My reviews (and rank) of the ten full-length films competing at this year’s Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.
1. KUNG PAANO HINIHINTAY ANG DAPITHAPON
Just like the sun disappearing across the horizon, some intangible things die. Like love or marriage. But there are also things that persist through the passing of time, never dissipating, steady and sure.
Carlo Catu’s Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon explores the undercurrent in the relationship between an old woman and the two men in her life.
The film first takes us to the blissful domesticated life of elderly couple Tere (Perla Bautista) and Celso (Menggie Cobarrubias). On the eve of the loving couple’s 27th year together, Tere receives a phone call from a man from her past, Bene (Dante Rivero) and little by little, the film reveals hints of the three characters’ history and harbored thoughts and feelings.
Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon is a wrenching tale of love and relationship in the twilight years. John Carlo Pacala’s brilliant screenplay and Catu’s confident direction bring out the beauty in the mundane and the profundity in small, gentle moments.
Sometimes funny, painful, and moving, the movie veers away from sentimentality, and instead keeps the emotions simmering with exquisite subtlety.
The film is also a masterclass in acting, with the 79-year-old Bautista delivering the most unforgettable performance in the movie; wonderfully candid and nuanced.
Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon is a must-see in this year’s festival. Prepare to weep.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Perci Intalan’s Distance is a quiet family drama focused on unspoken pain and repressed anger. Liz (Iza Calzado), after several years of absence, returns to her husband and kids.
Her absence has left a gaping hole in the family, and we wait if the emotional distance between Liz and her family will ever be closed.
The film opens with an alone and pensive Liz in a charming, picturesque coastal town in Hampshire. When husband Anton (Nonie Buencamino) shows up to bring her back home in the Philippines, Liz agrees.
Distance keeps you wondering about the details of the family tragedy. Why did Liz leave? How long has she been gone? Why is she back? The movie slowly reveals the answers in perfect pace and timing.
While the questions are important in gradually piecing together the mystery of Liz’s long absence, the movie is chiefly focused on capturing the aftermath of her absence. Intalan knows how to create tension, build awkward silences, evoke a sense of hesitancy and distrust smoldering underneath the family’s superficial interactions, without resorting to melodrama. The film also deftly examines the oftentimes complex relationship between mother and daughter.
The characters, all silently hurting, are profoundly nuanced, rich and consistent. Keavy Eunice Vicente’s intelligent screenplay allows the mystery to slowly unfurl, further deepening our experience of each family member’s island of pain.
Buencamino delivers a stellar performance as the loving husband and father patiently waiting for time to glue back the broken pieces of their lives. Therese Malvar, as Liz’s eldest daughter, delivers a masterful performance.
4 out of 5 stars
Based on true events, Liway intimately chronicles a small family’s daily life in a prison camp in Iloilo City during the tail-end of Martial Law.
Glaiza de Castro stars as Day, a.k.a. Commander Liway, a young rebel mother trying her best to make life normal for her small son, Dakip (Kenken Nuyad), within the confines of Camp Delgado.
Director Kip Oebanda provides a gentle, understated drama about a young boy’s innocence in the midst of Martial Law. Like the boy, the audience is shielded from the horror and chaos of the period, so you only hear whispers of news from the outside world, effectively putting us in the perspective of a remote prisoner.
In the laidback and virtually safe camp, Day’s and husband Ric’s (Dominic Roco) only major concern is Dakip’s welfare and future. Soon, however, prison life suddenly shifts with the arrival of a new warden.
Moving at a light and unhurried pace, the film delicately captures the prison’s daily routine, with flashbacks of Liway’s life pre-camp. Oebanda also incorporates a beautifully rendered shadow animation about the “Legend of Liway,” a nice touch to the overall subtle treatment of the film.
The characters are underwritten, and there are little inconsistencies to the film’s execution, such as Dakip’s deep curiosity about the legend of Liway, yet hearing the name Liway spoken out loud in the prison does not provoke a strong reaction from the boy.
Technical flaws are also present. The setting is the 1980s, yet there are several women in the film whose hair is dyed with a light color, or wearing present-day sandals. For a period drama, the film fails to recreate the look and style of the era, and these errors jar the senses and take away some sense of realism.
Overall, Liway, despite its flaws and slight tendencies to appeal to the emotions, is worth your time, with De Castro delivering a mature and committed performance. Prepare for a cascade of powerful emotions during the end credits.
3.5 out of 5 stars
4. SCHOOL SERVICE
Welcome to the world of the syndicates behind child beggars– how they operate, their modus, and how their lives unfold in a single day.
School Service, by Luisito Ignacio, takes us to the operations of a syndicate that kidnaps kids from provinces and gets them to work the streets of Manila. The syndicate, that lives inside a school service van, is run by Mama Rita (Ai-Ai delas Alas) and her brother Robert (Joel Lamangan).
The film’s technical quality is crude, with Ignacio using a distracting, amateurish zoom-in zoom-out style. However, the film is rich and immersive– a searing commentary on poverty. It portrays the stressful proliferation of child beggars and the sad state of our healthcare system.
Delas Alas is superb in her role, oftentimes hilarious. You can sense her depression, the anxiety of feeding the kidnapped kids and caring for her ailing father (a superior performance by Joe Gruta).
Delas Alas is particularly funny when she starts begging, or conning, for money in the streets—the mask she puts on to get sympathy and the wrath and frustration that she is unable to hide as soon as she’s out of the pedestrian’s line of vision.
Lamangan delivers an equally first-rate performance as Rita’s gay brother torn between his young lover and his family.
Although the kids are convincing as street urchins, it’s the adults in this movie that shine. The family spats between Robert, Rita and their dad are realistic and filled with tension.
The central kid, Maya, is a natural, but delas Alas’ Rita is the real star of this moving drama. The emotional connection you experience with the syndicate will make you root for them despite their crimes and deceptions.
Morals and values blur in the complex and painful world of poverty illustrated in School Service.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Benedict Mique’s ML is anti-Martial Law. To drive a point and settle once and for all that Martial Law can never compare to the atrocities that followed the Marcos regime, the viewers are educated through a very graphic suspense-thriller.
Tony Labrusca plays Carlo, a college student who is pro-Martial Law, which is very rare among young millennials. As he cockily defends Martial Law to his History professor, using generic, depthless arguments, you immediately predict the ending: This kid’s perception will radically change at the end of the movie.
So the professor, instead of engaging in a debate with Carlo, asks the entire class to interview someone who experienced Martial Law and report it in class after a long break.
Carlo then picks an old colonel in his village, played brilliantly by Eddie Garcia. But instead of a sit-down interview, Carlo gets tortured in the hands of a psycho with Alzheimer’s.
Mique is a master of thrill, horror and suspense. He deftly builds tension and queasy anticipation of severe pain and suffering. The colonel’s torture methods are terrifying and disturbing, that even with the very fake-looking blood and wounds, Misque expertly sets the mood for fear and nail-biting horror.
ML seems inspired by American slasher films. But while the horror of Wes Craven is chiefly for fun, ML gives an unsettling feeling. Misque’s violence is the dark, disturbing kind. Not at all for entertainment. But a very raw, defined education on torture methods, bordering on sick.
While the movie is very effective in creating trepidation and suspense, making Garcia one of the most evil and scary villains in recent local cinema, ML is definitely not the fun kind of thriller. There are humorous scenes, which admirably blend with the horror, but the film is mostly stressful and disturbing, sometimes leaving an unpleasant aftertaste.
Not recommended for the faint of heart.
3 out of 5 stars
Mamang (Celeste Legaspi) lives alone in an old pre-war house in Manila with her unemployed adult son, Ferdie (Ketchup Eusebio). Old age depresses Mamang and all she wants to do is stay in bed and wallow in despair. But every day, Ferdie tirelessly and cheerfully forces her to live life and delay the progress of health and cognitive issues.
As Mamang ferries through time, slowly succumbing to dementia, we gradually discover her backstory through her increasing hallucinations. But both mother and son wonder whether to go back to her doctor—or just keep the hallucinations, because they bring back life and excitement to Mamang’s lonely existence.
Denise O’Hara’s subdued drama-comedy Mamang lightly examines how time ravages one woman’s mind, body and spirit, and a mother’s undying love for her child. Legaspi looks a bit too young to look fragile, but she nevertheless delivers a competent performance as a confused and emotional woman.
Despite the good casting and restrained performances, O’Hara’s film oftentimes feels lackluster. Legaspi’s Mamang is too ordinary to be compelling, and her hallucinations, which give us insight into her losses and longing, are a bit dull.
The movie triggers a few chuckles here and there, and the melancholic moments are a little sad but never painful. The very poor lighting is also distracting, with plenty of morning sequences obviously shot during night time, ruining the crucial sense of time in which Mamang and Ferdie are prisoners of.
Mamang is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s got a nice little twist in the ending. But it’s the kind of film that leaves you lukewarm.
2.5 out of 5 stars
7. KUYA WES
Working at a money remittance center is a wimpy loser man-child, Kuya Wes (Ogie Alcasid), whose mechanical daily routine is only broken every 16th of the month, which is the remittance schedule of his crush, Erika (Ina Raymundo).
When not boxed in the small, sunny remittance center with a female co-worker (Moi Bien) that disapproves of his personal relationship with their regular customers, Kuya Wes gives financial support to his brother’s (Alex Medina) family, who only accommodates him because he pays the bills.
When Erika one day arrives with a predicament, Kuya Wes comes to the rescue — his life suddenly changes, and we can only wait in despair for his inevitable disappointment.
Director James Robin Mayo lenses Kuya Wes at the edges of the frame, a trendy style normally seen in American indies. But while Mayo crisply captures Kuya Wes’s sad life, Denise and Heber O’Hara’s screenplay is flimsy, rendering the characters somewhat one-dimensional.
We’ve seen Kuya Wes’s character numerous times in American films; a low-key drama-comedy and character study of an outcast, a little bit of an Adam Sandler, that aims to tug at your heartstrings. But the paper-thin script prevents you from fully empathizing with Kuya Wes.
Alcasid’s portrait of the optimistic man-child is too calculated and self-conscious and his character’s idiosyncrasies are forced. He makes too much of an effort to sound and walk like a baby, which makes him more irritating than lovable. You mostly feel sorry for him when he’s at home and suffering indifference from his family, but with a character chiefly based on external peculiarity, it’s hard to wholly embrace this unfortunate soul.
2.5 out of 5 stars
8. MUSMOS NA SUMIBOL SA GUBAT NG DIGMA (Unless the Water is Safer than the Land)
The longest title in this year’s festival, Musmos na Sumibol sa Gitna ng Digma takes us to Marawi, in the thick of a forest, to an unlikely friendship between a recently orphaned girl pretending to be a boy and a real boy.
Islamic prayer permeates and soberly narrates the events that transpire in Musmos. But mainly, we follow the young girl, Eshal (Junyka Sigrid Santarin), as she traverses the maze of mangrove trees and sun-flitered canopy of greens, caring for her baby bro Affan, while pretending to be a boy to escape her family’s enemies. When she meets a boy her age, Farhan (JM Salvado), Eshel must repress her feminine tendencies while coming to terms with her personal tragedies.
Eshel and Farhan don’t exactly feel like “friends.” They’re just two young Muslim kids forced to exist and survive alone in the woods, acutely aware of the Muslim culture of the age-old rido, or clan wars.
The photography will take your breath away. Most of the scenes are stunning for their ethereal quality; the exquisite play of light and shadow provides visceral imagery of the film’s metaphors.
But the movie, written and directed by Iar Lionel Benjamin Arondaing, is also excruciatingly boring, focusing more on visual spectacle more than anything else.
Moving at a glacial speed, Musmos is chiefly an exercise in cinematography. It is also too heavy on poetry and romanticizing nature and the human condition amongst the Islamic world that it takes away your sympathy towards the characters, and making you indifferent to their tragedies.
Most of the time, the camera is just parked, and a lot of scenes dedicated to digging through dirt, with dreamlike figures appearing, reappearing, plus gorgeous staged rituals featuring glowing flames in torches against the pitch-black sky.
Most of the actors still speak in irritating theatrical sing-songy tone of voice, with the exception of Salvado– his Farhan steals every scene with his expressive eyes and conversational dialogue.
A surreal work of art rather than a moving, rich examination of coming of age in the midst of rido, watch Musmos if you’re in the mood to feast your eyes and nothing more.
2 out of 5 stars
9. PAN DE SALAWAL
(THE SWEET TASTE OF SALTED BREAD AND UNDIES)
Newcomer Che Espiritu writes and directs a fantasy-comedy about a young Visayan miracle worker, the 10-year-old Aguy (Miel Espinosa), who finds herself in a small community by the Manila Railroad where most of the residents are ill.
Aguy’s gift is that she can heal the sick by inflicting physical pain on them—she chokes, beats, slaps, or punches an ailing person and voila! Cured. She then meets an old former pandesal baker, Sal (Bodjie Pascua), who is suffering from a failing kidney, and they become pals.
Espiritu’s magical realism of a film has an interesting premise but feels uneven and contrived. Espiritu never develops Sal and Aguy’s relationship. There is no gradual blossoming of an emotional connection — the old man is just instantly attached to Aguy.
Their “special connection” is unconvincing; they just spend a few times either wordlessly baking pandesal or talking about Aguy’s sleeping arrangements in his home.
The humor is bizarre and shallow and mostly slapstick. The gags compose of Aguy wearing a huge pair of colorful granny panties over her head, her mini-violent actions, and the presence of a former beauty queen (Madeleine Nicolas), who owns said undies.
Various ill characters are portrayed, such as a stroke victim that used to be a folk dancer (Ruby Ruiz), an asthmatic (Anna Luna) infatuated with a meat-shop guy (Felix Roco) and a widower (Soliman Cruz) with a suspicious growth in his left boob. But with weak characterizations, it’s hard to care for these people.
While the film is earnest in illustrating the pain and suffering of illness, and both Espinosa and Pascua deliver committed and competent performances, Pan de Salawal is ultimately unfunny and overtly sentimental.
1 out of 5 stars
10. THE LOOKOUT
Like a badly-made, R-18 teleserye, The Lookout tells the tale of Lester (Andres Vasquez), a deranged gun-for-hire who shoots his victims without looking. Impressive. His pleasures include watching live porn (that he orchestrates), enjoying juvenile discussions with his paid lover, Travis, and reminiscing his traumatic childhood.
Set in the midst of Operation Tokhang, the story is made more convoluted by a ridiculously tangled web of syndicates, family drama, romance, political power and corruption.
With all the soap opera-like twists and turns going on and the inability of the filmmaker to form a coherent visual narrative, the movie ends up with the characters literally explaining everything to you.
The Lookout is one major mess. The puerile, horrifyingly lewd screenplay and amateur execution torture you with frame after frame of histrionics and gratuitous sex and cartoonish displays of madness (complete with evil laughter).
And the chunk of the drama is all because of Lester’s mother, played by Yayo Aguila, who refuses to remove herself from a hellish life. Her reason for staying in said hellish life is too ludicrous to be believable.
Absurd, farcical, obscene and severely lacking in substance and entertainment value, The Lookout shocks for its presence in this year’s lineup.
0 out of 5 stars
The Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival ends today, 12 August. This is the last day to catch the films in CCP and in Ayala Mall cinemas for P150 a ticket. The awards night will be held tonight at 7 p.m. at the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo (CCP Main Theater).