Reviews: ‘Mamang’ and short films (Cinemalaya 2018)

A heartfelt film about a forgetful mother, and a diverse set of shorts: from the bleak to the charming, even the experimental.

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Mamang

Direction & Screenplay: Denise O’Hara

Mamang depicts an old woman’s struggle against the senility of old age.

In Mamang, the eponymous character (played by the renowned Celeste Legaspi) confronts the relentless hallucinations brought by her creeping dementia. These visions are populated by personalities from her past: her husband, his mistress, a suitor, even a constabulary officer—the ghosts of her memory, characters summoned by the failing faculties of her mind rather than haunted beings coming from a supernatural realm. It is a familiar unreliable-narrator story, where the narrator is an elder beset by senility, although the film interestingly frames its conflict as the choice between normal reality and a more vibrant, more colorful memory-dream world. The reappearance of people long gone confounds Mamang at first, but in the end, the film tells us it is up to her which world she desires to live in; she is a victim, but she is not helpless. Her disability gives her, more than mere suffering, a choice, an option that would in fact be unavailable were it not for her affliction. This way, Mamang places senility under a different light.

The film recalls Cinemalaya 2016’s Kusina, another movie revolving around a maternal character’s personal history. Kusina takes place almost entirely in the titular kitchen; Mamang is similarly staged mostly within the limited space of the character’s home. Both films rely on meaningful lighting and production design in telling their stories, and feature ensembles of characters parading through the protagonist’s life through several eras. There is the shared attempt to evoke intimacy stretched through time, to concretely portray how personal lives are shaped dramatically by the massive but otherwise distant machinations of history.

Unlike Kusina, however, Mamang is less concerned with historiography, and more interested in humble biography. The music is playful, appropriate to the stage of life Mamang is in: second childhood. The humor is simple, and the dialogue has a heartfelt, sincere quality. Perhaps the only notable issue in this film’s craft is the twist at the end of the story, which most observant viewers would figure out long before it unfolds. But then again, the film is not trying to be clever, and even without the element of surprise, the story still achieves a bittersweet impact.

What the film is truly trying to be, is a tribute to a mother’s relationship with her child. Mamang is often grumpy and confused, as elders are frequently portrayed in movies, but she can also be very loving and sweet (Legaspi plays the character with so much grace of movement that it often feels like she would burst into song anytime). Mamang deals with her problems with a blend of frank and coy attitudes, and her youthful reactions of embarrassment, in her moments of forgetfulness, is irresistibly endearing. So is her open-mindedness about her gay son Ferdie (Ketchup Eusebio), who reciprocates this love and affection with loyalty and dedication to his mother in her sunset years. It is Ferdie’s term of endearment for his mother that gives Mamang its title, and indeed their relationship is the link that anchors Mamang to reality, amongst all the imaginary people intruding on her life now. Their mother-and-child bond is so precious, and depicted in such an affecting way that after seeing the film and going home, and you still have the privilege of being able to do so, you might feel like chatting with your own mother, and in the course of that conversation be tempted to call her mamang.

And so, humble and flawed it may be, but Mamang pulls off one of the oldest yet most powerful tricks in cinema.

Celeste Legaspi as the titular character coming out of her bedroom in ‘Mamang’.
Celeste Legaspi in ‘Mamang’.

Short films

Jojo Driz’s Kiko is a bleak drama about a blind gay man caring for a school-age boy. It is as harsh as social-realist films come, not daring to add an uplifting spin to its story of discrimination, abuse and bullying; it even tackles how the drug trade has lethal consequences even for places as remote as its rural village setting, leading to a rather unsettling ending.

Siyudad sa Bulawan (City of Gold) by Jarell Serencio is only slightly less grim, but it addresses similarly heavy issues: child labor and greedy, reckless practices in the small-scale mining industry. The story of three brothers who have to support themselves begins with one of them at school, rehearsing for a class presentation where he plays the role of an eagle, clearly an expression of the freedom that children like him deserve—in contrast to their frequent after-school plunges into the mines to earn their living in dangerous conditions. It is unfortunate that the film ends on a confusing scene that robs its abrupt ending of much of the intended impact.

Kani Villaflor’s Logro is curiously loaded with meta puns and ironies. It is a short film about a ‘little person’, Bruno, who in the opening scenes is told by his employer that she cannot pay him more because they are “short” of cash. The film exposes the degrading jobs exclusively available to disadvantaged people like Bruno, but the climactic ‘midget boxing’ fight is staged like in an underdog sports movie—with suspenseful and thrilling moments, making you wonder if you should be appalled or entertained. That is the cleverest aspect of this film that is quite competently made (the sound design is particularly effective during a few tense scenes), but otherwise suffers from a contrived story.

Christian Candelaria’s Sa Saíyang Islá (In His Island), which first gained fame at the Viddsee Juree Philippines 2017 online short film competition, is the sweet story of a young boy who, for a project where he has to come to school dressed as what he wants to be, decides to make a mermaid costume, inspired by his mother’s stories about the mythical creature. As John Tawasil notes, Sa Saíyang Islá is notable for “managing to discuss so many important issues, while still staying within the boundaries of the short film medium”; it deftly deals with gender issues, bullying, poverty, the environment, “without bloating the film or its content.” But perhaps, most impressive is the choice to tell the story in a most compassionate and gentle way, making for a memorably uplifting film.

Jav Velasco’s You, Me and Mr. Wiggles (co-written with Denise O’Hara) will likely be remembered most for its full-frontal male nudity, but it is not a sexploitation film. It is a one-act, one-take bedroom drama-comedy, where Carlo (Kiko Matos) and Anj’s (Elora Españo) attempt to have a steamy night is foiled by Carlo’s erectile dysfunction. This short film is also, in a way, a romance, although one unique for its focus on relationship issues revolving around sex, an aspect avoided by almost all of romance-obsessed Philippine cinema these days. Fittingly, Mr. Wiggles is filmed from a voyeuristic, bird’s eye perspective of Carlo’s bedroom.

Nangungupahan is a fascinating experimental short by Glenn Barit, the filmmaker responsible for Cinemalaya 2017’s equally charming, equally conceptual Aliens Ata. Nangungupahan studies the notion that the same space shared by many unrelated people through time—in this film, an apartment—becomes nostalgic to them in unique ways, as it plays host to the various unremarkable but intimate moments of everyday life. The story takes the form of vignettes of several tenants (two struggling artists, a cat lady, an encyclopedia vendor and his wife, and more) which do not intertwine as plot threads but literally overlap, as visual cutouts of scenes from the different stories, mixed and matched on the screen (while the camera perspective is kept static). This is an ensemble story where the whole is more than the sum of its parts in a visually innovative way. For its final shot, Nangungupahan switches from its private setting to a public one—an emphatic end to a philosophically stimulating film.

Yakap by Mika Fabella and Rafael Froilan translates Jose Garcia Villa’s poem I can no more hear Love’s into cinedance. Classical, enigmatic, and elegant, it employs an opulent setting in portraying what Edgar Allan Poe deems “the most poetical topic in the world”: the death of a beautiful woman.

Two of Cinemalaya 2018’s short films came from QCinema 2017. From the reviews of that festival:

[Xeph Suarez’s] Si Astri Maka Si Tambulah is intriguing for portraying a character who is twice a minority: first by ethnicity (Sama Bajao), and then by gender (trans-woman). Astri’s relationship with Tambulah is unusual in their community, but the people thankfully leave them in peace. They are working hard, however, to raise funds for Astri’s marriage—to Sitti, a woman she does not really know or would like to marry, and yet she plans to do so out of her sense of duty. Her internal conflict between following tradition and following her heart is this short film’s quiet tragedy. The resolution of the looming crisis (what happens to Tambulah if and when Astri does marry Sitti?) is somewhat unsatisfactory, but perhaps, if given the space of a feature-length film, this story could flesh out the characters and their backstories, and fashion a stronger conclusion.

…[Keith Deligero’s] Babylon also touches upon history, particularly the issue of historical revisionism, but takes a most amusing approach: it tells the story of young women who travel through time to assassinate a barangay dictator, and literally revise history. This fascinating short film’s absurd sense of humor is evident right from this premise: consider, for a moment, how peculiar it would be for a populist dictator to have absolute, unfettered political power—but over only one barangay. In one scene, a group of men hunting in the hills shoot at the camera; the next time they are seen, one of them looks at what they have killed, puzzled—they have shot a drone. (The story is set in “a time before cellphones”.) This wacky film delivers such gags in quick succession, and even if some Cebuano jokes are lost in translation, the result is still engrossingly funny. The main story is told in fragmented and bizarre threads, tied together by a dainty rendition of the song Big Beautiful Country; the threads come together at the end, still bizarre but now unified. By that point, it becomes clear that the barangay dictator embodies the stereotypical small-minded trapo, that the Barangay Babylonia he governs, alluding to the oppressive biblical city, is an allegory for a small-minded nation that has too easily surrendered its freedom to a charismatic autocrat. Babylon is indeed the sarswela it claims to be: a delightful alternative to serious political discourse, a fully entertaining piece of satire that draws from and encapsulates Filipino culture with all its faults, paradoxes, and hilarious madness.

Carlo Manatad’s Jodilerks dela Cruz, Employee of the Month invites comparisons to Babylon for its same satirical appetite for madness, but whereas the latter is irreverent, Jodilerks is cold and aloof, less bizarre, with more logic and polish. It is about Jodilerks (Angeli Bayani), the everywoman with the kitschy name, on her last night of duty at a forsaken gas station about to close for good. The station is quiet, its image isolated from the dark night of its surroundings by the cold, stark overhead lights, yet it is tense with the threat of explosive hazards. Jodilerks fools around with her lone colleague, and they show disregard for safety, lighting cigarettes right next to the gas pumps. That happens to be the least of their many concerns on this fateful night—if they indeed have the ability to be concerned with anything, with their deadpan attitudes—because a string of incidents bring them so much more violence and evil than a normal person on her last day of work can handle. And so, as more customers drop by to fill up, she gets fed up. This is the crazy vision of Jodilerks: the story of how alienating working conditions mix explosively with the actual threats of a disordered society, pushing its victims to their breaking point, until they inevitably snap and run amok.

Angeli Bayani as a gas station attendant in ‘Jodilerks dela Cruz, Employee of the Month’.
Angeli Bayani in ‘Jodilerks dela Cruz, Employee of the Month’.

Stills taken from the films’ trailers.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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