Short reviews of the 2012 Cinemalaya shorts

Ang Paghihintay sa Bulong (Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, 17 mins)

A darkly comic spin on a Pinoy superstition that whispering one’s wish to a person before burial will make that wish come true. A senile grandmother (Bella Martin) has become dead weight to a boisterous lower-middle class family (though judging from the members’ hefty bodies, it seems they’re not that food-deprived). The familial fabric that have tied the members to the dying person is all but gone and they can hardly wait for that chance to whisper their wishes to her dead body. The family is certainly an eccentric one, openly showing their ‘disrespect’ for their lola/mama, though they know fully well that it wouldn’t make a difference anyway because they figured she couldn’t care less about what they say, much less comprehend them.

I love the subversive, irreverent humor here. It’s not the typical Pinoy family, but who says only typical families should be shown in films? I just wished Bernardo dialed down on the histrionic acting just a bit. There’s a thin line between showing gregariousness on screen and hamming it up for the camera, and I believe some of her actors crossed that line. That said, this is one of the better shorts of the festival.  B+

Balintuna (Emmanuel Escalona Jr., 11 mins)

Two boys are chased by teenage guys after one of them snatches a wallet from a neighborhood toughie. The film shows the parallelisms of the lives of the two boys as they separately flee from their chasers.  “Balintuna” means irony, and it refers to the fate that befalls the two boys: one would think that it’s the snatcher who will get punished in the end and not the other one who did not do anything.

My problem with this film is you can readily smell the ‘concept’. The thing is, I’m fine with concepts as long as the execution also ropes me in that I almost forget the concept. In other words, it should be a movie first before it is a concept. Otherwise, I will just read any concept paper. Here, the execution feels amateurish. It features an extended chase scene where the chasers catch one of the boys but for some reason he escapes. The other boy goes home and finds his mother being battered by his father, who sees him and batters him as well. These two scuffles are ineptly directed and could have been rectified by more realistic retakes.  C+

Manenaya (Richard Legaspi, 14 mins)

About a middle-aged woman mourning the loss of her husband who was killed for political reasons. There are a couple of things I like about this: its look (I love the composition and the juxtaposition of the grieving wife with the austerity of the rural cemetery) and its sounds (the already lyrical Kapampangan language made even more poetic by the script). What kept me from being totally engaged with the film is the performance of the grieving woman. For grief to be effectively evoked in film (especially in short films where there’s not enough room to establish character empathy), performance is very crucial. Here, the actor (Agnes Macam-Romero) was not able to effectively convey her suffering. Sure, she was going through the motions of crying, but there were no tears. And the audience could see that because her face was in close-up. Hence, the grief remains as a cinematic idea (the audience just assumes that the character is suffering) rather than a cinematic experience (the audience grieves along with the character).  C+

Mientras Su Durmida (Sheron Dayoc, 15 mins)

A young woman (Sue Prado) is married to a man who is paralyzed. She washes and feeds him but has obviously lost her love for the man. She changes the aquarium water and temporarily puts three goldfishes on the waterless kitchen sink, making them gasp for air. She glimpses a happy couple going past their house. One night, as she goes out for groceries, a young man gets interested in her and follows her home. She does not object. He starts to kiss her, she kisses him back but suddenly stops and goes home. She then makes love to her husband. The next morning, she faces the mirror, does her makeup, and wipes her tears with her makeup sponge. The last shot finds the husband still in bed with an elderly woman keeping watch, with no sign of the wife.

This is my absolute favorite of the bunch. Dayoc (Halaw) is so technically and artistically assured here that every shot and every second of the film is necessary. This is the kind of film that gets richer with every subsequent viewing, but even on a single viewing, one already gets a lot of stuff. This is what I mean earlier about a performance playing a crucial role in capturing audience empathy. It takes a lot (especially in Philippine society) to empathize with a “cheating” woman, but Prado imbues her role with just the right amount of pathos and remove. Essential feminist film viewing.  A+

Pasahero (Max Celada, 13 mins)

The film is set late at night inside a jeepney, the last vessel that weary middle class students, lovers, and workers have to drag their bodies in before finally resting at home. The last thing you want sitting beside you is a nosy/noisy woman who can’t keep her mouth shut. But that’s exactly what happens in this film. An overeager (and oversharing) middle-aged woman (a charming Madeleine Nicolas) talks and talks (and talks some more) about anything she could think of. She talks about how she can recite the Ten Commandments in Tagalog, how her two sons were killed in Mindanao and how her daughter is no longer living with her but her son-in-law is someone who is marunong dumiskarte sa buhay and is generous to her. She spouts platitudes about how government is always blaming the poor for the country’s problems. She’s a traditionalist, loudly commenting on why a couple of male passengers sport long hair and earrings. Because she sits directly at the back of the driver, she’s the one who passes the fare and repeats questions asked by passengers and the answers of the driver (e.g., “May radyo ka daw po ba?”, “Wala raw.”) even if the passengers and driver can easily hear each other. In short, she’s a little cuckoo. But a harmless, lovable cuckoo. There’s a twist in the end: the driver is actually the generous son-in-law that the woman was talking about earlier.

Though not very realistic (most companions of drivers sit on the front beside the driver), the film is a likable slice of life that most public commuters are familiar with. It is a companion piece to Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143, and they share the same sensibilities (of course, director Celada is one half of the rowdy pair filming their student project in MNL 143). Both films are cute but ultimately trifling.  B

Ruweda (Hannah Espia, 9 mins)

The film is set at a perya at night. A young man is about to propose to his girl, a pickpocket is about to, well, pick pockets (or, if he gets lucky, a ring), a drunk man betting in one of the stalls is about to win something he did not expect to.

The film, above all, is a triumph in mood-setting and editing. Espia is a graduate of the UP Film Institute and this work shows affinity to some of the more recent works of UP Film students (e.g., Hungkag and Balang Araw) in that they’re set at night in the city, featuring shady characters (thugs, robbers, etc.) and something bad is about to happen. They’re also very well-made technically. Although I believe, like anyone else, that the young filmmakers of today have very good technical skills, the next challenge (especially when they eventually make full-length films) is to be more ambitious in their conceptualization and be more meticulous in their scriptwriting. They shouldn’t settle for tired old themes and just rely on their technical wizardy to tell their stories. They should find a unique voice that will set them apart from every other emerging filmmaker.  B

Sarong Aldaw (Jun Dio, 15 mins)

Speaking of voice, Dio has one. His film portrays a young man who comes from a poor farming family in Bicol. His poet mother died giving birth to him. Although his father wants him in the farm, he has inherited his mother’s gift for writing and he wants to hone this gift by leaving farm work and studying in Manila.

Dio shot this film using an inexpensive camera and it shows. Although you don’t see pixels, you also don’t get the best resolution, even if Dio exhibits a wonderful visual style. But what he has that is more important is heart. And beautiful poetry.  Following the vein of the Pangasinense visual poet Christopher Gozum, Dio is an exciting new voice, and this film, above all, is a story of the triumph of art over adversity.  B+

Ulian (Chuck Gutierrez, 15 mins)

A young girl named Dayang (Arnalyn Ismael, a natural) shows off her dancing skills and plays with her neighbors before accompanying her senile grandmother to the cemetery to visit her grandfather. The old woman places food on her husband’s grave and talks to him about random things, updates on her life. Being young, Dayang wanders off to play and comes back with her grandmother gone. She decides to walk back home hoping to spot her and finds her safe at home.

The film is deceptively simple yet rich on many levels.  The film’s most accessible appeal is its texture. It’s set in Muslim Mindanao and the colors and the language just jump at you. But the good thing about the film is it takes these as a given. It doesn’t exoticize the culture. On the contrary, it actually shows the universality of the human experience. Talking to departed loved ones, the love of performing in front of crowds, the bringing of food to the cemetery – these things are very Filipino, whether you believe in Allah or in anitos or in Jesus. Further, learning to value the presence of family members once you think you have lost them is a very human reaction. Dayang, in losing sight of her grandmother, grew up a little.  A

Victor (Jarell Serencio, 15 mins)

Victor Caparas has been a long-time crucifixee in the annual Maleldo Lenten Rights in Pampanga. The film follows him from Holy Thursday as he prepares for the event and ends on Black Saturday as he recuperates from his wounds. Of course, the main highlight of the film focuses on Good Friday, where he will be crucified.

I admit the first time I saw this I thought that there was something about it that turned me off quite a bit. The flagellation and crucifixion ritual of Pampanga has always been a fascinating topic for documentaries and over the years there have been a steady stream of people from all over the world that flock to the small town of Cutud to witness this extreme ritual with their own eyes. So when I learned that Victor would be another one of those documentaries that would just cash in on the inherent drama and spectacle of the Senakulo without offering a new angle or insight into the phenomenon, I wasn’t too excited.

The first time I saw the film I thought it did just that. It showed the frenzied atmosphere up close, complete with the requisite close-up shot of nails being hammered into the hands and feet of Victor (who was moaning in pain) and the spectators jostling for position to capture their next Facebook profile photos. But then it ended with a very memorable sequence, showing Victor (with other crucifixees) lining up to receive their monetary compensation (which didn’t seem much) and then using that money for gambling and prostitution.

I first thought that it was a bit unfair on Victor’s side to be shown in a negative light and not giving him enough chance to let the audience know him a little better. Surely, his person is more than what is seen of him in those three days of Lent. But on second viewing, it all became very clear. This is not just another documentary that takes advantage of a colorful, dramatic, freak show-like religious ritual because it shows a new insight into the practice. It shows that the practice, for some crucifixees, might have lost its original meaning and has only become a means to earn extra cash. The film urges people to take a closer look at a ritual that has become a tourism cash cow for the Pampanga government, a ritual that possibly only takes advantage of locals willing to suffer excruciating pain year after year for a few hundred bucks.  A

*Note: I was only able to catch the last few minutes of Bohe: Sons of the Waves and am not in a position to comment on it.

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