Review: Sinag Maynila 2016 showcases diverse range of local cinematic talent

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This year's edition of Sinag Maynila Independent Film Festival features five full-length films that tell stories of gritty realism rooted in the daily lives of Filipinos.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — 2015 saw the birth of Sinag Maynila, a film festival conceptualized by Brillante Mendoza, the acclaimed director, and Wilson Tieng, CEO of Solar Entertainment, in an effort to recognize Philippine independent cinema and the creative minds that make up its backbone.

In its second edition, which opened on April 21 for a six-day run at select SM Cinemas, the festival showcases five full-length films from several accomplished directors. Adolf Alix Jr., director of “Mrs.,” began his career as a screenwriter and has since become known as a respectable director — some of his works include “Chassis” (2010) and “Death March” (2013) — earning a spot on The Hollywood Reporter’s “Next Generation Asia 2010.” Jay Altarejos, director of “TPO,” is highly regarded for his contributions and innovations to local gay cinema, having come out with films about identity and social issues, such as “Pink Halo-Halo” (2010) and the raved-about “Kasal” (2014). Ato Bautista, director of “Expressway,” is known for his work in both commercial and independent fare, which includes “Palitan” (2012) and “Mga Alaala ng Tag-ulan” (2013). Mes De Guzman, director of “Dyamper,” won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay for “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti,” his 2013 CineFilipino entry. Finally, Gino Santos, director of “Lila,” is best known for youth-oriented movies, including “The Animals” (2013) and “#Y” (2014); he himself is one of the youngest professional filmmakers in the country. Each filmmaker was given a ₱2 million grant for his entry to Sinag Maynila.

The festival also features 13 short films and nine finalists for the Samsung Cinefone competition, which puts the spotlight on films shot with Samsung phones.

On April 24, Sinag Maynila held its awards night at SM Aura Premier’s Samsung Hall to honor the filmmakers and their entries. The jury for the full-length category was headed by Lav Diaz, director of “Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis,” and included the film critic Philip Cheah from Singapore, Hong Kong International Film Festival Society executive director Roger Garcia, and Tokyo International Film Festival programming director Ishizaka Kenji. Meanwhile, the jury for the short film category was headed by Mark Meily and included his fellow directors, Jose Javier Reyes and Raymond Red.

Below are capsule reviews of the five main entries to Sinag Maynila 2016. 

Sinag Maynila - LILA.png Janine Gutierrez in Gino M. Santos's "Lila."  

“Lila”

Director: Gino M. Santos

Cast: Janine Gutierrez, Enchong Dee, Sherry Lara

Awards: Best Production Design (Marielle Hizon), Blink Box Office Award, SM People’s Choice Award

Often we look for havens that would help us temporarily escape our realities. Such is the case of Jess (Janine Gutierrez), who, after a traumatic accident, seeks solace in a boarding house run by a doting old woman (Sherry Lara). The two ladies find harmony as they fall into an easy routine, with Jess tending to chores while the lady fusses over her saints. But this quiet is short-lived when this paradise of theirs becomes a literal house of horrors.

As a thriller, “Lila” struggles to find a balance that would keep its viewers on edge without giving away too much too soon or too little too late. Some of its foreshadowing attempts work, such as the subtle stench of a wardrobe or the disappearing plates of food, but others are just too on the nose, made obvious by repetition and convenient plot devices. Although much of its gory third act can be chalked up to the main characters’ stupidities (it’s as if these people have never seen a horror film in their lives), it’s still satisfying when what little mystery is left finally reveals itself.

Sinag Maynila - Expressway.png A still from Ato Bautista's "Expressway."  

“Expressway”

Director: Ato Bautista

Cast: Alvin Anson, Aljur Abrenica

Awards: Best Actor (Alvin Anson), Best Editing (Benjamin Tolentino), Best Musical Score (Francis de Veyra)

We’re introduced to Ben (Alvin Anson) and Morris (Aljur Abrenica), hitmen tasked to do a clean sweep of their client’s adversaries. Their setup is reminiscent of 2013’s “On The Job,” where you have a veteran assassin shadowed by a younger protégé. But unlike Erik Matti’s characters, Ato Bautista’s antiheroes follow a different dynamic. The two are equals when it comes to skill and experience. But while Ben adheres to a strict moral code, Morris seems to be devoid of it, killing only for fun, each of his executions punctuated with a maniacal smile. Their differences come to the fore when their mission hits a roadblock and forces them to take drastic measures to get it back on track.

Ato Bautista’s “Expressway” reeks of bravado, from the way his actors swagger on screen to the suave jazz score that accompanies their every move. This machismo only gives way to a few tender moments spurred by flashbacks of Ben and the son he lost. It’s through these brief vignettes that we quickly piece together what the main characters take too long to figure out for themselves. Therein lies the rub: How much longer should their road trip go on for when the twist will have already revealed itself way before they even reach their final destination?

Sinag Maynila - Mrs.png Elizabeth Oropesa in Adolfo Alix Jr.'s "Mrs."  

“Mrs.”

Director: Adolfo Alix Jr.

Cast: Elizabeth Oropesa, Lotlot De Leon, Rosanna Roces, Angeli Bayani, Sebastian Castro

Awards: Best Film, Best Actress (Elizabeth Oropesa), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Albert Banzon)

Seventy-year-old Virgie (Elizabeth Oropesa) lives with her trusty maid, Delia (Lotlot De Leon), in an old decrepit house with cracks on the walls and cockroaches terrorizing every surface. Despite her children’s efforts to persuade her to leave the place, she stays in hopes that her long lost Sonny Boy (Sebastian Castro) would one day come back to her.

“Mrs.” suffers from a slight identity crisis. On one hand, it’s a lighthearted comedy; on the other, it’s a heavy drama with political undertones. This shift comes gradually. When we’re introduced to Virgie, she is depicted as a textbook tita of Manila. She is particular with tiny details and easily offended, but at the end of the day, her intentions are pure. Soon Delia reveals she’s pregnant and is set to be married. This is when the drama starts kicking in, compounded by a possible lead to Sonny Boy’s whereabouts.

Adolf Alix Jr. draws out great performances from his cast. Both Oropesa and De Leon bring their A-game — hilarious when needed, solemn when not. But while these ladies showcase on-screen restraint, Alix opts for a different tactic. At the very end of the film, his habit of disorienting and shocking his viewers rattles Virgie’s quiet world. Whether that scene’s inclusion is warranted is debatable, but it definitely wouldn’t be an Alix film without it.

Sinag Maynila - Dyamper.png Carlo Aquino in Mes De Guzman's "Dyamper."  

“Dyamper”

Director: Mes De Guzman

Cast: Alchris Galura, Timothy Mabalot, Carlo Aquino

“Dyamper” is ruined by a cheesy line at the end, but for everything else, it’s worthwhile. The film revolves around a group of men — Tinoy (Alchris Galura), Poknat (Timothy Mabalot), and Apeng (Carlo Aquino) — who jump on the back of provincial trucks to steal sacks of rice. While Poknat and Apeng do so for reasons evocative of Robin Hood’s noble mission, Tinoy does so as an act of self-restitution for the crimes he’s committed. Their modus operandi doesn’t go unnoticed, though, and soon big-time players want a cut of their share.

Mes De Guzman stays true to form. He documents reality and spins it into a story that briefly exposes the plight of the people he depicts — in this case, it’s the farmers of Nueva Vizcaya. He fuses those details with just enough drama, action, and comedy to make the mundane enjoyable. Luckily for him, his leads, particularly Mabalot, know how to carry their own.

Sinag Maynila - TPO.png A still from Joselito Altarejos's "TPO."  

“TPO”

Director: Joselito Altarejos

Cast: Mara Lopez, Oliver Aquino

Awards: Best Screenplay (Joselito Altajeros and Archie del Mundo), Best Sound (Drew Milallos)

Two years ago, during a Cinemalaya gala screening of his own film “Kasal,” Joselito Altarejos announced his departure from pink cinema to make way for other stories that needed telling. “TPO,” his first feature after the said proclamation, is about a family torn apart by domestic violence. The film’s focus shifts from mother to father to child, in three acts interwoven as crisscrossing versions of the same events, the intention of which is to show that abuse leaves long-lasting scars on all involved — both victims and offenders — some worse than the others.

Altarejos has a specific idea he wants to push, and it is an important one given the subject matter, but his unwillingness to deviate from the stationary long shots that make up his scenes dilutes the drama and creates tiresome lulls for his viewers. The abrupt ending also does nothing to help the film. It’s salt in the wound, not only because the resolution stings, but also because it comes out of thin air without preamble — a forced deus ex machina created just to drive home a sad point.

***

All five full-length films are showing in select SM Cinemas until April 26. For screening schedules, visit sinagmaynilafilmfestival.com.