When I first started listing my favorite local films in 2011, I had a 1-year-old child. Seven years and two more kids later, it’s now quite a challenge trying to balance family life, work life, and cinema life since the first two always take precedence. But when you love something, you find ways, and so I keep trying to squeeze in as many films as I can whenever feasible. Writing about them, however, takes a backseat. So, including the few tweets here and there of my quick thoughts on some films over the past year, I see this annual list-making as my own way of expressing gratitude to the people behind the films that enrich me and remind me of the joys and pains of being human.
The titles below are the ones that impressed me the most. I did not include in the list a film that I was involved in tweaking the script for – Carl Papa’s Paglisan – as I’m too invested to come up with an objective ranking of it. I also enjoyed two well-crafted romance films: Meet Me in St. Gallen and Kung Paano Siya Nawala, movies that I hope will bode well for the maturation of love stories in mainstream cinema.
10 A Short History of a Few Bad Things
If Punk is not Keith Deligero’s middle name it should be: he can never, and will never, create a straight-up conventional movie as he will always find a way to twist it until it does not resemble any other extant movie. The deadpan local Bisaya humor of his Iskalawags (2013), for instance, will never be understood by non-Pinoys but it will remain one of my favorite films about growing up. In A Short History, Deligero subverts the cop drama genre by playing it for laughs. Or it could actually be the other way around: he plays with the cop comedy genre by keeping a straight face, epitomized by the excellent morose-faced Victor Neri. Whichever way, it’s all the better for viewers.
Arnel Mardoquio has always worn his politics on his sleeve: his films have been critical of government, particularly of the military, which has for decades brutalized the lives of the poor, particularly the indigenous, in Mindanao. Alma-ata finds him at his angriest: this time at Alamara: a paramilitary group working with government to encroach on the lumad’s ancestral lands. In the film, the militia group murdered a doctor serving a remote community in Mindanao, and years later, her Australia-based daughter Julia (Sue Prado) visits the area to get closure. The film’s genius is in imagining Alamara, which is itself composed of lumad, as cannibals eating its own kind and their sympathizers. I also love its depiction of indigenous spirituality and sexuality, giving a transwoman priestess character a substantial part in the narrative. I predict this will be a polarizing film when it will be widely released in 2019: socialists will embrace its blunt critique of the repressive state apparatus while liberals and the right will dismiss it as propaganda.
Just by its mere existence, Aria is already a significant contribution to Philippine cinema for shining a light on an important point of the country’s history as viewed from the margins. That the film turned out to be a well-crafted, affecting retelling of the HUKBALAHAP rebellion in Central Luzon is already a big bonus. For the longest time, local war films have concentrated on the stories of the Tagalog because the film industry is centered on the Tagalog-speaking capital. Even such a classic war film set in the region as Oro Plata Mata had to settle with Tagalog-speaking characters. With the rise of digital cinema, regional filmmakers like Carlo Catu and Robby Tantingco (director and screenwriter, respectively), with the support of local institutions (the academe, local government, NGOs), can now tell their own stories in their own tongue.
7 Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral
Who would’ve thought that the multitasking filmmaker behind a 2007 DIY film called Confessional, about a young filmmaker who accidentally discovers big-time corruption in Cebu, would in a decade’s time become the country’s go-to director of sweeping epic films? Even if he stops making films today (which he won’t anytime soon), Jerrold Tarog has already cemented his place in Philippine cinema with such titles as Heneral Luna (2015) and Sana Dati (2013). With Goyo, he has created the best kind of a biographical-historical fiction: one that does not smack of hagiography and instead embraces the frailties of the subject to better understand the human behind the legend. It would be classist of me to say that this film is best seen on a big screen (very few in the country have the resources to afford cinema tickets these days) but I sincerely hope that this will eventually be shown for free and discussed in schools and communities around the country.
What I tweeted as soon as I saw the film: “To the team behind Liway, thank you for the gift of your film. As a child of a political detainee, it hit me hard. As an anthropologist, your film reinvigorated my optimism for the capacity of local cinema to shine a light on deeply personal stories that really are reflections of or reactions to the bigger sociopolitical realities. As a father, I particularly appreciated the respect you gave to Dakip’s perspective as a child going through a confusing period. Of course it helps that the child is your director himself. As a film critic, I loved many things about your film. I like its personal, familial approach to revisiting history. To Glaiza de Castro, I have always been a fan. You always elevated the films you were in through your committed performances. I’m happy that you took on the role of Liway. You are terrific here.”
My ecstatic reception of the film has not wavered since.
5 Tanabata’s Wife
Tanabata’s Wife is my kind of love story: beguiling, deeply affecting, and set in a very well-established milieu. The film enriches the short story it’s based on through a perspective shift, putting more focus on the woman and her struggle to come to terms with living with a man, whose foreign culture sometimes clashes with hers, while asserting her own identity as a headstrong Bontoc woman who would walk miles just to see silent movies in the town center. The filmmaking here is very competent, the film evoking the feel and rhythm of a classic film yet its playful editing and cinematography make it feel contemporary at the same time. Miyuki Kamimura and newcomer Mai Fanglayan sell the entire film.
4 Oda sa Wala
Dwein Baltazar is the most exciting filmmaker working in the local industry today. With just three films under her belt (her second, Gusto Kita with All My Hypothalamus, is also a 2018 release), she has created a distinct aesthetic that’s impossible to ignore. Hypothalamus, for instance, is that rare film whose masa elements (Quiapo setting, average Joes fantasizing about spending time with pretty woman, Ted Ito’s “Ikaw Pa Rin”) are married with “high art” influences (Wong Kar-Wai references, conceptualism: Who is Aileen?), making it a highly enjoyable albeit frustrating experience. Oda sa Wala is more straightforward, but for me, more disciplined. Buoyed by the riveting central performance of Marietta Subong, the film examines the solitary life in a culture that’s almost hostile to isolation. Hungry for human connection, Subong’s Sonya pours onto a corpse all the love that she could’ve given to a live person had she been allowed by society to get the confidence necessary to express oneself.
3 Kung Paano Hinihintay ang Dapithapon
We are fortunate to have film people these days working on love stories for the aged set (1st Ko si Third, Delia and Sammy, Hintayan ng Langit, Rainbow’s Sunset, are just some of the recent ones). Carlo Catu’s depiction on mature love, however, is the most accomplished of the lot. The mastery of craft here is astounding but the best thing about the film is its restrained, level-headed treatment of elderly characters, far from the almost-de rigueur “aw shucks ain’t they cute” depiction of senior citizens in local cinema. The film shows us how wisdom and grace do indeed come with age. All the tears, bickerings, and shouting matches we spend over disloyalty and broken promises that come with monoamory sure aren’t worthless but in the end we realize, like Bene and Teresa do in the film, that time heals wounds and love fades and, quite ironically, that forgiveness is the best comeuppance.
2 Signal Rock
Badil was my favorite local film of 2013, and the team behind that film made this spiritual sequel set in the same rural community in Biri, Northern Samar. This time, although the underlying theme has to do with the intimate/emotional labor of women finding work or getting married to men in richer countries in Europe and West Asia, we are introduced to events in a barangay as filtered through the eyes of Intoy, the community’s Huck Finn-like figure. Even if the language used is Tagalog, scriptwriter Rody Vera approximates literary regionalism in describing the social landscape and minutiae of rural life (the baile, the latest chismis, the search for good phone signal spots, the palakasan, the bayanihan). We become privy to the social dynamics of a community whose isolation forces the people to rely not on government but on their own kin who are dubbed by the government as “modern-day heroes”. Philippine cinema is lucky to have Vera, today’s best writer working in both film and theater.
1 (tie) Sa Palad ng Dantaong Kulang
1 (tie) Yield
The highlight of my year in local cinema comes from a pair of extraordinary documentaries that shine a light on the disenfranchised in society and offer a stinging rebuke to capitalistic notions of progress and development.
In Dantaong Kulang, Jewel Maranan expands on her previous feature Tundong Magiliw (#7 in my 2011 list) by focusing on several families in an informal settlement in Parola, Tondo whose lives are rocked by an impending eviction and resettlement outside the metropolis ostensibly as part of the government’s disaster mitigation program. Meanwhile, the community, which is located inside the premises of the Philippine Ports Authority, sees everyday traffic of international cargo trucks that are crucial in driving global trade. The state is sending a clear message: in an increasingly neoliberal world, money talks. If you have it, we will gladly convert seas into land so you can build your casinos and malls and luxury condos; if you don’t have it, we will dispatch you outside the city. You can fend for yourselves as long as you have sipag and tiyaga and diskarte.
In Yield, directors Victor Delotavo Tagaro and Toshihiko Uriu follow over several years nine rural children engaged in labor (rock quarrying, sea floor mining, farm work) and children with disabilities. The title refers to the harvest that these working children come up with and sell for them to augment their families’ income and buy necessities. The second meaning, for me, is much sadder: yield as surrender, a white flag to capitalism. These kids have accepted their fate that they will live and exit this world without getting a taste of the good life.
Both films employ ethnographic stances in their technique, patiently observing the daily goings-on of the protagonists, and neither use talking heads and employ minimal, if any, music, following the style of Frederick Wiseman and the Sensory Ethnography Lab documentarists. Both are also very good-looking films, a testament to how non-fiction films are still art forms and not just mere platforms for issues or personal stories.
Over the past year I was involved in discussions that interrogate the ethics behind documentaries such as these two: some quarters contend that there is a tendency for documentary filmmakers working on stories of the marginalized to peddle poverty merely to elicit viewer sympathy yet don’t do enough to better the conditions of their film subjects as they are being filmed. In short, the poor’s narrative is exploited mainly for the filmmakers’, not the subjects’, gain. This is a serious concern and one that warrants a longer discussion but my brief take on the matter is it is precisely why documentaries like these are made: to send an urgent message to the viewing public and, hopefully, decision-makers, that systemic change is what is needed for a systemic problem.
In the long history of documentary filmmaking, there have been countless cases where the films themselves became the catalyst for change. Wiseman’s Titticut Follies (1967), an exposé about the treatment of inmates at a U.S. mental hospital, inspired a legal battle and raised national awareness as to the horrible conditions of mental health facilities and is considered to have had direct influence on the closing of the said hospital. Closer to home, Ditsi Carolino’s Bunso (2005), which tracks three child prisoners in Cebu and was shown to policymakers, is said to have been instrumental in the eventual passage of the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act the year after it was released. In my university classes, it is the documentaries I use as discussion materials that evoke the most impassioned discourses on various issues on society and development.
So that’s it for this year. My sincere hope, as always, is that this list and the year-enders of your favorite reviewers (watch out for the results of the 8th annual Pinoy Rebyu poll coming out soon) inspire you to continue to actively seek out and support local cinema, particularly the non-mainstream films that are not given priority in mall cinemas.