We’re in the deep end of 2021. And our whittled hopes from early in the year confirm that this year is a cruel repeat of the last. With a deadlier variant of the coronavirus all around us, it’s hard not to feel saddened, exasperated, then defeated, as if we’re all stuck in a collective time loop a la Groundhog Day.
But we’ve got to push through somehow. For its 17th iteration, Cinemalaya unsurprisingly chose to program digitally, with more than a dozen of shorts competing for awards. This year’s batch is particularly diverse, with stories about queerness, womanhood, and of course, living through a pandemic.
This Dispatches post contains my immediate thoughts on the entries to this year’s Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. These are by no means complete reviews, but they should give you an idea of which films to seek should you want to catch them.
The length of the Great Pause has yielded a surplus of slice-of-(quarantine)life stories. Some were resonant, others didactic. But in Maski Papano, Che Tagyamon and Glenn Barit opt to wield charisma to cut deep. I’ve seen dozens of pandemic films (each one important, but not all for their quality nor uniqueness), but I doubt I’ll forget a cluster of disposable face masks and sketch dolls making monologues about the kind of life I’ve lived for almost two years now.
There’s little meat to the story in Marc Misa’s Crossing, but the thriller part is enough to carry me through. I don’t mind shorts that end up lighting a brighter shine on their craft, and this is one great example. With an expanded story and without the limitations of running production during the pandemic, this could have been a bigger home run.
Kawatan sa Salog
Interesting premise. The souls of people who drown are stranded in a metaphysical island commune. Told from the perspective of a mischievous young boy, the film reads a bit like a Neil Gaiman adventure. The filmmaking is pretty solid and the story is pretty good.
An Sadit na Planeta
An Sadit na Planeta’s visually mesmerizing experiment feels somewhat stunted. Much of it is the writing: I like Arjanmar H. Rebeta’s ideas about individualism, employing the metaphor of having ‘your own little world’, one that prospers only if you let it. But the dialogue between an all-seeing, all-knowing entity lends to a lot of talking, and indirectly, spoon-feeding of such ideas. A shame, especially for such a visual kind of film.
Looking For Rafflesias and Other Fleeting Things
Being queer myself, I have a soft spot for stories about what people consider to be pranks of nature. In James Fajardo’s fantastic Looking For Rafflesias and Other Fleeting Things, there are three: 1.) the Rafflesia consueloae, a parasitic plant known to have a putrid smell, hence the nickname ‘monster plant’, 2.) the Tikbalang, a creature from folklore whose forbidden love brings rain from clear skies, and 3.) the young boy, outcast by his religious neighbors and believed to be the culprit of the murders in the mountain. The way that these three co-mingle in the story makes for an incredible watch. Out of the entire in-competition shorts selection, this one resonates with me the most.
Out Of Body
The setup for Out Of Body feels positively Kafkaesque, but from the perspective of a woman losing agency over her body. She walks into a commercial shoot. There are no other women present. She’s herded to a makeshift ‘changing room’. Then, the harassment starts. The abuse escalates. Like a Kafka novel, there’s no explanation as to why it happens. But unlike a Kafka novel, it doesn’t have much else to say about the matter.
Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Lola Mayumi
After the last film, it’s fitting—just, really—that the next film in the program is Shiri De Leon’s Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Lola Mayumi. Here’s the thing: you don’t need to subject your female characters into hell, or at least not explicitly show it. In the film, a prudish old woman (played by Ruby Ruiz, ever the show-stealer) books a male prostitute to finally have sex for the first time. The conversation gets awkward, then cute, then revelatory. It’s the kind of “yes, all men” story that never feels too didactic nor self-important. It’s cruel and gut-wrenching, but never at the expense of its title character. The final scene is a chef’s kiss, a necessary PSA to beware of false allyship and a sweet reminder of individual fortitude.
Namnama en Lolang
There are no sharp turns in this earnest, straightforward story about our fallen front liners. It sets out to achieve a simple goal and does it. As it is, life post-pandemic remains uncertain, and this indisputable truth lends Namnama en Lolang a more poignant note even in the parts where it’s supposed to feel triumphant.
Kids on Fire
Kyle Nieva’s Kids on Fire is an unholy coming-of-age story set in a religious camp. It looks incredible, production-wise. The visuals bear resemblance to the deceptively sunny Taika Waititi or Wes Anderson films about kids learning the trappings of the world. In this film, a young boy is perturbed by his sexual curiosity amongst his troupe’s puritanical ways. Kind of wish it didn’t tunnel-visioned on sexuality as it can read one-dimensional.
A lot of things go wrong in Kevin Mayuga’s Ate O.G.: A down-on-luck housemaid is stuck at home trying to care for a pair of spoiled rich kids (seriously, fuck these people sideways!). She’s clearly unhappy, so much that she starts cooking Pancit Canton the way only psychopaths would. All of this is obviously tongue-in-cheek, and it gets funny when Ate finds a stash of Mary Jane and decides to partake on a heavenly trip. I wish it didn’t forego the ripe opportunity to talk about stay-in employees during the pandemic, though. Because the way it ended felt like—for a lack of a better term—a bad trip.
Myra Aquino’s Beauty Queen is a timely call-to-action to elect female leaders. It’s based on the story of Remedios Gomez, a prolific leader of the Hukbalahap during World War II. Known to wear lipstick before combat, Gomez (or Kumander Liwayway to her comrades) fought for the right to be herself, to be a free individual. Though there’s room to expound on its feminist themes, this in itself is a powerful message. And it’s one paired with an unusually handsome production and an incredible performance from Carina Febie Agustin.
The Dust In Your Place
Mumblecore is out of vogue, but it isn’t unwelcome. Especially if it’s good (Room 104 will forever be the most exciting HBO anthology!). In the case of The Dust In Your Place, I can’t say I don’t see the appeal. The subject of platonic friendships is dished here pretty well, but no better than how well others did before it (most recently My Amanda). The best part is when the female character had to really spell out to the male character how their friendship complicates their respective, supposedly committed relationships. Funny stuff.
Ang Mga Nawalang Pag-Asa at Panlasa
It’s a bit weird to see a food culture doco in this selection, especially one that’s a bit sales-y and tourism ad-like such as Ang Mga Nawalang Pag-Asa at Panlasa. It’s also worth pointing out that Cinemalaya 17 has an entire section for documentaries, which is the more fitting section for this film. That said, I now know more Ilokano dishes than most, so I can’t say I’m unhappy about that.
Cinemalaya 2021 entries are available in pay-per-view via KTX.ph.