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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

entry arrow12:01 AM | Cinema Connections

Early this August, I finally caught Hannah Espia’s Transit, the Best Film winner of last year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival, which is annually held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and which has come to define the best of Philippine cinema—if only more people were aware these films existed. But for a few days or so in July or August, it does invite a few thousand cinephiles who throng to the CCP, which seem to invite the notion that there is an audience for local films of a remarkably differently pedigree than, say, the trashy popular offerings of Vice Ganda or Kris Aquino.

I was glad I finally caught Transit. I met its director last summer here in Dumaguete while her production company was still scouting locations for its Cinemalaya entry this year, Dagitab. Its final choice of location was the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines—but that was almost Dumaguete, with the hills of Valencia as the setting for its scenes involving a national writers’ workshop. Catching Transit was better late than never. And finally I understood all the acclaim that film received—including its choice as the Philippine submission to the latest Oscar derby for Best Foreign Language Film. Transit didn’t quite make the short list, but nonetheless, what a beautiful, patient, sensitive film this is. A tour de force narrative, really, about the hidden lives of OFWs in Israel, told in a fractured mode that stays true to the fractured lives of the people it sought to depict with gimlet-eyed honesty.

I saw Transit in the middle of the week I was in Manila for Cinemalaya—and is it any indication that the first film I loved in Cinemalaya X so far by then was a film from last year’s festival? Transit featured everything I had not seen so far in the entries I’d come to see this year: an organic screenplay with a sound structure, compelling acting from everyone involved, a sense of place, thoroughly absorbing direction. For example, Marc Justin Alvarez’s powerhouse acting as a young Filipino boy growing up in Israel seems like a direct slap against the horrid ensemble of Sundalong Kanin, an official entry in the New Breed category of Cinemalaya X.

What a travesty this film was. Children caught in the claws of war often makes for a compelling film with an unsettling sort of pathos. It doesn’t take much to feel for stories about witnessing the death of innocence, or the corruption of the young in the grips of grim circumstances, set in an epic swirl of blood and betrayal, spilled guts and rampaging war machines. At its most effective—say René Clément’s Jeux interdits, or Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, Les Enfants, or Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies—the usual gravity of this kind of narrative makes for a provocative thesis about the utter uselessness and brutality of war, and how it eventually spares no one, not even children. I like how this kind of film often strips away the hoary militaristic jingoism and macho bravado that often pervade the usual war narrative. Unfortunately, Janice O’Hara’s Sundalong Kanin is not a film that does any of this. It is not even an imperfect film with a certain resonance. What it is is a movie full of false notes, it appears generally to be a gross disservice to everyone concerned, including its audience. It is the story of four friends—boys in the cusp of adolescence—dealing with the slowly growing horror of what it means to have a town overrun by Japanese forces in World War II. What it finally becomes is an exercise of unfortunate and clumsy filmmaking. The actors are miscast and seem to operate in hysterical mode, the script has a porous consistency, and the production design—crucial for a period film—is virtually non-existent. (For example, it is difficult to feel terror for a boy as he confronts Japanese soldier and a rifle—when it is perfectly clear that the rifle is made of wood.) The Second World War can be depicted realistically, even given constraints. In 1982, Oro Plata Mata did it. In 2008, Concerto did it. It can be done. This film utterly fails at it. There is a crucial scene near the end where the boys face the unbearable twist of having to turn on one of their own: there is a death, there is a grieving mother, and there are people on pursuit of the killers. The scene called for heartbreak—but what does the audience do? Laugh. Because the way O’Hara stages the sequence is unintentional slapstick of the worst kind, robbing the scene’s potential for a powerful denouement. I have never wanted to get out of a screening so much.

Cinemalaya X had such disappointments. What is the point of Francis Xavier Pasion’s Bwaya, for example? Is it trying for cinematic expressionism, complete with the picture-postcard meanderings a la Terrence Malick? Is it trying to be anthropological, mapping for cinema the geography and the culture of Agusan's marshland? Is it trying to provide a voice for the oral narratives of Northern Mindanao? Is it trying to continue the metafictionality that earned the director so much plaudits with 2008’s Jay? Is it an excuse to quietly gosh over the lush cinematography of Neil Daza? Is it to waste the majestic acting prowess of Angeli Bayani, reduced here to unfortunate histrionics? I am not exactly sure, but the film seems to provide an answer near its long-awaited end: to concretize in film the memory of a girl eaten by a crocodile in the marsh’s shallow waters. But the attempt honestly feels so derivative and so superficial, one is rather tempted to forget.

Eventually, little by little, I did get to see films I came to love or admire. I enjoyed Carlito Siguion-Reyna’s Hari ng Tondo very much, however: it is a welcome return to a director who has not helmed a film for about a decade. A subtle comedy that also thinks of itself as a family melodrama, it is about a ruined captain of industry who returns to his impoverished Tondo roots to give his grandchildren the only worthy inheritance he could give them: take them out of their comfort zones and make them grow balls among the sigas of Manila’s hardened no-man’s land. The usual comedic shenanigans and dramatic epiphanies unfurl like clockwork, which is not bad at all—but there is a sense of forcedness in the execution that leaves this film feel a tad empty. That, plus the signature staginess of Siguion-Reyna’s direction, cripples what would have otherwise been perfect Cinemalaya comic fodder with a social message, in the vein of Last Supper No. 3. But it’s funny enough, so there you go.

I enjoyed Giancarlo Abrahan V’s Dagitab, which almost feels like a French drama unfolding in tropical ennui, ponderous though it was. Real Florido’s 1st Ko si Third was an enjoyable romp through geriatric romance, and a perfect showcase for the talent of the deserving character actress Nova Villa—but it was slight, like an enjoyable one-note joke that took two hours to tell. I loved the most two films: Ida Anita del Mundo’s K’Na the Dreamweaver, a supersaturated Yimou-ish take on the T’Boli, and Gino Santos’ #Y, a hyperkinetic look into the living nightmares of the social media generation. Both imperfect films—what film isn’t—but both made with a filmmaking signature that’s deft and deliberate, they made you feel how mature our young filmmakers have come in their handling of film language. Which is more than I can say for some of the older filmmakers in the festival’s roster.

Many things about Joselito Altarejos’ Kasal, the eventual Best Film winner in the Directors Showcase category of Cinemalaya X—feel like a valedictory. (A point of disclosure: Mr. Altarejos is a good friend of this writer.) For those among us who have seen Mr. Altarejos try to redefine queer cinema in the Philippines from the early double-punch of Ang Lalake sa Parola (2007) and Ang Lihim ni Antonio (2008) to the more experimental—and complex—forays of the LGBT landscape in Ang Laro sa Buhay ni Juan (2009) and Unfriend (2014), there are particular choices in the mise-en-scene of the new film that seem to compose both a dare and an invitation from the filmmaker for an earnest reconsideration of his body of work, at least in the genre of film he has found himself niched in. “I hope you enjoy this film,” Mr. Altarejos said in Filipino in his introduction during the film’s gala screening Tuesday night. “I think I have explored enough of LGBT issues in my film. I am ready for other themes.” And so he gives us a film that taunts us with our own expectations and gifts us with the sheer chutzpah of gimlet-eyed wish-fulfillment—to provoke us, to titillate us, but ultimately also to condemn us—and then quickly moves on from that to situate us in the gritty reality of the lives of ordinary gay men, in a storytelling technique that is certainly not designed to cater to the taste of ordinary moviegoers. This is a film that does not hesitate to wallow and meander in the minutiae or ordinary joys, ordinary hurts, and ordinary devastations. You could call that a director going about without a sense of design (nope, it isn’t)—but I choose to call it honesty instead. It is a triumph. It is not a perfect film, but it is brave. Sometimes, in film, that becomes even more important than formal flourish.

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