FILM
March 14, 2017

Festival Report – Sinag Maynila 2017

Words by Philbert Dy

This is the third edition of Brillante Mendoza’s Sinag Maynila festival. Once again, five films were chosen from scripts to receive production grants. The finished films were shown in a few cinemas around Metro Manila. Here’s a look at what this year’s edition had to offer:

To Pug Imatuy

To Pug Imatuy

Arbi Barbarona directs To Pug Imatuy, which the movie translates in English as The Right to Kill. That provocative title soon proves justified, as the movie gets into really challenging territory really quickly. It’s inspired by the true story of an elderly Manobo woman who was forced to act as a guide for an army unit and suffered all manner of abuse and indignity along the way. The movie replaces the elderly woman with a younger couple (Malona Sulatan and Jong Monzon), and essentially harnesses outrage into a fictionalized narrative that seeks a measure of justice usually denied to the voiceless.

This is a horrific, painfully powerful film about a terrible situation. The film isn’t coy about what side it’s taking in this conflict, and that might raise a few eyebrows. But this whole story is told from a very distinct perspective. This family doesn’t want to do much more than live peacefully. The first act paints a fairly idyllic picture of what this life could be, with the central couple trapping a boar, and then enjoying the fruits of their labor with their children. And then the morning comes, and the film already begins to add complexity to the general depiction of their situation, the movie making it fairly clear that this primitive life has consequences, too. And then the movie starts painting the ways in which the modern world seems to be encroaching on the lives of the people there. The film elegantly paints out multiple facets of the larger context of these people’s lives, right before moving into the meat of this tragedy.

I’m not sure if it was the projection or a technical issue inherent to the film, but there were a couple of weird visual glitches when I saw it. But that doesn’t take anything away from the sheer power of this film. It is bold and angry and genuinely affecting, and the story it tells is really something that people ought to know. But its appeal isn’t limited to its subject matter. This is actually a genuinely well made picture. The direction keeps track of the geography of this lush, confusing jungle, which turns out to be pretty important to this narrative. And there is eloquence and insight in this film’s anger, real thought put into the how all the different bits fit together, and what it is in the larger context that makes this situation so untenable.

Kristo

Kristo

HF Yambao’s Kristo follows cockfighting bet taker Boy (Kristoffer King) for a little over a day. His eldest daughter is graduating, and he intends to spend the entire day with his family. But his boss (Julio Diaz) insists that he come in and do his job. And so, much to the dismay of his family, he goes to the cockpit to make favorable matches and take bets.

It’s a day-in-the-life story that delves pretty deep into the economic context in which the main character operates. He is only a kristo by day, the father of four also helping his wife sell bananas at the market. They might be forced to leave their stall, if plans to demolish the market push through. There’s a lot of focus on money changing hands, on all the transactions big and small that Boy makes over the course of the day. There are mouths to feed and colleagues to pay and futures to plan for. The setting provides an inherent metaphor for some of the themes, with Boy simply not equipped to win some of the matches he’s put up against.

It’s fairly compellng stuff, but the movie doesn’t have anywhere to go. It ends up defaulting to a conclusion that feels both predictable and unearned. Still, that doesn’t completely undo the merits of this picture. Kristoffer King is terrific in the lead role, the dogged, if futile determination of the character to make things better for his family shining through. And the direction captures the grit and squalor of the setting. The ending does leave a bad taste, but there’s a lot more to chew on.

Beyond the Block

Beyond the Block

Ricky Carranza, a legend of the local dance, steps into the director’s chair with the documentary Beyond the Block. In it, the dancer attempts to draw a line from the humble rise of street dance in the Philippines back in the seventies all the way to present day, where professional Filipino dance crews compete in international competitions. Along the way, Carranza weaves in details of his own life story, documenting how he rose to fame as a dancer and ended up walking away, before rediscovering his love for the art a much older man.

It would be a big story to cover, even without Carranza’s personal narrative intruding into it. And plenty of dubious choices get in the way of just telling the story. Carranza, at the start of the film, has to say that he isn’t making the film as a piece of self-promotion. And yet, that statement comes into doubt at several points in the picture. A segment, ostensibly about the influence of Francis Magalona on the scene, for example, largely becomes about Carranza talking about his relationship with him. Carranza is an affable figure, and his importance to the scene is undeniable, but the movie is derailed almost every time he inserts the specifics of his own story into the larger narrative, especially when he stages his testimonials in odd, attention drawing ways.

But there is plenty of remarkable footage here. Just seeing where the pioneers of Filipino streetdance ended up is pretty compelling by itself. Seeing them older and still able to cut a rug tells a story that goes well beyond the historic details of their involvement. Carranza’s rapport with the subjects is also a pretty big selling point. In the end, though, a lot of this film ends up feeling kind of insufferable. There’s a lot of good in it, though, and all it might really need is someone less involved to reedit it.

Ladyfish

Ladyfish

Ladyfish stars Mart Escudero as Kaye, a former gay beauty queen now trying to make a living by making soap and other beauty products. Out of the blue one day, her old friend Bonn shows up at her doorstep. Bonn’s European boyfriend has left her, and she begs Kaye to her and her young son in. The movie follows the two through various trials and tribulations, a lot of it having to do with the challenges of being gay in the Philippines.

There are a few compelling ideas in here, but the movie itself is much too shapeless. It never really finds the focus it needs to work as a narrative feature. It begins and ends with beauty pageants, but the stories they tell in between don’t really make much of a narrative connection between the two ends. Kaye sells soap, finds a boyfriend, helps find a school for Bonn’s son, and does a bunch of other things that don’t really tell us much about the personal journey that the character is taking. And then inexplicably, the culmination of this depiction of this character’s societal and economic struggles mainly has to do with her stepping on the stage of a beauty contest. Along the way, the movie does get to depict some interesting situations that speak directly to the kind of injustices that homosexual Filipinos still face, but the scattershot nature of the narrative means that things just get lost.

Bhoy Intsik

Bhoy Intsik

Raymond Francisco plays the titular character in Joel Lamangan’s Bhoy Intsik. Bhoy is a low-level hustler operating out of a cemetery in Cavite. He meets snatcher and drug runner Marlon (Ronwaldo Martin) under contentious circumstances, but they end up relying on each other as they try to make ends meet through various extralegal means.

Like Ladyfish, this movie feels more like a collection of subplots than a singular story. The narrative is structured really strangely, the movie prone to skipping over the meat of each episodic subplot and going straight to an unearned resolution. The movie actually covers some interesting ground, and there is clearly effort to tell a story of systematic injustice set in the current day. But it just doesn’t amount to much, the movie unable to tell a cohesive, resonant story when all is said and done. It just blunders broadly through each of its episodes, seemingly important characters disappearing for long stretches, the drama never building into anything worth considering.

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