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.

Movie Review: The Significant Other Gets Too Caught Up in the Tropes of Infidelity Dramas to Work

TL;DR: The Significant Other is a bland infidelity drama that wastes a novel idea, by focusing how the infidelity happened, instead of why it happened.

I wouldn’t begrudge anyone rolling their eyes if they found out The Significant Other is released. Melodramas focused on infidelity have already reached a point of exhaustion, & it looks plain compared to the stylish & trashy Sin Island; which was just released last week by the same studio. But The Significant Other has a nugget of an idea that can make it stand out, if only it wasn’t executed so poorly.

Nicole (Erich Gonzales) is at a beauty pageant when she was scouted by a prominent head of a modeling agency in Metro Manila. She’s delighted, because she aspires to be a famous fashion model just like her idol Maxine (Lovi Poe) & the man who contacted her trained & mentored Maxine. She decides to pursue the opportunity, but her recruiter requests that she visit the cosmetic surgeon Edward (Tom Rodriguez) in order to remove the birthmark in her neck. It’s obvious both are attracted to each other, & soon both of them are in love. But unbeknownst to her, Edward is actually married to Maxine. Maxine disappeared in the public eye for years & raised their son in America. She purposefully hid her marriage to have a quiet life with her family & has no plans to reveal it now that she’s staging a comeback in order to keep the media’s focus on her career. While she’s back at work, she is also in charge of mentoring Nicole to become a successful fashion model like herself. They form a close bond that’s threatened by Maxine’s secret & Edward’s infidelity.

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The movie has an interesting structure that seems to make it different from other infidelity dramas. It tells the story from Nicole & Maxine’s explosive confrontation & flashing back to the past from each other’s point of view to show how it all happened, but unfortunately it doesn’t work. It’s more focused on setting up the infidelity without interrogating the reasons why it happened. So yes, there are catfights peppered with witty remarks & moments of heightened drama that the genre supposedly requires – with a sprinkle of sex scenes – but it’s less interesting when it follows the already trodden path. The movie livens up when it gives us brief glimpses between Maxine & Edward’s marriage & Nicole & Maxine’s blooming friendship, but there aren’t enough of it to create a complicated portrait of their lives. It also muddles the story by not diving deep into Edward’s perspective. He’s the man who created a whole mess of problems for everyone, but he’s almost removed from it. We’re stuck watching two women fight over a man without fully revealing why he cheated on his wife in the first place.

And even when the movie indulges in its campy tropes, it all feels tired & cliched. The confrontations aren’t as witty or memorable as they should be. Even the sex scenes aren’t as titillating as it should be. You could blame the movie’s R-13 rating, but a movie can still be sexy by employing a “less is more” approach through foreplay & knowing glances. However, it doesn’t use this tactic, favoring to show the actors kissing, moaning, & caressing each other’s bodies. These scenes feel rudimentary & lack the passion or verve to arouse audiences. It wastes great performances from Lovi Poe & Erich Gonzales, while Tom Rodriguez tries his best to make his character work. A memorable cameo by Ricci Chan deserves a shout-out, as he pops out of nowhere to deliver a speech so catty & feisty that it’s easy to see why it’s included; even if it’s completely removed from the plot.

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A huge surprise comes from moments of odd ineptitude that somehow made the final cut. There are two notable shots that are out of focus. At one point, you can see a cow’s muscles convulse in front of a camera & release urine from its body during an establishing shot while Edward’s car drives on the road; and of course, it’s not relevant to the plot. It’s flabbergasting to watch this happen in a major commercial release from one of the most notable film directors in the Philippines.

Add an excellent ending that would’ve made an impact if it weren’t rushed, & you’ve got another bland & perfunctory infidelity drama. In spite of its novel narrative structure, The Significant Other runs on auto-pilot & in the process, reveals how minor it really is.

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Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Siargao is a Gorgeous Meditation on Finding Ourselves & the Places We Do Them

TL;DR: Siargao is a thoughtful, melancholic take on finding yourself in an enchanting foreign land.

The idea of going to an unfamiliar land in order to find oneself has always been a tempting idea. Removing ourselves from the stresses & comforts of our ordinary routine can give us a chance to reflect & find out who we really are & what we really want in life. It’s such an alluring idea that it’s a trope used in different kinds of movies from coming-of-age stories, romantic comedies, & even action-adventure movies. It even had a resurgence in Filipino cinema thanks to the huge success of That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny).

Paul Soriano’s first foray into romantic dramas dives head first into this trope – with a script by Anj Pessumal – but Siargao stands out from the rest by broadening its scope past its main outsider.

Laura (Erich Gonzalez) is a vlogger who ran away to Siargao to do some soul-searching after a life-changing moment didn’t go the way it should’ve. On the plane, she meets Diego (Jericho Rosales), a member of a famous band who escaped to his hometown of Siargao due to a scandal he caused. The two of them are at odds at first, but slowly become friends. Things start to get complicated when Diego reconnects with his old friend Abi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), who are linked due to their muddy past.

What Siargao does so well is subtly tackle the myopia inherent in stories like this. Journeys of Self-Discovery™ are about enriching oneself in order to become a better person, but it is selfish in nature. Not that it’s a bad thing – since taking care of yourself & improving oneself should be encouraged – but it can become a narcissistic ordeal, where a place & its inhabitants are reduced to vessels of self-improvement, stripping it away of its humanity & complexity. 

These are even more egregious in Western stories, where Caucasian men & women searching for themselves descend into “Orientalism,” seeing the East as an exotic place of wonder, mystery, & enlightenment. One of the biggest offenders include Eat, Pray, Love & Hector and the Search for Happiness; the latter of which has Simon Pegg writing “sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story” in a notebook with one of the letters turned into a sad face after witnessing a violent incident involving a prostitute & her pimp while staying in Shanghai.

Obviously, Siargao never becomes an Orientalist tale simply because it’s not a tale told from the perspective of a white person, but the movie can still turn Siargao into an exotic paradise full of wise, simple folks who will help realize the full potential of privileged outsiders who can afford to stay there. What Siargao does to mitigate this is to fill the movie with characters who are also trying to find out what they want in their lives, including the ones who live in the island. Laura is surrounded by people who are also lost or taking a break from their lives in Siargao; some of them fell in love with the island so hard they choose to stay longer. Abi is a native who’s already chosen a path for herself – setting up a business while helping out initiatives to preserve the island’s beauty & support other business ventures from fellow locals – but Diego’s return makes her question her past decisions. And while Diego never shed his roots, his controversies force him to go back to the island & examine old wounds. Not only does this open up other points of view we don’t usually see in similar stories, but it questions the need for an “exotic paradise” in order to grow & if we are doing anything to conserve these places.

And the stories are compelling, even if they seem small in the grand scheme of it all. There’s a raw intimacy present as these people try to rebuild their lives, while a heavy sense of loss & regret slowly builds up, receding & progressing, until it crashes down on them, forcing them to do what they think is right. Setting it in the gorgeous vistas & beaches of Siargao isn’t put to waste thanks to Odyssey Flores, who captures the grandeur of Siargao, its surfing culture, & the interior lives of its characters through a variety of wide, drone & handheld shots inspired by vlogging that make the personal look epic & the epic look personal. The indie rock soundtrack, while typical, is still effective at capturing the movie’s mix of romance & melancholy.

Great performances from the central trio are key to making it less flimsy than it seems. Erich Gonzales is fantastic as a tourist opening up herself to Siargao & its people. Jericho Rosales gives Diego the right amount of smugness & charm that makes him even more charismatic. Jasmine Curtis-Smith is more quiet & subdued as Abi, but you can see how Diego’s return has made it awkward for her. In fact, all of them are trying to hide their suffering under their facades, trying to hold onto it until they become vulnerable.

What Siargao deeply understands about people is we will be forced to face our issues sooner or later. While places like Siargao offer a temporary respite from our problems, neither the island nor its inhabitants will resolve our problems. The island is just a place that needs to be taken care of, full of people who are also lost & in transition. What matters most is to figure out what we truly want & have the courage to pursue it & face the consequences.