Cinemalaya

Cinemalaya 2021 review: Main Competition A and B

Jason Tan Liwag
Cinemalaya 2021 review: Main Competition A and B

Cinemalaya's YouTube channel

For the second time during a pandemic, Cinemalaya embraces the online space — with mixed results

For its 16th year, Cinemalaya opens its digital doors to hold space for a handful of short films and the creative minds behind them. This year’s Main Competition boasts 13 short films — all finished during the pandemic.

Part of the Cinemalaya experience is participating in discussions that arise, no matter how problematic or controversial they are. While short films should not be looked down upon as an art form, this year’s selection might be strong on a technical level but leave a lot to be desired narratively.

hematically divided, most of the selection has left me opinionless and wondering if the work is strong enough to spark discussion. It is difficult to reconcile that this is the same festival that has brought us the likes of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Respeto and Edward.

As a film critic, it’s become much more difficult to write about films now. With many areas of the Philippines returning to enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), fewer Filipino films now make it onto our screens. The artistic process has changed — now mired with more long-lasting threats, uncertainties, and difficulties than we previously imagined. How do we move forward with criticism while considering these constraints?

Still, there are few that leap at you with their promise. For the first part of this review series, I’ll be talking about my favorites from the Main Competition while also providing quick thoughts on some that fell short (no pun intended).

MAIN COMPETITION – SET A

Maski Papano (2020; Che Tagyamon and Glenn Barit)

Of the first set of short films, Maski Papano is the only one that deals with the pandemic head-on. The film follows a humanoid face mask (named ‘Maks Pes’) who gains sentience following its disposal, going on a quest to find its previous owner. From waking up on a pile of trash to seeing Cinema Centenario closed, it shows us the all-too familiar process of grieving and going out for the first time, only to discover that the landscape has changed.

In the hands of a different creative team, this would easily be a traditional drama. On paper, the tale of disposability is something people can relate to. Throughout the last year, people have lost jobs, family members, and more. But the world has plenty of those stories already, in avenues that are readily available to us social media and the news have become regular sources of stories of isolation, failure, deceit, anxiety, and incompetence. Maski Papano approaches things differently.

Tagyamon and Barit draw out so much humor from the situation through the execution of the film. In creating an animated proxy for our pandemic experiences, the two create a stark contrast between the heaviness and existential dread contained in the voice over and what we see onscreen. By blending stop motion animation with real life scenes, the film becomes an avenue for the audience to poke fun at these feelings of purposelessness without invalidating these same experiences.

Very early on last year, the world decided on what is disposable and unimportant. But even in this, there are people who remind us that we are not disposable. Companionship may not be the answer to the loneliness and the endless waiting that we are all subjected to, but it does make it more bearable.

The film is not deluded into thinking its creation solves anything about the system, nor does it arrogantly assert its importance as a reflection of today’s times. Maski Papano serves as neither a strict form of confrontation nor a route for escapism. Rather, it gives us googly eyes through which we may reframe our experiences. It challenges us to see that there are still small sources of joy that we must hold onto and that this joy is inseparable from the lives of those around us.

In 2019, Che Tagyamon and Glenn Barit emotionally destroyed me with their films Judy Free and Cleaners, respectively. Maski Papano is a solid addition into their pantheon of creations. It reasserts their place as great contemporary Filipino filmmakers and is proof that creativity cannot be killed so long as the community is alive and connected.

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi (2021; Shiri de Leon)

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi follows the titular character (Ruby Ruiz) on the night she decides to lose her virginity. Known as the “town virgin,” Lola Mayumi struggles to keep her activities a secret. But after booking a room at the Paraiso Hotel and hiring a call boy (Julian Roxas), she is suddenly faced with a wellspring of questions and reasons not to continue with her plans.

When I watched the talk back with writer-director Shiri de Leon, I was surprised at how the film was only created with a production team of six students, including herself. A second year student at MINT College, Shiri has created a film with remarkable acuity and expansiveness. Happening almost entirely in a hotel room, the film almost functions like a one-act play whose humor isn’t divorced from reality but rather flows from it and through it.

The core of Lola Mayumi are its characters and Roxas and Ruiz make for an odd yet charming pair. On his own, Julian Roxas as the callboy is inexperienced yet totally disarming (when he entered, I screamed because I am very gay). But as the scenes proceed, his body language and inability to maintain eye contact immediately indicates that he either already knows his client or is entirely new to this experience. Though neither are expounded upon in the 20-minute runtime, it leaves the magnitude of the shifts in their relationship unearned.

But together with Ruiz, each stolen glance and playful gesture sends shudders down my spine and plasters a stupid smile on my face. Every word is laced with neither malice nor lust, but only with curiosity and care. The desire to be wanted is slowly but surely replaced with the desire to be understood.

Throughout this, Ruby Ruiz shines. It comes as no surprise that the role was written with her in mind. Lola Mayumi is comically serious and anxious, as if merely thinking of sex were to bring The Rapture onto her. As the minutes pass, we see that her religiosity is woven tightly with her social anxieties and traumas, creating layers of clothing left to peel before she is finally, emotionally, naked. The hotel room transforms into a confessional; the callboy into a priest willing to listen to that which her body is unable to physicalize.

We often forget that coming-of-age stories aren’t restricted to adolescents. These awakenings arrive at the most crucial points throughout our lives when the pain of staying the same becomes more excruciating than the pain of changing. Though Mayumi closes her door once again, whoever she was before she first entered Paraiso will not be the same person leaving.

Quick thoughts:

Crossing (2020; Marc Misa) is formally and tonally the opposite of Maski Papano. It is a strong piece centered around G. Arkanhell (played by Niño Mendoza) communicating the internal conflict through facial moments and deliberate lack of eye contact. Though it makes wise and economic use of only one location, I wished it went further with its concept and execution. But it makes sense that the short is part of a larger story. I’m excited for that one.

Kawatan sa Salog (2020; Alphie Velasco) is one of the films whose logline is more interesting than the film itself. A tale of lost souls meeting in purgatory clothed as a paradise. But with the way it begins, there are more reasons to stay on the island and not enough reasons to return to his father, making the journey less appealing. Part of me wonders if this would have been more interesting if it followed the grandmother instead. Shoutout to the sound design (Kat Salinas), score (Ivan Cortez), and the camera work (Dayne Garcia), especially as the frame wobbles as if you’re on a boat, supplying a constant source of unease and instability.

An Sadit na Planeta (2021; Arjanmar Rebeta) is a tantalizing visual treat. Initially reminiscent of one of the planets visited in the The Little Prince, it reveals itself to be narratively repetitive, if not completely empty. Serves more as a proof-of-concept for the filmmaking technique. Still, kudos to all-around filmmaker Arjanmar Rebeta for the inventiveness. Had the story matched the visuals, this would have been one of my favorites.

Looking for Rafflesias and Other Fleeting Things (2020; James Fajardo) is too fragmented in its attempt to juggle different parts of the narrative. I appreciate the queering of the myth of the tikbalang, as horror films have long villainized queer and queer-coded personas, turning them into monsters. But just as the film is taking shape, it ends. What a shame.

Out of Body (2020; Enrico Po) is an actor’s nightmare come true. It has some of the best technicals and the most stacked cast of actors to work with, which is what makes it more disappointing. It seems like a weaker, live action excerpt from Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue or a more psychoanalytic approach on Midi Z’s Nina Wu. But stripped away from that context, it doesn’t hold up as a strong meta-commentary of the arts and entertainment industry. It asks us to consider if in a capitalist system that prioritizes money over humanity, can all art be a source of empathy? Anyway, I’m just not sure what this one says that hasn’t been said yet.

MAIN COMPETITION SET B

Kids on Fire (2021; Kyle Nieve)

Kids on Fire follows J.C. (Alexis Negrite), a prepubescent boy on the cusp of adolescence who makes an awkward discovery while on a religious retreat. Eclectic and irreverent satirical humor, it takes “camp” and runs to hell with it. Kids on Fire is my favorite from this year’s selection and is the horse that I bet on this year.

The technical elements coalesce to forward the story and ease audiences into the insanity. Alvin Francisco and Tey Clamor create a contained, postcard-ready world through their production design and cinematography, respectively. They capture the warmth and innocence of summer while also creating a source of friction through the dark hellscapes in J.C.’s visions. Len Calvo and Kat Salinas create soundscapes that alert us to grace or doom. Editor and producer Carlo Francisco Manatad creates a narrative so streamlined that the descent to Hell is divided, like the gospel, into easily recognizable chapters.

Throughout this, Kyle Nieva’s writing and direction serves as a clear map. What makes it such a successful satire is its commitment to the absurdity of the approaching apocalypse. The wild characters within the film are accentuated by the static milieu, where the internal logic, once established, nearly quickly crumbles. 

Kyle Nieva’s 20-minute creation is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos and blossoms from the deeply entrenched religious beliefs it also attempts to satirize. There is a clunkiness in the characters that makes it easy to root for them; a crucial component of coming-of-age films. The stakes always feel like they are high and a consistent anxiety, laughable only when it is over.

In particular, Mystica steals the show. In each scene she is in as the group’s spiritual guide, she commands attention with her presence an oblivious tease, leaning into the comedy by committing to its seriousness. It’s a delight to see her absolutely annihilating the role with a smile. She becomes the embodiment of the intrinsic contradiction that religion holds to its believers: a source of deliverance or damnation, depending on the day. As she sets the rules and asserts herself, the film recreates the fear felt by kids in the face of moral absolutism and adolescence; where information could be salvation, if only it were accessible.

What’s more to say? This is a divine comedy.

Beauty Queen (2021; Myra Aquino)

Beauty Queen is a reimagining and retelling of the life of beauty queen-turned-resistance leader Remedios Gomez, more known as Commander Liwayway. Simultaneously an exploration of grief while also serving as a challenge to constructs of ideal womanhood, the film sees Remedios fighting a war on the outside world and within herself.

In order to overcome grief, she must fight against those that have enabled this machinery of loss. But the context she is situated in prevents her from participating in the battle. Men immediately delegate her as a nurse and belittle her combat skills, even as she asks to shoot a gun. Beauty queens have often been deemed as the pinnacle of womanhood, even prior to this century. However, the assets she was praised for as a beauty queen are now deficits under the new world order. 

At times, the film teeters into the trap of putting Remedios on a pedestal. It narrowly avoids this by showing her flaws and later revealing them to be vital adaptations: her impulsiveness becomes instinct, her stubbornness turns into determination. With a permanently furrowed brow, Carina Agustin crafts a compelling (even if at times, uneven) character in Remedios. As the film progresses, Agustin learns to infuse her movements with ease and imbues resolve in her actions. Her interactions with her brother Oscar (Lau Apostol) open us up to her past and their discussions allow her to reframe her experiences of being excluded. It’s an empowering moment and a fine example of how moments of silent honesty can be impactful.

Myra Aquino has reintroduced Remedios Gomez as an example of female strength — both strong despite of and because of her emotions; both capable of wearing makeup while also fighting battles. The recent wins of Olympic athletes such as Hidilyn Diaz should be a reminder that Remedios is not a lone example of a strong Filipina. She never has been. The past is a treasure trove of untold stories of women. All we are asked to do is to remember them.

Quick thoughts about the others:

Namnama En Lolang is the direct opposite of Out of Body – lacking in technical prowess but completely filled with heart and emotion. Though I feel that the voice over could have been omitted completely and it would be more effective, the family effort is not wasted.

Ate O.G. seems like it was made for a good time. Godspeed, Ate.

The Dust in Your Place is mumblecore that is all mumble, no core. The characters are difficult to root for, even in supposedly emotional moments. It goes on too long but also is not long enough to make its point. The camerawork and the production design make the house feel cramped and cold. Also, why is it that millennials always have to be shot in this lighting during “serious” conversation?

Ang Mga Nawalang Pag-asa at Panlasa reads more like an advertisement or a noon-time TV show. Too condensed to give justice to the emotional heft of each of the stories. The voiceover is ultimately unnecessary as the subjects can undoubtedly speak for themselves. It left me longing for silences and moments to let the information sink in; to empathize. Still, happy to have seen a spotlight on food from the region where I grew up. – Rappler.com

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.