Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2018 reviews: 8 official entries

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Chito Roño’s “Signal Rock” is about the extent of what people would do for the sake of love. It is about the longing and inevitable divides that grow between people separated. Screencap from REGAL ENTERTAINMENT

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On its sophomore year, controversy hounded the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (PPP).

Previously featuring a lineup of half new premieres and half previously-debuted films, the young festival has drawn much flak since announcing that it would be shifting to a new premieres-only set-up.

The festival has been a unique venue where former festival entries were able to maximize distribution via the government’s requirement that theaters nationwide feature the festival’s films. With that opportunity now closed off, much uproar has been raised ranging from the festival prioritizing commercial viability over artistic quality, to their refusing to answer filmmakers who want to know the rationale behind the change.

But is the fuss all worth it? Is the PPP’s alleged adamance to include previous festival favorites in favor of “audience-friendly” stories the way to go?

This year’s lineup sees a selection of genre pieces with a mostly mainstream flair: hugot romances like Jun Robles Lana’s “Ang Babaeng Allergic sa WiFi” and Jason Paul Laxamana’s “The Day After Valentine’s” are present; in line with the resurgence of the Pinoy action, there is Richard Somes’ “We Will Not Die Tonight”; comedy is alive with Miko Livelo’s “Unli Life” and Jay Abello’s “Pinay Beauty”; for those who fancy musicals, there is Jason Paul Laxamana’s second entry to the fest “Bakwit Boys”; and of course, you can’t forego traditional festival ensemble pieces like Adolfo Alix Jr.’s “Madilim ang Gabi” and Chito Roño’s “Signal Rock.”

Below are our thoughts on these films.

Signal Rock 1.png Screencap from REGAL ENTERTAINMENT

“Signal Rock”

In a remote island town off the coast of Samar, most women are groomed to leave their homes — either by working abroad or by bagging a foreigner who would marry and bring them there. For those left behind, the only way of contact is by scrambling atop a large rock formation, the single point in the island with cellular reception.

Chito Roño’s “Signal Rock” uses this titular edifice not just as a central element of the story but as an embodiment of how it tackles the theme of distances. At its core, “Signal Rock” is a tale of great lengths. It is about the extent of what people would do for the sake of love. It is about the longing and inevitable divides that grow between people separated.

With an already strong conceit, “Signal Rock” makes for an even more compelling narrative by fully immersing audiences in the island’s milieu. Roño and screenwriter Rody Vera fully realize this world by illustrating the island’s distinctive culture, populating the periphery with interesting characters and their own mini-arcs, and peppering the movie with bizarre occurrences believable as small-town anecdotes.

By the time Intoy (Christian Bables) employs the whole town in helping his sister in Finland gain full custody of her daughter, the sense of community — just how familial and tight-knit it is — emanates strongly.

“Signal Rock” stumbles in its last third though as its pacing struggles with balance. It both rushes and slows down to a lull as it tries to tie-up its story. This becomes even more jarring as the climax of the film leads up to a huge scene with hokey network T.V.-style CGI.

However, these are but minor cracks, and “Signal Rock” is mainly as solid as the titular rock. It isn’t a film that shoots for the stars and hopes for praise because of audacity. Instead, with its caliber of actors, writing, and storytelling, it is one that builds a strong foundation and, in the process, provides a profound and entertaining piece of filmmaking. GP


“Pinay Beauty”

In an indirect way, “Pinay Beauty” points at advertising — particularly the glittering billboards of Guadalupe — as perpetrators in demonizing brown skin. The film’s subtitle, “She’s No White,” works on two levels: the devaluing of morena skin in favor of Western standards of beauty, and the influence of cookie cutter fairy tales (another Western product) that peddle happily ever afters.

Annie (Chai Fonacier) dreams of changing herself into Snow White so she can join the rest of her friends as Hong Kong Disneyland princesses where she’ll earn enough for her and her boyfriend Migs (Edgar Allan Guzman). They pay ₱180,000 for plastic surgery but Annie doesn’t know that Migs pilfered the money from his criminal boss (Tikoy Aguiluz). Migs is given three days: he can die or he can either return the money or get his boss a date with morena celebrity Lovely G (Maxine Medina).

Though Annie is the core that throws the whole gang into a tizzy — and the beating heart that “Pinay Beauty” is supposed to reflect on — most of the film follows Migs and his friends trying to get ₱180,000 by any means necessary, even if it involves prostitution. All the while, Annie is counting down the days until her surgical procedure, happily prancing like Snow White, unaware of the danger that her boyfriend is in (“I’m happy when I’m beautiful,” she recites as her mantra). Meanwhile, we also witness Lovely G’s attempt to break out of the pretty girl route and take on grittier roles. It’s hilarious watching an actual pageant queen as an avatar of Pinay Beauty, someone that advertisers can put on billboards and commercials.

It’s a riot watching Migs and his friends (Nico Antonio, Janus del Prado, Hanna Ledesma, and Mariko Ledesma) turn from one absurd scheme to another just to get ₱180,000 back. It’s an interesting ensemble: a lesbian, a transgender, a macho dude, and a possibly genderqueer man-child. But their episodic antics can only do so much, especially when you realize that the actual Pinay Beauty hardly ever takes part in the story and only serves as the source of conflict. Annie and Migs are barely perceptible as a couple, mostly because they don’t spend enough time together on screen and we are given little to root for them, though Fonacier and Guzman try to salvage every bit of what they can to depict an actual romantic relationship.

Half of “Pinay Beauty” works as it spotlights commodification of image and how Filipino identity has been sidelined and Westernized. It’s unfortunate that many Pinoys still think that whiteness is the epitome of beauty and being financially secure means having to leave the country. It’s apparent though how the film has more fun with hijinks rather than dissecting its titular concern. It gets somewhere, rather late and with a half-baked finish. Maybe this Pinay Beauty is too distracted to actually take home the crown. DJ

Ang Babaeng Allergic sa Wifi.png Screencap from IDEA FIRST

“Ang Babaeng Allergic sa Wi-Fi”

Written and directed by Jun Robles Lana (“Die Beautiful,” “Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes”), the story of a young woman medically incapacitated in the presence of electromagnetic waves could have fit nicely alongside genre romances like “Her,” “Ruby Sparks,” and “Safety Not Guaranteed.”

Unfortunately, instead of constructing a fresh narrative that gives genuine insights into the dynamics of its unique premise, “Ang Babaeng Allergic sa WiFi” treats audiences to a slew of generic beats and tropes that (no offense meant) feel beneath the talented storytelling Lana has been known for.

The film is basically a parable about the realness of connections, how literal disconnection cuts the noise and leads people to find the ties that actually matter. But instead of making this “reconnecting” resonate as heartfelt, it feels too artificial due in part to the film’s dependence on plot devices that feel too “hipster-bait” and the said use of unimaginative cliches. The film even succumbs to the outdated trapping of romanticizing problematic behavior from the “nice guy” lead.

Though the greatest pitfall of “Ang Babaeng Allergic sa WiFi” is its attempt at mawkishness in the movie’s climax, one that treads into full-on Nicholas Sparks, John Green territory (hold your horses, you know what I mean).

Ironically, the film’s intended message is one it can also learn from. A real connection cannot be conveyed by merely going through the motions — whether it's via the spectacle of social media or the use of bubblegum visuals, ukelele music, and visually arresting vistas.

Though not all bad because of solid performances from its leads, there just isn’t enough to elevate “Ang Babaeng Allergic sa WiFi” beyond the potential of what could have been. — GP

Madilim ang Gabi 2.png Screencap form BICYCLE PICTURES

“Madilim ang Gabi”

Halfway through “Madilim Ang Gabi,” we’ve probably seen most of the actors and actresses who’ve worked with Adolf Alix Jr. in his prolific filmmaking career. Alix has employed the likes of Cherie Gil, Iza Calzado, Anita Linda, and Sid Lucero to populate Manila’s underbelly in the time of Duterte’s drug war. There are many of them in the film’s every twist and turn that the cameos feel like a spectacle, distracting audiences from the free-flowing narrative, which is in essence, a search party.  

Sara (Gina Alajar) and Lando (Philip Salvador) are trying to live clean, scared shitless by the spate of tokhang-related killings in their neighborhood. Their son, Alex (Felix Roco) goes missing and they become paranoid that his disappearance has something to do with their sudden exit out of the drug trade.  Sara goes from one house to another, wringing every possible connection that they have who can give information on their son’s whereabouts. But as the days wear on, she and her husband slowly realize that they can never really get out of the supply chain.

“Madilim ang Gabi” moves languidly with a monotonous cinematography by Albert Banzon, recalling older indie films with its cinéma vérité style of stalking. The absence of score or music is both boon and bane: the film moves as realistically as possible but the tension is diffused by the ordinariness of diegetic sound. But after drug war films that have been stylized with so much grit and hyperrealism, the mundane quality of “Madilim ang Gabi” makes the effects of the president’s drug war more insidious and apparent. DJ

The Day After Valentine's.png Screencap from VIVA ENTERTAINMENT

“The Day After Valentine’s”

The first of the two Jason Paul Laxamana-directed films in this year’s festival, “The Day After Valentine’s” is a movie that has both not much and too much going on.

Telling the story of Kai (JC Santos) and Lani (Bela Padilla), the film surprises as it eschews the romance one would expect it would bank on after the success of the pairing’s previous team-up, last year’s “100 Tula Para Kay Stella.” It chooses instead to present a journey of healing, Lani serving a mostly platonic role as Kai’s “Ms. Repairman” (as the film puts it) as he reels from a break-up.

But this is no “Lost in Translation,” and the conversations that should be the narrative momentum of this tale of broken people finding each other feels surface-level. Character-building is mostly hollow in the first half of the film, focusing instead on hugot exchanges — banalities that soon become ponderous and repetitive. (Though one could argue that the healing process is repetitive).

The film also tries to make a statement on language, using Baybayin and the folklore of Kai’s homeland of Hawaii. Whether that message is on our tendency to use words without regard to its intricacies and interpretations, that I’m unsure of as the use of Baybayin and Hawaiian don’t go beyond aesthetics. Both are merely used as quirks that the two bond over. Even an actual trip to Hawaii midway through the film serves no other purpose than be a wanderlust-inducing “Eat, Pray, Love-ish” destination.

When “The Day After Valentine’s” finally decides to get interesting, it does so in a fell swoop. Developments feel bombarding instead of precise. Though the film justifies this in the context of its narrative and granted that, presumably, these are attempts to end the film on emotional highs, storytelling-wise, it just feels too late of a turn. (Though admittedly, some subversions are refreshingly clever.)

“The Day After Valentine’s” is an attempt at creating a mature drama on idealizations of romance, the scars they leave behind, and the healing that follows. Unfortunately, it pre-occupies itself in shallow waters too long, leading to underdeveloped characters that could have served as better foundations of the narrative. GP

We Will Not Die Tonight 1.png Screencap from ABS-CBN/STAR CINEMA

“We Will Not Die Tonight”

One of the pleasures derived from watching a Richard Somes movie is his deference to established genre tropes. He knows how a madhouse works and he has fun going through each room and setting them on fire. In “We Will Not Die Tonight,” all the fun is straightforward. You know who the hunters are because they’re scary ass looking thugs who look like they’ve been cast straight from Satan’s gallery of rogues. They’re chasing Kray (Erich Gonzales), a stunt woman looking for a quick buck, and her band of criminal friends who want to cash in on a one time hit, until they find out that the hit involves trafficking street children and skinning them alive.

“Tinutulungan nga nating ang DSWD sa ginagawa natin eh,” the evil gang’s lead rationalizes. The action is a bit frustrating at first. A large gang means there will be more people to kill. But when Kray finally realizes she has to kill in order to survive, she finally picks up a bloodied bolo and slaughters her way out of a dilapidated building.

This isn’t Somes’ and Gonzales’ first time at the grindhouse. They’ve worked in the slimy crime drama “Mariposa Sa Hawla ng Gabi” and the flawed yet lovingly tropical gothic “Corazon: Ang Unang Aswang,” plus a few teleseryes as well. Gonzales shows some legit action star moves in this one: she climbs pimps, goes down and elevator shaft, engages in several knife fights, and kills someone with a barbed wire.

There’s no nuance here, no smoke and mirrors so you can enjoy each bloody murder without guilt. It’s easy to see “We Will Not Die Tonight” as another toxic sludge in the Pinoy action film revival but it embraces its roots so lovingly. Who wants to have a carefully choreographed action scene when you can watch something that approximates what hell looks and feels like? DJ

Bakwit Boys.png Screencap from T-REX ENTERTAINMENT

“Bakwit Boys”

Also directed by Jason Paul Laxamana, the strength of “Bakwit Boys” lies in its simplicity. It is a small story about four musically-talented evacuee (or bakwit) brothers who move from a storm-ravaged town in Isabela to live with their grandfather in Pampanga. During their performance in a town talent competition, they catch the ears of aspiring producer/manager Rose (Devon Seron). The film then proceeds, in most parts, as a pretty run-of-the-mill underdog story about pursuing dreams amidst the challenges brought about by poverty. (We’ll get back to this later.)

Undeniably charming, “Bakwit Boys” knows the warm feelings a heartfelt song number can produce. It uses music as a medium of love. Songs are the ties that bind siblings who only have each other in a distant land. Music tests their capacity to sacrifice for each other — giving up one’s dream for the chance of another pursuing theirs.

The spectacle and sincerity of these parts are enough to touch many. It is aspirational, one that makes you root for the little band that could.

But spectacle also can also disable discernment. In a straight-up confusing move, towards the end of the film, “Bakwit Boys” uses the spectacle of music to basically be a case for government corruption (YES) when it is revealed where the cash financing the band comes from.

The film is well aware of how problematic this is. In fact, it becomes a cause of concern for the brothers. But, in the densest way possible, the film explicitly states that “minsan kailangan mandaya, the clean path is unfair.” So everyone settles for a resolution that is tantamount to accepting how the ends can justify the means.

Understandable that given the thin characterization of the titular boys (they occupy roles stereotypical of any group movie), drama needed to be injected. But using such a political subplot is a) heavy-handed and b) creates an ethical quandary whether or not it’s right to enjoy this film.

Personally, I find this story decision as out of touch and coming from a point of privilege, as the film begs you to shrug off the disenfranchisement caused by government corruption and join along in bopping your head to the single group that benefited from it.

“Bakwit Boys” is a fun time at the cinemas. I just hope that those watching not shrug off what’s blatantly wrong about the film. — GP

Unli Life.png Screencap from REGAL FILMS

“Unli Life”

Miko Livelo’s “Unli Life” has a lot of things going for it. It is eager in examining the notions of time; the physicality of it, as a governing dimension, and its effects in our relationships. It opens with Benedict (Vhong Navarro) following a personal schedule. He gives bursts of lectures about “timing” or “being late” and being able to control his life by rigid approximation of every second of his day. He does this to the extent that even his girlfriend (Winwyn Marquez, another beauty queen-turned-actor in the film fest) has to follow by his strict rules. She dumps him and Benedict’s time breaks loose, literally.

Retribution comes in the form of Turning Point, a bar that serves “Wishkey” that takes you back in time. If you’ve watched any time travel movie, you know that you can’t change the past. All you can do is learn from your mistakes so you can live better in the present.

If you want a good time watching a movie, Miko Livelo’s movies are always a sure bet. His debut “Blue Bustamante” is a charming Super Sentai-ed take on family and “I Love You To Death” is a bizarre zombie love story. “Unli Life” though is middling at best. There are hilarious visual gags (an airline called “Air Juan Heusaff” is my favorite); parodies (an “A Quiet Place” riff that takes place in the stone age); Alex Calleja just being Alex Calleja; and even a Dolphy cameo — by way of Epy Quizon — that comes with a dick joke. Its biggest weakness though is Navarro, who interestingly gets a screenplay credit. Much of what he does are dated antics that feel like they should belong in an early 2000s movie. We’ve seen him do this in many of his films and it seems like he’ll be sticking to this shtick in the years to come. It’s frustrating how much of the film is bogged down by his old-fashioned pa-cute humor, with a side of insult comedy (of course there’s the requisite ugly girl). There are beats here that are strongly Livelo’s brand of kalokohan but no one wants a Despacito joke in 2018, or ever. — DJ