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REVIEW: The Manila Film Festival 2024 – Set A

Jason Tan Liwag

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REVIEW: The Manila Film Festival 2024 – Set A

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Set A of the festival has six shorts united by themes of liminality and alienation, populated by characters yearning for a life barely out of reach; desperately seeking a way to overcome the transitional phases of their lives

In the last few years, short films have become central to the cultural conversation in cinema. In response, more local and international festivals have begun handing out grants for younger filmmakers to create work with a budget, keen on nurturing a new crop of filmmakers.

Ed Cabagnot, festival director and long-time film programmer, opens The Manila Film Festival with an abridged statement about the long-standing relationship between Filipino cinema and Manila, remembering when directors like Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Auraeus Solito, and Eduardo Roy Jr. made Manila not only a setting but a character in their films.

This year’s festival not only attempts to recenter Manila as an iconic city for film and filmmaking but also seeks filmmakers whose visions of Manila can provide us with new ways of seeing the space and the lives that inhabit it.

To do this, Cabagnot and a dedicated selection committee have given grants to eight students out of hundreds of applicants to create their films. Alongside them, the festival has tapped four young but established directors — Dwein Baltazar, Pepe Diokno, JP Habac, and Sigrid Bernardo — to create new shorts for the festival, using their work to sandwich four student shorts. While it’s an effective marketing strategy to attract cinephiles and industry workers to support the festival, it’s also a strong programming statement by Cabagnot—a declaration that its eight student filmmakers have works that can stand alongside their more experienced counterparts.

Questions of how to critique the works arrive with this programming decision: Do we extend understanding to students who aren’t as technically proficient, theoretically knowledgeable, or financially blessed as their established directors? Or is this act of criticizing on a curve a form of artistic condescension, as if students are incapable of brilliant work with limited resources and connections?

Set A of the festival has six shorts united by themes of liminality and alienation, populated by characters yearning for a life barely out of reach; desperately seeking a way to overcome the transitional phases of their lives. Such explorations are characteristic of cinema’s wrestling with the urban space and the burden of shaping identity in an increasingly industrialized and globalized world. 

While several of the films in the lineup wrestle with these ideas better than others, all of the shorts—including the ones in Set B—are fascinating even in their lapses, becoming great starting points for discussions on cinema, the politics of space, and how film can be used to construct portraits and paradigms of a city and a nation.

NANANAHAN (dir. Dwein Baltazar)

Dwein Baltazar has always been a keen observer of alienation and the city and in her new short Nananahan, Manila is as beautiful as it is bleak. With the help of cinematographer Kara Moreno and production designers Ben Padero and Carlo Tabije, Baltazar creates a purgatory out of a secondhand furniture store in Avenida, populating it with souls whose presence is tethered to every trinket hoarded. Characters dribble basketballs for games they’ll never win, fold clothes on sofas for children who will never be born, do homework that will never be submitted, and fix their hair for dates that won’t arrive. When an item is sold, they momentarily stop their activities and stare outside, watching as trucks are loaded with furniture paired with their fellow ghosts. There’s envy hidden in every blank expression, concealing a desire for a life just out of arm’s length.

As alluded to by its Filipino and English titles, Nananahan (Dwelling) articulates a feeling or state of perpetual stasis in the urban space, with surrender to ownership as the only escape from such suffocating conditions. Baltazar creates a pocket of Manila where time feels warped and malleable, where one can almost feel each splinter and smell the mold growing. Ronnie Lazaro acts as the conduit between the film’s many worlds, his world-weariness palpable with every submission to routine acts of care. When the cycle ends thanks to the arrival of an unseen entity – maybe a devil or an angel, who knows? – one can’t help but feel the relief as light and sound flow in. Because what is liberation but a series of wordless departures?

Una’t Huling Sakay (dir. Vhan Marco Molacruz)

What strikes long after the end of Vhan Marco Molacruz’s Una’t Huling Sakay are shots of Francis (Gold Azeron) driving his habal across Manila alone. Such respite and silence is a rarity given the recent developments in his life: he’s dropped out of his architecture degree to provide for his now-pregnant girlfriend. As Francis grows more exhausted by the pressures of fatherhood, he begins to grow anxious about the size of the future, refusing to show up at doctor’s appointments. As he continues avoiding his responsibilities, he experiences a series of accidents on and off the road. Francis might be steering the wheel, but he hasn’t chosen his destination for a long time now.

Then he meets a veteran habal driver named Dindo (Nonie Buencamino), whose playful ribs mask a generosity he hadn’t known he craved. But while Dindo was thrust into similar circumstances as Francis, he neither resents his family nor his choices. In these brief encounters, Molacruz challenges Francis’ self-perception as a failure, introducing the possibility that his life can be viewed not as a tragedy but as a comedy. So when Francis sees Dindo’s family allow him to return to school after years of prioritizing them, he receives all the assurance he needs. By ending with this image of optimism, Una’t Huling Sakay insists that dreams can be paused, that there is time to live the lives we want, and that part of being an adult is learning to just show up and enjoy the ride.

An Kuan (dir. Joyce Ramos)

There’s a scene early in Joyce Ramos’ An Kuan that announces its promise. After Igra (Zar Donato) and her mother Malou (Louielyn Jabien) migrate to Manila for her swimming scholarship, she pressures her mother to get a job. Struggling to speak English and Tagalog and with hardly an education, Malou drafts a fake resume with the help of several others in a computer shop. Ramos, along with editor Migui Francisco and cinematographers Dane Tapan and JM Basiwa, depict a disheveled Malou zooming through the streets of Manila, using montage to show her failed attempts at securing employment. At some point, she grabs fishballs from a street vendor without paying and shoves them into her mouth as she cries. It’s a scene that would have been created by Wenn Deramas were he were alive to see Jaclyn Jose’s win for Ma Rosa (2016). A rapturous applause follows in acknowledgement of its mimesis.

The laughs don’t stop there. An Kuan, which Ramos co-wrote with Sharlene Pineda, is brimming with charm that is itself a form of critique. Its absence of polish and its use of physical comedy, sight gags, and purposefully trite treatment celebrates so much of the Philippine comedy that doesn’t always get to travel; that isn’t often revered in elite spaces or best-of lists. It isn’t always successful in its dramatic moments, nor is it always articulate with its nraratives and motivations. But it has large observations about the demands of urban life, the community that exists within barangays in the provinces, and the unrealistic standards of employment in the country. Despite its faults, one can’t help but smile at the distinctness of An Kuan as a comedic effort and the arrival of a voice like Joyce Ramos on our silver screens.

Happy (M)others Day! (dir. Ronnie Romas)

The premise of Ronnie Ramos’ Happy (M)others Day! is attractive: Sabrina (Amber Jeshly), an elementary student, realizes she cannot attend her school’s Mother’s Day celebration, having been raised by two fathers. One might have anticipated Ramos to incorporate how Anna Jarvis, founder of the modern-day Mother’s Day, rooted the tradition in post-war Methodist beliefs and protested the holiday after it grew increasingly commercialized. One might have even expected that the film would use cross-dressing to punctuate its statement on gender fluidity, especially since it cast not only Phi Palmos but also drag superstar Precious Paula Nicole, both of whom are known to challenge constructs of gender through both clothing and performance. But Ramos doesn’t veer into this territory, opting for quieter and more conservative assimilations, having both fathers attend Mother’s Day despite protestations. It’s a conclusion met with momentary resistance from the school and a handful of stares, but little else after.

Maybe Ramos intends to communicate how societies have become progressive and how institutions and policies within the Philippines fail to catch up to speed. But while the end is sweet enough to garner a handful of oohs and awws from the audience, one is left with a hollowness after the credits roll, in part because of how the central relationship and the central conceit of the film still seeks to fit into the heteronormative ideals and traditions of the education system rather than creating newer, more liberating traditions and spaces. Even in its most pivotal scene, when both fathers confront the principal about their outdated policies, Ramos doesn’t go deep into challenging what is gained in upholding heteronormativity; as if the film is unwilling to cause a scene. Happy (M)other’s Day! is a queer film that is moving in its saccharine quality but doesn’t fully live up to its radical possibility.

Pinilakang Tabingi (dir. John Pistol Carmen)

John Pistol Carmen’s Pinilakang Tabingi sets up the material conditions of best friends Tupe and Tantan, two boys obsessed with cinema but who cannot afford to go to the movie theater. Their time is spent reenacting sequences of the Enteng Kabisote-esque film in their backyard, with Carmen using extensive drone shots and camera coverage not only to emphasize their reverence with the work, but also their life in a provincial area. When the two build up the courage to ask for money, Tantan’s sister violently rebuffs their request, explaining how each ticket will cost their family too much. In their dismay, the two eat boiled corn in front of their titled bootleg, which has occasional shadows that obscure their vision. 

There’s a deliciousness in screening a film whose joys are rooted in the shared comforts provided by piracy to the poor in front of government officials of Metro Manila, a city known to crack down on the poor and the pirates. But this sudden bravery pivots into cowardice as Pinilakang Tabingi strays from this personal narrative and becomes a public service announcement against piracy. An extended chase sequence almost references Derek Ramsay’s anti-piracy ad, but the comedy never comes to fruition. Instead of its radical promise, it emphasizes how alien cinema is to the poor and the working class; providing band-aid solutions that rely on the benevolence of the powerful few; that restrict people’s access only to the worlds their pockets can afford.

Shortest Day, Longest Night (dir. JP Habac)

There’s a sweeteness and a simplicity to JP Habac’s Shortest Day, Longest Night that masks its dark premise. Barry (Adrian Lindayag), a queer mixed-media artist, has just taken a diagnostic test but refuses to open the result til the next day, when the opening of his exhibit will be over. There, he meets Tony (Vaughn Piczon) – an innocent-looking bystander who is secretly a sex-starved alter. The suddenness of their comfortability and compatibility doesn’t always make sense, even if though they bond over their shared exile from society and mutual ways of seeing. The whole short is buoyed by Lindayag and Piczon’s chemistry, first established in Dolly Dulu’s Love Beneath The Stars. 

As with all of Habac’s work, the two find a third space – this time Barry’s art exhibit on coming out – to spill their feelings and open up about histories, discussing the many closets queer people will have to open and exit throughout their lives. Shortest Day, Longest Night works best when it relishes in silences, when looks communicate more than words could and accepts that some things are too big to articulate. As characters skirt around their issues, we are reminded of how the fleshiness of their wounds, still bleeding. But if evasion remains the status quo, how will things change for the better? Maybe what is most affecting about Shortest Day, Longest Night is Habac and Tome’s insistence of how some confrontations, no matter how imposing they seem in the moment, become manageable through companionship.


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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.