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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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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Sketches #2: Solitude

Exploration

For now, you are a satellite.

You place your hand on the white skin of the ship. You admire its rough, jagged texture, a surprisingly delightful quality, although you can only infer the surface’s character from the way the sharp sunlight casts shadows upon it. You take care not to put too much pressure against the vessel, because you don’t need your advanced grasp of physics to know that doing so will push you back more than you will push the vessel away, and you will have to spend precious micro-rocket fuel to secure your proximity to the ship.

You look above you (or should that be below?) and see what others before you have lovingly described as a blue marble. You admire the clouds, white and frayed, soft and seemingly still in a layer underneath the blue fringes of the planet’s atmosphere.

From where you are, the sun is an intimidating presence. It is a violently brilliant orb, and yet, in the emptiness of all that surrounds it, you can sense the clash between its intensity and the fragility of worlds. You look at the stars, and even them, their beautiful multitude, they cause you distress, because their lights will forever be only a dream beyond your reach.

You hear nothing but your own breathing, and the occasional beeping of the systems that keep your suit a habitable space. You listen carefully to this solitary sound. This, the voice of your body, is the only thing sparing you from the silence of space.

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Reading, process, writing

I’ve always been a reader. (Let me assume a different role for now, of course. Allow me to write, and please, be my reader.) All readers, at least those who fit in to my ideal of who and what a reader is, have this particular love for words that defies rationality. We have this passion of the most obsessive kind for the fleeting but incomparable pleasure of reading beautiful text. And if that sounds insane to you, it probably is, because my idea of a reader is most likely equally mad.

But sanity is statistical, George Orwell would tell you, and I know enough about statistics to make this non-argument moot at best, and pointless at worst. But this discussion already is pointless, so let me rewind.

I’ve always been a reader. Being a reader is easy, however, and what I’ve always really wanted is to be a writer. To be a good one, at least, although most writers dream of being popular, of being widely-read. But what then? What is the point of being someone able to write something so many would want to read, regardless of its inherent worth?

I’ve long come to the conclusion that it’s not a selfish agenda. I’ve never related to the idea of desiring fame for fame’s sake; even if by some unimaginable twist of fate I end up with enormous power and wealth, I don’t think I will ever want to commission statues and name places after myself. If I become a famous writer, then I will be thankful not because of the financial benefits, but because of the attention it will bring me, not to the details of my personal life but to the unique perspective with which I view the world.

The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, if I understand and remember my social sciences right, said that all men are naturally arrogant in the sense that there is no person who does not believe that his thoughts and beliefs are more correct or superior than that of anyone else’s. The optimistic in me immediately rejected this idea, but then the realistic, critical voice in my head cannot help but admit that there is some truth in this. Ultimately, I figured out that it’s not as much about arrogance as a simple, human need for understanding, and a social urge to share one’s unique world-view. It’s not as much as “I’m right and you’re wrong” as it is “we have different ideas and opinions, let’s share them and see which we can change or agree upon.”

This is the primordial calling that converts genuine readers into writers. Only those who read widely, and actively work to reap as many ideas as possible in whatever concern or issue or area of knowledge they are interested in, are likely to develop the kind of fresh perspectives that are essential in advancing human knowledge. And sooner or later, those people will feel a critical mass of insights pushing out from within them, and they will fervently try to put those flashes of brilliance into written words. And it will be natural for them to seek as wide an audience as possible, not out of arrogance, but out of a sincere desire to expand human horizons.

I’ve always been a reader; for almost as long, I’ve also wanted to be a writer. And I’d like you to hear me out.