I will admit up front that Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation speaks to me a little more directly than other films in this lineup. The period of time depicted in the film coincides with my childhood, and the artifacts of that era resonate with me in a deeply personal way. So it goes. The film follows Yael (Jana Agoncillo), a reserved eight-year-old girl with a father working in Dubai and a mother that seems to barely have time for her. She spends her time making miniature meals, watching TV, or listening to the cassettes that her father sends home.
The film brings the audience into Yael’s world, which is no small feat since she barely even really talks. What the film does, then, is submerge viewers in the perspective of this one child. And to her, the world is pretty alien and strangely magical. When she turns off the TV, she touches the screen to feel the residual electricity lingering on the surface. She listens to her father’s tapes over and over, relishing words she doesn’t really understand, clinging to what little connection she has to a parent that’s barely been present in her life. And she marvels at a Japanese pen that promises a beautiful human life.
It often speaks so eloquently of the latent tragedies of this country, the strange complications that can make childhood such a strange affair. Yael quietly observes a world that she has no capacity to understand. She has a father, but he is not there. There is a man that looks just like her father, but is not her father. Her mother has created a system of rules that don’t really make any sense. It isn’t like the math that she’s learning, or the tiny meals that she’s cooking. The world is a complex place, and adult lives seem needlessly convoluted. And it is in that feeling that this film lingers, capturing the nervousness of a child facing a world that seems incomprehensible.
Rogue Recommends?: Yes, with the caveat that nostalgia is always a dangerous drug.
Speaking of nostalgia, Joseph Teoxon’s Throwback Today trades in the stuff as well. Nostalgia as a concept seems to be playing a pretty strong role in this year’s lineup, with a lot of these films following characters confronting their regrets. The film follows Primo (Carlo Aquino), a 32-year-old whose life hasn’t turned out the way he wanted. Then, while looking through his stuff to sell, he finds his old iMac. He boots it up, and finds that he can inexplicably send messages to his 20-year-old self through a chat program.
The central conceit is intriguing, and it leads into a rather complex narrative structure that provides a few surprises. But as a whole, the film just doesn’t have the narrative rigor to earn its results. The mechanics of the concept just don’t feel particularly well thought out. And the loftiness of the concept seems like a long way to go for the banal epiphanies that the protagonist eventually has. Still, there is some clear promise here, a measure of narrative ambition that goes beyond what a lot of festival films seem to be willing to tackle. And that’s not nothing.
Rogue Recommends?: It’s not bad, really, but that’s hardly a glowing endorsement.
Richard Somes’ Historiographika Errata is made up for different historical vignettes. In 1886, Jose Rizal (Joem Bascon) is living destitute in Berlin, and is contemplating suicide. Interecut with this are scenes from 1896, where a group of Katipuneros are dressed in drag and meeting in secret, plotting the revolution. Then we move to American times, where a former guerilla (Alex Medina) is coerced into helping the invading forces on a recon mission in Mindanao. And the final vignette takes place in 1944, where a woman (Nathalie Hart) is forced to trade sex for food while her husband is locked in a Japanese prison.
The film has an irreverent streak running through its first two, intercut episodes. Every time it depicts one of the national heroes, the film makes sure to make them out to be much more fallible than they’re usually made out to be. Rizal is made out to be a whiny narcissist. The Katipunan are a set of bumbling fools who burn rice while planning a massive bit of sabotage. It’s a provocative approach that doesn’t quite gel into anything that feels particularly substantial. The irreverence kind of dies down for the last two episodes, which function more on a sense of irony that undercuts the seriousness of what happens in these sequences. It’s all very interesting, but it’s hard to get a grasp on what these episodes are really trying to accomplish beyond its pessimistic view of our history.
But boy does this film look good. The film should probably spend a little more time in post-production to iron out some kinks, but visually the movie is already pretty marvelous. Somes always seems to punch above his weight when it comes to putting together productions, creating visuals that should seem impossible for the limited budgets he’s given. And that is always something to behold.
Rogue Recommends?: With reservations. It’s a good-looking film that seems to have interesting things to say. It just doesn’t always come out clearly.
I also checked out a couple of films from the International section of the festival. Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In follows Isabelle (Juliette Binoche), a divorced artist living in Paris. There’s no real plot: it just follows the main character as she drifts from one relationship to the next, each one complicated or unsatisfying in pretty unique ways. It’s kind of a comedy that serves as a discourse on modern romantic entanglements. In some ways, it resembles a Woody Allen film, with long conversations that explore the neuroses of a creative type seeking some measure of satisfaction in a world of affluence that feels so empty and strange. But it does so more substantially, and with a better understanding of the plight of women. It’s a smart, sensual film that does delivers some pretty potent laughs along the way. And of course, Binoche is just wonderful.
Rogue Recommends?: For sure. Especially if you’re a fan of Woody Allen, but have grown increasingly uncomfortable with his oeuvre.
Sebastian Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman is about Marina (Daniela Vega), a trans woman living in Chile whose older boyfriend suddenly dies. The film tracks the fallout of that death, as Marina is confronted by a series of indignities stemming from people’s inability to accept her identity and her relationship with her boyfriend. The buzz surrounding this film involves the lead performance from Daniela Vega, which one of the rare times in the history of cinema where an actual trans person has been cast in a trans role. It’s truly remarkable for how subdued it is, how it traffics not so much in primal catharsis, but in the grudging tolerance of the systemic injustices being faced the main character. Marina is a fighter, but she isn’t about to get into fights that she can’t win. The film’s compassion lies in allowing the character to keep her dignity in spite of all the abuse being thrown at her. Awards season should be interesting if Vega gets the attention she deserves.
Rogue Recommends?: Go see it. It’s good.