It’s never too late for any firsts but in my case as a film enthusiast, attending the Cinemalaya Film Festival in its tenth year for the first time was overdue. Nonetheless, it was exciting to finally see independent films that don’t walk the banality of mainstream movies. Philippine Indies were a breath of fresh air and although this year’s lineup was a mixed bag of hits and misses, their rare abilities to trigger emotions (other than the usual kiligs and guffaws), and spark intelligent discussions are what make them worth celebrating.
I only managed to watch four entries this year but my 2014 Cinemalaya experience was never short of enjoyment. It felt like a trip to the places I’d already been but seeing them in a different light (Hustisya, #Y, Children’s Show). It was also an immersion to the forgotten (and sometimes taken-for-granted) community which also has a story to tell (K’Na the Dreamweaver). The unfamiliarity in the familiar (and vice-versa) is the trickery that had me fascinated and displeased. There’s also the common notion of “Don’t judge the movie by its poster” as what my friend said, and such film prejudice was shredded once I arrived to my cinematic conclusion. And that’s what I learned one Saturday in Cinemalaya X at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
HUSTISYA doesn’t live up to its hype.
The trip began in Hustisya, the film festival’s most talked-about entry which starred the Nora Aunor (the title aptly defining her exclusion from the National Artist awardees). The movie was heavy of attention, not only because of the industry stalwarts behind the film but also the moral dilemma it promised to tackle. But don’t get too overexcited during the two-hour trip in Manila. Disappointingly, no trace of justice was seen in Hustisya.
MUGSHOT. Film still of Hustisya
Hustisya chronicles the ladder-like ascent of Biring (Aunor) from Vivian’s (Rosanna Roces) errand girl to become her own boss in the human trafficking business. The lever of Biring’s transformation turned when she was accused of a murder she didn’t commit. Her ordeal in pursuing justice was, however, greatly under-served, or perhaps discarded what Hustisya could have been. Maybe I’m the only one who expected Hustisya to say something about the society (like those politically-charged films in the 70’s and 80’s). Considering that its selling point is the litmus test on morality, Hustisya doesn’t even get close to its message. What could have been a daring and thought-provoking exploration of injustice in the metro through the expressive eyes of Aunor, Hustisya strode safely to its cliffhanger. It was too safe that it’s frustrating that a film, which could have been a vehicle for a powerful social commentary, wheeled linearly to its ending: no detours, no curves, and no jagged edges to at least substantiate its ominous title.
AND THE PLAN IS… Aunor and Nacino in Hustisya
Notching the film festival’s Best Actress trophy, Aunor is of course, indisputable on her craft. But it was only through her that the audience sympathized Biring. Without Aunor, Biring is just a flatly written character whose makeover is just one of the by-products of the dog-eat-dog world portrayed in the film. Hustisya misses the point of its title. Instead, it directs to an omnipotent force that controls everyone’s destiny and it hangs without any resolution. Religious and superstitious, Biring offered written prayers and peso bills at the Manila City Hall (the shot of the building towering Aunor subtly affirms my take), not to mention Atty. Gerald (Rocco Nancino) and his cohorts who were the syndicate’s higher-ups. Hustisya turned a blind eye on dissecting the societal injustices filmed at the sore shambles of Manila. There’s no mistaking how dirty the city is, and seeing it onscreen was just another bitter pill to swallow. But in a scene where Biring imagined herself walking under the LRT Carriedo station, obscenity and delinquency lining up to her distress (and the poor CGI of a full moon overcasting her), it felt feigned that it was ludicrous. Hustisya tried too hard in staging Manila as a sin city that it became unrealistic (too think that its setting is already relevant and timely). Unlike the camera-works of CHILDREN’S SHOW that brilliantly framed its impoverished setting, Hustisya’s unnecessary use of conjured imagery is a crime to the already powerful, eye-stabbing Manila rubbish. Too bad the crew behind the camera overlooked what is already so obvious.
Justice is said to be the right of the weakest. But Biring isn’t exactly the person who needed it most. Destiny heeded her rituals at the city hall tower. She lived comfortably at Vivian’s; the latter punished when she turned against Biring. From the cellar, Biring was elevated to the luxurious floors of Traders Hotel and converted into an impassive business woman in the black market. Her maleficent laugh at the ending was the ringing bells of her metanoia. Still, Biring is merely a pawn that can be easily disposed to her bosses’ liking. Hustisya doesn’t engross itself to the complexity of morality. As an accomplice, Biring already has a clear understanding of the hole she’d dug herself into (she sees and hears no evil, according to the synopsis). And as a pawn, all she could do is follow her superiors as they blackmail her while she tried to reassure white lies to her family. What really disappoints is that Hustisya doesn’t seize the opportunity of exploring the gray area between right and wrong. A moral drama is an excellent, cinematic medium in exploring what makes us human and exposing the flaws that define a person’s morality. Plot-driven and susceptible to plot holes, Hustisya makes waste of not leveraging on Aunor’s ability to carry a character-driven story.
Ate Guy literally and figuratively having the last laugh.
The thematic absence of justice and inaccurate imagery ambush Hustisya’s parting message. Applause erupted when the post credits rolled but I was left sunk in my seat, convinced that Hustisya is an injustice of its own doing. It doesn’t live up to its hype, despite the cinematic triumvirate of Aunor, director Joel Lamangan, and writer Ricardo Lee. In a matter of comparison, Hustisya runs in the same universe of Erik Matti’s On The Job which successfully blended the parallel stories of corruption, violence, and morality into a thrilling Manila noir. Hustisya was absorbed in its social commentary at the expense of its authenticity. But if there’s one thing that struck me in Hustisya was that there’s always someone preying at the dog-eat-dog world, much like in a food chain… but where’s the justice in that?
There’s also a scene where a victim thanked Biring and referred her prettier sister to be recruited for their trade of cyber sex. Redeeming value of human trafficking as an escape to poverty, anyone?
Also, Hustisya will be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this September under the Contemporary World Cinema category. We’ll see how international critics will react to the film.
UP NEXT: Weaving the review for K’Na the Dreamweaver
Photos from Cinemalaya and The Pulse websites.