‘Oda sa Wala’: the morbid fragrance of emptiness

An unsettling portrait of death—of the body, and more so of the spirit.

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Death is an appalling thing. Between the moment of demise and the white nothingness of bones, a corpse suffers a disgusting process of decay, giving off foul odors as it becomes more and more disfigured and discolored. Perhaps it is as a distraction from this reality that funerals have always been accompanied by flowers, which—more than being hopeful symbols of rebirth—are a fragrant and beautiful counterpoint to the hideous transformation of death. It is an ironic distraction, however, because ornamental flowers are also dead things, presently radiant but also doomed to decompose, as even embalmed corpses are.

Oda sa Wala (‘Ode to Nothing’) begins with a familiar Chinese tune playing over an image of a lone white light bulb, attended by a small swarm of flies. As with writer-director Dwein Baltazar’s previous film, Gusto Kita with All My Hypothalamus, this opening combination of image and music is an iconic expression of the film’s themes. (Oda’s opening shot is mirrored in the final scene, like in Hypothalamus, but in a metaphorical way: the light bulb replaced with the moon, the flies with something more troubling.) The Chinese song is Mò Lì Huā, meaning jasmine flower, and like the subject of that song this film is awash with whiteness: an ode to nothing rendered in the color both of purity and of emptiness, an absolute lightness that is as much the color of death as black is.

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QCinema 2017 reviews: ‘Neomanila’, ‘The Write Moment’, short films

Features on love and war, and short films from the charming to the profound.

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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‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’: dark romance, visceral thrills

Striking visuals, genuine thrills and a few subtleties more than offset the story’s shortcomings.

Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is a horror-romance film that seduces with millennial sensibilities: balancing its brooding atmosphere with injections of humor, delivering eye-catching cinematography and Instagram-worthy production design, featuring a hip and esoteric indie soundtrack, and setting up its scenes with meme-friendly situations. It is a movie that can be enjoyed by the most casual moviegoer—anyone seeking bloody thrills, feverish titillations, and affecting romances—yet it is a film with something to say beyond this enthralling shell of plain entertainments.

Consider, for instance, the intriguing title. For city dwellers, the manananggal is merely an ominous mythological terror, a vague threat lingering out there—but the film’s title locates the creature, makes it present with shocking particularity: she lives in an apartment just like yours, in Unit 23B. This specificity reflects how the film presents the manananggal not as a creature of pure malice, but as a person like the rest of us—only, that she is also afflicted with a monstrous other side, that terrifies her just as much as it does her victims.

The eponymous Unit 23B is not a mere quirk; the apartment points to the film’s central theme. Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B, like director Prime Cruz’s previous film Sleepless, is a story of alienation. Its protagonists, Jewel (Ryza Cenon) and Nico (Martin del Rosario), like Sleepless’s Gem and Barry, are lonely neighbors. Romance springs from this proximity: love conquers the irony of apartments, that as people come to live closer together in cities, they lose the solidarity of neighborhoods; people live together but apart, shuffling and hurrying around in urban anonymity.

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