FILM

QCinema Festival report: ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ ‘Elehiya,’ ‘Nocebo,’ and more

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Filipino actress Stefanie Arianne in "Plan 75." Photo from TBA STUDIOS

In the pre-pandemic era, QCinema International Film Festival would have signaled the beginning of the slew of indie film fests happening at the end of the year. Next would have been Cinema One Originals, which sometimes overlapped with the Quezon City government-backed fest, and ending with the Metro Manila Film Festival’s indie slate, MMFF New Wave, which stopped in 2016. This year, there is still an abundance of film festivals for movie lovers in the lead up to the holiday season. There's the Ngilngig Asian Fantastic Film Festival, which happened in Davao last October; the recently concluded All Asian Film Festival, as well as embassy film festivals such as the Cine Argentino and the French Film Festival. But there was nothing quite like the challenge of watching new Filipino-made feature films and shorts in a wild succession of weeks (or days) on the big screen, offering a fresh new perspective in Philippine cinema.

The 10th edition of QCinema is marked with a celebratory mood. Aside from the cheery remarks by Quezon City mayor Joy Belmonte, who has tirelessly supported the fest — even during the first year of the pandemic when it was a “hybrid” festival — and festival director Ed Lejano (proudly tallying the festival’s overall number of 103 films, funding 45 full length films, 44 short films, and 10 documentaries), the opening of this year’s fest is marked by the homecoming of actress Dolly De Leon, whose film “Triangle of Sadness” opened the festival. More Filipino-led international productions are premiering in the festival, such as the Irish-Filipino co-production “Nocebo” (Chai Fonacier), “Plan-75” (Stefanie Arianne), and the closing film “To the North” (Soliman Cruz, Bart Guingona, and Noel Sto. Domingo). After its Cannes Classics screening this year, Mike De Leon’s “Itim” joins the restored classics section of the fest, along with Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love.” Finally, Lav Diaz’s Venice Film Fest entry, “Kung Wala Nang Mga Alon” had its Philippine premiere at the Special Screening section.

Here are a few notes on some of the feature films that we saw in the festival. For a review of the QCShorts Competition, see here.

Harris Dickinson in "Triangle of Sadness." Screencap from TBA STUDIOS

“Triangle of Sadness”

If you’re looking for subtlety in a film, then “Triangle of Sadness” isn’t for you. The way director and writer Ruben Östlund pummels this Cannes Palme d’Or winner with blather about capitalism and exploitation is so exhausting he might as well have given Woody Harrelson a vehicle to give a 147-minute lecture on Marxism and socialism. But if you’re here for a damn good time, “Triangle of Sadness” is for you. Östlund isn’t known for graceful notes or sly trickery, and in his latest film, he lets it all out by storm — and storm it is in “Triangle of Sadness,” the central force of which is, undeniably, Dolly De Leon’s Abigail, a “toilet manager” (lots of scat humor here) who decides to take charge during the second half of the film. Scathing and uproarious,”Triangle of Sadness” is best seen with a large crowd — and a Filipino crowd! — who will end up cheering for Abigail’s menacing reign as the new alpha. The way Abigail calls Harris Dickinson’s Carl as “cutiepie” is the most Pinoy thing in this movie — De Leon should have went with it and called Carl “pogi” a few times — and there is plenty of Filipino dialogue in the film as the luxury yacht has Filipino crew in its employ, of course, making its treatise on the class war and abuse more apparent for local audiences.

“Triangle of Sadness” is in cinemas Nov. 30.

Chieko Baisho in "Plan 75." Screencap from TBA STUDIOS

“Plan 75”

Chie Hayakawa’s Cannes-winning “Plan 75” is probably the most insidiously devastating films of the festival. In a narrative manner that magnifies bureaucracy and spotlights it at its most violent, “Plan 75” asks: what if we force people aged 75 and over to succumb to their own death. In the film’s fictional world, a near-future Japan passes the titular law where citizens over the age of 75 have the option to be euthanized — for free and in premium packages — in order to remedy a population that’s rapidly aging. This option is seen to be noble, as implied by a bloody opening scene, which is inspired by actual events where a man who formerly worked for a care facility went into a rampage at a care home, killing 19 disabled people. For Hayakawa, it matters that this act of violence opens the film, which unfolds so gracefully that we almost don’t realize that we’re watching people choose to die because a capitalist society has already condemned them.

The film focuses on three characters: Michi (veteran actress Chieko Baishô), a 78-year-old hotel service crew who is suddenly left jobless and soon to be homeless; Hiromu (Hayato Isomura), a Plan 75 agent whose perception of the very plan he’s “selling” is upended when he encounters a distant uncle applying; and Maria (Stefanie Arianne), a Filipino caregiver working at a Plan 75 facility. Their lives only intersect at one point but it is clear how Plan 75 has changed their lives forever.

“Plan 75” is a little too long but it is definitely the most memorable among QCinema’s Asian Next Wave competition. Hayakawa asks the right question to a society where “use” is merely the function and value assigned to a person. What happens when you are a burden? What happens when you are too old to work? Do you choose to die to unburden a younger generation? Or do you continue to live because you choose to be?

“Plan 75” is in cinemas Dec. 7.

Eden Dambrine and Gustav de Waele in "Close." Screencap courtesy of QCINEMA

“Close”

Lukas Dhont’s film has been called ‘emotionally manipulative,’ especially by critics who have seen the miserablism the director had in full display in his 2018 queer film “Girl.” His latest offering, which won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, happens to have one of the most beautifully shot images of childhood companionships on film, where the film’s leads Léo and Remi (newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav de Waele, respectively) are captured by cinematographer Frank van den Eeden in a magnificent light that seems to evoke the golden days of youth, when everything is purely made of bliss. Léo and Remi are teased by their classmates for how extraordinarily close they are, even prompting a classmate to ask them if they’re together (“It’s clear that you’re a couple”), to which Léo replies, “We’re close because we’re best friends.” Nothing much happens until Léo, out of panic to the veneer of queerness heaped on his relationship with Remi, decides to actively distance himself: hanging out with new friends, trying out a very masculine sport, no longer coming over to Remi’s house for sleepovers. Then, tragedy strikes.

To say “Close” was one of this year’s most emotional films in this year’s QCinema is an understatement. Viewers tend to tweet affecting and gushing responses to the film right after a screening (this writer included) due to how powerfully it depicts a child’s confusion to a world that requires specific roles and responses, especially when it comes to boyhood. “Close” is buoyed by the magnetic performances of its lead actors, particularly Dambrine whose anguish and bewilderment is mapped in his close ups, his face dominating the screen most of the time.

Léo and Remi effectively go through a breakup, and the undercurrent of queerness problematizes the story by Dhont and co-writer Angelo Tijssens in how it miserably revels in a tired queer trope, the intensity of which makes everything suspect, kind of like in Hanya Yanaghihara’s tortured queer novels. Dhont’s use of violence still hasn’t dampened since “Girl” and in “Close” this deployment of self-harm comes early into the film, but just as shocking as it is when it is when it’s in a (possibly) queer child’s body.

Nevertheless, “Close” is a tender film about boyhood fallout. Its sadness remains with you, deep and heavy that it’s almost crippling.

Park Ji-Min in "Return to Seoul." Screencap courtesy of QCINEMA

“Return to Seoul”

A multilingual foray into another kind of sadness, “Return to Seoul” tells the story of Freddie (the magnetic Park Ji-Min), a French-raised 25-year-old who finds herself back in South Korea by happenstance, in the country where she was adopted as an infant by her French parents. The film veers in unexpected directions, taken away by multiple time-jumps that provide a snapshot of Freddie’s subsequent trajectories after her initial contact with Seoul and her biological father (Oh Kwang-rok, of “Lady Vengeance,” “Autumn Sonata”), who deeply wants her back. Our initial contact with Freddie doesn’t reveal much of her interior life: what does she want out of tracking down her biological parents? What kind of understanding does she want by getting in touch with her Korean heritage?

There is a sense of detachment in the way Freddie dives headlong into the circumstances we are presented with. She transforms into many lives all through the years, but the blue flame of her inner turmoil is still there: cold and unquenched. Interestingly, director Davy Chou premiered the film at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section with the English title “All the People I’ll Ever Be,” succinctly capturing Freddie’s many lives. But it’s not just Freddie who is transfigured, it’s the people surrounding her who radiate on their own, transforming Freddie under many prisms of light.

Cherie Gil in "Elehiya." Screencap courtesy of QCINEMA

“Elehiya”

Loy Arcenas’ latest film (his most recent was the 2017 MMFF winner “Ang Larawan”) is a bit of a bonkers film that went all bizarro during its last few minutes. What looked like a contemplative study of a woman processing her grief went on to become an unhinged portrait of a family corrupted by elitism and misogyny. Cherie Gil, in her last performance, is Celine de Miranda, a doctor who goes back to her recently-deceased husband’s ancestral home to fulfill his wish to have his ashes scattered by the sea. The Mirador house has always creeped Celine out, she tells her cousin-in-law Sergio, one of the last dons of the island. Celine has been away, making her own life in the United States without her husband Paeng. Upon her return, the exploits of her husband (and the Mirador men) manifest in many ways: the many children who may or may not be their progeny, the women who are mere playthings to the Miradors, and their caretaker’s son Jasper (Ross Pesigan) who resembles Paeng but could also be the son that Celine and Paeng never had.

It is clear that we’re not meant to like or root for Celine (Arcenas described the film as Celine’s “downward spiral”). She despises the caretaker’s family, hates the women who choose to be with AFAMs or any of the Miradors, and an unforgiving act during the final minutes of the film that makes “Elehiya'' seem to suggest that the Mirador family’s hatred of women has somehow transferred to her. I’m curious how “Elehiya” has managed to steer itself in this direction when much of the meandering first and second acts made for an interesting watch; how Celine was shedding this image of a grieving woman — dealing with her dead husband’s (and his family’s womanizing), her longing/mourning looks at Jasper and eventually transforming herself into a creature whose capacity of cruelty is matched by those who wield the very same power over those who they choose to oppress. The script, penned by Arcenas and Raquel Villavicencio (“Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa,” “Batch 81”), twists into intriguing directions, mostly because Arcenas and Villavicencio refuse to slot Celine into a typical widow consumed by loss. Here she is consumed by grief, but in front of our very eyes, she is becoming something else — though this intrigue will become disjointed and unsatisfying given the direction Celine is headed by the end of the film; and a pity, too, given this is the last time we’ll see Gil onscreen — as a devil woman who led an innocent — and disabled — person into a trap.

Chilling and precise, “Autobiography” is terrifying even in its quiet moments. Screencap from KAWANKAWAN MEDIA/YOUTUBE

“Autobiography”

When a character is referred to as “The General,” you know he’s bad news. But in “Autobiography,” General Purna (Arswendy Bening Swara), mewling back to his darkened mansion in a remote area of Indonesia, is given a semblance of humanity. He becomes somewhat of a father figure to young caretaker Rakib (Kevin Ardilova), who continues generations of servitude to the General’s family. With the arrival of General Purna, Rakib’s coming of age also becomes somewhat of an undoing. One day, the General gives Rakib some of his old clothes, including a military jacket, signifying a transference of power, not only from the uniform but from being near the General himself. “You look like me when I was your age,” says the General. In time, the General’s cohorts see the resemblance too, and worse, people start calling Rakib as if he is a military officer — and he actually pretends like he is. “Autobiography” attains its title from Makbul Mubarak's desire to tackle the concepts of discipline and loyalty; tenets handed down to his generation by an authoritarian regime that once ravaged Indonesia; its effects still reverating. Chilling and precise, “Autobiography” is terrifying even in its quiet moments; devastating in the ways it demonstrates power as an insidious force, from the way it exists and influence, to how it can ultimately corrupt even its victims.

Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg in "Arnold is a Model Student." Screencap from SORAYOS PRAPAPAN/YOUTUBE

“Arnold is a Model Student”

Where “Autobiography” is slow and quiet in depicting power as a contaminating force, “Arnold is a Model Student” takes a more lighthearted approach — at first. “Arnold” turns on its head as it gradually allows Arnold (Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg), an academic prize winner who becomes the pride of his school, to explore how high school can be a festering ground for corruption. Thai filmmaker Sorayos Prapapan structures Arnold’s “Bad Student”-like stint with a student uprising in the background, with the Ministry of Education trying to quash protests against teachers who use violence to discipline erring students, whether it be hair lengths or shrine defacement. Despite the heavy themes, “Arnold” is more languid in letting its titular character explore the branching ways of exploitation at his age, foregrounding it with class struggle and privilege: how the more affluent students can afford to dream a brighter future while lower class students have to be “practical.” As an overachieving son of a French activist (who was eventually kicked out of Thailand), Arnold has a lot of options: he can study abroad, use his intelligence to earn more money, or just completely opt out of it. Witty and wry, “Arnold is a Model Student” is a breath of fresh air from an emerging voice in international cinema.

Chai Fonacier in "Nocebo." Screencap from RLJE FILMS/YOUTUBE

“Nocebo”

Lorcan Finnegan’s “Nocebo” is essentially a Filipino film by an Irish director, starring Irish actors with a Filipino actor in its center. Co-produced by Epicmedia, the Filipino production company behind some of the most acclaimed films of recent years, such as Lav Diaz’s “When the Waves are Gone” and Antoinette Jadaone’s “Fan Girl,” is no stranger to international co-productions, counting “Motel Acacia” and “Itoshi no Irene” under its fold. “Nocebo” might just be their most high profile yet. The film is headlined by actors Eva Green (“Casino Royale”) and Mark Strong (“Shazam!”) but it is undeniably dominated by Chai Fonacier who plays Diana, a mysterious woman who shows up to the couple’s doorstep one day, promising to help Christine (Green) overcome her baffling illness. As the film unravels, it is clear how Finnegan and co-writer Garret Shanley positions Diana; further from the simplistic stranger danger trope and closer to something that’s deeply rooted on addressing how far-reaching the clutches of exploitation can be. Though tepid in its surprises, “Nocebo” is fuelled by Fonacier’s raging performance (how she wins over 6’2” Strong in a staring contest is a sight to behold) and Jose Buencamino’s chilling music that primarily revolves around the mysteries of Diana’s character.