Smaller and Smaller Circles is an Excellent Mystery Set in a Seemingly Godless Universe

TL;DR: Raya Martin’s adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s critically acclaimed novel eschews the lurid thrills in its premise to examine corrupt institutions & God’s place within it.

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

If you’re a believer, it’s a question that will cross your mind in the face of continuous adversity. It doesn’t matter if your problems are big or small, since we all have our own crosses to bear. Prayers are the only lifeline some of us have, especially in a world where the weak & oppressed are at a disadvantage & the institutions surrounding them rarely help or address their problems; forcing them to act sinfully in order to survive, lest they end up in a worse state than they were before. But what happens when no one seems to be on the receiving end of our prayers? It can seem like there’s an all-powerful being who will judge us, but never listens to our sufferings. Or worse: there’s no one there in the first place.

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Father Gus Saenz (Nomie Buencamino) & Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero) find themselves in the perfect position to explore this conundrum in this movie adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s highly acclaimed novel, considered by many as the first Filipino crime novel. Both of them are Jesuit priests skilled in forensic science, whom are called by police director Francisco Lastimosa (Bembol Roco) to investigate a series of grisly murders targeting prepubescent boys in Payatas; a barangay famous for its huge garbage dumpsite & the poverty surrounding it. With the help of the Joanna Bonifacio (Carla Humphries), a nosy journalist who previously studied under Father Saenz, they’ll work together to figure out who is responsible for the senseless deaths.

The movie eschews the lurid thrills of its premise, since it’s not really what it’s about. It focuses more on our leads balancing their duties as priest who upholds the values of the Catholic Church, & as forensic experts helping out in any way they could. It embraces the process of solving the case, following clues & red herrings, & trying their best to figure out who perpetrated these murders & what kind of person would commit them. They also find themselves at the mercy of dysfunctional bureaucracies of the Catholic Church & the Philippine National Police, where corruption & incompetence fester rapidly that the powerless are not only at their mercy, but left to suffer continuously. While we get glimpses of the serial killer’s psychology throughout the movie – starting with the movie’s first scene – it never gives us the pleasure of enjoying the violence. It’s only teased out, & more often we see its chilling consequences. When we do get to see it, it is brutal, horrifying, awkward, & anticlimactic at times.

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It’s a workmanlike approach, allowing us to be absorbed in the brutal proceedings. It never gets too dark though, with its grim, deadpan sense of humor acting as a release valve that never overwhelms the sober tone it set. There’s also the throbbing score, a mix of subtle, pulsating synths, & the angelic voices of the Loboc Children’s Choir, sprinkled with quirky sound effects – like the sound of a dial-up router while the two priests are brainstorming – creating an atmosphere of doom amongst the Church & its young constituents. All of this is shot with a keen eye by J.A. Tadena, whose gorgeous cinematography drapes the movie with a grim color palette the further the leads are from positions of power, emphasizing how it feels to be ignored by institutions, & even God himself. After making critically acclaimed experimental films, Raya Martin has made another impressive work in his first foray into mainstream fare, that has enough quirky flourishes to make it stand out.

Surrounding the movie is a murderer’s row of talented actors. One of the best things about it are the surprise cameos from renowned actors delivering great work from bit parts – the best one involving an old woman giving Father Saenz a bag of maruya – that revealing them ruins half of the fun, so let’s talk about the performances that can’t be spoiled. Bembol Roco delivers a fiery performance as a morally upright police director who can unleash his anger in an instant. Raffy Tejado gives a layered portrayal as a slimy, incompetent attorney whose pride & ambition outmaches his intelligence & moral compass. Ricky Davao plays the role of Cardinal Meneses as a man who not only prioritizes the Church before his constituents, but also cunning enough to weaponize his supposed moral high ground.

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Arguably the best work comes from the leads, who crafted complex portrayals out of seemingly simple characters. Carla Humphries giver her role as a worldly, tenacious journalist with a warmth she shares with the people she’s familiar with. Sid Lucero exposes his character’s youth in his profession without diminishing his skills. Most importantly, Nomie Buencamino is a standout, who gives off a world-weary demeanor but never wavers in his fight against injustice.

These characters have moments where the stress of working on the case is starting to wear on them, yet they persevere; and not only because it’s the right thing to do. At one point, when Cardinal Menenses insinuates that Father Saenz has ulterior motives for joining the investigation, he replies: “There are many ways to give witness to faith.” We may not be sure if God exists, but Smaller and Smaller Circles suggests a way to bridge the gap between God & us mere mortals: helping the needy & exploited, & ensuring justice is served in the most humane way possible. It is the closest thing we have to an act of God, & those who have lost faith will need it.

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Tingin ASEAN Film Festival Coverage 2017 Part 1: Or Why This Landmark Film Festival Makes a Convincing Case for Its Existence

Featured image is taken from Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, one of the movies selected for the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival.

If you live at major cities in the Philippines, especially in Metro Manila, there’s no shortage of film festivals running in your nearest malls, cinematheques, microcinemas, & premiere local universities.

We’re not just talking about private Filipino independent film festivals like CineMalaya & Cinema One Originals, or film festivals organized by the government like QCinema International Film Festival, Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Feast of Filipino Cinema), & the Metro Manila Film Festival. There are also film festivals that feature films specific countries, regions, & classic movies – done with the help of foreign embassies – which are often free to the public. We have the famous Japanese film Festival Eiga Sai, the Silent International Film Festival, & a film festival featuring countries from the European Union called Cine Europa; and as of writing, United Kingdom is still part of the film festival, amusingly enough. Not to mention there are even film festivals showcasing movies from certain countries in Europe, like the Italian, Danish, & Swiss Film Festivals.

For film buffs like me, it can be exhausting. Even Dr. Patrick F. Campos – an independent critic, a famed scholar of Southeast Asian cultures, faculty member at the University of the Philippines, & the main moderator of the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival – is aware of this. During one of the open forums scheduled for the film fest, he talks of “film festival fatigue,” & if there is a need for another film festival in a ridiculously crowded market. In fact, the Danish Film Festival & the much-awaited QCinema International Film Festival will begin the week after the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival.

Nevertheless, the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival makes a convincing case for its existence. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Philippines’ membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) & since the Philippines will be hosting this year’s ASEAN summit, the National Commission of Culture & Arts organized the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival: Southeast Asia Through The Eyes of Cinema at Shangri-La Plaza Mall in Mandaluyong last Oct. 11 – 15, 2017. It aims to capture the state of Southeast Asia through each of the country’s movies. It will showcase movies from all ASEAN nations selected by their respective governments, & a Tastemaker’s Section, a group of ASEAN movies selected by actor & producer Piolo Pascual, producer & screenwriter Moira Lang, & Dr. Patrick F. Campos himself. There will also be forums led by various scholars, producers, & artists.

This is a huge deal. Foreign Southeast Asian movies are a rarity in our country. There are Southeast Asian movies featured in other film festivals like CineMalaya & QCinema, & a few weeks ago we got the excellent Bad Genius from Thailand, but they feel like aberrations more than the norm. Our current market features more American movies compared to local ones. We also get Japanese movies if they are based on famous franchises, & a few Korean movies headlined by Korean stars familiar to Filipino audiences for their marketability.

Judging by this film festival, this is a ridiculous travesty. We are missing out on a lot of cinematic treasures from our neighbors, thanks to a mostly non-existent distribution methods.

The movies featured here are proof. These movies either tell stories that are indigenous to the area told in inventive ways or indigenized versions of familiar genres – some of which are done for the first time in their own countries – where we can see well-known tropes tweaked for their local audiences. It’s an eclectic bunch, from a playful documentary about Cambodia’s Golden Age of Cinema & the rise of the Khmer Rouge to the first feature-length horror movie in Brunei – which was made in 2016! – demonstrating the variety & breadth the region has to offer. Even if some of the movies included in the film festival are lackluster, it’s always interesting because this is what their corresponding governments deemed worthy to represent their countries & the cultural, historical, & political contexts they come from are fascinating in itself. These movies are also very hard to find through legal & illegal avenues, which means this festival may be the only chance we’ll get to see them.

Grouped together, they form a cohesive whole that connects & contrasts each other & the countries they came from. As Dr. Patrick F. Campos posits in the first open forum called Overview of Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinema, the idea of a Southeast Asian Cinema isn’t that far-fetched. The birth of contemporary cinema of most Southeast Asian countries began in the 1990s, started by small film collectives making short films with digital cameras, while slowly gaining momentum & acclaim for local & international audiences. Southeast Asian countries also have similar cultures, social mores & class structures, from our conservative values to the practice of enslavement that focused more on debt bondage. All countries have featured some form of communication even before Westerners colonized the region through business & trade. And strikingly enough, our shared histories of violent dictatorships; messy political upheavals; class struggles; communist uprisings; exploitation & discrimination of women & minorities; migrations from urban-rural areas & vice versa, that continues to reverberate throughout our region.

And he’s right. Watching these films as an adult middle-class Filipino living in the city, all of these stories feel like crossing an uncanny valley, without the discomfort inherent in the concept. They are familiar enough to resonate, but full of details that make them slightly alien to me & my culture.

This is important. According to the ASEAN’s founding document called the ASEAN Declaration, one of the organization’s aims is “to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of South-East Asian Nations.” The Tingin ASEAN Film Festival helps with this goal, allowing audiences to view Southeast Asian movies with some of the artists & filmmakers present for Q&As & join open forums addressing the needs of the region. It fosters unity through cultural development & exchanges, allowing us to delve into the issues that are important to us & help each other out. The word “tingin” is reflective of this, as it both means “look” & “vision” in English.

While making movies in itself will not solve our problems, it does plant the seeds for us to work hard for a brighter future. It humanizes the problems we’re not familiar with, and as cheezy it may sound, it highlights the old, tested idea that we are much more alike with our neighbors than we realize.

Currently, there are no plans to have another iteration of the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival, but it would be a huge mistake to end it immediately. The whole festival is proof that even with 50 years of ASEAN, we still have lots to learn & share with our neighbors.

The second part of my coverage of the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival will feature the films I’ve seen from the festival. Unfortunately, I missed a few movies in the lineup, but I have seen almost all of them, & they are illuminating & fascinating in different ways.