Reviews: ‘Distance’, ‘School Service’, ‘Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon’ (Cinemalaya 2018)

Two exquisite dramas about estrangement, and a too-familiar tale about street crime and poverty.


Direction: Perci Intalan | Story/Screenplay: Keavy Eunice Vicente

Liza (Iza Calzado) is still drowning in grief from losing the love of her life when she receives a visit from the most unlikely person—her husband, whom she left five years ago. With no questions asked and no conditions, Anton (Nonie Buencamino) invites her back to his and their two children’s lives.

Distance establishes its tone, themes, and dramatic parameters with the very first scene: a tilting shot of a beach on a foreign land, patiently and slowly tracking Liza as she strolls up its expansive stretch. A montage of solitude follows, as we watch her spending her days alone, reading a book on a bench and killing time without company in her home. Anton knocks on her door one day, unannounced, unexpected; she offers tea, he declines, she insists. They exchange pleasantries, but Liza does not wait long to break the question: What really brings you here? He replies, I’m bringing you home. There is no need for resistance, and soon Liza finds herself in her old house, which somehow feels colder and stranger than her home abroad. Anton tells her to take the master’s bedroom while he moves to the guest room; she complains, he insists. The house is cavernous, and she goes through its rooms like a ghostly queen wandering in her empty castle.

This film is a splendid drama, the kind that exhibits excellent restraint, where the characters sweep their simmering, suppressed emotions under the cover of politeness and civility. Liza does not remain alone for long in her new-old home, as her estranged daughters come home from school that same night. Anton keeps a cordial smile as he nudges his daughters toward their mother; they reluctantly and awkwardly embrace her in turns. They gather around the dinner table where Anton talks to Liza about her children as if they were distant relatives being introduced for the first time. Therese (Alessandra Malonzo) earnestly, but formally, tells her mother that they missed her and are glad she is back. Anton says Karla (Therese Malvar) is now in college, and has joined a theater group where she spends too much time, and she always goes home tired. Liza takes the cue and says in kind, that it is okay, the important thing is that whatever she is doing makes her happy—a well-meaning but ill-advised thing to say, as the years of unexplained separation and unspoken pain wash over the fractured family, and they fall back into uneasy silence.

Their manners run counter to the Filipino expectations for melodrama, but there is an explanation: Anton is a therapist, and his profession extends into this, his personal life; he is his own patient, his own counselor, and behind the subdued smiles and tears he can be heard telling himself, do not let your feelings control you, give yourself time to process your emotions. Liza is chronically aware of this, and she admits as much that he knows her so well. In one of the film’s lighter—but still contained—moments, Liza meets her lively, chatty sister, and Anton offers to join them, telling Liza that he can be her ‘buffer’. Anton even talks to their children as if they were adults, as if they were patients consulting, discussing their situation with Liza in compassionate, patient, and formal terms. And yet, what Distance illustrates is that this well-intentioned, rational restraint may actually be an obstacle towards true reconciliation, despite the admirable efforts spent to maintain such an attitude.

The family’s history, their source of pain and awkwardness, is carefully laid out in seamless flashbacks—marked only by subtle shifts in color temperature, but maintaining the same dreamy and detached visual quality that graces the entire film. (The D.O.P. is Mackie Galvez, the same cinematographer behind Sana Dati and Bliss.) Most of the conflict, and most of Distance’s story, revolves around Liza’s ensuing project of reaching out to her daughters. There are only two possible outcomes here, reconciliation or rejection, but it is a testament to the cast and crew’s tremendous talent that this simple conundrum is ably spun into an absorbing and deeply moving drama. Each one of the characters commands deep sympathy, and by the end of the story there is a great yearning for them to achieve the happiness and contentment they deserve. It makes the conclusion all the more powerful, because, true to its spirit, the film chooses an ending where the resolution is still some way out, within sight but still uncertain, nearly within grasp but ultimately still too distant.

Iza Calzado as LIza reuniting with her family, Alessandra Malonzo as Therese, Nonie Buencamino as Anton and Therese Malvar as Karla in ‘Distance’ (2018).
Iza Calzado, Alessandra Malonzo, Nonie Buencamino and Therese Malvar in ‘Distance’.

School Service

Direction: Luisito “Louie” Ignacio | Screenplay: Onay Sales

Maya, a young girl from the province, is taken against her will and placed as a beggar in Manila by a small-time syndicate.

The premise is familiar: the real-life horror story that very young children are being kidnapped and thrown onto a life of mendicancy on the streets, as slaves to small-time criminal lords. The practice continues because the police are only too willing to look the other way, in exchange for minor bribes. It is meant to be chilling because, after watching the film, it makes it harder to look at all the young beggars on the streets, thinking that many of them might have been robbed of fine futures. School Service takes this story and applies a dark and dirty look, resulting in a film that represents the stereotypical Filipino indie, the kind of film that gave Filipino cinema its current and unfortunate reputation in international film festivals.

But neither does School Service attempt to portray its affairs in a way as truthful and unadorned as possible (the cinéma vérité/direct cinema philosophy), not by a mile. Its approach is a little more artificial, a tiny bit more sentimental, than the works of such filmmakers as Brillante Mendoza. That also means School Service is a little more entertaining to watch than films like Ma’ Rosa, if that is a good thing. School Service can be described as a children’s poverty-porn story, never mind the disturbing awkwardness of that term. (Although such a discomforting spirit persists in the story, with all its elements of youthful delinquency and underage crime.)

The film starts at the moment of abduction, with the titular school service having picked up Maya (portrayed by Celine Juan—why do innocent young girls always have to be named Maya?), and violently refusing to let her go as the van passes her house. The entire narrative is driven by the question of whether Maya will still get home, or if she will surrender herself to this new, dysfunctional family. We do not know what her life was like with her real family, and this gives a sense of uncertainty in how likely she is to give in to her new life with the syndicates. The story toys somewhat with Stockholm syndrome—Nanay Rita (Ai Ai delas Alas), the syndicate’s mother figure, may be tough on her ‘children’, but the film takes care to show her softer, tragic, and even religious side.

The amusing performances of the ensemble of children, of Maya and her new cohort, is the most interesting aspect of School Service. (The cast includes Kenken Nuyad of Liway fame, and rising star Therese Malvar who is no stranger to these street urchin roles.) Their dialogue is as natural, rough and foul-mouthed as we would expect from street children. There is a scene where the inquisitive Maya interrogates each of her new ‘siblings’ as to why they are not trying to escape to go back to their families—a rather convincing exchange that illuminates the reasons for children preferring to live rough lives on the streets.

School Service deviates the most from its genre precedents when it chooses to complement its gritty vision with playful but sinister music and images. The soundtrack includes Maya singing a creepy rhyme, “Bata, bata, saan ka pupunta?” The children force her to sniff solvent, and the stoned kid dreams of a colorful, flowery alternate world where the school service becomes an actual school bus, Nanay Rita becomes a teacher, and the other kids become her schoolmates.

Other characters include Nanay Rita’s sickly father (Joe Gruta), her brother Roberto (Joel Lamangan), and his lover and their hired driver Kiko (Kevin Sagra), who are involved in a subplot involving the sale of the dilapidated van. Inevitably, there is physical violence, which the film portrays with pounding music, and intercut with images of a religious parade that the children are watching in another location. The story eventually ends on an ambiguous note, clearly designed to maximize the bleak and unsettling effect of the narrative.

School Service is a curiosity, because while it is far from being a bad film—it is competently crafted, in fact—it ends up buckling under the weight of its pedigree. Good is not good enough for any Filipino film tackling poverty these days; it has to be excellent and outstanding. Unless it possesses the rigor and force of a film like Pamilya Ordinaryo, or the timely power of a Ma’ Rosa, then it will almost surely fail to leave a mark.

Celine Juan as Maya in ‘School Service’ (2018).
Celine Juan in ‘School Service’.

Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon (Waiting for Sunset)

Direction: Carlo Enciso Catu | Screenplay: John Carlo Pacala

An old unmarried couple breaks the monotony of their daily lives when the woman’s estranged husband suddenly reaches out to them.

The first twenty minutes or so of the film is a game of charades for the title’s promise; the main characters in Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon spend their days without haste and without worries, metaphorically waiting for the sunset in gently endearing everyday scenes. Terê (Perla Bautista) complains to Celso (Menggie Cobarrubias) about leaving hairs on the bath soap; Celso grumbles in return about her failed tinolang manok sa pakwan experiment. Somewhere else, Bene (Dante Rivero) chats idly with a neighbor as they pat and test their gamecocks. None of these details, unremarkable as they may be, are wasted; they reappear later in the story, in different contexts, and with new meanings.

Celso and Terê’s children and grandchildren visit them on Sundays, and Terê’s grandson eggs her to retell the legend of the quail princess, the princess who had to journey to faraway lands to find a new prince after her old beau passed away. It is an allegorical account of her own life, and its details are to be retold, unadorned, in later conversations. This film shows how Celso, Terê, and Bene negotiate their shared past, without having to retell it. It finds its plot when the relationship between the three characters are revealed in the kind of hint-dropping in dialogue that involves pronouns—Celso and Terê speaking to each other about your child rather than our child. When Terê visits Bene and he calls her Tetang, she gently tells him no one calls her that anymore; it is her kind way of telling him how things have changed, but not by much really.

This is also a film where the characters always find a deep well of restraint and wisdom at their disposal, where simmering emotions are inevitably released, but as gentle wafts of smoke rather than as explosive blasts of steam. Arguments end amicably after two sentences. They would not say sorry though, because that too would be too emotional. And the control goes both ways, with anger and resentment as well as with love and adoration. Terê is sternly unaffectionate, using laughter to nervously dismiss Celso’s occasional expressions of love. It appears all of them are as afraid of being melodramatic as Bene is of dying alone.

The camera has a manner of lingering on the environment, of caressing the story’s settings, and the warmth of the palette seems to be making up for the quietness of the scoring and the characters’ aversion to paglalambing. These allow small actions—the opening of windows, the wiping of tables, the sweeping of the floor—to take on greater significance, although none of these symbols are as weighty as Bene’s slowly emptying house and the arrival of the sunset pledged in the title—parallels, of course, of the theme of death. Yet, this film is not all about melancholy. It balances the weight of its themes with the simple, humble charms of calmly-delivered jokes, a humor that comes from the characters’ sense of security and thoughtful happiness.

Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon is an exquisitely crafted drama, and its subtlety is not the proud kind that boasts of its cleverness, that challenges the audience’s ability to read between the lines; rather, it simply respects their intelligence, and their innate ability to empathize. It makes for a film that is a sublime joy to watch.

Perla Bautista as Terê opening the window while Dante Rivero as Bene watches from a rocking chair in ‘Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon’ (2018).
Perla Bautista and Dante Rivero in ‘Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon’.

Stills taken from the films’ respective trailers.


Author: DJ Ramones

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

6 thoughts on “Reviews: ‘Distance’, ‘School Service’, ‘Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon’ (Cinemalaya 2018)”

  1. DJ, before I cover distance that may derail me from my feelings, let me skip the other two reviews and focus on the obvious first. I’m even willing to let this phrase “his profession and training extends” slide because of your choking me up so soon.
    Maybe it’s something about the past, call it angst or autobiography, but your explicit delineation of the characters gave me an early lump in the throat. Not leaving it until the end of the assessment. Exquisite would surely describe the film (if I were to see it) but your pen has done astonishingly enough to satisfy.
    Thank you earnestly. Let me now go back to your interrupted craft.
    I’m a fan.

    1. Thank you, as always. (I’ve fixed the slip too.)

      Distance is special. There are still a lot of local films to come out in the remaining months of the year, but so far, this is one of my two favorite films of 2018.

      1. Unfortunately, you’d notice that I very rarely write about foreign films. (I only have so much time for writing, and I’m sure there are many excellent takes already on such a widely-released film.) Also, I haven’t seen it, though I do plan to.

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