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.

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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.

Distance

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.

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Reviews: ‘ML’, ‘The Lookout’, ‘Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma’ (Cinemalaya 2018)

An intense horror satire, a confusing thriller-drama, and a solemn coming-of-age film.

ML

Direction/Screenplay: Benedict Mique

Carlo (Tony Labrusca), a college student, his girlfriend Pat (Lianne Valentin), and best pal Jaze (Henz Villaraiz) get more than what they have bargained for when they decide to learn about the dark days of Martial Law from an old retired soldier who may be one of its worst abusers.

Early in ML, we are introduced to its burgis millennial protagonists in a classroom, a safe space, where they are discussing Martial Law with a professor (Jojit Lorenzo). Carlo is skeptical about the criticisms of the era, but Jaze is outright incredulous; he parrots the tired old arguments celebrating the legacies of the Marcos regime, about a disciplined public and enduring public works. The professor answers him with the standard, borderline paranoid rebuttal from the anti-Marcos side, telling Jaze that if he were that outspoken during Martial Law, he would be tortured or killed, or he would simply disappear. The professor then switches to an apologetic voice of reason: he admits that his generation became too complacent after EDSA, and that they are indeed to blame for our country’s continuing predicaments. The professor is of course talking to Carlo and Jaze as much as he is to us, the audience; this dialogue is setting the ideological stage for the rest of the film. However, it would also be nearly the last appearance of nuanced discourse in ML, because the rest of the film turns out to be an intense horror-satire à la Jordan Peele’s Get Out, albeit with a heavier hand and a more candid approach.

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Reviews: ‘Kuya Wes’, ‘Pan de Salawal’, ‘Liway’ (Cinemalaya 2018)

Stories about a love-struck clerk, a miraculous child, and a pregnant rebel.

Kuya Wes

Direction: James Robin Mayo | Screenplay: Denise O’Hara & Heber O’Hara

Wes (Ogie Alcasid) is a timid and earnest remittance clerk who falls for his customer in need, Erika (Ina Raymundo). As Wes offers to help her out, his “relationship” with Erika and his friction with his younger brother Raf (Alex Medina) starts to change him.

Like James Mayo’s own The Chanters and his associate Thop Nazareno’s similarly beloved Kiko Boksingero, Kuya Wes features a cute premise that promises a feel-good, underdog-story film, but as it delivers the charms it also deals a sucker punch, a double-edged blow that tickles your ribs as much as it wrenches your guts.

Wes is a generation older than Kiko and The Chanters’ Sarah Mae, but he is in many ways just as immature. Wes is not his real name, but a nickname of endearment given to him by his regular customers. His devotion to his clerical job is disproportionate to its prosaic repetitiveness. We watch him continually redecorate the remittance center with the latest holiday greetings as the months go on—Valentine’s followed by graduation, graduation followed by Mothers’ Day, Mothers’ Day followed by Fathers’ Day. Erika’s similarly clock-like visits, at one in the afternoon on the 16th of every month, is Wes’s sole hope of joy in his unremarkable life.

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‘Citizen Jake’ is not a movie

It is not journalism either, but, by bending fiction, it moves towards the same goal: a presentation of the truth.

Citizen Jake is billed as a film about the present political landscape of the Philippines, but there is no news in what it reveals: politicians are corrupt, judges are unjust, dissenters suffer harassment, women struggle with patriarchy, and the poor remain powerless. It does not attempt to make its own politics neutral: the film is blatantly anti-Marcos, and for that reason it is bound to be denounced by citizens of certain convictions. In one scene depicting the everyday corruption of a low-ranking law enforcer, the camera pans to momentarily highlight the Duterte posters displayed outside his house.

There is no news either in this film’s plot of political intrigue, crimes and conspiracies. Jake Herrera (Atom Araullo), a former professional journalist, now teacher and blogger-cum-‘citizen journalist’, is waging a personal war against social evils while struggling with his familial relationships to the very kind of corrupt politician he is crusading against. There is nothing particularly surprising in its story and the verbal and visceral violence that comes with it. When Citizen Jake manages to say something intriguing, something that finally feels fresh, it is when it veers away from the overtly political, as when Jake contemplates his friendship with a household servant.

But while Citizen Jake’s politics is predictable, and most of its insights familiar and conventional, the way it presents them is not. In the opening scene, Jake speaks to the camera, introducing the film as a story enhanced by the techniques of Cinema. Early on, commenting on the setting of Baguio City, there is a history lecture presented through a slide show of old photographs. Throughout the story there are narrative interludes enhanced by intertitles that echo words from the voice-over, stark white on a black background, looking like newspaper headlines, or protest slogans. Supporting characters are often presented in quick cut scenes, portrait-style, with the actors looking straight into the camera—looking straight at you, the audience. Citizen Jake even has a montage of its own behind-the-scenes footage, showing the actors surrounded by cameras, microphones, lighting set-ups and the crew. This film is fictional, but it is often presented as if it were a documentary.

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