Reviews, short films

FAMAS 2018 Short Films

Familiar, fantastic, fearless fictions: Short film from FAMAS 2018 

Keith Deligero’s short film Babylon about mysterious happenings in a local town is one of the selected films under FAMAS 2018. It competed in the Short Film corner of the Berlin International Film Festival.

Screened last week at the Cinematheque Davao are nominated short films from the 2018 Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards, which held its awards ceremony last June 10. People from the film industry and those closely following Philippine cinema hailed this year’s edition as a turnaround with its recognition of more independent productions in its roster of nominees. Part of its revitalization is the inclusion of short films and documentary films for the first time.

Despite its relegated position in Philippine cinema (due to the short attention and even fewer opportunities for exposure), some of the short films from these decades are singular works of vision that signals new and diverse voices in filmmaking. The films in the program is a kind of distillation of these voices. The films showcase fearless and diverse storytelling told in unique perspectives, from narrative fiction to documentary to experimental ventures.

The most prominent narrative thread from the films is one that views the precariousness of the Filipino family being caught in contemporary issues such as migration and violence, and familiar themes like death, loss and longing. In Glenn Barit’s Cinemalaya winner Aliens Ata (Maybe Aliens), we see two brothers accept the reality of losing their mother to overseas work and their father to death. The film is brief and simple but poignant in the way it presents an unvarnished, youthful perspective. The characters are distanced from us visually; but like the drone camera in which the entire film is shot, reality will zoom in soon enough to reveal the realities of the world they will encounter. Meanwhile, the fate of two drug-dealing brothers in Carlo Fajardo’s Suerte (Luck) is sealed as one succumbs to violence of the trade. Its film-inside-a-film structure gives it a fresh twist as the brothers are viewed through a documentary-in-the-making storyline.

Two brothers are also at the heart of Paul Patindol’s FAMAS-winning entry Hilom (Still), (it also won a youth jury prize at the 2016 Singapore International Film Festival). It is set in a coastal town in Northern Samar, a place still reeling from the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda, a perfect milieu for the filmmaker to situate his characters’ exploration of brotherly bond and identity. The film also offers a portrait of disenfranchised youth not only in terms of economic status but more strikingly just like in Aliens, from the loss of a normative familial structure and stability, with the boys’ father strong disapproval of his son’s budding homosexuality. Portions of the film are shot among the famous Biri rock formations which offers a charmingly surreal atmosphere to childlike innocence.

The missing parent continues in the narrative of Engkwento by Ryan Machado, who hails from Romblon. In the film, a young boy constantly visits the forest to wait or look for his missing father, which village rumors tout to be an engkanto, a famous Filipino mythical, otherworldly creature that is used to dissuade children from wandering too far into the forests or in the dark. On the other hand, the father’s presence in Carl Chavez’s Sorry for the Inconvenience is both overwhelming and menacing. A student (played by Ronwaldo Martin) comes home beaten and looks for his policeman father’s gun. What turns out as a revenge-gone-wrong, it reveals a layered commentary on violence and the way it is perpetrated by toxic masculinity and patriarchy.

Gikan sa Ngitngit Nga Kinailandman (From the Dark Depths) by Kiri Dalena mixes documentary footage to create a distinct film about desaparecidos.

Some of the standouts from the program include short films from the QCinema International Film Fest lineup. Cebuano filmmaker Keith Deligero’s Babylon (which competed in the the 2018 Berlin International Film Fest) is a phantasmagoric mélange of local lore and genres that pokes fun at our national pastimes and preoccupations, miseries and mysteries. Part science-fiction and part revenge flick, it continues to show the Deligero’s brand of adventurous, punk filmmaking. Kiri Dalena’s entrancing Gikan sa Ngitngit nga Kinailadman (From The Dark Depths) combines documentary footage and experimentation to create a film that evokes “memory, delirium, and forgetting”. The diverse imagery creates ruptures in storytelling that reflects the fissures of our own nationhood even as it is told from a sense of personal loss.

Also from QCinema is Xeph Suarez’s celebrated Si Astri Maka si Tambulah, about a Badjao transwoman caught between familial ties and individual freedom, it is a film that dares to open up discussion on LGBT issues especially in a region bound by religious beliefs and norms. Mike Esteves’ Link, diverges from the narrative thread of the program. The film revolves around two characters: a man and a woman, a writer and a character. It is focused but beguiling, offering only shards of information about the entire affair. In a dreamlike setting, it can be viewed as metaphor of the ever-consuming creative process and the power of fiction. Rounding up the program is Beverly Ramos’ short documentary Dory, about a gay centenarian who holds traditional, normative beliefs even with his own homosexuality. Told through the character’s equal measure of good fortune and misery, it manages to be both life-affirming and ironic.

Note: This article was originally published in Mindanao Times, July 08, 2018. 

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Film festival, Reviews

Tu Pug Imatuy (Arnel Barbarona, 2017)

 

Arnel Barbarona’s Tu Pug Imatuy is centered on a Manobo family in constant threat of external forces.

A time to kill

Davao filmmaker Arbi Barbarona’s Tu Pug Imatuy (The Right to Kill) was released earlier this month as part of the Sinag Maynila film festival (where it won Best Film), around which time the live action version of Beauty and the Beast reached the usual Hollywood hype here. While there is much bandwagon talk about “the tale as old as time”, the little-seen Tu Pug Imatuy, in fact, features a similar old tale, but one that does not revel in Disney fantasy and happy endings. This tale is one of the continued marginalization of and injustice committed against indigenous peoples, a tale as old as time indeed, even back to the time of conquests masked in the glory and grandeur of discovery.

But in Barbarona’s film, this conquest takes newer, destructive forms, and in the name of profit and power–where natural habitat of our IPs are and the resources that make them self-sufficient are constantly threatened and decimated by external forces. The story centers on a Manobo family whose life is forever changed when the parents, Dawin (Jong Monzon) and Obunay (Malona Sulatan, who won Best Actress in the same festival), were captured by members of a military unit who suspected them of abetting communist rebels. They leave their two children (the third child died of a fever earlier in the film) to fend for themselves. The two are subjected to inhumane acts: stripping them off of their clothes and dignity, even forcing them to have sex, weighing them down in the mud while tied in ropes, just so information could be extracted. When Dawin is killed in front of Obunay, this prompted a quest for justice using an ingenious plan that recalls one of the scenes in the first act when the couple was capturing a wild boar.

This part of the narrative is what may have claimed the film’s title – Obunay, as representation of a long-suffering people enacts revenge, one of justice. A justice that has remained elusive in our contemporary, real setting. In an essay, UP Mindanao professor Aya Ragragio cites philosopher Walter Benjamin’s concept of divine violence. She writes: “It is not to take revenge, or to punish, or to try to recapture a sense of correctness, for divine violence need not be imbued with such meanings to be able to register the wretchedness of this world.” This passage recalls Jonathan Beller’s essay Orapronobis Against Philippine Totalitarianism, suggesting the use of the word justice in describing the actions of Jimmy (Philip Salvador) in Brocka’s film instead of revenge, which connotes personal vendetta.

In Barbarona’s film, Obunay’s act of killing is one of seeking justice. Sadly, it is imbued with a cinematic justice whose liberative function still remains unrealized in our contemporary society. It is no wonder then that Barbarona, in a short exchange with few members of Davao media after the Davao screening, cited Lino Brocka as one of his influences. It is no wonder that Tu Pug Imatuy recalls the political conviction and strength of Brocka’s Orapronobis, a film banned during its time due to its anti-regime statement. While Barbarona’s film does not have the complexity of Orapronobis, the injustice portrayed in the film resonates with the same rage and protest. Obunay’s indignation will continue to be relevant regardless of the regime in power. It hints at a state, as represented by the military figures, in collusion with or become instruments of exploitation by capitalistic forces, epitomized by the immobile backhoe/bulldozer, that wreaks havoc in the countryside.

In one scene, we see a wide shot of Obunay and Dawin as they pass by a mountainous area and in the distance we see the decimated portions of the forest due to mining. This, along with other shots that contrasts the inherent beauty of the rural countryside, hints at an impending doom. Despite some minor issues like sound and a consistent look/color, as well as Barbarona’s handling of actors and staging of certain scenes, there is no denying the strength in his vision, manifested by his skillful use of imagery. This is where the film stands out – it is an outright antithesis to the use of the rural-nature image in mainstream films as a place of escape. For while the film re-conjures the forest and mountainous landscapes as a mythical space where folktales weave itself, the film also re-establishes it as a space of displacement and constant struggle.

Note: This article originally appeared in Mindanao Times’ Sunday edition, April 2, 2017. 

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Film festival, Reviews

CineFilipino 2018: The Eternity Between Seconds, Mata Tapang, Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus

Secret, lonely lives of men: CineFilipino 2018 films (Cinematheque run)

CineFilipino is one of the relatively newer film festivals in the country, along with Sinag Maynila and ToFarm film festivals, that came after Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals. This year marked its third edition, with the regular festival run last April. For its third year, it was able to bring all its film entries outside its festival run in Manila, like ToFarm which screened their entries two years ago in a mall in the city.

This outside-festival screening should be noteworthy considering that longer-running film festivals have not done so although some of the films from their lineup get to be screened as part of other programs or individual screenings. With the presences Cinematheques, this could have been an opportunity to not only bring the films to reach a wider audience but to enable these films to breathe lives of their own outside the Manila festival circuit, creating a wider discourse of contemporary Philippine cinema, that is not only relegated to a select, privileged few.

“Kuwento ang hari” is CineFilipino’s banner tagline, highlighting the festival’s preference or preoccupation for story-driven films that do not usually wander into the more experimental, arthouse fares (although in the recent years, CinemaOne with more arthouse ventures, including QCinema International Film Festival, have picked out more accessible narrative films in its selection). In this year’s lineup, the stories, while tread different grounds and genres, intersects on similar connections most particularly in its portrayal of the different facets of Filipino men’s psyches and masculinity.

Yeng Constantino and TJ Trinidad play directionless people in transit stuck in Incheon Airport in Alec Figuracion’s The Eternity Between Seconds.

In The Eternity Between Seconds, the festival’s best film, we see self-help author Andres (TJ Trinidad), probably in his early 40s, stuck in some kind of stasis, a seeming indifference on a life-changing decision and a weariness that is probably a result of many past decisions. He is just getting by and does not seem to give a big deal out of life’s twists and turns. In fact, he likes waiting. On the way back to Manila from a book tour, he encounters Sam (Yeng Constantino) at the Incheon airport. Sam is half-Korean and is about to meet her father for the first time; the problem is she can’t seem to cross the arrival area and fully embrace this new chapter in her life.

Sam’s crippling indecisiveness echoes Andres’ immobility, and while they meander around the airport passing time, they grapple with life questions that all of us have at some point come across with either with undeniable clarity or confusion. Director Alec Figuracion intentionally avoids the potentiality of romance depicted by familiar stories of chance encounters, by taking advantage of the airport setting as a spatial-temporal concept. Through the film’s cinematography – framing detached, inherently restless individuals in the massive, stunning architecture, in itself a representation of global mobility and the fleeting chances of human connections.

Edgar Allan Guzman and Arron Villaflor are wounded soldiers who play best friends in Mata Tapang.

The four male characters of Mata Tapang (Brave Eye) are also in limbo – as ghosts stuck in some purgatory-like existence. After a military operation that killed three of his mates, injured and now one-eyed Sgt. Batobato (Edgar Allan Guzman) encounters them as ghosts, but lifelike and overwhelmingly present. It turns out that his mates have God-anointed unfinished business that Batobato has to help them complete so that they could “cross over”. The requests are varied but all hints at some kind of a reckoning of a life not fully lived: from their platoon leader Yulo’s (Miguel Hernandez) confession, Razon’s (Jerald Napoles) act of contrition, and Batobato’s best friend Banks’ (Arron Villaflor) revelation of a well-kept secret.

The film is a carefully plotted narrative that combines buddy-movie tropes and magical realism, and with this adherence the film oftentimes borders on tedious. Despite an execution that renders predictable its supposed major twist, the conceit is made believable because its well-acted. The actors particularly Villaflor commit themselves to their characters’ conundrums, depicting the inner psyches of solitary men in missions, bringing life to the story’s meditation on mortality and the legacy we leave in the world.

Dwein Baltazar’s Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus revolves around the concept of the ideal woman through the lives of four, widely different men.

Dwein Baltazar’s Gusto Kita With All My Hypothalamus also features the lives of four men: an ukay-ukay attendant (Nicco Manalo), a widower and owner of used electronic gadgets (Soliman Cruz), a snatcher (Anthony Falcon) and a brash student (Dylan Talon). The four don’t meet in the film’s story but their lives converge in a dense portion of Quiapo through one girl named Aileen (Iana Bernardez, Angel Aquino’s daughter in her first starring role) who is seen in the film wearing the same uniform.

The film is an exercise in mood and character. It is also partly about the city (alluded to in a poem recited in the film) and its loose connections and fleeting encounters, filtered through the traffic noise, neon lights and grime. And Baltazar skillfully hews this portion of the city into the lives of her women-less men: lonesome, yearning, hormonal, desirous. This desire is in fact the common denominator of the characters and despite their divergent lives, this neurological trait and propensity towards the whimsical is what unites them. For in the end, Aileen remains a puzzle and an ideal; a city of both familiarity and mystery.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Sunday edition of Mindanao Times, July 15, 2018. 

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Kusina Kings (Victor Villanueva, 2018)

Empoy Marquez and Zanjoe Marudo stars as best friends in the Star Cinema comedy Kusina Kings

A half-baked, unhealthy dish

In Patay Na Si Hesus, Cebuano filmmaker Victor Villanueva introduced Bisaya humor to contemporary Filipino cinema and the audience who have been used to the traditional brand of comedy. A comedy that oftentimes pokes fun at and condescending to the Bisaya people, contributing to stereotypical portrayals of Southern-ness, usually characterized by uncouthness and shades of provincialism.

Recently, Philippine mainstream comedy is dominated by the Vice Ganda-starrers, which are usually an extension of what the comedian already does in his noontime show, concerts or previous stand-up comedy stints. While still incorporating elements of slapstick, the narrative is populated by a series of gags that bank on Vice’s comedic quips and quick retorts that are somewhat meta-cinematic, which does not really require a lot from the audience since they are also exposed to his brand of comedy even outside his films.

Patay Na Si Hesus, about a dysfunctional family headed by their no-nonsense matriarch (Jacklyn Jose) on the road towards the wake of their estranged father, sort of broke that mold. And although it was relegated to a festival lineup of independent films under the relatively successful first edition of Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino last year (it was in competition at the 2016 QCinema International Film Festival), it generated online buzz and conversations that placed the Bisaya regionality, particularly the language and humor, in Pinoy pop culture that is not ostracizing to both Bisaya and non-Bisaya speakers. It’s share of familial conflicts are relatable without bordering too much on drama. One can say that its success a product of just enough irreverence to formula and the avoidance of familiar comedy tropes and slapstick.

Villanueva’s follow up is Kusina Kings (Kitchen Kings), backed by Star Cinema and topbilled by the tandem of Zanjoe Marudo and Empoy Marquez. It can be said that the film banked on the success and promise of Villanueva’s brand of comedy and Marquez’ instant stardom after the blockbuster hit that was Kita Kita. Co-written by Villanueva, the film substitutes familial bond with friendship. But the irreverence and promise of Hesus quickly dissipated in his new film’s barrage of stale jokes and witticisms.

The story revolves around best friends Benjie (Marquez) and Ronnie (Marudo) and their dream (mostly Benjie’s) of putting up a restaurant, which happens only that it does not turn out to be successful, succumbing to a series of failed attempts to lure customers. (The restaurant’s name “La Luna sa Hungry” is actually a funny wordplay on a recent teleserye La Luna Sangre.) One failed attempt lands Benjie into a coma setting the story’s unlikely narrative into motion. Benjie’s spirit guides Ronnie to continue the business and especially in pursuing the film’s main plot point: Benjie is supposed to compete in the Kusina Kings challenge, after a wager with an ambitious restaurateur Gian Nyeam (Ryan Bang). Losing the challenge would mean giving up the restaurant as well.

What probably ticked me off more than the gimmicks that sometimes feel flat in its delivery is its preoccupation with sexually-riddled gags, which should not be a problem if sexuality is an element that grounds the comedy, say in the tradition of There’s Something About Mary or Ted. One can hardly call the approach irreverence or innovation. Take this scene of Ronnie beating eggs: he is framed as if he is masturbating, Benjie (as ghost) helps him beat it, Benjie’s sister and Ronnie’s love interest Jenny (Nathalie Hart) catches and surprises them, Ronnie ends up splashing the beaten egg into Jenny’s face as if a parody of a pornographic facial.

However, the film is far from being irredeemable. There are a number of bright comedic spots that feels like it’s Villanueva working against the formula. In particular, there is this dream sequence about the cockroach that eventually landed Benjie into coma, ending up into a life-size version beside a sleeping Ronnie, or how Villanueva commits to the inanity of a gag like that of the Eat Girls (a parody of It Girls, clique group of model celebrities), which also comments on the influence of digital culture and image. Unfortunately, these sparks parodic comedy and freedom is hampered by the adherence to a studio-backed product.

Before his first studio film, Villanueva made a couple of short films that are grounded on contemporary realities: Saranghae My Tutor, about a Cebuano tutor who falls in love with his Korean student, and Ang Nanay ni Justin Barber, about a stage mother and his rising popstar of a son. His first full length My Paranormal Romance mined the inanities in a fantastical story of ghostly romance. His previous efforts are characterized by the same tongue-in-cheek and exaggerated comedy we find ourselves endeared to that is kind of missing in Kusina Kings.

This article was first published in Mindanao Times Sunday edition, August 5, 2018.

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Jacqueline Comes Home: The Chiong Story (Ysabelle Peach, 2018)

Donnalyn Bartolome and Meg Imperial play the real-life Chiong sisters in this retelling of the infamous rape-slay case in Jacqueline Comes Home, directed by Carlo Caparas’ daughter Ysabelle Peach.

Worse comes to worst in ‘Jacqueline Comes Home’

Perhaps one of the most indelible images in the documentary Give Up Tomorrow is that interview clip of Thelma Chiong, mother of Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong, whose rape-slay case became the most talked about in the last decade fueled by media sensationalism. The interview showed Chiong between fits of laughter while saying she could probably kill the perpetrators. The scene can be construed as a reversal of her pious, grief-stricken image. The documentary made by Marty Syjuco (a relative of the accused Paco Larrañaga) and Michael Collins made years ago re-surfaced in its full version and spread over social media as a sort of disapproving response over the new film Jacqueline Comes Home, supposedly the Chiong version of the story.

I would not delve into the specifics of the case as it has already been made known in detail in the documentary, which focused on the elements of a possible mistrial and wrongful conviction, leaning towards the injustice in Paco’s side. The film establishes the credibility of the case through compelling storytelling and investigation, presenting both the justice-seekers, the role of the media spectacle, and then turning it around to present the loopholes in the proceedings. In Ysabelle Peach Caparas retelling of the story, the film opens with a disclaimer that it’s “loosely based” yet changing some details to the story, like renaming the main perpetrator to Sonny (Ryan Eigenmann), is utterly irrelevant because it’s impossible to dissociate it from real scenarios.

The bias is obviously towards the Chiongs’ version of the story, made definitive by the addendum to the movie’s title. A story that could be rooted in familial empathy that would have countered the dubiousness of her and their family’s public image resulting from the strength of the defendant’s case and helped by the documentary itself. It turns out as a failed attempt not only as a counter-statement but as a film that could have shown the precariousness and violence of our times. The film does not know what it wants to say and thus domino-failing in the execution of a coherent statement and clarity of purpose.

It is a hodgepodge of clichés and repetitions – from wanton, unexplained barbarism to a poorly conceived plot that dabbles in on-the-nose dialogue and a screenplay that inserts moments of unintended hilarity that defy logic and test sanity. Marijoy’s (Donnalyn Bartolome) ghost is a presence throughout the movie and at one time catching the bouquet of flowers thrown by her boyfriend at the ravine. In one scene, Thelma Chiong (Alma Moreno) seeks the help of a séance, preceded by testaments of how the séance is helpful while the room is lit by candles. There is even a scene, as if out of nowhere, of a bunch of law students arguing about the case; the scene conveniently ends with the declaration that we should just trust that our justice system is doing the right thing.

Towards the near end, we hear the voice of God literally talking to Thelma, accompanied by a slight illumination of her face as if attaining some kind of deliverance. The story then makes a sudden turn towards what’s left of the family, and it could have redeemed itself by focusing on the grief and dynamics of coping. But a late attempt at redemption is summarized, again conveniently, in a monologue by her husband Dionisio (Joel Torre) about how Thelma has failed to attend to her family in her fervent pursuit of justice, particularly the search for the missing body of Jacqueline (Meg Imperial), forgetting that she too has other kids alive. This scene ends in a kind of twisted resolution of the title “Jacqueline comes home”, a depiction of substitution that demonstrates the haphazard handling of the material and the shallow grasp of the subject by its filmmakers.

But what’s interesting other than the female Caparas taking on the cudgels of his father’s brand of genre filmmaking (massacre film tropes look all the more dated even with the younger Caparas handling the direction), is how the already existing divisiveness over the issue (one that carries with it the usual Pinoy elements of bandwagoning and ill-informed activism), resurfaced and refueled by the VIVA-produced film, will impact on the still-unresolved case. Or, how the concept of massacre films that once dominated Pinoy pop culture in the 90s be experienced and discussed in this era of media technology and digital culture, a technology that can both desensitize and trivialize violence through replicability and repetition. This concern may be too far-fetched for the film, which in end might have just created another level of artifice in the quest for truth.

This article originally appeared on the Sunday edition of Mindanao Times, July, 22, 2018.

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Sid & Aya: Not A Love Story (Irene Villamor, 2018)

Dingdong Dantes and Anne Curtis play the titular characters Sid and Aya in Irene Villamor’s second film this year. (Photo grabbed from the film’s trailer)

Love don’t cost a thing?

In Irene Villamor’s Sid & Aya, her second film this year after Meet Me in St. Gallen, the characters also meet on a chance encounter, a common plot device of many romantic comedies of our generation indicating the immense influence of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. Most of these chance encounters usually play out the themes of destiny and randomness, concepts that romanticists gobble like chocolates because they are fodder for the endless explorations of love’s possibilities. After all, doesn’t all love stories begin with such randomness, which when placed side by side with the concept of certainty, becomes an exciting narrative prospect?

Sid & Aya does not go far as to play around this device but more than the chance encounter, it takes the element of chance and pits it against economics. Our characters Sid (Dingdong Dantes), a stock broker at the height of his game, and Aya (Anne Curtis), a barista on multiple jobs, meet by chance but predicated on a bet. Aya and her colleagues went on a bet to see who gets to rightly guess Sid’s profession. Aya does the job of actually reaching out and comes closest to an exact answer, winning the 150-peso wager, plus some extra because she got Sid to talk to her.

At the onset, we learn that Sid is an insomniac. That consequential conversation with Aya proved to be meaningful, as Sid, reckless spendthrift that he is, proposes an improbable contract. He wants Aya to accompany him in the wee hours of the morning to talk, no sex, which Aya vehemently makes clear as she agrees with the conditions. After all, she needs money. We get to see her juggle two more part-time jobs – a laundry attendant and a theme-park entertainer – throughout the film. But like love, the trajectory of such unlikely deal, has its own complications. Sid has a girlfriend who wants to move with him and Aya is set out to go to Japan to reunite with her mother, and probably work there too.

The film’s tagline, which works as part of the title itself – “not a love story” – works as a marketing pitch and an argument by which the film’s narrative possibilities work. It is a love story all right, but it is grounded in the realities of our time, rooted in contemporary conundrums, amid the increased mobility and transactionality, not just of goods but of people, subjected to the motions of globalization and capitalism. It is in this vein that the film shares a something with another recent romantic drama, Antonette Jadaone’s Never Not Love You, in tackling the concept of love as labor, something that should be worked on and aspired to in a world of rising inequalities and displacement.

That Sid’s insomnia isn’t just a character trait but is a manifestation of this burgeoning effect of money, and the need for wealth to define our success and position in society, to our own psyche and lives. Sid is clearly unhappy but he can’t seem to pinpoint why and what to do with it, so he spends, is on a loose arrangement with his girlfriend, he pays for company, because when the moneyed world seems to be at the tip of your fingers, what else could you do? And this feeling of being stuck is visually hinted at by that opening drone shot of an intersection and later complemented by a shot of the famous Shibuya intersection, perhaps Aya’s own version of crossroads.

Aya’s character is the sort of rupture to his success and wasteful existence. Here is a woman who is clearly defined by a set of goals. It is understandable that Sid is drawn to this simplicity and straightforwardness that exudes from her. And Anne Curtis, in a resplendent performance, transcends that manic pixie dream girl trope. She does not need to do much to hold her character’s struggles with a dignified resolve for us to root for her and her decisions. Betting on Sid, and the possibility of togetherness, is that gamble too risky to take in a world of unequal chances, where I-love-yous are whispered in and reciprocated with silence.

The final scene plays out like a coda: the couple meeting at a café probably a considerable time after Tokyo. I can’t shake off the feeling of it being like an unnecessary bonus, maybe because I felt that slo-mo shot of Aya along with the Tokyo crowd ends the film perfectly. Or maybe because there is an instant association with the blunt finality offered by Villamor in Meet Me in St. Gallen, which also works on the premise of chance and mobility. Maybe this time though, it could work with another chance. Nevertheless, Sid & Aya still manages to be a satisfying modern love story exploring the realities of living and loving amid class differences and in a time when capitalism feels like it’s on the verge of a breakdown.

This is a slightly updated version of an article which appeared on the Sunday edition of Mindanao Times, June 10, 2018.

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Ang Misyon: A Marawi Siege Story (Cesar Soriano, 2018)

Martin Escudero plays Sajid, a young man torn between a sense of duty and a radical purpose in Cesar Soriano’s Ang Misyon.

Bleak city

Last May 23 was the anniversary of the siege of Marawi City. The news of the siege exploded in our faces through the news. After a terror group with ties to ISIS wreaked havoc in the Islamic City in Mindanao, President Rodrigo Duterte declared Martial Law adamant to pulverize the extremists to kingdom come. The declaration of victory over the terrorists happened months later, around November. But the government’s declaration of triumph left a destroyed city. A city suddenly thrust into the limelight. But a city with lives lost, crumbling infrastructure, displaced people, a bleak future. Just another episode in the island-region’s quest for elusive peace.

Showing this week, and arriving surreptitiously in theaters with no fanfare (understandably low budget promotions just like the film), is Cesar Soriano’s Ang Misyon: A Marawi Siege Story, an account of that fateful day told in the life of Sajid (Martin Escudero), a young Muslim caught between the pull of radicalism and a universal sense of duty. We see him first being wheeled into the emergency room, fighting for his life. In the film, Sajid is a nurse working at a provincial hospital where he meets and eventually befriends a wounded soldier Lt. Kent Samonte (Juan Miguel Soriano). Their exchanges are fraught with tension, although not played out convincingly, as we later learned that Sajid is connected to a group which plans on attacking the city. The radicals obviously alludes to the real-life Maute group, and in the film they are also armed with funded weapons and their fundamentalist belief.

The film’s storytelling is generic and muddled. It unfolds in flashbacks, first of Sajid’s life. As we conveniently see snippets of his childhood, not well-to-do but comfortable enough, we get to see how Muslim youth are vulnerable to succumbing to radicalism. Sajid is educated in Turkey and his schooling paid for by the radical group in question, whose origins are left unexplored. Sajid’s radicalism is mainly fueled by the assassination of his father, an engineer, who also had talks with said terror group. The young man eventually learns that his father’s murder is perpetrated by the same group that schooled him, after his father denounced the group’s terroristic plans. He turns his back on this flawed mission but ultimately pays the price in the end.

But apparently the film is not all about Sajid’s fate but also about the young soldier, Lt. Samonte. We also see his flashbacks; he left behind a wife and comfortable life for his own mission. Through Samonte, we also see the film as a procedural, a poorly orchestrated one. The tactical in the meetings sounds less about tactics but of state-sponsored motherhood statements, the kind that fills department orders, perfunctory just like the encounter between Sajid and Samonte. After Sajid’s tragic fate, the film ends with Samonte, in the perspective of the military rather than zeroing in on the martyr whose sacrifice in the narrative obviously exceeds the unificatory attempts at appeasement.

There is a more compelling drama in the tenuous relationship between a Muslim nurse and the wounded soldier that the writer and filmmaker could have explored, with a rich, thematic background foregrounding their relationship. In the end, it became just a peg by which the film drives its overreaching narrative, a cross between MMK theatrics and re-enactments in Failon Ngayon. Soriano’s professional experience is emphasized in the film’s opening. Covering the Mindanao conflict as a journalist and having survived an ordeal with the Abu Sayyaf, this should not only give him mettle but perspective. He uses real documentary footage to hammer down the reality of its portrayal. However, this is far from a journalistic work or even a documentary (which could have also worked given his experience). The audience will get the story’s allusions to real-life events and personages. Soriano’s challenge was to scale down the scope to a human drama and conflict that is equally compelling and heartbreaking sans the grandiose orchestrations of violence.

Ang Misyon is not totally irredeemable though. Aside from the production challenges, what is far more challenging is the fact that the filmmakers are tackling a different, more dangerous terrain, the film and story in it operating in the context of terrorism. I appreciate that it’s trying to be instructive and corrective. In the past, we had films that were prejudiced against Muslims, in which the depictions of violence proved calamitous, as it furthered the rift between Muslims and Christian relations. For people who will watch the film who do not have a deep, even sufficient, understanding of the issues inherent to the conflict of the story and the struggle of the peoples behind it, it might be easy to connect this and that event, or this and that group, without deepening the issue. And therein lies a bleaker prospect.

This article originally appeared in the Sunday edition of Mindanao Times, June 3, 2018.

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