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

Film Diary: ‘Ekstra’, ‘Himala’ (Part 1)

TV stations tend to screen full-length movies to fill the primetime void during the Holy Week and for this year, Channel 2 chose a back-to-back broadcast of local cinema’s two most iconic actresses of their generation. This entry will not pit Vilma-nians against Nora-nians, nor compare a slice of their sundry filmography. I do, however, find the selection interesting: the lightness and familiar environment of Ekstra contrasted by the duskiness and obscurity of a little town plagued by strange phenomena in Himala. I haven’t written a proper movie review after my first viewing so the re-watch was helpful in reassessing my initial verdict. Regardless, both films successfully mirror the Filipino way of life and thinking, but in varying degrees of depth and resonance.

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EKSTRA

Follow the star” were the words printed at the back of an L300 van that dropped two batches of disheartened parents and their kids who were initially cast as the young Piolo Pascual and Marian Rivera in a top-rating evening drama. That is just one of the many blistering realities Loida Malabanan (Vilma Santos) witnesses and endures in her ‘professional’ stint as a bit player in Jeffrey Jeturian’s acerbic (if not candid) comedy of the working dynamics in show business. EKSTRA’s humor is grounded on the unflattering behind-the-scenes misfortunes and the unfaltering spirit of its lead character. But the film also imparts a bitter taste, a biting truth on how the commercialization of talents is acknowledged, and in the bit players’ case, are used in exchange of compensation. It’s in this rare occasion that the film allows the ordinary life stories of Loida and her peers to upstage their A-list screen partners.

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The bit players.

Screened in the ninth Cinemalaya Film Festival (2013), EKSTRA had already invited attention through its lead star, the Star for All Seasons. The independent film cleverly builds its story through the casting: the irony of having one of the most celebrated actresses to perform the mundane gimmicks of an extra. More than a selling point, Santos is effective in bridging the audience’s sympathy to Loida who had long been a bit player. She still aspires for her break (a lengthier exposure on TV) but her small-time acting has been a reliable source of income for a single mother struggling in sending her daughter to college. Despite the cumbersome pre-dawn call times, inconvenient lay-bys and sometimes scathing remarks that are self-depreciating for the viewer’s delight, it’s safe to say that Loida and her co-extras are living their dream jobs. They find fulfillment in the smallest acting parts, regardless of whom they share the scene with. As Loida explains to an aspiring teenager, bit players are necessary to complete a scene. Their roles maybe inconsequential but theirs are what comprise of the real world that the show aims to recreate.

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“Nauna Kang Naging Akin” production staff and lead actors. De Jesus on leftmost. 

EKSTRA follows Loida’s two-day taping for the Pascual-Rivera drama “Nauna Kang Naging Akin” but the real entertainment unravels in the TV crew whose production troubles were made privy to the audience. The fluctuating levels of pressure, frustration and stress among the key staff oscillate between hilarity and austerity. Fortunately, the film spared itself from sinking to the quicksand of celebrity egotism and skipped justifying the supposed greatness of the soap opera. Instead, it focused on the unsung heroes: the extras and the production staff. Vincent De Jesus’ grudging and hassled portrayal of the assistant director is the heart of the comedy, from his sarcasm to weariness in achieving what the director requires. The real actors, including Cherie Gil, Tom Rodriguez and Pilar Pilapil, are no more than a backdrop for the more intriguing dynamics behind the camera. As the window that lets the public peek at the insides of television-making, EKSTRA’s fictitious production challenges were handled with resourcefulness that sometimes turns to rash improvisation, where Loida gets her first taste of stardom. But showbiz has two faces and the other side is where EKSTRA subtly succeeds…

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Loida’s second ‘break’ with the Cherie Gil.

…or it could have done more. But EKSTRA is not a black comedy, nor a tragicomedy about pursuing fame. It’s a lite mixture of everything likable and unlikable in the industry. It’s a story about people who work in the unglamorous side of entertainment. Resilience is as important as confidence in this business so whereas the production staff is inured of the stress-fueled intimidation of the director, it registers differently to Loida. The physical and emotional strains they suffer, however, don’t make them as equals. The superiority complex exists in the production staff’s treatment of the extras as if they are just props (while the extras are naively consenting, desperate for the payoff). Even when the tension in the set dissipated, Loida regretted not acing her brief role. For her, it was a chance that got away, an opportunity of a lifetime to speak more lines, to have a more significant role that will recognize her as more than the average bit player. EKSTRA doesn’t end happily but departs in a contemplative tone about the life of an extra, and in the process, is commemorated for the sacrifices she made, not for the sake of art but for life.

The congenial cast (established TV extras appear as Loida’s co-bit players) and recognizable setting outline the light humor in EKSTRA, though a part of me would have like the indie film to be more daring and critical on its commentary of the very business it is in, without the expense of its comedy. The movie does make a star of the many bit players Loida represent. Despite her failure, I know, it won’t stop Loida in her career, along everyone else who committed a mistake in their chosen profession. Affable and enjoyable, EKSTRA has potential to be more than what it is. But on its own, it smoothly carries self-awareness with humor that is anchored in reality, and no melodrama can replace the virtue of modesty that this film observes.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

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Up Next: my imperfect take on the impeccable “Himala”

Film Fever: CinemaKnights 2015

(Film Fever is a special segment dedicated to the local film festivals/screenings I participated, which is my own way of celebrating the underappreciated art of homegrown cinema.)

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For this debut section, students from the Colegio San Juan De Letran take center stage in the grueling yet fulfilling academic requirement of producing their own short film. The seven entries premiered last March 14 at the university’s annual event brilliantly coined as CINEMAKNIGHTS. The students were challenged to create short films that focus on the Filipino’s unique aspects of life, and it’s safe to stay that these college seniors surprise in attacking their corresponding topics in a subversive manner. Critically speaking, the plotted twists and turns either churn or choke the narrative but apart from the writing, the students pose potential in taking lead behind the camera (direction and cinematography) given the serious subject matters.

To see these students’ vision materialize onscreen is a step towards an auspicious filmmaker’s self-actualization. Cinema, in my opinion, is the most holistic form of art and rivalry has no place in this medium for sensible, creative freedom. Here are the seven short films in CINEMAKNIGHTS 2015, in order of their screening:

MESSAGE SENT

Ending with a startling reveal that evokes sympathy on its glib narrative, MESSAGE SENT is a well-intentioned portrayal of modern social connections that can either be deceptively sweet or queerly unfounded. The twist alone is subverting of expectations on how the student-filmmakers depicted the Filipinos’ reputation as the ‘texting capital of the world’. But the overall product would have been more impactful if the two lead characters were made more consistent and precise by their physical predicaments. The ending makes it easy to absolve MESSAGE SENT of its character loopholes but it’s also the same reason why I’m more critical about it. Rating: 2.0/4.0

LAST TWO MINUTES

A suburban look at the repercussions of gambling, LAST TWO MINUTES is a brief example of how greed makes people bleed. Titled after the crucial last minutes of basketball, the love for the sport and love for family are bonded by blood which the lead character mortally learns. The crime drama could be made visually arresting by infusing style to paint the landscape of moral degradation. The emergence of a neighborhood ‘serial killer’ was an excessive derivative of violence. But in general, the short film glimpses the brutal reality of disruption of civil peace; and how it ties poverty to the provocation of crime in the small scale shows social awareness among its young filmmakers. Rating: 3.0/4.0

       

SABADO

The cool ambiance complements its youthful appeal but SABADO disappointingly lacks the emotional depth that detaches the viewers from the characters. The coming-of-age short film subtlety imparts the ‘suicidal’ decisiveness of its two leads but the uninspired exposition and one-dimensional character treatment don’t warrant emotional investment from the audience. Though it made privy of the teens’ self-imposed ponderings of existential crisis, SABADO is too engrossed in its own teenage ethos than validating its endgame. It’s a misdirected and incomprehensible approach on self-consciousness whose message is further lost from bland and uncharismatic characters. Rating: 1.5/4.0

SELDA

Independent film star Mercedes Cabral appears to be this short film’s biggest catch but SELDA strives in its political resonance and not in its star power (a good thing since the thematic element isn’t eclipsed; but one can only speculate the production budget). The thin (and improvised) prison wall separating the rich and the poor is an understatement on how closely related their individual stories are (as ably achieved by the editing). The intersecting stories of the two criminals make them both victims and suspects of the vicious cycle called fate but the flawed justice system plays dice (in the form of bail) to determine whom it will favor. SELDA is a crude yet decent socio-political anecdote, effective but not necessarily efficient in telling its prison story. Rating: 3.0/5.0

LOST PLATE

Its troubled production doesn’t reflect on the outcome but perhaps subjectively, the lead actor is to blame. LOST PLATE is the most ambitious in the lineup, a one-man show that doesn’t captivate on its brooding night drive. The heavy traffic along EDSA is a perfect avenue for a long and fruitful rumination of one’s life choices, regrets and aspiration (shown in three splices of the actor where the editing excels). Those would at least be redolent but the lead actor’s aloofness makes his character apathetic instead of brokering intimacy with the viewer. Somewhere in the middle, the audience will ask what makes this character important and worth the watch as he floods the screen with philosophical and personal ramblings. The dialogue is well-rounded but in a claustrophobic setting where viewers are coerced to connect to a single character, an effective actor would reach the desired destination. Rating: 2.0/5.0

BALOTA NGA

Weak dialogue hurts BALOTA NGA’s credibility but the drama about the trade of Philippine elections finishes stronger with the subtle parallel stories of father-and-son in a political backdrop. The subdued close focusing on Richard Quan’s rueful smile divulges a generational story of amoral beginnings. We see sons who replace their fathers in their instituted government seat and sons who follow their fathers’ footstep in administering electoral fraud. Corruption corrodes the line between right and wrong which has been the accepted way of life. The cinematic execution is imperfect but the thematic content remains intact and more profound than expected. Quan’s pitiful expressions make him an effective, reluctant conspirator of moral ambiguity. Rating: 2.5/5.0

THE CRAMMING

Based on audience reaction, THE CRAMMING is a clear favorite that tickled with the recognizable student’s fury of procrastination. But the short film is nothing but superficial, more of an interlude than a body of art. They say ignorance is bliss but in a comedy born out of its characters’ ignorance, there’s nothing much to ponder. The playful editing is attention-grabbing but isn’t enough to salvage this amateur and silly glance on student life. Rating: 1.0/4.0

 

Movie posters grabbed from CinemaKnight’s Facebook page.

The short films were screened from March 16-20 at Colegio San Juan de Letran.

Disclosure:

The writer has affinity with one of the student-filmmakers.

Film Diary: “That Thing Called Tadhana”

“There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice.” I guess it’s also the same for romance immortalized on print and onscreen. Love will always be the most inevitable destination but the journey is what distinguishes the many love stories that had come and go. THAT THING CALLED TADHANA throws many hints of where Anthony (JM De Guzman) and Mace (Angelica Panganiban)’s spontaneous excursion could ultimately lead to. But creator Antoinette Jadaone is clever enough to detour from clichés to make a refreshing, introspective and inspired love story that is destined to be much more sensible and superior than its mainstream predecessors.

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The breakout hit of the 2014 Cinema One Originals Film Festival, THAT THING CALLED TADHANA is unabashedly romantic yet shrewdly adventurous on narrating the deepening emotional bond of its leads. Those who are familiar with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise will recognize TADHANA’s similar set-up: two strangers who explore a beautiful locale and talk about anything under the sun. But being smitten at each other in less than 24 hours like Jesse and Celine is not TADHANA’s eventual fate. The pop cultural references in Jadaone’s independent film are apparent, including shout-outs on local releases Don’t Give Up On Us (2006) and One More Chance (2007). But distinctly, TADHANA strolls on its pragmatic vision of romance. It playfully debunks the reel and real aspects of love: from the romance flicks’ weepy tendencies and physiology of the ideal leading man to the outlets of heartbreak and the rocky road to recovery. It doesn’t hurry developing romance between Anthony and Mace; rather, broadens the viewer’s perception of two heartbroken characters during their impulsive outing for emotional relief. Unlike the showy declarations of love from flimsy stories onscreen, TADHANA is teeming with rewarding realizations about failed relationship and crushed aspirations – though cynic in context are optimistic especially as the film closes in an open-ended second chance for love. TADHANA is already learned of its contemporaries’ generic errors to become effective in fulfilling its own romantic destiny…

“I don’t need tissue!” is just one of Mace’s (Panganiban) many outbursts

…that it forges through its candid and concise screenplay. Talky and teasing of Mace and Anthony’s undeniable chemistry, THAT THING CALLED TADHANA (in good faith) betrays what its trailer implies as ‘finding love in country’s coldest place’. In fact, TADHANA doesn’t trek that route and instead becomes a brooding journey that starts separately for Mace and Anthony. In narrating the familiar scenario of boy-meets-girl, Jadaone remarkably surprises on creating the duo’s engaging exchanges peppered of witticism and wisdom. Except on the announcement of their sudden trip to Baguio, TADHANA abandons the unnecessary expositions of what, where, how and why and engrosses on who – Mace and Anthony whose platonic relationship is the compass of the romantic comedy. It’s a delight to see them bantering at each other but the brilliance of TADHANA’s script is the ingenious juxtaposition of every scene like a compilation of anecdotes that humanizes the characters in the process. Every scene noticeably begins with an idea which they discuss and later on connect to their individual stories, making the dialogues more resonant to the viewer. (For instance, when Mace admitted she can’t watch Don’t Give Up On Us because she saw it with her ex-boyfriend, that led to Anthony’s questioning actor John Lloyd Cruz’s appeal as a romantic leading man and finally his quip to Mace which is the first sentence of this review.)

Every presented idea (be it abstract or based on personal experience) is new and the context is not repeated on the succeeding scenes, making Mace and Anthony’s interactions more dynamic, unpredictable and realistic. Abundant of touché puns, their conversations are frank and reasonably uncensored, especially when addressing heartbreaks. But what I really appreciate is how Jadaone segues beyond the romantic aspect to give layers to her characters. Mace and Anthony’s toast to the people they would, are and will be are equally (if not exceedingly) affecting to the sulking at their break-ups. TADHANA triumphs on its playful subtlety through meaningful metaphors, particularly Mace’s luggage troubles. Those scenes don’t only speak of her emotional baggage but also shows how she deals with them regardless of the weight. Not to mention the smart personification in Mace’s short story that is important to the film’s parting message. It takes a lot of creativity to repackage the common themes of a romantic comedy but TADHANA is cleverly written, developed to be immune of those faults and cunningly articulate than what its title suggests.

Bus ride to Baguio.

What makes THAT THING CALLED TADHANA such a rewarding rom-com is that the so-called “soul-searching journey” is a two-way manifestation for the characters and the viewers. Mace releases her baggage: sorrow and anger but the real challenge is her response when the ex-boyfriend turns up at her doorstep to seek reconciliation. Meanwhile, Anthony who willingly accompanies Mace in her sudden Baguio trip becomes emotionally attached, to the point of admitting his feelings in the most ambitious and creative way. As for the audience, it was satisfying to realize the precedent of the phrase ‘that thing called tadhana’ (destiny) narrative-wise. It’s not like Mace will immediately jump into a dalliance after a long-term relationship nor Anthony slipping to flirtation to ignite romance. Maybe fate led Mace and Anthony together, but apart from the literal meaning, TADHANA builds on its characters’ intimacy rather than imposing chemistry at the expense of the story. The script will always be superior to the actors and that’s how an onscreen love story should work – by being convincing of the romance it sparked through words. Yet TADHANA also scores in its casting of Panganiban (who won Best Actress in the said film festival) and De Guzman who are instrumental in breathing Mace and Anthony’s palpable personalities (compared to the passable portrayals in English Only, Please). Perhaps it also helped that Panganiban can also associate with Mace’s romantic history while De Guzman is natural as Anthony in the incredulity and sincerity of his character. The cinematography is as crisp as the leads’ genuine emotions while the visual interplay during the contemplative voice-overs makes for a perfect and poignant match.

One of the scenes reminiscent of ‘Before Sunrise’ 

I mostly applauded the film’s technicalities (specifically the script) but if you ask what I personally think, THAT THING CALLED TADHANA not only exceeds my expectations for a romantic comedy but easily becomes my favorite. Not that I acknowledge it as a “hugot” film but I simply love its witty treatment of the genre. It’s the most sensible and organic love story that doesn’t have to consummate a kiss or pronounce ‘I love you-s’. It doesn’t bait its characters to a desperate search for love but naturally have love find them. It is focused on developing intimacy and discernment between two protagonists in the most economical way, unlike other films that are overpopulated by distracting personas. It offers a rare, enriching experience of romantic realizations than just the superficial kiligs. The cherry on top is the parallel story of Mace’s “The Arrow with a Heart Pierced through Him” that shines TADHANA‘s poetic charm, an enlightening take on companionship that speaks volume on Mace and Anthony’s special bond.

Pun intended, THAT THING CALLED TADHANA is a shot right through the heart. It’s a hopeless romantic-wordsmith’s retelling of one of love’s most common clichés and creates a story memorable of witty romanticism. Jadaone instantly becomes one of the exciting local filmmakers whose interpretation of love is both intriguing and knowing. Though Whitney Houston gets her share in the film’s tagline ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go‘, it’s a nice change for an OPM song (Up Dharma Down’s Tadhana) to take the final bow. TADHANA is a tangible assurance that hope is not yet lost for the genre (even if it sporadically churns quality films). All it asks is to keep a little fate.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Capsule Review: Cinemalaya X (Part 3 “Children’s Show”, “#Y”)

In my last review installment of the Philippine independent movies screened at the Cinemalaya X five months ago (which is long overdue), I pair up two relevant films about the Filipino youth which reside in the extremes of the social spectrum. The first one is a grisly look at calloused and desolate children who participate in street fights for a living; while the second is a timely affair with pampered teenagers who proved to be complex as opposed to the silliness of their so-called ‘first-world problems’. 2014 was a great year for the youth’s dramatic representation in Philippine indie (if only the mainstream field has grown up to showcase more mature and sensible material).

P.S. The following are really short reviews but I both like and recommend them (for the discerning and intrigued viewer).

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CHILDREN’S SHOW

Electrified by its excellent young cast and arresting direction, CHILDREN’S SHOW is a painful yet powerful drama inspired of true events – an unflinching look at the gritty games inured children play that no bystander would dare to join. It begs neither mercy nor pity but how admirable it is on every emotional blow it delivers.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

 

#Y

Not your ordinary teen overdose of vices and angst, #Y is a delicate and opportune look on the more privileged kids of the society whose own drama is handled sensitively and tailored ingeniously, thus the injudicious need to judge.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

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

Film Diary: Cinemalaya X (Part 1 “Hustisya”)

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.

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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?

P.S.

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.

Rating: 2.0/5.0

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UP NEXT: Weaving the review for K’Na the Dreamweaver 

Photos from Cinemalaya and The Pulse websites.