opportunity to think deeper, because Kuliglig places all its cards on the surface and leaves nothing underneath. There is skill, there is promise, and there is imagination — one can feel them so eager to come out and turn the film around, even in the last minute — but sadly none of them are put to good use.


BHOY INTSIK (Joel Lamangan)

Speaking of misery, here’s another one. One of the few certain things in Philippine cinema is for Joel Lamangan to come up with another bad film, for him to take on another current social issue and demonstrate his ever-dependable skill in making a lousy drama out of it, in simplifying poverty, violence, and morality and rendering them in black and white, and in the case of That Thing Called Tanga Na and Foolish Love, both comedies, and both utterly appalling, in using tasteless humor and stereotypes for the sake of crude entertainment. His latest film, Bhoy Intsik, delivers not only the tacky cinematic language expected of him, but also the offensive sensibility that reduces characters into sloppy, cardboard caricatures and issues into plain, flimsy backdrops. There is no question about the importance of showing poverty in local movies — it is real, it must be addressed, it shouldn’t be avoided — but in Bhoy Intsik the depiction hardly cuts deep because of the irresponsible handling of material (primitive direction, hideous visuals, shallow representation of poor people) and the old tricks of dramatic storytelling (unrealistic plots, laughable dialogue, undying platitudes) that should have long been out of use. The true enemy is not poverty porn but bad directors. Lamangan is the industry’s gift that keeps on giving, and at this point of his career, it is only fair to expect nothing better.


REQUITED (Nerissa Picadizo)

To claim that more than half the running time of Requited is spent on showing the characters biking towards their destination is not an exaggeration. Or at least that’s how tedious it feels, with the sound of chains sometimes painfully drilling into one’s ears. This forces the audience to be part of their journey and feel the strain of it, a device that on one hand provides its structure, making the trail from Manila to Zambales predictably focused, and on the other limits the direction of the narrative, hence the tiffs between the couple shift constantly from annoying to very annoying, and the scenes move from “what the fuck” (Anna Luna delightfully fellating a hotdog) to “what the flying fuck” (Jake Cuenca miserably masturbating by the rocks). There isn’t much room given to develop the characters and story and furnish them with nuance, and so when the climax comes, when Jake is supposed to carry out his goal in front of Mt. Pinatubo and Anna stops him, and that unbelievable, unexpected thing happens, it comes as a shock — and the crowd yelps in varying exclamations of surprise, and for around five minutes the CCP’s usually quiet theater is filled with whispers and moans. From here on Requited becomes something else, a tragedy of transformation, or just plain tragedy, and it’s hard to keep a straight face as Anna Luna’s ghost follows him and a flashback becomes another source of short but infinite jest.


BAGAHE (Zig Madamba Dulay)

Bambanti, Paglipay, and Bagahe share not only the same writer and director but also a strong, promising start, one that draws the viewer easily with a sharp narrative hook. Somewhere in the unfolding, however, this foundation cracks, then breaks, and eventually collapses. In Bagahe, if one lets the glaring legal and logical oversight pass for the sake of dramatic continuity, the story of a mother named Mercy, who at first is suspected of leaving her fetus in the trash bin of an airplane’s toilet, and is in due course shown to be guilty of it, makes for a gripping moral and human tale, which at the same time comments largely on the cruelty of the situation that leads a woman in trauma to commit a terrible misdeed. It goes there, but not fully, for it is very conscious of raising the stakes. The decision to go bigger in scope and beyond the confines of procedural and family drama is admirable, zooming out for the bigger picture, so to speak, but this determination to show one by one the various institutions pummeling Mercy (and the women in them with questionable motives performing their duties) does not help the narrative and in fact only serves to weaken it. One feels Mercy’s helplessness but only in scattered moments, for the film is so loosely edited, so misguidedly paced, and so emotionally calculated — so diluted in prolonging — that the supposedly big scenes (even in terms of Bing Lao’s real-time mode of storytelling) hardly leave a punch. The statement on female suffering and its place in a wider and more specific sociopolitical milieu is not lost on the viewers, but they get to it faster than the film.


SHORTS A (Various)

Some of the gems in this year’s Cinemalaya can be mined from the short film selection, and this set has an interesting lot to offer, both as a whole and individually. Admittedly, this batch provides a better viewing experience, with its diversity and youth and technical skill, and an eagerness that is rather inspiring, than many of the entries in the full-length competition.

The standouts for this set are “Fatima Marie Torres and the Invasion of Space Shuttle Pinas 25” by Carlo Francisco Manatad and “Aliens Ata” by Glenn Barit. “Fatima” boasts an impressive mix of gleaming visuals and moving sounds that doesn’t so much require traditional logic for its story to work, but the keenness of vision, the deadpan and campy sense of humor (with Bimby’s recognizable screams heard at some point), and the foolish, playful spirit it tries to contain lift it so high. Its immediate effect is hilarious, but the longer impression it gives is bizarre. Compared with “Fatima,” “Aliens Ata” relies more on heart than mood, and the use of a static, aerial point of view — quite possibly the most effective use of drone in local cinema yet, a device so prone to misuse and overuse — is able to present a touching story of two brothers dealing with loss and separation. From this modest imagination, the result is devastating for its being emotionally complete.

Manatad and Barit are both from the UP Film Institute, and it’s always interesting to see works from the UPFI, an institution whose honing of students does not rest only on technical proficiency but also on theoretical framing. Another pair of shorts are also from its graduates: “Lola Loleng” by Cheryl Tagyamon lets the audience slip through remembering and forgetting with its rotoscope animation detailing the motions and memories of its titular character. One can feel it does not aim to be particularly poignant, the way Manang Biring is, but it looks into the complexity of old age and a grandmother’s painful wartime experiences, and connects them subtly with the collective Filipino’s larger consciousness. On the other hand, “Islabodan” is this set’s dissident, a work whose use of multiple screens in one frame (which allows the scenes to flow literally in one sequence) is amazing as far as form is concerned, but it suffers from flawed content. Towards the end, it loses its attraction, but it’s quite a spectacle to see it burst with energy and display its youth.

Unlike the other entries with crafted settings, “Sorry for the Inconvenience” by Carl Adrian Chavez is distinct for its currency, for a reality that is recognizably rooted in the present. It builds up on the violence about to be perpetuated by a high school student, played candidly and artlessly by Ronwaldo Martin (with Ronwaldo coming after his brother Coco’s legacy as the “new” face of independent movies about violence and poverty). The linearity of the film is compelling enough, and the credits sequence, which seems to make a subtle reference to Abbas Kiarostami, tugs strongly at the heart. Meanwhile, “Manong ng Pa-aling” by E. del Mundo aims for the virtues of the unspoken and achieves the brimming sadness that its main character, a fisherman longing for his dead wife, feels. There is something in its tempo that can make it difficult for some viewers to get used to, but its underwater shots, the vastness of the sea lensed in black and white, succeed in heightening the blues.

Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2017 (Part 1) August 8, 2017

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
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Even for non-Sharonians, there is palpable excitement in the prospect of seeing Sharon Cuneta in a small, independent movie at a festival whose major asset is its ability to attract droves of moviegoers, many of whom are young ones discovering new local films on their own. Cuneta, after all, still has her charms, and although life hasn’t been particularly kind to her career after her peak in the 80s, she has developed a sort of defense mechanism and created a self-image that mixes her incredibly sweet demeanor with the age and weight and other personal troubles that naturally plague big stars facing the sharp claws of time. When she laughs — and she laughs a whole lot in her interviews — one cannot disregard the fact that her sense of humor comes from pain, or with pain, displaying a spontaneity that makes her even more fascinating to watch. Time has humbled her, and one can only hope that this decision to do something different, to put herself in a less sophisticated milieu outside the comforts and predictability of her mainstream fare, would be one for the books.

It is, but unfortunately not for a good reason. Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha doesn’t move like a film, at least one with flow and coherence, but a collection of gags that seems intent only to showcase Cuneta’s comic timing. At some point one asks in frustration: Is this a sitcom? Why does it feel compelled to deliver laughs in every scene? How come it seems to have forgotten to tell a reasonable amount of its story? Is it going to get better? Sadly, one has to finish it to be able to say with certainty that it never gets anywhere. The motivation to complete the Family that Doesn’t Weep may be suggested, but her journey hardly feels convincing and compelling because the film is too busy showing off its comedy, so bent on adding personality to its characters that it loses important connections between its sequences, the result of which is a messy, confused, and completely disappointing picture. When the climactic scene finally takes place — the moment that is supposed to make the audience feel how great an actor Cuneta still is, the proof that this movie is a risk worth taking that she even serves as its producer, the reminder that one big scene generously given is not enough to forgive a movie of its blatant shortcomings — it does not come across as awe-inspiring but absolutely ridiculous. And then it becomes really sad. Sad because for a film that revels in jokes, it ends up being a big one.


BACONAUA (Joseph Israel Laban)

There is a feeling of having fallen asleep while watching Baconaua despite being able to sit through it with eyes wide open. This is not a poetic compliment, nor a suggestion of its being dreamlike or captivating, but a problem of clarity, of the film’s confusion of what to be clear about and what to be ambiguous about, and so it winds up lacking not only in thought and reason but also in depth and impact. It needs more cooking, more boiling, and more braising, but it’s too busy fueling the fire and not putting in the ingredients. There are attempts, of course: The visuals seem to imagine a fishing town that does not experience daylight (it’s always dark, for some reason). The issues are rooted in social mores and differences, from the death in the family to the smuggling of illegal goods. The conflict between the sisters of being courted by the same man is a reflection of its geography and a ripe subject for commentary on moral precepts. And the sea is a character as much as the people. But none of these are fleshed out because it seems (again, everything is wrapped in this aura of seeming) that the film is pursuing something else all along — The sea serpent in the title? The allegory? The buff Chinese outsider representing something? The apples? So much mystery, so little sense.



Only Khavn can do something like Alipato, and in fact only he is doing something like it, only he seems to be so firm on pushing violence on-screen to the point of seeming to glorify it, but he doesn’t, he doesn’t glorify it — what he does is come to the violence of real life as close as possible, to walk into it and carry it to an audience, to present this violence as violence, not as drama or narrative or story, but violence: bloody, disturbing, mad, and cruel, ruthless, unsparing, and soulless, and the effect of seeing it, to one’s surprise, is horrible but not particularly shocking, terrifying but not particularly ugly, the effect of being exposed to it, if this is even possible, is illuminating, the realization that poverty is the worst form of violence, how poverty can be understood only by those who live in it, a two-year-old boy smoking a cigarette, toddlers rejoicing while robbing a grocery store and killing people, a pregnant woman being fucked, an old woman getting fucked, a black goat walking around a corpse, dead bodies lying on dirty ground, squealing pigs being slaughtered, poor people being identified only by their graves, and it doesn’t stop at depiction, sometimes it escapes chaos only to enter another chaos, like the brutally beautiful animation of Rox Lee, and that’s when the art admits it can only do so much, an admission that art is not and can never be the answer to anything. When asked why Alipato is set in the future when all this violence is clearly happening in the present, Khavn replies: “The past, the present, the future are all the same,” and really: how comforting is that.



At the heart of Kiko Boksingero is a schoolboy who lives in a rather comfortable house with his nanny, a servile lady whose life revolves around taking care of him, from putting on his clothes in the morning to putting him to bed at night. She is a mother and servant at the same time, and Kiko, too enmeshed in his solitude, takes this for granted. After school, he frequents a house to practice boxing alone, a house, as it turns out, owned by his father, a former boxer. Kiko is happy to see him, doggedly seeking his love and attention. He spars and spends time with him, seemingly making up for lost time. By doing so Kiko also distances himself from the incessant affection of his nanny, who has always been there for him, and to whom he returns when his father decides to leave again.

Kiko Boksingero explores these two elements of family (familiarity with the father who has abandoned him and de-familiarity with the nanny who has been with him all his life) to tell a touching coming-of-age story that does not rely on the clichés of the genre and its huge dramatic leaps. It derives much of its power from the details of Kiko’s life — the likelihood of living in the States with his aunt, the boys at school who taunt him, the girl he has a crush on, the satisfaction and self-validation he gets from boxing, etc. — and how these contribute to his longing to have a real family. What drives the film is this astute sensibility about growing up that on one hand understands the complexity and naivete of being a motherless boy wanting to be liked by his father, and on the other emphasizes the underrated merit of telling a straightforward narrative without resorting to convenient flashbacks or sweeping gestures (connoting that coming of age is the desire to always look ahead and move forward).

This preciseness of its vision is shown in how it gets its tempo right: It lets the viewers get used to its rhythm without making them feel that it is unfolding. And this lovely, restrained tone has never once felt artificial and intrusive. It is set in Baguio, in a city that feels like a town, and unlike those films that make loud displays of its location and take advantage of its peculiarities, the most it does is quietly show houses from afar, rows and rows of homes with their lights on at night, with the glare of their roofs and windows on the day, with mothers and fathers and siblings likely inside of them, together, their little lives spent with each other, these shots and their significance evoking what Kiko longs to have, and what Kiko, at the end of the film, seems to accept he can live without.

There will always be a special place in one’s heart for films that feel shy and small, films that lack the confidence to make noise and are armed only with faith in their stories, films that turn out to be worth cheering on till the very end. These are made by people who do not use good intentions as an excuse to be mediocre. Kiko Boksingero is one of these films. In a festival that has grown to intensify competition between movies instead of allowing them to complement one another, seeing it is a pleasant surprise in an array of bombastic, big-themed entries, a work so dedicated to giving its best in every small aspect that its simplicity, its tender rendering of youth, is nothing short of heartbreaking.

Dispatches from ToFarm Film Festival (Part 2) July 20, 2017

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, ToFarm.
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HIGH TIDE (Tara Illenberger)

High Tide seems to be the only film from the lineup that shows the least struggle in submitting to the festival’s thematic requirement. The story is rooted in the place, not made to exist for it, and the direction, though faulty at times, feels just adequate if one considers it to be a children’s tale. In fact, one could even say that the best audience for it is kids — its protagonists are a group of friends, two girls and one boy, whose journey provides the film its conflicts and climax.

On one hand, this indicates that it is meant to be understood plainly on a surface level, that it doesn’t prioritize refinement for the sake of complexity or style. It does not shy away from doing maudlin flashbacks, or extending its jokes, or violating narrative continuities, as long as what is being presented onscreen is easily comprehensible. One can argue that this is abridging or simplifying what is otherwise an intricate subject matter, but creating an art specific to young ones is vastly underrated and admirable. The key aspect of the film is how the three children take on life’s challenges (a mother in hospital, the memory of a dead father, getting out of an island safely) and overcome them.

On the other, it means that the film is very much reachable, and what it lacks in sophistication it exceeds in charm and candidness. Although its smallness hinders what could have been a stronger narrative and statement, it also allows it to share distinct nuances that its limitation offers (particularly the effects of climate change on people in remote communities and the importance of educating them on it). For a festival driven by advocacy, High Tide fits in nicely because it knows how to use environmental concerns not as mere accessories to its story but as an important part of its world, and such attitude is something that many of the other entries do not have.


SINANDOMENG (Byron Bryant)

One might crack up to find out that Sinandomeng isn’t exactly about the rice variety most Filipinos are familiar with — it does not even show the rice being planted or harvested — but the combination of the names of its two characters, Sinang and Domeng. Yes, facts only. Recently widowed, Sinang takes over the farming of a small patch of land inherited from her father, Domeng, who is confined to a wheelchair. The film is heavy on heroics, especially as Sinang refuses to sell her part of the farm to real estate developers, and as she assumes the role of being the head of her family. The narrative goes in several directions: the argument between sisters about whether to sell the land out of practical reasons or to keep what their father has given them, the noticeable lack of men in the community doing farming, the old-fashioned act of sacrificing blindly, the sadness of old age, the beauty of kundiman — but nothing really holds up. Nothing takes the film out of its colorless depiction. Worse, its idea of humor is to include a gay character as comic relief, and its idea of romance is to have a man hit on Sinang as soon as her husband dies. It could definitely use some modicum of sensitivity to help it deepen its characterization, or perhaps some better writing to give its story more flesh.


KAMUNGGAI (Vic Acedillo, Jr.)

It’s hard to be overly critical of films with a sincere intent to tell a personal story, especially when it’s one that hardly gets seen on the big screen because it’s too small or specific to find a wider audience. Appreciating them always starts with taking the time to see them. One may raise the matter of qualifying “sincerity” — but a discerning mind with enough moviegoing experience can generally recognize truthfulness in film, some kind of emotional authenticity that rises over (or despite) the obvious flaws of filmmaking. And while it’s true that the function of cinema isn’t only aesthetic, that it doesn’t boil down to merely determining whether a work is good or bad, it won’t hurt to take into account that the long process of honing one’s aesthetics plays a significant part in effective storytelling, and thereby making effective films.

Kamunggai belongs to this “cinema of intent.” It carries the spirit of what the festival promotes: the significance of uplifting local farmers and other stewards of nature, the belief in “planting the seeds of change,” however trite it sounds. At the center of the film is the touching story of an old man who lives alone, his everyday activities revolving around his modest vegetable garden. This monotony is broken whenever his neighbors take advantage of his generosity, and when his niece returns and unceremoniously leaves him her son. It works like a documentary showing his big and little victories and defeats, his efforts to take each day one step at a time.

This is all right as a premise, but as it wears on Kamunggai does not appear to be aware of how a film should work. It lacks a structure and design that would make its observations convey a complete thought, an adhesive that would connect the scenes logically and eloquently and allow them to flow and not just make them a collection of stray visuals. It is impaired by its inability to use transitions, not only between sequences and plot points but also between ideas and emotions. There is so much space in the film left unfilled, so much narrative opportunities left undeveloped, that it’s perplexing that this insistence on bare ordinariness — one that is content only with intent — is considered sufficient as foundation. Looking at its poster (a boy on the other side of the fence raising his hand, a malunggay plant on a shoe floating in the foreground, and the line “habang may gulay, may pag-asa” adding to its well-meaning yet also naive tone) already speaks a lot of how the thought of equating good intentions with good work is a major fallacy. It’s sad to put the film down, but it’s sadder to be dishonest about it.

Dispatches from ToFarm Film Festival 2017 (Part 1) July 17, 2017

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Indie Sine, Noypi, ToFarm.
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INSTALADO (Jason Paul Laxamana)

One can’t help but admire the dogged efforts of Instalado to make its setting believable, introducing a time in the future when knowledge is “installed” on people’s brains the way software is installed on computers to make them highly functional. It banks on this premise not only to depict how modernity can be morally cruel but also to deliver, somewhat halfheartedly, the well-intentioned requirement of the festival to highlight the importance of agriculture. The concept is intriguing at best, especially as it adorns its physical milieu with futuristic elements (holograms, fancy paper bills, flashy diploma cards) and takes a stab at making a sociopolitical commentary (setting it in the agricultural town of Porac, Pampanga, where young ones yearn for better life through “easy” but expensive “education,” and where a group of rallyists struggle against this sweeping capitalist culture).

On paper, all of these may look promising and convincing. There is a charming childishness to its vision that makes the audience want to root for it. But the problem lies in its singlemindedness, in its copious, long-winded displays of self-indulgence that neglect the need for its high-concept ideas to be given a cinematic equivalent for them to work. Instalado lacks the production values required to render a satisfying look and feel of its ambition — even on a small scale reminiscent of good lo-fi sci-fi — which is not an issue of looking expensive but feeling impressive. This visual flatness is exacerbated by the lack of cohesion between its characters, each of whom seeming to do monologues instead of conversations. Midway through the film it stops being interesting and loses whatever that keeps it going, partly because it insists on establishment until the very end, on building its world further instead of making that world come alive through a compelling story, and partly because the film, as much as it is commenting on the brutality of present society, is detached from it and just too concerned with itself.


BAKLAD (Topel Lee)

There are so many terrible things strewn in Baklad that at some point, instead of feeling offended, one just laughs at the inanity of it all. Everything feels out of place and sloppily put together, with the narrative being pushed forward but going nowhere meaningful, and the characters looking oblivious and acting clueless, poor souls made even poorer by the film’s condescension. The specificity of its milieu — a small community in Laguna where fish pens owned by a powerful, repulsive engineer are guarded by pubescent boys — could have worked to its advantage and turned it into a dynamic and thought-provoking drama, but the writing never allows it to evoke anything consequential, the crafting of the story shamelessly exposing outdated but still-appalling varieties of sexism and male chauvinism. The direction can only do so much, but the handling of the material is just as awful and amateurish, that instead of feeling sorry for the sad plight of the characters, one simply wants the misery of watching them to end. It is one of those cases in which someone tries to discuss social ills in the hope of bringing to light some important issues, but only ends up doing more harm by talking nonsense and being rude.



One of the things that can attest to the malleability of cinema as an art form, which adds to the complexity of reading it, is the possibility of not liking the film but liking what it leaves you. An example is What Home Feels Like: It has way too many untightened screws, a creative decision that seems deliberate since it also wants to show the forged affection between a father and his family, in a way emphasizing the hollow he has left over the years of being away from home. His unawareness of this void — between his wife and him, and between his children and him — is the source of strain, and his subsequent awareness of it releases it, creating heavier drama and melancholy.

But watching What Home Feels Like isn’t exactly a fine experience: It overdoes the “subtlety” card and extends sequences and adds images that do not particularly complement its narrative, its idea of depth hinged on putting more. This results in a film that manages to get across a picture of a family set apart by emotional distance, the pain and pity that such situation brings, and a viewing torment that sees plenty of opportunities wasted because of the mistaken preference for superfluity. The drama needs more focus than tedium, more tightening than floating, but the director decides to fill the film with fluff and bloats it with unnecessary details, oftentimes resorting to predictable television devices.

There is this one sequence in which the estranged father tries to reach out to his children. He goes to his son’s room, who is hesitant to let him in, and talks to him. He says “I love you.” The son doesn’t reply. He steps out. The father then sees his daughter on her way to her room and chats with her, talks to her the same way he has talked to his son. He says “I love you.” She replies but not with the exact words. He walks back sadly. Then a few sequences later, he overhears his son opening up to his mother, crying, and telling her he loves her. Sometime afterward, he eavesdrops on a hushed conversation between his daughter and his wife, the intimacy between them, which he has never experienced since arriving home, unquestionable. One can understandably tear up upon realizing the connection of these moments, which can be quite overwhelming in their effect — and there are many in the film, to be fair — scenes that allow one to reflect on a personal level. They are scattered, and they just need some sorting out.

Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2016 (Part 3) August 16, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.
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Dagsin (Atom Magadia)

It’s understandable to frown upon Dagsin. It is the kind of drama that makes it a point to explain, piling details on the already heavy background of its lead character. It is never subtle: its first shot is of the books of Kant, Camus, and Kierkegaard — a forthright sign of its inclination — and the “gravity” of the title, among other things, may amusingly refer to what saves Tommy Abuel’s life at the end. It inserts flashbacks plainly, inelegantly, and the switch between the past and present becomes routine that one takes pleasure, for instance, in some curious details such as Lotlot de Leon and Janine Gutierrez playing different characters despite looking so much alike.

But it is in this unrelenting seriousness that Dagsin becomes admirable. Whether presenting the atrocities of the Second World War or the romance and relationships torn by it, the film just puts the story out there, without irony, without trying to look different, without being conscious of how films in this festival are often judged based on bringing “something new” to the table. There is nothing new in Dagsin: the only thing driving it is the heartfelt dedication to its subject, the conviction to show the sorrows of a man with a troubled past as a soldier and judge and as a husband and idealist. The drama has its high points (the game between the captured soldier and the Japanese officer, the endearing presence of Marita Zobel, the ticks of hostility towards spiritual belief), and at its center is Abuel’s performance: he who in his graveness is able to exhibit all the fractures of his character, the old age and soul, the ruined heart and honor, and eventually the peaceful resignation to everything he has long resisted to embrace.


Lando at Bugoy  (Vic Acedillo, Jr.)

Pretty much what Lando at Bugoy is all about is in its synopsis. It may a bad thing to some, but this straightforwardness, this directness that cares only for something very specific, is what makes the film work. It is simply that: a father who earns a living by carving gravestones accepts the challenge of his spiteful son to return to school — and it delivers the touching moments that come with such premise, the push and pull, the fights that outline their relationship clearly. The sluggish pace is both its boon and bane, but the story becomes meaningful because it brings to the fore this way of life focused on a particular concern, on the undeniable importance of education, on the fulfillment of this basic need that leaves an inspiring note at the end. Like Dagsin, Lando at Bugoy can easily be dismissed, but the lack of polish, this taking pride on being small, the enunciation of this genuine intent to share a facet of life often overlooked, can strike a chord in those that see glimmers of emotion in modesty.


Kusina (Cenon Palomares and David Corpuz)

Kusina is a failure. But it is an interesting failure. All the strong and willful ideas are there in the material, the aim to characterize a woman through key aspects of her life from birth to death, the layers and timbres of politics in the household and out of it, made evident in how her existence is also shaped by sociopolitical changes, those metaphors that emphasize her position in the kitchen not only as a place but also as a representation of her worth, the kitchen as both her prison and salvation, the kitchen in which, beyond logic, she lives and dies, literally and figuratively, everything done in a soundstage in continuous time, putting the faith in the magic that could come from this resolute theater — but all these concepts, despite the clarity of purpose and the direction in which their combined effect is envisioned to achieve something larger than life, flop because they have not been refined to register cinematically: they make no sweeping impact onscreen.

For almost forty-five minutes, before Judy Ann Santos enters the story, Kusina relies on a stale telling of incidents, on this mechanical movement that punctuates the flatness. Although it’s obvious it’s not about cooking, it does not in any way make an attractive emphasis on this love for food, on how this culinary passion has made her stay in the kitchen no matter what, on its power to change lives. Kusina is keen on emphasizing the woman, on the statements that come with it, but it all feels too pale and expected, too flimsy despite the efforts to establish the succession of eras through details, too concerned with highlighting her confinement that instead of seeing the virtue of this symbolic illustration, the lasting impression relates to her inaction, her idleness, the shortness of her mind. This is no form of empowerment, and even if it does not aim to be one, Palomares and Corpuz could have at least been more generous to Juanita. Because even in her death, when she experiences happiness, and when the audience feels most overwhelmed, the film makes use of it only as a device to stir emotion, and at the end of it all her fate, sadly, is still steeped in fantasy.


Mercury is Mine (Jason Paul Laxamana)

As far as cooking goes, Mercury is Mine, Jason Paul Laxamana’s third feature this year, characterizes it better than Kusina. One can smell and taste the sisig Pokwang prepares in her make-believe show. One can feel her passion for cooking despite doing it every day, the poignant solitariness when she talks to a pig’s head. The nuances in Pokwang’s delivery, her personality to please and be understood, suggesting the unhappy part of her life that is yet to be revealed, already tell a story. Laxamana is good at this: he knows how to draw one’s attention at the onset, laying out the details openly. As a director he is skillful and manipulative, taking risks in choosing where the narrative will go, always a step ahead of his audience. He is good at making his characters human, putting them in situations that test their principles, but in his excesses (and possibly, insecurities) there comes a point when the provocation does not pay off, for all it does, for better or worse, is make the audience feel uncomfortable.

Mercury is Mine shows persuasively the relationship between a Filipino and an American and all its plain and emblematic intricacies, the “meet cute,” the tension, the mentalities, the loving and hating, the dreams and nightmares, the dirty laundry, the goodbye. There is something disturbing about the use of Blue Lagoon in reference to their bond, but that’s where the film is going. It aims to perplex and complicate. The sudden turns of narrative and shifts of tone are deliberate, an exercise of Laxamana’s control that ruins an otherwise logical flow to indulge in his habit of provoking, to surprise and call attention to itself, a valid, mercurial decision on one hand, but one that appears too eager to be noticed on the other, seeming to seek validation for its skill. Towards the end, the film keeps giving birth to one plot after another, consciously, more for the sake of play than enrichment. There is no question about competence, but perhaps it would have helped to realize that a shtick, despite its function, doesn’t always work.


Still from the touching coming-of-age drama, “The Kids,” by Sunny Yu

This would require a separate and longer post to substantiate fully, but this has to be said: this year’s Cinemalaya, contrary to what many are saying, is quite a batch to remember, for several reasons.

One is it is able to prove, despite the expected inclement weather, that it can still draw a huge crowd, its festival vibe being its unique distinction from other local film festivals. Just the sight of people going in and out of CCP’s main theater, or the sound of their reactions while watching, is proof enough. Also, it’s always a good thing when the bulk of the attendees are young people.

Second, flawed as some of the films may be, even those that are problematic can carry a conversation. There is no competition entry that is too dull for a discussion. It’s a sign of progress when moviegoers go beyond the trap of determining only whether a film is good or bad, the kind that reduces moviegoing into a simple, soulless experience. It is the deboning that matters more, the comparison of notes, the emotional debates, the drive to share something meaningful on social media.

Third, it’s a year of outstanding performances, of acting turns that are impossible to ignore, quite memorable that they deserve to be mentioned: Barbie Forteza and Nora Aunor in Tuos; Bela Padilla and Elizabeth Oropesa in I America; Nanding Josef, Lou Veloso, Jun Urbano, and Leo Rialp in Hiblang Abo; Tommy Abuel and Lotlot de Leon in Dagsin; Allen Dizon and Gold Azeron in Lando at Bugoy; Janus del Prado in Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching; Pokwang and Bret Jackson in Mercury is Mine; Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip in Pamilya Ordinaryo; and Judy Ann Santos in Kusina. In some cases, these performances have eclipsed the films to which they belong.

Fourth, as disappointing as the totality of the short film selection may be, with no particular entry that leaps impressively, the importance of this form cannot be denied.

And lastly, the non-competition films — the well-curated Asian films in the two sections, the screenings of the digitally remastered Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising and Cain at Abel, the tribute to Francis Pasion, the spotlight on Jaclyn Jose, as well as other festival programs that screen a number of short films and prizewinning features old and new — are surprisingly well attended. Cinemalaya should take care of, and not take for granted, this audience. No festival is an island: more than its films, it lives because of its audience.

See you next year.

Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2016 (Part 2) August 11, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.
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Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching (Inna Miren Salazar Acuña and Dos Ocampo)

For a light comedy, a genre which is always a welcome addition to a festival that usually leans towards serious and heavy themes, Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching is a struggle to watch. Sitting through it is a chore that gets tougher by the minute. Whenever it becomes actually funny, the narrative hurries to go back to its weak point: the dull new family in the title, this being the center of the gags and drama, with many of its members trying hard to be quirky.

It’s hardly about predictability or depth, the believability of the situation, or the humor that gets tiresome, but mostly how the film runs out of steam so early, so quickly, like a balloon losing air and flying around without direction, spinning, wrinkled and writhing, before landing lifelessly on the ground. It’s this sound of falling the audience gets for a story, the deflating of an otherwise funny premise, and the experience is long and winding and sometimes pointless.

Many factors contribute to this: underdeveloped writing, lack of guidance, unrealized potential, a miscommunication of creative approach, and possibly the stubbornness to consider fresh, new ideas, all of which are made manifest in its overreaching efforts. It’s not wrong to borrow devices from TV for inspiration, but cinematic language requires sustaining of longer interest, and Ponching fails to have rhythm that fits the narrative it tries to stretch. Even the lesbian subplot, as much as it feels genuine and indispensable, comes off rather misplaced. Damn, even the charms of Janus del Prado, who deserves helming a full-length every now and then, cannot save it.

pamilya ordinaryo

Pamilya Ordinaryo (Eduardo Roy, Jr.)

Making movies about poverty can never solve or alleviate the problem, but one must not discount its function. In the ceaseless efforts of filmmakers to dwell on the subject and shed light on the vicissitudes of being poor, the issue continues to be relevant and therefore impossible to set aside. It remains an urgent matter, a constant reminder of situations conveniently ignored, and the most effective of these movies are those that not only provide meaningful perspectives through details and characterizations, but also offer, through vigorous handling of material, a credible and comprehensive view of life tested by extreme circumstances, one that goes beyond the tiers of financial troubles and extends to the larger aspects of the human condition: survival, dignity, compassion, morality, self-worth. Several of Lino Brocka’s films in the 70s and 80s validate this, and after him, if audiences would only be more liberal and discerning, there are many directors who have tried, and actually succeeded, telling stories that can effect as much change as activism.

It’s too soon to say, but owing to its absolute immediacy and cunning, Pamilya Ordinaryo already feels like a benchmark against which other films of its kind will be measured. It teems with so much life and energy, with explicit displays of force and frisson, that Aries and Jane could have been just outside the theater premises, loafing, asking around for the person carrying their baby. In his third feature, Eduardo Roy is able to refine his language in the most satisfying way possible, letting go of the tricks and excesses that weaken his previous films, and find not just the right ending but also the right timing for it. This strong direction, oppressive but never going too far, builds up in surges from start to end, and in between Roy knows how to make the scenes crack until the whole thing is fractured but still intact, about to be shattered but remaining in one piece until the very end.

The tension comes from the dogged linearity of it — how clear that there is really no turning back, and how, by using the simple narrative of an underage couple looking desperately for their abducted child, it is able to impart the cruelty of misfortune pounding without mercy. It is painful to see how Aries and Jane strive to walk forward and become defeated despite doing their best, more so when they are humiliated by the very people who should be helping them. When Jane goes to the police station to seek help and is instead asked to recount her first sexual experience, accused of lasciviousness and forced to show her lactating breasts to be ridiculed, the viewer feels the abuse vicariously. And when the TV crew loses the photos of their child, the only memento they have of him, it is only natural to expect them to go insane.

But they do not. Because Roy presents Aries and Jane as characters of enormous strength, not resilience, not understanding, not resourcefulness, but strength. They are people whose youth has been corrupted but whose will to survive is toughened by experience, making them nearly invincible. They steal for a living but are obviously guided by religious virtues, and such complexities and contradictions are substantially illustrated. Comparisons can easily be made with The Child, the Dardenne Brothers’s film with an almost similar premise, with the young characters and the intimate, direct camera style punctuating the physical proximity, but Pamilya Ordinaryo reflects a uniquely Filipino struggle, an exceptionally Filipino spirit and fate defined by a specific culture and politics of poverty. But it is when Roy decides to allude to The Bicycle Thief that it turns into something else, into something terrifyingly close, and no ending no matter how quiet and lingering can make their predicament any less heartbreaking.

Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2016 (Part 1) August 9, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.


1-2-3 (Carlo Obispo)

The heartbreak of 1-2-3 comes from its lead characters: a young girl, driven by her dream to be a singer, who leaves her small fishing town to escape violence and poverty, and her brother who tries to save her from the claws of prostitution. It is hard not to be moved by their plight, by the switch from one nightmare to another, from a household that decries education and tolerates abuse to a city in which these children discover, and eventually accept, exploitation. Instead of creating the drama around their resistance, Carlo Obispo instead shows their choice to stay, their willingness and submission, and the factors leading them to this decision. This seems a fertile land to till. However, he has picked the wrong tools. The bigger, more terrible heartbreak of 1-2-3 is the weakness of storytelling, the inability of Obispo to make effective use of this emotional bait to carry the film through, his insistence on inserts that add layers and texture but with oblivious disregard for developing a persuasive, flowing narrative. The whole lacks in congruity, and the subplots feel withdrawn from the main narrative. The gentleness of his direction, the softness of his approach, does not suit the material, which demands firmness and newer insight. Whereas one can argue that this old-fashioned take implies how little has changed in society over the decades, one cannot also shake the feeling that there is nothing to the film but recycling tropes and preferring bad clichés to good ones.


Tuos (Roderick Cabrido)

People expecting Tuos to be a Nora Aunor movie will be disappointed because it is not one per se: it is not a vehicle for her to showcase her skills, not another film in which she is given long moments to shine, because frankly, in her status in the past and at present, what else is there to prove? The feat of Tuos is using Aunor with respect to her ability to be effective even in a supporting role: its feat is she did not own the film — the film owned her. And Barbie Forteza, in another career highlight, with whom Aunor shares the bulk of her screen time, is able to take up the challenge and exceed expectations.

But the film has other interesting things working to its favor. The Cabrido of Children’s Show — showy, reckless, and self-assured — has turned into this shrewd, confident, and sharp filmmaker of Tuos, weaving a story of a sacred tradition with a composite of conventional, genre devices and playful animation integrated artfully into the telling. With its subject, it is only fitting to aim for something immersive, for a gradual buildup of atmosphere, the viewing experience getting heavier and more tedious as it progresses. Despite the style, the details are accessible, the specificity of actions rooted in tradition and the struggle to break free from it. But Tuos captivates mainly with moments of sheer mystery — those aural and visual enchantments relating the culture of its people, their echoes and fading light — and the frays wavering at the end, seen and felt in darkness and silence, mesmerize as much as they confound.


I America (Ivan Andrew Payawal)

I America could have been some sort of vindication for Ivan Payawal after the out-and-out mess of The Comeback. At some point in the beginning and towards the middle he does manage to take control and set out clearly the characters, milieu, situation, and conflict. Despite some forgivable flashes of gracelessness, the first act makes a fine impression, underlining his ability as a writer to rely on confrontations and what-ifs. The research is evident, driving the peculiar dynamics of characters and plotting of emotions. But moving onward, as cards are laid out and dramatic jumps become inevitable, the direction cracks at one moment, then cracks again in another, and again and again until the narrative suffers from too many cracks and begins to collapse and drop major chunks of credibility, until all the pieces are on the floor. Payawal loses it whenever he tries to extend a scene to emphasize the humor in one’s misfortune but only ends up making the spectacle painful to watch. His romps are reminiscent but not in the direction of Joyce Bernal and Wenn Deramas, directors who have shown in their best films that drama and comedy are not polar opposites but siblings, closely related and tied by tragedy. In I America, there are many extenders that add weight to Erica’s predicament, but it becomes so heavy and confused that even Payawal himself gets lost. It could have used more discipline than free will, more music than noise, more dancing than running.


Hiblang Abo (Ralston Jover)

Even for those who have not read the original play by the great Rene O. Villanueva, or have not seen it staged, there is no denying that the material of Hiblang Abo as seen in Ralston Jover’s adaptation is an outstanding theater piece. In terms of both content and technique, ideas and wisdom go hand in hand, with several rooms opened and closed in succession, sometimes even barged into without knocking. This intelligent maneuvering comes with the emotional maturity required to pull it off, the soul that makes the actions of the body and discourses of the mind immortal. The four old men — portrayed with palpable range by Lou Veloso, Jun Urbano, Nanding Josef, and Leo Rialp, each with his own highs and lows — are roommates, buddies, and confidantes who, in the course of sharing their past, are surrounded by reminders of death and become each other’s friends and foes. There is always something going on: even their silence occupies thoughts.

But Jover, even with the noblest intent, can only do so much, and his version of Hiblang Abo, adapted for the screen with the help of Naning Estrella, is able to make one appreciate the material for its eloquence — for its scale and literariness — and a clever flashback device in which Matt Daclan plays all the characters is worthy of note. In the process of filming the theater, however, and finding an equivalent for the experience that can only come from seeing the words leap from the actors onstage, from one skin to another, many important things fail to make a full impact. There is a major problem with the visual language, and it’s not a wise decision to employ almost the same kind of imprecise camerawork in his previous films (Bakal Boys, Bendor, Hamog), which are mostly shot outdoors. Numerous moments could have benefited from focusing on the actors’ faces instead of trying to be unconventional, from trimming the excesses and stubbornness which have come to define Jover’s filmmaking. But clearly the fact that this discussion can go on and on to varying lengths and degrees means the flawed nature of the film, its veneration of Villanueva with understanding, is an achievement in itself.

Sinag Maynila 2016: A Minority Report May 8, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Festival, Noypi, Sinag Maynila.
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“Five films don’t make a festival,” a friend remarked, jokingly. “Savage,” I said. Then I laughed because it’s practically true: like last year, the highlight of Sinag Maynila 2016 is its five features, but this time it has two sets of short films (thirteen of them in total) — a selection of new names that provide a seeming contrast with the familiar ones in the main lineup — and a section for Samsung CinePhone entries for students. Despite making an effort to branch out, this add-on feels rather superficial, with only one screening schedule for each short film set, with so little publicity to urge people to see them.

More than the fewness of movies in the program, it is the lack of festival atmosphere and activity that blankets Sinag Maynila — the sheer absence of excitement that should characterize an annual occasion like this. Understandably these are birth pangs commonly associated with recent ventures: its steady audience remains the audience of other local film festivals, those who are devoted viewers of local films, those who adjust or clear their schedules just to see these new works, hoping to find treasures.

If Solar Entertainment CEO Wilson Tieng and Brillante Mendoza are serious about making Sinag Maynila a long-term enterprise (i.e., if they care about keeping this small audience and attracting new ones), there should be as much emphasis given to the organization, to the planning and promotion, as to the process of selecting films for the two-million-peso grant and ensuring they get made in time. As of now Sinag Maynila makes only a slight impression, even to the devoted, and only when these films get into foreign festivals do they get talked about again, which makes the intention of producing them rather obvious.

With only five entries, the curation easily invites more questions about what isn’t there than what is present. It leans more toward darker themes — serious, somber, and shapeless — as opposed to genre entertainment, spelling out its penchant for arthouse standards that expect an intellectually higher regard. It also steps away from subjects centered on poverty but lingers instead on its fringes. It is reasonable to deduce that this is Mendoza’s taste in film and, quite possibly, filmmaking — such characteristic mix of grit and grime that affects as much as it alienates; bleak stories that only become interesting when the form becomes the story, and when the story attaches itself to a larger metanarrative. Haste is also felt — as haste has long been an aesthetic of grant-produced films, the result of which, whether good or bad, has come to typify many local films of the past decade.

For this year, sadly, the selection of Sinag Maynila falls short of interest and zeal. Both façade and interior, from texture and color to depth and impact, turn out to be unremarkable and unimpressive, individually and collectively. The festival has to raise its game or risk being taken for granted, if it is not yet there at this point.


MRS. (Adolf Alix, Jr.)

The screenplay of Mrs. is written by Ralston Jover, and his recognizable device and design figure prominently in the film. It is standard Jover: peculiar milieu, multiple characters, stark dramatic moments, with apparitions constantly slipping through the cracks. One can appreciate how he plays with real time using non-real-time elements, and in all of the films he has written or directed, this ruse is a hit or miss.

As conveyed by the title, Mrs. is a story of women in middle and old age who are connected simply by association. Holding them together is Virgie, a stubborn mother who refuses to leave her house despite the warnings of an earthquake. As the narrative unfolds it introduces several people in her life: her helper who is about to get married; her sister who insists on selling the property; her daughter who lives overseas and keeps encouraging her to leave; her other daughter who is into a religious group; and a woman she meets who tells her about her son’s disappearance.

Mrs. presents these layers with tact — furtive, careful, and rhythmic — and furnishes them with details that summon a glance of complexity. It hinges on how everyday interactions are laden with disguised connections, most of which are emotional threads that remain unseen unless touched. Director Adolf Alix is able to lay down the important pieces and at the same time suspend a rope of uncertainty, enabling another layer of interest: an odd tension from not knowing what will happen next.

But all of this sounds good only conceptually: the fleetingness of the characters soon becomes the fleetingness of the film, and the curiosity coming from its structural exposition, despite a couple of surprises from the actors, is made less remarkable by a lack of color, by this overall faintness that isn’t made satisfying at the end. The screws remain loose, and instead of being tightened, to hold the frame better despite missteps and quirks, they are unfastened for a dramatic close. Mrs. hides its fumbling, but it fumbles all the same.


TPO (Joselito Altarejos)

TPO concerns a young woman who is repeatedly abused by her husband. She goes to court, the process of which involves expected resistance, and leaves with their son. Nestled on this slim timeline, severed in three overlapping perspectives, are details of a marital relationship that appear to illuminate on such domestic violence: her submission, his machismo, her vulnerability, his gutlessness. Basically both of them, husband and wife, are made to look pale. Neither of them is strong or willful — they feel like sketches, recognizable but not fully drawn, rough and half-finished — and they have to be berated, convinced, insulted, battered, humiliated, or rendered stupid before they realize something has to be done, or a decision has to be made.

The only strong character is the husband’s father, a figure of authority that justifies the existence and extension of abuse, in a way also legitimizing the conditions surrounding it, his chauvinism not only unchallenged and endured, but also fondled and serviced. The abuse at the center of TPO is not completely attributed to him — there is a clear acknowledgment of fault coming from different sides — but it is its most visible root. In emphasizing his control does the film manage to cohere the many unspoken definites, the quiet collapse of walls and will, thereby creating this pervasive tone of terror in the use of off-screen drama and minimal action. One can be easily impressed by this but therein lies the rub.

The portrayal of helplessness is dated, and that may be a statement in itself — how old habits persist, unquestioned — but TPO has nothing new to offer and argue so instead it tries whenever it can to be edgy: imprecise long takes and long shots, flat structural design, a reading of the TPO with the paper flashed onscreen, abruptly ended sequences, understated (and oftentimes ineffective) acting, a sort of quietness that is too noticeable and directed. These come off as distractions rather than parts of a discussion against violence, managing to say that domestic abuse is awful and complicated, but it’s a truism that could have benefitted from a stronger reliance on script than improvisation, on counting on clear and exact points than artful slips and miscues.


DYAMPER (Mes de Guzman)

Mes de Guzman has made some really good films in the past, so it’s painful to admit that Dyamper doesn’t come close at all to them. One could attribute it to the use of professional actors, or to the pressure coming from deadlines, but his recent outputs with grant-giving festivals no longer feel as well-thought-out and insightful as his previous works — their unevenness merely feels sloppy, and the importance of shaping the milieu is set aside. Dyamper suffers from these flaws, yet the most obvious is the lack of strong direction, the poor staging of actions, the carelessness in carrying the film to different places without any satisfying feeling in either the journey or destination. There are merits to its core narrative — with the three boys jumping onto the backs of trucks to steal sacks of rice, especially the sociopolitics that comes with it — but the insistence on making it dramatic limits the emotional connections that could be made with the film. Dyamper ends up being a confused mélange of ideas, subjects, and treatments, and by wanting to touch on many things it manages only to make the viewer appreciate the efforts and not the result.


EXPRESSWAY (Ato Bautista)

Shugo Praico and Ato Bautista are longtime collaborators, and if their films should stand as proof, neither of them is growing, or getting better at being a writer and director. We get it — male characters: male ids, male egos, male super-egos. Male genre essentials: sex, guns, murder, dark past, chase, revenge, death. Expressway, their sixth feature-length team-up, offers both genre entertainment and genre trash. The entertainment, however, is short-lived, coming only from how promising the first sequence is: the play of light and darkness, the dance of dust and dirt, the premise of a jazzy noir thriller about to unfold. The trash arrives as soon as the story is told. Moving along, it becomes less and less interesting: trite plotlines abound, corny flashbacks, a laughable twist that can be seen coming 30 minutes into the film, and Aljur Abrenica, with his annoying smug and terrible outbursts, making the viewing experience almost unbearable. Only the stylish excesses keep it running, but these trimmings lose their allure because they do not have any weight: they are only something to look at, not to be looked into. Expressway has all the makings of enjoyable fluff, but even calling it fluff feels overpraising it.


LILA (Gino Santos)

Lila is bad — that seems enough to cover everything — but there are curious aspects to its badness that make it worth seeing, if only to experience the discrete pleasures of watching a bad film, or in a more utilitarian sense: to serve as a cautionary tale for filmmakers on how not to make a horror movie.

This is Gino Santos’s fifth film, his third festival entry after The Animals and #Y in Cinemalaya, and he has another Star Cinema film currently in preproduction. This should count as useful experience, but Lila proves to be a thousand steps backward, and from being an exciting discovery — a talent worth hearing out for his perspective of today’s (upper class) youth — he now seems to have turned into an amateurish fixture, all flashy and popular but showing no signs of taking his craft seriously.

To put it bluntly: Lila has no understanding at all of what horror means, how horror works, and why horror fiction is made. Almost every aspect has worked together to make it awful: writing, direction, acting, shot choices, camera movements, music cues, editing. It has no idea what is required to create suspension of disbelief, and in countless moments it spoils its own efforts, as though what happens onscreen is a product of first draft, first take, or first thought. Central to its suspense is the main character’s reading of a diary, and from the slow buildup to the ridiculous delivery, it’s a device that can be considered one of the worst blunders in local cinema (such realization becoming more painful because it relates to literacy). With this and many others, it’s an embarrassment of lapses, both small- and large-scale, and even a writer who is used to describing unpleasant things with flair would deem it unwise to put Lila in a lyrical light.

Like the rest of the films in Sinag Maynila 2016, its material needed more time to be analyzed, revised, and realized — and frankly most films produced by grant-giving festivals often look like they needed more time — and it’s fair to raise this fault in an expectedly flawed system. But it’s also fair to say that the creative path of Lila, basing on the outcome, is not something that festivals like this must encourage and uphold.

CineFilipino 2016 (Part 1) March 28, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, CineFilipino, Noypi.
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It’s hard to say good things about A Lotto Like Love — the fact that it got made is quite a feat in itself, but even admitting that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Right at the onset, with the use of loud and flashy music and preference for excessive delivery, it’s clear it aims for easy recognition of its efforts. It is concerned only with the surface, with how the audience will get the jokes and how the story will reach the end, but it is not stuffed with matter for serious thought, unaware that good comedies are also mental, shrewd and sensible in their silliness. The premise of finding a missing lottery ticket dates back to Rene Clair’s 1931 classic Le Million, or even farther with the play on which it is based, which means the selling point is hardly the concept but the way its interest is sustained, how the complications making up the search can offer moments of delight and frustration, how the characters can become closer to the audience after such ordeal. But instead of moving in this direction, A Lotto Like Love deliberately goes backward and insists on ridiculous twists and turns, terrible sense of humor, and strained romance. It is brimming with confidence but for the wrong reasons, satisfied only with the possibilities of laughter, and not with the actual fun. Somehow its biggest offense is making the leads awfully stupid: seeing Isabella de Leon and Martin Escudero in roles that make them bad actors is saddening, especially since these two have delivered in the past. It doesn’t get better, and one can merely look forward to heaving a sigh of relief when it ends.



There is virtue in how Star na si Van Damme Stallone succeeds at being a touching document of a person with Down syndrome, depicting not only his life as soon as his disorder is known but also the people around him coming to terms with it, particularly his mother whose unconditional devotion to him provides the film its beating heart. Longjas is able to deliver the needed restraint, the mix of empathy and sensitivity the material deserves, hopeful but realistic, sad but self-assured, without any hint of underestimating or pandering to his subject. However, what’s glaring is the film does nothing else. Its structure, divided into parts showing Van Van growing up and his mother looking out for him all the time, draws on moments that would emphasize the responses of characters to his situation; and while that is lifelike and reasonable, there is discomfort in the decision not to go further or deeper. There are spaces waiting to be filled, opportunities for possible explorations, yet the film lingers in what is known and knowable, and seems to be content only with eliciting the warmth and tenderness expected from it.



Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian is riddled with several problems, the most obvious of which is the cheaply designed CGI and the sloppiness of its day-for-night effect. Of course, to some people, seeing those lapses has worked to its advantage: they have contributed to the strangeness of experience, to the laughable thrill, to the anything-goes mindfuckery. But who are they kidding? Something is clearly amiss with the direction, and there’s no denying those gaffes owe more to poor artistic decisions than deliberate choices. Alvin Yapan’s films, from Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe to An Kubo sa Kawayanan, have exciting premises — his literary background enriches what could have been a stale retelling of ordinary stories, making his voice unique in this regard — but for some reason, something happens when the words find their visuals, and when the world written on paper moves into the motion picture. In Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian, clearly, the aim is to produce horror, and sometime before the two leads realize their misfortune, in that quick moment when anyone in the audience could be in their place, there may be one or two sequences of pure fright. But the rest, with varying nuances of bad dialogue and acting, is comedy: a comedy of errors. So it goes.



For a work that goes to great lengths to be quiet and subdued, Buhay Habangbuhay happens to be a torture to sit through. It is fully committed to telling a story of souls that stay on earth, and its main character, played with hilarious seriousness by Iza Calzado, hangs around to observe her husband and see him have another family after her death. Quite a selfless act, really, and there seems to be a point to make about unconditional love, but nothing in its showy visual effects and mediocre writing is able to create any worthy impression. Paolo Herras seems to be too in love with the material that he doesn’t notice that it weighs so little, and no matter how the shots look polished and sophisticated, a story wrapped in platitudes and served with parsley cannot manage to go far.



Depictions of youth in film have always attracted interest. And youth, by all means, is less about age than spirit, the drive to pursue a dream long ignored, or the urge to go on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and be ready, with eyes closed, for the consequences. That fuck-it attitude. That irrepressible impulse. That burning desire to take a leap. Such recklessness is easily validated by the feeling — always comforted by the thought that it’s the journey and never the destination — and it is in showing these larger-than-life risks being taken that these depictions leave a lasting effect: they do not aim for the heart; they aim for the heartstrings. Sakaling Hindi Makarating has a lot of elements to make the audience feel warm and fuzzy: snail mail, painted postcards, traveling alone, meeting new people, being in remote places, realizing the beauty of being away, of being in love with the pursuit and being emboldened by freedom, feeling the tap of fate on the shoulders. All of these speak to many people, regardless of age, and they project this image to aspire for — the promise of self-discovery after it. But in all its good intentions and pleasant quirks, Sakaling Hindi Makarating supposes an audience that would overlook its big and small missteps, that viewers would be forgiving if they see them, that it’s all about the feeling. It plays with and overplays romantic notions, but some holes in its logic (the postmark; the uncertainty of the sender, thinking it could be the ex, yet the couple has been together for more than 10 years; the exchanges between her and her new friend) make it hard to suspend disbelief. Undoubtedly, part of its charm rests on the idea of fleetingness, on chances and randomness, the way things come and go, the way people accept things for what they are, the way some decisions are not fully controlled. But for the most part the film simply wants the audience to fall for it, to believe in it regardless, to forgive it and love it at the same time. It always follows its heart, and sadly, as everyone knows, the heart is not always right.

Film Log: January 2016 February 8, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Hollywood, Noypi, Oscars.
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Wenn Deramas has built an empire. Not everyone is happy about it, but it’s futile to deny its existence and power, considering that five of the top ten highest grossing Filipino films of all time are his. There comes a point when dissing his movies becomes unwise — when complaining about his sensibility and brand of humor only ends up as noise — because he continues making films all the same. He doesn’t care. He knows the game. He doesn’t get sick of it. He has developed a formula for attracting people who are willing to give their money and feel good about it. Beauty and the Bestie fulfills its audience because it is what they expect it to be: histrionic, exaggerated, self-aware, ridiculous, tactless, insensitive, full of antics that gloat in its silliness, with Vice Ganda as the ambassador of tackiness. In his empire, the tackier the better. There is hard work and skill in doing all of this, in creating a circus orchestrated for the sake of entertainment, in furnishing Coco Martin with comic timing, which many people don’t care about or don’t care about knowing as long as they are laughing, and clearly there is something Deramas can do that other directors cannot. I enjoyed Beauty and the Bestie because I knew what I was getting. It’s not a dumb movie. Dumb is when you felt stupid after. I didn’t.


The hype surrounding Star Wars: The Force Awakens, based on my social media feed, gave an impression that I might die if I didn’t catch it in its first week. I managed to see it only after the New Year, and I’m still alive. That it passed the Bechdel test is pretty much the only semblance of insight I had while exiting the theater. If you are not a fan of the franchise, where else would you latch on? Would you be engaged in a discussion? Aside from saying, “it’s decent, but its action sequences look limp and unexciting,” what else would light the bulb? Perhaps Internet boyfriend Oscar Isaac?


Macbeth was shown with English subtitles because the Scottish accent and language could come across as gibber to some moviegoers. Too bad reading them didn’t prevent me from dozing off — as I had, a couple of times, despite my ethical resolve not to — but fortunately not when Michael Fassbender, as the king, finally realizes he needs to take a bath in the open water, letting the audience take a quick peek of his kingdom. He and Marion Cotillard, unquestionably, are fine actors, but as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the struggle is real. They seem detached from the core. Honestly, could one really say the cinematography is good if it didn’t make the tragedy as compelling as it should?


It fills me with dread to talk about Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin because it means I would have to grant it time and energy. A double whammy — thinking how it made me sit through it and feel every nuance of dismay and agony, without any moment in any of its three episodes that merits reconsideration, despite my innate optimism that it could have something of value after all. It looks like a rough cut. It misunderstands comedy — its idea of humor is all cheap display of cheap slapstick, and its execution always leans toward making things cheaper (dialogue, plots, acting, skit). The effect on me crosses between wanting to cringe and wanting to leave. It might have been intentional to put Chris Martinez’s episode at the end, as it is the most bearable, but even his attempts at camp couldn’t save it. It’s a mistake to let Bob Ong think his material should be films.


Charles Schulz’s beloved characters have moments to show their quirks in The Peanuts Movie, the familiarity rubbing warmly and taking on a cordial tone right at the onset: light, harmless, childish and childlike at the same time, almost pure in its recall of intimacy. Just seeing Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Snoopy, and Woodstock on the screen is already worth the while, and the deliberate lack of ambition (or ambitiousness) is endearing, especially since it’s obvious it’s targeting a much younger demographic. The film, however, is unable to capture that tacit complexity one feels when reading the strip — a miniature world that reveals a universe of rich overtones in its simple document of everyday interactions — the wisdom in its seemingly random observations and dialogue that makes the reader feel literate. Could having such depth been avoided on purpose?


Everything About Her has good and bad parts. This can probably be said about most Star Cinema movies — as the fulfillment of formula has made these qualities distinguishable, knowing where it goes well and where it nose-dives — but with Vilma Santos and Joyce Bernal, the desire to endorse it, and make a good case for it despite its inevitable shortcomings, is strong. It is convincing at first, from the start when the characters and conflicts are established and all the way through the piling up of challenges for both female characters. But in an effort to close it with something remarkable and leave the audience with warmth, it decides to be generic and resort to platitudes that dilute the inspired moments, in turn weakening what could have been a moving depiction of female (and maternal) strength. Ate Vi gets away with the many times she repeats herself (her approach and sentiment) from her previous movies, and this showcase of recognizable maternal roles makes her iconic in this regard. But Everything About Her does not find its soul in her but in Angel Locsin, delivering what could be one of the best Star Cinema characters in years.


The Big Short is sophisticated, but nothing in it is new — the subject, the storytelling, the dramatic arc, the pacing, the heroic stance, the wires getting tangled and loosened, the moralism — they’ve all been the stuff of American movies endorsed by critics almost every year. Nevertheless it’s interesting to follow the buildup and downfall, especially when it diverts and draws on pop culture, bringing in Margot Robbie, Richard Thaler, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain to explain the financial concepts and make them sound enticing. The two-hour nonstop talk isn’t off-putting. In fact, the sound of greed, as it passes from one person to another and reaches its peak, is quite delightful.

Don’t Believe Me Just Watch: Top Filipino Films of 2015 January 2, 2016

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Hollywood, MMFF, Noypi, QCinema, Sinag Maynila, Yearender.
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Over the years, it has been fairly instinctive to preface year-end lists with an apology, as though this admission of shortcoming in the face of supposed responsibility could give more credence to one’s taste or judgment. Clearly there is a popular mindset favoring those who express regret over an inevitable act of selection, and this guilt appeals to fairness. Objectivity is valued highly. Objectivity is observed and aspired. Objectivity, for some people, should be the DNA of criticism. Do not hurt their feelings. Do not make them feel bad. Do not be difficult.

But making lists, lest we forget, is silly. It’s the writer’s vain idea of playing favorites and revealing his “preferences” — for “bias” is too strong a word that is often regarded negatively and with hostility. The most convenient kneejerk reaction to an unfavorable review is to raise the bias of the writer against the work (the genre, the actors, its audience, everything related to it) and that’s fine — but some people overdo it out of spite (and regrettably the Internet offers plenty of room to make them feel good about themselves). It’s a freaking list. It’s not meant to be definitive.

Criticism, at best, is not journalism, and it’s not a matter of saying one is better than the other. Their nature always comes with limitations. Criticism may have the quality of fine journalism — the process: inquisitive, attentive; the presentation: convincing, thorough, challenging, thought-provoking; the writing: sober, piercing — but the ever-contested “objectivity” comes not from the reporting of facts or a fair and ethical standpoint but from the flair of prose and sensation of poetry clasping spot-on assertions and lucid arguments, the critique serving not as a guide but as a supplement — or if it’s that good: nourishment — something held when needed and thrown when not useful. No hard feelings.

Objectively, 2015 is another year for Philippine cinema. One can always claim it is better or worse than the previous years, but why dwell on that? Every year is a different year, and one can choose to do better than use platitudes on a subject ripe with specific achievements and failures, between which are attractive points of conversation: the survival of grant-giving bodies and emergence of new ones; the spirit of independent cinema and its constant struggles that have come to define it; the drive of mainstream films to take advantage of currency (vehicles for new love teams, a much-awaited rom-com sequel, a biopic of a famous religious figure; the constant fascination with mistresses); the allure and annoyance of “hugot” and how it has become a brand; the films of Neal Tan, Don Frasco, Joven Tan, Roi Vinzon, Carlo J. Caparas, and William Mayo, shown bravely despite expectations of drawing a small audience; the unprecedented box-office success of an independently produced historical film and the depth and inanity of discussions surrounding it; the shady disqualification of an MMFF film for a best picture prize, disputing once again the credibility of the organization; the efforts of ABS-CBN to restore and remaster Filipino classics; the undying and upsetting problem of distribution. So many things, and some of them mostly went unnoticed. This is not even taking into account the most important development of the past few years: the thriving of films from the regions, and the attempts to open venues and develop a steady, nurturing audience for them. Interestingly, many films these days, perhaps intuitively, have plotlines or characters with explicit and crucial regional connection. Although the Manila centricity is still there, it is no longer as pervasive as before.

A number of films participated in foreign festivals, but for some reason there’s an impression that filmmakers or producers in general didn’t seem to be wholly concerned, or enthusiastic, about overseas prestige, though this assertion, of course, is hard to substantiate. It’s also likely we may have been producing films that foreign programmers aren’t exactly keen on having. Compared with previous years, when winning abroad would be standard validation, this year winning at local festivals felt more desired. The industry’s big issues are centralized locally, and if you ask me, that’s way better than taking part, for instance, in the usual fuss of getting into the Oscars shortlist every year.

So this would have to end with an apology, after all: I haven’t seen all the movies of 2015. Only Philbert Dy is all-powerful in this regard. But I’ve seen at least ten I find worthy to share with you, or even recommend, plus a few foreign titles I managed to catch in theaters. It goes without saying, but with this being a completely personal selection, the common thread between them is my engagement, whether or not such engagement is influenced by others. Frankly, I have reservations for each film. It is only natural that in this best-of list I emphasize the good, but there is nothing here that I regard blindly. In some cases, the flaws and weaknesses actually contributed to my appreciation.


1. Sometime in March, a decision to step out of the office to de-stress led to something which, nine months later, I would remember fondly as a completely immersive experience. Without a phone or anything as distraction, I watched Imbisibol and was drawn slowly to it — like I flew to Japan and got there while on my seat, feeling the freezing winter and warm company of undocumented Filipino workers making ends meet in hiding — and more than two hours later, with the narrative closing on a high note, I got up dreading the return to the office, not because I might get reprimanded but because I was in a sullen, inconsolable mood. For a film set entirely in a foreign country, Imbisibol is able to depict and explore a distinctly Filipino struggle, linking the unique threads of overseas employment and its constant ups and downs, and the canvas on which the stories are laid holds this complexity that can only come from a mature set of hands and minds. Imbisibol does not depend on romantic promises. It takes time to unfold, and sometimes it takes too much time that the stasis makes the viewer forget what’s happening, like closing one’s eyes to suspend reality for a moment, and when the story starts moving again one can easily feel the throbbing and quieting down. Whereas the original play is said to be more brutal, the film, played out like a mesmerizing visual memory, offers several escape routes, the endpoints of which are uncertain. Substantial comparisons with Batang West Side can be made, but the Hanzel Harana of Imbisibol, the unfortunate Filipino on a foreign land, is not yet dead.

2. I’ve been quite vocal about my love for Sleepless. After seeing it, overwhelmed, I tweeted: “If this movie will propose to me, I will say yes.” And I still feel the same. Of all the films this year, this had the strongest emotional grip on me. The metanarrative of romantic love as something natural between two people in constant communication or intimacy makes sense, but the “small narratives” defined by specific circumstances and nuances of characterization prove to be more satisfying because of efforts, successful in many ways, to revise the genre and its tropes. But is it still a love story without one falling for the other? I think so. Sleepless doesn’t seek to be validated by love. On the contrary, the love hovering around seems to be seeking validation, and it doesn’t happen.

3. At the heart of Ari: My Life with a King is Conrado Guinto, the king of Kapampangan poets, whose kingdom is the native language he tries to keep alive. He is invited to a school program to receive an award, but the mayor doesn’t even bother to listen to his speech and leaves after a photo opportunity. Guinto recites in front of a largely disinterested audience, students and teachers who do not seem to appreciate the art he is being recognized for, the writing and performance of poetry to which he has dedicated most of his life. Unlike his fellow awardees, he doesn’t have any material riches to speak of, not even a car to take him home, or money to lead a comfortable life with his wife, but he takes pride in what he does: he commits himself to the rekindling of interest in Kapampangan language and culture, a thankless job that can barely support him. He is dying, like the cause he is fighting for, and no one, except for a young man he happens to befriend, seems to care. Director Carlo Catu and writer Robby Tantingco, in a heartrending display of humanity, and in innumerable moments of meaningful symbolism, show why losing a man like Guinto does not only mean losing a person but also all his hard work — his life becoming synonymous with his art — and seeing people are indifferent about it is a pain worth being reminded of, always.


4. Most beautiful things cause pain, and Apocalypse Child has so much hurt in store. It’s hard to watch it without being conscious of the weight underneath, which, bit by bit, begins to surface as the characters test each other’s vulnerability just by being together, or just by sharing the silence. It’s been a while since a drama of this scale and range is produced, the years spent on research and incubation unmistakably felt in the edges, with how Mario Cornejo’s direction tightens Monster Jimenez’s script with ruthless calm, how the tension is built based on breathing intervals. The shooting of Apocalypse Now in Baler in the 70s — its effect on the people and how it led to the birth of surfing in the town — serves as a hook, but like a healing wound, it is felt only when hit. It is a loaded memory, one that carries consequences in the present. The dynamics built around it take care of the spooling: those folks who have stayed and left and returned since then, the town and its charming tall tales, the unsettled scores and unspoken regrets, the inclination to simply let things happen, que sera sera. Cornejo and Jimenez create a deep focal point where all of them come together and tussle, and a wrecking ball, out of the blue, looms in sight to destroy them. Fuck, this movie still owes me a drink.

5. Much bigger than the uproar caused by the disqualification case with the MMFF, which further exposes the ills of a long-existing system that continues to impair filmmakers and moviegoers, is the subject of Honor Thy Father, and it’s not an overreaction to say that these two issues are connected. Instances of challenging religious organizations have a widely documented history of actions resulting in cruelty and bloodshed, and although this link seems too hyperbolic in this case, it is not hard to imagine that Erik Matti drew the ire of several parties and something was done about it. Ishmael Bernal was there first: examining the vicissitudes of faith in relation to making stupid decisions with dire consequences — and in similar vein Matti, through a script written by Michiko Yamamoto, makes the association sharper and harder to dispute. Ponzi and pyramiding schemes are usually the butt of jokes these days, but it is never funny when lives are at stake, and when this faith in easy money crumbles with the prospect of losing everything. Any kind of faith is tricky — even the modus of acetylene gang members is built on the belief that at the end of each explosion is a pot of gold — and everyone has their own reasons, mostly for their own benefit. The courage of Honor Thy Father to bring mostly untouchable matters to light is not wasted on thin and half-baked claims: its power comes from being a riveting, persuasive, and enraging piece of work that raises its voice at the right place and time.

6. There appear to be no more stones left unturned for Heneral Luna, and what it has become in several months of social media hysteria certainly owes to what it is: a compelling historical biopic with a strong, meme-able central character, the narrative designed (and at times injected with fictional elements) to emphasize dramatic contradictions, and the research, sufficient as it is, tailored to make it reachable to audiences. This happens to be Jerrold Tarog’s foremost skill: the ability to make it accessible, striking a balance between something too deep and too dumb, and letting his viewers feel something worthy to be giddy about — a display of sentimentality hitting a sensitive nerve — or making them feel challenged to argue. History, especially its interpretation, will always be taken personally by some, and the desire for change in present society often entails looking back into the past for lessons, no matter how different the circumstances may be. Heneral Luna has opened a lot of boxes, large and small, some empty and some occupied, but above all else it proves it can be done — the basic indie spirit driving it — and whether or not this is a mere fluke is as dependent on the next film as it is on the audience. It is never one-way. Producers Ed Rocha and Fernando Ortigas, aware that its success won’t be repeated soon, went on to fund more films (for QCinema, Cinema One Originals, and MMFF) afterward.


7. Dayang Asu hardly looks back. Its impulse is to move forward, and this doggedness to follow a straight path, understandably, has its faults. But by sticking to what he wants, Bor Ocampo renders a quietly disturbing mapping of the stages of corruption, with varying intensities, from how its seed is planted, how it grows, and how it bears fruit. And it goes on because the soil is always fertile. Evil is infinite and hard to subvert. At some point, the numbness sets in.

8. This kind of numbness, whose effect is similar to a tight grip on the neck, isn’t present in Water Lemon. It is gentle and thoughtful, and sometimes it’s too engrossed in itself that it overlooks some excesses. It is the second time Lorca pays tribute to his beloved hometown, and it’s an improvement from Mauban: Ang Resiko because the characters are not just living in the place but they also have memories in it, the drama hinging on moments when their strength is tested. The attachment is mostly sentimental, and Lorca and writer Lilit Reyes are able to make the audience feel why places can sometimes offer better comfort than people.

9. Carl Papa submitted the script of Manang Biring to QCinema and Cinema One Originals, and in both cases, by a quirk of fate, it was assigned to me. It was a thick manuscript, more than a hundred pages, and if Papa only knew that my mother died of breast cancer three years ago and was also called “Biring” by friends, I’m sure he would be worried it went to my hands. Needless to say, it ruined me, and I endorsed it to both committees. The concern had always been about feasibility, given the limited amount of time for production, since he wanted to do rotoscoping and won’t do it any other way, despite my advice that maybe — just maybe — it could work better conventionally. Good thing he didn’t listen and insisted on his plan. Manang Biring is a first in Philippine cinema, and such achievement won’t mean a lot had it been awful or mediocre — but it isn’t, for no matter how crude and uneven the visuals and telling may be, the story of a mother doing everything to extend her life for her daughter leaves a most indelible impression, tears included. “Merry Christmas, Nita” remains the saddest line of the year.

10. Sherad Anthony Sanchez doesn’t seem to be particularly proud of Salvage, his first foray into commercial work, but I’d like to think of it as an experiment — as he is (or has always been) an experimental filmmaker — that yields interesting results. The mainstream discipline is not his zone, and part of what makes Salvage engaging is seeing his efforts (and struggle) to inject new ideas into the found footage aesthetic and pulling them off most of the time. There are legit scares that leap out of the normal, shaking things up when things feel too safe and comfortable, and Sanchez, knowing his cunning based on his previous films, appears to be putting things that don’t appear clear and present at first watch. As the narrative moves forward, the more it becomes challenging because — what is happening? Its political statements are never ambiguous, and fortunately, unlike the characters, they manage to reach the audience quite safely.


1. The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

2. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

3. Victoria (Sebastian Schipper)

4. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo)

5. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)

6. Tangerine (Sean Baker)

7. Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen)

8. Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

9. Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

10. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson)

Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 3) November 23, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Noypi.
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RAMS (Grímur Hákonarson)

A film set in Iceland, specifically in a secluded valley where the lives and interaction of town folk depend so much on their sheep, is bound to be cold, through and through. Yet the feat of Rams is its seeping warmth, which comes from the way it examines the relationship of two brothers estranged for forty years despite their physical proximity, and how they are brought together by the purge of their flock and the bleak prospect of carrying on without them. This premise is simple and approachable, but director Grímur Hákonarson, in a riveting exhibit of gentleness, is able to elevate the depiction of deep-seated hostility into a scale and range of biblical resonance, evoking grand and arresting emotions out of desolation. Rams is wrapped by layers of obvious and faint details, and the unwrapping, until the very end, can be breathtaking in its quietness.



There is something noble about the nostalgia evoked by Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso, in which Raymond Red depicts one fateful day in September 1986 leading to the closing night of the 1st Independent Film and Video Festival: a defining moment when Philippine cinema’s so-called band of outsiders asserted the legitimacy of the alternative movement, further advancing their ideals and challenging the reign of mainstream paradigms. Red’s personal involvement in this occasion provides the voice of the film, as he attempts to relive the experience and impart it to present-day viewers, evidently correlating the struggle between then and now. He brings in key people, most notable of whom is Nick Deocampo as the group’s strong-willed mentor, and places them in the lingering afterglow of the People Power revolution that deposed decades of dictatorship. The many instances of uncanny parallelism are not forced: that’s what makes it worthy of recollection.

But nostalgia, when used as a groundwork for a story, cannot live on memories and good intentions alone, and what is missing in Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso is energy — the palpable enthusiasm that can cross the screen and rub on the audience, such vigor and urgency that can affect audiences regardless of age and disposition — and this lack of spunk, sadly, sinks what could have been a sound statement on an industry always wrestling with demons, mostly of its own. Red may have made a faithful account of the event and its sentiment, revealing through conversations the preoccupations and ambitions of these struggling filmmakers, but he fails to make them feel important: he is unable to share the feeling and manages only to tell what happened, not why the audience should know or care. The film makes a strong case for the importance of pursuing individual vision — and that’s the most laudable thing — but even personal work, when too confined in its space, can lose its way and meaning once taken out and set free.


FRENZY (Emin Alper)

Frenzy, like Rams, is about two brothers, but instead of freezing cold they find themselves in the heat of Turkey’s political meltdown, with terrorist attacks in Istanbul and the police’s efforts to track down armed groups. Its strength lies in being a convincing document of unrest, in capturing through specific details and metaphors the paranoia of people made helpless by the situation. From the beginning it is quite clear that it refuses to be curbed by genre conventions, avoiding well-defined characterizations and leaning instead toward ambiguous expositions. But the effort to psychologize pulls the film down, mostly because it confuses things without latching on a stronger, wider ground other than its apparent message, and the punch it intends to seal the story lands only as a poke.

dahling nick

DAHLING NICK (Sari Dalena)

Clocking at over three hours, Dahling Nick is an extensive and unsubtle study of Nick Joaquin elaborated through interviews with National Artists F. Sionil Jose and Bienvenido Lumbera, CPP founder Jose Maria Sison, high-profile writers, friends, and relatives attesting to his literary importance and vigorous character, remembering with fondness his contributions to shaping Philippine art and politics. With readings of passages from his major works and dramatizations of “The Legend of the Virgin’s Jewel,” “May Day Eve,” and “The Two Kisses of Eros,” it follows Joaquin’s life from his promising youth and religious devotion to his political involvement and unexpected death. There is no denying of its ambition: it taps on almost every aspect possible and material available, adding clips of Lamberto Avellana’s adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino and Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, as well as rarely heard and seen clips of Joaquin being interviewed and delivering a speech. It is a biopic as much as it is an encyclopedia, stuffed full to the gills, and even in its closing credits the veneration is unrelenting, indefatigable.

Sari Dalena’s idea of paying homage to such icon, who also happens to be a beloved childhood figure, is something that unfortunately falls in the realm of labored extravagance, driven by an intemperate urge to offer and please; and in the end while she succeeds at substantiating the significance of Joaquin as a Filipino, she is unable to see the value of preciseness, of how a work can have so much impact if it had the humility to sacrifice detail for discipline. Length is a minor issue: basing on numerous anecdotes and the deep facets of his body of work, Joaquin by all means is a fascinating artist, a worthy subject of scrutiny and discourse. But Dahling Nick, for all its research and frills, is hardly about scrutiny and discourse: what it does is gather, lay out, and put together similar things, unmindful that the core is weakened by being redundant, by succumbing to indulgence that inflates the film to the point of incredulity.

To Dalena’s credit, Dahling Nick pulsates with life: it is spirited and freewheeling, intent to sketch a portrait of Joaquin to emphasize his legacy. His earnest readers will always find a hook to cling to, no matter how many times it has been repeated, and those who have faint recognition of the man will realize with sadness why this yearning to immortalize him is so strong, why his oeuvre deserves not only acknowledgment but also consumption, why in fact he is the greatest Filipino writer in a land where forgetting and neglect constitute an identity. It is the most persuasive aspect of the film. But sadly it dwells only on the halo. Dahling Nick offers no other color, no appraisal of Joaquin outside his usual league of admirers, and as a result the tribute feels too exclusive and diluted, a celebration seen only from the open windows of a large house where its esteemed guests are laughing and raising a toast.



There are filmmakers like Jacques Tati, Michelangelo Antonioni, and now Roy Andersson, whose works do not make complete sense when explained, or any explaining, whether precise or detailed, does not come close at all to the actual experience of seeing them. Even in the most objective of descriptions, there seem to be no equivalent phrases to match the dynamics on the surface and more so what’s under it, hence the viewer, upon seeing the movie, experiences something else. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third part of Andersson’s fifteen-year Living Trilogy, does not fully commit itself to easy understanding — for it is how most pleasures become valuable, when given with difficulty. In ways that only stubborn and resolute filmmaking can achieve, it allows itself to be taken to pieces, and whether as a whole or in fragments, the sense that remains does not lose its weight and impact. One can’t help but hold the soul coming from its rigid frame, to which the satisfyingly uncomfortable tremble of watching it is clasped. No tableau is the same or makes the same impact, and Andersson, in the assembly of these sequences with wry wisdom, presents the tragicomedy of life that regards suffering with respect, and whatever humor it brings is merely interpretation, for humor is just a human concept in a bigger, less understandable expanse of existence.

Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 2) November 14, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Noypi.
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There are only two settings in Bukod Kang Pinagpala: a house and a forest. In these two places Sheron Dayoc situates his story of a paralytic mother who suddenly gets well presumably after a visit from the devil, and with brutal enthusiasm he aggrandizes it by laying emphasis on the darkness consuming her. After establishing this premise with the usual symbols and flourishes of religious nature, Dayoc is no longer concerned with plot (or depth) and characterization (or nuance) — in unsubtle terms he creates horror out of conventional means and overplays it, on and on until the point is no longer about having a point but being pointless. A great deal of time is spent on how the mother yields, rather willingly, to her captor, and how her freedom from physical confinement is exchanged for total submission. There is something preposterous about this whole act, in the refusal to widen and enrich the scope, as though it was done while wearing blinkers, unable to see anything but the front. Dayoc only cares about delivering the scares — and what scares it has! It is a mad feat to be effective and ineffective at the same time, each coming from extreme ends, and Bukod Kang Pinagpala gets narrower and narrower until the very last scene, until out of the blue it awakens from unconsciousness and wants to be relevant.


MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

A much deeper and more compelling study of confinement, Mustang looks into the lives of five young orphaned sisters under strict guardianship of their uncle and grandma. It is set in a remote town in Turkey where conservatism is formidable and women are forced to accept their fates as housewives fully subservient to men. Punished for their supposed indecency around boys, they are imprisoned in their house, with any means to communicate with the outside world taken away from them, and over time they find ways to display resistance and seek the pleasures they deserve, oftentimes with grave consequences. First-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is able to present their youthful struggles, small victories, and solemn defeats with force and maturity, steered by an impassioned female sensitivity. The audience has cared so much about them that the pain of seeing their story end is almost unbearable.

dayang asu

DAYANG ASU (Bor Ocampo)

Dayang Asu alternates between a walk and a brisk walk. Even in its high moments it refuses to run or sprint. It possesses this inflexible command of material, with director Bor Ocampo firm on telling it his way, in his vernacular, in his beat. Basing on his disciplined handling, he is aware that stories of corruption, violence, and injustice have mostly been told countless of times before, in varying shades and textures, set in numerous places and leading to different outcomes, but he is after the cold-hearted clutch of consistency, the hard-hitting truthfulness of linear action, without neglecting the need for substance to allow precise movement.

The dog-eat-dog viewpoint is clear, and apparently the search for a dog to kill and eat is used to shove it further. There is a lot of room for fleshier examinations of social ills and for a closer look at the father-and-son relationship, but Ocampo is content with observing things from a distance, neither near nor far, making the audience feel like implicit witnesses. It avoids the common (and tiring) tendency to be a mood piece and relies instead on headway and pacing. One can be partial to the dryness and lack of eagerness and think these qualities are deliberate, in keeping with the bestiality of criminal work. In this dogged approach, Dayang Asu may have a long leash, but all throughout it keeps a tight and uncomfortable grip.


THE TREASURE (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Treasure hunting has always had this ancient ring to it, but it never fails to arouse the curiosity of both the old and young because it evokes fascinating myths and exhumes long-forgotten stories. At the center of The Treasure is the act itself, the impatient search for fortune in an old family property where decades ago pivotal moments in Romanian history took place. Bookending it is the motivation and the result, and director Corneliu Porumboiu, in another showcase of cunning restraint, connects many dots in one precise swing, managing to cross leisurely between past and present with palpable political byplays. The punch is surprisingly hilarious, and it’s a stroke of genius topping a work thick with clues of wisdom.


MANANG BIRING (Carl Joseph Papa)

There have been several films made about elderly people and their struggle with old age and isolation, some of which are highly regarded such as Adela by Adolf Alix, Bwakaw by Jun Lana, and Lola by Brillante Mendoza, but none of them have been told in the same fashion as the rotoscoped world of Manang Biring, the second feature of Carl Joseph Papa. Similar to his debut Ang Di Paglimot ng mga Alaala, it builds the character of a mother, and in doing so vividly illustrates the importance of maternal company, not to mention the degree of loss felt once it is gone. In Manang Biring, however, the mother is at the center, living and dying at the same time, coming to grips with her illness and enlivened by the imminent arrival of her daughter from overseas.

One can only salute Papa for pushing his objective through and achieving it: the rotoscoping may be crude and flat at times, but emanating from it is this persistence of vision, this unmistakable drive to see it through the finish line. Certainly it is hard not to be moved by perseverance. The story, in its initial draft, is expansive, detailed, and verbose, and efforts have been made to sharpen it up to suit his chosen form. But one must also recognize several faults — a particular clumsiness in the storytelling, the occasionally misplaced rhythm, the unhelpful lulls and talkiness — which impede the flow and draw attention to aspects that could have been executed better. Assessing Manang Biring enables a careful consideration of its strengths and lapses, reaching a point where warranted praise and justified forgiveness meet, and for the most part, as demonstrated by the emotional ending, its soul can carry more weight and lift the film higher than its skill.

Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 1) November 11, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Noypi.



A number of good things can be said about Erik Matti’s latest film, Honor Thy Father, but what clearly deserves the strongest highlight is its subject. Part of the thrill for the uninitiated audience is the manner in which Matti treats it casually without losing the magnitude and intricacies, the moral high ground slowly being tested and broken into pieces. The drama could have easily come out from the seeming absurdity of the modus operandi — how the desperate need for money has brought about a difficult and complex solution, far from the quick and easy acts of stealing — but Matti and writer Michiko Yamamoto are more interested in larger forces at work, in how people are dehumanized by scheming organizations selling salvation. Cunning is how dignity is examined through contrast, with the elaborate digging and exploding, unexplained and unjudged, coming off rather dignified because of the utter dedication given, while the religious group tricking people into making regular donations, like the Ponzi schemers robbing Peter to pay Paul, is fronted by rectitude but bearing the palpable halo of evil. The dramatic turns may not be consistently on point, but the totality sweeps gracefully, and John Lloyd Cruz, in an admirable career move, delivers an intense performance that can reduce the viewer, who may only be comfortable seeing him in romantic roles, to ruins.



For longtime followers of South Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo, Right Now, Wrong Then is a familiar terrain. It still has his unbelievable knack for turning simple what-ifs into complex realizations of everyday encounters. The two main characters — a filmmaker visiting Suwon for a screening and lecture and a beautiful young lady he meets at an old palace who happens to be a painter — converse shyly and intimately, walking from place to place and hopping reflexively from lucid to drunk and to lucid again, until Hong decides, midway through the film, to repeat their encounter, with the same setup but slightly different details (on the surface and underneath). The result, in all its seeming simplicity, is heartbreakingly delightful, and between occasional laughs and tears, reeling from the infinite nuances found in ordinary situations, one feels the profundity of common experience often taken for granted, and rarely articulated so well, in contemporary cinema.



It’s sad to put down a film with winning charm and candid sensibility like Baka Siguro Yata, but it will be more unkind not to admit that despite these qualities it is unable to pull things off. It looks into three connected romantic relationships, each with varying levels of maturity and vulnerability that make it ripe for highly charged moments which, if executed right, can be affecting, the comedy being a dramatic device in itself. But something from the very start has been amiss: the direction hardly feels skilled and confident — in many cases resorting to amateur tricks — and as a result it fails to give justice to a script that is not only driven by witty dialogue and expositions but also by the easy-to-overlook concept of grand emotions in a small world. There are funny scenes, no doubt, but these moments alone cannot carry the film, much so if it is stubborn to subscribe to the kind of entertainment of humdrum television, from the storytelling and delivery of gags to the sloppy stitching of acts. Ferrer ends up choosing the common and convenient, varnishing the trite and only making it much triter.

NETPAC Festival Report — QCinema 2015: Third Time’s a Charm November 8, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Noypi, QCinema.
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QCinema, or the Quezon City Film Festival, had produced only three films in its inaugural year in 2013. It ran for three days in two cinemas, and since three films didn’t seem enough to conduct a festival, several entries from the recently concluded Cinemalaya accompanied them.

The following year delivered a stronger lineup — with production and post-production grants offered to features, documentaries, and short films — including a number of current international movies (Ida; Two Days, One Night; Leviathan; Mommy; Jauja; 52 Tuesdays; The Don Juans) which delighted cinephiles pining for the incomparable big screen experience. This time it ran for a week, and something interesting happened: it overlapped with the schedule of another film festival, the Cinema One Originals, which was then celebrating its tenth year, in the same venue. It was such a nice, busy time for hardcore local moviegoers.

Now in its third year, QCinema has reached a key turning point, boasting more than 200 screenings of eight new features, five documentaries, and over twenty foreign films in six cinemas in three malls in Quezon City, all in ten days. This may be modest figures by overseas standards, but in the Philippines this is a big deal. Over the years the challenge has always been to sustain a film festival — Cinemanila stopped indefinitely in 2013; Cinemalaya, though it managed to go past a controversy, had only short films in competition this year; and World Premieres, alas, continued its annual display of failure — but even more difficult is to sustain a growing audience. Just on these two accounts, QCinema 2015 has made a major leap.

Festival director Ed Lejano is completely aware that a festival cannot live on good intentions alone — it must be run with astute consideration for both the business and artistic side of programming, or else it will be another case of taxpayer’s money put to waste. He knows that the Quezon City government is keen on self-promotion, and branding is a priority. From the ridiculously catchy jingle to every piece of publicity material, the QC centricity is all over, but he ensures that the goal of this initiative — the promotion of cinema and the creation of better compromises for local filmmakers — is not lost in the seeming tourism feel of the event.

QCinema, on one hand, succeeds at having a clear identity and imprint, with goals to promote the city and its artistic legacy while also helping the industry produce new films. On the other, it provides opportunities for moviegoers to see works that will never reach the cinemas (because no distributor would bring them). The idea of putting current world cinema in a Filipino festival is always good because local films can be better appreciated (or gauged) in a larger, more dynamic context, allowing this foreign sensibility to enrich understanding and offer comparison and contrast.

For instance, American classic Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) finds itself in the company of Filipino classics Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (Eddie Romero) and Oro, Plata, Mata (Peque Gallaga), all of which deal with war and its effect on people but each with different perspective and depth. The stunning long take of German film Victoria (Sebastian Schipper) achieves something different from the impressive long take of Filipino work Anino sa Likod ng Buwan (Jun Lana). Local filmmakers, always curious about the potential of technology to discover uncharted terrains in storytelling, can derive inspiration from Tangerine (Sean Baker), not just because it was shot fully on iPhone 5S, but also because it managed to go beyond this selling point with a mature and persuasive handling of its subject. And who would have thought Gaspar Noé’s Love, with long scenes of actual fucking and cum spurting in 3D, will find its way on these highly conservative shores, with not just one screening but two?

QCinema’s efforts to offer variety have resulted in something remarkably satisfying. Screen International includes films that earned recognition from prestigious festivals abroad: Tale of Tales and Cemetery of Splendour from Cannes; Court from Venice; Victoria and How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) from Berlin; and Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes) from Rotterdam. The Asian Cinerama section includes A Simple Life (Ann Hui), Nader and Simin: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi), Overheard (Alan Mak, Felix Chong), and Niño (Loy Arcenas), all of which have strong voices and distinct cultural roots. Curated by Carlo Manatad, Asian Shorts is composed of short films from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Taiwan that look at the preoccupations of common people who struggle to survive every day. Music Genius presents three documentaries — Heaven Adores You (Nickolas Rossi), Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Pierre-Henry Salfati), and 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard — exploring the lives and deaths of music icons Elliott Smith, Serge Gainsbourg, and Nick Cave, respectively.

But by all means the highlight of QCinema 2015 is the eight Circle Competition and five DoQC entries. Filmmakers of full-length features had only six months to realize their scripts, crossing that thin line between attainable and unthinkable. With the ownership of their work given to them — something that other grant-giving festivals are hesitant to offer — most were able to secure additional funding to help in the completion of their films. Several of the competition entries are co-produced by Eduardo Rocha and Fernando Ortigas, two of the main producers of Heneral Luna, the groundbreaking surprise of 2015 which had an unprecedented nine-week run in theaters to become the highest grossing Filipino independent film of all time. Together, freedom and finances can do wonders, and despite the limited production time, all of the films have managed to be interesting talking points after their premieres, whether by virtue of quality, subject, or posturing.

Apocalypse Child (Mario Cornejo), Water Lemon (Lemuel Lorca), and Matangtubig (Jet Leyco) have strong attachment to their settings, with the characters explored in the context of their association with these places, and the drama being uncovered slowly to reveal wounds and mysteries. Iisa (Chuck Gutierrez) is set in a remote community in southern Philippines hit by a tragedy reminiscent of Typhoon Haiyan, focusing on a group of people trying to get back on their feet but held down by the complexities of their situation. A different kind of tragedy happens in Kapatiran (Pepe Diokno), in which a series of violent rites of a law school fraternity is interspersed with scenes of varying thematic similarity, mostly emphasizing confinement and absurdity. Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo (Mihk Vergara) has a world of its own in which children discover success and defeat in a beloved street game, while Gayuma (Cesar Hernando) wanders between fantasy and reality, with sex serving as the thin line separating them.

It is worth noting that four of the eight features are made by first-time directors, with Hernando, acclaimed production designer of Mike de Leon’s films, making his debut at 69 years old.

Compared with the Circle Competition entries, the DoQC documentaries are more challenging to watch. Audio Perpetua (Universe Baldoza) makes use of a concept that links two seemingly disjointed things, but is unable to make the crucial connection. At the center of Bingat (Choy Pangilinan, Brian Quesada, Joolia Demegilio, Abet Umil) is the raging struggle to recognize the importance of archaeological work in the country, mixing interviews and experimental techniques, but the length and tedium tend to weaken its strong sentiments. Traslacion: Ang Paglakad sa Altar ng Alanganin (Will Fredo) features interviews with gay, lesbian, and transgender couples, drowning them in ineffective music and unhelpful staged flourishes. The magic of Of Cats and Dogs, Farm Animals and Sashimi (Perry Dizon) is it unfolds gently and freely, allowing the viewer to acclimatize to the pace of provincial life.

The NETPAC jury — composed of film critic Philip Cheah, Korean director Doo-yong Lee, and writer Richard Bolisay — is unanimous in awarding the prizes to Crescent Rising (Sheron Dayoc) and Sleepless (Prime Cruz). Crescent Rising is a current and urgent document of the state of war in Mindanao, touching on the many aspects of the conflict from jihad and the Bangsamoro Basic Law to the families and civilians helplessly caught in between. It is far from being an authoritative work — it can still be improved with tighter editing and careful selection of footage — but it is powerful and potent as it is, the many cracks leaving a profound impression of this long struggle for the end of hostility.

Sociopolitical issues are never in the fore of Sleepless, but they are present in the periphery, in its strong undercurrent. Two call center agents become friends, and they turn to each other to idle the sleepless nights or mornings away while dealing with their own personal troubles. No romance is pursued, and no hint is ever given that a romantic relationship between them will be their escape. Sleepless is a break from the pervasive and undying trend in local movies of treating romance as the end-all and be-all of life. By upholding the vastly underrated worth of unconditional companionship, it reveals a truer portrait of urban disquiet without resorting to clichés and empty spectacles.

These two NETPAC jury prize winners, in a way, are descriptive of QCinema 2015’s achievement: relevant, timely, charming, and wise, with modesty to recognize improvement and brimming with a desire to join the awake and awakened Filipino audience for another year of festive moviegoing.

This report is also published on NETPAC’s website.

Matangtubig (Jet Leyco, 2015) November 7, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Brian Gonzales
Directed by Jet Leyco
Cast: Amante Pulido, Lance Raymundo, Mailes Kanapi

The original script of Matangtubig is heavy on the procedural, following a series of events after the discovery of a dead girl’s body and the vain efforts to find her missing companion. It is a horrible crime emphasized by where it has taken place: a quaint, rural town in Batangas whose mayor brags about a zero crime rate, a neighborhood where everyone knows each other and paranoia spreads like wildfire. Writer Brian Gonzales sticks to several genre conventions but lays it open to strange possibilities, allowing director Jet Leyco to play his tricks and submerge the narrative in a bizarre concoction of lies, enigmas, and specters. It is as hardboiled as it gets, and the shell cracks as soon as the witness, a fisherman with also a daughter to protect, decides to keep the truth.

Evidently Matangtubig wants to achieve two things: to tell a compelling murder mystery and, in the course of getting close to the answers, to fuck it up. As the narrative unfolds, or gives this impression of movement, the red herrings are also scattered and left in such careful nonchalance, clearing this path leading to the climax. The fucking up isn’t random and impulsive — there is a choreography to it, a manipulation of actions intended to bring to the surface these supernatural elements — and this is Leyco’s touch, unleashing the uncanny out of the everyday while also being mindful of the sociopolitical timber, his signature, the watermark on his films.

There is humor in its terror, and a number of scenes and sequences contribute to characterization: the uncomfortable photo op when the parents of the victims have switched picture frames of their daughters, Lance Raymundo doing his report in the middle of the water and suddenly disappearing, the marching band and the funeral procession meeting absurdly at an intersection, the first time the mysterious fragments are shown in passing.

But sadly the whole doesn’t pan out as strongly as expected. The problem with Matangtubig is its narrative design, how the layout looks striking from afar but upon closer inspection the arrangement of text (plots) and images (visuals) — not to mention other elements aimed to complement them: rhythm, music, sound, clues, blank spaces — is too loud and pronounced, letting the viewer see the actual strings being pulled. It is deliberate in revealing right at the start the identity of the perpetrators, an intriguing hook by all means, but in a way the film also works in a similar vein: anyone with a discerning eye for detail can see where it is going, what atmosphere it is aiming for, what horror it has in store.

The concern is not about being highly derivative — certainly many works at present borrow from others, from style to atmosphere, from technique to world view, from milieu to pacing — but it depends a lot on the ability to hold everything together with a sleight of hand, to go above the comparisons and leave a singular, distinctive dent. This is Leyco’s objective. The end of Matangtubig is bombastic without apologies: it is the culmination of the other side of its murder mystery. And while it leaves on such a high note, the astonishing spectacle it has painstakingly worked hard for achieves an effect that leaves as quickly as a shooting star: so fast there is no time to make a wish.

Water Lemon (Lemuel Lorca, 2015) November 2, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Lilit Reyes
Directed by Lemuel Lorca
Cast: Jun-jun Quintana, Tessie Tomas, Lou Veloso, Alessandra de Rossi, Meryll Soriano

The charm of Water Lemon, Lemuel Lorca’s fourth film and so far his most fully realized work, is its setting. Mauban in Quezon Province comes to life with an endearing depiction of its people and their constant preoccupations, which is far from the haphazard caricature in his previous film, Mauban: Ang Resiko. Lorca’s love for his hometown is unmistakable, and can easily be blinding for its earnest sentiment, but what works for Water Lemon is a narrative that captures a small, timid town generally content in its smallness and timidity, how its residents deal with everyday troubles and bouts of loneliness, whether through hardcore drinking or chatting with someone from faraway who offers emotional comfort.

Life in Mauban, as it turns out, is not always slow and passive. What often passes for conflict is the hovering uncertainty of being there, of staying because there are no better options, those moments, few and far between, when one gets weary and sick of provincial life. Idleness is a myth: people have to work not only to have food on the table but also to feel better about themselves. In many ways the audience is not treated as a tourist, and Mauban, though beautiful, doesn’t feel at all like an attraction.

It also looks at people who have long been wanting to leave, those who are sometimes judged for their ambition, to whom a better life means one that is spent outside the town’s simple, almost resigned, way of living. This idea of leaving, however, isn’t confined only to moving out of town. And this is where writer Lilit Reyes hits the spot: dying also means leaving. And dying, whether by accident or illness, always inflicts hurt on those who stay, also making them die little by little. The drama at the center of Water Lemon, aside from making room for intense and poignant scenes, creates this vivid portrait of a town that accepts its fate but also hits itself for merely accepting, a place seemingly isolated from the supreme comforts and vanities of modern world, a town that may be unworldly and unambitious but is now finally coming to terms with change.

Filemon, the heart and mouth of Water Lemon, has Asperger’s, but he is not suffering from it, at least not in the way he projects himself. He is stubborn and assertive, qualities that secure him from his tendencies. Although he dismisses a lot of people, avoiding intimacy even with his mother, he loses it upon being told he is fired. Having a work says so much about self-worth, and for someone conscious about being different, it can mean the world to him. The sound of that world crumbling provides the film its moving vulnerability.

But the drama also has a number of false notes, the most striking of which has to do with Bertha and Maritess, supporting characters whose high moments tend to be too affected. The same effect happens when Pina verbalizes her grief with a neighbor: the moment feels written, and the monologue draws too much attention to itself. These are glitches that create ripples, stories that may be based on real life but look ineffective in film, but Water Lemon, fortunately, flows into a large sea, and with exceptional performances of Jun-jun Quintana, Tessie Tomas, and Lou Veloso, the impression it leaves is quite immense.

Gayuma (Cesar Hernando, 2015) October 31, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written and directed by Cesar Hernando
Cast: Benjamin Alves, Elora Españo, Phoebe Walker

Over the weeklong run of the QCinema International Film Festival, a strong opinion among many festival goers, discussed in hushed tones or mentioned indirectly in social media, is that Gayuma turns out to be bad, or very bad, depending on how the judgment is told and how the assessments become more specific. There seems to be an agreement on the film’s inability to tell a good story, or to tell a story in a good way, as it relies on a trite narrative, incredible plot points, dated references, ineffective music, laughable dialogue, and several other elements that further emphasize its larger-than-life thinness. These claims, unfortunately, are well founded, and all its displays of art knowledge feel completely conspicuous, making the viewing experience switch between wincing and resignation, until the overall feeling becomes nothing short of unpleasant.

With its large doses of sex and ludicrous storyline, Gayuma is reminiscent of Seiko-produced movies in the 90s, which means, for an open-minded viewer, it can be strangely watchable. The consistency is enough reason to be engaged. Obvious are the efforts put together to sustain interest and make it intriguing, as scene by scene the visuals are consciously being mounted to look artful. The music, berserk and ostentatious, is thought to heighten the emotions, but it succeeds only at drowning the film further. One feels sorry about the fact that while the story being undernourished can be forgivable, as execution could do a lot of wonders, more regrettable is how the many talented artists in the film, the numerous big names lending a hand to complete it, are unable to be of any saving grace.

There is absolutely no problem with the idea of mixing genre elements with conventional art-house touches, how a ghost story can be told alongside Marcello Mastroianni or Michelangelo Antonioni, or a how a mysterious past can find its place in the lives of students in a state university, even in the guise of sexual exigencies. The UP Fine Arts Building, especially for non-Fine Arts majors, has always had this inexplicably enigmatic vibe that draws visitors to it, a sense of adventure in its seemingly commonplace surroundings. But Gayuma, in all its good intentions, is unable to keep up, its old-fashioned stubbornness — many, many things in it helplessly revealing a script written a long time ago — has not worked in its favor.

As biases should not always be seen in a negative light, it’s only fair to admit the source of reservation: Cesar Hernando, acclaimed production designer and mentor of countless film people, at 69 years old, is the director of Gayuma, and this is his first feature-length. How can one disregard such valiant soldier? How, in light of his dedication to helping the careers of young directors for decades, can one be oblivious to this time when he finally takes the leap? Of course, one can separate judgment of work from respect for the filmmaker. Gayuma clearly suffers from the weaknesses and excesses than can be associated with a debut work. In the basic, most constructive form of criticism, unkind words are better said than kept. But can this short review be any clearer in its predisposition that no matter how much of a letdown Gayuma is, the writer’s stronger sentiment is that Hernando, now finally coming to terms with first-film hitches, makes another feature, and another one and another one? He has completely earned being given the benefit of the doubt.

Sleepless (Prime Cruz, 2015) October 30, 2015

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Jen Chuaunsu
Directed by Prime Cruz
Cast: Glaiza de Castro, Dominic Roco, TJ Trinidad, Irma Adlawan

Romance, whether in fiction or real life, has always been a major currency: love, more than anything, is both the motivation and reward, the logic and instinct. But the kind of love often emphasized, aspired, and admired in cinema is romantic: a strong force that can make grand, sweeping gestures, the overall effect of which, whether lounging in subtlety or excesses, determines the merits, or ineffectiveness, of a film. Love stories will never lose their relevance — the material lends itself to infinite permutations — and those that make a precisely memorable impression usually have something to say beyond the intensity of the feeling.

In Sleepless, in what seems to be the film’s riskiest undertaking, the main characters are not in love with each other. They meet at work, become friends, and eventually find their lives at a standstill because of the unpleasant consequences of their respective relationships. They take comfort in each other. Even towards the end writer Jen Chuaunsu and director Prime Cruz are not keen on “shipping” them, and it is by virtue of this companionship, essentially carrying the weight and implication of romance, that Sleepless unfolds its simple, seemingly slight story against the backdrop of cutthroat corporate work in the Third World.

It is interesting not because it does not pursue the romance but because it does not seek to be validated by it. The reason for Gem’s sleeping problem at the beginning is the nature of her work, but later on, as she finds a meaningful companion in Barry, it becomes a habit formed out of fulfillment gained from it, how the physical distress is compensated by emotional gratification. The foundation of the film is their contact, and it develops into a friendship defined by circumstances, the way they deal with their own troublesome family relations and failed romances while trying to be there for one another, without taking advantage of the convenience coming from their vulnerability. Over time the characters become stronger than the plot points, and the small moments, no matter how predictable, manage to ignite fireworks.

Although Sleepless shares obvious similarities with Shift by Siege Ledesma and Ang Nawawala by Marie Jamora, particularly in terms of milieu and treatment, a worthier comparison can also be made with Endo by Jade Castro, with how employment is a crucial part of a person’s life decisions. The call center environment as a workplace is never substantially explored, but it is presented in such a way that neither glorifies nor condescends to its culture, acknowledging the industry that has been the country’s main economic growth source for more than a decade. As call center agents, Gem and Barry go on with their day-to-day lives the way other workers, who are regarded presumably with higher respect, do, yearning for similar needs and hoping to be in better situations. What makes Sleepless current is this scaffold — the grave importance of being employed, and the submission to the pleasures and sorrows of work — with recognition of things being temporary as nothing but natural. The city shown in its locations is also a curious element: it is neither highly developed nor visibly struggling, neither happy nor sad, a city presented not as a character but as a spectator, the way places, despite the tendency to sentimentalize them, in fact do not really care about people.

Nothing in Sleepless is new or groundbreaking, and this prevailing mindset to offer novelty, to engage in some sort of activity proving the worthiness of creation, has been around only to challenge perceptions. The use of animation in a few sequences may have been disagreeable to some, but one can see it as a means to break the monotony, to render foolishness in the context of boredom, which actually provides nuance to the characters and stirs the surface. Sleepless has a rich undercurrent that can easily be overlooked, either out of being too meek or unresisting, but in truth it speaks eloquently of the tiny tragedies of every day, of the slacker’s desperation to finally be on the right track after so many attempts, and of how some people escape solitude and look for souls to cling to. The lonely will always stay lonely, and every friendship they find is a love story living a common life and dying a common death.