QCinema reviews: Circle Competition films

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“The Chanters” focus on how our increasingly digital world is eroding our cultural roots, in this case the epic poems of the Panay-Bukidnon tribe. In photo are the film's leads, Jally Nae Gilbaliga (who won Best Actress) and Romulo Caballero (who is the real life grandfather of Gilbaliga), who are both members of the Panay Bukidnon tribe. Photo from THE CHANTERS/FACEBOOK

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — This year’s QCinema International Film Festival Circle Competition features a varied batch of eight full-length films. The directors — whose films were selected from a ‘blind reading’ process (meaning the identity of the filmmakers were not revealed in the submitted screenplays during the initial selection process) — range from emerging talents, comeback kids to established names.

As in QCinema’s previous editions, the lineup offers a smattering of genres and formats: from Christopher Gozum’s film-essay-slash-historical-biopic “Dapol Tan Payawar na Tayug 1931,” Khavn’s wazak coming-of-age outing “Balangiga: Howling Wilderness,” (which won Best Picture) two romantic films by way of “Black Mirror” in Dominic Lim’s “The Write Moment” and Jobin Ballesteros’ “Kulay Lila ang Gabi na Binudburan Pa ng mga Bituin,” to genre blenders such as Mikhail Red’s “Neomanila” and Pam Miras’ “Medusae.”

There is an abundance of remarkable strong female roles this year, all of which hold much of their respective film’s weight: Fe Ging Ging Hyde’s wandering filmmaker in “Dapol Tan,” Eula Valdez’s assassin in “Neomanila,” Desiree Del Valle’s dual mothers in “Medusae,” the female tenants in “Dormitoryo,” Valeen Montenegro’s realist Joyce in “The Write Moment,” Max Eigenmann’s feisty Chai in “Kulay Lila,” and Jally Nae Gilbaliga’s award-winning turn in “The Chanters.”

Unfortunately, there is only one film that features a significant LGBTQ role: Emerson Reyes’ “Dormitoryo,” which won the festival’s Gender Sensitivity Award.

This year, QCinema’s Circle Competition lineup fares better than this year’s Cinemalaya, which has withered in its insistence to follow its own formula. Even though QCinema’s lineup has a few overwrought and underdeveloped films, it presents a varied expanse of our local filmmakers’ capabilities to discuss postcolonial ills, cultural issues, and industry conventions.

Below are a few notes on the Circle Competition films.

Dapol Tan Payawar na Tayug 1931 (The Ashes And Ghosts Of Tayug 1931)” (Christopher Gozum)

Three storylines intersect in Christopher Gozum’s new film, all focused on Tayug’s folk hero, Pedro Calosa. First, a filmmaker (Fe Ging Ging Hyde) revisits the titular Pangasinan town as she prepares to make a film about Calosa, who led a farmers’ uprising against feudal landlords and their cronies. In her mind, a silent film reenacts the event, finding Calosa (Cedrick Juan) and phantoms of heroes past (such as Felipe Salvador and the Guardia de Honor’s Maria dela Cruz), as they dispense advice and inspiration on the upcoming revolt. A third storyline, set sometime in the 1960s, focuses on the interview between an older Calosa (Perry Dizon), F. Sionil Jose (Soliman Cruz), David Sturtevant (Mark Jheroben Buada), which takes place in the mountains as Calosa goes on a spiritual quest.

The film acts mostly as an essay — a study of how Calosa evolved from a small town hero to a mythical figure. Using a combination of photographs, footage, interviews, literary excerpts (from the works of A.V.H. Hartendorp, Kerima Polotan Tuvera) and reflective dialogue, “Dapol” is striking in its ambition to tell an overlooked story in the nation’s record and it succeeds in reminding us of our fragmented view of history.

Towards the end, the unnamed filmmaker goes around modern-day Tayug and asks residents if they know of Calosa’s story. The unknowingness is resounding, reflecting Calosa’s status as a footnote in the many stories of the war. But “Dapol” seeks to correct — or at least stand as a defiant remembrance of — this perception, forming the various facets of Calosa through his acts and words. That the struggle of the farmers, harassed by landowners and refused of rights, remains the same today and that the decades of neglect and injustice is still perpetrated by landowning elites.

“Dapol” can be a challenge to sit through. It runs for almost three hours and the filmmaker’s thread (possibly a stand-in for Gozum) can be a bit excessive at times. But it retains its mesmerizing grip when it dives deep into Calosa’s legendary tale, a source of awe and despair as it is a testament to how easy it is to forget such small yet vital parts of our history.

“Neomanila” (Mikhail Red)

Suspek o biktima, walang pinagkaiba,” so declares Rocky Salumbides’ character, Raul, in “Neomanila.” Raul and Irma (Eula Valdez) are hired guns, earning a lucrative living in today’s tokhang climate. They track down drug addicts and pushers and shoot them in cold blood — on the streets, in abandoned warehouses, or even in the warmth of the victim’s own home. Irma takes Toto (Timothy Castillo) under her wing once his brother, a drug pusher, dies in jail when a new “inmate” enters the prison cell with a bomb in hand — eliminating “due process” in one swift blow.

Systemic corruption is at play in “Neomanila.” Prisoners can walk free if they can turn someone in (as in Brillante Mendoza’s “Ma’Rosa”) and freewheeling murderers like Raul and Irma are ingrained in a nexus of executioners — pest control, as the film suggests — who take care of the city’s “rat infestation.” Toto, curious about Irma’s life as a contract killer, gradually assimilates to his new environment, but Irma, defiant on corrupting the young boy’s innocence, keeps him at the fringes, even taking back a pipe gun entrusted to him by Irma’s gun supplier. Here, the film’s push and pull of violence and restraint make for an interesting watch, but “Neomanila” resorts to spectacle rather than imbuing the film with heart.

Irma and Toto’s relationship develop over a montage (a karaoke session involving the portentous “Spoliarium” by the Eraserheads) and several executions but, ultimately, it lacks genuine connection. Like “Birdshot,” Red’s second effort, “Neomanila” is too wired in its meticulousness that it overlooks the film’s emotive resonance, making it look like the film only exists as a showcase of skill and technical precision. “Neomanila” is too cold, thus making the final parts of the film too removed and distant, and its efforts to raise issues about summary killings inert and unfeeling.

Dormitoryo” (Emerson Reyes)

Dormitoryo” is set in the titular building, weaving several tales involving the lonely dorm owner (Ces Quesada), a horny architecture student (Charles Salazar), a gay couple struggling to find a way out of a potentially deadly financial problem (Wowie De Guzman and Jun Sabayton), a live-in couple (Kate Alejandrino and Vandolph), and a couple who fucks, talks, and gossips the night away (Max Celada and Sheenly Gener). Their lives intersect in the cramped spaces of the dorm, much like how the city’s sprawl still manages to connect our random threads.

Uneasy intimacy is always a compelling subject and it works for quite a few moments in “Dormitoryo.” The film makes for an interesting study of characters so disparate and distinct that it was riveting to watch as to how it will all sum up. Some of the performances form much of the film’s highlight, such as Celada and Gener, whose tito joke-laden scenes brim with mundane realism, and Alejandrino, who seems to turn any stock character (such as in “Respeto”) into a graceful note.

However, “Dormitoryo” feels dated, like it’s something out of Cinemalaya in the late 2000s (the film actually is an expansion of Reyes’ 2011 short “Walang Katapusang Kwarto” which only focused on a couple’s post-sex interaction), especially in contrast with the other competition films that try to innovate in terms of storytelling.

Unfortunately, the film reveals its singular aim as it plods to a shocker of an ending. “Dormitoryo” cages its audience in its one-shot narrative which terminates in an unforgiving and unsatisfying tone as if to say, in one way or another, that we’re all fucked. The film could have been a standout in terms of its sparseness and simplicity, but its bleak choice for a resolution feels like a dead-end rather than a punctuation.

“The Write Moment” (Dominic Lim)

What’s made literature-come-to-life films like “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Ruby Sparks” (or, to some extent, “Adaptation”) unique is their ability to distill erudition into parcels of lived-in representations of actual life. In “The Write Moment,” Dave (Jerald Napoles) finds himself living the limits of his screenplay where he gets his ex-girlfriend Joyce (Valeen Montenegro) back through a series of kilig moments. Napoles shines as a hilarious yet lovesick dudebro, hooked up on cheeseball fluff and ideations of a perfect relationship (his one-liners earn the film its laughs). Montenegro is a perfect foil for Napoles, and her no-nonsense approach to the anti-heroine is a welcome change in the usual depiction of women in local romantic comedies.

“The Write Moment” is wonderful when it teeters the line between the conventional and the bizarre, exposing the hugot formula for its phony grand gestures and unrealistic promises of “happily ever after.” The film, however, doesn’t take its boldness far. There is authenticity in the way it chooses to resolve its high-wire concept, but it feels like it had no other choice: giving it a happy ending would just make it like any other rom-com. But “The Write Moment” will probably be a hit if it ever has a commercial run, especially in light of the success of “Kita Kita” and considering its absurdist spin on hugot, which may not be so bad after all.

“Balangiga: Howling Wilderness” (Khavn)

In “Balangiga: Howling Wilderness,” the razed landscapes of Eastern Samar are both boon and bane to Kulas (Justine Samson, who won the festival's Best Actor Award), his grandfather (Pio Del Rio), and an orphaned toddler, Bola, as they make their way across the waste and into safety. The subtitle of the film is taken from Gen. Jacob Smith’s vengeful order against the villagers of Balangiga who attacked members of the US 9th Infantry. His order was to kill, burn, take prisoners, and make the “interior of Samar … a howling wilderness.”

In its surreal way, “Balangiga” is a descent into inferno, with Kulas and his family encountering states of death and madness along the way. Their fate is uncertain, his grandfather even invoking the mythical city of Biringan, where people are never to return from, as the most ideal place to end up in. Placing a child such as Kulas at its core, Khavn’s postcolonial inquiry is a coming-of-age at its most harrowing; the war and its demons forcing Kulas to abandon what was supposed to be an idyllic childhood. In one scene, he is playing in the sand, surrounded by phantoms of children who have all been claimed by the war.

“Balangiga” reminds us that war never changes. And in its undertow, lives are lost or transformed, no matter how small or insignificant.

“The Chanters” (James Robin M. Mayo)

Watching “The Chanters” in light of the Manila FAME and Whang-Od controversy, and the constant fight of our indigenous peoples for their rights puts its central narrative in perspective: what happens when pop culture collides with our vanishing cultural treasures?

Sarah Mae (Jally Nae Gilbaliga) is a 12-year-old high school girl from the Panay-Bukidnon tribe. She is obsessed with the fictional teleserye “Kiss Kiss ❤❤” and its star, Danica Reyes, who is set to appear in her school for a charity project. She is living with her grandfather, Ramon (Romulo Caballero) who is the last of their family who can chant the epics of Panay, such as the Sugidanon, from memory. He is in the process of putting these epic chants on paper and is set to receive an international cultural award. But the problem kicks in when he suffers from the early stages of dementia: wandering around the area, forgetting things, and stopping in the middle of his own chanting lectures.

Both Caballero and Gilbaliga are from the Panay-Bukidnon tribe of chanters and casting them in their respective parts is only right for a film that tackles the survival of our cultural heritage, one that is slowly being eclipsed by the plasticine wave of pop culture. But, as the film proves, even the Humadapnon (an epic poem of the Sulod in Panay) can match the kilig of teleseryes such as “Kiss Kiss ❤❤” as all love stories, in one way or another, are adaptations of love stories handed down from generation to generation.

Gilbaliga, who won the festival’s Best Actress Award, mesmerizes in her role as a teenager seduced by the pleasures of selfies and celebrity. Through her story, Mayo lovingly presents the timelessness of our own epic poems and, in the process, allows Gilbaga to carve her own distinctive mark both as an actress and a chanter.

“The Chanters” is a delight to watch, as it follows the recent spate of films such as “Ari: My Life with a King” and “Tuos,” both of which focus on how our increasingly digital world is eroding our cultural roots. The sparseness of the film works to its advantage, amplifying its intended message and building a platform for cultural issues to take hold.

“Medusae” (Pam Miras)

There is a comfort in the strangeness of “Medusae,” Pam Miras’ transference of tropical mysticism into an exploration of motherhood guilt and shame. The duality of Alfa and Beth (both played by Desiree Del Valle) as duelling maternal forces  — the other biological, the other spiritual — for Luni (Carl Palaganas) takes on the shape of a remote coastal town’s fearsome myth, wherein firstborns are offered to the goddess of the sea for bounty.

Alfa, a documentary filmmaker who investigates these disappearances, unwittingly offers her son when she brings him with her, their strained relationship a siren’s call for the metaphysical mother to step in. In the mix is the Haliya cult, named after a Bikolano goddess of womanhood although the group is actually in charge of taking (sundo as it is called) the firstborn and offering them out to the sea. The cult’s symbol, two serpents entwined like a Chanel logo, appears on the doors of the families whose firstborns have been taken, and over the years, the disappearance has become a necessary sacrifice for the town’s existence.

Alfa is astonished at the gradual acceptance of this rite. In her attempt to find her missing son — whose name also reflects his albinism and the absence of light when the serpent bakunawa, Haliya’s rival, swallows the moon — she spirals into a tempered form of madness, questioning her capacity as a mother to her wayward son.

“Medusae” excels when it sticks to its mythic roots but technical problems (the dubbing diminishes the emotional impact of the dialogue between Alfa/Beth and Luni) hinders its full realization. But it is Tengal’s sound design which buoys the film into an otherworldly state, and in its final moments, to a heady trip into the primordial soup.

Kulay Lila ang Gabi na Binudburan Pa ng mga Bituin (Jobim Ballesteros)

The ability of science fiction to distill the dredges of our humanity has always been one of its strengths as a genre. More recently, shows like “Black Mirror” have allowed us to glimpse the extremes of our technological obsession and how it drives our primal pleasures to the brink. “Kulay Lila” is interesting in operating a similar playground: what if there is a technology that enables couples to sort out their physical and psychological divide? Kind of like the couple’s therapy episode in “Rick and Morty” where the respective psyches are given their own manifestations. Similarly, in “Kulay Lila” the simulations of Chai (Max Eigenmann) and Aries (Jay Castillo) are not afraid in letting it all out.

But “Kulay Lila” doesn’t get past its concept. Once the hidden core of their conflict is revealed, everything feels a little too contrived. Working with a low budget also hampered the film’s supposed sci-fi production design and visual effects, which ended up looking amateurish. The simulation chamber, with its Jabbawockeez-masked attendants, looks like something out of an early 2000s Filipino music video. The “Tree of Life” cosmic creation sequences during transitions distract rather than reflect the turmoil of Chai and Aries.

It’s a shame “Kulay Lila” is overwhelmed by its shortcomings. Science fiction is a rare subgenre taken on by Filipino directors and “Kulay Lila” shows why such an undertaking needs to be precise and sure footed.

***

The QCinema International Film Festival runs until Oct. 28. For tickets and schedules, visit the official QCinema website.