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: Honor Thy Father

The titular fourth commandment (less the maternal figure) induces an ominous presence in Director Erik Matti’s latest dramatic thriller. The trailer, after all, glimpses on the misguided (and possibly corrupted) spirituality that surrounds John Lloyd Cruz’s character. But while the fictitious sect – the Church of Yeshua Our Savior (CYOS) is the film’s direct religious reference, this god (or any other deity) has no place in this bleakly toned, excellently executed, and subtly compelling film whose only struggle, unfortunately, is the receding commercial release. It was a rare pleasure to see an anti-hero unravel onscreen (and for Cruz to become one). And while the film can be borderline unapologetic that does not aim to please, HONOR THY FATHER is an extraordinary gift the Filipino cinephile has yearned for.

When his wife, Kaye (Meryl Soriano), was embroiled in estafa that cascaded upon the death of her father, Edgar (Cruz) is forced to revert to his ‘old ways’ to secure the means to protect his family. Whether or not he succeeds is left to the viewer’s interpretation. But the message is clear. While the violent On the Job slithered towards an unanticipated yet emancipating conscience among its tragic personas, Matti’s HONOR THY FATHER fosters a vicious society where the degrees of wrongness are a natural way of life. A religion with suspicious mechanisms, fervent yet ferocious parishioners and a family of criminals populate a reality that transcends from the reel. What is astonishing to see is how the different acts of wickedness play against each other and, along with the moody stylishness, conjure an atmospheric critic of irrational devotion and a despairing tale of a father’s love. There are no good people in HONOR THY FATHER, but it does not necessarily abandon the humanity of its characters.

Unmoved by Yeshua.

The film becomes a rightful medium for Cruz to channel physical commitment and emotional rage that are confined by romantic dramas he was saturated into. As Edgar, Cruz transforms into his most harrowing but equally emphatic role that requires grit and gutsiness. The wide-eyed actor communicates through his evocative vision; those lingering, straying, hollow and intense looks of a man who has seen but chose not to question until ultimately, he recoils with an answer to the people who wronged his family, including the church that tested his forbearance. Among the supporting cast, Soriano is most remarkable during the final minutes (followed by Kaye’s bathroom breakdown) while Tirso Cruz III as the revered CYOS bishop is both chilling and unscrupulous. Their characters are awakened, blinded and stupefied by a faith of disputable integrity. HONOR THY FATHER is more than the exploration of religious exploitation but the existence of amorality that ranges from a girl’s stabbing of her classmate (to the eye) to a brotherly-undertaken, elaborate underground heist. The faces of vigilante justice are unsettling but they become an accepted consequences in the cruel chain of survival.

Matti and company curated a more polished handiwork in HONOR THY FATHER, whose cinematic appearance of toned milieus adapts to the temperament of the prevailing situation. More noticeable is the subtle use of the locations, not as a picturesque interlude, but as an omniscient backdrop. The ambiance is heavy (but bearable) of silent fury, despair and mystery — the last which some might grapple due to the deliberate lack of dialogue. But the economic use of exposition complements the clandestine nature of Edgar’s mission. The characters are fleshed out by their defining actions, not through flooded elucidation.When words are dispensable, the quiet moments work through mutual understanding that can be murky or enlightening, depending on the viewer. This is a film that offers a ruminative experience based on the unpleasantness of man, but it is still possible to sympathize since such fallibility only make them more human.

‘Yeshua will provide.’ But does he?

The six million peso question is, who is the father referred in the title originally called “Con-man” (that would have been a takeaway about Edgar’s identity)? The religious roots aside, HONOR THY FATHER chronicles what a father is willing to accomplish for his love of family, albeit a criminal methodology. Edgar and his accomplices are efficient but the futility of their actions dangled with uncertainty while the worshipers’ divine imploration rang hollow. Maybe this is Matti’s way of telling a tragedy which is grimmer than On The Job. No god or blood money can save them. Their motivations do not justify the inflicted consequences. Nothing good can be borne out of evil. Only something bigger than the characters and their personal beliefs can determine their fate. The ending is bleak and everyone is identifiable on a spectrum of badness, but the outcome unfolding beautifully is a sight to behold. The crime drama-thriller lives up to its name, after all: it is something quite honorable.

Rating: 4.0/5.0