“See the big picture,” goes the tagline for the 13th edition of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, the premiere indie film fest in the country. Nine full-length films and 12 short features contribute to a mosaic snapshot of Filipino society, delivered in patches of varying intensity and color.
Disclaimer: these reviews avoid revealing major story spoilers, but other elements, like themes, are discussed extensively. Read at your own risk.
An amateur rapper with a bleak future meets a martial law poet who is stuck in the past. Can they save each other before it’s too late?
One of Respeto’s many virtues is its sense of world-building. The dark, stark underground world of hip hop arenas and sleazy bars with neon lights contrast with the world of Doc’s (Dido de la Paz) serene bookstore on an airy corner of Manila’s streets. In between these two worlds is the limbo of Hendrix (Abra) and friends’ favorite haven, the cemetery and its tall rows of piled tombs.
These contrasting settings lend a sense of place to the film’s beautiful matching of two traditions: hip hop and balagtasan. Doc represents the past, Hendrix the present; the formal and the colloquial, the contemporary and the traditional clash and unite in Respeto. And, like the light and dark settings bridged by limbo, the old and new worlds of the film are tied together by the ever-present spectre of death: Doc’s past is haunted by the abuses of Martial Law, and Hendrix’s present is terrorized by the violence of the drug trade.
Respeto initially looks like a conventional underdog story. Hendrix’s forays into the hip hop rap battles come with sidekicks, an old mentor figure, and a romantic interest. There are humorous moments, made authentic by Hendrix and his friends’ rude street language—which contrasts with the elegance of Doc’s verses, and the balagtasan show that they once visit.
But the film subverts the expectations raised by its story. As it progresses, the sinister social atmosphere takes over, becomes more immediate. Most impressive, and certain to leave a lasting effect on its audience, is its chilling conclusion: an ending steeped in profound irony, charged with the timeless message that no one wins in the endless cycle of violence.
A husband takes flight when his wife goes missing.
Nabubulok in style and spirit feels akin to a Brillante Mendoza work. In this film, a crime drama based on a true story, the sound effects are spare, the lighting is natural, and the camera has a habit of following the shadow of everyday characters in short walks around town. It even has that subplot of a family working together, pooling money for an urgent purpose, seen in Thy Womb and Ma’ Rosa. But this is not quite cinema verité: there is more overt acting, and finer cinematography than a Mendoza film would tolerate.
Given the premise and the film’s early scenes, one might expect a crime thriller. But save for a mid-story encounter, the film never really provides the heart-pounding type of suspense. This is by design, not by fault—what the film provides is an atmospheric, slow-burning kind of thriller. Nabubulok could benefit, however, from tighter scripting of dialogue. When Ingrid (Gina Alajar) asks around about her missing cousin, she and others say the same things they have learned so far to each new character they encounter, and the repetitiveness drags the suspense.
And yet, the film understands subtlety: many of its story’s elements are left to the viewer’s imagination. Most judicious among these omissions is the background story of the missing woman, whom we see only in pictures and in a very brief (though revealing) video. This is significant in relation to the film title’s meaning. A missing woman and the phrase ‘The Decaying’ immediately conjures the horror of dead bodies—but the film avoids direct depictions of the fate of the woman. All we get, in fact, are the sounds of screaming and gunshots over a black screen at the beginning, and a written epilogue at the end. The longer the film delays its direct depiction of this woman, the more one gets the sense that Nabubulok is moving towards subverting its title. And it does, in the story’s conclusion, when the film forces viewers to rethink whose story it really has been about.
One peculiar storytelling device seen in Nabubulok, that is also reminiscent of Brillante Mendoza’s filmmaking style, is how its main characters are watched all the time by anonymous eyes in the small town of its setting. Through these prying eyes, the film performs bits of social commentary: as with the girl in the computer café waiting for her foreigner-beau to come online (a passing comment on the Filipino diaspora and our desperate economy); or with the woman passing on the religious statue to another household (a vignette of our superstitious brand of faith); or the various people going about the fiesta business—sometimes in negligence of their more important social responsibilities.
The most curious aspect of Nabubulok’s story is, of course, the fact that the family at its center, the Harpers, are half-American. This is a film born of the Duterte regime. One scene prominently includes a TV from which the president proclaims his foreign policy that is suspicious of the United States. And in spite of the government’s anti-corruption platform, Nabubulok paints a picture of a System that does not work, where dubious dealings with supposed agents of the law literally take place behind closed doors. In the film, the nation is like the Harpers’ rotten and crumbling house (one of many things that the title signifies); the citizens’ exasperation at this decaying State provides the starkest moment in the film—when Ingrid breaks down in tears, failing to find a swear word rude and powerful enough to express her deep frustration.
Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig
A woman’s confession to murder hurls a priest and alter boy into a fit of conflicting emotions and the need to be righteous.
Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig is a solemn, elegant film that could be described, due to its themes and atmosphere and visual style, as a cross between Nick Joaquin and Lav Diaz (minus the latter’s slow cinema sensibilities).
It features a story as neatly structured and balanced as its cinematographic compositions. The entirety of the film is shot with static cameras (a style the film shares with Lav Diaz’s work), frequently with shallow depth and a long focus. The actors move about the frame like characters in the gothic portraits of the Stations of the Cross. At the heart of its story are acts of confessions, contrasted between its religious and secular manifestations—the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and then interrogations by the police. The first time we see a character confessing (Magda, played by Angel Aquino, to Father Romi, Jake Macapagal), the characters’ faces are positioned such that they confront opposing corners of the frame. This visual juxtaposition is thereafter seen whenever a character is trying to extract truth from another, as when the police questions crime suspects, or even when a young man talks to his anxious friend.
Most of Sa Gabi takes place over one Holy Week, a setting that resonates with its themes of sin and repentance; religious symbols populate the surreal visions that occasionally seize the characters. The most impressive sequences, however, are those of the titular night, where images of townspeople attending the Stations of the Cross intersperse with characters performing the alluded biblical scenes: a woman washes her feet, while the priest reads the story of Jesus doing the same to his disciples; Magda takes dinner, while we hear about the Last Supper; Magda is also seen on the shore, in a flashback, in anguish and lying down on a stone, in her own Agony in the Garden. Beyond this sequence, we also see images of palms and mangroves and shallow water, evoking baptisms and holy anointments. In these, the grandeur of the Church’s rites melds with our archipelago’s tropical nature: this film is the stunning cinematic embodiment of Nick Joaquin’s tropical gothic.
Sa Gabi’s somber tone belies its faithful attitude towards the Catholic Church. All its depiction of religiosity is not a criticism, but a dramatization of its gothic wonder. Note, for instance, how its symbolization of the state (the police) is portrayed as cruel, while the corresponding representation of the faith (the priest) is gentle and patient. One of the main characters, Magda, gives honor to her name: she is deeply devout and repentant, despite her sinfulness, like the biblical Magdalene. Father Romi himself portrays the essential priest: his internal conflict comes from the clash between his faith and his earthly responsibilities; the strength of his faith is unquestioned. In giving us a character like Father Romi, Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig provides a fictional hero for all ministers seeking to reinforce their faith.
Some of the film’s flaws include the obscurity of the final scenes, some of which is intentional, as in Hector’s (Ricky Davao) unintelligible whisper to Lester (Jess Mendoza), but others are more difficult to piece together, such as the identity and meaning of the object that Lester was looking for in their house. There is the dialogue’s formal language, which works for characters like Father Romi, but is dissonant in the case of young Nonoy (Sam Quintana) talking to Lester. Also, the vision where a woman walks in the midst of a burning field uses rather unrealistic CG effects. This may be an inevitable result of practical and financial constraints, but it’s still a regrettable shot in an otherwise impeccably photographed film.
However, all these are minor flaws, irrelevant to what is perhaps the film’s make-or-break feature—its representation of the Christian faith, which is surely reason enough for some people to dislike it, as much as it could be endearing to others.
An ailing biker takes to the rail for one last adventure that pits him against nature and the woman he desires.
Requited is a road movie of two characters on two wheels apiece: Matt (Jake Cuenca), a depressive biker whom we watch in the film’s opening minutes resolutely escaping the city, and Sandy (Anna J. Luna), a public-image obsessed athlete with faulty English pronunciation. Such a setup, by default, calls for romance, but Requited is in the end about something else. Its theme is embodied by the stopovers taken by the pair: the shrine in Capas dedicated to the soldiers who died in the Death March; a church housing a purported relic of the True Cross (where a lone priest delves into storytelling mode unprovoked); and their ultimate destination, Mt. Pinatubo, whose crater lake was formed by the volcano’s deadly, destructive eruption.
Requited’s sunny highways and fresh landscapes camouflage its ultimately dark intentions. The sleight of hand is enhanced by the film’s humble approach: it charms by not trying to be charming. This is a story that avoids being talkative, but neither is it trying to be contemplative—it cruises down a comfortable middle lane.
The movie breaks, however, when its most crucial plot turn ends up feeling more ridiculous than tragic. It is not that the twist was not supported by foreshadowings, nor thematically out of place—it is that it could have been executed in a more believable, less awkward, manner.
An overseas worker rids herself of unwanted baggage on the flight back home.
An ensemble of top-rate acting talent isn’t wasted in Bagahe, an intellectual critique of social institutions. On a literal level, the film is a straightforward story of the chain of events, often uncomfortable and worrisome but relatively non-violent, that flows from a woman’s abandonment of her newborn child.
The innovation of Bagahe is in its approach to social criticism. In the film, Mercy (Angeli Bayani), the suspected mother—and suspected criminal—is placed under constant surveillance in the course of the investigation. As she is led through hospitals, then to a law enforcement office and finally a women’s shelter, various professionals keep eyes on her through surveillance cameras, watching her every movement on a remote screen, every hour of the day. Most symbolic is the film’s brief focus on a convex mirror at one of the institutions—alluding to the Panopticon. Bagahe, in summary, is a Foucauldian social critique. Unlike most social drama films, there is a brightness and optimism to Bagahe—but only on a surface level. Deeper down, the film’s message leads to what is perhaps a more despairing attitude towards society.
The Philippines of Bagahe is one where bureaucracy works as intended, where the state is functioning as designed, where public servants and professionals perform their noble duties. (Notably, all the professionals playing a part in the story are women, except of course for the Catholic priest.) These servants possess a professionalism that, if it were exhibited by all public servants in the real Philippines, would make our institutions a perfectly-oiled machine, working in harmony for the common good. The chief investigator (played by Shamaine Buencamino), hearing a subordinate arguing with his family on the phone, admonishes him, reminding him to leave his private affairs at home. This is compartmentalization, an idea sorely lacking in Filipino professional culture.
And yet, despite this ideal bureaucracy, the citizen still suffers from an unintended type of cruelty. In the course of following its desensitized, impartial processes, the State and its allied institutions appear unmerciful—there arises the irony of Mercy’s name. Bagahe shows how even when due process is followed, the procedures themselves already deliver a kind of punishment to its objects. There is the weary doctor (Racquel Villavicencio) who could not be more nonchalant about touching a woman’s private body. There is the law enforcer who pays the minimum required courtesies, but does not hesitate to taunt her subject if it would help her accomplish her duty.
Mercy spends the longest part of the story at a social welfare center, supposedly the most compassionate agency of government. Yet here, the psychologist (Yayo Aguila) only feigns friendliness when she asks Mercy to tell a story; we know that this interview is only for the purposes of diagnosis, not done out of compassion. On the night before, as she watches Mercy on the surveillance monitor, a coworker tells her another story about Mercy. Here, when the subject is not physically present, she responds to the story with cold, logical analysis; she reveals her true attitude towards Mercy, which is mostly apathy.
To their credit, all these agents of their respective bureaucracies are only acting as intended. On a surface level, what Bagahe does is to imagine a society run by dedicated servants, unperturbed by corruption. (Even the politicians in this film are benign. Yes, they make compromises, with one of them campaigning when Mercy is not looking, but neither are they shown to be explicitly being unlawful.) The question posed becomes: what harm could such a just and efficient bureaucracy possibly do to citizens?
Mercy tells us, in the film’s most crucial scene. She has been so obedient, so “trusting” of these apparatuses; and yet, in following each uncomfortable command, each humiliating order, in willingly giving up her freedoms and learning new rules in the name of justice—she suffers. She feels, in what could be interpreted as the ultimate violation of the social contract, betrayed.