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Don’t Believe Me Just Watch: Top Filipino Films of 2015 January 2, 2016

Posted 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.


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)


NETPAC Festival Report — QCinema 2015: Third Time’s a Charm November 8, 2015

Posted 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, 2015

Posted 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, 2015

Posted 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, 2015

Posted 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, 2015

Posted 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.