FILM

REVIEWS: Metro Manila Film Festival 2020

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Antoinette Jadaone's "Fan Girl," starring Paulo Avelino and Charlie Dizon, won the Best Picture in this year's Metro Manila Film Festival. Screencap from BLACK SHEEP/YOUTUBE

Dagupan (CNN Philippines Life) — With Filipino stories dominating the screens every Christmas season, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) is historically home to some of mainstream Filipino cinema’s best and worst.

This year, the MMFF expands its film selection to ten films instead of the usual eight, and offers even Filipinos outside of the country a chance to celebrate with the community, via online streaming as the country is still in quarantine.

In writing about these films, we acknowledge that the landscape by which they were meant to be consumed has drastically changed. The audience is now able to pace according to their whim and piracy is graver than ever.

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

“COMING HOME” (Adolfo Alix, Jr., 2020)

Great family dramas are treasure hunts. The script is a map where we look for the smaller clues that allow us to steadily work towards unearthing the treasure chest. It is what gives us, the pirates, euphoria: not just the prize, but the hunt for the gold.

In “Coming Home,” a family’s sense of normalcy is disrupted by the return of their estranged father (unconvincingly portrayed by Jinggoy Estrada). It plays out as a film about home and displacement — as soon as the prodigal father returns, the siblings are forced to reckon with their own traumas manifesting. At the core of this is the mother, Salve Librada (Sylvia Sanchez), who serves as the emotional anchor of the film.

But the map itself is a mess. The non-linear structure, with a plethora of melodramatic flashbacks, is confusing rather than illuminating. The secrets unfold too early and too fast, and we are fed useless information in a tasteless manner. Director Adolfo Alix Jr. lingers when he shouldn’t and rushes through when patience is necessary, leaving the audience unable to emotionally invest in the moments and characters. For a film called “Coming Home,” it forgets to use space to reflect character relationships and doesn’t even attempt to define and redefine "home" as a space throughout the two-hour period.

But what irks me the most is that each scene seems to have dramatic explosions — a fist fight between siblings, a slap between mother and son, even a shooting that is completely left-field — as if violence is the only way to manifest and resolve trauma; as if it is the only way to heighten the stakes. The frequency of the confrontations diminishes and dissipates whatever tension and setup the film worked for. In rushing the ending and in providing bandaids to deeply rooted wounds, the script undermines the same trauma and familial complexity that it sought to give gravity to. — Jason Tan Liwag

Screencap from BLACK SHEEP/YOUTUBE

“FAN GIRL” (Antoinette Jadaone, 2020)

“Hindi na ako bata.”

She repeats this. But we know that that is not the case.

In “Fan Girl,” writer/director Antoinette Jadaone returns to themes she explored in her earlier work with short films — “Plano” (2004) and “Salingpusa” (2006). Both shorts tackle the plight of young girls trapped in a patriarchal world, seemingly unable to move beyond their given circumstances. Girls don’t grow up to be women in these universes: they are perpetually young.

From the very first shot of the film, our protagonist (Jane, portrayed by Charlie Dizon) is trapped by the men surrounding her: whether it’s two men framing her in a jeepney, a classmate asking her out, or her mother’s abusive boyfriend. But Jadaone provides a clear escape — the boyfriend ng bayan-incarnate Paulo Avelino and the industry where Jadaone’s legacy is rooted.

In a way, the film is a deconstruction, a subversion, of all that she has created so far: love teams, commercial films, personas, and fans. Through the film, she acknowledges the hope that this industry gives, but also its dangers. Stars are as easily corruptible as sons and fathers, the tendency to romanticize our idols is strong, and the disillusionment is difficult to unlearn. Especially when so much of daily life is bearable, only thanks to fandom and the elation it brings.

As the film unravels, she concedes. She is young. She is a woman. But that does not mean she is powerless. So as the sirens blare, she smiles a half-formed smile and knows that she is whole. In her unwillingness to be anything but truthful and complex, Charlie Dizon conveys in a glance and gesture what actors only hope, even dream, to do with dialogue. It’s hard to imagine that the role wasn’t initially hers, but I’m glad we don’t have to. — JTL

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

“ISA PANG BAHAGHARI” (Joel C. Lamangan, 2020)

If this film came out a decade earlier, maybe I’d give it a chance.

“Isa Pang Bahaghari” follows Domeng (Phillip Salvador) and his attempts at returning to his estranged family after reportedly dying from a ship explosion. In winning back Lumen (Nora Aunor) and the rest of his family, he is assisted by Rhey (Michael de Mesa), their best friend, who complicates this resolution with his love for Domeng.

Salvador, de Mesa, and the glorious Aunor are proof that actors are accumulations; that to be an artist is to commit to a process of a lifetime. While they do have their moments, the rest of the ensemble is largely unnecessary as their pockets of life distract from the tensions of the core trio — whose history is undoubtedly more interesting than their present.

Like the other films on this MMFF lineup, the film introduces topics just as quickly as it abandons them; shames characters for sins and forgives them soon after. It becomes a predictable and tiring formula of utilizing sentiment to accelerate forgiveness and justify the (lack of) consequences.

More than anything, what infuriates me is that we are introduced to a gay character who is forced to act as a bridge for straight, cisgender individuals. It reinforces the image of a lack of desirability and the persistence of stories that center on self-sacrificial nature of the LGBTQ+ community for the comfort and convenience of the heteronormative world; that though we are loving, we are not worth loving in return. — JTL

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

“MAGIKLAND” (Christian Acuna, 2020)

There are plenty of things to love in “Magikland.” Though obviously a calibrated showcase that’s aimed to please audiences that’s enjoyed fantasy films of MMFF past, it is elevated by a compelling world building we’ve come to expect of Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes. In the era of Marvel and DC tentpoles and “Game of Thrones,” it is of course not enough to simply carve out a hero’s journey from point A to B — though this is not to say that these comic book films are worthy of emulating for something that’s supposed to be distinctly Filipino; the Disney formula can get boring after all, and we have much to learn from the pitfalls of “Game of Thrones.”

“Magikland” is based on a similarly named theme park in Negros Occidental, which is based on “local folklore and legend, adapting the legend of the Bakunawa (the moon-eating dragon) to make it more modern and fun, while still paying respect to local culture.” There are details in “Magikland” that are lovingly crafted: from the backstories of the quest items, to the many realms they are found in. It’s as if someone took painstaking notes from the lore found in many video games and thought, “What would this look like when it’s steeped in Filipino mythology?” The film’s jump off point is a mobile game akin to multiplayer battles such as “League of Legends” or “Mobile Legends”: four players — teens who are barely into puberty — end up in the titular realm as chosen ones to fight the villainous Mogrodo-Or, who, like every antagonist out there, wants to take over the world. Our child heroes are given magical items who give them powers and new names: Pat Patag (Joshua Eugenio), Kit Kanlaon (Princess Rabara), Mara Marapara (Elijah Alejo), and Boy Bakunawa (Miggs Cuaderno), whose spiritual parallel is the dragon Bakunawa. They are assigned to look for four items to defeat Mogrodo-Or. What follows is an adventure similar to many journeys we’ve seen before but, the story of “Magikland” — paired with the aid of Central Digital Lab’s superb visual effects — unfolds with charm and attention to detail that makes it less of a carbon copy of all the fantasy films we’ve seen before and more of a Filipino film that really wants to prove that we can excel without a Western blueprint (although it did end up ripping off the Avengers end credits — complete with an Alan Silvestri-like score).

A minor complaint is the stodgy English subtitles, which includes dialogues such as “What a tightwad!” and “Braggart!” as if the characters are in a 19th century novel. That said, the film’s huge stumbling block is its editing. There’s a chance that “Magikland” may flop and cutting the story into two movies might not be financially sound. So hours worth of quests are crammed into a 100-minute film. It suffers the same faults as the last few seasons of “Game of Thrones”: our heroes go from one quest to the next as if they’re using faster than light travel. Though the final battle scene between Mogrodo-Or and the four heroes is no joke: watching a grown ass man fight four pre-teens had me yelling, which would have troubled other moviegoers if we were in a theater. It’s a testament to gripping choreography that’s equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. — Don Jaucian

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

“MANG KEPWENG: ANG LIHIM NG BANDANANG ITIM” (2020; dir. Topel Lee)

If the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that you can be funny without being blatantly offensive.

It seems that “Mang Kepweng” did not get the memo.

But even if I were to accept these jokes (and I don’t), the film is largely uninteresting. Sure, it gets the odd chuckle out when it isn’t being outright transphobic, ableist, racist, fatphobic, etc. Sure, it overturns a lot of folkloric horror and begins to poke fun at these stories — almost as if mocking the industry that came before it. In this sense, there are successes in its attempt to be family-friendly. For some, maybe that is enough.

But the reasons to go on this comedic Iliad are weak, the spectacle isn’t built for the smaller screen, and the characters are difficult to root for. The villain (Joross Gamboa) is built up so well in the first few minutes of the film that to see what he evolves into — an imbecile incompetently grasping at a polka dotted bandana on the grass — seems simultaneously an insult to the audience’s intelligence and a perfect encapsulation of what kind of film this turns us into. — JTL

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

“PAKBOYS: TAKUSA” (Al Tantay, 2020)

If “Mang Kepweng” was bad, then this is catastrophic.

In the first ten minutes, “Pakboys: Takusa” manages to be morally bankrupt on every level: trivializing workplace harassment, demonstrating gaslighting, justifying infidelity, and endorsing transphobia and misogyny. It represents an outdated world view: that men are entitled to women, that women only exist to worry about their husbands, and that mistresses are brainless bimbos who are ready to sacrifice tooth and nail, quite literally, for an ounce of attention. In moments when I think that it cannot get more offensive, it surprises me by doing so. The characters never really go anywhere, the jokes never really land, and there are so many acting sins here (indicating! self-sourcing!) that even Fr. Suarez can’t save it.

There are people who will watch this and will defend its place as a comedy in the industry and its politics as a film. They will tell you that it is films like these that feed people and their families, and that ‘this’ is what the masa enjoys. Even if that is true (and I don’t think it is), there are enough examples in this current lineup to show that there are better stories and better storytellers out there; ones that deserve our resources and a place in cinematic history.

If this is proof of anything, it’s that anyone can make a film about anything, in whatever way they want. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. I don’t want anyone, myself included in writing this, to spend more time on this. In this economy of attention, your money and time can go elsewhere. This film should be the last of its kind. — JTL

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

“SUAREZ: THE HEALING PRIEST” (Joven Tan, 2020)

All great narratives of Catholic faith are rooted in uncertainty, suffering, and sacrifice. Mother Teresa famously questioned her faith and vocation, even in the last years of her life. Jesus suffered for our sins before he died painfully on the cross. Pedro Calungsod preached until he was persecuted and murdered in Guam. There is emotional heft in each of these stories for there is always something to lose in choosing to serve God.

“Suarez: The Healing Priest” wants to paint the late priest in a good light. But as the film unfolds, it seems more like an advertisement than anything, for there is nothing at stake. There are too many angles by which we view Suarez and too many side characters distract us from who we should be paying attention to. The dominoes never stack and the emotional scenes feel unearned. But even with how Suarez is framed, it seems that he is an exemption to the rule in every case and so are his miracles. If miracles are not for the everyday Filipino, why believe in them?

There are things to like about this film. Importantly, it shows that priests are just as capable of sin as their followers, how easily are affected by personal and political interests. In one scene midway, a discussion reveals how religious inculturations are rejected by the Catholic church, no matter how they bring people closer to God. These challenge how we see the church, that it is not outside of society but deeply embedded in it just as we are.

Still, it trudges on. In the titular role, John Arcilla is magnetic but is unable to carry the entire film. The cinematography is picturesque and the score is melodramatic, but ultimately these do not contribute to the narrative. In its efforts to be clean and palatable, the film fails to be a coherent representation of Suarez’s life and legacy.

One thing lingers in my mind: They really wasted that Gina Pareno appearance, huh? — JTL

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

“TAGPUAN” (McArthur C. Alejandre, 2020)

In any film written by Ricky Lee, the women are always the most interesting characters. His female-centered films have been cultural tent poles — with “Moral” and “Himala” standing above the rest, having created paragons of the Filipino woman as depicted in the media.

“Tagpuan” is obviously most interesting when it focuses on the women and when it allows us to share in their hopes, dreams, and pains. Agnes (Iza Calzado) has stability and seeks freedom and artistry, while Tanya (Shaina Magdayao) faces the opposite problem. They both reach for a world outside to satisfy this inner hunger, convinced that the cities they grew up in are too small for their dreams; that the houses they stay in cage them somehow. In particular, Shaina is luminescent in each scene she’s in and this makes the absence of this light much more devastating and unbearable.

“Tagpuan” is somehow pretty yet dizzyingly despondent. The non-linear narrative disserves them throughout and left me quite confused and lost (was that the point?). The after-effect is an impression that the film skims over the emotionality and character history because, like the lead character, it too is afraid to commit.

But in this struggle towards fulfillment, the two women are fascinating (even if, at times, the stories and motivations are unbelievable). The film loses much of its appeal as it hinges its hopes on an uninteresting and uncompelling Alan (Alfred Vargas) — who neither has the gravitas necessary for the role, nor the acting skill to carry the film. He is an observer left untransformed; an old wall left unpainted that we, for some reason, are forced to stare at.— JTL

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

THE BOY FORETOLD BY THE STARS” (Dolly Dulu, 2020)

“The Boy Foretold by the Stars” feels like a culmination of a great year for the Filipino Boys’ Love genre despite the fact that the film was shot prior to the BL boom during the lockdown. So in a year that saw shows like “Gameboys” or “Gaya sa Pelikula” — which had the advantage of telling their stories in several episodes — what else is there left to say by a 108-minute film like “The Boy Foretold by the Stars”?

Well, first off, the film has the advantage of having an out and femme actor like Adrian Lindayag as the lead. As Dominic, he is immensely relatable for every baklita who has pined for a supposedly straight and impossibly cute guy like Luke (Keann Johnson, affable and charming like all the softboys we’ve had a crush on during high school). Lindayag easily gives verisimilitude to Dominic (he’s been a Dominic too, I bet) who, in the hands of a straight actor pretending to be femme and soft, wouldn’t just come off as natural. Lindayag carries much of the film, how he freely falls in love — hurtling at the speed of light — with Luke and tries not to turn himself inside out when he’s near Luke, who in turn gives Dominic reasons to hold on despite the nagging question, “Is he pa-hopia or not?”

“The Boy Foretold by the Stars” has the trappings of a template Thai BL: the cute guy leads, the school setting, the will-they-won't-they scenario — but all distilled into a short running time. The Catholic school setting and the blatant homophobia makes it all the more realistic. This macho-Christian oppression ready to take on any queer love manifests itself so palpably in the case of Dominic and Luke’s love story that it all seems so real and unreal in the context of many BL shows this year who only had to contend with the lockdown and feelings. Perhaps in a post-pandemic world, all the queer lovers will still have to battle these demons and it’s films like “The Boy Foretold by the Stars” that encourages us to fight even harder. — DJ

Screencap from UPSTREAM/YOUTUBE

“THE MISSING” (Easy Ferrer, 2020)

I really wanted to like “The Missing.” Truly. I have never rooted for a local horror film as badly as this. With terrors of “Ju-On: Origins” and “Noroi” still lingering in my mind, I came into “The Missing” expecting at least a decent time. The premise is intriguing enough for J-horror fans: Iris (Ritz Azul) is recruited by her ex-boyfriend Job (Joseph Marco) to restore their former professor’s ancestral house in Saga, Japan. Iris takes the job, wanting to escape the ordeal of finding her sister, who’s still missing after being kidnapped. From the moment they set foot in Japan, Iris starts seeing troubled spirits — whether she has a third eye is more hinted at rather than established — and the welcoming party gets even more intense when they start working on the house. The ghosts vary in appearances, but they do look like they got cake smudged all over their faces. Not a good look for supposedly scary entities.

Still, I trudged on. The massive house emits an aura of its own. With Iris, Job, and their intern (Miles Ocampo) being the only Filipinos for the large part of the movie, Ferrer and cinematographer Marvin Reyes imbue the proceedings with a stark yet creepy dread similar to early Japanese horror films of the '00s. When the workers start talking of Hitobashira — the ritual of sacrificing humans alive to fortify structures — things get extra creepy (especially with the unintended callback to Junji Ito’s “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post”). But “The Missing” never realizes its full potential. It’s tiring to complain about jump scares, but when a film already works with a great atmosphere of fear (even just a few minutes in that house should do), the broken-ghoul-running-after-a-screaming-woman tactics just won’t cut it. Ritz Azul actually did well, appearing as a tired, haunted soul. Until she started acting. — DJ

***

The Metro Manila Film Festival is available via Upstream until January 7, 2021. Each film is ₱250.