Festival Report: QCinema International Film Festival 2016 (Part 2)

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Sheron Dayoc’s Women of the Weeping River takes a ground level approach to understanding the conflict in Mindanao. Its cast of non-actors tells a story of two families feuding in rural Mindanao. Satra (Laila Putil P. Ulao) is mourning her husband, whose death comes as a result of the conflict between her family and another over the rights to some land. She seeks revenge, but as she witnesses the feud escalate, she begins to see the wisdom in trying to break the circle of violence.

The film speaks with great eloquence about this conflict. This isn’t simply a story of families killing each other. This is the story of a place, and of established systems. This is about the tyranny of the past, of people that may have little else to hold on to. And this is really a movie about women, and their place in this conflict. The film quietly lets Satra observe the world around her, bearing the pain of losing people she loves, while slowly gaining the awareness of the pain that’s yet to come if her family continues on this path. The moments are small, but the consequences are huge. One of the most significant events in this film concerns little more than the pawning of some jewelry. Through this simple action, the film portrays a terrifying exchange in power that can only lead to more blood being spilled.

This is a really remarkable film. It is beautifully shot, and wonderfully acted. It is easily one of the best Filipino films of the year. It displays uncommon sophistication, going beyond a simple call for peace in its attempt to provide a real context for the violence that has already taken place.

HF Yambao’s Best. Partee. Ever. is a timely movie, certainly. The film documents five years in the life of Mikey (JC de Vera), a young, gay and affluent political scion busted in 2012 for dealing drugs. The film depicts his life in the city jail. While he waits for his case to be resolved, he must adapt to the culture inside the jail. He navigates the hierarchy, finds some companionship, gains a measure of power, and makes plans for what he’s going to do on the outside.

Given the recent Bilibid hearings in congress, the subject matter certainly feels totally relevant. The film takes a very broad look at life behind bars, offering a fairly accurate depiction of the absurdities that result from an inherently broken justice system. But the broadness of the scope ends up being a real problem by the end. The film just tries to tell too many stories. There’s only one protagonist, but there are enough plotlines for several. He’s dealing with his case, he’s got issues with his father, he’s trying to decide what to do with the guy that got him thrown into jail, he’s falling in love with another inmate, and he becomes the leader of a new gang. Any one of these threads could have provided enough material for its own feature film. But the film throws it all in there, and the depiction ends up feeling threadbare. There are some good moments in all of this, but it gets lost under the weight of the episodic structure.

Roderick Cabrido’s Purgatoryo seems to be all about the shock value. It’s set in a funeral home that houses corpses used in sham wakes that serve as fronts for illegal gambling. The film kicks off with the arrival of a new body that they name Ilyong. The body is prepared and immediately used in one of these fake wakes. Conflict later arises when a woman visits the wake and recognizes the corpses as her missing husband.

The plot is secondary to the setting. For most of the film, there isn’t really anything driving the story forward. It is perfectly content to linger within its grimy milieu, depicting the depraved corruption at the heart of these characters. The film is reveling in a world of callous hucksters and perverts. The scene that everyone will likely be talking about involves one of the characters having sex with a corpse. There is clearly skill involved in the production of this film, but it feels like the effort is being put towards something unworthy. There isn’t really anything of value being said here. It’s nasty nihilism when all is said and done.

Kristian Cordero’s Hinulid stars Nora Aunor as a woman bringing the ashes of her recently murdered son back to a small village in Bicol where truth and myth seem inseparable. Throughout her long train ride through the darkness, past and present mix freely, her memories breaking through the shroud of her present reality as she tries to come to grips with the pain that she’s feeling.

The film immediately establishes a very poetic tone. The opening scenes introduce motifs that will run through the entire movie. There’s clearly been a lot of thought put into all of this, but the end product is kind of a real slog. My good will for this film ran out about forty-five minutes in. At that point, it felt like the film was just throwing in one abstraction after the next, putting way too much stock in the power of its symbols. One can’t fault the film for its ambition. The scope of what it’s trying to cover is certainly admirable; the story touching on grand themes that study the intersection between faith and myth and culture and the ways that all three can be suppressed. But the back half of this film just becomes exhausting, offering so little to hold on to. And the thing is, the film is really good in its simplest scenes. The most affecting scene, for my money, is a very low-key sequence where the main character is playing a game of shooting stars by herself, her son no longer there to play with her. That one scene speaks more eloquently about the emotion of this story than the rest of the film.

In the Pinoy Spotlight section Japanese director Kohki Hasei’s Blanka offers a strangely Dickensian tale of a Filipino street child who teams up with a blind busker and tries to make enough money to buy herself a mother. The film seems to be trying to go against the grain in the depiction of poverty in the Philippines, presenting an ultimately optimistic viewpoint within the context of this harsh existence. But it doesn’t really work. The elements of this story just don’t match up with the tone, and it all ends up feeling pretty bizarre. It just seems like the film is ignoring the obvious reality right in front of it in pursuit of a more genial tone.

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