Filipino movies

REVIEW: QCShorts Program 2021

Jason Tan Liwag
REVIEW: QCShorts Program 2021

Bruce Timm, Natsuki Okamoto

The 2021 QCShorts present a selection of solid work that creates a tapestry of the human condition and a snapshot of the fragile and fraught zeitgeist as they embody unspoken stories and narratives of people on the fringes of Philippine society

Spoilers ahead

MANILA, Philippines – QCinema takes on the challenge of being the first film festival to welcome audiences back into the cinema. Despite the prestige of the award-winning international imports, the program that has excited me the most is the QCShorts Competition. Each film creates a unique world that, when stitched together, becomes a tapestry of the human condition and a snapshot of the fragile and fraught zeitgeist as they embody unspoken stories and narratives of people on the fringes of Philippine society.

Below are my thoughts on each of the films in this year’s QCShorts, opting not to rank them but instead presenting them in the order they were programmed.

i get so sad sometimes by Trishtan Perez

The film begins where it ends: with Jake (JC Santiago) staring at an image of Tokyo Tower amidst a wall of Japanese posters. Between these moments, a void is formed: he is blocked by his anonymous lover, returns fruitlessly from an attempt to meet him, and refuses to go to prom with his bestfriend/boyfriend Marco (Karl Louie Caminade). Realizing that he is unknown by those close to him and known only by a stranger who wants nothing to do with him, Jake does what he does best: he isolates himself.

To quote Austin Chant: “What was the point of being himself if he had to be alone?”

So we wait for him to suffer: to breathe in self-pity like oxygen, to cry for a home that he has never known, to seek a face that he will never be able recognize. But he doesn’t. Instead of regret and sadness, what echoes in an acknowledgment: of beginnings before they ended, of promises before they were broken, of the possibility of a life elsewhere that was, even for a moment, within reach. There is no proof except in pixels and in memories, so he relives the haze — the sound of a stranger comforting him, his digitally recorded irises smiling in the darkness.

In Trishtan Perez’s prior films, his protagonists chase after a feeling, afraid they may never find it again. But here, everything rushes at Jake like river water. And just like river water, he’s okay knowing it will pass.

Ampangabagat Nin Talakba Ha Likol (It’s Raining Frogs Outside) by Maria Estela Paraiso

In Jacqui Germain’s poem “Bipolar is Bored and Renames Itself,” she comes to terms with the fact that she will be writing “the bipolar disorder poem” all of her life: articulating the ever-present feeling in hundreds of ways, each an attempt at capturing its transformation along with her, knowledgeable that words and images have their limits.

This is the Sisyphean task that Ampangabagat Nin Talakba Ha Likol takes on. Mixing live action with animation and archival footage, Maria Estela Paiso crafts a series of increasingly horrifying yet indelible images – a downpour of frogs, a faceless person sitting and observing the ongoing apocalypse, a cockroach entering the eye of a digitally rendered head, a woman sleeping underwater, later stuck in a sea of her own hair, later melting in front of a mirror, her reflection missing like her sanity.

It is easy to see it only as a pandemic film, with Paiso confessing that Electromilk’s comics inspired her to sublimate her emotions (notably, her rage) into a shared visual language. But the film expands to more universal themes as it slips between dreams and reality, memory and madness; expertly embodying the perpetual struggle against helplessness. Just as Maya (Alyanna Cabral) is on the cusp of naming and overcoming the proverbial “it,” things change; she changes.

Storms often leave houses ruined from the outside. But here, the storm destroys what is within.

Henry by Kaj Palanca

When you grow up in the province and move to Manila, the first thing you miss is the uninterrupted sky. There are walls everywhere and families are constantly forced to negotiate their occupancy.

Throughout all of this, Henry (Carlos Dala) is a witness: to his brother’s struggles with his injury, to the kindness of his co-worker Danilo (Tommy Alejandrino) at the construction site, to his mother’s (Wenah Nagales) sacrifice as she begins to work again. It is a series of awakenings to their material realities: how rent money for them equals a bike for their landlords, how only the affluent can afford a view, how there are people who work their lives to build the kinds of houses that they will never live in.

But it lingers not on the suffering and, instead, focuses on quiet strength and generosity, even in youth. As Henry takes his mother’s flowers and his landlord’s bicycle, traveling to the construction site, we feel a sense of release, of ownership; an acknowledgement of the finite ways wherein he can act but a choice to express gratitude nonetheless.

Before I knew of Kaj Palanca as a filmmaker, I knew of his writing on Letterboxd. The final moments of the film references Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, a film that had a profound effect on him when he watched it four years ago. Of that film, he writes

“That image with the flowers will stay with me forever.”

Mighty Robo V by Miko Livelo and Mihk Vergara

In the last year, there has been a severe drought in well-thought-out, effective Filipino comedies. It is difficult to make light of our now disempowering conditions. So when Mighty Robo V plays, it is a welcome burst of energy; the first shot of vodka after a long period of sobriety.

On its surface, it is a well-made, exhilaratingly stupid crowd pleaser, adopting the mockumentary styles of The Office and Modern Family to capture its team of influencers-turned-superheroes and their inept management. Beneath the theatrics, it has plenty to say about how incompetent people are in power, how capitalism has invaded all aspects of society, how glamour hides the horrid underbelly, how woke culture fails us, and how bureaucratic structures would rather see us die than be held accountable.

But I cannot help but compare it to other mockumentaries that have made far better use of the form (Jan Andrei Cobey’s The Slums) or other superhero work that create clearer, more cutting and comical commentary on geopolitics and the zeitgeist in the Philippines (Carlo Vergara’s Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady) or even sharper satires of dire political situations whose hypocrisies are revealed by humor (Sorayos Prapapan’s New Abnormal).

It holds the promise of a Sunday punch, but ends up just poking fun.

Skylab by Chuck Escasa

Cyan Abad-Jugo’s Skylab (available here) excels because it embodies the unintended humor that springs from youthfulness, so when the hypothetical doomsday scenario is revealed to foreshadow a true threat of violence, it is eviscerating; the final day of childhood, the end of the age of innocence.

Chuck Escasa’s adaptation bears little resemblance in spirit and is, instead, underwhelming and predictable from the beginning. It fails to capture the essence of the source text even as it directly copies it, and opts instead to create a visually-disinteresting, black-and-white film. Not even the talents of Dylan Talon and Alexis Negrite and Khavn’s simmering score are enough to save the film.

It will undoubtedly be praised for its valuable stances against the faces of dictatorship (especially given the upcoming national elections). But by fixating on these, the film becomes trapped in national allegory and this strips away all of the textual complexities that make it an interesting coming-of-age story: the deterioration of trust, the process of awakening to the terrors outside the classroom, gaining consciousness on American imperialism, the weight of losing time, the loss of a friend.

But Skylab’s biggest sin is that it fails to imagine its audiences as intelligent, choosing instead to declare its subtext, effectively removing nuance. What was once a harrowing tale is now a forgettable side story.

City of Flowers by Xeph Suarez

The first thing you notice is the absence of color: Zamboanga, known as the “City of Flowers,” is strikingly barren and sepia-toned.

Elena and Nasser are struggling flower farmers in Zamboanga City about to have their first child. They live on the outskirts of the city and argue over things like radio batteries or their baby’s name — unsure of whether to go with a Christian or an Islamic name. They have their struggles — paying for electricity, preparing for the future of their child, the present. So when a peace rally offers pay for attendance, it seems like divine intervention.

City of Flowers focuses not on the extensive details of the 2013 Zamboanga Siege itself, but rather on the social conditions that enable innocent people to be wrapped up in violence; offered as sacrifices to a war they didn’t start nor want to participate in. The loss becomes more palpable because Xeph Suarez takes the time to introduce the subjects and whatever is deemed predictable lends itself to the horror we witness.

We know what happens – a bright-red blood sacrifice with chickens, ants terrorizing the land, all foreshadowing the events to come – and the impulse is to warn them of the impending doom from across the screen; across time. Yet we can’t. We are only bystanders to this story.

We are asked instead to place this empathy elsewhere.

The QCShorts Program will be screening physically at Gateway Cineplex 10 on December 3, 4, and 5, 2021. Tickets can be purchased online via their website.

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.