MMFF 2019: Navigate the Cramped, Cruel Spaces of Metro Manila with the Great Horror Movie ‘Sunod’

TL;DR: Sunod wraps the story of a single mother trying to survive late capitalism with her daughter around a fantastic horror movie filled with memorable imagery.

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It’s apparent during the first few minutes of Sunod (Next) just how strained & dreary the spaces single middle-aged mother Olivia (Carmina Villaroel) navigates. She sleeps near her daughter Annelle (Krystal Brimner), who’s confined in a single-patient room at a private hospital due to her congenital heart disease. It’s spare, slightly disorganized, & it contains their necessities & a few items they hold dear, like various pictures of the two of them taped to a wall & a guitar Annelle uses to play songs to her mother, highlighting how further it is from their actual home.

The view outside isn’t any different either. Cloudy skies hover over Metro Manila while covering it in never-ending rain & fog, and headlights & street lights shine a path to people heading to their work or home amidst a gloomy night. Even Olivia doesn’t get any respite in her sleep, as she’s haunted by nightmares of Annelle being buried during a heavy storm, while tentacles rise above the wet soil & hold her down. Annelle is all she has in this world, & the fear of losing her consumes her every day.

Sadly Annelle needs to stay longer in the hospital than she anticipated & Olivia can’t afford to keep their current room in a few more days, so she’s forced to find a job as soon as possible. It’s rare we see Olivia roam the streets of Metro Manila throughout the whole movie, but the few instances we do confirms how lonely & alienating it is. It’s as if everyone is just like her, constantly on the move because their life depended on it. She’s left to fend off for herself, but she stumbles on a college job expo & lands a job as a call center agent through sheer luck & her proficiency of the English language. She’ll be answering customer service calls by night & take care of her daughter during the day.

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The call center where majority of Sunod takes place stands out for its sheer incongruity. It’s housed inside an art deco building that appears to be the First United Building, a famous heritage building in the city of Manila. It was completed in 1928 & it’s one of the few remaining buildings that survived World War 2 & reckless demolitions that show off Philippines’ complete disregard to its history. Within the movie’s universe though, it was also built before World War 2 & still stood afterwards, but it was turned into a prestigious hospital that later shut down due to mysterious circumstances. Now, the building is reopened as an office space for anyone who’s interested.

The glitz & glamour of the building can be seen in the reception, with ornate statues, marble columns & simple, slick details that greet anyone who comes in, but it’s a facade that quickly falls apart. Not all floors are occupied, since they are still under renovation, filled with construction materials.

The call center Olivia works for is drab & ominous. Employees are surrounded by unpainted concrete walls, closed blinds, & multiple concrete columns that loom over everyone. It doesn’t help that she caught the unwanted attention of the company’s strict COO Karen (Mylene Dizon), who is always on the edge of berating any employee who makes the slightest mistake.

She does get some emotional support from her team lead Lance (JC Santos) & her new friend/colleague Mimi (Kate Alejandrino), & she still finds time to bond with her daughter, but it’s clear juggling both is taking a huge toll on her. Carmina Villaroel lets you feel the desperation & exhaustion Olivia been carrying for so long just so she can give the best for her daughter.

Sunod paints a nightmarish vision of Metro Manila that’s slightly heightened from our own, where every moment of warmth & kindness is either a brief reprieve from the constant grind of trying to survive under late capitalism or it’s merely a pretense for a transaction you didn’t know you signed up for. It’s a cold, ruthless world, & it’s even harder for single mothers like her who has to juggle family & work while facing different kinds of oppression.

That’s not even including the ghost of a young girl who starts stalking Olivia in the office.

Director Carlo Ledesma, along with cinematographer Mycko David, production designer Ericson Navarro, & the script by Anton Santamaria have done an excellent job establishing Olivia’s life & her surroundings without rushing its supernatural elements that by the time Olivia is haunted by a ghost, there’s already a weighty sense of dread & claustrophobia that’s inescapable. It’s not afraid to be nasty when it needs to be, which is atypical for an MMFF horror movie, although a scene depicting sexual assault that happens in the middle of the movie feels slightly gratuitous, even if it’s never exploitative. It uses jump scares with care & craft, and while the setup & execution aren’t novel, it is effective & brimming with stark, memorable imagery.

The third act is weaker though, as it turns into a series of confrontations that cut through the tension & mystique it built before, but it never loses the craft & commentary that made it so great. The reason behind the evil machinations in the movie are surprising & will leave some audiences frustrated, but that’s what makes it more horrifying. It comes back to the building itself. It’s alluring veneer can’t hide what happened before. And sadly, people who don’t have the means to rise above the harsh systems in place – who are just trying their best to get through another day – are the first ones to feel the effects of ignoring our past. Time will keep moving forward but history will haunt us all.

Movie Review: Never Not Love You is One of the Best Modern Takes on Love vs Career

TL;DR: Never Not Love You is a beautiful, grounded examination on how hard it is to choose between love & career, with excellent performances from James Reid & Nadine Lustre.

Countless movies have been made about the modern dilemma of choosing between love & career, yet only few of them feel as bracing or as heartbreaking as Never Not Love You. It arrives at a time where Filipinos are more receptive to emotionally realistic romance movies, & Antoinette Jadaone – who’s one of the key people who this style more palatable to audiences – delivers her most mature movie yet, backed up by one of the most popular love teams in the Philippines & real-life couple James Reid & Nadine Lustre.

The duo play Joanne & Gio, a couple who jumps somewhat recklessly into a loving relationship. Joanne is an ambitious marketing assistant who left the province for Makati City, dreaming of ascending the corporate ladder & making her parents proud. She meets Gio, a freelance artist passionate with tattoos known for his playboy streak, when he sold her a pack of stickers. It’s very clear that Gio fell hard for Joanne the moment he saw her, & since he’s the kind of person who chooses to pursue what makes him happy, he starts courting her unofficially. She tries her best to resist his charms due to his reputation, but soon they become so close they start living together; it’s fine if an unwed couple cohabitate, because c’mon guys, it’s 2018.

Here is where JaDine – the nickname for the duo – continues to prove why they are a huge Filipino phenomenon. It’s easy to root for them, since they’re just charming & charismatic as a couple. But this is a more intimate romance compared to their previous work – as much as you can be intimate in a PG-rated – that’s complemented by their childlike intensity. You can see it in how Mycko David & Carlos Mauricio shoot the movie, mostly with close-ups & handheld shots while Gio & Joanne are often bathe in bright, neon colors. Or how the wide shots capture the endless possibilities in front of them. It produces some of the most gorgeous visuals they’ve ever done, turning Makati & Zambales into a rural & urban sandbox they can freely explore. The most outstanding aspect though, is Jadaone’s rich, economical writing, as she explores their dynamic & following it thoroughly as it flourishes, while setting up possible roadblocks in their future without dragging the whole movie into a slog.

And trouble does arrive for the couple. When Gio’s father stops financially supporting him, he starts lashing out at everyone, including Joanne. He can’t live on the few, sporadic jobs alone, he doesn’t want Joanne to support him, nor does he want to work in a corporate environment for fear of losing the freedom to do what he wants. When his friend reveals that he received a job offer from one of his clients to work for their company in London with a huge salary, Joanne asks him why he didn’t take it. Leaving her behind isn’t an option for him, since he wants to have a future with her together. He asks her to go to London with him, but she doesn’t want to since she’s already up for a promotion to assistant brand manager. It causes a big fight, but in the end they both decided that moving to London is the best option for them.

That’s just the beginning of the hardships their relationship will face, & Jadaone details every facet of their journey. Gio & Joanne are clearly in a loving, supportive relationship, but they’re often at each other’s throats due to their neuroses, insecurities, & social backgrounds. Jadaone is trying to reveal something truthful & grounded without wrapping it around a unique hook – which isn’t a bad thing, considering she made some of her best work under that mode – & she mostly succeeds, revealing how frustrating it is to bridge the gap between their love for each other & what they want to achieve in life, while commenting about class & even race; even if the latter isn’t as subtle as it should be. (You can argue that putting JaDine in a serious romantic drama that’s also shot in London is a hook in itself, but I digress.)

It’s during this half of the movie where James Reid & Nadine Lustre clearly step up. James Reid is the obvious standout as the impulsive & temperamental Gio, whose intensity & devil-may-care attitude brings out the best & worst in him. Jadaone is careful not to write him as an awful jerk, but he could still be detestable in the wrong hands. Thankfully, James Reid uses the charismatic bad boy image he’s cultivated over the years to show the flawed, well-intentioned side underneath his cocky demeanor, & watching him grow emotionally over the course of the movie is engrossing to watch. That doesn’t mean Nadine Lustre is slacking off on the sidelines. Joanne is pragmatic & ambitious, & you can see Lustre carefully navigating their tricky relationship, as she moves from supporting Gio’s dreams & begrudging how further she is from achieving hers, with her resentment slowly simmer, until it completely boils over. She also has her own journey to take in the movie, & she reveals the subtle changes she made without her calling attention to it. Even the visuals become more sober & less frentic without losing its beauty, as the same visual language used earlier in the movie turned their world smaller, even as they travel & achieve more success.

It’s a complicated position to be put in, yet Never Not Love You never takes the easy way out. While the events leading up to its conclusion could’ve been tighter, it takes a more realistic stance. Being in a committed relationship is a constant act of negotiation, & as long as the love that brought them together doesn’t curdle into bitterness, they’ll survive any obstacle in their way.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Birdshot Lives Up to Its Moniker as a Coming-of-Age Thriller

TL;DR This “coming-of-age” thriller can be slow & awkward at times, but this is a movie that lives up to its moniker. Definitely one of the best Filipino movies of 2017.

Birdshot is one of the more atypical entries in Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017. It is billed as a “coming-of-age thriller” & it mostly delivers on that promise. It is a unique movie that combines two genres seemingly at odds with each other, yet it comes out fully-formed, creating an unforgettable experience.

It tells the tale of Maya (Mary Joy Apostol in her debut role), a young girl taken care of by her father Diego (Ku Aquino). They are poor & surrounded by fields of wheat, since they live on a land his father is taking care of. Diego wants his daughter to learn how to hunt so she could take care of herself when he’s gone. Maya unwittingly enters a sanctuary for the endangered Philippine eagle – Philippines’ national bird & the rarest eagle in existence – and decides to shoot one for practice. Her father isn’t happy about what she did, since killing one is a criminal offense. Now they both have to hide the crime to the police & try to keep their family intact.

It is also about Domingo (Arnold Reyes), an idealistic rookie cop with a strict moral conduct working hard for his family. He is partnered with Mendoza (John Arcilla), a corrupt cop who knows his way around the crooked system he works for. Both of them are investigating a missing persons case involving a group of passengers departing to Manila. Domingo is intent on solving the case, but is forced to drop it in order to solve the disappearance of a missing Philippine eagle. Mendoza wants him to focus on the new case, but Domingo wouldn’t listen, especially once he finds out that the passengers include a group of farmers who are going to reclaim a land that is rightfully theirs.

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These two stories dovetail to create a tale of corruption, conspiracy & survival in a world where institutions created to help everyone are controlled by the rich & powerful, leaving those who are defenseless to fend off for themselves. The result is a society built on a cruel food chain, where the weakest are left behind to suffer or worse.

And this is the world Maya & Domingo where they will undergo a rite of passage, forcing them to chose between doing the right thing or staying alive. The genre mashup takes a while to gel together, since it takes up lots of time to setting up its milieu. It doesn’t help the movie focuses too much on the “thriller” aspect of the story, which means there aren’t as many character interactions that would’ve made the movie land harder than it should’ve.

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That coldness even shows in the performances, which comes off as stiff at times, but the cast rises above it. Mary Joy Apostol is outstanding as a young girl forced to fight back for her survival. Ku Aquino is great as Maya’s stern & protective father who tries his best to shield her daughter in the world they live in. Arnold Reyes portrays Domingo as a man going through huge lengths to maintain his ideals & realizing it will cost him dearly. John Arcilla is often hilarious as a cop who’s finally settled into his role in this brutal ecosystem.

And yet, it pays off immensely in the 2nd half, where the two plots entangle further & the boiling tension ratchets up until it is unleashed to the audience. This is only Mikhail Red’s 2nd film & it fulfills the promise he showed in his debut Rekorder.  Fusing the tale of a young girl growing into a woman & a rookie cop who’s way out of his league within the framework of a thriller is pure genius. He exhibits a total control of mood & expertise in the technical aspects of filmmaking & it shows on every frame of the film.

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It helps that he’s backed by the great cinematographer Mycko David. Birdshot is filled of beautiful images, mostly isolating the characters in environments that engulf them completely, or using close-ups to trap them in the situation they currently in. The best examples of this often occur at night, where people would be swallowed by the darkness if not for a few sources of light available to them or shadows cast across their faces; emphasizing how they are a breath away from being subsumed by forces beyond their control.

That is a feeling familiar to most Filipinos & Birdshot captures it fully. It may not be totally successful, but the results are captivating & exhilarating, while emphasizing the cruel reality at its center.