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.

Advertisements

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Down Syndrome is Tackled with Grace in the Heartwarming Star na si Van Damme Stallone

TL;DR While it gets too sweet & aspirational by the third act, Star na si Van Damme Stallone is a funny, heartwarming movie that handles Down Syndrome with the levity & subtlety it deserves.

Down syndrome is a condition misunderstood by majority of the public. People who have Down syndrome are mostly mocked or ostracized by society. It doesn’t help that representation for people with Down syndrome is mostly nil.

Star na si Van Damme Stallone (Van Damme Stallone is Now a Star) proves it shouldn’t be that way. This is an excellent movie that gives people with Down syndrome & their families a chance in the spotlight, & have their stories told.

starNaSiVanDammeStalloneBrother

Nadia (Candy Pangilinan) is a single parent who has to make ends meet to raise her two children Tano & Van Damme Stallone (who is given the nickname Vanvan), the latter of which has Down syndrome. The movie follows the family’s struggles & victories, as Nadia guides her children to adulthood, while Vanvan tries to achieve his dream to be an actor.

The best thing about the movie is it takes pains in showing how hard it can be to raise a child with Down syndrome without sugarcoating or overplaying the struggle or fears of every parent & family member. It focuses on the small, intimate moments, like Nadia worrying about your Vanvan’s future, Tano letting Vanvan get the lead role in a play, or the family defending Vanvan from bullies. It’s not afraid to go dark either, with one of the movie’s memorable moments involve Nadia doing something horrible to escape her life, but backing away at the last moment, quickly apologizing to Vanvan. It already knows that taking care of someone with Down syndrome is compelling enough on its own.

starNaSiVanDammeStalloneCranes

Although this movie isn’t as dour as it sounds. This is a sweet & hilarious movie, & is better for it. Vanvan is surrounded by people who love & support him outside their main family, like his grade school teacher & her mother’s best friend Cecille (Sarah Brakensiek) & his uncle Jim (Richard Noson). It is partly aspirational, but it never loses its unsparing, realistic approach. There are jokes, but none are there to make Vanvan the butt of it. It makes for a charming movie, even as it deals with a topic like Down syndrome.

More importantly, Vanvan is depicted as an actual human. He’s not a never-ending obstacle for his family, a prop to emphasize how good his family is, nor an unlimited supply of goodness. Vanvan has wants, needs, strengths & flaws. The movie even indulges in bits of whimsy, taking us into Vanvan’s mind in an effort to show us who he is.

starNaSiVanDammeStalloneAction

It helps that the actors they chose to play Vanvan are excellent; both of which have Down syndrome as well. Jadford Dilanco & Paolo Pingol play young & old Van Damme respectively, & they both capture his playful, childlike innocence & his pricklier side. But the most surprising & outstanding performance has to be from Candy Pangilinan. She shows us the internal struggle of a single parent with a subtle, nuanced performance. It’s not showy, but it fits the movie’s mood & story.

The movie does get too sweet & indulge in unearned wish fulfillment by the third act. It tries its best to give everyone a happy ending, one of which involves a cameo appearance from Jasmine Curtis-Smith. It doesn’t matter, since it’s still absorbing by the end. Besides, Star na si Van Damme Stallone is the kind of sincere, good-natured family movie that rarely gets made anymore & it tackles the subject of Down syndrome with the delicate touch it deserves.

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 2: Baka Bukas

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 2nd movie in my list is Samantha Lee’s Baka Bukas (Maybe Tomorrow). 

There’s no question that Philippines is flooded with romantic movies. What’s exciting is they currently vary in tone & execution, thanks to the success of the Filipino independent scene, the major studios being more often to experimentation to create something unique yet palatable to all audiences, & those studios hiring writers & directors from the independent scene to make their own spin on a studio-approved romantic movie. This is how we got the formulaic delights of movies like Vince & Kath & James, the influential hugot-inspired leanings of That Thing Called Tadhana, the daring experimentation of 2 Cool 2 Be 4Gotten, or something push the studio template into exciting directions without breaking the template like Can We Still Be Friends?

Even if we are getting more romantic movies, it’s unfortunate that it’s still pretty much a heterosexual affair. While we do get movies like The Third Party Bakit Lahat ng Gwapo May Boyfriend? (Why Does Every Handsome Guy Have a Boyfriend?) from major studios, those are the exceptions from the rule. There are more romantic movies focusing on LGBTQ characters in the Filipino independent scene, which we should all be thankful for, but the number of movies coming out from that scene doesn’t quite match the number of romantic comedies with cishet couples at the center, & majority of those films are about gay couples. There still isn’t enough diversity in the kinds of stories that are getting made.

This is why a movie like Baka Bukas (Maybe Tomorrow) stands out so much. It’s one of the few movies to focus on a lesbian couple. It builds off on the foundations of the current slate of romantic movies while setting off on its own path, even if the results are mixed.

Alex (Jasmin Curtis-Smith) is a lesbian whose relationship with Kate (Kate Alejandrino) just ended. She’s a creative working on multiple jobs & projects, one of which is pitching an idea for TV series focusing on a lesbian couple. She hasn’t told her best friend/rising actress Jess (Louise delos Reyes) about her sexuality yet. She even hid her previous relationship to Jess & told Kate she’s hiding it from her mother, instead of her best friend. When she finally comes out to Jess, it comes as a shock to her. It also forces Alex to confront her true feelings to Jess, which she’s been hiding for a very long time. When she comes clean to Jess, they try to be a couple, which turns serious the longer they stay together.

It’s a premise full of promise, but is hampered by the the couple at the center of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, Jasmin Curtis-Smith & Louise delos Reyes are both great in their respective roles. Both are great at capturing the confusing situation they found themselves in & portraying each of their respective struggles & it’s easy to buy them as long-time best friends. But together, they have romantic chemistry so forced, it might as well be non-existent. Even odder is Jasmin Curtis-Smith has better chemistry with Kate Alejandrino compared to Louise delos Reyes. This works to the movie’s advantage when both of them are figuring out how to navigate their new relationship status, but it fails them when they’re supposed to fall for each other. The impression that it started as a whim between two best friends never goes away.

It’s such a shame, since the stiff romance, which is the movie’s main focus, drags an insightful, personal movie along with it. It presents a non-stereotypical lesbian couple in a world where homosexuality is only tolerated, but not fully accepted or understood – alternatively called current-era Philippines – probing its flaws by adding social satire in a very intimate movie. Alex’s pitch is daunted by concerns & questions about how advertisers might be wary to support a show with a lesbian couple at the center, how coming out isn’t a “thing” anymore, & how they’re wary of showing two women kissing in romantic manner. Meanwhile, Jess is daunted with concerns on how her relationship with Alex might affect her career as a respected actress & how she views herself; since she’s only dated guys.

But its best insight has to be the process of “coming out” is a constant process. Members of the LGBTQ community will have to decide whether to reveal or hide their gender, & if they’re willing to deal with the consequences. This is not only reflected in Alex’s story, but in another one where her co-worker/friend Julo (Gio Gahol) wonders if their other co-worker/friend David (Nelsito Gomez) is gay, since Julo has a crush on him & David hasn’t really been forward about his gender.

The setting also provides a chance to explore the world of trendy, upper-class creatives. It really shows with its gorgeous, softly lit cinematography by Sasha Palomares, making it look like it was filtered through VSCO filters, & the spare, synth-heavy score from Denise Santos with help from BP Valenzuela. And while that’s a setting that’s already been done before, Baka Bukas finds a way to make it an important part of the story.

Jess finds herself way out of her league with Alex & her friends. To Alex’s friends, Jess is an uncool outsider who peddles cheap entertainment, wears a sparkly dress to a hip club, & only uses Instagram filters instead of editing her pictures through Snapseed & VSCO. While it is a slobs vs. snobs fight between upper-middle class citizens, it pokes fun at the arrogance of people like Julo & David, who look down on anything uncool or made for the masses. Yet it becomes clear that the movie doesn’t really dive deeper into this conflict, since the movie presents their horrible behavior without fully admonishing it or exploring it further. If it’s a way to feature these types of people in this setting, it doesn’t work since the movie is exploring different issues thoughtfully, while this aspect feels undercooked.

Add a rushed, ambiguous ending, & the whole movie ends up being a frustrating mess. We should still be thankful this movie exists. Its aims are admirable, it has a shiny, bright exterior, & it has lots on its mind, but it can’t overcome the dull romance at the center of this movie. Maybe someday we’ll get our great lesbian romance for the modern Filipino era.