Twenty twelve in Philippine cinema was a year of great losses (with the passing of three of its greatest filmmakers in Mario O’Hara, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, and Celso Ad. Castillo, and of movie legend Dolphy) but it also marked the beginning (hopefully) of a culture of restoration, with the film stocks of three classics (Genghis Khan, Himala and Oro Plata Mata) remastered and screened in cinemas to a rapturous, albeit still limited, audience. More classic titles are now being restored for screening in the coming years.
As if the deaths of the beloved actor and the master filmmakers symbolized a passing of the torch to the younger generation, most of the best films of the year (at least for me) are directed by young filmmakers using mostly digital cameras. All the directors of my top ten films did not start directing until 2006 (!) and ten of my top 25 are debut feature films. The future of Philippine cinema is bright, indeed.
Even then, most Filipinos unsurprisingly still trooped to mainstream studio fare. The highest-grossing film last year is Sisterakas, an inane comedy that merely capitalizes on the popularity of its lead stars. Seven of the 10 highest-grossing were Star Cinema releases, evidence of the studio’s stranglehold of the moviegoing market. Aside from horror films and Vice Ganda comedies, infidelity dramas also continued to be a big hit last year, following the commercially successful (though artistically egregious) 2011 film No Other Woman.
The good thing is that the government, through the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), is now beginning to bring the regions into the mostly Manila-centric film culture and industry by establishing new cinematheques in Davao, Iloilo, and Marawi, in addition to the one opened in Baguio in 2011. Another one is being constructed in Zamboanga. The FDCP also held two phases (in June and November) of the First Sineng Pambansa Film Festival in Davao City, showcasing regional films that will only augur well for the development of filmmaking and film appreciation in the regions.
Once again, the country’s three major film festivals (Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, and Cinemanila) produced the year’s best films, though all three were mired by problems big (Cinemalaya’s disqualification of MNL 143 stirred up a hornet’s nest in the film community) and small (logistical issues frustrated filmfest goers in Cinema One and Cinemanila who wanted to know the screening schedules in advance). Also, by the end of the year, cineastes are complaining of filmfest fatigue, with Cinema One, Cinemanila, the Manila leg of new festival on the block – Sineng Pambansa, and the MMFF (New Wave and Mainstream) scheduled too close to (and even overlap) each other.
Another big story of the year is the increasing recognition of the power of documentary filmmaking in shedding light on a host of societal issues that not many are familiar with. Benito Bautista’s Harana, Jay Abello’s Pureza, Adjani Arumpac’s Nanay Mameng, and a couple of Sineng Pambansa products (Lito Tabay’s Walay Tumoy na Punterya, Chuck Escasa’s Jingle Lang ang Pahina, Lauren Faustino’s Ang Babae sa Likod ng Mambabatok, and Dempster Samarista’s Taguri, to name just a few) all present original takes on various aspects of Philippine society and culture. There were also documentaries that focused on aspects of Philippine cinema: Sari Lluch Dalena and Keith Sicat’s two films about Ishmael Bernal and his classic Himala – Ishma and Himala Ngayon, respectively, and Nick de Ocampo’s Cine Sine.
Before I roll out my list, just a disclaimer: as much as I loved Give Up Tomorrow, the absolutely riveting, heartbreaking Paco Larrañaga documentary directed by Michael Collins and co-produced by New York-based Filipino-Americans Marty Syjuco and Carmen Vicencio, in my book it doesn’t qualify as a Filipino-made film for two main reasons. For one, most of the film’s technical work (directing, cinematography, editing, and musical scoring) were done by Americans. Secondly, most of the funds used to finance the film came from foreign sources. Yes, the subject matter is Filipino, the producers are Filipino (albeit US-based), but the film’s cultural capital is not Filipino. I admit that in the age of diaspora, crowd-sourcing, foreign grants and increasing international collaborations, the concept of ‘national cinema’ is increasingly being problematized, but as of now, I’m more comfortable using my own definition of a Filipino film.
With that out of the way, here are the local films I enjoyed watching last year:
HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order)
Aberya (Christian Linaban) A tale of four interweaving stories in Cebu that features an imaginative, trippy segment worthy of a full-length narrative by itself.
Alagwa (Ian Loreños) A relentless vanished person thriller that tugs at viewers’ heartstrings. Exceptional perfs from Jericho Rosales and Bugoy Cariño.
Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (Arnel Mardoquio) Mardoquio’s most cinematic effort so far, featuring an irresistible story and a charming cast.
Diablo (Mes de Guzman) An eerie, almost gothic, examination of old age and familial fissures set in northern Luzon.
Ex Press (Jet Leyco) An entrancing documentary-narrative hybrid film on railway trains and a mysterious railway police officer who resigned from duty for unknown reasons.
Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (Lav Diaz) Coming on the heels of last year’s epic Siglo ng Pagluluwal, this 6-hour piece of miserabilism is Diaz’s most harrowing yet. After watching, you’ll feel like your heart has been put through the blender.
Kalayaan (Adolfo Alix Jr.) One person’s paradise is another one’s hell. Alix captures both the beauty and madness of nature (human or otherwise) in this scenic homoerotic film.
Mamay Umeng (Dwein Baltazar) A carefully constructed, patient examination of extreme old age and solitude set in southern Luzon.
Nanay Mameng (Adjani Arumpac) A fascinating character study of a feisty woman in her mid-80s whose long life symbolizes the struggles of Filipino working-class women under oppressive political and sexual regimes.
Obscured Histories and Silent Longings of Daguluan’s Children (Teng Mangansakan) Mangansakan’s meditative ethnography of a Muslim Mindanao barrio. Features the best sex scene in recent memory.
Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar (Jay Abello) Abello’s exhaustive investigation of his family enterprise turns into an inquiry of the capitalist system in general.
Pusang Gala (Mario O’Hara) The late great O’Hara’s amusing Third World take on Sunset Blvd. Janice de Belen shines as a middle-aged plain Jane infatuated with a virile young buck (the charming Yul Servo) she takes in as a boarder.
Thy Womb (Brillante Mendoza) Mendoza’s lyrical ode to the peaceful Bajau peoples of Tawi-Tawi will be best remembered as the film that relaunched Nora Aunor’s career.
Tukso (Raz dela Torre) A highly entertaining story of a sex education teacher who is a virgin. This was made before Won’t Last a Day without You but commercially released just last year, and it already shows dela Torre’s penchant for accessible, crowd-pleasing stories.
Unofficially Yours (Cathy Garcia-Molina) A buoyant romcom that takes viewers to kilig heaven. John Lloyd Cruz and Angel Locsin sizzle as fubus who fall in love.
THE TOP TEN
10. Posas (Lawrence Fajardo)
Many fans of Fajardo’s multi-narrative thriller Amok were disappointed by Posas. They expected the same high-octane intensity shown in last year’s film. Yet Posas’ story does not call for a simmering boil treatment: it calls for exacting verisimilitude in the day in a life of local district police officers, and the point of Zig Dulay’s script is to dispel the notion that police work is mostly about chasing criminals (though the film begins with a requisite, but still exciting, foot chase). Most of the time, police officers handle bureaucratic paperwork, which is not exactly the most macho thing in the world, and the film succeeds in poking fun at the ineptness of the officers in doing their routine tasks. Dulay has fashioned himself into a Pinoy Mark Boal, an embedded journalist in the Middle East and now an award-winning screenwriter (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty). Where Boal followed American soldiers in Iraq, Dulay has immersed himself in police stations and local courtrooms and in 2012 came up with pointed observations on the country’s justice system (his Qwerty and Ad Ignorantiam are also petty crime procedurals). Posas is his best script yet, and Fajardo deftly handles the meticulousness, guiding his actors to perform with nary a hint of artifice.
9. Bwakaw (Jun Lana)
In an age where attempts at making one’s art more accessible is frowned upon by most critics, Lana does not shy away from crafting a tale that’s universal yet not necessarily playing to the back row. Bwakaw employs old-school character storytelling, introducing us to an old man and his dog, then his social milieu, then presents a conflict (dog becomes ill and the main character unexpectedly falls in love), and a feel-good (though not necessarily happy) resolution. But as the cliché goes, it’s not the destination; it’s the journey that matters more. And what a journey this films takes its viewers! More than its poignant script and steady directing, though, the film’s strength lies on Eddie Garcia’s tender performance as Rene, never once succumbing to the temptation to make his character as flowery as the Hawaiian shirts his character likes to wear. Bwakaw is one of the reasons why people watch movies, and it’s just unfortunate that Pinoys flocked more to hollow comedies and artificial relationship dramas that mainstream studios churned out this year.
8. Requieme! (Loy Arcenas)
Niño, last year’s Loy Arcenas-Rody Vera collab, was my favorite local film of 2011. This year, the two team up again for a dramedy that is unmistakably Pinoy: happy-go-lucky on the outside but full of drama on the inside. Powered by two of the year’s strongest performances (theater vet Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino and exciting find Anthony Falcon), the film mines lower middle-class Filipino death rituals for both side-splitting humor and heartbreaking pathos. Unlike the similarly-themed Ded Na si Lolo though, the humor in Requieme doesn’t come from broad comedy and the sadness doesn’t emanate from manipulative melodrama: everything here is even-tempered. You laugh and cry at your own pace.
7. Aparisyon (Vincent Sandoval)
Sandoval has emerged out of nowhere to become one of the most technically assured filmmakers in the country. His background in Psychology and Advertising allows him to craft emotionally riveting films that are not alienating to the mainstream crowd. His debut film Señorita engagingly melded melodrama and noir elements to tell a tale of a transgender woman enmeshed in small-town politicking. Aparisyon, his follow-up, grippingly examines questions of faith and devotion among the religious during a turbulent era in our country’s history. Much has been said about the exceptional work of the film’s all-female cast, but equal to the task are the film’s all-star crew (co-writer Jerry Gracio, lensman Jay Abello, editor Jerrold Tarog, and scorer Teresa Barrozo, to name some) who all contributed in crafting this disciplined, socially aware chamber drama.
6. Walay Tumoy na Punterya (Cierlito Tabay)
You know that person who’s unassuming, doesn’t like to talk a lot, doesn’t have lots of friends, dresses very spartanly, and when they talk they go straight to the point, without frills, but still the things they say are so fascinating and make complete sense that you wish every person in the world communicate like them? That person is like the film Walay Tumoy na Punterya. Tabay lets viewers in on a secret: the world of backyard gunmakers in Danao, Cebu as they grapple with a dilemma – to stop their illegal manufacture of homemade guns in Danao’s hinterlands to avoid the risk of imprisonment or to continue the tradition of fine craftsmanship of illegal guns to support their families and, ironically, Danao economy itself. The film has taken extreme relevance in light of the recent turn of events in our country and in the world involving gun culture. Tabay employs guerrilla ethnography and eschews the usual tropes of Filipino documentary filmmaking (e.g., voiceover narration that sometimes contextualizes but also often dictates viewers how to think, manipulative musical scoring, “artistic” camera angling) by focusing on the fascinating meat and bones of its topic. Sometimes, like in this case, less is really more.
5. Mater Dolorosa (Adolfo Alix Jr.)
Alix’s second film of the year (after Kalayaan) is almost the antithesis of the first. Where the latter relies on lush visuals and menacing sound/music to convey its story, Alix (and lensman Albert Banzon) drains away color and withholds any music in Mater Dolorosa until the last scene, directing the viewers to focus on the film’s story. And where Kalayaan almost has zero dialogue, Mater is narrative-driven. Writer Jerry Gracio borrows elements of family mobster films and transposes them to a Philippine city that has a corrupt mayor (and his family) taking over the underground economy previously controlled by the Lagrimases. The film is tightly controlled and viewers feel a palpable sense of oncoming dread, portended by the non-stop sound of firecrackers outside the family home. All cast members deliver top-notch performances.
4. Pascalina (Pam Miras)
Pascalina is that little film that could. Instead of apologizing for using lo-fi cameras to shoot her film, Miras uses them as a come-on, and the grainy pictures they take actually add an important texture to the dark narrative. This unique character study runs the risk of turning the audience off from its titular character: a plump, homely, lackadaisical young woman who feels uncomfortable dealing with people. Yet to me it is exactly these traits that pull viewers to Pascalina’s side. She represents the average (and for the above average, she represents their bad hair days). I’ve seen my fair share of aswang films but this is my favorite so far because the horror element is treated so matter-of-factly. Pascalina is said to have inherited her aunt’s aswang powers, yet as the film moves towards its climax, the audience will be kept guessing whether the aswang inheritance story is true or not because Pascalina herself doesn’t put too much thought into it. There’s one scene near the end where she was eating what appears to be food but because of the dark, grainy shot, the audience won’t know for sure if she was eating food or something else. It’s genius and it’s my favorite scene of the film. The more I think about this film, the more it grows on me.
3. Colossal (Whammy Alcazaren)
It takes massive balls to come up with a first feature film that attempts to understand the essence of human existence, and Alcazaren must be wearing the roomiest boxers to accommodate them. With Colossal, Alcazaren uses images of nature (bodies of water, the woods, the urban landscape, the cosmos) to tell a mythic tale of human sorrow and love. The water motif is the most recurring one, symbolizing timelessness, with bodies of water having borne witness to the primordial struggles and triumphs of humankind, of the ebb and flow of the story of humanity. The screenplay is basically a long ode to a departed significant other, but the personal story becomes the narrative of human existence: with the elegy encompassing universal stories of mothers and sons, of the evanescence of the human body, of the enduring power of love.
2. Jingle Lang ang Pahina (Chuck Escasa)
Escasa’s joyous ode to a bygone era, Jingle perfectly captures the cultural zeitgeist of the Marcos regime by documenting the beginnings of Jingle Chordbook Magazine and its eventual hold on the youth of the country. The title is a witty play on the phrase ‘jingle lang ang pahinga’ (a bathroom break is the only respite): by changing ‘pahinga’ to ‘pahina’ (page), the film posits that Jingle was the only publication during the Marcos era that catered to the demands of the music-loving, guitar-playing, increasingly restless youth. This was obviously before the age of the internet, and the film documents how Jingle taught a generation how to play the guitar with its precise instructions and careful placing of chords above the lyrics. Yet the magazine’s subscribers knew that it wasn’t only the latest song chords and album reviews that they were anticipating: there were essays and stories and comic strips that subversively poked fun at the establishment. Escasa’s fandom of the magazine is so infectious that watching the film made me wish I was born a few years earlier so I could have participated in the phenomenon, which I only caught the tailend of. My favorite parts, as a film reviewer, were the interviews of the magazine’s former music reviewers, explaining the consequences of giving records either the highest rating (an Angel) or the lowest one (a Fly). One reviewer gave a Duran Duran album a Fly and received tons of hate (snail) mail for it!
1. Jungle Love (Sherad Anthony Sanchez)
Sanchez’s fever dream of tragic proportions threads three narratives: a middle-aged woman kidnaps a baby, hides it in the woods, and spends most of the movie time searching for it when it goes missing. A couple goes hiking (and do lots of lovemaking) in the same forest with the aid of a local guide. A soldier befriends a mysterious jungle dweller. Sanchez taps into the inherent mysticism and eroticism of the jungle to craft a film that’s both highly erotic yet, curiously, deeply humorous: a strange combination, sure (I certainly don’t laugh a lot while I’m turned on), but the film deftly balances the carnal and the comical that you never for a second feel that Sanchez is being facetious. The film explores the interstices between different binaries: animal/human, sacred/banal, pagan/Christian, lower class/upper class, young/old, past/present, tradition/modernity, urban/rural, carnal/spiritual, art/pornography. These themes are leavened by a diegetic song that plays almost every other scene. The lyrics of the catchy “God Bless You, Mama Mary Loves You”, originally performed by radio personality and Marian devotee Fatima Soriano, are cheekily reworked by Sanchez and musical scorer Teresa Barrozo to make it less religious and even more inclusive: in addition to the destitute, the sinner, the overweight, the unattached, the elderly, the sickly, they add gays and lesbians to the list of people who will be saved by Jesus. Jungle Love took me to different, unexpected places, and for that, it’s my pick as the best Pinoy movie of 2012.
UPDATE: I just saw Sari Dalena’s and Keith Sicat’s Himala Ngayon and I absolutely adored it! It’s such a Filipino cinema lover’s delight: as much a look back at Himala (one of the greatest films of all time, Filipino or otherwise) and the production’s fascinating anecdotes (including the story behind its restoration), as it is an examination of its legendary mercurial director, Ishmael Bernal, through the eyes of the film’s cast and crew. It helps that most of the key interwiewees are very charismatic: Aunor, Spanky Manikan, Joel Lamangan, Pen Medina, Gigi Duenas, Imee Marcos. I hope to write a longer review later but for now, the film will definitely enter my top 5: probably at number 3.