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THE SYNCHRONICITY of Taal’s eruption with the government’s inexplicable slashing of its disaster response budget, are dauntingly inauspicious for this Lunar New Year. After all, the Philippines ranks as the third most disaster-prone nation worldwide. Just for tropical depressions, hurricanes and storms, other countries may go through one or two super-sized typhoons a year, but we average nine, often having to extend the alphabet just to give them names. Despite some grumbling on social media that we citizens should not be doing the government’s job on our own coin, many stepped up and made up for the bureaucracy’s glaring shortcomings. There were even jokes that the Taal Volcano refugees were gaining weight at the evacuation centers from the private sector’s generosity, or maybe they were manas (bloated) from all the high-sodium instant noodles and sardines.
MINDANAO, Brillante Ma Mendoza’s latest (Metro Manila Film Festival (MMMFF) entry, humanizes as well as mythologizes the second largest island in our archipelago. We can all relate to its great themes: serious illness and death, the suffering of little children, families riven by war. Admittedly though, we, the so-called Christian lowland majority, are largely ignorant about our “Muslim brethren,” or the Moro, which is how the Islamic societies in the Philippine South now call themselves.
Sunod is unusually sophisticated for the Filipino horror genre. Its terrors subtly operate along several levels. There is the stock opening nightmare scene in the graveyard, replete with howling winds, swirling black veils and snakelike tree roots. It’s not real, but what follows is still hair-raising — not your grandmother’s Shake, Rattle En Roll. Cineastes agree that it was downhill there, after the very first in the series, or post-1984.
THIS FILIPINO remake of the beloved 2013 Korean hit by Lee Hwan-kyung is just what we need for Christmas. Of course, it’s mostly fantasy, with its cuddly convicts improbably getting along in their still livable cells — a distant alternative reality from the usual hellish scenes in most Philippine penitentiaries where sweaty, scabies-ridden bodies pile on top of each other, and violence is the norm. The prison setting resonates as we have an inordinate number of low budget movies set in prisons, to judge from the daily morning lineup on a major network’s free movie channel. We’ve had at least four presidents who were in prison at some point in their lives. Here is a very different kind of prison from what the movies usually bring us. Escapist entertainment, indeed, but then we all need a break.
AT ANY TIME, not just during the Christmas season when Filipino audiences expect to be entertained, Culion would be a daring enterprise. First it is a period piece, and Filipinos notoriously lack a sense of history, whether ours or the world’s. The events portrayed span 1937 to 1941, which is why the prominence given to the obviously anachronistic Hollywood type sign in cast white concrete letters, spelling out “Culion” and its government insignia, on the side of a mountain, is perplexing. That sign was probably circa 2006 when Culion had its centenary. After so much effort devoted by the production design guys to attempting period authenticity, what with the kerosene lamps and the nearly uniform women cast members’ attire of earth-toned baro at camisa, couldn’t they have erased the damn thing through CGI?
ONCE AGAIN, Jun Robles Lana paints for us a soberly excoriating portrait of Philippine society, from the POV of one of its most vulnerable members: 15-year-old Kalel Fernandez (Elijah Canlas), who is HIV-positive, homeless, and sells sexual favors just to survive. He is the illegitimate son of Father George, a respected, elderly priest (Eddie Garcia). That is a knowingly mischievous dig at the institutional Catholic church’s obdurate stand against reproductive health (RH) rights, a major factor in the alarming rise in the Philippines of the incidence of teenage pregnancy, as well as of diseases such as HIV and cervical cancer. Note that RH includes comprehensive sexuality education for all, but especially for the youth who make up the majority of our population. RH also means ensuring the easy access to affordable means of protection, like condoms. Fr. George is more annoyed than concerned when he learns Kalel is HIV-positive. He gives him a small bottle of virgin coconut oil, and acts like he has done his duty by the boy.
AS WE celebrate the centennial of Philippine films, the UP Film Institute (UPFI) marks its 40th year of existence. Without the artistic and intellectual freedom, the institutional safe space which the UPFI provided, would we even have the likes of: Nick Deocampo, Tikoy Aguiluz, Butch Perez, Raymond Red, Lav Diaz, Khavn dela Cruz, Rox Lee, Tad Ermitano, Auraeus Solito (a.k.a. Kanakan Balintagos), the Agbayani, Alcazeren, and Hernando brothers, as well as the Dalena sisters Sari and Kiri, and a whole new generation of cinema creatives? As Deocampo, who is also a film historian, noted, the rise of Philippine experimental cinema coincided with the maverick Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal’s successfully challenging the commercial cinema juggernaut. He sees elements of the earliest Philippine Cinema which followed in the wake of the Propaganda Movement and the subversive playwrights whose sarsuela contained hidden messages, as a continuation of our unfinished revolution.
WITH THE contentious SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression) Equality bill pending in congress, a film that purports to tackle the obscure and oft-misunderstood matter of intersexuality raises expectations. To make sure that even the thickest audience member understands what he’s getting at, the writer-director Jose Tiglao repeats every heavy-handed metaphor at least twice. For example, the opening lines about a legendary mango tree in the Bonifacio family’s orchard which bore an atis comes up every so often. In case you didn’t get it, the atis is supposed to stand for the protagonist: 14-year-old Adam Bonifacio (Gold Azeron).
THE PROSPECT of two spectacularly gorgeous, half-naked (but only their upper halves, for this movie is rated R-16) young women getting it on with each other for around a third of this nearly two-hour long feature, will surely draw in the curious crowds. However, the story of Adan, with its boldly unconventional take on the patriarchy, is more complicated than titillating, with artfully shot scenes of the taga-bundok (hillbilly) Ellen (Rhen Escano) gallivanting in sheer dresses which show off her nipples. She is practically unschooled. Her overly possessive father Lucas (Bembol Roco) was deeply traumatized by his wife’s Mara (Maui Taylor) taking off, and leaving him to raise their little daughter on his own. Thus, the mag-ama (family) have lived essentially as hermits for the last decade: off-the-grid, in near total rustic isolation, with only poultry and livestock for company.
MARA VILLANUEVA’s skull cap of fire engine-red hair is like a red flag, a warning that anyone who would choose the same shade as the Ronald McDonald clown, but in an asylum patient’s buzz cut, can’t be all right in the head. It is a signal flare for disaster. Mara (played by Christine Reyes) is not whom she appears to be: just another Filipino OFW, toiling away in the kitchen of a bistro in Tbilsi, Georgia. Why Georgia? Because, as the director Sigrid Andrea Bernardo explains, it is one of the few places left on planet earth where we are unlikely to run into a Filipino, or into anyone else for that matter. Although the Philippines has approximately five times Georgia’s land mass, our population of 110 million Filipinos is 30 times that of their around only 4 million Georgians. There were probably fewer than three dozen Pinoys living and working in Georgia during the two weeks that the UnTrue crew spent shooting there.
IT IS SAID that for a man to have led a full life, he must: plant a tree, beget a son (there you go again, patriarchy!), and write a book. Kenneth Rocher Villa, age 24, was born with Morquio Disease, a rare incurable and degenerative disorder which attacks the spine. His case is far more severe than that featured in The Mighty (1998) starring Kieran Culkin as Kevin, the Morquio sufferer, who walks with braces and crutches. The movie was based on Freak the Mighty, a popular YA (Young Adult) novel by Rodman Philbrick. For Kenneth, the bone called the odontoid process, which should stick up between the first two vertebrae to support his head, did not develop. His spinal cord was gradually compressed, weakening his arms and legs. Kenneth never walked and has needed a respirator to breathe since he was four years old, when his skull came loose from his spine. The first two requisites for manhood are physically impossible for him, but amazingly he has achieved the third.
THIS THROWBACK to the pre-touch screen smart phone era, when owning a Blackberry was the ultimate in status symbol gadgetry, evokes the remembrance of things past with relentlessly flickering stop-motion animation throughout its 90 minutes or so running time. The novelty of re-shooting all the grungy photocopied frames wherein the major characters (all unknowns) have been laboriously color-coded in fluorescent marker, gives it the distinction of having what may be the largest carbon footprint, minute-for-minute, since filmmaking went digital. Cleaners should come with a warning that prolonged viewing may induce migraines or even grand mal seizures in those so predisposed.
VERDICT, about the trial of a wife-beater, is the Philippines’ official entry to the 2020 Oscars for the Foreign Language Film Category. The shaky hand-held camera and harshly lit settings, give it the noisome, nitty-gritty feel of raw reality in the developing world. This has its charms for many of the culturati in the antiseptic First World film festival circuit. However, if you are prone to motion sickness, the prolonged exposure to so much juddering and bobbing up and down, or jerkily weaving left to right, may cause your gorge to rise.
CINEMA as an art form is show and tell. As for visuality, Watch Me Kill is as purely and poetically cinematic as it gets. The film was not shot digitally but with a classic Kodak 16mm film camera. This is evident in the richness and the careful craftsmanship of the somberly elegant cinematography by Marvin Szocinski, the director Tyrone Acierto’s long-time collaborator. As Acierto wrote in his director’s statement: “There’s a certain texture that cannot be duplicated when shooting with film versus digital. Our test shoot revealed this when we compared the results side by side. We made the decision to shoot the whole film on Super 16mm primarily because the texture we so wanted to exalt is heightened with the use of actual film negative.”
IN THESE troubled times, there’s something sweetly subversive about serving up a film with a happy ending that could believably happen. LSS daringly does just that. True, life isn’t always easy for its protagonists: the aspiring singer/song writer Sarah (Gabbi Garcia) and Zack (Khalil Ramos), the wholesome boy-next-door. Among the film’s highlights is his good-natured sparring with his larger than life, blue-haired and tattooed mother Ruby (Tuesday Vargas) as they routinely but affectionately curse each other out.