Festival Report: The 8th Cinemalaya, Part 1

In spite of all the controversy that has surrounded the festival this year, Cinemalaya has returned with a full roster of fifteen newly produced films. Some of the best films of the year tend to emerge from the hallowed halls of CCP, and there’s little reason to think that it’s going to be any different this year. It’s kind of an interesting lineup this year, with films that tackle subjects and themes that the festival just isn’t known for.

Case in point: Gino Santos’ The Animals. What’s inside the walls of Ayala Alabang don’t get a lot of attention in our cinema. And when movies do set out to depict the lives of affluent high school kids, they tend to go idyllic, largely ignoring the darker side of having such a privileged existence. The Animals is all about the darker side, the absolute teenage corruption that stems from having absolute teenage power. The film follows the exploits of three characters. Jake (Albie Casiño) is putting together a big high school party. His girlfriend Trina (Dawn Balagot) is thinking about the future. Her brother Alex (Patrick Sugui) is a freshman trying to join a high school fraternity.

Director Gino Santos is fresh out of film school, and it shows somewhat. The production is a little sloppy, with major issues in editing and lighting continuity. That said, there’s real hunger in this movie, a snarling, in-your-face attitude that feels entirely appropriate in a category dubbed “the new breed.” And the film gets all the lurid details of high school parties right: the disgusting bathrooms-turned-vomitoriums, date-rape-y sons of congressmen, minor dramas turned into tragedies, and the drivers in the parking lot, marveling at the sheer anarchy of it all. The film is at its best when depicting these details, the scenes seemingly emerging from the dark but genuine place. The film somewhat undoes itself as it veers into the realm of melodrama, but for the most part it’s a really promising debut.

Lawrence Fajardo’s Posas struck me as a tamer, less adventurous version of Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay. It is also a film about the complicity of the police in the crime that takes place in the country, and the intractability of corruption in the system. It also features a hapless individual who gets caught up in the shenanigans, and ends up becoming part of the cogs of the complex corruption machine. And surprisingly, the film also recalls Kinatay’s tendency to point out the ironies of the situation. The difference is that Posas is more about exploring procedure, breaking down the events that follow once somebody is accused of a crime. The movie depicts the plight of Jess (Nico Antonio), a small-time snatcher who gets nabbed for stealing a cellphone.

From there, the movie painstakingly details an intensely cynical and corrupt system that is no longer capable of handing out justice. The film is great when it flexes its dark, satirical muscles, the production staring straight in some of the most horrible things about our society and managing to laugh. But the film just doesn’t go deep enough. The day-in-the-life structure ensures that the story can only break the skin of this problem. It doesn’t have the time to look deeper and dig out the cancer that lies at the heart of this complex system of lies and complicity. It’s a well put-together film all in all, but I wish it were just a little more vicious.

Mga Mumunting Lihim is director Jose Javier Reyes’ first real stab at making an independent film. It tells the story of Carla (Iza Calzado), a successful ad executive who discover that her late best friend Mariel (Judy Ann Santos) had left her a box of diaries. Carla reads through the diaries and discovers all sorts of things that her best friend had kept from her. Carla begins to realize that no one in her little circle of friends has been entirely truthful, and they soon confront each other over all these secrets. The film’s great insight is that friendship is often far more complex than simply being nice to each other. Human beings, prone as they are to failure and frailty, can be quite awful to each other. And sometimes friendships are maintained simply by inertia and an unspoken agreement that no one has to hear the awful truth about each other.

It’s a fine effort from one of the consistently capable writers in our industry. But the direction is a little all over the place. The film can’t quite decide on a treatment, and seems to err on the side of aping an “indie” aesthetic. And thus there’s a sequence that’s handheld and too often out of focus, and adventurous, overlapping editing that doesn’t quite serve the material. The film is actually really great when it just settles down and allows the characters to talk. They are, after all, played by some of the finest actresses in the country. The film does find its rhythm, and though there are portions of it that I really didn’t like, the sum ends up being much greater than the parts.

It might also be worth noting that I’ve seen Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143, which is the movie that sparked off the controversy. It tells the story of an FX driver (Allen Paule) who has spent years looking for a love he left behind. It’s a sweet little film that doesn’t have much narrative urgency, the plot giving way to what is essentially a series of sketches played out by the various passengers who ride his vehicle. It’s a little baffling that a fuss was raised over such an unassuming little film like this, especially over casting. Paule and Viado are perfect for their roles, and the movie would probably not have benefitted from having younger, more attractive actors.

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