The streak of short films dominating the current landscape of Philippine cinema continues with this year's QCinema International Film Festival. While a sizable number of international feature films were still showcased, no local features were produced for the program. The QCShorts category still goes on strong against all odds, with two categories dedicated to short films for QCinema 2021. First is the aforementioned QCShorts that has six local short scripts picked and given grants for production. Second is the Asian Shorts category, which has six shorts from Asian filmmakers curated as finished productions.
The streak of short films dominating the current landscape of Philippine cinema continues with this year's QCinema International Film Festival. While a sizable number of international feature films were still showcased, no local features were produced for the program. The QCShorts category still goes on strong against all odds, with two categories dedicated to short films for QCinema 2021. First is the aforementioned QCShorts which has six local short scripts picked to be given grants for production. Second is the Asian Shorts category, which has six shorts from Asian filmmakers curated as finished productions.
Some of them, still have points to drive further, which can only be fully fleshed out by knowing the core of their concepts. The socio-political comments don't necessarily mix well with the treatment. All have varying degrees of success in their execution as commentaries. But does it matter if it's not the core? Does it have to pop out? Or is it adequate enough for the intentional commentaries to be read between the lines as subtext?
"I get so sad sometimes" (dir. Trishtan Perez) is straightforward. A gay schoolboy gets depressed after being rejected by his more mature online fling. He then shuns everyone around him out. But Perez dresses this simplicity with his signature playfulness to form — a boxed aspect ratio, faded digicam filter, and framing that give depth to his characters. The narrative is something intimate to the director, and it will easily latch on to those who had a similar experience.
The short that stands out most in the QCShorts category is the surreal "It's Raining Frogs Outside" (dir. Maria Estela Paiso). From the titular frogs that are constantly raining outside to the underwater shots and the human-to-frog transformation, it is a delight wondering how they pulled off each visual cue.
Clues pointing to how the visual mosaic alludes to experience being isolated due to the lockdown populate the film. While the pandemic is definitely surreal and the allusion of slowly losing your mind due to the near-apocalypse works, reading hard into the short is doing surrealism a disservice. Let "It's Raining Frogs Outside" take you on a trip. In this instance, the artifice is more important than the context even if passivity is in direct contrast to Paiso's point.
"Henry" (dir. Kaj Palanca) feels flat not because of its own fault but because of how it compares and is placed with the others. A younger brother, Henry, meets his older brother's co-worker, seeking compensation for his older brother's work-related injury. But the younger brother instead finds deep-seated companionship with the co-worker.
The program's arrangement made "Henry" an unintentional palate cleanser to the trip that is "It's Raining Frogs Outside" and a bridge to ready the audience for the next film. It's traditional in style, and demands attention to the internal feelings of Henry more than to what is happening. It needs a rewatch separated from the others.
"Mighty Robo V" (dir. Miko Livelo and Mihk Vergara) works best as a rare instance of local mecha and kaiju media, which will tickle a niche but dedicated audience. But one may dare say that it was hindered by a layer of political satire that was hard to ignore.
It's not satire if you are just replicating the banal humor of the main person you are satirizing — even if it may generate genuine chuckles. Also, it had to be said because the short's concept alludes to this history: the real dictators are meant to be portrayed by obviously evil creatures in this morally clear cut media, not the obvious heroes. This is why “Voltes V” was targeted by the Marcos regime in the first place. Livelo's and Vergara's reversal is either an oversight or well-informed.
"Mighty Robo V has cartoonish but charming sets, costumes, and designs for both robot and monster. They are done exactly how they should be done. If we are given the chance for another local mecha/kaiju tokusatsu rendition, this crew may be best fit to handle it.
"Skylab" (dir. Chuck Escasa) is faulted as the least effective of the bunch. In ways it is, because of how it is designed and because of its shortcomings. It is made distant as the titular space satellite, a locked up memory.
While the Skylab will never fall down, the ending fell as a narrative swerve was introduced. The central Skylab is forgotten, replaced by an abduction made only to hit home the martial law milieu of the short, not its dramatic impetus. Escasa is a historian that needs to develop more as a filmmaker.
"City of Flowers" (dir. Xeph Suarez) is a build up to the final beats. Like "Skylab" however, the short relegated its historical sentiment as a twist, literally background noise. But it does have a fertile interreligious drama in its center, and unlike in Escasa's case, Suarez didn't neglect this center. It is easier to be more invested in the scenery (a strength, not a weakness). Shot beautifully with wides, it set the standard for future regional shorts.
While "City of Flowers" is a good finale for the program, "Henry" could've been a more fitting denouement to bookend the program with Perez' short, leaving the shorts that are more "out there" in the middle.
For the Asian Shorts category, absurdity dominates. Most noticeable are tropes an absurdist film makes: Dialogue are stilted (they could only say a few sentences) and characters are blocked just standing there like robots. The mechanical direction renders some shorts in the category "lifeless." The curation echoes the sentiment of how mundane life has become for the past two years. As absurdity is closely tied to the context of the audience's world, it begs the question how the shorts could be separated from real world politics. Again, the commentary varies in effectiveness.
While meeting a hookup, a young boy traverses a green-tinted Manila built in the eyes of Petersen Vargas in "How to Die Young In Manila" (Philippines). He starts to see random dead bodies nonchalantly lying in the street. Positioned as a reconciliation between the personal and national trauma, the short is Vargas' middle-class guilt manifesting. This short uses absurdity effectively for shock factor while still soaking in the atmosphere. However, it's doubtful if the short can work twice, or at all if it already did none for the viewer.
An absurdist take on the pandemic is inevitable. So we had "New Abnormal" (dir. Sorayos Prapapan, Thailand/South Korea/Singapore). However, it runs with dry gags after the other that gets old after the first attempt (some of it may be arguably tone-deaf). And that's it — this is basically what the short has going for.
There's not much absurdity in "Dear to Me" (dir. Monica Vanessa Tedja, Indonesia/Germany). There is, however, one magic element to it. An out gay youth, Tim, is on vacation with his parents. He hears a myth about a man who can change into a deer. This man eventually leads them to the person they were looking for their whole life.
Tim's longing here is felt stronger than Vargas' young boy, partly because there is no atmosphere distracting us from it. Admittedly, more atmosphere would've helped. The relationships between Tim and his fantastic object of desire, and between Tim and his Catholic parents could have intersected to form a better dramatic vehicle instead of being two separate dramatic drives.
"Sunrise in My Mind" (dir. Danech San, Cambodia) has absurdity to the minimum, but it's still there, grounded and not disruptive. If you blink, you'd miss it — as well as the story. But pay attention and you'd get a subdued and intimate romance between the working-class.
The setting is a parlor, and we act as lingering customers witnessing a love affair. The characters feel real not because they look alive; they feel real because they are burdened with stress, are tired, and are just making it by. The prospect of seeing each other is the only spark that keeps them going. With the least volume of deliberate non-sense, "Sunrise in My Mind" managed to capture the essence of the Absurd, and its antidote, more than the others in the category.
"Live in Cloud-Cuckoo Land" (dir. Vu Minh Nghia, Vietnam) does a lot although has no point for it. However, "no point" is the point. Like, "It's Raining Frogs Outside," this shouldn't be read heavily because the surface is more important. However, it is not as endearing. What you get watching is lethargy, not kinetic amazement for the material. The short has absurdity to the maximum but does it fully understand Kafka? Only with the part where it has to make no sense, and one human-to-animal transformation.
The Asian Shorts program saved the best for last with "Filipiñana" (dir. Rafael Manuel, Philippines, UK). Like “Sunrise in My Mind” it's closer to absurdism by doing little. But it did so a bit more because there is no sunrise at the end of Manuel's young girl. She's on a golf course that has no business being there in the first place. Brown bodies litter a pocket white world. Their tasks are banal. She is like Camus' Sisyphus. She is transported back to her job as a tee girl just when we see her enjoy her shift end with friends.
It's commendable how all films from both categories were competently made when it comes to technical quality. More importantly, they push film form in ways a feature can't afford. Each film in the category feels like a bubble of its own fantastic world, renditions of their makers' distinct individual experiences placed in a flavorful setting. Because of their unique styles, they become excellent world-building stories.