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.

#oro   #vincekathjames   #sundaybeautyqueen   #diebeautiful   #mmff2016

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