Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sinag Maynila 2015: Bambanti and overall thoughts

Bambanti
Directed by Zig Dulay

Spoiler: the scarecrow did it. Just kidding.

Bambanti is a film with a simple premise - it's a tale about a missing watch and the two families involved in the incident. But in the process of uncovering the culprit, a the fragile threads holding the social order unravel, revealing issues of deception, class, privilege, prejudice and influence in a small town in Isabela.

This struggle pitting one class against another doesn't feel forced; but you can feel it in the atmosphere of the film, in every awkward silence, in every action, every glare. Alessandra de Rossi dishes out a fine performance as a woman who seems to have the world burdened on her shoulders. Gorgeous cinematography and shot composition complement the work, and there are some marvelous scenes where the situation is left to speak for itself, without words.

The movie takes you through a lot of twists and turns, and the mystery is eventually solved. But as the end reminds us, despite the outward artifice of manners and pleasantries, gaping wounds remain underneath and will likely never be healed. The scarecrow's innards are hollow.

If films of this quality are any indication, here's to a 2015 with more films rooted in social realism.

Overall Thoughts

This was a fun festival. Despite only showing five films, the quality inherent in each film is apparent. Although attendance was relatively low for each screening, I can only hope positive word of mouth and more quality films down the road help attract more of an audience.

From most favorite to least favorte, I would rank the films this way:
1. Imbisibol
2. Bambanti (a close second.)
3. Balut Country
4. Swap
5. Ninja Party

There are reports that some screenings in some SM Cinemas were shown earlier than scheduled; I personally experienced this during my viewing of Bambanti, which was shown half an hour late. Luckily for me, I had arrived late to the cinema so I missed nothing, but there were a lot of irate senior citizens outside waiting for the movie to start.

For its freshman outing, I have to give Sinag Maynila credit for providing the moviegoing public with some quality films.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Sinag Maynila 2015: Balut Country, Imbisibol

4/5 movies seen so far. Today it seems I lucked out because both of the movies I saw were great.

Balut Country
Directed by Paul Sta. Ana

Sometimes there are movies that just let us exist in their world - and the experience itself is the point of the whole movie. Balut Country is like that - but at the same time, it also deals with issues about land ownership in the Philippines, as well as the plight of various families who make a living on the land from trust gained over generations. While it could have been preachy or heavy handed, Balut Country tells its story by never imposing on its audience. By making the experience paramount, the message behind the experience eases in gently.

Balut Country is set in Candaba, Pampanga, where Jun (Rocco Nacino) is in the process of selling a piece of land. The sale of the land, however, would impact the lives of one family living on that land, who use a part of the land to maintain a duck farm. In other words, they'd most likely get thrown out. Jun then goes on his own quest of self discovery to sort out his life and find out if there truly is No Place Like Home (TM?)

This feudal-like system has been in place in the provinces for a some time now. Some relatives of mine are or were land owners who maintained their land under a similar arrangement. Should the system be changed? The film leaves the answers in our hands via an open ending. Although the movie leans towards a specific kind of ending, it doesn't force the issue. You can be as pessimistic or optimistic in your interpretation of the ending as you like. This viewer choice can either skew your interpretation as a subtle critique of the system, or an endorsement of it, or neither.

But the point here is the journey that takes us to that ending. Although I am not a fan of Balut, I found most of the exposition quite interesting.  The soundtrack helps and it reminded me of younger days when I would run around my grandfather's farm and play. I guess that element of nostalgia charmed me and made me like the film more. I recommend watching the film and making your own conclusions and asking your own questions about the themes the film is trying to portray.

Imbisibol
Directed by Lawrence Fajardo

THIS is the movie that should be called "Ninja Party." ...because Ninjas are from Japan and they are supposed to stay invisible. Also, there's a party in the movie somewhere. I kid.

When I was on my way home after a short holiday in Japan, I met a lady at the terminal gate who was once a "TnT" more than thirty or so years ago. (TnT - an acronym for the Tagalog phrase 'tago ng tago' - referring to illegal aliens who stay in Japan to earn money for their families back home.) Eventually she managed to marry a Japanese native and was, at the time we had the conversation, a full fledged citizen. The story intrigued me, so I took a look at the curious plight of our countrymen in Japan.

Japan has a very strict set of immigration laws, but every year a number of people from China, South East Asia and other places try to make it to Japan to work as undocumented immigrants. The number has declined in recent years thanks to stricter laws, but the problem persists. These people work difficult jobs, sometimes menial in nature, at times without benefits. Some take jobs in places normally undesirable such as the sex industry. Employers, on the other hand, take these workers in (despite the threat of penalties) to supplement a workforce for a declining population that had previously subsisted  on using their own unemployed or the elderly as a manpower pool.

While the plight of our overseas workers has been caught on camera before (most notably 2013's Transit,) Imbisibol ('Invisible') is a fantastic take on the premise. Based on a play from the local theater festival Virgin Labfest, Imbisibol delves into the lives of four Filipinos living in Japan's Fukuoka prefecture. Each of them has their own problems either with work or their own self-destructive impulses that drags them towards an inevitable meeting.

Imbisibol lacks the jumping narrative technique used in Transit, but the film works regardless. The atmosphere of the film is quite bleak, thanks in part to the snowy weather in Fukuoka at the time of shooting. The cinematography is exquisite, at times framing our characters behind curtains or through windows - a subtle nod to their invisibility. The soundtrack fits the loneliness and isolation well, especially in the film's final moments.

As an ensemble cast all of the actors involved deliver noteworthy performances. There's struggling host Allen Dizon as a host with a gambling addiction (who with all of the old sexy movie posters on the wall seems to be playing a bit of himself). There's elderly Bernardo Bernardo as a man who is tired of it all but must struggle on (whose act, in my opinion, was one of the best in the film.) There's  JM De Guzman whose character arc forms the crux of the final act, and at the center is Ces Quesada, whose well-meaning intentions to help her countrymen conflicts with her duty to her Japanese family.

It is the final act, and its final sequence, that makes this film remarkable in my eyes. Perfectly shot and edited, with its final frame a fantastic shot of footprints in the show that encapsulates everything this movie is about, it is a perfect end to a great film. Imbisibol is my favorite film of the festival thus far, and if this level of quality is the kind that we will expect from Sinag Maynila, I have great hopes for its future.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sinag Maynila 2015: Swap, Ninja Party

It's been too long since my last post, mostly because of real life getting in the way, but it's time for some short reviews!

Sinag Maynila is a new film festival featuring five feature films by well regarded and up and coming directors. I've been able to view two of them today, and the results are pretty mixed.

Swap
Directed by Remton Siega Zuasola

Based on true events, Swap is about a kidnapped baby, and the family's efforts to get him back. It's also set during Martial Law, when people disappear, but for other reasons. While the story is quite simple, the way it was executed is quite refreshing. The entirety of the movie is filmed in one take; with seamless transitions from one scene to another, sometimes between different time frames. While it is decidedly low budget the planning and execution of some of the scenes are quite impressive. Most notable are several scenes where two people are juxtaposed in the same frame despite being in different physical spaces story wise.

It's a curious blend of cinema and theater while eschewing an exaggerated theater acting style. Zuasola's cinematographer deftly uses the camera to use closeups to emphasize chaos, or emphasize emotion - tools that theater simply does not have.

While the acting is great all around, some stand out more than others. Matt Daclan, fresh from his stint in Zuasola's Soap Opera, gives a fantastic performance as the father of the kidnapped child. His range of emotions - from worried to nervous to desperate - feels almost effortless on screen, no doubt helped by the expert cinematography, but still remarkable on its own.

As an allegory or reference to the atrocities during Martial Law, I felt that some elements felt more tacked on than seamlessly integrated. If not for the occasional reference to Marcos and the activists who died under military or police torture, this could have taken place in any contemporary time frame. I personally chalk it up to the limitations of how the story was executed.

The film isn't without it's share of flaws. For some reason there was a clearly noticeable dubbing problem in some of the earlier scenes. Some lines are spoken but lips do not move; in other cases the opposite happens. The presence of some of the guns seem to be anachronistic, but I may be wrong; in this case, it's a minor nitpick and not very important in the greater scheme of things.

This film is very ambitious, and while it has a few flaws, I commend it for at least trying, something a lot of cinematic works tend to avoid lately.

Ninja Party
Directed by Jim Libiran

This particular film piqued my interest because of the trailer and the fact that there are two cuts of the film; the R-16 cut I saw in cinemas, and an uncut version for international distribution. After having seen Ninja Party, however, I was left a little underwhelmed by the final result. I do wonder if the uncut version adds anything of substance to the film aside from a little more titillation.

The film follows the exploits of four teenage girls as they go through the motions of their last few months in their catholic all girls high school. (Just saying it feels so cliche, but there you have it.) Among the end-of-year activities is a soiree being organized by the girls as well as a play - which happens to be the Greek comedy Lysistrata. Quite a strange choice for a high school play given the subject, but quite appropriate for the film's context.

The four girls go through your usual  teenage problems and at times they seem to be more exaggerated archetypes than real people (some are prudish to a fault, and some are the other way around.) Two of the girls, Alexa and Sasha, are part of this sexual extreme -  they take part in the titular Ninja Parties, where they engage in all sorts of sexual acts with boys - more or less it's an orgy with ski masks (I guess "ISIS party" or "Bank Robber Party" doesn't have the same bite.)

Like the Greek women of Lysistrata (barring Lysistrata herself) most of the girls concern themselves with the primest of pleasures, rushing headlong into a sexual world of which they are only newly aware. With parents present only at the periphery they lack guidance, that is, a Lysistrata of their own.

The overall effect of the film, however, seems wanting. The opening sequence is cut awkwardly, and I took this to mean that this was part of a far longer sequence that establishes these girls' characters even more than what was implied. As a story about sexual awakening, this story felt exaggerated as well. My female friend, who liked the film less than I did, felt that the way the movie treated the sexual awakening of some of these people seemed too fast or convenient to be believable. I agree with this sentiment.

I have to give props to Odette Khan and Annicka Dolonius' acting chops, as they helped bring some of the more exaggerated aspects of the film back down to earth for me. As far as daring scenes go, this movie was quite tame compared to the bomba films of the late nineties and early 2000s, and nothing near the cinema of the seventies and early eighties. But then again, this is the cut version.

The movie ends on a similar notion as Libiran's earlier film Tribu (2007) showing the cyclical pattern of human nature. But while it was violence that was trapped in a cycle in Tribu, it is lust manifesting as curiosity that cycles in this film. Eventually, the proverbial Ouroboros eats its own tail. Unfortunately, the ending was too rushed to make this point as effective as it might have been.

I have to reserve my full opinion on this movie until I see the longer cut. Until then, Ninja Party lies in the middle of the road, an effort that ended up fizzling out near the end of the film.