By Zsarlene B. Chua

Christmas in the Philippines — known for being long and festive — is never truly complete without families (the children flush with cash from their godparents and other assorted relatives) trooping to the cinemas come Dec. 25 for the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF).

The festival runs for two weeks — from Dec. 25 to Jan. 7.

Widely regarded as the country’s premiere film festival, the MMFF was established in 1974 “in recognition of the role of the film industry in providing artistic depictions of both this country’s stories and history” states the website of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, — better known as the MMDA — which runs the festival. But an earlier version of it was put into place in 1966 under the name Manila Film Festival, initiated by Mayor Antonio Villegas as a way of getting Filipino films into the city’s so-called “first run” theaters which showed American films back then (Filipino films were screened at second tier cinemas).

“[T]he yearly film festivals that followed popularized Tagalog films, thus convincing theater owners that these were marketable and profitable,” says the CCP Encyclopedia. “In 1975 the filmfest was expanded to include theaters and areas outside Manila and was renamed the Metro Manila Film Festival.”

Eventually, the festival spread throughout the archipelago but retained the name.

During the festival’s run, only the offical entries are shown in theaters — no foreign films are allowed to be screened — which makes it the most lucrative time of the year for local film producers. Which also means that competition to be chosen as a festival entry is fierce.

Last year, the MMFF opted not to go for the usual film franchises from Jose Marie “Vice Ganda” Visceral and Marvic “Vic” Sotto and instead went for films with a more independent bent and as a result, raked in considerably less in ticket sales than previous years: P373 million in 2016 compared to 2015’s P1.020 billion.

Still, the MMFF’s executive committee hailed it a triumph for the well-made Filipino films shown and during its awards ceremony, granted the Best Picture trophy to Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, the first documentary to have ever won the award in the festival’s history.

This year, people helming the festival decided to bring back the tried and true franchises, much to the displeasure of some committee members.

Upon the announcement of the first four entries (chosen based on script submission) which saw film franchises chosen over the Palanca-winning adaptation of the thriller Smaller and Smaller Circle directed by Raya Martin and Loy Arcena’s musical Ang Larawan (a film adaptation of National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s play Portrait of an Artist as Filipino, with libretto and lyrics by National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio), three executive committee members handed in their resignations: scriptwriter Ricky Lee, academician Rolando Tolentino, and broadcast journalist Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala.

“The results of the script selection speak for itself,” said Mr. Tolentino then.

The three were replaced by Quezon City Vice-Mayor Ma. Josefina “Joy” Belmonte-Alimurung, film director Maryo J. delos Reyes, and comic actor Arnel Ignacio who is also the AVP for Community Relations and Services of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.

Life went on and people behind Smaller and Smaller Circles decided to release the film on their own on Dec. 6. The backers of Ang Larawan decided to stay the course and eventually won a spot in the festival after re-submitting it as a finished film.

After all the drama, the festival is nearly upon us and here is a quick rundown of all the films the MMFF has to offer this year — in alphabetical order.

MMFF: All of YouAll of You
Directed by Dan Villegas

A romantic comedy about Gab (Derek Ramsay) and Gabby (Jennylyn Mercado) who met through a dating app. Despite their strong opposing views on marriage, they fell in love and decided to try being in a committed relationship. Then, after three years, the couple reevaluate the state of their relationship.

Mr. Ramsay and Ms. Mercado first hit the screens together in the 2014 MMFF entry English Only Please, which was also directed by Mr. Villegas.

MTRCB Rating: R-13

MMFF: Ang LarawanAng Larawan
Directed by Loy Arcenas

This is the film adaptation of the musical version of National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. The musical has a libretto and lyrics by National Artist for Theater Rolando Tinio and music by Ryan Cayabyab.

Set in 1941 Intramuros, it revolves around two sisters — Candida (played by Joanna Ampil) and Paula (Rachel Alejandro) — who, despite being destitute, try desperately to hold on to the only painting that their reknowned father finished in years.

Aside from being a story about the choice between ideals and pragmatism, the film is also a painting of Intramuros shortly before it became a costly casualty of the Second World War.

“I saw [the film] as a love letter to the Filipinos. The reason I wanted to do this film is because I feel like we lost so much of [the era] and I wanted to recapture it on film as a record of that era,” Mr. Arcenas told BusinessWorld during a media screening.

The film garnered a rare unanimous A grade from the Cinema Evaluation Board (CEB).

MTRCB Rating: PG

MMFF: Ang PandayAng Panday
Directed by Rodel Nacianceno

The umpteenth iteration of Carlos J. Caparas’ epic tale of a blacksmith-turned-savior-of-the-world sees actor Coco Martin — using his real name, Rodel Nacianceno — in his directorial debut. He also serves as the film’s executive producer and is the lead character.

The movie is about the grandson of the original Panday who discovers that he must follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and save the world after the previous Panday’s archnemesis, Lizardo (Jake Cuenca) decides to wreak havoc upon the world once again. He is then tasked to scour different worlds in order to gain the power of the legendary Panday sword.

“I wanted this film to be in touch with present-day life even if it commonly associated with fantasy… everything has to be real,” The Philippine Star quoted Mr. Nacianceno as saying at a press conference.

MTRCB Rating: G

MMFF: Deadma WalkingDeadma Walking
Directed by Julius Alfonso

A film about friendship, Mr. Alfonso’s Deadma Walking is a dark comedy about Mark (Edgar Allan Guzman), a theater actor who mounts a fake but fantastic wake to fulfill the final wish of his best friend, John (Joross Gamboa), who is terminally ill (the movie’s title is a pun on “dead man walking”).

“There are a lot of films where friendship is a side story, but in this film it’s at the center,” said writer Eric Cabahug during a press conference.

“[It’s a story of how] best friends can be soulmates,” Mr. Alfonso added.

The film’s screenplay won second place at the 2016 Palanca Awards for Literature in the Screenplay Division and was also graded A by the CEB.

MTRCB Rating: PG

MMFF: The Revenger SquadGandarrapiddo: The Revenger Squad
Directed by Joyce E. Bernal

Starring comedians Jose Marie “Vice Ganda” Viceral and Daniel Padilla, and beauty queen Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, Gandarrapiddo focuses on Gandarra, a gay superhero from another planet who is destined to save the world — unfortunately, his human form has forgotten all about his superhero identity and so the quest begins to make him remember in time to save the world.

This film marks Mr. Viceral’s return to the MMFF after 2015’s Beauty and the Bestie which featured Coco Martin, and is a follow-up to Mr. Viceral’s Super Parental Guardians which was released prior to the MMFF last year.

MTRCB Rating: G

MMFF: Haunted ForestHaunted Forest
Directed by Ian Lorenos

The only horror entry to the festival, the film tells the story of Nica (Jane Oineza), a teenager who relocates to the province after her policeman father Aris (Raymart Santiago) is reassigned. It turns out that the once quiet town they move to is now haunted by a sitsit, a supernatural being who preys on women and leaves the victim’s body in the middle of the forest.

Also in the cast are Jon Lucas, James Blake, and Maris Racal. The film is produced by Regal Entertainment, Inc., the company known for the long-running Shake, Rattle and Roll horror franchise.

MTRCB Rating: PG

MMFF: Meant to BehMeant to Beh
Directed by Chris Martinez

This family comedy is the first film that Marvic “Vic” Sotto and Dawn Zulueta have made together in more than 30 years — their last film together was Okay Ka Fairy Ko! in 1995. Meant to Beh tells the story of a married couple who decide to separate after many years as they realized they never really loved each other. Their children then embark on a mission to get their parents to fall in love with each other — even if they are already in new relationships.

Mr. Sotto (who produces the film) has described the film “a serious film presented in a light manner,” as the film tackles a “quite serious and heavy” theme.

The film is also Mr. Sotto’s attempt “to level up in some ways and do a serious movie,” according to Interaksyon.

MTRCB Rating: G

MMFF: SiargaoSiargao
Directed by Paul Soriano

Known for films such as family drama Thelma (2011), and the suspense thriller Dukot (2016), Siargao marks Mr. Soriano’s first foray into the romance genre. The film revolves around Diego (Jericho Rosales), an island lover and the love interest of broken-hearted video blogger Laura (Erich Gonzales) and environmental activist and Siargao native, Abby (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) who are brought together in the eponymous island where they experience a second chance at love.

Aside from the story’s romance angle, Mr. Soriano also makes the case for environmental awareness all the while showcasing the beauty of the island that is best known for its surfing.

MTRCB Rating: PG