‘Ma’ Rosa’ (Brillante Mendoza, 2016): revealing Filipino family vices and virtues

Brillante Mendoza summons both frustration and pride for Filipinos through a spectacle-free look at a family in crisis.

Brillante Mendoza’s works have always been the stereotypical Filipino ‘indie’. They have always been showcases of the underbelly of society, complete with its persistent problems of poverty, corruption, and vulnerability, as well as its occasional glories—resilience in the face of tragedy, and capability for sacrifice out of love for family. The particular subjects may have been varied, but the approach has been constantly realist, and devoid of any visual spectacle other than what could be witnessed in actual life.

Ma’ Rosa is another entry in this tradition. In his works from the previous years, Mendoza wandered the archipelago: in Taklub (2015), he portrayed the brutal aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in the Visayas; in Thy Womb (2012), he orchestrated a unique drama out of the cultural norms of Muslim people in Mindanao. Now, he returns to the slums of Manila, the place out of which he built his world-renowned reputation as a social-realist filmmaker.

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‘Sleepless’ (2015): a pleasant non-romance about urban insomnia

Sleepless only pretends to be a romantic film; in truth, it is a story about brokenness and healing, set against the charm of the city at night.

The call center industry, well-known for employing its workers in graveyard shifts, and which is ironically called one of the nation’s sunrise industries, lends Philippine cities a unique claim to the title of the city that never sleeps. While contenders for the nickname in other continents are havens of endless leisure and nightlife and luxury, Manila (or Cebu or Bacolod) are inhabited by night dwellers who forgo sleep not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Many of them, that is, but not all. Sleepless, an entry to the 2015 QCinema (Quezon City) Film Festival, is ambivalent about the call center industry. It is tempting for a film with such a premise to be an echo chamber of critical sociopolitical sentiments: that this outsourcing industry disadvantages our nation in a neo-imperialist world order, that it enslaves its workers under alienating working conditions, et cetera, et cetera. But for Sleepless, the graveyard shift, the darkness of ungodly hours, is just a backdrop to its story, the circumstances that its characters happen to inhabit.

Note: this essay is an in-depth commentary on the film, and includes spoilers by necessity. It is meant for those who have seen the film.

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‘Perfumed Nightmare’, Neocolonialism and Kidlat Tahimik’s Experiment with Film Form

Perfumed Nightmare by Kidlat Tahimik (1977) is a successful experiment in using film form to deliver a message about neocolonialism, progress, and Filipino identity and aspirations.

It will be useful to first think about which type of film Perfumed Nightmare (Mababangong bangungot, 1977) really is, because it does not comfortably fall under the definition of fictional narrative film alone. Many sequences in the film are, or at least appear to be, shot as cinéma vérité; a few examples being the hoisting of the Zwiebelturm in Bavaria, the visit to the Sarao Motors jeepney factory and the images of the townspeople doing penance. And yet, other sequences are obviously scripted, such as the parodistic meeting scene in which Kidlat Tahimik blows away the Western leaders.

The film does have a plot, and several scenes are set up and executed to advance this narrative. We have scenes, such as when Kidlat wakes up one morning to talk to the photos of beauty queens beside his bed, which are shot in a manner similar to what we would expect in mainstream fictional films. At other times, however, the film breaks suspension of disbelief by looking like a documentary; in multiple scenes, Kidlat plays around while smiling and looking directly at the camera, clearly implying awareness of the cameraman.

By having both fictional and non-fictional elements, the film straddles the boundaries of film types, and elicits credibility in what it presents while at the same time enhancing the impact of the messages it purports. But what is this message that Perfumed Nightmare emphatically carries?

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Cinemalayà 2015 Shorts B

Five short films by young directors make up the second set of competition pieces in this year’s Cinemalaya festival.

Lisyun qng Geografia (Geography Lessons)

Writer and director: Petersen Vargas

In Lisyun, Tib finds an old map as he sweeps his belongings into travel boxes, in preparation for some unmentioned journey. The handcrafted map, however, distracts from his future plans and sends him to a detour, an intimate journey to his past. This is how the viewer is introduced to the centerpiece of the film: a beautiful parallel between the geography of the outside world and the terrains of personal relationships.

Tib’s map is not a mass-printed, scientifically-accurate guide but a personal record of the landmarks of his younger years. With the quaint sheet on-hand, he retraces memories of his hometown in Pampanga: afternoons spent on a dirt road, evenings outside his old home, a twilight at a secluded corner of his high school. It is not difficult to imagine the crushing nostalgia that Tib experiences as he revisits the physical triggers of his memories. After all, memory is intertwined with location; and Lisyun shows us that identity is a function of geography.

Crucially, Tib’s map is also filled with pictures of himself and his high school best friend, Tric. We learn through flashbacks that the map was made by Tric, and the night when he gave it was the turning point of their tragic relationship. Their friendship used to be innocent, joyful, and comfortable—but it developed into a tense attraction that left them both groping uncharted territories of their personalities. Tib’s eventual reaction was denial, and rejection; and Tric, confusion and desperation.

The flashbacks end here, and we imagine how the relationship fell into neglect after that passionate confrontation at night, and in the intervening years as Tib left for university. In the present, the map leads Tib through town, and he finds some structures gone, constructions sites replacing the familiar landmarks. Places are dynamic: no matter how intimately we may come to know places at some point in our lives, they will inevitably change, sometimes subtly, sometimes violently. And they will become both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, like an old face, or a faded relationship.

In the end, when Tib comes into the place that witnessed some of his old friendship’s happiest memories, he runs into Tric, who by appearance alone is now a changed person. After a long silence, they simply acknowledge each other’s names—and a new, unexplored path of redemption opens up. Somehow, we know that areas of Tib and Tric’s map will have to be redrawn, with brighter colors.

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‘Dagitab’ (2014): counter-romantic, poetic

This is a review of Dagitab, a film by Giancarlo Abrahan that competed in the New Breed section of the 2014 Cinemalayà independent film festival. It is a rather difficult film; of course what I present here is merely my personal experience of the work. I imagine the film easily yields to many different interpretations.

Official movie poster for Dagitab (2014) by Giancarlo Abrahan

Before dealing with what the film is about, I’d like to take note of the film’s style. It is partly defined by vague sequences: whatever visual clarity Dagitab possesses is counter-balanced by the subtlety of their meanings. The scenes do not always have a causal follow-up, nor do they always have a sensible precedent. The film’s last scene exemplifies this: we find the characters nonchalantly discussing their next plans, and these are plans that seem to utterly disregard the build-up of the last few scenes. I was left with the feeling that after all that had happened, I still didn’t know the characters. The incongruity is likely meant to be a subdued twist, a subtle surprise that is unfortunately difficult to make sense of. Delightfully though, Dagitab is complemented by its poetic quality. There is a striking shot in the middle of the film of one of the main characters where, after turning on the radio, he sits on his working chair, leans back and closes his eyes. The camera lingers on the scene. It was quiet, and yet it was brilliant as a characterization of this mysterious character. I never understood what was going on in his mind at that point, but never did I feel the urge to know. It was a moment meant to be taken without question, a poetic image to be enjoyed on its own.

A movie still of Dagitab (2014) showing actor Nonie Buencamino sitting on a chair and leaning back
Nonie Buencamino in Dagitab (2014). (Image from cinemalaya.org)

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