Festival Report – Cinemalaya 2017, Part 1

We review Nabubulok, Respeto, and opening film Birdshot.

by Philbert Dy

BIRDSHOT

 

Mikhail Red’s Birdshot opened up Cinemalaya this year, serving as an advanced preview before its run in the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. It splits its attention between Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), a young teenage girl who inadvertently commits a crime by shooting a Philippine Eagle, and Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a rookie police officer trying to investigate an incident involving a bus and a bunch of missing people. Their paths cross as Domingo is assigned to investigate the shooting of the eagle, ostensibly to keep him from looking too deep into the other case.

 

 

Mikhail Red, at 25, is clearly one of the most technically sound filmmakers in the country. His command of film language and control of his frame is astounding, every moment of this film part of a clear cinematic design. His influences and inspirations are pretty apparent, but that doesn’t turn out to be much of a problem for this film, as Red exhibits skill that more than does justice to whatever work he might be referencing at any given moment. Mycko David’s photography keeps up with whatever technical ambitions this film aims for. This is a stunningly composed thriller that is easily admired.

 

Having said all that, it doesn’t quite feel as deep as it could be. It seems to avoid specifics at almost every turn, and there’s a palpable lack of personal connection to the story. This results in a film that can feel thrilling but empty at times, working through tropes we’ve seen before without any particular commitment to the emotions that could elevate them. And one gets a sense that this is one of those scripts that was written completely in English, before being directly translated in Filipino. The dialogue just doesn’t feel natural, the characters having to express themselves through a barrier of transliteration.

 

But those are ultimately small complaints compared to the enormity of the talent on display. It might be enough to consider that Mikhail Red is young, and he has many years ahead to develop a voice that speaks above the skills that he already has. For right now, we can just enjoy the craft.

 

Rogue Recommends?: Yes. The young Red continues to be a talent to watch. Check this film out when it opens in the PPP on August 16.

 

NABUBULOK

 

Sonny Calvento’s Nabubulok hovers around American Jason Harper (Billy Ray Gallion) and his three kids. His wife Luna (Sue Prado, who we basically only see in pictures and in one video) is missing, and Jason is apparently preparing to flee with his family. But Luna’s absence does not go unnoticed in the town, and the American draws attention wherever he goes. Luna’s extended family, who all live practically next door, decide to take matters into their own hands and pry into this suspicious set of affairs.

 

 

The thing to know coming in is that this isn’t a mystery. The film doesn’t even really attempt to hide the fact that some sort of crime took place. But the film stays with characters that have incomplete information at best, everyone jumping to their own conclusions based on the smallest glimpses of what’s going on with the American and his family. And this creates an interesting tension. It’s clear that Jason has done something and isn’t hiding it very well, but the people looking into this crime all seem to be going about it the wrong way. And through this tension, the movie creates this odd context where the obvious murderer can feel like a victim of circumstance, his very nature turning him into a juicy target in a society of predators.

 

It’s doesn’t all add up. The film makes the rather interesting choice of omitting what on instinct feels like important parts of the story, committing fully to the subjective perspectives of the narrative. It’s an intriguing way to go about things, but it ends up making certain corners of the story feel extraneous and underdeveloped. It can feel like the film is just trying to avoid going into really tricky territory, and that ends up being pretty disappointing. And then the film wraps up in a thoroughly unsatisfying way that breaks one of the cardinal rules of storytelling.

 

But the film remains intriguing through all that, due to the way it chooses to address the zeitgeist. Current events are on the mind of this picture, and that adds compelling facets to an at times frustratingly obtuse jigsaw puzzle of a film.

 

Rogue Recommends?: With reservations. There is plenty of merit in what this movie does. It just doesn’t all come together, exactly.

 

RESPETO

 

Treb Montreras’ Respeto is about wannabe rapper Hendrix (Abra), who lives under the thumb of his sister’s drug dealer boyfriend, Mando. He ends up owing money to Mando, and so he and his friends break into a second bookstore owned by Doc (Dido de la Paz), a man still haunted by his experiences during martial law. Hendrix is caught, but rather than pressing charges, Doc has him and his crew work on repairing the damage they caused in his shop. And Hendrix later discovers that Doc was once a poet, and he tries to learn something from the old man’s old poems.

 

 

Respeto takes quite a few surprising turns. This film could have taken the obvious path of the sports movie formula, with Doc training Hendrix in rhymes until he becomes a champion battle rapper. But it turns out despite the inciting action involving underground rap battles, this movie isn’t about rap battles at all. It is one of the first films to truly tackle this age of impunity, the two main characters linked more by their shared experience in witnessing police abuse rather than their shared love for verse. I’m unsure if this was the original intention, because it feels like the movie shifted radically at some point in its development, the seams still visible where the story’s sensibilities had to adapt to the times. But the tension that results from that is pretty compelling. This becomes a story of a kid who awakens to the reality his method of escape is actually insufficient. Rap isn’t actually going to be his way out. The world ends up being much too awful and too violent for that to be true.

 

And so, this is not a story of triumph, even though it still feels like that at certain points throughout the narrative. It keeps undermining any sense that these characters might end up okay. And it ends well before anything can actually be resolved. It leaves it wounds open, its character never really getting to the point of healing, because that just doesn’t seem possible in the context of this story. It is enough for the film that it draws parallels between two generations of victims of injustice, binding them in the inevitability of their tragedies. It ends up being much more daring than one might expect, if not at all satisfying or life-affirming in any conventional sense.

 

Rogue Recommends?: Yes. One could call it uneven, the structure not quite holding up as the movie strays from the conventional template. But where it goes is so much more interesting. It deserves real consideration.

 

SHORTS B

 

The Shorts B program kicks off with a thesis film: Juana and the Sacred Shores by Antonne Santiago. And it feels very much like a thesis film, but this isn’t really a bad thing. The short is basically a recorded ballet duet set in a jungle. It’s quite lovely, and there is real skill evident in the way that they shot the dance. JP Habac’s Maria has been screened in a previous festival, but it doesn’t hurt to have it in this lineup. It’s still a sharp, entertaining bit of cinematic commentary that gets straight to the core of the reproductive health crisis in the country.

 

Arvin Belarmino and Noel Escondo’s Nakaw competed in Cannes earlier this year, and it certainly does feel like the kind of film set in poverty that would be appreciated more by foreigners. It feels more like a technical exercise that capitalizes on the texture of poverty, rather than a work that really wants to say something vital about that particular milieu. P.R. Pintadol’s Hilom is set in Samar, and follows young twin brothers struggling with their identities. The film moves quickly through its emotions, as if in a hurry to end. I’d have liked to see it slow down a bit and linger on some of these feelings. In the end, though, it’s still pretty sweet.

 

TM Malones’ Bawod, in telling the story of a young girl who lives with her overprotective bamboo farming grandfather, touches on a lot of interesting things. It ends up feeling a tad aimless by the end, but there are some things about it that are genuinely endearing. The last short in this program, Nakauwi Na by Marvin Cabangunay and Jaynus Olaivar, clearly means well, but is way too rough for exhibition at this scale. It’s about a jeepney driver whose son becomes a victim of extrajudicial killings. One can’t fault the film for not having good intentions, but a basic technical level, this movie just doesn’t stack up.

 

Rogue Recommends?: You should always make an effort to catch the shorts at Cinemalaya. There’s always something interesting to see.