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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The painter is dead: Barthes, and Nick Joaquin’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino’

How does the ‘greatest Filipino play’ illustrate our nation?

The reputation of Nick Joaquin’s 1951 play, A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, towers over the landscape of Philippine literature. Its achievements demand nothing but superlatives; on the theatrical poster of its 1965 film adaptation is this call to attention:

The film, the stars, the setting, the theme, the story, the director—all the things that make this the motion picture to see if a Filipino can go to the theaters only once in his lifetime!

This year (Nick Joaquin’s birth centennial) will see the release of another cinematic adaptation entitled Ang Larawan. At the end of the teaser trailer for the film is a less self-important, but nevertheless equally grand, assessment of the source material: “The greatest Filipino play, now on film.”

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On Lualhati Bautista’s ‘Dekada ’70’

Not merely a ‘Martial Law novel’.

I’ve been seeing the novel Dekada ’70, by Lualhati Bautista, on National Bookstore’s Filipino shelves for as long as I can remember. That is the certain mark of a work’s membership in the literary canon, as far as the economics of required readings are concerned. But somehow, in all my years of schooling, I had evaded all the panitikan teachers who would include this novel in their syllabi. Either that, or I’m suffering a combination of faulty memory and a past fear of classic literature.

It happens that I’m currently atoning for my past disinterest in classics, and a friend lent me a copy of the progressive pocket-sized novel. (I imagined—framed—my friend as a concerned citizen discreetly sharing subversive readings to a fellow citizen, for enlightenment in these dark times.) I have no idea when, or if at all, I would ever have read this novel if not for this friend. Dekada ’70’s cover has intimidated me all these years, after all. Every time I would see its stark red, overtly political cover illustration, my mind’s interest-switch flips off. I am all for appreciating realist, social-political narratives on a medium like film, but I’m a slow reader, and I only have so much reading capacity to spare when it comes to grim literature.

I’m glad that I proved my own expectations wrong. Everyone mutters, don’t judge a book by its cover, but the reality is that for the majority of books we lay our eyes upon at the bookstore, we pre-screen them by sight. By their covers, that is. Certainly, we could read the synopsis, cross-check with reviews or recommendations, but before any of this can be accomplished, we would already have instinctively formed prejudices on a book by its face. The book design for Dekada ’70 belies the novel’s domestic tone: there are grim moments in this story, true, and the anxious climate of the titular era is the omnipresent spirit of the narrative, but the entire tale is depicted in such a welcoming, informal manner that the political becomes personal—what would otherwise have caused distant despair becomes a matter of intimate concern.

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