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Dispatches from ToFarm Film Festival (Part 2) July 20, 2017

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, ToFarm.


HIGH TIDE (Tara Illenberger)

High Tide seems to be the only film from the lineup that shows the least struggle in submitting to the festival’s thematic requirement. The story is rooted in the place, not made to exist for it, and the direction, though faulty at times, feels just adequate if one considers it to be a children’s tale. In fact, one could even say that the best audience for it is kids — its protagonists are a group of friends, two girls and one boy, whose journey provides the film its conflicts and climax.

On one hand, this indicates that it is meant to be understood plainly on a surface level, that it doesn’t prioritize refinement for the sake of complexity or style. It does not shy away from doing maudlin flashbacks, or extending its jokes, or violating narrative continuities, as long as what is being presented onscreen is easily comprehensible. One can argue that this is abridging or simplifying what is otherwise an intricate subject matter, but creating an art specific to young ones is vastly underrated and admirable. The key aspect of the film is how the three children take on life’s challenges (a mother in hospital, the memory of a dead father, getting out of an island safely) and overcome them.

On the other, it means that the film is very much reachable, and what it lacks in sophistication it exceeds in charm and candidness. Although its smallness hinders what could have been a stronger narrative and statement, it also allows it to share distinct nuances that its limitation offers (particularly the effects of climate change on people in remote communities and the importance of educating them on it). For a festival driven by advocacy, High Tide fits in nicely because it knows how to use environmental concerns not as mere accessories to its story but as an important part of its world, and such attitude is something that many of the other entries do not have.


SINANDOMENG (Byron Bryant)

One might crack up to find out that Sinandomeng isn’t exactly about the rice variety most Filipinos are familiar with — it does not even show the rice being planted or harvested — but the combination of the names of its two characters, Sinang and Domeng. Yes, facts only. Recently widowed, Sinang takes over the farming of a small patch of land inherited from her father, Domeng, who is confined to a wheelchair. The film is heavy on heroics, especially as Sinang refuses to sell her part of the farm to real estate developers, and as she assumes the role of being the head of her family. The narrative goes in several directions: the argument between sisters about whether to sell the land out of practical reasons or to keep what their father has given them, the noticeable lack of men in the community doing farming, the old-fashioned act of sacrificing blindly, the sadness of old age, the beauty of kundiman — but nothing really holds up. Nothing takes the film out of its colorless depiction. Worse, its idea of humor is to include a gay character as comic relief, and its idea of romance is to have a man hit on Sinang as soon as her husband dies. It could definitely use some modicum of sensitivity to help it deepen its characterization, or perhaps some better writing to give its story more flesh.


KAMUNGGAI (Vic Acedillo, Jr.)

It’s hard to be overly critical of films with a sincere intent to tell a personal story, especially when it’s one that hardly gets seen on the big screen because it’s too small or specific to find a wider audience. Appreciating them always starts with taking the time to see them. One may raise the matter of qualifying “sincerity” — but a discerning mind with enough moviegoing experience can generally recognize truthfulness in film, some kind of emotional authenticity that rises over (or despite) the obvious flaws of filmmaking. And while it’s true that the function of cinema isn’t only aesthetic, that it doesn’t boil down to merely determining whether a work is good or bad, it won’t hurt to take into account that the long process of honing one’s aesthetics plays a significant part in effective storytelling, and thereby making effective films.

Kamunggai belongs to this “cinema of intent.” It carries the spirit of what the festival promotes: the significance of uplifting local farmers and other stewards of nature, the belief in “planting the seeds of change,” however trite it sounds. At the center of the film is the touching story of an old man who lives alone, his everyday activities revolving around his modest vegetable garden. This monotony is broken whenever his neighbors take advantage of his generosity, and when his niece returns and unceremoniously leaves him her son. It works like a documentary showing his big and little victories and defeats, his efforts to take each day one step at a time.

This is all right as a premise, but as it wears on Kamunggai does not appear to be aware of how a film should work. It lacks a structure and design that would make its observations convey a complete thought, an adhesive that would connect the scenes logically and eloquently and allow them to flow and not just make them a collection of stray visuals. It is impaired by its inability to use transitions, not only between sequences and plot points but also between ideas and emotions. There is so much space in the film left unfilled, so much narrative opportunities left undeveloped, that it’s perplexing that this insistence on bare ordinariness — one that is content only with intent — is considered sufficient as foundation. Looking at its poster (a boy on the other side of the fence raising his hand, a malunggay plant on a shoe floating in the foreground, and the line “habang may gulay, may pag-asa” adding to its well-meaning yet also naive tone) already speaks a lot of how the thought of equating good intentions with good work is a major fallacy. It’s sad to put the film down, but it’s sadder to be dishonest about it.



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