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.

Mr. & Mrs. Cruz & How We Define Happy Endings

Contains spoilers for Mr. & Mrs. Cruz. If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review, you can read it here.

Romantic comedies carry a lot of expectations about what kind of movies they’ll be. They will almost always feature two young, gorgeous people who, slowly but surely, will fall in love & get the happy ending they deserve; both of whom will presumably have a happy relationship once the credits roll. It’s a formula that works for a good reason: It’s fun, escapist, somewhat idealistic entertainment & there’s nothing wrong with that.

Mr. & Mrs. Cruz seems like it would be a traditional romantic comedy updated for current audiences. That’s not a problem, because it’s a masterful execution of the genre thanks to Sigrid Andrea Bernardo & the lovely performances from Ryza Cenon & JC Santos. But the movie has more in its mind, pushing beyond its initial premise that somehow makes it more human & fanciful at the same time.

Both Raffy (JC Santos) & Gela (Ryza Cenon) have valid reasons to get away from the city & take a tour of Palawan. Initially we’re only told that Raffy finds a letter from her fiance breaking off the engagement with the ring near it before the wedding, while Gela hugs her wedding dress, clearly dreading the idea of going through the wedding. But once they both start drinking at a bar after a day of bonding together, they finally share the reasons why they took their vacation. Raffy’s fiancee left him at the altar after being with him for three years, while Gela left his husband after they got married for three months; whom she’s been with for eight years. Raffy is still wounded by this, especially since he proposed to his fiancee on Palawan three years ago. Gela feels hurt & guilty for leaving her husband, who gave her everything she wanted when they were together for eight years; even if she needed to do so because she’s losing herself in their relationship.

Their drunken, hilarious, heart-to-heart talk helped them gain a mutual understanding on one’s heartbreak. Raffy now understands why her fiancee left, while he assures Gela that she did the right thing. This leads to the couple trying to make out while completely wasted on alcohol, which ends with Gela puking on Raffy, Gela trying to find Nemo of Finding Nemo in her vomit, & feeding some of it to Raffy, a disgusting but hilarious ending to their fun, heartfelt night.

After they’ve woken up & had a contentious misunderstanding about last night’s events, it’s clear that they’ve become even closer & more enamored of each other. They are freed from their issues thanks to one another. When they found out that the tour they joined left them, they decide to explore the sights of Palawan together. It even inspired Raffy to show Gela a video of his engagement from his ex-fiancee & delete it afterwards. Gela is shocked to find out that Gela & her ex-husband were also in Palawan back when they weren’t married when Raffy proposed to his ex-fiancee. She decides not to tell him, as they continue to enjoy each other’s company.

It’s at this point you’d expect the movie to end, with both of them presumably having a long, happy relationship after they leave the island. Why couldn’t it? They’re clearly in love, they comforted & supported each other, & the movie even implies that they’re destined to be together.

But Gela doesn’t want to pursue a relationship with Raffy. She thinks they’re both at different points in their life, & they need more time to find their place in the world. Even she finds their whole situation to be unreal, commenting that it’s something out of a romantic comedy. And she thinks they might see each other someday. Raffy asks her to reconsider & trade contact details, but she declines, leaving him alone in Palawan. After she left, Raffy finds her copy of Romeo & Juliet. He opens it & reads her parting message, with her incomplete cellphone number scribbled in the book’s first page. He also finds a picture of Gela, ripped from a photo taken by the newlywed couple who joined their tour.

It’s an ending that is at odds with itself, falling outside of the typical “happy ending” demanded by the genre while embracing the tropes of the genre. However, it makes complete sense. While their story has the makings of a fantastic romantic-comedy – and I’d agree because the movie is fantastic – they still have a lot to work on. Both of them still need to figure out what to do next; especially Gela, who’s trying to learn who she is after staying in a relationship for eight years. Staying together would worsen whatever hangups they have. Finding someone to love & reciprocates that feeling may be the usual conclusion we get in romantic comedies, but Mr. & Mrs. Cruz suggests that prioritizing our self-improvement is more important. Maybe after we find ourselves, it’ll be easier to find the “happy ending” we deserve.

Movie Review: Mr. & Mrs. Cruz is a Hilarious, Resonant Tale About Moving On

TL;DR: Mr. & Mrs. Cruz embraces the genre’s tropes & executes them masterfully, but it becomes more heartfelt once it leaves them behind.

It should be obvious from the trailers that Mr. & Mrs. Cruz is another hugot-infused “Before Sunrise” riff in a picturesque locale that’s sure to inspire lots of swooning romantics & broken-hearted cynics to go soul-searching on Palawan to find themselves. It’s a formula on the verge of becoming banal & repetitive, as numerous Filipino movies have used the template by the influential That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny), but riffed on it in different ways. The latest movie from Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, the director of Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Anita’s Last Cha-Cha) & the highest-grossing Filipino indie Kita Kita (I See You), might lean closer to the formula compared to others, but it’s done brilliantly, while coming up with its own ideas.

Gela Cruz (Ryza Cenon) & Raffy Cruz (JC Santos) are two tourists who went to Palawan in order to find themselves on their own after both experienced a wedding-related snafu. Neither of them have met before, but people keep confusing them for a married couple thanks to their similar, yet ridiculously common surname; including an old couple celebrating their golden anniversary & newlywed couple who are grouped with them in the tour. At first, they try their best to stick to their plans of enjoying this trip alone, but they easily hit it off; even if they had a huge fight about the importance of marriage. What they slowly realize is they each have something to impart that will help them move past their heartbreak.

What makes Mr. & Mrs. Cruz stand out from the rest is how it sharpens the film’s elements at its most effective. The movie mostly sticks with Gela & Raffy for the rest of the movie talking to each other, & it never grinds to a complete halt. Bernardo has always had a great ear for memorable dialogue & that quality shines through. The conversations Gela & Raffy have range from the silly, mundane, & hugot-related, but it’s always witty & engaging. They’ll be riffing on the implications of eating El Nido soup, how Romeo & Juliet isn’t aspirational once you look at it during adulthood, & their heated exchange about the need for marriage. Even those outside Gela & Raffy are amusing & memorable, giving the main couple a chance to interact with others. It isn’t above indulging in scenes outside its grounded tone if it will lead to something remarkable, including a funny gag involving dry-fit shorts & moments of whimsy that’s one of Bernardo’s trademarks. All of it is stirkingly shot, capturing how Gela & Raffy are slowly becoming closer to each other from the exquisite beaches of Palawan to its clean hotel rooms.

But the movie wouldn’t work without Ryza Cenon & JC Santos at its center. Their initial awkwardness quickly give way to a comfortable looseness they easily exude. It’s so enthralling to carry themselves well to Bernardo’s snappy dialogue. JC Santos is more aggressive & slightly reckless as Raffy, while Ryza Cenon is more composed as Gela, but willing to banter or fight back at Raffy’s repartee.

But starting from the night Raffy & Gela get drunk at a bar, it becomes clear Ryza Cenon is the instant standout. She becomes an emotional trainwreck as Raffy & Gela dig deeper about their issues. Cenon switches from laughing, drinking, crying, & laugh-crying while drinking, turning into a manifestation of a heartbroken id who drowns her sorrow with alcohol, but no matter how hard she tries, her broken heart always wins out; so she might as well have fun. JC Santos plays the much needed equally heartbroken, but more levelheaded drunken straight man, reacting to Gela’s ramblings while trying to make sure she’s safe. As they return to their hotel room, they reciprocate each others feelings in clumsy, awkward yet romantic fashion that inevitably turns into a literal mess.

Its heavy use of tropes appears to be purposeful though. Bernardo keeps propelling the narrative to something more emotionally true, even as it includes a twist that seems out of place. It’s a neat trick that makes it even more insightful & human. At the end, Mr. & Mrs. Cruz reveals what it truly is: a story of two people making sense of each other’s pain & sorrow. 

Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Meant to Beh is Actually Good! This is Not a Drill!

TL;DR: Meant to Beh is a new benchmark for Vic Sotto’s movies. It is at its best when it focuses on the emotionally rich story at its core & trying out funny, wackier jokes, instead of falling back on old habits.

Everyone who found out that Meant to Beh is included in the first four slots reserved for films chosen through script submission either rolled their eyes in frustration or became giddy with excitement. Whether we like it or not – and I certainly don’t – Vic Sotto’s films have become an inseparable part of the Metro Manila Film Festival, either as a symbol of “squeaky clean” family entertainment or a form of crass capitalism that condescends to every ethnicity, class, or gender; even if his movies never gained any critical acclaim & aren’t the ridiculously huge moneymakers they used to be in the previous decade.

Meant to Beh may change all this, but only slightly. After years of tinkering what a Vic Sotto movie should look like in the 2010s by bringing in new directors & breaking out of the action-fantasy mold set out by Enteng Kabisote, they’ve finally made a movie that is actually, surprisingly good.

Ron (Vic Sotto) & Victoria (Dawn Zulueta) are two complete opposites married to each other. Ron is a down-to-earth manager of a car wash with tacky taste who enjoys danggit and salted egg for breakfast. Victoria is a classy, ambitious executive for a travel magazine who loves fine dining. Their marrigae isn’t perfect thanks to their communication issues & the reason for their union, but they unconditionally love their three children Christian, Alex, & Riley. 
But when all of their insecurities & problems erupt thanks to Ron’s close friendship with Agatha (Andrea Torres), his regular passenger after he became a driver for an Uber-like company, they decide to split up. Ron & Agatha start dating, while Victoria is courted by Benjo (Daniel Matsunaga), a famous model/actor/athlete she hired as the new face of their travel magazine. This sends her children in panic, doing everything they can to keep their family intact.

It seems like a set-up for a full-blown farce, but Meant to Beh does something very different that makes it stand out from Vic Sotto’s previous films. It presents us with a family with an interesting dynamic, while making room for jokes. Even the three children each have their own subplots. Christian (JC Santos) is an avid photographer who bonds more with his mother. He pretends to be someone else online when talking to his crush, since he’s too embarassed to talk to her. Alex (Gabbi Garcia) is a sporty tomboy who is closer to her father, trying to fend off the advances of his admirer played by Ruru Madrid. Riley (Baste Granfon) is a troublemaker with a penchant for making Rube Goldberg machines, whose idea of play is so rough none of his maids last long.

Their kids’ problems provide plenty of fodder for Ron & Victoria to break up, but it never does. One of the best things about the movie is for the majority of the film, it never takes the easy path in telling what could be a straightforward story. Instead of piling on one wacky external problem after another – either from their kids or Andrea – in order to create conflict, it opts for something more mature & emotionally true to their characters & their dysfunctional marriage, even as it falls apart. It gives Vic Sotto & Dawn Zulueta a chance to shine as a couple stuck in an odd marriage but still trying to make it work for their family, until it doesn’t. It gives them a chance to show off their underutilized skills, like Vic Sotto’s solid dramatic acting & Dawn Zulueta’s sharp comedic timing. Even Daniel Matsunaga & Andrea Torres are fine foils for their foibles. It even manifests in the way it handles product placement with care & subtlety, integrating it into the plot instead of stopping it completely for the heavy-handed commercials Vic Sotto’s movies are infamously known for. This means it moves slower than Vic Sotto’s older movies – even with the godawful product placement – but it’s much more rewarding that way.

The movie makes up for it by throwing as many gags as it can. What’s amazing is the movie’s hit ratio is higher than usual, since it cuts back on canned lines & heavy mugging for pure absurdity mixed with actual warmth. It’s also willing to subvert expectations for a joke heavily rooted in the characters. There are still references here & there – including one that feels like Dawn Zulueta is reclaiming a meme as her own – but it’s never intrusive & the cast sells the hell out of them. It’s the least mean-spirited & funniest movie Vic Sotto made in years.

Yet parts of Vic Sotto’s old style rears its head from time to time, often to its detriment. There’s the casual yellowface that segues into a plot where another woman throws herself into Vic Sotto’s arms, which thankfully gets resolved quickly. Canned lines pop up at times. And as soon as it gets closer towards the end, it flips back on the promise it presented for most of the movie for something happier yet emotionally false, which is the norm for his movies.
Not too mention the kid’s plots are duds – excpet for Riley’s maid problem – that take time away from Ron & Andrea’s marital problems, especially Christian’s creepy catfishing. That’s not a disservice to the actors who did great work – including Baste Granfon in his acting debut – but they don’t have the emotional richness of the main plot.

Clearly, Meant to Beh is an instant standout in Vic Sotto’s oeuvre because of the ways it updated his proven formula for today’s audiences. And yet both of its feet are standing between the past & the present, stepping forward & backward until it ends up weaker from where it started. If this is what Vic Sotto’s movies would look like from now on, we’re off to a good start. We still don’t know whether they’ll continue in this direction, or push it even further, but for now, let’s enjoy the fact that when families flock to Meant to Beh, they’re going to have a wonderful time.

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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Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Paglipay Proves Hugot Can Improve an Already Impressive Movie

TL;DR Paglipay (Crossing) is a perceptive tale about the lives of Aetas in Zambales & caught between tradition & modernity, spiced up with the addition of hugot.

Hugot in Filipino romantic movies has come a long way. By focusing on sober, observant depictions of heartbreak & longing – often sprinkled with a heavy dose of Filipino wit – it created a novel way to tell love stories. But what was once new is now a huge part of the Filipino cinema.

It’s not a bad thing. That’s just the way it goes. There are still great movies powered by hugot, like this year’s I’m Drunk, I Love You, but the distinct spark it gave off is now gone. It has become formulaic, & it doesn’t help some movies use it as a crutch to cover up a movie’s lack of emotional complexity.

However, Paglipay (Crossing) is here to reignite that spark. It’s not your ordinary hugot film, confirming you can push this genre forward to unexpected places.

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Specifically in the mountains of Zambales, where groups of Aetas live out ordinary lives. They are an indigenous group scattered across Luzon. The Aetas’ main source of livelihood was farming, but all of this changed thanks to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. It spewed out huge amounts of lahar, heavy volcanic debris flow that covered nearby lands, bringing utter destruction in the nearby houses & buildings. It was the cause of reported deaths of 847 people & displaced numerous locals from their homes. It also turned the fields infertile, since it becomes too hot when it’s sunny & muddy when it’s wet. Nowadays, Aetas have moved from their original homes, either choosing to farm in the mountains, work in neighboring mines, or working on a nearby town.

One of those Aetas is Atan (Garry Cabalic), a young man helping his father as a slash-and-burn farmer in the mountains. When he is seen hanging out with his childhood friend Ani (Joan dela Cruz), his father urges him to marry her, so shame wouldn’t be brought upon Ani & her family. To do this, he has to come up with a dowry of 20,000 pesos, so he decides to travel to a nearby town & earn money. That’s when he meets Rain (Anna Luna), a college student studying “pilaok,” mixed marriages between “kulot” (Aetas) & “unat” (urban folk). Atan guides Rain in her project, & slowly finds himself falling for her. But Rain has problems of her own, as her relationship with her boyfriend becoming rockier.

Atan finds himself conflicted between the heavily traditional Aeta culture & modern society, & the movie treats both with nuance. It delves on the lives of Aetas deeply, showing us their ordinary lives with utmost detail. The exposition rarely gets clunky, since it opts for a more observational tone. We are just seeing their life unfold through our eyes. The gorgeous visuals add a lot to deepen our understanding of the setting. Even better is it doesn’t become too reverent in its depiction of Aetas. Earning money is a struggle, climate change is making it harder to farm, & the heavy focus on tradition can be constricting; especially for women, who couldn’t even choose the person they want to marry. This is heavily contrasted with the intoxicating freedom of modern Filipino society, where gender roles aren’t as rigid. But that freedom can foster messiness, as shown in Rain’s romantic issues.

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It’s a fascinating exploration of the clash between two cultures, and it’s within this narrative where hugot is seamlessly integrated. The hugot comes from Rain’s agony over her boyfriend & Atan’s longing for Rain. There’s even Rain’s wacky best friend played by Marinella Sevidal. It improves Atan’s dilemma of choosing between your own cultural identity & its comforts for a more open yet chaotic way of life. It turns the hugot into something more complex & weighty, where the consequences isn’t just moving on from heartbreak & finding someone else to be with, but the kind of person you are going to be.

Casting Aetas is the obvious thing to do when producing a movie like this & they found talented actors to handle this material. Garry Cabalic captures Atan’s confusion & exhilaration of encountering loving someone different than you for the first time. Joan dela Cruz’s role as Ani has little screen time, but makes the most of what she’s given. Anna Luna’s role as Rain sells the emotional pain her character is going through. Marinella Sevidal plays the typical, supportive best friend, but she nails the role perfectly.

Paglipay is already an excellent observant tale about an Aeta caught between two worlds. But by adding hugot in the mix, it becomes a melancholic, heartbreaking movie. If we’re going to be stuck with hugot, we might as well get movies that expand what this burgeoning genre can do.

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