Filipino movies

REVIEW: The Manila Film Festival 2024 — Set B

Jason Tan Liwag

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REVIEW: The Manila Film Festival 2024 — Set B

SET B. The Manila Film Festival 2024 features 12 short films divided into two sets.

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All six shorts in Set B are stronger when seen in conversation with each other, forming a coherently curated program in their preoccupation with stuckness, whether psychologically or circumstantially

The great joy of a film festival is discovering new voices in filmmaking that have something to say, have worlds they want to initiate us into. The Manila Film Festival has announced the arrival of a handful of new filmmakers to watch out for.

The shorts in Set B contain some of the festival’s highest peaks, works that present Manila not only as a place but also as a state of mind, with these psychological and spatial qualities seemingly inseparable from one another. But within this set are also the festival’s lowest valleys: works that seem confused about their politics, story, and form.

Though this unevenness might be considered disappointing, all six shorts are stronger when seen in conversation with each other, forming a coherently curated program in their preoccupation with stuckness, whether psychologically or circumstantially. Each director loosely depicts how Filipinos struggle for, negotiate, attain, and even miss out on emancipation, using a variety of genres that make Schroedinger’s cats out of its characters. While overall effect reveals a pervasive nihilism in their perspective, the voices behind the films are exciting, even in their myriads of mistakes.

May at Nila (dir. Sigrid Andrea Bernardo)

On paper, Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s May at Nila is the kind of film one easily falls for. Two women, one a member of the resistance and the other a comfort woman, find solace in each other during the Japanese invasion. Their romance resides in a lone mountainside hut where they convene to trade secrets, make love, and talk about the paths they could take after the occupation, living lives that seem impossible with the chaos of the city. But when a sudden betrayal ruptures their relationship, they are reincarnated in the present day, now meeting in public in Manila, their destinies intersecting once again because of business. Bernardo’s message is clear: romance can endure but circumstances must change to allow such love to live. But while this is all well and good, when May at Nila ends, one is left not with a sense of triumph but with deep disappointment.

May at Nila struggles with its verbosity and is so intent on demonstrating its intelligence through debate, so desperate to prove its actors can act with a capital “A”, that it detracts from the budding relationship between them, masking the interesting gestures and behaviors both Elora Españo and Veronica Reyes perform in silence. It touches on pressing ideas about the body as a site of occupation and the false dichotomies of liberation for women and for the nation, but it stops short of insight. Even its framing device of reincarnation and its rewriting of folk songs register more like narrative and emotional crutches; bandaids plastered over the unevenness of the script; excuses to absolve its nihilism. Despite its best intentions, the utopia May at Nila proffers feels false, unearned; creating another film that doesn’t quite commit to its queering.

threefor100: or the thrifting of love and various other things (dir. Cedrick Labadia)

Cedric Labadia’s threefor100: or the thrifting of love and various other things pulled you into its world slowly. It begins fairly simply: a cashier lies to a buyer in the hopes of selling a set of garments. But somewhere in its 20-minute runtime, it becomes clear that the world of this ukay-ukay isn’t situated in reality. Characters pop in and out of racks of clothing seemingly out of nowhere. A radio drama becomes the voice of its pet catfish (mislabeled as a bangus) and foreshadows the characters’ emotional states and eventual destinies. At one point, the cashier discovers a mannequin and they develop a sudden affair, with their romance only possible through partial dismemberment. threefor100 isn’t trying to say anything large about capitalism, labor, and exploitation in the same way that, say, Sonny Calvento’s Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss (2019) does.

Instead, Labadia’s film is far closer to a portrait of the discarded and the abandoned; of the solace provided by the oblivion, the companionship and love between the secondhand. The lack of motivations and narrative threads, its impressionistic and absurd nature, only preserves the mystery and intrigue of the space and the limerence that is only possible within the liminality. Labadia creates a world within the film so distinct and singular, a delusion so believably true, that one can’t help but buy into it.

Ballad of a Blind Man (dir. Charlie Garcia Vitug)

Charlie Vitug’s Ballad of a Blind Man is less a story and more of a situation. A young woman is trapped in her home and forced to take care of her father. She can’t meet up with her girlfriend or study properly. Moments point to a missing mother who she wants to connect with but isn’t able to. The details of her father’s disability are hinted at but inconsistently so; to the point where his visual impairment is nearly inconsequential to the story and could easily be removed or replaced by Munchausen syndrome. The low light and suffocating soundscape only hammer in what we know rather than providing much-needed contrast.

But Ballad of a Blind Man is most disappointing in the regressiveness of its politics; surprising considering the accomplishments of Vitug’s Through the Viewfinder (2023) and own history with visual impairment. Still, there is something to be considered in the film’s assertion that the elderly and the disabled are still capable of weaponizing their condition despite the media’s tendency to valorize them. But Vitug paints the father with broad strokes, restricting him to his traumas and making it difficult for the audience to extend him empathy in his one-dimensional portraiture, providing little reason to understand why his daughter struggles to leave him. Vitug wants to say more about feminism and the difficulty of overcoming oppression and co-dependence when it masquerades as familial obligation. But Ballad of a Blind Man is too steeped in suffering to see its true story; too myopic to see the bigger, more heartbreaking picture in its disparate parts.

Ditas Pinamalas (dir. Adrian Renz Espino)

There’s something very early 2000s, very Wansapanatym by way of Bubble Gang, in Adrian Renz Espino’s Ditas Pinamalas. An Adamson student named Ditas (Gillian Vicencio) is bombarded with a series of unfortunate events: she’s failing her classes and is suddenly faced with the possibility of quitting school after her father reveals he is unemployed. To add more insult to injury, she steps on dogshit. Her luck swiftly changes when she starts wearing her deceased grandmother’s panties: she suddenly has a girlfriend she can skip school with and passes a quiz she hasn’t studied for. When the luck supposedly runs out and Ditas is told hard work is needed to succeed, Espino doesn’t give her a chance to have a crack at it. Like Ditas, Espino can’t see the full picture nor the larger arcs one must go through to make such lessons feel earned and relationships real. It’s well-meaning work—especially for the queer and the downtrodden who can’t catch a break. It’s also entertaining and occasionally hilarious. But Ditas is merely a passenger in her own story rather than the driver of her destiny. Espino can’t really see beyond the gag. It’s all set up. The worst part? Ditas is the punchline.

Bahay, Baboy, Bagyo (dir. Miko Biong)

Most of the praise and criticism against Miko Biong’s Bahay, Baboy, Bagyo compares it to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s works, namely his Queer Palm-winning feature Monster (2023). It’s not difficult to see why: Divided into three chapters, Bahay, Baboy, Bagyo follows two children, Kulas and Gabo, whose coming-of-age is punctured by a demolition happening in their neighborhood, introducing chaos into their lives. But to dwell on these similiarities seems shallow, almost a disservice to what either director is trying to say or do.

While Monster uses a Rashomon-style edit to depict generational lapses in communication, the limits of parental understanding, and the ways children internalize the violence inflicted upon them, Biong’s film is perpetually situated in the perspective of the two boys and how they’re inundated into the real-world politics affecting their lives and families. Biong’s film is less interested in interrogating their queerness, though it does leave space for it in its conclusion, and is more focused on how the young mind makes sense of displacement and gentrification, especially when such abstract concepts become lived experiences. 

Bahay, Baboy, Bagyo, in its short 15-minute runtime, takes an innocent children’s game and connects it to the plights of informal settlers, peripherally animating the violence of the pigs that usher them out of their homes. While Biong avoids placing the burden of solving these systemic political problems on the children, it doesn’t reduce them to powerless or passive bystanders either. In its final frame, Bahay, Baboy, Bagyo shows that any radical movement doesn’t rest on mere awareness but moves forward through solidarity and companionship.

Lumang Tugtugin (dir. Pepe Diokno)

Angela returns to her ancestral home to help take care of her grandmother. She makes her way up the stairs and sees her grandmother, who seems to be suffering from dementia. Something is off. Before she verbalizes this discomfort, she is suddenly having dinner with her mother. How did she get here? She stares at the clock and tells her mother she must leave before curfew. No, stay and help me with chores. Angela says no. Blackout. Suddenly, she’s cleaning the dishes. What is happening?

Written by Guelan Varela-Luarca and brought to life onscreen by Pepe Diokno’s direction, Lumang Tugtugin puts us through a series of unseen violations again and again, to the point where reality and nightmare become difficult to distinguish. Three generations of women—played by Therese Malvar, Sue Prado, and Lui Manansala—become interchangeable in their agony, their entrapment in the household becoming a clear allegory for the suffocating grip of the patriarchy on their lives. Diokno, with an eye and political imagination sharpened by working on Gomburza, manages to communicate the cyclicality of generational trauma and more importantly, how abuse has architecture and structure difficult to shake.

In its defining peak, young Angela, recognizing the stranglehold of her grandfather long after his death, rushes through the rooms in order to take her grandmother away from her increasingly violent, seemingly possessed mother. Sweeping through the house, the camera follows her as she struggles in her search for an exit, only to emerge as mother, then later her grandmother. It’s a technique that leans into the theatricality of Luarca’s text, literalizing its thesis of how such unresolved traumas turn us into our ancestors. This visual flourish matches the script’s labyrinthine construction and themes and further makes a case for  Diokno as one of our most exciting directors working today. –

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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.