#MMFF2016: Seklusyon – a Horror Flick That Makes You Think

Just when I thought it was too late to catch anymore #MMFF2016 films, the festival extends just a little, and there I am in the cinema with the first friend I could find. Our friends raved about Seklusyon on an out-of-town trip, and a girlfriend and I felt bad for not having watched it yet. And so, we did.

It’s a weird feeling to watch a horror flick during the Metro Manila Film Fest (MMFF) that’s not Shake, Rattle & Roll. That horror film series has been on for so long, it’s almost as old as I am. Almost.

In line with the new guidelines that set forth this year’s MMFF, it was only Seklusyon that made the cut for this year’s horror lineup. It sits pretty among romantic comedies and films far from what it is. Is it worth it? Well, let’s see.

Having watched a number of Shake, Rattle & Roll films myself, I was expecting to get myself scared like crazy with Seklusyon. It has been a long time since any horror film has actually been scary during the MMFF, and so I just assumed that Seklusyon would do the trick.

Don’t come into the cinema like I did that afternoon. My friend and I were holding each other, wondering how we’d get to sleep that night. I slept like a baby. Seklusyon was not scary at all. For my standards, at least. I’m pretty much devoid of feelings at this point.

It was not scary, so don’t come into the cinema expecting for a jump-scare extravaganza. That’s not going to happen. But, I assure you, Seklusyon will make you think.

It was a relatively short film, less than an hour and a half. Its story goes this way. Miguel (Ronnie Alonte) is a priest about to be ordained. Before he can be ordained though, he has to undergo seven days of seclusion (thus, the title) at a faraway retreat house with three other would-be priests. This is because it is believed that temptation is at its strongest right before a man enters priesthood.

On the flipside of things, there was a returning priest, Father Ricardo, (Neil Ryan Sese) who was sent to investigate the miracles being performed by the child healer, Anghela (Rhed Bustamante). She could cure any illness or injury, and thus has created quite a following for herself. The priest was skeptical of her, even more so when her parents died and she was left in the arms of a suspicious nun, Madre Cecilia (Phoebe Walker).

By some twist of fate, Anghela and Madre Cecilia ended up in the same retreat house Miguel and his fellow would-be priests were residing, and that was when chaos ensued. The dark pasts of each of these young men were slowly uncovered, and so was the truth about the child.

It was repeated all throughout the film that Anghela was God’s gift to us, but in reality, she was a false prophet. How she controlled the people around her with her allure and power was what was really mesmerizing about the film. We, like the players in the horror flick, are so easily controlled, it led me to question the state of our religion nowadays.

There are so many questions that Seklusyon left unanswered, and those may have been what ruined the film for me. I was so invested in the story of Madre Cecilia, but I only got to catch glimpses of it through Father Ricardo’s research.

I am so used to just laughing at horror films (even foreign ones) because that’s what they usually illicit from me. I expect the moments that attempt to shock me, and so I just laugh them off when they do arrive. I did not have those moments in Seklusyon, although I really yearned for them. Instead, I had questions.

Seklusyon is a good film. I will not go on to say that it’s great. It could have been, but it didn’t exert enough effort to get there. But, it is quite refreshing to see another kind of horror film in the Philippine arena. Horror films are often rooted in the things we fear, and the things we want. I love that Seklusyon made the conscious effort to delve into those things. Had it took enough time to fill in the holes it left open, it could’ve been great.

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I have nothing but props for its director, Erik Matti, who keeps on delivering hard-hitting films despite the overly commercial playing field recent Philippine cinema has been known for. Thus, I’m curious about Dan Villegas’ Ilawod, the next horror film being built up. It looks like the Philippine horror scene is growing and no longer merely relying on the shock and ‘takot’ factor that has kept it alive for years.

#MMFF2016: Vince & Kath & James, and the Romantic Comedy that Works

The Vince and Kath text-serye took the internet by storm earlier last year. I unwittingly went along with the ride. At first, I dismissed it as something so cliché it was unbelievable. But then again, I almost – almost! – read through the entire thing.

In this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, the only big budget film to make the list is Star Cinema’s adaptation of this viral text-serye, Vince & Kath & James (VKJ). After Saving Sally, it was next on my list of must-watch films for this year’s festival. And so, I made time for the flick this afternoon.

shes-dating-the-gangster-official-posterIt really has been a long while since mainstream Philippine cinema has focused on the nostalgic and heartbreaking era of adolescence. I’m pretty sure She’s Dating the Gangster (which also hailed from a story that went viral online) was the last good one, and youth wasn’t even really the focus of that.

Neither was it the focus in VKJ, but damn can you feel it.

Star Cinema is known for its inescapable formula. Throw two attractive leads together. Build up their chemistry. Shower them with family issues, conflict. Make them up. Almost all Star Cinema productions have those elements squished in them. VKJ is not different.

Vince (Joshua Garcia) is a hardworking engineering student with a penchant for writing. He’s been hopelessly in love with his classmate, Kath (Julia Barretto). But, as Filipino as he is, he has no guts to say it. Instead, he operates a blog called #DaVinciQuotes, and relentlessly text messages her until she agrees to meet up with him. The latter one of his tactics was complicated with the involvement of James (Ronnie Alonte), his cousin, and basically his adoptive brother, whose family took him in when his mother refused to care for him. James, the star basketball player of their university, became attracted to Kath. And so, he asked for his ever-reliable, and perennially indebted cousin for help. Woo her through messages until she agrees to meet up with him, and then he’ll take care of the rest.

We all know that Vince and Kath are going to end up together, and watching them get there was a nice ride to tag along to. Watching them as interns having fun and bickering truly will truly illicit the same comment a co-worker of theirs spurted out, “Ganyang-ganyan nagkatuluyan ang lolo at lola ko.” (That’s exactly how my grandparents ended up together.)

There’s a reason why there is a tried and tested formula for romantic comedies, emaxresdefaultspecially ones involving the younger generation. It’s because it works, and VKJ proves that. And I just love how VKJ paid homage to what’s possibly the greatest romantic comedy Star Cinema has churned out in its decades of existence, Olivia Lamasan’s Got 2 Believe starring Julia’s aunt Claudine Barretto, and the late, great Rico Yan. I love how that heartbreaking moment of when Lorenz (Rico Yan) sees Toni (Claudine Barretto) waltz inside the surprise he had waiting for her only to be eclipsed by Perry (Dominic Ochoa) was alluded to by Vince, Kath, and James in a similar fashion.

 

What I didn’t like about VKJ was the family issues that plagued its heroes. I just couldn’t believe the insanity of their situation. Vince was living with his aunt and her family because his mother’s new husband cannot accept him. It happens everyday, but I just didn’t find it real. I ultimately found, though, that these back stories are absolutely essential. Kath would not have truly softened up to Vince had she not witnessed the fiasco that was his mother rejecting him. Kath would never have opened up her eyes to how much Vince cared for her had she not ran away upon her father’s return.

It was a good film, and perhaps that’s the reason they had let it join the ranks of this year’s MMFF. It was honest, as how movies should be. I fell in love with Joshua Garcia in the few minutes that I watched him portray a character on the screen. He reminded me so much of John Lloyd Cruz, and how earnest his characters would always be.

Two out of eight down for this year’s MMFF, and I don’t know if I still have the chance to catch anymore of them. Again, VKJ would not win any awards (and I believe it didn’t?), but it was a good watch. It made you feel good without killing your brain cells. It made you remember what it was like to be young and to feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, but still ultimately be very infatuated with your crush as though everything will cease to end if they did not look your way.

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Perhaps this is the start for Star Cinema. Maybe they’re going back to these kinds of movies – honest, heartbreaking, real. I sure hope so.

#MMFF2016: Let’s Take a Chance on Saving Sally.

I haven’t made an effort to watch any of the entries to the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) lineup in the past few years. In between all the cash cows and the award baits, I just didn’t want to. I tried once with my dad, and I can’t even remember what that year was, nor what the film was about. This year – 2016! – there’s a different story.

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To say that this year’s MMFF lineup is controversial would be an understatement. Big companies and the masses they pull on a string made quite an uproar on the change of criteria the MTRCB used to screen the MMFF entries for this year. On the other hand, independent filmmakers and their supporters yelled out hooray.

I’m part of the latter group. I take the controversy this year’s festival brought as a good thing. Finally! Finally, we are moving forward.

The independent film scene has been booming over the years. And yet, mainstream Filipino cinema is still constrained to worn-out love stories and brainless comedies. For the first time in decades, there is a documentary in the festival’s lineup! I haven’t seen it, but I will when I have the time.

How I envy those who still treat these days as holiday vacation. I’m back to work (I never left!) and am left with only one alternative – sneak in a film before I have to go to the office.

Thank goodness for my close proximity to a local mall. I was able to catch the first showing of Saving Sally today. It’s on the top of my MMFF must-watch list, and I’m glad I took the time to see it.

My problem with the past MMFF’s was the entries they were showing were either cash cows with no plot, or immensely dark and serious films they snuck in just to say that the entire festival was not just a payday for the country’s already established media corporations. And Shake, Rattle & Roll. You can’t have an MMFF without a Shake, Rattle & Roll. I’ve lost count how many there have been.

I’m not going to bash on these films. They all have their merits, but they lack something that I believe all works of art should have. Heart.

Art is best when it tells a story. When it simply tells a story. There are no other agendas. They are not after the paycheck, nor the recognition. They just want to share something.

It was said that Saving Sally was made within the span of more than a decade. It had to be reshot, recast and redone over and over again, and I just have to say – all of their hard work was surely worth it.

From the very start, the film made audiences aware that it was a very typical love story unfolding in front of them. In this day and age, it is impossible to do away with stereotypes and clichés. Although I refuse to believe it, in one way or another, every story’s already been told. The only way to go about is to tell a story differently.

What I was reminded of when the animation began to blend in with the live action was the early days of Walt Disney when he put together cartoons and people. We weren’t exactly brought to a different world, but we were allowed to see the world differently.

Basically, Marty and Sally are the classic pair of best friends. They’re weird in their own ways, they have a secret language going between them, and Marty’s in love with Sally. Like most halves of a best-friend-in-love-with-his-or-her-best-friend pair, Marty’s too chicken to admit it. In Filipino, we call that word torpe.

And yet, he does everything for her. When she gets a boyfriend – just when he was about to admit his feelings for her! – he serves as their messenger to get past her ultra-strict parents. Again, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s maybe something we’ve even seen for ourselves. Admit it, we’ve all been there.

And that’s the thing. When we go through challenges and difficulties in life, it feels like such a grand spectacle to all of us, but what we go through are mostly mundane everyday tribulations. Remember that boy you liked in high school? Just one wrong word from him, and you felt like the whole world was ending.

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That was how Marty made us feel all throughout the film, and he did it so flawlessly with his illustrations and the animations the filmmakers supplied us with. I loved it.

Here I go with what I didn’t like about the film, though.

When Marty was drunk in N(D/Pr)ick’s car, he called him out for dancing with another girl at a club. Maybe it was just TJ Trinidad’s acting, but I really believed N(D/Pr)ick when he said he would never do that to Sally. I wanted it to go to that direction. I prayed to the heavens that they would eventually fall out because the age difference wasn’t working for them. But no, Marty’s interpretation of N(D/Pr)ick was accurate. He was a dick, and a prick.

Adding in Sally’s abusive parents added another layer to her character. However, they didn’t do much with her parents. Why were they abusive? They can’t just be abusive. There has to be a reason. For the purposes of this story, though, they were just abusive. Perhaps its something the filmmakers could no longer delve into with the timeframe that they had, but the deeper layer it added was a particularly thin one given that the abuse she suffers is not rooted in something realer than what it was.

I loved how Marty’s unwitting confession played out. They went to college. Lost touch. Found new people to be around, new people to love. It was so real. It felt so real, watching them live lives separate from one another’s. THAT’S HOW LIFE IS. I don’t even notice when people who used to mean so much to me pass by anymore. It’s not because they don’t mean anything to me anymore, it’s just that I have a different life now, and so do they. I simply passed them by, as life has passed and is passing all of us by.

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I’m not the biggest fan of when they got back together, but a film like this had to have a happy, satisfying ending. It was. The rocket? I loved that. I knew Sally wasn’t a damsel in distress! I’ll spare this post from my misgivings about the title. At the end of a day, it was a nice way to end their story.

It is the small things in life that makes it worthwhile. That smile from the woman you love? A heartwarming moment with your parents? These are priceless. In the same vein, it was the small things that really made this film. It was these as well that made me love it.

I would definitely love to go to Sandara Park one day. I loved that reference the filmmakers snuck in. I loved the almost faceless but very alive monsters that roamed the city along with Marty and Sally, though I do wish they had more purpose. (Only one character had a human and monster form. What is the distinction? Why was one security guard in human form? Why was everyone else cartoon monsters?)

I loved this film. It made me remember what it was like to be young and in love, to be hopeful. It made me feel all fuzzy inside.

Saving Sally will not win any major awards, but it’s got a special place in my heart, as well as the hearts of many other satisfied viewers just like me. I encourage everyone to give this – and all the other MMFF entries this year – a chance. Let’s make mainstream Filipino cinema great again. Let’s make it real, honest. Let’s make it touch lives for more than just a few laughs. Next up on my to-watch list, Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank 2: #ForeversNotEnough.

A Long Ride with Ramil: A Review on Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143

Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 is a story about an FX driver preparing to go back abroad after years of a forsaken search for his long lost love. Expect for this film to quite literally bring you along the ride with Ramil, as he traverses the streets of Metro Manila, from Taft Avenue, all the way to PhilCoa, for one last time.

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A commute, whether you’re the driver or the passenger, is more often than not grueling. A commute spent on the streets of Metro Manila, even more so. What makes these often draining trips more bearable is the soundtrack people listen to while on the road.

MNL 143’s soundtrack is nothing less than amazing. It showcases new Original Pilipino Music unlike the new releases we hear in the radios today. The film’s theme song, “Umpisa” by Jensen Gomez, for example, brings back a melody reminiscent of OPM during the early 2000’s. It is soothing to the ears, it is lyrically beautiful, and it practically told the plea of the main character through its music. All of the songs, in their own little ways, contributed more to the storyline of the film, and what would normally be an insufferable almost-two-hour-long car ride became tolerable, and perhaps even pleasant, because of them.

Car rides can be a lot of things. In wide open roads, it can be an adventure. In the midst of heavy traffic, it can be suffocating. You are trapped within the confines of a vehicle, at the mercy of whoever is in front of you. Being that the setting of MNL 143 is Metro Manila, which never opens up its roads even on a good day, the film as a ride, unfortunately, fell into the latter category.

In MNL 143, the audience is at the mercy of the screen. The cinematography at its core is meant to impart the feeling of a passenger on the FX being driven by Ramil. That, indeed it did, and it made the film stuffy and dragging. As commuters are gifted with, the audience is also given a few glimpses of the world outside. However, most of the film still remained within the Ramil’s vehicle itself, as seen through a fish-eye point-of-view that contributed little to the progression of his story.

Some scenes contributed more to the feeling of tediousness that an FX ride exudes, rather than to the story of Ramil that, like the film itself, takes quite the amount of time to unravel. These include the subplots featuring Ramil’s passengers, the various scenes used to establish the setting, and the more or less three-minute long scene of Ramil merely crying to a song on the radio as its lyrics tell the audience what the film could have shown.

MNL 143 definitely had its moments. Some made the crowd burst in laughter. Others garnered collective oohs and ahhs. But again, the film’s supposed focus is the love story of Ramil and his long lost love, Mila. This was only presented towards the end. Because of how long the film took for it to reach that point, it was hard to appreciate their long-awaited reunion. The entire ride had already become tiresome at that point, and any sane passenger would rather just opt to focus on getting off of the vehicle.

The director Emerson Reyes admitted that the entirety of the film took a total of only two weeks to shoot and edit. He has to be given credit for having been able to create such a work with only that amount of time in his hand. Perhaps had he poured more time and effort into it, it would have been a better ride to hop on to. Nonetheless, it is an agreeable addition to the growing list of indie films being produced in the country. It breaks no walls. It did not even break past the door of the FX once Ramil got on. Yet, it was enjoyable.

If anyone would like to experience a commute in Metro Manila without all of the high degree of frustration that such would normally entail, but rather with a sweet story and a couple of laughs, MNL 143 will deliver.