Cinemalaya 2017 review: all 9 full-length and 12 short-feature films

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.

Nabubulok

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.

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When the movies were still projected from film reels

I’m old enough to recall the time when couriers still zipped between moviehouses, reels of film on their shoulders.

Since 2008’s The Dark Knight, I’ve been anticipating every Christopher Nolan film with the excitement of a teenage girl waiting for the next One Direction album. Such is my confidence in the quality of Nolan’s films that I splurged on an IMAX ticket to see his latest film, Dunkirk, without reading a review or hearing anyone’s recommendation beforehand. (Dunkirk is a film that the aforementioned teenage girl would have also looked forward to, because One Direction’s Harry Styles is in its cast.)

I had forgotten how impressive, how immense, these IMAX screens were. I plopped down on my seat and, wild-eyed, gaped at just how immersive the projected image was. The screen was alarming in its vastness, in how it covered so much of my field of vision. Dunkirk began with a scene of soldiers running from gunfire; when the camera started shaking, I worried that my eyeballs also had to jerk around so much just to follow the action on-screen. Thankfully, the rest of movie had its camerawork done in steady hands. By the end of it, I was satisfied, thinking my cash was well-spent.

Wooden sculptures of a sitting figure (a Cordilleran bulol) and a movie camera, from an exhibit by Kidlat Tahimik.
A depiction of the Cordilleran bulol as a filmmaker: detail from a Kidlat Tahimik exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, during Cinemalaya 2014. (Photo by the author.)

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The deliverance of ‘Dunkirk’

Not a spectacle of combat, but an immense story of survival.

The enemy is faceless in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. We know who they are—but as our protagonists, the Allied troops, are gunned down on land, their ships sunk at sea, their planes shot down from the sky, all we see of the enemy are the bombs they let fall, the holes their bullets puncture, the war machines their air forces fly.

Clearly, this is not a war film where combat is the spectacle; it is a survival story. On land, the Allied armies are fighting for a shrinking patch of territory, against the vicious foe surrounding them. At the shore, the troops await evacuation and form lines, in defiance of the featureless, infinite beach, sky and sea. But neither is the water any refuge. The merciless enemy delivers setback after setback to our protagonists on the English Channel: bombed ships, flooded decks, burning oil. From the sky, they rain bullets, and propaganda.

The escape from Dunkirk took place in the early years of the Second World War. It saw the Allied armies rushing out to sea, a movement in reverse of what would happen on Normandy, on D-Day years later. Normandy would be an invasion: the soldiers would storm the beaches from the sea, with a mission to reconquer Europe. The soldiers who waded onto land on D-Day had a mission, and they were prepared for it. It was not easy, many men would fall; we have seen its brutality in films like Saving Private Ryan. But Normandy would not have been possible if not for the miracle at Dunkirk—where the escape from disaster was met with further disaster, where the weary soldiers had no mission but to survive.

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‘El viaje de Carol’, wars and dictatorships

Timely, relevant film screenings, about the Spanish civil war, offer reflections on our country’s concerns.

The history of the Spanish motherland occupies no chapter in the standard Filipino education. Our history classes, of course, say much about the role of Spaniards in our archipelago’s colonization and eventual emergence as an independent nation. But the focus lies on the actions of insulares and peninsulares, the Spaniards who lived in our islands. Not much is told about the affairs of faraway España, and we all but forget our European connections after the American takeover in the time of Heneral Luna.

This July, the Instituto Cervantes de Manila (the Spanish government agency tasked with the promotion of Hispanic culture) is holding a series of film exhibitions entitled La España del Guernica (The Spain of the Guernica). The official aim of the project is “to offer a cinematic vision of the turbulent Spain of the decade.” The decade referred to is the 1930s, the latter years of which witnessed the tumultuous Spanish Civil War. This particular period of Spanish history remains little-known to Filipinos, but it certainly offers a few points for reflection on our own country’s current concerns, as I will claim later.

About the theme of the film series: Guernica is a town in the Basque region of Spain that suffered a horrific aerial bombing in April 1937, in the middle of the civil war. The raid was carried out by the air forces of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, who were then allied with the Nationalist faction in Spain. The terrors of the incident became the subject of Pablo Picasso’s seminal work, simply entitled Guernica, which has been called the “most famous [artwork] ever produced on the subject of war.” (“Eighty years on, Spain may at last be able to confront the ghosts of civil war”, The Guardian.) The painting was first unveiled to the public on July 12, 1937, only a few days away from the first anniversary of the conflict. La España del Guernica commemorates the 80th anniversary of this unveiling, and the 81st of the war; as the painting captured the various faces of war on canvas, so did this collection of films, only cinematically.

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Davao: city of superlatives

Here’s what you learn when you go to Davao just to admire eagles.

The much-touted piece of trivia that Davao City is the largest city in the country always had me imagining an urban jungle whose sprawl surpasses that of Metro Manila. That idea excited me, in a dubious capacity as a ‘city explorer’, but at the same time it worried my conscience, because the congestion of Manila is terrible for a myriad reasons, none of which would be pleasing to see replicated somewhere else in our archipelago.

It was both a delight and a disappointment then to realize that the nominal vastness of Davao is nothing like that of Manila’s. Delight because, as a tour guide in Museo Dabawenyo dutifully pointed out, more than eighty percent of Davao City’s territory is in fact rural—sparsely populated, fresh, green. And the city government intends to keep most of it that way; there were mentions of development plans and city ordinances intended to limit urbanization (or, euphemistically, ‘development’) of the city’s greener districts. Coming from Manila, it’s certainly refreshing to find a major city government in the country caring, or at least affecting a concern for, nature. (Only time will tell if Davao will stay pro-environment, or be tempted by unsustainable prosperity.)

On the other hand, the actual size of urban Davao means that there isn’t as much for me to see around in the way of man-made environments, i.e. city architecture. Downtown Davao, the blocks surrounding the city hall, is a blend of the weariness of Manila’s Quiapo and the sleepiness of my hometown, Malabon. Davao City’s growth so far has definitely been horizontal rather than vertical—Marco Polo Hotel is the only visibly high-rise structure in the downtown area, and serves suitably as a compass if you feel like wandering around.

Photo of old buildings located along San Pedro St. in downtown Davao City.
Buildings along San Pedro St. in downtown Davao City.

As to why the city’s official boundaries remain so expansive is still unknown to me. The size is absurd when compared to the neighboring territories: Davao City is larger than the rest of the province of Davao del Sur combined. Wouldn’t it be somehow more efficient and effective for governance if the territory were to be chopped up into several cities and municipalities? I can’t be sure, I’m not some public policy expert. I’m guessing that local legislators and executives want to retain the ‘largest city’ title for the vague pride and prestige of a superlative. Competing for the largest, biggest, longest whatever, no matter how Guinness World Records-silly it becomes, is a Filipino hobby after all.

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