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PRECIOUS little has been written online or on print about Manuel Conde save a book by Nicanor Tiongson (which I haven’t been able to read, unfortunately, and is currently unavailable). The filmmaker is best known for his comic Juan Tamad (Lazy John) film series, and for writing, producing, directing a small scale biopic on Genghis Khan that depicted the eponymous Mongol prince (also played by Conde) as an ambitious, charmingly inventive runt — the film competed in the 1952 Venice International Film Festival, the first ever Filipino film to do so.
ON April 21, Lockdown Cinema, a loose organization devoted to raising funds for displaced movie workers, ran a two-hour live streaming of tributes to National Artist Ishmael Bernal’s Himala. Dubbed Gabi ng Himala, it featured, among others, re-enactments of the more memorable scenes of Bernal and screenwriter Ricky Lee. There are hits, and there are misses. More of the latter. Whoever thought of putting in and directing Nadine Ilustre and Marian Rivera to re-interpret Nora Aunor’s Elsa should be made to explain to the schoolmaster why they thought they could tinker with a masterpiece. Ano ba?
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 PAST few years have seen a glut of Filipino romantic films — from comedies to dramas to everything in between — and with their sheer number, it isn’t hard to predict tropes as old as time that they will use: they meet, they fall in love, they argue, they break up, and they may or may not get back together again but either way they become “better versions” of themselves after the affair.
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).
TO AN international audience with a long memory, Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, is famous for the thousands of shoes that were seized when her husband Ferdinand was ousted from power. In global pop culture, her name became synonymous with excess and greed.
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.
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.
LOLA IGNA by the acclaimed filmmaker Eduardo Roy, Jr. got the Best Picture and Best Screenplay (with Margarette Labrador as co-writer) awards for this year’s Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Its lead, the theater stalwart Angie Ferro, as the eponymous Lola Igna, won for Best Actress. Ms. Ferro, age 82, plays a 118-year-old woman who lives alone in a bamboo hovel without any indoor plumbing, amidst the rice fields of a fictitious rural barrio. Despite its deceptively bucolic setting, the film deals with such sobering topics as aging alone (because you have outlived most of your loved ones and friends), death, abandonment, and the narcissism of today’s youth.
HERE’S THE TWIST: this romcom deals, not with the usual BPO agents, medical professionals, corporate drones, teacher-trainers, restaurant waitstaff, or OFWs — any of the jobs most upwardly mobile millennials inevitably gravitate to — but with sex industry workers, colloquially known as pokpok. For those in the upper tiers, compensation runs into the low five figures per hour, which is the usual call center agent’s or bank teller’s starting monthly salary. At their peak, the pokpok might become tax-free millionaires many times over — within the four short years that might have been spent getting a college degree — which is something that most college-degree holder retirees with decades of service never get to.
ALL OF THE actors on-screen in this sophisticated millennial relationship melodrama where most of the dialogue is in Filipino English, are extraordinarily good-looking and upwardly mobile, starting with the leads Arci Muñoz as Romina or Rome, an advertising creative, and JC Santos as Ethan, her boyfriend who appears to be in logistics. It’s not clear exactly what he does, except that he just made General Manager and his hot lady superior Erika (Ina Raymundo) is very pleased with him. However, scene after scene of gorgeous twenty-somethings with perfectly made up and lighted features, costumed in well-put together outfits, sipping wine, clubbing, or even getting it on in their spacious townhouse units, may not be enough to hold one’s interest. The audience was disturbingly silent throughout most of OPEN, directed by Andoy Ranay, in a Makati cinema, one of 200 where this film is being screened as part of the National Film Development Board’s Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino.
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.
VETERAN teleserye writer Arden Rod Condez’s directorial debut John Denver Trending is remarkable for its confidently concise, yet sensitively nuanced treatment of timely issues such as bullying (both physical and cyber), adolescent depression, fake news and the marginalization of social misfits, especially when they are poor. Condez is a master, not only of the written word but also of cinematic language. He elicits amazingly natural, complex and credible performances from his ensemble of mostly untrained, regular folks (his family and townmates from Pandan, Antique) who all manage to convey their very real though flawed humanity. We know these people.
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.
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.)
THE FILM Badjao or The Sea Gypsies (1957) starts with an image of waves lapping onto shore, the divide between land and sea stretching diagonally across the screen. With his first frame Lamberto Avellana (collaborating with the great cinematographer Mike Accion) summarizes what the film will be all about: the tension between sand and surf, between people of differing loyalties, communities, ethnicities. A man standing beside a roof of dried palm raises his horn against a clouded sky and blows; cue the bombast (and lovely lilting melody) of Francisco Buencamino, Jr.’s theme music.
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.
JOEL LAMANGAN’s Rainbow’s Sunset is a convoluted story of a rich troubled clan, whose main conflict revolves around the family members’ having to deal with grandfather Ramon (played by Eddie Garcia), who comes out as gay and wants to live with his best friend and lover Fredo (Tony Mabesa) who is dying from cancer. But Ramon’s outing himself at the age of 84 (“It’s already 2018!”) should be the least of this family’s — and the audience’s — concerns because Rainbow Sunset doesn’t only feature a conflicted clan, but its storyline is problematic too.
“1” is a concept in Filipino romance that’s undefinable in other languages. We could describe it in parts: the giddiness; the rush when you feel a frisson of emotion for your beloved. Could you call “kilig” butterflies in your stomach? In any case, it won’t matter for this review, because I felt no such thing while watching One Great Love, which to me lacks a beating heart.
FILIPINOS love love stories, So it comes as no surprise that this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival had three romantic entries: Mary, Marry Me by Paul Soriano, One Great Love by Eric Quizon, and the focus of this review, The Girl in the Orange Dress by Jay Abello.
THIS year, Jose Marie “Vice Ganda” Viceral’s entry to the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) might have avoided the overly obvious product placements of his previous outings, but the people behind the film still made sure their film, Fantastica, would suck in all that blockbuster moolah by stuffing in as many big stars and cameos as they could in the almost two hour-long film.
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.
• Circle Competition Audience Choice Award: Hintayan ng Langit by Dan Villegas • Circle Competition NETPAC Jury Prize: Dog Days by Timmy Harn • Circle Competition...
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.