5 'indie' box-office hits that might prove Mother Lily wrong

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John Arcilla plays the title character in "Heneral Luna," an unlikely hit which raked in ₱256 million. Screencap from HENERAL LUNA/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “There is a time for the indie movies. But not during the Christmas season. Christmas is for the family.”

An emotional Mother Lily Monteverde, who refers to herself as “the original” independent film producer, couldn’t help but criticize the decision of the revamped Metro Manila Film Festival to come up with a line-up that is allegedly mostly films with independent sensibilities. The entries, with the exception of Theodore Boborol’s “Vince & Kath & James” originate from outfits that wouldn’t have featured in the lucrative yearly showcase of Filipino films if it weren’t for last year’s brouhaha that forced the change. Her entry, Ian Lorenos’ “Mano Po 7: Chinoy” didn’t make the cut, putting her in that uncomfortable place of being just a loud spectator in a film festival that used to house most of her franchises.

The movie matriarch is right.

She is the original. She knows how it feels to be in the outside looking in, at a time when movie theaters were being filled by prominent studios with romances, musicals, and melodramas made for profit. She did her homework, and recruited up-and-coming stars she fondly called her babies, and created cinematic vehicles for them to shine. Sure, her films did please the crowds, but what she offered was something new, a certain sense of novelty at a time that is ripe for change.

It wasn’t as if the MMFF chose eight films to punish the Philippines with bleakness and strife. It was the MMFF acknowledging that the Filipino audience has matured enough to celebrate Christmas with things other than bland frivolity and empty spectacle.

Now, she is in that exact place of all the studios her burgeoning movie empire humbled, and her final battleground, the yuletide film fest that exposed how stagnant her profit machine has become, is on the verge of being captured by the young turks, those who dared and continue to dare to shake the sensibilities of the masses with stories and styles that feel new and original.

It isn’t like there weren’t signs that change is coming. While Mother Lily was throwing platitudes to the indies by fashioning herself as a patron in the various film festivals like Cinemalaya and Cinema One, which paved the way to grow an audience that thirsts for an alternative, more intrepid producers were experimenting on how to make that blockbuster film that would tickle the hunger for entertainment of the masses but wouldn’t betray them with obvious stupidity and shoddy craftsmanship.

It wasn’t as if the MMFF chose eight films to punish the Philippines with bleakness and strife. It was the MMFF acknowledging that the Filipino audience has matured enough to celebrate Christmas with things other than bland frivolity and empty spectacle.

The point here is not to discredit Mother Lily’s sentiments but simply to showcase the films that are both independently produced and rife with independent sensibilities that made money, even if they competed alongside Hollywood’s behemoths and Star Cinema’s indefatigable love teams. Now that the standards are higher, it is about time that Mother Lily and her crew of old-timers rethink their businesses, if they want to take part in a film festival whose concept of Christmas isn’t about colorful packaging that hide what essentially are empty boxes, but about showcasing a feast of what Philippine cinema should be about.

Dear Mother Lily, consider this when you start strategizing for next year’s fest:

“Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa Kiyeme” (2009)

The biggest risk that the producers of Joyce Bernal’s “Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa Kiyeme” took was to trust that Eugene Domingo, a theater actress who was known more as Ai Ai delas Alas’ sidekick in her “Tanging Ina” films, is ready to headline her own film. That risk of the new production outfit, which is composed of Bernal, actor Piolo Pascual, cinematographer Shayne Sarte and Erick Raymundo, all of whom met while making a Star Cinema rom-com, paid off. The film was watched and re-watched by hordes of moviegoers who just wanted to have a good time by laughing their hearts out at the misadventures of mismatched twins who couldn’t help but get into trouble. The film is inane and it proudly wore its inanity by taking it seriously, making sure that the film didn’t feel cheap and quickly crafted. It was one of the top 20 highest grossing films in the Philippines in 2009, with a total of $1,659,676 according to Box Office Mojo, which puts it ahead of films such as “Love Me Again,” “Yaya & Angelina: The Spoiled Brat Movie,” and “Ang Tanging Pamilya.”

“Here Comes the Bride” (2010)

Chris Martinez, writer of “Kimmy Dora: Kambal sa Kiyeme,” had another hit coming. “Here Comes the Bride,” which was produced by Quantum Films, an outfit that was more known for socially relevant award winners like Jeffrey Jeturian’s “Kubrador” (2006) and Armando Lao’s “Biyaheng Lupa” (2009), had one clever conceit that Martinez brilliantly weaved into a tale that is both hilarious and intellectually compelling. Basically, the film had several people switch bodies, giving rise to a situation where class struggles, gender identities, and familial relationships are blurred. Of course, the main draw was the fact that this is top-notch comedy with thespians Angelica Panganiban, John Lapus, Eugene Domingo, and Jaime Fabregas transforming into sketches of profound silliness. It earned ₱117,161,160 in the box office.

“Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” (2011)

Marlon Rivera’s “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank,” written again by Martinez and starred by Domingo, displayed that independence is not some sacred cow oblivious to satire. It is ripe to be poked fun at and the film poked and poked that the pokes felt like tickles. The film — which earned ₱38.4 million, then the highest grossing independent movie of all time — essentially documented the adventures of ambitious filmmakers who are about to mount their masterwork, was self-aware but immensely approachable. Its gags were on point and even to the moviegoer who couldn’t differentiate a Brillante Mendoza film from a Joel Lamangan film, the jokes would still work because Domingo, whose primary asset was her ability to make fun of herself, was just wonderful.

“That Thing Called Tadhana” (2014)

Antoinette Jadaone’s “That Thing Called Tadhana” was pitched as the antithesis to the Star Cinema rom-com. Instead of being about love blossoming between predictable lovers, it was about heartbreak and moving on. Instead of having an established love team, it had Angelica Panganiban and JM de Guzman, who were never paired together, as leads. Instead of unlikely situations and slow motioned montages, it had endless conversations. Interestingly, it all worked. The film was loved, with people mistakenly believing that the film was a product of Star Cinema instead of its less-popular sister, Cinema One Originals. The film sold enough tickets (₱134,000,000) that it pushed Star Cinema and other studios to start making films that capitalized on heartbreak.

“Heneral Luna” (2015)

Finally, Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” is the most unlikely of hits, raking in ₱256 million. First, it is a historical film with characters culled from textbooks the public would rather forget. Second, it starred John Arcilla, a character actor who is more known for his acting prowess than his good looks. Third, it is bleak, with a message that didn’t blindly patronize nationalism but instead questioned it. However, the film was an absolute hit that got all producers scratching their heads as to how and why. The film, produced by a brand new outfit that now actively seeks out burgeoning talents, made so much money that Tarog is now developing a sequel that would hopefully unmask that the Filipino audience has matured enough to look at itself with critical eyes.