MOVIE REVIEWS: Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival 2018 (Part 2)

Here’s the second part of our festival report on Cinemalaya 2018 in which we cover Distance, Kuya Wes, Pan De SalawalSchool Service, The Lookout and Shorts B. The 14th edition of Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival runs from August 3 to 12 at Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and select cinemas in Metro Manila.

READ MORE: Guide to Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival 2018


Nonie Buencamino (Anton) and Iza Calzado (Liza) in ‘Distance.’ Photo via Cinemalaya.

Melancholy has always been a common pervading theme in Cinemalaya and this year, Percival Intalan’s Distance has arguably the smoothest delivery of that emotion. Unlike most conventional family dramas portrayed in cinema, the film withholds on revealing the history of conflict right away. Instead, it sets up the viewers to an awkward game of nuances and unspoken emotions, letting the feelings simmer in preparation to its cathartic third act. Such style works well in the context of the story: Liza (Iza Calzado) is an estranged mother and wife, who, at the request of her ex-husband (Nonie Buencamino), returns to a home that she left five years ago. She attempts mending fences with her two daughters (Therese Malvar and Alessandra Malonzo) but she does it by acting like nothing has happened. It does not help that the father lets her back into their lives unannounced, both parties forced to handle a tricky situation.

The film emotionally thrives by avoiding the elephant in the room. Take this scene for example, Liza’s family eats at a dining table while suppressing years of anger and disappointment. Calculating every move, they think of a way how to maneuver a conversation without getting into the touchy subject. They abide by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy and that’s perfectly understandable. As much as its moving to watch a character burst into tears like Bea Alonzo in her infamous scene in Four Sisters and a Wedding, this seldom happen in real life. People don’t get their lines right, people don’t find the right words to say at the right time. Most of them are content shoving unaddressed issues right under the rug in the fear of getting rejected or reopening old wounds. Distance understands this reality and chooses to operate with a restrained screenplay.

The film takes its time to build the tension, deftly injecting flashbacks to slowly unveil the truth. Yet, it doesn’t feel too dragging. Hence, when it gets to its single take confrontational climax, the moment feels earnest and grounded. The script, the direction and the camerawork all come together. The pathos subdued inside the characters’ cautious facades begin to fully manifest. Among its talented cast, the star that shines the brightest in this pivotal moment is Malvar. She delivers a performance that outlasts both Calzado and Buencamino. Next thing I know, manly tears started to well up in my eyes.

Distance ends before you even realize it, the film reminding you that you’re just a distant observer in this slice of life. Come to think of it, this is just a simple story a woman asking for her family’s forgiveness. Given to less capable hands, this will come out as a cheap soap opera. But with a quiet execution that speaks to the heart, this becomes a dark horse in the competition.

Directed by Perci Intalan, written by Keavy Eunice Vicente
Cast: Iza Calzado, Nonie Buencamino, Therese Malvar, Alessandra Malonzo, Adrianna So, Max Eigenmann, Lhian Khey Gimeno, Elia Maria Norelle Ilano, Erlinda Villalobos, Billy Seño, Tanya Gomez, Cherry Malvar, Myla Monido, Mailes Kanapi, Matt Daclan, Timothy Castillo
Run Time: 100 minutes

4.5 out of 5 stars


Ogie Alcasid in ‘Kuya Wes.’ Photo via Cinemalaya.

In James Robin Mayo’s Kuya Wes, a timid remittance clerk (Ogie Alcasid as the titular character) falls head over heels for his monthly-visiting, mother of two customer Erika (Ina Raymundo), so bad that he starts shelling out his personal money when she suffers a misfortune. To dismiss the film as just as an endearing romcom will be a disservice to its more important cause. It actually serves as a tribute to the middlemen – the taken for granted, unsung heroes who are often seen as a means to an end. You see, Wes is a giving tree. Apart from the customers who are depending on his service, he supports his brother Raf (Alex Medina) and his family. However, by being the bringer of joy all the time, he often gets taken advantage of. He will soon realize that in this life, kindness doesn’t always beget kindness.

Kuya Wes has an array of quirky characters to contribute to the gags all throughout, with Moi Bien as Wes’ loyal and feisty coworker being the standout. But at the core of it is a lonely man who only draws excitement in his unremarkable life when his crush visits him once a month. Such ill-advised infatuation is only a representative of his general desire to be noticed and appreciated by the people around him. It is very relatable and the thoughtful production design accentuates this by contrasting Wes’ brightly-lit office against his dimly-lit apartment, signifying the emptiness he feels at the end of the day.

As Wes undergoes through character development, the deceptive comedy takes a darker turn by the third act. Its vague ending could have used more arc redemption and Erika’s character, no matter how magnetic Raymundo’s presence is, ultimately feels one-dimensional. But overall, the film is very watchable, benefiting mostly from Alcasid’s firm grasp of his character, a sharp editing and a soundtrack courtesy of Johnoy Danao and Shirebound & Busking. Kuya Wes is a character study that deserves to seen and understood.

Directed by James Robin Mayo, written by Denise O’Hara and Heber O’Hara
Cast: Ogie Alcasid, Ina Raymundo, Moi Bien, Alex Medina, Karen Gaerlan, Nestro Abrogena, Star Orjaliza, Rubi Rubi, Edmund Santiago, Gerhard Acao, Raqs Regalado, Sir Rener Korikz A. Concepcion, Timothy Mendoza, Erika Clemente & Trisha Melocotones
Run Time: 90 minutes

4 out of 5 stars


Miel Espinosa (Aguy) and Bodjie Pascua (Sal) in ‘Pan De Salawal.’ Photo via Cinemalaya.

Francesca Espiritu’s debut film Pan De Salawal kicks off by showing snippets of people living in a small community near Manila railroad. There’s a former beauty queen (Madeleine Nicolas) who suffers from a persistent cough, a barber (Lorenzo Aguila) who can’t function well because of hand spasms, a meat vendor (Soliman Cruz) who contracts a breast tumor, his shy son (Dominic Roco) who harbors a secret, an asthmatic drug store clerk (Anna Luna) along with her paralyzed mother (Ruby Ruiz), and at its center is Salvador (Bodjie Pascua), a lonely baker who’s plagued by a chronic kidney disease. Their storylines seems disparate at this point but they will eventually come together when a wandering scavenger girl named Aguy (Miel Espinosa) visits their town and starts performing miracles.

It’s no coincidence that her name is a Visayan term for “aray” or “ouch.” Aguy possesses healing powers and administers it by inflicting physical pain to her patients. In case it’s not clear, her healing methods is the writer’s subtle way of saying that, for you to alleviate the pain, you must recognize its existence first. “Pain comes before healing,” so to speak. The film does not only focus on physical illnesses but there are plenty of emotional pains shown here as well: loneliness, frustration, longing, etc. Aguy, as the beacon of hope, immediately becomes an invaluable member to the community. Good things come in small (and dirty) packages, don’t they? There’s charm and maturity to Espinosa’s performance that makes her hold the film together.

I’d like to fancy this film as a fusion of Wansapanataym (as its magic caters to a general audience, except it has mature themes for adults too) and Home Along Da Riles (obviously due to the neighborhood’s proximity to a railroad and because it’s big, tight-knit family reels you in to its sense of belongingness). Poverty is often exploited by films when it comes to this type of situation, so it’s refreshing to see it aestheticized here. Much like Aguy who wears an underwear on her head, the film embraces its absurdist fantasy/comedy concept and that’s what makes it easily stand out among the competition. It’s not perfect – there’s little development when it comes to Sal and Aguy’s friendship and the supporting characters are thinly-written, but Pan De Salawal remains to be a warm and fuzzy film that hits all the emotions needed to connect to a wider audience. If this can’t bring happy heartbeats and “shine” to your eyes, then you must be a grump.

Written and directed by Anna Francesca Espiritu
Cast: Bodjie Pascua, Miel Espinosa, Madeleine Nicolas, Anna Luna, Felix Roco, Soliman Cruz, Ian Lomongo, Ruby Ruiz, JM Salvado & Lorenzo Aguila
Run time: 100 minutes

4 out of 5 stars


Celine Juan (Maya) and Ai Ai delas Alas (Nanay Rita) in ‘School Service.’ Photovia Cinemalaya.

Louie Ignacio’s School Service is a socio-realist drama that immerses its viewers to the proliferating beggar syndicate crime preying on children. Maya (Celine Juan), a kidnapped girl from province, serves as our entry point of view to this scheme. We quickly learn that ‘Nay Rita (Ai Ai delas Alas), a wheelchair bound woman who pretends to be disabled, is the ringleader of the operations. The “school service” is used to transport the kids from one location to another where they proceed doing their own business – beg, steal, deceive, offer sexual services, etc.

There are no overlords involved in this story and the scope remains to be on a street-level. Hence, there’s nothing new here that recent superior poverty films like Eduardo Roy’s Pamilya Ordinaryo or Ralston Jover’s Hamog has not yet shown. Rita is the most interesting character and the story could provide fresh insights by letting her deal with the bigger players of the syndicate. But the film decides to split the attention between her, his brother (Joel Lamangan) who deals with an impatient boyfriend (Kevin Sagra) and Maya who constantly finds a way to sneak away from them. They are all underserved by an abrupt ending that lacks to be definitive, a proof that the story has taken a loose path right from the very start.

Delas Alas is good here – she deftly handles emotions of despair, frustration, subdued wrath, etc. Even if the film gives little exploration of her backstory, there’s gravitas to her performance. It’s only an affirmation to the unpopular opinion that she’s acts better in dramatic than comedic roles. The other thespic forces like Lamangan and Therese Malvar prove their place in this generation too. The same can be said for the rest of the child ensemble. That being said, this film will be mostly remembered for the performances.

School Service is satisfied in dipping on a surface level, it ends up purely being an exposition of familiar tropes. Without a solid plot that fully paints the humanity of these street children, it just feels exploitative.

Directed by Luisito Lagdameo Ignacio, written by Onay Sales
Cast: Ai-Ai delas Alas, Joel Lamangan, Celine Juan, Therese Malvar, Felixia Dizon, Joe Gruta, Kenken Nuyad, Kevin Sagra, Santino Oquendo & Ace Café
Run time: 95 minutes

2.5 out of 5 stars


Andres Vasquez (Lester) in ‘The Lookout.’ Photo via Cinemalaya.

Every year, Cinemalaya is notorious for having one entry that is unintentionally bad. For festival aficionados out there, you might have already seen it yourself or heard it from the grapevine – Afi Africa’s The Lookout sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a revenge story of Lester Quiambao (Andres Vazquez), a gay hired killer who’s been a victim of child-trafficking in the past. He seeks retribution to all the persons who have wronged him. There are other subplots too involving the police force, but discussing them will be a futile exercise. Anyway, this is a very painful story that demands our empathy and tears. Unfortunately, it gets laughs instead.

Five minutes getting into this film, I already realized that the best way I can get the most out of this is to laugh along the audience. But even that proves to be a tough task. For the most part, my facial muscles are stuck in a limbo between feeling ‘hilarious’ and feeling ‘cringey’. Lester is a gay with a high libido for the sole purpose of parading gratuitous sex scenes with little payoff to the overall plot. The film clearly has important messages to tell with all the forced philosophical talks going on, but it seems to be more interested in displaying naked bodies, amassing all the “bomba” elements it needs to be part of the edgy cinema.

There are a lot of artistic choices that don’t work – weird camera angles, poor production designs, annoying flashback effects that takes you out of it, etc. But the biggest offender of all is the screenplay which features wildly inconsistent characters, unintended gags and cringey dialogues. The most flinching one that I can pull out of my head is this, “Magkaiba ang ‘I love you’ at ang ‘Mahal kita.’ Ang ‘I love you’ galing sa puso. Ang ‘Mahal kita’ galing sa puso tagos sa kaluluwa.” I hereby rest my case.

It’s a shame because Yayo Aguila does a fine job here. Her level of acting, unmatched by any of the cast, makes it feel like she belongs to an entirely different movie. By the third act, all logic and common sense jump out of the window in favor of concocting a mind-twisting, convoluted plot. Frankly, I was no longer invested and I just wanted it to be over with.

It won’t take a genius to tell that The Lookout is a rushed project because it shows. The story keeps on inorganically evolving every turn, as if the script is revised during production. The output ends up dull, confusing and devoid of any genuine filmmaking. The verdict: 1 star for Yayo Aguila, plus half a star for the laughs, because I’m not a heartless af.

Written and directed by Afi Africa
Cast: Yayo Aguila, Rez Cortez, Efren Reyes, Alvin Fortuna, Jeffrey Santos, Benedict Campos, Aries Go, Lharby Policarpio, Jemina Sy, Jay Garcia, Elle Ramirez, Andres Vazquez, Nourish Icon Lapuz, Xenia Barrameda, Dennis Coronel Macalintal, Ahwel Paz & Mon Gualvez
Run time: 105 minutes

1.5 out of 5 stars


Still shots from ‘Shorts B.’ Photo via Cinemalaya.

Jav Velasco’s ‘You, Me and Mr. Wiggles’ is a single-take overhead shot of a couple trying to overcome erectile dysfunction in bed. I’m still not entirely sold with the necessity of its frontal nudity but the direction is impressive with this one. Rating: 3.5/5

Directed by Jav Velasco, written by Denise O’Hara and Jav Velasco
Cast: Kiko Matos Elora Espano
Run time: 19 minutes

Keith Deligero’s ‘Babylonis a local assassination plot that involves time travel. Erratic, absurd but as a collective whole, very confusing. I’ll have the humility to admit that I am not in the same wavelength with this short. Too experimental is not my cup of tea. Rating: 2.5/5

Directed by Keith Deligero, written by Gale Osorio
Cast: Patricia Zosa, Rhyles Cameron, Rya de Guzman, Nicole Blackman, Publio Briones III
Run time: 20 minutes

Jojo Driz’s ‘Kiko’ is about a gay laundress who finds what matters the most in life’s roller coaster journey. Of all the shorts, this one leaves the most haunting image. I am, however, bewildered with so many things that it tries to achieve. Rating: 2.5/5

Written and directed by Florencio M. Driz, Jr.
Cast: Domingo Almoete, Neil Suarez, Earl Andrew Figueroa
Run time: 19 minutes

Jarell Serencio’s ‘Siyudad Sa Bulawan(City of Gold) may seem like it lacks the focus, but that’s because it tries to hit so many birds with one stone: issues of poverty, child labor and illegal mining. This would work better as a full-length film. Rating: 3.5/5

Written and directed by Jarell Mahinay Serencio
Cast: Manny Gonzales, Rich-er Gonzales, Gabriel Libunao
Run time: 15 minutes

Mika Fabella and Rafael Froilan’s ‘Yakap(Embrace) is an interpretative dance portraying a woman’s last few moments of life before crossing over to the afterlife. With such a short run time, the film could have opted for a single continuous shot to maximize visual excitement, just like what last year’s Juana and the Sacred Shores did. Rating: 2/5

Written and directed by Mika Fabella and Rafael Froilan
Cast: Rita Angela Winder, Jean Marc Cordero, TJ Abat, Jaycee Noriega, Regina Malay
Run time: 6 minutes

READ MORE: Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival Report Part 1

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