Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2018 Festival Roundup Part 1: Official Selection Part 1

The 2nd Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Feast of Filipino Cinema) returned with an even bigger slate of films compared to last year. There are 8 films under its official selection & 6 films under the Special Features section; the latter of which is comprised of award-winning films that participated in various Filipino film festivals. It amounts to a whopping 14 films that cover different subjects & genres, living up to the film festival’s name as a feast. It was daunting to cover every film, which is why it took me a long while to put up my coverage for PPP 2018. For the first part of my coverage, I’ll be putting up my reviews for Bakwit Boys, Signal Rock, The Day After Valentine’s, & We Will Not Die Tonight.

Bakwit Boys

With stage musicals like Ang Larawan (The Portrait) & Changing Partners getting movie adaptations & Lav Diaz’s unconventional “rock opera” Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (The Season of the Devil) receiving raves from here & abroad, musicals are having a slow renaissance period in Filipino cinema. Bakwit Boys is an excellent addition to this welcome trend. After their hometown in Isabela was ravaged by a supertyphoon, four brothers are forced to live with their grandfather in Pampanga while their parents try to rebuild from the calamity. They help out around the house & try their best to avoid becoming a nuisance for their grandfather. After their grandfather finds out they perform as a band back home for birthday parties & other events, he asks them to perform at a nearby fiesta. Rose (Devon Seron), a rich girl from Metro Manila, is amazed by their performance and wants to turn them into a successful band.

Naturally, this will put Rose & the brothers to the test as they strive to become the next big star, but not for the reasons you might think. The brothers have the talent, discipline, & determination to have a decent shot at stardom without succumbing to petty fights & shameless acts of pride, but being poor puts them at odds with Rose & their ambitions. They juggle between helping their grandfather around the farm, earning money for their family, & preparing multiple sample tracks they can send out to local radio stations with the hopes of playing it on the airwaves. Even Rose becomes more aware of the advantages she gained in life thanks to her affluence, especially as she finds out where it comes from. They also face an industry where connections are a key way to reach gatekeepers, and even with the help of the internet, that’s not enough to break through. This constant awareness of the ways class & privilege permeate every aspect of our life grounds the film in reality, elevating what would’ve been a typical underdog story. It gives weight to their victories, even if the system doesn’t leave any of them completely unscathed. This can be seen in the heartfelt musical performances, which – except for a few key moments – are spare & modest, befitting the brothers’ humble origins while highlighting the cast’s talent & charisma. All of this adds up to a rare crowdpleasing musical that is both joyous & pragmatic, never denying us the thrill of watching underdogs overcome nearly insurmountable obstacles as they slowly make their way to the spotlight.

Signal Rock

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Set during the 90s, Signal Rock refers to one of the gorgeous rock formations located on the edges of Samar’s Biri Island. It’s the only place on the small, forgotten island where its citizens can receive phone calls & text messages. One of them is Intoy (Christian Bables), a friendly, carefree man highly respected & relied upon by almost everyone, frequently working on odd jobs like hosting the town’s dance parties or assist the mayor in his errands. In his free time, he spends his time playing basketball, going to church, or stealing chickens with his buddies so they have something to eat during their drinking sessions. Intoy treks one of these rock formations to talk to her sister living in Finland, who provides her family with financial support. Her story is a common one within the island as many young women on the island are groomed to leave, in the hopes of marrying a kind, wealthy foreigner who will whisk them away from poverty & bring fortune to their families; including Intoy’s girlfriend Rachel (Elora Españo), whose father found her a job as a cashier in one of Olongapo’s nightclubs, a notorious hangout for American soldiers based in Subic Bay. However, Vicky is stuck in a child custody battle with her unwed spouse & she wants to return to the island with her daughter. The only way to ensure that is to present her financial assets in the Philippines to prove that she can raise her daughter on her own. She doesn’t have any, so Intoy asks the help of the townspeople to fake legal documents & create the illusion that their family can provide for Vicky’s daughter, so both of them return home.

Chito Roño’s latest film sounds depressing, but Rody Vera’s deft script crafts a funny, loving portrait of an island left behind by progress & its citizens doing their best to survive. Signal Rock follows the quiet rhythms of the island, slowly introducing us to its vast ensemble through the eyes of Intoy and revealing their quirks & personalities that by the end, we have a deeper understanding of the whole town & what is lost during the mass emigration that’s plagued the island. That doesn’t mean it isn’t free of conflict though, as Intoy’s act of deception turns into a taut thriller that not only endangers their family, but the whole community itself. Chito Roño blends all of these disparate elements fit together neatly without distracting from each other. It helps that it filled its cast with some of the most talented actors & actresses working today, including Daria Ramirez as Intoy’s doting mother Alicia & Nanding Josef as Intoy’s seemingly clueless father Jamin, whose performances make the island feel more insular & alive. But make no mistake, this is Christian Bables’ chance to shine. He adds another outstanding performance in his growing resume as Intoy, whose perseverance & optimism shines through as he uses his wits to help her sister amidst every obstacle he faces & his own frustrations at the community at large. He understands that even if modernity & prosperity has passed them by, it’s worth embracing their quaint, little island & its simple pleasures. There might come a time when people aren’t enticed to leave, but for now, Intoy will just play basketball, drink with his buddies & help out whomever is in need.

The Day After Valentine’s

Director Jason Paul Laxamana, JC Santos, & Bela Padilla return to the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino with another poignant romantic drama that’s darker, more ambitious & messier than the highly successful 100 Tula Para Kay Stella (100 Poems for Stella). Lani (Bela Padilla) is a store clerk about to close up when she meets Kai (JC Santos) – a descendant of the skilled laborers hired to work in Hawaii to support the island’s thriving sugar plantation industry called the sakadaswho suddenly barges into the store because she forgot to put up the close sign. She relents into allowing him to shop, & in the process finds out that he has scars on his arm. He is prone to self-harm, which exacerbated after he moved to the Philippines for her girlfriend at the behest of his family’s wishes, only for their relationship to fall apart. Both of them start to hang out & Lani begins to help Kai move on & stop him from hurting himself & romanticizing his ex through the use of an ancient Tagalog script called baybayin. Kai is inspired to change in the process, & admires Lani’s outspoken, confident attitude. However, Kai’s tourist visa is about to expire so he has to return to Hawaii soon. Thinking he’s not ready to face his family, he asks Lani to join him. She obliges, but as it becomes more obvious that they’re falling for each other, Lani’s own emotional baggage starts to bubble up to the surface, complicating their relationship.

It falls prey to the tropes of hugot-inspired romantic comedies early on without offering something novel or clever, & at first glance Bela Padilla & Jc Santos are playing similar roles from 100 Tula Para Kay Stella, but it soon becomes clear that The Day After Valentine’s has a lot more on its mind. Owing the positive changes in your life to the person who supported you at your lowest point & inspiring you to become a better person risks idealizing them & the film details how complex this relationship can be; especially once they start to have romantic feelings for each other. Kai & Lani are fascinating protagonists on their own too, because the film takes its time to flesh out their upbringing & how it shaped them without shying away from their pain & trauma; which crafts a fascinating subtext about two people whose lives are affected by American influence heal themselves through an indigenous Filipino script. Two hours isn’t enough for the movie to convey its ideas though, which it can be felt in its rushed climax & how it often feels half-baked. Nevertheless, JC Santos & Bela Padilla are excellent anchors to the film, filling in the gaps created by its pacing. It also has one of the punchiest endings of the year, underscoring the film with a darkly comedic pithy one-liner. The Day After Valentine’s is messy, but only because our lives are messy. It comes out of a genuine desire to present something authentic & resonant, resulting in a movie that’s emotionally true to life.

We Will Not Die Tonight

A stuntwoman (Erich Gonzales) barely scraping by in Metro Manila is reunited with her old friends after her ex-boyfriend offers them a mysterious, lucrative job. What they didn’t expect is they would work for an illegal syndicate to kidnap stray children, so they can harvest their organs & sell them at the black market; which the small syndicate pivoted to because of the government’s focus on the drug war. They refuse the offer & attempt to leave, but members of the syndicate wouldn’t allow them to walk away. An all-out brawl ensues, where they end up rescuing a little girl & killing some of the syndicate leaders’ family. Now they roam the dirty streets of Manila & do everything they can to survive a long night.

We Will Not Die Tonight turns the daily uphill struggle to survive in Metro Manila, especially if you’re poor & underprivileged, into an extended bloody free-for-all. It’s rough & awkward at times – notably the clumsy dialogue spouted by its one-dimensional characters – but that’s one of its main virtues. It’s a scrappy exploitation film that makes up for a lack of budget or huge setpieces with an abundance of grit & style. The film presents the uglier side of Metro Manila as a grimy, sticky, seemingly post-apocalyptic hellhole untouched by progress, thanks to Richard Somes’ knack for immersive production design & captures it with a grainy, handheld camerawork brimming with faded, saturated colors & stark shadows. Violent encounters in the film are rarely flashy, focusing on close combat that become more desperate & brutal than the last. These fight scenes give everyone a chance to beat someone to a bloody pulp without becoming monotonous, especially Erich Gonzales who reveals herself as a compelling action star in the making with her swift athleticism & agile movement. Max Eigenmann may end up receiving most of the blows rather than throwing them, but she’s gets a nasty standout scene revealing her resilience amidst the chaos. While it takes an abrupt turn in the end & has one of the most egregious use of ending narration I’ve seen in a while, We Will Not Die Tonight is a thrilling, gruesome ride.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: 100 Tula Para Kay Stella is a Messy & Heartbreaking Journey Worth Taking

TL;DR At its best, 100 Tula Para Kay Stella (100 Poems for Stella) is a sprawling, heartbreaking movie that captures the messiness of life by being messy itself.

Realizing you’ve fallen in love with someone for the first time can fill you with equal amounts of dread & joy. Suddenly, the world opens up to you, your head full of endless possibilities. But you only have two options on how to proceed: reveal your feelings at the risk of getting rejected or stay silent to retain the status quo.

Fidel (JC Santos) finds himself in a similar position. He’s a freshman college student who loves to write poetry & studies BS Psychology in Pampanga during 2004. He’s a stutterer; he can only speak normally if he’s reading the words as he talks, sings, or uses only three words when he talks. Due to a mishap during Freshies Night that caused him to have a ketchup stain on his pants, he decides to stay out of the event. That is until an aspiring rock star named Stella (Bela Padilla) approaches him & loans her jacket to cover up his stain. Their friendship begins, with Fidel slowly falling in love with Stella due to her kindness & confidence. She becomes his muse for his poetry, & he decides to give her all of the poems as a declaration of his love for her. However, Stella has a boyfriend, so he decides to withhold his plans & continue writing about her. Soon, their lives will take numerous turns, with Fidel moving to Manila to continue his studies, while Stella doing everything she can to become a successful musician.

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Both of them will meet new people, learn new things about themselves, & their relationships with others will improve & deteriorate. The movie leans on this aspect, creating a sprawling, intimate epic where our current situation, wrong timing, missed opportunities, & events beyond our control hamper our ability to achieve what we want in life, how it affects the way we perceive others & what happens when it’s out of reach.

It’s even one of the few period pieces set during the last decade, using it to explore the decade’s Pinoy music scene through Stella’s dreams of becoming a famous rock star. It’s a time where there was a boom in OPM (Original Pinoy Music), thanks to the continued popularity of Kitchie Nadal & Rivermaya, the rise of new bands like Itchyworms, & the success of novelty acts like Masculados & Sexbomb Girls.

And there are also the poems Fidel writes for Stella, which the movie uses to track Fidel’s writing ability & how his feelings for Stella continue to grow, even if how he views her doesn’t match the actual reality. There’s always a risk in showing someone’s creative work in film, since the audience has to believe what the movie thinks of a character’s work of art. Thankfully, the movie starts with Fidel writing terrible poems & the movie is aware of its quality. Throughout the movie, we see his poems start getting better, & while none of them are excellent, they do turn into something good.

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It amounts to an ambitious, bittersweet movie about growing up & at its best moments, it succeeds in capturing the messiness of life by being messy & overstuffed itself.  At its worst, the plot & the characters are undercooked, since it’s rushing to tell its ginormous plot; especially during its third act. Even at two hours, one wishes the movie had time to breathe, since it takes shortcuts by telling us what happened, instead of showing it to us. It also could’ve used more time to explore Fidel’s Nice Guy behavior, like berating Stella for ignoring her studies for band practice – which has her boyfriend as one of its members – when it’s clear it’s partly self-motivated.

Still, the movie is anchored by great performances from JC Santos & Bela Padilla, who hold the whole movie together. JC Santos is endearing & charismatic as Fidel, & he softens Fidel’s Nice Guy behavior; often to a fault. The real standout is Bela Padilla, who plays Stella as a tough, confident, frustrated woman weighed down by her family & dreams, & she gives life to her victories & failures fully. It’s easier to see both of them as friends compared to an actual couple, but that is part of the point.

In the end, 100 Tula Para Kay Stella (100 Poems for Stella) falls short from its ambitions, but it’s hard to look away from the long-winding journey both characters take. It may have started because a man fell in love with a woman, but it expands to reveal the sadness at its very core. Because no matter how you feel about someone, it doesn’t always work out the way you want. And as the movie posits, that’s fine.

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