The state of Philippine cinema in 2017

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If there is one film that managed to do the unexpected and earn more than what is expected of it given its roster of leads who have never been known to rake in profits, it is Sigrid Bernardo’s “Kita Kita” starring Alessandra de Rossi and Empoy. Screencap from SPRING FILMS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If there is anything that 2017 has proven, it isn’t that Philippine cinema is dead or dying. It is that Philippine cinema is deprived.

It all starts way before January, even way before last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) that saw Filipinos flocking to movie theaters that offered them more than just the average Christmas fare, even way before a documentary about domestic helpers working abroad, a hybrid animated film about lovers struggling to survive monstrous Manila, and an earnest romantic comedy that had untested teen stars at the forefront were selected over perennial mainstays like the various sequels to “Mano Po” and “Enteng Kabisote.”

It all started when Erik Matti cried foul over the disqualification of his “Honor Thy Father” for major awards during the Metro Manila Film Festival the year before. It was a cry that prompted senate inquiries, forced the usually stubborn Metro Manila Development Authority — the government agency that heads the metropolis’ traffic for most of the year and sees it fit to change hats around December time to busy itself with cinematic entertainment — to tweak its procedures by allowing a new festival committee headlined by trailblazers Moira Lang and Ed Cabagnot to simply select entries not from a pile of hurriedly drafted scripts, story treatments, or casting sheets, but from actual finished films.

To cut the long story short, movies that were expecting a slot at the annual film festival were suddenly displaced for movies that never thought they’d had a chance at a commercial screening.

Backed by industry muscle, the displaced films eventually got their theatrical screenings either before or after the festival. The question of whether those screenings made any profit for them is a different matter altogether.

GB Sampedro’s “Mang Kepweng Returns,” an effects-laden but mostly leaden comedy-fantasy starring Vhong Navarro as the titular classic character, screened as soon as the festival ended. MMFF also-rans soon followed, like Gil Portes’ “Moonlight Over Baler,” Ed Lejano’s “Swipe,” and Joven Tan’s “Tatlong Bibe,” all of which are at best intriguing failures and at worst, just pointless fodder. Perhaps the most significant of the films that barely made it to the film fest and had to find a playdate in the early months of 2017 is Baby Nebrida’sAcross the Crescent Moon.”

There are a lot of films that have been made in 2017. The only problem is that the venues are lacking, either because they have been gobbled up by Hollywood or because certain powers are actively preventing these films from being shown commercially.

Don’t get me wrong, the significance of Nebrida’s film is by no means positive. The film, about a soldier who gets embroiled in various missions in Mindanao, is atrociously conceived and exploitative of the Mindanao crisis all for the filmmakers’ intention of kowtowing to Duterte and his divisive leadership methods. “Across the Crescent Moon” is actually but one of the many films that are fueled predominantly by a need to impress the present administration.

A lot of these films like Dinkydoo Clarion’s “DAD: Durugin ang Droga” and Carlo J. Caparas’ “Kamandag ng Droga” focus on the drug war, essentially painting the crisis as black and white as possible, often picturing its characters either as pitiful victims or monstrous perpetrators instead of complex human beings. Others like “Across the Crescent Room” and Enzo Williams’ “AWOL” concentrate on the administration’s war efforts. What binds all of the films together is their unabashed disdain for human life.

On the other end of the spectrum are the films that are also fueled by emotions over Duterte’s extreme practices but are very critical of them because of the human lives that have been adversely affected. Joel Lamangan’s “Bhoy Intsik,” Mikhail Red’s “Neomanila,” and Treb Monteras II’s “Respeto” feature characters becoming victims of extrajudicial killings. Other films like Kip Oebanda’s “Nay,” Joyce Bernal’s “Last Night,” Emerson Reyes’ “Dormitoryo,” Joseph Laban’s “Baconaua” tackle the issue in a more roundabout way, veiling their views by manipulating genre to suit their vision. Not since the time of Ferdinand Marcos has Philippine cinema been so swiftly reactive to government policy.

Again, there are a lot of films that have been made in 2017. The only problem is that the venues are lacking, either because they have been gobbled up by Hollywood or because certain powers are actively preventing these films from being shown commercially.

The Film Development Council of the Philippines’ Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, a week-long extravaganza of local films, and Cinelokal, which featured week-long runs of films in selected SM cinemas, attempted to fill the gap, but only succeeded to expose the glaring disparity, showcasing how local films that attempt to shape the audience to develop a taste for more challenging fare are getting scraps instead of the biggest piece of the pie.

Moreover, filmmakers are still experimenting on what kind of films will make a profit given such a mercurial market that would inexplicably make a historical film like Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” earn millions at the box office. 2017 is the year that Tarog’s “Bliss,” a psychological horror about an actress who is stuck in a nightmare, and Raya Martin’s “Smaller and Smaller Circles,” about Jesuit priests solving a murder, made it to the big screens but had to rely on daily theater availability updates to survive.

If there is one film that managed to do the unexpected and earn more than what is expected of it given its roster of leads who have never been known to rake in profits, it is Sigrid Bernardo’s “Kita Kita, a Sapporo-set romance starring dramatic actress Alessandra de Rossi and comedian Empoy.

This year, there were also films that are fueled by emotions over Duterte’s extreme practices but are very critical of them because of the human lives that have been adversely affected.

The surprising success of “Kita Kita,” however, prompted films that exploited the erstwhile popularity of the film’s two leads. Dennis Padilla’s “Barker” is an inane action-comedy that capitalized again on the supposedly mismatched romance between Empoy, the ordinary-looking comic and his more beautiful partner. Dondon Santos’ “12,starring de Rossi and Ivan Padilla, is an unbearably morose break-up movie.

“12” is but one of the many bittersweet love stories that defined 2017. There is also Jason Paul Laxamana’s “100 Tula Para Kay Stella” Dan Villegas’ “Changing Partners” and “All of You,” Prime Cruz’s “Can We Still Be Friends?” and JP Habac’s “I’m Drunk, I Love You.”

Star Cinema is still trying its best in figuring out how to mix creativity and commerciality with films like Antoinette Jadaone’s “Love You to the Stars and Back,” Cathy Garcia-Molina’s “Seven Sundays” and “Dear Other Self,” all of which attempt to deepen genre conventions. But as it turns out, it is still its adamantly formulaic movies like Garcia-Molina “My Ex and Whys,” Mae Cruz-Alviar’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and Theodore Boborol’s “Finally Found Someone” that earned the studio the most profit.

To cap the year, the MMFF has again favored the old ways, exchanging the rewards of its experiment last year to the convenience of earning more through tired and tested formula. This year, Bernal’s “Gandarrapido: The Revenger Squad” and Coco Martin’s “Ang Panday” eclipse its competitors in terms of theater visibility and earnings, cementing the state of stagnancy Philippine cinema, or at least Philippine viewership, is at.

For certain, Filipino filmmakers will keep on making films, but whether or not Filipinos will be given a chance to see them still seems to be a pipe dream.