Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Amateur Hour at the Cinemalaya 2017 - Let There Be Light - Please!

This year, nine films brave to navigate the cinematic dark waters for this year’s Cinemalaya film festival. By “dark”, we’re imputing cinematic theme – and technical proficiency or the lack of it.

There’s illiteracy and terrorism (Perry Escano’s “Ang Guro Kong Di Marunong Magbasa”); a child’s loneliness (Thop Nazareno’s “Kiko Boksingero”); abuse and the government’s lack of empathy for its foreign workers (Zig Dulay’s “Bagahe”); murder and infidelity in a small town (Iar Arondaing’s “Sa Gabing Nananahimik ang mga Kuliglig” and Sonny Calvento’s “Nabubulok”); superstition and drug smuggling in a fishing village (Joseph Israel Laban’s “Baconaua”); obscure definitions of a relationship (Nerissa Picadizo’s “Requited”); artistic struggles in the squalor amidst extra judicial killings (Alberto Monteras II’s “Respeto”) and false hopes and urban legends (Mes De Guzman’s “Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha”).

Despite the provocative plots, there’s scanty good news to be shared from my end. In fact, this was one of the most challenging set of entries I had to endure to watch. I am, in fact, trying to remember the last time it was this bad. But I am getting ahead of myself.


Poor production values, pedestrian direction, clunky writing, cluttered exposition, miscasting and overwrought performances hobble the entries. One common characteristic is darkness. While I understand the preponderancy of atmosphere and dimly lit scenography, it’s a different matter altogether when the silver screen is but a patch of black. One geriatric viewer had to remark: “Wala akong makita”. No, lola, it isn’t your cataract nor your macular degeneration. It’s the film you’re watching.  I’m not talking about a single title. There were several: “Baconaua” leads the guilty parties. Wouldn’t it have been appealing if we actually recognized the color “red” when the sea turned bloody? 

Here’s a trivia about colors: you need light to distinguish them! Isn't the concept basic in photography (cinematography)? When the sea spits apples, and all you find are silhouettes, you’re doing the audience a disservice. From my seat, the apples looked like mounds of excreta! The same affliction characterized “Sa Gabing…” and portions of “Nabubulok”. “Maybe they’re experimental?” quipped one hopeful viewer, I had to laugh in my dark corner.


In the early days of the Cinemalaya, the audience were patient of such film-making gaffes. But, boy oh boy, that was more than 10 years ago. There’s been tremendous advancement in technology, and indies aren’t two-bit artistic inventions anymore. Or are we back to square one?

Let’s take Perry Escano’sAng Guro Kong Di Marunong Magbasa”, about a farmer who’s tasked to takeover teaching duties at a remote grade school in Muslim Mindanao. Here’s the clincher: Aaquil (Alfred Vargas) is himself illiterate and doesn’t have the foggiest about his three R’s. 

While undeniably an interesting concept, the film is clunky at best, the performances abominable, particularly from Vargas who’s too well scrubbed and healthy to represent a marginalized sector of the countryside. This is a curiosity because we’ve always considered Vargas an adequate performer. In this movie however, Vargas’ demeanor is reduced to being “pa-cute” and juvenile. And don’t let him scamper for his life by dodging bullets. Five paces later, he’s breathless. The scenes are awkwardly blocked, you feel like watching an old flick in Piling Piling Pelikula. Mostly, they are turgid and amateurish. Is this a Cinemalaya film we’re watching? I had to ask myself. In the end, the whole narrative conceit is as fraudulent as the ineptitude of the movie’s general direction. Who read this script and thought this was festival-grade? Aren’t there quality-control measures to assure the inclusion of legitimate film makers?

Sonny Calvento’sNabubulok” follows the train of events after the disappearance of Luna, wife of Jason and mother of three, after her cousin Ingrid (Gina Alajar) starts sniffing around. The story takes the tedious and impudent style reminiscent of Carlo J. Caparas. In fact, every character is suspicious or annoying. Each scene screams the obvious. So much for elements such as foreshadowing. It could have benefited from Gina Alajar’s erstwhile astute dramatic insight. Alajar remains to be one of the industry’s best actresses of all time. Unfortunately, time has rendered Alajar shrill and irritating. When she eventually delivers her “Tang ina nila” line (uttered thrice) in bravura look-at-me-I’m-acting moment, I was awash with regret. How has passing time reduced Alajar to sheer mediocrity. 

The movie likewise fails to make use of promising Jameson Blake and the ubiquitous JC Santos. There were several conspicuous lapses in the story. A farmer inadvertently witnesses the unplanned burial in the dark night. The American patriarch is buying cement at the hardware shop. Ingrid and the neighborhood smell the overpowering stench of a rotting carcass in the household premises. Are you following this? Wasn’t Luna’s body buried in the fields? What was rotting away inside the house? Were there multiple bodies worth checking out? Where was cement used? At the farm? Sometime in the story, police officers suddenly arrive at the scene bearing a search warrant. Right away? Instant warrant, you blink and it’s there. As I’ve mentioned earlier, this takes Carlo J. Caparas’ storytelling sensibilities!

Employing the backdrop of a religious festivity (ho-hum!), Iar Arondaing’s provocatively titled “Sa Gabing Nananahimik ang mga Kuliglig” is a whodunit piece that involves two murders and spotlights the comeuppance of perfidy. 

Madga (Angel Aquino) confesses to Father Mike (Jake Macapagal) the murder of her friend Dolores (Mercedes Cabral), her husband Victor’s mistress. On the same night, Victor (Mark Dionisio) is found bludgeoned to death. Hector (Ricky Davao), Magda’s husband, is then arrested for the crime. Unfortunately, Father Mike is bound to the seal of the confessional. What to do?

The film is hampered by borderline production values, as the story interposes the unraveling events with religious chants and the ensuing festivities. Most of them seem disconnected to the moving picture taking place before you. It’s like hearing Manny Pacquiao quote another biblical passage and realize that something is amiss in the silly exercise. In the first hour alone, scenes successively show Angel Aquino navigate the darkness: at the bathroom, in the kitchen, then inside the bedroom while she gets dolled up! We are baffled by the perversion of darkness to frame a more urgent story that needed telling. If this isn’t a case of style trumping substance, I don’t know what is. 

Direction, camera work, lighting (or the lack of it) are just baffling, if not stifling. All these atmospheric scenarios muddle an already-messy story. Moreover, there are grave flaws in the artistic choices: Jess Mendoza, looking like he’s fathered 5 already, plays the subservient son of Mercedes Cabral? Seriously? Is this suspension of disbelief? I had to tap my heels silly to knock me some patience in the midst of the film’s inanity.

“Matt and I has separate rooms.” (wink wink)

I heard the loudest chorus of chuckles as Nerissa Picadizo’sRequited” drew to a close. The road movie, reminiscent of Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s “Lakbay2Love”, has less drone shots and a lot more verbal scuttle between its two characters: Matt (Jake Cuenca) and Sandy (Anna Luna). Matt is afflicted with alopecia. Errr. No, something else that’s more lethal, thus he embarks on a journey from Manila to Mount Pinatubo to end it all. But shrill Sandy, the once-popular volleyball star, decides to tag along to “not define” her relationship with the unemployed architect.

“Ang relikang yan ay galing doon.” 
(Baybayin at bigyang kahulugan ang salitang “relika”.)

Let’s just say that when the suicidal loverboy pushes his mi amor down the cliff, then walks away while we see her abdomen heaving for air, we couldn’t help but suspect that this wasn’t a romantic drama after all. Picadizo apparently confuses her genre every so often. She eventually allows her protagonist to walk away, as though catharsis is to be had once he buries the love of his life. 

Too bad – because Jake Cuenca seems to have invested his heart and soul to breathe life to Matt. Cuenca is one of this festival’s most committed performers. (And listen, I’m trying to “unsee” Matt pleasuring himself among the rocks as final homage to his requited love.) Now tell me: what keeps people from committing to each other if their affections were mutual? This movie does not have the answer. Go fish elsewhere. Hah!

Joseph Israel Laban’s Baconaua” auspiciously starts out with riveting scenes by the shore. 

It has been 90 days since Divina’s (Elora Espano) fisherman father got lost at sea. People believe that a sea serpent (“bakunawa” – a mythical sea dragon believed by old folks in the Visayas region to devour moons thus causing eclipses) has taken him away. Soon thereafter, the sea turns red. Supposedly. The screen was almost in pitch darkness to appreciate this,

Shall I then bestow it with a special award: Dark Picture Award. This movie takes the cake. However, this isn’t the only issue dragging the movie down. Not only are there expendable biblical references (apples wash ashore, a serpent crawl through the mangrove), numerous narrative elements sloppily pile up: an illegal Chinese alien (whose face you can’t even see), drug trafficking, military operations against terrorists; an unlikely romantic triangle; and, yes, a sea monster that selectively chooses his victims. The latter even sounds like Nessie of the Scottish Highlands. Gather these elements and you have one ambitious, but blotchy yarn. 

The film reminds me of Kristian Cordero's "Hinulid" (starring Nora Aunor). In it, the director floods his narrative with a thousand-and-one quotations from so many references. You suspect he has 3 dozens of encyclopedias full of philosophical, biblical and scientific sayings. I just cringe. Laban tries to inject numerous disparate elements to spice up his cinematic palette. Mas maraming sahog, mas masarap, debah? Tee hee.

The good thing about this film: you can finally use your imagination to try to make out what’s on your screen. It’s a good cognitive practice, if you ask me. It's like closing your eyes and allowing your mind to soar. But in this film, your eyes are wide open as you stare at a Cimmerian shade of celluloid. Just a thought here - the director will probably be able to tell a more focused tale if there's a little more light? .

The festival's most irritating performance.
Zig Dulay’sBagahe” feels like masochism-porn the way Mercy (Angeli Bayani) handles her sticky situation. 

The 35-year-old OFW was caught leaving a newborn child on her flight back home from overseas employment. A high profile investigation soon follows with every political personality wanting a piece of the limelight, including a Social Welfare secretary, a senator, the media, the NBI, the church and her family from Kapangan, Benguet. Her demeanor leaves much to be desired in the ensuing circus.


Dulay’s script, usually engrossing and insightful in previous works, is a sloppy parody of the OFW distress story. Each personality is written like cardboard characters. It doesn’t help that Bayani’s portrayal is painfully passive, you feel the unease of being manipulated into sympathizing with her. There’s something pretentious, even deceptive, in her depiction of the ultimate victim. If you’re easily bamboozled by woeful facies, you’d proclaim her queen of the cinematic ball. Kumbaga, nang uuto! For me, hers was one of the festival’s most irritating turns.

Alberto Monteras II’ s “Respeto” is this festivals most technically accomplished entry. It is insightfully casted and cleverly crafted by Monteras who, prior to this, has been directing hundreds of music videos. 

Set in a chaotic urban neighborhood, amateur rapper Hendrix (Abra) crosses paths with reclusive poet Doc Fortunato Reyes (Dido de la Paz) when the former decides to rob the old gentleman’s book shop. Thrown together by circumstance, the two start a mentor-protégé relationship, one that would soon get tested by the spate of killings happening around town. 

Rapper Abra turns in a more-than-decent performance worthy of, at the very least, a citation. He will give Jake Cuenca a tight fight in the lead actor category, though, in my book, Cuenca delivered the more substantial and consistent performance. Dela Paz’s poetic number at the rap competition was amusing. It was also awkward, misplaced and rough around the edges. Nevertheless, dela Paz gives his career-best in “Respeto”.

Thop Nazareno’s Kiko Boksingero” tells the story of Kiko (Noel Comia Jr.), a lonely 11 year old boy who pines for the affection of his father. After the demise of his mother, the young boy is left under the care of his nanny (Yayo Aguila). One day, George (Yul Servo) shows up at the empty apartment that Kiko frequently visits. Kiko's life is never the same.

The cool temperatures of Baguio adroitly frames the young protagonist’s longings in a story affectionately told. This bittersweet tale demonstrates that you don’t need a lengthy exposition to tell a good story. Nor does one require loud bickering or convoluted plot to engage your audience. The movie is a calm emotional discourse about grief and the ties that bind. Servo is charismatic as the former boxer who welcomes his most loyal fan in his temporary home. Yayo Aguila is an affectionate presence. Young Noel Comia Jr. is perfectly cast as the hopeful boy who forges a relationship with his noncommittal father.

"Kiko..." is a balm of hope and inspiration. It mirrors kindness and affection in a world that has embraced discord and indifference. If your idea of cinema is one that lifts your sagging spirit, look no further. This is the perfect vehicle.

The festivals’ most charming entry is Mes de Guzman’sAng Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha” which stars Megastar Sharon Cuneta who’s aptly back in the indie scene after the whimsical comedy “Crying Ladies” (2003). What’s with Cuneta and “crying”? But I'm not complaining. The movie is a departure from one of my favorite indie directors' style who’s known for his glacially-paced introspective dramas usually set in the back roads of small towns. Pamilya takes place in Laguna.

In the story, Cora dela Cruz (Cuneta) is a former broadcast journalist wallowing in the doldrum of her solitary life. She has lost everyone important to her, including her husband (Richard Quan), her children (Michelle Vito and Philip Olayvar) and even her career. With the help of her oftentimes-discombobulated maid Bebang (the irrepressible Moi Bien), Cora hires the services of Biboy (Nino Muhlach) to find the mythical “Family that Doesn’t Weep”. The family of four is an urban legend believed to bring back lost object or person – for a fee, of course. Cora’s dilemma isn’t an easy one. Moreover, she's just too desperate to doubt. She has pinned her hopes up on this strange family. Cora's penultimate journey abruptly ceases when fate swerves to a dead end. Her desperation almost kills her, as she eventually ends up at the emergency room.

Cora’s story is a cautionary tale about hope and deliverance. Happiness and success aren’t attained by subscribing to superstition nor should they be dependent on the mere presence of others. Sometimes, our contentment is defined by what we think we need when, in truth, happiness could be had with so much less. 


A story like Cora's is fodder for maudlin caterwauling, but De Guzman decides to take an unexpectedly light approach to tell his story. "Drama" would have easily benefited Cuneta more, but the narrative path veers away from inexorable sentimentality. If anything, this artistic choice is fortuitous. After all, both De Guzman and Cuneta more familiarly tread the dramatic genre. Comedy, then, becomes an "extraordinary" choice. In this respect, we applaud De Guzman more than ever - and can't wait for his next film. 

I initially didn't expect a lot from the movie after watching some scenes from the trailer; none of which made it in the final cut. 

But such is the joy of unexpected surprises. The movie is funny, but ultimately heart breaking. It’s probably inappropriate to say that this vehicle is a return to form for the iconic actress. After all, she isn’t known for quirky comedies (Wenn Deramas’ “BFF” notwithstanding). Cuneta is treading unfamiliar waters. There are awkward moments of improvs, but Cuneta’s character is completely delineated and bravely depicted. This is a comeback of sorts for Cuneta whose last cinematic foray was Joel Lamangan’s “Mano Po: A Mother’s Love” eight long years ago. There were SRO crowds in the two screenings we've managed to catch (long story!), but this was expected, considering she’s the only stellar name in the current festival. 

Thank God for the few good movies. This has been a challenging experience at a Cinemalaya festival. There were moments that felt like self-flagellation, to be honest. But watching “Pamilya…”, “Kiko Boksingero” and “Respeto” made the whole drill worth the time I invested.

Honor Roll

To cap this post, here is our honor list for this festival:

Best Picture: Alberto Monteras II’s “Respeto

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Jake Cuenca (“Requited”)

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Sharon Cuneta (“Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha”)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Dido dela Paz (“Respeto”)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:  Chai Fonacier (“Respeto”)

Best Director: Alberto Monteras II (“Respeto”)  


As an addendum, the shorts fielded this year were quite impressive. Their directors displayed more technical proficiency than many of the main features’ megmen. Carl Adrian Chavez’sSorry for the Inconvenience” told a complete tale of vengeance and the lopsided face of justice. Ronwaldo Martin is engrossing as the perennially bullied student. Karl Glenn Barit’s Aliens Yata” is viewed above ground (drone) so the perspective is ground-breakingly alienating, but nevertheless fresh and provocative. Juan Karlo Tarobal’sIslabodan (Free Men)” is told through multiple frames (as though watching a comic book) about warring gangs. Though the technique used is occasionally disorienting, you can’t deny the dynamism of such storytelling. E del Mundo’sManong ng Pa-aling” is told (mostly) underwater. How's that for new perspectives?

The visual techniques employed are varied, adequately using them to move their stories. On the whole, it’s important to remember that no cinematic element is more important than the story itself. On his diatribe about film school, celluloid maverick Werner Herzog once remarked, “Academia kills the cinema.” It is important to hone one's story telling acumen. Otherwise, technical proficiency will not amount to much.