Thursday, August 8, 2019

CHILDREN AND WOMEN FIRST: THE HARVEST OF CINEMALAYA 2019


CINEMALAYA's 2019 edition will come to an end on Sunday, the 12th of August. This year's crop of independent films reveal homogeneity as well as diversity in themes analyzed, techniques approached --- but more so, products sent on display.

As part of the the Selection Committee of this festival (an honor that I have treasured for the past so many years), one very noteworthy learning affirms that "the screenplay is NOT the film."

More often than not, outstanding screenplays demand attention on the printed page but emerge as completely different animals once they are brought to life and projected on the big screen. 

Some sparkle, delightfully surprise and warrant awe to the filmmaker whose creative gifts have brought magic to what was once mere words.  

Others disappoint, become tragic letdowns as I try to find reasons why the projects undeniably failed.  They looked so promising as text but end up as just that ... unfulfilled promises.

But regardless of the seeming pattern of the annual ritual of reading more than a hundred screenplays followed by interviewing the filmmakers to find out their vision or even their capacity to direct and produce films, the excitement is still in tasting the pudding.

This year's CINEMALAYA is no exception for despite the opinions of many regarding the proportion of good to barely watchable entries, there are (and will always be) gems that herald the birth of the new Filipino filmmakers.  There will be new talents who will shock the audiences who mutter, "Where have they been hiding all this time?"

I shall focus on two films which I believe are the very reasons why CINEMALAYA has become a significant annual event in the cinematic evolution of our country.

Two prevalent themes emerge from the ten feature films in competition in CINEMALAYA 2019: the dilemma and aspirations of lost youth ("EDWARD","JOHN DENVER TRENDING", "F---BOIS", "CHILDREN OF THE RIVER", "ANI") and the empowerment/exploitation of women ("BELLE DOULEUR", 'PANDANGGO SA HUKAY", 'ISKA", "MALAMAYA"). Then there is the search for truth ("TABON").

From these, two films emerge as the unanimous choices--- both popular and critical --- as the best of the crop.

Even from a screenplay level, "JOHN DENVER TRENDING" caught the eye of the Selection Committee for its timeliness, rawness, honesty ... but more so (as much as I hate to use this much-abused word) relevance to the social atmosphere of the time. 
Definitely derivative of recent events where a single video uploaded in the world wide web with malicious intent creates havoc to the lives not only of the victim but of his loved ones and the community, JOHN DENVER is an unforgiving film.  It is difficult to watch because of its uncompromising honesty.  And its ending is disturbing.  And that in itself is an understatement.

The rustic quietness of small town provincial life in Antique,robed with the dialect of locals and the use of non-actors (except for the magnificent Meryll Soriano, my choice as the festival's Best Actress )create a texture and flavor that is disturbingly quiet and yet painfully chaotic.  

When a young boy is ganged upon by his schoolmates, accused of stealing an iPad and captured on video beating up his accuser, his small world is turned upside down.  In a scandal and news hungry universe of the web, a helpless provincial boy and his Tiger Mother are rendered helpless against the deluge of unfounded public opinion and lies, lies and more lies. Suddenly John Denver is no longer a small town boy with small town problems: he is an internet sensation, the personification of a delinquent demon.

There is no question that there are two treasure finds of the year in JOHN DENVER TRENDING. These are the filmmaker Arden Rod Condez and the title character Jansen Magpusao.  It is showcasing the work of Condez that defines CINEMALAYA in discovering fresh talents with  definite and definitive voices, emerging from the woodwork to announce to the world that there is a new Filipino filmmaker with something to say in a manner that he has chosen to say it.  There is this fresh actor, oozing with talent and sincerity --- and who is capable of captivating the audiences beyond being simply pa-cute or pandering to fans.

It seems that it is the newbies in acting who have stolen the thunder in this year's CINEMALAYA.

Aside from Jansen Magpusao, there is Louise Abuel and Elijah Canlas in EDWARD as well as Cocoy de Santos and Royce Cabrera as the controversial F---BOIS. There is even a rediscovery of Ella Cruz (who is better known for her twerking at the snap of a finger) as an actress in Thop Nazareno's movie.

If there is anything that buoyed the theme of loneliness, self-searching and coming-of-age, it is Louise Abuel's painfully beautiful and sincere portrayal of the title role. Like JOHN DENVER, Abuel's face is the film itself, a map of confusion, pain and sadness, dealing with odds far greater than his young mind can handle.

Isolated in a charity ward of a hospital tending to his ailing father (again wonderfully portrayed by Dido de la Paz) and creating a childishly insane bond with a fellow caretaker of a patient portrayed by Elijah Canlas, EDWARD is a glimpse into the loneliest days in the life of a dysfunctional young man trying to find love and meaning and simply growing up.

Over and above this, we put him in the context of charity wards in overcrowded hospitals --- where the living and the dying are lumped together, reminding all of us of the bleak side of mortality. EDWARD, like JOHN DENVER, is painful to watch ... but you cannot take your eyes off the journey of this young man knowing that his is a life in desperate need of promise.

We have never taken Ella Cruz seriously in all the juvenile roles she has portrayed in ... well, all the juvenile movies she has worked on. But as the damaged light of hope and love in Nazareno's EDWARD, she has proven that there is more to her than her pelvic gyrations done as dance moves she was required to do.  

As I have said in a shoutout, CINEMALAYA 2019 has two names --- these are EDWARD and JOHN DENVER. If only for these two films, it was worth braving the rains and traffic to go to the Cultural Center of the Philippines and immerse one's self in the crowds celebrating the inexplicable joy of making and loving movies.

Congratulations, Thops and Arden. You have made two significant films to make this a most exciting and  fruitful year.  With Magpusao and Abuel, we realize that we have discovered two actors --- not mere stars --- but actors who can give life and gravitas to more Filipino films to come.







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