Cinemalaya 2017 review: all 9 full-length and 12 short-feature films

A round-up of all the main competition entries in this year’s festival.

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“See the big picture,” goes the tagline for the 13th edition of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, the premiere indie film fest in the country. Nine full-length films and twelve short features contribute to a mosaic snapshot of Filipino society, delivered in patches of varying intensity and color.

Disclaimer: these reviews avoid revealing major story spoilers, but other elements, like themes, are discussed extensively. Read at your own risk.

Nabubulok

A husband takes flight when his wife goes missing.

Nabubulok in style and spirit feels akin to a Brillante Mendoza work. In this film, a crime drama based on a true story, the sound effects are spare, the lighting is natural, and the camera has a habit of following the shadow of everyday characters in short walks around town. It even has that subplot of a family working together, pooling money for an urgent purpose, seen in Thy Womb and Ma’ Rosa. But this is not quite cinema verité: there is more overt acting, and finer cinematography than a Mendoza film would tolerate.

Given the premise and the film’s early scenes, one might expect a crime thriller. But save for a mid-story encounter, the film never really provides the heart-pounding type of suspense. This is by design, not by fault—what the film provides is an atmospheric, slow-burning kind of thriller. Nabubulok could benefit, however, from tighter scripting of dialogue. When Ingrid (Gina Alajar) asks around about her missing cousin, she and others say the same things they have learned so far to each new character they encounter, and the repetitiveness drags the suspense.

And yet, the film understands subtlety: many of its story’s elements are left to the viewer’s imagination. Most judicious among these omissions is the background story of the missing woman, whom we see only in pictures and in a very brief (though revealing) video. This is significant in relation to the film title’s meaning. A missing woman and the phrase ‘The Decaying’ immediately conjures the horror of dead bodies—but the film avoids direct depictions of the fate of the woman. All we get, in fact, are the sounds of screaming and gunshots over a black screen at the beginning, and a written epilogue at the end. The longer the film delays its direct depiction of this woman, the more one gets the sense that Nabubulok is moving towards subverting its title. And it does, in the story’s conclusion, when the film forces viewers to rethink whose story it really has been about.

One peculiar storytelling device seen in Nabubulok, that is also reminiscent of Brillante Mendoza’s filmmaking style, is how its main characters are watched all the time by anonymous eyes in the small town of its setting. Through these prying eyes, the film performs bits of social commentary: as with the girl in the computer café waiting for her foreigner-beau to come online (a passing comment on the Filipino diaspora and our desperate economy); or with the woman passing on the religious statue to another household (a vignette of our superstitious brand of faith); or the various people going about the fiesta business—sometimes in negligence of their more important social responsibilities.

The most curious aspect of Nabubulok’s story is, of course, the fact that the family at its center, the Harpers, are half-American. This is a film born of the Duterte regime. One scene prominently includes a TV from which the president proclaims his foreign policy that is suspicious of the United States. And in spite of the government’s anti-corruption platform, Nabubulok paints a picture of a System that does not work, where dubious dealings with supposed agents of the law literally take place behind closed doors. In the film, the nation is like the Harpers’ rotten and crumbling house (one of many things that the title signifies); the citizens’ exasperation at this decaying State provides the starkest moment in the film—when Ingrid breaks down in tears, failing to find a swear word rude and powerful enough to express her deep frustration.

Angel Aquino as Magda on the confessional in ‘Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig’.
Angel Aquino as Magda in ‘Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig’.

Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig

A woman’s confession to murder hurls a priest and alter boy into a fit of conflicting emotions and the need to be righteous.

Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig is a solemn, elegant film that could be described, due to its themes and atmosphere and visual style, as a cross between Nick Joaquin and Lav Diaz (minus the latter’s slow cinema sensibilities).

It features a story as neatly structured and balanced as its cinematographic compositions. The entirety of the film is shot with static cameras (a style the film shares with Lav Diaz’s work), frequently with shallow depth and a long focus. The actors move about the frame like characters in the gothic portraits of the Stations of the Cross. At the heart of its story are acts of confessions, contrasted between its religious and secular manifestations—the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and then interrogations by the police. The first time we see a character confessing (Magda, played by Angel Aquino, to Father Romi, Jake Macapagal), the characters’ faces are positioned such that they confront opposing corners of the frame. This visual juxtaposition is thereafter seen whenever a character is trying to extract truth from another, as when the police questions crime suspects, or even when a young man talks to his anxious friend.

Most of Sa Gabi takes place over one Holy Week, a setting that resonates with its themes of sin and repentance; religious symbols populate the surreal visions that occasionally seize the characters. The most impressive sequences, however, are those of the titular night, where images of townspeople attending the Stations of the Cross intersperse with characters performing the alluded biblical scenes: a woman washes her feet, while the priest reads the story of Jesus doing the same to his disciples; Magda takes dinner, while we hear about the Last Supper; Magda is also seen on the shore, in a flashback, in anguish and lying down on a stone, in her own Agony in the Garden. Beyond this sequence, we also see images of palms and mangroves and shallow water, evoking baptisms and holy anointments. In these, the grandeur of the Church’s rites melds with our archipelago’s tropical nature: this film is the stunning cinematic embodiment of Nick Joaquin’s tropical gothic.

Sa Gabi’s somber tone belies its faithful attitude towards the Catholic Church. All its depiction of religiosity is not a criticism, but a dramatization of its gothic wonder. Note, for instance, how its symbolization of the state (the police) is portrayed as cruel, while the corresponding representation of the faith (the priest) is gentle and patient. One of the main characters, Magda, gives honor to her name: she is deeply devout and repentant, despite her sinfulness, like the biblical Magdalene. Father Romi himself portrays the essential priest: his internal conflict comes from the clash between his faith and his earthly responsibilities; the strength of his faith is unquestioned. In giving us a character like Father Romi, Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig provides a fictional hero for all ministers seeking to reinforce their faith.

Some of the film’s flaws include the obscurity of the final scenes, some of which is intentional, as in Hector’s (Ricky Davao) unintelligible whisper to Lester (Jess Mendoza), but others are more difficult to piece together, such as the identity and meaning of the object that Lester was looking for in their house. There is the dialogue’s formal language, which works for characters like Father Romi, but is dissonant in the case of young Nonoy (Sam Quintana) talking to Lester. Also, the vision where a woman walks in the midst of a burning field uses rather unrealistic CG effects. This may be an inevitable result of practical and financial constraints, but it’s still a regrettable shot in an otherwise impeccably photographed film.

However, all these are minor flaws, irrelevant to what is perhaps the film’s make-or-break feature—its representation of the Christian faith, which is surely reason enough for some people to dislike it, as much as it could be endearing to others.

Requited

An ailing biker takes to the rail for one last adventure that pits him against nature and the woman he desires.

Requited is a road movie of two characters on two wheels apiece: Matt (Jake Cuenca), a depressive biker whom we watch in the film’s opening minutes resolutely escaping the city, and Sandy (Anna J. Luna), a public-image obsessed athlete with faulty English pronunciation. Such a setup, by default, calls for romance, but Requited is in the end about something else. Its theme is embodied by the stopovers taken by the pair: the shrine in Capas dedicated to the soldiers who died in the Death March; a church housing a purported relic of the True Cross (where a lone priest delves into storytelling mode unprovoked); and their ultimate destination, Mt. Pinatubo, whose crater lake was formed by the volcano’s deadly, destructive eruption.

Requited’s sunny highways and fresh landscapes camouflage its ultimately dark intentions. The sleight of hand is enhanced by the film’s humble approach: it charms by not trying to be charming. This is a story that avoids being talkative, but neither is it trying to be contemplative—it cruises down a comfortable middle lane.

The movie breaks, however, when its most crucial plot turn ends up feeling more ridiculous than tragic. It is not that the twist was not supported by foreshadowings, nor thematically out of place—it is that it could have been executed in a more believable, less awkward, manner.

Angeli Bayani as Mercy in ‘Bagahe’.
Angeli Bayani as Mercy in ‘Bagahe’.

Bagahe

An overseas worker rids herself of unwanted baggage on the flight back home.

An ensemble of top-rate acting talent isn’t wasted in Bagahe, an intellectual critique of social institutions. On a literal level, the film is a straightforward story of the chain of events, often uncomfortable and worrisome but relatively non-violent, that flows from a woman’s abandonment of her newborn child.

The innovation of Bagahe is in its approach to social criticism. In the film, Mercy (Angeli Bayani), the suspected mother—and suspected criminal—is placed under constant surveillance in the course of the investigation. As she is led through hospitals, then to a law enforcement office and finally a women’s shelter, various professionals keep eyes on her through surveillance cameras, watching her every movement on a remote screen, every hour of the day. Most symbolic is the film’s brief focus on a convex mirror at one of the institutions—alluding to the Panopticon. Bagahe, in summary, is a Foucauldian social critique. Unlike most social drama films, there is a brightness and optimism to Bagahe—but only on a surface level. Deeper down, the film’s message leads to what is perhaps a more despairing attitude towards society.

The Philippines of Bagahe is one where bureaucracy works as intended, where the state is functioning as designed, where public servants and professionals perform their noble duties. (Notably, all the professionals playing a part in the story are women, except of course for the Catholic priest.) These servants possess a professionalism that, if it were exhibited by all public servants in the real Philippines, would make our institutions a perfectly-oiled machine, working in harmony for the common good. The chief investigator (played by Shamaine Buencamino), hearing a subordinate arguing with his family on the phone, admonishes him, reminding him to leave his private affairs at home. This is compartmentalization, an idea sorely lacking in Filipino professional culture.

And yet, despite this ideal bureaucracy, the citizen still suffers from an unintended type of cruelty. In the course of following its desensitized, impartial processes, the State and its allied institutions appear unmerciful—there arises the irony of Mercy’s name. Bagahe shows how even when due process is followed, the procedures themselves already deliver a kind of punishment to its objects. There is the weary doctor (Racquel Villavicencio) who could not be more nonchalant about touching a woman’s private body. There is the law enforcer who pays the minimum required courtesies, but does not hesitate to taunt her subject if it would help her accomplish her duty.

Mercy spends the longest part of the story at a social welfare center, supposedly the most compassionate agency of government. Yet here, the psychologist (Yayo Aguila) only feigns friendliness when she asks Mercy to tell a story; we know that this interview is only for the purposes of diagnosis, not done out of compassion. On the night before, as she watches Mercy on the surveillance monitor, a coworker tells her another story about Mercy. Here, when the subject is not physically present, she responds to the story with cold, logical analysis; she reveals her true attitude towards Mercy, which is mostly apathy.

To their credit, all these agents of their respective bureaucracies are only acting as intended. On a surface level, what Bagahe does is to imagine a society run by dedicated servants, unperturbed by corruption. (Even the politicians in this film are benign. Yes, they make compromises, with one of them campaigning when Mercy is not looking, but neither are they shown to be explicitly being unlawful.) The question posed becomes: what harm could such a just and efficient bureaucracy possibly do to citizens?

Mercy tells us, in the film’s most crucial scene. She has been so obedient, so “trusting” of these apparatuses; and yet, in following each uncomfortable command, each humiliating order, in willingly giving up her freedoms and learning new rules in the name of justice—she suffers. She feels, in what could be interpreted as the ultimate violation of the social contract, betrayed.

Ang Guro Kong ‘Di Marunong Magbasa

When their teacher disappears, school children abandon their books to cradle guns in their arms.

Ang Guro Kong ‘Di Marunong Magbasa deals with the issue of child warriors, a rather serious topic, and it tackles this by also being a children’s movie, something discernible from its title and premise alone. That is a sensible decision, but the resulting total disregard for subtlety makes it frustrating for many adult viewers. This is the kind of film where flashbacks are colored in sepia, to be perfectly clear about the timeline; Ang Guro holds your hand, and holds it dearly.

Those flashbacks narrate a backstory for the titular teacher Aaquil (Alfred Vargas) where he, the lowly, uneducated farmer, is melodramatically separated from his wealthy sweetheart by her matapobre mother (who throws in the cheesy line, “Ikaw, na hampaslupang iliterado!”). This is telenovela-level unsophistication, and it’s neither enriching for children beyond a certain young age, nor entertaining for viewers of certain tastes.

For the first hour or so, Ang Guro is the benign children’s film that it sets out to be. Platitude-filled dialogue and a plain story provide serviceable viewing. But then the violence pours in: rape, massacre, various torture methods, in addition to all the gunfights. (Granted, none of these are explicit, but we see blood.) This is the problem: the film’s themes and ideas work best for young children, but it turns out too violent to be appropriate for that same audience. Ang Guro falls into limbo: too basic for adults, yet unfit for young kids.

To add salt to injury (watch out for this; the film shows this metaphor literally), Ang Guro’s last 20 minutes is a storytelling mess. The pace suddenly picks up, the characters evolve inexplicably, some gaps appear in the chain of events; it is both confusing and unsatisfying.

Ang Guro Kong ‘Di Marunong Magbasa has earnest and noble intentions, but it can only appeal to those who tolerate cheese and the absence of subtlety. Towards the end of its story, a few characters are killed off by terrifying or absurd methods (it can go both ways)—the film is so silly and poor that it’s funny, and it may yet draw those who enjoy that.

Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha

Only the famous ‘family that doesn’t weep’ can help reunite a desperate woman with her own kin.

Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha is a hilarious comedy-drama whose main pleasure is the quirky relationship between the snarky amo Cora (Sharon Cuneta) and her eccentric kasambahay Bebang (Moi Bien). (It’s a setup that recalls Cuneta’s famous real-life relationship with her late Yaya Luring.) The two, living in a largely empty house, play off each other’s peculiarities, propelled by well-written dialogue which, besides being funny, is clever and efficient.

The plot is driven by the legend of the family that doesn’t weep, whose reunion is supposed to bring good fortune. This not-quite bizarre background story motivates a few interesting details that embellish the film: Cora’s late mother’s onion farming business and strange funeral, the mysteriously resurrecting garden roses, and Cora’s own absent family, who are evasive even in flashbacks. However, the attempts at surrealism do not blend well with the rest of the film. Cora’s face is hidden in her first few scenes, giving her an enigmatic aura—but when her face is finally shown, it is abrupt and uneventful. Bebang is a down-to-earth, reasonable person, but, seemingly caught up in the house’s strangeness, later goes erratic herself: once, lovelorn, she buys a mannequin that she dresses up in boxer briefs and lays on her bed, to keep her company. All these elements fail to weave into a coherent tone, however. They are like quality ingredients mashed together but left raw, uncooked.

Perhaps the unpolished storytelling is to be blamed: there are gaps and rough corners in the script that, in an attempt to impart that surreal quality, ends up feeling more jarring than pleasantly uncanny. This is most evident in an extended dramatic scene, where Cora wails and screams, throwing away all the restraint she has mustered in the story up to that point. It fails to register because the scene was not properly set-up; it carried no weight, lacking the necessary build-ups and foreshadowing, and, most importantly, it clashes with the film’s already confused tone. It is a scene that feels written solely to showcase Cuneta’s acting skills, rather than out of necessity in the story.

Nevertheless, Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha’s story ultimately satisfies; it feels complete by its conclusion. The film’s flaws dampen its impact, but they do not kill its message, and there is enough entertainment here to appease many viewers.

A scene from ‘Respeto’ showing youth hanging out between rows of multi-level tombs at a cemetery.
A scene from ‘Respeto’.

Respeto

An amateur rapper with a bleak future meets a martial law poet who is stuck in the past. Can they save each other before it’s too late?

One of Respeto’s many virtues is its sense of world-building. The dark, stark underground world of hip hop arenas and sleazy bars with neon lights contrast with the world of Doc’s (Dido de la Paz) serene bookstore on an airy corner of Manila’s streets. In between these two worlds is the limbo of Hendrix (Abra) and friends’ favorite haven, the cemetery and its tall rows of piled tombs.

These contrasting settings lend a sense of place to the film’s beautiful matching of two traditions: hip hop and balagtasan. Doc represents the past, Hendrix the present; the formal and the colloquial, the contemporary and the traditional clash and unite in Respeto. And, like the light and dark settings bridged by limbo, the old and new worlds of the film are tied together by the ever-present spectre of death: Doc’s past is haunted by the abuses of Martial Law, and Hendrix’s present is terrorized by the violence of the drug trade.

Respeto initially looks like a conventional underdog story. Hendrix’s forays into the hip hop rap battles come with sidekicks, an old mentor figure, and a romantic interest. There are humorous moments, made authentic by Hendrix and his friends’ rude street language—which contrasts with the elegance of Doc’s verses, and the balagtasan show that they once visit.

But the film subverts the expectations raised by its story. As it progresses, the sinister social atmosphere takes over, becomes more immediate. Most impressive, and certain to leave a lasting effect on its audience, is its chilling conclusion: an ending steeped in profound irony, charged with the timeless message that no one wins in the endless cycle of violence.

Baconaua (Sea Serpent)

After a turbulent squall in the night, villagers wake up to the astonishing sight of the sea that has turned red.

Moody and dim, Baconaua is an art film that, despite its glacial pace, demands full attention from the viewer (and perhaps repeat viewings) if it is to make sense. There are many elements here that could be pieced together, but they are hints hesitantly given, clues asking to be dug up, rather than pieces of accessible information that could be capably understood by the average audience. The films does have a plot, but its threads are so thoroughly obfuscated that the story does not even feel like a narrative.

Baconaua appears to be a cautionary tale with post-colonial flavors. The Philippine national anthem is heard playing on the radio twice, first in Spanish, then in English—but tellingly not in Filipino. The central image of the sea of apples washing ashore after a stormy night connotes biblical themes: apocalyptic omens and sinful temptations. The sisters Divina (Elora Españo) and Dian (Therese Malvar), who have been arguing about the young man who has taken interest in them both, see the apples as a gift, and they start collecting it, excitedly tasting it like Eve biting into the fruit of knowledge. But Dino (JM Salvado), their younger brother, protests, wary that the fruits might bring misfortune instead.

When the true source of the apples is revealed, the film takes on a more patently political color. A character says that what the sea takes, it never gives back. The villagers depend on the sea for their living, and whenever it decides to bring them tragedy instead, they respect its will with bowed heads.

Baconaua has something to say, but possesses no concern for clarity. This applies to its themes, as well as to its story and characters: one of the siblings, at the end of the film, becomes involved in a shadowy plot, but this revelation is hinted at in so few words and so little action that it is difficult to understand with certainty. Such is the film: tedious and demanding, with a story and visuals that provide few outright pleasures.

Noel Comia, Jr. as the young Kiko in ‘Kiko Boksingero’, hiding behind a punching bag.
Noel Comia, Jr. in ‘Kiko Boksingero’.

Kiko Boksingero

Loss and grief brings a father and his young son together.

Kiko Boksingero is quaint and quiet, a delicate drama that delivers a simple but effective punch by its end. As a coming-of-age tale set in Baguio, it is a film that indulges in the cool, relaxed spirit of its setting.

Kiko Boksingero leaves out all backstories, choosing to focus on the present, like the young Kiko (Noel Comia, Jr.), its preoccupied, excited protagonist. The clues are there, but the film convinces us of their irrelevance, and so it stays away, to its benefit. The impeccable pacing is careful but not dull; the story is matched by cinematography that is wistful and charming but not ostentatious. Kiko Boksingero is all about balance, indeed: it is subtle but not challenging, touching but not dramatic, economical but not lacking. It does not aspire to say much, but it nevertheless wins hearts with this very modesty.

Twin brothers looking over the sea from a grassy vantage point, in ‘Hilom’.
A scene from ‘Hilom’.

Short features

Sorry for the Inconvenience is a well-crafted look at the perpetrator’s side of crime, while Manong ng Pa-aling is a somber though somewhat distracted reflection on life, death, and labor. Nakaw is a one-take tale of interconnected events at a slum area in real time, smooth and seamless but neither particularly impressive nor inventive. Nakauwi Na, on the other hand, is easy to underestimate because of its exceedingly unpolished quality, but certain scenes in this tragic tale prove to be quite moving, buoyed by earnest performances.

Islabodan is an overt allegory for Martial Law politics, thinly disguised as a gritty but frivolous gang war between scavengers at the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City. It’s a silly concept, but neither does the film take itself seriously; it’s framed like panels on a comic book, though the shifting movement breaks momentum more often that it maintains it.

Maria feels more like a vignette than a story, a moving image that looks at Filipino overpopulation, motherhood, and gender, with allusions to religion: the first shot is of the large family sharing lunch while a religious statue watches over them; later, after the mother gives birth, she is seen lying on a hospital bed, with sheets, curtains, and a bedside book all in blue—the color of Maria, the Blessed Virgin, mother of us all.

Bawod is catalogued as a magic realist drama, but there is nothing particularly fantastical or surreal about it. Nevertheless, it works as a well-portrayed sketch of a young girl’s relationship with her grandfather, amidst the challenges of poverty and illness.

Fatima Marie Torres and the Invasion of Space Shuttle Pinas 25 is as bizarre as films can be. It features an old couple who, on the day of the launch of the first Filipino space shuttle, act like lunatics while going about their lives. Strange things happen all about them, but their reactions are blank, as if they were possessed by apathetic aliens. It is difficult to ascertain what this absurdist tale says exactly, but it appears to portray long marriage suffering from alienation, and celebrating its subsequent reignition, hinted at by the visual motif of triangle and floating, rising objects.

Aliens Ata is an ingenuity. Composed entirely of bird’s-eye view shots from a drone, this short film moves beyond gimmick, and makes its self-conscious ploy a light-hearted metaphor for loss and separation. Because of its point of view, we could not even see what the characters’ faces look like; what we familiarize with, instead, is the pattern of the grassy field where we watch the children play around with their parents. It makes the audience feel the alienating effect of distance, which makes us more familiar with the landscape of things than with the faces of people truly dear to us.

Behind Lola Loleng’s mostly-cheerful colors and animation lies the darkness of a woman’s memories of abuse. The flexibility of animation, its ability to disembody and to abstract, serves the film’s idea well, of pitting society’s bland judgments against an individual’s internal struggles, of illustrating the tragedy of forgetting as well as the pain of remembering. While Lola Loleng’s memories provide the body of the film’s story, it is framed from her granddaughter’s perspective—highlighting the fact that the burden of recollection is shared by both the old and the young.

The cinedance short film, Juana and the Sacred Shores, is pure elegance and visual pleasure. Its page on the Cinemalaya website gives away its meaning: it is “an allegory of post-colonialism…and alternatively, feminism as well.” While its exact forms may yet yield many meanings if studied closely, the film is clear enough for audiences to see its themes of abuse, freedom, and legacy, through the costumes and movements of the diwata-like Juana and her provocative suitor.

The breathtaking natural wonders that form Hilom’s background could already make for a compelling film even without a story, but its wide-open, windswept and shifting environments are used to good effect in this story of identity and bonds. A twin brother’s close relationship is disrupted by a third boy, like the force of nature that continuously reshapes the island they live in. There is beautiful symmetry in how the twins’ identities diverge and recombine, a symmetry that is delicately reflected in the film’s poetic montages.

The film stills for ‘Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig’ and ‘Hilom’ were taken from the films’ respective official Facebook pages. The rest were screen-captured from their corresponding film trailers.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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