2011 in Philippine cinema saw a bumper crop of excellent movies from the country’s three premier filmfests (Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, Cinemanila), a breaking of box-office records within a span of two weeks (No Other Woman and Praybeyt Benjamin), a continuation of the existence of a parallel world of pink films that are immune to critical appraisal, and a controversy-marred Metro Manila Filmfest (what’s new?). Here are ten films I enjoyed:
10 – Lawas Kan Pinabli (Christopher Gozum)
With Anacbanua (his first feature), Gozum ushered in a filmmaking style that’s unusual in Philippine cinema, setting stunning imagery to meditative poems with a distinct regional sensibility. He continues this style in Lawas Kan Pinabli, yet it doesn’t feel rehashed because by moving his canvas from Pangasinan to the Middle East, where he works, he presents a fresh take, an emic perspective, on the OFW issue. His interviews with real migrant workers show both tragedy (e.g., the disfigured man, the young mother deserted by her husband) and redemption (e.g., the wrongly imprisoned guy). Gozum intersperses his interviews with a fictionalized story of a man searching for his missing wife, allowing him to roam and capture the austere splendour of the Arabian desert. This would have been higher up my list had some interview scenes been shorter, but what’s here is enough to make this film one of my most engrossing cinematic experiences this year.
9 – Amok (Lawrence Fajardo)
For pure technical skill, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any other Pinoy film that will surpass this scorcher about several strangers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, their lives abruptly changing as one man in the vicinity reaches the end of his rope. Sure, this conceit has been done numerous times, with Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu adapting the concept three times (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), but when the effort is this good, you can’t help but sit up and applaud. The solid performance of the whole cast (particularly Dido Delapaz as the guy who runs amok) is just icing on the cake. With this film and X-Deal, a well-made erotica also released this year, Fajardo is signalling his presence as a filmmaker to watch out for.
8 – Big Boy (Shireen Seno)
Shireen Seno’s first feature recounts the childhood stories of her father. She utilized the Super 8mm camera to capture snippets of life in Mindoro in the 1950s. Having grown up in the province myself, the film brought back many memories from my own childhood: being forced to sleep by elders on summer afternoons when all we’d want to do is play and wish summers would never end, chasing chickens in the backyard, visiting our grandparents’ two-story house with capiz-shelled windows, bathing in the river, among others. I have low tolerance for technical experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but Seno’s decision to use the Super 8 here actually is a brilliant, if very bold, move, as it emphasizes the elusive nature of memory. There are scenes where you don’t hear sounds at all even when you know the actors are talking. But so what? Silence is way underrated anyway.
7 – Tundong Magiliw (Jewel Maranan)
There’s no denying that Probe Team and its descendants (I-Witness, Reporter’s Notebook, etc.) have contributed to a deeper understanding of Philippine social realities, particularly of the lifeworlds of the country’s marginalized. But these TV documentarians have specialized in a particular story-telling template that tends to essentialize whatever phenomenon they’re examining because of TV time constraints. Instead of fully immersing in and understanding all the dimensions of a particular topic, most of them focus on generalities and surface observations, and rely on interviews of social scientists (who don’t always know everything) to do the requisite expert explanation. Tundong Magiliw is cut from a different mold. It puts the viewers inside the house of a poor family in Tondo and it doesn’t relent; it doesn’t blink. It forces us to eat with the family members, sleep on the floor with them, fish in the polluted bay with the mother, wait for the father to come home and find out if he has finally found work this time, wait with the kids for the gulaman to solidify so we can sprinkle powdered milk and sugar on it and eat it for merienda, help the kuya tape pirated DVD covers on the wall, assist the kumadrona as she takes charge of the birthing of the latest addition to the family. Maranan’s camera is a silent witness to all these, and by staying mute, she said so much.
6 – Busong (Auraeus Solito)
In Solito’s documentary Basal Banar, he made us see the beauty and spirituality of Palawan and how it is being threatened by change in the name of “development”. In Busong, he utilizes fiction, weaving three stories to form a tapestry of Palawan folklore and hypnotically bringing us back to the grandeur of nature. And Palawan is just the perfect backdrop to showcase its beauty. But beyond the picturesque scenery is an aching, a longing, a call to arms if you will – a subtle warning that if we remain apathetic to environmental destruction, even the last frontier won’t be spared. But the film ends in a glimmer of hope: after a reluctant urbanite accepted his destiny to follow his ancestors’ path and be a shaman himself, a woman’s seemingly untreatable wounds that cover her body turned out to be caterpillars’ cocoons that eventually turned to butterflies. This, among other things, could be a metaphor for the role of the indigenous in healing the wounds inflicted on nature by taking pride in their hearth and heritage and protecting it from profit-oriented outsiders.
5 – Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Antoinette Jadaone)
Question: What film features this year’s most heartbreaking scene in Pinoy cinema? Way Back Home? Nope. Ka Oryang? Nyet. Forever and a Day? Dili. Pass? Ironically enough, it’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, a comedy film. (For the curious, the scene I’m talking about is the one where Nanay Lilia waits [and waits some more] for her interview to be aired.) This wildly entertaining mockumentary targets the country’s mass media and showbiz cultures (which share the same template, really) by using as a weapon the most ubiquitous actor in Pinoy horror films: Lilia Cuntapay (no, not Kris Aquino), in a revelatory performance. What makes this first feature by writer/director Antoinette Jadaone brilliant is its refusal to pander, which is very tempting for a material like this. The jabs it throws are employed with stealth, never obvious. But the effect is just as, if not even more, bruising.
4 – Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (Alvin Yapan)
Imagine director Alvin Yapan pitching this story to a potential mainstream film producer: a university student has a crush on his Filipino literature professor, a solitary unmarried woman in her 40s who owns a dance studio on the side. The student wants to impress his teacher so he enlists the help of his male classmate who works as an assistant in their teacher’s studio. Unbeknownst to the student, his classmate is smitten with him. The dance sequences will be scored with poems written by the country’s top female poets but turned into songs. And, no, there will be no kissing or bed scenes between or among the protagonists. Surely, no financially motivated producer would greenlight it. Luckily for Yapan (and for Pinoy cinema), his vision was funded by Cinemalaya. The film, despite its prevailing mood of heartbreak, is really a celebration of art and of humanness. Yapan skilfully navigates the deepest recesses of human emotion that drive people to create art in whatever form: be it dance, song, or poetry. A less sensitive director could have made this material more precious, more affected. But Yapan refuses to give us clear-cut answers. He wants us to ask questions.
3 – Sakay sa Hangin (Regiben Romana)
One of the most blissful experiences I’ve had this year (cinematic or otherwise) was watching this gem about a Talaandig musician and his dream to save the world from itself. I commented on Facebook after seeing the film that watching it felt like being in a trance: in the beginning you get lulled, then you slowly leave the worldly realm and enter another dimension, and by the end you, too, get blown by the wind, up to where your imagination will take you. Director Regiben Romana’s ethnographic patience in capturing the minutiae of the life of an artist in the Kitanglad hinterlands (for instance, in documenting the care with which Waway Saway crafts a flute out of a bamboo) paid off as he was able to capture serendipitous moments of beauty (that bumblebee playing with Waway’s hand, that swirling leaf) that add to the overall holiness of the film.
2 – Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Lav Diaz)
Indulgent is one of the adjectives hurled against indie film stalwart Lav Diaz by people who can’t stand the length of his films. To some extent, I see where they’re coming from. But it’s hard not to be immersed in Diaz’s worldview once you find yourself inside the labyrinth of his works. Siglo ng Pagluluwal premiered in Venice and was shown in Cinemanila and the new Baguio Cinematheque, but very few Pinoys were able to see it, which is unfortunate. The film is Diaz’s most reflexive film to date: it’s safe to assume that the character of Homer the filmmaker (played by Perry Dizon) is based on him. Diaz offers us a glimpse of his craft-making by showing footages of Babae ng Hangin, a film he’s been working on for some time now. We hear his musings about cinema, about art, about life. About why, even though his films are hotly anticipated by foreign film festival organizers, he’s averse to deadlines. About why he wants to re-shoot scenes even if his actors have moved on with their lives. The other story he tells, about the breakdown of a provincial cult, can actually stand as a movie all its own, but Diaz stitched it with the other story so well that the two stories combined made the whole thing even more admirable. Mr. Diaz, please continue indulging us.
1 – Niño (Loy Arcenas)
In 2000, Star Cinema and Laurice Guillen gave us Tanging Yaman, a family film in which all elements worked so well together that even non-religious people like me appreciated its artistry. Eleven years later, another well-made family film got released (albeit not yet commercially), and it’s better than Tanging Yaman. No other Pinoy film in 2011 gave me as much joy as Niño did. The movie is the result of a perfect collaboration of the most talented people in their respective fields. Screenwriter Rody Vera is one of the top Filipino playwrights working today, and his script, telling the story of a once powerful family now falling apart, is the biggest reason why the film is such a delight to behold. But the script, no matter how great it is, has to be translated effectively into a visual medium, and first-time filmmaker Loy Arcenas surprised everyone with how he expertly orchestrated all the different elements as if he’s been directing films his whole life. The technical components are all top-notch and the cast (including Fides Cuyugan Asensio and Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino in tour-de-force performances) is the year’s best ensemble. Arcenas will be back in next year’s Cinemalaya with Requieme, about Andrew Cunanan (Gianni Versace’s killer). Me falling in line for it is a no-brainer.
* * *
Isda (Adolfo Alix, Jr.), Señorita (Vincent Sandoval), Sa Kanto ng Ulap at Lupa (Mes de Guzman), Parola (Jerrold Tarog) Boundary (Benito Bautista), Teoriya (Zurich Chan), Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (Marlon Rivera)