Wednesday, January 4, 2017

BEST FILIPINO FILMS OF 2016

2016 has been a great year for Philippine cinema, with a large variety of stories and genres, and a number of film festivals. It is also notable for the revamp of the Metro Manila Film Festival, which reverted to its roots of handpicking entries based on finished film rather than scripts. As such, the usual escapist fares were out, in favor of thought-provoking yet accessible films.

Despite this phenomena, this reviewer still had a hard time watching all films. For transparency's sake, the following films were not seen for consideration due to time and scheduling constraints:

* Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis by Lav Diaz
* Ang Taba Ko Kasi by Jason Paul Laxamana
* Expressway by Ato Bautista
* Lila by Gino Santos
* A Lotto Like Love by Carla Baful
* Straight to the Heart by Dave Fabros
* 1st Sem by Dexter Hemedez and Allan Ibanez
* Pitong Kabang Palay by Maricel Cariaga
* Kakampi by Vic Acedillo Jr.
* Pilapil by Johnny Nadela
* EDSA by Alvin Yapan
* Iadya Mo Kami by Mel Chionglo
* Kute by Roni Bertubin
* Curiosity Adventure and Love by Sunshine De Leon Lichauco & Suzanne Richiardone
* Memory Channel by Raynier Brizuela
* Purgatoryo by Derick Cabrido
* Best.Partee.Ever by HF Yambao
* Lily by Keith Deligero
* Si Magdalola at mga Gago by Jules Katanyag
* Malinak Ya Labi by Jose Abdel Langit
* 1-2-3 by Carlo Obispo
* Echorsis by Lem Lorca
* The Sister by Joseph Laban

And so, the list begins:

25. FORBIDDEN MEMORY by Teng Mangansakan (CinemaOne Originals)




Though still rough around the edges, the rawness of "Forbidden Memory" evokes rage and pathos, as Mangansakan interviews survivors of the 1974 Malisbong Massacre in Sultan Kudarat. The effort alone to bring to light this unknown tale of real-life horror during the Martial Law era is admirable. Highly recommended viewing, especially for Marcos apologists.

RATING: 3/5

24. NED'S PROJECT by Lem Lorca (CineFilipino)


Angeli Bayani's commitment to the role of a lesbian tattoo artist wanting to have a child is a must-see. Bayani channels Ned's vulnerabilities with grace and insight, allowing us to understand and empathize with her struggles. In one scene, Bayani and Maxene Eigenmann, who play Ned's almost lover, lock eyes during a talent show, and sparks fly like a power transformer that just exploded.

Link to full review: NED'S PROJECT

RATING: 4/5

23. LANDO AT BUGOY by Vic Acedillo, Jr. (Cinemalaya)


"Lando at Bugoy" is a bittersweet examination of a complicated father-and-son relationship, set against the beautiful shores of Camiguin. The onscreen chemistry between Allen Dizon and newbie Gold Azeron makes this simple film with noble intentions work. Dizon is charming to behold, as a father who goes back to school in order to persuade his son to avoid skipping classes.

RATING: 4/5

22. VINCE & KATH & JAMES by Theodore Boborol (MMFF)


For a romantic comedy geared towards the teen crowd, "Vince & Kath & James" is surprisingly well-made. Julia Barretto is channeling teenage Claudine Barretto, while Joshua Garcia is clearly John Lloyd Cruz. Despite the usual mainstream excesses, the film manages to land on its feet by banking on the charm of its premise and emphasizing the emotional struggles of its characters, not only as plot devices but as part of their character development.

RATING: 4/5

21. FREE RANGE by Dennis Marasigan (ToFarm)




It's always exciting to watch a Dennis Marasigan movie because he usually makes one after a couple of years, and this advocacy film on free range farming, despite being a far cry from his political dramas, is nothing short of compelling. Paolo O'Hara is magnificently restrained as Chito, a man trapped by the large shadow cast by his father.

RATING: 4/5

Link to review: FREE RANGE

20. ANG BABAENG HUMAYO by Lav Diaz


Never did I imagine that the day would come when I would find a Lav Diaz film quite short. Nevertheless, this tale of a wrongly imprisoned woman out for revenge is pure exercise in slow-burn suspense-drama. All players rendered terrific performances, but it is John Lloyd Cruz as the drifter Hollanda and Nonie Buencamino as the hunchback balut vendor who really stole the limelight with their unforgettable turns.

RATING: 4/5

19. MORO2MRW BOOK 1: DAUGHTERS OF THE THREE-TAILED BANNER by Teng Mangansakan (WPFF)




Offering us a peek into the Moro culture through the eyes of women still trapped by dated tradition, "Daughters of the Three-Tailed Banner" showcases stellar performances from Urian winners Fe Ging Ging Hyde and Sue Prado, along with several rising talents from Mindanao like Haidee Singkad and Mayka Lintongan. The film dwells on the many ironies of present society, where the insane turns out to be the most rational. Book Two cannot come soon enough.

Link to review: DAUGHTERS OF THE THREE-TAILED BANNER

RATING: 4/5

18. KUSINA by Cenon Obispo Palomares and David Corpuz (Cinemalaya)




A celebration of life, love, family and food, "Kusina" is a welcome onscreen comeback for Judy Ann Santos. The staging alone of the narrative is inventive; as Juanita transforms from a young girl to a teenager and eventually, a mother, the kitchen transforms with her. Expertly shot by cinematographer Lee Briones-Meily, "Kusina" offers one sumptuous shot after another, and makes one crave for the nearest Filipino restaurant for a helping of Pinakbet and Adobo right after the movie.

RATING: 4/5

17. HIBLANG ABO by Ralston Jover (Cinemalaya)


Based on the play by Rene Villanueva, Jover's onscreen adaptation hugely benefits from its talented leads (Lou Veloso, Leo Rialp, Jun Urbano and Nanding Josef), and while the movie doesn't let you forget that it's based on a play, the sheer realism of Jover's direction makes for a compelling watch.

Link to review: HIBLANG ABO

RATING: 4/5

16. 4 DAYS by Adolfo Alix, Jr.


Time is a killer. This is what Adolfo Alix, Jr.'s "4 Days" means to tell in a nutshell. While not necessarily a new concept, the film is unique with its focus on the evolving relationship between two friends over the course of four years. Told in long takes over gripping confrontational dialogue, the film puts forth raw emotions and traps us with inescapable honesty.

Link to review: 4 DAYS

RATING: 4/5

15. PEOPLE POWER BOMBSHELL: THE DIARY OF VIETNAM ROSE by John Torres (CinemaOne Originals)


Maddening but always interesting, John Torres fills in the blanks on what transpired during the set of Celso Ad Castillo's "The Diary of Vietnam Rose" which led to its non-completion. Mixing actual footage with newly-recreated ones, and spliced with staged dialogue of actors complaining about the hardships on set, "People Power Bombshell" is cinema reimagined, a testament to the ever-evolving function and definition of the medium.

RATING: 4/5

14.  BAKA BUKAS by Samantha Lee (CinemaOne Originals)


Charming and honest, Samantha Lee's "Baka Bukas" doesn't pretend to reinvent or shake up the genre. Instead, it invests its energy into exploring the complex and often thin line between friends and lovers. Jasmine Curtis-Smith is a revelation, churning the mother of all underacting for 2016.

RATING: 4/5

13. DYAMPER by Mes De Guzman (Sinag Maynila)



Gritty and unrelenting, and oftentimes humorous, too, "Dyamper" highlights honor among thieves, where even a life of crime can be something to root for. Shot in black-and-white, "Dyamper" is part heist film and existential drama, a film that despite the gravity of the situations, still finds the lightness among the mundane.

RATING: 4/5

12. SAVING SALLY by Avid Liongoren (MMFF)



The long-gestating "Saving Sally" should push Pinoy animators to push on further. There is a promising market for Pinoy animation, and "Saving Sally" proves that. What could have just been your typical love story becomes somewhat extraordinary because of the vivid imagination of the filmmakers behind "Saving Sally." And let's face it, who hasn't wrestled with the joys and pains of young love?

RATING: 5/5

11. SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN by Babyruth Villarama-Gutierrez (MMFF)



Documentaries about the OFW experience are aplenty, but what makes "Sunday Beauty Queen" extraordinary is its use of stark ironies, the main of which is the beauty pageant as a reflection of the Pinay domestic helpers' often sad plight in Hong Kong, away from their families and overworked to death. The stories of the Sunday Beauty Queens are all deeply-affecting. Rarely will there be dry eyes inside the cinema.

RATING: 5/5

10. STAR NA SI VAN DAMME STALLONE by Randolph Longjas (CineFilipino)



Randolph Longjas is a rising young filmmaker that you should watch out for. From his riotous debut "Ang Turkey Man ay Pabo Rin," to his mainstream effort "Buy Now, Die Later," Longjas showcases his knack for intelligent  humor. In this film, however, which is about a young boy with Down Syndrome who aspires to be a movie star, Longjas proves that he can also capture audiences' hearts with dramatic scenes. Candy Pangilinan is pitch perfect, as the mother who stood by her son at all costs.

RATING: 5/5

9. SEKLUSYON by Erik Matti (MMFF)



Faith is relative, but blind faith can sometimes be fatal. "Seklusyon" is an excellent exercise in atmospheric horror, a highly cerebral film that dwells on the unseen. Rhed Bustamante is a gem as the "Messiah" Anghela, while Lou Veloso, who plays a former priest who now takes care of the retreat house, proves why he is one of the most seasoned actors working today.

RATING: 5/5

8. MERCURY IS MINE by Jason Paul Laxamana (Cinemalaya)



A film that overflows with quotable dialogue ("I fucken love et!"), "Mercury is Mine" is a brilliantly-written and directed satire about colonial mentality, all the while showcasing the Kapampangans' rich culinary heritage. Pokwang is in top form as Carmen, a diner owner who shelters a mysterious drifter named Mercury (Bret Jackson). This could most probably be Laxamana's finest film to date.

RATING: 5/5

7. MA' ROSA by Brillante Mendoza



What separates "Ma'Rosa" from Mendoza's previous works is the sustained tension from start to finish. The audience is fully aware of the ticking time bomb at the heart of "Ma' Rosa," thanks to Mendoza's penchant for foreshadowing and metaphor. Coupled with Jaclyn Jose's unforgettable turn as Rosa, the film is one for the books, a stirring tale of cyclical social decay.

RATING: 5/5

6. PAMILYA ORDINARYO by Eduardo Roy, Jr. (Cinemalaya)



Ronwaldo Martin and Hasmine Killip play street dwellers who are also young parents, with both actors fully committed to their roles that they become almost unrecognizable. "Pamilya Ordinaryo" is worth the watch because it paints a new perspective on petty criminals like Aries and Jane, where for the first time, they are the victims.

RATING: 5/5

5. PAGLIPAY by Zig Dulay (ToFarm)



This tale of cultural divide is both refreshing and heartbreaking. Gerry Cabalic, the real-life Aeta who plays the protagonist Atan is a compelling actor. Anna Luna, who plays Atan's object of affection is nothing short of wonderful. Breathtakingly shot by Albert Banzon, the dry, barren landscape of Zambales provides a painful irony to the futility of Atan's efforts against modernity. In a larger context, the film is really about tradition's clash with modernity, and how inevitable change destroys illusions.

Link to review: PAGLIPAY

RATING: 5/5

4. PATAY NA SI HESUS by Victor Villanueva (QCinema)



From a side-splittingly hilarious script by Fatrick Tabada, "Patay na si Hesus" magnifies common Filipino quirks about themes such as death, family, sex and infidelity. The journey to attend her ex-husband's burial proves a life-changing trip for Iyay (an excellent Jaclyn Jose) and her three children. Combined with an outrageous nun (Mailes Kanapi) who is also Iyay's sister, "Patay na si Hesus" is one unmissable ride from start to finish.

RATING: 5/5

3. ORO by Alvin Yapan (MMFF)



Based on a real-life incident that transpired in Caramoan in the Bicol region, Alvin Yapan foregoes the supernatural in favor of a gripping political suspense-drama, reuniting him with his "Ang Panggagahasa kay Fe" actress Irma Adlawan. Adlawan masterfully portrays her barangay chairwoman role with force and vulnerability, surrounded by a roster of talented players like Mercedes Cabral, Sue Prado and Joem Bascon. Where there is gold, the guns always follow, as the film posits. Yapan hints at looming violence every step of the way, making for one tension-filled film from the first frame to the last.

RATING: 5/5

2. AREA by Louie Ignacio



A talented ensemble cast and an expertly-written script from Robby Tantingco turns Louie Ignacio's "Area" into one of 2016's surprising finds, a film that finds humor in the seriousness of its subject, and yet, never forgets to honor the struggles of each of its characters. Poignant and irresistible, "Area" rightfully deserves to be seen by every Filipino, if only for another powerful turn from Ai-Ai de las Alas as Hillary, a veteran prostitute who longs for her son.

Link to review: AREA

RATING: 5/5

1. DIE BEAUTIFUL by Jun Robles Lana (MMFF)



A most important film because of its timely emphasis on LGBTQ struggles, "Die Beautiful" celebrates life through the context of death. The film, while endlessly funny, is also heart-wrenching, because Trisha's story may be the story of someone you know- a friend, a sibling, or a classmate you haven't seen for years. Intricately told in a nonlinear fashion, the vignettes all build up to a momentous close, and afterwards we feel that we have really known Trisha, in all facets of her struggles as a mother, a lover, a sibling and a friend.

Link to review: DIE BEAUTIFUL

RATING: 5/5
      
Disclaimer: The ranking is based solely on the author's preferences. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

DIE BEAUTIFUL (Jun Robles Lana, 2016)


"Die Beautiful" is a tale firmly rooted in contrasts and ironies. The narrative design itself, an examination of a trans woman's colorful life through the context of her unexpected death, lends to endless possibilities.

The film could not have been more timely, too, released in the midst of important LGBTQ milestones in Philippine history. In May, people elected the country's first openly transgender woman lawmaker, Bataan 1st District Representative Geraldine Roman. Just about two years earlier, Jennifer Laude, another trans woman was found dead in Olongapo City, an apparent victim of hate crime. Reporters and newscasters are stumbling whether to call her Jeffrey, or Jennifer. In a way, "Die Beautiful" mirrors both important events through the ups and downs of Trisha Echevarria's (Paolo Ballesteros) life.   

Rody Vera's script follows a nonlinear narrative, starting off with Trisha's unexpected death and journeying back to important events that shaped her life. We follow Trisha, then Patrick to family and schoolmates, as a youngster in the midst of young love. We then see her, along with loyal best friend Barbs (Christian Bables), jump from one beauty contest to another, in pursuit of the elusive prized title. Then there's the adoption of a young orphan girl who later grows to be a woman, only to become a wayward daughter. There's also the men in Trisha's life, who both captured and broke her heart. The film doesn't tell all these in chronological order, because like hearing stories about the deceased in a wake, we get them at random. Yet, with Jun Lana's precise storytelling, we get the big picture in order of emotion. As the story progresses, more and more secrets unfold.

"Die Beautiful" feels like a two-hour grand tribute not only to Trisha, but to the LGBTQ struggle as well; bright colors are never in short supply, along with rapid one-liners, yet at the heart of the film is a warm and poignant emotional core. The film makes a subdued yet unflinching stand against discrimination and hate crime, that amidst all the laughter and the noise, viewers are urged to be more understanding of others.

Humor is one of the film's greatest canvas for analysis. Those who have seen Lana's previous film "Barber's Tales" will quickly realize that "Die Beautiful" is a reunion of sorts for several cast members. Iza Calzado plays herself, Sue Prado appears as a teacher and Eugene Domingo is a loud and proud couturier named MauMau Zalderiaga. Gladys Reyes gets bigger screen time, playing Trisha's sister. 

Lou Veloso, who plays the owner of the funeral home where Trisha's wake is being held, is a riot. The jokes are always in perfect timing, and Veloso, a seasoned thespian, plays his character in full camp mode. 

There are also references to Maricel Soriano movies, particularly to her famous scene with ZsaZsa Padilla in "Minsan Lang Kita Iibigin," with the added irony of Soriano's real-life sibling Mel Martinez herein playing Padilla's character.

Let's not forget Ballesteros' talent for makeup transformation, which really is one of the film's highlights. Appearing as Julia Roberts, Angelina Jolie and even Britney Spears, Ballesteros disappears into character, and it's not just for show. The makeup transformations are also integral for Trisha's metamorphosis, as well as the many faces she has to wear throughout her life.

Bables is a delight to watch as Barbs, complementing Ballesteros' charm and persona. Barbs is indeed a well-written and interesting character, breaking the stereotype that best friends are only there to tell us what we already know. Barbs, more than a friend, is family to Trisha. Barbs is Trisha's rock, unafraid to criticize her friend for often hastily made life choices. 

I liked that the film did not bother to redeem Trisha's father, played by Joel Torre in the end. Remaining the strict, authoritarian patriarch even as his "son" is lying on a slab in the morgue, Torre maintains his character's pride and utter disgrace. Via the non resolution of his character, we are reminded that this film is more rooted in reality rather than fantasy, where parents rarely forgive their children for their sexual preferences and identifications, even in death. 

"Die Beautiful" is an exceptional film, from the concept alone to Lana's brave filmmaking choices as a director. One particular scene in the film will be hard to turn away from, but perhaps it is Lana's way of confronting us with the gravity of his subject matter. I'd like to believe that Filipino audiences are ready for fresher and more inclusive storytelling like "Die Beautiful," given the warm audience reception it has received this Metro Manila Film Festival. Because, like in the movie, acceptance  and respect begins with understanding. 

RATING: 5/5  


      





























Wednesday, November 9, 2016

AREA (Louie Ignacio, 2016)


“Area,” the new film by Louie Ignacio attacks the subject of prostitution on a systemic perspective, via the parallelism of the multi-generational family which operates a brothel, and the dysfunctional relationship among the sex workers living under one roof. 

Of course, prostitution has always been an offshoot of poverty, yet “Area” narrowly but cleverly avoids the route of poverty porn through the use of humor. Despite the depressing condition of its characters, “Area” finds the silver lining in the mundane. The sex workers are allowed to laugh at their misfortunes through sarcasm and irony, providing them a momentary escape from reality. 

Much of why the film excels as a poignant realist drama is due to Robby Tantingco’s solidly-written script, working from a story by Ferdinand Lapuz. The characters are all distinct from one another, and each of their personal journeys are exciting to follow.

Ai-Ai delas Alas, acting in her second indie film plays Hillary, a veteran sex worker who is saving money to find her long-lost son in the U.S. As Hillary, delas Alas renders a quiet and controlled performance reminiscent of her also laudable turn in Nick Olanka’s “Ronda.” As a woman who has very little hope left, delas Alas manifests bleakness through her empty eyes. In one bittersweet scene, a customer pays for sex in the form of cans of sardines, and delas Alas’ facial resignation is spot on.

On the younger front, Ireen Villamor and Sue Prado portray Belen and Julie, one the youngest of the bunch, who is allowed to make reckless decisions, and the latter a single mother of three children facing the aftermath of her own reckless decisions. Both actresses shine in their respective rights, expertly channeling the angst and the pessimism common with women who have been in the flesh trade long enough. Prado, most notably, approaches her lines with deadpan humor, and her Julie is arguably her most enjoyable onscreen role in recent memory.

Sarah Pagcaliwagan-Brakensiek meanwhile plays Taba, another sex worker aptly nicknamed because of her weight. Coupled with Tabs Sumulong, who plays Glo, the eldest of the gang, the two provide a lot of the film’s hilarious moments, as well as a serving or two of bitter truths on the side.

Veteran actor Allen Dizon is also compelling as Ben, the brothel operator, as well as Sancho delas Alas, who despite being a newbie is able to carry his own as Ben’s right-hand man. 

Area, also known as the poor man’s red light district in Pampanga seeps with so much history, and the film manages to spin an affecting yarn that humanizes its inhabitants. “Area” refuses judgment against its characters, amid the maze of vice and sin. Instead, the narrative allows us to live and breathe the squalor, inhale all the sweat, and consume each and every little story hiding behind every dark corner. 

It helped that the filmmakers decided to shoot the film in the actual “Area,” along with the casting of Kapampangan actors, who were also scene-stealers in their own right. Eufrucina Peña and Cecille Yumul, last seen in Carlo Catu’s award-winning homage to Kapampangan poetry and culture “ARI: My Life with a King” (also written by Robby Tantingco), herein play mother and daughter, while Frank Guinto, the titular “ARI” from the same film portrays an aging regular customer of Hillary.

True to the play of contrasts and irony, the film contains religious references such as self-flagellation, a common practice in Pampanga among Catholic devotees as an act of penance. Both Ben and Hillary, among other characters seek atonement for sins that seem never-ending. Even a staged crucifixion is platform for sarcasm. 

What I liked best about “Area,” among the many surprises it offers, is its unflinching optimism. More often than not, potentially remarkable films are killed by the ending, either by indecision or by cutting too long. “Area” closes perfectly. Prepare a hanky.  

RATING: 5/5       


Saturday, August 27, 2016

HIBLANG ABO (Ralston Jover, 2016)


(English title: "Strands of Gray")

* Official entry, full-length feature category, 12th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival

Filipinos are known for close family ties, which is why most of our elderly are being cared for by relatives instead of strangers, unlike in other countries where old age means automatic hospice care. In "Hiblang Abo," Ralston Jover's big screen adaptation of Rene Villanueva's play of the same name, four aging men are living together in a hospice called Bahay ni Juan. What cruel circumstances that brought these men together under one roof is part of the story's mystery, yet as with most morality pieces, it still boils down to choice.

In Jover's film, we get to witness the daily routine of former writer Huse (Lou Veloso), ex-union leader Blas (Leo Rialp), former farmer Sotero (Jun Urbano) and former vagrant Pedro (Nanding Josef). Despite their seeming friendship and the peacefulness of their sanctuary, these men are evidently haunted by their former selves. 

We get a peek into the men's backstory via a series of flashbacks. As if to say that the main characters' past struggles are of equal weight, Jover decided that only one actor, Matt Daclan will portray all four men during their younger years. While confusing at first, the uniqueness of each character's demons makes the narrative design understandable.

"Hiblang Abo" dissects the nuances of old age without judgment, and poignantly highlights every minute detail of reality that the four men must live with everyday, such as remembering to take medicine, or coping with claustrophobia. In one light moment, perhaps the only ray of sunshine in this otherwise stark observational drama, the men are being questioned by student researchers about erection, a probe which causes discomfort, and eventually, hilarity. 

In much deeper context, the four men have to deal with feelings of guilt, alienation, regret, longing and the most depressing of all, a desire for human connection. Memory itself is an unseen character. Memory is the ultimate traitor.

Of course, the material itself is compelling and rich in detail, and at most times, Jover stages his big confrontations like a stage play. It could be argued that the film lacks cinematic perspective, because it does not allow us to forget that the material was originally meant for stage. However, Jover's penchant for realism is also the film's strength, allowing us to experience the gravity of the mundane, among others.

With such a material that relies heavily on the performances of its four lead characters, "Hiblang Abo" succeeds as a personal, affecting journey due to its excellent casting. All four actors rendered distinct, memorable performances that no character was of lesser importance. The blending of the performances was also key: Rialp as the short-tempered and dominant Blas, Urbano as the irritating but tender Sotero, Josef as the vulnerable Pedro and Veloso as the reserved and guarded Huse. 

"Hiblang Abo" is a blunt reminder that time is always against us; that it is more important to treasure people over anything else, and; that it is always a choice to be happy or miserable. Like the palm fronds in the film, we, too will one day wither and become ashes, just vague traces of a bygone era, never to return.

RATING: 4/5       


Friday, July 22, 2016

PAGLIPAY (Zig Dulay, 2016)


* English title: "Crossing"

* Official entry, 1st ToFarm Film Festival 2016

"Paglipay" (Crossing) is a rarity in Philippine cinema. Although a love story, the film firmly plants its roots on traditional values, and the clash between tradition and modern culture is both humorous and heartbreaking. The decision to cast real-life Aetas Garry Cabalic and Joan Dela Cruz validates the film's intentions for authenticity.

In "Paglipay," a young Aeta named Atan (Cabalic) is arranged to be married to fellow Aeta Ani (Dela Cruz). Despite belonging in the same tribe, they may not necessarily "love" one another. Yet before the marriage can proceed, Atan is required to pay a "bandi," or dowry to Ani's parents. As such, Atan peddles root crops to the lowlands and plows fields to earn money.

Atan's undisturbed world is shaken with the arrival of Rain (Anna Luna), a city girl pursuing her thesis about the inter-marriages among curly-haired and straight-haired people. As Atan serves as tour guide to Rain and classmate Cai (Marinella Sevidal), he finds he is drawn closer and closer to Rain's beauty and suffering. Rain, in return seems to find comfort in Atan. All the while, the vastness of the mountains stands as silent witness to yet another force of nature — love. Or is it just familiarity, masquerading as a deeper emotion between two souls at a crossroads?

The title of the film could not be more precise. For the film's entirety, Atan is seen crossing great, open distances between the town and their remote community, either to peddle goods or to chase after a promising future. But Atan is not only crossing physical borders, but also culture, race and belief. Although many interracial marriages exist, Atan is under oath with Ani's family. Oath in "Paglipay" is not only a recurring theme but a silent character altogether.

The film also highlights the plight of women Aetas, and like in many tribal communities where patriarchy exists, women have limited choices. Atan may less likely become a lawyer, an engineer or a doctor, but Ani's fate is more depressing, having no say on who she wants to marry.

Like his previous films "M. Mother's Maiden Name" and "Bambanti" (Scarecrow), writer-director Zig Dulay unveils his story slowly, letting us feel the calmness of the river foreboding a lurking danger, or the hardness of the soil echoing the struggles of the Aetas. All the while, we get to know the characters like our own kinfolk. 

The film knows how to toy with audiences' penchant for romantic dramas, and while Atan and Rain's romantic charades are aplenty, Dulay never loses sight of his narrative. The "romance" serves as an irony for the destruction of nature occurring in the backdrop, again another by-product of modern civilization. This begs the question whether life stripped down to the basic necessities would be more enjoyable. Sure, there will be no internet, fast foods, or television, but in their place rests solitude, peace and freedom from pollution.

Like Rain's arrival, "Paglipay" also tackles invasion of space, or how modernity invades tradition, the same way that corporations destroy the mountains for profit, displacing its native inhabitants.  The film not only advocates farming but also respect for both nature and tradition. Aetas are among the earliest settlers in the Philippines, but due to the changing times, many have been displaced, and even ostracized. And when you see a film as beautifully told as "Paglipay" (complemented by cinematographer Albert Banzon's stunning eye for detail), where the Aetas are depicted so lovingly, you cannot help but wonder what part you did and did not do that resulted to society's current condition.  

RATING: 5/5

Sunday, July 17, 2016

FREE RANGE (Dennis Marasigan, 2016)


* Official entry, 1st ToFarm Film Festival 2016

The thing about Dennis Marasigan is he knows how to differentiate theater from film. The dialogue in "Free Range," his new advocacy film about free range farming is always compelling. The characters mostly talk about the mundane, especially during the first act, yet the scenes are never boring. The acting invites you to be a part of the conversation. 

Unlike Marasigan's last film "Anatomiya ng Korupsyon" (Anatomy of Corruption) which heavily borrowed elements from theater (and rightfully so, since it was based on a play), "Free Range" is entirely cinematic. Al Linsangan III captures the beauty of Coron, Palawan in stunning drone coverage, among others, coupled with Nor Domingo's intimate shots that places the viewer in the middle of conversations. Meanwhile, lead actor Paolo O'Hara delivers admirable restraint in portraying Chito, the son of a lodge owner and influential local businessman (Leo Rialp).

As the film opens, Marasigan quickly establishes the uneasy relationship between father and son through the use of uncomfortable silences. Chito is daunted by his father's shadow, so when the latter is unable to continue managing their family business due to illness, Chito has no choice but to man up and take the reins.

Upon an encounter with a guest who is an expert on free range farming (Michael De Mesa) and due to the scarcity of eggs in Coron, Chito decides to start raising chickens, despite his wife's (Jackie Rice) doubts. Chito sacrifices being away from his wife and their young son, who are both in Manila in pursuit of a business which may not really yield results. But as is with the tenets of business, risk is inevitable.

"Free Range" is not only an advocacy film about free range farming but about boosting local tourism as well. There's even a political subplot that is classic Marasigan, involving the town mayor and big businesses. If you look at it closely, business is always rooted in politics. 

I've enjoyed following Chito's journey to grow his business despite forces telling him otherwise. In Marasigan's cinema, characters are always at odds with forces they cannot control, but here, the filmmaker shifts his tone towards optimism, as Chito refuses to cave in under pressure. 

As an advocacy film, "Free Range" clearly conveys its intended message, but what makes it richer is the emotional struggle between father and son, the son in need of his father's approval and the father, who loves his son yet can only communicate through tough parenting. When Chito finally tells his father in the hospital that he needs him, the film has justified its existence.

"Free Range" benefits from a strong supporting cast that includes Madeleine Nicolas, Jojit Lorenzo and filmmaker Carlos Siguion-Reyna, and the fact that while it is an advocacy film, Marasigan doesn't shove the ideas down our throats. 

I've seen Paolo O'Hara go big on acting in 2014's "Sundalong Kanin," so watching him in a subdued performance in "Free Range" is revelatory. O'Hara is really the heart of "Free Range," which could also be considered a coming-of-age story, masked as an advocacy film.   

RATING: 4/5

Thursday, July 7, 2016

MORO2MRW BOOK 1: DAUGHTERS OF THE THREE TAILED BANNER (Teng Mangansakan, 2016)


*Official entry, 2016 World Premieres Film Festival, Main Competition

"Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner" is the first of filmmaker Teng Mangansakan's two-part tale of the Bangsamoro struggle. Albeit brief and could use more exploration of its characters, the film is not short on symbolic elements, embedded within the arcs of its rich storytelling. 

It is important to note that the film is told entirely from the perspective of women, and while Mangansakan navigates femininity in modern age, he also tells it in the paradigm of a land deeply steeped in tradition, where women are not always free to make their own life choices.

Philippine society has always been patriarchal, and the family of Tonina (Haidie Singkad) knows this very well. After the death of her brother, Tonina's family is suddenly without a male member, and this presents a great deal of pressure for her and her sister to find suitable husbands. At first, Tonina seems to be a victim of rules and tradition, but we later see her as the "bearer" of solution to her family's predicament.

In a separate arc, Aida (Fe GingGing Hyde) works tirelessly as a hotel maid. At first, her character feels detached from the story's theme of change, but it's all part of the film's design. We get fragments of Aida's life from the phone calls she keeps getting, supposedly a family member who is in need of money. However, the film has another layer which connects Aida from Tonina and the rest of the characters: aspiration. 

Aida meets Sabina (Sue Prado), a mysterious hotel guest nursing a heavy burden. In a twist of fate, Aida and Sabina share a brief moment where each woman understands the other. Sabina is clearly the more battle weary of the two, or is she? Can people's emotional baggage really be measured on the outside? On who cries the most? As if to parallel with the Moro struggle, most people only know very little about the issues, about Mindanao, and the Bangsamoro Basic Law (including this writer). But Mangansakan is telling us to look closer, to peel the layers of prejudice and misinformation. 

Even the supporting characters (which could be argued, since everyone plays a pivotal role rather than being mere placeholders) have struggles of their own: Nora (Maria Victoria Beltran) comes home to a family she no longer recognizes, and still resents her; the family's mentally-challenged member Sophia (Mayka Lintongan), despite her condition seems to know each of her relatives' true intentions, and; Kadiguia (Evelyn Vargas-Knaebel), being the family's matriarch battles not only tradition, but time and her own mortality. 

Even the film editing gives a rush to the viewer, because scenes are cut when the story seems to reveal crucial information, saving the payoff for later in each instance. 

With such level of artistry and passion for his material, Mangansakan draws us closer to a subject that not a lot of people might be interested in, but we ought to. Like the recurring parallel themes of death and rebirth in the film, the cinema of Mindanao should be given the attention it deserves, especially with the kind of storytelling that allows viewers to make their own decisions.

RATING: 4/5