The 2021 Metro Manila Film Festival is over and “Spider Man: No Way Home” is running rampant in movie theaters, as if there’s no COVID-19 surge. I am writing this far from the noise that is the MMFF debate on local Twitter. Honestly, what else is there to say about the MMFF? It’s ironically run by the Metro Manila Development Authority — not even the Film Development Council of the Philippines, which has its own film festival. The MMFF has long established itself as a capitalistic machine, bent on raking in Christmas money from viewers who expect to be entertained (though there is nothing wrong with wanting to watch films that entertain). Filmmaking, after all, needs money. You have cast and crew to pay — and pay them appropriately, especially the crew.
What little hope of “revamping” the festival has gone out the window many years ago and to speak of “elevating” it reeks of snobbery and elitism. For example, it’s easy to dismiss Vice Ganda films (which hilariously skewers the systems that it feeds on, see “The Mall the Merrier,” which is about real estate takeovers by big malls, or “Fantastika,” which is also about real estate takeovers, this time concerning a struggling perya) if you haven’t seen them. The selection and cinema allocation every year is in need of retooling — actually, it’s more of the system itself that needs to be questioned and revamped. After all, we’ve seen blockbusters occasionally coexist with gems — though still few and far in between — such as “Ang Larawan,” “Honor Thy Father,” “English Only, Please,” and “RPG Metanoia.” For further insight into the selection of the films, you can read Philbert Dy’s 2016 essay on his experience as a committee member. An example: “In practice, it’s about an hour’s total of talking about nothing. It’s an exercise in empty rhetoric. The committee hardly seems to care about what’s actually inside these screenplays. Hardly any of the scripts are discussed.”
So did people actually watch the films they’re dismissing this year? It seems not so much so. I hoped to watch more films, such as “Huwag Kang Lalabas” and “Nelia,” if it weren’t for the new surge. I’m hoping producers will put these films on streaming soon — someone involved in one of these films already hinted at the possibility of putting theirs on streaming platforms — as this year’s batch has a crop of comparably better films than the last five editions of the festival (as a side note, 2020’s “Magikland” is still underrated). The 2016 edition remains an anomaly, where all the films stand on their own — though it could have used a big blockbuster or two.
“A Hard Day” (Lawrence Fajardo)
“May pinagdadaanan lang ng konti, pare,” Edmund (Dingdong Dantes) tells a cop who caught him driving under the influence. He says this a few more times in this scene, which is nothing but a germ of what will become his worst day ever. Edmund is a certified kupal cop. He tries to beat the cops at a checkpoint and then berates them more once they confirmed that he’s a police intel officer. He’s arranging his mom’s funeral while, at the same time, fending off the Internal Affairs office (which has busted them for bribery), and thinking about how to hide the body of the guy that he hit on the road on his way to the funeral. Of course his life — not only his day — will get worse.
The film, adapted from the South Korean 2014 thriller of the same title (starring Lee Sun-Kyun of “Parasite” and Cho Jin-Woong of “Signal”), mostly follows the original’s taut pacing and comedic verve to a tee (so fans of the original film will just basically see the film transplanted to the Philippines with Filipino actors), but Lawrence Fajardo — who directed the nail-biting thriller “Amok,” perhaps one of the best Cinemalaya films so far — skillfully places the story in a Filipino specific-milieu that it changes the subtext that grounds the film, and in a good way. In fact, the film’s story fits so well in the current political climate. Here, cops are either corrupt, stupid, or even more stupid. Edmund’s recklessness and temper might have led him to his predicament, but he bulldozes any sort of obstacle by brandishing his police ID. But this doesn’t work on devil incarnate Lt. Franco (another delicious turn from John Arcilla, who won Best Supporting Actor for this role), who won’t stop at nothing to get what he wants from Edmund.
The film diverges a bit from the source. The secret behind Franco’s relentless pursuit of what Edmund has higher stakes in a “Breaking Bad” kind of way, making this cat and mouse game a little more fun to watch. There is little depiction of the proverbial “good cop” in Dantes’ Edmund, thank god. Whatever he’s doing is not to undo Franco and his dirty work — it’s to survive. And while the original film is slick and calculated (though a little more logical) like any big South Korean production, Fajardo’s adaptation is grueling and gritty that you can really tell they’re both having a hard day. And you know that having a hard day in Manila can really make you hulas like it’s San Juan’s feast day.
“A Hard Day” (written by Arlene Tamayo, whose writing credits include “Wildflower” and “Sunshine Family”) interestingly enough has an epilogue, which is not present in the original. It made me laugh out loud (though the rest of the movie is snappy and hilarious). But on second thought, if you’re in the Philippines, what will you do with an insane amount of money? Maybe a little moralizing won’t hurt. But it does turn Edmund into a good cop. Yikes.
“Love at First Stream”
It’s a little unfair to say that “Love at First Stream” is mababaw lang. At its worst, it’s a love story packaged around an ad for the streaming app Kumu and Chic-Boy (which, I admit, was successful in telegraphing its message because it almost made me order, but then I remembered I had hypertension). Characters constantly have to explain how to stream or earn money using the app (which is a co-producer of the movie). I actually had someone explain it to me before how the app works and it gets a little complicated. No worries though, — for the film, all you have to know is that the gifts your followers send to you can be converted to cash, which is why V, short for Vilma (Daniela Stranner, who delivers a compelling performance), is so hellbent in succeeding as a streamer/vlogger.
She explores tutorials at first with Tupe (Anthony Jennings, who shines in this role), a sort of an apology since she dumped Tupe when they were in high school and it’s a hint at how V operates. She’s singularly-minded when it comes to the things she wants, even at the cost of the people who love her. Not even her mom is spared, who, in a bit of Gen Z vs Gen X exchange, tells V that there is no money or future in streaming, and that V should devote her time (she is a dropout) to their longganisa business instead. V, as a Sagittarean-move, wants to prove her mom wrong and relentlessly climbs the ladder of Kumu. She has to succeed so she can get downpayment for a condo unit (sold by Tupe’s family) and finally move out of her mom’s.
In contrast, Tupe is the gig economy personified. He moonlights as a rider for a food delivery service (hence the many Chic-Boy placements) and cleans the condo unit so they can finally sell it. But Tupe is also there when V needs props or ideas for their vlogs — his undying devotion for her notwithstanding. You know where this trope is going.
There’s also, V’s cousin Megumi (Kaori Oinuma, whose muted performance sometimes flatlines), your studious character archetype. She wants to get an internship in Singapore so she can have a good job as thanks to being adopted by V’s family. Megumi is constantly being picked on by her classmate Gino (Jeremiah Lisbo) who is also her rival for the internship. But of course, Gino secretly likes Megumi and catfishes her as “catboy” whenever she’s streaming on the app. She’s the “streaming just to stream” type unlike V who’s in it for the money.
Are you still with me? Good. Things get complicated when V and Gino unwittingly form a love team (vgin) on Kumu, which proves to be profitable. Through Megumi, V convinces Gino to continue being a love team so they can be the app’s top love team. The love quadrangle becomes volatile, like in any other multifangled Star Cinema rom-com. “Love at First Stream” is a little more chaotic, though it’s not really hard to follow. The film is clear about who will end up with whom but the road there is messier than usual, thanks to the various storylines running about.
“Love at First Stream” is interesting in its meta approach in love teams. The four leads aren’t the usual KathNiels and LizQuens and, as seen in the 2016 MMFF entry “Vince and Kath and James,” the Star Cinema rom-com formula still has the ability to surprise when there are fresh faces in it. In the movie, there's also the construct of building a love team for the public, which makes for an interesting parallel. “Love at First Stream” is funnier than it has any right to be, with Stranner and Jennings leading the comedy pack, along with an — as expected in a Star Cinema production — excellent ensemble cast supporting them.
There are hints that the film wants to mine deeper insights here: how this new generation interacts in both the virtual and real worlds, building relationships in them and out of them (or a confluence of both); and how incentivized behavior can be both boon and bane in an era where life is mostly experienced online. “Love at First Stream” still has the usual Pinoy film pontificating — always a pitfall in an otherwise great film. Family comes first, etc. etc. Though it’s something that’s being tested now that we’re all Very Much Online, what with all your titos and titas and their fake news. But that’s for another story.
“Big Night” (Jun Robles Lana) and “Whether the Weather is Fine” (Carlo Francisco Manatad)
It might be helpful to talk about “Big Night” and “Whether the Weather is Fine” in the same breath, given their absurdist approach to current and very real topics that are being experienced by many Filipinos. Yeah, we Pinoys love a big laugh but when things like tokhang and failed disaster response are right at your door, knocking and calling your name, are we ready to watch films that depict them in a comedic light?
Though, “Big Night” and “Whether the Weather is Fine” have us at knife’s point. They’re both fun and uncomfortable to watch. In “Big Night” Dharna (Christian Bables), is on a quest to take his name out of their barangay’s drug list, which was seemingly put there at random. He goes into a rabbit hole of bureaucracy, questioning one barangay official after another until he ends up with the Final Boss, though it’s a sequence that’s both horrifying and hilarious featuring Bables, John Arcilla, and Nico Antonio.
In “Whether the Weather is Fine,” the absurdist verve is partly in Andrew Florentino’s music, which takes turns going into the dream-like and family fun time spectrum. Norma (Charo Santos Concio), her son Miguel (Daniel Padilla), and his girlfriend Andrea (Rans Rifol) are trying to make their way out of Tacloban amid the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. The magnanimity of the typhoon’s effects are apparent: there are scenes in which voices praying become whole, then someone enters the scene berating them for wasting candles. “The sun’s out. Light it when it’s dark and just pray without a candle now!” Andrea keeps the drama in check, purposely puncturing the disaster exploitation bubble that could very well lead to a stereotypical take on a subject (a reviewer who saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival noted that they want to see of more of the turmoil that Manatad has set up). This isn’t a weepy film on Filipino resilience (don’t get me wrong though, it has some of the most depressing images I’ve seen on screen recently and its last ten minutes has got to be one of the most strange and stirring endings in Filipino cinema). It’s about seeing through the bureaucratic bullshit, just like how Norma spits at the foot of the two soldiers who refused to help her because they can’t. “Hindi kayo sorry,” she tells them. Moments later, there is a mass zumba demonstration.
The same goes for “Big Night.” Dharna reluctantly accepts to take on a job at the funeral home owned by barangay captain (Eugene Domingo) Madame Cynthia. Madame wants Dharna to be the funeral home’s make-up artist for the day in turn for helping him out. One of the corpses, which looks like a tokhang victim, has a wound in his left eye. Dharna has no idea how to work on it so he whips out Gucci shades from his bag and places it over the corpse’s eyes. “Gucci yan talaga? Ang ganda,” Madame Cynthia says when she sees the corpse. She puts it on. “Eksaktong eksakto ano?” But then she gives it back to the corpse. “Sige na nga tulong na lang natin dito sa patay… O ayan mukha siyang sosyal.” Later she remarks that business is booming because of the tokhang victims. Sounds like something straight out of a business owner’s mouth.
“Behold the grandeur of disaster! The attitude is ironic given the subject matter — and it is up to you if the joke is tone-deaf or warranted,” wrote John Patrick Manio in his writeup for the “Whether the Weather is Fine” in our Best Filipino Films of 2021. Many films tackling the subjects of “Big Night” and “Whether the Weather is Fine” have come and gone. Both films ask us to take a chance on their different way of telling their stories. This becomes a double edged sword. The surreality of these depictions throw us out on a loop, but we also have to remember that living in the Philippines is stranger than the most absurd of fictions.