MMFF roundup, part 1: ‘Septic Tank 2,’ ‘Seklusyon,’ ‘Saving Sally,’ and ‘Kabisera’

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Avid Liongoren’s “Saving Sally” is a product of persistence. The story of its protracted production is remarkable, but is the film really worth all that time and sacrifice? Screencap from AVID LIONGOREN/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Heavier things are expected in this year’s revamped Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF). It promises to deliver quality films, which so far, is in no shortage. It’s refreshing to see the annual festival as a showcase for burgeoning talent, both behind and in front of the camera, in films that have actual stories to tell instead of just being bloated cash cows disguised as holiday escapist fare.

The festival arrives at a crucial period as some films take it upon themselves to ignite a bit of a yearend introspection much needed in a tumultuous era. But this isn’t to say that most of the films here are overtly political. While previous iterations of the festival focus on familial relations, this year’s entries broaden — even modernize, albeit a bit late in the game — the definition of what a “family” movie is. “Die Beautiful” talks about the families that we choose for ourselves; “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough,” however briefly, examines relationships and cinema; and “Oro” and “Kabisera" study communities built on political ambition.

Like any other film festival, MMFF has its share of gems and clunkers. But it is interesting how this year’s lineup is a logical evolution from its predecessors — a ragtag bunch of films that checks out the Filipino experience of fear, love, and ambition. Each film is essential viewing, an opportunity to send messages to a broader audience who otherwise would overlook such films in a regular moviegoing day.

MMFF_Babae Sa Septic 2_2.png The meat of the "Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2" is the clash between “award-winning indies” and “crowd-pleasing rom-coms,” via Eugene Domingo’s megalomaniac of an actress and Kean Cipriano’s laser-focused auteur.  

“Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough

The recent attempts of romantic comedies to attain some sort of sophistication, or at least a break from assembly line resemblance (see this year’s “Always Be My Maybe” and “The Third Party”), take “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2” a few years back, when studios were relentless in churning out the same unrecognizable product over and over again. The film is cunning in its pillory of every laughable rom-com cliche: the helpful best friend, the sweeping theme song, the last minute race to the terminal, the kiss against the sunset. The thing is, these building blocks have been around for a long time that dragging it on and on seems to ask, “Is there anything else we can make fun of?” “Been there, been that,” as Eugene Domingo’s character would say.

But the meat of the movie is the clash between “award-winning indies” and “crowd-pleasing rom-coms,” via Domingo’s megalomaniac of an actress and Kean Cipriano’s laser-focused auteur. Domingo is done with hauling awards and attending film festivals in far flung places. As “The Itinerary,” the film within “Septic Tank 2,” is her fictional comeback, she needs it to be larger than life, blown up for all audiences to see. Cipriano’s Rainier, on the other hand, wants the film’s depiction of love to be as real and bleak as possible (“Walang happy ending sa totoong buhay!”), a testament to his struggling marriage, which he somehow hopes the film will salvage like some directorial deus ex machina in a rom-com. “What’s wrong with being formulaic?” Domingo asks. It is a conversation worth having as it promises a wealth of observations on the condition of today’s filmmaking industry. Unfortunately, actual insights are traded for more in-jokes, which usually fall flat, so much so that the film ends up feeling a bit hollow.

The inclusion of “Septic Tank” in this year’s MMFF is a sly move of genius in a way. For a festival that’s brought some of the emptiest celluloid carbohydrates in recent years (some of them by “Septic Tank” director Marlon Rivera himself), the knowing wink of “Septic Tank 2” should have been a radical act, magnifying the tyranny of small-minded big businesses that want to keep things the way they are. In the end, “Septic Tank 2” undermines the ambitions of filmmakers who want to instill humanity in movies. It becomes consumed with every shade it throws that it forgets parodies are meant to flesh out the follies it makes fun of, not just laugh at it with wild abandon. — Don Jaucian

MMFF_Seklusyon_6.png “Seklusyon” works as a parable of an even more realistic horror, one that we all have to contend with now. “Pipiliin ng tao ang makakabuti sa kanya hindi ang tama,” we are told. Photo from REALITY ENTERTAINMENT  

“Seklusyon”

Like in any horror movie, the Catholic symbolism in “Seklusyon” is rife with supernatural obfuscation transplanted to an era — 1940s World War II  — when dark corners only illumined by candlelight amp up the scale of dread to paralyzing levels. This is what the genre master Erik Matti, one of the few directors who can utilize horror in ingenious ways, employs in “Seklusyon,” an old world spook that uses everyday items — food, floorboards, photographs, doorknobs — as vessels of doom.

But Matti doesn’t have to do much, as it is in Rhed Bustamante, the film’s supposed saint or sadistic incarnate, that “Seklusyon” shines. She is a creature that slithers between good and evil so easily she keeps you guessing until the end. Much of the film’s final act doesn’t make sense, a dizzying whirl of effects and revelations hampered by the lead actors’ minimal experience. But ultimately, “Seklusyon” works as a parable of an even more realistic horror, one that we all have to contend with now. “Pipiliin ng tao ang makakabuti sa kanya hindi ang tama,” we are told. And in the film’s figurehead purporting to do good, populist leaders are more recognizable than any fictional demon hiding in the shadows.  — Don Jaucian

MMFF_Saving Sally_4.png At the core of “Saving Sally” is a seemingly simple story. Marty (Enzo Marcos), a budding comic book artist, sparks a friendship with Sally (Rhian Ramos), a spunky inventor with a lot of personal baggage. Marty develops romantic feelings for Sally but quells them in fear of losing her friendship. Screencap from AVID LIONGOREN/YOUTUBE  

“Saving Sally”

Avid Liongoren’s “Saving Sally” is a product of persistence. It’s been 14 years since Charlene Sawit-Esguerra wrote the short story that inspired it, 11 since they first wrapped up production with actress Anna Larrucea playing the titular Sally, and 10 since Rhian Ramos took over the role. The story of its protracted production is remarkable, but is the film really worth all that time and sacrifice?

At the core of “Saving Sally” is a seemingly simple story. Marty (Enzo Marcos), a budding comic book artist, sparks a friendship with Sally (Ramos), a spunky inventor with a lot of personal baggage. Marty develops romantic feelings for Sally but quells them in fear of losing her friendship. Although it has all the ingredients of a cute and angsty teenage love story, it’s anything but one. Below the surface, it’s also a story of a strong girl who builds from scraps and fights for her salvation, and a boy so absorbed in his own meanderings that he delays lending a helping hand.

Liongoren’s characters are very complex, and the hand-drawn world around them, far more intricate. He has created an animated realm which he utilizes to personify how Marty views the world. Everything he treasures, the things he finds familiar and comforting, appears in live action: his room, his parents, Sally, and the comic shop they claim their own. And then everything he deems wretched are drawn as monsters, the most intimidating of which are Sally’s dick of a boyfriend (TJ Trinidad) and abusive parents (Shamaine Buencamino and Archie Adamos). Liongoren takes care in personifying these antagonists. They are not always in 2D. In moments of decency, they appear corporeal and human.

This attention to detail is laudable. It is something that, given the length of time this was produced, should be required. And Liongoren and his team do not disappoint. It’s evident in the character designs and color-coded costumes, in the depth of the space they’ve filled in, in the seamlessness of the scene transitions which make use of pans, zooms, and tilts instead of the regular cut-to-cut to navigate through scenes. These components make the initially discordant use of English as the characters’ main vernacular negligible in the long run. The film's true genius, though, is in moments of Marty’s wordless introspections, when the animation is let alone by itself, demanding its audience to soak in the wealth of symbols presented in front of them. Yet the film teeters on a thin line, trying to balance exhausted tropes like the manic pixie dream girl and the friend zone, with a time capsule of pop culture references that bring forth a giddy sense of nostalgia to older viewers.

Filipinos have not been too kind to full-length home-grown animated films in recent past. Previous MMFF entries like “Dayo” (2008) and “RPG Metanoia” (2010) may have enjoyed some critical nods, but they did not make enough in the box office to break even. The gripe is often the same. Many viewers are stuck with comparing the films to their Pixar and Disney contemporaries. It’s an unfair exercise. Doing that again would be a great disservice to “Saving Sally,” when the film has zero aspirations of becoming the next “Frozen.”

“Saving Sally” is a triumph, regardless of the support it may or may not receive. It champions Filipino comics and animation. It tackles domestic abuse with care and presents a solution minus the tiring melodrama normally attached to such a subject. Most importantly, it is living proof that persistence coupled with talent pays off. As much as it is about saving Sally, the person truly redeemed by all this is Liongoren himself, who never gave up on a dream. — Jansen Musico

MMFF_Kabisera_2.png “Kabisera,” starring Nora Aunor, is a chilling reminder of the reality we have to live in now, its final shot a glimpse of how justice is itself a hand that might just choke us when we least suspect it. Screencap from FIRE STARTERS/YOUTUBE  

“Kabisera”

The spectre of the war on drugs is palpable in “Kabisera,” a figure so overpowering, even with the words “Based on a true story” splashed onscreen during the opening credits. Nora Aunor and Ricky Davao’s family is the everyman and the unseen enemy is visible only through riding-in-tandem assassins, paid witnesses, sniveling lawyers, and pot-bellied judges. Even Ces Quesada’s human rights crusader bears semblance to Senator Leila De Lima. Heroes and villains are defined by the virtues they embody but that doesn’t mean the victims are doubtless in their intentions. “Sistema ang kinalaban natin,” Aunor’s Mercy is told, crushed by the justice system meant to protect and defend lowly homemakers such as her.

“Kabisera” isn’t subtle in its intentions and it shouldn’t be. It throws around every empowering proverb it can think of, every metaphor about Philippine society it can point out (the nature of sabong, the titular seat of the table, etc.). It revels in the realm of melodrama, using sweeping music to egg audiences on in every dramatic scene. A death scene is drenched in the rain, Nora Aunor cries out her husband’s name, and the camera lingers on her face a few more minutes than it should have.

The good will triumph, the film always reminds us, but it is an uphill struggle that will take not only lives but extinguishes every ray of hope it can find until it is but a pinprick of light in a seemingly endless road. “Kabisera” is a chilling reminder of the reality we have to live in now, its final shot a glimpse of how justice is itself a hand that might just choke us when we least suspect it. — Don Jaucian