Film Fever: Birdshot

The Philippine eagle, its majestic presence soaring on picturesque milieus of the countryside, is both a victim and a witness in Mikhail Red’s second feature. True to its name, BIRDSHOT hits two genres with Red’s confident direction; a moody coming-of-age tale intertwined with a suspenseful crime story that converged into a riveting finish. More impressive is how its maker had done it with finesse and maturity (in his early 20s). It might be too early to say that the future of Philippine cinema is in guaranteed hands but rest assured that filmmakers like Red have a vision on where it could lead.

Image may contain: 3 people, text

It is interesting to note that prior to the Philippine eagle, the country’s national bird was lonchura antricapilla – the scientific name for ‘red maya’. Personified by newcomer Mary Joy Apostol, Maya is a daughter of a caretaker of a land from a nearby eagle sanctuary, who spends her idyll days yearning to see the world beyond, like a caged bird fluttering for freedom. But instead of learning how to fly, she is taught how to fire a rifle by her father (Ku Aquino) by means of self-efficiency. In dire circumstances, the naïve yet stubborn Maya becomes an unwitting gunslinger; the bold image of her holding a weapon with a red scarf (or poncho) is the closest inspiration to a Western movie (with a local touch). Not only was it striking to behold a female protagonist portrayed with such symbolic power, but also beguiling on how her transformation ties to the other half of the film.

Maya as the hunter turned hunted

The procedural nature unravels with John Arcilla (Heneral Luna) and Arnold Reyes as police officers Mendoza and Domingo, respectively; who were originally tasked to probe the case of a missing provincial bus en route to Manila. The film’s tagline “Paano kung may malaman ka na hindi mo dapat malaman?” forewarns Domingo’s descent to violence as he vainly searched for the truth. The good cop, who had winced on Mendoza’s cruel methodology of obtaining intelligence, proved that he could be worse (or at least at par) when he spiralled from idealism to violence. Though set in the 1990s, BIRDSHOT is eerily resonant on its unflinching depiction of brutality, especially concerning the law. Coming off as cool yet cynical, Mendoza does not think twice on inflicting damage to persons of interest; and he is more eager to witness Domingo’s quick embrace of the policemen’s norm. The invisible hand of corruption orchestrates the series of social injustice that Domingo was dogged to solve, but the film does not simply settle for claiming justice…

Domingo (L) and Mendoza (R) on their patrol

While most coming-of-age stories saw optimism at the end of the tunnel, BIRDSHOT soberly aims for an ambiguous ending that only the king of birds can see. They hover on the persecuted ground that evokes a haunting closing shot. Unhurried on its pace, the film firmly established the parallel tales on the loss of innocence. The independence Maya had hoped for came with a price while the paranoia that descended upon Domingo took toll on his family and career. In his sophomore outing, Red masterfully balanced and conjoined the two parts that made the whole more intriguing and poetic. Brooding in its core, BIRDSHOT is precise on targeting thought-provoking allusions whose feathers remain grounded on a true event. The filming locations are both serene and unsettling, captured on natural light which is only fitting since this battle for survival is staged on troubled troposphere.

As a blossoming young woman, Maya’s graduation from child’s play was brutal and tragic. All because of a death of a haribon. Easily one of this year’s most excellent films (winning the ‘Asian Future Best Film Award’ in the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival), BIRDSHOT contemplates on the wrong-doings of man against himself and to the world he lives in. And it is up to the paramount of the food chain (or pyramid) to pass the sentence.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Screened during the first-ever Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (August 2017)

*Photo credits to owners.

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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: 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

Film Diary: The Breakup Playlist

As a cinephile, my expectations of a romantic musical are quite high, especially since I am a fan of John Carney, creator of the beloved indie Once and the mainstream ensemble Begin Again. If you haven’t seen both films then it’d be easier to embrace this Piolo Pascual-Sarah Geronimo starrer, which is a favorable change of melody among Star Cinema’s monthly (and sporadically Viva Film’s) churning of commercial romance. But as a reconciled Gino and Trixie belt out their signature hit at the end, I found myself singing along. All the pretentions about THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST are stowed for a more critical filtration. I give credit where it is due and for this particular film, I’d be singing some praises (and subtly call out flat notes on the side).

Fashioned as another ‘could-be fatal’ mainstream romance, THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST is surprisingly indie at heart. It may not bear the poetic and clever flare of That Thing Called Tadhana but writer Antoinette Jadaone finds the commercial and creative harmony that her earlier released You’re My Boss ruefully lacks. For this particular cinematic case, the genre’s rejuvenation is fitting. After all, it showcased the much-anticipated pairing of the industry’s two biggest stars. But the star power could implode the overall output if the narrative aspect is ignored for the sake of guilty sugar-coated pandering. Fortunately, the creators (also noting Director Dan Villegas), are learned of such criminal onscreen offenses and redirected their attention to the story, setting and situation of its characters, thus organically steering a journey for its two protagonists. Gino and Trixie are more than just lovers; they are dreamers whose passion for music became their stage for commercial success, romantic relationship and personal growth. Hiring the ‘pop star royalty’ and ‘ultimate heartthrob’ to play relatively modest and struggling characters is an irony that may not work most of the time, but Geronimo and Pascual’s adapted personalities fit agreeably in the scaled-down indie music scene. Indulgently throbbing of heartbreak songs and thoughtfully inspired from its humble musical burrow, THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST builds an identity that sets it apart from its homogeneous and forgettable contemporaries. A book may be judge based on its cover but a single song doesn’t create an impression for a whole playlist. It may be frankly intense of emotions (to the fault), but you’d be a surprise on how subtle is the contextual heftiness the film offers.

Sarah Geronimo as Trixie.

Sticking to its title, the movie is divided into five ‘tracks’ that retreats and jumps (to the past and present) in the eventful years of Gino and Trixie’s relationship. The narrative cuts aren’t exactly inventive in manipulating the pacing but through Villegas’ guidance (like the unconventional flow of English Only, Please), the editing is refreshing especially if THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST wants to portray the formulaic love story. The dialogue, given the predictability of the consequences, occasionally slips to the ‘heard’ territory where catchy one-liners land with precision, but there’s a fresh scene that smartly incorporates foreign album titles into a playful (better yet flirty) repartee. The opening act is a meaty appetizer of the looming break-up’s gravity, followed by a sympathetic song-and-cry number as Trixie tearfully watches Gino perform without her. A steeled Trixie is introduced in the first track (‘The Reunion’, 2015) as she is reunited with her former band for a business proposition; her attitude a vast contradiction to the soulful and gentle law student who first encounters Gino as her adviser in a summer music camp (‘How We Met’, 2009). The track names would have been ingenious if they were titled after an ‘original song’, but such preference is better put off, along with the other nitpicking stones cast on the movie (which I’ll discuss later on).

Photo grabbed from Star Cinema Forums website.

Paano Ba Ang Magmahal” is THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST’s banner song, composed by the talented Yeng Constantino and originally performed by Erik Santos and Lizel Garcia in 2012. Geronimo and Pascual’s duet is pulsating of passion and made gritty by the alternative rock vibe, a welcome diversion from the typical pop love songs of the preceding romance flicks. Here’s where the film is committed in living its chosen setting, by acclimatizing to the underground venue of independent music. Popular rock artists are enlisted for supporting roles (Rocksteddy’s Teddy Corpuz and The Dawn’s Jet Pangan as band members) and cameos as themselves (Wolfgang’s Basti Artadi, Spongecola’s Yael Yuzon, and ex-Sugarfree vocalist Ebe Dancel), that bring legitimacy to the story’s immersion to indie. Rarely does a local film put ‘Original Pinoy Music’ (OPM) to the spotlight (I forever roll my eyes on this certain critique) and OPM becomes the most valuable element in THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST. As the more adept singer, Geronimo crosses from pop to rock ballad with an inspired somberness that matches Trixie’s personality. Pascual may not possess the musical chemistry with her but it does make him in-character of Gino’s egotism and insecurity. The movie doesn’t delve much into the dynamics of Pencil Grip but Trixie and Gino’s band doesn’t feel like a perfunctory device for the sake of story-telling. The self-awareness on its setting is worth appreciating because for once, the genre is not retold with a too-good-to-be-true narrative, but one where the ending is neither happy nor sad but realistic.

One of the film’s climatic moments.

THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST isn’t the most novel romantic drama of the recent times but the potency is undeniable given the emotional maturity that it allowed its characters to experience. Geronimo shows depth as an actress through Trixie’s multifaceted role as a lover, daughter, and a woman grown. Pascual remains irresistible whose ragged attractiveness doesn’t outshine his personal struggles. As staples of the genre, both are reliable in more than fleshing out the emotions of their characters and their acting prowess are more recognized because of the better onscreen material. Though definitely inspired from international releases, THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST is no Once and most especially Begin Again since Carney’s filmography has always geared to platonic love. The Villegas-directed film should be treated independently as a sporadic feature where two blockbuster stars personify the sincerity of love in a modest approach. With a narrative that doesn’t beat around a bush and a reassuring goodwill to OPM, these added features makes the movie more layered and rich in substance. Constantino also lends her musical genius on two other songs that are equally fervent of Trixie and Gino’s feelings. In the end, the film is a love story. What matters is how romance is retold and presented and among its monthly releases, Star Cinema and Viva Films finally achieved the correct melody.

THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST is a well-intentioned romantic drama that earns points for its narrative discernment, emotional rawness, and genuine self-awareness that many of its contemporaries miserably lack. It may not reach its full potential but inexplicably, it’s a rejuvenating step in re-tuning the genre, credits to Villegas and Jadaone. Hopefully, this type of movie will not be a one-hit wonder.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Next Romance attraction for the month of July: Capsule Reviews

Capsule Review: You’re My Boss

It’s difficult to not compare the indie darling That Thing Called Tadhana from the mainstream YOU’RE MY BOSS; but since both were directed by Antoinette Jadaone, the two films become a case study on how romantic comedies are treated depending on the scale of production. YOU’RE MY BOSS is no fate but pure formula that Star Cinema applies to the genre. But Jadaone manages to make do of the platonic-turned-romantic relationship between Georgina (Toni Gonzaga) and Pong (Coco Martin) who performed the serviceable humor and somberness that their characters require. Like Tadhana’s land-based travel, YOU’RE MY BOSS follows an intimate and transformative flight of its two leads, in this case, two work colleagues tasked of a marketing pitch to a Japanese investor for their airline company, Skyjet (one of the film’s unabashed but narratively coherent product placements). But while Tadhana relishes on its contemplative journey, YOU’RE MY BOSS’ unhurried pacing has been predetermined to a happy ending. The usage of the typical romantic formula forsakes the element of surprise in developing a subversive love story, which the film falls trap of. So where does Jadaone’s style manifests? Cutting the chase on exposition, she resorted to playful character moments and discreetly illuminating scenes to establish Georgina and Pong’s growing closeness, even if the actors don’t possess the ‘spark’ in jumpstarting their romance.

Despite the backstory, Georgina and Pong don’t match the emotional depth of Tadhana’s Mace and Anthony but it proves to be informative on their motives for self-preservation. The characters, however, are familiar of Gonzaga’s and Martin’s roles in past projects that are made blatant by their self-deprecating laughs through sarcasm and lisp. Gonzaga once again plays an intensely career-driven and fashion-savvy adult still pining for her ex (Starting Over Again) while Martin lets himself loose as a naive but not-to-be misjudged promdi (from the province) who undergoes a closet overhaul anew (Maybe This Time). Their burgeoning attraction intersects with the film’s allegory on honesty that makes YOU’RE MY BOSS more than the average rom-com by taking the initiative of incorporating a simple yet solid overarching non-romantic theme. The film is also chiding and conscious of technology’s role in building one’s online personality that contrasts the actual identity and acknowledging its existence as a means of communicating complicated feelings that are more conveniently said online or through text. YOU’RE MY BOSS’ premise isn’t the most interesting and ingenious starting point (playing make-pretend then unveiling their true selves) and it loses unpredictability in the process; nor does Jadaone make an impression in her venture to mainstream film-making. But it’s not entirely her fault, but perhaps, the bosses’.

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Film Diary: ‘Ekstra’, ‘Himala’ (Part 2)

When I try to talk about Philippine movies, I always end up pining for its golden age: the 1970s to early 80’s. When a quiver of legendary directors emerged from the fumes of censorship and landed bull’s-eye to the local cinematic history. When films were not lax and niggard of thought-provoking themes and also challenged the political restiveness. When the silver screen is not a medium for superficial emotions but is a portrait capturing the gritty reality plaguing the society. Illiteracy, poverty, fanaticism; these are just some of the ugly truths in Ishmael Bernal’s HIMALA, making it even more compelling, important and resonant 33 years later.

Film Poster

Most would have probably first seen the parody before watching the actual film. A spoof of Nora Aunor’s iconic lines overshadows the reason why the film is adhered ‘classic’ in the first place. The digitally restored version I saw during the Holy Week left me pondering on how no different is the fictional town of Cupang to the modern-day society where venerations of religious and showbiz are disturbingly parallel. Is technology to blame for tying one’s faith into false beliefs and idols or maybe the lack of it makes one susceptible to gullibility? Media has a part to play in both the old and new testaments of HIMALA’s undeniable social commentary. It remains chilling and provocative of its taboo themes (to be discussed later on). HIMALA doesn’t play complex mind games but is straight-forward amidst the ambiguity shrouding it. The classic proffers the mutually exclusive ‘believe it or not’ and the final answer is a radical observation of the self-destructive ways the society beguiles itself.

Elsa (Aunor) is discovered while in her iconic pose.

Shot in the impeccably chosen milieu of Ilocos Norte, HIMALA immerses in its eerie setting; the crude and cursed fictional town of Cupang. As the townsmen scuttled during the solar eclipse, it unveiled a young woman fervently praying and unfaltering in the wicked windiness of the sandy hills. Elsa confessed to her adoptive mother (Vangie Labanan) and town priest (Joel Lamangan) that the Virgin Mary appeared to her. Soon, she amasses her disciples and believers physically and spiritually ailing. Elsa’s miraculous claims rejuvenated the moribund Cupang, whose commercial activities sparked from religious merchandises to the trade of flesh. Yet Elsa was not powerful enough to contain an epidemic and save a friend. As the town clamors the streak of misfortunes following her absence, Elsa returns but is unbidden of her last words – the truth.

Elsa while healing one of the many miracle seekers.

There are two sides of the story in HIMALA that makes it a fascinating tug-of-war of truth. On one hand, the film’s mystery is not rooted at the strange locale but in Elsa, who dug her status from underdog to the town’s superstar (pun intended). Elsa sees the Marian apparition at the same spot where she was abandoned as a baby. The uncanny similarity, along with her ill-reputation as a slow-witted, unattractive and unwanted bastard, makes her a dramatic choice for divine intervention. More than her naïve facade, Aunor conveys Elsa’s conviction expertly with her signature expressive eyes. But Elsa’s uncharacteristically indulging smile at the camera during her healing raises suspicion. While Elsa’s character is established on the townsmen’s hearsays, a childhood friend disclosed how Elsa is self-aware and clever with self-preserving determination. Could it be Elsa lied about the Virgin Mary’s appearance? Did she trick the townsmen to gain their attention and adoration? With the situation getting uncontrollable, Elsa’s eventual death was tragic but operatic, inadvertently consistent to the act she could be pulling off. Despite the tons of holy water she douses (and her disciples sell), the crowd of desperate cases are perpetually thirsty that they become a wildfire feeding on misaligned faith.

The restless crowd waiting for Elsa

The whirlwind of strange events in Cupang revealed the more curious case of its people, whose desolate condition make them a fitting case study of a fanaticized society clinging on unproven truths based on legend (the curse of the banished leper) and religion (Elsa’s alleged miracles). HIMALA doesn’t tow a prickly debate on Roman Catholicism; it even isolates the Church through the impersonal views of the town priest. Some may say that HIMALA attacks religious fanaticism but in my opinion, it portrays how the society can irrationally react to bizarre events that only require the tricky virtue of faith. The film is uniquely critical on how this false belief can transform into an overwhelming force to be feared at. The townsmen do not anymore adore the Virgin Mary through Elsa; instead they direct their faith at her and become insatiable. To see the sea of believers zealously (and desperately) flocked at the barren hills as Elsa’s audience is daunting (I remain anxious by the river of prayer after her assassination). Special nod goes to Lamangan who is also the film’s casting and crowd director in gathering Elsa’s vast believers of various deformities, elderliness and sickness (the power of bit players!). Dearth in the aspects of livelihood and knowledge could have baited the people to their unguarded fanaticism but as affluent individuals join them, it becomes clear that faith is unbounded and malleable. It is the second most unrequited piece of one’s soul (next to love), easy to give and difficult to prove. HIMALA presents how faith can be distorted to questionable fervor when religion is befuddled with irrationality. At the end, it’s just a matter of perception.

The role of media in adding fuel to the fire on Elsa’s alleged miracles reflects the sensationalistic nature of journalism. But more consciously, HIMALA demonstrates how it is also the caretaker of truth, through Orly (Spanky Manikan). Keeping his objectivity intact, he relies on the truth seen behind the camera but an unexpected footage led him to spare Elsa from the controversy. By abandoning such shocking angle for his documentary, he settled on filming Elsa’s last breath but the future of his output was unclear. The film also touches numerous taboos such as illegitimacy (Elsa’s backstory), consensual intercourse, suicide and other crimes, magic and prostitution. The last two were incorporated in Nimia (Gigi Dueñas) who was treated as outcast upon her return to Cupang since it was implied that she worked in a cabaret. She opened her own club, only to be closed by Elsa’s disciples.

Elsa’s dramatic monologue

In a more complete and complex picture, HIMALA depicts a society committing a paradox on its beliefs that are grounded but not validated by religion. It may have initially challenged the conservative thinking of the 80’s, but thirty years forward, HIMALA’s relevance is untainted and heralded in the passing years. It remains as one of the few films that unflinchingly reveals the society as a force to reckon with, in this case driven by the blinding power of faith. Normally treated as a backdrop, the general public takes center stage on their baffling devotion to Elsa, who has been the instrument in unleashing the true miracle only the masses can conjure.

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”