“Winasak ako ng La La Land,” I said the first day I saw the film. All I knew was, I could not remember the last movie I saw where I found myself pouring buckets of tears after the first hour until right at the very end. It was totally unexpected, even for me. When the credits rolled, I found I couldn’t move from my seat. So I sat there in the dark listening to Emma Stone hum a version of “City of Stars,” thinking what the f**k my eyes are red I don’t want the world to see I’ve been crying. I couldn’t have been lucid when it was finally time to exit, and what struck me immediately was this realization: that this was a different kind of love story, although it is very much cut from the same cloth of oldtime Hollywood romance. It struck me most of all as a love story about dreams—and if you have ever been a dreamer, this film is simply tailor-made for you.
I found myself in a nearby café—and all I could do was look out the window and stare at the rain. And then I found myself crying again.
What haven’t I said yet about this dream film that I haven’t said in that completely emotional first paragraph? Damien Chazelle’s musical comes as a gift. It fulfills everything I require in a movie, and is best allowed to come to you unfiltered by everything else [so no details here in this essay], and must be seen requiring nothing except your total surrender to its vision, its theme of dreams and dreamers, its Technicolor ache.
It is not without its naysayers, of course. People complain about the jazz—that it doesn’t say enough, for example, or that it makes a mistake for assuming it is “dead,” or worse that it involves a white man talking about music that sprang from the pain and the improvisations of black folk. But let me quote film critic Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience: “Though many critics got enormously uptight about the movie’s jazz conversations, they’re a red herring. The movie isn’t about jazz (Sebastian) any more than it’s about acting (Mia). It’s about dreams themselves and how rigid, committed, and proprietary we are about them.”
I have never loved a movie this much, not for the longest time anyway, and I think it is because it is a valentine to cinema itself, and knows every inch of what it is like to be beholden to a dream. And so I went to see La La Land again the next night, with friends Annabelle Lee Adriano and her husband Edo (both of them fellow musical enthusiasts), Renz Torres, Xandro Dael, Jon Riam Quizo, and a bunch of other people.
I was more lucid this time around, although I must admit that Emma Stone’s audition scene still made me tear up. It was a risk watching it again. I am always afraid to watch movies I like the second or third time around, because something always gets diminished from the raw power of the first viewing—but to my delight, the film held up very, very well. This time around, it was all about the nuances. I could appreciate so much better the technical miracles the film has accomplished—the freeway scene, the dance sequences, the chemistry of its stars, and regardless of what has been said about it, the dexterity of its screenplay.
And those nods to old movies! Rebel Without a Cause. Casablanca. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The Young Girls of Rochefort. An American in Paris. The Red Balloon. Swing Time and Top Hat. In Cinemascope and Technicolor. A cineast’s wet dream, really.
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman—one of my favorite film critics—gets its appeal. And one could get it too, but Mr. Gleiberman says that “getting it” might require a second viewing for some: “I liked La La Land a lot the first time I saw it, but I confess that I didn’t fall head over tap shoes in love with it until I’d seen it a second time. That’s just the way it happens with certain movies; even a great one can kick in more fully on the second date .... [There’s] another reason La La Land gets better the second time you see it: You now have those songs in your system. And why should it be otherwise? Great pop songs don’t necessarily hit us with their ultimate force the first time we hear them; often, on the radio, they kick in that second or third or fourth time. In my own second experience with La La Land, I felt like I melted, all the more, into the story those melodies were telling. And I do mean melodies (though the lyrics are lovely). What I heard the second time is how [composer] Justin Hurwitz constructed the songs out of bits and pieces of the same musical motifs, so that they flow in and out of each other and merge; it’s really a unified song suite. By the end, the music has become a character in the film (which may be why there are so few actual supporting characters). Just watch the scene near the end where Mia is seated in the nightclub and Sebastian, on stage, sits at the piano and plays, very slowly, with one hand, those notes. Da da da da da da ... daaa. Those simple seven notes tell the entire story we’ve been watching.”
Some people though keep comparing its musical attributes to old films featuring Cole Porter or George and Ira Gershwin songs. The songs of Sondheim or Gershwin are of a piece, complete in themselves—and in classic American musicals, they were used as pop-up numbers that mostly do not really add to the story. The ballet in American in Paris is a perfect example. Perfect and a delight in itself, but was it necessary to the story? No. In La La Land, the ballet at the end is integral to the question the film asks: “What could have been if we only stayed together?”
I’ve actually initially wondered why most of the songs in La La Land felt incomplete in the movie—the first iteration of “City of Stars” which Ryan Gosling hums and sings at the pier, for example, is something you could miss if you blinked hard enough—but then I later realized, like Mr. Gleiberman did in his Variety article, that they all constituted a tapestry together, one song altogether with highlights and refrains and repetitions, and from interviews I read, the composer actually meant that to be the case.
On second viewing, I noticed the perfect and sound architecture of the score: the delight and color and whimsy with lots of songs for the sections of the first Winter and Spring, like the honeymoon of a relationship. When Spring ends with that iris shot of the two leads finally kissing after that dream dance among the stars, it opens to Summer—and there are no more songs and dances save for one: the matter-of-fact duet of “City of Stars,” stripped of glamour, just a girl and a boy with dreams singing together around a piano, just all grit and ambition and trying to make a relationship work.
Fall continues with all that heartbreak—but it ends with “Audition,” Emma’s final torch song, the beautiful lyrics of which is the film’s narrative told with a heart on its sleeves. That leads to the much-needed coda, the goodbye conversation at Griffith Park, and finally leads to the finale in Winter and all its joys and heartaches.
It’s a well-made movie that bears scrutiny, and I don’t want to add to the complaint that the story is “simple.” It’s not. It’s just “lightly” told, which is its best vehicle. What could be more serious than a movie about the demands of dreams and the grit of compromises and the subterfuges of letting go? What do people want, a love story in the philosophical mode of Terence Malick?
One has to say something about what it says about love—and why the end has turned many people’s heads. But director Chazelle has explained it so well: “I am very moved by the idea that you can meet someone in your life who transforms you and sets you onto a path that is going to finally enable you to be the person you always dreamed of being, but ultimately, you need to go on that path alone.” And there has been a long tradition of that in classic Hollywood.
Consider the story of Casablanca. He loves her. She loves him. They have springtime in Paris, and then she suddenly disappears from his life. He goes off to Morocco and somehow finds himself owning a bar named Rick’s. No, the apostrophe is not shaped like a musical note, but there’s a jazz pianist working there. Out of the blue, and of all the bars in Casablanca, she has to come and enter his. But she’s married now, and she needs to save her husband the anti-Nazi activist, and the only way out is a plane out of Casablanca. He’s the only one who can help. She tells Rick she will stay with him, this time—but he has to help. He looks at her with so much yearning, and tells her, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” He tells her to go. They part. Sad, beautiful endings are forever.
Consider the story of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He loves her. She loves him. They’re poor but they have dreams. Her mother thinks she should marry the rich, handsome, kind man who pines for her. He goes off to war and she becomes heartbroken. When he returns, she has married the kind, rich man. And he marries the kind girl who consoles him. Years later they meet accidentally in the gas station he now owns. He says hi, she says hello. They part.
You have got to give it to Putin though. The man played the long game -- the longest game ever. It must have shattered him when, as a KGB man, he saw his world fall apart in the early 1990s, with America and its Western allies victorious at the tail-end of the Cold War. He must have said, "Some day I am going to exact my revenge, and I am going to use everything the West holds dear -- your democratic principles, your access to information, your rabid capitalism, your pop culture -- and turn them against you." Exactly 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, with widespread allegations of Russian meddling in the American electoral process [and God knows where else -- the Philippines? Brexit? the Syrian crisis? the rise of the Kardashians?], Trump is now President, fake news rules our social media and traditional journalism is in decline, capitalism has become a savage riot, and reality television has dumbed down everyone. Putin made all of the West his very own Manchurian Candidate, and its awfullest manifestation is President Tiny Hands.
10:05 PM |
The 2017 Silliman University National Writers Workshop Fellows Have Been Announced
Ten fellows to the 2017 Silliman University National Writers Workshop have been named. The 56th edition of the Silliman University National Writers Workshop starts May 8 to 19 at the Rose Lamb Sobrepeña Writers Village in Camp Look-out, Valencia, Negros Oriental.
The ten writers, chosen from a pool of applicants from all over the Philippines, are Elijah Maria Villanueva Pascual of Marikina City (Ateneo de Manila University), George Deoso of Quezon City (University of Santo Tomas), and Hezron G. Pios of Bacolod City (University of St. La Salle) for poetry; Arlene A. Avila of Tacloban City (University of British Columbia), Matthew Jacob F. Ramos of Cebu City (Ateneo de Manila University), Vincen Gregory Yu of Iloilo City (University of the Philippines-Manila), Cesar Miguel Escano of Tacloban City (Ateneo de Manila University), and Maria Tanya Cruz of Quezon City (University of Santo Tomas) for fiction; and Tiffany Corinne Conde of Quezon City (Ateneo de Manila University) and Catherine Anne A. Orda of Quezon City (De La Salle University) for creative nonfiction.
The panel of writers/critics for this year includes Director-in-Residence Jaime An Lim, Resident Writers Cesar Ruiz Aquino and Ian Rosales Casocot, as well as Regular Panelists Gemino H. Abad, Susan S. Lara, and Alfred Yuson. They will be joined by Guest Panelists Jose Wendell Capili, Grace Monte de Ramos, Danilo Francisco M. Reyes, Anthony L. Tan, and International Panelist Beth Yahp of Australia.
Founded in 1962 by S.E.A. Write Awardee Edilberto K. Tiempo and National Artist Edith L. Tiempo, the workshop is the oldest creative writing workshop of its kind in Asia. It was recently given the Tanging Parangal in the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining by the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
For more information about forthcoming events during the workshop, e-mail Workshop Coordinator Lady Flor Partosa at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Department of English and Literature at (035) 422-6002 loc. 520 (Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center), or visit the website.
A cold Thursday. The city is learning to stir again after a few days of being in a standstill, immobilized by flood and wetness. Last night, for example, you could hear distant dogs bark in an absolute quiet I haven't heard since Dumaguete was still its town-like self decades ago. But my body also has gotten used to bed weather, dammit. It is unheedful of the hours, content only in purring close to blanket and pillows. I tell myself upon waking near noontime, I must learn to stir again. Let's try harder.
I thought of Ingmar Bergman's words when I saw this sequence. To paraphrase Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's glorious take-down of Hollywood (and La La Land's dark cousin), film does not need words, it needs faces.
“I am very moved by the idea that you can meet someone in your life who transforms you and sets you onto a path that is going to finally enable you to be the person you always dreamed of being, but ultimately, you need to go on that path alone.”
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Sharing Ricardo Oliveira’s 1997 Year in Music video. Twenty-years ago, this was my musical landscape – and I just realized how pivotal that year was, how fun and radical and out-of-the-box, how much it changed me in retrospect. I was drifting through college belonging to no class in particular (I took my time finishing) since I decided to shift courses, my father died, I went to Japan to study, and I spent the rest of the year traveling across the Philippines and backpacking across Southeast Asia. And look at that range of music!
They placed me in Cunningham Hall, informally known around the university hospital as the "dengue ward." I don't have dengue, but the hospital is already filled to overflowing -- I've heard that there are times patients can get stuck at an ER bed for two straight days -- and I am lucky to get a bed at all, in an air-conditioned hall, right at a corner that afforded me a bit of privacy in a place that has 18 beds. Getting a private room is out of the question. I don't mind: I figured I wanted to study people, and this was a perfect opportunity for that. I don't know if the other patients around me have dengue: the man on the next bed apparently has been suffering from severe pneumonia for some months now, but his diabetes is masking the normal fever that should have been a symptom to his distress. He looks grizzled and his skin is jaundiced but otherwise he moves about fine. I learn about his condition when he made a quick conference with his doctor this morning, and I was eavesdropping -- not for lack of restraint. In this close space, everyone eavesdrops. By day, the place is teeming with bantays and visitors and nurses and orderlies and the rare doctor making their rounds. I don't much like daytime in a hospital, I quickly decided: it is much too noisy, although I've surprised myself by being able to sleep through the noise and the abundance of fluorescent lighting. Sleep is good; it is antidote to the boredom of hospitals. By night, a comfortable kind of quiet settles down and only the nurses on duty make the tiniest bit of noise. They wake you every four hours or so, to get your vital signs, to adjust the drip of your IV, to ask you if you have drank water or peed or pooped. I make myself very helpful. Still, I don't feel sick at all -- although I know the pain in my stomach has been coated over by the magic of painkillers. I was doubling up in pain when I arrived at the ER only the other day, to be quickly administered to by doctors on duty who apparently used to be my students. (In my mind, I hoped I gave them good grades.) Now, lying on my bed, I'm watching the drip, I'm passing the hours, and I've made myself game to the battery of tests they're giving me. "As long as I'm here," I told my doctor, "I might as well get that complete physical exam I don't ever get to do every year because I'm always busy." So now I know my blood sugar level, my cholesterol level, my triglycerides level, and all the other vital information about our bodies that become paramount once you've reached the age of 40. I still feel the same, but I'm sure my diet beginning now will not say the same thing. Happy New Year.
I thought about my post from the other day, how I have forsaken hope for things to become better in the new year. But now I'm remembering Noam Chomsky, who once famously declared: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” So, I take a deep breath: sure, there are Tito Sottos and Martin Andanars and Donald Trumps and Paul Ryans in the world, but hope is bigger.
“As long as we desire, we can do without happiness: we expect to achieve it. If happiness fails to come, hope persists, and the charm of illusion lasts as long as the passion that causes it. So this condition is sufficient in itself, and the anxiety it inflicts is a sort of enjoyment that compensates for reality … Woe to him who has nothing left to desire… We enjoy less what we obtain than what we hope for, and we are happy only before being happy.”
~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Julie or The New Heloise, Part 6, Letter VII
I was a bit overwhelmed by the day. I think I'll try to decompress for a bit, seek out a little me-time. This might be introvert me finally reeling from all those holiday social interactions. Or maybe it's just work laughing at my two weeks away from its embrace.
* * *
I think about the year the that comes -- and how completely removed I am from it, emotionally-speaking. I'm not sure it's apathy. It feels more like willful, amused surrender, like you're witness to a mob swimming in a pool of gasoline and someone in there is preaching in a loud voice that the sound of a matchstick striking is the sexiest sound in the world. And you're there observing from a balcony, and you want to shout, "It's not good to play with fire!" But they want the fire while they're backstroking and breaststroking and freestyling around the pool of gasoline. And you just have to learn to shrug and say, "They really want the fire..." And then you leave the balcony to have drinks at the bar at the opposite end of the city.
On the way home to Dumaguete from Cebu last December 30, we found our van in a standstill on the port of Lilo-an in Santander town, in a long line of cars waiting to board the barge during the New Year crush. While waiting, we found ourselves listening to a bunch of singers doing the "daygon," a traditional Christmas song in Cebuano that's rarely performed these days. Leo Mamicpic decided to catch them on video. Here's that video, where the violinist (!!!) starts with some riff off an old tune from the American south, segueing soon to more traditional fare. As a child I used to find these songs bizarre and old-fashioned. Now that I know how fast we are discarding our old traditions and heritage, they have become something to treasure and marvel at -- and one to definitely record and archive when you can.
When Babyruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen (2016) [trailer here] was announced Best Picture of the lot of eight at the tail-end of the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, I thought without hesitation: “Good for the MMFF. The film deserves the honor.”
There is something immensely satisfying in the acknowledgment of that accolade — like it was something long-time in coming — given how its inclusion in the 2016 slate created so much furor among industry people, most of whom found it being a documentary an irritating aberration that should have been grounds for exclusion.
It does mark a first in that regard: in the history of the festival, which was founded as the Metropolitan Film Festival in 1975, no documentary has ever been considered as a contender. That Sunday Beauty Queen won felt like history coming full circle all at once. That it also won considering that it was the one film in the whole festival that struggled the most in getting itself seen — only a few theaters outside of Manila dared screen it — felt like divine justice for those who had been championing it, who believed in its merits and the importance of its story.
For me, it felt like a decade-long corrective: its win comes exactly ten years after Enteng Kabisote 3: Okay Ka Fairy Ko ... The Legend Goes On and On and On was proclaimed Best Picture in 2006, the festival’s most embarrassing low point. Its win is a mark for great change still to come; it is also a clarion call for battles still to be waged ahead. (But of course. Bad taste does take time to overhaul, and it does have its own high priests. Consider, for example, the Manny Castañeda debacle.)
But here I speak too much of the film in the context of the MMFF’s long troubled history. Does it work as a film, and is it any good? It took me a long time to write this review. I saw the film four days ago, and I felt I had to allow it to settle in my head. Not that it was too complex to understand, or even too cerebral to feel: in these two considerations, Sunday Beauty Queen wins by being a film that is easily digestible and also easily felt. There are scenes aplenty in the film that provoke instant welling up of tears — the scene of someone talking about counting airplanes through the kitchen window, the telephone conversation about someone’s unexpected death, the scene at the halfway house.
And the structure of the story is easy enough to comprehend — Ms. Villarama’s camera simply follows several Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong as they struggle for six days of every week to manage the households of their “amos,” some under the scrutiny of cruel employers, and then on Sunday, on their day-off, they prepare to join an annual beauty pageant.
I think the film successfully sells itself as a very human story by allowing its cameras to linger and explore with so much intimacy the lives of the people whose stories we are following. After the film’s immediate opening at one edition of the annual beauty pageant — after the beautiful gowns have been paraded and after the crown and sash have been awarded — we are immediately plunged into the women’s every day reality. In the chaos of Hong Kong traffic, they transform to become the reverse of the Cinderella story: they trek back to the condominiums and apartment buildings of their employers, trying so hard to beat curfew, and in the next six days we see them toil with mop, broomstick, vacuum cleaner, and apron.
Often the film takes us deeper into the dirt-cleaning and babysitting by allowing its subjects to address us through talking head interviews, where they are allowed to explain, to reminisce, to ponder their place in the story of the country they have left behind. Why am I here and why am I not home? Why am I taking care of other people’s children while I have to make myself contented by watching my own child’s graduation through Skype? Why have I allowed myself this debasement by sleeping on the kitchen floor?
Their stories become a reflection of our nation’s frailties and broken promises. We know these stories exist; and yet to be confronted with stark images of these stories in the sweep of cinematic largeness is to feel cowed, and to feel crushed by our country’s seeming indifference. The film thrusts us into an identification with these people in a way we probably have never felt before, simply because cinema is powerful that way: thus their pain becomes our pain, their joys our joys.
And yet while the film does consider the darkness that often blots many domestic helpers’ lives in foreign places (getting abused by cruel employers, getting fired in the middle of the night, feeling the rush about having to get employment within 14 days at the risk of deportation, and so on and so forth), it also becomes a celebration of the hardy lives of these OFWs, and the film rightly marvels at their capacity to stage a “carnival” even in stark circumstances. That’s the Filipino spirit, I think, illustrated so well.
Ms. Villarama chooses to frame their stories in the simple framework of its witty tagline, “Kayod mula Lunes hanggang Sabado, at rampa ‘pag Linggo” (“Work hard from Monday to Saturday, do the catwalk on Sunday”) which I think is ingenious, considering the complexities of these real-life stories, a lot of which are left out in the name of narrative consistency.
Then again, one documentary is really not enough to contain everything, and so this is an editorial decision I can accept even if I feel it could have more in following, just enough, the hidden depths of the tangential issues it does present. For example, why is the Philippine Consulate generally unhelpful in addressing the plight of many domestic helpers in need of assistance? Why is the lesbian angle that is so tantalisingly proffered by the film not really explored? We are never given more than a promising mention of consular indifference, or a teasing shot of two women walking away.
One can explain these away by understanding that the filmmakers may not have wanted it to be too serious in weighing political and gender issues, which might distract from the simpler story of “struggle plus beauty pageants” — but I’m not so sure. One pointed way the film reminds us of a very political problem is by introducing its principals by full names, the number of years of their stay as DHs in Hong Kong, and the most damning of all, the college degrees they have earned back in the Philippines. It is saying our country has done great disservice to its people, reducing college degrees to nothing more than an aberration in a resume destined for servitude. This is never really explored as a problem, only limned at.
Some friends have also likened the film’s structure as being too much like a typical episode of Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho. “I’ve seen BBC documentaries that have tackled these issues better,” says one.
I don’t really agree with that — but I do think it could have borrowed a cue or two from Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, that great 1991 documentary about Harlem balls staged by gay black men in the very fringes of society’s margins. In that film, their “pageants,” their “voguing” competitions, their practice of “shading” are explained as expressions of a subcultural outrage, as aspirational efforts to counter the fact of their dreams being denied in the reality outside of these balls. Sunday Beauty Queen hints at that promise — it did ask the character of Daddy Leo why he organizes these pageants, and he merely replies with a playful, "Wala lang, feel ko lang" — but proceeds more or less to go the route of regular “poverty porn” storylines without the slums.
But I do think I am expecting a bit too much of Sunday Beauty Queen — and I think I am because the film is so very well-made it could have stood a bit more complexity. Nonetheless, I laughed, I cried, and in the end, I wanted to hug all domestic helpers from Hong Kong coming home for Christmas.
In a kinder world, you give a grade of A for effort. But the world is often exacting, and as much as I enjoyed, to a degree, Avid Liongoren’s Saving Sally (2016) [trailer here], it fails as a compelling piece of cinema for me. I was suitably entertained, but it never moved me.
Yes, we’ve heard the story of its 10-year inception — a story of an artistic struggle that manages to tug our hearts. Yes, the animation is stupendous and imaginative. Yes, we should marvel at the filmmakers’ ability to create magic out of a shoestring budget. But the story also bears much of what has become awkward, narrative-wise, since 2006. It’s much too twee for example in an age where “putang ina” has become presidential speech. Its sensibility is perfectly a throwback, especially to a time when the phenomenon of the “manic pixie dream girl” was a beloved cinematic trope, since then much-maligned. But I do give credit to the filmmakers for giving the type a narrative arc deeper than the usual superficial display of interesting quirks.
The girl in question is the titular Sally (played with exceeding charm by Rhian Ramos). Her best friend is the introverted comic book artist Marty (Enzo Marcos), who pines quietly for her, but has no courage whatsoever to reveal his real feelings. Excuses abound, you see, centering mostly on the fact that Sally’s adoptive parents are monstrous people who regularly abuse her and keep her in check with their rigorous rules and overbearing Christian piety. For Marty, Sally needs, well, saving … and the proper loving only he could give.
That Sally comes off as a quirky fashionista girl with a hunger for the bizarre and the unusual, and a talent for literal inventions, is one plot point that remains psychologically suspect — but I suspend my disbelief, of course. Because I want to like the movie. And I do, with some effort, and as long as I remain blind to the holes in the narrative, and a third act that seems completely unnecessary.
However, the fundamental unease that I felt over my immediate critical consideration of the film upon exiting the cinema was this: why did this have to be a mix of live action and animation? The animation didn’t feel integral to the story at all. It remained for me a filmmaking conceit that, while executed quite impressively, didn’t feel organic to the narrative. It would have been a completely different story had it been produced without any live-action. But we do follow characters who mostly remain human throughout, existing in a world that is a fantasy of illustration art — but the two planes intersect without a convincing explanation why this has to be so. In the most famous example of this technique — Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? — we do get a clear effort at worldling, that humans do in fact live alongside cartoon characters who mostly come from an adjacent “neighbourhood” called Toontown. The clear premise sets us to accept without question that humans and cartoons do interact in the frame of the film. I don’t believe for once Saving Sally’s “explanation” that the animated parts we see are merely constructs of Marty’s inventive imagination, his unique perspective and rendering of the much-too-real world around him. Because the animation does overwhelm the live-action in the space of the film, and no sane person could be so overwhelmingly consistent and unceasing in that rendition of the real to the cartoonish. (Unless you’re crazy, and you have a lola like Imelda.)
And also this: despite overwhelming much of the frame, the animation remains ironically “background material.” It is more or less glorified wallpaper for the live actors to play on. One could also fault the film for its use of English as the main mode for dialogue, even if particular scenes felt like they called for the use of the native language — but I feel I have nitpicked too much a product that has been made, for so long by its creatives with the best of intentions: to create an animated feature film with art that’s very impressive, given the legendary limitations the film’s publicity machine has earnestly profiled.
A for effort then. Mostly definitely a C for story. But also most definitely an A+ for the film’s brazenness to put a giant penis on screen.
To understand better Erik Matti’s Seklusyon (2016) [trailer here], and to see what could have been, one has to go back to an earlier work, a short film he released in 2012 titled Vesuvius. [Watch it here.] In that fantastic film, we follow a put-upon man played with a nuanced and creepy stillness by Gio Alvarez. By day, he sells packed lunches to harried office workers, and by night, he prepares the next day’s set meals, takes care of an invalid mother, and when the darkness of the evening turns ripe, entertains vivid visions of the Virgin Mary coming to him in immense bright light — all to exhort him to commit a string of brutal murders. It’s a frightening serial killer movie with a gripping Catholic angle, beautifully shot by Matti and structured with the usual muscular dexterity of a Michiko Yamamoto screenplay. Vesuvius devilishly plays for us the notion that the Devil has immense powers, that it can in fact take the shape of holy icons to push us further into the embrace of evil. Be careful what you believe, Matti tells us, our fervent faiths are not guarantees to safeguard us from false prophets.
Seklusyon borrows many visual elements from Vesuvius, and takes further its theme and expands it to feature-length narrative — but I am not sure it exceeds the gripping effectiveness of the older, and shorter, film, which was not only truly terrifying, it also made us question the tenets of faith we hold sacrosanct. As written by Anton C. Santamaria, Seklusyon is beautiful to look at and works for the most part, but it is ultimately unsatisfying.
What else can you say about a film you earnestly root for, but remains saddled with so much unignited potential? Can one forgive the lack of tension or the absence of burrowing terror, settling instead on the film’s obvious message about faith and deception to lift a soggy script? You can tell by the way some people have called the film a “Catholic thriller,” and others a “think piece.” They are too kind, but they are also, in a sense, right. I think they only mean to describe how less than visceral the film ultimately is, and it shouldn’t have been. It could indeed have been a devouring horror as well as a compelling thesis about certain social issues that ail us.
I want it to succeed beyond what it has ended up achieving for real, because it is a gorgeously wrought film. Its production design — for a film set in 1947 — is meticulous and rich. Its cinematography is a masterwork and captures so well the unholy atmosphere its story demands to wallow in.
And the material itself is golden: we already know that horror overloaded with Catholic imagery is a staple of the genre that can go so eerily right. One only has to consider the staying power of such classics as The Exorcist or The Omen or The Exorcism of Emily Rose to note the easy transfer between sacred images to icons of dread. Matti himself proved that so well in Vesuvius.
So what happened? Is it the acting? (Could be.)
Is it the story? But the premise of the plot is already quite tantalising. In the aftermath of World War II, four young deacons of the church (played by Ronnie Alonte, Dominic Roque, John Vic De Guzman, and J.R. Versales) find themselves in a hidden retreat deep in the Philippine countrysides, there to endure seven days of seclusion in a barricaded house, where they could try to withstand the worst of demonic temptations and visions before they could finally be ordained as priests. (Apparently this used to be a common practice for those being initiated into the priesthood, long since discontinued.)
In a parallel story, another priest (played by Neil Ryan Sese) investigates the healing powers of Anghela, a young girl (played with incredible panache by Rhed Bustamante) under the protection and guidance of Sister Cecilia (played by Phoebe Walker), a nun with a mysterious and troubled past. Sese’s Father Ricardo wants to know whether the girl indeed has genuine Divine gifts enough for the church to declare her a living saint.
The two threads collide by the start of the second act, where the sins of the young would-be priests manifest themselves as terrifying visions — perhaps being exacerbated by the presence of Sister Cecilia, and perhaps needing the miraculous intercession of Angelha.
In the maelstrom of hellish visions and subsequent betrayals, especially in the third act, the film gradually falls apart: it dismisses too easily important elements of the story we have been made to invest in, and refuses to expound on others that would have shed light to the needless complexities it finds itself spouting. It is a messy screenplay. (That it won Best Screenplay is the sole enigma of the MMFF Awards Night.)
But even then, Matti is in control of his images. He is a fantastic visual director, and we have seen what beautiful cinema he could do over the years, selling us the premise of voyeurism in Scorpio Nights 2, or lovelorn romance in Sa Huling Paghihintay, or angsty sex work in Prosti, or Tsinoy melodrama in Mano Po 2, or feisty ghetto superheroes in Gagamboy by virtue of beautiful images alone. His collaboration with Yamamoto, however, gave his beautiful images the grace of beautiful structure, resulting in such rich and resonant works as On the Job, Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles, Honor Thy Father, and of course Vesuvius. I wish that collaboration continued on in Seklusyon. It would have probably elevated the film from something we merely admire, to something that we believe slays both our minds and hearts, terrorizing us and thrilling our sensibilities at the same time.
Jun Robles Lana’s Die Beautiful (2016) [trailer here], which had won the Audience Award as well as the Best Actor citation for its star Paolo Ballesteros at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival before joining the magnificent slate of eight for this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, is a fractured thing of beauty — sometimes tender and sometimes raucous.
It embraces two things that it demands of us: peals of laughter and buckets of tears, and both in equal measure as we become witness to the story of a life that seeks out the beautiful in a world that’s stark full of ugliness. But my God I make it sound so dreary. It’s not. It’s a glorious film filled with many wacky moments, but it has to be said that the humor becomes even more precious given the darkness it transcends.
This is a film after all that does not make light of such things as parental abuse, rape, child abandonment, infidelity, and death — themes that understandably merited the film its R-13 rating — but it is testament to the film’s courage that it plows through these things with a certainty that at the end of it all, Mr. Ballesteros’ Trisha Echevarria and her life becomes a cause for celebration.
It doesn’t come easy, this telling of a very unique life. Rody Vera’s sure-footed screenplay chooses to tell it in fractured form, reminding us a little bit of that eclectic style Alejandro González Iñárritu once used for Babel, and one can make the argument that the form rescues the film from the maudlin, which every dramedy is always in danger of falling into, tantalising us with scenes whose gravity comes in later revelations, each one building towards a whole that soon becomes a satisfactory finish.
As it is, our heroine — a transgendered woman with beauty queen aspirations — is dead from the start, a victim of an aneurysm that comes so soon after being crowned winner of a nationally televised beauty contest. Her best friends — a bevy of earnestly made-up queens led by Christian Bables as Barbs, in a star-turn that is nothing short of a miracle — proceed to provide her a wake that is of her wishing: seven nights in a funeral parlor, where every night she is made up to look like a different celebrity — Iza Calzado, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Angelina Jolie, Beyonce… Somebody soon takes a selfie with Trisha’s beautiful corpse, and this becomes viral, and soon the wake becomes a sensation, the unwitting mecca for all gay and trans men everywhere.
Intertwined with this thread involving her wake is Trisha’s life story, a complex assemblage of everything from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the details of which I cannot bring myself to hint at, even with suitable spoiler warnings, because they add bit by bit to the gravity of her story, finally making her death (and the life she led before that) a singular triumph for one who dared all odds and magnificently struggled with all sorts of definitions — son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, mother, beauty queen — to truly and fully become herself in the end. It is also a perfectly rendered tale of friendship, of the families we make when our own has discarded us for being different.
But take note. You will cry. You will feel horrified. You will laugh till your sides ache. You will get uncanny insights to surviving the stupendous Q&As of “beau-cons,” you will know how to make fake boobs, you will gain expertise in making perfect eyebrows, and you will know the subtle differences in handling infidelity a la Maricel Soriano or Jaclyn Jose.
Mr. Ballesteros does a fine job off handling the full range of emotional marks his character demands, and the rest of the cast — particular Mr. Bables — is game enough to handle the intricacies of the story with a sensibility that’s to be commended (although Joel Torre’s father comes off too much of a monster).
I’m sure this was not an easy film to write or make, but Mr. Lana, Mr. Vera, and everyone else have indeed proved that something like this can be done in the name of Philippine cinema. For so many years, particularly in the MMFF, and most especially in the unfortunate films of Vice Ganda, the gay or trans persona has always been a figure to laugh at; these films’ caricatures of the ridiculous of course made money. But here is a film that is an anti-thesis to that, and I am glad to know this is the film that made it this time around.
The film is currently screening at Cinema 1 at Robinsons Movieworld Dumaguete.
3:03 PM |
In the Spa, the Cinematic Hugot Reaches Three Levels
Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough (2016) [trailer here] is one of those rare films that overturn the truism that the sequel must always pale in comparison to what came before. The new film takes the conceit and many of the comedic quirks of the first one — a metanarrative that examines, with the ferocious glee of a butcher, the conditions bedevilling artistic filmmaking in the Philippines — but pushes them in a completely different direction, which proves eventually satisfying.
What results is a film that stands on its own with commanding assurance, but also manages to be complementary to the original, which took the Cinemalaya Film Festival by a “shit-storm,” pardon the expression, in 2011. I like this new film very much. It made me laugh so hard. It made me take note of Rivera’s superb artistic choices. It deepened more my own considerations of the many issues that plague Philippine cinema today — one, in particular, that mirrors so well the current battle of sensibilities that the new Metro Manila Film Festival finds itself in: are you “indie” or are you “mainstream,” and can the two ever reconcile?
That question, and the many others that lurk below that divisive argument, lies at the heart of the new story. We begin like in the previous film: we still follow three intrepid independent filmmakers (Kean Cipriano returning as Direk Rainier, Cai Cortes returning as producer Jocelyn, and Khalil Ramos joining the cast in the place of JM de Guzman, and this time taking on Ms. Cortes’ silent role in the previous film — which is such a delicious change, since Ms. Cortes can dish it out so well in dialogue, proving once and for all that she is a comedienne for our times, and one who really needs better recognition for elevating many of the thankless roles she often gets to play in films). They are on a quest to sign the movie star Eugene Domingo for another film. Ms. Domingo, playing a hard-sell version of her film persona, had won plaudits and awards from all over the world for starring in Walang Wala, where she had “allowed” herself to be immersed in a septic tank; this time around, she might agree to take on the role of a melancholy wife ruminating on a troubled marriage, visiting Baguio with her estranged husband to see once more the sites they once enjoyed together during their honeymoon years ago. But the Baguio of their old romance is gone, replaced by traffic, trash, and too many tourists.
After reading the script, Ms. Domingo bites. She needs a comeback after some years of staying away from the spotlight — and she wants to do this film, titled The Itinerary, to be that vehicle. And so she has invited all three filmmakers to The Farm at San Benito, a fabulous resort spa for the rich and famous, where they could talk about the story over relaxation therapy, deep-tissue massage, and full-on colon cleansing.
The film follows that conversation, as our characters — along with Ms. Domingo’s faithful Spanish butler Facundo, who absolutely steals every scene he is in — go from one treatment to the next, wrestling ever so “gently” with each other over how the film should unfold. Direk Rainier is adamant about staying true to the starkness and grimness of his vision, the film being his rumination over his own crumbling marriage. But Eugene Domingo would have none of that, preferring instead the sensibilities of escapist fluff that is sure to make good box-office — but she is careful to always end her “suggestions” to the increasingly frustrated director with what becomes the film’s long-running, passive aggressive joke of a line: “They’re just suggestions, direk. Because what do I know, I’m just an actress.”
And so Joel Torre playing her husband becomes Jericho Rosales. And so the film suddenly gets a theme song — the “Forever is Not Enough” of the subtitle [music video here!]. And so we get further changes in the make-up of the story that involves sunset kisses, gay best friends, and romantic chases in the foggy woody areas of Camp John Hay. The film’s strength is in the comical rendering of these rapid changes in the narrative and filming style, just like in the original. In the 2011 film, we got Eugene Domingo amply demonstrating the three levels of acting. Here, we get three levels of “hugot,” and it is performed so fantastically to so much comedic effect — both in the telling and in the dramatic rendering of the film-within-the-film — that by the end of the sequence, everyone in the theater I was in hooted with so much laughter.
You would think that a movie set mostly in a spa would become too confining in terms of mise-en-scène, but no. I found the use of the spa as good metaphor for the unraveling of their conversation slash negotiation: the deeper and more invasive the treatments they have, the more sanitized the prospective script becomes. Even Ms. Domingo’s actress knows this too well: "I understand metaphors, direk,” she says at one point. She also perfectly understands the trauma she had gone through before, being buried in a sea of feces — the price of the “poverty porn” she had to make in the name of “award-winning independent filmmaking” — and so she is now adamant that this “comeback,” this next phase of her filmmaking life must be all about “cleansing” and being “antiseptic,” quite literally in fact. The spa is a perfect embodiment for all that. Besides, it is also a perfect throwback to film history: filmmakers in crises seem to head to spas in the movies — taking note of Federico Fellini’s tortured director in 8 1/2, as well as similar figures such as in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories.
This is screenwriter Chris Martinez returning to form in his cinematic storytelling, and the film reminds us that he had entertained us so well in 100 and Here Comes the Bride. This is also director Marlon Rivera’s full blossoming: every inch of the film is tightly considered — take a look, for example, at the surprise musical interlude that comes in the middle of the film, which sneaks in very organically; all this is indicative of a filmmaker in control of all his elements.
In the end, a complex post-modern narrative becomes seamless entertainment that not only satisfies the comedy fix we are looking for, but also makes us ask questions about the nature of the films we are making in the Philippines today. But where’s the septic tank of the title, you ask? Be patient, in the end it shows itself and becomes just rewards.
The film is currently screening at Cinema 3 at Robinsons Movieworld Dumaguete.
Theodore Boborol's Vince & Kath & James (2016) [trailer here], StarCinema's entry to the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, quotes a lot. And so it must. The film after all is an adaptation of the online romantic serial written by Jenny Ruth Almocera, which became a minor social media sensation with its love story unconventionally told through snapshots of SMS and chats between the characters.
The film does not stay faithful to its source material but stays true to much of its spirit, "quoting" it but limning a more recognizable story revolving around a troika between a scrappy tomboyish girl named Kath (Julia Barretto), a happy bunny with a secret blog named Vince (Joshua Garcia), and his varsity player/heartthrob cousin named James (Ronnie Alonte).
Of course, you have seen this film before. It virtually quotes Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac with its story of a handsome but inarticulate man wooing a beautiful woman, but doing it with the words of a helpful poetic outsider who secretly longs for the same girl. (There goes another round of quoting.) But Boborol's take has more in keeping with Fred Schepisi's contemporizing of the Cyrano de Bergerac story in Roxanne (1987), minus the gigantic nose but full of the same bright fluff and gentle unfolding.
Quotes play a huge part, too, in the burgeoning relationships between the three principals, Vince being the purveyor of "hugot" quotes he posts anonymously in a blog called "DaVinci Quotes," which Kath loves, and which James finally uses to his advantage to get to her heart.
And it quotes, too -- quite literally in fact -- Olivia Lamasan's Got 2 Believe (2002), a StarCinema romcom that starred Claudine Barretto and Rico Yan: in a pivotal scene, the new movie's stars watches the film and plays a game of matching quotes with it, and we are suddenly made to make associations between old and new. Here is your new Claudine in her niece Julia, the film tells us, and here is the new Rico Yan in Joshua Garcia. That is the ultimate level of quoting the movie aspires to -- but it is fortunately not without merit, and the pairing eventually induces the same familiar "kilig."
In Julia Barretto's feisty Kath, we see a display of the same inner fire as her real-life aunt; she is still very much an inchoate star -- but the camera clearly loves her. Though not as much as Ronnie Alonte, whom the camera gushes over -- and he knows it. (He fills Diether Ocampo's shoes quite well.)
And finally in Joshua Garcia's Vince, we get the ultimate throwback that at first unsettles, but one which we gradually come to like: here is finally a find in the romantic lead department -- a young John Lloyd Cruz lookalike armed with Rico Yan's smile. That is, if you think about it, a formidable combination, and so Garcia expectedly steals the film with his pixie-like charm, and also carries much of its dramatic burden with an aplomb that is absolutely star-making.
Vince & Kath & James does not break new filmmaking grounds, but it is charming, and it may be the film to remember as the title where these young stars first made their definite and indelible marks in very long careers ahead.
The film is currently screening at Cinema 2 at Robinsons Movieworld Dumaguete.
He wore the green shirt in Four Play, a quartet distinguished by the sharp primary colors of their collared shirts—yellow, blue, red, and green—for every gig they were invited to perform in those early years of the 2000s. I remember this very well. Four Play, when it made its debut in 2004, was Dumaguete’s answer to the boy band phenomenon that briefly captured the interest and attention of so many. When they sang—a selection of heart-fluttering covers of All4One’s “So in Love,” 3 PM’s “Sukiyaki,” and Boys II Men’s “Four Seasons of Loneliness”—they sang to much screaming and adulation in auditoriums and makeshift performance spaces everywhere. I remember that.
Hope doesn’t want me to remember that. “This is so embarrassing,” he tells me now, twelve years later. Today, in his longish hair and blue tank top and plaid porontong, lounging with his cup of mint tea and open laptop at our table here in El Amigo, he is playfully aghast at my recollections. But one does not readily shake off the first memories of someone who ultimately becomes one of your closest friends. Longtime friends have been invented, I believe, to torment you with memories of youthful shenanigans—but also, I think, as a ready chronicler for the voyages our lives become.
In 2001, transplanted in Dumaguete from Oroquieta for his college education in Silliman University, Hope readily stood out for his height and his very lanky frame. Later, he stood out for the uncanny bass his singing voice promised as a member of the Men’s Glee Club. Much later, he stood out again for being a boy-bander, a clean-cut crooner. In the years since those precocious 2000s, Earnest Hope Tinambacan would stand out again for a variety of reasons—inventive music man, theatre boy, cultural worker with a social bite. Hope would also become more known as Hopia, like the delicacy, and with that, a persona has been sculpted from the bohemian type with a Bisaya sensibility. His life, young as it is, is an illustration of constant evolution, but always one with a heart beating for the arts. One never forgets this.
There is another journey ahead for Hopia, another turning point in his evolution—and it is a pursuit for higher academic studies, in particular a Professional Diploma in Intercultural Theatre (with a concentration on acting) at the Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) in Singapore. It is all part and parcel of his life’s evolution: “If you have followed my work and advocacies,” he wrote me once, “whether through theatre or music, you would have noticed that it has always been my vision to help raise the status of the culture and arts in the community. This has always been my driving force, and it is from this same urgency that I am going to ITI.”
It is a fitting new journey for him. He has always fully embodied for me an intuitive and creative spirit in the various worlds he circles in—be it in cultural activism, in creative writing (he writes poetry, or balak, in Cebuano); in theatre (he directs, he acts, and he writes plays, and is notably a senior member and mentor in Youth Advocates Through Theate Arts of YATTA, Dumaguete’s premiere community theatre group); and in music (he composes, he is the lead singer of HOPIA, a popular multi-genre band that he founded, and he directs The Belltower Project, an organization of local independent musicians, through which they have successful launched four anthology albums in four years, essentially mapping the development of local music, of the so-called “Dumaguete sound).
He has worn all these hats with the fire of a committed creative, and he has constantly astonished me with how he does all these things with an energy and creativity anybody would rightfully envy. In other words, he delivers.
It is in theatre, however, that we have become colleagues, and thus this field is my ready arsenal for an assessment of Hope’s legacy thus far. We have worked together on various occasions—we have acted together (he played my brother Franco in Elsa Martinez Coscolluela’s In My Father’s House, directed by the great Amiel Leonardia), and he has directed me (for The V Manologues)—all of these a way for me to witness how committed he is to the development of local theatre, and how he has shown a willingness to learn almost every facet of the craft just to be able to be truly professional in it.
As an actor, he has essayed with finesse roles in The King and I (2003), Man of La Mancha (2005), New Yorker in Tondo (2011), Ang Tiririt ng Ibong Adarna (2011), In My Father’s House (2013), among others, including various YATTA’s productions of Kikay Kalaykay, Salmo ni Kikay, Leon Kilat, Hoy Mata Na!, Taytayan ni Fabian, Kaluwasan sa Damgo ni Greta, Popoy Boknoy, Lawig, Adventures of Kuya Bogs, and Aah Bakus. He took part in ARMmut in Stuttgart, Germany, an international production that gathered performers from all over the world in 2010.
As a director, he has shown great ability in commanding compelling performances in various iterations of The Vagina Monologues (2013, 2014, and 2016) and Alkanseng Alkansya (2014 and 2015), as well as other productions such as Pepe and Me (2011) and Scharon Mani (2016).
As a playwright, he has shown great authorial voice in various one-act plays including Adventures of Kuya Bog, We Accept Boarders, Sa Pulang Tulay, and Alkanseng Alkansya.
He has been an active member of YATTA from 2008 until the present, and has functioned in various capacities for that community theatre group—as actor, director, playwright, and mentor. He has participated in an assortment of theatre workshops in the Philippines and elsewhere.
And he has facilitated just as many, especially in terms of using theatre arts as a tool for community development—using drama as an aid for stemming criminality among youths, for advocating for better health care, for stirring awareness for environmental issues, and for disseminating proper reproductive health information.
On weekends, he is a rock star.
He is excited about Singapore and three-year stay it entails to complete his studies at ITI. But Hope very much takes all of that in bigger perspective: “The knowledge and skills I will learn from ITI will certainly ripple through the communities that YATTA is serving, and will continue to serve,” he tells me. “YATTA has taught me that theatre is not only an art form but also a way of life. We are dedicated to helping young people discover and utilize their full potentials as community leaders through the different art forms, and my further studies with ITI will help in that regard. The dramatic arts program of ITI, as well as its prestige, will certainly equip me with the necessary training and experience that will be very helpful in my pursuit of professional theatre, which I have seen in the works of ITI’s Filipino graduates.”
Still, this new road in his journey is not without its challenges. Upon the completion of his audition, ITI readily offered him a slot in the very competitive international program—but there is still the matter of tuition, and board, and lodging. “I am a freelance artist, and I know for certain that studying abroad will be very difficult—and my personal savings will not be enough to sustain myself through the entire three-year duration of the program,” Hope says. “I have committed myself to community theatre and cultural and development work for almost ten years now. I also do not come from a well-off family. My parents are both church workers and community organizers who have dedicated their lives to serving the poor people, and it is from them where I got the passion for community service.”
Still, Hopia is ready to embrace the opportunity, come what may. Somebody bought him his plane ticket to Singapore, and many others came to his gig last December 19 at the Harold’s Mansion Rooftop for the release of his EP Mao Na Ni, a fundraiser for his new journey.
It is all investment, I think, for the promise of his eventual return—and how much more he can give our community through theatre and music that help society in the long run of things. Culture is a powerful tool for social engagement, and Hopia is an agent, a drama king for our times.
We bid Hopia all the best in this journey.
If you want to help Hopia Tinambacan in funding his studies, please email him at e.hopetinambacan(at)gmail(dot)com. His bank details are as follows: Earnest Hope Tinambacan, Account No. 1089-3215-96, Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI), Dumaguete City Perdices Branch. You can also buy copies of Mao Na Ni at El Amigo. He will be keeping everyone—friends, family, and supporters—updated on the progress of his studies through a blog that he means to use as documentation and chronicle for this grand new adventure.
I have a pet peeve. It has something to do with cinema—a topic I am very passionate about, given a life I have spent in studying this artistic form, educating people in proper film appreciation, pushing friends towards lives spent in a little pursuit of filmmaking. And it has something to do with the dismissive way with which some people regard Philippine cinema, always occurring in either of two rejoinders:
“All Filipino films are bad,” is one.
“There are no good Filipino films out there to watch,” is another.
The first is a curious overarching dismissal that is quite unfair, totally ignorant of heritage and history. And the second I almost always respond to with utter disdain: “When they were actually showing good Filipino films in commercial theaters -- Heneral Luna, Norte, Thy Womb -- where were you?”
The Metro Manila Film Festival -- or the MMFF -- is a microcosm of everything that ails and is currently hopeful about Philippine movies today. Once upon a time, it was truly a celebration of the best of Filipino cinema. In the 1976 edition of the festival, for example, Eddie Romero’s now classic Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon was in fierce competition with Lino Brocka’s Insiang and Lupita Concio’s Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo. To consider that is to be in awe of how the MMFF originated.
But like most things, the MMFF got corrupted and it soon lost its way. It became a festival of the mediocre in Filipino film -- quickly becoming the throwaway vehicle for forgettable trash mostly starring Vice Ganda, Kris Aquino, and Vic Sotto, and also endless rehashes of rotting franchises like Shake, Rattle, and Roll, Mano Po, Ang Panday, or Enteng Kabisote -- somehow founded on the notion that the mediocre made money, and the belief that what common Filipinos want for Christmas film fare is mindless drivel in the name of escapist entertainment.
And so we gave up on the MMFF a long time ago.
But now here we are at this strange juncture. The MMFF through some miracle has finally upped its ante, following a controversial run last year that saw a great film like Honor Thy Father unfairly shut out from awards consideration. And because of this, I think the MMFF deserves all our patronage this Christmas season. The slate this year seems almost miraculous. Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2, a biting satire. Die Beautiful, a dramedy. Kabisera, a family melodrama. Oro, a politically charged drama. Saving Sally, an animated fare. Seklusyon, a horror film. Sunday Beauty Queen, a documentary. Vince & Kath & James, a romantic comedy. Just look at all the goodies and their posters and their trailers. We should be demanding for all eight films to be seen not just in Metro Manila, but everywhere else in the country.
I know that everyone’s been saying the same thing, but it has really been a while -- years and years in fact -- since I’ve wanted to see an MMFF entry. Going over the trailers of these films just whetted for me a returning appetite for Filipino films under the festival branding. They seem for me the perfect retort to anyone of those who kept telling me before that “Filipino films are horrible,” often based on a single viewing of a Vice Ganda movie.
I tell everyone now: this is our chance to reevaluate things! This is the change we wanted! This is the slate of sterling quality we were demanding for the longest time!
But the latest twist is this. The businessmen/distributors have responded by cutting the runs of these films short, and essentially calling for the return of the likes of films starring Vice Ganda. Zaki Sidri, a former student of mine, griped to me about this: “Basically, they’re not even allowing us to decide for ourselves. I mean, look at Enteng Kabisote, it barely lasted a week here in Dumaguete. What the people want is often totally different from what they think we want. Most of the time, we're just not given a choice.”
And so, here in Dumaguete, we are calling for people to barrage Robinsons Movieworld with urgent requests for all eight MMFF films. Because we’ve been complaining about the sorry state of mainstream Philippine cinema for so long, and this is our chance to actually do something about it.
Babyruth Villarama-Gutierrez, director of Sunday Beauty Queen, reminds of what’s at stake here: “Dear SM Cinema, Robinsons Malls, Ayala Malls Cinemas, Gaisano Malls, and all standing movie theaters around the Philippines... You have the power to make every year profitable. The audience are ready. You yourself developed them when you screened Brillante Mendoza's films in your nationwide tour; when you opened your cinemas to Cinema Rehiyon, QCinema, Cinemalaya, Cine Europa, and Cinema One Film Festivals, which turned out great with minimal marketing. You have the power to outdo your financial targets if you will heed the call of change. Don't be like Kodak [which] died standing up believing [only in] their old formula, or Nokia [which] didn't challenge its own self to evolve. You don't want to end like them. This #MMFF2016 Reelvolution will guarantee your supremacy in the decades to come, I kid you not. This formula [has been] proven by history. This formula [has been] taught in the best film business school in the world, which I happen to come from.”