The trend in local filmmaking and reception for years remains that films should concern themselves first with sending messages. While this is noble, insisting that films can only be didactic devices or social commentary degrades film itself, along with our capacity to investigate what we want to say and how to say it.
The recent discourse around this year’s MMFF — and in turn Philippine cinema — has transmogrified the fact that there is a part of the audience that wants their voice to be heard. Message and moralism are also becoming the barometer by which many assess films, seeing anything on screen as endorsement and losing nuance completely.
This year’s list celebrates Filipino cinema by choosing a selection of work that concerns themselves first with being films. Local and international film festivals have served as a home for stories and today's context has ushered in an ecological succession: providing fertile ground through which distinct voices, unconventional narratives, and exciting experiments with the form are being introduced.
While feature filmmakers are still arguing with their audiences about piracy, censorship, and distribution schemes, short films have shown how they always have been far more ambitious, accessible, attention-grabbing, and auspicious. This list is by no means a conscious effort to pick mostly shorts. If anything, this year and the limitations it brought in filmmaking and moviewatching have shown that the underappreciated short film format is still a potent medium of discourse, arguably better than features (even if some of these still did stand out).
What follows is a snippet of talents and the stories which, in any other year, would likely be ignored and pushed to the peripheries. — JASON TAN LIWAG AND JOHN PATRICK MANIO
“It’s Raining Frogs Outside” (dir. Maria Estela Paiso)
Two shorts this year highlight the obliteration of reality brought by the pandemic. For "It's Raining Frogs Outside," surrealism takes the steering wheel. It takes the audience on a trip of bombarding images and sound that is the type rarely seen in our cinema.
As frogs constantly rain outside, director Maria Estelo Paiso's persona is being drowned underwater and is choked by massive volumes of her own hair. Her body and the world around her disintegrate with time until the climax. A beautiful transformation ensues on-screen. She becomes a frog, just like those falling to the ground outside.
It captures anxiety, in such a way how the film itself feels so dynamic and alive, but the territories it explores are unfamiliar. Is it exhausting? Yes, but also exhilarating if you're up for the journey. Nothing makes sense — as it should in Paiso's filmic reality. But there's a feeling you can't shake that behind the surreal, what the main persona goes through is something we can all identify with. — JPM
“Mga Bag-Ong Nawong Sang Damgo Kag Katinghalan” (dir. Mark Raymund Garcia)
As a companion piece to Paiso's surrealism, Mark Raymund Garcia's “Mga Bag-Ong Nawong Sang Damgo Kag Katinghalan” (The New Faces of Dreams and Mysteries) exudes expressionism. It's more a performance piece than a narrative, but no way is it less an effective film.
It is concerned with making the audience interrogate how they feel, rather than making sure meaning is clearly stated. You wouldn't even know what it means, taking up only the film itself. The masked druids act as conduit for us. Using their bodies, they paint a canvas of pent up anger and frustration.
Protesting an abnormal new normal manufactured by incompetence and neglect, Garcia constructs an anarchy of images where bodies take center stage. There's still a stand of politics ingrained in both texts. But dare to say, more importantly, they are precious instances of experimentation that are bold without sacrificing technical integrity. — JPM
“On the Job 2: The Missing 8” (dir. Erik Matti)
Halfway through “The Missing 8,” Weng (Lotlot de Leon) asks Sisoy (John Arcilla) what happened to his journalistic fire. “Di ko alam,” he says, then answers with a pained laugh and tired eyes: “Nagpalaki ng mga anak?” It’s a small but powerful moment that highlights how good people are capable of abuse and can be transmogrified by their environments without really knowing.
“The Missing 8” is Erik Matti at his most assured. Trading off thrill for depth and entertainment for emotional resonance, the journalistic procedural at its core is a ghost story that explores the act of returning: to a home one longs for, an old self one tries to regain, a past one hopes to hide or correct. Matti maps a 208 minute-journey and presents an alternative reality where corrupt individuals can be reformed but only by escaping the labyrinths of lies that they themselves helped construct. — JTL
“Dikit” (dir. Gabriela Serrano)
Split screens are oftentimes gimmicky. But a great justification for it is if it parallels the dramatic journey of a folkloric creature known to split bodies. Not only a short reinterpretation of Jose Nepomuceno's seminal 1927 Filipino horror film "Ang Mananggal," Gabriela Serrano's "Dikit" is a modern queering of the manananggal concept.
Instead of literal hunger for a newborn, "Dikit" shows the longing of the manananggal to have a newborn of her own — she is unable to have one because of her nature. When a pregnant woman in an abusive relationship moves in, she starts to gravitate towards her, as they both realize who the real monster is.
The two screens show the perspective of each woman. The shots rhyme between the two frames shown simultaneously, although admittedly the beauty of each concurrent shot is disrupted because of the split. "Dikit" would've worked if there was only one screen played with vigorous editing, but it would've been a different experience, and different film entirely. — JPM
“i get so sad sometimes” (dir. Trishtan Perez)
One can make a case that Trishtan Perez has been making the same film for years: with gay characters in isolated worlds who use sex as a means of forming intimate yet transactional relationships with strangers, technology serving as the tether that binds and the scissors that cut whatever ties are formed.
But in doing so, it erases how his films, especially “i get so sad sometimes,” show the nuances of the provincial queer experience: how class struggles influence belongingness, how one’s upbringing instills a sense of perpetual alienation in the urban space, and how seemingly safe spaces can still hurt people.
Perez understands all too well the rarity of queer joy, the agony that comes with losing it, and the price of being known and loved, especially by those closest to us. It’s a coming-of-age tale that leaves space for its audience and this familiarity, this proximity to our own lives, makes it all the more devastating. “i get so sad sometimes” captures the most noble yet painful act of young love: choosing to stay. — JTL
“Filipiñana” (dir. Rafael Manuel)
Many local shorts and features before have already done and tackled what Rafael Manuel did with "Filipiñana." Although, you could say this short is a culmination of the best qualities of those.
With the proliferation of the film aesthetic of fantastic absurdity nowadays, "Filipiñana" grounds itself in realism. It succeeds because of this — absurdity does not wallow in non-sense, but the senselessness of everyday mundane life.
Why is there a lavish golf course that takes up so much empty space in a poor country? Why are there brown bodies maintaining a bubble in a white man's world? Why are workers deprived of the fruits of their own labor? Sometimes, the most absurd are power disputes staring us in the face. — JPM
“Whether the Weather is Fine” (dir. Carlo Francisco Manatad)
Speaking of the absurd, Carlo Francisco Manatad's debut feature is built with it. "Whether the Weather is Fine" (Kun Maupay Man It Panahon) is him coming into terms with his artistic sensibilities seen in his shorts and refining it.
With a sprawling landscape of the chaos brought by typhoon Yolanda, this feature is shot beautifully, set designed intricately, and scored magnificently. Behold the grandeur of disaster! The attitude is ironic given the subject matter — and it is up to you if the joke is tone-deaf or warranted.
But with the expansive history of local films wallowing in despair, this film may be a breath of fresh air. The politics can be discussed in the succeeding years, right now we can at least savor that such a film exists. — JPM
“Serpentine” (dir. Madge Reyes)
At the Fifth Wall Film Festival, the definitions of dance films in the Philippines are expanded and challenged. Of this year’s selection, the standout is “Serpentine” — a film available for free on Instagram, choreographed and directed by founder and festival director Madge Reyes.
The work of an excellent artistic team helps Reyes transform her muse into a sensual goddess, a delicate snowflake, a towering titan, and several miniscule dolls, all within the span of three minutes. “Serpentine” highlights how filmmaking can manipulate movement and dance along with its subject to create a kaleidoscope of motion.
“Serpentine” is also a testament to how cinema can be an archive, a second home, for live performance, especially in a time where there are few spaces for such endeavors. — JTL
“Sol” (dir. Joanna Vasquez Arong)
Sol’s life has been different since the storm. Each morning, she portions their food and dresses up in her uniform. But instead of going to school, she walks around the island, looking at the community still recovering: broken buildings, wind-swept trees, processions, men surfing. Later, she visits a bus station and contemplates leaving for Cubao.
Instead, she finds herself in jail, visiting her older brother. Incarcerated for peddling drugs packaged with their relief goods, he does not look at her. Instead, they talk about the fiesta. At the dance, people whisper about their family, as they always do. Atop their father’s grave, she and her sister Luna sit in silence, their faces lit by candles. Tears in her eyes, Sol confesses her betrayal: “Our brother would have died if we let him be.”
Drawn to cycles of violence and trauma, Joanna Vasquez Arong continues her exploration of how communities are fractured by disasters, how insidious efforts infiltrate benevolent systems, how religion and kindness have their limitations, and how adolescents grow up too soon, never by their own choice. “Sol” is a sun-soaked lamentation that focuses on how life struggles to continue, even after the waters have receded. The clouds may be clear, but the storm always stays. — JTL
“Don’t worry, we still hear you” (dir. Martika Ramirez Escobar)
When the protagonist of “Don’t worry, we still hear you” shows film reels to a group of children, each child investigates them. Clueless, they hold the reels close to their faces, position it against the light, then scream when they see the images. In sheer happiness and awe, they run around to show their friends, getting entangled in the film in the process.
Martika Ramirez Escobar has translated the film critic Alexis Tioseco’s wish list for Philippine cinema into a simple yet surprisingly poignant audiovisual language. By using gardening as a metaphor to plant her ideas, Escobar encapsulates the spirit of Tioseco’s work: encouraging a sense of curiosity and childlike wonder that is rooted in a film critic’s first impulse: love.
In around seven minutes, “Don’t worry, we still hear you” continues Tioseco’s legacy by demonstrating how cinema can commemorate life, share joy, and instill hope long after the credits roll. — JTL
Among the array of films released this year, there are some standouts worth mentioning:
For short films, there’s the local tokusatsu-turned-satirical mockumentary “Mighty Robo V” (dir. Mihk Vergara and Miko Livelo), the sociopolitically-charged animation “Ang Amomonggo Sa Aton” (dir. Vincent Joseph Entuna), the black-and-white queering of superstition “Alingasngas ng mga Kuliglig” (dir. Vahn Leinard Pascual), the theatrical mounting of reconciliation "Ang Pagdadalaga ni Lola Mayumi" (dir. Shiri de Leon), the neon-drenched urban space in "How to Die Young in Manila" (dir. Petersen Vargas), and the lacerating portrait of lives affected by the Zamboanga Siege “City of Flowers” (dir. Xeph Suarez).
For feature-length films, Erik Matti’s horror-comedy tetraptych “Rabid” is an uneven foray into madness, Mae Paner’s magnificent one-woman filmed theater show “Tao Po” elicits laughter as well as tears, and Jun Robles Lana’s tokhang-centered tragicomedy “Big Night” takes surprising twists and turns.
BLIND SPOTS (or films we wish we saw but weren’t able to)
Given the wide range of films and the limited amount of time and resources, critics will inevitably have their blind spots. Among these would be: Lav Diaz’s “Historya ni Ha,” Venice Atienza’s “Last Days at Sea,” Khavn Dela Cruz’s “Asong Impiyerno Ang Pag-Ibig,” the omnibus film “Age of Blight,” as well as some short films independently released and those from festivals such as BINISAYA and Mindanao Film Festival.