MMFF roundup, part 2: ‘Die Beautiful,’ ‘Oro,’ ‘Sunday Beauty Queen,’ and ‘Vince and Kath and James’

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"Vince and Kath and James," starring Julia Barretto and Ronnie Alonte, is an effective reworking of a tired rom-com formula. Screencap from ABS-CBN STAR CINEMA/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Although attending film festivals these days may seem like a chore even for the most dedicated cinephiles, this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) is a breeze to go through, not least because of the higher-than-usual quality that’s present across the board. Even its weakest films have something significant to offer. And its strongest ones recognize that film is still a viable venue for defining the Filipino experience. The other four films of the MMFF — “Die Beautiful,” “Oro,” “Vince & Kath & James,” and the lone documentary, “Sunday Beauty Queen” — are ostensibly little more than ventures into known territory, but on reflection are examinations thereof through new eyes.

Die Beautiful MMFF "Die Beautiful" tells the story of Trisha (Paolo Ballesteros in a career-defining role) whose life mostly revolves around joining gay beauty pageants. Screencap from REGAL ENTERTAINMENT, INC./YOUTUBE

“Die Beautiful”

“Die Beautiful” unfolds the way a funeral chismisan would: a chain-link style of remembrance, out of time and anchored by the bittersweet memories of how the dead lived their lives. It makes for an unfocused viewing but nevertheless an effective method to understand how a life isn’t only defined by a singular moment but rather a confluence of histories, instances, and coincidences. Trisha (Paolo Ballesteros in a career-defining performance) builds a life that is not necessarily the easiest of choices — getting disowned, adopting a child, being unmoored without financial security — but made bearable by the family she chose, not the one she was born into. The film could have gone any route it could have chosen, given how Trisha’s life has been quite eventful, but that romantic love plays little in the narrative — even to the point of disdain — makes it all the more refreshing. “Die Beautiful” affirms that it is enough to be surrounded and survived by love that is familial and unburdened by the weight of sexual attraction.

Oro MMFF Alvin Yapan's "Oro" stars MMFF Best Actress winner Irma Adlawan in a film about a small island town thrown into chaos after an armed group of 'environmentalists' take over their livelihood. Screencap from ORO MMFF/FACEBOOK

“Oro”

In “Oro,” the inhabitants of an unnamed island town scrabble to get back on their feet after a group of armed men, who identify themselves as the Environmental Patrol, order them to stop their small-scale gold mining and then proceed to take over their livelihood. The island seems mystical in itself, steeped in its past and age-old way of living. The film’s director, Alvin Yapan, chooses to cut off the setting from the rest of its surroundings to contain the escalating tension of the story, as if the island existed in a world of its own. It is quite fascinating how the film presents Irma Adlawan’s Kapitana as the town’s figurehead. She is almost unseen when she does her responsibilities to the town — securing a mining permit, talking to higher-ups about the people’s plight. The government is invisible and the people are left to their own devices, second-guessing their beliefs and values, only to settle on something that can get them through the day, no matter how bitter of a pill it is to swallow. The clash between meditative patience, as embodied by Adlawan, and overwhelming brute force exerted by the band of outsiders unfolds intricately. Yapan skillfully weaves the details of the town’s life through little stories of faith and redemption, stories that build up to a riveting portrait of greed, corruption, and helplessness.

Vince and Kath and James MMFF "Vince and Kath and James" is best approximated by one of its songs, “O Pag-ibig,” a lighthearted bop chronicling the mental and physical turbulence experienced by someone in love. Screencap from ABS-CBN STAR CINEMA/YOUTUBE

“Vince and Kath and James”

“Vince and Kath and James” is based on a marvel known as the textserye — a story that, as its name suggests, is told through a series of text messages. At first, the film’s origins threatens to overtake cohesion as the initial landian happens on-screen through text messaging. It can be quite a strain in the eyes to sift through all that text, but the film thankfully decides to let the love story tell itself without the aid of the millennial’s preferred mode of communication. From then on, “Vince & Kath & James” follows the usual thread of a romantic comedy, short of resigning itself to the conventional. Magic happens when an old formula is given a new spin and to watch it on a Star Cinema film is an absolute joy. Joshua Garcia, through his unholy mix of John Lloyd Cruz and Rico Yan, buoys the emotional center of the film. His Vince is a vulnerable torpe, tortured by his failure to express his feelings to Kath (Julia Barretto, who seems to have taken tips from her aunt Claudine Barretto circa early 2000s) and chained by his responsibilities and inability to say no to his best friend of a cousin, James (Ronnie Alonte, who mostly functions as eye candy). The film is best approximated by one of its songs, “O Pag-ibig,” a lighthearted bop chronicling the mental and physical turbulence experienced by someone in love. It suggests that the process of intimacy, though a dangerous adventure for the spineless, is often a hilarious submission to the folly of youth, best experienced with a set of friends who is just as foolish and courageous as you are.

Sunday Beauty Queen "Sunday Beauty Queen" is the first documentary to be included in the Metro Manila Film Festival. It went on to win Best Picture. Screencap from VOYAGE STUDIOS/YOUTUBE

“Sunday Beauty Queen”

In a year where the term “post-truth” has assumed grave importance, documentaries have become an even more significant medium for depicting narratives that are urgent and unbound by the limits of fiction. The Best Picture win of “Sunday Beauty Queen” is significant in that it is the first documentary to be included in a festival widely known for franchises and headliners who rely on name recognition alone. It is also significant for the film’s thoughtful treatment of an all-too-familiar subject.  “Sunday Beauty Queen” chooses to celebrate OFWs instead of merely venerating them as the heroes of the new world, struggling to save every cent of their measly wages so their families can live comfortably. Baby Ruth Villarama’s film is still rife with the heartbreaking struggle of most OFWs, but it isn’t used to prop up melodrama and hysterics. What you remember from “Sunday Beauty Queen” is the pleasures of pageantry — an unlikely and unabashedly modern way of bayanihan  — and the assurance that loneliness can stop being cyclic if you choose otherwise.