Cinemalaya 2018 reviews: 10 competition films

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James Robin Mayo's “Kuya Wes” stars Ogie Alcasid where he plays a remittance center teller who falls in love with a customer. Photo from CINEMALAYA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Cinemalaya will always be revered as having kickstarted a new era of Philippine cinema. However, after a middling lineup last year — where acclaim was the exception rather than the rule — this festival forebearer had a lot to prove this 2018.

Is the festival still capable of innovation? Could it still hold up beside its younger, fresher, bigger-budgeted contemporaries? You know, the classic Rocky story in the age of Ivan Dragos.

Thankfully, we could say Cinemalaya 2018 fares much better than its predecessor. Not exactly a return to form, but instead a demonstration of its capability to move beyond its withered formula.

This year, Cinemalaya came in with an eclectic mix of films: from genre exercises like “ML” by Benedict Mique Jr. and “The Lookout” by Ari Africa to the magical realism of “Pan de Salawal” by Che Espiritu. There are also ruminations on relationships such as marriage and old age with “Distance” by Perci Intalan, “Mamang” by Denise O’Hara, and “Kung Paano Hinihintay Ang Dapithapon” by Carlo Enciso Catu. Of course, there is always poverty cinema, a festival mainstay, with “School Service” by Luisito Lagdameo Ignacio. And how can we forget the rousing and deeply personal “Liway” by Kip Oebanda, the coming-of-age in the time of conflict in Iar Lionel Arondaing’s “Mga Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma” and the slice of life that is “Kuya Wes” by James Mayo?

Below are our thoughts on these films.

Mamang.jpg Photo from CINEMALAYA

“Mamang”

In “Mamang,” death is a spectre, hovering as ghosts from the past as reminder of restless loves, still-brewing hate, and forgotten promises. Celeste Legaspi plays the titular old dame, who waits for death at her bed, refusing to eat or go out because everything is useless when you’re just waiting for your expiration date. Her son, Ferdie (Ketchup Eusebio) is the only one who takes care of her. But Ferdie, having been fired from the school he teaches at due to an illicit affair with another man, is looking elsewhere for a new life, which may or may not involve his mother.

Once the rhythm of “Mamang” settles in, it’s easy to figure out where it’s going: who the ghosts are, their intentions, and how Mamang will be rid of them once and for all. To some extent, it is a haunted house story but with schmaltz instead of fear. Ghosts pop in and out of corners, carrying some terrible recollection that Mamang would rather forget. Director Denise O’Hara infuses this puzzle box of memories with moments of reprieve and release, mostly anchored on Celeste Legaspi’s buoyant performance. “Mamang” though is cheapened by its plot twist, a revelation that serves no purpose to the narrative other than to manipulate the audience’s emotions even more.

Waking up to reminders of your own degradation is probably horrifying, but “Mamang” allows these apparitions to serve as partners in a dance, waltzing and swaying until twilight comes to take everything away. — DJ

Lookout.png Screencap from CINEMALAYA

“The Lookout”

Even via a camp lens, Afi Africa’s “The Lookout” still doesn’t have enough for it to be a delightful watch.

Possibly aiming for a cross between “John Wick” and a throwback to the sexy action-thrillers of Philippine cinema’s past, the film tries to weave an intricate tale of double-crosses and unexpected connections set to Manila’s hidden assassin ecosystem. Africa confuses convolution for complexity though as in his attempt to stack his narrative high he fumbles, slipping in a display of unintentional comedy.

One could even argue that the film’s bevy of clichéd action movie tropes are so clumsily executed that they form the film’s supposed camp aesthetic: from cheesy dialogue and caricatures for characters, to plot points which either leave you scratching your head in confusion or laughing at the utter lack of logic.

“The Lookout” isn’t all bad, though. Blatantly calling itself the story of a “gay hired killer” in its synopsis, you can feel the misguided sincerity in its attempt to put some heart at the center of the film. Self-marginalization is tackled at times and a blossoming romance hindered by the protagonist’s self-destructive behavior — a product of years of childhood abuse — is a smart idea which could have served as an emotional anchor of the film.

But “nice try” is as far as praises go for “The Lookout” as it makes even gratuitous sex boring, and the whole gay experience is at times conflated with that of being an outsider mainly because of crime.

“The Lookout” is confused and incomprehensible. There are nuggets of potential here and there, but it wouldn’t surprise me if even its cast and crew do not know what it is about. — GP

Pan de Salawal.png Screencap from CINEMALAYA

“Pan de Salawal”

Part by-the-numbers feel good movie, part “Wansapanatym” episode, Che Espiritu’s “Pan de Salawal” revels in its cooped up magical realism to explore how the lives of a small barangay is changed when a wandering child turns out to be a miracle worker. In contrast to the goodness expected of a character who has healing powers, Aguy (literally “ouch” in Bisaya) turns out to be more of a trickster, inflicting pain on the subject’s ailing body part until they are relieved. She comes and goes, slipping like a mythological creature (or a displaced child, existing without any parent or guardian) in and out of everyone’s lives but when she encounters Sal (Bodjie Pascua), an aging baker suffering from a chronic kidney condition, simply twisting the flesh near his kidneys will not do; the pain has to be greater and emotionally crippling.

“Pan de Salawal” lives off of hopelessness and optimism, two extremes that govern the lives of the film’s characters: from a matadero with a tumor, a Cariñosa dancer suffering from the after-effects of a stroke, to a former beauty queen with a debilitating cough. Espiritu manages to weave their stories without the film feeling episodic, but it is apparent how the resiliency of the secondary characters serves as contrast to Sal and his quiet desperation. In Aguy (Miel Espinosa), he finds a new lease in life after a suicide attempt, even dusting off his creaky old bakery to get back on his feet and give Aguy a decent home.

The film happily trudges the genre’s well worn grooves, never straying away from presenting a story about hope and human suffering. Pascua and Espinosa’s proxy father-daughter tandem ground the film’s shiny veneer; the two representing a charismatic take on the interplay between light and loss. — DJ

School Service.png Screencap from CINEMALAYA

“School Service”

The image of “independent” cinema as dark, gritty, and obsessed with poverty is kept alive in this year’s Cinemalaya through Luisito L. Ignacio’s “School Service.

More found film than poverty porn, the film is impressionistic rather than excessive in its manner of doling out a neorealist narrative — showcasing slices of life, with little bits of drama mildly resembling a plot in the middle.

The film is content (and that seems to be the intent) in not sending a message beyond presenting the dire lives of the poor. It’s simply a glimpse into it, and by all means, that is fine.

If there’s a message to all this, it’s the forever reliable “they’re human after all.” “School Service” posits that there can be some sincerity behind families formed through kidnap-and-beg syndicates. Loose morals are merely their defense mechanism, and at their core, these people deserve some understanding, if not sympathy.

Whether it’s just Stockholm Syndrome or being forced into a ragtag group of street beggars is a better alternative to abusive or neglectful homes, that’s up to the audience to decide. Thankfully, Therese Malvar and Ai-Ai delas Alas turn in layered performances that mix world-weariness and heart that this humanization can bank on. — GP

Dapithapon.jpg Photo from CINEMALAYA

“Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon”

There is one scene in Carlo Enciso Catu’s “Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon” that pronounces its evocation of personal histories: Teresa (Perla Bautista) steps inside the house of her estranged husband, Bene (Dante Rivero), for the first time after almost two decades. She finds her old sewing machine. The camera observes her from a distance, just outside the window, the lone figure in light in a house suffused in darkness. We see her face brighten as she tries on the machine, rusty after years of unuse. Bene, now wrecked with cancer, longingly watches her from behind, slowly emerging out of the darkness, eyes smiling, to find the woman he once loved. 

Decay is more pronounced in “Dapithapon” among all of the “senior” films in Cinemalaya this year. Neil Daza’s masterful cinematography plays a large part in showing this degredation. Bene is gradually emptying his house of possessions, such as the long mahogany table or precious china which both signify familial gathering. His days are dull and lifeless, until he learns he has brain cancer. His house slowly regains life as Teresa and her current partner Celso (Menggie Cobarrubias) go out of their way to take care of Bene. Despite this probable setup for soap opera histrionics, the hidden resentments and buried questions unfold gently, their hearts softened by acceptance all these years.

“Dapithapon” has little stakes — the inevitability of death is diminished by the blossoming of this platonic relationship between three people — that it feels refreshing to witness a film that is fascinated by how its characters are immersed in their tiny pockets of life, all slowly merging into a whole so bright despite the dimming light of their days. — DJ

Distance.jpg Photo from CINEMALAYA

“Distance”

[Spoilers below]

Perci Intalan’s “Distance” is another one of the films this year in which the emotional blow is hinged on a reveal: Liza (Iza Calzado) left her family for her great love who happens to be a woman (Max Eigenmann). It’s supposed to be the great dilemma of the movie: how can a mother abandon her family just because she’s found love somewhere else? The martyr husband Anton (Nonie Buencamino) accepts her unconditionally. Her youngest daughter gives her a chance, glad to have her mother back but her eldest, Karla (Therese Malvar) is suspicious, unresponsive to her mother’s attempts to reconnect. Much of Liza’s struggle feels like punishment, treading the Gays Can’t Have It All trope but it is also a testament to how familial responsibilities feel more like an obligation rather than a bond to be forged. That no matter how many lunches, gifts, or bonding moments she gives her family, some wounds just cut too damn deep. “Distance” is fascinating in how it explores disconnection and how bonds never solidify no matter how much you prove that you’re worthy of forgiveness.

The suffering in “Distance” is supposed to be universal: the disintegration of a family in the wake of abandonment but it feels painfully middle class at times. “Distance” is bleak, from start to finish — from the gray beaches of a foreign country, to the colorless interiors of a family’s home suffocating from repressed emotions. The film literally trades in distance: the space between rooms, between family members coldly eating meals at the dining table, between the driver and the passenger’s seat, between the attempt to accept and understand each other, or, hell, even the servants and the amo’s space in the house.

The problem though is that “Distance” bottles this tension so tightly that the narrative has no room to breathe, despite all the slowness and the empty spaces the film affords its characters. We’re forced to accept things as they are: that the love between Anton and Liza has calcified; that Jen is someone worth ditching your whole life at the drop of a hat. Hence, “Distance” feels like a snapshot rather than a fully realized portrait, discarding nuances in its characters that could have helped the film feel less stiff and inert. — DJ

Liway.jpg Photo from CINEMALAYA

“Liway”

Directed by Kip Oebanda, the whole of “Liway” is greater than the sum of its parts.

Based on the true story of Dakip, a child born to rebels inside a prison camp, the film exudes a lot of heart. Every scene retold feels undeniably personal.

In a way, it reminds me of “Pan’s Labyrinth” in how it uses chiaroscuro — contrasting light and shadow — to make childhood innocence and wonder stand out in a milieu of oppression. (A microcosm to this description would be the film’s rendering of magical tales via shadow puppets.)

However, even though technically and visually astounding, “Liway”’s narrative is messy. Unfocused and lacking momentum at times, it’s hard to identify whose perspective the film wants to center on, Dakip’s or his mother’s (Inday/Liway).

This seeming confusion is detrimental as plot points that could have been better emphasized are diluted and undercut by the narrative switches. For example, the film could have lingered more on the veneer of magic and wonder Dakip reveled in amid growing up in prison. (But if that’s the reality, who am I to say otherwise? This isn’t a story I lived through.)

Ultimately, as mentioned, what “Liway” stands for is more profound than it’s actual product. It’s an ode of love for one’s mother and motherland. By being partly funded by martial law reparation money, it is a symbol of reclamation.

“Liway” does enough to provide the rousing very much needed today. — GP

Musmos.png Screencap from CINEMALAYA  

“Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma”

Death and violence is inherited in Iar Lionel Arondaing’s “Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma.” The film opens with the creation story of man emerging from the Earth, accompanied by a chant from the Quran. Next, a man and his father travel the length of a river in search of an unnamed person while the father launches into a tale in the time of war. The story of displaced children Eshal (Junyka Sigrid Santarin) and Farhan (JM Salvado) forms much of the film. It is told almost like an oral lore, the father passing it to his son, lending it a folk tale-like quality, and is evident in the way Eshal and Farhan’s scenes are captured in a dream-like haze.

The film though is too preoccupied with looking pretty, dispensing beautiful images rather than investing on a story that engages the audience. Too much beauty can be boring. The story of Eshal and Farhan feels like an afterthought if not for the strong performances of the lead actors Santarin and Salvado. There is an emphasis of death and war as something that is passed down in the land of conflict such as Eshal’s and Farhan’s, especially in the first 15 minutes of the film, punctuated by a long take of a village being burned and its inhabitants either fleeing or watching the destruction out of shock. From hereon, the violence appears offscreen, often told and remembered — memories of how innocence has been stripped away by years and years of injustice and bloodshed.

At some point, all of it becomes a balancing act: passages from the holy book contend with the father-and-son guessing game, and the struggle of Eshal and Farhan to survive in the forest — and to what end?

Arondaing’s attempt at a tone poem about the ravages of war has commendable moments and it fares better than in his debut “Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig”. But when a film is supposedly telling a story that is rarely told in local cinema, it helps when it’s focused on the job at hand and not just enamored by how it looks. — DJ

Kuya Wes.png Screencap from CINEMALAYA

“Kuya Wes”

In his full length debut “The Chanters,” James Robin Mayo has shown he is adept at deploying humor in stories that bear significant cultural weight. In “The Chanters,” a high school girl’s teenage angst collides with her tribe’s tradition. In his second film, “Kuya Wes,” placing his characters in a remittance center draws out a capsule of sorts about The Filipino Dream, encased in a small glass box where money from hardworking Filipinos are transmitted to their wives, husbands, sons, daughters, or relatives. “Kuya Wes” makes no qualms about its intentions though, which is to draw out a supposed love story between a pera padala kuya (Ogie Alcasid) and Erika, a young mother (Ina Raymundo) who always arrives to pick up her husband’s padala every 16th of the month at exactly 1 p.m.

The level of access to their customers’ personal information becomes a disturbing conceit in the movie, particularly when they use this data to stalk Erika. It gets to creepy “Kita Kita” levels, when Kuya Wes — which we later learn is not his real name — does favors and doles out money for Erika not just out of sheer kindness but also in the hopes of dating her. But this time, the shift in tone makes it apparent that this is not just some male wish fulfillment romance. Kuya Wes’ fantasies overtake reality and he is forced to contend with the problems that he should be facing.

Mayo seems to be building a body of work that is distinct in tone and stylistic choices (particularly the use of color and cinematography). Though people may be quick to draw Wes Anderson comparisons, this skewed and symmetric view of the world reflect  the turbulent psyches of his characters. It’s encouraging to see that he doesn’t let aesthetics overrun his films but instead uses it to flesh out narratives that are both accessible and disarming in their sentimentality. — DJ

ML.jpg Photo from CINEMALAYA

“ML”

Set to be a problematic favorite for years to come, Benedict Mique Jr’s “ML” is a surprisingly entertaining genre piece one wouldn’t expect in a Cinemalaya line-up.

It follows “Black Mirror’s” penchant for unbalanced tragedy — minimum irredeemability, maximum retribution — by way of “Saw” and “Hostel.”

In creating a scenario where believable neo-martial law sympathizers cum conyo kids (props to Tony Labrusca and Henz Villaraiz) are subjected to the same torture they so vehemently defend as justifiable 30 years ago, “ML” is oddly cathartic. It is the revenge fantasy spawned from the toxicity of internet troll culture, a perverse parable for the post-truth era.

Calling it “torture porn with a purpose”  may be reductive in what constitutes “purpose.” If the purpose is to shock audiences with an unflinching look at torture (all of which were relayed to the filmmaker by real-life victims of martial law era torture), then the film succeeds. But for any profundity beyond shock value, the film may be lacking in depth and sophistication, especially when some of “ML’s” worst shocks come from its gravely misogynistic portrayal of sexual violence on the character who least deserves a seat at the torture table. — GP