The best Filipino films of 2017

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Introductions to year-enders like this are necessary only if the intent is to apologize. And this is indeed an apology, for although most personal year-enders are inherently fine and fascinating to read, year-enders for publications connote authority, a display of power in determining the worthy, which is not how reading cinema in general must work. The only way to destroy the politics of traditional year-ender lists is to not make them, and the idea that a national cinema exists by year, is segregated by year, and is assessed by year by one person, though it has its convenience and practical functions, is childish and foolish, and tends to limit an understanding of an industry that moves forward and changes continuously.

But this year-ender is written solely for this reason: For the truth that the good films of Philippine cinema, regardless of how their goodness is measured, and regardless of who says they are good, will not come to the audience. The audience will have to come to them, and for them. And this is reflective of the industry’s political dynamics that will take ages to change, a predicament that has come to define the industry itself, the films being made, the filmmaking conduct being observed, and the audiences coming and going. Filipino movies are constantly being made, month after month, festival after festival, and every year-ender is a reminder of activity, a reminder that there was something seen and experienced meaningfully, there was something worth spending for, and there was something worth going out on a limb for.

(PS: In a year when the most memorable performances have come from kids — Noel Comia, Jr. in “Kiko Boksingero,” Jana Agoncillo in “Nervous Translation,” Jally Nae Gilbaliga in “The Chanters,” and Justine Samson in “Balangiga” ­— one valuable lesson of 2017, something sadly being forgotten in this difficult time, is to protect the youth at all costs.)


1. “Motherland” (Ramona Diaz)

“Motherland” is set in Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, a public hospital in Manila that accepts hundreds of pregnant mothers daily. They come from extremely poor families, some of whom in their early 20s already with five or six children, hesitant to consider family planning and use contraceptives, with their husbands either jobless or doing part-time work. Ramona Diaz follows several women and documents their stay in the maternity ward, from delivery and breastfeeding to caring for their newborns and dealing with their domestic problems. The busy atmosphere of the hospital, with ongoing deliveries and scheduled visits from loved ones, is balanced with a highly observational approach, as the viewer listens to patients being interviewed by nurses or talking to one another about their personal lives and sees the details of how the public healthcare system works.

One cannot overstate the urgency of the many issues “Motherland” touches on — the reproductive health bill, the much-needed increase in the budget of public institutions, the importance of sex education and education in general, the creation of decent jobs for the working class, the problem with overpopulation, etc. — and Diaz, in a sleight of hand, creates a compelling collection of narratives, a great balance between serious and humorous, that reveals pressing voices of poverty. Fabella serves as the stage on which their sufferings become known, and outside its walls lies an even more ambiguous future for all of them. Diaz presents the shortcomings of a public institution — cramped wards, outdated healthcare methods, unsanitary conditions, inadequate equipment and technological resources — but there is something impressive and inspiring about the attitude toward limitations exhibited by both hospital workers and patients, doing the best they could to make do with what they have. They simply go on. They always try. They smile. It is sad, funny, and heart-breaking, all at the same time.

Screencap from KHAVN/YOUTUBE

2. “Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember”/“Balangiga: Howling Wilderness” (Khavn dela Cruz)

One can say that “Alipato” and “Balangiga” are Khavn’s love children, although his films, upon reflection, have always felt like offspring from different mothers, and his genes are so strong they all look unmistakably his. These two films are no different from his works over the past decades except they appear more designed and guided by voices, as though Khavn was forced to sit down and reconsider possibilities, without forgetting what he has set out to accomplish. One can see how “Alipato” and “Balangiga,” despite sharing similar tendencies to break conventional narrative and feature blatant on-screen violence, do not look and feel alike. “Alipato” is brimming with energy, playful, going left and right, running fast and slow, while “Balangiga” is rather temperate, fickle, going forward and backward, walking sideways. The pounding rhythm of “Alipato” comes from the force of its technical fine-tuning, a quality Khavn often takes for granted, and the effect is exhilarating, whereas “Balangiga” is made compelling by the presence of its two kids, and how the audience sometimes no longer sees the line between film and actuality, showing how film can be a helpless art. Khavn is not called the “enfant terrible” of Philippine cinema for nothing, and although he is no longer young he remains “terrible.” And since life never runs out of jokes, these two films meet at one point — in 2017 — when a bloody war is ongoing, and the world is about to go up in flames.


3. “Paki” (Giancarlo Abrahan)

Giancarlo Abrahan, on the basis of “May Dinadala,” “Dagitab,” and “Paki,” is still in the process of refining his voice. And on the basis of “Paki” alone, should he manage to take the right direction, that voice is going to be enormous, booming in relevance, somewhat close to what Edward Yang achieved in his peak with “A Brighter Summer Day” and “Yi Yi: A One and a Two.” Abrahan is capable of filling his large canvas with light and darkness, with big and small pebbles washed ashore by conversations that go waywardly, by moments that explode without warning, and the whole becomes too dense and heavy that ending the film is inevitable, almost an act of mercy. His manner of constricting is disguised by his propensity to drown scenes in dialogue. Although the form can still be polished, the vision hardly falters: It walks on and on, even when it is limping.

One can look at “Paki” as a story of a middle-class family whose troubles go beyond its political background, a family defined by the privilege and affluence of its members, their connections and preoccupations, the specific anxieties that pull them closer and tear them apart at the same time. It works that way, especially when the small details, after being seen, become almost immediately ensconced in the past: an exposed beer belly, a denture falling underwater, hands and backs stretched in yoga, slices of cucumber placed over the eyes. It is the devolution of the Filipino family, and there is no turning back. But what carries the film through is the sad journey of its matriarch from one house to another, forced to leave, forced to reassess her convictions, told what to do, told what not to do. She is the soul of “Paki,” and her emotional triumph at the end is also the film’s triumph. It is a reminder that when Tolstoy wrote, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” he actually meant: “fucking deal with it.”


4. “Sa Palad ng Dantaong Kulang” (Jewel Maranan)

“Sa Palad ng Dantaong Kulang” is Jewel Maranan’s third documentary set in Tondo, Manila, after “Kung Balatan ang Bawang” in 2008 and “Tundong Magiliw” in 2011. In her unobtrusive lens, Tondo leaps from the surface depiction of the place typically seen in less persuasive media, which focuses emptily and narrowly on crimes and destitution, to an examination of the milieu’s changing landscape and its impact on the people who live and have lived in it, who suffer and continue to suffer from the lack of concrete and long-term help from the government as well as the unfailing advance of capitalism and commercialism. Maranan chooses characters and respects their time, specifically their relationship with time, and refrains from putting them in dramatic moments in the service of her film. As seen in the years between them, her works take time to finish — each of them like a continuing documentary — and this painstaking process shows her creative discipline and commitment to her subjects, giving them the representation, the depth and breadth, they deserve.

It has taken Maranan six years to complete “Sa Palad ng Dantaong Kulang,” perhaps even longer, and it is felt in the way time passes by: a woman eventually delivering her child at her home, the nights spent on lighting the same cheap gas lamp, the coming of the rainy season after months of intense heat, the extended course of persuading residents to leave their houses before the demolition, and their eventual decision to move to a relocation site away from their livelihood. In Tondo, time is measured in struggle. And what the film condenses in two hours is not just the months and years in the lives of young and old people living in shanties near the port, living from hand to mouth — and sometimes living from nothing — but also the complex history of systemic oppression that has long been present in Tondo, shown in how the poor, in the words of one of its residents, “get poor treatment, and the dead are killed again,” evoking “the double murder of the Filipino.” No one cries in the film. But the audience, informed of such injustice, may find it difficult to control tears.


5. “Kiko Boksingero” (Thop Nazareno)

What is missing from the reviews of “Kiko Boksingero” during Cinemalaya is the discussion on class and how it reveals the deep-seated culture of menial work in the Philippine setting, and how in the film this issue seems to have been circumvented in order to highlight a touching story between a boy longing for a parent and his nanny who devotes her life to him. Some will find this positioning problematic, but clearly it enables a complex reading of the film outside the usual assessment of its merits. What “Kiko Boksingero” has decided to focus on — the coming-of-age drama of a kid growing up in Baguio, motherless, who gets to know his father and distances himself from his selfless nanny — it succeeds at. The broken family as the basic thrust of domestic politics is a familiar facet of Philippine cinema, and Thop Nazareno, in a superb handling of material and actors, aims for the heart and lets it bleed, gently, quietly. Damn him.


6. “Fatima Marie Torres and the Invasion of Space Shuttle Pinas 25”/“Jodilerks dela Cruz, Employee of the Month” (Carlo Francisco Manatad)

These two short films by Carlo Francisco Manatad, made before embarking on his first full-length, are anything but sober. They inhabit a world of folly and restlessness, exhibiting in almost every scene this conscious effort to put the viewer in a daze, in moments of unsettling strangeness. They are done with evident care given to technical sophistication, with Manatad’s experience as editor of many notable and terrible local films over the years allowing him to acquire a confident, or deceivingly confident, storytelling voice.

In “Fatima,” the title character peeks at a young toned man while objects fall from the sky to her backyard. She does not mind them. Like her partner, she does not appear to follow a predictable logic in her actions. She speaks gibberish, she “hypnotizes” a man’s cock to erection, she plays with Christmas lights as the Philippines’s first space shuttle is launched. The logic is the lack itself. In “Jodilerks,” on the other hand, the title character works at a gas station before it shuts down for good. She witnesses a killing on the street, she sees her co-worker pounded with a bat, she pees on the ground after a stressful day. She is tired. The logic, again, is evasive, and like “Fatima,” it flows spontaneously: a design made of intuition. Fatima and Jodilerks entertain in their being confounding, acting in ways that generate surprise, laughter, distress, and curiosity — laughter, most of all — and the explosions in the endings induce thrill as much as they indicate doom.


7. “Respeto” (Treb Monteras)

One must salute the films that are not just brave but have also done it right. If Marcos’s martial law had “Batch '81,” Duterte’s war on drugs will always have “Respeto.” Both are unflinching in their depiction and analysis of the current socio-political crisis, each film standing against the leader of its time, each film a testament to the radical function of cinema and its significance. “Respeto” is right about putting poverty at the core and connecting it with the constitution of violence, characterizing it with dignity, enlivening it with art, and defending it with action. This poverty breathes, sings, runs, shouts, and fights back. This poverty makes its characters human and Filipino. This poverty is seen in Manila, Cebu, and Davao, in small and big communities in towns and cities all over the country. “Respeto” is the song of angry men that deserves to be heard and sung in the years to come, and the fact that it is made at such a time of political turmoil and terrifying uncertainty only heightens its achievement.


8. “Aliens Ata” (Glenn Barit)

“Aliens Ata” renders separation in two specific ways: the leaving of the mother to work abroad, and the sudden death of a father. At the center of it are two brothers who spend their time in the field with their bicycles, looking at the sky, wondering if their parents, upon their departures, have turned into aliens. It is a simple story shot entirely using a drone, showing the characters as minute figures from above, observed in their barest of movements. This physical distance, instead of detaching the viewer, only underlines the immensity of emotion conveyed in the end. In seven brief minutes, Glenn Barit is able to cross between youth and adulthood and tell how life is not mostly about choices but chances.


9. “The Chanters” (James Robin Mayo)

The decision to turn “The Chanters” from a hefty, serious drama into a current, accessible story — both articulated in the same consciousness of making “a small movie set in Iloilo” that expresses the regret of losing an important tradition — is sensible, and quite possibly fits the personality of its director James Mayo much better, as seen in the film’s overall humorous tone. The use of two non-professional actors has paid off wonderfully, as they exude charm and authenticity that allows for a simple, yet not simplistic, view of the discord brought about by modern life, the cultural and social space between the past and present that continues to widen, the understandings that elude the youth and the cruelty of age that bites the old. It is the Cinemalaya movie in this year’s QCinema — interesting, but not surprising, how the films in local festivals are crossing over (remember “Matangtubig,” characteristically Cinema One, in QCinema years ago?) — and the manner in which it wears its heart on its sleeve, at times too excessively, is worth admiring and praising.


10. “Nervous Translation” (Shireen Seno)

The final sequence of “Nervous Translation,” which turns the real thing into an indelible memory, and which seems to hold more emotional heft than everything that precedes it, moves from the inside of the house to the outside, from quiet to silent. Seeing the objects submerged in water, the audience might feel tears falling from their eyes, as though this water was able to cross the screen and reach them internally: a connection made, an instant remembered, a total recall experienced. And it ends there, because the film, in its restraint and repetition, in its challenging accessibility, can only find its tonal center at the end, when the laying out of clear and confused memories only makes sense when the self is exhausted, when in just a few seconds this moment of clarity culminates in becoming a moment of catharsis.