After taking a year off from producing full-length films, Cinemalaya returns with nine new features. The old designations “New Breed” and “Directors Showcase” have been eliminated; this year’s batch a somewhat interesting mix of newcomers and veterans of the independent scene.
The festival opens with Carlo Obispo’s 123, which expands on the director’s much-lauded 2011 short of the same name. The film takes its time establishing the idyllic island origins of its main characters, siblings Luis and Lulu (Carlos Dala and Barbara Miguel). Lulu dreams of becoming a singer, and when a recruiter approaches her after a competition, she sees it as her chance to escape the abusive environment of her family. The film then follows Luis months later as he goes into the city looking for his sister. He finds, much to his horror, that what she was recruited into was a brothel that has qualms about serving up minors to its mostly foreign clientele.
In spite of the horrifying subject matter, the film handles its story with a gentle hand. This is just another miserablist portrait of life in the big city, devoid of all joy and kindness. What gives the film distinction is its willingness to show these kids as willing participants in their victimization. It posits that while the people running this operation are clearly terrible and deserve prosecution, there is a larger societal context to consider, a failure on a much grander scale that allows such awful things to happen. Given that, the film is too gentle. It ends up softening the edges a bit too much, making it unable to really address the issues at hand.
There is certainly merit to the film’s approach, and the performances are mostly top-notch. But there just comes a point where it feels like the film is no longer doing justice to the situation. By the end, it feels a little too eager to move on, playing out a fantasy that no longer reflects the harsh realities embedded within the narrative.
Eduardo Roy Jr.’s Pamilya Ordinaryo stands in direct contrast in its approach to depicting life in the fringes. Aries and Jane are teenager living on the streets of Manila. They already have a baby together, who they name Arjan. One day, Arjan is stolen from Jane. The film follows the young couple as they try everything they can to find their baby, and that tends to involve them chasing red herrings, being scammed, and being exploited.
Whereas 123 is gentle, Pamilya Ordinaryo is vicious. It’s clear right from the outset that there is little hope for these kids, that they are entirely too marginalized to really accomplish anything in this story. They have no real legal recourse. The police abuse them. The media just wants to use them to fill airtime. There is no one to be trusted. The one truly helpful person in this story is in a hurry to leave. The film at times feels more like a succession of miseries than an actual story, but it feels solidly grounded in reality. Its viciousness comes from somewhere palpable, some deep understanding of the kind of apathy that has become ingrained in the people of this city. The film’s strange humanity comes out of the remarkable viciousness with which the main characters interact. These characters are always shouting at each other, cursing each other out for slights big and small, projecting strength in the face of a world so inherently cruel. It only makes their vulnerability stick out even more.
Jason Paul Laxamana’s Mercury is Mine takes place at the foot of Mt. Arayat. Carmen (Pokwang) runs a canteen there, but she’s thinking about closing it down due to a lack of customers. Then one night, American teenager Mercury (Bret Jackson) shows up at her doorstep, begging to be let in out of the rain. He ends up working for Carmen as a waiter, and he becomes a minor sensation among the people traveling to Arayat to look for a fabled buried treasure. Carmen and Mercury grow close, but tensions rise as Mercury’s various problems rise to the surface.
The film gets off to an appealing start as it mostly plays off the very different energies of its two main characters. Carmen has seen it all, and projects a very hard exterior. Mercury seems sweet and earnest, and is just happy to learn. Then the film loses something as it starts to sketch out the various issues between the characters. Mercury, and perhaps this is intentional, becomes pretty mercurial as a character, his attitudes shifting wildly into strange directions as the film reveals more about who he is. And maybe if the film had a stronger actor playing him, it might have worked, but Bret Jackson really makes it difficult to connect with what this teenager is feeling. He especially suffers next to Pokwang, who delivers a really terrific, lived-in performance.
The film seems to have really interesting ideas that don’t really come together. The film certainly doesn’t lack for incident, and there are laughs along away, but the sum doesn’t feel greater than its parts. At the end of it all, it doesn’t quite feel like the film took us anywhere. Its very last moments are puzzling, the movie projecting a sense that this was all just a wild goose chase, that little of what the characters experienced actually matter.
The Shorts A program offers up a pretty interesting variety of films. My favorite among them is the period piece Ang Maangas, Ang Marikit, at Ang Makata, by Ibarra Guballa. Apart from its prop machetes, it’s a really well put together short that manages to bring together disparate elements in a simultaneously moving and funny way. I also liked Isabel Quesada’s Pektus, which doesn’t entirely earn its resolution, but displays a confident, distinct cinematic voice that I’d certainly like to see more of. Noah del Rosario’s Bugtaw, which jumps between live action and animation, shows potential, but doesn’t quite land the execution. Ogos Aznar’s Mansyong Papel tries to tell a story that doesn’t quite fit into a short film. It feels like a succession of dramatic scenes that don't really have any context. And Nakauwi Na, from Kohn Relano, Patrick Baleros and Luis Hidalgo, feels solid enough, but it uses an idea that seems to show up in half of all student films I’ve ever seen.