Review: All 9 Cinema One Originals films for 2017
Bundok Banahaw, Sacred and Profane: Surrender to the unknown
Overused and sometimes abused by too many television specials that depict the mountain as some sort of curiosity and spectacle amidst a country whose religiosity seems shallow, the topic of Bundok Banahaw, Sacred and Profane is far from new.
But what director Dempster Samarista does with the supposedly sacred mountain is nothing short of mesmerizing. It is a difficult task, especially in an era of prejudices and staunch opinions, but Samarista approaches his subject matter without reservations and judgments, taking everything that the mountain has evolved into, from the maddening circus of passionate eccentrics who occupy the sacred space to the undeniable air of mysticism the location offers, and translates them into a mood piece that champions not the act of finding the logic behind the place’s mystifying allure, but the act of getting lost in all of its wonderful weirdness. The documentary’s final 30 minutes, which is an irresistible orgy of sights and sounds that somewhat define the place’s inexplicable charm, is just marvelous in its complete surrender to the mountain’s beautiful unknown.
Changing Partners: Masterfully crafted
An adaptation of Vince de Jesus’ musical about the pains of maintaining May-December romances across gender settings, Dan Villegas’ Changing Partners doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from the source material.
It isn’t really a bad thing except that it puts Villegas in a position of simply being a master craftsman who is too beholden to his source material to impart anything else other than elegant transitions and moody lighting. The film borrows all the same conceits, from the use of the same actors and actresses to play various characters to the infrequent segues to heartfelt songs that intensely echo the many private thoughts and feelings. The film dutifully satisfies without a doubt, as it isn’t hard to fall for the rousing depictions of the 4 romances that all share the same path towards separation, especially when they are accompanied with all the witty lines that laces heartbreak with wayward humor and melodies that enunciate the ache. However, its appeal is finite as it insists on being too like its characters who are glaringly obsessed with their failing love stories to be anything more than musically-inclined hopeless romantics in a world far larger than their weepy songs imply.
Haunted: A Last Visit to the Red House: Fragile histories
In Haunted: A Last Visit to the Red House, director Phyllis Grande is faced with an important decision to either immortalize the fragile histories of the Malaya Lolas, sex victims of Japanese troops during the World War II, or document the alarming detachment of today’s generation from history. Grande attempts to do both.
The documentary features the few remaining comfort women recounting their experiences under the Japanese with harrowing clarity. Grande smartly allows the shared narrative of the elderly ladies to take center stage, and the effect is tremendously stirring with the film allowing the visuals of discomforting close-ups of the wrinkled faces of its subjects to seamlessly blend with their pained storytelling. The bookends of the documentary, however, is troubling. Grande insists on also portraying how the experience is fleeting to those who perceive the war to be a mere footnote of the past by depicting how first, the comfort women’s experiences have mutated into an urban legend where the supernatural has supplanted real wartime atrocities, and second, how despite hearing the accounts first hand, the effect is met not with sympathy but suspicion and rationalization. The attempt is laudable, but the dubious execution of the transition to the film’s end somewhat betrays the power and urgency of the subjects’ stories.
Historiographika Errata: Lofty aspirations
Richard Somes’ Historiographika Errata is a film that is not lacking in lofty aspirations. A triptych whose episodes are set in the Philippines during the various times of strife under its different colonial masters, the film treats history with a hilarious sense of irreverence in the service of a provocative thesis that the country’s idea of nationalism borne out of mistakes and corruption.
The conceptually ambitious first episode where a suicidal Jose Rizal (Joem Bascon), whom we also see being idolized by cross-dressing revolutionaries several years later, is saved by a German prostitute. In a way, the episode, which is staged by Somes with as much visual pluck as possible given that it is mostly driven by dialogue, diligently paves the way for the delicious impiety of the next 2 episodes, both featuring characters committing morally questionable acts all for the sake of survival, which feel more conventional and narrative-driven. Nevertheless, the film, despite the stark inconsistency that is the common weakness of episodic features, is loud and clear in its message. It is a sobering take on a history that has granted this nation a shaky and sometimes dangerous sense of pride. In this age where truth has lost its integrity with the very many versions of it, the film feels oddly relevant.
Nay: More than blood and gore
Kip Oebanda makes it a point to show that there is more to Nay than immense blood and gore. It is that exact insistence that makes the film unintentionally abrasive. In between the few bouts of genuine horror, the film indulges in conversations between characters that bluntly expose Oebanda’s agenda of relevance in this era of political and moral turmoil.
What is more damning is how the dialogues are rife with artifice, with the characters switching from creatures of their privileged and sheltered lives to victims of cheap melodrama. Nay talks about the injustices dealt by the unfair distribution of all kinds of power, but it does so with such bewildered conviction that it is almost impossible to determine the film’s exact stance in all of its pronounced discourse. Perhaps, the film really laments the confusion dealt by all the virtues and vices that converge haphazardly in today’s society – how it is almost impossible to choose sides, to pinpoint which is the lesser evil in the many evils around us. Oebanda may have failed to conjure convincing emotions to propel his horror-social drama hybrid, but he surely succeeds in provoking distressing uncertainty.
Nervous Translation: Faint joys of childhood
The beauty of Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation is in its depiction of the past as something that isn't cold and distant, which most films that thrive on nostalgia insist on, but something that is intimate and personal.
The film feels like a delicate yet lovely montage of recreated and reshaped memories, framed by a profound sliver of a plot about a little girl (Jana Agoncillo) who is being raised by her mother (Angge Santos), whose only communication with her husband is via cassette tapes full of recorded messages. There’s a certain playfulness and naiveté to Seno’s approach which defiantly grants the film’s more mature involvements a subtle but clear sensuality. The film’s graceful portrayal of the girl’s interactions with the world outside her own little space of miniature kitchens and other playthings makes way for a poignant portrait of growing up as some sort of deliberate disaster. The film’s final images are powerful in the way that its resourceful mix of silence and devastation as seen through the eyes of a child feels like a mournful elegy to the faint joys of childhood even if experienced under the most imperfect of circumstances.
Paki: Humor and heartbreak
A recurring image in Giancarlo Abrahan’s Paki involves Alejandra (Dexter Doria), the 80-something matriarch of provincial political clan, receiving drops for her recently treated eyes. What is particularly curious about the image is how the drops once administered results in a visual of the old lady shedding tears, but Alejandra never cries in the film. She gets scared. She gets mad. She sometimes cracks jokes. At the end of the film, she gives a hearty laugh. All, seemingly in a staggered effort to put up a front.
Paki is an absolute delight, not only because of its seamless weaving of comedy and heartbreak but also for its frank dissection of the complex nature of love of all kinds. The film, without resorting to drab cynicism, explores by way of the very familiar tale of a woman in her 80s who suddenly gets tired of loving unconditionally within the family sphere all the spuriousness our hearts tolerate all for the sake of the social structures we have come accustomed to respect. Mind you, Abrahan does not belittle all the relationships his film scrutinizes. In fact, Paki is so candidly affecting because the familial and romantic ties it skillfully depicts are far from being clichés and stereotypes. They are all engaging in their intricate imperfections, and Abrahan, in his earnest effort to expose our dishonest hearts, has created a family-oriented film that speaks volumes of truths.
Si Chedeng at si Apple: Making sense of the irreverence
Fatrick Tabada and Rae Red’s Si Chedeng at si Apple seems like a film that thrives on impertinence, the same way Victor Villanueva’s Patay na si Hesus (2016) does. At first glance, it certainly seems to be bent on going that same route of piling gag after gag to carve some sort of meaning in its unabashed use of vulgar irreverence.
However, Tabada and Red’s film, which is also a road flick, feels more pressing in the way that its two characters, who are in their twilight years, are criminals on the run and also on a mission to find a long-lost love. The film blends the right amount of insanity and integrity, resulting in a film whose jokes are wild and boisterous but never distracting to its pursuit of a legitimate heart. The film’s absurd but endearing ending makes allegorical sense – the salvation of the two beloved friends, who have both wronged and been wronged by the effects of prejudice, is being welcomed by a sea of happy brides. In a stroke of screenwriting genius, all the cheek, profanity, obscenity, and arguably, the amorality of murder start to make complete sense within the film’s very specific world. Si Chedeng at si Apple shapes up to be the essential queer film that puts forward a very current issue without indulging in dire misery.
Throwback Today: Amiable amidst the glitches
A romance told in the most roundabout way, Joseph Teoxon’s Throwback Today is an extremely genial charmer whose primary conceit of pitting 2 individuals who should be in love against the forces of both fate and fantasy is both a potent source of its appeal and a probable pitfall.
Opening with a scene of present-day Primo (Carlo Aquino) and Andie (Empress Schuck) enjoying a Lav Diaz film inside a theater is a very astute way of introducing two people who truly deserve each other, the film struggles to find its pace even after its main character discovers a computer bug that allows him to chat with his older self, thus saving himself from being the lonely loser that he has become. Teoxon’s lackluster exposition of Primo’s college life lacks the requisite sentimentality to truly engage, and the film’s clumsy visuals do not really help in evoking any real appeal to the main character’s missed chances at true love. It is only when desperation and frustration take over after Primo learns that fixing his life isn’t as simple as changing the decisions he made in younger years that Throwback Today starts showing signs of life and purpose. In the end, despite the film’s many obvious glitches, it still comes out as a very amiable effort to tell the love story of two Lav Diaz-lovers who are sadly separated by the fickleness of youth and all the bad life decisions that comes with it.
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.