‘My Letters to Happy’ review: Exquisitely handles a touchy subject

‘My Letters to Happy’ tells a relevant and heartwarming story of lovers trying to overcome their personal flaws outside the relationship.

If you think that My Letters to Happy is just another local love story, brace yourself because it’s not. The romcom theme in it is actually just a facade to a much deeper subject matter. The film mostly veers towards self-discovery in the face of depression and other mental health issues. It poses a question that some people might have asked at their lowest points, “When all is lost and everything just seems hopeless, how do you find the strength to carry on?” It’s a sensitive topic that some directors would not dare mix with romcom elements, as a poor and an offensive execution will surely be met with a heavy backlash. Thankfully, director Pertee Briñas knows how to handle the touchy subject with exquisite sympathy.

My Letters to Happy centers around Albert (TJ Trinidad), a brilliant and passionate man who suddenly loses his drive for work after a series of unfortunate events. His luck changes when he meets Happy (Glaiza De Castro), a random girl that he has been chatting online. Little did he know, meeting her will unexpectedly change his life forever.

The film wonderfully depicts how mental illness affects a person and the people around him/her. The illness is shockingly revealed in the middle part of the film and it throws almost every audience on the edge of their seats after realizing that Happy’s sudden bursts of happiness are all momentary. This part of the story truly changes the phase for the whole film. It’s a bit heavy in emotions yet it’s positively infused with hope to make us realize that love, after all, consists of equal parts of joy and pain.

Glaiza and TJ’s chemistry is relatable, sweet and delightful. Glaiza’s portrayal of her character is really amazing as she’s on the top of her game.  She’s convincing in every spectrum – you can feel her struggles emotionally and physically. TJ on the other hand, fits the role well enough to make us believe that he is a ruthless corporate boss who gradually becomes vulnerable and open to changes in his lifestyle dynamic, including the possibility of loving someone.

Director Pertee Briñas does a remarkable job in telling a powerful story with such awareness towards the sensitive topics of mental health. Despite its cinematography lapses (the distracting camera angles moves a lot), the film does not stop at shallow entertainment brought by a roller coaster ride of emotions. It gives a heartwarming lesson all while juggling an engaging love story.

In effect, My Letters to Happy serves as an uplifting letter to anyone who feels lost and aimlessly wandering for their mark in the world. It also reminds each of us that all struggles eventually come to an end. The film is indeed an honest reflection of our lives. It is daring, unique, and deserving to be seen.

4 out of 5 stars
Directed by Pertee Briñas, ‘My Letters to Happy’ stars Glaiza De Castro, TJ Trinidad, and Alyssa Valdez. 100 minutes. PG-13.

New cut of ‘Liway’ to screen in cinemas nationwide

A new cut of “Liway” will be presented to viewers when it commences its nationwide run on October 10. Audiences have been awaiting this theatrical release ever since the movie premiered at the Cinemalaya Film Festival where it emerged as the highest-grossing film of the filmfest’s 14-year history.

Based on director Kip Oebanda’s childhood experiences, it stars Glaiza de Castro as Liway/Inday, a young mom raising her child as normal as possible in a makeshift prison camp for dissidents during Martial Law. Using stories and songs, she tries to find joy even in their difficult life. As the reality of the outside world starts creeping into the prison, she must confront the difficult reality that the best interest of the child might be living outside the prison camp, away from her. It is ultimately a story of mother’s great love for her son and the incorruptible light of truth amid dark hopelessness.

Excellent reviews and strong word-of-mouth have catapulted “Liway” to be the Martial Law film of this generation. Aside from being the Cinemalaya 2018 Audience Choice, it also won Special Jury Commendation and Special Jury Citation for child actor Kenken Nuyad. At its full-house Cinemalaya gala night, “Liway” received more than seven minutes of thunderous applause.

Succeeding screenings continue to be SRO events—including the most recent one held at the University of the Philippines Film Center last September 21 to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law.

The film also features inspired performances by Dominic Roco, Soliman Cruz, Joel Saracho, Nico Antonio, Sue Prado, Paolo O’hara, Upeng Galang-Fernandez, Vance Larena, and Khalil Ramos in a very special role. Child actor Kenken Nuyad portrays Inday’s son, Dakip. The screenplay is written by Kip Oebanda and Zig Dulay. The movie is produced by VY/AC Productions and Exquisite Aspect Ventures.

The theatrical version to be unveiled on October 10 includes elements not seen at prior previews. “We wanted to enhance the experience of the moviegoer as we go nationwide,” explained writer-director Kip Oebanda. “Thus, those who have seen ‘Liway’ have a reason to watch it again, and those who have not seen our movie yet have more reason to do so,” added producer Alemberg Ang.

In the light of discussion about the crucial period in Philippine history, “Liway” seeks to be a testimony to the experiences of Martial Law prisoners. Oebanda declared at the UP screening, “The point of the film is to show that we are true, that our stories and narrative are real.”

One cannot help but be moved by the emotional tale of Liway and her family. As writer/director and professor Jose Javier Reyes shared on Facebook, “’Liway’ is an affecting piece celebrating the personal journey of Kip Oebanda that bears much importance at a time when national memories are forgotten…”

Even Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen—who watched “Liway” during its Cinemalaya run—affirmed the film’s significance. He said in a tweet, “’Liway’ is a story that deserved to be retold: the sacrifices endured if we live with compassion. It portrays the cost of genuine freedom as much as we can truly pass on to our children.”

Join the discussion; catch “Liway” when it opens in theaters nationwide on October 10. Interested parties may organize block screenings; for more information, please visit the Liway Facebook page.

Cinemalaya’s highest-grossing film, ‘Liway,’ gets nationwide release

After a very successful premiere at the 2018 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, the film “Liway” begins its commercial run in cinemas across the country on October 10. Quantum Films is the distributor of this stirring motion picture. The story, which is set during Martial Law, is about a young mother who uses storytelling to protect her young son from the painful realities of prison life.

The movie is based on director Kip Oebanda’s experiences as he was growing up inside the prison camp where his parents were detained. It features rousing performances by Glaiza de Castro as Inday/Kumander Liway, Dominic Roco, Soliman Cruz, Joel Saracho, Nico Antonio, Sue Prado, Paolo O’hara, Ebong Joson, Gerry Cornejo, Diana Alferez, Julie Bautista, Pau Benitez, Liway Gabo, She Maala, Renante Bustamante, with Vance Larena, Upeng Galang-Fernandez, and Khalil Ramos in a very special role. Child actor Kenken Nuyad plays Inday’s son, Dakip. The screenplay is written by Kip Oebanda and Zig Dulay. The movie is produced by VY/AC Productions and Exquisite Aspect Ventures.

“My childhood memories were full of laughter and love coupled with the daily routines of prison life,” Oebanda writes in his director’s notes. “Within the barb wired walls and the cramped, small room, I learned to read, write and speak.” Although the young Kip was thrown into a place that was certainly unfit for a child, he learned to cope. Oebanda says, “My parents, to the best of their ability, tried to keep me healthy and happy. By all accounts and in the small flashes of my memory, it was a happy childhood.”

“Liway” presents through the poignant relationship of mother and child, the struggles of those who fought for freedom during Martial Law. “Beyond a deeply personal story of people who refuse to remain as victims, it brings the audience to the emotional journey and sacrifices that freedom requires,” Oebanda elaborates.

Lead actress Glaiza de Castro hopes that the film’s subject and message can motivate the youth to examine the Martial Law period. She says, “(Sana) magiging kahalo na ng mga gagawin natin sa hinaharap. Magigiging inspirasyon… ugat ng diskusyon.” Producer Alemberg Ang affirms, “To preserve the lessons of the past, we must tap both the hearts and minds, particularly of the younger generations who may not have lived through the era.”

The reaction so far has been nothing short of “electrifying.” Thanks to good reviews and strong word-of-mouth, “Liway” is turning out to be the Martial Law movie of this generation. The story truly resonates with the people. Throughout the Cinemalaya 2018 festival, “Liway” played to SRO audiences wherever it was shown, eventually becoming the Audience Choice winner AND the highest-grossing Cinemalaya film in the festival’s 14-year history. At almost every screening, those who watched were stirred to tears, standing ovations, and even patriotic chanting.

So don’t be left out. Find out why everyone is raving about “Liway.” Catch it when it opens in theaters nationwide on October 10. Interested parties may organize block screenings; for more information, please visit the Liway Facebook page.

MOVIE REVIEWS: Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival 2018 (Part 1)

Here’s the first part of our festival report on Cinemalaya 2018 in which we cover Kung Paano Hinihintay Ang DapithaponMamang, LiwayMLMusmos Na Sumibol Sa Gubat Ng Digma and Shorts A. 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


KUNG PAANO HINIHINTAY ANG DAPITHAPON


Perla Bautista (Teresa), Dante Rivero (Bene), and Menggie Cobarrubias (Celso) in ‘Kung Paano Hinihintay Ang Dapithapon’. Photo via Cinemalaya.

On surface level, Carlo Enciso Catu’s Kung Paano Hinihintay Ang Dapithapon is a testament to the abundance of geriatric love stories needed to be told in local cinema. It tells the story of a terminally-ill old man Bene (Dante Rivero) who lives alone in his decrepit house. In his last days, he decides to reach out to his estranged wife Teresa (Perla Bautista) who now lives with her partner Celso (Menggie Cobarrubias).

The film finds strength in its fully-fleshed characters, each driven by their own motivations in search of peace and happiness during their twilight years. The one thing they have in common is that none of them wants to die alone. There presents a conflict and the film will lead us to believe that Bene and Celso should vie for Teresa’s love and attention. But Dapithapon has a lot more facets on old age than jealousy and companionship. It is about seeking forgiveness for your past transgressions, finding closure on things that you have given up thought a long time ago and coming into terms with your lifetime of regrets.

Kung Paano Hinihintay Ang Dapithapon offers a solid direction, anchored by a credible cast ensemble. It lingers enough on mundanity to establish a melancholic tone yet it has surprising bits of dark humor to lighten up the mood. It makes no attempt on calling attention to itself through dramatic confrontations, everything is just a remnant from the past. It may not reach an emotional high but as soon as the film ends, the weight of it starts to fall on your shoulders.

Directed by Carlo Enciso Catu from a screenplay written by John Carlo Pacala
Cast: Dante Rivero, Menggie Cabarrubias and Perla Bautista with Romnick Sarmenta, Che Ramos, Ryan Ronquillo, Jacqueline Cortex, Dunhill Banzon, Stanley Abuloc
Run time: 90 minutes

4.5 out of 5 stars


LIWAY


Glaiza De Castro (Day), Kenken Nuyad (Dakip) and Dominic Rocco (Ric) in ‘Liway.’ Photo via Cinemalaya.

Of all the Cinemalaya entries, Kip Oebanda’s Liway is the most personal work of the bunch. It’s a biopic of the director’s mother, Commander Liway (Glaiza De Castro) a.k.a ‘Day,’ told in the perspective of her son Dakip (Kenken Nuyad as young Oebanda). The story takes place in Camp Delgado prison where captured rebel Day shelters Dakip from the atrocities of Martial Law by telling him myths about an enchantress named Liway of Mt. Kanlaon. Little did the boy know, this is actually a fictionalized version of Day and her comrades’ resistance against the Marcos dictatorship.

Seeing the film’s poster – a pregnant mother armed with a rifle, I came into this movie with a different expectation. I wanted to see Commander Liway preaching her beliefs, leading a rebellion, making compromises, etc. all while bearing a child so that the audience will have a full grasp on what makes her tick both as a freedom fighter and as a mother. But Liway actually took a different direction and prioritized more on the mother aspect. Majority of the scenes here occur inside the prison, dealing with the aftermath of their capture. Frankly, it’s not quite compelling since prison life only imposes minimal threat compared to rebel life. Once the film starts teasing the gripping flashbacks to fill in Day’s backstory, it becomes clear how the film partially shortchanges you from a tension-filled plot. Whether the choice to limit those scenes is due to directorial choice or budget limitations, I wouldn’t know.

But Liway does not entirely miss the point and successfully paints its lead as a multi-faceted character – she can be brave and helpless, a caring mother and an inspirational figure at the same time. It owes a lot from De Castro’s restrained demeanor and vocal ability (she sings Asin’s ‘Bayan Ko’ and ‘Himig ng Pag-ibig’ to deliver emotional beats). Whatever the plot lacks in tension, the film compensates it with a lot of heartfelt mother and son scenes, along with a strong cast performance.

Overall, Liway’s narrative structure tries a lot of things and it ends up tonally incongruous. No matter how saturated the Martial Law subgenre is (yes, I’m calling it a thing), this is still an important story that deserves to be told. The film garners a huge applause during its gala screening, it even led to some activist chants, but those are mostly for different reasons – the director’s blood relation to Liway and the fact that this film is partially funded with Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth. It could feel a little self-serving and over-hyped since Commander Liway’s contribution to the nation as a freedom fighter is not much highlighted in the film. I was honestly left yearning for more.

Directed by Kip Oebanda, written by Kip Oebanda and Zig Dulay
Cast: Glaiza De Castro, Dominic Roco, Kenken Nuyad, Sue Prado, Soliman Cruz, Joel Saracho, Paolo O’Hara, Madeleine Nicolas, Ebong Joson, Nico Antonio, Khalil Ramos, Gerry Cornejo, Diana Alferez, Juli Bautista, Pau Benitez, Liway Gabo, She Maala, Renante Bustamante.
Run time: 100 minutes

3.5 out of 5 stars


MAMANG


Ketchup Eusebio (Ferdie) and Celeste Legaspi (Mamang) in Mamang. Photo via Cinemalaya.

Denise O’Hara’s Mamang tackles on the struggles (and the unexpected pleasures) of having dementia at old age. Celeste Legaspi plays the titular character who is troubled by the apparitions of her former lovers, each having a different impact to her mood and disposition. The film bears a light tone in general and it draws laughs from Mamang’s charming antics, along with Legaspi who gives a semi-theatrical performance suited for her character.

Eventually, the silliness runs dry as the film indulges too much on her stereotype – a temperamental, self-centered old lady, rather than spending time to dissect the reasons for her mental illness and how all her episodes fit in the bigger picture. The film also makes an odd decision of using neon lights, inadvertently giving away the film’s twist a mile too early. Hence, there’s not much emotional impact when it is needed the most.

Mamang’s fractured mind can only do so much to shelter her from reality. As a character study, Mamang feels like a prolonged dream, dallying and too spontaneous when it comes to execution that it somehow misses to leave a strong mark in the end. That being said, this should work best if viewed as a heartfelt story between Mamang and her son Ferdie (Ketchup Eusebio).

Written and Directed by Denise O’Hara
Cast: Celeste Legaspi, Ketchup Eusebio, Peewee O’Hara, Alex Medina, Gio Gahol, Elora Espano, Paolo O’Hara
Run time: 90 minutes

3 out of 5 stars


ML


Tony Labrusca (Carlo), Eddie Garcia (Colonel) and Henz Villaraiz (Jaze) in ‘ML’. Photo by Cinemalaya.

Having read the synopsis of this film last year, Benedict Mique’s ML turns out exactly what I expected it to be – an arm-gripping and eye-wincing thriller propaganda against Martial Law. The antagonist comes in the form of The Colonel (Eddie Garcia), a PTSD-stricken hermit who transforms into a merciless torturer upon mention of the film’s title. Enter a Marcos apologist student named Carlo (Tony Labrusca), along with his best friend (Henz Villaraiz) and his girlfriend (Lianne Valentin), who are given assignments to research on the subject of Martial Law. Carlo decides to interview the retired soldier and needless to say, it doesn’t end well.

Once the film starts with the torturing, it really gets graphic and uncomfortable. At best, ML is a reminder from the dark ages to never repeat the same mistakes again, the film getting away with all the violence displayed since they are historical based. At worst, it’s a checklist of torture porn made to evoke feelings of trauma for the older generation and to impose terror for the new generation. Much like its poor victims, it shackles you by the limbs and never really gives you an option: “Martial Law is bad,” the film cries out loud.

Garcia, on his 3rd Cinemalaya film, never disappoints with an ominous presence to scare the bejesus out of you. Still, he never comes out as one-dimensional as the film presents his character’s lighter side – to his family, he’s a loving grandfather. It’s a schizophrenic personality that works like a switch. The younger cast, mostly composed of fresh faces, do a fine job in braving their roles. For the most part though, they are just trapped inside the basement, the film constrained to romp up the action due to Garcia’s physical limitations.

ML has a competent direction but it can’t conceal the plot holes of the script, especially a huge one towards the end. On a commercial level, the film may have fared better if catered as a home invasion or domestic thriller with subtle hints of political commentary. But you can’t really blame Mique’s preference for a direct, vindictive approach when he has been steely-eyed of his mission from the very start. This film aims to persuade millenials who are not “woke” or simply have forgotten. However, as a viewer, the most earned realization comes out when both sides of the spectrum are given equal weight and I came up with my own decision. Unfortunately, ML does not give you that liberty.

Directed by Benedict Mique
Cast: Eddie Garcia, Tony Labrusca, Lianne Valentin, Henz Villaraiz, Jojit Lorenzo, Rafa Siguion-Reyna, Chanel Latorre, Chrome Cosio, Richard Manabat, Maritess Joaquin, Kino Rementilla, Jindric Macapagal, Rein Adriano, Khalifa Floresta, Mila Talagtag
Run time: 90 minutes

3 out of 5 stars


MUSMOS NA SUMIBOL SA GUBAT NG DIGMA


‘Musmos Na Sumibol Sa Gubat Ng Digma’ Photo via Cinemalaya.

Set amidst an ongoing Marawi clan feud, Iar Lionel Arondaing’s Musmos Na Sumibol Sa Gubat Ng Digma (english title: Unless The Water Is Safer Than The Land), is a coming-of-age tale of a runaway Muslim girl Eshal (Junyka Sigrid Santarin) who is forced to take care of her infant brother Affan in the middle of a forest. She forges an unlikely alliance with a boy named Farhan (JM Salvado) but in doing so, she has to pretend being a boy to protect her identity. This is interspersed with a different timeline – a grandfather and a grandson discussing and walking around in the same forest. The connection of these two storylines should come full circle by the third act.

Two minutes into this film, I already know that Musmos is a strong contender for the Best in Cinematography award. The title of the film flashes on a sensational backdrop of a burning nipa hut and rice field. It goes on for a good amount of time, a prelude to the abundance of long-tracking shots that will be heavily used in the film. This should demand lots of patience. Unfortunately, it does not fully pay off. The film fails to connect on a personal level and that has something to do to with its indulgence for lush wide shots and lack of close-ups required to see the emotions from its characters. You’ll have to admire both kids for doing most of the heavy-lifting here though the choice to use Tagalog in dialogues makes them look less genuine.

Passages from Quran are sang throughout, encouraging the viewers to decipher how these phrases relate to the current situation. It puts you into a trance and the meaning simply gets lost. It’s a shame because Muslims, especially the marginalized groups, are not often given voices in the indie scene. This one bids well with its message of peace and acceptance but its full-on subtle approach fails to achieve profundity in the end. With a relatively thin material stretched into a full-length film, Musmos Na Sumibol Sa Gubat Ng Digma comes out as an exhibition of superb, dream-like cinematography ranging from ethereal to haunting. For the most part, that’s just it.

Written and directed by Iar Lionel Arondaing
Cast: Junyka Sigrid Santarin, JM Salvado, Star Orjaliza, Jun Salvado, Jr., Romerico Jangad, Darril Ampongan, Haide Movero
Runtime: 105 minutes

2.5 out of 5 stars


SHORTS A


Still shots from Shorts A. Photos via Cinemalaya.

Xeph Suarez’s Si Astri Maka Si Tambulah (Astri and Tambulah) is an affecting story of a man and transgender woman trying to overcome the prejudice of an oppressive Badjao tradition. The acting and direction of this short is serviceable enough to tell an otherwise great, heartbreaking story representative of the struggles of LGBT community. Rating: 3.5/5

Directed by Xeph Suarez, written by Cenon Obispo Palomares
Cast: Astri Tahari, Usman Agga, Taha Daranda, Tambulah Aspari, Lucky Mahari, Diane Alberto, Alexandria Abdullah
Run time: 18 minutes

The most bonkers in the shorts category, Carlo Francisco Manatad’s Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month makes fun of a miserable situation. A hardworking gas station employee, in her final shift at work, devises several methods to sell gasoline. Underneath the insanity that ensues, this short works as a socio-commentary on the plight and desperation of blue collar workers. Angeli Bayani stripping of vanity and getting along with whatever the script demands her to do is a delight to watch. Rating: 4/5

Written and directed by Carlo Francisco Manatad
Cast: Angeli Bayani, Ross Pesigan, Ogie Tiglao, Grace Naval
Run time: 13 minutes

Kani Villaflor’s Logro follows the life of Bruno, a marginalized little person. An evident sense of empathy is already established once you realize that the camera angle is placed from his point of view. It quickly sticks to a patronizing approach at the expense of making its character look dumb. The ending does not serve its intention well. Rating: 2.5/5

Directed by Kani Villaflor
Cast: Armand Castro, Richie Albadira, Maribel Tambis, Danny Sta. Maria
Run time: 15 minutes

Christian Candelaria’s Sa Saiyang Isla (In His Island) is probably the safest bet to surely touch your heart with its sincerity. An innocent, young boy dreams of becoming a mermaid to help a fishing community plagued by an oil spill. Apart from being a coming-of-age story, this short also explores the critical role of parents in the growth of their children. Prepare for some happy tears. Rating: 4.5/5

Written and directed by Christian Candelaria
Cast: Anzley Candelaria, Selina Boucher, Ronald Regala
Run time: 20 minutes

Glenn Barit, winner of last year’s shorts category with Aliens Ata, comes back with a new experimental concept in Nangungupahan (Who Rents There Now?). The short follows the lives of different people occupying the same apartment in different points in time, artistically placed side by side in jigsaw frames. It might take a while before you understand the film’s ending. Rating: 3.5/5

Written and directed by Glenn Barit
Cast: Erlinda Villalobos, Pauli Roa, Meann Espinosa, Joseph dela Cruz, JM Jamisola, Aldy Aguirre, Yvanne Cadiz, Voughnne Miguel Sonza, Paul Quiano, Nu Nunez, Eduardo Ngo, Snowflake
Run time: 12 minutes

READ MORE: Cinemalaya 2018 Festival Report Part 2

Diyos-Diyosan reveals timely look at Pinoy faith, politics

dIYOS-DIYOSAn is a socio-political/spiritual treatise that highlights the roots of the country’s current political struggles and economic hardships—the focus on money and power by its leaders.

The film seeks to open the eyes of Filipino millennials to the realities of what a true leader should be, and is expected to be a media catalyst for the large percentage of undecided voters.

Its timing is perfect as it opens shortly before the Philippine national elections. It is hoped that freedom-loving Filipinos draw inspiration from the film’s lessons and use this as a guiding principle in eventually choosing the rightful and deserving leaders who could change the country’s course for the better.

Directed by Christian film director Cesar Buendia, the movie stars top-caliber actor John Prats and veteran actress Princess Punzalan, with a stellar supporting cast that includes Kiko Estrada, Cheska Diaz, Lorenzo Mara, Vaness del Moral, Glaiza de Castro, Tirso Cruz III and many others.

dIYOS-DIYOSAn premieres on May 4, 2016 at all branches of SM Cinemas and Walter Mart Cinemas all over the Philippines.