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.
Like a forgettable vacation: the movie suffers from an uninspired premise and poor storytelling.
I Found My Heart in Santa Fe is a movie with an efficient title. All the information you need to set your expectations—on the film’s genre, tone, sensibilities—can be inferred from those choices of words.
It is also a film proud that it was independently produced, yet it has an overwhelmingly mainstream flavor. In aiming to please crowds, it refuses to strive for originality, even when its mode of production gives it all the freedom to do something different. The freshness of its setting is therefore lost in the familiarity of its tricks.
I Found My Heart in Santa Fe is a self-assured rom-com about a half-Filipino tourist, Viktor (Will Devaughn), falling in love with a morena islander, Jennifer (Roxanne Barcelo). In this film, there are provocative slow-motion shots of the leading man taking off his shirt, as well as of the leading lady emerging from the sea in a bikini. Jennifer has a support group of friends, with stock, cartoonish personalities, who have no discernible life of their own and exists in the story only to cheer our protagonist in her quest for love. Early in the film, people burst into dance, in the town and on the beach, to the tune of Roxanne’s catchy and pun-filled ‘Morena’. (“Mamahalin mo rin, mo rin, morena ‘ko…”) Later, when it is time to bring out the kilig, the film conjures another song by Roxanne, this time a yearning cover of ‘Morning, Noon and Night Time’.
None of these are bad elements, and for the most part the film pulls them off with technical skill. But neither are they memorable, and any viewer’s enjoyment (or at least tolerance) of this film hangs on acceptance of such tropes. They add nothing to a film that, from its conception, is already challenged with leaving a mark.
Bona Fajardo talks about the real reward of filmmaking, and other thoughts on Filipino cinema.
As the media conference for the film I Found My Heart in Santa Fe was wrapping up, we approached the director, Bona Fajardo, only to ask for a quick word. He noticed us and remarked, “O, ‘eto mga bagets,” and motioned us to sit down with him.
It was as if he sensed what we, the bagets, were curious about—his thoughts as on old-timer in the film industry. He’s been active since the 1990s, having served as art director for the landmark films Jose Rizal and Muro Ami, both by the late Marilou Diaz-Abaya. He has since aligned himself with the pioneers of independent, digital filmmaking in the country. At the 2002 Manila Film Festival, he won Best Production Design for Jon Red’s Utang ni Tatang. His own debut feature film, 2005’s Miss Pinoy, was Judy Ann Santos’ first indie. “Lagi kong sinasabi sa mga presscon, ‘Ah, hindi ako mainstream ah’,” he says, and laughs.
He witnessed first-hand the transition from celluloid to digital technology, but while it has democratized film production, he laments that no similar revolution has taken place for distribution. “Maraming mga filmmakers na nabigyan ng opportunity, pero ang malungkot doon, hindi naman nasakop ‘yong distribution, ‘yong venue, ‘yong pagpapalabas sa sine.”
Like the haribon, the film is graceful, breathtaking, and powerful.
The haribon—the “king bird”, the Philippine eagle—is an apex predator. It perches atop the food chain, over the forest ranges where it reigns. It is a hunter that is itself not hunted by any other creature—until humans came along. Birdshot is a film whose story precipitates from a young girl’s encounter with a haribon, and its consequences that play upon roles of predators and prey, of kings and pawns.
Like the eagle that inspires the film, Birdshot is a refined, seamless and graceful mystery-thriller. Each sequence is impeccably cut and paced to build tension or conjure dread. Even the dialogue is precise, the characters speaking efficiently, contemplating every word as a hunter preparing for every kill. The film is set in a remote tract in the Philippine countryside: isolated, pure and enchanting, but also brooding with threats of evil.
Birdshot is also a coming-of-age story. The farm lass at its center, Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), possesses a simple, quintessentially Filipina beauty. Her clothes, rough earthly garments highlighted by a red wrap, recalls the plumage of the mayang pula, the humble bird that was the national bird before the haribon took its place. She may be innocent and look meek, but she is not entirely submissive. Once, her grandmother visits and admonishes her for not keeping her hair well-combed. For a while she is occupied with her appearance, but comes to realize that if its sole purpose is to attract men, then it is worth nothing to her.
A round-up of all the main competition entries in this year’s festival.
“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.
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.