Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Philippine Industry Report - The Best Films and Performances of 2016

There was a time when the ordinary Filipino’s favourite and most affordable past time was movie watching. People could clear their minds and get lost in the confines of a dark cinema hallway. But things have changed, SM, Ayala and Robinsons made sure of this. In fact, the cost of watching movies between December 2015 and December 2016 has obscenely gone up from between P190-P220 in 2015 to P250-280 this year. Between P190 and P280, this increase is a staggering 47.3%. And who regulates these increases?

For a country where 25.2% of the population (roughly 26 million Filipinos) lives below the national poverty line, current cinema rates are just impossibly steep. In fact, the unapologetic plagiarist Senator Tito Sotto myopically puts to task the new rules set by the MMFF Committee as reason for the dismal earnings at the 42nd edition of the beloved film festival. MMFF 2016 just grossed a measly P500 million, which is half of 2015’s overall earnings. But there are several factors attributable to this.


One, this obvious dichotomy between mediocre mainstreams and indies makes people nervous or unsure. Two, poor information drive about the entries. While this is debatable, it is common knowledge that trailers for Nora Aunor’s “Kabisera”, Rhian Ramos’ “Saving Sally” or Irma Adlawan’s “Oro” were hardly seen on Philippine television, the most influential medium for information dissemination in the new millennium. Forget social media. The United Nations has reported that only 37% of Filipinos have internet access. Of this percentage, access is intermittent. 

The MMFF committee should finance a unified scheme that gives television airtime to promote their entries, particularly because many of these movies are being starred by non-marquee names. Three, this paradigm shift requires time to thrive. It’s like a surgeon’s skills. One doesn’t become an expert of a procedure overnight. Four, inclusion of a documentary was too radical. Since when is a documentary pitted for excellence against mainstream features? Not in Cannes, the Golden Globe, BAFTA or the Oscars. Only in the Philippines! Five, this ridiculous 47.3% increase in cinema admissions limits the capacity of the ordinary Pinoys to watch more movies than they’re usually able to. It’s very prohibitive. After all, we are far from having the earning standards of Singapore, Hong Kong or even Malaysia to impose such ticket prices. Bottom line: MMFF earned much less. Greed of these cinemaplex mafia is clearly contributory to the poor box office earnings.

There are adjustments needed for the new MMFF system obviously, but to call for its abolition is premature; the observation too myopic. And this is from a senator whose claim for cinematic excellence is as part of a zany trio of comedians with “Iskul Bukol”, “Bilibid Gays”, “Si Ako at ang Tres Muskiteros” and “Mang Kepweng” in their resume. The call is self-serving. And for what? So we can have another dose of “Enteng Kabisote”? Heavens forbid.


Look at the bright side. The beneficiaries of the recent MMFF are actually rejoicing because they have received a LOT MORE from the earnings than the past years. What does one do with a billion earning if they don't even reach the beneficiaries' coffers? Even with less financial haul, the earnings have been put to good use. Obviously, something good has come out of the revamped MMFF, unless your sole indicator of success is the size of box office return.


Star Cinema once again lorded it over other production companies with majority of their releases making the year’s biggest blockbusters. Vice Ganda leads the pack with “The Super Parental Guardians” nearing the P600 million mark. 

Vilma Santos is the only movie queen, almost 45 years from her rise to stardom, who’s still able to carry a film that actually makes a lot of money. Santos' “Everything About Her” grossed P208 million and counting, the year’s 4th biggest haul. The same movie showcased Angel Locsin’s box office clout. Locsin impressively manages two box office hits in 2016 with gender-bender, “The Third Party” earning P110 million. This should effectively hint of an explosive box-office magic in a new Darna flick if Locsin decides to “swallow the extra-terrestrial stone” and once again fly the cinematic skies.

The most unexpected blockbuster is Angelica Panganiban's "The Unmarried Wife", a vehicle she single-handedly carried with grit and grace. Of course there's Dingdong Dantes, Paolo Avelino and Maricar Reyes in the cast, but it's easy to attribute the film's success to Panganiban. The titular "wife", wasn't she? The film is also expected to earn more than others, once cost is subtracted from its gross earning.


Some people scoff at mainstream productions, but to be fair, this is an industry that allows artists to earn money and provide for their family. The same can hardly be said about the indie community where, often times, people are paid so much less than industry rates. Some even work for free. This makes for an unsustainable livelihood in a society. The great divide in the debate against the concept of dichotomy rests in this salient feature. Artists need work where they’re paid adequately for services rendered. Director Marlon Rivera (“Ang Babae sa Septic Tank”) once bemoaned about the dichotomy between mainstream and independent productions. But until proper financial arrangements are laid out or professionalized, this concept remains valid and can’t be swept under the carpet.


In 2016, Superstar Nora Aunor was in (hold your breath!) 6 feature films: (Adolfo Alix Jr.’s “Padre de Pamilia” and “Whistleblower”, Roderick Cabrido’s “Tuos”, Kristian Cordero’s “Hinulid” and Real Florido and Arturo San Agustin’s “Kabisera”). If we include cameos, the list will include Joven Tan’s “Pare, Mahal Mo Raw Ako” where La Aunor portrayed Edgar Allan Guzman’s mother. Unfortunately, none of these features showcased the legendary actress’ superior acting chops, except for “Tuos”. Most of these films were either predictable, pretentious or forgettable. Isn’t that a waste of talent?

This could have been 7 if Ms. Aunor wasn’t kicked out of Alvin Yapan’s “Oro”. The official reason stated by the production was schedule difficulties, but the grapevine has a more unpalatable story: Aunor allegedly refuses or cannot memorize Yapan’s kilometric lines. Remember Irma Adlawan’s protracted monologue in the film? The director hails from the academe and wants the script followed to the letter. The story is a film maker’s vision, after all. Ate Guy, who already filmed a few scenes, would allegedly adlib her way through a scene. Regardless, one cannot just remove THE Superstar without personally discussing this with her. This smacks of grave disrespect. Now, the veteran actress is in fighting form. Hell hath no fury like a Superstar scorned indeed.


Andi Eigenmann starred in a remake of Lino Brocka’s gut-wrenching “Angela Markado” (1980), this time directed by its original novelist Carlo J. Caparas. The result wasn’t bad. It was horrible! 

But this didn’t stop the Famas from giving a best actress trophy for Eigenmann. How is it like receiving an award for a performance that doesn't even deserve a citation? Oh how she cried! While I understand the different criteria that various award-giving bodies stand for, the new cinematic version of “Angela Markado” was execrable:; it was messy, amateurish and mostly incoherent. 

Easily, the movie was among the year’s worst. Giving an award of excellence for a bad film gives a wrong signal to an industry beleaguered by a variety of problems. The same award-giving body handed out its Best Film to the unnecessarily long and unexceptionalFelix Manalo”. To make matters worse, its Best Supporting Actor and Actress plum went to Gabby Concepcion and Lorna Tolentino, both for “Crazy Beautiful You”. In the aforementioned film, Gabby and Lorna were mostly decorative. No one in their right mind would even cite these actors for their turn in this movie. This makes FAMAS nothing but a humongous joke. No one believes their choices, but themselves. No one cares for the FAMAS anymore. They’re a demented bunch who probably just saw 10 local films in a film year that had 140 film features.


In terms of output, the struggling industry churned out, roughly, about 140 movies. Star Cinema released 12 titles; Viva had an impressive 7; Regal had 4; and the obscure BG Production International had 5, including the Nathalie Hart-starrer, “Siphayo”. Even Matteo Guidicelli became an action star in a film produced by BGP - Rod Santiago’s old school actioner, “Tupang Ligaw”.

Most of BG’s films, however, would get screened for a day, then pulled out the next. I’d say the bad luck comes from the producer’s robotic cameos in many of her films. In Joel Lamangan’s “Siphayo”, for example, a scene involves the producer sitting inside a car and looking so stiff, it looked like she got inflicted with either of the Clostridia species: botulinum or tetani. Or torticollis! Take your pick! She’s the perfect specimen!


There were several local film festivals: ToFarm films, the agriculture-advocating festival, were mostly mediocre works, but it had a couple of gems: Dulay’s “Paglipay” and Villaluna’s “Pauwi Na”. 

Brillante Mendoza’s “Sinag Maynila” wasn’t that impressive, but it screened Adolfo Alix Jr.’s “Mrs.” To a minor degree, Mes de Guzman’s “Dyamper” was serviceable. 

Cine Filipino had more variety, but my favorites were the unabashedly romantic and poetic ouvre of Ice Idanan, “Sakaling Hindi Makarating”, Lem Lorca’s “Ned’s Project”, Jason Paul Laxamana’s “Ang Taba Ko Kasi”, and the eerily suspenseful “Ang Tulay ng San Sebastian”, directed by beleaguered megman Alvin Yapan (of the notorious “Oro” fame).

The grand dame of local festivals, Cinemalaya, makes a grand comeback. However, most films weren’t as accomplished as the past years' entries. Our favorites include Corpuz and Palomares’ “Kusina” with the sublime Judy Anne Santos; Eduardo Roy Jr.’s “Pamilya Ordinaryo”; and Jason Paul Laxamana’s “Mercury is Mine”. 

Some Cinemalaya entries managed to annoy us: Atom Magadia’s “Dagsin” was difficult and almost unbearable to watch, it taunted me to walkout several times, but Tommy Abuel’s performance convinced us to stay put; Cabrido’s “Tuos” meandered in its own artistic conceit, but Nora Aunor was fascinating in her flowing grey tresses; then there’s Ralston Jover’s “Hiblang Abo” which takes the cake as one of the year’s most atrocious ensemble. Almost every “lolo” in this story was gratingly irritating. We weren’t alone with this sentiment. A guy seated beside us kept whispering, “Die already.” Jun Urbano was just too resplendently tawdry. 

QCinema Film Festival emerged as the best mounted festival last year. It’s almost hard to pick favorites from their competition films. However, the weakest entry would have to be Cordero’s quotation-heavy “Hinulid” which starred Nora Aunor. Cinema One was the year’s most disappointing. This is mostly because we expected so much from it. Petersen Vargas’ “2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten” is its lone shining star. Then there’s the MMFF. I feel that there’s a problem with the selection of movies, but enough of that. Boborol’s “Vince & Kath & James” was a huge surprise, aside from Jun Lana’s “Die Beautiful”. Oh, there’s that dog-clubbing film too, but let’s avoid mentioning it further.


During the last quarter or the year, foreign film festivals were screened one after the other: Eiga Sai, Chinese, South Korean, Argentine, Spanish, German, Cine Europa, Danish, Asian, etc. There was even an Israeli Film Festival. While I was thrilled of these developments, the whole experience was eventually exhausting when we tried to watch most of them. My suggestion to the organizers: please try to coordinate with each other and spread these festivals across 12 months instead of fielding them all at the second half of the year. 

From these festivals, we saw Frederikke Aspock’s “Rosita”, a fish-out-of-water Danish film that starred beautiful Mercedes Cabral as a mail-order bride who finds herself in a frigid fishing village north of Copenhagen. 

I also caught Pepe Diokno’s “Above the Clouds”, starring Ruru Madrid, one of my favourite movie-going experiences last year. Iconic rocker Joey Pepe Smith was featured in two superior movies: Diokno’s “Above the Clouds” and Malaysian-Filipino director Bradley Liew’s “Singing in Graveyards”. Theatre luminary Anton Juan fielded his messy “Hinabing Palpak ng Ating mga Anak” which was a punishing watch for me. It starred JC Santos and Agot Isidro, among others.


Finally, Lav Diaz’s films are making a killing at the box office, particularly for “Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis” which screened before SRO crowds all over the metropolis, Davao and Cebu included. Charo Santos’ “Ang Babaeng Humayo” was the same, although interest eventually dwindled. But, boy, what a screen comeback for a screen luminary!


I also hope that, in the spirit of transparency, cinema owners and movie companies release correct box office returns because real numbers can be used to study the attitudes of people – their movie watching habit. This will ultimately benefit film makers. I remember watching Gino M. Santos’ “Love Me Tomorrow” (Dawn Zulueta, Piolo Pascual, Coleen Garcia) on its opening day. There were only 3 of us inside a huge Megamall cinema. That night, Boy Abunda proudly proclaimed the movie’s fantastic first-day gross to the tune of P13 million pesos! I almost fell off my chair. Three people in one cinema = P13 million first day gross. Talk about exponential padding, right? Of course, a single movie house isn’t an adequate gauge in the overall box-office earning of a film. Maybe there were thousands in other theatres, debah? I rest my case!


Our choices for the year’s best was simplified this year. For best performances, we chose 10 of the best performances in a lead role, and another 10 for supporting role. Arranged in descending order, this should easily point to who we think deserves the top plum. We had a hard time deliberating the best performers, but let it be known that Vilma Santos (“Everything About Her”), JC de Vera (“Best.Partee.Ever”), Angelica Panganiban (“The Unmarried Wife”), Ronwaldo Martin (“Pamilya Ordinaryo”) and Judy Anne Santos (“Kusina”) were in serious contention. For some actors, other factors, like the material they appeared in, eventually figured in the elimination.  

This is 2016’s Best Films and Performances (in descending order):

Best Films of 2016

1. Lav Diaz’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (Best Film)
2. Brillante Mendoza’s Ma Rosa 
3. Jun Lana’s Die Beautiful 
4. Petersen Vargas’ 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten
5. Sheron Dayoc’s Women of the Weeping River  
6. Eduardo Roy Jr.’s Pamilya Ordinaryo 
7. Lav Diaz’s Ang Babaeng Humayo  
8. David R. Corpuz and Cenon O. Palomares’ Kusina 
9. Theodore Boborol’s Vince and Kath and James 
10. Ice Idanan’s Sakaling Hindi Makarating

Best Performance in a Lead Role (Actor and Actress) in 2016

1. Jaclyn Jose (Ma Rosa) - Best Actress in a Lead Role
2. Charo Santos (Ang Babaeng Humayo)

3. Tommy Abuel (Dagsin) - Best Actor in a Lead Role

4. Paolo Ballesteros (Die Beautiful) 

5. Hasmine Killip (Pamilya Ordinaryo)

6. Jasmine Curtis-Smith (Baka Bukas) 
7. Cherry Pie Picache (Pauwi Na) 
8. Jaclyn Jose (Patay na si Hesus)

9. John Lloyd Cruz (Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis) ties with                  
   Joshua Garcia (Vince and Kath and James) 

10. Angeli Bayani (Ned’s Project) 

Best Performance in a Supporting Role (Actor or Actress):

1. Christian Bables (Die Beautiful) - Best Actor in a Supporting Role

2. Meryll Soriano (Pauwi Na) - Best Actress in a Supporting Role

3. Jameson Blake (2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten) 
5. Jordan Herrera (Best.Partee.Ever)

6. Kean Cipriano (That Thing Called Tanga Na)

6. Pepe Herrera (Sakaling Hindi Makarating)
7. Lotlot de Leon (Mrs.)  
8. Ina Raymundo (Vince & Kath & James) 

9. Enchong Dee (Mano Po 7: Tsinoy) 
10. Barbie Forteza (Tuos)   
Best Director

1. Lav Diaz (Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis) 
2. Brillante Mendoza (Ma Rosa)  
3. Sheron Dayoc (Women of the Weeping River) 
4. Petersen Vargas (2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten)
5. Eduardo Roy Jr.(Pamilya Ordinaryo)  

Best Screenplay

1. Lav Diaz for "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" 
2. Troy Espiritu for "Ma Rosa"  
3. Jason Paul Laxamana for "2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten"
4. Lav Diaz for "Ang Babaeng Humayo"     
5. Daisy Cayanan, Kim Noromor, Anjanette Haw for "Vince & Kath & James"   

Best Cinematography

1. Larry Manda (Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis)   
2. Odyssey Flores (Ma Rosa)   
3. Mark Limbaga and Rafael Meting (Baboy Halas)   
4. Alan Banzon (Paglipay/Crossing) 
5. Lee Meily (Ignacio de Loyola) ties with
    Vanz Lavado (Lakbay2Luv)

Best Editing

1. Lav Diaz (Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis)
2. Diego Marx Dobles (Ma Rosa) 
3. Carlo Francisco Manatad (Pamilya Ordinaryo) 
4. Paolo Villaluna and Ellen Ramos (Pauwi Na)  
5. Mycko David and Cesca Lee (Purgatoryo)          

Best Ensemble:

1. 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten (Khalil Ramos, Ethan Salvador, Jameson Blake)

2. Vince and Kath and James 

3. Sunday Beauty Queen

4. The Unmarried Wife

5. Frederikke Aspock’s Rosita (Denmark)

2 Cool to be 4gotten

Vince and Kath and James

Sunday Beauty Queen

The Unmarried Wife


Best First Feature:

1. Petersen Vargas (2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten) 
2. Bradley Liew (Singing in Graveyards)

3. Ice Idanan (Sakaling Hindi Makarating) 
4. Sunshine Lichauco de Leon and Suzanne Richiardone (Curiosity, Adventure and Love)
5. HF Yambao (Best.Partee.Ever)       

Best Documentary: Lichauco de Leon and Richiardone's "Curiosity, Adventure and Love"

Best Short Film: Lav Diaz's "Ang Araw Bago ang Wakas" 

Most Annoying Films of the Year (because we suffered while watching them):

1. Anton Juan's "Woven Wings of Our Children" (Hinabing Pakpak ng Ating mga Anak)

2. Atom Magadia's "Dagsin"

3. Ralston Jover's "Hiblang Abo"

4. Sheron Dayoc's "The Crescent Rising" - The Moro community utilizes the same argument that China uses to claim ownership to Mindanao. That it won in Korea really is a bigger disservice because it legitimizes erroneous claims. Historical revisionism at its worst. Period.

5. Jose Johnny Nadela's "Pilapil"

6. Kristian Cordero's "Hinulid" - The director makes use of a thousand quotations from mathematicians to philosophers diluting what could have been a fascinating story of a mother who comes to terms with her son's untimely demise. The film ultimately lost its own voice. Oh, and there's this train that travels from Manila to Bicol and terminates at the constellation! 

Best Struggle in Online Criticism: Cinema Bravo

-   Here’s why!

#bestfilms  #2016  #bestperformances  #tommyabuel  #vilmasantos  #noraaunor  #jaclynjose  #lavdiaz  #helesahiwaganghapis  # marosa  #superparentalguardians  #diebeautiful  #hasminekillip  #paoloballesteros #brillantemendoza  #jasminecurtismsith  #meryllsoriano  #christianbables  #charosantos  #cherrypiepicache  #jamesonblake

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Best Films of MMFF 2016: Oro, Vince & Kath & James, Sunday Beauty Queen and Die Beautiful

How was MMFF 2016 so far?

Like a breath of fresh air. There were fewer crowd, but who says a festival’s sole measure of success is its box office return? Who says that the dimension of triumph is measured in terms of a man’s financial riches alone?

In this year’s revamped festival, the films were meticulously made. “Saving Sally” took 10 years to finish. “Sunday Beauty Queen” took more than a year. Meanwhile, how long did Vice Ganda’s zombie-populated “Super Parental Guardians” take to finish principal photography?


More importantly, this year’s entries are diverse in theme and scope. There are false prophets and the battle of good against evil in Erik Matti’s “Seklusyon”; adolescent love amidst the digital revolution and social quandary in Theodore Boborol’s “Vince & Kath & James”; territorial terrorism in Alvin Yapan’s “Oro”; desperation brought forth by the Filipino diaspora in Baby Ruth Villarama’s “Sunday Beauty Queen”;

Foibles of contemporary film making in “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2”; chronicles of struggle and abuse of a transgender woman in Jun Lana’s “Die Beautiful”; the worrisome extra judicial killings take the spotlight in Real Florido and Arturo San Agustin’s “Kabisera”; unrequited love inhabits a dimension that combines live action and animation in Avid Liongoren’s “Saving Sally”.  If this lineup doesn’t satisfy anyone’s criteria of provocative and “relevant” film making, I don’t know what would. But just to make a point, remind me again if Enteng Kabisote’s 10 film installments could match any of the aforementioned flick’s pertinence or social purpose? Enteng fights the monsters of the evil world and wins! In one sweeping statement, that sums up the entertainingly redundant Enteng 1 to 10. If this repetitious vacuity is your cup of tea, then there is something so wrong with the way your brain is wired. Nuf said.

In this post, we will be spotlighting the festival's Best Films (in descending order). 

Alvin Yapan’s “Oro” follows the ordeal of the people of Barangay Gata, Caramoan in Camarines Sur when armed henchmen, pretending to be environmentalists, take over the island’s ball mill where local folks harvest gold from a nearby cave. 

The head strong barangay captain (Irma Adlawan) needs to produce a DENR permit for her community’s mining activity to start an argument with the strangers. Unfortunately, we know how long the system takes. People are going hungry. Elmer (Joem Bascon), the mill’s caretaker, is forced to sign up with the aggressors. After all, her girlfriend Linda (Mercedes Cabral) is pregnant with his baby.

Yapan has always favored slow burn narratives. His stories have always been subtle and introspective, but “Oro” changes all that. In fact, this is the director’s most accessible. 

The change of pace is apropos for the urgency of the story. It also demands a few questions, not the least of which is operating a small-scale mining without any form of permit. 

Mali ba ko?” Adlawan, in a sincere moment of indecision, asks and chastens herself. Oro is undoubtedly Adlawan’s best performance in a long while. 

The scene makes you shiver. Moreover, her long monologue in front of a camera is instructive of empathetic delivery. We listen to her and feel her anger and frustration. 

The movie also emerges as among this festival’s four most watchable films. It is entertaining, unnerving and as relevant as the real story it drew inspiration from. For a change, Yapan does away with the subtlety that usually characterizes his narrative flow. The story is fluid and told in a straight forward manner.

Theodore Boborol’s “Vince & Kath & James” tells a simple story. But the characters’ facile associations belie their complicated lives. 

Vince Arcilla (Joshua Garcia) pines for the attention of reluctant college beauty queen Kathleen Gonzales (Julia Barretto) who, in turn, has her eyes set on handsome jock James Raymundo (Ronnie Alonte), Vince’s cousin. 

But life isn’t a walk in the park for our lovely protagonist. To make ends meet, Kath works for her uncle’s “talyer” (auto shop), a shop their family once owned. It has since been sold to her uncle after her father, who works in Dubai, flew the coop and abandoned their family. He left his household undone so Kath's mother (Shamaine Buencamino) does odd jobs to support 19 year old Kath and his 11 year old brother Kyle. Her life gets more engaging when she’s beset by anonymous text messages from a secret admirer. What Kath doesn’t realized, annoying schoolmate Vince is the one sending these messages. James is too cowardly to tell her in person. Just when Vince and Kath start building up their acquaintance, James decides to pursue Kath? Would Vince play their mediator? Will Vince, who lives with his cousin, once again give way to his obdurate pinsan?

The movie is the festival’s most adorable film - bar none. It boasts of a vibrant story that tackles issues related to migrant workers, unwanted children and the seemingly trivial concerns of the youth. It builds up its story around Vince and Kath's delightful texting, a valid augury of modern-day social interaction. The film stars a charming cast that’s easy on the eyes, but more importantly fits into their characters as though they were written for them. 

While it’s easy to dismiss the flick as just another vacuous romcom, the story itself surprises like a well-tempered coming-of-age that takes us without much fanfare, but leaves us breathless and swayed. 

I am pretty sure that word of mouth will prove the naysayers wrong. Boborol weaves an upbeat story that sustains its audience's interest from start to finish. It has an unobtrusive score that deftly uses the song "O Pag-ibig" like an ambrosial potion. Keep an eye on the spell-binding Joshua Garcia who coaxes a surprisingly enthralling performance. 

What’s more remarkable is how Garcia can easily shift from a flirtatious dork to a cowardly guy, then to a heartbroken son. No awkward misstep here. Garcia is consistently great and even-tempered. His scenes with Ina Raymundo, playing the role of the mother who gave him up, was particularly heart breaking. I wouldn’t be surprised if Raymundo gets, at the very least, a nomination for her limited screen time. Indeed, no role is too small for great actors.

If we stretch the domain of “epistolary novels”, then Jenny Ruth Almocera’s “social media novel” (originally titled “Kath and Vince”) falls within this literary genre that makes use of “documents” – like letters and emails (text messages may be considered documents, as they're now used in judicial inquiries and investigations) to tell its story. The strategy renders it a slice of realism that almost gets rid of the third person. This makes “VKJ” totally relatable. We feel like we’re peeping into a private conversation that doesn't overstay its welcome. It’s ironic though how this popular writer doesn’t even like reading books. I'd say it's talent, but then what does a writer make without reading influences?

Baby Ruth Villarama’s “Sunday Beauty Queen” follows several Filipinas working as domestic helpers in Hong Kong where 190,000 other Filipinas endure slave-like conditions. Most of them get a Sunday respite. On this day, several of them join a beauty contest that provides a bit of tumult brought about by the spotlight. It's their moment away from their daily grind and somehow fills their loneliness. Most of these ladies get a basic salary of $HK 555 a month. In turn, they’re expected to work from 8 AM to 7 PM daily.

While some employers treat them humanely, others are more mean spirited. When one of the girls missed a curfew (from the pageant), she was terminated right away. The Hong Kong government gives these girls 14 days to find new employers or they're sent home. 


Many of them get emotionally and physically abused. One of them sleeps in a make shift room adjacent to the kitchen. When a cyclone blew it away, she wasn’t allowed to sleep on the sofa – so she made her bed on the kitchen floor. Another girl is allowed to bathe once every 3 days – to save water. This was later changed to every 5 days. Another employer refuses to dole out salon allowance (a grooming stipulation), duly mandated by law, so she unceremoniously shaved her helper’s hair herself. Another girl was terminated from work at 12 midnight, leaving the girl homeless for the night. It’s important to realize that many of these girls hold college degrees: AB English, Computer Science, Information Technology, etc. These horror tales are cringe-inducing, but they're told casually like everyday scenarios straight out of their sob stories.

Jack Soo, a veteran Hong Kong producer and distributor who employs a Filipina, says, “If the Philippine government decides to stop sending foreign helpers outside the country, the world will be in big trouble.” The statement is, of course, debatable, considering the disturbing conditions many of these workers have to endure to keep these jobs. At some point, an advertent government must put a stop to its people's dependence on foreign employment in scurrilous nations. That its government cannot provide well paying jobs is no excuse to feed his people to the lion's den.

Villarama’s latest documentary is her most accomplished work to date. This could be because the stories are close to home. Just before the credits roll, the film acknowledges Villarama’s mother who once toiled as a domestic helper.  

Truth be told, the time is ripe for these so-called “indies” to grace this country’s most popular film festival. Brillante Mendoza’s brilliant “Thy Womb” was once a fluke. In fact, it didn’t last for more than a couple of days at the tills. It was unceremoniously removed. But in a time when these independently-produced films are gaining ground abroad and winning awards outside the country, it is high time that the mainstream-loving Filipinos experience a paradigm shift towards less escapist fares - towards “cinematic excellence”. Who can refute these films when foreign spectators treat them like gold? Why can't we?

On the other hand, I am not completely sold that this festival is a venue for a documentary film like “Sunday Beauty Queen” (SBQ). However, I am glad that its artistry has allowed it to stand alongside the other seven feature films. Still, when you use the traditional criteria for judging film excellence, consider that “SBQ” won’t even be eligible for many of the categories: performance, script, etc. Just maybe, it’s time to rethink inclusion of documentary works for this festival. My point here is simple. Allow me an analogy:  A beautiful trans woman doesn’t belong to an all-natural female contest like the Miss Universe. There’s a right venue for “her”. We shouldn't mix apples in a basket of pears - and sell them like they're a single entity. They aren't.

Speaking of trans women, Jun Lana’s “Die Beautiful” is about a transgender woman who wishes to be made up, for seven successive days, like his popular idols (Angelina Jolie, Beyonce, when he’s laid to rest – so he can die beautiful. 

The story is bravely told, but isn’t the easiest to digest either because the protagonist’s journey isn’t a smooth alleyway. In fact, Trisha Echevarria's path is more of a back road filled with pot holes and life-threatening boulders.

Born Patrick Villar, our effete protagonist doesn't see eye to eye with his unsparing dad (Joel Torre). He knows that it's a matter of time before he's eventually thrown out of the house. One fateful night, after missing curfew from joining another of his gay beauty contests, he is caught red handed. He leaves the domicile and moves in with best friend Barbs (Christian Bables). He starts living his life the way he wants to. But homosexuals like Trisha have it rough. Amid a world that sneers at limp-wrists are opportunists and bigots. He gets "raped" by his campus crush (Albie Casino) and his gang. He couldn't even refuse or say "no". "Hindi naman ako pinilit pero di man lang ako maka hindi." It was his first time with a guy - four of them! What follows is a succession of failed relationships and the chance encounter with Jessie (Luis Alandy), the married man who wooed him and showed him true affection - or was it?

"Die Beautiful" is a courageous story of growing up different and graciously living with it. It isn't seamlessly told, as the nonlinear storytelling tends to distract and confound than enveigle empathy. It's narrative energy is occasionally dragged down by dawdling narrative strains. But Trisha's chronicle ultimately clobbers its audience like a lightning bolt. We need to be a little more tractable to human differences. After all, it's easier to judge willfully without taking heed to an individual's back story. Besides, wouldn't the world be a kinder place to inhabit without a lot of unsolicited knee-jerk perspicacity? 

Was Paolo Ballesteros's high profile win at the Tokyo Film Festival well deserved? You better believe it. Ballesteros is a shoo in for the festival's best actor plum although Joshua Garcia could pull an upset - if the jurors were a discerning lot. Christian Bables lends a more than competent support. Lana's acting lynch makes cameos: Iza Calzado, Gladys Reyes and Eugene Domingo make the beeline to grace this piece of celluloid magic. But no Nora Aunor, Anne Curtis or Eddie Garcia?

Among the short films included at the festival, Brian Spencer Reyes' "Sitsiritsit" (shown alongside Erik Matti's "Seklusyon") is a worthy addition for the festival's line-up of shorts. The story involves a guy who, while knee deep working on his thesis, starts to hear an unrelenting call... but there's no one there. Is it all in his head? Short films should be adequately vetted to make this section a worthy addition to the revamped festival.

If you haven't seen a single MMFF movie yet, what are you waiting for? Another Enteng Kabisote Meets Panday Meets Juday Meets AiAi Meets Vice Ganda Meets Probinsyano? Stop making all those silly excuses. Be part of this worthy change.

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