Movie reviews: All 9 CineFilipino 2016 feature length films
MANILA, Philippines – A number of exciting films are part of the lineup of CineFilipino 2016 film festival, which had its awards night last Saturday, March 19. Below, film critic Oggs Cruz takes a look at each of the feature length films featured in this year's festival.
Dexter Hemedez and Allan Ibanez’s 1st Sem opens with a scene that is familiar to most Filipinos. Sending a child off to college is an important event, one that signifies hope for that elusive better future. This is especially true for those who can’t seem to escape the rut of an ambitionless life that they have gotten so used to. The film begins with the entire extended family of Maru (Darwin Yu) accompanying him to Manila where he is set to study Engineering.
The conceit of the film is that Maru doesn’t push through with his promising college education. Instead, he goes back to his hometown, and leads the life that his mother (Lotlot de Leon) worked so hard for him to escape. What results is a film that brims with emotions like regret and contrition that are too close to home, enunciated by the fact that all the veiled miseries of a promising future that has been immaturely abandoned are accompanied by garish humor.
At first, 1st Sem seems like it is all about jokes and punch lines about a loser of a son who can’t seem to muster the guts to leave his family. As soon as all the noise and artifice die down, what’s left is a tender coming-of-age tale that has its heart in the right place.
Its haphazard comedy can be grating but when the delicate drama starts to seep in to overtake the often obnoxious nonsense of exaggerated familial squabbling, the film grows up.
'A Lotto Like Love'
The premise is golden in all its simplicity. A girl and a boy meet and fall in love with the help of a winning lotto ticket. However, Carla Baful’s A Lotto Like Love is anything but golden. It is riddled with so many things it wants to do, and as a result, becomes boisterous and bloated.
So the girl here is Kayela (Isabelle de Leon), an ambitious girl who moves from Nueva Ecija to Manila to fulfil her dreams of making it big. Sadly, she doesn’t, and is forced to pretend that she’s a success story when in reality, she’s not.
The boy is Itot (Martin Escudero), a luckless cab driver who needs some money to help with the hospitalization of his sick mother. Kayela and Itot meet in a lotto outlet, where Itot lends Kayela both the money and some numbers for her ticket, which eventually wins.
It’s a messy story, one that is riddled with unimaginative scenes that seem borrowed from every other romantic comedy that came before it. Even more depressing is the fact that the film is visually flat and quite charmless.
De Leon tries her obvious best to make her hopelessly romantic character somewhat memorable, but there really is very little to do to salvage a film whose intention to entertain is drowned by a scarcity of imagination. The film is rather joyless, even if it purports to be some sort of a winner.
'Ang Taba Ko Kasi'
Jason Paul Laxamana’s Ang Taba Ko Kasi is the type of film that is easy to dismiss. First, it is a romance, and romances are usually treated with less importance than films with more pressing issues. Second, its romance is anchored on comedy, and that comedy is grounded on body image. There is a high likelihood that the film will turn out crass and insensitive, one whose laughs and chuckles are earned through the pains and insecurities of a select group of people.
Thankfully, Ang Taba Ko Kasi is a wonderfully nuanced picture. Sure, Laxamana populates his film with comedic scenes, but the scenes never feel ill-motivated. In fact, they seem drawn from a collective experience of struggling to achieve that perfect body image.
What sets Laxamana’s film from being merely a romance-centered sketch on obesity is that it doesn’t treat its characters as convenient caricatures. They are fully fleshed out, with pasts and emotions that perfectly adhere to their choices within the film’s tight timeline.
The genius of Ang Taba Ko Kasi is that through the indecisions of Olga (Cai Cortez) when it comes to her blossoming love life, the film explores the accurate possibility that she is not just a victim of body image issues, she is also a perpetrator. Her sexual urges are all motivated by an allegiance to a perception that being slim and slender equates to perfection. She treats her swimming instructor (Mark Neumann) and jogging buddy (Ryan Yllana) the same way she does not want herself to be treated.
The film is brave in the way it refuses to pander to the public’s expectations, and it does all of this without losing touch with the very basic intention to entertain.
'Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian'
A nurse (Sandino Martin) and an ambulance driver (Joem Bascon) are on their way back from Manila when something strange happens. They keep on passing the same bridge over and over again. Moreover, the ghost stories they’ve been sharing with each other to temper the boredom start to become real.
Alvin Yapan’s Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian is ostensibly a horror flick. As such, it is only partially effective. It is initially chilling. Yapan is quite gifted when he is playing with the imagination, and the first part of the film is where he is forced to show very little, relying mostly on the power of conversation and darkness to create demons inside a fertile mind.
The film however fumbles when it breaks to show the demons and monsters that were once kept safe inside the mind. The film starts to expose its deficiencies, churning out the creatures with the help of awful visual effects. It’s quite disheartening.
Thankfully, there is more to the film than the distinct pleasures of evoking fake fears. Yapan has never been a filmmaker with meager ambitions of trite entertainment. For him, there is more to film than blunt escapism.
Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian is rich in folklore. It demands a mature understanding of the evils that pervade the nation and all the horror stories that are birthed from it. Yapan’s film suffers from the limitations of a budget and time-constrained crafting but there is enough of its high concept to make it intriguing enough to forgive its brazen flaws.
Paolo Herras’ Buhay Habangbuhay is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) in the way that it portrays otherworldly beings quietly observing the affairs of the living. The difference here is that Herras’ film is grounded on Filipino virtues and sensibilities, which in turn infuses the film with a quality that makes it blatantly sentimental as opposed to being melancholic in its depiction of mortal lives.
The film opens with the sudden death of a dedicated wife (Iza Calzado). Her soul doesn’t pass on, deciding instead to remain to observe her husband (Jake Macapagal) as she remarries another woman (Meryll Soriano), becomes a father, and dies.
The film is quiet and paced methodically. Unfortunately, its meditations are often aimless in its insistence on showcasing the passage of time where everything is a waiting game. Thankfully, Buhay Hanapbuhay is often visually sumptuous, betrayed only by visual and aural effects that cheapen the elegance of Regiben Romana’s impeccable lensing.
There are beautiful moments that complicate Calzado’s sparely illustrated character, such as when she professes a sexual longing for the brother of her husband’s second wife. Sadly, those moments are just ornaments in that fictional universe that Herras has mechanically crafted. They do not really go anywhere, the same way the film doesn’t really go anywhere except as a colorful idea that is starving for a stirring narrative to keep it from being an immortally tedious exercise of style over substance.
Most of Lemuel Lorca’s films are intimately linked to his home province of Quezon, a place that has the rustic charm of a rural community that is on a steady pace towards modernity. Despite the fact that the films’ narratives allow them practically any setting, Lorca cleverly insists on situating them within familiar communities where the characters’ peculiarities are enlarged.
In Water Lemon (2015), the lead character’s flaw and choice of escape is wondrously punctuated by the fact that he lives in a town whose residents are in a fatal state of stagnation.
Ned’s Project could have been set anywhere else, yet like Water Lemon and Mauban: Ang Resiko (2014), it is set in Sampaloc in Quezon, where Ned (Angeli Bayani), a lesbian tattoo artist who is recovering from a recent heartbreak, feels like an oddity.
Her love story is not exactly taboo, but it is one often treated without the same affection as more traditional romances. In the midst of a community that only tolerates her kind, Ned’s story becomes even more resonating. That Lorca peppers John Bedia’s precise screenplay with flourishes that unflinchingly ups the story’s bathos doubles the pleasure of the experience.
Ned’s Project however wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for all the exemplary performances. Bayani is impressive. She bathes the typical gestures that are expected of her character with tenderness. Maxene Eigenmann, who plays the woman who cures Ned of her heart’s pain, injects her character with enough charm and appeal to make her role in Ned’s life both believable and relatable.
'Sakaling Hindi Makarating'
The history of Ice Idanan’s Sakaling Hindi Makarating is interesting in itself. The film, which was supposed to be part of the edition of Cinemalaya that became infamous because of the disqualification of Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 (2012), had structural problems in its script. The screenplay simply needed time to gestate, and Idanan needed the years to collaborate and to expand its premise.
Patience paid off, because the film, even with some problems unresolved, is a gorgeous picture about the art of meandering, which seems to be the film’s elusive point.
Sakaling Hindi Makarating opens with Cielo (Alessandra de Rossi) returning home from a vacation and a breakup with her fiance. At home, she discovers postcards from a certain M with paintings of various places around the Philippines. She is convinced by her neighbor (Pepe Herrera) to take another trip, to discover who this mysterious M is, with the hope that the adventure would cure her of her heartbreak.
Shot by Idanan, the film is evidently beautiful, depicting areas around the Philippines with as much color and design as possible. While the film teeters towards being too unrealistically sentimental especially with its insistence on avoiding social issues that would prove to be unavoidable to any regular traveler, it manages to be persuasive with its hardened objective on being about the pleasures of random adventures and even more random encounters.
Given that the film teases about the identity of a certain person who would have completed Cielo’s thirst for the perfect romance, its ending, which keeps things within the universe of uncertainty, is delightfully bittersweet.
'Van Damme Stallone'
The balancing act that Randolph Longjas commits to in Van Damme Stallone is impressive. The film, about a mother (Candy Pangilinan) who raises her son with Down Syndrome, is a film of admirable restraint. There are areas in the film where Longjas could have gone the path of convenience and resorted to easy melodrama, but he remained steadfast, depicting instead the struggles of the peculiar family with as much control and subtlety as possible.
Pangilinan is amazing here. The comedienne, who rose to fame for portraying sidekicks with hilarious quirks and mannerisms in films like Wenn Deramas’ D’Lucky Ones (2006), Joyce Bernal’s For the First Time (2008) and Andoy Ranay’s Diary ng Panget (2014), showcases a very surprising ability to hold back gestures and emotions, resulting in a performance that is most powerful when it is quiet and controlled.
The film is actually held together by Pangilinan. A misstep from her could have inflicted damage to the fragile balance that Longjas has crafted, yet she delivers quite memorably.
The easiest thing to do in films like Star na si Van Damme Stallone is to take the inherent disabilities of its characters as a crutch to minimize the efforts in filmmaking. Longjas could have gone the way of uncomplicated advocacy, but instead, he chose to keep the film as intimate as possible, far removed from the common expectations of society when it comes to subjects that require special attention. The film in turn becomes this poignant portrait of a family that is both unlike any other but struggles the same way as all the rest.
'Straight to the Heart'
There's plenty wrong with Dave Fabros’ Straight to the Heart. It is clumsy and crude. It is noxious and offensive. It is confused and confusing.
The film is essentially about a gay hairdresser (Carl Guevara) who gets bumped in the head and wakes up as a sex-crazed straight man. The film could have easily been a politically incorrect but hilarious romp, but instead, it chose the path of relevance and attempted to say things about sexuality in this day and age. It’s all good. In fact, it is an admirable move. However, Fabros’ film seems to be trapped in between its noble intentions and its need to entertain, resulting in something that is quite torturous in its cluelessness.
It sees itself as a comedy, but its humor is mostly contained in dialogues that are unconvincingly mouthed by characters that are shaped out of dull stereotypes. The romance that it pushes for feels like a miserable afterthought, perhaps because the female lead, played by Gwen Zamora, is uninteresting despite the plenty of possibilities for her character's evolution.
The narrative seems to be interested in exploring themes of gender fluidity, especially within the context of a queer community that is overprotective of its own, but Fabros never really follows through that initial spark. He’s caught up with the chitchat and the banter, and ends up with a film drowning in parlor noise.
Have you seen any of the films? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below. – Rappler.com
Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas’ 'Tirad Pass.' Since then, he’s been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema. Profile photo by Fatcat Studios