Saturday, August 30, 2014

Independent Identity: A Look Back at Cinemalaya 2014

10:26 PM

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Modern Philippine independent cinema seems to be caught in a funny place. Exhibit A: when I talk about indie movies to hardcore fans of the Filipino mainstream, many of them shake their heads and admit to not being able to tolerate “deep” stories and “nakaka-nosebleed na art”. Exhibit A often gets unfairly labeled as “jologs”. Exhibit B: when I talk about indie movies to hardcore fans of independent cinema, many of them immediately make the comparison that indie cinema is everything that the mainstream wishes it had the balls to be. They are often unfairly labeled as “hipsters”.

The funny thing about this dichotomy is that (while the nation’s legions of casual viewers and self-proclaimed film experts go head-to-head in the battle for better taste) a lot of people seem to forget to ask the people who actually make the movies. And chances are that these filmmakers couldn’t care less about Exhibits A and B. Many of them are simply looking for new stories to tell in new ways. No matter how challenged they are by the limitations of our country’s relatively young film scene, each filmmaker is an equally important part of the constant evolution of our national cinema’s identity.

And while it is impossible to come up with an exact method of tracking the development of this identity, there are quite a few signposts – snapshots, if you will – that capture the state of Philippine cinema at certain moments in time. These signposts come to us in the form of film festivals. In particular, the recently concluded Cinemalaya is, by far, the most popular independent festival. The theme for Cinemalaya’s tenth year was “A Decade of Connecting Dimensions”. While this tagline may refer more to the efforts to widen awareness and distribution of local independent movies, it also encapsulates the richness and diversity of the stories our filmmakers have to offer.

And the winners are…
It’s a sad reality that many Cinemalaya films never get to see the light of day after their initial run. Less popular films have to depend solely on strong core fanbases and the strength of word-of-mouth. However, on the last day of Cinemalaya, awards are handed out to the films deemed worthy by the jury. These winners typically have much stronger chances of getting wide theatrical releases, and perhaps even DVDs, if they get really lucky.

The two biggest awards of the festival, Best Film for the Director’s Showcase category and Best Film for the New Breed category, went to Kasal and Bwaya, respectively.

Kasal, a quiet but emotionally devastating drama about a gay couple traveling to a wedding, stood head and shoulders above the rest of the Director’s Showcase entries. Elevated by a naturalistic script and two towering lead performances from Arnold Reyes and Oliver Aquino, Joselito Altarejos’s sober and brutally honest observation of an uneasy relationship and the rift that grows between the two partners almost felt like voyeurism (thanks in no small part to Mycko David’s winning cinematography). Despite the film’s occasional lack of focus and inclusion of some obvious politics, its realism and thankfully respectful treatment of homosexuals netted it the gold. Additional trophies went to Richard Gonzales for his musical score, and Harley Alcasid for his production design.

On the other hand, Francis Pasion’s Bwaya was a more controversial choice. The film, a drama about a community trying to cope with a young girl’s disappearance after she is attacked by a crocodile, was selected specifically for its quasi-documentary format, even if some other people found the technique emotionally manipulative and even downright exploitative of the real family’s plight. Cinematographer Neil Daza definitely deserved the win for his mind-blowing visuals, although one can only guess how Erwin Fajardo won for his barely-there musical score. Either way, both the Cinemalaya jury and the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) still decided to overlook Bwaya’s ultimate lack of depth and plot to award it top honors.

Carlitos Siguion-Reyna’s infectiously optimistic Hari ng Tondo took home a Special Jury Prize and acting awards for both Robert Arevalo and Cris Villonco. This tale of an old, now-bankrupt businessman bringing his troubled grandkids along with him to live in an apartment complex in Tondo was not only filled with memorable characters and music, but was also the funniest Cinemalaya film this year (given you could forgive its caricature villains and some ridiculous plot points).

Nora Aunor once again proved how powerful her name still is in the industry by winning the Best Actress award for playing a woman working for a human trafficking agency in Joel Lamangan’s Hustisya. While the film itself didn’t earn many rave reviews, Aunor was pretty much single-handedly responsible for drawing in enough of an audience for the film to win both a NETPAC award and the Audience Choice award.

However, Mike Tuviera’s violent pulp action film The Janitor took the lion’s share of the Director’s Showcase awards, winning five. This story of an ex-cop hunting down suspects of a robbery-massacre netted the Best Director award for Tuviera and the Best Screenplay award for both Tuviera and co-writer Aloy Adlawan. Much of the film’s appeal came from its flawed but intriguing episodic narrative structure, which the jury seemed to like well enough to give editor Tara Illenberger the Best Editing award. And even if some of The Janitor’s action elements were far from fine-tuned, the film benefited from being the only straight-up action film this year, and got well-deserved wins for Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor for Nicco Manalo, who played a tricycle driver tortured into ratting out the suspects’ names.

The Special Jury Prize for New Breed went to Ida Anita del Mundo’s T’boli fairy tale K’na the Dreamweaver. This was yet another strange decision since the film’s languid pacing, frequent use of second-rate visual effects, and actors who were obviously having a difficult time speaking the T’boli dialect undermined whatever sincerity K’na had. Production designer Toym Imao also won for his work on the film, thanks to the natural visual beauty of T’boli outfits and rituals.

Janice O’Hara’s underrated Japanese occupation drama Sundalong Kanin won the New Breed Audience Choice award. A coming-of-age tale about four boys growing up in a small barangay as the Japanese begin their invasion, the film was able to overcome some low production values with a strong story, emotionally complex characters, and surprisingly decent acting from the four young leads. Being the only period film among the selections this year may have been the key to its winning over the audience.

#Y, Gino Santos’s angsty drama about an upper-class kid navigating life and trying to cope with depression and thoughts of suicide, won a special citation for Best Acting Ensemble. The film was certainly directed and edited extremely well (with some absolutely haunting visual sequences), but I wouldn’t call its win here completely deserved. The cast only seemed to represent one side of the generation (ironically, many older critics praised the film for its accurate depiction of the youth; as a member of the youth, I disagree). Despite the skill behind #Y, I just couldn’t accept the film’s shallow and glorified depiction of suicide.

Snubbery and outrage
The frustrating thing about film festivals and awards shows is that there’s never enough gold to go around. People will always insist that certain movies should have been given more recognition. A set of familiar phrases are thrown around: “snubbed”, “robbed”, “luto”, “magkano ka binayaran”, among others.

Cinemalaya is no different. Whereas more people were satisfied with last year’s results (due to a few movies unquestionably dominating the competition), this year seemed to be more of a free for all, with many a favorite falling by the wayside.

In particular, Giancarlo Abrahan’s Dagitab, a near-experimental film about a university professor beginning an affair with her godson, while her husband falls in love with a supernatural being, had a surprisingly large amount of supporters dissatisfied with the film winning just three awards (Best Director and Best Screenplay for Abrahan, and a well-deserved Best Actress award for Eula Valdes). While Dagitab wasn’t for everyone, its thematically loaded script, fine performances, and visual beauty set it apart from the rest.

Derick Cabrido’s Children’s Show, a film about underground fight rings involving children, also had its fair share of supporters. The film’s highly-stylized fight scenes, while also criticized by some to be too glorified, were arguably responsible for George Centena’s Best Editing win. Additionally, Children’s Show also won Best Sound and Best Supporting Actor for Miggs Cuaderno, who is proving to be one of the best child actors today.

Real Florido’s crowd-pleaser 1st Ko Si 3rd, which is about an elderly woman trying to reignite her youthful spirit when her first love returns, was predicted by many to have the same kind of impact that Jun Lana’s Bwakaw had two years ago. While Dante Rivero won a Best Supporting Actor award for his role as the humble, hardworking husband to Nova Villa’s Cory, the film itself unfortunately didn’t make that big of an impact. 1st Ko Si 3rd’s tired pacing and lack of focus may have worked against the charm of the cast.

However, the biggest outrage by far came from the near-total lack of recognition for Milo Sogueco’s Mariquina. This story about a legendary shoemaker’s daughter and her search for a pair of shoes that will fit her father for his funeral could have easily swept every single New Breed category. While somewhat overlong, Mariquina was filled to the brim with technical brilliance, great music, wonderful production design, a genuinely emotional script, and top-notch direction. However, if anyone deserved that special citation for Best Acting Ensemble, it was the cast of Mariquina. From Ricky Davao’s soul-crushing emotion, to Mylene Dizon’s stone-cold demeanor, to Barbie Forteza’s heartbreaking transformation from happy schoolgirl to broken teenager (which she won Best Supporting Actress for), every single actor in Mariquina helped make it, without a doubt, the best Cinemalaya film this year.

Only three films this year didn’t get any awards recognition at all – and maybe for good reason. While not flat-out bad, Nick Olanka’s Ronda – about a policewoman on her nightly patrol while looking for her son – wasted Ai-Ai de las Alas’s great performance with almost zero narrative progression and unnecessarily laborious pacing. Miggs Cuaderno couldn’t save Asintado, Louie Ignacio’s trying-hard morality tale about a boy who gets into a drug deal, from bad direction and a laughable absence of tension. But it was GB Sampedro’s pseudo-anthology film Separados that really scraped the bottom of the barrel. With terrible acting, confused editing, an almost misogynistic portrayal of women, and some truly awful writing, Separados was this year’s The Diplomat Hotel.

Connecting dimensions
Looking at the Cinemalaya lineup this year, it’s interesting to see just how many crime dramas have been coming up ever since last year’s Star Cinema smash hit On the Job. Asintado, Hustisya, The Janitor (all from the Director’s Showcase), Children’s Show, and Ronda all deal with crime and morally gray characters. While it obviously wouldn’t be accurate to say that the success of On the Job led directly to the creation of these films, the public’s strong reaction to Erik Matti’s action-thriller did help widen the audience for this style of filmmaking.

A couple of Cinemalaya entries this year tried their hand at regional cinema (Bwaya, K’na the Dreamweaver), one was a period drama (Sundalong Kanin), one was a modern-day morality-tale-slash-horror-story (#Y), while the rest focused on the theme most tackled by Filipino cinema: family and relationships (Hari ng Tondo, Kasal, Dagitab, 1st Ko Si 3rd, Mariquina, and Separados).

What does this all say about the state of Philippine cinema? Honestly, you could draw a million different conclusions from this set of fifteen films (plus the ten short films that also premiered at Cinemalaya), and you could over-read each of these movies to death just to come up with some all-encompassing statement on where our national cinema is headed and, in turn, where we as a people are headed.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter: that statement is probably going to change next year. It shouldn’t be about finding an identity for the sake of saying we have an identity. It should be about constantly looking for ways to better our national cinema and, in turn, to better ourselves.

Article by Emil
All posters taken from the Cinemalaya website, GIF by Clar
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Emil HofileƱa is a junior taking up Creative Writing at the Ateneo de Manila University, and is the Documentation and Publication Executive of the Loyola Film Circle. He can usually be found creating YouTube movie reviews under the name Cinemil and going off to theaters to watch movies by himself (but he would really appreciate the company).

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