Sinag Maynila 2016: A Minority Report May 8, 2016Posted 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. (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 (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 (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.
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 (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.
CineFilipino 2016 (Part 1) March 28, 2016Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, CineFilipino, Noypi.
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A LOTTO LIKE LOVE (Carla Baful)
It’s hard to say good things about A Lotto Like Love — the fact that it got made is quite a feat in itself, but even admitting that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Right at the onset, with the use of loud and flashy music and preference for excessive delivery, it’s clear it aims for easy recognition of its efforts. It is concerned only with the surface, with how the audience will get the jokes and how the story will reach the end, but it is not stuffed with matter for serious thought, unaware that good comedies are also mental, shrewd and sensible in their silliness. The premise of finding a missing lottery ticket dates back to Rene Clair’s 1931 classic Le Million, or even farther with the play on which it is based, which means the selling point is hardly the concept but the way its interest is sustained, how the complications making up the search can offer moments of delight and frustration, how the characters can become closer to the audience after such ordeal. But instead of moving in this direction, A Lotto Like Love deliberately goes backward and insists on ridiculous twists and turns, terrible sense of humor, and strained romance. It is brimming with confidence but for the wrong reasons, satisfied only with the possibilities of laughter, and not with the actual fun. Somehow its biggest offense is making the leads awfully stupid: seeing Isabella de Leon and Martin Escudero in roles that make them bad actors is saddening, especially since these two have delivered in the past. It doesn’t get better, and one can merely look forward to heaving a sigh of relief when it ends.
STAR NA SI VAN DAMME STALLONE (Randolph Longjas)
There is virtue in how Star na si Van Damme Stallone succeeds at being a touching document of a person with Down syndrome, depicting not only his life as soon as his disorder is known but also the people around him coming to terms with it, particularly his mother whose unconditional devotion to him provides the film its beating heart. Longjas is able to deliver the needed restraint, the mix of empathy and sensitivity the material deserves, hopeful but realistic, sad but self-assured, without any hint of underestimating or pandering to his subject. However, what’s glaring is the film does nothing else. Its structure, divided into parts showing Van Van growing up and his mother looking out for him all the time, draws on moments that would emphasize the responses of characters to his situation; and while that is lifelike and reasonable, there is discomfort in the decision not to go further or deeper. There are spaces waiting to be filled, opportunities for possible explorations, yet the film lingers in what is known and knowable, and seems to be content only with eliciting the warmth and tenderness expected from it.
ANG TULAY NG SAN SEBASTIAN (Alvin Yapan)
Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian is riddled with several problems, the most obvious of which is the cheaply designed CGI and the sloppiness of its day-for-night effect. Of course, to some people, seeing those lapses has worked to its advantage: they have contributed to the strangeness of experience, to the laughable thrill, to the anything-goes mindfuckery. But who are they kidding? Something is clearly amiss with the direction, and there’s no denying those gaffes owe more to poor artistic decisions than deliberate choices. Alvin Yapan’s films, from Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe to An Kubo sa Kawayanan, have exciting premises — his literary background enriches what could have been a stale retelling of ordinary stories, making his voice unique in this regard — but for some reason, something happens when the words find their visuals, and when the world written on paper moves into the motion picture. In Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian, clearly, the aim is to produce horror, and sometime before the two leads realize their misfortune, in that quick moment when anyone in the audience could be in their place, there may be one or two sequences of pure fright. But the rest, with varying nuances of bad dialogue and acting, is comedy: a comedy of errors. So it goes.
BUHAY HABANGBUHAY (Paolo Herras)
For a work that goes to great lengths to be quiet and subdued, Buhay Habangbuhay happens to be a torture to sit through. It is fully committed to telling a story of souls that stay on earth, and its main character, played with hilarious seriousness by Iza Calzado, hangs around to observe her husband and see him have another family after her death. Quite a selfless act, really, and there seems to be a point to make about unconditional love, but nothing in its showy visual effects and mediocre writing is able to create any worthy impression. Paolo Herras seems to be too in love with the material that he doesn’t notice that it weighs so little, and no matter how the shots look polished and sophisticated, a story wrapped in platitudes and served with parsley cannot manage to go far.
SAKALING HINDI MAKARATING (Ice Idanan)
Depictions of youth in film have always attracted interest. And youth, by all means, is less about age than spirit, the drive to pursue a dream long ignored, or the urge to go on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and be ready, with eyes closed, for the consequences. That fuck-it attitude. That irrepressible impulse. That burning desire to take a leap. Such recklessness is easily validated by the feeling — always comforted by the thought that it’s the journey and never the destination — and it is in showing these larger-than-life risks being taken that these depictions leave a lasting effect: they do not aim for the heart; they aim for the heartstrings. Sakaling Hindi Makarating has a lot of elements to make the audience feel warm and fuzzy: snail mail, painted postcards, traveling alone, meeting new people, being in remote places, realizing the beauty of being away, of being in love with the pursuit and being emboldened by freedom, feeling the tap of fate on the shoulders. All of these speak to many people, regardless of age, and they project this image to aspire for — the promise of self-discovery after it. But in all its good intentions and pleasant quirks, Sakaling Hindi Makarating supposes an audience that would overlook its big and small missteps, that viewers would be forgiving if they see them, that it’s all about the feeling. It plays with and overplays romantic notions, but some holes in its logic (the postmark; the uncertainty of the sender, thinking it could be the ex, yet the couple has been together for more than 10 years; the exchanges between her and her new friend) make it hard to suspend disbelief. Undoubtedly, part of its charm rests on the idea of fleetingness, on chances and randomness, the way things come and go, the way people accept things for what they are, the way some decisions are not fully controlled. But for the most part the film simply wants the audience to fall for it, to believe in it regardless, to forgive it and love it at the same time. It always follows its heart, and sadly, as everyone knows, the heart is not always right.
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.
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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)
Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 3) November 23, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Noypi.
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RAMS (Grímur Hákonarson)
A film set in Iceland, specifically in a secluded valley where the lives and interaction of town folk depend so much on their sheep, is bound to be cold, through and through. Yet the feat of Rams is its seeping warmth, which comes from the way it examines the relationship of two brothers estranged for forty years despite their physical proximity, and how they are brought together by the purge of their flock and the bleak prospect of carrying on without them. This premise is simple and approachable, but director Grímur Hákonarson, in a riveting exhibit of gentleness, is able to elevate the depiction of deep-seated hostility into a scale and range of biblical resonance, evoking grand and arresting emotions out of desolation. Rams is wrapped by layers of obvious and faint details, and the unwrapping, until the very end, can be breathtaking in its quietness.
MGA REBELDENG MAY KASO (Raymond Red)
There is something noble about the nostalgia evoked by Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso, in which Raymond Red depicts one fateful day in September 1986 leading to the closing night of the 1st Independent Film and Video Festival: a defining moment when Philippine cinema’s so-called band of outsiders asserted the legitimacy of the alternative movement, further advancing their ideals and challenging the reign of mainstream paradigms. Red’s personal involvement in this occasion provides the voice of the film, as he attempts to relive the experience and impart it to present-day viewers, evidently correlating the struggle between then and now. He brings in key people, most notable of whom is Nick Deocampo as the group’s strong-willed mentor, and places them in the lingering afterglow of the People Power revolution that deposed decades of dictatorship. The many instances of uncanny parallelism are not forced: that’s what makes it worthy of recollection.
But nostalgia, when used as a groundwork for a story, cannot live on memories and good intentions alone, and what is missing in Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso is energy — the palpable enthusiasm that can cross the screen and rub on the audience, such vigor and urgency that can affect audiences regardless of age and disposition — and this lack of spunk, sadly, sinks what could have been a sound statement on an industry always wrestling with demons, mostly of its own. Red may have made a faithful account of the event and its sentiment, revealing through conversations the preoccupations and ambitions of these struggling filmmakers, but he fails to make them feel important: he is unable to share the feeling and manages only to tell what happened, not why the audience should know or care. The film makes a strong case for the importance of pursuing individual vision — and that’s the most laudable thing — but even personal work, when too confined in its space, can lose its way and meaning once taken out and set free.
FRENZY (Emin Alper)
Frenzy, like Rams, is about two brothers, but instead of freezing cold they find themselves in the heat of Turkey’s political meltdown, with terrorist attacks in Istanbul and the police’s efforts to track down armed groups. Its strength lies in being a convincing document of unrest, in capturing through specific details and metaphors the paranoia of people made helpless by the situation. From the beginning it is quite clear that it refuses to be curbed by genre conventions, avoiding well-defined characterizations and leaning instead toward ambiguous expositions. But the effort to psychologize pulls the film down, mostly because it confuses things without latching on a stronger, wider ground other than its apparent message, and the punch it intends to seal the story lands only as a poke.
DAHLING NICK (Sari Dalena)
Clocking at over three hours, Dahling Nick is an extensive and unsubtle study of Nick Joaquin elaborated through interviews with National Artists F. Sionil Jose and Bienvenido Lumbera, CPP founder Jose Maria Sison, high-profile writers, friends, and relatives attesting to his literary importance and vigorous character, remembering with fondness his contributions to shaping Philippine art and politics. With readings of passages from his major works and dramatizations of “The Legend of the Virgin’s Jewel,” “May Day Eve,” and “The Two Kisses of Eros,” it follows Joaquin’s life from his promising youth and religious devotion to his political involvement and unexpected death. There is no denying of its ambition: it taps on almost every aspect possible and material available, adding clips of Lamberto Avellana’s adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino and Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, as well as rarely heard and seen clips of Joaquin being interviewed and delivering a speech. It is a biopic as much as it is an encyclopedia, stuffed full to the gills, and even in its closing credits the veneration is unrelenting, indefatigable.
Sari Dalena’s idea of paying homage to such icon, who also happens to be a beloved childhood figure, is something that unfortunately falls in the realm of labored extravagance, driven by an intemperate urge to offer and please; and in the end while she succeeds at substantiating the significance of Joaquin as a Filipino, she is unable to see the value of preciseness, of how a work can have so much impact if it had the humility to sacrifice detail for discipline. Length is a minor issue: basing on numerous anecdotes and the deep facets of his body of work, Joaquin by all means is a fascinating artist, a worthy subject of scrutiny and discourse. But Dahling Nick, for all its research and frills, is hardly about scrutiny and discourse: what it does is gather, lay out, and put together similar things, unmindful that the core is weakened by being redundant, by succumbing to indulgence that inflates the film to the point of incredulity.
To Dalena’s credit, Dahling Nick pulsates with life: it is spirited and freewheeling, intent to sketch a portrait of Joaquin to emphasize his legacy. His earnest readers will always find a hook to cling to, no matter how many times it has been repeated, and those who have faint recognition of the man will realize with sadness why this yearning to immortalize him is so strong, why his oeuvre deserves not only acknowledgment but also consumption, why in fact he is the greatest Filipino writer in a land where forgetting and neglect constitute an identity. It is the most persuasive aspect of the film. But sadly it dwells only on the halo. Dahling Nick offers no other color, no appraisal of Joaquin outside his usual league of admirers, and as a result the tribute feels too exclusive and diluted, a celebration seen only from the open windows of a large house where its esteemed guests are laughing and raising a toast.
A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (Roy Andersson)
There are filmmakers like Jacques Tati, Michelangelo Antonioni, and now Roy Andersson, whose works do not make complete sense when explained, or any explaining, whether precise or detailed, does not come close at all to the actual experience of seeing them. Even in the most objective of descriptions, there seem to be no equivalent phrases to match the dynamics on the surface and more so what’s under it, hence the viewer, upon seeing the movie, experiences something else. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third part of Andersson’s fifteen-year Living Trilogy, does not fully commit itself to easy understanding — for it is how most pleasures become valuable, when given with difficulty. In ways that only stubborn and resolute filmmaking can achieve, it allows itself to be taken to pieces, and whether as a whole or in fragments, the sense that remains does not lose its weight and impact. One can’t help but hold the soul coming from its rigid frame, to which the satisfyingly uncomfortable tremble of watching it is clasped. No tableau is the same or makes the same impact, and Andersson, in the assembly of these sequences with wry wisdom, presents the tragicomedy of life that regards suffering with respect, and whatever humor it brings is merely interpretation, for humor is just a human concept in a bigger, less understandable expanse of existence.
Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 2) November 14, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Noypi.
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BUKOD KANG PINAGPALA (Sheron Dayoc)
There are only two settings in Bukod Kang Pinagpala: a house and a forest. In these two places Sheron Dayoc situates his story of a paralytic mother who suddenly gets well presumably after a visit from the devil, and with brutal enthusiasm he aggrandizes it by laying emphasis on the darkness consuming her. After establishing this premise with the usual symbols and flourishes of religious nature, Dayoc is no longer concerned with plot (or depth) and characterization (or nuance) — in unsubtle terms he creates horror out of conventional means and overplays it, on and on until the point is no longer about having a point but being pointless. A great deal of time is spent on how the mother yields, rather willingly, to her captor, and how her freedom from physical confinement is exchanged for total submission. There is something preposterous about this whole act, in the refusal to widen and enrich the scope, as though it was done while wearing blinkers, unable to see anything but the front. Dayoc only cares about delivering the scares — and what scares it has! It is a mad feat to be effective and ineffective at the same time, each coming from extreme ends, and Bukod Kang Pinagpala gets narrower and narrower until the very last scene, until out of the blue it awakens from unconsciousness and wants to be relevant.
MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
A much deeper and more compelling study of confinement, Mustang looks into the lives of five young orphaned sisters under strict guardianship of their uncle and grandma. It is set in a remote town in Turkey where conservatism is formidable and women are forced to accept their fates as housewives fully subservient to men. Punished for their supposed indecency around boys, they are imprisoned in their house, with any means to communicate with the outside world taken away from them, and over time they find ways to display resistance and seek the pleasures they deserve, oftentimes with grave consequences. First-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is able to present their youthful struggles, small victories, and solemn defeats with force and maturity, steered by an impassioned female sensitivity. The audience has cared so much about them that the pain of seeing their story end is almost unbearable.
DAYANG ASU (Bor Ocampo)
Dayang Asu alternates between a walk and a brisk walk. Even in its high moments it refuses to run or sprint. It possesses this inflexible command of material, with director Bor Ocampo firm on telling it his way, in his vernacular, in his beat. Basing on his disciplined handling, he is aware that stories of corruption, violence, and injustice have mostly been told countless of times before, in varying shades and textures, set in numerous places and leading to different outcomes, but he is after the cold-hearted clutch of consistency, the hard-hitting truthfulness of linear action, without neglecting the need for substance to allow precise movement.
The dog-eat-dog viewpoint is clear, and apparently the search for a dog to kill and eat is used to shove it further. There is a lot of room for fleshier examinations of social ills and for a closer look at the father-and-son relationship, but Ocampo is content with observing things from a distance, neither near nor far, making the audience feel like implicit witnesses. It avoids the common (and tiring) tendency to be a mood piece and relies instead on headway and pacing. One can be partial to the dryness and lack of eagerness and think these qualities are deliberate, in keeping with the bestiality of criminal work. In this dogged approach, Dayang Asu may have a long leash, but all throughout it keeps a tight and uncomfortable grip.
THE TREASURE (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Treasure hunting has always had this ancient ring to it, but it never fails to arouse the curiosity of both the old and young because it evokes fascinating myths and exhumes long-forgotten stories. At the center of The Treasure is the act itself, the impatient search for fortune in an old family property where decades ago pivotal moments in Romanian history took place. Bookending it is the motivation and the result, and director Corneliu Porumboiu, in another showcase of cunning restraint, connects many dots in one precise swing, managing to cross leisurely between past and present with palpable political byplays. The punch is surprisingly hilarious, and it’s a stroke of genius topping a work thick with clues of wisdom.
MANANG BIRING (Carl Joseph Papa)
There have been several films made about elderly people and their struggle with old age and isolation, some of which are highly regarded such as Adela by Adolf Alix, Bwakaw by Jun Lana, and Lola by Brillante Mendoza, but none of them have been told in the same fashion as the rotoscoped world of Manang Biring, the second feature of Carl Joseph Papa. Similar to his debut Ang Di Paglimot ng mga Alaala, it builds the character of a mother, and in doing so vividly illustrates the importance of maternal company, not to mention the degree of loss felt once it is gone. In Manang Biring, however, the mother is at the center, living and dying at the same time, coming to grips with her illness and enlivened by the imminent arrival of her daughter from overseas.
One can only salute Papa for pushing his objective through and achieving it: the rotoscoping may be crude and flat at times, but emanating from it is this persistence of vision, this unmistakable drive to see it through the finish line. Certainly it is hard not to be moved by perseverance. The story, in its initial draft, is expansive, detailed, and verbose, and efforts have been made to sharpen it up to suit his chosen form. But one must also recognize several faults — a particular clumsiness in the storytelling, the occasionally misplaced rhythm, the unhelpful lulls and talkiness — which impede the flow and draw attention to aspects that could have been executed better. Assessing Manang Biring enables a careful consideration of its strengths and lapses, reaching a point where warranted praise and justified forgiveness meet, and for the most part, as demonstrated by the emotional ending, its soul can carry more weight and lift the film higher than its skill.
NETPAC Festival Report — QCinema 2015: Third Time’s a Charm November 8, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Noypi, QCinema.
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QCinema, or the Quezon City Film Festival, had produced only three films in its inaugural year in 2013. It ran for three days in two cinemas, and since three films didn’t seem enough to conduct a festival, several entries from the recently concluded Cinemalaya accompanied them.
The following year delivered a stronger lineup — with production and post-production grants offered to features, documentaries, and short films — including a number of current international movies (Ida; Two Days, One Night; Leviathan; Mommy; Jauja; 52 Tuesdays; The Don Juans) which delighted cinephiles pining for the incomparable big screen experience. This time it ran for a week, and something interesting happened: it overlapped with the schedule of another film festival, the Cinema One Originals, which was then celebrating its tenth year, in the same venue. It was such a nice, busy time for hardcore local moviegoers.
Now in its third year, QCinema has reached a key turning point, boasting more than 200 screenings of eight new features, five documentaries, and over twenty foreign films in six cinemas in three malls in Quezon City, all in ten days. This may be modest figures by overseas standards, but in the Philippines this is a big deal. Over the years the challenge has always been to sustain a film festival — Cinemanila stopped indefinitely in 2013; Cinemalaya, though it managed to go past a controversy, had only short films in competition this year; and World Premieres, alas, continued its annual display of failure — but even more difficult is to sustain a growing audience. Just on these two accounts, QCinema 2015 has made a major leap.
Festival director Ed Lejano is completely aware that a festival cannot live on good intentions alone — it must be run with astute consideration for both the business and artistic side of programming, or else it will be another case of taxpayer’s money put to waste. He knows that the Quezon City government is keen on self-promotion, and branding is a priority. From the ridiculously catchy jingle to every piece of publicity material, the QC centricity is all over, but he ensures that the goal of this initiative — the promotion of cinema and the creation of better compromises for local filmmakers — is not lost in the seeming tourism feel of the event.
QCinema, on one hand, succeeds at having a clear identity and imprint, with goals to promote the city and its artistic legacy while also helping the industry produce new films. On the other, it provides opportunities for moviegoers to see works that will never reach the cinemas (because no distributor would bring them). The idea of putting current world cinema in a Filipino festival is always good because local films can be better appreciated (or gauged) in a larger, more dynamic context, allowing this foreign sensibility to enrich understanding and offer comparison and contrast.
For instance, American classic Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) finds itself in the company of Filipino classics Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (Eddie Romero) and Oro, Plata, Mata (Peque Gallaga), all of which deal with war and its effect on people but each with different perspective and depth. The stunning long take of German film Victoria (Sebastian Schipper) achieves something different from the impressive long take of Filipino work Anino sa Likod ng Buwan (Jun Lana). Local filmmakers, always curious about the potential of technology to discover uncharted terrains in storytelling, can derive inspiration from Tangerine (Sean Baker), not just because it was shot fully on iPhone 5S, but also because it managed to go beyond this selling point with a mature and persuasive handling of its subject. And who would have thought Gaspar Noé’s Love, with long scenes of actual fucking and cum spurting in 3D, will find its way on these highly conservative shores, with not just one screening but two?
QCinema’s efforts to offer variety have resulted in something remarkably satisfying. Screen International includes films that earned recognition from prestigious festivals abroad: Tale of Tales and Cemetery of Splendour from Cannes; Court from Venice; Victoria and How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) from Berlin; and Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes) from Rotterdam. The Asian Cinerama section includes A Simple Life (Ann Hui), Nader and Simin: A Separation (Asghar Farhadi), Overheard (Alan Mak, Felix Chong), and Niño (Loy Arcenas), all of which have strong voices and distinct cultural roots. Curated by Carlo Manatad, Asian Shorts is composed of short films from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Taiwan that look at the preoccupations of common people who struggle to survive every day. Music Genius presents three documentaries — Heaven Adores You (Nickolas Rossi), Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg: An Intimate Self-Portrait (Pierre-Henry Salfati), and 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard — exploring the lives and deaths of music icons Elliott Smith, Serge Gainsbourg, and Nick Cave, respectively.
But by all means the highlight of QCinema 2015 is the eight Circle Competition and five DoQC entries. Filmmakers of full-length features had only six months to realize their scripts, crossing that thin line between attainable and unthinkable. With the ownership of their work given to them — something that other grant-giving festivals are hesitant to offer — most were able to secure additional funding to help in the completion of their films. Several of the competition entries are co-produced by Eduardo Rocha and Fernando Ortigas, two of the main producers of Heneral Luna, the groundbreaking surprise of 2015 which had an unprecedented nine-week run in theaters to become the highest grossing Filipino independent film of all time. Together, freedom and finances can do wonders, and despite the limited production time, all of the films have managed to be interesting talking points after their premieres, whether by virtue of quality, subject, or posturing.
Apocalypse Child (Mario Cornejo), Water Lemon (Lemuel Lorca), and Matangtubig (Jet Leyco) have strong attachment to their settings, with the characters explored in the context of their association with these places, and the drama being uncovered slowly to reveal wounds and mysteries. Iisa (Chuck Gutierrez) is set in a remote community in southern Philippines hit by a tragedy reminiscent of Typhoon Haiyan, focusing on a group of people trying to get back on their feet but held down by the complexities of their situation. A different kind of tragedy happens in Kapatiran (Pepe Diokno), in which a series of violent rites of a law school fraternity is interspersed with scenes of varying thematic similarity, mostly emphasizing confinement and absurdity. Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo (Mihk Vergara) has a world of its own in which children discover success and defeat in a beloved street game, while Gayuma (Cesar Hernando) wanders between fantasy and reality, with sex serving as the thin line separating them.
It is worth noting that four of the eight features are made by first-time directors, with Hernando, acclaimed production designer of Mike de Leon’s films, making his debut at 69 years old.
Compared with the Circle Competition entries, the DoQC documentaries are more challenging to watch. Audio Perpetua (Universe Baldoza) makes use of a concept that links two seemingly disjointed things, but is unable to make the crucial connection. At the center of Bingat (Choy Pangilinan, Brian Quesada, Joolia Demegilio, Abet Umil) is the raging struggle to recognize the importance of archaeological work in the country, mixing interviews and experimental techniques, but the length and tedium tend to weaken its strong sentiments. Traslacion: Ang Paglakad sa Altar ng Alanganin (Will Fredo) features interviews with gay, lesbian, and transgender couples, drowning them in ineffective music and unhelpful staged flourishes. The magic of Of Cats and Dogs, Farm Animals and Sashimi (Perry Dizon) is it unfolds gently and freely, allowing the viewer to acclimatize to the pace of provincial life.
The NETPAC jury — composed of film critic Philip Cheah, Korean director Doo-yong Lee, and writer Richard Bolisay — is unanimous in awarding the prizes to Crescent Rising (Sheron Dayoc) and Sleepless (Prime Cruz). Crescent Rising is a current and urgent document of the state of war in Mindanao, touching on the many aspects of the conflict from jihad and the Bangsamoro Basic Law to the families and civilians helplessly caught in between. It is far from being an authoritative work — it can still be improved with tighter editing and careful selection of footage — but it is powerful and potent as it is, the many cracks leaving a profound impression of this long struggle for the end of hostility.
Sociopolitical issues are never in the fore of Sleepless, but they are present in the periphery, in its strong undercurrent. Two call center agents become friends, and they turn to each other to idle the sleepless nights or mornings away while dealing with their own personal troubles. No romance is pursued, and no hint is ever given that a romantic relationship between them will be their escape. Sleepless is a break from the pervasive and undying trend in local movies of treating romance as the end-all and be-all of life. By upholding the vastly underrated worth of unconditional companionship, it reveals a truer portrait of urban disquiet without resorting to clichés and empty spectacles.
These two NETPAC jury prize winners, in a way, are descriptive of QCinema 2015’s achievement: relevant, timely, charming, and wise, with modesty to recognize improvement and brimming with a desire to join the awake and awakened Filipino audience for another year of festive moviegoing.
This report is also published on NETPAC’s website.
Matangtubig (Jet Leyco, 2015) November 7, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Brian Gonzales
Directed by Jet Leyco
Cast: Amante Pulido, Lance Raymundo, Mailes Kanapi
The original script of Matangtubig is heavy on the procedural, following a series of events after the discovery of a dead girl’s body and the vain efforts to find her missing companion. It is a horrible crime emphasized by where it has taken place: a quaint, rural town in Batangas whose mayor brags about a zero crime rate, a neighborhood where everyone knows each other and paranoia spreads like wildfire. Writer Brian Gonzales sticks to several genre conventions but lays it open to strange possibilities, allowing director Jet Leyco to play his tricks and submerge the narrative in a bizarre concoction of lies, enigmas, and specters. It is as hardboiled as it gets, and the shell cracks as soon as the witness, a fisherman with also a daughter to protect, decides to keep the truth.
Evidently Matangtubig wants to achieve two things: to tell a compelling murder mystery and, in the course of getting close to the answers, to fuck it up. As the narrative unfolds, or gives this impression of movement, the red herrings are also scattered and left in such careful nonchalance, clearing this path leading to the climax. The fucking up isn’t random and impulsive — there is a choreography to it, a manipulation of actions intended to bring to the surface these supernatural elements — and this is Leyco’s touch, unleashing the uncanny out of the everyday while also being mindful of the sociopolitical timber, his signature, the watermark on his films.
There is humor in its terror, and a number of scenes and sequences contribute to characterization: the uncomfortable photo op when the parents of the victims have switched picture frames of their daughters, Lance Raymundo doing his report in the middle of the water and suddenly disappearing, the marching band and the funeral procession meeting absurdly at an intersection, the first time the mysterious fragments are shown in passing.
But sadly the whole doesn’t pan out as strongly as expected. The problem with Matangtubig is its narrative design, how the layout looks striking from afar but upon closer inspection the arrangement of text (plots) and images (visuals) — not to mention other elements aimed to complement them: rhythm, music, sound, clues, blank spaces — is too loud and pronounced, letting the viewer see the actual strings being pulled. It is deliberate in revealing right at the start the identity of the perpetrators, an intriguing hook by all means, but in a way the film also works in a similar vein: anyone with a discerning eye for detail can see where it is going, what atmosphere it is aiming for, what horror it has in store.
The concern is not about being highly derivative — certainly many works at present borrow from others, from style to atmosphere, from technique to world view, from milieu to pacing — but it depends a lot on the ability to hold everything together with a sleight of hand, to go above the comparisons and leave a singular, distinctive dent. This is Leyco’s objective. The end of Matangtubig is bombastic without apologies: it is the culmination of the other side of its murder mystery. And while it leaves on such a high note, the astonishing spectacle it has painstakingly worked hard for achieves an effect that leaves as quickly as a shooting star: so fast there is no time to make a wish.
Water Lemon (Lemuel Lorca, 2015) November 2, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Lilit Reyes
Directed by Lemuel Lorca
Cast: Jun-jun Quintana, Tessie Tomas, Lou Veloso, Alessandra de Rossi, Meryll Soriano
The charm of Water Lemon, Lemuel Lorca’s fourth film and so far his most fully realized work, is its setting. Mauban in Quezon Province comes to life with an endearing depiction of its people and their constant preoccupations, which is far from the haphazard caricature in his previous film, Mauban: Ang Resiko. Lorca’s love for his hometown is unmistakable, and can easily be blinding for its earnest sentiment, but what works for Water Lemon is a narrative that captures a small, timid town generally content in its smallness and timidity, how its residents deal with everyday troubles and bouts of loneliness, whether through hardcore drinking or chatting with someone from faraway who offers emotional comfort.
Life in Mauban, as it turns out, is not always slow and passive. What often passes for conflict is the hovering uncertainty of being there, of staying because there are no better options, those moments, few and far between, when one gets weary and sick of provincial life. Idleness is a myth: people have to work not only to have food on the table but also to feel better about themselves. In many ways the audience is not treated as a tourist, and Mauban, though beautiful, doesn’t feel at all like an attraction.
It also looks at people who have long been wanting to leave, those who are sometimes judged for their ambition, to whom a better life means one that is spent outside the town’s simple, almost resigned, way of living. This idea of leaving, however, isn’t confined only to moving out of town. And this is where writer Lilit Reyes hits the spot: dying also means leaving. And dying, whether by accident or illness, always inflicts hurt on those who stay, also making them die little by little. The drama at the center of Water Lemon, aside from making room for intense and poignant scenes, creates this vivid portrait of a town that accepts its fate but also hits itself for merely accepting, a place seemingly isolated from the supreme comforts and vanities of modern world, a town that may be unworldly and unambitious but is now finally coming to terms with change.
Filemon, the heart and mouth of Water Lemon, has Asperger’s, but he is not suffering from it, at least not in the way he projects himself. He is stubborn and assertive, qualities that secure him from his tendencies. Although he dismisses a lot of people, avoiding intimacy even with his mother, he loses it upon being told he is fired. Having a work says so much about self-worth, and for someone conscious about being different, it can mean the world to him. The sound of that world crumbling provides the film its moving vulnerability.
But the drama also has a number of false notes, the most striking of which has to do with Bertha and Maritess, supporting characters whose high moments tend to be too affected. The same effect happens when Pina verbalizes her grief with a neighbor: the moment feels written, and the monologue draws too much attention to itself. These are glitches that create ripples, stories that may be based on real life but look ineffective in film, but Water Lemon, fortunately, flows into a large sea, and with exceptional performances of Jun-jun Quintana, Tessie Tomas, and Lou Veloso, the impression it leaves is quite immense.
Gayuma (Cesar Hernando, 2015) October 31, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written and directed by Cesar Hernando
Cast: Benjamin Alves, Elora Españo, Phoebe Walker
Over the weeklong run of the QCinema International Film Festival, a strong opinion among many festival goers, discussed in hushed tones or mentioned indirectly in social media, is that Gayuma turns out to be bad, or very bad, depending on how the judgment is told and how the assessments become more specific. There seems to be an agreement on the film’s inability to tell a good story, or to tell a story in a good way, as it relies on a trite narrative, incredible plot points, dated references, ineffective music, laughable dialogue, and several other elements that further emphasize its larger-than-life thinness. These claims, unfortunately, are well founded, and all its displays of art knowledge feel completely conspicuous, making the viewing experience switch between wincing and resignation, until the overall feeling becomes nothing short of unpleasant.
With its large doses of sex and ludicrous storyline, Gayuma is reminiscent of Seiko-produced movies in the 90s, which means, for an open-minded viewer, it can be strangely watchable. The consistency is enough reason to be engaged. Obvious are the efforts put together to sustain interest and make it intriguing, as scene by scene the visuals are consciously being mounted to look artful. The music, berserk and ostentatious, is thought to heighten the emotions, but it succeeds only at drowning the film further. One feels sorry about the fact that while the story being undernourished can be forgivable, as execution could do a lot of wonders, more regrettable is how the many talented artists in the film, the numerous big names lending a hand to complete it, are unable to be of any saving grace.
There is absolutely no problem with the idea of mixing genre elements with conventional art-house touches, how a ghost story can be told alongside Marcello Mastroianni or Michelangelo Antonioni, or a how a mysterious past can find its place in the lives of students in a state university, even in the guise of sexual exigencies. The UP Fine Arts Building, especially for non-Fine Arts majors, has always had this inexplicably enigmatic vibe that draws visitors to it, a sense of adventure in its seemingly commonplace surroundings. But Gayuma, in all its good intentions, is unable to keep up, its old-fashioned stubbornness — many, many things in it helplessly revealing a script written a long time ago — has not worked in its favor.
As biases should not always be seen in a negative light, it’s only fair to admit the source of reservation: Cesar Hernando, acclaimed production designer and mentor of countless film people, at 69 years old, is the director of Gayuma, and this is his first feature-length. How can one disregard such valiant soldier? How, in light of his dedication to helping the careers of young directors for decades, can one be oblivious to this time when he finally takes the leap? Of course, one can separate judgment of work from respect for the filmmaker. Gayuma clearly suffers from the weaknesses and excesses than can be associated with a debut work. In the basic, most constructive form of criticism, unkind words are better said than kept. But can this short review be any clearer in its predisposition that no matter how much of a letdown Gayuma is, the writer’s stronger sentiment is that Hernando, now finally coming to terms with first-film hitches, makes another feature, and another one and another one? He has completely earned being given the benefit of the doubt.
Sleepless (Prime Cruz, 2015) October 30, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, QCinema.
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Written by Jen Chuaunsu
Directed by Prime Cruz
Cast: Glaiza de Castro, Dominic Roco, TJ Trinidad, Irma Adlawan
Romance, whether in fiction or real life, has always been a major currency: love, more than anything, is both the motivation and reward, the logic and instinct. But the kind of love often emphasized, aspired, and admired in cinema is romantic: a strong force that can make grand, sweeping gestures, the overall effect of which, whether lounging in subtlety or excesses, determines the merits, or ineffectiveness, of a film. Love stories will never lose their relevance — the material lends itself to infinite permutations — and those that make a precisely memorable impression usually have something to say beyond the intensity of the feeling.
In Sleepless, in what seems to be the film’s riskiest undertaking, the main characters are not in love with each other. They meet at work, become friends, and eventually find their lives at a standstill because of the unpleasant consequences of their respective relationships. They take comfort in each other. Even towards the end writer Jen Chuaunsu and director Prime Cruz are not keen on “shipping” them, and it is by virtue of this companionship, essentially carrying the weight and implication of romance, that Sleepless unfolds its simple, seemingly slight story against the backdrop of cutthroat corporate work in the Third World.
It is interesting not because it does not pursue the romance but because it does not seek to be validated by it. The reason for Gem’s sleeping problem at the beginning is the nature of her work, but later on, as she finds a meaningful companion in Barry, it becomes a habit formed out of fulfillment gained from it, how the physical distress is compensated by emotional gratification. The foundation of the film is their contact, and it develops into a friendship defined by circumstances, the way they deal with their own troublesome family relations and failed romances while trying to be there for one another, without taking advantage of the convenience coming from their vulnerability. Over time the characters become stronger than the plot points, and the small moments, no matter how predictable, manage to ignite fireworks.
Although Sleepless shares obvious similarities with Shift by Siege Ledesma and Ang Nawawala by Marie Jamora, particularly in terms of milieu and treatment, a worthier comparison can also be made with Endo by Jade Castro, with how employment is a crucial part of a person’s life decisions. The call center environment as a workplace is never substantially explored, but it is presented in such a way that neither glorifies nor condescends to its culture, acknowledging the industry that has been the country’s main economic growth source for more than a decade. As call center agents, Gem and Barry go on with their day-to-day lives the way other workers, who are regarded presumably with higher respect, do, yearning for similar needs and hoping to be in better situations. What makes Sleepless current is this scaffold — the grave importance of being employed, and the submission to the pleasures and sorrows of work — with recognition of things being temporary as nothing but natural. The city shown in its locations is also a curious element: it is neither highly developed nor visibly struggling, neither happy nor sad, a city presented not as a character but as a spectator, the way places, despite the tendency to sentimentalize them, in fact do not really care about people.
Nothing in Sleepless is new or groundbreaking, and this prevailing mindset to offer novelty, to engage in some sort of activity proving the worthiness of creation, has been around only to challenge perceptions. The use of animation in a few sequences may have been disagreeable to some, but one can see it as a means to break the monotony, to render foolishness in the context of boredom, which actually provides nuance to the characters and stirs the surface. Sleepless has a rich undercurrent that can easily be overlooked, either out of being too meek or unresisting, but in truth it speaks eloquently of the tiny tragedies of every day, of the slacker’s desperation to finally be on the right track after so many attempts, and of how some people escape solitude and look for souls to cling to. The lonely will always stay lonely, and every friendship they find is a love story living a common life and dying a common death.
Above the Clouds (Pepe Diokno, 2015) August 12, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Pepe Diokno
Cast: Ruru Madrid, Pepe Smith
Pepe Diokno’s much-awaited second film veers away from almost every aspect of his debut work, forgoing grit and aggression for subtlety and introspection. The years between them may have factored into the direction he has chosen, for the most obvious difference is how, unlike Engkwentro, Above the Clouds takes its time to unfold, bearing a language that is all too familiar with audiences who are used to immersive silence, minimal drama, striking visuals, and spatial dynamics coming together to create a sense of experience instead of spectacle.
This aesthetic of slow, or what is regarded by some as contemplative, aims for the soul rather than the body, and Diokno’s discernible choice to extract the essence and revel in restraint makes a good picture — if a good picture means being left with an impression — showing that, like commercial movies, artistic films also abide by a formula to achieve an effect.
A teenager and his grandfather, estranged from one another, deal with grief and spend time together, hiking up a mountain where their dead loved ones have once had special memories. In a nutshell, that’s basically it — two bodies and two souls — the rest is background and interpretation. The plot offers no surprises, and it doesn’t need any. It only needs to emphasize a relationship forced into being because it is the door through which its ruminations on sorrow come and go. The interaction between the two characters reveals merely the distance between them, how one tries to reach out as the other moves away, and the film, the way it is written and staged, gives them no one to turn to but each other, not even the departed. Only upon buying this setup can the viewer appreciate the nuances it tries so hard to keep and eventually expose for emotional impact.
Yet Above the Clouds, despite the undeniable artistic flair, is carefully predictable. It moves in such a way that its lead characters seem to be completely unaware of the path laid before them and of the emotions about to smother them, as though cruelly they were excepted from seeing the whole view, and the audience, for the entire time, is positioned at the vantage point, witnessing their struggle and anguish from a determined spot. One feels sad while watching it because it is only natural to feel sad, but there is nothing in it that rises above, or goes deeper beneath, this veneer of mourning, nothing that makes the sadness separate and specific.
The death of the parents during Ondoy is an interesting detail, but Diokno prefers to dilute this suggestive element in favor of accessibility, letting it add only to the overall sense of tragedy and not to a narrative that needs more layers. Granted, Ondoy appears to strike a chord mostly with people who have been acquainted with it (i.e., those from Manila) — the way Yolanda can have a distinct and lasting impact mostly on victims from Samar and Leyte — and people outside the eye of these tragedies can merely use art or consume it to share in the grief. But Ondoy, come to think of it, is the fulcrum of Above the Clouds, and an articulation of grief coming from it could have brought forth something more distinct, allowing a more resonant reading of the title to complement the emphatic but unmistakably beautiful final shot.
Diokno himself had an experience of Ondoy, and being someone from the city has afforded the film, largely shot in the Cordillera, this point of view: a boy glued to his phone and music player while on the move, a boy regarding his parents’ special place as something his and therefore feeling responsible for its keeping, a boy unable to know and appreciate the sacredness of the surroundings for other people. This perspective does not attempt to show strong familiarity with the place — it is far from promoting tourism and being an advocacy — but it is apparent that the sights are purposely used to characterize and deepen the story, the climb signifying a rocky relationship promised to reach a turning point, and without this scenic view of the mountains and meaning darkness, the film would have nothing much to show, not enough for it to stand on its own.
So somehow it seems only reasonable that the loudest criticism of the movie from local viewers comes in this regard, something which foreign audiences expectedly failed to highlight, the way environmental neglect is presented, and the nature of the medium makes it open to various angles of judgment. Some are quick to point out the vandalism supposedly tolerated in the movie, even aggravated by the fact that another film, both critically and commercially successful, has also been a subject of similar reproach (and, as it turns out, these two films, in the ensuing chaos of arguments, are being made accountable for their audience’s possible reckless actions, not to mention ill-intentioned thoughts, after seeing them).
This is why showing a locally produced film to a Filipino audience proves to be meaningful. Despite the extreme displeasure that comes with reading inane online comments and arguing with people of various levels of posturing, some of whom have no awareness of decency and diplomacy, Above the Clouds becomes relevant because of these discussions. Even with the guise of being fictional by nature, should films be absolved from criticism outside their cinematic merits? To what extent should filmmakers be held accountable for their viewers (as well as their thoughts and actions)? These debates bring to light the often taken-for-granted facet of film culture, this idea that a work, once shown and made consumable, carries a duty for its audience — the duty to educate and share a good message — and it is assumed that those who see it, especially if the subject is sensitive and misinterpretation could lead to something unpleasant, may or may not be bright enough to make a proper response. Cinema, in this case, is believed to be powerful when something dangerous is imminent, or if it shows something that does not conform to one’s idea of appropriate. This kind of mindset that doubts the ability of an audience to be responsible points at a lack of sufficient art education, thereby the blame easily (and thoroughly) goes to the art being produced.
Hardly raised in these accusations of negligence, and something which substantiates the tendency of the film to romanticize and be romanticized, is that all these issues could have been avoided (or forgiven) if Above the Clouds had a better script, if it had made a stronger case for its deliberate display of destruction. For a movie that depicts trails and terrains, it decides to take the path often traveled and comes unprepared for a long trip, sharing the view but not the experience.
Smaller and Smaller Circles: Sinag Maynila 2015 March 30, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, Sinag Maynila.
Sinag Maynila is the brainchild of Solar Entertainment CEO Wilson Tieng and director Brillante Mendoza, a partnership that aims to bridge the financial and creative aspects of filmmaking, something that most grant-giving bodies aim to do.
With the name of the city in the festival name, it is interesting that only one of the entries is purportedly set in Manila (Ninja Party in an exclusive all-girls school). Bambanti is shot in Isabela, Balut Country mostly in Candaba, Pampanga, Imbisibol in Fukuoka, Japan, and Swap supposedly in Cebu. Their respective filmmakers also hail from different parts of the country, each having distinct roots.
Sinag Maynila 2015 succeeds at offering a diverse collection of stories, and the resulting films also offer diverse qualities.
BAMBANTI (Zig Dulay)
Glowing reviews of Bambanti overemphasize the smallness and simplicity of the film, as though these characteristics were enough to consider it worth raving, but hardly mentioned in them is its obviousness, how the smallness and simplicity are labored to the point of dullness. There is a handful of good things working for it — beautiful rural sceneries that make city people melt in superficial longing, skilled actors who can turn scenes into moments, and a quietness that can easily be mistaken for volume — but the material loses its life as it unfolds and its skin is shed, leading to a resolution that is not only clear and explicit but also plain and unchallenging. A watch gone missing is conveniently used to expose social ills and injustice — this representation is so literal it is ridiculous to regard the turn of events as symbolic. There is no point inflating its virtues: it is a small film that also achieves something small, and the ending, which shows the merry festivities of the town watched by its people, looks and feels like a usual tourism advert, touching but forgettable, pretty but merely passing.
BALUT COUNTRY (Paul Sta. Ana)
Sitting through Balut Country and at one point feeling that it has nothing more to share but platitudes and sentimentality, one wonders why such a harmless film is made, and why, in a world full of pleasant possibilities, an audience must endure eating bland pudding instead of something nourishing. And to think that the subject is balut, a distinctly Filipino food item often offered to foreigners for enjoyment, to see how they will react after seeing the prematurely formed chick inside the egg, the film does not make any effort to be interesting, or even funny. The premise is built only on a decision to be made — will he sell the land or not? — and for more than an hour the story feels obliged to tour the audience around town, in certain places where mundane conversations can be made and the characters can reflect on wasting time. No, it is neither thoughtful nor contemplative — it is simply self-absorbed and unaware of what insight is. Every film can be appreciated for the nature of its subject and the intricate social structure on which it instinctively perches. Balut Country has a rich context to boast, but its idea of telling a story is idling the time away in listlessness.
NINJA PARTY (Jim Libiran)
To be fair, Ninja Party is neither gross nor pointless. It takes on a provocative subject and even more provocative viewpoints, which explains the thread of viewer reactions between appreciation and disdain. This insistence to provoke seems to be its point, for it presents this group of young female students from a strictly Catholic school and bares only their rebelliousness, particularly the temptations that surround them and the difficulties of having hormones controlling their decisions.
Sure, spinning a dildo instead of a bottle is a game that can happen in real life, or showing nipples to each other is some girls’ idea of having fun, or giving head in the car should not be encouraged but it cannot be helped when the itch comes — but these scenes, among others that also show teenage girls in compromising situations, hardly feel connected with a bigger picture or statement. Ninja Party only scratches the surface, and it doesn’t have anything that would at least substantiate the constant feeling of discomfort, or anything that goes beyond the guise of using socioeconomic differences (that overused justification for films about spoiled youth) as an argument for its lack of maturity. Lysistrata may even provide a relevant reference and context, but the film itself has no strong background and dynamics to let the inclusion of this famous play hold water.
When those girls start to act dirty and give the boys some good time, the film presents consequences for them and not for the latter. And that seems to be okay because the world has worked that way for centuries. Having depth, whether explicit or implicit, is not its priority, and this lack of perceptiveness leads only to punctuate the upholding of male entitlement, both in the film and the filmmaking, and the aftertaste is nasty as fuck.
SWAP (Remton Siega Zuasola)
Swap iterates the one-take style of its predecessors To Siomai Love and Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, only this time the film is split into sequences of varying locations and times, posing a much difficult challenge despite the control offered by a studio setup. Unlike the two films, whose outdoor surroundings contribute to the dynamics of the technique and make room for fascinating blinks of spontaneity, Swap has to put up one set after another as the camera rolls. Success depends heavily on timing, and this need for a calculated execution is a magnet for mishaps.
Truth be told, among the films in the festival, Swap is the most likely to achieve greatness — it has the best concept, the most daring spirit, and the most personal story. It is an all-or-nothing risk, and while watching it, one feels like cheering for it, egging it on until it reaches the finish line in one piece. But then a few minutes into the film, a number of things are already amiss. The production values are wanting. Some dialogue does not help the story and only creates unnecessary nuisance. The acting from its competent cast is strained. The transitions — those crucial connecting points that are supposed to make marvelous impressions — are often too conspicuous. These disturbances ruin the flow and inhibit suspension of disbelief, letting the audience notice the cracks and overlook a couple of interesting treatments (the split screen, the radio program, the many attempts at fluidity). Little slugs turn up one by one, from the first sequence to the last, and they eat away the foundation and collapse the film’s great ambition entirely and enormously.
And this is a painful admission for what could have been an important work. Like Soap Opera, Swap is brimming with ideas — ideas that are not fully realized, ideas that come out uninspired due to obvious constraints, and ideas that fall short and end up on the floor. But it is something that can also be attributed to weariness. The whole film is hampered by this overall feeling of fatigue, and even with a clever concept that manages to reflect on the political turmoil surrounding the family drama, sadly Swap limps until the very end.
IMBISIBOL (Lawrence Fajardo)
Imbisibol is set in Fukuoka, Japan, amid the bleak landscape of snow and news of illegal immigrants being arrested and deported, but the struggle of its main characters, some of whom are undocumented Filipino workers, is very close to home. It starts at a point when something is already happening: a Japanese husband tells his Filipino wife to let go of their apartment tenants because of their status. She refuses: she simply cannot do it. Only one of these tenants is an important character in the film — a young father working at a lumber company and raising the ire of a colleague — and he is introduced almost halfway through it, the peak of his conflict providing the climax and tying its beginning and end.
The other characters — an elderly gentleman juggling between his two jobs and preparations for his friend’s birthday; a has-been host and entertainer having a hard time attracting new clients and maintaining old ones; and other Filipinos connected with them — make up the bulk, and it is through the gentle and precise examination of their troubles does the narrative find a sturdy emotional core. The overlap of their stories tightens the relationships, and not only the unseen and unheard are emphasized, but also the unmentioned. Clearly, much of the film’s power comes from an enterprising use of structure — with all the splashes and smudges of glaze and the visible and vanishing flashes of sorrow — and the risk it takes in leaving the stories open, without any assurance of returning to them, indicates the trust in the capacity of the material (originally a play staged two years ago) to hold every detail it has set free.
Matching the strength of the story and screenplay is the scrupulous attention given to making it cinematic. The breathtaking views of the city at wintertime complement the hovering sadness and intensify it, but it is done in such a way that the immensity never feels overwhelming. There is a certain lightness to it, in fact, especially with how the elements frame the characters and how the shots are made stationary most of the time. The images are not just beautiful — they are bursting with meaning and consequence — and this technical feat deserves as much recognition as everything else in the film.
With a narrative that sprawls across the many aspects of the overseas Filipino experience, illuminating the mistaken assumptions and misunderstandings of greener pastures and hero worship, Imbisibol is not without its faults, the most glaring of which is the handling of crucial scenes in the climax. But these imperfections only make it all the more moving, highlighting the heartbreak and helplessness, for the struggle will always be there, and whichever time and place they are set, these stories will remain as an identity that no prosperity and claims of progress can erase.
2014, for most people, is just another year. But for those who have committed themselves to catching every possible screening in theaters, seeking the comfort and warmth of darkness with or without companion, the year in cinema has overflowed in both quality and quantity. It has offered almost the whole nine yards: Hollywood blockbusters, small independent productions, foreign language films, documentaries, gay movies, forums and lectures, and everything in between.
But more impressively, Filipino films have not wavered. There have been local and international film festivals organized one after another, to the point that two of them have overlapping screenings at the same mall. And this is not just in Manila. Several cities and towns across the country have been active in promoting their own filmmakers, offering venues to show their works.
Themes have also departed from the usual. Poverty is no longer a prevailing subject, which can be interpreted in several ways. Is it a reflection of an improvement in the general economic conditions of the people, or a display of discontent with the previous depictions and handling of the subject? Are local audiences tired of seeing bleak social realities on the big screen, or are filmmakers no longer interested in them? Of course, these are nothing but mere conjectures.
More than a year later, typhoon Yolanda has remained a reminder of the most terrible kind of tragedy that can change everything, and it has come to signify many aspects of the Filipino life, its hopes and struggles, not to mention its often emphasized resilience. Sadly, the disaster will forever be part of the collective (and cultural) experience and consciousness.
Furthermore, romantic comedies have stepped up, and a curious indication of this is that festivals have made room for them. Big stars have appeared in small movies, and their fans have shown their overwhelming support. Star Cinema has picked up independently produced movies for distribution, and it’s a good, good sign, regardless of the financial turnout.
But perhaps the most agreeable, and somewhat easily taken for granted, development as far as social interactions are concerned is that seldom do people talk now about the difference between mainstream and independent—finally, it’s no longer a fucking thing!—and even when they do, they no longer make it sound like a celestial spectacle. These films, one way or another, have made that possible.
10. English Only, Please (Dan Villegas)
Let’s get this straight: awards matter; and sometimes they do matter a lot. A huge bulk of the moviegoing public has come out to see English Only, Please only after it won major prizes at the Metro Manila Film Festival, allowing it to have sold-out screenings and exceed the earnings of other entries with far better chances of box-office success. Its failure to win best picture has also sparked interest: how can a film receive recognition for its script, acting, and direction without winning the top prize? Over the years, the MMFF has always had its share of mysteries.
Yes, it can be done; and it can be done without making nasty compromises. English Only, Please can be appreciated better in the context of the festival, which has long been a source of scorn for some viewers, but one can’t disregard the fact that word-of-mouth promotion works only if the film being supported is more than acceptable—it has to be thoroughly, categorically, and out-and-out good for the standard moviegoer. Dan Villegas, a competent cinematographer himself, is able to vanish in his own film, so light his touch that the viewer notices his absence, for how can the film move with such grace and ease without someone orchestrating the whole thing? There is more than one answer, but the only one that can cover everything now is the most beautiful surprise of the year: Jennylyn Mercado.
9. Esoterika: Maynila (Elwood Perez)
Only the pompous, stiff, and humorless will not enjoy Esoterika, Elwood Perez’s depiction of Manila on acid. It moves restlessly with almost no regard for conventional continuity, waving this wicked and outrageous Polaroid of the city that leaves no room for the audience to argue: only to giggle, snort, and chortle. It is a triumph of mad filmmaking: sequence after sequence, the confusion leads to laughter, and this amusement lets the viewer excuse the film’s obvious flaws for practical reasons. Ronnie Liang carries the role with consistent gullibility and in numerous instances miscarries it without warning: he has the exact mix of innocence and ignorance to match his comely face and sculpted body, his physicality exploited to absurd effect. Now 70 years old, Perez has made some of the most irreverently pleasurable movies of the 70s and 80s that can astound even audiences of today, and with Esoterika he shows that his skill hasn’t aged—his impudence has always been a gift.
8. Barber’s Tales (Jun Robles Lana)
It is not an exaggeration to say that Barber’s Tales seems out of place in the landscape of local cinema in 2014. That’s quite telling, to say the least, and a curious point of discussion. Not many directors today tell their stories in this manner any more, nor exhibit this kind of showmanship that bears no intention to be sharp or clever. Diluted in too much dialogue, it holds no alarms and surprises: it is compelling in its predictability. Jun Lana dedicates Barber’s Tales to Marilou Diaz-Abaya, his mentor and inspiration, and her influence is unmistakable: the dramatic time disappears into the milieu and historical context, carried by a submissive protagonist awakened by social struggle and injustice. The result is a mature and modest work that sweeps the viewer whenever it sighs and shrugs.
7. Lorna (Sigrid Andrea Bernardo)
What resonates clearly after seeing Lorna is that it is not about a woman getting to grips with old age and feeling dissatisfied with her life but the pains of being single and alone in general—the sting of isolation, the prospect of dying without a hand to hold, and the grief of not being good enough to be loved passionately in return. Lorna’s life is seldom interesting—her two friends are not always there to make her feel that the world is kind and colorful—and Sigrid Bernardo underlines this tedium, the dull sight and sound of every day, and puts her in situations that bare her bitterness, no matter how reasonable may it be. There is that lovely touch of theater that pulls the film out of the dumps whenever it tends to indulge, the delight of having the opportunity of shooting someone to free oneself, the freedom to just stop ugly things from happening, and these sequences cause the poignant moments to linger long enough to touch each other’s crest. As Lorna, Shamaine Buencamino makes the audience feel not only the depth of the ocean but also all the islands in it so far away from one another, delivering a character of many shades and textures, likable and unlikable at the same time. She is eternal sunshine, and Lav Diaz is the spotless mind.
6. Mariquina (Milo Sogueco)
Mariquina puts the city and the shadow of its once illustrious shoe industry in the periphery in favor of a family drama that can’t seem to contain itself despite the years. Domestic woes are set aside and reappear without warning, revealing certain wounds, inflicted on various layers of skin, that refuse to heal. The past is a bitch, Jerrold Tarog and Milo Sogueco insist, and this bitch holds the film together, allowing the long-withheld ache to either rupture (loud and messy) or kill its keeper (quiet and piercing). With its ambition and the tenacity to achieve it, the weight of the unseen and unspoken carried and released, and the actors that come jointly with spectacular force, Mariquina explodes in several places and offers a rewarding closure.
5. Gusto nang Umuwi ni Joy (Jan Tristan Pandy)
There is a quick scene in this quiet but affecting documentary where Joy, an undocumented Filipino domestic helper in the U.K., walks a dog, picks up its poop on the sidewalk, and puts it inside a plastic bag. It is shown without drama, perhaps even without sympathy, for this is only a small and negligible aspect of her everyday life in a foreign land where she has labored for six years, nothing compared with the loneliness and anxieties eating her from time to time. She is comforted only by the pictures and messages sent to her through Viber. The voices of her husband and children and the sight of her grandson ease her homesickness as she performs her housekeeping and babysitting duties.
Jan Tristan Pandy follows Joy as she tries to secure a work visa and make her stay legal, permitting her to return home without risking her employment. But the odds are not in her favor, and she is at the mercy of institutions that care so little for her, if they even do at all. He hardly focuses on strong emotions—the high points of the film are levelheaded sentiments, natural reactions to distress and disappointment—and this low-key treatment lets the viewers see Joy from afar, how her work conditions, except for her status, are far from bad, how those years in careful “hiding” have given her family a comfortable life, how she finds worth and hope in modest deeds, how tolerant and accepting she has become. Pandy depicts her with neither warmth nor detachment, for Joy does not represent anything except herself. This document of her life, both sober and somber, becomes much sadder the moment it finds a fitting conclusion.
4. She’s Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina)
What’s more telling about She’s Dating the Gangster is not the ability of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla to deliver the sweeping magic expected of them, nor the skill of Cathy Garcia-Molina to explore newer sensations and spaces in romantic comedies, but how it has managed to shed light on interesting perspectives. For one, it bares on a larger scale the generation of young people engrossed in Wattpad and reveals the kind of stories and storytelling that excite them, thereby allowing Star Cinema—the only film studio thriving in this age when the mainstream is no longer mainstream as far as the number of releases is concerned—to take advantage of the trend, driven by its nature to recognize currency in the current.
But this is in no way a display of consideration for She’s Dating the Gangster. Even in the confines of the actual film itself, let down may it be by the triteness of the story, something moves with irresistible confidence and conveys the delicacy of a formula. The silliness and excesses that carry it compose a whole that muddles mature and immature responses to love, making use of the freedom that commercial movies, within the seeming limitations of their narratives, can play with. Kathryn and Daniel are finally able to show that, given a skilled director, their appeal can go beyond television, accepting that sometimes they need to step aside to benefit the film. The brief encounter of Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta near the end is an intense emotional highlight, a meta device that has yet to find its equal in recent years, and there is no better response to it than surrender.
3. Violator (Dodo Dayao)
Violator has the look and feel of a first or last film, something that has been on the mind for a long time, incubated, thought and rethought until it starts to take shape and bleed. This is clear with the calculated, precise, and confident way it unfolds, the attention to details, and the tendency to fill the story with references to several influences and ideas that intensify its apocalyptic premise. It proceeds with both eagerness and caution, conforming to the genre and challenging it at the same time, making it more specific while keeping the indispensable stereotypes.
An interesting claim is that everyone is a supporting character: the relationships created between Joel Lamangan, Victor Neri, Andy Bais, Timothy Mabalot, Anthony Falcon, RK Bagatsing, and Cesar Montano do not depend on each other. No one is leading anyone. Another is that everything is a reminder of anomaly: the cult leader appearing in plain sight, the two friends on the hill, the maddening sound of rain, the dead birds falling from the sky, the photo eaten and swallowed, the male ego trying to be stronger than the end of the world, the devil fucking up. The climax is an attempt at finding a center, putting together these elements in one impressive technical feat, a bunch of men pulling actual and abstract triggers, letting the audience remember those sketches in the first half and how they are more frightening in hindsight.
On many occasions, one can feel the critic in Dodo Dayao guiding and berating him, making decisions for him, but there is also the visual artist awfully concerned with mood, and the result is a picture that overwhelms in the first viewing and illuminates in the second, fully accomplished in both instances.
2. That Thing Called Tadhana (Antoinette Jadaone)
For some people, Anthony is too good to be true, a dreamboat, a stranger too kind to exist. In fiction and real life, good intentions are often regarded with doubt, and having misgivings is reasonable, a completely human trait, except it tends to overlook the fact that some people would actually choose to err in this direction, to make wrong decisions at the right time. Someone who would bear listening to a woman terribly immersed in her heartaches and accompany her all the way to Baguio and Sagada, at one point finding himself falling for her, is hardly convincing: there has to be a catch. But That Thing Called Tadhana has none—Anthony just wants to be with Mace, hoping to make her feel better, and she, on the other hand, would appreciate a sponge, a willing companion who can endure her mood swings. Kindness, after all, can be free and genuine.
In every script, Antoinette Jadaone makes it a point to find a hook, like a composer whose main objective is to create something that sticks, something that pokes at the softness of her viewers and mesmerizes them. She revels in witty dialogues, exchanges that tread quickly between serious and humorous, and alludes to her own influences. The charm of Tadhana is that it doesn’t feel too crowded—John Lloyd Cruz, One More Chance, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?,” Don’t Give Up On Us, BenCab, Session Road, Café by the Ruins, strawberry taho, shooting stars, lost luggage, bungee jumping, Up Dharma Down—all these staples of romantic fancy and pop culture references are laid down gently and leave a mild but definite impression. Jadaone gets away with them because they seldom feel like accessories: they breathe the same air as her characters.
But all this won’t have been possible without the remarkable performance of Angelica Panganiban, she who plays Mace with weight, vulnerability, and vividness, not only persuasive and endearing but also annoying and inconsiderate, a woman who deserves a slap in the face and a hug after it. It’s interesting that JM de Guzman is chosen for the role: not very handsome, not very popular, and not very striking: he complements her to the point of weakening his own character (that Anthony almost becomes a manic pixie dream guy).
2014 has been a fruitful year for Jadaone: three features with commercial releases (Beauty in a Bottle; Relaks, It’s Just Pag-Ibig; and Tadhana), a prizewinning short (“Ang Nanay kong Noisy”), a Palanca win for screenplay, a screenwriting credit and award for English Only, Please, an invitation to Berlinale—and clearly if the prize of good work is more work, the prospect of having her around for a long time is rather reassuring.
1. Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (Lav Diaz)
As recent as three or four years ago, it would have been ridiculous to suggest, or even entertain the idea, that Lav Diaz can fill a theater, in Manila or anywhere else in the world. Just connecting his name with a jampacked screening feels absurd, especially with how his filmmaking has remained stubborn over the years, his ideas always looking for doors and windows to enter and extending as far as space and silence permit, as though he had long been onto something and only a few people could see it. For more than a decade, it appears as though it became a matter of who will give up first: he who continues to tell stories that contain the bleak fates of his people, or his small but growing number of viewers who have come to terms with his demands and by now have the sense to decide whether he’s a hack or not.
Winning the grand prize in Locarno has surely changed things, leading to arrangements that will allow his body of work to be seen by those interested in it, madness as it may seem, for now, especially after the successful runs of Norte across the country, the concern is no longer about having audiences but about finding venues and putting schedules in order to accommodate them. Diaz has sculpted time himself: he has convinced enough people to recognize that cinematic time is hardly about length but depth, not so much about stretching it but letting it absorb as many fine points as possible. Between Diaz and his viewers, time is the main currency, a requirement and an agreement, the protagonist and the villain, something he has always made clear ever since. There is this tired and trite debate that insists on separating art from entertainment, but how can someone sit through a black-and-white five-hour movie, trying as much as possible to refuse the need of going to the bathroom, without admitting that there is actually a spell of enjoyment at work? That beyond the grayness and stillness there are in fact lives raring to come out and one is curious to see them?
The Film Development Council of the Philippines, acknowledging its win as the highest honor given to Philippine cinema, has decided to organize a free screening of Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon, interestingly, on September 21, exactly 42 years since Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation 1081, which placed the entire country under martial law. This historical moment figures prominently in the film in a horrifying sequence, the sound of Marcos’s voice having located the eye of the nightmare. Despite the note at the beginning, a hopeful viewer tries to comfort himself by thinking that everything is fiction; but now, in a clear declaration of fascist intent, he couldn’t deny the certainty of every word that has come to define countless pasts and futures. The reaction of the soldiers makes it all the more unsettling and sickening.
There is so much to say and argue about the sorrow, suffering, and violence depicted in Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon. It is far from perfect—there are numerous instances when the technique reveals indulgence and tests one’s patience, moments when it feels wrong to wait this long—but Diaz, with his gift as a storyteller, has a means of making the viewers understand why this thorough and expansive depiction is crucial, why this is the only way for him to let them feel the indescribable regret of seeing a town and its people disappear off the face of the earth, with almost no one remembering them, why some narratives can survive without ends, and why the appeal of great films is their flawed nature. An applause ends the screening, the theater still packed with people, and nothing from any movie released this year has ever come close to this instant of absolute joy.
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 5) September 3, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Dagitab (Giancarlo Abrahan)
Almost every aspect of Dagitab, from the story and direction to the cast and technical details, makes it a cut above the rest of the entries in this year’s Cinemalaya. Its opening image sets the mood of mystery, evoking a sense of richness quite conscious to unfold something larger than life, emotions and thoughts of considerable weight that put the viewer at ease, alternating between mind and heart. Despite the nature of its characters to talk a lot, there is a quietness that keeps the story steady while in motion, gently peeling its many layers until it reaches the core. No doubt the beauty in the first half captivates: the humor, the temper and indulgence, the marital and personal issues, the attachment to one’s alma mater, the feeling of living there for years and having this particular frame of mind, the horse latitudes, the entanglement of youth and middle age, the demons, the wires waiting for current to flow.
But it is upon contact with this core that writer and director Giancarlo Abrahan finds himself helpless like his own pair of characters, struggling to keep hold of the pretty pieces and wringing every possible item soaked in its sentiment. As he tries to look for a proper closure, the film crumbles the way it is built, slowly, with grace and refinement, poking at softer spots, unsure where to end but certain that it has to remain introspective. It’s easy to be carried away while watching it, to find a moment of connection that will clear all the stains, the stilted dialogue, the blitz of overly conscious UP markers, to identify with the couple’s belief that had they led “more normal” lives, it would have been different —this claim of being out of the ordinary, possibly in a higher position than others but wounded and hurting all the same, oblivious to the things they take for granted—but by all means it won’t. Dagitab is too stiff and careful, too absorbed in the idea that it’s fascinating, and too focused on its subject that it fails to see the whole from afar, like looking at the dark sky and noticing only the stars, not the constellation. B-
#Y (Gino Santos)
Several reviews of #Y commend director Gino Santos for walking around the reason for its main character’s suicide. While it’s obvious that such ploy is intended to produce this seemingly startling semblance of insight, there is sneakiness in its execution, the discreetness easily mistaken for skill. People talk about it as though he were saying something meaningful or interesting, while in fact everything in the film looks lip-synched, and the worldview to which it affixes its statements and insinuations reeks of piss.
One can’t help but wonder: is being inarticulate now a benchmark of good filmmaking? Or does it have something to do with the allure of ambiguity, how, in real life, nothing can be completely understood? Hardly pointed out in these reviews is that the motivation has always been there, loud and clear, and conveying it in plain conventional terms defeats the film’s objective to reflect (and not reflect on) the lives of upper class kids who flaunt their pleasures and preoccupations in a manner that puts the audience in this position to formulate judgments based on their crassness, pretense, and indifference. These characters are flat on purpose, designed to be pumped with air, but even with shape, they have no silhouette. Why create them and give them nothing inside? Why speak on their behalf and sound gibberish?
The Animals is sloppy, but it’s the right kind of sloppy: its transgression makes the viewer feel dirty and violated. The intent to offend is explicit, and it can’t help but go overboard because it has nothing much to say. #Y, on the other hand, is more conscious of its mischief, beholden by this duty to represent, hiding in this veneer of inscrutability and itching to be taken seriously. Santos and writer Jeff Stelton should have known better than pulling the angst card and making the suicide feel trivial and frivolous, unable to capture the nuance of it that is actually universal, preferring instead to show the layer that gleams with self-congratulation. D
Mariquina (Milo Sogueco)
Writer Jerrold Tarog has always had issues with time. His scripts, most notably for Senior Year and Sana Dati, find their fulcrum in the past, in decisions that cut deeper as years go by. His characters are often put out of action, powerless to let bygones be bygones, trying to reach and pick up something from way back. Time is his beloved villain, and in Mariquina, it comes with a goon squad, tormenting the protagonist with memories that form the bulk of the film, events that already happened, and it isn’t so much about seeing things swell and burst but observing how they become smaller, get creased and folded, reduced to this tiny square, a handkerchief damp with tears. Clearly it is neither about the place nor the shoes that have made it famous—Tarog uses these elements only to make the ache specific, to have some corners that will define the context and subtext and limit the course of action, but he ends up confronting larger rocks along the way: the degree of pain can never be precise.
But the script can’t stand alone. For a narrative that digs out many unpleasant items, most of which are bones whose nature has always been to frighten, Mariquina moves smoothly, conscious of every step and rest, and breathes in and out evenly. One sits through it and feels the softness of its heavy scenes, light but never slight, dense but never difficult. Director Milo Sogueco is attentive to blanks and beats, providing his cast with a similar level of understanding of the material, no one higher or lower, all on the same plane, armed with the same weapon. Mylene Dizon, Ricky Davao, Barbie Forteza, and Bing Pimentel complement one another, and whenever they are off-screen, they are felt more, their absence more imposing than their presence.
The presence of Imelda Marcos and the insinuations of a seemingly better life during her husband’s reign are shadows seen and felt on a daily basis that people have learned to deal with over the decades, vestiges of his regime that not only persist in present surroundings but are also embedded on one’s consciousness, inescapable, noticed only on particular occasions, so when Imelda walks in and delivers her lines she sounds like a bad version of herself, because she makes an effort to be real. But even this weak point speaks volumes, something that can be argued with interest. One of the pleasures of watching Mariquina is being overwhelmed by its generosity: how it finds the compelling in the ordinary and feels grateful for every particle of dust that settles. A-
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 4) August 22, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
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Children’s Show (Roderick Cabrido)
The strength of Children’s Show lies in its interesting focal point—children and teenagers, their youth and poverty exploited, trying to make ends meet for their families by participating in brutal underground fights—and it’s a hook that gets thinner as the story progresses. Director Roderick Cabrido deviates from it to favor a drama that is, by all means, engaging and worthy to look at, but he fails to consider that the viewer itches to learn more about these gruesome matches and discover details and nuances, how these arrangements have come to pass, what allows this terrible system to continue, and in what way does it implicate the failure of many social institutions to be on the side of the poor and help them lead better lives. It could have been illuminating, bent as it is on presenting this culture, the corners that trap its characters and observe them make life-changing decisions, but it offers only flashes and flickers of discernment, owing mostly to writer Ralston Jover’s quirks. In the grand scheme of things, what it is carries the same weight as what it isn’t, and unknowingly Children’s Show tends to emphasize what it lacks. Cabrido, like his first narrative feature, has something in him that his contemporaries don’t have—the frenetic keenness, the eye for grub and grit, the excesses that display his personality—but it will probably take time before he fully realizes it. C+
The Janitor (Michael Tuviera)
A dirty mind is quick to consider that The Janitor may have been initially conceived as a gay movie, what with its diligence to have mouth-wateringly attractive actors play lead, supporting, and even minor roles, their presence serving as its main currency. Those scenes in which Dennis Trillo works out and shows off his shapely muscles, sex cuts, and tattoos, exuding this masculinity that makes the female and gay spectator shudder in gratefulness, feel unnecessary but justified on the basis of carnal pleasure, director Michael Tuviera aware of how cinema is about gaze and the gratification gained from it. Within this context, especially when the audience has come to a point where it looks forward to the next hot guy to appear onscreen, The Janitor works so well—there is brisk dynamics in its tease and homoeroticism—but even outside it, even in the framework of an action genre, it satisfies. A distinct current keeps moving it to the fore, unafraid whether it comes across as laughable or incredulous. The comparison with On the Job is valid, and Tuviera, concerned only about delivering a twist and polishing the surface on which it happens, doesn’t care. Whenever he is in doubt, all he has to do is show his boys and engage them in a physical activity. How cunning. B+
Kasal (Joselito Altarejos)
Director Joselito Altajeros’s preferred English title of Kasal is The Commitment, and native speakers all know that this is not a faithful translation but one that provides depth and wisdom to the idea of wedding or marriage. This kind of gesture pervades the film, whose composure is tame compared with his early works, to the point that even at its most tender and touching moment, that long take of Arnold Reyes and Oliver Aquino having sex, Altajeros chooses to have one of his movies projected on the wall as it happens. There is consciousness to overplay things, to make issues go out of hand and be settled or neglected in a manner that requires a stretch, and these concerns may happen in real life but in film they appear flimsy, almost like a wordy afterthought. Kasal rubs in such a way that it feels somewhat obliged to speak for the gay community, putting its couple not only in relatable circumstances but also in crucial ones, the most obvious of which puts forward their conflicting ideas on same-sex marriage in the Philippines: one is hopeful (and quite naive) while the other is doubtful (and obviously cynical). It’s a film that gays of all sensibilities would be so open to love—for it deliberates a pertinent subject at a time when discussions like this deserve attention, boasting a pool of skilled actors devoted to its beliefs and driven by a desire to approach things from a sober perspective—but it is weakened by the tendency to overexplain and repeat its arguments, and as the narrative comes to an end it’s hard to tell whether the reaction evoked is sympathy or tolerance. C+
Cinemalaya 2014 (Part 3) August 17, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Hari ng Tondo (Carlos Siguion-Reyna)
There is this priceless scene in Hari ng Tondo in which an emotional Cris Villonco, running away from home, trips and falls on the ground with her hastily collected clothes. She is in such a hurry to leave that she blurts out to the young girl in front of her, “Tawagin mo akong taxi! Tawagin mo akong taxi!”—to which the child replies, “Taxi ka! Taxi ka!”—and it happens so fast, ending as suddenly as it starts, that the laughter comes only after realizing that the joke is over. That brief moment alone captures the energy of the film, enthusiastic and raring to go, spontaneous and careless, hardly insightful but downright amusing, driven by this pleasure from making fun of the rich and poor and sparing neither of them from the prank. It seems to be built on a series of setups, playing with the stereotypes of the community but not so much reflecting the actual—the drama resting on one’s preconceived notions of Tondo but refusing to show them deliberately, only bits and pieces, random stink here and there, superficial chaos and disagreements for the sake of spectacle. This is not, after all, about poverty and suffering but the humor that comes along with sentimentalizing them, sometimes risking being insensitive in exchange for laughs. Whenever a large crack in the narrative shows or an uncomfortable stereotype lingers, the film is quick to expose it further or make necessary distractions: the audience will always be reminded how unserious it is. But what makes it all the more interesting is that Hari ng Tondo marks the return of Carlos Siguion-Reyna, whose prominent movies are notable for being affectingly contrived, and his confidence to push things over is still there, only now he’s unsympathetic and relaxed. It may not be an ideal comeback, but it’s delightfully enough. B+
Sundalong Kanin (Janice O’Hara)
It’s cruel to put down something earnest and unpretentious as Sundalong Kanin, especially in a festival that is now populated by big names and ambitious productions, but despite the potential of its story and the unwavering will to deliver, the film is hardly convincing. The crudeness is understandable, leaving this air of innocence and inexperience suited to its gruesome coming-of-age story, but the moment the kids talk about the imminence of war and take reckless actions during the Japanese occupation, it turns into a disappointing high school production where efforts are rewarded based on tolerance, the viewer predisposed to allow its good intentions eclipse the obvious flaws of execution. The atrocity of war couldn’t be any clearer—almost every scene is a reminder of how terrible it is, and every dialogue comes across as something lifted from a textbook—except that there’s something amiss in the way it consistently presents this perspective, as though appropriating these historical events only for show, for a passing grade. C
Hustisya (Joel Lamangan)
Nora Aunor’s sinister laugh at the end of Hustisya is a fitting closure to a film that has its share of extremely bad and unexpectedly good moments, the hysteria no longer confined to the narrative but seeming to extend to her personal life, as though Ricky Lee and Joel Lamangan staged this scene alone as an opportunity for her to speak her mind about the National Artist issue, and Ate Guy, the superstar, possibly the most fascinating figure in Philippine cinema, for the lack of better gesture, cracks up after hearing some words whispered to her, aware of the absurdity of it all but allowing herself to be carried along. One can easily feel that despite her humble presence, she is much bigger than the material: all it does is make room for predictable dramatic scenes and catch up on her, unable to provide her with what she deserves. Granted, Ate Guy blends perfectly into the milieu, but Manila seems so designed to welcome her—political rallies, vandalism, disappearance of activists, and religious feasts happen when she’s around—and Lamangan is eager to show her reaction to these realities, may it be a casual look or an emotional reflection. Hustisya is too concerned about accommodating her that the drama, out of convenience, jumps from one outrageous sequence to another, and she just keeps doing what she is told. From time to time, most especially in that scene where she repeats “Akin na ang notebook ko!” in such iconic delivery that audience members find themselves clapping with pleasure, the flashiness is forgivable. But more often than not, when the story is forced to move, one gets used to laughing with pain. C+
Rekorder (Mikhail Red, 2013) March 1, 2014Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written by Mikhail Red and Ian Victoriano
Directed by Mikhail Red
Cast: Ronnie Quizon, Mile Lloren, Buboy Villar
The past year has been considered a high point of Philippine cinema, yet in hindsight, in a reflection that may occur to moviegoers who often find themselves confounded by tiring pronouncements, validating this assertion does not rest on the consensus that, indeed, a number of distinguishingly well-made films have been released in 2013, emphasized further by year-end lists put together by local critics and cineastes. A more convincing argument for the previous year’s greatness, if one must be drawn to such monotonous debate, is the rarely pointed out but curiously remarkable fact that a string of overlooked films, those who have suffered from groupthink and inattention, provide better material for telling discussions, and should titles be named, these include Rekorder by Mikhail Red, Amor y Muerte by Cesar Evangelista, Puti by Mike Alcazaren, Babagwa by Jason Paul Laxamana, and Four Sisters and A Wedding by Cathy Garcia-Molina. All these movies are obviously flawed, but the mix of newness and charm, not to mention excesses and lapses, that their directors bring to the screen is a welcoming change from the usual subjects of admiration.
Rekorder, for instance, is drowned out by the brimming compliments for Transit by Hannah Espia, the darling of the crowd at Cinemalaya and the country’s entry to the Oscars, accolades that seem to have made it invulnerable. Both in their twenties, Espia and Red have directed acclaimed short films prior to their first features and represent a good crop of young filmmakers who have taken a chance on grant-giving festivals and come out with a finished product—not an easy feat these days considering that the seed money is wrapped in a foil of concessions and compliance. After Cinemalaya, however, Espia and Red have come to be defined by the reception to their debuts. She is able to screen her film in various cities across the world, encouraged by the eagerness for her follow-up; he, on the other hand, is happy just to be able to show his work to a handful of viewers, in Manila or in Tokyo, most of whom may actually enter and leave the theater carrying the same feeling. But to the few who have been moved by the rawness and sincerity of Rekorder, particularly by its failed attempts at polishing its perspective, it only feels right to admit that, with the benefit of hindsight, the small consideration given to it matches its smallness, and that Red, supposing he is willing to be on the suffering side of the art form for which his father has labored for decades, can offer something that his contemporaries cannot.
Although it’s shot in different formats, the changes in tone, texture, and frame sizes complement the atmosphere of internal and external deterioration, from the demons that keep hovering over the principal character to the glitches in his surroundings that he is forced to confront, actions and distractions that Red sets up to make him move. Rekorder’s experimental quality, instead of presenting new ideas, falls into the trap of engaging in stale metaphors and hackneyed juxtapositions, visuals that feel compelled to say something, plots that tend to put things out of focus, and elements that build down rather than up to a conclusion, particularly with the effect of those shots of buildings and skies at night, highlighting the verves perceptible only among the nocturnal. But this is Red’s youth speaking for him, which is an acceptable display of flimsiness; and it’s good that he hasn’t lost it, for the moment the film attends to a crucial turning point, when the protagonist bears witness to a crime and is able to record it on video, the narrative suddenly finds a backbone, and what has started out as messy becomes messier, and its echoes sound clearer and more resonant.
What several viewers regard as “dragging” is basically an effort to establish coherence between things from the past and present, how these items, whether material (camcorder, movie posters, theaters, reels) or conceptual (violence, media, ethics, freedom, progress), are changed and devalued over time, and the people who own and consume them—those who fail to adjust and carry on, those who choose to stop at one moment and realize it’s better to stay there—end up battered and haunted. Ronnie Quizon, in a career-defining performance, embodies a man who wanders between reason and madness, and one by one the objects and thoughts keeping him steady are being taken away from him, Red capturing his weariness and struggle by submitting to Quizon’s delightful moments of self-indulgence. A commanding presence onscreen, he exudes the soul of a lazy, tormented hero, one who’s difficult to hate and frown upon, and one whose frequent plunges into despair are inevitable.
A huge chunk of Rekorder tugs at movie piracy and the glory days of Philippine cinema, but oddly these matters feel negligible as the story moves forward. They provide the backdrop in which the lead character situates his life (or lack thereof) and fixations, but as soon as the routine of his work and his past are established, they wilt and fade. For some reason they come across as distant, lacking the immediacy to make the viewer feel involved. May this be attributed to Red’s weakness as a writer and director or is indifference a prevailing attitude as far as these subjects are concerned? How come when Earl Ignacio, the moment he is being carried away by the police during a raid, shouts about the sorry state of Filipino films, in a tone that is somehow similar to being slapped in the face, the tendency to cringe and look away from the screen is so tempting? How is it possible not to be affected by the nuances of these contradictions?
Nevertheless, the reveal at the end makes an uncanny impression, for, unexpectedly, the long walks and empty gazes begin to add up, the trembling and stuttering, the look of fright and longing, the melancholy of a single man, the detachment from society and from himself, the obscenity of simply being alive. Eclipsing the pain of nostalgia and the ordinariness of violence is this throb of personal preoccupation, and Rekorder, in its efforts to create a complex and rounded milieu for its protagonist, understands the need to collapse, and in a world that continues to pull unpleasant surprises, where humanity rusts for want of use, it seems to be the only fitting end.
*Published in the second issue of Kino Punch, UP Cinema’s film magazine
Riddles of My Homecoming (Arnel Mardoquio, 2013) November 12, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, Noypi.
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Written and directed by Arnel Mardoquio
Cast: Fe GingGing Hyde, Perry Dizon, Madz Garcia, Jillian Khayle Barbarona, Jeff Sabayle
Riddles of My Homecoming is a beautiful title, like a line from an ode or elegy written ages ago, waiting to be lifted by a curious reader. As the film cracks open many of its sorrowful ambiguities, it seems that there is more pressure for director Arnel Mardoquio to create something to match the elegance of these words than to carry the well-defined politics of his previous film, Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim. He finds painful comfort in abstraction, in images following a careless rhythm, in characters guided by voices. Riddles is hazy, elusive, and unreachable, dabbling in sensations and obscurities, but its surface doesn’t pull any surprises, its tone never betraying its modesty.
It argues: How can one depict the soul of a struggle without resorting to a personal language, without consulting a map whose locations are now ruins? Towards the end it whispers: The places are no longer here but their imprints remain, but what are imprints for?
To make people remember, or to make them remember not to forget, is what Mardoquio, with his gentle temperament, seems to say. His vignettes flow with dreamy pleasure; its edges are rough and pointed but they give off a warm and uncompromising feeling. Some stories are clear as they engage in universal themes (attraction, sex, murder, war, freedom) and some tread on unfamiliar territories, leaving a trail of puzzle pieces whose entire picture never form, but whose impact, conveyed through mysterious objects and behavior, is completely felt: fractured but whole.
Hinting at many things, it hits only a few, but those few manage to creep on one’s skin. Mardoquio shapes a silent film around subjects that require voices, people whose histories are defined by their sound, surroundings whose noises make up the legend of a land. But he gives them another tongue, offers them the gift of speech, and declares their independence.
A large part of Riddles is shot in Compostela Valley, where typhoon Pablo left hundreds of people dead and thousands of families homeless in 2012. Ravaged and razed, it’s a province that heaves a sigh whenever one reaches it, its bumpy and potholed terrain like a face full of pockmarks and scars, tired from having weathered too many battles. Mardoquio has chosen a place that has its own light, and Compostela Valley, with its bleak forests, pale skies, and murky waters, is a reminder of collapse and resignation that can erode any surface, that can empty any space that has an indistinguishable entrance and exit. The film’s baffling nature is given as it tries to condense many ideas, many failures of man between past and future, but it is never superfluous, never in its mosaic of phantasms can it be called thin or dull.
“It’s a short film. Don’t blink,” Mardoquio says in his introduction at the screening. And indeed it’s short: short compared to its ambition, short compared to the scale of his sociocultural issues, short compared to the breadth of its madness. It demands to be taken seriously, but it’s wrong to think that it is always serious. Riddles is a predictable route for Mardoquio—where else can he go after the marvelously radical arc of Ang Paglalakbay?—but he is steadfast in his activism, in his aching need to be heard. It is a cheerless vision driven by anger and regret, but for several moments it is tempted to make itself clear, to solve its own riddle, only to find itself unable, disabled, looking ahead with its eyes closed.
Babagwa (Jason Paul Laxamana, 2013) October 9, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinemalaya, Noypi.
Written and directed by Jason Paul Laxamana
Cast: Alex Vincent Medina, Joey Paras, Alma Concepcion
There is a tendency to question the merits of Babagwa on account of its unpleasant ending, but even with such lapse it’s hard to deny its earsplitting accomplishment. Seething with fervor, three-fourths of it is downright terrific: a persuasive, willful, and unapologetic display of skill that few local films in recent memory have come close to achieving. Everything seems to have been arranged to emphasize the impression of astuteness, pushing until it destructs itself. It’s proof that flawed movies provide stronger depictions of obnoxious realities, as though their faults were part of a scheme that makes the viewing experience rewardingly unsettling.
Depth, luckily, is not a concern. Writer and director Jason Paul Laxamana does not scrutinize his subject: his primary intention is to lay the narrative down with force and doggedness. Babagwa’s lead character, Greg, is a swindler. Aided by his two cohorts, he befriends people using a false Facebook identity and makes them believe that in this day and age emotions are foolproof. He specializes in sending romantic signals and ensuring that they reach their target. As soon as his prospects show a moment of vulnerability, sweet nothings are exchanged, then sexual innuendos, and lastly, bank account numbers. He gets by through this horrid scam, a livelihood wholly dependent on fraud, a web of duplicities made stickier by an excessive faith in the innocence of feelings.
A rational claim is that Babagwa, like most narratives that cause tremendous discomfort, is a horror story. Its haunted house is the Internet, and Facebook is its most visited room. It is impelled by a series of actions that escalates until the mood no longer feels comfortable, until drastic decisions are made and the turn of events moves obliquely in fast forward. What brings the frightening feeling is how the characters, motivated by terrible reasons, feed on the terror they create before going on autopilot. When Greg entertains the thought he will be forgiven for the harm he has done by doing what’s right, he runs around like a headless chicken: an impostor falling into a trap he himself has set up, a con artist oblivious of his own naïveté. Arriving at a crossroads, the movie builds up to a thrilling conclusion that offers numerous exits, only to settle unwisely for the nearest one.
Its nuts and bolts, so tight before the reveal, are covered with rust in an instant, and this stain, aside from raising doubts, also adds to the icky aftertaste. Granted, that catch at the end is supposed to be clever—a way of showing a reversal of fortune, a nearly fatal stab of karma, clearly intended to mess things up further—but it rubs distastefully because the film has gained so much steam that it deserves a riper sense of closure. The ride would have been more satisfying had Laxamana let the cunningness go and shifted his focus to a resolution that does not resolve anything; cutting it abruptly or leaving it open, in fact, would have made an exceptionally fearful impact, for apathy trumps any form of payback or vindication. The final act is played out with the fat lady (not singing but) drawing the curtain of what feels like a joke, turning a convincing story into a cautionary tale, giving unsolicited advice whose moral righteousness softens the blow.
The fuss over the ending is warranted because it brings out what makes Babagwa an engaging piece of work. Bold, defiant, and aggressive, it doesn’t run for cover or ask for sympathy. Its propensity to go over the top pays off, aware that its display of vanity is designed to overwhelm the viewer. The pleasure of seeing Alex Medina, Joey Paras, and Alma Concepcion pull each other’s leg shows that catfishing is indeed a serious business, and that the Internet, the most extensive cradle of recent civilization—complete with history, culture, economic means, sociopolitical structure, and crimes—is also a place where only the fittest survive, a place where one lives and dies. And those left behind (people, things, and memories) have the ability to forget and take the next step, seemingly unfazed to let sleeping dogs lie.
Laxamana is driven by a filthy desire to provoke and he does so without hesitation, allowing his happy-go-lucky spirit to capitalize on the fear of everyday correspondence. By breathing life into Bam Bonifacio—showing him around his condominium unit, dressing him up, and adding details to his fictional charmed life—Laxamana makes the crime even more palpable, leaving deeper teeth marks as the juxtaposition of two lives (Bam and Greg) underlines the desperation that draws them together. The sex scenes between Alex Medina and Chanel Latorre, filled with wet kisses and nipple licking, border on soft-porn, coming across as dirty and titillating without being repulsive. With these two key portions of the film, there’s a conscious effort to set things in motion, to keep itself away from anything dull, but the end of the game, as Greg regards his destination to be, is only the start of something else.