Monday, August 15, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016 Winners and Overall Thoughts

This year's Cinemalaya, coming out of its one year hiatus,  was a year of testing the waters. Despite the extended time of production for all the films, there wasn't really much of a noticeable difference, quality-wise, compared to other editions of the festival. With a few interesting exceptions (Kusina and the animated sections of Tuos comes to mind), there wasn't a lot of experimentation going on with the form, even with the short film entries. Also, nothing amazing really stood out this year for me, a continuing trend for Philippine Cinema.

To its credit, however, all of the films in this fest have something going for them, and even the worst films of this year's slate are better than the worst films of other editions of the festival. The festival's selection of films from its previous catalog and from other film festivals such as Cinema One Originals, Eiga Sai and QCinema were solid. The NETPAC selection of Asian films was also quite good (I saw everything except River Road, Until I Lose My Breath and Under Heaven) although their selected entries tended to be quite depressing.

I'm also glad to see lots of familiar faces in the festival, and though we rarely spoke, cinema is our common tongue. The differences of reactions for multiple films is also nice to see. Homogenous opinions are boring to me; variety keeps the discourse going.

Here are my thoughts about this year's winners. Comments are in italics.

Audience choice short feature film: Cyrus Valdez, Forever Natin 

I predicted something like this would happen, since most of the crowds going into this fest seem to be young millennials, and this film's tailor made for them and not for curmudgeonly people like myself.

Audience choice feature film: Tuos 

Never underestimate the power of Noranians. Never. Also, it helps that Tuos is such a lovely film.

Best screenplay for short film feature: Isabel Quesada, Pektus 
Best short film: Isabel Quesda, Pektus

Pektus was a quirky, clever film. I was rooting for the other two shorts that won awards last night, but this is still in my top selection.

Special jury prize, short feature film: Fish Out of Water 
Best director, short feature film: Fish Out of Water, Mon A.L. Garilao 

Fish Out of Water was my favorite out of all the shorts this year. It's technically sound, wonderfully shot, and exhibits a solid directorial hand for someone who's just starting out.

NETPAC Jury Prize, short feature film: Ang Maangas, Ang Marikit at Ang Makata

This was my second pick for this year's shorts festival, and before the awards night, there was a consensus that this would take home the best picture prize. It's a wonderful meld of different genres, and its director has a unique (very hilarious) cinematic voice. I look forward to future films.

Best sound full length feature film: Roderick Cabrido, Tuos 
Best Original Music Score Full Length: Roderick Cabrido, Tuos 
Best production design, full length feature film: Steff Dereja,Tuos 
Best cinematography, full length feature film: Mycko David, Tuos 

This year Mycko David has some impressive visual output, even with films I didn't like so much such as Iadya Mo Kami, so I thought his win in the cinematography category was well deserved. Tuos is such a poetic film, visually and aurally, that it deserved all of these technical awards. Its presentation turns the film from something simply noteworthy to something unforgettable.

Best editing, full length feature film: Carlo Francisco Manatad, Pamilya Ordinaryo
This award was no surprise as Manatad keeps the flow smooth, keeping the film energetic and far from boring.

Best performance from a supporting actor: Lou Veloso, Jun Urbano, Leo Rialp, and Nanding Josef, of Hiblang Abo 

I was wondering how they would award best supporting actor, and this is how they did it. Indeed, Hiblang Abo depended not on any single performance, but on its ensemble cast (perhaps they should have retitled the award instead?) Matt Daclan, also from the same film, would have also made a good choice in my opinion.

Best performance from a supporting actress: Elizabeth Oropesa, I, America; Lollie Mara, Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Poching 

While not a perfect film, I saw I America as an exercise in restraining the loud directorial style of Ivan Payawal's first film. Elizabeth Oropesa's role in I America was short, but her actions are the core of the movie's problems. It's a terrifically nuanced performance that's not as evil as the citation said.

As soon as I heard the opening narration of Ponching, I knew it was molded in the kind of Cinemalaya film that not a lot of people would like. But, heck, I enjoyed it anyway. The most notable character arc in the film was the story of the lola, played by Lollie Mara. She serves as the moral fulcrum of the story, an in-between for Ponching and the rest of his new family.

Best Actor: Tommy Abuel, Dagsin 

On the other hand, as soon as I saw those books at the start of Dagsin, I was already rolling my eyes. Long story short, I didn't really like the film and felt it plodding and languid. But if there's one thing I can positively say about the film, it's that Tommy Abuel's performance in this movie was amazing. I've heard comparisons of the film to Ingmar Bergman, and those comparisons are not unwarranted.

Best Actress: Hasmine Killip, Pamilya Ordinaryo

This year's selection process for Best Actress was probably an extremely hard choice, because there were so many good performances this year. There was Judy Ann Santos-Agoncillo and Bela Padilla, who practically carried Kusina and I America on their respective shoulders, Pokwang, who gave a surprisingly restrained yet comedic performance in Mercury is Mine (I'd thought she'd be the dark horse to take the title) and the duo of Nora Aunor and Barbie Forteza, the best actresses in their respective generations. But Hasmine Killip was so natural in her role as Jane Ordinaryo that it's impossible not to consider her for this award.

Special Jury Prize, full-length: Mercury is Mine 
Best screenplay, full length feature: Jason Paul Laxamana, Mercury is Mine 

Immediately after seeing Mercury is Mine, the ending of the film didn't sit well with me. But it lingered. And lingered. And once I saw how the pieces fit together, I decided that I liked it. So much so, that I thought it was one of the best films in the festival. It owes this accolade because of its witty script, which is dark and funny and unpredictable at the same time.

NETPAC prize, full-length: Pamilya Ordinaryo 
Best full-length film: Pamilya Ordinaryo 
Best director, full-length film: Eduardo Roy Jr (Pamilya Ordinaryo)

I thought Pamilya Ordinaryo was the most realized of all the films in this fest. Its direction comes from a director whose previous work has been a steady increase in quality. Everything in this film just clicks together - acting, technical work, screenplay - that the output can match some of the most notable Cinemalaya films.


Now that the festival's over, here are some miscellaneous musings on the festival on its twelfth year.

The Navigator thingy was an interesting idea. The concept was to have a couple of celebrity navigators serve as facilitators on selected screenings (culminating with with a small informal chat with a few directors during the latter half of the festival. It's a nice concept, but not a lot of people knew what it really was about. Screening schedules where the two navigators would appear were posted on the information kiosk on the ground floor, but if you weren't looking, you could go through the entire festival and not come across them. The Starbucks event was actually quite nice, if only it were a bigger venue. I miss the old days when gala premieres or even minor screenings would turn into a Q and A if the director or some of the cast were present. I say keep on doing this navigator thing, but raise awareness a bit and have a lot more of them. The old Cinemalaya film forum was also a nice program that kind of disappeared in recent editions of the festival.

The Barkada Screening option this year was a really fun idea, and I hope they keep it in for future editions of the fest. I wanted to avail of the option, but I don't really have many moviegoing friends. I'm forever alone like that.

The expansion of the fest to different provinces was also very welcome, and I hope even more movie theaters show Cinemalaya films in the future. I've heard of some technical difficulties in Ayala Cebu leading to cancelled screenings, but other than that there seemed to be no problems.

The inclement weather was unavoidable; you haven't been properly initiated into Cinemalaya unless you've waded through a flood or two on the way to the CCP. (Year 8 was probably the worst weather wise, ironic given the poster and theme for that year.) 

The projectors at the CCP, especially at the main theater, were still a bit dark, which does no favors to movies that are darkly lit.

The food stalls in the CCP were quite nice. The stalls were mostly snacks and food you'd expect to eat at the movie theater (though you couldn't really bring food inside the theater unless you snuck it in.) There was a fried cheese stall that was there only for a few days, which I thought was a shame since I kind of liked the food. Best sellers (anecdotal evidence at best) included the Prince Fries stall, which was an ice tea and fries combo in one easy to bring package, the shawarma house and some of the rice in a box places. Personal favorites include the Pizzicle, which is basically a pizza on a popsicle. It surprisingly works.

But no other food stall had the massive balls to go to a film festival like Gardenia, maker of bread products. Among other snacky foods, they sold loaves of bread at the festival - the kind of bread that you can buy at a supermarket or convenience store. At first, it sounds quite baffling. At first, you'd wonder who the hell would be insane enough to buy a loaf of bread at a film festival.

A match made in heaven.

I did. And I made fucking sandwiches.

Disclaimer: this article has not been sponsored by Gardenia in any way.

That's the end of Cinemalaya 12. It's been an exhausting (but fun!) ten days. Next year is lucky number 13 for the festival. Until then, see you guys at the movies.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Cinemalaya Quickies: Ang Araw Bago ang Wakas, The Kids, Curiosity Adventure and Love, Rosita, Hermano Puli

Lav Diaz's Ang Araw Bago ang Wakas (The Day Before the End) is only sixteen minutes long, but contains the same imagery and themes inherent in the director's other works. 

To me (as with his previous film Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis,) the film evokes images of art in a dying world;  where the fragility of memory and history threaten to wash away the poetry of the world around us. There are scenes of Hamlet and Julius Caesar on the streets, witnessed by bystanders who may not understand the words or the deeper meaning behind them. Its central catastrophe sees our characters wading helplessly in the rain, threatening to erase art forever. But there's something hopeful about its 'post-post apocalyptic' last frames, where the films images invoke a sense of rebirth; for the creative mind to spread its wings once more.

My favorite entry in this year's Visions of Asia showcase is Sunny Yu's The Kids. It's a drama about two individuals who end up shouldering more responsibilities than they should.

The film juxtaposes the past and present lives of this young teenage couple: back to high school days and unbridled promise and optimism - and the present time, where the realities of adult life come crashing down on them. This clever non-linear presentation bears fruit when you see the innocence and optimism of their childhood and know that things aren't going to work out as well as things should.

The two main characters, Bao-Li and Jia Jia, are both surrounded by adults that either guide them through their adult responsibilities or take advantage of their predicament. Their vulnerabilities belie the fact that although they wear adult clothes and do adult things, they are still the same two children from the start of the film. They trudge through their emotions with (or without) the emotional support of parents and other adults, which makes their ultimate decision and the final sequences of the movie all the more bittersweet and heartbreaking.

The Kids is a lovely film, excellently structured and treated with a solid directorial hand. It's a promising addition to the emerging wave of new and original Taiwanese films.

From the outset, I knew Curiosity, Adventure and Love was a very personal film and a film I think I would like. It chronicles the life and philosophy of Jessie Lichauco, a philanthropist whose many deeds helped the lives of countless Filipinos - and it all started with an almost impulsive move to a completely alien country.

This is a woman who grew up with the Philippines, a woman who saw its growing pains as it gained independence from foreign powers for the first time in more than three centuries. It is as much a story of the country as it is the person.

And yet, it's very personal, as it relates to us Jessie's life and philosophy in her own words. Much of it is very charming and quite profound. It's the sort of advice that can only come from a person who has a century's worth of memories, a lifetime of valuable experiences. Its personal touch reminds me of the Canadian documentary Stories We Tell, whose family drama hit very close to home.

The movie does not extensively tell everything about the Philippines in the 20th century perhaps due to editing constraints, and due to the circumstances of Mrs. Lichauco's life at the time there wasn't much told about the Martial Law era and the subsequent revolution, which was just as tumultuous as the time of the Second World War. But what we do get are gems, perspectives that we seldom see, since they are often lost to memory and time.

Rosita's conceit sees its titular character as a mail order bride who falls in love with her future husband's son. But the film does not  romanticize the prospect of mail order brides; the movie concedes that the process amounts to a game where people use other people for monetary and emotional gain. Instead of letting herself get used by the system, Mercedes Cabral's Rosita embraces the game and plays it to her advantage.

Its drama is grounded and not bound by flights of whimsy. Its characters move towards a natural conclusion that I thought was quite refreshing in the context of Hollywood 'happily ever after' endings. It develops its central three characters well - we've already mentioned Rosita, whose determination drives her to make a life for her family back home, no matter the cost; the father, who only wants some sort of companionship after the death of his wife, and Johannes, whose conflicting emotions begin a struggle between idealism and pragmatism. It's this conflict and his subsequent coming-of-age, that drive the story.

The film is pretty straightforward and the moments between these three characters I think are handled nicely. Exposition is scarce, but visuals and decent storytelling make up for it. The characters' desires, hopes and dreams of freedom are tempered by the reality of their situation. It's engaging stuff, and it made for good drama in this case.

Cinemalaya 2016 ends with Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli, a film 21 years in the making. It was supposed to be a finalist for last year's MMFF, but the lack of producers to produce the film led to it being pulled from the festival (Erik Matti's Honor Thy Father replaced it, which in hindsight was the best thing that could possibly happen.)

The movie is part historical biopic, perhaps with a few fictionalized elements. It tells the story of Hermano Puli, who led a major uprising against the Spanish occupation of the Philippines due to the inability of Filipinos to train for and join the clergy, and later due to a desire to practice their religion, a strange mix of pagan rituals and symbology and Christianity. It's an interesting concept of fighting for religious freedom. Unfortunately, I didn't really like the film. You can skip to the last paragraph if you want to hear something positive.

Most biopics fall into the trap of being a hagiography, and I'd expected something like that to happen to this film, but instead Hermano Puli goes in the other direction. Instead of depicting its subject as a saint, it doesn't manage to make us care for our protagonist at all. (Unless, of course, if I were a huge fan of Aljur Abrenica.) Although we do know that we should be rooting for Hermano Puli, by the end of the film I was rooting more for the Spaniards to win. There really wasn't any driving force to support the character in the script and nothing much for Aljur to work on.

The pace of the movie is absolutely languid; most of the first half consists of meetings and announcements between several groups of individuals we barely know or care about. And as anyone who has been in a meeting knows, meetings are deathly boring 90 percent of the time. Once the action kicks in, things get even more muddled; a group of Aetas come to help Puli's insurgency out of literally nowhere - they just show up with no buildup or development whatsoever and begin fighting alongside the rebels because they want to. I guess. Heck, even the elves that helped out in The Two Towers had some sort of backstory to them.

While the film thinks it's depicting Puli as a saintly, Christlike figure, the film made me see him as a misguided leader who got in way over his head. He may have some sort of religious pull over his people, but the film seems to say he was a horrible leader (he has no control over his military leaders) and tactician (his army's only tactic seems to be to charge at the enemy and scream.) While we want to root for the rebels, their actions grow even more heinous towards the end, culminating in the very Christian (this is sarcasm) practice of beheading their defeated Spanish enemies. At this point I thought of Puli and his gang to be more like the ISIS of colonial Spanish times than anything resembling heroic characters.

The script is another problem. Certain scenes between Puli and a potential love interest, Lina, are awkward and hilarious at the wrong times, full of strange innuendos. When Puli and Lina are literally being chased by the authorities, a serious moment where Puli is at risk of being PUT TO DEATH, a random double entendre pops up. FOR HUMOR. While Aljur tries his best with the material, you can only do so much; other performances range from quite decent to ridiculously hammy or silly to the point of cartoonishness.

The movie is partially salvaged by excellent camerawork by Albert Banzon and a decent musical score. Aljur is pretty decent here so if you're an Aljur fan, just disregard everything I've said before this paragraph and watch the movie to support your favorite actor. But if you want to see a proper Filipino biopic about the rise of a group of people united by faith, even (and I can't believe I am saying this) Joel Lamangan's Felix Manalo is a better watch.

And that ends Cinemalaya 2016. For the last installment of this series of reviews we'll be talking about this year's festival as a whole and the awards night.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cinemalaya Quickies: Sarong Banggi, EDSA, 4 Days

Aside from a few visual details, it's hard to tell that Emmanuel Dela Cruz's Sarong Banggi was a product of the very first Cinemalaya film festival. Its neon infused visuals of Manila at night are both familiar and nostalgic as Alfredo Lim shut down most of the stalls and bars along Baywalk during his term.

But it's the character interactions that make Sarong Banggi shine. The movie finds its flow when Jacklyn Jose and Angelo Ilagan's characters are just made to just say their minds, and in the most memorable scene in the movie, both characters make up stories about passers by. It boils down to how all of us have stories to tell. There's a (made up, but relevant) term for this, that you may have encountered in one of my previous reviews last year: sonder - the realization that every passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.

The revelations during the second half of the film were quite shocking, but not fully unexpected. It does give substance to the young boy's attachment and/or fascination with Jacklyn's character. In a way, perhaps this boy saw Jacklyn and made up a story of his own, not knowing that it may be closer to the truth than expected.

The ending does drag a bit, and makes the flow of the last third of the film a bit rough. But the heartbreak of these moments, implied or not, still ring true.

Alvin Yapan's EDSA is a lean film but it packs a lot of ideas into such a small frame. Unlike other films where the idea of the People Power revolution is in the spotlight, Yapan decides to approach the famed street as it is now, where there is little to remind us of those days, where stories of peaceful revolution are relegated to fading memories and old war stories.

Today's EDSA reflects our hopes and aspirations as a people, the road representing (even visually, thanks to an inspired matching cut) our desire for miracles, saviors and change, something we felt during this year's presidential election. Its many disparate stories are the stories of our people, struggling to make a living, ignorant of the plight of others, forced by circumstance.

Despite this, EDSA has a somewhat hopeful tone. In visuals and concept it's both an answer and homage to Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag, where the city is a monster that devours its citizens whole. Yapan's EDSA  gives the impression that we, the Filipino people, still have the capacity to do good.

While I don't think the film completely manages to tie things together with its central theme, there's still a lot to like in this film. There's also an element of strangeness to the film, perhaps magical realism, that's also present in most of Yapan's other work. It deserves a second viewing to unearth the multiple levels of meaning Yapan has infused into the film.

The movie is politically neutral, and wants to show us that right now, it's no longer about political affiliations or families or 'colors'  in the political spectrum. We can claim EDSA as a symbol of hope for ourselves as a people. It teaches us not to rely on saviors and strongmen to make our miracles for us - we can do that on our own., and that's something I think we need given recent events.

Adolfo Alix has made a wide variety of movies in his career, both mainstream and non-mainstream. It's safe to say that very few of his movies are alike. This time, he takes a look at the evolution of a relationship between two men.

4 Days takes place during four Valentine's days, where we see a relationship develop between a young man and his roommate through its many peaks and valleys. The film frames the holiday of love as major points in the relationship between the two. Alix captures these moments with long takes, and lays the heartbreak and longing of its main characters bare by lingering on their emotions. Exposition and implication help fill in the gaps.

With this film Alix eschews the familiar stereotypes in pink/LGBTQ films where you have to have some sort of sex scene and everything feels exploitative and melodramatic. Its treatment is neither garish nor exploitative, and that's something I appreciated from this film. It treats its characters tenderly, like real people with their own complex set of hangups and insecurities. Gay or straight, these are moments in a relationship that we can all relate to in some form or another.

The sound design is a bit spotty at times (perhaps due to the length of some takes), but otherwise is technically sound, with beautiful DOP work from Albert Banzon. The acting is relatively solid (there's a part in the script about ketchup that sounds quite silly but makes sense in context) but Mikoy Morales is the standout performance in this film, especially during the film's climax. 

The film ends with a rousing emotional moment, the whole film building up to it. It's a moment that has been earned, without melodramatics or forced emotional conflict. It's flow is organic and natural instead of artificial - a sin a lot of romantic films tend to commit.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cinemalaya Quickies: Child of Debt, The Stranger, Iadya Mo Kami

Child of Debt is pretty straightforward as far as plots go. A father and child live in a farming village somewhere in India. Dad dies, and child is left with the father's debt of 300 RS. It's a grave problem that's suffered by millions of Indian farmers, and debt (among other things) is one of the reasons so many of them commit suicide.

The innocence of childhood soon gives way to the harsh realization that our main character, Subba, is for all intents and purposes a slave to his masters, and his fate had been decided when his father died. There are no more dreams to dream. Subba does not rebel against his masters; he follows dutifully, sometimes more than his masters deserve. 

Things eventually boil down to a rather rushed conclusion (though to be fair, by that time, anything more and it would have devolved into over the top melodrama) and a dedication to a man trying to stop this phenomenon of debt from happening. Child of Debt presents its social cause plainly and at least that's enough to get a message through.

Zhat (or Xat), meaning The Stranger, is a film about Kazakhstan in the thirties to the fifties. A man escapes the Soviet Collectivization campaigns during those times by moving into the forest and becoming a man of the wild. Unfortunately this serves to alienate him from the community he left and any chance he had to live a normal life.

Our protagonist, Ilyas, represents the innocent lives lost during the conflict. He represents the struggle of the people who chose not to take sides during the many conflicts that took place during this period. In the meantime, his fellow village folk took sides and were drafted into a war some of them didn't want. And it was a greviously costly war. The cost of human life to the Kazakh people in the early part of the century thanks to conflicts in the neighborhood reached 5 million.

While our main character struggles to survive and fit into a post war milieu, there truly is no place for him anymore by the time the war is over. His only connection is an uncle who gives him moral support as he goes about his life, but in essence he is truly alone.

The timeline jumps forward at points and may be a bit confusing if you're not paying attention. Its pace is also slow for those who were looking for something a bit faster paced. Subtitles are not a literal translation, and disappear at parts. But The Stranger is interesting cinema, watching the tragic life of a man whose only wish was to live life free.

Hours after watching Iadya Mo Kami and I still have no idea what it was all for. It's part melodrama, part predictable murder mystery (based on the camerawork, the culprit is made obvious soon after the crime is committed) and part weirdness.

A priest (Allen Dizon) is sent to a remote village in the mountains because he fathered a child with someone else (Diana Zubiri). He then becomes involved in a murder involving one of the town's rich people (Ricky Davao). Of course comes the realization that he's not the only person with a dark past.

The movie is nicely scored and shot really nicely. It's the script that threw me into a loop. Most of the dialogue seems unrealistic and at times even weird. One dialogue in particular has our characters talking about the hierarchy of shit, which probably sounds better on paper than in practice. Many times I could hear the audience laughing inappropriately at dialogue that's supposed to be serious.

While I see that the movie is trying to make a point on how the world is an evil place, and that people are shades of gray, it doesn't express that sentiment very well. Pope Francis is also in the movie (archival footage, but still) for some reason and feels shoehorned in. And the resolution of the murder mystery is ultimately unsatisfying with twists that feel like melodrama and over the top evil antics that feel like a movie from the nineties. (Take note that a child was somehow present during this screening, which was kinda more disturbing than what was going on screen.)

Iadya Mo Kami led me in circles for almost two hours. While technically sound, by the end of the film I felt I went nowhere. I guess that could have been the point.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016: Pamilya Ordinaryo, Mina Walking

Pamilya Ordinaryo's sequence of scenes sees our two protagonists, Jane and Aries, go forth in search of their missing baby. Its treatment is voyeuristic, detached, especially in the scenes where our characters' actions are seen through the screen of a CCTV camera. It parallels our society's general callousness towards these individuals, seeing them as things to exploit other than genuine people, a dark mirror reflected in the mise en scene.

Throughout the movie Jane and Aries seek help from a number of individuals who look at them with the same detachment as the CCTV cameras that capture them. They are discriminated, ignored, and cast aside in favor of other, more favorable things.

Aries and Jane are excellently acted, spewing invective that is more bluster than real bravura, as they cower and submit to authorities higher up than themselves in the societal food chain. Hasmine Killip's Jane is particularly of note, exhibiting frustrating naivete balanced with a strong motherly instinct.

The shackles of the social systems that make up our society as a whole are evident in full force here, a defining characteristic of many films with social realist themes. Despite their best efforts the system is rigged against Aries and Jane, and their cause may have been doomed from the start. From a metafictional standpoint, even though the film talks about the exploitation of the poor, the filmmakers treat them as they are: vulnerable people as 'ordinary' as the rest of us.

Mina Walking is composed of tones both hopeful and pessimistic, and limns the struggle of women in war-torn Afghanistan. Its titular character is doggedly determined to survive among wolves. 

The Taliban regime wrecked the nation, and the subsequent American occupation didn't do it many favors, either. Its citizens are forced to live in poverty, getting addicted to drugs to ease the pain, engaging in small time businesses. Mina's struggle is not only her struggle, it's also the struggle of her people. It's a struggle to gain proper education in a nation that has denied women of this right for years. It's a struggle of self determination where others had previously determined her rights and self worth.

It takes place in hopeful times, where a democratic election seeks to give the people a voice for the first time in years. It has an undertone that while things change slowly, and while the status quo may be around for a while, things can change with hard word and patience.

Mina's sacrifices at the end seem to be an abandonment of dreams, but I can see it as more of a way to cut losses in hope for the future. It's a statement of independence against a system that seeks to cage her and make her live a life that is not hers. 

The production is slick, with camera work going for more of a realistic handheld style (some shots are the way they are for safety reasons more than anything else.) Performances, especially of the film's titular character, are solid. 

It's a film that makes you want to feel just a little hope. To me the film says that the world may be full of crap, but as long as you're still alive, you can make your life something worth living in.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016: Motor Bicycle, Flotsam, Gawad Alternatibo Experimental B

The Sri Lankan independent film Motor Bicycle is a story of class struggle, where one's hopes and dreams for a better future are dashed by harsh social realities that make it exceedingly difficult to move up in the world.

Rangana has these hopes and dreams: as a singer performing to unappreciative crowds in dingy restaurants, he dreams of stardom and a stable life with his girlfriend. He manages to get a hold of a motorbike (more like a scooter) that he can use to go around. He invites his girlfriend on a date and it turns out to be the worst date ever, in more ways than one.

The motorbike becomes a taste of that dream, a small piece of the life of the 'better off.' Such dreams are intoxicating, and they come with a price. As the movie goes on, our characters realize that the way the system is rigged now, the difference between classes is far harder to surmount; instead of open paths, class becomes cage. While it takes place in a country hundreds of miles away, these concepts are universal in the third world. The events taking place in the background - casual corruption, random extrajudicial killings, rampant drug use, gross social inequality - are all too familiar in the Philippines.

While not an out and out musical, the film is steeped in music both energetic and morose. It's probably one of the standout features of the film. Sri Lankan independent cinema is a unique voice, even compared to its cousins from India (especially in the Marathi film industry). I look forward to seeing more films from this place.

Flotsam is as laid back as the surf town it takes place in; it's basically a series of parties and having fun and surfing. I'm not really a party kind of guy so I knew from the start but this isn't going to be my movie, but it does have some good qualities to it.

Flotsam is wonderfully shot, capturing the beauty of La Union's beaches. It makes you want to go there, which is a good thing. The original soundtrack is also notable for a bunch of surf tunes and mellower sounds.

There are a number of romantic arcs in the film involving a woman having second thoughts about her impending wedding, a photographer with a heart of gold and a recluse, a surfer babe who can't seem to sit still both through the waves and in other things, and in young love. They all come and go like the ocean waves, but there's nothing in them that gives the movie any sort of dramatic tension. If you're content with just going along with the flow then this won't be a problem. But if you need something deeper, then this just adds to the film's problems.

There are some nice payoffs at the end so if this film piqued your interest from the start, it's worth the 100 minute ride. But once the waves subside, there's not a lot left to make it memorable.


The Gawad CCP Para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Video just finished, and I was able to catch one of their screening slates. These were all experimental short films, so proper reviews don't really apply in this case. Here's what I thought of this batch:

Lansangan has some nice photos for its visual essay, but I wish the photos didn't move around so much so I could focus on them. Dylan Talon had two shorts in this set: Prayers of the Prey had something good behind it but the chipmunky sped up voices and the general silliness made it hard to take seriously. The Inner Workings of the Untroubled Mind fared a bit better with its stream of consciousness thing. Sins Senses Saints' too close for comfort approach worked for me, plus it had a bunch of nice images. The Consequence of Sound has porn in it (unfortunately there was a kid inside the screening venue!) but its exploration of lust + imagination was kinda interesting. The Filipino Dream is my favorite out of the bunch, as its three simultaneous narratives, visual and auditory, tell a story of history itself. To the Next Millennia feels more like a legit youtube/student film than something experimental. Yapak felt gave me visions of shattered dreams and menstrual blood. Whatever that means. And finally, I've seen Rosa before, and its treatment of the feminine struggle is still real as fuck.

I'll be seeing the last full length hopefully tonight, so I'll see you guys next time.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016: Tuos

Tuesday was a rainy day, perfect weather for watching movies.  Today we'll be talking about Derick Cabrido's Tuos.

The movie takes place somewhere in the mountains of Panay island. Nora Aunor is Pina-ilog, who serves as a 'binukot'. It's a position akin to a princess among the tribe of the Panay Bukidnon. As the fairest maiden in the village, she lives in seclusion, with little to no contact, physical or otherwise, with most of the other people in the village. She is skilled in the arts of embroidery and the oral tradition of the Panay Bukidnon, the Sugidanon. People like her fetch a hefty dowry. She is rearing her young granddaughter (Barbie Forteza) to be the next binukot. But the child is rebellious and fiercely independent; this makes Pina-ilog examine the circumstances of her own life and tradition.

Interspersed with the narrative are animated excerpts from one of the epics of the Sugidanon, the tale of Tikum Kadlum, whose story draws parallels to the main story and its themes. Its titular character is an enchanted hunting dog with the ability to see paranormal things. Tikum Kadlum appears in both narratives, serving as a spiritual guide for the characters involved; he becomes the very presence of the spirits in the real world. Metaphor, reality and the spiritual mix to create an interesting sort of magical realism. 

The clash of old and new traditions is reflected in with our two main characters. Whereas Nora Aunor's performance is mostly silent and restrained, excellent as always, Barbie Forteza matches her almost every step of the way with an equally adroit performance, contrasting Nora's silence and restraint with impatience, naivete and intense emotion. I believe she's one of the most talented actresses in her generation.

The movie's theme encapsulates a paradigm shift - where characters realize that the old ways may not always be the best ones. Its spirit of independence epitomizes the spirit of what this festival should be, which is made even more evident when the movie meta-analyzes itself and the current filmmaking industry in its final frames. It is a challenge, an exhortation, a silent prayer - to break free from the established mold of filmmaking and open one's self to the endless possibilities of the art form. And it is a challenge to us, the audience, as well, to seek the same kind of experiences in watching them.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016: Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching, Hiblang Abo, Mercury is Mine, Lando at Bugoy, Shorts B

Though it wears the clothes of a warm and fuzzy lighthearted comedy, Ang Bagong Pamilya ni Ponching has something to say regarding topics such as class differences and cultural norms.

Thanks to a perfectly (and coincidentally) timed scam text, petty criminal Ponching (Janus Del Prado) is mistaken for the long lost son of Santiago, the dying scion of the Dela Vera family. Ponching's set to inherit a lot of money and swindle the family, but he's a nice guy at heart and he starts having second thoughts. Ponching then goes about and brings the family together in unexpected ways, while wrestling with the morality of his actions.

While mostly fluff, the movie has a few legit heartwarming moments, especially the scenes involving the matriarch of the family, Lola Ludivina. Scenes for some of the other characters aren't as fleshed out and involve just a few conversations. Most importantly, we barely get anything on the second eldest child of the clan, Arianna, and her tendency to try to fix things and control her siblings and mother isn't fully developed.

Rich and poor are clearly unequal in this film - while the poor struggle to survive and often do illegal stuff to move forward in the world, the rich have problems of another kind - problems where issues with money drive them apart, where family name and status come first before love, where a lack of understanding leads to disagreements. Ponching provides a novel point of view for the Dela Veras and helps them see life in different ways. Ponching, on the other hand, goes through a period of self examination throughout the film as well, creating a quirky relationship where both parties help each other.

Ponching's central structure is not a new concept - films where a new addition to a family changes it (more or less) for the better span from Frank Capra in You Can't Take it With You to the unbridled madness of Takashi Miike's Visitor Q. Ponching wraps it in a fun, well-acted package that makes it the lightest of this year's Cinemalaya films.

Hiblang Abo is one of Rene Villanueva's most iconic plays. Back in the early 2000's or late nineties, I managed to see this play as part of a field trip. Its final image, that of an old man, broken and alone, seared itself into my memory. Because of that experience I find it hard to not compare this new movie adaptation, directed by Ralston Jover, to the play I remember so well.

The play (and the film) take place in a senior citizens' home. Four old men, go through the twilight of their lives lost in the haze of their own pasts, going through the motions of the day. Death is not uncommon here, as these are men who are, for all intents and purposes, waiting to die.

We also see flashbacks detailing these character's pasts, where the younger version of all four characters are ingeniously played by Matt Daclan. The casting is deliberate, as these four men are endpoints of the same process - a life filled with heartbreak, bad decisions, and regret.

While the movie does start with some lighter moments, things get dark really fast. It's a mood that sustains itself for the rest of the film, and we join these broken men, hand in hand, as they descend into their own personal hell, as sometimes death is sweet release compared to the agony of life itself. It's helped by excellent performances by the ensemble cast; Nanding Josef and Lou Veloso stand out. While it may not stick in my mind as prominently as the play did, Hiblang Abo captures the darkness of these four men very well.

It took me a while to process Mercury is Mine, Jason Laxamana's latest film. It's definitely a peculiar story, and while I wasn't really on board with where the movie eventually took me, there were parts of the movie I really enjoyed and at the very least, it caught my attention.

Mercury is Mine pairs Mercury (Bret Jackson,) an American kid with tons of emotional baggage and Carmen (Pokwang), a cook with dreams of stardom. Both have their own issues with their lives: Carmen has tons of insecurities and wants someone to connect to, and Mercury is a lonely kid who shifts from manic rage to gentleness -  he's pretty messed up. They strike this strange relationship that has tones of friendship, parental love, and a current of Oedipal sexual tension.

The first two thirds of the movie develops this relationship as Carmen and Mercury work together and try to understand each other. Their relationship is my favorite thing in the film. It's a unique and complex bond between two strangers that I haven't really seen anywhere else. Of course, the relationship can be interpreted as is; while if we take it on a deeper level it can be seen as a commentary on colonialism, with the naive native dazzled by the charms of a handsome yet deeply flawed foreigner, idealizing him, emulating his skin color, hair color and appearance. (Okay, that's probably a bit too deep.)

This relationship is interesting thanks to the performances of the two leads. Pokwang's performance is funny, charming, even a bit endearing in a way. Bret Jackson has some interesting moments too, but sometimes it's hit or miss.

The last third of the film takes us into territory that's unexpected and a bit absurd. Some of the character decisions during this part kind of baffled me and I was trying to make sense of it all even after the credits were rolling. (At one point I wondered if the scriptwriter wrote himself into a corner and had to do something crazy to get out of it, but who knows.) The ending in particular also threw me into a loop. Perhaps I need a second viewing for this one.

All in all Mercury is Mine had some things I absolutely loved, and some things that completely confused me. I'd like to hear your thoughts on this one.

Communication underscores one of the central themes of Lando and Bugoy - miscommunication leads to misunderstanding, broken family bonds, and in one case, erroneous dates on gravestones.

The two titular characters are father and son. Their family life is more or less nonexistent -  while Lando, the father, slaves away making gravestones, Bugoy, the son, slacks off, drinks booze and smokes cigarettes. The lack of a mother figure and the resentment stemming from said lack of mother definitely doesn't help things at all. Lando then decides to go to school in an effort to encourage his son to quit playing hooky.

The central conflict involves both father and son completely failing to understand each other. It's a communication gap that has existed in the relationships of fathers and sons as long as fathers and sons have existed. They're simply unable to express themselves to each other verbally as fathers and sons are wont to do.

Lando and Bugoy's plot and concepts could probably have worked as a shorter film. The focus on education doesn't stand out as much, even though the true story this movie is based upon is centered on education. There is an emphasis on how hard work and dedication can get one through school, but it plays second fiddle to the central father-son narrative. On the other hand, a particular scene near the end could have been extended a bit more, to show that at last, somehow, something was getting across from father to son.

Overall Lando and Bugoy is just ok.The way the story is structured doesn't completely work, but it has some really nice moments thanks to Allen Dizon and Gold Azeron.


WE WANT SHORT SHORTS Cinemalaya 2016 edition Short Shorts Reviews  

Set B

Butas has some gorgeous shots of the mountains of Benguet (finally somewhere where I can say drone shots are needed here.) It manages to portray the hopes and fears of a single mom living a dangerous life for the sake of her young son. I wanted to flesh out the mother's backstory a bit more, but I'm satisfied with what I got. 3.25/5

Ang Hapon ni Nanding is an interesting balance between Milo Tolentino's old and new work. The overall effect is a bit mixed, but there were some genuinely nice moments in there. 3.5/5

Get Certified is short, sweet and speaks for itself. I love the concept and the Hitler portrait. I do wish the Q and A portion for lack of evilness could have been expanded a bit. 3.25/5

Fish Out of Water is well shot and decently acted. One of its plot devices has been rehashed to death (if my interpretation is correct) but I love this film for some reason that I can't explain right now. It tackles discrimination, identity and family in such a short time (in contrast it took I America ~100 minutes to try to do the same thing.) 4.5/5

At first, Forever Natin looked like it was shot as a series of Instagram videos, but it does have a romantic hook that can be seriously affecting for some. Not me, I'm probably too jaded. But it's pretty interesting if its concepts float your boat. 3.5/5


Two more feature films and I'm done with the competition entries for this year's festival. So far I haven't seen a film that I really, REALLY liked, but I've been hearing good buzz on these last two films, so I haven't lost hope yet.

I also like the fact that people are disagreeing on which films they like or don't like. I've heard some good arguments why a film I didn't like was great for some, and vice versa. More discussion = more discourse. So keep on disagreeing, everyone.

Next up (hopefully), Nora Aunor's contribution to this year's festival.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016: Kusina, Dagsin, I America, Shorts A

Kusina introduces us to Juanita, an eager child who learns the art of cooking from her grandmother. Over the rest of the film, we see Juanita grow from child to teen to adult, as she decides to center her life around cooking food.

The film is filmed in a peculiar way; it takes place on only one set -  the titular kitchen - and resembles a filmed play more than anything else. Although I doubted whether it would work in the end or not, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Thanks to the way the movie is filmed, Kusina gains a stream of consciousness-like flow, much like how your life flashes before your eyes before death.

Each stage of life or each person is represented by a particular dish. A rebellious child is represented by leche flan; heartache and passion through spicy ginataan. Juanita's life is far from perfect, as her dedication to her craft has its share of consequences.

Judy Ann Santos returns to movies after 2014's T'yanak, and most of the film depends on her to make it work. She more or less succeeds in doing this, dishing out a notable performance as the adult Juanita. Her emotional turmoil brings out the best out of certain scenes, especially during the climax. The rest of the acting is a mixed bag, but Elora Espano deserves credit for her supporting performance.

Kusina is an interesting experiment that works, thanks to the strength of its lead actor and some very clever editing. 

Dagsin means gravity, and although I think it's the gravity of the 'bodies falling to earth' type, I think the "gravity" in Dagsin can take a whole different meaning in the context of this film.

The movie is about an elderly man, Justino (Tommy Abuel) who has just recently lost his beloved wife Corazon. Everyday he takes a gun to his head, does a little Russian roulette and pulls the trigger. Through a series of flashbacks we see how this man's life has been a series of endless regrets and tragedies, offset only by the happiness brought by his wife.

That said, the movie takes a long time to get off the ground. The movie goes forward through two timelines - first we see how Justino and Corazon meet and fall in love, and then we go back to the present day, where Justino is looked after by his adopted daughter Mercy (Lotlot de Leon.)

The two parts don't mesh together that well. The film could have touched upon building the relationship between Justino and Mercy in the present day, but they don't really have much of an emotional arc. Memories during Martial Law are relegated to dinner conversations, and the dark secret being hinted at in the film's synopsis is addressed once, sort of implied, but not fleshed out. (In retrospect, this might be the point.) The film just takes us around in circles until we get to the climax of the film, where we realize just how deep Justino's pain is - but by this time it's too late to have any sort of satisfying emotional conclusion.

I do admire Tommy Abuel doing what he can with the material, with what is probably one of this year's standout performances. Throughout the whole film you really feel for Justino and sort of understand why he feels the way he feels, the gravity of his life bearing down on his soul.

Dagsin ends up as an idea that feels incompletely realized. I thought the premise had potential, but tis execution fell short of what it could have been.

We end today's slew of full length reviews with I America, Ivan Payawal's sophomore film. And I have to say I was pretty impressed. It's like the director took everything that felt wrong in his first film, 2015's The Comeback, and improved upon it; creating a solid character study/drama-comedy about Amerasians in the Philippines.

Bela Padilla is Erica, who uses her mixed-race looks to get supporting gigs in commercials. She has a dream of making it to America with her father, with whom she keeps in contact frequently. She's just a step from this dream when she realizes something that turns her world upside down.

Bela Padilla carries this movie, just as Kaye Abad carried The Comeback. She's great in both comedic scenes (of which there are many) and dramatic scenes. Erica's pains are the pains of people just like her, lost children, borne of two worlds, stuck in a culture of their own, surrounded by a sense of uncertainty in their identities and in their futures.

While there are a lot of funny scenes in I America, the tone is far more consistent this time around, and dramatic moments pop out all the better because of it. There are a few scenes, perhaps to shine certain characters in an unfavorable light, that I find unnecessary; but this time it all boils down to a matter of taste. The movie does touch on some issues Amerasians also experience with each other - including the differences in how we as a culture view half Caucasians and half African Americans.

Erica's journey is one that we gladly take together, and the little realization at the end - you'll know it if you haven't realized it already - caps off what is a fine addition to this year's edition.


WE WANT SHORT SHORTS Cinemalaya 2016 Short Shorts Reviews

Set A

Bugtaw has an interesting premise. I like the animation in this one, and the uncertain ending. I also appreciate the symmertry in these two boys who lack a proper father figure and can only dream of them. 3.25/5
Ang Maangas, Ang Marikit at Ang Makata is a short that I've already seen before. This time around I was able to appreciate more of the wit and humor in the script that I didn't notice during my first viewing of the film. 4/5
Mansyong Papel feels like the Cliff's Notes version of a full length movie. A lot of the movie depends on context and the lack of context really does a job on the film. It ends up very clunky. 2/5
Nakauwi Na has a premise that is as predictable as it can be, but its treatment is entertaining nevertheless. 3.75/5
Pektus is witty, but I wanted more from the climax for it to emotionally pay off. It's still one of my top picks out of the five films of Shorts A. 3.75/5

Four more movies and Shorts B tomorrow. See you then!

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Cinemalaya 2016: 1-2-3 (opening film)

After a year of preparation, Cinemalaya comes back from a semi-hiatus. There are a lot of things to be excited about in this year's festival, including partnerships with Eiga Sai and film screenings for interesting films from the local independent scene and abroad. In a way, it's appropriate that the opening film for this year's festival is a film made by an alumnus.

The film in question is 1-2-3 (Wan Tu Tri, no relation to the Tito Vic and Joey film) by Carlo Obispo, who was responsible for 2013's Purok 7.

1-2-3 deals with underaged workers in the sex industry. The Philippines is a hotbed for underground sex tourism, and greedy or desperate individuals are all too eager to provide the supply of flesh. The industry does not discriminate between genders, either; throughout the film we see both male and female sex workers serving their foreign (and sometimes domestic) clientele.

The story is framed through the eyes of Luis (Carlos Dala,) a teenage boy in search of his sister, who left their sleepy fishing village through rather dodgy circumstances. He eventually finds his sister, Lulu (Barbara Miguel, who notably played the lead role in Cinemalaya 2013's Nuwebe) working in a brothel in the city. She's paid well for her activities, and although Luis would want nothing more than to take his sister back home, she has no intention to do so.

It all sounds like heavy stuff, but surprisingly the movie is lighter than expected. There are a lot of scenes where the main characters are just being kids - fooling around, playing with friends, and falling in love for the first time. It feels like the juxtaposition of childhood innocence and the grim reality of drug related executions in Obispo's Purok 7. In both cases, the tonal dissonance seen in the two films could be interpreted as the film rebelling against a premature initiation into adult life, a dogged insistence that these kids are still kids, despite the shit they are going through. In many scenes there are short cuts to children playing and living normal lives - something the characters yearn for but are unable to do. The characters in 1-2-3 are slaves in gilded cages, privy to small luxuries that they receive from their patrons. But they have little to no freedom over their lives or their bodies.

The performances from the three main leads help the film immensely. Talented child actress Therese Malvar rounds out our trio of protagonists, and her scenes with Carlos Dala's character are natural and brimming with chemistry. Barbara Miguel has leveled up from her days in Nuwebe, perhaps partly due to the fact that this film has a better script.

The film does have a few problems. While it does have a satisfying emotional arc, the last act of the film feels a bit rushed. The discordant tone of the film may be a hard sell for people looking for something a bit more serious, and it could be argued that it may take away from the gravity of the subject matter. Rather ominously, the final scene reveals that although things for our protagonists have changed, the status quo remains the same. 

1-2-3 is a mixed bag, but personally I had a good time with this one. It's a bit darker than the film that came before it, and the way it was constructed might not sit still with everyone. But some amazing performances really help it in the end.