Cinemalaya’s first digital run is a step compelled by necessity—not choice. Its first fifteen editions have happened in-person, affixed as we longingly remember with an ‘experience’ truthful to the word ‘festival’. For varying lengths of time every August, Cinemalaya transforms the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) as the place where anyone even remotely interested in movies gathers to watch Filipino independent films.
The onset of a brand-new Cinemalaya season is typically signaled by the lighting of giant signages adorning the front facade of the CCP. This year is different. Though making no technological innovations (the fest opted to simply put the films behind a Vimeo-On-Demand paywall), Cinemalaya 2020 takes place completely virtually—a divergence in the experience that, like it or hate it, is totally new to Filipino cinephiles. That said, it’s hard not to feel conflicted about the convenience and emotional estrangement one feels while consuming the films in this year’s lineup.
As though consciously simulating the way I would watch at CCP, I scrambled at the last minute to watch the films. Cinemalaya’s all-access plan (PHP 350) lets you rent the films for seven days, and of course, I started watching with less than a day left to my rental.
Fatigued is directed by James Mayo (Kuya Wes, The Chanters), who touts his film to be “interactive”. Though it seems prime for the festival’s all-digital format, it feels somewhat of a reach. In it, you play an overworked young professional who seems to live in a daze—in short, your actual self. The film asks you to close your eyes and to clap your hands, knowing full well you’re bound to do none of what it asks you to do. There’s a clear message in this film that feels kind of lost in its alien if obtrusive form. I almost wish that Mayo had actually developed this into something truly interactive, a piece built with ones and zeroes to pull the horrors of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse suffocatingly close.
The disillusionment that comes with being mindless cogs in a mindless machine is also felt in Sonny Calventos’ Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss, a funny if scathing commentary on the tilted schemes of the corporate world. Arden Rod Condez’s screenplay is whipsmart and unravels like an enraged ramble of a coworker, literally spewing her frustrations over potato chips and cheap vodka. The bit about chasing the at-this-point-folkloric idea of “work-life balance” stings a bit harder this time around, in that we all still suck at managing our lives even with the luxury of extra time brought by home quarantining.
The COVID-19 pandemic puts things through a weird, melancholic scope. Reeden Fajardo’s Quing Lalam Ning Aldo, for instance, outgrows its simple tale about a parent yearning for their son’s homecoming. It doesn’t do any more than capturing the now-far out of reach feeling of reuniting with your parents (and by no means is it a perfect film), but it certainly hits the hardest. We’ve all been forced into self-isolation for a good part of a year. And past the point of brewing hatred against our leaders and their inability to show compassion (much less to lead), sometimes all one needs is a piece of home.
Yet, it begs to repeat that when the failures of people in power manage to outsize the actual catastrophe at hand, we have to take note. In Joanna Vasquez Arong’s Ang Pagpakalma Ng Unos, it’s clear who’s bound to get the shortest end of the stick—the people. Collecting grueling snapshots of the aftermath of the 2013 havoc of Super Typhoon Yolanda, the film ruminates on the fatal impacts of bureaucracy, politics, and complete lack of compassion from the government’s part (sound familiar?). That goes beyond calamities, too—manmade or otherwise. Carla Pulido Ocampo’s Tokwifi, the winning short film this year, conjures its own spellbinding world where a 50’s starlet trapped inside an old television finds a kindred spirit in an Ifugao man named Limmayug. It’s as beguiling as the first time I’ve seen it.
The lineup this year, like all other editions of Cinemalaya, is exactly like a mixed bag. You don’t know what you’ll get, and you’re bound to get some misses. In lieu of that, I’ve failed to completely love Richard Salvadico and Arlie Sweet Sumagaysay’s Utwas, a gorgeously shot short about the harming nature of toxic masculinity. It ends so abruptly, depleting any message it tries to carry across. Janina Gacosta and Cheska Marfori’s Ang Gasgas na Plaka ni Lolo Bert, too, is tough to take in; an opening title implies that it has something to do with HIV, but what we get, though at times sweet, is something entirely different. Jan Andrei Cobey’s The Slums, while funny and entertaining, doesn’t do anything that its obvious forebears like Tuhog, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank, and Akin Ang Korona have done. And Hubert Tibli’s beautifully lensed Pabasa Kan Pasyon feels sorely middling with its ideas and even more so its execution.
Which brings me to Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Living Things, hands-down my favorite film of the bunch. That tracks, for this writer is certifiably a big sucker for high-concept, existential, Jonze-like hyperreal romances ripped straight out of the pages of a Haruki Murakami story. The final sequence depicts two people wholly open to change, indifferent to difference. The way that the characters resign to this metamorphosis with gleeful resignation and openness is incredible to watch.
The hope is to one day experience it, and share it with someone else.