Movie reviews: All 5 'Directors Showcase' 2014 films

Note: This page will be updated with reviews as soon as they're available from Rappler's regular movie reviewer, Zig Marasigan. This page will house all five movie reviews from the Cinemalaya's Directors Showcase category. Another page houses the reviews for the New Breed category.

Hustisya Review: Sweet yet flawed justice

The city is falling apart and Biring couldn’t care less.

Working as a human trafficker, Biring takes orders from her close friend and employer Vivian (Rosanna Roces). She spends most of her day paying off a long list of politicians, parish priests, travel agents and custom officials, while she also hands out young boys and girls to the highest bidder. It’s a heinous job, but it’s one that allows Biring to keep her family out of poverty.

The world according to Hustisya is a dark one, characterized by the desperate poor and the callous rich, and Biring balances precariously on a thin wire in the middle. But upon closer inspection, we begin to see that Biring is no fool, though she is no better than the bribe-taking officials she pays off. There is a hole in her conscience eating steadily at her soul with every man, woman and child she traffics into oblivion. But it is through the impeccable and unmatched skill of the legendary Nora Aunor that Biring comes to life.

Written by living screenwriting legend Ricardo Lee and directed by filmmaking veteran Joel Lamangan, Hustisya is lined with a number of names from the old guard of Philippine cinema. And although Lamangan has been prolific in his support of modern independent cinema, Hustisya often feels like a film that should’ve existed in another time, back when Filipino films spoke hard against the failings of Philippine society, and yet was headlined by stars and talent that didn’t relegate such films to small independent festivals.  

Although Hustisya is a far cry from the socio-politically driven classics of decades past, its subject matter is at least reminiscent of the time. A big part of that is the presence of Nora Aunor, who has made a point to challenge herself and the status quo by accepting roles that don’t readily fit the mold of commercial viability. Biring is easily one of the most interesting and morally ambiguous characters to come out of the Cinemalaya Film Festival, and that’s due in no small part to Lee’s exceptional character writing.

Unfortunately, Hustisya spins wildly out of control quickly into its second half, and the film begins to meander into narrative threads that aren’t either set up properly, or don’t come together as cleanly as it should. Sadly, whatever momentum Hustisya begins with at the start, is quickly lost towards its end. However, that shouldn’t be a deterrent to the point Huistisya is trying to make.

In short: It’s a flawed yet striking film, with a ravenously engaging first half that unfortunately comes undone in its second. But while Hustisya loses focus well towards its end, it is held together by the strength of Nora Aunor’s performance. And try as one might within the slowly crumbling city of Manila, Hustisya reminds us that the quest for justice may be nothing but a myth.  

 The Janitor Review: Starts dirty, cleans up nicely

Action-thrillers aren’t common fare in local cinema, and for that reason alone there is an undeniable ambition behind The Janitor. It’s a film that at least delivers on the promise of its genre, but unfortunately fails to provide anything more than that.

When a bank robbery goes horribly wrong, the bank’s employees are found massacred in what ultimately becomes the most scandalous crime of the year. The local police department is put under enormous pressure to catch the perpetrators and so Cristano Espina (Dennis Trillo) is brought in to clean up the mess. Taking orders from his former partner and current commanding officer Rudy Manapat (Richard Gomez), Cristano is tasked with eliminating the suspects one by one. But Espina is no ordinary law enforcer, he’s a hitman.

As far as action-thrillers are concerned, The Janitor at least delivers some genuinely entertaining set pieces. Cristano takes on his targets with brutal efficiency and does so in a way that is both confident, and at times, even enchanting. The Janitor sports an A-List cast that includes Ricky Davao, Derek Ramsay, L.J Reyes and Raymond Bagatsing. But to reveal how each of the cast members tie into the story would rob the film of its already few surprises.

Unfortunately, the premise of The Janitor proves to be immediately problematic. Bringing in a hitman for a police job should already be suspect, and it becomes particularly difficult to think that Cristano is too ignorant to question the motives of his superiors. This preempts the film’s intended twist long before it’s even sets it up, and robs The Janitor of any real momentum. 

Because of the film’s predictable plot and contrived story, The Janitor is bogged down by a lack of efficiency. Most of the film is chopped up between fast-paced action scenes and droning character moments. While weaving the two is no simple task, the lack of skillful layering keeps the story from hitting its stride.

In short: Although the film picks up steam towards the latter half, audiences not already invested in the film’s story could find it difficult to get drawn back in. And although the twist is as predictable as most of the elements in The Janitor’s story, it at least packs one more punch to redeem itself.

The Janitor does manage to clean up after itself in a way that at delivers a satisfying ending. While it may not be the traditional ending audiences might want, it’s definitely the kind of ending a film like this demands.

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Asintado Review: Fails to hit its mark

Philippine cinema has long depicted a mother’s love as infinite and infallible. Asintado attempts to reinforce that belief, but unfortunately fails at providing a compelling case for it. When a mother’s unconditional love is devoid of sacrifice, it becomes particularly difficult to sympathize with the sentiment, especially in the case of Asintado’s main character, Julia.

Julia (Aiko Melendez) works in the fields of Bibiclat, Nueva Ecija, a barrio most popularly known for its Taong Putik Festival. She has devoted her life to the well-being of her sons Tonio (Jake Vargas) and Etok (Miggs Cuarderno). But life is particularly difficult with Etok suffering from a particular case of autimism that doesn’t allow him to speak or comprehend the events around him. But when Tonio takes an odd job as a drug courier, he finds himself at odds with local thug Carias (Gabby Eigenmann). Julia is then forced to act by risking one son for the other. 

The milieu provides the rich backdrop for a story angled at redemption and forgiveness. But for a film that aims to be morally gray, the sides are very black and white. In one corner there is Julia’s family, and in the other there is Carias, with audiences predisposed to sympathize with the former and not the latter.

But the film’s real stumbling block is that its attempt at gritty realism is often derailed by frequent dips into the absurd. When the young Tonio turns a first kiss into raunchy sex, what should’ve been an intimate and moving scene suddenly becomes especially ridiculous, and the case worsens when Tonio’s horny-toad attitude becomes the focal point of the film’s plot.

But buried underneath the film’s many failings is a seed is of a story worth telling. The Taong Putik Festival has been done countless times over, but few films have explored the milieu at such detailed length. The films opens up with an origin story of the festival, and with nothing but voice and credits to accompany it, we are allowed to listen to the tale unfold in our minds.

Unfortunately, that kind of poignancy is lost throughout the rest of the film. The script relies too much on exposition and very little on action, with the story picking up too late to feel relevant. What should have been an exploration of redemption, sacrifice and moral ambiguity ends up as a wasted opportunity to share something genuinely insightful.

In short: Asintado aims to tell a mother’s story. But it may have served better as a film about the relationship of two brothers. Unfortunately, even with that in mind, Asintado fails to hit its mark, when no one is worth rooting for.

Kasal Review: The flaws of commitment 

 

Kasal is tried and tested territory for director Joselito Altarejos. As one of the most visible advocates of local gay cinema, Altarejos explores the idea of commitment between gay couple Sherwin (Arnold Reyes) and Paolo (Oliver Aquino). But when they arrive as guests to the wedding of Sherwin’s younger sister, their own conflicting beliefs on commitment and loyalty bubble up to the surface.

In Kasal, Alarejos tackles gay marriage head on but not so much as to trivialize its importance with arbitrary judgment. Kasal is graphic in its depiction of gay sex, and may not prove appropriate viewing for those who flinch at the sight of prolonged intimacy. And although the film’s first half struggles for pace and identity, Kasal spreads its wings by its second.

By the wedding, the film takes on an entirely different form. Altarejos loosens up with candid characters and glimpses of subtle, tertiary moments. We see how the wedding, which should be an occasion for celebration, acts as a burden for those affected by it. But Altarejos never loses sight of his protagonists Sherwin and Paolo, and their own opposing views. 

In short: For a film made for the independent scene, Kasal struggles against melodrama but occasionally slips right into it. Moments of fragile silence are cracked by scenes where there’s unnecessary noise. One scene early on nearly breaks the film in half, forcing friction where there is none. Thankfully, Kasal ends with a solemn and silent pause, because there are no words for those we lose. 

Hari ng Tondo Review: The king of comedy

Hari ng Tondo marks the return of director Carlos Siguion-Reyna. Such high-profile comebacks are often accompanied by sweeping, ambitious and often pretentious cinema, but Hari ng Tondo acts as a counterpoint to that exact sentiment. In Hari ng Tondo¸ Siguion-Reyna goes back to basics by crafting a film with one unmistakable intention: to entertain.

When the aging Ricardo (Robert Arevalo) goes bankrupt, he is forced to move back into his old apartment in the slums of Tondo, Manila. He manages to convince his two grandchildren Ricky (Rafael Siguion-Reyna) and Anna (Cris Villonco) to accompany him there, but Ricardo discovers that his old home is no longer how he once remembered it.

Hari ng Tondo is a comedy seemingly from a different era. Its humor is drawn not from time-bound pop culture references but from cheap, often crass, but never hollow punchlines. Whether it’s fart jokes, music numbers or elaborate character quirks, Hari ng Tondo delivers a mile a minute jokes that are uniquely, and unmistakably, Filipino.

Its premise suffers from a sheer lack of logic, and often unbelievable circumstances. But that doesn’t seem to concern Siguion-Reyna or his longtime collaborator and screenwriter Bibeth Orteza whose most recent works include My Little Bossings and the Enteng Kabisote series. Hari ng Tondo offers a brand of humor that may not resonate with more high-brow audiences, but without the constraints of big-studio restrictions, Reyna and Orteza are allowed to drop the histrionics and focus instead on the humor.  

In short: It’s a film built for the popcorn stands with the engrained promise of a good time. While it may not please those looking for more substance in their cinema, it will satiate those who are willing, at least for time being, to put it aside.

– Rappler.com