Done with Cinemalaya 2013 competition films. Here are some thoughts on the 15 feature films, arranged from most to least favorite. I wrote the capsules after I saw each film and pardon me if some entries are in Tagalog.
1. Debosyon (Alvin Yapan)
An Alvin Yapan film is always a treat and he doesn’t disappoint here in one of his best works to date. He once again mines Philippine folklore to craft a mystical tale of a young farmer (Paulo Avelino) who falls in love with a mysterious mountain-dwelling woman (Mara Lopez). Yapan understands humans’ innate need to believe in the supernatural and he films it in such a rapturous way that watching the film is a religious experience in itself. Having faith is diving into the unknown and the irrational but once we take that leap, everything makes sense. Yapan’s scripts always invite a reading, a discussion, and you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t talk about the film with a friend after you’ve seen it. But apart from his writing acumen, Yapan also has a cinematic eye. We not only appreciate the narrative but also the way it’s told visually. That climactic scene, for instance, where the lovers’ passionate consummation of their love is juxtaposed with a festive fluvial parade snaking its way through the river is a thematic and visual feat.
Yapan also illustrates that regional filmmakers can actually cast established Tagalog actors and make them learn regional languages/dialects. Throughout the film, Avelino and Lopez speak Rinconada Bikol, a variant of the Bikol language that’s very difficult to learn. From here on out, there should be no more excuses like “Tagalog actors are more talented and experienced than local ones so we hire them but there’s not enough time to teach them the local language.” That won’t cut it anymore.
2. Purok 7 (Carlo Obispo)
Purok 7 is a deeply heartfelt and joyous portrait of a remote barrio as seen through the eyes of two siblings left on their own devices by an OFW mother and a father with a new family. The heart and soul of the film is Diana, the older sibling who takes it upon herself to assume the role of provider for, and protector of, her precocious little brother, and the film’s biggest achievement is casting Krystle Valentino, who puts most Pinoy actors to shame by portraying her character with not a smidgen of self-consciousness.
I’m slightly disappointed by a kink in the script that could have easily been ironed out by additional scenarios. The kids’ mother left without first ensuring that her kids would be cared for by someone from the barrio. Philippine rural communities are incredibly close-knit that the chance of kids living on their own with no relative or close family friend minding them is virtually impossible. The script tries to go about this problem by establishing Diana as having been sulking as a result of her father’s leaving the family and would not want to accept any help from him. The film also establishes her as being independent enough to care for her brother. But I don’t think any mother would leave her non-adult children by themselves in the first place. If not for that narrative hiccup, Purok 7 would have been a perfect film for me. It takes its time to tell its story, playing by the rhythm of rural life and captures the little joys of childhood and adolescence. Carlo Obispo is someone to watch.
3. Transit (Hannah Espia)
Certainly one of the best debut features in Philippine cinema. Espia possesses that rare intelligence and sensibility to pluck our heartstrings without making us feel we’re being manipulated. Transit is the latest addition to the recent films on OFWs (Lawas Kan Pinabli, Dekasegi, Mga Dayo, Migrante, Green) that shed light on more contemporary issues that our overseas workers are facing in their host countries. The film’s story couldn’t be any simpler: it just follows a family as they face the threat of the deportation of the youngest kid of the family as a result of a new law of the Israeli government. But Espia utilizes her fine editing skills (her short film Ruweda was mostly an editing triumph than anything else) to divide her narrative into the perspectives of each of the five main characters: Janet (Irma Adlawan), her teenage daughter Yael (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), her younger brother Moises (Ping Medina), Moises’ son Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez), and Janet’s friend played by Mercedes Cabral.
The ensemble cast deliver excellent, heartfelt performances. If life is fair, Jasmine Curtis-Smith should be the one appearing in more movies, not her sister.
4. Sana Dati (Jerrold Tarog)
This, more than his previous films, reveals Tarog as a romantic filmmaker who has the skill set needed to translate those palpable, tender emotions we feel in loving and learning to let go onto the screen without resorting to the easier (and lazier) path of maudlin the way most mainstream love stories do. What kept me from totally falling in love with the film is Lovi Poe’s character. We all know these impulsive women, and, yes, oftentimes they make good characters in stories precisely because of their unpredictability. It’s just that, personally, I don’t like them, both in real life and in fiction. The kinds of people I like are the level-headed ones, those who don’t brashly enter into situations that they will soon regret. I think that Tarog, as a man, is able to flesh out his three male characters (Paulo Avelino, Benjamin Alves, and TJ Trinidad) more than his female lead, so it’s easier for the viewers to sympathize with the men.
5. Quick Change (Eduardo Roy Jr.)
In many ways a more accomplished film than Roy’s debut Bahay Bata, Quick Change epitomizes the storytelling bravado that Philippine cinema needs more of. By boldly depicting the underworld hormone injections among Metro Manila transsexuals/transgenders, the movie jabs (pun intended) the industry with a fresh story that is at once alarming and fascinating yet handled with control of the material and respect for its subjects. I love how Roy takes his time exploring the world of physical artifice that trans people have made for themselves. They belong to a class that could not afford safer and more authentic collagen injections to make them look like beauty queens (full lips, angular noses, high cheekbones, rounder bosoms and butt cheeks). Some of them, those who could afford, have had their penises transformed into female genitalia, and the film comments on how this transformation into a ‘complete’ woman is idealized by the trans people themselves to satisfy their straight lovers. Dorina believes she’s a woman, she acts like one, and she has also developed breasts probably from hormone supplements; but she does not want to change her penis into a vagina. The movie asks how much one is willing to change the natural body just to satisfy lovers or society’s expectations of how gays should look like.
Mimi Juareza is a real find. Except for one under-directed scene, she draws viewers into her character’s predicament by her calm demeanor and dolorous eyes. The scene that I’m talking about is the one where Dorina and her lover, Uno, are arguing by the steps of the Manila Film Center. Uno is chastising Dorina for her dangerous job and she stands her ground, saying she does not know any other work. Juareza’s take is too strained and unconvincing: she is apparently adept at evincing a more subdued performance that when called to emote more forcefully, she fails. It’s unfortunate that Roy did not go for a better take of the scene because throughout the rest of the film, Juareza has been consistently absorbing.
6. Babagwa (Jason Laxamana)
Babagwa is a thoroughly involving caper that plays with humans’ capacity to switch identities to suit their selfish needs. Writer/Director Laxamana succeeds in realistically creating a world of deception and extortion using the technology that is supposed to bring people together and not break them apart. Yet the virtual realm has always existed as an idealized sphere where we project the best versions of ourselves: we untag unflattering photos from last night’s party, we describe ourselves in our profile as an MA Candidate instead of the more truthful but more embarrassing MA dropout, we post photos of our once-a-year vacation and not of our 260-times-a-year boring home-office life where we spend most days browsing through friends’ Facebook profiles and envying pictures from their just-concluded once-a-year vacations.
Babagwa plays with this routinary social media deception and Laxamana concocts a gripping thriller, luring viewers into its web the way Medina’s and Paras’ characters lure their ‘prospects’. As in Palitan, Medina once again convincingly plays a down-on-his-luck, lackadaisical man who finds himself in a situation he wants out of, and Paras matches him toe-to-toe, particularly in that restaurant confrontation scene. Still, Paras has a habit of sometimes diverting too much attention to himself by unnecessary inflections when he plays lower-class characters (e.g., in the way he pronounces certain English words as steyds, ismayl, syowbis). I’m pretty sure no Pinoy gay man would pronounce Shamsey Supsup as ‘Syamsi’ Supsup.
The film is also hobbled by an overly drawn-out denouement that ruined what could have been a surprising ending.The character of Medina’s unsatisfied girlfriend could also have been cut from the story as it does not contribute anything to the narrative.
7. Ekstra (Jeffrey Jeturian)
Isang nakaka-engganyong palabas tungkol sa buhay ng isang ekstra sa mga telenobela. Kung sa Amerika ay little sibling lang ng Hollywood ang kanilang TV industry pagdating sa kita at prestige, baliktad naman sa atin. Ang mga sikat nating artista ay sa TV nagtatrabaho at yung mga hindi pa sikat ay nabibigyan lamang ng break sa pelikulang mainstream kapag nagkaroon na sila ng following dahil sa kanilang trabaho sa TV.
Interesting ang pelikula dahil nakikita natin ang mga nangyayari sa mga maliliit na tao (mga ekstra) behind the scenes sa isang production. Mahihinuha sa pelikula na sa hirarkiya ng mga tao sa isang production system ng isang corporate structure, nasa pinakamataas ang mga decision-makers at may hawak ng pera (executive producers, network bigwigs), kasunod nila ay ang mga sikat na artista, tapos ang direktor, tapos ang creative team (pool of writers), tapos yung iba pang production crew, tapos pinakahuli ay ang mga ekstra. Pero nakulangan ako sa pagtuligsa ng pelikula sa mga taong nasa taas. Pahapyaw lang ang mga pasaring sa ‘kontrabida’ ng pelikula: ang pagpapahalaga ng mga network executives sa kita at hindi sa tao. Kung ang tinutukoy mong salarin sa iyong satire ay siya mismong magdi-distribute ng pelikula mo, alam mong hindi mo naiparating nang mas mabisa ang iyong mensahe.
Nakakahanga ang pagganap ni Vilma Santos bilang isang single mother na nagsusumikap magtrabaho para mapatapos sa pag-aaral ang kanyang anak. Relaxed ang kanyang body language pero on point pa rin ang performance, lalo na sa kanyang mga close-up scenes.
Isang payo lang sa mga writer (Jeturian, Antoinette Jadaone, Zig Dulay). Ihinto na ang pangungutya sa mga Bisaya, plis lang. May isang scene na sinabi ni Vincent de Jesus, “English nga, Bisaya naman (ang punto)”. Para sa kaalaman ninyo, lahat ng tao ay may accent: merong Tagalog accent, merong Irish accent, merong German accent. Hindi porke’t Tagalog ang ginawang official language ng Pilipinas ay ang Tagalog accent na dapat ang superior sa lahat ng Philippine languages. Wala dapat hirarkiya sa mga lenggwahe.
Maaaring excuse kasi ay character flaw yan, na ang karakter ni Vincent de Jesus ay isang mapangkutyang tao na nagdi-discriminate ng mga Bisaya, at hindi necessarily na sina Jeturian, Jadaone, o Dulay (kung sino man ang sumulat sa linya na yon) ay discriminatory. Pero the fact na ginawa siyang punch line na dapat tumawa ang manonood, ibig sabihin naniniwala rin ang mga manunulat dito.
8. Porno (Adolfo Alix Jr.)
The peek into the underground porn industry is what’s most intriguing about Porno, and it’s a shame that Alix and writer Ralston Jover didn’t take full advantage of the topic’s potential to comment on the larger issue of sexual economy or, even just on a micro scale, to enlarge that porn-dubbing segment for a more detailed, ethnographic account of a fascinating enterprise that not a lot of people know about. Instead, the filmmakers chose to tell three disparate stories that are linked by the porn industry, from production (the illicit recording of lovers’ trysts in motels) to post-production (dubbing of moans, which actually ruins the appeal of amateur porn in the first place – its authenticity) to distribution (transferred to discs and sold as “scandals” in sidewalks, or uploaded online to user-generated porn sites) and consumption. But Alix is interested not so much in the process as in the individual stories of his three main characters (an assassin [Yul Servo], a porn dubber [Carlo Aquino], and a transgender club performer [Angel Aquino]). The filmmakers incorporate supernatural elements in each story that heighten the mood but only serve to obfuscate the film’s thesis, if there’s one in the first place.
The film’s biggest draw, as in most Alix films, is its visuals. Alix and lenser Albert Banzon are adept at mood-setting and I see influences of several arthouse filmmakers in his images, such as von Trier in the super slo-mo penetration, Carax in the inexplicable weirdness, and a friend mentioned Reygadas in a phantom scene.
9. Rekorder (Mikhail Red)
Maganda ang mga kuha at masinop ang pagkatagpi-tagpi ng imahe ng pelikula. Na-establish din nang maayos ang norish mood ng pelikula. Medyo nagkulang lang para sa akin ang pagka-flesh out sa main character na si Maven (Ronnie Quizon). Dahil nga siguro kailangan siyang maging mysterious (Bakit ba parang ang laki ng problema niya at parati siyang nakamukmok?), hindi muna pinaalam sa manonood ang dahilan ng pagiging antisocial niya. Hindi tuloy ako nagkaroon ng empathy sa karakter niya. Pinapanood ko siyang may pagitan sa aming dalawa. Iyan na lang palagi ang problema ko sa mga pelikulang nilalagay sa dulo ang reveal na nagpapaliwanag sa dinaramdam ng mga tauhan.
Hindi rin nakatulong na may pagkatanga si Maven. Tama ba namang pagkatapos mong tumakas sa mga pulis ay hindi magtago kundi tumambay sa kalye at tumunganga? Base sa mga poster sa room niya, fan si Maven ni George Orwell at Fritz Lang. Kung fan ako ng sumulat ng Animal Farm at 1984 at ng nagdirek ng M at Man Hunt, magiging super praning ako pag hinabol ako ng pulis.
10. Instant Mommy (Leo Abaya)
A winning performance by Eugene Domingo can barely keep this entertaining but ultimately frivolous effort by first-time filmmaker Leo Abaya afloat. A dream sequence that goes on for far too long needed to be revamped and it’s a shame it wasn’t because, as it is, the film takes us on a fun ride then yanks the rug under our feet for no good reason other than to pull a prank on us. Instead of coming out of the cinema smiling, we come out feeling a little cheated.
11. David F. (Emmanuel Palo)
Rich material on race and ethnicity that is ultimately undone by a lack of thematic focus. The middle section is the most interesting of three stories and I wish the filmmakers just honed in on that and made it a full-length narrative. The actor playing the contemporary David does not possess the acting chops needed to carry the film.
12. Amor y Muerte (Cesar Evangelista)
Amor y Muerte is essentially a reimagination of a classic erotic thriller trope (employed, for instance, in Scorpio Nights) – married couple love sex, husband has to leave, insatiable wife satisfies urges with a willing young man, husband finds out and exacts revenge in a bloody finale. The difference, of course, is the setting: Amor y Muerte is set in 16th century Luzon, long enough for the Spanish friars to have penetrated rural Philippines and converted pagans to Christianity, but whose political hold was not yet stable enough for revolutionaries like Lakandula and his men to attack them in Intramuros.
I believe the movie’s intent is to focus on the sex, and, to an extent, the film succeeds as a solid piece of erotica, with its extended scenes of copulation that are sure to satiate moviegoers who delight more than anything in the sight of beautiful actors shedding their clothes. But by setting the story in a specific historical context, it is imperative that said context play a crucial part in shaping the narrative, otherwise, it would be no more different from Western X-rated films (like Pirates or The Naughty Victorians) that use locale and period costume as mere backdrop to the humping scenes.
To be fair, Amor y Muerte attempts to transcend this by creating inroads into the era – the ongoing revolt in Manila plays a part in moving the narrative forward, the village priest’s one-on-one catechism lessons are crucial for the spiritual conversion of one character, and I especially like Ama Quiambao’s arc that shows the tension between the old pagan ways and the new Christian religion. Unfortunately, these inroads don’t go deep enough. How I wish the filmmakers shaved off a couple precious minutes ogling the backsides of its actors and spent them in scenes that would enrich the sociocultural world that its characters inhabit. We never understand, for instance, why we don’t see other people in the bayan aside from two of Amor’s friends. If it’s such a small village, why would a priest be assigned there and waste his time on one-on-one catechisms when he could preach in a larger pueblo?
13. Nuwebe (Joseph Laban)
The only workable treatment to the story of Krista, a 9-year-old raped and impregnated by her own father, is to veer away from shock tactics and melodrama as far as possible since the theme is already heavy as it is. Instead, Laban bludgeons us with the most lurid and cringe-worthy choices that even if I was restively parrying his blows from my seat, I still left the cinema battered and bruised. It sounds heartless to say but the way the film was written, there is no single character that’s worth caring about, not even Krista. When told by her mom that what her father did was wrong, Krista’s confounding reply is “Why, Mom, is it wrong for me to want a child?”. Fair enough, Krista, but why would you spend the rest of the film crying if you wanted this in the first place?
I believe Laban filmed the wrong story. There is a scene in the film when Krista is in her quarters in the DSWD center when her roommate, a teenage girl just a few years older than her, told her that she, too, is having sexual relations with her father but she doesn’t mind it. Now that would have made a more interesting film.
14. Liars (Gil Portes)
I’ve never really taken to any Portes film since the 1980s. I don’t know the man; I’m sure he’s very kind and loving to the people he loves but his filmmaking style is just not my cup of tea. In Liars, his direction is often clumsy and tone-deaf to the nuances of normal conversations that usually reliable actors like Alessandra de Rossi, Arnold Reyes, and Sue Prado seem to act on auto-pilot. If the adult actors barely survive this tedious, uninteresting film, the child actors and crowd extras do not, thanks to either lazy under-direction (the stuttering of one child actor, for instance, sounds so ridiculous) or clumsy staging (in one scene I can picture out Portes telling his amateur child actors on first take, “Sige iho, tingin sa kawalan, tumawa, ituro ang kawalan, okay, sige, tingin naman sa katabing kawalan, ibaba konti ang kamay, ayan, tawa-tawa, harutan, aaaaand CUT! Very good!). Uhmm, not really.
15. The Diplomat Hotel (Christopher Ad. Castillo)
Gretchen Barreto’s character says near the start of the film, “Everybody needs redemption.” She might as well be talking about everyone involved in this production because they sure need all the redemption they can get after this overwrought, horribly acted film that does not really offer something that hasn’t been done before.