FILM

REVIEW: Cinemalaya Main Shorts Competition 2021

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Still from “Kawatan sa Salog” (A Toy in the River) by Alphie Velasco. Photo courtesy of CINEMALAYA

There are 13 films selected for this year's Cinemalaya Main Shorts Competition. And like last year's batch, an entirely online experience awaits everyone wanting to chip in. Brought by the pandemic, this shift in platform is an innovation marketed by the festival as a different approach from the usual routine of moviegoing.

But if you are expecting the festival as a fresh breath away from the pandemic, you may opt to look elsewhere. This year's festival is marked by a lack of direction and purpose not unlike the general malaise that everyone is experiencing at this point. There are two sets of short films, and each set operates under no unifying theme as each film appears to be merely thrown in with each other. If some films center their narratives around the pandemic, others revolve around zany stories that often lead to nowhere. These films may not lack creativity, but it is ingenuity and execution in their visions that need follow-through.

(Note: There are spoilers within reviews)

SET A SHORTS

“Maski Papano” (dir. Glenn Barit and Che Tagyamon)

A stop-motion animation following used face masks that somehow gain sentience and existential crises (and a wooden body frame) is a novelty everyone can get behind with a laugh. But the trap that “Maski Papano” fell into is it became a didactic rundown monologue of metaphors of what the pandemic felt like to the face masks themselves, quickly diffusing its playful absurdity with a necessity to relate and remind us of the morbid real world.

“Crossing” (dir. Marc Misa)

In its five-minute runtime, it is hard to glean what “Crossing” can offer more after one has already read its logline (or even taken a look at its poster). The film is done the minute its plot starts to take shape with this anticipated development, which some can easily misinterpret as a "twist."

“Kawatan sa Salog” (A Toy in the River) (dir. Alphie Velasco)

“Kawatan sa Salog​”​​​​​​ is one of the few films that has an interesting premise. Drowned people go in isolation on an island fashioned by the afterlife to reminisce over their lives lost. It's a shame that the film never took time to flesh out its concepts. We never really felt for the main character. His drive to go back to his life is overshadowed by ambiguity. Is he really off the island? But why should we care? This year is plagued by unsure endings, and this is another one of such.

“An Sadit na Planeta” (The Little Planet) (dir. Arjanmar Rebeta)

“An Sadit na Planeta” sees a man stranded on his own little planet with only him to fend for himself. And that's pretty much the film as a whole. It operates mostly on a gimmickry of visuals that gets old quick, and its voice-over work delivers a non-story. “An Sadit na Planeta” is best described as a technical exercise of a very particular cinematic technique: 360-degree camerawork. It is not for everybody. And if you find yourself running low on patience, then you might easily slip off its grip altogether.

“Looking for Rafflesias and Other Fleeting Things” (dir. James Fajardo)

Like “Crossing,” “Looking for Rafflesias and Other Fleeting Things” pulled its biggest punch until the minute it was about to end, leaving no room to further develop its most interesting plot point. The first minutes seem inconsequential to the rest of the film — a kind of prelude to what the film really is about. There are a lot of distractions that keep the film from doing what it set out to do — a same-sex retelling of a famous folklore on forbidden love.

“Out of Body” (dir. Enrico Po)

The strongest suit of “Out of Body” is its intriguing premise. And not unlike it, “Out of Body” suffers from a severe case of not knowing how to follow up on this premise. Nothing substantial really comes out of the whole thing. If it feels like a commentary of something — it is only that, a feeling. It is not for the empowerment of its female lead but for the visual fetish of her suffering. A confusing ending only made everything worse. The film leaves only a trail of edginess in its wake, which makes the audience both wanting and frustrated.

“Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi” (dir. Shiri De Leon)

Filmed as if it was a digital one-act theatrical play, “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi” follows the titular character who hires a callboy to lose her virginity at her old age. What happens instead is that Lola Mayumi backtracks on the sex, and with the help of her consort, unpacks the childhood trauma impeding her sexuality. The film is well-intentioned and works for the most part. However, the final exchange of looks undermine what the film has built for its characters. Ambiguity in the ending has sidetracked the film again.

SET B SHORTS

“Namnama en Lolang” (Grandmother's Hope) (dir. Jonnie Lynn Pasalla)

“Namnama en Lolang” is the first of two documentaries in the whole main competition program. Both of which directly tackle the effects of the pandemic. This film follows a grandmother longing for her grandchild's parents after both have been casualties to the pandemic. It is a pretty straightforward film that invites your sympathy. But that's all it's got going for itself.

Kids on Fire (dir. Kyle Nieva)

“Kids on Fire” has the lineup's most playfully devilish premise. A kid on a Christian field trip experiences supernatural powers that may be linked to the devil whenever he plays with himself. Separated into chapters, the film progresses at a steady pace that will tuck you in comfortably in its antics once you've discerned the pattern. But alas, it is also a victim of its own finale ending abruptly and being unsure of what it wanted. Like some of the other films, the build up is reserved in service of a plot twist (or two) that has no payoff.

“Beauty Queen” (dir. Myra Aquino)

If not too didactic due to its short runtime, “Beauty Queen” glimpses a possibility of a feature-length film on Remedios Gomez-Paraiso with a fully-fleshed out series of plots and cast of characters. “Beauty Queen” is competently done. But right now it feels like a single scene ripped from a whole movie.

“Ate O.G.” (dir. Kevin Mayuga)

It's harsh to say that out of all the films featured this year, “Ate OG” is the most senseless. But you won't feel bad thinking that way when you realize that it knowingly made its story decisions out of some assumption to be a deconstruction of privilege. A household helper keeps being mistreated by her two teenage employers. Somehow, after finding out she stole some stash of marijuana and lit some for herself, they start to sympathize with her and change their actions towards her because of their newfound bond over the good stuff. Why? Just because? If it's meant to be a comedy, then it's offending the intelligence. If it's meant to be a social commentary, then it's heavily misguided.

“The Dust in Your Place” (dir. David Olson)

Probably more insufferable than “Ate O.G.” is the banter between two friends as they reminisce over the future of their eight-year friendship. It's hard to get a grip of the dialogue. Maybe because the dialogue is not that compelling, or because at first glance you'd see the actors and remember how they are in real life. It's easy to see only a few people really getting into the film.

“Ang Mga Nawalang Pag-asa at Panlasa “(dir. Kevin Ayson)

“Ang Mga Nawalang Pag-asa at Panlasa” is straightforward in its subject. It is a documentary on Ilocano food and food establishments that have been affected severely by the pandemic. Satiating at the least, its vibe and technical work can often feel like a travel advertisement or a cuisine commercial made for television. It being part of a film shorts competition is very weird indeed.

That said, it's not all doom and gloom for this year's Cinemalaya. Most of the films have the technical competence to be worth your time, if you are the type to prefer it over content. And the films have enough zaniness to distract one from the real doom and gloom in the world. That is, if one already has the time and money to spare watching.

While not perfect, last year's selection feels tighter and more cohesive as a whole. Deeper in the pandemic, this year's films feel separated from each other by their own walls, with each just trying to get by.

At the least, this year's Cinemalaya is a reminder that films can persevere in times like ours. And filmmakers can certainly keep trying to make the spirit of the industry alive.