FALSE FRONTS: A Retrospect on the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino

Reviews by the SPLICE Team; Synthesis by Brontë Lacsamana; and Ranking Surveys by Juan Carlos Ojano

Twelve local films took center stage nationwide for the very first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (PPP) last August 16 to 22, 2017. The film festival, organized by the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), aimed to give opportunities to local films which have not yet been commercially released.

Its recently concluded run proved that the national audience still has interest in watching Filipino films. With the centennial of Philippine Cinema at our doorstep, its success is a testament to the enduring relevance of local films in the lives of the people. For filmmakers, nothing is more rewarding than to have their works seen by their fellow countrymen. Through this, the communal experience of watching familiar and engaging stories inside the theater is kept alive. Festivals like the PPP also provide a crucial platform for filmmakers to present an overture of unique Filipino stories that bridges the gap caused by geographical and lingual disconnects. The PPP boasts a diverse range of perspectives — from a law school in Manila to coastal Visayas to war-torn Mindanao.

Here are the 12 films rated and ranked according to the preference of Cineastes members.

12. AWOL, Dir. Enzo Williams

Reviewed by Revy Marata

Cineastes’ Rating: 2.0000/10

Enzo Williams’ AWOL follows Lt. Abel Ibarra (Gerald Anderson), the sole survivor of an attack against his military sniper group, as he goes on absence without official leave to investigate and take justice into his own hands.

With Gerald Anderson as the lead in this action film, I half-expected this to be a blockbuster. However, when I watched it, there were only around twenty of us in the cinema. The audience was not very responsive, and it may have a lot to do with how the formulaic narrative didn’t bring anything new to the table — and how even then, it was not well-executed.

Characters and conflicts were introduced, but were not fleshed out until the end. Up to now, I still fail to see their relevance to the story. An example would be the investigator (Richard Quan) who initiates a verbal clash with Ibarra and questions his motivations. This was one scene near the beginning of the film. It was not a major conflict, but it was referenced in other scenes thereafter. However, it was not referred to again towards the end, whereas other conflicts were resolved, tied into neat strings.

Some parts also do not sit well with the rest of the narrative, bringing the film to an anticlimactic end. Five minutes before the ending, the characters were happy, the bad guys were killed, the family was back together — but after everything seemed to tie up neatly, another conflict gets introduced. Ibarra has apparently forgotten to kill one of the villains. But the real “catch” is when the film ends after he succeeds in doing so, adding no discernible substance whatsoever.

AWOL is also ultimately a statement of support for the current administration’s drug war. Before offing the mastermind behind the group who tried to kill him and his colleagues to avenge the death of his son, Ibarra tells him that his son was involved with drugs, implying that the son deserved what happened to him. In the context of the film, it might seem harmless and even correct, but with the current political climate where the bodies of innocents, even minors, flood the streets in the name of The Great Drug War, a film that justifies drug-related deaths is just distasteful and bordering on propaganda. But then, one could also believe that killing is justifiable if the victim is involved with drugs. ‘Di ba, mga ka-DDS?

11. Hamog, Dir. Ralston Jover

Reviewed by Drestel Galang

Cineastes’ Rating: 5.0000/10

Ralston Jover’s Hamog gives faces to the pseudo myth of the batang hamog beyond our usual brief encounters with them on the streets. The film follows four street children as their lives diverge after their failed theft of a taxi driver. Hamog attempts to represent the plights of these children, stories often untold and underrepresented, which makes it all the more disappointing when it doesn’t deliver.

The film is more of an anthology, rather than a singular cohesive film. Rashid (Zaijan Jaranilla) was set up to be the main protagonist since we follow him from the very start, but when his storyline unsatisfyingly ends, his character and the byproducts of his story become absent for the rest of the film. Perhaps more purposive and interwoven editing of the simultaneously occurring narratives would have benefited the film, or maybe even a clear focus on just one thread, preferably Jinky’s (Therese Malvar), since her story and acting were the most compelling of the four.

The lack of focus and direction quickly led to a chop suey of poverty porn-esque tropes, with too many characters and no time to get a closer look at any of them. One example is Tisoy’s (Sam Quintana) brother, who stutteringly berates Tisoy for no reason in their every encounter, ultimately becoming a nonsensical caricature and leaving the almost empty theater laughing rather than developing a connection with both him and Tisoy.

Jover’s affinity with social realism then becomes just as questionable as his cohesive storytelling. Hamog borders on exploitative, depicting society as unapologetically harsh; while he succeeds in representing the plights of these kids, he fails to empower and incite change with his film. Moy’s (Bon Andrew Lentejas) untimely death, for instance, seems to mirror realities in which people die sans a grand narrative. Tisoy and Jinky were also both forced deeper into the cycle of violence, and Rashid, by the end, eventually reverts to a life of petty crime, playing towards the depiction of the inescapable suffering of the poor.

Hamog is passive, only aiming to showcase harsh realities and never offering hope of change. Its downfall was its effort to be socially relevant without a clear directorial stand. Any film which doesn’t advocate for the marginalized, maintains status quo, and ultimately goes against the very same people it sought to represent.

10. 100 Tula Para Kay Stella, Dir. Jason Paul Laxamana

Reviewed by Jerome Ignacio

Cineastes’ Rating: 5.8000/10

100 Tula Para Kay Stella seems to promise a splendid and profound perspective on love, but ultimately fails to live up to the hype that its title and cast bring.

The film tells the story of Fidel (JC Santos), a college student with a speech defect, and Stella (Bela Padilla), the object of his affection. Fidel, determined to express his admiration for Stella despite his speech defect, embarks on writing her 100 poems while she simultaneously faces various struggles in order to reach her dream of becoming a famous musician.

More than the collection of words featured in the film (that barely pass as “tula”) or the generally haphazard use of Rivermaya’s beautiful tunes, perhaps the most disappointing factor about the film was still its potential to be relatable to the audience and how it just stays stagnant, never going beyond what it has already established.

Overall, 100 Tula Para Kay Stella felt like an awkward attempt for a nostalgic throwback to college blues. It might have worked for the people behind me at the theater — I can only assume, from their loud noises at every glimpse of a “kilig” moment — but all I could think about was how the whole film only either tries too hard or too little.

Stella’s passion towards music should be transcendent, tapping the emotions of anyone who has ever dreamed big. But this doesn’t seem to resonate at all. Despite being a key element of her character’s progression, it was constantly ignored throughout the film in favor of melodramatic clichés like the scene where Von (Caleb Santos) found her standing in the rain.

Fidel’s speech defect, on the other hand, felt unnecessary. Laxamana may have only wanted to utilize this condition as motivation for constructing a hundred “poems”. His character remained stagnant throughout the film, with little dynamic glimpses. But his outburst by the end worked as a reflection of all the things that we’ve put beneath us and have held us back, making us sympathize more with his character and marking the most powerful scene in the film.

For better effect, I would have actually appreciated a Star Cinema approach: cheesy lines that don’t feel awkward, proper insertion of music to amplify emotions, and just the right amount of relatable melodrama. Instead, we were left with 2 hours of storytelling that felt miserably dragging.

9. Paglipay, Dir. Zig Dulay

Reviewed by Trishtan Perez

Cineastes’ Rating: 6.1667/10

One cannot deny that Zig Dulay’s Paglipay is nothing short of a breakthrough when it comes to romantic films or films in general. Aside from touching on rarely explored themes like the nuances of a minority’s culture and tradition, it also gave us an opportunity to see indigenous actors on screen, one meaningful step towards unexploited and accurate representation.

The story revolves around Atan, an Aeta who is set out to marry Ani, a fellow Aeta, but not until he completes his dowry. While working in the lowlands to work, he meets Rain, a university student from the city who approaches him as a subject for her thesis. This meeting opens a whole new world to him, one where there is an opportunity to choose. This provides the backdrop of the film’s examination of love in a socioeconomic and cultural perspective.

The film plays out like a case study for privilege, making keen observations on its various implications, and always putting out actions and symbolisms that compare the lives of two, very different people with completely different cultural backgrounds.

To forward this intention, the use of space is maximized and the film does so successfully. Every journey from the mountains to the lowlands is embedded with visual meaning, one that is made clearer by Dulay’s best images in his filmography. The contrast between the two different worlds is also highlighted by the use of atmosphere, the constantly shifting from the silent to the noisy, the peaceful to the chaotic, and the restrained to the obvious.

However, the film also struggles to reach the depth it wishes to achieve. The main character, for one, had such difficulty translating his complex emotions through actions or expressions that audiences could only read emptiness. The script also took a very cliched direction, with its overly sappy and romantic execution that sometimes felt forced, unnatural, and off-putting. There’s this overall feeling that it could be so much more, falling short of maximizing all its themes and elements to its full dramatic potential.

Yet, despite all these, its genuineness saved the day. Its sensitivity with handling perspectives, how it finds what is universal in cultural specificities, and its simple premise that doesn’t wander to unnecessary paths, made it a strong and cohesive piece of work that demands to be seen.

While there are issues that shouldn’t be overlooked, Paglipay remains a worthy endeavor and hopefully starts not only a discussion on under- and misrepresentation, but also inspire the creation of more films that let us experience stories that are beyond our own and the valuable realizations that we could take from them.

8. Bar Boys, Dir. Kip Oebanda

Reviewed by Marc Mozo

Cineastes’ Rating: 7.2111/10

Bar Boys follows four friends (Rocco Nacino, Carlo Aquino, Enzo Pineda, Kean Cipriano) whose friendship gets disconnected and reconnected due to the various demands of law school. Presenting issues of family, school, relationships, and cliques/fraternities as staples of life, the movie portrays law school in an innocent manner, which evokes the sentiments of most coming-of-age films.

Bar Boys, in its core, works well as a story of friendship. I attribute this to the beautiful chemistry of its lead cast and their memorable interactions with their professors and family. Among the four, Aquino’s Erik stands out in terms of performance and character arc — from the screen time he spent listening to Kundiman music up to his “kwatro-or-kwarto” moment, Erik is the character most grounded in reality. On the other hand, Cipriano’s character, Joshua, disappears from the picture to the point that it felt like he was no longer needed in the narrative.

As the film gently shifts its focus from one “bar boy” to the other, the personal conflicts of each character are so organized to the point of predictability. While the innocent handling of such problems is what gives Bar Boys its charm, it keeps on holding back when new, mature directions involving law school arise, especially with the country’s political and legal situation.

The strongest scene in the film is owned by Odette Khan who so powerfully lectures her students on the stakes behind law school. As aspiring lawyers, they study to deal with real lives and real problems, which are definitely beyond themselves and their own problems — something which I wished Bar Boys should have explored more. This element specific to law school could have further separated Bar Boys from other coming of age films.

Both its strength and weakness, a story which could have explored the stakes of law school ended up (literally) comparing the field of law to a DOTA game between friends who are waiting for new directions in their lives. But with all it has held back, Bar Boys managed to keep its charm simple, reminding its viewers what it is like to be surrounded by a group of friends during a period of uncertainty. I left the cinema smiling.

7. Triptiko, Dir. Miguel Franco Michelana

Reviewed by Joker Manio

Cineastes’ Rating: 7.8750/10

At our provincial theater, people came to watch more popular movies like 100 Tula Para Kay Stella and Bar Boys. As expected, few only queued up for Triptiko — one of those niche movies in any major local film festival that only “hardcore” cinephiles would want to see. Personally, though, despite its flaws in consistency, I believe it had been worth my money solely because of its eccentricity, which sets it apart from the other PPP entries.

Triptiko is an anthology of three different films that are similar in mood and are meant to be appreciated as a single work — a literal triptych. I do suggest, however, that the audience look at them separately. The three are not as consistent in quality as they are in their theme of “weirdness”, which they’ve been selling since their advertising campaign till its PPP run.

At the start of each entry, a quote from a particular Hollywood movie is shown to encapsulate the gist and theme of said entry, making the film easier to understand while also establishing the director as a cinephile. The first part depicts a fascinating encounter between a violent cop and an unwitting victim and how easily someone’s luck can change. As a tension-filled opening for the anthology, it effectively establishes the triptych’s absurdity and paints a picture of what’s to come. While the first story deals head on with the dangers of fate, the second entry builds up its first half as a common narrative that pops (pun intended) starkingly in its delicious second half, showing the graphic grossness of a narcissistic male model gone awry.

The third story — which I believe is the film’s weakest link — drags as it waits until the very last moment to show something in line with what the whole anthology promised. This story about a musician and his cat-girlfriend (while not necessarily bad) doesn’t hold up to the adrenaline of “weirdness” the previous two had, much to its detriment. The anthology as a whole would truly suffer if the third would be linked with the tightly compact first and second stories.

Overall, Triptiko is an entertaining and unique yet disjointed ensemble designed to arouse the sensations of the viewer. Though it lacks criticality, it definitely succeeds as an effective escapist spectacle.

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