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

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Noypi, ToFarm.
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HIGH TIDE (Tara Illenberger)

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

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

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


SINANDOMENG (Byron Bryant)

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


KAMUNGGAI (Vic Acedillo, Jr.)

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

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

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


Dispatches from ToFarm Film Festival 2017 (Part 1) July 17, 2017

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Indie Sine, Noypi, ToFarm.
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INSTALADO (Jason Paul Laxamana)

One can’t help but admire the dogged efforts of Instalado to make its setting believable, introducing a time in the future when knowledge is “installed” on people’s brains the way software is installed on computers to make them highly functional. It banks on this premise not only to depict how modernity can be morally cruel but also to deliver, somewhat halfheartedly, the well-intentioned requirement of the festival to highlight the importance of agriculture. The concept is intriguing at best, especially as it adorns its physical milieu with futuristic elements (holograms, fancy paper bills, flashy diploma cards) and takes a stab at making a sociopolitical commentary (setting it in the agricultural town of Porac, Pampanga, where young ones yearn for better life through “easy” but expensive “education,” and where a group of rallyists struggle against this sweeping capitalist culture).

On paper, all of these may look promising and convincing. There is a charming childishness to its vision that makes the audience want to root for it. But the problem lies in its singlemindedness, in its copious, long-winded displays of self-indulgence that neglect the need for its high-concept ideas to be given a cinematic equivalent for them to work. Instalado lacks the production values required to render a satisfying look and feel of its ambition — even on a small scale reminiscent of good lo-fi sci-fi — which is not an issue of looking expensive but feeling impressive. This visual flatness is exacerbated by the lack of cohesion between its characters, each of whom seeming to do monologues instead of conversations. Midway through the film it stops being interesting and loses whatever that keeps it going, partly because it insists on establishment until the very end, on building its world further instead of making that world come alive through a compelling story, and partly because the film, as much as it is commenting on the brutality of present society, is detached from it and just too concerned with itself.


BAKLAD (Topel Lee)

There are so many terrible things strewn in Baklad that at some point, instead of feeling offended, one just laughs at the inanity of it all. Everything feels out of place and sloppily put together, with the narrative being pushed forward but going nowhere meaningful, and the characters looking oblivious and acting clueless, poor souls made even poorer by the film’s condescension. The specificity of its milieu — a small community in Laguna where fish pens owned by a powerful, repulsive engineer are guarded by pubescent boys — could have worked to its advantage and turned it into a dynamic and thought-provoking drama, but the writing never allows it to evoke anything consequential, the crafting of the story shamelessly exposing outdated but still-appalling varieties of sexism and male chauvinism. The direction can only do so much, but the handling of the material is just as awful and amateurish, that instead of feeling sorry for the sad plight of the characters, one simply wants the misery of watching them to end. It is one of those cases in which someone tries to discuss social ills in the hope of bringing to light some important issues, but only ends up doing more harm by talking nonsense and being rude.



One of the things that can attest to the malleability of cinema as an art form, which adds to the complexity of reading it, is the possibility of not liking the film but liking what it leaves you. An example is What Home Feels Like: It has way too many untightened screws, a creative decision that seems deliberate since it also wants to show the forged affection between a father and his family, in a way emphasizing the hollow he has left over the years of being away from home. His unawareness of this void — between his wife and him, and between his children and him — is the source of strain, and his subsequent awareness of it releases it, creating heavier drama and melancholy.

But watching What Home Feels Like isn’t exactly a fine experience: It overdoes the “subtlety” card and extends sequences and adds images that do not particularly complement its narrative, its idea of depth hinged on putting more. This results in a film that manages to get across a picture of a family set apart by emotional distance, the pain and pity that such situation brings, and a viewing torment that sees plenty of opportunities wasted because of the mistaken preference for superfluity. The drama needs more focus than tedium, more tightening than floating, but the director decides to fill the film with fluff and bloats it with unnecessary details, oftentimes resorting to predictable television devices.

There is this one sequence in which the estranged father tries to reach out to his children. He goes to his son’s room, who is hesitant to let him in, and talks to him. He says “I love you.” The son doesn’t reply. He steps out. The father then sees his daughter on her way to her room and chats with her, talks to her the same way he has talked to his son. He says “I love you.” She replies but not with the exact words. He walks back sadly. Then a few sequences later, he overhears his son opening up to his mother, crying, and telling her he loves her. Sometime afterward, he eavesdrops on a hushed conversation between his daughter and his wife, the intimacy between them, which he has never experienced since arriving home, unquestionable. One can understandably tear up upon realizing the connection of these moments, which can be quite overwhelming in their effect — and there are many in the film, to be fair — scenes that allow one to reflect on a personal level. They are scattered, and they just need some sorting out.