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REVIEW: Che Tagyamon’s ‘Tumatawa, Umiiyak’ cuts above QCShorts Program 2023

Lé Baltar

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REVIEW: Che Tagyamon’s ‘Tumatawa, Umiiyak’ cuts above QCShorts Program 2023
QCShorts 2023 gravitates towards chiefly queer political sensibilities. Here are takes on each work.

Spoilers ahead.

MANILA, Philippines — Undeterred by the grandeur of internationally acclaimed titles headlining QCinema’s 11th iteration, this year’s batch of films in the QCShorts Program continues to carve its place in the festival. What threads all six works in the section is how they all find a visual vernacular of this generation’s fraught realities both national and personal, glued by equally heartrending and whimsical storytelling, where the selection’s opening, Che Tagyamon’s Tumatawa, Umiiyak, unassumingly stands out.

While last year’s lineup is dominated by folkloric markers and landscapes that either enhanced or watered down each work’s story, QCShorts 2023 gravitates towards chiefly queer political sensibilities that are curiously placed in the section’s latter half.

Here are takes on each work, ordered based on how they were programmed.

Tumatawa, Umiiyak by Che Tagyamon

The visual and emotional acuity of Che Tagyamon’s Tumatawa, Umiiyak is confirmed by its title, so simple yet sharp. That tug of war between what we allow to see and choose to ignore. What begins as an innocent recounting of a beautiful afternoon between a child and his grandfather in their old neighborhood superbly rolls into issues far more urgent than the sentimental and personal — how neoliberal urban development encroaches spaces and erodes, block by block, the very lives who shape the city, how human rights are often dwarfed by legality and lack of access to information, and how forced displacement is ultimately a matter of capitalist greed. 

Tagyamon cements this insight with incredible restraint and precision. Her animation, in its lightness and spontaneity, acts as a form of counter-mapping against dominant rendering of the city and the structures that permit it, one that is communal and informed by the lived experiences of those on the margins, one that locates us to a city that still knows how to smell flowers, play games, and laugh and cry, which is to say, one that is humane and dignified. 

In this way, Tumatawa, Umiiyak towers over the rest of the shorts in the selection. To categorize it as a “children’s film” is a disservice to its complexities and Tagyamon’s vision, because, just like how it doesn’t infantilize its character, it sees the city as a site of struggle and not a sheltered space devoid of violence as imagined by state spin doctors. So there it is again, that icky laugh-cry feeling.

Animal Lovers by Aedrian Araojo

Animal Lovers might just be too clever by half, for its vision heavily anchors on the satirical trellis of its endnote, so much so that the whole point of the film is simply to build up this moment. And the result can only oscillate between being effective or not, depending on one’s persuasion. Rendered in monochrome, director Aedrian Araojo situates the story in agrarian Mindanao, tracking the relationship of Guadalupe (Iana Bernardez) and Arturo (Karl Medina) as complicated by their animal companions. And the film really knows how to animate itself, chiefly through the charm of its actors. The mode, however, dreadfully gets in the way of its insight. How the film’s milieu, for instance, informs its penchant for oddity and absurdism is rarely interrogated, as though it only ever wants to look at the landscape but refuses to get its hands and feet soiled, to cultivate only its humor but never the critique it hopes to foreground.

Tamgohoy by Roxlee

Discussions about Roxlee’s Tamgohoy chiefly orbit around the filmmaker’s name and his avant-garde cinema that has undeniably shaped and forged paths for many other visionaries. But this deference to talk about a film or any work of art for what it is not is both a disservice to the actual creation and its creator, precisely because it limits, if not imposes, the way such a work is read. 

The story tracks the 80-year revolt of Bohol rebel leaders Tamblot and Dagohoy against Spanish rule. But it’s one thing to draw from a historically rich narrative; to translate it into a visual language that actually expands on its provenance is a different thing altogether. It’s not a question of insight, but simply how this insight is told. But the film is not without any moments of brilliance, especially when Roxlee’s gorgeous animation begins to swallow the screen whole, or when the camerawork, offhand as it is, revels in the director’s humor. 

Whereas others read Tamgohoy as arguably a refusal to conform to dominant film forms and filmmaking modes at large, I see it plainly as a lack of skill, at least in this case. Sometimes, as one might venture to say, even the best falters.

A Catholic Schoolgirl by Myra Angeline Soriaso

Narrative predictability works best when it is earned, for any film runs the risk of short-changing its audience and, by extension, its insight if it fails to do so. Such is the case for Myra Angeline Soriaso’s A Catholic Schoolgirl, about an overachieving Catholic schoolgirl Kaya (Ora Palencia), who is smitten with school nun Sister Agnes (Sharon Idone). From the get-go, one immediately clocks what the film attempts to do, so one awaits how the film will head there, precisely because therein lies the surprise, if any, therein lies the guile of any director to stitch a visual language that pays off, especially for a story that is rather anticipated. And when A Catholic Schoolgirl arrives at the penultimate scene, its impact doesn’t really hold much gravity to it, for how its thematic tensions feel a little underdone.

Still, one cannot help but appreciate how the film, majestically lensed by Martika Ramirez Escobar, splendidly demonstrates the cadence and lushness of the Hillinglish (Hiligaynon-English) language, one that cannot be caged by sweeping attempts at brevity. Which is to say that this work certainly forges a world for stories we often evade due to reasons political and systemic, and for many, rich inner lives somewhere in the world.

Microplastics by Lino Balmes

Microplastics has its fair share of lapses, yet it doesn’t really pale in comparison with the rest of the works in the QCShorts program. That director Lino Balmes uses microplastics as metaphor for how queerness is often framed as a dirty, polluted thing — and not necessarily a critique of the climate crisis, albeit a compelling reading of the film — is a pretty neat choice in a way that it doesn’t have to overexplain itself despite its maximalist mode, so it’s baffling how such a clear-cut device flies over other critics’ heads. The film breezes through the life of its central character at various junctures, and it succeeds because of its deft ability to intimate, if not refuse to sanitize, how queer liminalities work or don’t work, to capture both its incoherence and rich interiority. It asks: are we really the sum of everyone we’ve ever loved? And how do we move past a life we never fully lived?

Abutan Man Tayo ng House Lights by Apa Agbayani

When you trace Apa Agbayani’s body of work, often attuned to the grand tradition of imagining worlds beyond, you immediately get the sense how he has mastered the queer grammar as writer and director. Abutan Man Tayo ng House Lights, about two queer lives colliding once more for a shot at closure, threads through this familiar line. And if Somewhere All the Boys Are Birds, which premiered at this year’s NewFest film festival, toys with a ghost from the past, Abutan Man Tayo ng House Lights flirts with the future of and for LGBTQ+ populations by reckoning with celestial fate, grief, and queer longing. 

While the mounting of this apocalyptic future registers as rather ambiguous, the film works because it is the most technically polished across the lineup. Chief example of which is the dance sequence rendered so magical by cinematographer Martika Ramirez Escobar and editor Paolo Abad. It is electric and transcendent, precisely because it harnesses the power of the moment and the ready fact of queer communities; that something like this may not always be possible elsewhere; that there will always be prying eyes; that for the aging Junie (Jon Santos) and Chito (Bart Guingona), this might actually be their swan song. So they bob their heads, let loose their shoulders, and dance until their bodies peter out, until the house lights come on, for the alternative is unthinkable. 

And despite the foreseeable endnote, Agbayani handles it with grace, as if he’s been in this exact moment, only sober. The characters, or at least one of them, finally bid their goodbyes. It is cliché but painful and brittle all the same. Because sometimes we have to carry on with our lives, separately. And somehow that’s okay. It has to be. How else can one wrestle with the excess of departure? –

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Lé Baltar

Lé Baltar is a Manila-based freelance journalist and film critic for Rappler. Currently serving as secretary of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR), Lé has also written for CNN Philippines Life, PhilSTAR Life, VICE Asia, Young STAR Philippines, among other publications. She is a fellow of the first QCinema International Film Festival Critics Lab.