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.  


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.   


Thursday, July 7, 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.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE (Fergal Reilly, Clay Kaytis, 2016)

"The Angry Birds Movie" is a film that obviously took careful planning and execution. Sure, it just primarily aims to elicit laughs and provide pure escapism, but at its core is a well-constructed world inhabited by lovable characters, each with their own unique characteristics.

Fans of the mobile game will delight in how much the film's second half captures the joy and nostalgia of destroying buildings and blowing up pigs. When the birds begin flying into the pigs' buildings to recover the stolen eggs, everything is endless joy.

The film bears resemblance with the Aesop fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," with Red (Jason Sudeikis) as the boy, or rather, the bird. Red is a troublemaker; he gets angry real quick, and; most of the other characters hate his follies. But Red is a sympathetic character. Despite being hugely known as a never-do-well, he is also an outcast and a loner. His house is planted outside the community. But what Red lacks in charm or responsibility, he makes up for boldness.

Which is why when the invading pigs arrived dressed as friendly immigrants, no one was skeptical, except Red. Red's cynicism and skepticism became his strength when the community needed help. He quickly became the ringleader, from being a mere laughingstock.

Despite "The Angry Birds Movie" being an animated comedy, it also hints at subtexts of colonialism and xenocentrism, maybe even racial segregation. I could be overthinking the film, but I strongly believe that beneath the humor and the spectacle, it carries a rather strong message to respect people's differences and cultures. It subconsciously tells children to stand up for what they believe in, and to learn the value of cooperation in achieving endeavors.  And yes, control your anger. 

A strong lineup of voice actors helps make the film a showcase of remarkable talent, as comics Josh Gad, Danny McBride and even SNL's Kate McKinnon serve one wonder after another. 

I am seriously in the belief that "The Angry Birds Movie" was created for adults to enjoy, more than children. Kids will still love the animation and the hijinks, and it's still a family film, but all the other pop culture references (hello, Stanley Kubrick!) as well as the biting sarcasm is unmistakably for grown-ups.


Friday, March 25, 2016

NED'S PROJECT (Lem Lorca, 2016)

Photo from Ned's Project FB page.


“Ned’s Project” is a film that explores the pursuit of happiness. Henedina De Asis, or Ned (Angeli Bayani) is a lesbian tattoo artist who seems content with her life. She has a girlfriend, a paying job and a circle of friends in her own small world. A lot of her time though is devoted to Max (Lui Manansala), a bedridden elderly lesbian who also functions as Ned’s confidante.

Despite having a lesbian character in the lead, “Ned’s Project” veers away from the common clichés of queer cinema by portraying the protagonist, Ned as an ordinary person, capable of making mistakes, and for that alone, the film is worth your time.

Ned is given a clear goal, which is to find happiness. When clearly her girlfriend Gladys (Dionne Monsanto) isn’t the answer, Ned breaks down. She fears for her own mortality. 

So she decides to become a mother, but sex with a man is out of the question. Yet the script, written by John Bedia does not spare Ned from making terrible life choices, as with the rest of humanity.

In her desire to conceive, Ned gets the crazy idea to join a talent search for lesbians, where the 250,000 pesos cash prize will allow her to undergo artificial insemination. The scenario itself is poignant to process, with Ned having to let herself be exploited for entertainment. The film, with its mediocre set design of a talent show, exposes society's ailment of turning people into a sport. The filmmakers might have envisioned a grander production design for the series of talent searches that Ned has to go through, but somehow the lackluster result became a biting mockery of the system that availed such commodity. And people shouldn't be an object of humor because of their sexual preference, or any other characteristic the majority of society deems "different." Hence, the talent show scenes were a giveaway (not sure if it was intended to be a satire, or if the filmmakers were beating a deadline, but the talent show scenes somehow worked) because it is clear Ned will win the tilt due to her competitors' clear lack of talent. The cheap production qualities of the talent contest (which, again if it was intentional, should deserve a round of applause) echoed the cheapness of novelty entertainment, where people allow themselves to be entertained at the expense of others' misery. 

Ned’s character is palpably real, and Angeli Bayani plays Ned with such passion and vulnerability, avoiding stereotypes in her committed performance. 

Another actress worthy of recognition is Maxene Eigenmann, who plays Ashley, a dance instructor who prepares Ned for the talent show. Eigenmann is an underrated actress. Even in Adolfo Alix Jr.'s "Romeo at Juliet" back in 2010, Eigenmann showed that she can handle complex performances like it's nobody's business. In "Ned's Project," she plays a conflicted woman, clearly running way from a traumatic past. But we don't see that until later, because Ashley masks her fears and insecurities with a rock-solid facade. 

One of the film's best scenes is when sexual tension erupts between Ned and Ashley. I loved the part where Ned performs onstage and Ashley just stares at her, as if in a trance. It is perhaps the turning point of the film. Everything stopped. For a moment, everything was perfect.

Ned is a very wonderful character because she is so flawed, and yet you cannot resist to love her. You want her to succeed in her objective. Ned’s weaknesses are strengths in disguise. The decision alone to bear a child and solely raise that child defined Ned as a brave human being. Choosing to be responsible for a human life is no ordinary feat, much more so that a single lesbian woman made that decision. 

“Ned’s Project” also tackles society’s prejudice against members of the LGBT community in passing. Ned’s sister (Ana Abad Santos), though loving and compassionate, isn’t a fan of Ned’s relationship with Gladys. Ashley’s aunt, on the other hand is a textbook homophobic. But what sets "Ned's Project" apart from other queer films is that it elevates the queer discourse beyond the usual elements of gratuitous sex, prejudice and identity. The film focuses on Ned alone, as she takes on the world, armed only with her burning desire to be happy, to feel whole, on equal footing with the rest. And if a gay, or a lesbian can be happy the same as a straight person without reservations, then a certain cinematic justice has been achieved, at least.

My only regret about the film is the underdevelopment of Ashley's character. I didn't quite like how the film ended, and perhaps it would be better if the filmmakers kept Ashley's disappearance a mystery. Somehow, that creative decision lessened the emotional and social impact of the material, yet thankfully it does not rob the film entirely of its charm.