Baker’s dozen

CINEMALAYA 2021 is the first in the longest while I’ve seen all of a Filipino film festival’s competition entries, and that mainly because they’re shorts. I’ve heard disappointment from some corners — apparently this was how Cinemalaya 2020 went, and I understand how they feel but, 1.) I’ve never really considered shorts inferior to features (as with short stories vs. novels each form has its vices and virtues), and, 2.) I’ve been so hungry for new Filipino work that for me this was a sprawling table of tapas (in the Spanish sense, not the Filipino breakfast sense) featuring a wide-ranging array of flavors.

And I may respond better to some more than others but let me clarify: to my eyes all 13 are winners. Independent filmmaking is always a terrifying gamble putting heart and soul and sweat and tears out in the open for everyone to judge; to do so in less than 60 brief minutes only intensifies the stakes. The results aren’t equal, but I have seen what you’ve done, and I recognize your passion.

So, from last to first:

ANG PAGDADALAGA NI LOLA MAYUMI (THE BLOSSOMING OF GRANDMA MAYUMI)
Shiri De Leon’s short, set almost entirely in a motel room, takes a sordid situation — an old maid hiring a call boy for her first time — and attempts to elevate it. ‘Tis a noble effort, and Ruby Ruiz as Lola (Grandma) Mayumi and Julian Roxas as the call boy do delicate work, but I don’t feel sufficiently prepared for how others react when they see her at the motel (Why does Lola have such a puritan reputation and what’s her relationship to the general community anyway?) and I can’t believe how sympathetic and sensitive the callboy is. Nicely sudden, nicely understated conclusion, though.

KAWATAN SA SALOG (A TOY IN THE RIVER)
Writer-director Alphie Velasco has sticky-fingered Santi (Kyle Kaizer Almenanza) falling into a river and ending up in an island purgatory for lost souls, with Lola (Lui Manansala) for a guide. Meanders a bit — not good in short form fiction — and wears its environmental messaging too prominently on its sleeve (by way of reparation Santi is tasked with picking up beach debris) but some of the surreal imagery and much of the beachfront landscape is startling in its beauty.

LOOKING FOR RAFFLESIAS AND OTHER FLEETING THINGS
Writer-director James Fajardo’s hero, Gubat (Reynald Raissel Santos), is the son of a tikbalang (a creature from Philippine mythology with a body of a man and head of a horse); the mysterious English-speaking Darren (Kevin Andrews) is his, I don’t know, mentor, abuser, prospective lover — something. Some wincing barbs aimed at smalltown prejudice but a bit too confused otherwise; the languid homoeroticism, the animal masks, the bits of reverse motion suggest that the filmmaker is familiar with Jean Cocteau, not a bad choice for inspiration.

OUT OF BODY
Enrico Po’s nifty thriller suggests what late Brian De Palma might do if again offered the kind of tiny budget he worked with at the start of his career — statuesque beauty Kelley Day plays Elle, a model arriving on the set of her first commercial shoot, only Direk (Nelsito Gomez) has just thrown out the storyboards she had been sent and opted for something more “edgy.” Most visually polished of this batch, not as evocative as I might have liked (“Exploited talent,” “workplace abuse” — I get that. And?), and, please — if you’re going to evoke Nobuyoshi Araki, the knots in your ropework better be tight, otherwise your dilettante status is showing. Would not be out of place in a new season of The Twilight Zone.

THE DUST IN YOUR PLACE
David Olson’s minidrama sounds off-putting at first: Rick (Boo Gabunada) and Claire (the striking Chaye Mogg) are with-it slangy in the worst way, and you wonder if the rest of the 20-minute running time is going to be all like this. But the outline of a knotty bittersweet relationship emerges and you begin to feel for these people despite their relatively privileged social status. Mr. Olson shoots the whole thing inside an (admittedly spacious) apartment and still manages to make it look interesting; that you forget all about the look and focus more on the people is his particular achievement.

ATE O.G. (SISTER O.G.)
Not the most visually distinguished of the shorts but Kevin Mayuga is so obviously working out his own festering guilt about the domestic help in his life that this anecdote comes off as honest instead of condescending. Kara and Keenan Mayuga (Siblings?) play the abusive lower-middle-class employers and Merle Cahilig is their oppressed and later hilariously chill (thanks to certain, uh, herbal remedies) housekeeper.

AN SADIT NA PLANETA (THE LITTLE PLANET)
Let me begin with the negatives: Arjanmar Rebeta’s short is so obviously a takeoff from The Little Prince — down to the tiny planet, the sticky inspirational music, the ready-made moral lesson — that Saint-Exupery could sue for plagiarism. The film grows beyond that initial resemblance, however, and Rebeta’s amazing one-shot effect — a distorting lens that crumples the world into a fist-size ball, wrapping the surrounding sky around said ball — begins to serve as appropriate visual metaphor for his point: that the world around you is a prison cell until you decide otherwise.

BEAUTY QUEEN
Writer-director Myra Aquino’s short has one minor flaw (the initial firefight is slackly staged and edited) and one major that feels inseparable from her basic concept: a 20-minute short about small-town beauty queen Remedios (Febie Agustin), who joins the guerrillas in the thick of World War II and becomes the fearsome Kumander Liwayway, dead shot riflewoman and capable military officer. It’s such a rich idea — not the least because it’s true — that it demands a full-length biopic to do the material justice. Keep the cast and crew, but someone please throw some serious money at this project, ASAP.

CROSSING
Like Richard Fleischer’s taut thriller, The Narrow Margin, Marc Misa’s melodrama takes place almost entirely on a moving vehicle; Misa is no Fleischer — that would be too high a compliment to pay at this stage of his career — though to be fair, this short’s passenger bus is the tighter venue. Mr. Misa cheats a bit with his action sequence editing but in a way that wouldn’t embarrass Jean-Pierre Melville (again outlandish praise, but if you see how Mr. Misa cuts here and how Melville cuts Alain Delon’s first killing in Le Samourai you’ll see the resemblance). Complete with ironic twist conclusion.

MASKI PAPANO (I MASK GO ON)
Running at a brief five minutes this may not be the ultimate exercise in recycling discardable material but it’s up there. Che Tagyamon and Glenn Barit’s idea of turning face masks into figures of loneliness and rejection isn’t just an emblematic expression of pandemic suffering, it’s funny and, in the end, surprisingly poignant. Also: punniest title in the festival, in Tagalog and English.

NAMNAMA EN LOLANG (GRANDMOTHER’S HOPE)
Jonnie Lyn Dasalla’s five-minute gem is as simple as Lolang Kudyaman (Concepcion Dasalla) caring for her grandson Eli (Jaeceelizeon Alhexys Dasalla) — you get the idea this is a family effort) while she talks about her life, hopes, dreams. Sometimes you don’t need elaborate effects or complexly written dialogue or a big production budget to have the loveliest film in the festival.

ANG MGA NAWALANG PAG-ASA AT PANLASA (THE LOST HOPES AND FLAVORS)
Kevin Jay Ayson and Mark Moneda’s 20-minute doc has, like Beauty Queen, a number of minor flaws (the questionable English translation of the title [Those Who Have Lost Hope and Flavor?]; format and slow-motion camerawork straight out of Netflix’s Chef’s Table; the relentlessly cheerful narrator) and one major: this feels like an amuse bouche when what you really need is a multi-episode feast (A Netflix series?) celebrating the best of Ilocano cooking. I’m already drooling, sirs; must you torture me so?

KIDS ON FIRE
You heard me: Kyle Nieva’s assault on good taste in general and organized religion in particular is the single funniest entry in the festival. It starts off with a Christian sect on a bus excursion, their singalong led by the sweetly singing, sweetly awkward JC (Alexis Negrite), who believes his erections can cause earthquakes — and then proceeds to get strange. In 10 inventive chapters Nieva escalates from a young boy’s sexual fantasies to suggestions of the coming Apocalypse; not bad for a 20-minute short. Mention must be made of Mystica’s irrepressible Sister Evylyn, who with both hands raised high wins the festival’s MVC (Most Valuable Cleavage).

For tickets to watch the Cinemalaya entries, visit ktx.ph. Follow the official CCP and Cinemalaya social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on the Cinemalaya Film Festival screening schedules and other offerings. For more information, visit the Cultural Center of the Philippines website (www.culturalcenter.gov.ph).

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