Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Salvage Drags Us Straight to the Surreal Horrors of Mindanao

TL;DR: Salvage is an ambitious, inventive found-footage horror movie that delivers us straight to the surreal horrors of Mindanao.

To people living outside the Mindanao region, especially those who lived their whole lives in Luzon & have never set foot there, it is a place full of wonder & terror. The beautiful beaches & waterfalls, the gorgeous mosques, & the fascinating mix of Filipino, Moro, & Christian cultures clash with the threat of violence that’s plagued the region; just look at the recent Marawi siege as an example. It’s a place dripping with complexities & contradictions caused by its history of colonialism, terrorism, & neglect & indifference from imperial Manila, that it can be easy to simplify or misunderstand its problems.

Such is the case for the Manila-based TV news team at the center of this excellent Filipino found-footage horror movie. After their team was suspended when their lead reporter (Joel Saracho) caused a scandal by verbally & physically fighting a female politician in Mindanao, they’re sent off to central Mindanao to do a puff piece done in the style of a video diary about a series of killings rumored to be caused by an aswang. No one in the group is interested to cover such a light story, & everyone is in varying stages of boredom & annoyance; especially their lead reporter, who acts snobby & condescends to the locals. When they got lost trying to reach their next destination, a group of men dressed up in military jackets try to abduct them. As they try to escape death, lots of screaming & running ensue, while they continue to record everything unfolding to them as evidence of their suffering.

At first, it unfolds like a well-executed but typical entry into the genre. There are lots of shaky, handheld footage, the video often glitches out, & the audio can get choppy, but none of it is distracting enough that it can be hard to know what’s going on. Everyone in the cast is suited to playing their role, especially Joel Saracho as the impulsive journalist with elitist tendencies. However, it’s more focused on creating a sense of unease from being trapped in an unfamiliar land without exoticizing Mindano; one of the movie’s creepiest scenes has the journalist insultingly asking a boy to hold a piece of white paper in front of a camera while the cameraman fixes the white balance.

It slowly becomes even more surreal & nightmarish as they go deeper through the jungle to escape their captors. But what exactly are chasing them? Is it a rebel group posing as soldiers? Is it a rogue military troop? Is it an order from the military themselves? Does it involve the aswangs somehow? The answer is somewhere in between. What’s clear is we’re seeing the unfiltered beauty, rage, & confusion of Mindanao caused by its complex history, distilled through a camera that sees the stark truths more clearly than the TV news team at its center; to the point that only the audience are privy to footage “seen” by the camera. It’s an ambitious effort, fighting back against the limitations of the format to capture the state of a misrepresented, undervalued region. The news team can edit & manipulate reality – once by asking local authorities to carry a body once again due to the camera’s incorrect white balance – but there’s no way of escaping this truth: They went into the region underestimating it & ignorant of its current state, & there may be no escape from the consequences.

 

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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