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Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2017 (Part 3) September 8, 2017

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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nabubulok

NABUBULOK (Sonny Calvento)

Nabubulok works best when it is depicting its small provincial setting and emphasizing the people’s natural tendency to gossip, their keen investment in the lives of others, rooted in a family’s apprehension when one of its kin goes missing. This portrait of a neighborhood appearing to move in oneness can be familiar to those who have lived in one, where every little thing gets noticed and exaggerated, where it’s impossible to keep a secret and truth is pursued through relentless idle talk. The film, however, touches only on this momentarily and does not go any further, preferring instead to deliver suspense and, towards the end, social commentary.

It also works slightly as a mystery, in which clues are scattered throughout the story and some of which succeed in underscoring the ambiguity, in creating puzzles within puzzles, in substantiating the stifling darkness and shaky camera movements. But the film also leaves this hook the way it leaves its observation of the community: It solves the mystery quickly, for it seems to be so averse to tightness — as seen in the repetitive dialogue, uncreative staging of scenes, and confusing character development — that when the text in the ending comes out, when those words pronouncing the characters’ futures are revealed, one logical response is to laugh out loud despite the seriousness of it all. Such gesture, well intentioned may it be, comes across like a joke, a prank that proudly bares the film’s failures, its inability to tie up the loose ends after allowing the narrative to go in so many directions. It gets lost in its own maze, and when it arrives at the exit, it decides to do the lousiest thing: to prophesize.

Contrary to the claim of the GMA head writer Suzette Doctolero in a Facebook post calling it ugly and rotten — a bad example of someone in the industry pitting one film against another, displaying the kind of self-importance that imposes one’s taste on a general audience instead of encouraging them to see the film and judge it on their own — Nabubulok offers something worth seeing: a palette consisting of varying tones and textures, a love story masquerading as a crime story, an alarming reminder of the times. Although it may not be satisfying as a whole — as some of its actors tend to go over the top and shatter its authenticity (JC Santos, Gina Alajar) — the film’s currency and identifiable political context bring about relevant discussions on present-day social issues that can make up for the coherence, and steadiness, it lacks.

guro

ANG GURO KONG ‘DI MARUNONG MAGBASA (Perry Escaño)

If it’s true that writing about bad movies is bad for the skin, then it’s only wise to keep this short. If the faults of Ang Guro Kong ‘Di Marunong Magbasa were purely technical — cinematic language, lighting, narrative design, casting, acting, editing, sound, music, costume, or all of these combined — there could be a place in one’s heart for forgiveness. One can simply shrug it off and chalk up the misfortune of seeing it to experience. An enlightened viewer is capable of understanding life’s many challenges that would allow this poor thing to happen. But the film has far bigger problems than technical: It supposes an audience that would be so dumb to accept its oversimplification of concepts — war and peace, youth and maturity, rebellion and patriotism, politics and religion, kindness and cruelty, life and death, etc. — just because it pursues the noble act of showing the significance of education. It is so blinded and crippled by its intent that it ends up not only being terrible and irresponsible — showing farmers, rebels, Muslims, and Mindanaoans in a bad light, and drowning them in stereotypes with characters acting very stupidly — but also offensive and disturbing, particularly with how it portrays kids holding guns and supporting the war, torturing people and killing them. There is no point of raising subjectivity here, there is no excuse that can defend its wrongness. Seeing that the film, like its titular character, is incapable of grasping accountability, what more can be expected of its filmmaking? In what world is this perspective acceptable? It’s a disservice to writing to even grant an analysis, but this guidance must be given: Guro is a dangerous film that promotes dangerous ideas, and it’s every wise man’s obligation to make its beguiling atrocity known to the best of his ability.

hilom

SHORTS B (Various)

Shorts B does not live up to the fullness of Shorts A, and it owes both to the quality of the individual films and to their effect as a whole that sitting through it feels a bit of a chore. It’s disjointed, uneven, and underwhelming, incapable of sustaining strong interest but offering occasional pockets of surprise and bursts of brilliance. Its strength is its variety, in the richness of the stories and how they are told, in unexpected moments of boldness and restraint. The ambition is there, but is not always fully realized.

The best of this set by far is “Hilom” by Paul Patindol. It starts rather conventionally with the establishment of its characters and location: twin brothers on a picturesque island in Samar, the seeming quietness of their relationship echoing the seeming quietness of their surroundings. But in these first few minutes — with the sound of the wind, the wave of soft music, and the hushed spaces of their intimacy — the emotional grip is already strong, and one can feel the imminence of something about to burst, or something about to be tainted. When this turning point happens, when the story becomes too fragile and delicate that one fears a misstep would shatter it, the film manages to carry it through beautifully, gently, and thoughtfully, without needing sweet words or grand gestures but simply an agreement of sensations.

“Juana and the Sacred Shores” by Antonne Santiago is also set near the waters, but its emphasis is on form. It uses dance to express its female character’s freedom, curiosity, longing, and subjugation, relying on choreography to put forward symbolisms through which the story is told. It’s a very mannered film, one that can be too inscrutable and opaque at times that its being overly calculated and conceptual can be tiresome. Meanwhile, “Maria” by JP Habac is driven by its strong subject: a household full of children, at the center of which is their mother who is pregnant with her twenty-second child. In their world, humor and drama are the same, and they suffer together and alone. The use of bright and flashy colors looks deliberate, and this overemphasis on the production design draws too much attention to itself. “Maria” is able to present the multifaceted issues of poverty, and this awareness brings to light important concerns, but the core of the film seems underdeveloped and, as far as effect is concerned, feels incomplete.

The expectations for “Nakaw” by Arvin Belarmino and Noel Escondo after its participation in the Short Film Corner in Cannes and recent win in Urian are high, and sadly it only half-delivers. What it’s trying to say about the cycle of violence through echelons of theft are made loud and clear, and in seven brisk minutes it manages to convey the frightening fleetingness of life, showing a person alive in one minute and dead in the next. This is admittedly striking. However, considering that the crudeness of its method is intentional, a quality that also serves as its reason for being, this one-take performance is impeded by subpar execution, by the glaring artificiality of its form that ruins what would have been a powerful piece against the merciless murder of the poor.

Like “Nakaw,” “Nakauwi Na” by Marvin Cabangunay and Jaynus Barbee Olaivar confronts the alarming rise of state-sponsored killings, and the best thing about it is that these young filmmakers are aware of this terrible problem and standing against it. The film is marred by the clichés of student work: tiring flashbacks, heavy use of music, excessive drama, and lack of technical sophistication. It is buoyed by its compassionate heart, its belief in the cathartic effect of sentimentality, but it is also what makes it trite and drowns it. Meanwhile, “Bawod” by TM Malones is set up interestingly — a girl and her grandpa live together in a remote town, and she raises her juvenile frustrations about his being overprotective, while he makes a living for them, to help send her to school, through bamboo farming. But the film decides to add strange details — Is someone following her? What is she seeing? Whose corpse is that? What is that fire at the end? — and the ambiguity doesn’t quite translate into effective storytelling.

respeto

RESPETO (Treb Monteras)

One will look back on this year’s Cinemalaya five, ten, or fifteen years from now and remember, with a degree of fondness reserved only for inclusive experiences, the gleam on people’s faces after the screening of Respeto, the buzzing noise as they walk towards the exit and exchange thoughts, the strong energy that bounces across the theater revealing not only the immediate impact of the film but also the reason for eliciting such response. One can’t just walk away from the film without acknowledging, even internally, the scale of ambition felt in its entirety. Such hugeness of feeling is warranted: It creates a world that connects to bigger worlds both from the past and present, and in doing so also imagines a future filled with more doubts than certainties, with far more worrying questions than reassuring answers. And with the timeliness, the relevance of its issues, the gnawing pain coming from the mental and emotional proximity of the film to the here and now, how can one with a strong sense of social awareness and responsibility not be shaken? How can one merely suspend disbelief?

Respeto banks on the truth of its sentiments, and the major truth of 2017 in the age of Duterte, in the age of fake news and dwindling morality, is that people are getting killed — over 13,000 of them and counting — with human lives, many of them coming from the poorest sector, being used as targets and collateral damage of the state-sponsored war on drugs. It is no longer survival of the fittest; it is mainly survival. Respeto provides a clear picture of this time, a context that is unmistakably present-day, and sets its story in a community where Filipino hiphop culture thrives and its lead character, Hendrix, dreams of making it in the scene. The use of microcosm is obvious but necessary. It is a place of resistance: against government systems aiming to displace people, against social conditions that force young ones to become shabu couriers and put their lives in danger, against the cruelties of a milieu that enables harsh competition, against the terrible realities of being born poor and lacking the opportunities to succeed.

Admittedly, Respeto works more convincingly if one looks at the “bigger” pieces of its story. The linking of Marcos and Duterte is a striking feat, a vital political gesture for which the film will rightly be remembered, especially in light of having a co-writer who is a known Duterte supporter. The rap battles are a delight to watch, and there is so much nuance in them that speaks critically of the depth and superficiality of being Filipino, the contradictions and paradoxes attached to being one. Doc, played by the great Dido de la Paz, is a character of lasting relevance, one whose passion for poetry, faith in humanity, and strength to live embody the manner and mindset of the film, one who can be quietly arresting at one point and gracefully bursting with rage at the next. It’s easy to understand the glowing reviews: The film does not rest on intent alone; it has the balls to show the cycle of violence and point at the very institutions that are at fault for the continuing decay of moral scruples in Philippine society, while also honoring the richness and dignity of people whose main struggle every day is to find food to eat and live their lives safely.

These merits, however, must be weighed alongside some aspects of Respeto that are not exactly satisfactory. One of which is the way Hendrix is written and developed. To put it bluntly, it is hard to root for him. Or yet: He is not a character to root for, after all. Which is fine in a general sense, except that the film underscores his journey, humanizing him from being a lowly shabu courier to a performer with a purpose, one who tries to do what is right despite his difficult situation. Hendrix’s characterization isn’t particularly on point, and a scene that marks him is when he allows the rape of a woman to happen, a woman he is attracted to, a woman he is supposed to fight for as far as rules of romance are concerned. But he only stands there and lets it happen. And the film lets him let it, too, which is not a matter of being realistic (yes, it can happen) but of being right (because in this case, doing what’s right supersedes whatever the effect of portraying reality is). This could also explain why the attempt at a poetic ending isn’t as impressive as intended. In the film’s context, Hendrix’s killing does not feel earned — not that all killings have to be earned to be acceptable, but killings in cinema are subject to writing design, to technical execution, to be effective — and the flimsiness of his characterization impedes the achievement of catharsis.

If there is one thing that Respeto nails with utter believability, it is the fact that making art in a time of crisis is not the solution, that art is powerless in the face of thousands of dead people. But at the same time it also asserts that it is important to make art nevertheless, if only to make the viewers realize that taking action is needed — going to the streets to protest, refusing to yield to all machineries of deceits and dishonesties, avoiding neutrality in words and in deed, recognizing one’s privilege and helping the marginalized fight systemic oppression — if only to make them see the injustice and do something about it in their own way. Good art does not spoon-feed ideas, but enables reflection on one’s surroundings. Respeto must be seen for its contribution to the discussion, for its aesthetic merits and political courage, and for what it portrays: a society that fights back. With the brutal deaths of Kian delos Santos, 17, Carl Arnaiz, 19, and Reynaldo de Guzman, 14 — all of whom could have been Hendrix, young and hopeful, driven by modest dreams and accepting of life’s terrible challenges at an early age, kids who plead for their lives but are tortured heartlessly, shot dead, stabbed 30 times, denied of their right to live by the very institution that should serve and protect them, with bullets in their bodies and faces covered in tape, buried with immeasurable grief by their parents — one hopes that it is still not too late to do something about this country’s fate.

*

Post-script: It is with a heavy heart that I say good-bye: Lilok Pelikula is now signing off. Thank you to everyone who has visited this site over the past ten years. It has been a fine time (for me, at least), and I will miss it and the few readers who have made this space, now littered with cobwebs, meaningful. There’s a much bigger battle outside, and let’s do our best to defeat the monsters. I’ll be around xoxo

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