Don’t Believe Me Just Watch: Top Filipino Films of 2015 January 2, 2016Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Hollywood, MMFF, Noypi, QCinema, Sinag Maynila, Yearender.
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.
Inching close: Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal and a Whore (Khavn dela Cruz), Hamog (Ralston Jover), Taklub (Brillante Mendoza), Tandem (King Palisoc), The Crescent Rising (Sheron Dayoc)
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)