FILM

Cinemalaya 2019 reviews: Part 1

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“John Denver Trending” brings us down from the cloud and exposes us to the fallout of our collective online behavior — actions we may have all been guilty of at some point in our lives. Screenshot from CINEMALAYA FOUNDATION/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A film festival is often defined by its line-up. And, for this 15th edition of Cinemalaya, things are actually quite decent. (Don’t let the creepy eyeball theme fool you. There’s more than meets the eye! *badum-tss*)

For one, arguably, most of the films this year have a redeeming quality to them. Amid questionable choices for some, they are mostly well put together. Probably because, out of 10 original finalists announced last year, not one dropped out. Thus, no entry this Cinemalaya is a last-minute replacement.

Given this, the potentials of the scripts — which presumably is what got them selected — remain intact. (Whether they met their potential or not is for another discussion.) For most entries too, it’s visible that the filmmakers had the time to shape their films closer to their respective visions.

Other reasons to celebrate Cinemalaya 2019 include: a good diversity ratio with the competing filmmakers (six of them are female), a Lav Diaz film opening the festival, a wide range of films both local and international, and the cheekily-titled “eyeball U” sessions where fans get to sit down with the artists behind the movies.

Without further ado, we weigh in on five films of the 10 competition films.

Screenshot from CINEMALAYA FOUNDATION/YOUTUBE

“John Denver Trending”

It’s become a platitude, how the smallest of actions can lead to the most significant of reactions. This is often said as a warning about future misgivings still in the abstract. If anything, social media has given us much leeway to imbibe this thought nowadays. Ironically, the distances reachable because of the internet are also the lengths of our detachment from the things we do.

“John Denver Trending” brings us down from the cloud and exposes us to the fallout of our collective online behavior — actions we may have all been guilty of at some point in our lives.

In “John Denver Trending,” the small seaside town of Pandan, Antique finds itself embroiled in a social media scandal. At the center of it, 14-year-old high school student John Denver Cabungal (first time actor Jansen Magpusao). Caught on video beating up a classmate who accused him of stealing an iPad, John Denver soon becomes the target of internet “call-out culture.”

What’s most harrowing about “John Denver Trending” is how it is not preachy at all. For a subject as rife as fake news, online toxicity, and cyberbullying, director Arden Rod Condez does not hit his audience over the head with heavy-handed commentary. Rather, the film’s sequence of events feels organic. It’s the natural cascade we are well-aware of in real life but do not often see up close. This nonchalant presentation makes the film all the more powerful, making audiences silently confront their own complicity and culpability.

Setting the film in a small town also works well as a narrative device. Given how involved small-town folks are in each other’s lives, the film gets to fully realize the suffocating effect of social media exacerbation. Everyone wants a piece of the action — from nosy neighbors, the mayor, political bloggers, and even random people online who wish to challenge minors to fistfights. The gravity of the situation is all the more felt because of the stellar performances of Magpusao and Meryll Soriano, who plays John Denver’s mother.

Magpusao evokes a vulnerable innocence wrapped in a tough exterior. Though by no means a boy scout, John Denver’s violent tendencies are understandable, shaped by an impoverished upbringing and a constant need to defend himself. Magpusao carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, a beaten weariness you’d expect in older, more seasoned performers. Soriano, on the other hand, carries this sad sense of determination, desperate to defend her son amid her limited means.

If I have any gripe with John Denver, it is that film can be too nihilistic, especially towards the end. However, it is nihilism that is earned, an understandable conclusion after everything shown. If it makes you wince, maybe that’s the point. With “John Denver Trending,” there’s no turning a blind eye. —Gil Perez 

Screenshot from CINEMALAYA FOUNDATION/YOUTUBE

“F#*@bois”

[Minor spoilers below]

With his Cinemalaya films, Eduardo Roy Jr. has carved out his name as a social realist. His movies usually feature characters from Manila’s underbelly (many times played by non-actors); their plots often involving peculiar situations made all the worse by their social class.

However, following his venture into more mainstream flair with his last film, the meta rom-com “Last Fool Show,” Roy seems to be on a quest to diversify his oeuvre. His latest entry “F#*@bois,” carries all the traits of all his previous Cinemalaya films. It features another seedy milieu, this time that of the world of male bikini pageant contestants. But, halfway through the film, it takes a left turn and becomes a straight-up crime thriller.

“F#*@bois” starts off very “slice-of-life,” establishing its setting by playing out a whole Mr. Universe-type pageant in which its two leads, Ace and Mico (newcomers Royce Cabrera and Kokoy de Santos respectively), are contestants. After the show, the two are blackmailed into coming along with Ace’s secret benefactor. They soon find themselves in a private island resort with no one but the benefactor and his employees.

In most part, “F#*@bois” keeps you glued to the screen as it delivers serviceable thrills. You’re never quite sure where the plot is going. (And that’s why I’m trying my best not to spoil things.)

All actors are commendable in how they commit to their roles, most especially Ricky Davao, who surprises with his willingness to go to extremes for this film. He provides much of the campy elements needed for a genre feature like this.

However, while the commitment to acting is admirable, the same cannot be said of the film and its story decisions. While “F#*@bois” does right in shaping itself as a thriller in most parts, by the end of its 80-minute running time, the film feels incomplete.

On the one hand, the film could have better exhausted its pulpy sensibilities — violence, depraved bad guys, government conspiracies, and plot fake-outs. (Think Tarantino and the French film “Revenge.”) On the other hand, “F#*@bois” has an incomplete plot. It just ends at one point.

With some elements half-baked and plot threads left hanging, “F#*@bois” could have benefitted from some “dagdag bawas,” trimming the setup at the start, and devoting more time to its actual plot.

The only reasonable explanation for this missed opportunity must be an upcoming sequel. Who’s ready for “2 BOIS 2 F#’@ED”? (jk.) —GP

Screenshot from CINEMALAYA FOUNDATION/YOUTUBE

“Belle Douleur”

Another entry in the burgeoning genre of “cougar cinema” is the Joji Alonso-directed “Belle Douleur.”

“Belle Douleur” tells the story of 40-something child psychologist Liz (Mylene Dizon). Feeling lost after the death of her anthropologist mother, she ends up struggling to let go of her mom’s numerous antiques. But then comes the hunky young antiquarian Josh (Kit Thompson), who just so happens to specialize in “falling in love with things old and forgotten, fixing them, and then letting them free into the world.” (And we’re just talking about his job at this point. Seriously, the amount of double entendrés in this film is amusing.)

Of course, they end up falling in love.

Commendable in “Belle Douleur” is the effort placed in characterizing its leads. Liz, who works with kids and who feels empty as she is no longer her mother’s caregiver, can’t help but act parental towards Josh. Much to Josh’s dismay, as he takes it as compensatory to his growing up without a mother. This creates an interesting dynamic between the two — one which would have surely given Freud a field day.

However, just like many Pinoy romance films, “Belle Douleur” can be repetitive. It prolongs its stay in the “head over heels” phase (we get it, they are in love) to the detriment of fleshing out the latter stages of love. Yes, it’s understandable that the wish-fulfillment — seeing the kilig between Liz and Josh — is the biggest draw of the film. But by the time the film transitions into its “big” finale, everything feels just a bit too rushed.

“Belle Douleur” is pleasant if not out of place. It is crowd-pleasing, has palpable chemistry between its two hot leads, and has loads of steamy PG-13 sex. It’s really the kind of film that would have felt right at home as a major studio release or even an entry at the Metro Manila Film Festival (much like Quantum Films’ previous offerings). And that’s not really a bad thing.

(Full disclosure: I was already aware of the viral The Moth video [not saying which one] “Belle Douleur” seems to be based on. That said, I may have had an advantage in that I could already see where things were headed two thirds into the film. However, even with the intended “surprise” no longer a factor in my viewing, I still feel like the original story’s integration into film’s later acts could have been better paced and structured.) —GP

Screenshot from CINEMALAYA FOUNDATION/YOUTUBE

“Iska”

I’ve always had a hard time articulating my feelings about films that revolve solely around poverty. So, at least for this review of “Iska,” let me try to expound a bit, so you know my biases.

To me, depicting poverty in films is tricky. It should never just stop at exposing viewers to how bad the lives of the poor are. We already have an abundance of that to the point that we’ve neutered the words “poverty porn,” a description that has now become reductive, and in many ways dismissive of what films actually have to say.

I also credit though that I can’t outright dismiss movies that bombard us with scene after scene of how living in poverty is “A Series of Unfortunate Events” in real life. Cinema is an extension of reality, and these things do happen, as much as they are a clusterfuck.

What I am uncomfortable with, however, is using this “series of unfortunate events” approach combined with “it’s based on a true story” as an excuse for lackluster storytelling. (Adapting is an act of translation, and there’s an art to that.) These are the reasons why I can’t commend “Iska,” no matter how great Ruby Ruiz is in the eponymous role.

Directed by Theodore Boborol (“Vince and Kath and James”), “Iska” is about the titular grandmother, Iska, and her struggles in caring for autistic grandchild Dongdong (Pryle Gura). It takes a slice-of-life approach, establishing how Iska balances being a loving grandmother while working as xerox lady at the University of the Philippines, doing odd jobs on the side, and, on top of all that, dealing with an abusive husband whom she lovelessly calls “asungot” (Soliman Cruz).

The film starts strong with an extended scene of Iska to dressing Dongdong up. In Iska’s life, the mundane is made exhausting. And, this is what Iska has to go through every day before her long walk to work. Ruiz is exceptional, consistently displaying versatility as she effortlessly traverses the whole spectrum of emotions scene by scene. She even pulls off many of the film’s moments of levity.

However, as we follow Iska’s descent, its story loses focus — weighed down by unnecessary shaky cam, repetitive beats, and sequences which could have been left on the cutting room floor.

“Iska” ends up milking Ruiz’ acting to the point of mawkishness. It has the subtlety of a jackhammer and I struggle to find what more “Iska” has to say beyond this. And, whatever commentary “Iska” does have — whether it's about media frenzy or about institutional care for those with special needs — it is all topline. As if they exist merely to draw drama out of Ruiz’ Iska.

Though by film’s finale, there is some semblance of a message about how systemic injustice wears you down until you are the miscreant the system deems you to be, its power lacks the build-up to be potent. —GP

Screenshot from CINEMALAYA FOUNDATION/YOUTUBE

“Malamaya”

Danica Sta. Lucia and Leilani Chavez’s film is the second of the “Older Woman Meets Young Virile Boy” films in this year’s Cinemalaya. But instead of letting the charged relationship between Nora and Migs (Sunshine Cruz and Enzo Pineda, respectively) sweep the story into a sex-laden journey into self-realization, it instead uses the affair to discuss artistic practice as a byway to the wilds of womanhood.

“Malamaya” has some pretty interesting things to say. The generational gap isn’t just thrust into the gulf between the leads, it also permeates into Nora’s definition of her art. Now in her mid-40s, Nora refuses to take shit from anyone, even the younglings who question why she doesn’t sell her art, the supposed “erasure” that happens in her practice (her works are based on other artist’s ‘discarded’ work). She is suspicious of younger artists, believing that they sap your energy and only want you so they can copy your own ‘process.’

The film shows a decent job at showing Nora at work in her studio and her own process grows as her relationship with Migs escalates (note the term escalates rather than grows, owing to the crazed nature of their relationship). At some point it seemed to be a co-dependent relationship. Migs happens to have taken photography as a hobby and Nora, as much as she can, tries to guide Migs based on the tenets of her practice. As Migs showed more signs of mediocrity in his work — and always stubborn, invoking experimentation in his lackluster photographs — Nora liked the idea of mentoring someone who is clearly inferior to her. But then she stopped and thought, this shit is not worth her time.

What’s impressive about Nora, and in turn the film, was how unapologetic her character is. There’s been much debate about how a woman’s journey in any story should be different from the cliché trajectory that’s been written for films/novels involving men. Nora does not need to “save” the men in her life. She has been set since she realized that her strength only comes from herself. She’s been dismissed as unlikeable and unmalleable, not bowing to the whims of anyone around her. Even when she was involved with Migs, she only put up with him to a certain point. She left the bedside when she was struck with inspiration, leaving him to fend on his own. She dismissed him after sex because she wants to (“Tapos ka na ba?” she asks a former lover after he comes in the film’s first scene). When you’re a woman who’s as assured as Nora, why have shitty men on your bed after they’re done anyway? Don Jaucian