Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Ang Larawan is a Stirring Eulogy for Old Manila

TL;DR: Ang Larawan is a stirring eulogy to Old Manila in the face of desperate times.

Ang Larawan (The Portrait) has a legacy of greatness behind its creation. It is based  on A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, a widely acclaimed Filipino play written in English by National Artist Nick Joaquin, which was then adapted into a classic movie by National Artist Lamberto V. Avellana. The play itself was turned into a musical called Larawan, The Musical with National Artist Rolando Tinio writing the libretto, famed musician & composer Ryan Cayabyab penning the music, & National Artist Salvador Bernal designing the set.

Ang Larawan follows its forebearer’s footsteps. As an adaptation of Larawan, The Musical, not only does it survive its transition from stage to film, it’s a moving tribute to an old way of Filipino life during the dawn of World War II that’s as masterful as its previous incarnations.

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Set during the dawn of World War II, Candida (Joanna Ampil) & Paula (Rachel Alejandro) are daughters of Don Lorenzo Marasigan, a widely renowned painter whose fame & wealth allowed them to enjoy the good life. Their father centered his children’s lives around art & his ideals when they were young, while hosting parties with other members of the Filipino elite.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to last. Both Candida & Paula are unmarried, living with their father who hasn’t produced a single painting in years, putting them in financial trouble. They don’t have enough money to pay their bills or buy necessities that they have to rely on their brother Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) & sister Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yao) for their expenses. They even opened up one of their rooms to Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), a two-bit vaudeville piano player with big dreams. But after their father had an accident, he drew a impressive painting for Candida & Paula & turned himself into a recluse. Word got around about their father’s latest masterpiece & their house is now bombarded by onlookers, art critics, & potential buyers. The painting might be their way out of their problems, but neither Candida nor Paula are willing to sell their father’s precious painting to anyone; not even to Tony, who became a middleman to an American buyer willing to buy for a huge amount of money. However, their increasing desperation & the looming war might just push them otherwise.

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At a first glance, setting up the conflict as whether two people are willing to risk their survival for a painting may not sound compelling for the big screen, but Ang Larawan gives us reasons to care. The family dynamic of the Marasigans is fascinating in itself & the movie leans heavily into it. Don Marasigan taught his children about his principles about art & culture & they either embraced it fully or rejected in tiny or huge ways, & now we’re seeing the fallout from their decisions. It’s reflected in the different ways they interpret their father’s latest painting, as they see their flaws & insecurities gawked & admired by the world at large. As different members of the Filipino society seek out this painting, their presence adds more dimensions to the movie. Their appearance is used to examine colonial Filipino society from different angles, especially those from a privileged background, & ask what does it mean to hold onto your values at a time or compromising them for a different one, when it’s easier to throw them away altogether to endure a world on the verge of collapse. It’s the old “art vs. commerce” & “integrity vs. prosperity” debate with much higher stakes, & while the conclusions the movie ends up with is a bit simplistic, it’s already emotionally involving since its discussions of art & integrity have been imbued by the human foibles of the Marasigans & the people surrounding them.

Especially when it’s done through song. The movie uses the same libretto & compositions from Larawan, The Musical, with the help of Ryan Cayabyab as the film’s musical director & the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra performing the score, & the jump to the big screen isn’t without its flaws. At times, it feels too claustrophobic & it doesn’t take more advantage of the freedom to play around in a three-dimensional space. The transition from one act to another can be stiff & awkward, but would play better with an actual curtain drop. It’s still heavily indebted to its theatrical roots, often to a fault.

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But it’s the same quality that makes it excellent. The movie consists of people belting out their emotions through the gorgeous music delivered by Ryan Cayabyab & the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, buoyed from great performances from the rest of the cast. It’s not subtle, but it goes straight for your heart, grabbing it & never letting go, without any pretense about its intentions. Not too mention this movie is filled with ridiculous amount of talent. Joanna Ampil deservedly won Best Actress for her role, & it’s no accident. Her Candida is fierce, stubborn, & often on the verge of breakdown, whose emotions swirl & shift thanks to their horrible circumstances. The only other worthy performer for the same award would Rachel Alejandro as Paula, who’s more soft-spoken & reserved yet equally captivating. Together, they bounce off & balance each other’s energies that’s arresting to watch. And this might be Paulo Avelino’s first musical role, he acquits himself nicely as the scrappy, charismatic Tony, who tries to sweep Paula off her feet to gain her favor. We’re barely even mentioning the likes of highly talented actors like Nanette Inventor, Noel Trinidad, Zsa Zsa Padilla, Sandino Martin, Menchu Launchengco-Yulo, Nonie Buencamino & more.

All of them fully realize the struggles of the people with the knowledge that Filipino society as they know it is about to end. Even so, Ang Larawan is a moving farewell to that era, one that speaks to our better judgment in the face of so much uncertainty & destruction. The world might soon be turned upside down due to chaos & violence, but it might be better to confront it with our integrity intact.

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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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