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Identities, Violence, Redemption, Magic: The Best of Philippine Cinema in 2013

24 Apr

Skilty Labastilla


In the 25-year history of the Young Critics Circle Film Desk, the year 2013 recorded the most number of nominations in four of the six categories that the group hands out each year. Of the 13 shortlisted films, eight were nominated for Best Film, 15 for Best Performance, eight for Best Screenplay, and 11 for Best Cinematography and Visual Design. The confidence that YCC has given to this many films in a single year speaks much about the abundance of talent among the current generation of Filipino filmmakers.

riddles

The preoccupations of the films that YCC took notice of in 2013 are as significant as they are diverse, yet can be grouped into certain themes. One is identity, films that interrogate the positioning and constant repositioning of the self in view of the wider milieu. There is Riddles of My Homecoming, Arnel Mardoquio’s hypnotic cinematic puzzle about a young lumad whose soul journeys back to his homeland upon his death. The surrealistic film touches on many levels of domination that indigenous Mindanao has endured over the years as a consequence of unregulated commerce, of perennial government neglect, of religious conversion, of environmental exploitation in the name of “progress”. The lumad, the island’s original inhabitants, now find themselves in the remotest margins of their own land, and Mardoquio’s dirge of a film is his premonition.

Jason Paul Laxamana’s Babagwa also grapples with questions of identity and how it can be even more conveniently manipulated in the age of social media. The film comments on Filipinos’ obsession with gaining as many “friends” on Facebook, with users giving premium to popularity and physical attractiveness as key criteria for adding or accepting distant acquaintances to one’s network. Laxamana wants viewers to be more circumspect in navigating the online world, especially when our privacies and our emotions are at stake. He skillfully uses cinematic sleight of hand, gradually unspooling the story’s web on the audience to parallel the trickery that its characters are taking part in, and even when we have already figured out the twist before it is revealed, we still breathlessly await the climax because we would like to be the ones to tell the naive characters, “I told you so!”.

Eduardo Roy Jr.’s Quick Change introduces viewers to the colorful world of barangay gay beauty pageants and undercover body enhancement procedures, yet beyond the film’s examination of spectacle, it invites serious contemplation on Filipino notions of masculinity and femininity. The film’s protagonist is a transwoman who opted not to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and this has been a source of conflict with her boyfriend, who has shifted his attention to a younger transwoman who underwent the said surgery and now feels like a complete woman. The film in a way challenges this idealization by the trans people themselves of this transformation to make them more secure of their womanhood and to satisfy their straight male lovers, ironically perpetuating the homophobia of the heterosexist world that is marginalizing them in the first place.

Violence also figures prominently in 2013’s best films.  Alvin Yapan’s Mga Anino ng Kahapon astutely imagines the horrors of Martial Law brutality and surveillance as a nightmare that a schizophrenic patient is trying desperately to escape from. Without being too obvious about it, the film serves as a warning against collective memory lapses that some quarters fall into when recalling life during the Marcos era. If schizophrenia can now be cured by a drug, art, like Yapan’s film, will continue to “cure” damaging historical denials.

Mel Chionglo’s Lauriana conflates state violence with domestic violence in a real-life tale set in 1950s Quezon, where a Philippine Constabulary member out to track down Huks in the province woos a beautiful local, beds her, and, over time, beats her to death out of extreme jealousy. The film works best as an anatomy of abuse, capturing the perfect recipe for domestic violence to happen: overly jealous macho man and martyr woman who rationalizes the abuse out of fear of and pity for the perpetrator. The unflinching portrayal of brutality is necessary to emphasize its devastating emotional effects on those who suffer and witness it.

lauriana

Chito Roño’s Badil meticulously documents the inner workings of politicians’ barangay-level lackeys days before local elections, including vote-buying, vote suppression, harassment, and, if necessary, killing. It is that rare political thriller that refuses to abide by stock characterizations of evil politicians taking advantage of unblemished hoi polloi. The film shines a light on the age-old issue of patronage politics by zooming in on corruption at the grassroots level, away from the glare of “national” (read: Manila-centric) media.

Redemption is another subject shared by three films cited by the group. Armando Lao’s Dukit tells the story of a celebrated Kapampangan woodcarver who grows up resenting his father who left his family for a younger woman. Over time, the sculptor learns to forgive his father as he finds fulfillment in his work. The film employs an often entrancing observational documentary-style technique that masterfully cuts across three stories of three generations, crafting narratives of simple lives scarred by the past and healed by love and forgiveness.

Sari and Kiri Dalena’s The Guerilla Is a Poet recounts the story of writer and activist Jose Maria Sison during the turbulent years of Martial Law, from his capture in the mountains to his nine years of imprisonment and his birth as a poet. While Dukit features a non-actor portraying himself, the film is still a fictionalized story. The Guerilla Is a Poet, meanwhile, features interviews with the real Sison interspersed with dramatizations played by actors. While the film successfully captures the look of the period through ingenious cinematography and styling, the decision to include Sison’s interview snippets unfortunately cuts off the film’s momentum and makes it feel like an episodic televisual, rather than cinematic, output.

guerilla

Peque Gallaga’s and Lore Reyes’ Sonata tells the story of a famous soprano who loses her voice and goes into a self-exile in the Visayas, befriends a young boy, and regains her life. The film, though technically well-made and features great performances, especially from Cherie Gil, is hobbled by a class-blind script that appears to be concerned more with trivial upper-class existentialist woes than with directly addressing the lopsided power relations between the elite and their servants.

The last four films deal with magic, the exploration of that mystical universe beyond the realm of science. In Frasco Mortiz’s Pagpag, a Filipino death superstition is turned into a seemingly run-of-the-mill cautionary tale that punishes the young for ignoring traditional rituals, yet, upon closer inspection expertly uses the horror genre to denounce mainstream society’s preoccupation with heterosexual unions and natural procreation while relegating to the sidelines alternative sexualities and family forms.

In Mes de Guzman’s Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, a faith healer in Nueva Vizcaya wrestles with a dilemma as she chances upon a bag full of money that could solve her current financial problems and would set a good future for her granddaughters. Deeply in tune with nature and the cosmos, she gets constantly confronted with what she divines as signs from the universe that tell her what to do with the blood-tainted money. Told in a simple yet whimsical style, the film achieves its status as a classic morality tale minus the moralizing.

Alvin Yapan’s Debosyon tells the tale of a young Bikolano farmer who falls in love with a mysterious mountain-dwelling woman who turns out to be the embodiment of the most significant women in Bikolandia’s myth and religion. The genius of the film is its idea of love as an all-encompassing, all-consuming act. It seems to be reminding us to love without conditions. If Oryol and Daragang Magayon and Our Lady of Peñafrancia are not inherently different from each other, we can all let go of our predilections to compartmentalize our emotions and actions based on society’s edicts. We can love our lovers the way we love our myths, our literature, our gods.

Lastly, YCC’s best film of 2013, Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Porno, tells three separate stories that are linked by the porn industry, from production (the illicit recording of lovers’ trysts in motels) to post-production (the dubbing of moans to match the undulations of bodies and degrees of arousal) to distribution (the transferring of files to discs and sold as “scandals” in sidewalks, or uploaded online to user-generated porn sites) and, finally, consumption. Alix and writer Ralston Jover, though, are interested not so much in the pornography process as in the individual stories of the three main characters (an assassin, a porn dubber, and a trans club performer), all of whom encounter the supernatural in different ways. The assassin gets assassinated by a satyr masquerading as a friend, the porn dubber is haunted by an online ghost, and the club performer is tricked by hallucinations of her son that she left behind. The film, immaculately designed and photographed, successfully creates a mood of mystery, undoubtedly aided by a script that suggests that the seemingly disparate stories are linked not only through pornography but through the main characters’ identities as well.

SONY DSC

Aside from the 13 shortlisted films, YCC also cites three debut feature films that show much potential and promise for their directors. Angustia is Kristian Sendon Cordero’s intriguing evocation of the encounter between Catholicism and indigenous culture in 16th century Philippines; Puti is Mike Alcazaren’s painterly yet eerie tribute to the Mike de Leon classic Itim, chronicling the nightmares of a counterfeit painter who turns color-blind after an accident; and Ang Turkey Man Ay Pabo Rin is Randolph Longjas’ hilarious skewering of Filipino-American romance.

All these films offer hope that Philippine cinema is worth celebrating even amid the glut of purely escapist mainstream fare. Mind, though, that independent cinema does not always equate to quality cinema. The group viewed and reviewed many independent films in 2013 and found many of them wanting in either technique or content, or both. While we are aware that our opinion on films is just but one of many, we continue to hope that our citations inspire filmmakers to keep on improving their craft.

 
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Posted by on 24/04/2015 in Philippine Film

 

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