Film Fever: Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 (Part 1)

Film Fever is a special section allotted for film festivals. In this edition, the movies for consideration are the entries currently (and miraculously) shown in the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) 2016. Below are the capsule reviews on my first batch of films, in no particular order:

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DIE BEAUTIFUL

It would be naive to assume that Jun Robles Lana’s dramedy will be painted as an artificially colored portrait of one transgender woman’s life story. After all, the third sex is often side-lined and reduced into a comedic supporting role (as remarked by another MMFF entry). But DIE BEAUTIFUL not only captures the honesty of the lives that Trisha (Paolo Ballesteros) represents, but also the beauty and ugliness in humanity. The humor and joy are balanced with pain and tragedy as Trisha leads a life of an unwanted son, adoring friend, devoted lover, and caring mother while doggedly pursuing her ambition of becoming a beauty queen. The sympathetic character study unravels in a non-linear manner that transpires during Trisha’s seven-day wake, offering an intimate and unflinching look in her short existence. Beyond his popular “make-up transformations”, Ballesteros delivered a convincing and winning portrayal as a transgender that named him Best Actor in the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival. Rookie actor Christian Bables deserves a supporting nod for his naturally wonderful turn as Barbs, Trisha’s loyal best friend. Their easy rapport and the close-knit nature of fellow transgender women (and gay men) anchor the film’s upbeat attitude despite the revealing title. Writer-director Lana chose substance over style in terms of translating the narrative onscreen that can become dragging sometimes, perhaps a statement on the unflattering conditions that Trisha attempts to glamorize through her BeauCon (beauty contest) endeavors. A touch of flair is instead manifested on the beautiful personalities that Trisha wears inside her casket that signify fragments of her identity. DIE BEAUTIFUL is both sensational and sad, considering the publicized injustices that the local LGBT community experiences. Yet the film does not end in despair as it sends a universal message of acceptance and understanding – one that defines a person not based on his/her gender but in a meaningfully led life.

Rating: 3.0/4.0

 

SEKLUSYON

To say that it replaced the Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise as the lone horror entry is an injustice to describe Director Erik Matti’s follow-up to Honor Thy Father. Devoid of shallow scares and cheap orchestrations, SEKLUSYON conjures a palpable atmospheric terror that creeps into one’s sense of faith rocked by the demon made flesh. Among the horror sub-genres (witchcraft, home invasion, paranormal, torture porn, etc.), it is the one influenced by religion that I am most fascinated about, mainly because of the two facets of fear channeled in the spiritual affiliations of good and evil. In his return to the genre since the anthology ABCs of Death 2 (2014), Matti splices a layered depiction of fear that oscillates from the deacons’ transgressions haunting them during their seven-day seclusion, to the malevolence of false prophets that an investigating priest (Neil Ryan Sese) discovers. These two story-lines converge to reveal the malicious entity in the form of a young girl, Anghela (Rhed Bustamante) who bears miraculous powers that oozes from her through an eerie black liquid. While Anghela’s origin is left ambiguous and her connection with one of the deacons (Ronnie Alonte) required more plausibility (a few of the frustrating loose ends in the film), SEKLUSYON seizes viewers on the ill possibility of people abandoning a god who is silent, lethargic and indifferent to a deity of easy comfort and flowery promises in exchange of corrupting one’s faith. Set in a post-World War II locale, the horror feature is an alternate view on the escapism in false religion (this time engaging the devil) that the director earlier explored in his aforementioned modern revenge drama. Similar to the noir-inspired aesthetic of On the Job (2013), the chilling ambiance is fostered in candle-lit corners and darkened rooms that accentuates the anxiety in solitude. But the real scares are carried by Bustamante who outshines her older co-actors with her grave presence that alarms attention (and merits an acting nod). It had been a long while when a child has been cultivated in the hands of evil (tracing back to The Omen series). Bustamante is up for the challenge, and indeed she made herself memorable both onscreen and in dreams. SEKLUSYON is a genuine Philippine horror piece that utilizes acting, story and mood in stirring natural fear. It speaks of the vulnerability of the human mind and soul, and the powerlessness from evil. How can then the devil be stopped if it is already guised in sheep’s clothing? In the film’s unsettling finish, you cannot.

Rating: 3.5/4.0

 

SAVING SALLY

When Marty (Enzo Marcos) met Sally (Rhian Ramos) back in their high school days, they became inseparable. And just like the tales of friendship that prospered into courtship, their destination to romance was long time coming. Self-aware of its typical love story, SAVING SALLY greatly relies on visual spectacle to a charming and refreshing result. Director Avid Liongren’s passion project of more than 10 years is the most technically inventive entry in this year’s film fest – a quirky live-action that taps into the inner romantic and is never ashamed to show one’s individuality. As an aspiring artist, Marty’s imagination has become the viewer’s perception of reality; in his world, only the significant people are perceived as actual humans while the others are made alive as 2D monsters. Yet the film’s animated backdrops and Sally’s inventions are real, thanks to the ingenious technology that breaks away from the conventional romance onscreen. Every scene is a delight to watch as each is executed with a playful air of unpredictability, not knowing where the strokes of animation will lead you. Though not perfect, SAVING SALLY is a technical and artistic feat in local film-making that viewers must give a chance. Underneath the style is a coming-of-age story burgeoning of youthful aspirations, cathartic self-expression and genuine uniqueness. But while the film veers away from mainstream lore, it settles to the cinematic trope of a ‘damsel in distress’ in what could have been a chance to subvert the genre. Mostly told in the male perspective, SAVING SALLY misses the opportunity in empowering its titular character. As a self-described artist, mercenary, and inventor, Sally has the makings of an independent and strong female persona who has the necessary arsenals to save herself. It’s a plot twist that could have made the film a bolder embodiment of its comic book milieu. At least Liongren does not resort to having Marty wear a cheesy cape.

Rating: 2.5/4.0

 

ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK 2 #ForeverIsNotEnough

After poking fun at indie film-makers’ desperate and obsessive attempts to create an internationally recognized cinematic masterpiece, the acerbic and irreverent ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK returns, this time to release an armory of mockery in the so-called ‘mainstream treatment’ on the silver screen. The creative team of director Rainier (Kean Cipriano), line producer Jocelyn (Cai Cortez promoted to a speaking role) and production assistant Lennon (Khalil Ramos whose sole dialogue is the only sound during the climactic scene) once again enlists Eugene Domingo (in a fictionalized version of herself) for Rainier’s newest independent feature. Loosely adapted on the director’s marital life, The Itinerary follows the desolate dissolution of Romina (Domingo) and Cezar’s (Joel Torre) marriage. But Rainier’s cinematic vision is distorted as Ms. Eugene proffers her artistically ruining suggestions that mirror the sugar-coated gimmicks big film studios deploy. These include recasting the aged Torre for a younger love interest, adding unnecessary supporting roles such as Romina’s best friend and parents, inserting gratuitous musical and visual backgrounds, and even enunciating a confounding quote that is lacking of substance. The second satirical installment of writer-and-director duo Chris Martinez and Marlon Rivera, respectively, tickle in its observation of the ‘mainstream’ formula that has long been the DNA of contemporary romance. Whether the industry would actually revamp its romantic storytelling is beyond the film’s agenda. What is unexpected, however, is how it becomes a parley between a mainstream abolitionist and an artist desiring to cross-over to commercial heights. Ms. Eugene is correct in saying that cinema is a form of vibrant escapism; yet she, along with the film-makes of similar motives, is wrong to belittle the cinematic taste and intelligence of their viewers. There could not have been a more opportune time for ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK 2 to grace the silver screen; its relevance trumping over other unwarranted franchises that failed to secure a slot in this year’s MMFF. Though it lacked the thematic subtlety and the buoyant camaraderie of Cipriano and JM de Guzman from the original, the sequel still spurs of ridiculous parody self-deprecatingly played by Jericho Rosales and Joyce Bernal. Unsurprisingly, the primadonna once again gets what she wants, but not without the special participation of karma that crashes towards her in the series’ signature close.

Rating: 3.0/4.0

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Film Diary: Y Tu Mamá También

Before hitching the Hogwarts Express to unleash the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron returned to his motherland to direct what will then be recognized as one of world cinemas’ finest. Not only does Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN (2001) sizzle and seduce on its emotional coming-of-age story, but it also serves as an allegory to the life-changing moments in both personal and national histories. An audacious and revealing road-trip, it takes viewers on an evocative (and erotic, if I may add) chronicle of desire, friendship and self-discovery that transcends with an overwhelming punch. It was wildly fun until it lasted, but the charolastras will never be the same again.

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In a lay-by that provoked the turning point of Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch’s (Diego Luna) kinship, the film’s narrator describes a kind of pain the boys experienced as they witnessed and learned, respectively, of each own sexual exploits. It was also the burgeoning sensation one will feel in the closing minutes that would only make their excursion more poignant. Famous for its thematically sensual scenes, Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN gently unties the tragedy that will befall among its three central characters. The narrator, serving as the cinematic omniscient presence, reveals in a painful conclusion that Julio and Tenoch will decidedly not see each other anymore. Luisa (Maribel Verdú), their Spanish acquaintance and the apple of the boys’ eyes, stayed behind to spend her last, living days (unbeknownst to them). The sober finality greatly contrasted the explicit revelry depicted throughout the film. Julio and Tenoch were introduced as blithe teenagers of differing socioeconomic backgrounds who are bonded by their expansive indulgences. Alcohol, drugs and sex are staples in their pre-adulthood life but not to the point of self-destruction. However, it pried a nasty version of their selves and triggered the dissolution of their friendship.

(L-R) Gael Garcia Bernal as Julio, Maribel Verdú as Luisa, and Diego Luna as Tenoch

Much has been said on the film’s queer undertones but there’s no denying the captivating closeness of Julio and Tenoch. At the heart of Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN is the genuine portrayal of real-life friends Bernal and Luna who naturally dive into the seemingly uncomplicated and untroubled lives of their characters. The rapturously candid scenes would not have the same effect if not for the young actors’ rapport; not to mention their potent chemistry with Verdú as they travel along rural Mexico. Cuaron struck two coming-of-age stories in one stone as the changing dynamic between Julio and Tenoch took place in a period where their country is undergoing a major political shift. It is a subtle testament to the unpretentious treatment of youth, in which the world is not only about and revolves around them. The narrator proffers deeper connection of the events, people and places they encountered; some insightful and sentimental, others foreboding and melancholic. Verdú fluidly carried the emotional weight that spiralled onto Luisa as she bravely accepted her doomed fate. As a woman who has yet to enjoy the fullness of her independence, Luisa’s abrupt existence is heart-breaking yet powerful enough to stir the status quo between Julio and Tenoch.

But Luisa did not willingly want it to happen, had she known the gutting aftermath. Julio and Tenoch, both juvenile and salacious, had little foresight on the consequences of their actions. The climatic tryst is a fitting culmination in their gratifying quest of exploring one’s sexuality. Does the film suggest they could have been more than friends? Or are they just stricken by drunkenness and the hot Mexican weather? I’m more convinced on the latter, though it is worth pondering the overlapping relations that they had which made them closer more than ever. Nonetheless, it awakened a sense of modesty that became the driving force on why they grew apart.

Reaching Heaven’s Mouth

Viewers will be surprised to find out the context behind the literal translation of the film title (‘and your mother too’). But beforehand, they will be enamoured by the excellent performances of Bernal, Luna and Verdú; and the exotic beauty and culture of Mexico lensed by Cuaron’s frequent collaborator (and three-peat Academy Award winner) Emmanuel Lubezki. A particular scene stands out because of how Lubezki captured Verdú’s allure and the scorching attraction among the leads. Written by the Cuaron brothers, the film was nominated at the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay but lost to another foreign entry which I have yet to see (Talk to Her).

Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN is a delectable slice of world cinema that presents its universal message in the most intimate language. It does not manifest romance nor satiate the lust; instead the film unravels the yearning for human connection. How people come and go into our lives is one of the saddest mysteries. But the more peculiar is why we let them be.

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Photos were grabbed on respective film sites.