A year ago, pandemic cinema was a joke. But now, it is a reality.
Throughout these difficult times, art has served as salvation for the stranded. It has been a means to travel around the world or back in time; a way to live out someone else’s life when life becomes unbearable; a source of joy and hope when our environments are filled with grief and dread.
But with the finish line nowhere in sight, artists and audiences have also used art to sublimate their dreams and nightmares into something recognizable and easier to confront.
In comes “Now Streaming” — a six-part digital anthology series that centers around the collective struggles many face during the pandemic. Each vignette explores a specific genre and an aspect of life in our current situation, utilizing the video conferencing and live streaming format to mythologize the mundane.
What it creates is a psychological snapshot of the current state of our society through individual stories: from heartbreak and financial troubles to anxiety and supernatural paranoia. In the face of uncertainty, imagination is used to fuel hope. Unfortunately, what has been imagined seems far darker than reality.
“Episode 1: From My Window” (written and directed by Carlo Enciso Catu)
“From My Window” follows Jello (Christian Bables), who begins live streaming as a means to generate income after his restaurant closes down. In between these sessions, he begins spying on his attractive neighbor (Hans Braga), whom he develops a crush on. A series of serendipities lead them to interact with each other, slowly unveiling their feelings and secrets that they would’ve otherwise preferred hidden.
It is a tonal outlier from the rest of the series, but it offers something interesting: voyeurism as a two-way street. Social media now allows us to stalk and follow each other online in a similar way that binoculars were used to spy on neighbors — kind of like in Alfred Hitchcock's “Rear Window,” a film that “From My Window” references.
But, as it unfolds, it becomes clear that it offers none of the narrative thrill of solving a mystery nor the blissful freefall of discovering love.
Much of the dialogue remains empty apart from overused landi lines and unnecessary exposition. The script underutilized the talents of its actors and its overreliance on stereotypes makes it difficult to root for the lovers, leaving the characters more paper than flesh; their wounds seeming less like lacerations and more like paper cuts.
There’s a rushed quality to the narrative: as if segments of the episode were trimmed for the sake of time. The shift from the traditional filming format to video conferencing format feels unnecessary. But more than anything, the episode loses its groundedness because the characters overcome most of the physical barriers in the pandemic rather easily and early on. The result is romance that fizzles before it even starts.
It’s effective as a one-night stand, but that’s all it is.
Episode 2: Destroy Everything You Touch (written and directed by Dodo Dayao)
Ever had an e-numan go wrong?
“Destroy Everything You Touch” follows six friends who attempt to pass time through regular video conferencing. As the quarantine continues, the lines between paranoia and reality begin to blur and secrets begin to unearth themselves.
As an ensemble piece, it astounds me how much it works. The overlapping dialogue creates naturalistic conversations via call, only to be disrupted by static and technical issues we’ve come to know through video conferencing. Silence stands out amid dialogue. What makes matters more discomforting is in what isn’t being discussed verbally but is visible in the body language and in their eyes.
It creates a sensorial experience of paranoia and nightmare fodder. Ideologies and anxieties spread through the ethernet like the virus in the air. Dayao utilizes the long takes and sound design (Corinne de San Jose) to create an atmosphere of dread, creating a weighted waiting that becomes unbearable. Jarring edits break the visual acuity but only propel the tension forward.
It’s a masterclass at using every technical aspect to instill fear into audiences. You wait for paintings on the wall to blink. You stare at the set pieces to make sure they’re not moving. You worry about whether or not there is a person behind every camera. It’s in these small details (also by the great production design duo Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije) that you see a great puppeteer work and you cannot help but sink further into the manipulation.
It manages to weave in the supernatural and the psychological to create a morbid fantasy inseparable from the pain of existence. I couldn’t turn the lights off for a few days and couldn’t stop talking about it.
Dodo Dayao continues to prove that he is, at least in my opinion, one of the most exciting creators we have today.
Episode 3: First of May (written and directed by Siege Ledesma)
"First of May" follows a man (Sid Lucero) and a woman (Annicka Dolonius) as they connect online, professing their gratitude at finding one another during this dark period. As the audience is lured into the idyllic love story, it becomes apparent that they’re possibly attached to other people. The process of revealing this information is a great marriage between the editing (Jordan dela Cruz), and the direction and screenwriting.
The first of May is often marked by transitions. For the Philippines, May marks the last month before the the rainy season. For temperate countries, it marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer; when flowers begin to wilt. These transitions make their metaphorical appearances in the lives of these couples, who are at a liminal stage in their relationship.
In their inability to let go of the past, these lovers weaponize histories and use it against one another. When waters are rough, we cling to one another senselessly. Only when storms pass and the waters calm do we understand why. When the fantasy provided by the online romance is shattered by the reality of love, how do we make sense of the situation?
Siege Ledesma reminds us: Love is labor.
Episode 4: Eater (written and directed by Bradley Liew)
What if someone was staring back at you without you knowing?
“Eater” follows JC Santos as PogiKing, an online mukbang pseudocelebrity who is unknowingly being manipulated by a cyberstalker. A confectionary concoction in front of the camera later shows a darkness in the absence of an audience. As a social horror, it effectively dissects performativity in an online age: where a glistening smile hides rotten behavior.
Social media and live streaming apps such as Kumu and Livit have been host to the instant celebrification. Monetization of the private lives in these apps gives the illusion that it’s justifiable to invade people’s privacy. Regular citizens may or may not be fully equipped to deal with all of its extremes.
Capitalizing on drama and thrill, the digital economy creates monsters out of consumers. Fandoms create a need within fans to become closer and closer to their idols, at times disrespecting established boundaries. The highs provided by attention and money to influencers are accompanied by the lows of stalking and obsessive behaviors by their followers.
Throughout the episode, Bradley Liew doesn’t shy away from the horrid underbelly and desperation. He pushes this message of the dangers of consumerism by displaying the friction between the internal attitudes of the characters towards their external environment. It reveals what happens to people who become swallowed by the system: they’re forced to eat the same thing they feed to others.
Episode 5: As You Can See (written and directed by Kenneth Lim Dagatan)
“People go missing inside their houses during the lockdown.”
“As You Can See” sees a young woman (Beauty Gonzales) locked alone in her apartment. Unable to return home and with an unsympathetic boyfriend (Vic Robinson), she and her cousin (Chai Fonacier) turn to online shopping to momentarily distract them from their life.
Online shopping has turned many of us into ghoulish consumerists who attempt to patch up our failing relationships (or mental states) with monetary incentives. But the episode strays from whatever expectations viewers may have. The slow descent into chaos is delectable in its insidiousness.
It’s here in this state where Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s proclivity for “elevator horror” unfolds. The static camera work trains the eye to look at the room like a clueboard, while the slow zoom-ins and zoom-outs box characters in and creates claustrophobia. The sound design is peppered with small whispers that shouldn’t be there and low thrums that get louder and louder with the anxiety. Together, it builds the same suffocating tension that we desperately try to avoid by staying inside. Admittedly, at certain sections, I had to pause for fear of triggering an anxiety attack.
Kenneth Lim Dagatan crafts a story that transforms throughout and unfolds like a beautiful, man-eating flower. Once you realize what it is, it’s too late to escape. The only thing left to do is to let it consume you.
Episode 6: Year Of The Rat (written by Jericho Aguado, co-written and directed by Rae Red)
“Hello, mga tanga!”
“Year of the Rat” finds an influencer named TheAndyFace (Thea Marabut) in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an anonymous account who promises her more engagement if she agrees to collaborate.
As opposed to the other horrors in the slate that rely heavily on silence, the episode thrives on dialogue. The absurd humor matches the absurdity of the circumstances — topping one another, shaping how we come to know Andy and her brand. It’s perfectly paced — unendingly sharp when it needs to cut and blunt when it attempts to whack us over the head with the truth.
The most powerful aspect of this social horror is in the comments section. Social media has become a place for scathing opinions that celebrities and influencers must tolerate. Andy’s attempts at making the toxic environment seem petty and unnecessary are rendered useless as the people trapped in this microcosm work to defend the machinery of hate.
But as Andy’s life becomes terrorized by an unknown entity, society seems to continuously second-guess the validity of her claims. Jokes become jabs, calls for help are taken as crooked, and the internet becomes a bystander’s haven. Even as the stakes get higher and as the jokes lose their sheen, doubt permeates throughout her claims.
Once the laughter dies down, we’re left in silence to stare at our words reflected back to us in our black mirrors.
Watch on cignalplay.com