10 Best Filipino Films of 2017

Skilty Labastilla

10  History of the Underground

Commercially released in a handful of theaters in Quezon City (UPFI, Cinema Centenario), Keith Sicat and Sari Dalena’s documentary charts the beginnings and growth of the country’s underground movement through the insights of its key figures, including Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria Sison. Interviews and rare footage are interspersed with select scenes from the filmmaking couple’s 2011 film Ka Oryang. Less a comprehensive review of the leftist struggle than a window to the minds of Joma and such personalities as Ninotchka Rosca, Dodong and Princess Nemenzo, Judy Taguiwalo, Dick Malay, Aida Santos, Mila Aguilar, Satur Ocampo, among others, the film is an important addition to documented oral histories of alternative visions for the country’s future, in an age where activism is being suppressed by a repressive regime bent on silencing dissent.

9   Tu Pug Imatuy

Tu Pug Imatuy (The Right to Kill) is arguably not the year’s most technically accomplished film. But what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in honesty in storytelling and in imbuing its characters with quiet dignity in the face of harrowing abuse. Dawin and Obunay, a Matigsalug couple living in the hinterlands between Davao and Bukidnon, are captured by soldiers for no reason and forced to act as guides to rebel hideouts. As they pass by a lumad school, the soldiers ransack the place and harass the teacher whom they suspect of being a National People’s Army member teaching revolutionary ideas to young children. When the military men’s abuses escalate (Obunay is forced to walk naked in the forest and eventually raped in front of her husband), the couple needed to act to save their lives and return to their young children. The film is significant at a time when government troops continually attack IP schools in Mindanao and teachers and youth leaders are being hunted down and summarily executed. It’s impossible not to be moved by the story, which shows that even the poorest among us have the right to realize our aspirations and to protect our families against anyone who wishes them harm.

8   Si Chedeng at si Apple

If Fatrick Tabada and Moira Lang, writers of Si Chedeng at si Apple, took inspiration from the American road comedy Little Miss Sunshine in writing last year’s hilarious road comedy Patay Na si Hesus, Tabada looked to an even more iconic American film, Thelma and Louise, for inspiration in coming up with Chedeng. The film, though, transcends its source material with a distinct Pinoy meets Coen brothers sense of humor. Anchored by the excellent performances of screen veterans Elizabeth Oropesa and Gloria Diaz, the film illustrates that good comedy can emanate from tragedy, and that real, heartfelt, lasting laughter is earned, not just expected. The film sustains an irreverent humor (that running bit about a character’s severed penis gets the most laughs) throughout its running time without giving in to pressure to add extraneous plot points the way many local comedies do. But what truly elevates the film is its tenaciously feminist bent; its thesis that women, even elderly women, have the power to free themselves from society’s expectations.

7   Medusae

Pam Miras’ works (including her shorts) have always tended to veer away from convention. In particular, her fascination with the supernatural has lent her woman-centered films an aura of beautiful strangeness. Her underrated Pascalina, for instance, invokes urban myths of aswang inheritance in telling the story of a plain-looking woman scorned by an unfaithful lover. Medusae, her second feature, is a more narratively complex work of arthouse horror that sees a young documentarist grappling with the sudden disappearance of her teenage son afflicted with albinism. It’s any mother’s ultimate nightmare, and the film’s invocation of marine biology (medusa is a type of jellyfish) to underscore the connectedness of human life to one of Earth’s first life forms lends truth to Kahlil Gibran’s dictum that parents don’t own their children: they are the sons and daughters of “Life’s longing for itself”.

6   Respeto

Respeto’s first-rate technical craftsmanship alone is testament to the talent of the country’s independent filmmaking crew (both prod and post-prod), and the fact that its director, Treb Monteras, is a first-time feature filmmaker (he’s a music video veteran) should give aspiring filmmakers so much encouragement. But the film, about a young wannabe-rapper who gets mentored, not so much in rap as in life, by a cranky old ex-activist, is so much more than its technique. Many have written about the film being a commentary on the current administration’s war against the urban poor suspected of peddling drugs, but for me, what’s as important is its critique of hypermasculinity and sexism: Hendrix opting in the end to turn his back from heavily sexist and discriminatory “fliptop battles” after his exposure to balagtasan but still succumbing to violence in defense of a loved one is a powerful illumination of the struggle that still needs to be fought by men, young and old alike, wherever they are in the world.

5   Bagahe

Zig Dulay’s fifth film follows the story of Mercy Agbunag, an overseas worker suspected of giving birth and abandoning her baby in the restroom of an airplane traveling from the Middle East, where she had worked as a domestic worker, back to the Philippines. After news of the story breaks out, Mercy is plucked from her sleepy barrio in Northern Luzon and brought to Manila for authorities to verify if she really is the mother of the baby, named Rosario by the press after having been found with a rosary on her body. The film is effective on two levels: as a portrait of a woman who has spent her whole life pleasing and serving others (her husband, her children, her employers) and whose concept of the self is always attached to an other; and as a damning indictment of bureaucracy that further negates individual dignity in treating underprivileged persons without compassion. However, Dulay, whose previous films have also dissected government bureaucratic procedures (the prison in Posas, trial courts in Ad Ignorantiam, hospitals in M: Mother’s Maiden Name) knows better than to treat systems as eternally soulless and individuals as inherently good. Ultimately, in also showing human frailties and possibilities of finding honorable individuals even within bureaucracies, Bagahe illustrates humanism, one of cinema’s greatest traditions.

4   Kiko Boksingero

Every once in a while, along comes a film so unassuming you don’t expect its power to hit you hard until it does. Kiko Bosingero, the debut feature of Thop Nazareno, is such a film. Set in Baguio, the movie follows Kiko, a young boy who recently lost his mother and is being cared for by a gentle-hearted househelp. He soon finds that a local boxer is his biological father and eventually forms a bond with him through boxing training sessions. The boy’s open-eyed idealism in longing for a normal relationship with a newfound parent is what makes the inevitable fallout so heart-rending, especially since the father never lets on that he has no intentions to reciprocate his child’s trust in the first place. Noel Comia Jr. ably carries the film in his young shoulders, expertly navigating Kiko’s inner turmoil and consequent acceptance that sometimes, the family we make for ourselves is so much better the family we are born into.

3   Bundok Banahaw: Sacred and Profane

One of my most favorite topics to teach in my Anthropology classes is religion, not because I myself am religious (I definitely am not) but because I love discussing with my students the different permutations of magic, beliefs, and worldviews of people the world over. Dempster Samarista’s documentary on the pilgrims of Mt. Banahaw during Holy Week is essential viewing for those who wish to understand what makes Filipinos a country of devout believers. Long before the arrival of Spanish explorers, our ancestors have worshiped Banahaw’s boulders and caves and streams and waterfalls. It was their Holy Mountain even after most of them became Christianized. Recently reopened to hikers and pilgrims after more than a decade of government closure due to pollution, Banahaw is again being swarmed by devotees from all walks of life, each expecting something out of their climb. The film captures snippets of activities of different people: from fortune tellers to priestesses, shamans to trinket hawkers, believers to folk philosophers, the invalid to healers, and listens to what they have to say about their reasons for scaling the mountain. Watching the film is an exhilarating experience in itself: its freewheeling structure and drone shots almost literally approximates viewers as flies on the wall, letting us drop in on the various acts and conversations in the mountain and allowing us to form our own understanding of what we have witnessed.

2   The Chanters

Don’t let The Chanters fool you into thinking it’s a lightweight film: beneath its crowd-pleasing antics and hipster-ish 1:1 aspect ratio, its story of the youth’s neglect of a dying traditional art form (the chanting of Sugidanon epics of the Panay Bukidnon) in favor of cellphone games and catchy pop songs from the capital is one that’s more than worth telling. Debuting filmmaker James Robin Mayo, however, doesn’t see the need to lecture his audience to resort to atavism: this is not your typical grandparent-decrying-the-ways-of-the-young-and-longing-for-the-days-of-yore narrative. The grandparent here, Lolo Ramon (the wonderful Romulo Caballero) is suffering from an early onset of dementia while attempting to finish his transcription of the last of the epics that no one else in the town, let alone his closest descendant in 12-year-old Sarah Mae, seems to be interested in. In a bid to use the epic chant as a school performance only to attract her visiting starlet idol, Sarah Mae would soon realize by herself that embracing the wonders of technology and the thrill of idolizing pop culture icons does not necessarily preclude appreciating older forms of art and entertainment. Sarah Mae running back to Lolo Ramon at the end of the film is, should be, all of us. I have a feeling The Chanters doesn’t realize it’s an accomplished film and, as that pop song goes, that’s what makes it beautiful.

1   Motherland

US-based documentarist Ramona Diaz’s fifth film on Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, touted to be one of the world’s busiest maternity wards, immerses viewers into the daily routine of the hospital and hones in on stories of working class mothers during childbirth. Taking a page from Frederick Wiseman, Diaz wisely forgoes narration, talking heads, and even musical score, and lets viewers gradually figure out things on their own. While some documentaries shot only over a few days can still make for riveting viewing (see film at # 3), Motherland illustrates how establishing trust with film subjects through weeks of shooting goes a long way in allowing film crew to be unobtrusive observers and avoid boring talking heads to give the film context. With a regular population of 150 or so mothers and a hundred babies at any given time, Fabella staff make do with the resources they are allotted. No mother who just gave birth can have one bed for herself: she has to share a single-size bed with at least one other woman. When their babies are released to the mothers who are waiting to be discharged, mother and child again share bed with others in beds placed beside each other to form a tapestry of, per the Mountain Goats, “nameless bodies in unremembered rooms”. The lack of incubators forces the mothers of premature babies to adopt the kangaroo care technique. The babies’ wails, the regular announcements on the public address system, with patients addressed by their three-digit numbers (one time the staff announcer reminded the mothers, in a half-joking manner, to still take care of their bodies so their husbands won’t leave them for sexier women), the mothers’ idle chatter, all make for a dizzying cacophony, yet the film shows expressionless staff already used to such choreographed chaos. In a largely Catholic country with church leaders that still discourage families from practicing family planning that includes artificial contraception methods and sex education in schools, many men and women are not properly informed of options they can take to ensure proper birth spacing and planning. Many teenage women get pregnant not because they want to but because they and their boyfriends are not used to using contraception, which have not been made available for free in many parts of the country.

But Motherland is a great film not because it exposes institutional causes of individual miseries: it is great because it is a deeply humanistic document on the indefatigability of the human spirit, especially of mothers — the givers of life. The women featured in the film, a teenage first-time mother, a twenty-something mother who did not know until delivery that she would be giving birth to twins, and a forty-something mother of 7 with an unemployed husband, all come from impoverished backgrounds and leave the hospital not any better, but they are shown in the film not as mere helpless victims of fate but as resilient women capable of making decisions within the ambit of their resources. It would be interesting to find out how the recent lifting of the TRO on contraceptives and the go-signal for the implementation of the RH Law in the country would impact family planning in the next 10, 20 years; in the meantime, though, Motherland reminds us that poor mothers and their families are suffering right now and, even if life goes on for them, it’s the quality of life that should matter in the long run.

One thought on “10 Best Filipino Films of 2017

  1. Thanks for the film reviews. The subject matter of the films is not the usual and can be depressing like the harassment of the IPs in Mindanao and the deluge of babies in the public hospitals – not just Fabella, I would surmise – but I guess that what documentaries contribute: some realism even though depressing.

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