QCinema 2017 reviews: ‘Neomanila’, ‘The Write Moment’, short films

Features on love and war, and short films from the charming to the profound.

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Neomanila

Toto (Tim Castillo), a teenage orphan, is recruited by a notorious death squad. Irma (Eula Valdez), the group’s leader, soon becomes a maternal figure to the young boy. As the two form a familial bond, their loyalties will be put to the test when one of their targets turns out to be a familiar face.

In the wake of Birdshot’s tremendous success, young filmmaker Mikhail Red takes on a rather ambitious project. His debut feature Rekorder demonstrated his careful, patient craft as he told an intriguing underworld story, taking the distinct perspective of a movie pirate. Birdshot, the triumphant mystery-thriller, ventured into the past and out to the countryside, finding in the national eagle a symbol for social injustice. Now, with Neomanila, Red faces the challenge of entering familiar territory—the city’s criminal underworld—without as much of a fresh element as those found in his first two films. Local independent filmmakers have been scrambling to portray the drug-war-torn society of present-day Philippines, the same milieu that Neomanila tackles head-on. There have been more creative approaches; the topic has even found its place in a monster story, 2016’s Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B.

Neomanila mostly succeeds. It is a solid film. Red proves to be a truly confident and capable filmmaker, and his latest product has it all: well-written, well-acted, and well-designed. It is his most thrilling film so far, with impressive set pieces, displaying his definite talent for building tension.

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QCinema 2017 reviews: ‘Balangiga’, ‘Kulay Lila Ang Gabi…’, ‘Dormitoryo’

Stories of different horizons told in the same intimate fashion.

Balangiga: Howling Wilderness

1901, Balangiga. Eight-year-old Kulas (Justine Samson) flees town with his grandfather (Pio del Rio) and their carabao to escape General Smith’s Kill & Burn order. He finds a toddler (Warren Tuaño) amid a sea of corpses and together, the two boys struggle to survive the American occupation.

If history is a drama, then adults are the actors; the children are mere spectators, and too often its victims. In Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, the children seize center stage in a horrific episode of Philippine history. As foreign invaders raze towns across the province, two young boys, along with an elderly man and their tired carabao, plod through the countryside. They narrowly escape the bloodshed, but gunfire is always booming across the landscape, and the scent and smoke of burning villages hang in the air. The action of war—or rather, the massacre—is unseen, but its destructive trail lies everywhere: the path is littered with bloody corpses, scampering refugees, and lost lunatics.

Kulas, of course, sees these artifacts of destruction. He acknowledges them with his eyes, gazes at them but does not speak of them. His task is to survive his circumstances, not to contemplate them. At this he is largely successful: he and his company’s closest encounter with the ghost of violence is their brush with an American soldier (played by Daniel Palisa), in a sequence that, somewhat amusingly, gives life to the phrase “little brown brother.”

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QCinema 2017 reviews: ‘The Chanters’, ‘Dapol Tan Payawar Na Tayug 1931’, ‘Medusae’

Films tackling tradition, history and mythology.

The Chanters

The Chanters is a comedy-drama film about Sarah Mae (Jally Nae Gabaliga), a 12-year-old school girl, the granddaughter of the last chanter of the Panay Bukidnon tribe. She obsesses with pop culture and readies herself for the visit of a sensational TV star to her school. As she perfects her dance, her grandfather, Lolo Ramon (Romulo Caballero) suffers the onset of dementia. As her Lolo starts losing his precious memories, Sarah Mae is tasked to help him complete the last of the remaining 12 epics, their tribe’s vanishing tradition.

The Chanters is presented in a peculiarly narrow (approximately square) aspect ratio. This allows for appealing compositions that look unique, though not exactly cinematic. Add in the bright, pastel coloring, and what we have is a film always poised for a screen-capture, to be posted on social media for bite-sized consumption.

The Chanters uses its unique format to communicate an idea. (Towards the end, it even manipulates the aspect ratio.) That idea is about the relationship between popular and traditional cultures, between the modern and the ancient. This recalls the themes of Respeto, and like in that film this relationship is personified: in The Chanters, Sarah Mae carries the future, Lolo Ramon holds the past.

When modern and ancient cultures meet, the representation is often one of conflict, of clash: the new against the old. This is where The Chanters does something different. Here, the initial relationship between the youth and the elderly is indifference—a situation more difficult than direct competition. Sarah Mae takes a lot of selfies with her phone, documenting only herself in the process of living her daily life, all while her grandfather struggles to record, with pen on paper, their tribe’s oral epics—that memorized document of countless generations.

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‘Shift’ captures the transient millennial spirit

Passions, youth, diversity: ‘Shift’ is about the millennial and their fleeting desires.

Shift sells itself as an offbeat romance film, about the boyish Estela (Yeng Constantino) and the proudly gay Trevor (Felix Roco). While this is its heart, it is not its spirit.

The story follows Estela more than it does Trevor. Once, strolling through the quaint shops at the Cubao Expo, she spots a Che Guevara portrait, the bold reds of the artwork matching her own fiery dyed hair; she asks Trevor to take her picture with it. This is more than a whimsy: she studied sociology in school, and she knows what Che stands for. There are no flashbacks in Shift, but the film teases with details here and there, and we figure out that she used to be an activist—a rough, full-blooded tibak, a past life that corroborates with her boyish manners.

Now she spends her days, and nights, in call centers, taking up jobs to sustain her impractical passions. She answers a phone interview once, with remarkable confidence and skill—but underneath that compelling corporate talk is the contradiction between her past convictions and her present place. She keeps this simmering irony under wraps, mostly unspoken, though it manifests in her lethargic attitude to work: she often comes in late, and her performance has not been up to standard.

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Review: ‘El bar’ (Álex de la Iglesia, 2017)

Ordinary citizens in the wrong place, in these extraordinary times.

In El bar (Álex de la Iglesia, 2017), an ensemble of citizens find themselves trapped in a bar in downtown Madrid, when a customer is gunned down a moment after exiting the establishment. A claustrophobic crisis ensues, and the characters are predictably overcome with paranoia.

This is a film inspired by current world headlines, particularly those circulating in Europe. The trapped group argue hysterically about what is happening, and the first suspicion, naturally, is that the shooting was an act of terrorism. A litany of 21st-century European anxieties pour out next from the individuals: xenophobia, prejudice against migrants, fear of epidemics, even worries of a conspiring, authoritarian government. To the film’s credit, this first act of theorizing and bickering includes a few eerie moments, and at one point the mystery is such that it felt anything could happen in the film: that it could pivot to horror, or even surrealism.

Nevertheless, and perhaps as respite from the gravity of its themes, El bar fills itself with humor. Comedy indeed comes from desperation. After the cast of characters has been persuaded that there is no terrorist among them, one becomes convinced that they are all, in fact, merely dreaming. It is not the case though, and the party continues.

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