Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2016 (Part 3) August 16, 2016Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Festival, Noypi.
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.