Monday, November 20, 2017

Cinema One Originals 2017 | The Third Murder

At first glance, it seems that the case at the center of Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Third Murder is open and shut, showing the vicious murder of a factory president. The culprit, Misumi (Koji Yakusho), confesses immediately. Elite defense lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his colleagues are assigned to the case. But nothing is as it seems, and the case gets even more complicated as Shigemori wades through a web of lies and deceit to get to the truth.

What began as a simple legal drama becomes something different in the hands of Kore-eda, known more for directing family dramas like Our Little Sister (2015) or After the Storm (2016). The Third Murder becomes a deft examination of the justice system and a critique of the death penalty, with Japan being one of a handful of countries that still practices it.

As the investigation continues, we see that Misumi's behavior is erratic, and he has a criminal history - he had been tried and convicted previously of murder, by Shigemori's father. Without his lawyers' knowledge, Misumi talks to a reporter about another possible angle behind the murder, and ultimately, when the case begins to involve the victim's daughter Sakie (Suzu Hirose), who had befriended Misumi, his actions begin to unravel the case and cast serious doubt as to his innocence or guilt. The trial and execution thus becomes the titular third murder.

In a film where the truth becomes abstruse and hidden behind deception, the film communicates the fact that truth and justice are not always congruent. Convenience and procedure supersede the truth, co-opting it for the sake of harmony. In the context of our society, justice is colored by the judgement of men. But who judges those who judge? 

The film dares us to find the truth in the words of its characters. Kore-eda films his subjects in extreme closeup, filling the frame with their faces, daring us to extract the truth from these characters' expressions. A striking scene near the end overlaps two faces on top of each other, reflecting one person's desire to connect with the other. Yet the truth still lingers out of reach, and in challenging us to find the truth from their faces, Kore-eda has made us into judges as well.

The film wouldn't have worked without excellent performances from the main cast. Masaharu Fukuyama and Koji Yakusho play so well against each other, and Suzu Hirose's Sakie is reserved yet full of hidden emotions bubbling just beneath the surface.

While unassuming on the surface and deliberately paced, The Third Murder is a tantalizing work, an impossible cipher that begs to be solved, another feather in the cap for one of Japan's most talented directors.

Cinema One Originals 2017 | On Body and Soul

Enyedi Ildiko's latest film, On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről) finds love in the strangest of places: a slaughterhouse. Much of the first part of the film focuses on the slaughterhouse's daily activity, in all its bloody and gory detail. The act feels savage, but this act is practical - it's a means to produce food. Endre and Maria, two of the slaughterhouse's workers, form a bond after they realize they have been sharing the same dream of two deer in an icy forest. Endre is a partially disabled man with a distant demeanor; Maria is a socially awkward yet brilliant mind with an attention to detail and with tendencies both obsessive compulsive and neurodevelopmental in nature. They seem to build a deep emotional connection in their dream state, while struggling to build a similar connection in the waking world.

The Body-Soul dichotomy implied by the film's title is anything but subtle: there are images of brutality and empathy, the stark reality, absurdity and coldness of the real world and the pure, almost noble grace of the dream world. Ironically, it is in reality where absurd situations happen; take the slaughterhouse scenes for example, or the act of stealing sexual enhancers from cows, which catalyzes the film's narrative development. The film makes a case for a certain sense of spirituality and deep emotional connection that we have discarded and replaced with shallow connections and disposable relationships. The film asks us why it is so difficult to form a bond between people in a world like this, bound and constricted by shyness, social restrictions and decorum. These antipodes battle each other out, trying to find a balance of sorts between body and soul.

The film's treatment is gentle and deliberate. It starts off as a bit slow but builds up steadily as Endre and Maria begin to explore their true feelings and come to a realization about them. The last third of the film comes off as a little too melodramatic, but the ending, which can imply a number of different things, is interesting. It could be the final nail in the coffin, showing us the banality of bodily relationships. Or perhaps the film is making a case for symbiosis between body and soul, between idealism and reality, between that which is vulgar and sacred.

On Body and Soul is a fascinating, surreal romance with an arthouse sensibility. It demands patience and attention, but the results are pretty rewarding.

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Before We Vanish

For a movie about an alien invasion with apocalyptic undertones, the aliens in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Before We Vanish aren't in too much of a hurry to end humanity as we know it. The film's Japanese title, Sanposuru Shinryakusha (translated roughly as "invaders taking a stroll") reflects a film more concerned with examining humanity's foibles rather than delivering cheap thrills. It's something more uplifting from Kurosawa, something more like Journey to the Shore (2016) than Pulse (2001), even though the apocalyptic imagery is more in line with the latter.

The film follows two narrative threads: illustrator Narumi (Masami Nagasawa) is married to Shinji (Ryusei Matsuda), but the two of them aren't exactly on the best of terms. When Shinji mysteriously disappears then reappears with most of his memories gone, Narumi sees this as an opportunity to reconnect with her estranged husband, who is now mellower  and kinder compared to his older self. Meanwhile, a family is brutally murdered and the prime suspect, the family's daughter Akira, is missing. Jaded journalist Sakurai (Hiroki Hasegawa) is sent to investigate. Neither Narumi nor Sakurai know that the people that they meet are part of an alien invasion force, tasked with learning about humanity before exterminating everything on earth.

Before We Vanish examines the meaning behind human concepts. The aliens learn about humanity by absorbing and taking away a person's conception of things, like "family," "possessions" and so on. While it seems like a horrible thing having certain conceptions taken away from you, the effects are strangely liberating, even cathartic, to the 'victims.' Removing the conception of "work" turns a lecherous boss into a free spirited man; removing the conception of "family" removes a young woman's hangups about independence. The film questions the relevance of the importance we place onto social constructs, and how we restrict ourselves by doing so.

At its very heart, however, Before We Vanish is a love story, and it is the concept of "love," and the lack or abundance of it, that drives the film. It's almost strange to call this a romantic comedy, but in many ways it is, and instead of resorting to cheap theatrics, it moves towards a deeply emotional ending. A love story such as this can be trite in the hands of a lesser director, but Kurosawa handles it well, creating something that can be deeply resonant. 

The film suffers from a couple of flaws: it juggles its tone from time to time, and it may not prove to be effective from everyone. Also, the plot gets rather predictable, and attentive viewers may figure out how the story plays out from certain scenes from the middle of the film. But despite that, Before We Vanish transcends these flaws. It is a powerful film that champions love in all its myriad forms and its power to redeem and transform.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Editorial: on this year's Metro Manila Film Festival

Recently, the Metro Manila Film Festival announced the four remaining qualifying films for their 2017 edition. These four movies were finished films submitted to the festival that underwent some sort of screening process to be selected. At least I hope that's the case because there really isn't any transparency between the MMFF and the general public, in almost anything.

We don't know who the selection committee is. Are they the same people as the executive committee, which would constitute a gigantic conflict of interest? There's also the fact that way before these four films were announced, an earlier batch of four films, were chosen. These first four titles were not finished films. These films were based on submitted scripts, based on the following criteria:
  • 40% artistic excellence
  • 40% commercial appeal
  • 10% promotion of Filipino cultural and historical values and
  • 10% global appeal
Compare this with the MMFF 2016  criteria, which is as follows:
  • 40% Story, audience appeal, overall impact
  • 40% Cinematic attributes and technical excellence
  • 10% Global appeal 
  • 10% Filipino sensibility 
See the second criteria in the new guidelines? Commercial appeal. The 2017 MMFF isn't interested in showing you a good movie, it's trying to sell you a product. NO OTHER FILM FESTIVAL IN THE WORLD HAS CRITERIA LIKE THIS. And as capitalism is as capitalism does, it's far more easier, and far more profitable to create films as fast and as cheaply as possible to maximize returns. Heck, if I'd want to make tons of money, I'd probably do something similar.

The 2016 edition of this festival was something else, something that reflected genuine change. Films were judged on even ground, based only on their quality and overall merit. And people wanted to watch these films. Perhaps the festival's only drawback was that there wasn't a kid-friendly movie to bring their kids to. (Aside from the quirky Star Cinema romantic comedy or the animated movie that was in said film fest).

But instead of moving forward, the festival moved backward. Like Newton's third law stated, "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Weeks before the start of MMFF 2016 two of the most prominent rejects of the festival, Enteng Kabisote 10 and Super Parental Guardians, booked cinemas and stayed in theaters for as long as four weeks.

Remember this shit? I did.
During the film festival itself, provincial cinemas asserted the fact that they were not covered under the mandatory period of exhibition, eventually replacing some of the MMFF films early, pulling them out and replacing them with the above films. Even in previous MMFFs, four films are made into sacrifices under the promise of a full run. They're then pulled out for the sake of other films. There is no fairness to the whole thing. 

Serial plagiarist and generally horrible person Tito Sotto held a Senate hearing after MMFF 2016, requesting that "indie" films should have their own film fest. I'm sure he'd tell you that it had nothing to do with his brother's film not getting in and receiving subpar returns thanks to an early run. Good thing no one listened to him and didn't separate indie from mainstream, right?

This year's first four entries are very predictable. A rom com. A Vice Ganda comedy. A movie featuring one of Star Cinema's hottest draws, Coco Martin and a movie starring (gasp) Vic Sotto. Just lovely, am I right? I have no reason to believe the MMFF if, say, they stated that the scripts for these four films represent the finished films in any form. For all we know, the scripts submitted during this process consists of lorem ipsum text for 50 pages. If you've read this article, you wouldn't believe them too.

That is why, I cannot in good conscience support the first four films chosen by the MMFF (The Revenger Squad, Ang Panday, All of You and Meant to Beh.) I personally have nothing against these films, and there is the remote chance that one or more of them may actually be good. But they were chosen under a lopsided judging system that favors certain groups and persons more than others and exploits and victimizes others. This isn't about indie or mainstream, adults or children, or money or art anymore. It's about being fair and just in how this once great festival selects movies.

As far as the film industry is concerned, I'm a nobody, some cheeky fatass with a blog that gets a few hundred to a couple thousand hits a month. But for the last ten months I have seen almost every local film released in cinemas and I have paid for almost every screening with my hard earned money. I've made my financial contribution to the industry, and in this case, I'm speaking with my wallet. In the past eleven months, there have been a lot of good movies and a ton of garbage. I think in this case I deserve better. YOU deserve better.

The people who run MMFF think that movies are more business than art? What's the best way to bring down a business? Don't support it.

In addition, I won't be covering the above four films in this space. No posts, no nothing. Instead, I will spend my hard earned money ordering take out or buying gifts or watching the new Star Wars film.

Because presumably they were chosen on the basis of merit, I will probably cover some of the other four MMFF films (Siargao, Haunted Forest, Deadma Walking, Ang Larawan) in this blog and I'll do my part as a paying audience member to support these four films as much as I can and try to stop them from being taken advantage of by those other films.

Dear audience member, do you still want to treat your kid to a movie? The remaining four films were chosen fairly, so you might want to take a look at that. 

Do you think the same way as I do? Then call your local theater and demand for these films to be screened. Take action, spread the word as the movies come out. If these other movies are good, tell others, spread word of mouth. Remember, you deserve better, but the industry isn't going to move for your sake.

Dear filmmaker, if this festival fails to change even next year, consider not submitting your film to the festival next time. If you choose not to listen to me, do not hold any pretensions that your film will be treated fairly if you get in.

If you think our films are worth fighting for, then take a stand and fight.

Or you could let the status quo reign supreme and be content with an unjust, exploitative system. Your call.


By the way, kids, this is still in IMAX theaters during Christmas:

Tell your parents to take you to watch it. Have fun ❤❤❤❤❤❤<3 p="">

Trekstravaganza: TV Trek 2017 Edition - Star Trek Discovery (Season 1A)

Ever since Star Trek Enterprise ended in 2005, Star Trek fans have waited for the franchise's return to TV. Sure, JJ Abrams rebooted the series in 2009, but Trek has always been a TV show. Since I didn't catch Enterprise during its original run, I've been waiting for new Trek for almost two decades now.

When Star Trek Discovery was announced in 2015, I was hopeful but skeptical. The series would be another prequel series, set 10 years before Star Trek The Original series. It would not be an ensemble series in the normal sense, and for the first time in the franchise's history, the captain would not be the central character.

Having seen the first half of the series (comprising episodes 1-9,) Star Trek Discovery may very well be one of the strongest first seasons of Star Trek ever. With its serialized, long form storytelling (as opposed to the usual episodic storytelling we've seen in most of Trek,) it's a different storytelling method than Trek fans are accustomed to seeing.

Some Star Trek fans have come out against the series, saying that it's not Star Trek. I think it's both: while it doesn't immediately show us the hopeful and promising future we've been accustomed to in Trek, I think it tells a story about how we got there eventually, and the later episodes seem to be approaching that ideal.

Let's take a look at each episode of the first half of the first season of Star Trek Discovery.


The Vulcan Hello/Battle of the Binary Stars
Story Description: Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) is the first officer of the USS Shenzhou. While investigating the destruction of a communications relay, the crew of the Shenzhou encounter a faction of Klingons who threaten to unite and present a clear and present danger to the Federation.
Thoughts: These two episodes make up the prologue for the series, setting up some of the characters, premise and story. It boasts feature film-level production quality and great performances from all involved. Michelle Yeoh is the kind of Starfleet captain we'd like to serve under - she's sort of like a proto-Jean Luc Picard. As for the Klingons, the makeup isn't exactly working in their favor as they act, and Klingon isn't the most elegant sounding language for acting. It's fun, but it's not exactly descriptive of Discovery as a series. Moreover, some of the character actions come as a bit weird or too contrived for my taste, but that's subjective stuff.

Context is For Kings
Story Description: En route to a penal facility, disgraced Starfleet Officer Michael Burnham is intercepted by the USS Discovery. Discovery's captain, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), assigns Burnham on a mission to investigate the mysterious events surrounding the Discovery's sister ship, the USS Glenn.
Thoughts: Not gonna lie, I hated this episode when it first came out. Aside from our main character Michael Burnham and her previous shipmate Saru (Doug Jones), none of these characters were in any way likeable. They were all mean to Burnham and uncharacteristic of what we knew about humans in the 23rd century: that they were above pettiness and other 21st century emotions and concerns. It took me a while to justify their attitude towards Burnham, but to be fair justifications do exist. I've come to think of this early part as a consequence of switching over to serialized storytelling. Way back when Trek was episodic, the premiere usually introduced all of the characters in one go. In any case, this is Discovery's true first episode.While I can't say it worked for me, the concepts introduced in this story help set up the rest of the half season.

The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry
Story Description: The crew of the USS Discovery deal with a potentially dangerous creature. Meanwhile, on the Klingon Ship of the Dead, the heir to T'Kuvma's legacy gets embroiled in political intrigue.
Thoughts: Here's where Discovery starts to find its legs. It's inspired by a number of classic Trek Episodes, namely TOS's Devil in the Dark, TNG's Tin Man, Encounter at Farpoint, Galaxy's Child and so on. Finally, it takes a stand that Starfleet isn't composed of a bunch of warmongers, but scientists and explorers. The Klingon scenes tended to drag, but I suspect the events of this episode will reverberate in the second half of the season.

Choose Your Pain
Story Description: Lorca is kidnapped by the Klingons and meets conman and criminal Harry Mudd. Meanwhile, Saru and Burnham butt heads over the ethical repercussions of what a rescue attempt might entail.
Thoughts: The A story, where Lorca is kidnapped, is pretty solid. It reintroduces us to the Discovery-era Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson), who is more serious than his TOS counterpart. The plot also introduces us to Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif,) who is one of my favorite characters of the series. The B plot continues the plot from the previous episode, and the ending is very Star Trek. Also, it has to be said: I'm glad that the series seems to consider The Animated Series canon.

Story Description: Sarek (James Frain), Burnham's adoptive father (and Spock's dad), is near death after an assassination attempt. Burnham must race against time and find him before it's too late. Meanwhile, Admiral Cornwell (Jayne Brook) meets up with the Discovery and finds out something regarding her old friend Lorca.
Thoughts: Discovery deviates from the main arc a bit for the next two episodes. This is a character-centric episode that focuses on Burnham's relationship with her adoptive father. There's a good bit in there too about her relationship with her adoptive mother, Amanda Grayson (Mia Kirshner). All in all, it's a really nice breather episode that further develops Burnham's character and helps her open up emotionally to her new friends on the Discovery. Personally, this is the episode where Discovery finally finds its footing and ends up being genuinely enjoyable for me.

Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad
Story Description: Harry Mudd traps the USS Discovery into a time loop in order to unearth her secrets and sell the ship to the Klingons.
Thoughts: My favorite episode of the series thus far. The basic premise of this episode is similar to the TNG episode Cause and Effect. It uses the time loop concept to tell a love story, and for the most part it works. It reminded me of the episodes of Classic Trek that are fun, engaging and endlessly rewatchable.

Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum
Story Description: Saru, Burnham and Tyler are sent to the planet Pahvo, where they must negotiate a treaty with the native species and use their giant transmitter to act as a sonar that can detect the Klingon cloaking device.
Thoughts: "If you want peace, prepare for war." This episode mostly acts as setup for the midseason finale, while also acting as a character episode for Saru. His race, the Kelpiens, are historically prey species, and are thus born afraid (one wonders how someone like Saru could get through Starfleet!) Saru experiences a life without fear and the results are intoxicating to him. This episode was written by Kirsten Beyer, who wrote a number of Star Trek Voyager novels and knows the canon inside out.

Into the Forest I Go
Story Description: Faced with the destruction of Pahvo, the USS Discovery is the planet's sole line of defense against a Klingon attack.
Thoughts: The nice thing about serialized storytelling is that when it pays off, it does with much greater magnitude compared to an episodic form. Into the Forest I Go (the title comes from a line by John Muir) is a very emotionally satisfying episode and at least for the moment resolves some of the series' arcs. There's a scene in this episode where Burnham looks at Saru and it was hard not to get teary-eyed. Also, in this episode Klingons were finally made to speak in English, and their scenes flow far better than their all Klingon speaking scenes. But as season finales go, it needs to have a little cliffhanger to excite us for the season continuation and it delivered. The next episode is directed by none other than Jonathan (Cmdr. William T. Riker) Frakes, who also directed a number of Star Trek episodes and two Star Trek The Next Generation movies.

So while Star Trek Discovery took a while to get off the ground, but when it did, it personally turned into one of the most engaging and interesting science fiction shows currently out there. There are still a number of aesthetic and design choices that I'm not fully on board with, but I can live with it.

Star Trek Discovery resumes January next year, and once the season is finished, I might do another one of these. Till then, live long and prosper~

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Historiographika Errata

We end our Cinema One Originals competition film coverage with Richard Somes' Historiographika Errata. From the title itself it's evident that historical accuracy isn't one of the film's aims - instead, it shows absurdity, humor and irony through historical characters in four distinct parts. 

The first and second parts deal with Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, (Joem Bascon and Jett Pangan) respectively. The depictions of the two characters are far from the idealized image we see in other popular media and in recent films. Rizal is depressed and indecisive, a bit of a slacker, and prone to suicidal thought. Bonifacio and his gang of cross-dressing Katipunan members look like something out of the Three Stooges, or a Dolphy comedy. These two scenes are played out for laughs, attributing these venerated men's greatest achievements to quirks and chance. Overall the tone is silly and lighthearted using humor as a means of deconstruction.

The third part deals with a former compatriot of Macario Sakay who lets himself be used by American forces to root out and pacify remaining rebel forces. Though the first half of this segment has its share of darkly comic moments, the tone gets real serious quick. I felt that it was the weakest of all the segments. Thematically it shares some ideas with the last part in that Filipinos will do anything - even betray the one who saved their life - to survive.

The fourth and final part takes place during the Japanese occupation. Food shortages and famine are widespread. To survive, Librada (Nathalie Hart) has worked out a deal with two men: they can have sex with her in exchange for food. Hart is adroit in her role, and her performance is perhaps one of the meatiest and best performances in the entire film. The story is actually about the beginnings of the Makapili - hated Filipino collaborators during the occupation who were treated later as traitors. Again, this part communicates the notion of being able to do anything in desperate times - even betray one's own beliefs. This part draws its irony from the fact that we are rooting for characters that we should historically despise, providing us with a story told from their perspective.

The film's four parts struggle to gel together to form a thematic whole; the first and second parts seem to warn against lionizing heroes, the third and fourth parts reflect how damaged a people we have become because we have never known true freedom.

Ultimately I'm on the fence with Historiographika Errata. It feels a little disjointed, and the film's message gets a little muddled at times. Yet the film is decently acted, gorgeously lensed, the production design impeccable, the color vibrant and interesting. Judged separately, the fourth part stands out as the most robust and solid part of the film. But I think there's enough interesting stuff in the other parts to warrant a look.


That ends my coverage of this year's Cinema One Originals competition films. I sadly won't be able to watch this year's shorts due to time constraints. After a short break on Saturday, we'll take a small peek into some of the festival's international offerings.

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Throwback Today: second chances and the iMac that leapt through time

Life for Primo (Carlo Aquino) isn't peachy in the slightest. He's struggling to get a job, he's about to be evicted from his house, and the love of his life Andie (Empress Schuck) is getting married to another guy. When he unearths his old iMac from 2005, he discovers he can talk to his 2005 self. He then hatches a plan to change the past and save his future before it's too late.

Part science fiction, part magical realism, part time travel story, Throwback Today's story draws from a plethora of similarly themed stories. But Throwback Today makes its own little spin on this particular type of story that I personally enjoyed.

The film takes us through Primo's past and the mistakes he made leading to his current state. While the time manipulation plays itself out, it curiously makes an unexpected turn that brings into question the ethics of time manipulation itself. It's an interesting point where the film reflects on the nature of its own genre, and it's executed on a degree of reflexivity that I didn't expect.

It's a small scale, low key story - no one's saving the world or defeating an alien invasion.  It's characteristic of some Japanese science fiction stories like Katsuyuki Motohiro's Summer Time Machine Blues (2005), where a group of students use a time machine to fix a broken air conditioner remote control. The stakes aren't particularly high, and in that sense I can get behind the apparent banality of Primo's eventual catharsis. In fact, I was pretty invested in what would happen to him from the start, thanks to the film borrowing some of the trappings of a romantic comedy and applying them to Primo's journey.

Perhaps the film could have taken its time developing the character of Macy (Annicka Dolonius,) who finds her life entangled with Primo's own. There are some scenes where the film could have eased better into an ending that could've more effectively tied its various frayed plot threads together.  Sometimes the film makes it challenging to figure out when specific scenes are happening in the timeline. But all in all, I found Throwback Today surprisingly enjoyable. It's a worthy addition to an already strong Cinema One Originals lineup.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Haunted: A Last Visit to the Red House's true to life story is more horrifying than any ghost

There's a red house in Pampanga that's the subject of ghostly rumors, and from the start of Haunted: A Last Visit to the Red House, it looks as if we've been thrown into a Koji Shiraishi film or a found footage movie. But the movie eventually shows its true colors - the ghosts in Haunted are the ghosts of the past, and the resulting story is something far more horrifying.

In 1944, the small village of Mapaniqui, Candaba, Pampanga, was raided by the Japanese. The men were tortured and executed, the houses burned, and the women - some even as young as thirteen, were brought to the Red House to be raped. The film cleverly introduces us to these women, now elderly grandmothers, during the "horror" segment.

The Malaya Lolas, an organization of comfort women and other sexual victims of World War II, begin to relate the story of the Rape of Mapaniqui, in heart-wrenching detail. The film explores the creation of the Malaya Lolas, their eventual struggle to get their stories heard and their journey towards reparation and justice. Aside from stories, there are songs of that day, songs that lament their suffering, songs that wish for these atrocities to never happen again.

Another factor to this tale is the fact that as the grandmothers of Mapaniqui grow old and die out, their organization - and their cause - is in danger of dying out as well, doomed to become a mere footnote in history. These stories will disappear unless the story is passed on, unless people never forget. And it's this notion that transforms Haunted into a critique of the documentary form itself as a tool to set memory in stone.

The last part of the film ends with the titular final visit to the Red House, where the original image of the place as a haunted house is recontextualized with what we have just learned. What then follows is a scene where the filmmakers contemplate on what just happened. They wonder about the veracity of the stories they've just heard, and note their repetitiveness. If you've read my previous review of Bundok Banahaw, it's usually wiser to avoid opinion and judgement and let the subjects of the documentary speak for themselves. Thus, this last scene may feel like it is unnecessary and undermines the subject a bit, but it does add a curious metatextual layer to the whole documentary.

Consider this: it's unclear whether the filmmakers were aware or not that they too were complicit in the creation of the repetition that they noted. These women have been visited time and again and were made to relive very painful memories for the sake of keeping these stories alive for the sake of justice. After all, stories told over and over again tend to coalesce, searing themselves in collective memory, so that the shared experience becomes relatively homogenous. If you note the way the documentary was edited, these stories seamlessly edit together, details from ones story flowing into the other, lolas finishing each other's sentences. It's an ordeal they've had to bear the burden of together for decades, a burden they will probably bear until the end of their lives. 

To relive a harrowing experience again and again is but one horror; to know that the chance to receive true justice and reparations is fleeting and perhaps unattainable is another. And as time ravages both man and memory, in a dilapidated old house in Pampanga, ghosts both supernatural and of another kind roam free.

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Moral (Restored and Uncut Version)

The late Marilou Diaz-Abaya is a name fondly remembered in Philippine Cinema: even someone barely cognizant of Filipino cinema in the late nineties and early 2000's should recognize some of her best known later works such as Jose Rizal (1998) or Muro Ami (1999). For the most part her films addressed social issues while still appealing to a mass audience.

Today we'll be talking about one of Diaz-Abaya's earliest films, Moral. It's her second collaboration with screenwriter Ricky Lee after 1980's Brutal. Moral was followed up by another classic film, Karnal (1983), which won best film in that year's MMFF. A sequel to Moral, Noon at Ngayon (2003), was released in the twilight of her career.

Moral begins with a wedding, which should be a happy occasion for all, but the film immediately cuts to gossip, criticizing the wedding and placing bets on the eventual separation. It's a reflection of the relatively conservative yet malicious societal viewpoint at the time (which, at least in some part persists even today.) But the film turns the tables on that by showing Joey (Lorna Tolentino,) who struts in and doesn't care what other people think. It's clear that this movie isn't going to play by the rules.

Over the course of a number of years, Moral examines Joey's life and the lives of her friends: Maritess (Anna Marin), the bride in the opening scene, is a talented writer stripped of her agency and turned by her husband into a baby making factory; Sylvia (Sandy Andolong) is a single mother who is still in love with her ex-husband, and Kathy (Gina Alajar) is an aspiring singer who wants to rise to the top.

The film asks us through its title song: "ganyan na ba ang makabagong moral?" (Is this the new morality?) And in the seventies and eighties, the role of women in contemporary society was changing fast. The ideals of the women's liberation movement in the sixties and seventies were slowly trickling into the rest of the world. Women were taking a stand on equality, reproductive rights, and they were breaking stereotypes and conservative thought. Men and women both were exploring their sexuality in new and progressive ways. As these ideals still have a way to go in  contemporary Philippine society, Moral's subject matter is still timely to this day. It's also notable that this female viewpoint was appropriately helmed by a woman - compare it to Hollywood of that era,  where female directors were scarce.

All of the characters in the film have complex motivations and aspirations, though none epitomize the film's themes and message more than Joey: she does not conform to gender expectations (her chosen name is even unisex) she does not follow the rules, and is sexually liberated. It's said that Ricky Lee wrote the character as male and the results are pretty fascinating. 

Besides being a film with progressive and feminist overtones, it's surprising how much the film addressed LGBT relationships back in the day, considering how ridiculously conservative a country we can be. And having taken place near the tail end of Marcos' regime, the sociopolitical commentary extends to that as well.

The restoration job of Moral is pretty impressive. The restoration was done on a 35mm uncut version of the film, (apparently censors removed around 20 minutes from the commercial release) and it was in pretty bad shape, as mold had degraded the print significantly. Despite that, the picture quality looks decent in high resolution. If you've seen this film 35 years ago, you may consider revisiting this restored cut, as there are a lot of new things to appreciate, not to mention this is Diaz-Abaya's original vision for the film.

It's easy to see why Moral is considered a modern masterpiece. It's a fantastic film that remains relevant even today. With both Karnal and Moral restored, here's hoping Brutal gets restored next.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Changing Partners takes us on a ride through a carousel of love and heartbreak

Based on a musical play of the same name by Vincent De Jesus, Changing Partners takes us into the middle of a six year  long relationship between Cris and Alex. Cris is 15 years younger than Alex, and Alex bears most of the financial burden in the relationship. While Alex is relatively well adjusted and grounded thanks to experience, Cris is carefree and reluctant to settle down. 

It sounds like a typical May-December romance, but here's the catch: both Alex and Cris are portrayed by two actors each - Cris is played by Sandino Martin and Anna Luna, and Alex is played by Jojit Lorenzo and Agot Isidro. The characters change throughout scenes, while the story details largely remain the same. It's executed with such precision that it feels entirely seamless. We see the relationship play itself out in all its myriad permutations, with the film playing on our expectations of each permutation.

This daring conceit (not to mention the fact that the film is a musical) doesn't feel gimmicky, and communicates the fact that the trials and tribulations of love and heartbreak, warts and all, transcend lines of age and gender. Despite the fact that the characters change every so often, it's easy to invest one's self in their relationship and partake in their joys and commiserate with them in their heartbreak.

The music accompanying the film is also noteworthy. It might not be to everyone's taste, but it has a certain musical flair that I personally enjoyed. The final song, Maleta, is particularly heart-wrenching. The film stuck with me for hours after I watched it, and this song largely contributed to that.

Wildly inventive, resonant, and driven by powerful performances especially from Isidro and Lorenzo, Changing Partners breathes fresh life into a conventional love story. 

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Nervous Translation looks at life through the eyes of a child

In Shireen Seno's Nervous Translation, we examine childhood through a child's innocent perspective. Her earlier film, Big Boy (2012), also explored similar themes in a wildly imaginative way. In this film, childhood, innocence and history intertwine in unexpected, magical ways.

Set in the late eighties, Yael is a young gradeschooler living at home with her mother. Her father lives overseas as an OFW, sending cassette tapes home for Yael and her mother to listen to. She's overly shy and introverted, but brilliant in school.

There are a lot of things in this film that aren't explained to us, because we see the world through Yael's eyes. We see Yael's arms covered in bandages, perhaps the result of an allergic reaction or an autoimmune disease (you can imagine the doctor in me trying to diagnose this particular condition) but we see it addressed directly only once. Yael's dad talks about "God's cooking," but other than the vague notion that it's some sort of innuendo there is no explanation for this either. At times the film moves into magical, dreamlike interludes. Events shown on TV happen out of place, perhaps a quirk of fractured, fragmented memories. And that's actually the point -  the film accurately portrays the mystery and magic that children see in otherwise mundane adult affairs. We don't know these things because Yael doesn't know these things either.

I should know, since I grew up in the eighties at around the same time as Yael. I had the same blanket that she had; our house had the same betamax player, the same clunky beige carrier air conditioner. I too recorded my voice onto cassette tapes that I sometimes listen to even today. I used to write things like Yael too, drawing and making up stories on yellow pad paper. There were no gadgets or smartphones to occupy my time, just my imagination, my toys and the entire world.

The film expertly sets up an emotional tone that works because of its unique perspective. A family visit becomes a slightly unwelcome intrusion; cousins become zombie invaders, a child gazing at her favorite uncle is mirrored by camera movement, illicit conversations heard almost out of earshot become strange curiosities. And because it gives us a child's perspective, the film helps us understand why kids do weird things sometimes.

Like Big Boy, Nervous Translation ties in this childhood with another, historical, childhood. Having taken place just after the EDSA Revolution, Nervous Translation frames a child's coming of age with our country's own coming of age. At the time, the country was still in a precarious state, with frequent blackouts and a constant state of danger from multiple coup d'etats. As a country, we may have been reborn after our liberation from decades of oppressive rule, but our country's second childhood mostly comprised of groping in the dark. Yet, on the other hand, this bigger picture may feel distant and inconsequential in the eyes of a child, unconcerned with such things.

This is brave and skillful filmmaking at work. Nervous Translation is a fine examination of childhood that touches on my sense of nostalgia in more ways than one.

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Paki is a tender portrait of a Filipino family

[Paki v. 1. pry, to look with curiosity (generally used in the sense of "to pry into other peoples affairs"): manghimasok (makialam) sa mga gawain ng iba]

Giancarlo Abrahan's Paki (Please Care) shares some similarities with another film, Yoji Yamada's What a Wonderful Family! (2016) in that an impending separation becomes the catalyst for a thorough examination of an extended family in various, sometimes comedic, ways. Of course here the treatment is a little more subtle, and in this case the film's brilliance lies in ideas hidden between the lines.

The film starts with elderly Alejandra (Dexter Doria) coming from the ophthalmologist's clinic, presumably to have her cataracts examined. She's not really too keen on having the operation to remove these cataracts, but eventually she caves in to pressure and we next see her with an eye shield. Despite being the matriarch of the family (regularly a high and exalted position of authority)  Alejandra's agency is taken away from her time and again in casual situations. After being fed up with her husband's improprieties for the last time, she decides to separate from him, leading her to try to take refuge with her three daughters and adult grandson in succession.

This little roadtrip within a movie becomes the framework by which Alejandra's family is examined. It's remarkably divergent from the stereotypical notion of the Filipino family; there are single parents, same sex couples and dysfunctional relationships between siblings. But stereotypes seldom reflect truth, and this family situation perhaps more accurately reflects the current state of many Filipino families, as no family is truly run of the mill. (Personally, it hits home for my family in more ways than one.) Abrahan wisely avoids relying on exposition to flesh out the family's situation for the most part, only opting to air out the family's dirty laundry when it feels natural to have it.

The film may be lighter in mood than, say, Abrahan's first feature Dagitab, but there's an undercurrent of melancholy that pervades the film. It's a sense of melancholy built on years of regret and bad decisions. The family is built on a past we only glimpse momentarily, and it can be rather enjoyable trying to piece these fragments together. In many ways, Alejandra's trip is a means to take back control of her life, when such control has been co-opted from her by her family. It's the same kind of melancholy that walks side by side with the overwhelming burden and responsibility of maintaining a family and keeping it cohesive. It is reflected ever so poignantly during a scene where Alejandra is in a bar, with the independence she wanted, yet now utterly alone.

Buoyed by the performance of a stellar ensemble cast, Paki is a relatively lighthearted, tender and gentle examination of the Filipino family. But within that gentle exterior lies powerful emotional heft that is surprisingly affecting.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Bundok Banahaw: Sacred and Profane - up the holy mountain

Cinema One Originals' documentary features have always challenged the form in one way or another. The first of two documentaries in this year's lineup is Bundok Banahaw: Sacred and Profane by Dempster Samarista. Though it's not as out there as some of last year's entries, it's still a fascinating piece, a hypnotic film filled with indelible imagery.

The film takes an immersive approach to its subject. There is no narration or overlying text, and the film does not take sides or push a thesis. Through the camera lens we see Banahaw as if we were a pilgrim, listening to these people's stories. The footage is stabilized and floaty, as if we were ourselves spirits wandering the holy mountain.

The mountain itself is a character in this documentary, its presence felt everywhere. It hums in the background as we hear people talk about God, faith and spirits. Rocks and caves are filled with candlelight, giving darkened interiors a strange golden, ethereal glow. The footage of the mountain itself and its surrounding forest is worth the price of admission, yet it is not the only subject of the documentary.

The people occupying Banahaw are equally as interesting. Their stories form a kaleidoscope of faith, history and belief, a hodgepodge of Christian beliefs (the legacy of the Spanish occupation) and pre-Spanish Filipino mysticism rooted in atavism, animism and paganism. The result is something that is far different than vanilla Christianity, best seen in a scene juxtaposing a blessing ritual inside a cave with scenes from a Catholic mass.

The fluidity of these people's faith is also something I did not expect. One of the most fascinating scenes in the entire film for me is when some of the mystics or wise men gather and discuss scripture and faith together, testing and debating it. Here they show their own views on God and faith and their own sense of spirituality. It's a far cry from the rigid dogmatism and resistance to change that I'm accustomed to, and yet this may more accurately describe man's own ever-changing relationship with his soul.

A lesser filmmaker might have opted to opine, to ascribe motive or judge character. But Samarista wisely lets these spiritual people speak for themselves earnestly and honestly. Bundok Banahaw is not only about the mountain, but also the story of a people seeking connection with the divine in their own, culturally unique way.


p.s. as an aside, the only real problem I had with the film was that the end titles and text were too small to read, which was an unfortunate choice.

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Nay is a blood soaked tale of class, power and privilege

(this review contains some spoilers.)

Martin (Enchong Dee) is a twentysomething millennial from a rich family. For most of his life he has been taken care of by Luisa (Sylvia Sanchez). But Luisa holds a dark secret: she is an aswang, a vampire like creature that feeds on human flesh. Her subsequent actions eventually turn Martin into one as well, changing his life in unexpected, supernatural ways.

There is commentary in Kip Oebanda's Nay, and it's not particularly subtle about it. Martin's character speaks in Taglish, stereotypical of privileged young professionals like himself, while Luisa speaks in Tagalog. He is raised by absentee parents who never show up at any time in the film - even their voices (as heard in a Skype call) are distorted and incomprehensible. Martin's not a bad person by any means, and to his credit he tries to do the right thing and use his status to help others.

Once he is transformed into a supernatural creature by Luisa, he learns that even in the supernatural world, arrogant, supremacist behavior isn't uncommon - as aswang, they treat humans as something below them, as food to be consumed. He tries to resist, but it is in his nature to feed. He tries to justify the killings (or at least who he kills,) but is told that ultimately it doesn't matter anyway. The parallels of Martin's struggle to the the current exploitation and killing of the poor, and our society's growing desensitization to these injustices, is clear.

While it is thematically rich, the film does not always execute these things in a satisfying or compelling manner. The film isn't scary at all, and at times seems aimless. The ending is marred by a strangely edited sequence. The Taglish dialogue does have a purpose, but sometimes I feel as if it's overdone. The film veers into camp sometimes, which can be detrimental since it tackles some serious concepts. There's actually a term for this: Narm.

That said, the lighting and practical effects are great, often evoking the vibe of local horror and suspense films  of the seventies, eighties and nineties, such as Patayin sa Sindak si Barbara (1995), or works by Celso ad Castillo or Eddie Romero during the same time period such as Beast of the Yellow Night (1972). So maybe in a way it was meant to be a little campy. 

Nay is an interesting film weighed down by questionable execution and a tone that makes one wonder if it should be taken seriously or not at all. It's not particularly scary in any way, but it's got an interesting aesthetic that might appeal to some viewers.

Cinema One Originals 2016/2017 | Si Magdalola at ang mga Gago: gaguhan of the good kind

At first, Jules Katanyag's Si Magdalola at ang mga Gago is about a group of drug dealing thugs who find their way into a quiet, forested village to deal drugs and maybe even guns. But they run into the local mangkukulam Magda (Peewee O Hara) and his granddaughter. As a mangkukulam, Magda is able to commune with spirits and do otherworldly things through her myriad concoctions. Magda's granddaughter (Rhen Escano) on the other hand, is rebellious and wants nothing more than to escape the village for the wider world. She's also beginning to discover her sexuality, which proves to be a problem.


I think it goes without saying that Si Magdalola at ang mga Gago is weird. It plays with narrative in many different ways. It uses subtitles that act as both translation and commentary that adds another layer of crazy. It doesn't even leave its own credits immune to its weirdness. This is easily Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera (2001) levels of insanity. There are guns, drugs and a samurai sword (which I am almost certain is a reverse edged sword replica from Rurouni Kenshin).

And yet, the film serves as a strange fairy tale about women, and how indulging in one's sexuality, curiosity or womanhood in a world like this only leads to violence, death and destruction. While the granddaughter's curiosity towards sexuality should be natural, it's punished. A young girl, told not to peek at an impending execution, decides to take a peek anyway.

The movie is hindered by a setup that takes up 75% of the film's running time. It's way too long and reduces the impact of the last 25% of the film. While its weirdness is the biggest part of its charm, it doesn't always completely pay off in satisfying ways.

Si Magdalola at ang mga Gago is like a film high on drugs. It needs the viewer to be engaged and ready to partake in its weirdness. If one's not in the mood, this can prove to be a problem. But personally I'd say stick with it and let the movie take you on a ride.

Cinema One Originals 2017 | Si Chedeng at si Apple has the "supporting" cast take center stage

Chedeng (Gloria Diaz) and Apple (Elizabeth Oropesa) are two friends who have a long history together. They couldn't be more different: the former has lived a long and productive life with her now ailing husband Francisco (Dido dela Paz) while the latter is in an abusive relationship. When both Chedeng and Apple's partners die of varied causes, the two of them decide to go to Cebu to find Chedeng's first and greatest love, a woman named Lydia.

In the spirit of last year's Patay na si Hesus, Si Chedeng at si Apple is yet another fun, quirky weird road trip about two ladies, a severed head, and tons of crazy hijinks. Road trip movies are structured so that the main characters have personal realizations and catharses aside from the actual purpose of the trip. In this case Chedeng and Apple find both themselves and each other in more ways than one.

Perhaps the most memorable movie of this type is Ridley Scott's 1991 film Thelma and Louise, where the road trip serves as a n unadulterated window into women's experiences, unhindered by any attachments or connections to men. Si Chedeng at si Apple adds its own special magic to this type of movie, challenging gender roles and expectations with a distinctly Filipino flavor. It attacks the chauvinistic notion that women be dutiful wives or subservient spouses. Perhaps in another film, Gloria Diaz's Chedeng would be a perfect Maria Clara, concerned only with the welfare of her children and her family. But in this film Chedeng is more than that: a woman with her own thoughts and feelings.

It's best encapsulated during a scene near the very beginning of the film, where it's revealed Apple once had a very minor supporting role in a big film. While she only really has one speaking line, her role is crucial to the main character reaching their own personal moment. In many levels, this sees itself echoed in the rest of the film: as women, both Chedeng and Apple have been relegated to supporting roles in society, with both of them suppressing their true feelings and desires in deference to their expected roles as women: wife, provider, mother, grandmother. It's only when they are freed from those expectations that they begin to explore their own, true selves. In the context of Chedeng and Apple's friendship, this supporting-main relationship is reflected through their willingness to do anything for each other.

The film solidifies this friendship in an emotional resolution to the trip that proves to be surprisingly moving, despite being relatively bereft of dialogue. It might not be as deeply felt as the ending to Patay na si Hesus, but it's still resonant nonetheless. And in the film's ending, both Chedeng and Apple are in wedding dresses, with no groom in sight. In more ways than one, both Chedeng and Apple are married to each other; united in a distinct and unique bond stronger than any relationship they've ever had with a man.

Though a bit slow at the start, Si Chedeng at si Apple is fun, quirky, riotously funny and surprisingly moving. It's not perfect, sure, but it's a Cinema One Originals 2017 film worth checking out.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

12's ambitious concept is lost in the noise

Through an unconventionally structured narrative, 12 introduces us to Anton (Ivan Padilla) and Erika (Alessandra de Rossi), a couple whose relationship is terminally ill. For more than an hour, we see every pathologic trait of this toxic relationship through constant fights. Anton is childish, emotionally manipulative and insensitive, while Erika is wishy-washy and submissive to a fault. To be honest, despite the fact that these scenes are juxtaposed with scenes of the two of them in happier times, it's all quite exhausting. After the fourth or fifth fight between the two I just wanted the two of them to stop already and just break up. These are two people who have no real reason to stay together for 12 years.

The dialogue doesn't help that much either. For much of this first half, Anton only knows how to be angry or childish (while angry) and Erika spews lines that wouldn't be out of place on an Instagram feed or on thoughtcatalog. We get it, you're broken. Get some Mighty Bond or something. It also doesn't help that Ivan Padilla isn't really that good an actor compared to his costar. Some of the scenes could have benefited from more takes. I remember a scene where he tells Erika that there are five words that every man hates: "you make me feel so ugly." Let's just forget that makes six words, not five.

It's kind of a shame, too, since the concept is actually pretty solid. Behind all the petty bickering and all the ways these two are horrible to each other, there's a pretty nice realization at the end. It all happens during the last part of the film when the fighting stops. But by then, the characters are far too grating, far too alienating to empathize with one or the other's love story. Technically, the film is very good. The sound is excellent and the camerawork is great. There's a lot of care that went into looking for this particular house (why a couple's bathroom would have two sinks feels like a weird design choice, but it works for blocking particular scenes.)

I wanted to like this film, but it lost me in the first five minutes. It assaults the viewer with an hour of pointless fighting, then eases into a conclusion that doesn't feel earned.

To end this review, I have made a little game. Find a person who hasn't seen the film or watched any of the trailers (if that's you, then you participate.) I've made three Instagram-ish pictures with love related quotes. Two of these pictures have quotes that are actual lines from the movie. The remaining picture has a quote that I just got from the internet. Guess which is which. 

Image A
Image C
Image B
this is not one of the choices

Monday, November 06, 2017

Reelive the Classics | Don't Give Up on Us (Restored Version)

Of all the actors Judy Ann Santos has worked with as a love team partner, Piolo Pascual is perhaps one of the most memorable. The Piolo-Judy Ann love team lasted four feature films (five if you count  when they were together in Esperanza: The Movie (1999)), with a few other cameos here and there. Their last film together, Joyce Bernal's Don't Give Up On Us, takes the form of a road trip from Manila to Baguio all the way to Sagada. Sound familiar?

Abby (Santos) is a career-minded individual. To say she's a serious person is an understatement; I think I haven't seen a more type A personality in local cinema. When her potential future sister in law Sab (Cheska Garcia) balks on her wedding, Abby vows to track her down, eventually leading her to Vince (Pascual), a happy go lucky musician with a carefree existence, the most type B personality in this movie.

The first half of the movie consists of the road trip, where the compelling factors are: what the heck happened to Sab, and will this unlikely pairing of Vince and Abby work out? Thanks to the wonderful chemistry between Judy Ann and Piolo, the romance more or less works out, as the characters begin to find themselves in the course of trying to find rogue brides. There's a bit of cheese involved, but that's pretty par for the course for Star Cinema rom coms.

And the film tries to tackle several themes as Vince and Abby have their respective catharses. It upholds a certain romantic ideal, with characters paired up with people who they don't exactly love. Those characters, in turn, gravitate towards their "true" loves over the course of the film, eventually leading them to leave caution to the wind and sacrifice everything for the sake of true love. It's an ideal that has since been deconstructed with films like Sana Dati (2013). Nevertheless, it's interesting to see it in its pure form here. The film promotes a certain compromise when taking into account Vince and Abby's personalities - a life that has a purpose, but one that isn't afraid to stop and look around once in a while.

The film's last act, which deals with the end of the road trip and the aftermath, is a bit rougher compared to the first part of the film. To its credit, the story does not dwell on easy happy endings (at least at first) but when the happy ending does come, it comes abruptly, and the effect is rather jarring. In addition, the film's age shines through with some weird aesthetic choices at the end (an album cover with a half naked Piolo Pascual on it is so early 2000's).

The restoration job is good; upscaled and in HD, Charlie Peralta's DP work shines, especially with wide shots of Baguio, Banaue and Sagada in all their glory. For a decade old film it still looks pretty impressive.

Ultimately, despite a few hiccups here and there, Don't Give Up On Us is very entertaining. It was fun seeing Piolo and Judy Ann interact with each other once again on the big screen, and it's a little sad knowing this was their last film together. Could another on screen pairing with them be possible? One can dream.

Don't Give Up On Us is part of ABS CBN's Reelive the Classics festival, showing at Powerplant Cinema 1 from November 8-14. Schedules and additional information are available on the official ABS CBN film restoration Facebook Page.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Editorial: We need to talk about animals in movies

Electrocuting an Elephant (Edison, 1903)
Recently, the QCinema film Balangiga came under fire from the Philippine Animal Welfare Society for several controversial scenes that allegedly constitute a violation of the Animal Welfare Law. In the past two years, this hasn't been the first time PAWS has spoken up about alleged animal abuse that occurred during the production of the film, the 2016 MMFF film Oro came under similar fire for scenes where a dog was killed. Eventually, the case was dismissed by the Pasig City assistant prosecutor.

For the record, I enjoyed both films for what they were, but the way both films were made has always concerned me. I was not really shocked by the scenes per se; in my line of work, I've seen worse. But I was disturbed as to the way the scenes were done. To ignore the welfare of any performer (human or otherwise) for the sake of art is both reckless and irresponsible.

This led me to wonder, what is the state of animal abuse law in our country? How does the law protect animals in film production? Has this happened in other cinematic cultures? And, what can we do to change this attitude?

Historical Background

Jesse James (King, 1939)
As it turns out, animals have had the short end of the stick in film productions for a long time. Even in the earliest instances of film, there have been instances of abuse to animals. As part of his ongoing War of Currents with Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison made a film titled "Electrocuting an Elephant," if only to demonstrate the dangers of Tesla's alternating current. Big film productions, such as 1926's  version of Ben Hur, where more than 100 horses died during the course of production. Technicians began devising ways to trip horses on cue, which led to many deaths. (These devices have since been banned.) It wasn't until 1940 or so, after a stunt in the 1939 movie Jessie James where a horse was made to run off a cliff and fall 70 feet to its death, that the non-governmental, non-profit American Humane Association (AHA) started to write guidelines for animal performances on sets, even monitoring on-set. Their association has since then monitored most Hollywood productions since then - the disclaimer "no animals were harmed in the making of this film" comes from. At the same time, there have been allegations of shady dealings and collusion with the AHA and the film industry itself, and no US government body has stepped in. In the end, the AHA is answerable only to  Hollywood itself.

Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1971)
In other countries, it's much more fuzzy. Films from other countries have involved some kind of animal cruelty in one form or another, some of them directed by well-known, award-winning directors. For example, in a deleted scene from Lars von Trier's Manderlay (2005), a donkey was killed onscreen - one of the film's producers explains that the donkey was killed humanely, adding in jest, “we could probably kill six children for a film without anyone raising a fuss.” For the sake of pure shock value, the 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust featured a turtle being graphically dismembered on screen - adding to all the fake violence on humans that occurred on screen. One may remember a scene in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1971 masterpiece Andrei Rublev where a cow was set on fire (it was shielded by asbestos and unharmed) and a horse was impaled by a spear (the horse came from a slaughterhouse and was already destined for commercial use.)

It's clear that film productions all over the world haven't always been humane to animals, given that they're pretty much in the bottom tier of performers that people care about.

Animal Abuse Laws in the Philippines

The main Animal Abuse Law in the Philippines is Republic Act 8485, later amended by Republic Act 10631 in 2013. The law concerns a broad range of topics, including but not limited to the care and transportation of animals, the welfare of animals in pet shops, abandonment, cruelty or neglect and so on.

The law is implemented through the creation of a Committee on Animal Welfare (CAW) as outlined in Section 5 of RA 8485. The Committee's members are composed of several organizations, including PAWS. The law is enforced through animal welfare enforcement officers in the PNP and NBI.

"Animal" as defined in this law consists of:
"All sentient creatures other than humans which shall include but not be limited to terrestrial, aquatic and marine animals."
It's tricky to define sentience in this context, as the term has scientific, religious and moral variations - in animal rights law, it usually refers to an ability to feel both pleasure and pain. It's logical, considering that without pain, there would be no suffering. Speaking in my capacity as a scientist, does this exclude anything without a central nervous system and pain receptors? Does it include small insects, etc? Later in the list, both Aquatic Animals and Aquatic Mammals are defined clearly and through taxonomic classification in the case of the latter.

Section 4 (Transportation of Animals) and Section 6 are relevant to animal rights in film production. Section 6 specifically states the following:
"It shall be unlawful for any person to torture any animal, to neglect to provide adequate care, sustenance or shelter, or maltreat any animals or to subject any dog or horse to dogfights or horse fights, kill or cause or procure to be tortured or deprived of adequate care sustenance or shelter, or maltreat or use the same in research or experiments not expressly authorized by the Committee on Animal welfare. The killing of any animal other than cattle, pigs, goats, sheep, poultry, rabbits, carabao, horse, is likewise hereby declared unlawful..."
It then states several exceptions to this particular rule, such as:
"1. When it is done as part of the religious rituals of an established religion, sect, or ritual required by ethnic custom of indigenous cultural communities: however, leaders shall keep records in cooperation with the Committee on Animal Welfare... "
The most specific passage in regards to film production is in the Implementing Rules and Regulations of RA 10631 Section 6.1-f which considers as an act of animal cruelty the following:
"Improper and inhumane practices in use of animals during research, television or cinematic production."
The complaint filed by PAWS against the producers of Oro stated that they violated Sections 6 and 9 of the law - section 9 establishes fines and punishment for anyone breaking this law.

Arguments for and against the two films

In both cases, the only source of information from both productions would be testimony from the people involved in the production, as enforcement officials are not required during production. This limits any evidence that can be used against the filmmakers other than the film itself.

EDIT 11/2: To clarify, there is the very real possibility that the filmmakers HAVE treated the animals humanely, but because there's no transparency, we don't know for sure. That's why during the credits of Balangiga I was looking for something, anything to the effect of "animals were treated humanely" or whatever. If there were such a proclamation in the credits, I would've been fine with it.

The case against Oro as stated earlier was later dropped. Their defense was that they were filming scenes that are part of the culture in that particular area as part of a documentary-style treatment, and they did not actively kill the animal in question. This would probably fall under section 6.1 of RA 8485. Balangiga is a bit different. In the context of the movie, it makes sense, since historically, the order to purge Samar included the killing of livestock. Both films would argue that quibbling over things like animal rights bypasses the fact that both films are talking about relevant issues where real people were or are being killed or subjected to brutality. In any case, as stated earlier, it's something that requires a thorough examination through the lens of a court of law. If the filmmakers gave us a proper justification, or if they didn't actually kill or maim any animals and the movie was just THAT convincing, and if that convinced a court of law of that fact, personally I wouldn't have any problem with it.

We have become a society of judges, and we are so complacent in our self righteousness that it tends to be detrimental rather than helpful. I don't think either production should be subject to public judgement until they have been proven to have broken the law. I don't think the message of any film should be ignored just because some people mistakenly thought it would be cheaper, convenient or shocking to kill an animal on screen.

The decision to engage in hurting animals for the sake of artistic vision is tempting - it's a way to incite shock in people and it's far more cheaper and expedient compared to indulging in special effects or CGI.

On the other hand, neither a low budget, nor any notion of artistic integrity and realism does not excuse someone from breaking the law. The law is the law. You cannot kill a person, steal or rape in real life just because the script calls for it. Any sense of artistic licence does not justify or excuse the commission of an unethical act. Besides, it's a public relations nightmare for the film involved: the backlash from any perceived instances of abuse will ultimately impact negatively on any film, regardless of its message. It will deflect from any real discourse on what the film is trying to say.

Ultimately, any and all discussion on artistic intent or message is moot when faced with the simple question: did the filmmakers break the law? If they did, they should be subject to any penalties or punishment provided under the law.

When considering a film's aesthetic or message, perhaps one would be inclined to argue that to display suffering does not necessarily condone it, but to critique it. This would be followed by the argument that in the setting of these films, suffering is part of the milieu, thus it would be disingenuous to not include it in the film. On the other hand, the suffering can be expressed in other ways, or through other techniques of the filmmaking craft. Using CGI or practical effects can help communicate suffering without actually causing it. As technologies improve, any attempt to expedite the process using the real thing will eventually not only be seen as inhumane or unethical, but also lazy filmmaking.

The prevailing sentiment from those opposed to the scenes in both films has been: are such scenes really necessary? And if for some reason they are necessary, couldn't those scenes have been done through some method that does not cause real life harm to someone or something?

What then, some might say, about the real human subjects of the film or the human actors that may have also suffered abuse? This is deflection; considering their suffering and the suffering of animal performers is not a dichotomy or a strict binary construct; one is perfectly allowed to consider one or both equally. Besides, if we ignore how we treat the lowest of creatures with little to no rights or legal protection, what does that say about how we treat other performers, other human beings?

Moving forward

As we stand now, the status quo allows things like this to happen again and again. The law must be clearly defined so that there is no ambiguity. A dialogue needs to happen between animal rights people and the film industry to make sure animals are treated humanely at all times. Perhaps a set of guidelines in film and TV production can be drafted in this regard.

And while we're at it, make sure that the welfare of every worker on set - human or not human, adult or child - be protected by the law. Perhaps an AHA style monitoring agency may be untenable, but I believe a compromise can be reached. Art does not have to remain unethical. We can all strive to do better. Otherwise we'd all be complicit in maintaining an elitist, inhumane system.

In closing, let us go back to the 1967 film Weekend by French New Wave auteur Jean Luc Godard. In it, a pig is killed on screen by cutting its throat. In the context of the film, it's meant to be a shocking scene, playing into the movie's themes of challenging the expectations of the upper social classes. Film critic Pauline Kael, a long time fan of Godard, wasn't buying it, noting in her New Yorker review:
"Is he (Godard) forcing us to confront the knowledge that there are things we don’t want to look at? But we knew that [already]. … [B]ecause we know how movies are made, we instinctively recognize that his method of jolting us is fraudulent; he, the movie director, has ordered the slaughter to get a reaction from us, and so we have a right to be angry with him. Whatever our civilization is responsible for, that sow up there is his, not ours."
Weekend (Godard, 1967)

Linked Sources and Further Reading:
on the current state of the AHA:
The history of animal cruelty in Hollywood:
Examples of Animal Abuse on film and TV:
US Animal Abuse Laws by state: 
Copies of RA 8485 and RA 10631, including IRR:
Thomas Edison's Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)