On Shorts B: Cinemalaya 2017

by Richard Bolisay

▶︎ Shorts B does not live up to the fullness of Shorts A, and it owes both to the quality of the individual films and to their effect as a whole that sitting through it feels a bit of a chore. It’s disjointed, uneven, and underwhelming, incapable of sustaining strong interest but offering occasional pockets of surprise and bursts of brilliance. Its strength is its variety, in the richness of the stories and how they are told, in unexpected moments of boldness and restraint. The ambition is there, but is not always fully realized.

The best of this set by far is “Hilom” by Paul Patindol. It starts rather conventionally with the establishment of its characters and location: twin brothers on a picturesque island in Samar, the seeming quietness of their relationship echoing the seeming quietness of their surroundings. But in these first few minutes — with the sound of the wind, the wave of soft music, and the hushed spaces of their intimacy — the emotional grip is already strong, and one can feel the imminence of something about to burst, or something about to be tainted. When this turning point happens, when the story becomes too fragile and delicate that one fears a misstep would shatter it, the film manages to carry it through beautifully, gently, and thoughtfully, without needing sweet words or grand gestures but simply an agreement of sensations.

“Juana and the Sacred Shores” by Antonne Santiago is also set near the waters, but its emphasis is on form. It uses dance to express its female character’s freedom, curiosity, longing, and subjugation, relying on choreography to put forward symbolisms through which the story is told. It’s a very mannered film, one that can be too inscrutable and opaque at times that its being overly calculated and conceptual can be tiresome. Meanwhile, “Maria” by JP Habac is driven by its strong subject: a household full of children, at the center of which is their mother who is pregnant with her twenty-second child. In their world, humor and drama are the same, and they suffer together and alone. The use of bright and flashy colors looks deliberate, and this overemphasis on the production design draws too much attention to itself. “Maria” is able to present the multifaceted issues of poverty, and this awareness brings to light important concerns, but the core of the film seems underdeveloped and, as far as effect is concerned, feels incomplete.

The expectations for “Nakaw” by Arvin Belarmino and Noel Escondo after its participation in the Short Film Corner in Cannes and recent win in Urian are high, and sadly it only half-delivers. What it’s trying to say about the cycle of violence through echelons of theft are made loud and clear, and in seven brisk minutes it manages to convey the frightening fleetingness of life, showing a person alive in one minute and dead in the next. This is admittedly striking. However, considering that the crudeness of its method is intentional, a quality that also serves as its reason for being, this one-take performance is impeded by subpar execution, by the glaring artificiality of its form that ruins what would have been a powerful piece against the merciless murder of the poor.

Like “Nakaw,” “Nakauwi Na” by Marvin Cabangunay and Jaynus Barbee Olaivar confronts the alarming rise of state-sponsored killings, and the best thing about it is that these young filmmakers are aware of this terrible problem and standing against it. The film is marred by the clichés of student work: tiring flashbacks, heavy use of music, excessive drama, and lack of technical sophistication. It is buoyed by its compassionate heart, its belief in the cathartic effect of sentimentality, but it is also what makes it trite and drowns it. Meanwhile, “Bawod” by TM Malones is set up interestingly — a girl and her grandpa live together in a remote town, and she raises her juvenile frustrations about his being overprotective, while he makes a living for them, to help send her to school, through bamboo farming. But the film decides to add strange details — Is someone following her? What is she seeing? Whose corpse is that? What is that fire at the end? — and the ambiguity doesn’t quite translate into effective storytelling.

Richard Bolisay is a film critic. This piece was previously published on his site Lilok Pelikula under "Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2017 (Part 3)," September 8 2017.