And All This is Folly to the World: The Top Filipino Films of 2014 January 5, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, Yearender.
2014, for most people, is just another year. But for those who have committed themselves to catching every possible screening in theaters, seeking the comfort and warmth of darkness with or without companion, the year in cinema has overflowed in both quality and quantity. It has offered almost the whole nine yards: Hollywood blockbusters, small independent productions, foreign language films, documentaries, gay movies, forums and lectures, and everything in between.
But more impressively, Filipino films have not wavered. There have been local and international film festivals organized one after another, to the point that two of them have overlapping screenings at the same mall. And this is not just in Manila. Several cities and towns across the country have been active in promoting their own filmmakers, offering venues to show their works.
Themes have also departed from the usual. Poverty is no longer a prevailing subject, which can be interpreted in several ways. Is it a reflection of an improvement in the general economic conditions of the people, or a display of discontent with the previous depictions and handling of the subject? Are local audiences tired of seeing bleak social realities on the big screen, or are filmmakers no longer interested in them? Of course, these are nothing but mere conjectures.
More than a year later, typhoon Yolanda has remained a reminder of the most terrible kind of tragedy that can change everything, and it has come to signify many aspects of the Filipino life, its hopes and struggles, not to mention its often emphasized resilience. Sadly, the disaster will forever be part of the collective (and cultural) experience and consciousness.
Furthermore, romantic comedies have stepped up, and a curious indication of this is that festivals have made room for them. Big stars have appeared in small movies, and their fans have shown their overwhelming support. Star Cinema has picked up independently produced movies for distribution, and it’s a good, good sign, regardless of the financial turnout.
But perhaps the most agreeable, and somewhat easily taken for granted, development as far as social interactions are concerned is that seldom do people talk now about the difference between mainstream and independent—finally, it’s no longer a fucking thing!—and even when they do, they no longer make it sound like a celestial spectacle. These films, one way or another, have made that possible.
10. English Only, Please (Dan Villegas)
Let’s get this straight: awards matter; and sometimes they do matter a lot. A huge bulk of the moviegoing public has come out to see English Only, Please only after it won major prizes at the Metro Manila Film Festival, allowing it to have sold-out screenings and exceed the earnings of other entries with far better chances of box-office success. Its failure to win best picture has also sparked interest: how can a film receive recognition for its script, acting, and direction without winning the top prize? Over the years, the MMFF has always had its share of mysteries.
Yes, it can be done; and it can be done without making nasty compromises. English Only, Please can be appreciated better in the context of the festival, which has long been a source of scorn for some viewers, but one can’t disregard the fact that word-of-mouth promotion works only if the film being supported is more than acceptable—it has to be thoroughly, categorically, and out-and-out good for the standard moviegoer. Dan Villegas, a competent cinematographer himself, is able to vanish in his own film, so light his touch that the viewer notices his absence, for how can the film move with such grace and ease without someone orchestrating the whole thing? There is more than one answer, but the only one that can cover everything now is the most beautiful surprise of the year: Jennylyn Mercado.
9. Esoterika: Maynila (Elwood Perez)
Only the pompous, stiff, and humorless will not enjoy Esoterika, Elwood Perez’s depiction of Manila on acid. It moves restlessly with almost no regard for conventional continuity, waving this wicked and outrageous Polaroid of the city that leaves no room for the audience to argue: only to giggle, snort, and chortle. It is a triumph of mad filmmaking: sequence after sequence, the confusion leads to laughter, and this amusement lets the viewer excuse the film’s obvious flaws for practical reasons. Ronnie Liang carries the role with consistent gullibility and in numerous instances miscarries it without warning: he has the exact mix of innocence and ignorance to match his comely face and sculpted body, his physicality exploited to absurd effect. Now 70 years old, Perez has made some of the most irreverently pleasurable movies of the 70s and 80s that can astound even audiences of today, and with Esoterika he shows that his skill hasn’t aged—his impudence has always been a gift.
8. Barber’s Tales (Jun Robles Lana)
It is not an exaggeration to say that Barber’s Tales seems out of place in the landscape of local cinema in 2014. That’s quite telling, to say the least, and a curious point of discussion. Not many directors today tell their stories in this manner any more, nor exhibit this kind of showmanship that bears no intention to be sharp or clever. Diluted in too much dialogue, it holds no alarms and surprises: it is compelling in its predictability. Jun Lana dedicates Barber’s Tales to Marilou Diaz-Abaya, his mentor and inspiration, and her influence is unmistakable: the dramatic time disappears into the milieu and historical context, carried by a submissive protagonist awakened by social struggle and injustice. The result is a mature and modest work that sweeps the viewer whenever it sighs and shrugs.
7. Lorna (Sigrid Andrea Bernardo)
What resonates clearly after seeing Lorna is that it is not about a woman getting to grips with old age and feeling dissatisfied with her life but the pains of being single and alone in general—the sting of isolation, the prospect of dying without a hand to hold, and the grief of not being good enough to be loved passionately in return. Lorna’s life is seldom interesting—her two friends are not always there to make her feel that the world is kind and colorful—and Sigrid Bernardo underlines this tedium, the dull sight and sound of every day, and puts her in situations that bare her bitterness, no matter how reasonable may it be. There is that lovely touch of theater that pulls the film out of the dumps whenever it tends to indulge, the delight of having the opportunity of shooting someone to free oneself, the freedom to just stop ugly things from happening, and these sequences cause the poignant moments to linger long enough to touch each other’s crest. As Lorna, Shamaine Buencamino makes the audience feel not only the depth of the ocean but also all the islands in it so far away from one another, delivering a character of many shades and textures, likable and unlikable at the same time. She is eternal sunshine, and Lav Diaz is the spotless mind.
6. Mariquina (Milo Sogueco)
Mariquina puts the city and the shadow of its once illustrious shoe industry in the periphery in favor of a family drama that can’t seem to contain itself despite the years. Domestic woes are set aside and reappear without warning, revealing certain wounds, inflicted on various layers of skin, that refuse to heal. The past is a bitch, Jerrold Tarog and Milo Sogueco insist, and this bitch holds the film together, allowing the long-withheld ache to either rupture (loud and messy) or kill its keeper (quiet and piercing). With its ambition and the tenacity to achieve it, the weight of the unseen and unspoken carried and released, and the actors that come jointly with spectacular force, Mariquina explodes in several places and offers a rewarding closure.
5. Gusto nang Umuwi ni Joy (Jan Tristan Pandy)
There is a quick scene in this quiet but affecting documentary where Joy, an undocumented Filipino domestic helper in the U.K., walks a dog, picks up its poop on the sidewalk, and puts it inside a plastic bag. It is shown without drama, perhaps even without sympathy, for this is only a small and negligible aspect of her everyday life in a foreign land where she has labored for six years, nothing compared with the loneliness and anxieties eating her from time to time. She is comforted only by the pictures and messages sent to her through Viber. The voices of her husband and children and the sight of her grandson ease her homesickness as she performs her housekeeping and babysitting duties.
Jan Tristan Pandy follows Joy as she tries to secure a work visa and make her stay legal, permitting her to return home without risking her employment. But the odds are not in her favor, and she is at the mercy of institutions that care so little for her, if they even do at all. He hardly focuses on strong emotions—the high points of the film are levelheaded sentiments, natural reactions to distress and disappointment—and this low-key treatment lets the viewers see Joy from afar, how her work conditions, except for her status, are far from bad, how those years in careful “hiding” have given her family a comfortable life, how she finds worth and hope in modest deeds, how tolerant and accepting she has become. Pandy depicts her with neither warmth nor detachment, for Joy does not represent anything except herself. This document of her life, both sober and somber, becomes much sadder the moment it finds a fitting conclusion.
4. She’s Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina)
What’s more telling about She’s Dating the Gangster is not the ability of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla to deliver the sweeping magic expected of them, nor the skill of Cathy Garcia-Molina to explore newer sensations and spaces in romantic comedies, but how it has managed to shed light on interesting perspectives. For one, it bares on a larger scale the generation of young people engrossed in Wattpad and reveals the kind of stories and storytelling that excite them, thereby allowing Star Cinema—the only film studio thriving in this age when the mainstream is no longer mainstream as far as the number of releases is concerned—to take advantage of the trend, driven by its nature to recognize currency in the current.
But this is in no way a display of consideration for She’s Dating the Gangster. Even in the confines of the actual film itself, let down may it be by the triteness of the story, something moves with irresistible confidence and conveys the delicacy of a formula. The silliness and excesses that carry it compose a whole that muddles mature and immature responses to love, making use of the freedom that commercial movies, within the seeming limitations of their narratives, can play with. Kathryn and Daniel are finally able to show that, given a skilled director, their appeal can go beyond television, accepting that sometimes they need to step aside to benefit the film. The brief encounter of Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta near the end is an intense emotional highlight, a meta device that has yet to find its equal in recent years, and there is no better response to it than surrender.
3. Violator (Dodo Dayao)
Violator has the look and feel of a first or last film, something that has been on the mind for a long time, incubated, thought and rethought until it starts to take shape and bleed. This is clear with the calculated, precise, and confident way it unfolds, the attention to details, and the tendency to fill the story with references to several influences and ideas that intensify its apocalyptic premise. It proceeds with both eagerness and caution, conforming to the genre and challenging it at the same time, making it more specific while keeping the indispensable stereotypes.
An interesting claim is that everyone is a supporting character: the relationships created between Joel Lamangan, Victor Neri, Andy Bais, Timothy Mabalot, Anthony Falcon, RK Bagatsing, and Cesar Montano do not depend on each other. No one is leading anyone. Another is that everything is a reminder of anomaly: the cult leader appearing in plain sight, the two friends on the hill, the maddening sound of rain, the dead birds falling from the sky, the photo eaten and swallowed, the male ego trying to be stronger than the end of the world, the devil fucking up. The climax is an attempt at finding a center, putting together these elements in one impressive technical feat, a bunch of men pulling actual and abstract triggers, letting the audience remember those sketches in the first half and how they are more frightening in hindsight.
On many occasions, one can feel the critic in Dodo Dayao guiding and berating him, making decisions for him, but there is also the visual artist awfully concerned with mood, and the result is a picture that overwhelms in the first viewing and illuminates in the second, fully accomplished in both instances.
2. That Thing Called Tadhana (Antoinette Jadaone)
For some people, Anthony is too good to be true, a dreamboat, a stranger too kind to exist. In fiction and real life, good intentions are often regarded with doubt, and having misgivings is reasonable, a completely human trait, except it tends to overlook the fact that some people would actually choose to err in this direction, to make wrong decisions at the right time. Someone who would bear listening to a woman terribly immersed in her heartaches and accompany her all the way to Baguio and Sagada, at one point finding himself falling for her, is hardly convincing: there has to be a catch. But That Thing Called Tadhana has none—Anthony just wants to be with Mace, hoping to make her feel better, and she, on the other hand, would appreciate a sponge, a willing companion who can endure her mood swings. Kindness, after all, can be free and genuine.
In every script, Antoinette Jadaone makes it a point to find a hook, like a composer whose main objective is to create something that sticks, something that pokes at the softness of her viewers and mesmerizes them. She revels in witty dialogues, exchanges that tread quickly between serious and humorous, and alludes to her own influences. The charm of Tadhana is that it doesn’t feel too crowded—John Lloyd Cruz, One More Chance, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?,” Don’t Give Up On Us, BenCab, Session Road, Café by the Ruins, strawberry taho, shooting stars, lost luggage, bungee jumping, Up Dharma Down—all these staples of romantic fancy and pop culture references are laid down gently and leave a mild but definite impression. Jadaone gets away with them because they seldom feel like accessories: they breathe the same air as her characters.
But all this won’t have been possible without the remarkable performance of Angelica Panganiban, she who plays Mace with weight, vulnerability, and vividness, not only persuasive and endearing but also annoying and inconsiderate, a woman who deserves a slap in the face and a hug after it. It’s interesting that JM de Guzman is chosen for the role: not very handsome, not very popular, and not very striking: he complements her to the point of weakening his own character (that Anthony almost becomes a manic pixie dream guy).
2014 has been a fruitful year for Jadaone: three features with commercial releases (Beauty in a Bottle; Relaks, It’s Just Pag-Ibig; and Tadhana), a prizewinning short (“Ang Nanay kong Noisy”), a Palanca win for screenplay, a screenwriting credit and award for English Only, Please, an invitation to Berlinale—and clearly if the prize of good work is more work, the prospect of having her around for a long time is rather reassuring.
1. Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (Lav Diaz)
As recent as three or four years ago, it would have been ridiculous to suggest, or even entertain the idea, that Lav Diaz can fill a theater, in Manila or anywhere else in the world. Just connecting his name with a jampacked screening feels absurd, especially with how his filmmaking has remained stubborn over the years, his ideas always looking for doors and windows to enter and extending as far as space and silence permit, as though he had long been onto something and only a few people could see it. For more than a decade, it appears as though it became a matter of who will give up first: he who continues to tell stories that contain the bleak fates of his people, or his small but growing number of viewers who have come to terms with his demands and by now have the sense to decide whether he’s a hack or not.
Winning the grand prize in Locarno has surely changed things, leading to arrangements that will allow his body of work to be seen by those interested in it, madness as it may seem, for now, especially after the successful runs of Norte across the country, the concern is no longer about having audiences but about finding venues and putting schedules in order to accommodate them. Diaz has sculpted time himself: he has convinced enough people to recognize that cinematic time is hardly about length but depth, not so much about stretching it but letting it absorb as many fine points as possible. Between Diaz and his viewers, time is the main currency, a requirement and an agreement, the protagonist and the villain, something he has always made clear ever since. There is this tired and trite debate that insists on separating art from entertainment, but how can someone sit through a black-and-white five-hour movie, trying as much as possible to refuse the need of going to the bathroom, without admitting that there is actually a spell of enjoyment at work? That beyond the grayness and stillness there are in fact lives raring to come out and one is curious to see them?
The Film Development Council of the Philippines, acknowledging its win as the highest honor given to Philippine cinema, has decided to organize a free screening of Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon, interestingly, on September 21, exactly 42 years since Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation 1081, which placed the entire country under martial law. This historical moment figures prominently in the film in a horrifying sequence, the sound of Marcos’s voice having located the eye of the nightmare. Despite the note at the beginning, a hopeful viewer tries to comfort himself by thinking that everything is fiction; but now, in a clear declaration of fascist intent, he couldn’t deny the certainty of every word that has come to define countless pasts and futures. The reaction of the soldiers makes it all the more unsettling and sickening.
There is so much to say and argue about the sorrow, suffering, and violence depicted in Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon. It is far from perfect—there are numerous instances when the technique reveals indulgence and tests one’s patience, moments when it feels wrong to wait this long—but Diaz, with his gift as a storyteller, has a means of making the viewers understand why this thorough and expansive depiction is crucial, why this is the only way for him to let them feel the indescribable regret of seeing a town and its people disappear off the face of the earth, with almost no one remembering them, why some narratives can survive without ends, and why the appeal of great films is their flawed nature. An applause ends the screening, the theater still packed with people, and nothing from any movie released this year has ever come close to this instant of absolute joy.