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

6. Star na si Van Damme Stallone, Dir. Randolph Longjas

Reviewed by Juan Carlos Ojano

Cineastes’ Rating: 7.8794/10

Star na si Van Damme Stallone is about Nadia (Candy Pangilinan), a single mother who gives birth to the titular Van Damme Stallone, her son with Down syndrome. From Van Damme’s infancy to young adulthood, the film follows him, Nadia, and his older brother Tano as they manage and live with his special condition.

I watched Van Damme Stallone during its CineFilipino run last year. A rewatch did not lessen the impact of the film. The great thing about this film is that it knows what it’s doing. Taking a delicate topic that has possibilities to coast on inaccuracy or schmaltz, the film succeeds in avoiding those pitfalls by sticking to the honesty of its core.

By taking an already emotional story, director Randolph Longjas smartly lets the drama come off as naturally as possible, not forcing any of the emotions the film goes through. Letting scenes of emotional punch play with such confidence and control, Longjas paints a larger-than-life examination of love and life.

Anchoring the film is Candy Pangilinan, doing her best work ever as Nadia, or Ermat, as Van Damme fondly calls her. She nails the specificity and complexity of Ermat, a mother forced to cope with his son’s special needs. Armed with her background as a comedienne as well as her real-life motherhood, Pangilinan faultlessly juggles shifting tones of humor and drama in the film. Pangilinan brings her guard down and commits in this perfectly calibrated performance of emotional depth and gravitas. Also noteworthy is her endearing rapport with Paolo Pingol as the grown-up Van Damme.

Watching the film during its PPP run, I was able to notice how the audience was responding to the film. The humorous moments land well with the audience. There are distinct “awww” moments, especially the scenes involving the young and grown-up Van Damme. This made me happy because the film works for what it is, with its clear, honest storytelling.

As a whole, the film works so well because it does not pretend to be anything. It does not oversell the cuteness, the drama, or the comedy. It is a film that depends so much on the authenticity of its heart.

It does not disappoint.

5. Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B, Dir. Prime Cruz

Reviewed by Celine Jao

Cineastes’ Rating: 7.5750/10

A deliciously seductive exercise into the horror-romance genre, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B starts with Nico (Martin Del Rosario) moving in with his grandmother to a new apartment complex. While recuperating from his past, he is slowly drawn to the mysterious and beautiful Jewel (Ryza Cenon) who has a dark life of her own.

Award-winning director Prime Cruz draws up another stylistic flick that’s a feast for the eyes and ears. Following his indie hit, Sleepless, he returns with a film full of his trademarked aesthetic of glazed shots and ambient music. But aside from this, Cruz leaves the story bare and raw, pieced with the jagged scripts of today’s conversations and unrest. Pairing the color- soaked, chintzy set with a haunting soundtrack, watching it feels like a languid and attractive journey down the rabbit hole. Most significantly, Ryza Cenon and Martin Del Rosario have a quiet smoulder onscreen, perfectly balancing the story on two believable and likable characters.

However, the film, even with its grand climax, neither falls here nor there. The filmmaker chose emotion — the feel and ambience — of a slinky film, rather than a script and pacing that chooses to pack its punches well. Instead of catchy, plot-involved dialogue, the audience is given visual cues: Jewel languishing in her neon apartment, the smoky clubs full of drunk kills. The film drops vital scenes with a wink and nudge to keep the audience reeled in, yet it fails to build any sort of tension.

Whatever story the film has is told using plot devices like elements from Tokhang operations to stay grounded in reality — this backfires when it removes the consequences that the characters should suffer. The ending, even if somewhat “cathartic”, doesn’t truly tie up the film in a way that leaves us thirsting to know more. What’s left is an attractive piece perfect for luxuriating in but lacking the satisfying fruit of emotions having run their course.

Don’t misunderstand this though; Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is a refreshing and creative addition to Philippine Cinema and is all the more important today. It retains all the charm of huge hits today without collapsing into mind-numbing fodder for pure profit. Ultimately, despite the problematic ending, it is a fun film with its highs and lows perfect for the new watcher who’s just about to step into the thrill of the neon and night.

4. Birdshot, Dir. Mikhail Red

Reviewed by Jules Bato

Cineastes’ Rating: 8.1273/10

In 2008, a farmer in Bukidnon made national news after shooting a Philippine eagle, the country’s national bird and a critically endangered species. The news has since inspired filmmaker Mikhail Red to make his sophomore feature Birdshot, an engaging thriller about a farmer’s daughter named Maya who had done the same and has to face the wrath of the local police force.

The moviehouse was packed with excitement the night I decided to watch the film. After all, Birdshot had one of the best promotional campaigns of the ten entries, with an active Twitter presence and a partnership with Globe — setting social media abuzz with glowing reviews. The hype was not unfounded. The film is beautifully shot, capturing the idyllic but isolated farmlife of Maya’s family and the tiresome grit of police bureaucracy. Even if the film drags at certain points, viewers are rewarded by the strong acting of its leads and aided by the mere eye candy of the countryside scenery. Still, much of Birdshot’s merits rely on how it sniped an important question we should all be asking — how expendable and worthless is human life in these times?

Despite the premise resembling the original shooting incident that occurred years ago, Red deepens his narrative by presenting the ugly truths of our current reality. Combining genre elements of coming-of-age movies and crime thrillers, Birdshot mirrors the rapid decay of youthful idealism through the characters of Maya and the policeman Domingo as bad things come their way. Both characters learn they are helpless against a nameless force bent on killing an entire bus of farmers and the film does not shy away in showing the cruelty of this system. This knowledge of a broken world triggers both characters to “come of age,” where they traipse a path of madness that noticeably puts the audience at the edge of their seats.

In this way, Red is not afraid to confront the political realities our country is facing today. While a myriad of films imposing political relevance fall to a trap of pretentiousness and condescension, Birdshot hits bullseye in all the things it should say, even if the poeticism in some dialogue might have been a little unnecessary. Watching it may be a hard pill to swallow, but the film still promises an entertaining two hours that will leave you thinking of what’s happening in this world for days on end.

3. Pauwi Na, Dir. Paolo Villaluna

Reviewed by Rat San Juan

Cineastes’ Rating: 8.6000/10

The last screening of Pauwi Na on the PPP’s last day (before the festival was extended in select theaters nationwide) was surprisingly jam-packed in SM North. Who would expect Paolo Villaluna’s tragicomic flick to reel in audiences beyond the indie film niche market?

Unlike these moviegoers, however, Mang Pepe (Bembol Roco) and his family can never catch a break.

Old and gray, Mang Pepe drives a pedicab all day. His wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache) is a laundress who washes the feces and menstruation-stained underwear of her neighbor’s children. Their daughter Pina (Chai Fonacier) is a cigarette vendor, while their son JP (Jerald Napoles) resorts to petty theft to support his blind, pregnant wife Isabel (Meryll Soriano), who only sees Jesus Christ (Jess Mendoza) Himself.

When you die, you go straight to heaven, Jesus tells Isabel. Life is the closest thing to hell, especially for Mang Pepe’s poor family who can’t afford even noodles for dinner. Fate hands Mang Pepe a bundle of cash, which emboldens him to take his family out of the slums and return to the province in order to start over, setting this third world road movie going.

But unlike Che Guevarra, a prominent figure in the Cuban Revolution — radicalized in his youth by being exposed to poverty in his South American travels — no revelation or surge of nationalism will come to any member of the family. What’s left to realize for a family who’s been in chronic poverty their whole lives?

Pauwi Na, supported by distinctly Filipino, family-oriented storytelling and a strong ensemble of powerful and immersive actors, is a test of resilience for both the main characters and the audience. It is a film that teaches one of life’s most basic facts: nothing in this world is fair. The ultimate authority — Jesus — testifies to this unspoken rule. Even the relationship between Isabel and Jesus is deliberately grounded on her blindness, alluding to the Philippine context where blind faith is practiced by the many who swim in uncertainty.

The direction serves as a double edged sword in how it perfectly captures images of extreme poverty but offers little empowerment to the country’s hungry population.

The well-composed slow motion, monochrome sequences of banquets and dances reflect the desires of many, but ultimately this film’s message will only cater to few.

2. Salvage, Dir. Sherad Anthony Sanchez

Reviewed by Kat Catalan

Cineastes’ Rating: 8.4944/10

Set in a remote town in Cagayan de Oro, Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Salvage follows an estranged, Manila-based news team covering a string of bizarre deaths allegedly caused by aswangs. As their investigation raises the attention of the military, they begin to uncover how the locals have been interchanging terrifying myths with terrifying realities and try to escape from the apocalyptic jungle they disastrously lose their way into.

Helmed by a strong premise and cast (Jessy Mendiola, JC de Vera, and Joel Saracho), it’s unfortunate that the film only seemed to “work” for a few. Pullouts in mall theaters were constant due to countless viewer complaints about the video glitches done on purpose. It even took me sheer luck to catch one of the only available screenings in my home province. But alas, out of the ten or so initial moviegoers, I was the only audience left in the cinema by the end of the film. The rest had walked out after the first 30 minutes — and I think I can understand.

Despite being an “alternative” narrative nuanced with familiar horrors, absurdities, and actualities, the film was actually very hard to watch. Between the nauseating found footages of people running, the screaming, the children staring blankly — unblinking, almost otherworldly — right at the camera, and the unfathomable plot (or lack of it), I found it headache-inducing in nature. Rather than “watching” Salvage, “suffering through” it, alongside the tortuous journey endured by the characters, might be more appropriate.

Still, the film’s unapologetic quality doesn’t take away its chaotic brilliance. Being subjected to this torment of a film pushes its viewers to a crucial act of self-interrogation — why is it so hard for us to “suffer through” it in the first place?

With the implementation of Martial Law in Mindanao, the rampant militarization in many communities, and the bloodthirsty administration, the films calls into question our privilege as passive viewers and grounds us in our current realities.

Using these truths about fear and warmongering, the fantasy (or nightmare) the film presents succeeds in disturbing the audience. Sanchez, with his sensibilities as a Mindanaoan filmmaker, deliberately demands those who are apathetic to the social conditions of the Philippines to not turn a blind eye to things more violent and frightening than aswangs. Salvage then, for me, works best as a reaffirmation for us to continue struggling till there is justice. Going through the headaches for the second time — just to watch it again — would probably be worth it.

1. Patay na si Hesus, Dir. Victor Villanueva

Reviewed by NJ Nuñez

Cineastes’ Rating: 8.7519/10

To those who have been living under a rock (like me), Victor Villanueva’s Patay na si Hesus is not a horror with dark, religious themes — it’s a family road film slash comedy set in Cebu. Jaclyn Jose stars as Iyay, the matriarch of a very eclectic family. Her youngest child (Melde Montañez) is an unemployed tambay discovering the difficulties of adulthood. The second child (Chai Fonacier) is a transman supporting his philandering girlfriend’s child. The eldest (Vincent Viado) is a dancer with Down’s syndrome who takes care of the dog, Hudas. After Iyay finds out that Hesus, her ex-husband, has died, she drags them into a road trip to Dumaguete to pay their last respects to a father who was never really there.

The film is separated into vignettes, all coming into one punchline. Taken in entirety, it tackles the concept of loss while making the audience laugh at its absurdity. Villanueva uses familiar devices in a new way to keep the comedy from being too sketch television. Along with the humor, he handles taboo topics such as disability, gender, and death, with grace.

I watched the film in SM Cebu on the last day of PPP. From the first ten minutes until the final, achingly funny payoff, the laughter was infectious. At times, the guffaws from a punchline in one scene would permeate into the next scene, making the pros outweigh the forgivable cons — the technical difficulties, the few flat jokes (although humor is subjective), and the sometimes meandering plot, notably the unnecessary bit with the eccentric nun, played by Mailes Kanapi.

Despite being rough at the edges, which is part of its charm, Patay na si Hesus is a nuanced portrayal of an idiosyncratic family dealing with loss. It’s not meant to be relatable but there’s something in there for lovers of the absurd, showing that one can still do good comedy without a superstar entertainer/Eugene Domingo/Vice Ganda at the helm. It proves that there is so much talent in the periphery — Chai Fonacier, in particular, is a revelation.

As a Cebuano, I felt like this film was a triumph. It makes me feel represented. If nothing else, it’s reaffirming to see stories of people who speak my language and who carry that refreshing, inimitable sense of humor I cannot find anywhere else.

Unfortunately, not all these films were given the optimal exposure the festival promised. It’s absurd that organizers of film fests think a week or two is enough time for Filipinos to watch the films they want, especially given the busy schedules of the student and working population and the expensive movie ticket prices in mall theaters.

Of course, being part of a film fest, no matter its duration, automatically helps with the “much-needed” exposure for films that are not yet commercially released. However, this opportunity comes with deceptively fine print. Like its senior, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), PPP exhibits films based on the profit each film generates, which outweighs its achievements as a new festival and makes it no different from the MMFF.

Screening schedules, for example, are split between “less popular” entries, like Pauwi Na, which was revealed to have only had 9 full screens and 51 screens split with other films in cinemas nationwide despite acclaim from both critics and the few audiences who were able to watch. Even worse, some films were pulled out early in the festival’s run — Liza Diño, chairperson of FDCP herself, admitted that the extent of an entry’s presence in the festival had been entirely based on audience preference, with each film having 60 guaranteed screenings in the first three days, and later a guaranteed pullout from some cinemas if the film doesn’t earn.

This makes watching a more “obscure” film feel like an arduous treasure hunt for an elusive diamond (which, admittedly, is part of the unique experience of watching one). However, whether viewers will be rewarded with a beautiful gem or an ugly stone, the hunt is peculiarly marked by a continuous (almost tedious and unjustified) insistence by everyone to shower support and praise upon whatever kind of film turns up, all in the name of “keeping local cinema alive.”

Let this serve as a reminder for the organizers, filmmakers, and viewers to always pay attention to the points these films want to make, the stories they wish to tell, and the experiences they set out to provide. Because this is where the actual life of cinema can be found. This task becomes all the more important since contemporary film viewing culture in our country remains metro-centric, making it difficult for Filipinos away from urban areas to take part in this unique social and cultural experience. PPP, for one, concentrated most of its films in cities like Metro Manila, Baguio, Cebu, and Davao (Diño explains this by suggesting that the general public “may not be ready for arthouse films”). Still, the peak of Philippine Cinema can’t be reached when only the elite and middle class of particular metropolitan cities can access it.

PPP indeed still remains a tactical step towards an accessible local cinema. However, with their immense potential to generate significant discussions and shape the landscapes of Philippine Cinema for the general public, these 12 films — and all the other local films in the past and in the future — definitely deserve better treatment than what the competitive, capitalist-oriented, and elite-catering major local film festivals have been giving them ever since.

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