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THE MUCH-AWARDED documentary The Kingmaker, by Lauren Greenfield, opens with the octogenarian Imelda Romualdez Marcos handing out crisp 20 peso bills to the clamorous rabble, through the purposely open window of her van. It was 2014, and Mrs. Marcos was in her latest political incarnation as the representative of Ilocos Norte-Congressional District 2. (When she turned 90 last year, her nephew Angel Barba, the son of President Ferdinand Marcos’ youngest sister Fortuna Marcos Barba, took over this seat.) But even then, the groundwork was being laid for the ascendancy of her only son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.
THE ACCLAIMED writer and director Rodolfo “Jun” Robles Lana once again proves his versatility and attention to craftsmanship as a director. The naughty but nice script by Ivan Payawal, is full of the usual cultural allusions, which have trickled down from the cornucopia of kabaklaan (Filipino Gay Culture), to enrich Filipino popular culture as a whole: e.g., the Panti patriarch’s (John Arcilla) legal wife is Nora (Carmi Martin) and his déclassé mistress is Vilma (Rosanna Roces). Apart from the obvious funny of the family name Panti, the eldest son Gabriel or Gabbi’s (Paolo Ballesteros) drag name is Vukaka and his culinary specialty is kare-kareng kokak (literally frog curry, but the joke is simply in the childish alliteration). Arcilla plays it straight and insists that his effeminate sons address him always as “Don Emilio.” He is a willing foil to everyone else. It is his character who sets the premise from which the entire film’s plot loopily spools out.
THIS DOCUMENTARY consists mainly of interviews with the former Huk Supremo Luis Taruc which were conducted during the last years of his life. By then, the filmmaker Dik Trofeo had grown so close to Taruc that he called Trofeo his second son. (Taruc had only one son: Romeo, by his first wife Feliciana Bernabe. He had three wives.) Other producers have attempted to make unauthorized bio-pics of Taruc, including one with action star Senator Lito Lapid, but Trofeo’s film has Taruc’s imprimatur. “Ka Dik” and his camera crew tagged along with the peripatetic Taruc on his provincial sorties to stomp for peasant cooperatives. By then, he had ceased to be either Maoist or Marxist and was inducted by the National Historical Commission into our National Hall of Heroes.
AS A coming of age story, Children of the River is as gentle and flowing as the river of its title. Like her first feature length film Pitong Kabang Palay (winner in 2017 of both the Golden Owl Award at the 22nd Aichi International Women’s Film Festival and also best children’s film in the Dhaka International Film Fest), Maricel Cariaga Cabrera’s 2019 Cinemalaya entry revolves around the regular lives of ordinary folks in rural areas.
AMONG TODAY’s young filmmakers, it is perhaps Eduardo W. Roy, Jr. who most closely approximates the sensibility and legacy of Lino Brocka’s passion projects, particularly in his sympathetic portrayals of the oppression and exploitation of the desperately poor and marginalized in Philippine society. He considers himself a protégé of the “Found Story” School of Filmmaking as codified by his mentor Armando “Bing” Lao. This is an attempt to better express certain inherently Filipino realities. Found Films co-produced this movie.
LIKE HIS first acclaimed Cinemalaya entry Kiko Boksingero (2017), writer-director Toph Nazareno once again brings us a deeply sympathetic and profound coming of age story. The motherless Edward (played by 15-year-old Louise Abuel who is totally amazing) must serve as his father Mario’s (Dido dela Paz) bantay or hospital bedside watcher — although in Philippine charity wards they do not sleep beside, but underneath, the patient’s bed, barely a hand’s breadth from the rusted steel matting bedframe, upon flattened cardboard boxes. They may only bathe between 4 to 6 a.m. Throughout the day and night, they must see to their patient’s feeding, hygiene, and medication, since there are not enough orderlies or nursing aides to do these tasks. Without the bantay, many patients would never make it.
DESPITE the hue and cry on social media about the banishing of Filipino and Panitikan (Philippine Literature) from the G.E. (General Education) curriculum, these weren’t even required subjects during much of the last century. Filipino Literature (classics like Balagtas’ Ibong Adarna or translations of Rizal’s Noli and Fili) was taught in high school, and Balarila (Filipino Grammar) in the elementary grades. This was way before the millennials’ time. Today’s high school SAP (Special Arts Program) syllabus may include digital filmmaking. Anyone with a smart phone can be a filmmaker or actor, using social media to distribute one’s creations. The recent scholarly conference “Interseksyon: Pelikula, Panitikan at Wikang Filipino” drew an unexpected crowd which necessitated changing the original venue from the UP Mass Comm Auditorium to the much larger Cine Adarna. National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Vice-Chair Teddy Co cited film and TV as the convergence of various art forms (e.g., performing arts, literature) with new technologies.
ITS unabashedly spiritual underpinnings distinguish this latest addition to the growing library of writing on Marcos’ Martial Law. The witnessing by various actors who traversed this howling wilderness in our recent history is anchored in their abiding Christian faith in God as the Lord of History, or, as the editor Melba Padilla Magay writes, “an immanent grace that is present wherever there is a struggle against forces that demean and deform human life.”
LIKE THE gag reflex, the 1st of May gives rise to the usual public clamor for living wages and the end of contractualization. Artists are also vulnerable to such “precarity,” as these deplorable working conditions are politely termed. The so-called creative industries — from the performing artists in resorts to the piece-work crafters of fashion accessories — are generally unregulated. What does it behoove an unemployed, part-time jobber or the artist who may not even have a written contract for an occasional project, to register with the BIR and invest in stacks of official receipts which s/he will likely use once in a blue moon? A renowned writer, himself an independent contractor, was lumped with dance instructors when he registered with the BIR because professional writers were a nonentity on the BIR roster. He had to issue ORs to his many corporate clients, but his case is rare. Most Filipino artists do not have formal contracts or such a surfeit of projects. Many simply fall through the cracks, without the safety nets of SSS, PhilHealth, or Pag-Ibig.
LINO BROCKA would have been 80 this April, if he hadn’t been killed in a car crash on May 21, 1991. He was only 52, and had directed around that many films too in the last two decades of his life, though his oeuvre also spanned TV and the legitimate stage, both as an actor and a director, and occasionally, even as a writer. His creative output is probably unequalled by any other Filipino artist in those fields. He was bluntly matter-of-fact about having to grind out five cinematic potboilers to subsidize each worthwhile passion project, such as Insiang (1976), the first Filipino film to be shown at the Cannes Directors Fortnight.
SUPERPSYCHOCEBU has been touted as the first Pinoy stoner film. It’s a wonder that it ever got made in a country with, notoriously, among the harshest penalties for marijuana possession and use. On the other hand, House Bill 180 on medical marijuana and the bill to revive the death penalty were passed practically together, one after the other. (The House approved the bill legalizing medical marijuana on Jan. 29 this year while the bill to resume capital punishment passed the House of Representatives in February 2017. Both stalled in the Senate. — Ed.)
IN KEEPING with International Women’s Month, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Intertextual Division held Gandang-Ganda Sa Sariling Gawa (GGSG) 2, a one-day Women’s Small Press Festival. Small is literally the size of many of the works: zines just 1/8 of a bond paper, colorful postcards and original laminated digital art stickers barely bigger than postage stamps. Postcards and stickers as the cheapest way to reproduce and to sell art are a mainstay of such events.
GENTLE sun-dappled rainfall is the benign form water takes for the child Maya (Elia Ilano) who lost her parents in a storm at sea. In Filipino folklore, this odd synchronicity of sunshine and rain is whimsically believed to happen during the weddings of tikbalang, those horse-headed creatures of our lower mythology who like to lead wayfarers astray. Do take note of the lovely cinematography and the thoughtful production design of this beautifully photographed film.
PERHAPS the MTRCB wasn’t in on the jokes between the wonderful ensemble cast and their brilliantly demented director and screenwriter Marius Talampas. That may have been why this puckishly politically incorrect feature got the R-16 rating which also effectively restricted its access to screens nationwide. When God closes off a cineplex, Mama Mary opens a cinematheque, and it is along the art house circuit that Mr. Talampas’ first full length feature has found its destination audience.
At age 76, Kidlat Tahimik (aka Eric De Guia) is among the younger National Artists, and happens to be the only one alive for Cinema. Further, among this tiny elect group, he is the only Wharton MBA holder, with a c.v. which includes a stint as a researcher for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This was before he symbolically tore up his Wharton diploma (he didn’t totally trash it though), and followed his bliss as an artist. Or as he has stated elsewhere, he let his duende come through. This duende is not the squeaky voiced gnome of lower Philippine mythology, but the inner demon or the spirit of genius which inspires and animates true artistry. See the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Theory and Play of the Duende.” As Kidlat Tahimik declared in his film Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) which is essentially his artist’s manifesto: “When the typhoon blows off the cocoon, the butterfly embraces the sun.”
A MUSEUM, an art gallery, or a theater performance, are not places where Pinoys typically congregate. The shopping mall remains the most popular choice which is why Sunday mass is celebrated there. For “educational excursions,” teachers and their students prefer to be part of the live audience of popular TV noontime variety or afternoon game shows. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise, to find seven van loads of senior high school students attending an evening performance of Oriza Hirata’s Manila Notes in the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).
FROM THE trailer and the stars, one expects just another romcom. The screenwriter-director Joel Ruiz admirably tries to go deeper. He even manages to insert his advocacy for fostering abandoned or abused pets through PAWS (Philippine Animal Welfare Society). The film’s most endearing characters are Whisky and Hammer, both rescue puppers. Kudos to JM de Guzman and Rhian Ramos for subtly yet sweetly serving as poster folks for such a worthy cause. Their characters are enhanced by the added dimension of their being animal lovers. In the film’s ambiguous ending, it is only the love between human and animal which is constant and unconditional. The protagonists also represent two industries dominated by millennials: food service and BPOs.
BENEDICT MIQUE, Jr. the writer and director of the acclaimed Cinemalaya Festival entry ML (which stands for Martial Law) uses the popular framework of the standard teen slasher horror thriller to get his message across. It is an inspired choice. In that revered form, a bunch of attractive young people are inadvertently trapped somewhere, then one by one they meet a gruesome end. The good or virtuous teen is spared. As in fairy tales with a moral lesson to tell, the youths who die deserve it. They are usually fatally flawed to begin with: obnoxious bullies, disrespectful of their elders or of authority, criminally inclined or sexually promiscuous — generally all of the above. A recent local example was Topel Lee’s Bloody Crayons (2017) based on a popular wattpad novel, which unexpectedly had the audience ROFL. For Mique’s film though, any elicited laughter is nervous and hollow because of the dark seriousness of his subject.
IF THERE had been an award for Best Soundtrack at the recently concluded QCinema Film Festival, Timmy Harn’s Dog Days should have won it, hands down. Bold and daring, shamelessly derivative, with wailing trombones, brash percussion, melancholy lounge piano, the excellent soundtrack variously enhanced and complemented the stark black and white cinematography, just as the right hymn might during a religious service. Because Dog Days has the transcendent quality of religious homage to film itself. A particular favorite is the insistent electric thrumming bass, while the girlfriend Maureen (Barbara Ruaro) leans out of a car window, and thoughtfully puffs on a post-coital cigarette as she gazes at the trees speeding by overhead. Her pixie haircut and the elegiac road trip setting evoke the French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) of Jeanne Moreau by Goddard, and even Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
THIS IS the realism of dreams, not of mundane reality. In the humble life of Sonya (Marietta Subong a.k.a. Pokwang) these fears, desires, longing, and rage which make up the human condition are oddly manifest: she is bereft of her parents’ love, without friends, unworthy of anyone’s lust.
HOW refreshing it is to encounter a coming of age film without the usual adolescent angst and anger! More so when the teen protagonists, both high school seniors, are one committed butch lesbian (Isabelle C. Santos, aka Billie, played by Zar Donato) and the bi-curious, and very accomplished flirt Emma (Gabby Padilla) who cope with their respective personal crisis with humor and grace.
THE Hollywood film genre of the too-soon departed and basically decent soul, on a temporary reprieve to take care of unfinished business back on earth is a favorite since many of us pass on with an uncertain peace. Closely allied to this, is the deux ex mundi (not machina) variant where God or guardian angels (even Santa Claus) take on ordinary human form and mingle with mere mortals for the express purpose of helping out a deserving but clueless individual with a celestial fix that guarantees a miraculously happy ending.
THIS is the realism of dreams, not of mundane reality. It makes as much sense as the illogic of longing and inexplicable desire, the obverse sides of which are primal fear and uncontrollable rage at random fate. In the humble life of Sonya (Marietta Subong a.k.a. Pokwang) these fears, desires, longing, and rage which make up the human condition are oddly manifest: she is bereft of her parents’ love, without friends, unworthy of anyone’s lust. A merciless moneylender Theodor (Dido Dela Paz) turns up without warning, even in the middle of the night, like a demoniacal bangungot squeezing the life out of her by taking all her earnings and later, even her home.
TOUTED AS THE costliest local movie production to date, Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral is certainly easy on the eyes. The charming Dagupan sarsuela sequence is a 19th Letras y Figuras by the master Damian Domingo come to life. The dungeon scene of the torture of the late Gen. Luna’s aide Maj. Manuel Bernal (Art Acuna) is starkly and disturbingly lit, like a Goyo etching from Los Caprichos, with the defiant prisoner, a grotesque creature from hell who refuses to die, cackling at and mocking his captors.
A VERITABLE who’s who of the Philippine indie film scene’s repertory of players, makes this warm, feel-good feature by veteran director Chito Roño about family and community in a poor, remote Samar island village, a delight to watch. Unfortunately, it is unevenly photographed. In especially poignant scenes, such as the quietly desperate, lovelorn encounter in the harsh big city between our hometown hero, Intoy (Christian Bables) and his beloved Rachel (Elora Espano), their beautifully expressive faces are inexplicably cast in murky shadow. They might as well have been wearing bags over their heads.
THE FILIPINO film auteur Eric Matti’s BuyBust was two years in the making and the extraordinary care and effort that went into crafting this action-packed (an understatement) extravaganza are evident. Overall, it’s a pleasant surprise to find the many frenetic fight scenes so competently choreographed, although somewhat haphazardly staged. There are incoherently sincere homagic echoes of classic cinematic blood fests like Kill Bill and the Mad Max movies. Through the stylized grime and luridly lit detritus, BuyBust occasionally shines with sparks of wit and fun. Nonetheless, the depictions of crazed slum dwellers as rabidly violent and lethally zombie-like, raise disturbing questions, foremost of which is: does this characterization of the poor intend to justify killing them off in such inordinate numbers in real life?
ANG PANAHON ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil) is a musical, the way the pasyon (passion play) may be broadly and loosely defined as a musical. There are 33 songs, of varied forms, uneven musicality and occasionally strained rhymes, all of them written and arranged by the director Lav Diaz. The incantatory refrains are mesmerizing and primal as katutubo (indigenous persons) chants, especially as rendered by the Kwentista (Bituin Escalante as the Narrator, a sort of omniscient muse). Amazingly, these musical sequences are one-take wonders, performed without any instrumental accompaniment.