This article is originally published at Unreel.PH
Sinag Maynila—pegged as the premier film festival by its corporate backer, Solar Entertainment—is back for its fifth iteration. The fest is currently being programmed under the banner, “sine lokal, pang-international,” in line with its overarching mission to bring local titles out to the world. This is all well and dandy, and political differences aside, your friends at Unreel saw to covering the movies that compete in the festival.
Lakbayan, an anthology event that features three journey-themed short films from such Filipino filmmakers as Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, and Kidlat Tahimik, kicked off the fest. Though I have reservations about the first two segments (the latter more so than the former), I think Tatay Kidlat’s on its own is worth your admission. Geoff and I also spoke about the movie in Episode 004 of the Pervision Podcast.
As for the entries, there are three categories: Full-Length, Short Films, and Documentaries. We’re watching all of them this week and will update this live-article with reviews of this year’s Sinag Maynila movies as we go through each one after the other.
This year’s lineup seems like an awkward mix. There’s Sinag Maynila-vet Jay Altarejos, whose Tale of the Lost Boys bagged awards from last year. This year, he offers Jino to Mari, a movie that has been in the works for five years. There’s also Zig Dulay, whose Akin Ang Korona is an unusually sprightly contender in a row of decidedly bleak and nihilistic entries, such as Pailalim, Jesusa, and Persons of Interest.
Read my thoughts on each movie after the bump.
Akin Ang Korona
The shams of “reality” in media have been unspooled many-a-times before Akin Ang Korona, but what Zig Dulay’s new movie has that many others lack is empathy. It feels unconcerned with exposing the living fever dream that is reality television. Sure, there are plenty of schemes involving the manufacturing of narratives and reducing real people into characters, but it knows not to make these commentaries its main point. In resisting its urge to reveal the dark side of “human interest” TV programming, it keeps itself from becoming a lazy copycat of Francis Pasion’s Jay.
Instead, Dulay tills the ground on which Akin Ang Korona—not as a story about fake realities but that of a young man naive to the wickedness of other people—blossoms. It is Nanong’s story, even if by the end he knows his story is just one of the hundreds peddled to viewers. Dulay also makes it a point to not defecate on an industry shackled to its own lofty ambitions; the TV crew (which consists of Kiray Celis, Aaron Rivera, and Kirst Viray) and their work, however much they pour onto it, are tethered to a number, one which will determine their career and livelihood.
As my final thought, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about Nar Cabico’s performance. His portrayal of Nanong is understated, empathetic, and brimming with life. That all fades in the movie’s final moments, replaced with a protective cynicism that will never outweigh what he has lost in the process. Early in the movie, he tells his best friend, Pia (Philip Palmos, also great here), that for the right amount, he’ll eat literal shit. In the end, he does and quickly learns that you simply can’t go back from that.
I guess there are still movies like Ronaldo Carballo’s Jesusa. You know the kind. That one to studiously frame the ruins which the disenfranchised call home. The typical go-around involves a sweeping landscape shot of rusting tapestries of aluminum roofings, a slow crane shot hovering above an estuary clogged with waste, and a tracking shot through narrow alleys where the impoverished loiter. These people are often wasted, angry, and completely baked. They are unbothered, too, so they push drugs, commit adultery, and steal goods out in the open. And just in case you haven’t taken note of the place’s misery, the movie isn’t above sneak in an obnoxiously sad music either. You’d think poverty porn movies like this don’t exist anymore, but they do. And worse, programmers still put them in the lineup, quality of filmmaking be damned.
The movie’s story, if there is one, follows Jesusa (Sylvia Sanchez), a manicurist living in the slums. She has an asshole of a husband (Allen Dizon), whose philandering feels like a plea to have her leave him so he can seed the next woman. Her two adopted daughters (Empress Schuck and Mara Lopez), disaffected as they are about Jesusa, at least have the sense to urge her to leave her husband; but I guess to live up to her name she has to be a martyr?
That leaves us here, with a story in which everyone is so laughably doused in misery, but rarely do we ever feel for them. Everything from the characters, the writing, to the cinematography is incredibly one-note and uninteresting. Sylvia Sanchez has always been a reliable actress, and if the movie were any better, the movie wouldn’t have felt like a tasteless attempt at social realism. A good thing to come out of it, though, are the goofy subtitles, which, perhaps aware that the movie needs a little fluff, translates “pamalengke” into “marketing budget” and—I think deliberately—mistypes “poop” into “poof”.
Jino to Mari
Few filmmakers will have the tenacity of making a literal poverty porn movie, but here we are, talking about Jay Altarejos’ latest, Jino to Mari. In this sense, the new movie fits right alongside the filmmaker’s other “bold” offerings, like Ang Lalaki sa Parola and Ang Lihim ni Antonio. The movie, though riddled with glaring issues in its script (which Altarejos co-wrote with John Bedia), makes a clear thesis statement about perversion and our people’s inherently perversive nature. That all crumbles—at least for me—towards the end, where the movie’s protagonists are effectively ravaged while in such an incredibly nihilistic state.
The performances in this movie, specifically that of Angela Cortez, draw you into their sordid little lives, make you feel bad about their disposition, and as the movie reaches its, ahem, climax, force you to reassess how you feel about everything.
As I walk out of this movie, I felt the same frustration I have felt watching Altarejos’ other works. Maybe it’s the choice addition of a postcolonial subtext, or maybe it’s the unflinching use of rape culture in the country. Regardless, the movie ultimately murks what could have been a searing portrait of lowly sex peddlers and the leftover crumbs of humanity in them that’s still worth celebrating.
The world is a market based on fair exchange. What you give is what you get. What you take is what you will—ultimately—lose. In Daniel Palacio’s Pailalim, this notion is confronted with people who don’t have plenty of options other than taking. At the center of it is Bangis Malinaw (Joem Bascon), whose vocation it has been to steal newly entombed corpses and discreetly sell them to a funeral parlor which will then, presumably, sell it to someone else. He does this to afford medication for his daughter, Ningning, whose sickness, an albularyo submits, might be the doing of someone Bangis has angered deeply.
Like other movies where the living live amongst the dead, Pailalim presents its characters like ghosts drifting aimlessly through life. Save for Bangis’ wife, Barbie (Mara Lopez), there’s little to no talk of wanting to get out of squatting inside the cemetery. People have built a community with mausoleums repurposed into housing and cold tombstone which they have made of a bed to sleep in. And regardless of how many times the local government tries to get them to move out—in a cruel fashion—they always find themselves home in their coop.
Though its story is simple and straightforward, Pailalim is enlivened with Joem Bascon’s commanding performance. His portrayal reminds me of the stoicism and desperation I’ve seen last in Allen Dizon’s performance in 2014’s Magkakabaung. The movie’s centerpiece—an incredible heist sequence that will knot one’s gut with tension—happens a little late and serves as a good consolation from the movie’s terse and predictable ending.
Persons of Interest
If Agatha Christie sniffed a tall mound of cocaine and tried to write a murder mystery, it wouldn’t read as far from Ralston Jover’s, Persons of Interest. Like in Christie’s best work, Jover’s new movie has an ingloriously obnoxious confession at the end. The obvious difference, of course, is that the mystery of As If There Were None is compelling, where Persons of Interesting is dull and—pardon me—uninteresting.
The story centers around a blind chef named Ramil (Allen Dizon) accused of poisoning his wife, Delly (Liza Lorena). He has a son named Tristan, who shares the same bob and Shine as Danny Boyle in Stephen King’s The Shining. The boy insists he has befriended a man that looks exactly like Ramil, only that his friend isn’t blind. When Delly dies of food poisoning, the blame is immediately put on Ramil, whose life with Delly we see in flashbacks. The good hour that the movie devotes to this proves empty, though, what with a long string of red herrings, glaring continuity errors, and missed opportunities to better flesh its mystery out.
The movie’s denouement—essentially an overlong replay of the movie’s opening sequence with the culprit’s perspective squeezed in—I’ve lost any and all interest. (Look at me hamming this word for the lulz.)
I’ve seen only one movie from Jover’s oeuvre, and that is 2015’s Hamog, a movie whose latter half (with Therese Malvar) is better than the entirety of this movie. I’ve caught a glimpse of the same ingenuity and rigor I’ve experienced four years ago in Hamog in this movie. It was in this fascinating moment in the movie when a neighbor completely loses it over Ramil double-parking their restaurant’s service van. Sadly, that’s the singular peak in this movie for me.
As is standard to film festivals in the Philippines, Sinag Maynila also showcases short films. The shorts are divided into two sets of five. Here are my thoughts.
Memories of the Rising Sun
Memories of the Rising Sun is a story of humanity in extremis, set during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. The premise will have you think that the short is about the incredible conflict involving a Japanese soldier who feels indebted to a Filipino family who took him in at a time of need. However, Lawrence Fajardo seems first concerned in depicting the cruelties the Japanese army have laid on our poor countrymen—of which there are plenty. That places things out of whack, depleting much impact from its final moments.
There’s a childlike glee in Marian that I really like. Though it doesn’t quite stick all its landings, the short feels sprightly and enlivened with a brash, nevermind-if-I-screw-up attitude that makes its monster-under-your-bed story so effective and a dear to watch.
Kilos feels incomplete. The set up is quite wild: a fisherman fishes out a block of prime-grade cocaine and decides to push it all over Manila. The hook is that the fisherman finds out that the authorities are likely behind the operation in the first place. A few jumpcuts later, and we’re in Manila, with the fisherman handing over the goods to a—what do you know?—another policeman. Then, it just kind of…ends without warning, which is such a shame because I think that it was onto something.
I don’t know how to feel about Bisperas. On one hand, it’s an exquisitely produced short. It’s obvious how much resources have been thrown in to put this thing together. On the other hand, I’ve forgotten about it pretty much right after I walk out of the cinema. The story of a mother-cum-New Year’s Eve party getting a visit from the angel of death should stick, but for some reason, it doesn’t for me.
O.K., tell me this isn’t the prettiest out of this year’s lineup, short or full-length. Right? Neil Daza’s lensing turns a grimy underpass into a place for love and attraction. That’s what happens to the characters in Kiss (played Kiko Matos and Mercedes Cabral), a serendipitous encounter between strangers and the wide-eyed, restless, and hopeful quest for human connection.
Dana Jung is quite fascinating to watch. The story is centered around Dana, a young girl diagnosed with brain cancer, and her father, Alvy. Despite its short runtime, the filmmakers behind the short manage to fold in a lot of history and dimension to the story. It’s not perfect, but it’s one of the shorts that I genuinely had a great time watching.
The “twist” towards the end of Panaghoy isn’t set up quite right. It follows a series of ominous moments between an oblivious mother and an ever-leering young woman. These moments, as it turns out, are red herrings to what is initially presented as horror but later swerves into being an awkwardly wrapped PSA about child prostitution. I respect that it sticks with it throughout, though.
Nagmamahal, Sal doesn’t really do anything with what its story sets up, but then again it doesn’t have to. It’s about an old man reminiscing about the love of his life. Though I wish the filmmakers gave the short more time for polish, I think this is one of the most earnest short entries this year.
Dude, Pare, Bro
Lora Cerdan presents herself as a studious disciple of stoner comedy gods Seth Rogen and James Franco with Dude, Pare, Bro. The short itself is quite brisk, kicking off after a marijuana sesh with two architect students named Seth and Franco and ending just about when their “trip” goes awry after a woman gets gunned down in front of them. It’s very funny stuff, and it leaves me wanting to see more.
Ngiti ni Nazareno
The first five minutes of Louie Ignacio’s short film, Ngiti ni Nazareno, features an obnoxious one-minute handheld shot that tails a running Nazareno (Kenken Nuyad) down the slums. That shot alone shoots me out of whatever it is trying to say, which goes along the lines of a young boy who wants his faded druggie of a mother to smile. I’m kind of done with stories like this, which relies entirely on its reiteration that the country is knee-deep in poverty and despair and has nothing much else to say.
In addition to the above short films, Sinag Maynila is also screening six short documentaries. Here are my thoughts on each.
Andap captures a genuinely moving moment towards its rear end, but its effect feels depleted. The entire thing feels like it needs fleshing out, starting from what its subject has lost to Alzheimer’s. It all feels incomplete, somewhat. It feels a bit hollow.
Though a little overlong, At Home drives its thesis very clearly: the Philippines is no place for disabled people. The short’s subject—a young filmmaker who wins a scholarship in Australia—enumerates what other countries have that we lack. The list is long, but the main thing is that the country seems to have no time to take a second and help PWDs.
The Manila Metropolitan Theater—or as others fondly remember it, The Met—is the subject of the doc, Entablado. Now undergoing a sluggish but hopeful refurbishing, the once-renowned theater had been a casualty of time and institutional neglect. Entablado‘s sentiments about the arts’ place in culture are sound. I hope there was a bit more thought in their presentation, though.
This is a fun one. I think art shouldn’t be a contact sport, but contact sports like professional wrestling is no less artful than other high-brow examples. That said, Hope Spots, a short documentary about pro-wrestling, doesn’t dig as deep as I’d hope it to be. It was close once when it places itself within closer proximity to its subjects, but then it takes a couple of steps back to look at the sport more broadly and calls it a day.
Hyatt: Mga Kuwento, Lihim, at Katotohanan
This is my least favorite, in that everything that’s being said here feels like a summation of news reports. Though the material is ripe, I feel like the filmmakers could have (pardon the pun) excavated deeper into what truly went down with the Hyatt tragedy back in the 90’s. Also, annoying mo-graph texts distract us from the important stuff the movie is tackling, which are suspect engineering practices in the Philippines and irresponsible real estate development.
I get what message Tata Pilo is trying to send across, but I don’t jive with its delivery. I don’t get its structure. You see, it starts with what in my book a needless re-enactment of its titular subject’s daily life, then out of nowhere it straddles on a more comfortable documentary format, and then even more abruptly it morphs itself into a semi-autobiographical video diary. Whatever points it has about preserving one’s roots and carrying over the tradition of indigenous hat-making I feel have been marred by its wonky structure.