Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), dir. Lav Diaz – Clocking in at around six hours – a medium-length film by his standards – Filipino film master Lav Diaz pushes his use of long form cinema towards a near painful perfection that is almost unbearable to witness. Known more these days for his higher-budgeted, sprawling, multi-character epics with big-name mainstream stars, Diaz’s more humble single character studies – more so – merit our much-needed attention. Like his 2006 film Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess), starring the great Ronnie Lazaro, Diaz uses a single character’s narrative to embody much of Filipino people’s historical suffering and trauma. With a masterful performance by Hazel Orencio, Diaz turns a soap opera plot on paper into one of the most convincing and authentic depictions of abuse and trauma in all of cinema. Other films merely tell the audience a story about abuse and trauma. Diaz’s use of duration, long takes, visual and aural repetition, attempt to approximate the very experience of abuse and trauma into the audience.
Kasaysayan ng Isang Ina (2014) dir. Ruelo Lozendo – The only short film on the list, but that does not mean it’s a mere novelty. A great short film is just as good as a great feature film, and a great short film definitely beats a mediocre feature filmany day. Even though in recent years the short film has gained traction as “bite-sized content to watch while you’re in traffic” from profit-oriented online streaming companies, most of them rarely go beyond the formulaic storytelling paradigm into the realm of poetry. Working with no budget and talented non-professionals (his cinematography workshop students), Lozendo eschews obvious melodrama to explore the inner life of a girl whose mother works as an Overseas Filipino Worker. Using dialogue repetition, subtle and well-timed visual effects to affect rather than amaze the audience, and an ability to recognize poetic images in the everyday; the film surprises you with an unforced intimacy, and the depths of emotion hidden beneath its surface. The desperate reasons for finding work outside of one’s country can be economic and familial, but Lozendo reveals the tragic, spiritual and emotional price paid by those left behind.
War is a Tender Thing (2013), dir. Adjani Arumpac – One often hears the phrase “The personal is political” when it comes to art. But what one seldom witnesses is a work of art that embodies all the best parts of that phrase. With a filmography favoring quality over quantity, Arumpac has used the documentary form for more than a decade to explore the dark and violent history, and the complex relationships between the personal and the political, family and society, Muslims and Christians, Mindanao and the Philippines. Unlike other political filmmakers who live and die by calcified party slogans that bear no connection to everyday, lived life; Arumpac shows how the personal can never be separated from the political and vice versa. By focusing on the complex relationships within her own Muslim-Christian family, Arumpac reveals the all-too heavy weight of layered influences and controls that family, culture, social institutions, politics, and history impose on our everyday lives. But at the same time, she shows that the paradoxical, nuanced and slippery sparks of human behavior and interaction cannot be simplified or reduced to ideology alone. Everything is political yes, but Arumpac also reminds us that everything is also human.
Marciano (2014), dir. Ivy Universe Baldoza – “A Filipino in Paris”. The second of three films on this list to deal with the Filipino diaspora, Marciano unfolds at first like a Filipino home movie abroad, before suddenly opening a trap door, and pulling the viewer down a cinematic rabbit hole that would probably even leave Lewis Carroll baffled. Marciano is a posthumous documentary about the first Overseas Filipino Worker in Paris – a gay hotel concierge – but it is also a groundbreaking film that suggests new directions for the documentary form in Philippine cinema. Not since Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare has a film shown me how many filmmakers – radical with their ideas– can be so damningly conservative when it comes to the possibilities of cinematic form. Their radical ideas rarely translate into their films. Baldoza does use some tried and tested tropes of the documentary form like talking head interviews, home movie footage, and re-enactments, but it is the sudden mixture of avant-garde techniques, and the unpredictable placement of these familiar tropes within the film’s structure that can invigorate (or frustrate) the viewer. Like a psychedelic onion slowly revealing its purple layers, Marciano throws the viewer into another crazy trip of new discovery as soon as we think we have the film all figured out. Marciano’s life was not a simple one, so it takes a filmmaker with Baldoza’s talent and sensitivity to respect and depict its complex realities.
Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment (1979-2017), dir. Kidlat Tahimik – A film almost forty years in the making by the grand old(er) man of Philippine alternative and independent cinema. Some critics have called Kidlat’s debut film Perfumed Nightmare (Mababangong Bangungot) as the “proto-indie film”, and yet more than forty years later, apart from John Torres’s early works, there are still no filmmakers quite like him. While many 21st Century Filipino filmmakers continue to rely on Western paradigm-conflict-driven three act structures dipped in digital high definition slickness, Kidlat’s work continues to question, explore (and poke fun) at the very artificiality of fictional, historical, community and personal narratives. His tapestry collage-like filmmaking process relies on spontaneity, chance, serendipity, luck, and recognizing the surprising connections between reel life and real life. Kidlat began shooting Balikbayan two years after his startling film debut. The parallel is most likely not lost on Kidlat himself, as his film’s production process seems to have taken a similar, difficult but life-enriching journey like the film’s main character: the Filipino, Enrique of Malacca, the first person to circumnavigate the globe. The film is in some ways a return to Kidlat’s filmmaking roots, a reaffirmation of the enduring faith in his artistic process, and a reassertion of this most independent of all Filipino filmmakers.
Himala Ngayon (2012), dir. Sari Raissa Lluch Dalena, Keith Sicat – The sad truth is, Filipinos suffer from a collective amnesia when it comes to our national history. This is unfortunately no different when it comes to Philippine film history. There is a great scarcity of documentaries on Philippine film history, and even more so a great scarcity of quality documentaries on Philippine film history. Thankfully, Himala Ngayon addresses both needs in radical fashion. Originating from a Himala sequel script idea by the film’s legendary screenwriter Ricky Lee, the film utilizes its narrative-within-a-documentary film form to go beyond the tritely anecdotal, marketing-driven, self-congratulatory nature of standard behind-the-scenes films. To call the film well-researched, extensive in scope, balanced, and comprehensive are understatements. It is a personal, artistic, sociopolitical, and historical portrait of the making of a great film, the great and the not-so-great people that made the film, and the great and the not-so-great Philippine society that influenced the making of the film. More like a fuzzy time travel viewing portal rather than window into the film’s creative process, Dalena and Sicat thankfully steer clear of hagiography and cinephile-only relevance. They instead provide the viewer with insightful ideas on how our historical and cinematic pasts connect, intertwine, and affect each other. Unlike sanitized and publicist-approved video clips and soundbites from film promotional junkets, Dalena and Sicat pull no punches in examining the creative, professional and personal conflicts and difficulties that sprouted during the production. They also address with subtle critique the rabid elephant in the room: the Marcos dictatorship institutions and machinery that produced the film. From the dictator’s daughter, to the film’s scriptwriter, to the iconic lead actress, to the then mostly unknown cast and crew (several of whom would go on to become leading film industry figures), to the voice talents, and most poignant of all, even some of the extras from the film; Dalena and Sicat democratically and admirably present and honor these different perspectives. Even though Himala was not made under democratic sociopolitical conditions, its subversive critique of Filipino societal ills lives on. Himala Ngayon is both a worthy companion piece to this classic film, and a work of art that stands on its own.
Nervous Translation (2017), dir. Shireen Seno – The term “children’s films” usually cover two categories: films with subject matter (supposedly) for children and films about children. Nervous Translation initially falls under the second category at face value, but what Seno, and cast and crew, have achieved with this film goes beyond any categorization. It is a particular film about a particular little girl. Or perhaps it is a film that attempts – not just in telling, but in its style and form – to embody a filmmaker’s childhood memories. Either way, the film presents a different view of the world, a female view of the world, that questions and presents an alternative to many damaging clichés: male gazes obsessed with narrative spectacle, conflict and competition, adult artists depicting children as precocious, precious, witty, and wise little adults, idealized and romantic notions of one’s childhood years, and the one-sided relationship of requiring a film to be “relatable” to its audience. Using uncommon framing, odd compositions, elliptical editing rhythms, repetitions and variations of one of its audio motifs more common in experimental cinema, the film keeps us off-balance, and away from our habits of looking at traditional narrative cinema. The film instead uses the visual and audio details that do not merely indicate a young girl’s perspective and her memories, but attempts to immerse us in her deep, sensory perception of them. Instead of just watching a coming-of-age story, the film invites us to revisit what it might have been like to be a particular girl at that particular age living in that particular time.
Imbisibol (2015), dir. Lawrence Fajardo – While Lozendo’s film focuses on the family left behind by overseas Filipino workers, Fajardo’s film focuses on the lives of the overseas workers and immigrants themselves. Based on an equally great one-act play by Herlyn Alegre, Imbisibol leaves any semblance of a “filmed play” behind to fully explore the cinematic and emotional inner spaces of illegal Filipino workers in Japan during one winter. Unlike the travelogue escapist fantasy or overly melodramatic depictions of Filipino workers and immigrants abroad by mainstream studio films, Fajardo shows great respect and compassion for his subject matter by neither embellishing nor diminishing the everyday, soul-deadening difficulties of the characters. The film completely deromanticizes the immigrant’s dream of a foreign land as a land of promise. Fajardo shows that the reality for many legal and illegal immigrants – who escape crushing financial poverty in the Philippines by going abroad – often find themselves at another kind of dead-end elsewhere. Here the audience realizes that poverty, loneliness and alienation exist everywhere. They can kill slowly or quickly, and they are not things one can easily dismiss with positive thoughts or wallow in briefly like a visiting tourist. Winter always makes everything ten times worse. Fajardo’s films have always dealt with elements of explosive violence, but unlike the immature, gratuitous and grotesque shock value of his early short film Kultado, he displays a high level of maturity and control in Imbisibol. There is a more nuanced and authentic depiction of violence, and a deeper understanding of the sometimes tragic reasons behind violent actions.
Acquainted with The Night (2015), dir. Carlo Labrador-Pangalangan – What happens when the filmmaker eliminates any literature or storytelling influences in his cinema? Even 1960s observational documentary cinema was predicated on literary elements – usually a film about a single character or characters going through a crisis. In Carlo Labrador-Pangalangan’s cinema (including this, his longest film to date) the preoccupations are more about figures rather than characters, spaces rather than settings, candid conversation, silence and ambient sound rather than dialogue, duration rather than time limits, and the progression of specific yet spontaneous details of images and audio rather than plot. It is closer to a painter sitting with his models in a familiar or unfamiliar space working through the painting in three dimensions rather than a filmmaker shooting a preconceived set piece. We spend a long time with Labrador-Pangalangan’s figures, many of whom we may never get to really know. We instead get a feel of how their behavior and personas in that particular context, in that particular space, at those particular moments, respond, change, and transform over time. Labrador-Pangalangan seems to make films that invite the audience to recognize new possibilities and new relationships between himself, his figures, the space, the moment, gradually, or all at once. It is a cinema that observes and celebrates what we normally consign to the backgrounds of the routine we mistakenly call life.
Violator (2014), dir. Eduardo “Dodo” Dayao –Mainstream audiences in the Philippines and abroad look to horror for cheap thrills and cheap scares. And considering the state of mainstream horror – awful effects, awful acting, awful scripts, and lazy scare tactics like jump scares – this is not surprising. Many serious film critics also misguidedly tend to look down on genre films. Dayao’s film defies both audience and critic expectations of what a horror film should be. Like the great masters of horror before him, he shows that horror can be philosophical, complex, and at the same still downright creepy and unnerving. Dayao links the underlying horrors of Philippine social ills to his narrative with an uncontrived ease that does not sacrifice fidelity to the horror form. But unlike conventional horror, Dayao shows us that there are no vampires, ghosts, monsters, and masked killers to blame or fear. True horror does not just lie in the fear of death or the fear of bodily harm; but also in a fear of the unknown horrors that lie hidden within the history and context of the people and spaces we encounter every day.
Sunday, Beauty Queen (2016), dir. Baby Ruth-Villarama,
Luzviminda (work-in-progress) dir. Shallah Montero