MMFF 2016: a film festival review.
VINCE AND KATH AND JAMES
genre: romance, comedy
I am not a fan of romcoms, local or international. But I am a fan of Vince and Kath and James.
Vince and Kath and James, in its barest premise, is about a girl who falls in love with a boy through a series of text messages. And like with the texts we receive, there is more than meets the eye.
We first meet Kath as she wins a college-based pageant as Miss Engineering. She comes home, and when the makeup, dress, and sash come off, we are informed of her not-so-glitzy background as a girl with a broken family and an affinity for mechanics. And then she meets Var, a smooth-talking secret admirer – who was supposed to be James, but is actually Vince pretending to be James in a modern feat of abandoning humanity for sacrificial third-wheel bridgehood. In a narrative weaved under false pretenses, will love prevail?
With a touch of the flirty daintiness of the tried-and-tested Filipino romcom flourish, Vince and Kath and James makes true on its promise to deliver a lighthearted and relatable story for the average Filipino to enjoy – while also subtly tackling timely issues such as familial abandonment, gender-based discrimination in the workplace, the pressure to outwardly present an untrue image of yourself for a significant other’s approval, and the consciousness of when to draw the line between utang na loob and self-sacrifice.
Julia Barretto’s take on an independent, physically and mentally capable female protagonist, Kath, is refreshing, but it is Joshua Garcia’s performance as Vince that steals the show – a portrayal that captured the warm, flippant but earnest, oftentimes downright cowardly nature of Vince’s character. Ronnie Alonte also suits James to a T (even though that may sound like a diss, haha), bringing the character to life as the typical romcom jock whose unstable priorities get in the way of his good intentions.
And as atypical as it is for my usual preferences, it has my favorite musical score out of the bunch – a cheesy yet pleasant mix of OPM, not overpowering the feel of the film like many of its kind do, but instead complementing its lightness nicely.
The drawn-out looks, the too-good-to-be-true situations, and even the slow motion that should probably be returned to whichever shoujo manga they took it from can all be chalked up to pandering – which is, while not my personal preference, not necessarily a bad thing for this kind of genre. But what can be considered the film’s downside is its overt reliance on excessive imagery to prove a point, as well as the emphasis on the need for drama to get a message across. Maxine’s entire character is formed as a direct antithesis to Kath’s: a feminine, flirty, and extroverted best friend character to emphasize the boyish, “not like other girls” image they want to portray Kath with. And not only do they bring up James’ basketball coach every five minutes to keep up his college varsity jock image, I also don’t understand why he’s made to wear that loose tank top fashion whenever he needs to trigger douchebag mode on. Adding, I feel that Vince-Kath confrontation at James’ party did not need that kind of drawn-out dialogue to bring out both characters’ emotions – a scene put too high on a pedestal to serve as an apparently-needed dramatic climax to the film.
Nonetheless, still a nice romcom if compared to the other romcoms I had the misfortune to watch in my lifetime. The drama is unexpectedly welcome, and the audience saw to it that their timely shrieks made me feel the right kilig at the right moments. Interspersing the ever-popular millennial hugot culture with the responsibility of stepping beyond the Twitter account, to properly express what you want to say before it’s too late – Vince and Kath and James delivers a message that behind every text is a story, and sometimes there are stories that need more than six words to tell.
genre: horror, religion
The theater where we watched Seklusyon was occupied with a lot of senior citizens. At the time I could not fathom why that was; but now, after the film, I assume they simply have good taste.
If you walk in expecting to get scared out of your seats, if you sit there expecting the film to play out in the reputable Hollywood horror film fashion that gets people screaming and cash registers ringing, then I wouldn’t be surprised if Seklusyon has you leaving the theater disappointed. Seklusyon is not a horror to scare; it is a horror to send a message.
In line with its religious themes, the film starts with the protagonist, Miguel, traveling to an old house situated deep within the mountains; he is to undergo his seklusyon – an archaic ritual wherein aspiring priests willingly seclude themselves for seven days, with the supposed purpose of ‘shielding them from evil’ in preparation for their priesthood – which paves the way for the film’s isolated-type horror setting. There he meets fellow deacons, Carlo, Marco, and Fabian, as well as Sandoval, the house’s enigmatic caretaker. Outside the house a deeper mystery is unraveling – as Anghela, a people’s messiah in the form of a child with the gift to cure even the direst of illnesses, shows up in the church with the distressing message of her parents’ deaths. The door is opened; and she, along with her nun guardian, enters the deacons’ seclusion house: an ominous metaphor of letting either the angel, or the devil, in.
The cinematography is stunning: muted frames of greys, blacks, and browns, only offset by the brilliant blue of Anghela’s mantle when she is first introduced – a striking image, directly reminiscent to the idolatry of the Virgin Mary. The use of color and framing – from the blue of her messiah character who brings ease to the ill, to the pure white of the innocent girl who offers salvation to the deacons desperate for the straight road, to the chilling centered frame climax of a child in the oversized ivory bishop mitre and robes and all the goosebump-rendering implications brought by it – all lead the viewer through the visual journey of figuring out who Anghela is, and what her role is in this harrowing narrative.
Only a few hiccups are to be brought up: First, the choice to have the written notes throughout the film be presented as floating letters, instead of with a simple camera focus on the paper, is a little odd; it looked a bit mystical, detached from the atmosphere of the film – considering that they were gunning for the more “realistic,” grounded, and unedited feel. Second, most agree that Padre Ricardo’s conclusion is a bit too rushed and unexplained a climax, specially given his drawn-out involvement in uncovering the story’s external mysteries. And third, the decision to give Ronnie Alonte the role of Miguel is questionable at most; his performance in his other MMFF entry is decent and well-suited to the role, but I feel that the demands of the main character of this particular film require more veteran acting than Alonte can provide at this time.
Any flaws, however, are overshadowed by its ingenious screenplay, what can be called the shining star of Seklusyon’s entire package. Using vividly grim imagery to convey powerful metaphors in lieu of typical (albeit more easily understood) spoonfeeding dialogue, the screenplay weaves a story of gluttony, pedophilia, violence, abandonment, and power – all tied around the overarching schema of religion with a pretty blue ribbon. While the red herring for Madre Cecilia could have been easily debunked from the start, there is no denying the fact that Anghela proved an incredibly effective antagonist. Rhed Bustamante plays her character to precision; I can still remember the collective intake of breath in the theater when her palpable glass illusion of innocence was shattered with the first “puta” out of her mouth.
Anghela is an effective antagonist exactly because she is not an antagonist; at least, not in the way we expected her to be. She is not the devil. She is not the saint either. She is not a prophet or a messiah, not even a false one. Instead, she is something even more menacing: she is ourselves. She represents the part of ourselves that we hide from the world, the part where we yearn for things despite knowing we should not, the part where we claim to crave redemption and yet tend to seek the easiest way out. She is our weaknesses, our need for idolatry, our desire to escape. Hence why the horror does not cease with her death, for the horror is not hers in the first place. Told in the language of religion where the people of power hold moral authority over the vast population, the message becomes even more defined – a slow turmoil creeping down the spine of the average person connecting the dots of a ghastly picture. The prevalent focus on closing doors suddenly ceases to become a metaphor for keeping the devil out; instead, it grows to mirror the act of locking oneself in – of trapping oneself in with the devils oneself created – while continuing to seek affirmation for moral elitism and false redemptions.
Seklusyon’s horror lies not in its jump scares and gore-brought repulsion; it’s too easy to scare an audience with themes they will not get to normally experience. What defines it as a horror is the slow, silent, throat-drying terror as the screen goes black and you’re left in your seat with a worldview forcefully tilted before your eyes— as you begin to realize that what you just saw is not a horror that is meant to scare, but a horror that forces you to open your eyes at reality and let it do the scaring. The open-endedness of the final scene is the most fitting end the story deserves, an end that opened the chapter to the horrifying world that lies beyond the confines of the theater. Truly, a chilling conclusion that earns itself a solid seat in the books.
And I conclude, Seklusyon brings home the message that sometimes, in our haste to keep the devil out, we forget the demons we nurture within. Anghela is the sheep’s clothing; we are the wolves.
ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK 2: #FOREVERISNOTENOUGH
Eugene Domingo is back in Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough, and this time the comedy is realer than ever.
While its first installment strived to parody the indie subculture in the film industry, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 chooses to delve in the all-too-relevant antics of mainstream Filipino films – a masterpiece that wholly solidified the cleverness of the satire genre as an indispensable asset to the Filipino comedy scene.
With a simple yet home-hitting dialogue-based screenplay that is easily one of my favorites out of the eight, the film cuts no corners in delivering uncanny and side-splitting parodies of the mainstream formula the Filipino audience has grown so used to. The screenplay is so solid it needs only four main characters (three, if you only consider the speaking main characters) in a dialogue-heavy day trip at a hotel to drive the point home. Rainier as the stubborn indie director hoping to save his failing marriage with, of all things, a film about a failing marriage. Jocelyn as the line producer whose promotion led to shedding her mute persona from the first film, giving way to a selfie-savvy, middle ground “yes” character, who skirts the line between preserving the integrity of the director’s vision and acquiescing to their lead actress’ ridiculous demands. Lennon, the silent production designer who, somehow, even without having any speaking lines, earned his place as the entire theater’s crowd favorite; the two-second frames of his perpetually disgruntled face were so well-received they should have at least merited him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And, of course, Eugene Domingo. Eugene Domingo – as Eugene Domingo – is a revelation. She breathes life to the fictionalized character of herself, in a way that perfectly emphasizes her as the intrusive diva actress every director would dread to have. Her visions for The Itinerary, though possibly well-intentioned, are overshadowed by the way they skew to the pandering, cash-grabbing clichés native to the prevalent “bad eggs” of mainstream Filipino cinema. Don’t take her lightly just because it’s a comedy performance; it’s a sin to take Domingo’s acting prowess for granted.
Arguably, though, what has to be the most ingenious aspect of the entire package is the film’s completely faithful devotion to its theme. For a film that satirizes stereotypical mainstream Filipino films, they manage to take it to the next level by having the film be a stereotypical mainstream Filipino film. From having a theme song cover of an already-popular hit, to even going so far as to include said theme song in the actual title – hashtagged, no less. To the fixation with gay best friend characters and younger leading men or vice versa. To the foreign eye candy side characters for that coveted “worldly” feel. To the odd practice of inserting plot-heavy dialogue during spa sessions – only elevated, until it climaxes with the colon cleansing treatment scene that has the entire theater in tears. To that theme song, again, forcing its way into dramatically-inclined scenes, never mind that a ukulele-based song can be considered inappropriate for the situation. Even the very cinematography seemed to be in cahoots with this deeply weaved strategy: from the bright, naturally-lit frames, to the slow motion bottom-up panning of attractive (shirtless) characters, to the all-too-familiar shots of ‘from below the balcony looking up’ and ‘centered, backlit against a sunset’ and even the initial shot of ‘symmetrical composition of main characters inside a moving van with a yet-unknown destination.’ And I don’t know if it was intentional, but even the decidedly mainstream manner of voiceover in their trailer helps set the stage of a satire so clever and timely it could have spurred a The Onion article.
Set against the backdrop of the MMFF 2016 controversy, and all the rejected mainstream films that had to take a step back this year, this brand of humor suddenly becomes even more palpable as it takes an unplanned ironic form – a statement fully proved by an audience so beautifully and loudly immersed in its punchlines.
Contrary to most inferences, though, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2’s message is not to degrade the vast world of the mainstream Filipino film industry; rather, it is to insist that all films made by Filipinos for Filipinos, be they mainstream or indie, have a responsibility to treat their viewers with respect – not as cash cows or awards cows for their own benefit.
“If your marriage is in trouble, you don’t go make a movie. You go see a counselor,” Eugene Domingo says. A line I specifically remember because I heard a person behind me murmur “Oo nga” under their breath.
It is the line that disputes indie as the “right” choice, the line that brings indie elitists down from their figurative thrones. While mainstream is stereotypically known to exploit unrealistic happiness, indie is stereotypically known to exploit realistic tragedy; mainstream and indie are both not without their issues, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2 says, but dragging down one to favor the other does not put you above the surface-dwelling, money and honor-hungry producers that you hate.
A masterpiece in its own right, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeverIsNotEnough rightfully deserves the title of “comedy with a purpose ” – a rich reminder that comedy can also come in multiple layers, if one only sticks around after the laughs to dig beneath the surface.
genre: romance, fantasy
“A very typical love story.” That is how Saving Sally is marketed.
And it is a very typical love story – if your version of typical is flexible enough to involve laundry-hanging mechanical contraptions, castle-like houses in the sky, and fuckboys that are actual, literal dick monsters.
As an advocate for local Filipino animation, Saving Sally was the film I most wanted to watch out of all eight. Boasting a mix of 2D animation and live action storytelling, lovingly made for ten years, it ticked off all the boxes in what an ideal film I’d watch on Christmas would be. I held no expectations for Saving Sally, except for one: I would walk out of that theater with a smile on my face and a passion for Filipino animation burning ever brighter than before.
“What does it take to be a hero?”
The story, like with all other typical love stories, starts with a boy falling in love with a girl. (After she saves him.) We then learn that the girl, Sally, is an ordinary girl who loves inventing and lives in a castle guarded by monsters. And the boy, Marty, is an ordinary boy who sees monsters instead of people and has the biggest crush on his best friend. The story plays around the nostalgic themes of friendship and unrequited love – sneaking off to mess around in the streets of Manila, eating isaw under the shade of their favorite tree, hanging out in their favorite komiks shop to pass the time. It paints a “you and I against the world” picture, and against the backdrop of a stunning, intricately animated Manila, it looks like a mystical dream come true.
But surfaces have always been misleading; in this case, we soon find out why Sally has to be “saved” in the first place. We learn why the film’s focus on comfort spaces is important – in Marty’s room when Sally can sneak out, on Sally’s rooftop when she cannot, and in their favorite park, Sandara Park, when they can spare a little bit more time with each other – little breathing spaces where Sally’s mind can catch a break from her turbulent situation at home. Saving Sally deals with the topic of family abuse with a delicate hand; Sally never once talks about her situation, even at Marty’s prompting, but the occasional marks of black and blue on her skin tell a different story. Violence, suicidal inclinations, and thoughts of wanting to completely escape are common themes throughout. And Marty, with all his bravado of wanting to save Sally, is unable to offer her anything other than momentary respite in places where the main problem doesn’t lie.
The tide shifts when Nick enters the scene. In Marty-o-vision – and I don’t know how else to put this – a literal dickhead. Of course, by typical love story fare, Dick (I mean, Nick) becomes Sally’s boyfriend, leading to Sally spending even less time with Marty than what handful of minutes they used to have.
And suddenly Marty is forced to face the question:
Does he want to save Sally because Sally is worth saving, or does he want to save Sally because he wants to be the hero that saves the damsel in distress?
Winning the Best Musical Score award, its score must have been amazing; but if I’m to be honest with myself, I completely forgot what it sounded like – its visuals had me in so much awe, I could not bear to focus on anything else. It goes without saying that Saving Sally is a visually beautiful film; the animated monsters, the highly detailed backgrounds, the cleverly inserted komiks and pop culture quips on the streets of a bustling Manila – the way everything fit together in a heavenly marriage of reality and fantasy that has you sighing in your seat – cannot be described as anything but wonderful. The beautiful scene transitions that are a cut above the rest – falling, sinking through the floor, morphing to the mind’s dimension, bursting through the roof in ecstasy – inventive, phantasmagorical ways to transition and change settings, capitalizing on the flexibility of hand-drawn animation as their advantage from the rest. The easter eggs, the bits and pieces of inside jokes scattered across the film, give it a homely touch – the way you feel when you come back from a tiring day to a house that is messy, but is something you can call home. The amount of care in sculpting every detail of every frame is testament to how much Saving Sally is loved, and this is something that reaches beyond the screen.
What can be considered its most evident flaw, however, is its lack of clear direction with regards to storytelling. Nick’s little critique on Marty’s work about characters not having to be separated into heroes and villains (which even led to Marty having to reassess his vision for his komiks concept) has me smiling, because I thought it would open the door to kicking away black-and-white morality to the curb; instead, it still ends with Nick cheating on Sally in a demonstration of douchebaggery that utterly befits his character design – pretty much rendering the entire point of that pivotal talk useless. And while I admire the decision to have the lead characters split paths, to have them mature individually outside of each other before the boss battle, I still wonder when exactly in that short period of time between separating with their respective partners and breaking Sally out of her prison did they shift from ‘we are old friends awkwardly reuniting after finding ourselves’ to ‘we are now romantically inclined enough to hold hands as we look up at the sky?’ (Was it when the street kindly told them to “muling ibalik”?)
Another relatively minor bother is the choice to have the script written at least 95% in English. For a film that celebrates Filipino culture at its core, it was very odd to watch Filipino actors speaking in English in a setting that is undeniably Filipino. Yes, I admit, it does grow on you a few minutes in; however, you cannot deny that some of the film’s most impactful moments are when the actors let slip their rare Filipino lines in passing. Even Marty’s mother’s lines, spoken in her thick Filipino accent, has relatively more impact than Marty’s own monologues – possibly because this is the kind of audible input that resonates within us: as viewers, as Filipinos, as the masses.
Notwithstanding, Saving Sally is still a beautiful film as an overall package, delivering on its promise to tell a very typical love story using very atypical means. A ticket to support Saving Sally is not only a ticket to save Sally, but also a ticket to save Filipino animation.
And so, “What does it take to be a hero?”
Sometimes being a hero doesn’t have to mean saving the entire world from an army of alien invaders. Sometimes it just means having the courage to step up and save your best friend – not because you want to be the hero that saves the girl, but because the girl is worth saving.
genre: drama, political
Any MMFF film that has Nora Aunor on board has very big shoes to fill.
Kabisera deserves applause for its brave portrayal of the sensitive and timely topic of extrajudicial killings. A dramatization of a true story, it chronicles the tale of Gng. Mercy as she gathers the courage to seek justice for her family.
However, I’ll get right to the point: Kabisera, while infinitely relevant, is lacking.
It starts off interesting enough, with an array of diverse characters: the tough-guy dad, the relatively passive mom, the struggling nursing student, the lazy policeman aspirant, the partygoer, the only girl who wants to study dance, and the youngest, the quiet artist. It’s a classic setting of a conflicting but loving family unknowingly about to be torn apart by circumstance. Nora Aunor’s acting is undoubtedly veteran, a gripping interpretation of a low-lying housewife suddenly thrown into the reality of fighting for her wronged family. But Nora Aunor’s star, bright as it may be, was not able to illuminate the whole sky.
Kabisera’s origins as a true story is its strength, but it is also its downfall; upping the realism edge is always good, but Kabisera forgets that as a film, it should – first and foremost – be a coherent story. In their haste to include every detail of the true witness account in the script, they fail to tie all the little stray strands to form a rounded package. The jealousy side arc at the beginning ultimately amounts to nothing. The vice mayor is built up to be a suspicious character, but again, amounts to nothing. Mercy gets three fortunes told – two of which come true, and the other is never brought up again. We are watching a film told through the eyes of a single ordinary person instead of through an experienced writer’s pen, and at the risk of sounding like an elitist, it lacks overall direction and is just not polished enough to be the heart-wrenching drama it was intended to be.
At times, it even feels too formulaic: the overt emphasis on faces during dialogues, the too-dramatic background music that can fit right in an Ang Probinsyano episode. The extras’ acting leaving a lot to be desired. The cinematography feels dissonant as well, giving us warm sepia tones for the melancholic majority of the film and then suddenly giving us drawn-out, overhead shots of dreamlike blue; what is probably meant to be a metaphor unfortunately comes across (to me) like an Instagram user being undecided on which VSCO filter to use.
(And this is the most minor of minor concerns, but please, for the love of god – never cast both JC de Vera and Jason Abalos in the same film ever again. It reached the point where I was even doubting myself on which one of them actually died.)
“Kung gusto mong hugasan ang kamay mo, malinis na tubig ang gamitin mo.”
It’s like they built the film up to be an iconic Nora Aunor classic, dropping the heavy one-liners here and there like hail, but the focus is misplaced and it just falls flat on its behind.
Nonetheless, if anything, Kabisera is praiseworthy for not being afraid to go down and dirty with their treatment of our vile justice system – a painfully real portrayal that doesn’t shy away from sensitive topics like torture, police brutality, fact manipulation, an alarming lack of witness protection, and government employees who only care about issues when they’re bringing shine to their name. Can justice even be served if the very system is the enemy?
It’s also beautiful in its imagery: Mercy settling in their table’s kabisera – the sight of a small, determined woman taking her place on a chair much too big for her, chin up, looking over at the rest of her children as she fully accepts all the responsibilities that fall on her shoulders – is an image that burns itself deep into the hearts of all those who see it. The use of New Years to start and end the film is also commendable; after all, what else can symbolize “new beginnings” better than a celebration (loud and red for the first, quiet, solemn, and white for the second) marked with fireworks and pansit under a foggy sky?
Its metaphorical beauty is not enough to redeem the film as a whole, but is still appreciated nevertheless.
Overall, Kabisera has a good premise, but sadly fails with its execution. In its confusion, the film almost feels too long; by the middle we were wondering which direction it was trying to go. A documentary might have been a different story – but as a feature film, it disappoints.
genre: thriller, political
Oro, the sociopolitical thriller with irony as its middle name.
The film starts silent, a pleasant confusion leading to the slow unveiling of an island with its heart embedded in the gold that sustains it. The story’s main players are simple: a miner saving up to buy a wedding ring, a woman waiting for the right moment to tell him they’re having a child, a leader who would go to the ends of the earth to uphold her people’s rights, a boy who was much, much too young – simple, but grounded; characters undeniably deep-rooted in reality as their conflicts and motivations resonate within the average person.
In terms of characters, the Kapitana is a unanimous standout. The island’s sole matriarch. Strong, fierce, undaunted. An unwavering pillar of strength that carries the hopes of her people on her shoulders. Initially presented with moral ambiguity, through the film the Kapitana grows to embody a symbol of righteous justice – a queen of a small kingdom with barely enough resources to fight for their lives. And yet, she fights. On the frontlines, she fights. Irma Adlawan plays the role to perfection in a way that I cannot imagine the role played by anyone else – a Best Actress award most deserved. Without an ounce of quiet passiveness, unafraid to let anger and frustrations show on her face, a shining example that hell truly hath no fury like a woman with a people to protect.
Rather than a feminist icon, the Kapitana is someone I consider to be a feminist hero: a queen standing tall without a king – fists raised, glare unyielding in the face of the barrel of a gun.
My takeaway from Oro is that it is a masterpiece. Why so?
Because it is painted a beautiful shade of grey.
While it may be told from the perspective of those who seek justice, the conflicts it presents require you to step out of the usual black-and-white lens often perpetuated by mainstream media. It requires you to think, to reassess your own personal moralities. Ethics. Advocacies. The line where the law ceases to be for the people. Environmentalism and animal and human rights activism clash, and in the middle are the low-lying people just trying to put food on the table.
“Mas mahalaga pa ang papel kesa sa tao!”
From the other side of the screen, it’s so much easier to nod and agree that small island miners should not be mining without a permit. To nod and condone those who signed up for the rebels’ ranks in order to be allowed to continue their livelihood. To nod and click your tongue at a single person in ruling for too many years. It’s so much easier to nod and pass judgment over their actions when you’re not the one hearing the sounds they hear, smelling the scents they smell, living the injustices they feel.
But until what point do we consider a document more important than a person? At the cost of their home, their livelihood? At the cost of a human life?
Or, I don’t know, at the cost of a pet?
The storytelling in Oro is done masterfully. The pace does not rush, but also does not drag; it weaves slowly across the board as it unravels each of the characters’ complexities in their right time – and complex they are, unneeding analysis as they are all real to a fault. The components are polished until they shine – even the extras, with their minimal acting that still manages to hold up the scene. Oro’s cinematography is my downright favorite out of all eight: frames layered with calming blues and greens – mirroring the peacefulness of the sea, the coolness of gold to the touch. Night shots of full-on velvety black, save for the lights on the boats you follow with your eyes. The grit of the sand, the rocks, the dirty water, the blood. The final scene of the torches from deep within the pitch black cave, approaching slowly, slowly, until we see they are floating, unheld – carried by the ghosts of the four miners robbed of their lives, their futures – zooming in until the screen is engulfed by their fire, and we sit in silence.
The Kapitana’s final monologue is a provoking piece that can only be listened to with throats dry and breaths held. Her words are powerful, and in her eyes is a bristling anger she refuses to contain. Beyond the camera, she speaks directly to us: Four miners were murdered in cold blood, and why are we not doing anything? Miners who could not afford to adorn themselves with their own gold, miners who bathed in sweat and trudged through muddy water day and night for an accessory to wrap around our necks – miners who only wanted to survive, to drink beer on work nights, to give a ring to the person they love. We live in a world where a human life matters less than paper and formalities, and the Kapitana looks us in the eye, and questions us: Why?
Gold is a beautiful material. It’s shiny, it’s pretty, it’s a striking contrast against brown Filipino skin. And it’s worth a lot of money. But for the citizens of Barangay Gata, Caramoan, Camarines Sur, there is something that glitters more than gold: justice.
genre: comedy, drama
Die Beautiful is a film that cleverly masks itself as a comedy when its message is anything but.
Our heroine is Trisha Echevarria, a transgender Filipina with all the colors in the rainbow to live after having just reached her dream of winning the Binibining Gay Pilipinas crown. That is, until she dies shortly after.
The film is not told chronologically; small snippets are painted from different arcs of her shortlived life to produce a fragmented but coherent story – confusing in theory, but executed with finesse. It takes some getting used to at the start, but as it goes on you’ll start to appreciate the visual cues they’ve factored in to keep the timelines distinguishable: mainly, the use of color.
The events can be divided into two main parts: the “before” and the “after.”
The “before” is characterized with dim light. Grays. Muted browns. A dull atmosphere hangs heavy on the timeframes when Trisha was not allowed to be Trisha – a hazy fog that only disperses when the door closes behind her, and she is introduced to the world of color she has always been meant for. Bright, happy hues from all the colors of the rainbow in almost every setting, an omnipresent representation of the LGBT pride flag and everything it stands for. From the vivid blue in the skies to the shocking red on her lips, the “after” thrives in a world of vibrancy that can only mirror liberation – from her family, from society, from herself.
Die Beautiful goes above and beyond the call of duty with regards to the theme of “acceptance” common within the niche of LGBT-centric films. Trisha is presented not as simply a transgender woman with a sob story, but humanized to a degree where you cease to see her as a character with the sole purpose to move forward the plot and elicit comedic shock value, but instead as a real person, with real struggles and valid conceptions about life and sexuality. Instead of being simply “the transgender,” she is given the opportunity to be a friend, a lover, a mother even – and most importantly – a person with the strength to choose what is best for her, regardless of what the tropes would rather choose in her place.
While Trisha engraves herself as a well-written protagonist, it is Barbs who proves to be the popular standout. “Kailangan natin ng Barbs sa buhay natin,” a viewer behind me whispers, as Barbs adds the finishing touches to the late Trisha’s impersonation for the day. And I, along with everyone who has watched the film, cannot agree more. Die Beautiful is a family story, but one that is far beyond the traditional sense, as Trisha leaves her biological family for a group of idiosyncratic individuals who embraced her as their own – who may not be much of a family in the conventional sense, but one that she can finally call her own.
In her departure, Trisha promises herself one thing: she will never look back. And for everyone who doubts her legitimacy as an effective protagonist, for choosing not to reconcile with her father till the very end, I ask you: Why should she?
Die Beautiful aims to expose the grit of reality, and reality doesn’t always come with a reconciliation arc. Why should she have to call this man a father when he was never a father to her? Trisha did not abandon her family; it is her family who abandoned her, years before she even closed the door. In this respect, Joel Torre delivers a performance so stellar and infuriatingly believable I had to keep my fists clenched in response to the immense urges to punch him in the face. The film makes it a point to emphasize that he is not only aggressive to a fault, but also that his abuse runs deep enough that with his power over Trisha, he is able to keep her trapped in an emotional cage as well. Through the entirety of the film, Trisha never has an on-screen interaction with her father that isn’t in a confined space: The dining room. The hospital ward. Even at the morgue as he looks over her corpse and decides that even after her death, she is still not enough. Consistently trapped within four walls, every scene is calculated and suffocating, almost like you can feel how Trisha is denied even the right to breathe. A curse that is only broken when she gathers the courage to reach out and open the door for herself – to put the past behind her, and to never look back again. And I will never understand why there are people who question Trisha’s decision, to stand by the life she made for herself until the end; after all, Die Beautiful’s message is clearly not one of reconciliation and feel-good pandering, but instead a loud and important message that sometimes your true family is not the one you are born in, but the one you find for yourself.
And as it does relevance, the film also delivers amusing irony. With the common Filipino interpretation of “kabaklaan” as quality comedy for the family, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a good chunk of the people who waited patiently in line was in it for a good time, if nothing more. And it is a good time, for the most part – until the humor starts to whittle, and with every scene transition grows an awareness of the ever heavier implications of a laugh. What is the line between laughing with a minority and laughing at a minority? A minority says she is raped; scattered laughter ensues. Right after, we are visually and audibly shown a scene of the minority in the actual act of getting raped; suddenly, silence.
For so long we have been programmed to believe that the suffering of a minority is not to be taken seriously, as they do not take it seriously themselves. We have been programmed to see struggle as a punchline, as a quality ingredient for the recipe of a box-office comedy flick. But where does the laughter end and the empathy start? If not at a testimony from a first-hand experience, is it when we have to see it for ourselves? To see the sweat, the drool, the glassy eyes? To hear the erratic shaking of the table? To be presented with the physical evidence of blood? Or should it have to be a member of the majority who speaks out for us to listen, because we do not have the capability to listen to someone we consider different? Die Beautiful forces its viewers to sit and reevaluate themselves – expertly dipping from vulgar comedy to heartwarming drama, then dragging the focus back to the inaesthetic reality of existing in a place where your existence is a joke. It drags the focus back to Trisha, and Trisha alone, letting her draw out the empathy of her viewers in the way she knows how, in the way that lets her speak for herself where everyone else would rather speak over her. It gives her the avenue to show that her feelings are valid. That she is valid. That the struggles of a minority are valid whether or not a majority validates them.
Die Beautiful is a film that leaves you with a burden to carry on your shoulders. If you are one of the thousands of people who watched and enjoyed Die Beautiful – if it made you feel something – that is when you lose all rights to look at a person who is different from you and see them as a punchline. You lose the right to laugh at gay hairdressers, at possibly gay celebrities, at your friend who comes out to you as gay in full trust, at the antics of a gay character in a Vice Ganda film whose entire purpose is to elicit laughter just for the mere reason of being gay. It leaves you with a responsibility, one that you cannot refuse; or else, anything it made you feel ceases to be of meaning. Or else, Barbs’ vow to keep Trisha beautiful – to keep Trisha as she is, even after death – would have meant nothing at all.
You have a responsibility to uphold.
Say her name.
She was Trisha Echevarria (from Bahamas!), and she not only died beautiful, but also free. And should she be blessed to live again, she would still choose to be – as 2NE1 so articulately put – nobody, nobody but her.
SUNDAY BEAUTY QUEEN
Sunday Beauty Queen is the first ever documentary film to be accepted as an official entry for the Metro Manila Film Festival, and also simultaneously the first ever documentary film to win the festival’s highest award of Best Picture. Honestly, this by itself is enough reason to give this work of art a watch.
Sunday Beauty Queen follows select domestic workers in their daily lives and struggles in Hong Kong – brave, modern heroines (trying) forcing themselves to make ends meet in an unfamiliar land, if only so the loved ones they left back home live the life they dream for them to have. Mylyn Jacobo, a heroine who cares for a former producer in the last stages of his life. Hazel Perdido, a heroine entrusted with her employer’s dog in their temporary absence. Cherrie Mae Bretana, a heroine who becomes an unlikely mother to a child with chronically busy parents. Rudelyn Acosta, a heroine who comes home with a crown only to be reminded that in the world she lives in, homes can be taken away at the mercy of strangers.
And in the center of the spider’s web is Leo Selomenio – the lovable Daddy Leo that captured everyone’s hearts from the moment he first smiled on camera. With the decision to make him the main character, we see the heroines’ stories told through the eyes of the hero who enables them to become queens. Leo’s character functions well as simultaneously an insider and an outsider, leading us through the beautiful streets of Hong Kong and their not-so-beautiful backdoors where our bagong bayanis hold our flag on their tired backs. Through him, we get a first-hand experience in hearing their stories, their backgrounds, their reasons for holding on even in the face of abuse. And how, with hardly enough time to think about anything but work, the Sunday pageants Leo holds are not only important as a fundraiser, but also as an avenue for these women to forget about hardship and lose themselves in the haze of laughter and camaraderie, even for just a short while.
There are seven days to a week. For these women, six are spent momentarily abandoning the sense of self for hours of diligent labor. But when Sunday comes, it comes.
You’d assume the single rest day in the week would be spent, I don’t know, not getting out of bed till 1 pm? But women with too much of their light forced to dim need more than rested eyes to keep their hearts strong and going. In the one day of the week when they are free, the only day when they get to ditch the rags and mops for the ball gowns and feathers, they choose to shine. Sundays gleam with color; a day of glitz and glamour, hairspray and rouge – sashaying down the runway until the stress of the past week slips off their shoulders with every flick of the hip. In a story too bleak to be a fairytale, they choose to be Sunday Cinderellas; crowns can be taken home, but reigns only last for a day.
And then the clock strikes midnight. The curtains close, and the cycle begins anew.
The main advantage of Sunday Beauty Queen is it does not hold back in portraying shadows alongside light. The characters’ natural humor and wit are a delight – effortlessly funny in their nonchalance – but it is their raw, emotional testaments to the hardships they face that bring their viewers down to the overseas ground they walk on. Not shying away from controversy or even death, the film sprays itself with a coat of reality that cares less about how it is perceived, and more about how accurately their stories are told.
And while its subject material may be heavy, it’s a work of art that does not disappoint on being visually beautiful as well. Shot over the span of five years, I can’t even begin to imagine how much care and meticulousness went into sculpting all those footage into something so lucid and captivating. Diagonals. Blue skies. The bustling life of Hong Kong. The heart-rending scene of Hazel on the bay, against the sunset, as she wistfully streams her daughter’s graduation on her phone – rightfully iconic, and one for the books.
Sunday Beauty Queen does an impressive job at painting the world of overseas Filipino workers, right from the eyes and mouths of real overseas Filipino workers. It’s a common statement that there is more to OFW life than glitter and imported corned beef, but without any first-hand experience, the thought has whittled down to mere platitudes and unopened Facebook links. Sunday Beauty Queen aims to strike over these empty sympathies and put us right inside the lion’s den – have us watch these women continue to fight in the face of adversary, and still come out smiling for another day.
When the theater lit up in unanimous applause at the end, it was not just to appreciate the film’s artistry and completion. It was a celebration for these strong women, for their continued fight, for the indomitable Filipino spirit. It was reverence for queens.
The will to cling to hope amid desolation brings forth an era of self-sufficient Sunday Cinderellas, with tired feet but rested hearts, with smiles too bright to contain within the grey of routine, with the strength to find strength to face the struggle of another day. The clock strikes midnight; they have no expensive glass shoes to lose, and so instead they leave behind a promise – a promise for better days.
Watching all eight films has been…. amazing. I am beyond happy and thankful for the opportunity to experience an MMFF so diverse, and insightful, and beautiful. To the people behind Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 who made this happen, I thank you very, very, very much.
Here’s to a bright future of Filipino cinema! 🙂