Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Ang Panday is Filipino Blockbuster Filmmaking at its Finest

TL;DR: Ang Panday is a maximalist masterpiece of Filipino cinema, delivering a fresh, sincere, goofy take on the franchise.

Everything about the inclusion of the latest iteration of Ang Panday (The Blacksmith) in Metro Manila Film Festival 2017 seems to embody the worst aspects of the festival.

It was one of the first four entries selected based on their scripts, which wouldn’t be suspect if it weren’t for the fact that the selection process for scripts was a ploy to sneak in commercially viable movies & well-known properties into the festival. It is another adaptation of Carlo J. Caparas’ seminal comic book series – a fantasy epic about a blacksmith who forges a dagger made from a meteorite that fell from the sky to defeat the evil Lizardo – which has been adapted & rebooted numerous times on film & TV, most famously portrayed by The King of Filipino Cinema Fernando Poe Jr. This one also stars & is directed by Coco Martin, currently known for starring in the long-running & ongoing television reboot of FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, which continues to be a ratings juggernaut.

But Ang Panday is far from a lazy retread. It is a loud, entertaining blockbuster that finds ways to be weird & subversive, pushing this tired franchise into new, exciting directions.

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Flavio Batungbakal, the original wielder of the dagger forged from a meteorite & the man who defended the world from the evil Lizardo, was planning to give his dagger to his son Flavio II. He refused, since he wants to live a peaceful life with his wife. It’s going to be short-lived, since their home was attacked by aswangs sent by Lizardo while her wife was giving birth. None of them survived except for their son, also named Flavio, who managed to survive the attack thanks to the midwife who took him away from the province to the streets of Tondo.

However, he grew up to be a good-natured but troublesome man making & selling blades & saws, often causing trouble due to his insistence in fighting for what’s right. He’s fallen in love with Maria (Mariel de Leon), a beautiful singer whose parents have plans to marry her off to someone rich. That person turns out to be the reincarnated Lizardo (Jake Cuenca) who grew up to be a rich, shady entrepreneur with plans to conquer the world. With the world hanging in a balance, it’s up to Flavio to find the dagger & save the world.

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It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. It takes a while to set up its convoluted mythology while making room for other stories, such as the blossoming romance between Flavio’s sister Rowena (Elisse Joson) & her suitor, & his brother Diego (Awra Briguela) trying his best to hide his true sexuality to the rest of his family; the latter of which isn’t played for cheap laughs & offers a somewhat neat parallel with Flavio’s arc. All of it is told with the same broad, goofy sincerity as FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, but adding fantasy elements to spice up its urban setting & getting rid of its occasional self-seriousness, embracing the ridiculousness of the situation. The whole approach works better in a movie about the ultimate showdown between good & evil than a cop show full of political intrigue & conspiracies. The shaky cam aesthetic makes the colorful, fantasy elements stand out while its conflict fits better with its tone, something FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano has a problem with when it dumbs down important topics like corruption, policing & the drug trade. It offers a completely novel direction for the franchise that never turns stale.

This movie even apes the show’s fondness for shaky cam full of quick cuts & close-ups, but gets rid of the excessive zooms & dramatic sound effects. It’s very noticeable in the gripping action scenes, which expands what was capable in the TV series & gives it more finesse, with the help of a bigger production budget. It’s an energetic blur that’s easy to follow, but never giving the audience a time to rest or to take in the scenery. It’s an exhilarating feat that makes it harder to look away, especially when it has Coco Martin riding a motorcycle, killing off aswangs & stopping robberies with the power of his dagger.

But that isn’t enough for the movie. It also takes weird, entertaining digressions like a segue to a music video & an ensuing fight between police officers & squatters that turns into a rap battle about land rights. What ensues is an exhausting, overstuffed smorgasbord, with plots fighting for space in its nearly 2 1/2 hour runtime. It results in a lot of plotholes, jam-packed material the movie doesn’t even know what to do with, & it goes on a mad rush towards the end, but the overall effect is mesmerizing to behold; even if the sound mix makes it hard to distinguish the dialogue at times. It offers the audience almost everything imaginable to keep you from getting bored, & doing it in the broadest, most genuine way possible, without pushing the material towards utter incomprehensibililty.

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It helps that the movie doesn’t ignore even the most rudimentary emotional beats nor the mythical roots of the story. It keeps everything grounded & easy to understand, even as it moves away from the franchise’s usual formula. It’s also filled to the brim with a cast who deeply understands how to navigate the movie’s tricky tone that not everyone is given a spotlight. Awra Briguela is given a chance to show off his excellent dramatic acting. Jake Cuenca is magnetic & sleazy as the current incarnation of Lizardo. But the absolute star has to be Coco Martin. He is the connective tissue that holds everything together. He’s like the movie itself: earnest, dopey, a bit corny but wholly endearing. He can sell a man like Flavio killing aswangs with a dagger while riding a motorcycle & telling what has to be one of the corniest jokes in Filipino cinema, but his enthusiasm & how funny he thinks the joke is just beams off the screen, you can’t help but laugh.

In fact, that quality is what makes Ang Panday one of the best movies of 2017. The motives behind making this movie may have been cynical, but it doesn’t reflect the final movie at all. It’s been made by people who knows there’s nothing bad about being entertained, but delivers a movie brimming with such pure-hearted passion, rigourous craft, a willingness not to take itself seriously & giving its audiences what it wants without succumbing to outright pandering, to the point it becomes excessive, it’s hard not to fall for its charms. It just wants us to have a good time at the cinemas – which isn’t too much to ask – & Ang Panday confirms you can do so without sacrificing quality.

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Movie Review: The Super Parental Guardians Makes Light of Duterte’s Drug War But Fails Miserably

In the movie’s final moments, Arci (Vice Ganda) grabs Paco (Coco Martin), lifts him up, spins him around, & asks out loud why they weren’t included in this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. The movie was infamously shut out of the festival this year, along with other MMFF mainstays like Enteng Kabisote & Mano Po, due to an overhaul that valued artistic excellence over commercial viability.

After watching the movie, the answer becomes clear: it was shut out because it was terrible. It’s a shocking drop of quality after Beauty & the Bestie, the action-comedy that first teamed up Vice Ganda & Coco Martin with enjoyable results.

The problems start with the complicated, poorly structured plot. Arci is an assistant of a famous fashion designer Marife dela Cruz (Assunta de Rossi) who dreams of becoming a fashion designer himself & living in South Korea. Paco works as a stuntman who’s a magnet for trouble thanks in part to his street gang. When his sister Sarah, Arci’s best friend, is killed after witnessing an extra-judicial killing late at night, Arci is entrusted to take custody of her two children Megan (Awra Briguela) & Ernie (Onyok Pineda) to grant Sarah’s dying wish. Neil is reluctant at first, but because of his concerns with his nephews, he eventually agrees. He moves in along with his nephews in Arci’s “mansion,” which is really Marife’s house & Arci is just the caretaker. With Arci & Neil living in the same house, they try their best to raise the two kids & find out who murdered Sarah.

It’s a politically charged conceit loaded with a bunch of promising storylines, but the movie couldn’t service all of them in an orderly fashion. The complex plot moves in zigs & zags, advancing whenever the script demands it, instead of allowing it to come out organically. Vice Ganda’s movies are just better when the plot is simple, making it easier to add a ton of jokes & references.

It doesn’t help that it splits its characters into different groups for most of the running time, cutting down the opportunity for Vice Ganda’s signature barbed lines. When they do get a chance, it’s wasted on badly written references to Pokemon Go, Train to Busan, & Ang Probinsyano, & second-rate one-liners. Of course, there are a few funny jokes, but all of them were shown in the trailer.

The movie tackling Duterte’s drug war & extra-judicial killings might have made it more interesting, but it wastes its opportunity to comment on it. If you’re expecting either a scathing indictment or unwavering support for the drug war, you’re going to be very disappointed. By the movie’s end, it all fizzles out to deliver a happy ending by dropping certain storylines. It only uses the drug war as a backdrop & nothing more, trying its best to be apolitical about it. It’s a decision oozing with either sheer laziness or inability to say something so they couldn’t offend its audience.

Even if the jokes & story fall flat, at least it is shot well. The production values for Vice Ganda’s movies are certainly getting better. Bb. Joyce Bernal handles the action scenes with a style ripped straight from Ang Probinsyano – shaky cams, zoom-ins, & jump cuts – but it is more comprehensible & less prone to dramatic stings compared to its inspiration. The use of drone shots rise slightly above “gimmicky” too.

However, the mix of comedy & action is another reminder of how bad it is. The jokes in the action scenes just aren’t funny & the pacing is off, since the way Bb. Joyce Bernal uses Ang Probinsyano’s aesthetic isn’t conducive for comedy. It sucks the air out of already terrible jokes & doesn’t allow the comedians to have room for their performances.

At least, everyone in the cast is great. It is already well established that Vice Ganda has a sharp comedic timing & Coco Martin can go toe-to-toe with him, especially if you’ve seen the much better Beauty & the Bestie. Awra Briguela is given a bigger spotlight here & he takes full advantage of it. Yes, he’s another stereotypical gay kid, but he can spout his snarky lines with the ferocity of a cynical adult. Onyok Pineda is very young & it shows in his performance. It’s understandable. He delivers his lines like he’s reading out of a children’s book. Even the movie is aware of this, giving him fewer stuff to do compared to the rest of the cast, but making sure that he makes an impact. I hope he gets better with age.

Unfortunately, this movie will never be good. It’s a movie built on a premise with the potential to speak out on our current political climate, but only uses it to deliver a sloppy story filled with unfunny jokes. It’s the worst kind of entertainment: incompetent & inoffensive to the point it becomes offensive.