Review: QCinema 2018

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Eddie Garcia plays Manolo in Dan Villlegas's "Hintayan ng Langit," which won the Audience Choice Award in the 2018 QCinema International Film Festival. Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — With a day overlapping between the QCinema International Film Festival and the recently concluded Cinema One Originals Festival, it’s not hard to draw comparisons between the “friendly” competitors.

While Cinema One went with a festival selection with a more mainstream flair — genre outings for its in-competition films, and restored FPJ classics — QCinema embraced its niche by providing a more eclectic mix.

Competition films, though fewer this year, ranged from the bizarre with the drug-addled “Dog Days” and the beautifully lyrical corpse dramedy “Oda sa Wala,” to the relatively (the operative term is “relatively”) conventional with romances like the afterlife-set “Hintayan ng Langit” and the LGBTQ+ coming-of-age flick “Billie and Emma.” There’s also the epic period piece-cum-art film “Masla a Papanok.”

But aside from “Oda sa Wala,” it was the documentary selections that became local standouts this year. Equally powerful but very different, the ethnographic “Pag-ukit sa Paniniwala” and the deeply personal “All Grown Up.”

Also, truly owning the “international” in its full title, QCinema nabbed the early foreign Oscar frontrunners such as Japan’s “Shoplifters,” South Korea’s “Burning,” Poland’s “Cold War,” Taiwan’s “The Great Buddha+,” and Thailand’s “Malila: The Farewell,” alongside a stellar list of other old and new Asian and European films.

The Asian Next wave section proved to be a good window into how emerging Asian filmmakers are tackling issues from their respective homelands. Bi Gan's mesmeric “Long Day's Journey Into Night” wrestles with space, both real and imagined, of a China that is quickly eroding; Siew Hua Yeo's “A Land Imagined” takes on the immigrant and labor issues of Singapore but turns its head with a surreal twist; and Ash Mayfair's “The Third Wife” is an eye candy strongly grounded with women’s rights and coming of age in a restrictive culture. Also of note is Kamila Andini’s “The Seen and Unseen,” which depicts the tale of a young girl coping with her dying twin brother’s condition by conjuring tales of fantastic lands and deities.

So did the “all bases covered” approach work well for QCinema 2018? Below are our thoughts on some of these films.

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

                                                                      “Hintayan ng Langit”

[Spoilers below]

In the vein of “The Good Place,” “Forever,” and other stories that demystify the afterlife, comes the big-screen adaptation of Juan Miguel Severo’s Virgin Labfest play “Hintayan ng Langit.” Its concept: what if estranged ex-lovers were to meet once more in the afterlife’s waiting room?

Director Dan Villegas — his second time helming a stage-to-screen adaptation — once again uses the film medium to further the conceit of its source material. If in “Changing Partners” it is using editing to elevate the pulsating rhythm of the film’s titular “changing,” here in “Hintayan ng Langit,” it’s through utilizing the detail film affords to flesh out the dynamics of its world better.

“Hintayan ng Langit” builds its own mythos so matter-of-factly without the need for explanation. It removes any religious and ethereal mystery from the afterlife and instead portrays it as bureaucratic and corporate.

Set primarily in their world’s version of purgatory, “The Middle,” the place operates as an art deco hotel-cum-airport departure area where souls wait for their turn to get into heaven (or if they have a loved one on the other side, get petitioned to quicken the process). And just like its counterparts on the human plane, it too is riddled with issues like overstuffing (a quick slight at the drug war), delayed departures, and even literal cracks in their walls.

But these details are merely second fiddle to the film’s love story; choices being the central theme of “Hintayan ng Langit.” It plays on the idea of second chances and the romanticized idea of love extending beyond death. “Hintayan ng Langit” subtly counters the idea of “soulmates” and puts the decision not on fate but on human agency. In this way, it also becomes a rumination on the idea of a “perfect” heaven. Is it even “heaven” if it's not of your own choosing? Thematically, there’s a lot to pick from the rich world “Hintayan ng Langit” constructs, but where the film falters is characterizing the people that live in this space.

Though undeniably charming through the performances of Eddie Garcia and Gina Pareño as the aforementioned exes, Manolo and Lisang, the film can feel imbalanced in its character dynamics. By putting all the burden on Lisang — her forever pinning for Manolo, her having to move heaven and earth literally for him — it implicitly reinforces the trope of women who cannot move on even if the relationship is problematic. This could have used a counterweight, Manolo going through a redemption arc, a transformation beyond death. And yet, by the end of it all, I’m found wanting more struggle as it feels like he still resorts merely to use his charms to get away with things. This may also be because the film rushes to tie things off neatly by its finale. But in doing so, it leaves much to be desired in the resolutions and character decisions.

Overall, “Hintayan ng Langit” is still a charming piece of work, mainly because of its performances and its quaint world-building. But its story seems to occupy the same limbo it is set in. — GP

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

“Oda sa Wala”

[Spoilers below]

Films are composed of so many moving parts, for there to be synergy — each element in its top form — it requires a level of precision and craftsmanship not easy to achieve. This year, “Oda sa Wala” is that rare well-oiled machine — from its engaging narrative, the acting its anchored on, and its overall use of the cinematic language.

Written and directed by Dwein Baltazar, “Oda sa Wala” (translated as “Ode to Nothingness”), as its title suggests, is lyrical contemplation on emptiness. Starring Marietta Subong (more famously known as Pokwang) in her first role under her birth name, the film tells the story of Sonya, an old maid running a funeral shop whose life has seemingly long drifted into monotony. That is until one day a mysterious corpse arrives on her doorsteps.

In a way, this juxtaposition of life and death echoes from multiple fronts. From the industry “birth” of Marietta Subong, to the depths of lifelessness her character Sonya feels, to using a funeral business as the milieu to illustrate how situations that are emotional extremes for others have been desensitized as mundane in Sonya’s world.

A black dramedy by way of an urban fairytale, “Oda sa Wala” uses magical realism to illustrate what heights Sonya must experience just to feel alive. Throughout the film, Sonya begins to believe that the corpse is a lucky charm, as business soon comes pouring in after its arrival. She starts to treat it as a confidante — feeding it, dressing it up, basically turning the corpse into a stand-in for her deceased mother. Her father (Jonee Gamboa), who she was not on speaking terms with at the beginning of the film, even joins in on Sonya’s delusion.

Ambiguity works to the film’s advantage as not answering whether the film’s supernatural elements are legitimate or not makes the film more poignant as it beautifully renders the loss, longing, and loneliness entrenched within Sonya. And as absurd as things get, Subong’s performance is able to reconcile the overt comedy as well as the underlying pain these things stem from.

To top it all off, everything is elevated by Baltazar’s use of the cinematic language. From the film’s choice of aspect ratio and “frame within a frame” mis en scenes that capture the smallness of Sonya’s life, to cinematography that utilizes Hitchcockian dolly zooms to present a descent into madness (as like most “monkey’s paw” stories, things turn out rarely as planned). There is even a standout scene that is a testament to Baltazar’s dexterity as she lets the camera linger as Subong’s Sonya exits the stage. The audience is left merely with the sound of her heaving, building tension even when all we see is (fitting to the title) nothing.

“Oda sa Wala” is a beautiful culmination of well-thought-out storytelling elements. Easily, it makes for one of this year’s, if not this generation’s, standouts. — GP

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

                                                                  “Billie & Emma”

The story of “Billie & Emma” will probably be cited for its universal depiction of love, no matter what the gender is, but this denies the film the specificity of queer love — the secret rituals involved in the beginnings of young, queer romance, the pains and the liberties of coming out, and the eventual triumph of being able to love — and live out that desire — for the same sex. A young lesbian couple wouldn’t be afforded the same rights as a heterosexual couple, even just holding hands or looking at each other tenderly across the hall. They have to keep it hidden, in a safe space, free from the prying eyes of people who would rather see them burn in hell.

Director Samantha Lee* affords her characters a form of paradise. In an unnamed small town and set in the late 1990s, where even tolerance of queerness is a far off idea, Billie and Emma express their love for each other in the corner of a library, up on a bright green hill, and in the privacy of their rooms. Watching their relationship evolve from a mere fling to a fully formed rebellion is rhapsodic, marked by resplendent greens of their secret place, the soft browns of the school, and soft whites of their school uniforms. Zar Donato’s Billie and Gabby Padillia’s Emma are mesmerizing to watch, and with a queer actor (Donato) in a queer role, there is no overreaching to be had — Donato shares Billie’s queer experiences, like all of us in the LGBTQ community do.

At times, “Billie & Emma” appears to be a corrective of all the things wrong in Lee’s debut film, “Baka Bukas,” particularly the “too burgis” tag of the latter. There are efforts here to make the character backgrounds more approachable and relatable. The film can also be cheesy, particularly in the third act, which involves an equally cheesy declaration of love. But the queers haven’t had a film like this in so long it might as well be forgivable.

“Billie & Emma” is the film I would have wanted to see when I was young. It tells me that what I’m going through is okay, and that there’s someone out there for me who will sing a cheesy song he made up. Watching “Billie & Emma” in a packed theater, with squeals of joy from what I presume is a mostly queer crowd, is a delight. And the image of Billie and Emma kissing for the first time, on the big screen, is a rarity in Philippine queer cinema, a kiss so tender and full of hope, and a glowing reminder of what it’s like to be young, queer, and in love. — DJ

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

                                                                        “Dog Days”

“Dog Days” starts out pretty interesting. A sports movie crossed with a fever dream, its first act plays out like a live-action cartoon. The kind closer to the surrealist stylings of Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” or “The Regular Show” rather than “Slam Dunk.” We see blood magic, rockstar godfathers, and floating heads motivating the lead character of Michael Jordan Ulili (Ybes Bagadiong) as he embarks on fulfilling the messianic prophecy of his basketball stardom.

With the base narrative of MJ trying to prove himself in sport, we as the audience are able to give leeway to whatever absurdity “Dog Days” shoots our way (we know there’s a story about basketball underneath it all, right?). It’s a trippy adventure one could ride on.

But when the film moves away from basketball during its second act, that’s when the film loses it luster. It becomes too tedious and self-indulgent, bloating the film’s story and runtime in the process. There’s a gang war between drug traders here, family members going amok, and a magical dodo bird that’s supposedly the key to saving the day.

There’s a message beyond this seemingly arbitrary plotting though. “Dog Days” has something to say about family, xenophobia, and the societal pressures on biraciality in the Philippines. The problem is there’s just too much going on.

And though I know surrealist humor is rooted on non-sequiturs and unpredictability, when the randomness overshadows the messages trying to be conveyed, all I could say is — as the film would put it — “ang labo mehn!”

By the end of it all, as the high wears off, there’s an interesting denouement that “Dog Days” works itself towards. But it’s a mere flourish that doesn’t really redeem the movie as a whole. — GP

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

                                                                  “Masla A Papanok”

“Masla A Papanok” has profound ideas at its center. In a way a reclamation, it turns the whole idea of myth-building over its head by using cultural destruction as the base to where it weaves the legends of Maguindanao.

Set in 1891, during the transition from Spanish to American rule, princess Bai Intan (Quennie Lyne Demoral) is taken in by a convent as she escapes a looming arranged marriage. She is converted into Catholicism and made to change her name into Clara. She slowly assimilates into this new culture. Alongside this, a giant bird looms over the land, an omen of bad things to come.

Directed by Guiterrez Mangansakan II, the film draws from local folklore by using the titular papanok (the Maguindanaon term for “bird”) as a harbinger of doom. But by virtue of retrospection, it is able to factor in the succeeding century-worth of history to portray the ills the bird foretells beyond the immediate, the annihilation farther reaching in time and space.

More than the genocide committed upon Intan’s people, it juxtaposes this literal destruction to the one being perpetrated upon Intan’s being. She serves as a microcosm, representing how colonization took over identities under the guise of liberation and education.

“Masla A Papanok” conveys this shift by also changing its visual treatment halfway through the film. From employing a style paying homage to cinema in its early days, as the narrative perspectives change, it too moves to more modern techniques, possibly a metaphor of how a past is wiped out.

Though grand in ambition, the film stumbles because of its technical weaknesses. The audio doesn’t always sync with the visuals, and some VFX are too jarring to suspend disbelief. The cast isn’t also the most well-versed in terms of line delivery.

But as a whole, by its sheer story and its intent to shed light on a corner of this country often overlooked, there’s much to admire about “Masla A Papanok” despite its flaws. — GP

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

                                                                “Pag-ukit sa Paniniwala”

Billed as a five-year visual ethnography of Paete’s Holy Week practices vis-à-vis its religious woods carving industry, “Pag-ukit sa Paniniwala” is a captivating look into the cross-sections of art, commerce, and religion.

Directed by Hiyas Baldemoro Bagabaldo, the documentary opts for a non-narrative treatment as previously seen in last year’s “Bundok Banahaw, Sacred and Profane” and the 1992 nature documentary classic “Baraka.”

The advantage of this style is that, without a narrator telling people what to think, audiences are turned into third-party observers — left “untouched” and made to see things for what they are. This removes a layer in the process of interpretation, as those watching are made to connect with the images on a primal level directly. It's an emotional approach that makes thematic ties stand out better.

For “Pag-ukit sa Paniniwala,” the juxtaposition of Catholic idolatry, and the industry behind their creation showcases a cyclicality that keeps the practices thriving. At the start of the film, we are shown a tree as it is cut from the woods. Bagabaldo chronicles its journey as it is painstakingly sculpted into a giant statue of the crucified Christ. By the film’s closing, the side-by-side presentations become one as the central woodwork joins the fold, becoming prayed upon by followers.

If God created man, through our art, we too create God.

Amidst some rough visuals here and here, “Pag-ukit sa Paniniwala” is a riveting piece of cinema. A documentary, that just like its subject matter blends the pragmatic and the poetic. — GP

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

                                                                  “All Grown Up”

Scorsese would say that while in narrative features scripts are written before filming begins, documentaries capture reality first — letting the stories unfold on their own — and then allow the script to be shaped upon that.

Following this logic, what better way to capture the reality of a family than via their home videos? Shot through time, within arm's length, and initially, without the agenda of filmmaking, they are first-hand accounts of what a family experiences. It is inclusive too; thus it captures as well how a family perceive themselves.

To expose this is an act of undressing, laying yourselves bare to the world. Filmmaker Wena Sanchez takes these bold steps in the raw but powerful “All Grown Up.”

In “All Grown Up,” viewers get to experience the granularities of how it is to care for a family member with special needs. The impetus of the film being Sanchez’ brother Justin, who has been diagnosed with ADHD and ODD, moving away from home in a few weeks for college. In the process, the film exposes both the individual and collective guilt, anxieties, and insecurities of the family.

As the film progresses, emotions compound even more as Sanchez discovers that her daughter may have her own development disorders. This leads to a scene towards the end where, in an unfurling of all these pressures, we see the depths of the fears, as well regrets, that are the requisites of love.

It takes much bravery to allow vulnerability, it’s a sincerity that makes “All Grown Up” profoundly affecting. — GP

Screencap from QCINEMA/YOUTUBE

                                                    “Itoshi no Irene” (Come On Irene)

[Spoilers below]

For those unfamiliar with the mid-90’s manga by Hideki Arai this film is based on, it would be easy to mistake “Itoshi no Irene” as one of those quirky rom-coms where the romance comes after the *insert scenario where an odd couple is forced to be together.* In “Knocked-Up,” it’s a baby; with “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a fake relationship; and for “Itoshi no Irene,” a mail-order marriage.

And for most of the first half of the film, that’s precisely how “Itoshi no Irene” plays it out — part fish-out-of-water story, part cultures collide rom-com. The young, idealistic, and kinda-airheaded Filipina Irene (Nats Sitoy) is “bought” by middle-aged ne’er-do-well Iwao (Ken Yasuda). He marries her, in what’s mostly like a rash decision, and brings her to Japan. Of course, hijinks ensue.

Like many Japanese comedies, there’s a certain heightenedness to how things go about. Irene starts out as manic pixie who, for example in one scene, seems too dense not to notice that she’s having too much fun at a funeral. On the other hand, Iwao’s sex-crazed-incels-gotta-get-laid behavior gets played for laughs. By all means, it's okay, and when the two finally start falling in love, there’s still a sincerity and sweetness to how their paths led them to each other.

But then things go dark. Real dark.

As quickly as to how a murder becomes a testament for the love the two have begun to develop, so too does it become a catalyst for a downward spiral in their individual lives. Iwao begins suffering PTSD and resorts to infidelity and sex addiction. What little sympathy the previous acts have built up for him are washed away by his physical and emotional abuse of Irene. And not much better can be said for Tsuru (Hana Kino), Iwao’s mother, whose racism is something the Zaitokukai could be proud of.

While these tonal shifts can feel like a meta-downward spiral — as not only are the characters falling out of control but also the film's storytelling — there’s an intent here that’s admirable yet could easily be lost in translation.

The shift signals a change in protagonists. While “Itoshi no Irene” starts out as Iwao’s story, by the second half it becomes Irene’s, one about her regaining her agency. Depicted as naive and desperate because of poverty, as Irene acclimates and learns the language of her new land, so is she able to exert her will on her surroundings.

Both products of a distorted society — Irene forced into marriage because of poverty, Iwao because of societal pressure — Irene is a character of resilience. In fact, she becomes the only likable character in the film, proving herself the better person in multiple situations. Her previous histrionics serve to better contrast her character growth and her more tempered dramatic, scenes. This is, of course, carried on the capable shoulders of Nats Sitoy.

“Itoshi no Irene” is a film about cultural differences, but it has something to say about Japan, and it’s not pretty. It’s a criticism pointed inwards, a commentary on how rose-tinted glasses of nationalism leave the red flags of their society unnoticed. — GP

*Note: Samantha Lee is the multimedia editor of CNN Philippines Life.