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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

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

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

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.

Expressway2

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

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.

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