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.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Bar Boys Get a Passing Grade

TL;DR: At its best, Bar Boys captures the rich tapestry of college life through the unique lens of law school.

The titular Bar Boys are far from the drunk slackers you’d expect them to be. It refers to the four close friends who love hang out & play DOTA on internet cafes. All of them applied in the same law school, but only three of them were accepted. Erik (Carlo Aquino) struggles early on once he enters law school, which he feels guilty about since his father works very hard as a security guard just so he could study. Torran (Rocco Nacino) is doing much better than Eric, but he’s also alloting some of his time at a fraternity for the connections it could bring. Chris (Enzo Pineda) is a studious, intelligent man who comes from a rich family & receives good grades. But his life is far from perfect: he’s trying to juggle his studies, his relationship with his girlfriend, & trying to hide said relationship from his controlling father who wants him to study in America. The only one who didn’t make it is Joshua (Kean Cipirano), who only applied for law school to please his parents & would rather use this opportunity to become an actor.

From there, it follows Erik, Torran & Chris as they try their best to survive law school without tearing each other apart, especially since only few students get to graduate with a law degree. It does this by mixing the internal struggles of the main ensemble & broad, funny yet relatable moments familiar to those who went to college, or even studied; from the old student that easily stands out, terrifying professors, and trying your best not to get called on by the aforementioned professors during recitation. It’s similar to other nostalgic coming-of-age movies such as Bagets, but the uniqueness of its milieu & its specificity makes its stand out. The approach gives it a chance to flesh out the world of law school & its inhabitants; it doesn’t shy away from the more violent impulses of fraternities either. At its best, these two elements are combined with ease & reveal the rich tapestry of being a law student, but at its worst, it slows down an overstuffed movie & takes our attention away from the movie’s more interesting stories.

But the main ensemble keeps the whole movie from spinning in multiple directions. All of them are excellent, especially Carlo Aquino as the striving underachiever who slowly becomes jealous of his friends. The most memorable role comes from Odette Khan as the strict yet caring Justice Hernandez, who understands more than anyone that the path to becoming a lawyer is stressful, because of the responsibility they will yield in the future. Bar Boys is cognizant of this, even if they are faced with so much obstacles. Whatever happens, their friendship will carry them onto graduation & beyond.

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: AWOL is a Humdrum Actioner with a Rotten Core

 

TL;DR: AWOL filters Duterte’s Drug War into a tale of state-sponsored vigilantism that’s not only morally irresponsible, but boring.

Lt. Abel Ibarra (Gerald Anderson) is the leader of an elite sniper squad, highly respected & easily befriended by his peers. He takes one final mission – hunting down a terrorist leader – before he settles in the city to teach in military school, so he can be closer to his family. They succeed, but it has bigger ramifications than they thought when a bomb snuck inside a lechon (roast pig) kills of his teammates & their families. Abel & his family are taken into a protection program, while the police investigates the crime. However, Abel thinks the investigation isn’t proceeding quickly as he wanted to, so he decides to ignore his superior’s orders & undergo an absence without leave, hunting down the people who are trying to kill him & his family.


Men, and it’s almost always a man, out to deliver justice on their own due to the failures of a flawed criminal justice system are a common trope in action movies. AWOL goes into familiar territory, with Abel picking off his enemies one by one with efficiency. What makes it different is it cribs details from the current War on Drugs launched by President Rodrigo Duterte, and tweaking it to suit its own needs. Abel fights back as a vigilante in order to keep his family safe. His final mission involves a terrorist who has ties to a powerful man whose son is a drug-addled convicted rapist; because of course he is. His superior is initially hesitant to support him, but after Abel convinces him by underlining the danger his family is in, he not only hides Abel’s actions from the police, but gives gives him intel on his assailants.

It would be fine if the movie examines Abel’s actions & its roots, but the movie is more focused on delivering the thrills. Make no mistake: this is an escapist fantasy, where one man serves out justice to his enemies by killing them, sometimes slowly, since the government is mired with incompetence & red tape to do its job effectively. It’s not interested in probing Abel’s impulses nor the military’s complicity in supporting Abel, since the movie doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with his actions; even if at one point he tortures one of the people who attempted to kill him when that man is so badly injured he couldn’t fight back.  Despite Abel’s horrifying actions, it distills a morally complex tale to a simple, glorified revenge tale.


This aspect even seeps its way on the action sequences. In the movie’s point of view, Lt. Abel Ibarra is a skilled “good” guy, while the rest are fodder for his bullets; his name is Abel Ibarra for crying out loud. We know because he’s the movie’s moral center & he can barrel through enemies with few struggles. The movie’s utter belief on its lead & his morals sucks any tension inherent in the premise.

This could’ve been a minor issue if the action scenes are enjoyable, but it also fails on that front. While the movie is buoyed with great production values & crisp night lighting, the action scenes are a bland, point & shoot affair. There’s nothing slick nor inventive about the action. It takes the shaky-cam approach, but without the imagination to make it work.

The cast couldn’t even make the characters seem more like cardboard cutouts, but that’s mostly the failure of a limp script. Gerald Anderson does his impression of a scorned vigilante & it never feels authentic. He’s better when he’s bonding with his wife & child, but that part is barely in the movie. The rest of the cast barely make an impression, doing their best to make their roles more substantial but failing to do so.

However, the best thing about the movie is its brief runtime. If you’re going to spend less time with this movie, the better. There’s always been an authoritarian bent to vengeance films, but by cherry-picking the grim realities of the Philippines’ current drug war & reflecting it back at us for our entertainment, it ignores its own political context & simplifies an ongoing problem in the Philippines & Duterte’s response to it in until nothing substantial is left. It’s irresponsible, & it’s done in service of an action movie that doesn’t deliver on the cheap thrills.

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: Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is an Excellent Horror Rom-Com You Shouldn’t Miss

TL;DR By combining a grounded romantic comedy with its own take on the manananggal mythos, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is an ambitious, intoxicating movie you shouldn’t miss.

Jewel (Ryza Cenon) is a lonely woman living by herself in an apartment. The closest thing she has to a friend is a pet turtle she calls Edward. One day, a man named Nico (Martin del Rosario) moves in at one of the units with his grandmother (Vangie Labalan). Both of them strike up a friendship that blossoms into something more.

But there’s a problem: Jewel is a manananggal, a vampire-like mythical creature in the Philippines, who haunts the night by splitting herself in half, leaving her torso behind to fly away & devour unborn fetuses from pregnant women or the hearts of unlucky humans. The movie’s unique spin on this iconic monster is she can walk among humans & has no control of her appetite. When it hits, she will undergo immense pain, & can only curb it temporarily by rubbing a special oil on her belly. Then, she will lurk night clubs looking for potential victims, lure them into having sex, kill her victim, & gorge on their remains to satisfy her hunger. To make sure no one suspects anything wrong, she leaves behind a piece of cardboard with this text written on it: “Wag tularan. Pusher ako” (Don’t imitate me. I’m a drug pusher.)

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You can already tell Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B (The Manananggal in Unit 23B) has lots on its mind just by reading the previous paragraphs. It delves in the ways female sexuality is feared & suppressed, & how Duterte’s drug war has allowed for malevolent forces to exploit broken systems for their own gains. The movie’s political & feminist subtext makes it thematically richer & surprisingly relevant.

Sure, it looks like a bunch of ideas thrown together, but it works thanks to the love story at its core. This is Prime Cruz & Jen Chuansu’s most ambitious effort to date, where their knack for crafting relatable characters engaging in amusing conversations is mixed horror with a sociopolitical bent. While Martin del Rosario & Ryza Cenon’s chemistry isn’t as strong as it should be, it doesn’t fall apart because they’re both have charming & the writing never fails them. Ryza Cenon is the absolute standout, revealing the multiple facets of Jewel’s personality & being with ease. They’re even backed up by the great Vangie Labalan, who makes the role of the eager, supportive grandmother endearing & funny instead of annoying.

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It also helps the movie sells the realities between Jewel’s double life, thanks to the top-notch production design, cinematography & musical choices. The veneer of normalcy is presented during the day, with drab greys highlighting the loneliness between the characters. Nico’s unit is a clean, organized, middle class home. Jewel’s unit has more ornate furnishings, but it still looks like an ordinary unit. But this movie, just like Jewel, comes out at night. That veneer is removed during the dark, giving way to stark, often neon-filled lighting that invites us to a world of mystery & terror that’s beyond us. Even Jewel’s unit reflects this, with neon red & green lights flooding the room, emphasizing Jewel’s duality. Since this is another Prime Cruz movie, the soundtrack & synth-heavy score is aces. It is evocative, memorable, & captures the isolation & danger the characters are caught in.

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The current cut we’re getting for Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino is different from the one delivered in the QCinema Film Festival 2016. Nico’s arc is kept to a bare minimum, almost removing any traces of his struggles as a man who stopped fighting his own battles, literally & metaphorically. While it does make for a leaner movie that ramps up its central tension quicker than before, Nico turns into a flatter character & his actions in the movie’s 2nd half lose some of its weight.

Even if that were the case, it doesn’t detract from the movie’s merits. Prime Cruz’s 2nd effort was, & still is a masterful blend of romantic comedy & horror, elevated by its ideas on female sexuality & the current political climate, wrapped in a charming package.

 

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.

birdshotSunrise

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.