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: “Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank”

I finally found the type of comedy that I’m looking for… in the septic tank.

Venice’s Golden Lion, Cannes’ Palme d’Or, and the Academy’s Oscar. These three are considered to be the pinnacle of film-making and unfortunately, the Philippines is still empty-handed on winning any of the three. It feels frustrating that for a country teeming of artistic talents, we have yet to nab at least a nomination. Who else is more frustrated than the local filmmakers thriving for international distinctions that will stand on the dais of Philippine cinema history? While it’s still a work-in-progress, I wonder, what makes a Filipino film Oscar-worthy? Does it have to be a social or political statement, inspired by true events, or a cultural showcase? Does it have to settle in drama, musical comedy, or a documentary? Most importantly, who should play the lead: Cherry Pie Picache, Mercedes Cabral, or Eugene Domingo? These are just the important questions that three young filmmakers have to decide on helming the elusive Oscar-worthy film in Marlon Rivera’s independent comedy “Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank”.

Movie poster.

It’s not until the end of the film when the woman in the septic tank is identified. But how she’s gotten herself in that shit hole, and how the Oscar-worthy film’s production rolled is a carnival of how reality can break expectations. Producer Bingbong (JM De Guzman) and director Rainier (Kian Cipriano) believe that they all have the right elements of an Oscar-worthy film which they entitled, “Walang-wala”, a controversial story of Mila, a mother who was driven by poverty to sell one of her children to a foreign pedophile. All systems go along with production manager Jocelyn (Cai Cortez) as they are en route to meet with the lead star, Eugene Domingo (as herself) and inspect the perfect location, the infamous Payatas dump-site. Bingbong and Rainier are radiating of assertiveness of how their film will be their ticket to the Oscars. They are so self-assured that they easily dismissed a fellow filmmaker who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival because of his conceited obnoxiousness and wrong grammar. An unwanted rendezvous with him erupted to a volley of mockery at the car that further smelted Bingbong and Rainier’s desire of creating Philippine Oscar history. While the earlier montages of playful genre-swapping gave a glimpse of their cinematic vision in “Walang-wala”, it was through that car scene fueled of sarcasm that I rejoiced for these filmmakers as they embraced the youth’s tenacity of unnecessarily having to prove themselves. It was spot on in reflecting every young adult’s idealism. But the hilarious process of how the vicious reality fails them began on their first destination.

Eugene Domingo as… ‘Eugene Domingo’ in “Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank”

To have the Eugene Domingo on board was already a titillating Oscar prospect but first, Bingbong and Rainier have to make adjustments for the coveted star. Courteous and eager as she was, Ms. Domingo domineered on her demands that sparked creative differences between the producer and the director. Mila, in Ms. Domingo’s visualization, is more neatly dressed with slight make-up as contrast to the original famished character. Ms. Domingo opted to add dialogue to the silent scenes and asked for a double in Sequence 7. Bingbong was more lenient while Rainier soured on imbibing a mainstream-treatment to their indie project. Their second stop in the Payatas dump-site, however, glued them back to their Oscar goal… until the perfect location turned into a traumatic situation.

Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank is no short of situational comedy but how effective it is in delivering a bigger theme than the behind-the-scene difficulties of film-making. It’s a well-matched humor of how expectation and reality play against each other. The leads’ unguarded idealism often falls prey to the unfair predator that is real life. In their quest to make an authentic film, Bingbong, Rainier, and Jocelyn got their doses of poisonous predicaments that threaten to sabotage their Oscar-worthy film. We don’t know if they made it on the Academy’s shortlist. Ms. Domingo got her demands granted, much to her excitement, but at least we get to know who gets the last laugh, if you know what I mean.

It is in the septic tank that I finally found a worthwhile Philippine comedy that I’m looking for and how hearty my laughter was on the intensity of hilarity that the characters find themselves in. While I find Bingbong and Rainier’s characters as relatable, it’s their preemptive Oscar ego that landed them to their misfortunes. It would be easy to find other actors to take their place but De Guzman and Cipriano were naturals as they bounce of each other as the ambitious filmmakers. Cortez was without dialogue throughout the film but it was in two scenes that her hysterics perfectly summarized the overall mood. Lastly, Domingo was all game in acting as the ostentatious version of herself and the versatile character of Mila. Chris Martinez’s script was engaging from beginning to end, enough to make up for the crude production value.

Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank was the country’s submission for the Best Foreign Film category in the Academy Awards last 2011 but didn’t make the cut. Still, it wouldn’t stop filmmakers like Bingbong and Rainier to aspire for the Oscar gold. It is typical Filipino humor to make fun of someone in their sordid state and Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank exactly ends in that manner. But the final scene is the culmination of what the film is about — the notoriety of reality that one can’t simply capture on a group selfie at Payatas, or in Ms. Domingo’s case, a dive into karma.

Rating: 3.5/5.0