As usual, the main event of Filipino indie cinema took place from July 26 to August 4 2013. The 9th Cinemalaya edition unfolded its cinematic charms at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), Ayala's Greenbelt 3, Trinoma and for the first time, at the Alabang Town Center. The impressive crowd, primarily students and film buffs, invaded the CCP every single day. Most of the shows were sold out and those who arrived late had to be turned away unfortunately.
This edition did not find the equivalents of Bwakaw and Diablo, winners from last edition and which had travelled well in the festival circuits. Nonetheless, a great number of interesting and good films could be found in the New Breed and the short films sections. The relative lack of quality new works was compensated with the tributes to three prominent Filipino directors, who all passed away in 2012: Marilou Diaz Abaya (the most important and gifted female director in the Philippines), Celso Ad Castillo (mostly known for his "fantastic" and sexy movies from the 1970s), and National Artist Eddie Romero, whose films reflected the Golden Era of Filipino Cinema until the 1990s. Their stylish works contrasted with the new Cinemalaya contenders.
The festival opened with the indie documentary co-produced with the German Workshop, Jazz in love, by female director Baby Ruth Villarama-Guttierez. The film is about the Internet encounter between a weird German man and a cute gay Filipino from Davao del Sur. The closing film was Joel Lamangan's Burgos, a committed film on Jonas Burgos, one of the many abducted "desaparecidos" in the Philippines, with Lorna Tolentino as his desperate mother trying to find him alive over the years. Admittedly, it was an interesting topic but the film ended looking more like a TV drama than a real cinematic film.
Hannah Espia’s Transit, an overlapping chronicle of Pinoy migrants in Israel, dominated the much-awaited New Breed competition. In the film, illegally settled pinoy children face eviction by Israeli laws even though they already go to local schools. Transit is a very humanistic and well-balanced film, however it certainly looks more European than Filipino in its context and style. Transit swept most of the awards, including Best Director, Best Film, Best Actress (Irma Adlawan), an Ensemble Cast award (redundant with the other actresses awards!), and also the Award from the Netpac Jury (composed of Dr Ngo Phuong Lan from Vietnam, Doy del Mundo and director Maryo J. de Los Reyes from the Philippines).
In the Directors' Showcase, Jerrold Tarog's Sana Dati (literal translation is “Wish It Were Like Before”), swept eight awards, including Best Film and Best Director. Set during a wedding ceremony, a bride disappears to meet her previous true love. Although well crafted and having an interesting premise, I do not think it deserved that many awards. The other real contender in the section was Jeffrey Jeturian's new film, Ekstra (Bit player), an enjoyable comedy, which paid a sympathetic homage to the shadow "bit players" (or extras) in TV soaps. The film was lifted by the emphatic character of Loida, which was nicely acted by super star Vilma Santos (now Governor of the Batangas province!). Ekstra grabbed the Special Jury prize, Best Actress (Vilma Santos, known as "Ate Vi"), Best Supporting Actress (Ruby Ruiz), and also the Netpac award for that section. The main Jury (Peque Gallaga, Carlitos Siguion Reyna, Ditsi Carolino from the Philippines, Maggie Lee from Hong Kong and Bastian Meiresonne from France) decided not to award the Best Actor prize this year.
As opposed to last year’s awards that were too scattered amongst the competing titles, awards this year were narrowly focused on fewer but deserving titles. This year's Directors' Showcase was reeking with sex: the "mini-scandal" Porno, latest film by prolific Adolfo B.Alix, was, as usual, visually seductive, but quite weak on the narrative. It was shown only at the CCP, as the film was banned from the Ayala venues for its bold context. Seen through the odd couple Diego and Amor (the wife, generously played by uber-sexy Althea Vega, the latest sex bomb of the Philippines!), Amor y Muerte (Love and Death), by Ces Evangelista was interesting as a period piece on Spanish colonisation and sexual "rebellion". However, other casting choices (the priest, too humorous) were not effective and the ambiguous ending weakened its political message. Gil Portes' Liars about the fake victory of a Tondo based young baseball team, was an interesting topic, alas marred by a flat and unstylish TV-like direction.
The real gems were found in the New Breed section: mainly in Quick Change by Eduardo Roy (director of Bahay Bata/ The Baby Factory), a gripping drama about how the lives of some transexuals turned nightmarish when they were injected with the wrong implants. Strongly directed and acted, Quick Change grabbed the Special Jury prize, Best Screenplay, and above all, Best "Actor", Mimi Juareza (a transgender), with all the ambiguities implied...
Other unawarded titles were Jason Paul Laxamana's Babagwa (The Spider's Lair), an intricate, dark and scary tale of not so rare web scams, which certainly deserved more awards than just Best Supporting Actor for Joey Paras, the "ugly" gay character. Rekorder by Mikhael Red (son of Raymond Red) is a dark story of a man (Ronnie Quizon, one of the many sons of comic actor Dolphy) who pirates films in deserted movie houses until a tragic incident on the street changes his destiny. It got the Best Production Design award. The Diplomat Hotel, by Christopher Ad Castillo (son of Celso Ad Castillo) is an aborted attempt of a horror story in yet another haunted hotel. It had a good location but the film was poorly directed.
Other noteworthy titles included Emanuel Palo's David F, an original story of the descendants of a Black American soldier, who joined the rebels during the American Filipino war of 1898. It had a strong dramatic direction but did not live up to its ambitions. Alvin Yapan's Debosyon (Devotion) is a semi-successful tale of a "supernatural love" in a magic forest, bathing in Catholic rituals. The finale was a beautifully shot scene of Fiesta of Penafrancia in Naga). Joseph Israel M.Laban's Nuwebe (Nueve/ Nine) is a rather grim but heavy handed (based on a true fact) story of a nine- year-old girl raped by her father. Last but not least, Carlo Obispo's Purok 7 is refreshing and one of the many truly charming films about children. Instant Mommy by Leo Abaya is an original funny comedy with Eugene Domingo cheating on her Japanese lover with a fake pregnancy. It was a pity these films did not take home any awards at all.
The ten short films were of rather good quality. The jury gave its preference to The Houseband's Wife by Pablo O'Hara, an undistinguished Internet chatting comedy, with little cinematic charm. Adi Bintuyan's Taya (Let's Play) and Jan Eric Tiglao's Onang were much better but in my opinion, the best ones were Aiess Athina Alonso's Kata Pusang Labok (Last strike) about some fishermen's lives in Cebu, and Para Kay Ama (For Grandmother) by Relyn Angtuan Tan, a beautifully mise en scène film set during a Chinese wake. Again, these noteworthy titles remained unawarded.
I have mixed feelings for this edition of Cinemalaya: films were of uneven quality; jury awards were not well distributed. I am glad the Audience awards were given to Ekstra (Directors’ Showcase), Transit (New Breed) and Taya (Shorts).
Whatever may happen, Cinemalaya remains the most important cinematic event in the Philippines and all other subsequent festivals are only variations on the format (whether it be Cinema One, Sineng Pambansa, and now Cine Filipino, in September). Let's just hope that Cinemalaya's budget will not be shrinking further, as it is the case for many festivals in the world. That would endanger its very existence.