So you've been asking where, oh where good old Pinoy cinema has gone. Well, here's your chance to put your money (only P100! Even P50 if you're a student!) where your bleeding heart is--and I know I'm mixing metaphors there. Don't mind me, I'm just giddy. See, of the 10 Cinemalaya films in competition, I've seen seven so far, and five of them range from good enough to extraordinary.
I'll break that down some more: Chris Martinez's 100 and Francis Pasion's Jay are extraordinary, Paul Morales' Concerto and Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil's Boses are very good, and Onnah Valera and Ned Trespeces' My Fake American Accent is good enough.
Five out of seven ain't a bad number, but what makes it more significant is that, in my view, these films could only have been made under Cinemalaya's aegis. By their fruits ye shall know them: If that adage is true, then no mainstream movie/TV studio today (Star Cinema? Regal Films?) would dare make any of these films, let alone allow their transgressive, aggressively non-conformist scripts to reach first base.
Morales' Concerto, for starters. An ambitious historical film about a family trying to survive the war in 1940s Davao, it manages to look expensive yet intimate. The production design is excellent and well-sustained throughout, despite the fact that Cinemalaya directors only work with P500,000 each as seed money. Except for a wayward summarizing speech in the middle and a couple of distended sequences that can stand pruning, nearly everything in the movie looks, sounds and feels authentic that you can't help but hold it up against the most recent (mainstream and big-budgeted) local movie set in World War II: Joel Lamangan's Aishite Imasu.
By any measure, Concerto is a much better picture. I've even heard some people compare it to the legendary Oro, Plata, Mata of Peque Gallaga. I wouldn't go that far (Oro is my favorite Pinoy film--at least the first two-thirds of it, so I don't like to be cavalier about its standing), but I can understand praise like that. It's rare to see a historical film done right in these parts, and with such paltry resources yet. Concerto proves it can be done.
Martinez's 100, Ongkeko-Marfil's Boses and Onnah Valera and Ned Trespeces' My Fake American Accent are highly accessible (and therefore commercially feasible) entries, but they, too, display a welcome freshness, fortitude and unconventionality, even with topics as cliched as dying, child abuse or the peculiar culture of the call-center industry.
The moving Boses offers an emotionally rich, cathartic experience with the well-worn tale of an abused boy finding solace in music, and proving to be a prodigy in it. This is an intense, heartfelt film brimming with lovely moments, notably those involving the violinist Coke Bolipata (yes, in his adequate debut as an actor) mentoring the boy (Julian Duque) on the violin.
Duque is an acting and musical find. He speaks not a word in the film, but his performance shines, and his violin-playing is even more astounding. The movie he anchors and illuminates traces its story neatly, soberly, without fuss or histrionics. Here we go again: Watch this, and see if Gil Portes' Mga Munting Tinig doesn't strike you as too stilted by comparison.
100, meanwhile, has all the qualifying elements to make it your middling disease-of-the-week melodrama. Happily, it's been injected with the one vaccine it needs to transcend its soggy genre: irony. A young woman coming to terms with dying in her prime--hello, Ishmael Bernal's Pahiram ng Isang Umaga, starring Vilma Santos! But 100 is cheekily aware of its progeny, so it sets out to upend it--by boldly referencing Bernal's classic weepie in a scene in the movie, and elsewhere rinsing itself of any hint of bathos.
Every crying jag is expertly counterweighted with a hilarious moment, often courtesy of those two great comics, Eugene Domingo and Tessie Tomas, even if their scenes aren't supposed to be funny. Mylene Dizon is persuasive in the lead role--hard-nosed but sympathetic, a thorny blend to pull off. It helps that she's photographed masterfully by Larry Manda, whose lens is just one of those elements that make this film the most pulido of the seven entries I've seen.
From writing and directing to its performances and production values, 100 is an admirably polished work. I wouldn't be surprised, or disappointed, if it wins Best Picture. And (spoiler alert!) watching Domingo, Tomas et al skinny-dip has got to be a cinematic highlight not easily forgotten by anyone.
Ranged against Boses and 100, My Fake American Accent is lightweight fare--episodic sketches of the upside-down lives, work schedules and mindsets of call-center agents. It's the kind of film Jose Javier Reyes would have made with its jaunty tone and quirky, individualized characters, but with more panache and better lighting.
But, but, but--let's see if it doesn't win you over with its hip sense of fun and youthful exuberance. Unlike many mainstream films or TV dramas that fail miserably to capture the contemporary Makati/Ortigas milieus, this one does, quite wittily. It's the zeitgeist writ large on screen, with believable situations and strikingly natural dialogue. The sound design is bad, the cinematography garish. The performers, however, led by Mailes Kanapi, are charming, and the filmmakers have clearly done their research.
Which brings me to Pasion's Jay, for me the unexpected triumph of the festival. Thank God for a movie like this--something long overdue given the insidious pervasiveness of our vapid TV culture. Spare, deadpan, brutally hilarious, Jay comments on--nay, eviscerates--the sheer artificiality and untruth of so-called reality television. And it does this without raising a voice--or, rather, without its damn good lead actor, Baron Geisler, doing so.
Playing a sweetly manipulative TV reporter who'd do anything, including re-creating scenes of genuine tragedy, to get his story, Geisler paces through his chores with nary a flutter of his gay character's well-scrubbed hands. He keeps everything soft-spoken, low-key, and yet by the end he conveys, with enormous power, the monstrous deceit of his actions. That precise, economical performance becomes the unblinking insider's eye that lets us take a peek at the fraudulent myth-making he creates for our tawdry consumption.
I've a feeling the pint-sized Duque of Boses would win Best Actor this Sunday, and I'd be happy for him. But I'm rooting for Geisler for his revelatory turn in Jay.
It's not just his performance that's commendable. Pasion's script is sharp, subtle, complex and thought-provoking, playing with and rearranging our notions of illusion and reality, truth and make-believe right up to the very last frame. His multi-layered storytelling owes a debt to Almodovar, particularly to Bad Education, which, with generous dollops of bite and humor, also teased out the fine points of reality-making and truth-telling and the hazy subtexts in between.
At its most inspired, specifically the scenes of a wake in a barrio, Jay is howlingly funny, yet also piercingly discerning. You find yourself laughing and nodding your head at the same time. It's not the easiest film to make, thematically and stylistically; a few pushy moments induce the fear that it will inevitably lurch into camp or overwrought, self-conscious pomposity. But its poise holds throughout, giving us a movie whose grim vision will, I believe, only acquire prescient, consequential weight from now on--let TV be damned.
All things considered, between 100 and Jay--I'd say they're both shoo-ins for Best Picture, but Jay should win. While 100 is the more accomplished work overall, Jay fulfills Cinemalaya's indie aesthetic more forcefully, from its subject matter to its tone, treatment and execution. It shows the way forward, if you will, for other works that strain at the limits and ask the hard questions.
Today, Saturday, is the last screening day for Jay, 100, Boses and Concerto, while My Fake American Accent bows out on Sunday. The schedules:
JAY--6:15 p.m. 4/F Multipurpose Hall
100--3:30 p.m. Main Theater and 9 p.m, 4/F Multipurpose Hall
CONCERTO--3:30 p.m. Little Theater
BOSES--9 p.m., Main Theater
MY FAKE AMERICAN ACCENT Sunday, 12:45 p.m., Little Theater
There are five other competition films in the festival. Two--Michael Christian Cardoz's Rancheros and Joel Ruiz's Baby Angelo--are highly problematic for me, either for being too stylized (Rancheros' "real-time" tedium) or too artfully formless that the film never acquires ballast (Ruiz's fretwork of intersecting lives in Baby Angelo). Watch them, too, if you can, then let's discuss.
The last three--Jay Abello's Namets, Tara Illenberger's Brutus and Paul Sta. Ana's Huling Pasada--I've not been able to catch due to conflicting schedules or the lack of tickets. Tell me they're also good, please.
When all the numbers are in, I suspect this year's Cinemalaya will prove to be a record-breaker. I see larger-than-usual crowds at the CCP every day--mostly young people, a good sign--and tickets to the movies that have acquired widespread buzz, such as 100 and Jay, have become scarce. What a good problem to have! The applause, too, is spontaneous every screening, and I hear clumps of attendees discussing the films afterwards. It's a great feeling to be at the CCP these days, I tell you.
Bravo to our young filmmakers.
[Photos of posters by Lakwatsero]