Smaller and Smaller Circles: Sinag Maynila 2015 March 30, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, Sinag Maynila.
Sinag Maynila is the brainchild of Solar Entertainment CEO Wilson Tieng and director Brillante Mendoza, a partnership that aims to bridge the financial and creative aspects of filmmaking, something that most grant-giving bodies aim to do.
With the name of the city in the festival name, it is interesting that only one of the entries is purportedly set in Manila (Ninja Party in an exclusive all-girls school). Bambanti is shot in Isabela, Balut Country mostly in Candaba, Pampanga, Imbisibol in Fukuoka, Japan, and Swap supposedly in Cebu. Their respective filmmakers also hail from different parts of the country, each having distinct roots.
Sinag Maynila 2015 succeeds at offering a diverse collection of stories, and the resulting films also offer diverse qualities.
BAMBANTI (Zig Dulay)
Glowing reviews of Bambanti overemphasize the smallness and simplicity of the film, as though these characteristics were enough to consider it worth raving, but hardly mentioned in them is its obviousness, how the smallness and simplicity are labored to the point of dullness. There is a handful of good things working for it — beautiful rural sceneries that make city people melt in superficial longing, skilled actors who can turn scenes into moments, and a quietness that can easily be mistaken for volume — but the material loses its life as it unfolds and its skin is shed, leading to a resolution that is not only clear and explicit but also plain and unchallenging. A watch gone missing is conveniently used to expose social ills and injustice — this representation is so literal it is ridiculous to regard the turn of events as symbolic. There is no point inflating its virtues: it is a small film that also achieves something small, and the ending, which shows the merry festivities of the town watched by its people, looks and feels like a usual tourism advert, touching but forgettable, pretty but merely passing.
BALUT COUNTRY (Paul Sta. Ana)
Sitting through Balut Country and at one point feeling that it has nothing more to share but platitudes and sentimentality, one wonders why such a harmless film is made, and why, in a world full of pleasant possibilities, an audience must endure eating bland pudding instead of something nourishing. And to think that the subject is balut, a distinctly Filipino food item often offered to foreigners for enjoyment, to see how they will react after seeing the prematurely formed chick inside the egg, the film does not make any effort to be interesting, or even funny. The premise is built only on a decision to be made — will he sell the land or not? — and for more than an hour the story feels obliged to tour the audience around town, in certain places where mundane conversations can be made and the characters can reflect on wasting time. No, it is neither thoughtful nor contemplative — it is simply self-absorbed and unaware of what insight is. Every film can be appreciated for the nature of its subject and the intricate social structure on which it instinctively perches. Balut Country has a rich context to boast, but its idea of telling a story is idling the time away in listlessness.
NINJA PARTY (Jim Libiran)
To be fair, Ninja Party is neither gross nor pointless. It takes on a provocative subject and even more provocative viewpoints, which explains the thread of viewer reactions between appreciation and disdain. This insistence to provoke seems to be its point, for it presents this group of young female students from a strictly Catholic school and bares only their rebelliousness, particularly the temptations that surround them and the difficulties of having hormones controlling their decisions.
Sure, spinning a dildo instead of a bottle is a game that can happen in real life, or showing nipples to each other is some girls’ idea of having fun, or giving head in the car should not be encouraged but it cannot be helped when the itch comes — but these scenes, among others that also show teenage girls in compromising situations, hardly feel connected with a bigger picture or statement. Ninja Party only scratches the surface, and it doesn’t have anything that would at least substantiate the constant feeling of discomfort, or anything that goes beyond the guise of using socioeconomic differences (that overused justification for films about spoiled youth) as an argument for its lack of maturity. Lysistrata may even provide a relevant reference and context, but the film itself has no strong background and dynamics to let the inclusion of this famous play hold water.
When those girls start to act dirty and give the boys some good time, the film presents consequences for them and not for the latter. And that seems to be okay because the world has worked that way for centuries. Having depth, whether explicit or implicit, is not its priority, and this lack of perceptiveness leads only to punctuate the upholding of male entitlement, both in the film and the filmmaking, and the aftertaste is nasty as fuck.
SWAP (Remton Siega Zuasola)
Swap iterates the one-take style of its predecessors To Siomai Love and Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, only this time the film is split into sequences of varying locations and times, posing a much difficult challenge despite the control offered by a studio setup. Unlike the two films, whose outdoor surroundings contribute to the dynamics of the technique and make room for fascinating blinks of spontaneity, Swap has to put up one set after another as the camera rolls. Success depends heavily on timing, and this need for a calculated execution is a magnet for mishaps.
Truth be told, among the films in the festival, Swap is the most likely to achieve greatness — it has the best concept, the most daring spirit, and the most personal story. It is an all-or-nothing risk, and while watching it, one feels like cheering for it, egging it on until it reaches the finish line in one piece. But then a few minutes into the film, a number of things are already amiss. The production values are wanting. Some dialogue does not help the story and only creates unnecessary nuisance. The acting from its competent cast is strained. The transitions — those crucial connecting points that are supposed to make marvelous impressions — are often too conspicuous. These disturbances ruin the flow and inhibit suspension of disbelief, letting the audience notice the cracks and overlook a couple of interesting treatments (the split screen, the radio program, the many attempts at fluidity). Little slugs turn up one by one, from the first sequence to the last, and they eat away the foundation and collapse the film’s great ambition entirely and enormously.
And this is a painful admission for what could have been an important work. Like Soap Opera, Swap is brimming with ideas — ideas that are not fully realized, ideas that come out uninspired due to obvious constraints, and ideas that fall short and end up on the floor. But it is something that can also be attributed to weariness. The whole film is hampered by this overall feeling of fatigue, and even with a clever concept that manages to reflect on the political turmoil surrounding the family drama, sadly Swap limps until the very end.
IMBISIBOL (Lawrence Fajardo)
Imbisibol is set in Fukuoka, Japan, amid the bleak landscape of snow and news of illegal immigrants being arrested and deported, but the struggle of its main characters, some of whom are undocumented Filipino workers, is very close to home. It starts at a point when something is already happening: a Japanese husband tells his Filipino wife to let go of their apartment tenants because of their status. She refuses: she simply cannot do it. Only one of these tenants is an important character in the film — a young father working at a lumber company and raising the ire of a colleague — and he is introduced almost halfway through it, the peak of his conflict providing the climax and tying its beginning and end.
The other characters — an elderly gentleman juggling between his two jobs and preparations for his friend’s birthday; a has-been host and entertainer having a hard time attracting new clients and maintaining old ones; and other Filipinos connected with them — make up the bulk, and it is through the gentle and precise examination of their troubles does the narrative find a sturdy emotional core. The overlap of their stories tightens the relationships, and not only the unseen and unheard are emphasized, but also the unmentioned. Clearly, much of the film’s power comes from an enterprising use of structure — with all the splashes and smudges of glaze and the visible and vanishing flashes of sorrow — and the risk it takes in leaving the stories open, without any assurance of returning to them, indicates the trust in the capacity of the material (originally a play staged two years ago) to hold every detail it has set free.
Matching the strength of the story and screenplay is the scrupulous attention given to making it cinematic. The breathtaking views of the city at wintertime complement the hovering sadness and intensify it, but it is done in such a way that the immensity never feels overwhelming. There is a certain lightness to it, in fact, especially with how the elements frame the characters and how the shots are made stationary most of the time. The images are not just beautiful — they are bursting with meaning and consequence — and this technical feat deserves as much recognition as everything else in the film.
With a narrative that sprawls across the many aspects of the overseas Filipino experience, illuminating the mistaken assumptions and misunderstandings of greener pastures and hero worship, Imbisibol is not without its faults, the most glaring of which is the handling of crucial scenes in the climax. But these imperfections only make it all the more moving, highlighting the heartbreak and helplessness, for the struggle will always be there, and whichever time and place they are set, these stories will remain as an identity that no prosperity and claims of progress can erase.