A year after the first-decade milestone of the QCinema International Film Festival (QCIFF), it remains the main gateway of Manila audiences to world cinema and the point of convergence in the Philippines for international film artists and professionals.
The 11th edition, dubbed “Elevated,” which ran from 17-26 November 2023 in six venues, showcased ten impressive programs comprising 63 films and four parallel events. The non-screening events included a Project Market where 19 productions from the Philippines and Southeast Asia vied for grants, the launch of a book on Philippine independent cinema, a film industry conference, and the inaugural Young Film Critics Lab dedicated to emerging film journalists.
DIVERSE PROGRAMS WITH AN ASIAN CINEMA EMPHASIS
QCIFF’s diverse and well-curated programming featured some of the best in contemporary cinema from around the globe but strongly emphasized Asian cinema in the overall selection. The festival opened with Yorgos Lanthimos’s Venice Golden Lion prizewinning period dark comedy Poor Things. It closed in multiple sites with Anthony Chen’s Gen Z existential drama The Breaking Ice, the Singaporean entry for the year’s Oscars, set in the frozen border city between China and North Korea.
The Screen International program featured films by renowned directors whose works are screening in or have been awarded by distinguished film festivals, including Ali Ahmadzadeh, Radu Jude, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Aki Kaurismäki, Wim Wenders, Tran Anh Hung, Christian Petzold, Andrew Haigh, and Ena Sendijarević.
The Before Midnight and Special Screening programs presented works by We Jun Cho, Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, Junta Yamaguchi, Pascal Plante, Quentin Dupieux, Garth Davis, Gaspar Noé, Moshe Rosenthal, and Wei Shujun, while the Restored Classics section brought back to the big screen a Stanley Kubrick, two Wong Kar-wais, and a Bruce Lee.
Two of QCIFF’s distinctive programs are the New Horizons, which is composed of directorial debuts, and the LGBTQ+ section, RainbowQC. Films by Vuk Langulov -Klotz, Ira Sachs, François Ozon, Michał Englert and Małgorzata Szumowska, and a selection of shorts by Whammy Alcazaren and Pedro Almodóvar were shown in the latter, while the former showcased Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir’s City of Wind (Mongolia), Victor Iriarte’s Foremost by Night (Spain), Charlotte Regan’s Scrapper (UK), Delphine Girard’s Through the Night (Belgium), and Jeremias Nyangoen’s Women from Rote Island (Indonesia).
A HARVEST OF NEW PHILIPPINE FILMS
While QCinema boasts a diverse world cinema selection, it is consistently a platform alongside the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival for catching the year’s cutting-edge new works from the Philippines and the Philippine diaspora. Three works from different sections illustrate this well.
Emergent Manila-based filmmaker JT Trinidad’s short the river that never ends is a tender look at the life of a middle-aged transwoman struggling to survive with her aged father by the historic Pasig River in a decaying metropolis.
UK-based British -Filipino Paris Zarcilla’s Raging Grace is a knowingly postcolonial and teasingly allegorical thriller following the horrors faced by an undocumented Filipina immigrant and her daughter in the “haunted” house of a British “master” and his scheming heir. Filipino auteur Lav Diaz returns to the festival with his ongoing response to Duterte’s brutal regime and the Philippine National Police’s complicity in the ex-president’s genocidal “war on drugs” in Essential Truths of The Lake, about a police lieutenant’s obsessive Sisyphean investigation of a desaparecido artist-activist.
QCIFF has also consistently supported Philippine documentaries and short films by simultaneously including them in various programs without setting them apart, maintaining programs specifically for documentaries and shorts, organizing an annual competitive section, and providing grants for their production. In 2023, the support for the Philippine documentary was apparent when the three formally and thematically audacious QCDox selections were screened for free.
Joseph Mangat’s Divine Factory brings viewers to a factory on the outskirts of Manila. In this paradoxical space, members of the LGBTQ+ community lovingly produce religious figurines sold to devotees, many of whom shun them for a twisted understanding and outworking of their religion.
In Nowhere Near, film diarist Miko Revereza examines the formation of his unsettled, alienated self as a once-undocumented immigrant in the US and now itinerant artist through his visits to his native Pangasinan in the Philippines and the familial mythologies and imperial histories that entangle him with this homeplace and continue to influence his striving toward liberation.
Khavn’s National Anarchist: Lino Brocka is a punk tribute to the revered Philippine social realist director, deconstructing fearless Brocka’s themes, imagery, dramaturgy, and soundscapes by reworking the auteur’s surviving films into a seemingly anarchic but meticulously montaged collage film.
Meanwhile, the QCShorts competition premiered six films that received production grants from the festival. These new works by seasoned and debuting filmmakers explore queer issues or employ queering aesthetics, not only in terms of gender representation but also of social, historical, and ecological critique.
Myra Angeline Soriaso’s A Catholic School Girl is a lesbian coming-of-age story set in Iloilo in a brilliantly designed and photographed convent, by turns comforting as a home and claustrophobic as a cage, about a girl discovering the pang of desire and anguish in the same moment.
Apa Agbayani’s Abutan Man Tayo ng Houselights, on the other hand, penetrates the private world created by and between two aging will-they, won’t-they lovers, each other’s hard-to-kick bad habit, spending a drunken, pulsating, end-of-the-world-like rave night before attempting as the morning light rises to bid farewell and move on, yet again, perhaps finally.
Offering a daring juxtaposition is Lino Balmes’s Microplastics between the trauma of a boy whose yearning for closeness with his father is denied, leading to a series of unfulfilling and aggressive relationships as an adult, and plastic’s insidious and disastrous infiltration of nature, in time destroying everything it penetrates from the inside.
In the tragicomic unraveling of a rural couple’s marriage because of their excessive love for their pets, Aedrian Araojo’s Animal Lovers dissimulates the affliction developing from repressed queer desires when substituted by socially sanctioned but hollow and eventually antagonistic relationships.
The genesis of the Tamblot and Dagohoy revolts waged in Bohol against the Spanish empire is the subject of Roxlee’s characteristically vivacious and rough-hewn worlding, whose historiographic process, creative ritualism, and narrative logic follow no other rules but the artist’s, vividly setting Tamgohoy apart from the polished seriousness of the abovementioned works.
Finally, animator Che Tagyamon returns to QCIFF with Tumatawa, Umiiyak, packing an emotionally complex and broad-ranging social critique in an eight-minute film, combining the bright innocence evoked by doodles and cutouts, the ruing voice of a man grieving the passing of a beloved and the seasons fading in one’s memory, and the images of a decaying city, inhabited by indigents and migrants and neglected and, more recently, violated by state forces.
A PRODUCTIVE YEAR FOR SOUTHEAST ASIAN CINEMA
Besides heralding the arrival of new Philippine films, QCIFF offers a clear vision of the direction of cinema in Southeast Asia. On its 11th edition, the festival inaugurated QCSea, a new short film competition for emergent filmmakers from Southeast Asia, a fitting counterpart to both QCShorts and the Asian Next Wave. Out of over 300 submissions, ten eclectic short films competed in its first iteration.
These are Khozy Rizal’s Basri and Salma in a Never- Ending Comedy (Indonesia), a raunchy and irreverent comedy about social mores surrounding sex and child-bearing,; Toan Thanh Doan and Hoang- Phuc Nguyen-Le’s Buoyant (Vietnam), a queer and ebullient fabulist dance film; Sam Manacsa’s noir Cross My Heart and Hope To Die (Philippines), an exploration of the mundane obscurity of death for the rank-and-file; Bea Mariano’s anti-imperial photographic archival experiment, Dominion (Philippines); Stephen Lopez’s dystopian sci-fi cum political allegory, Hito (Philippines); Giselle Lin’s inward-looking personal documentary of trauma and healing, Look into the Mirror and Repeat Myself ( Singapore); Seth Andrew Blanca and Niño Maldecir’s tender comedy Kung nga-a Conscious ang mga Alien sang ila Skincare (Philippines), about the adversity faced by children reared by the LGBTQ+; Moe Myat May Zarchi’s The Altar (Myanmar), a Buddhist meditation about existence and political critique of her country’s oppressive military rule; and Kayla Abuda Galang’s Filipino- American slice-of-life dramedy When You Left Me On That Boulevard (Philippines), about the need to belong in a foreign land.
This year’s Southeast Asian cinema harvest put developments in Malaysian filmmaking in sharp relief, especially revealing considering the censorship its artists continue to face at home. Starting from an ordinary lunch break at a furniture store, Joon Goh’s Mop, from the QCSea Shorts competition, dramatizes power dynamics and the abuse of authority by occasioning for the viewer the virtual embodiment of force and vicarious experience of pain.
We Jun Cho’s Hungry Ghost Diner, from the Before Midnight section, is a joyous and endearing comedy celebrating the poignant aspects of Malaysian culture, including the centrality of food in relationships, running a family-owned restaurant, faith in resplendent ritual and the existence of the supernatural, and desire for familial reconciliation.
THE ASIAN NEXT WAVE
The Asian Next Wave, featuring eight full-length directorial debuts, also included two strong entries from Malaysia.
Tiger Stripes, which won the QCinema Pylon for Best Picture, is Amanda Nell Eu’s exuberant debut, exuding the verve and energy of new cinema, unflinchingly mixing body horror with kampung folklore, and critiquing the patriarchal regimentation of religion to control women’s bodies and identity formation, even from the onset of their puberty.
Another Malaysian triumph, Jin Ong’s Abang Adik, hews closer to the popular episodic melodrama familiar across the region. Still, it breathes new life into the form and, even through its suspenseful and action sequences, unapologetically depicts men weeping and openly invites us to weep with and for them as the film reveals the plight of stateless refugees, who must choose their own family and look after each other in a society where nobody seems to care for them.
The following complete the films from the Asian Next Wave. Thien An Pham’s Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell (Vietnam) and Nicole Midori Woodford’s Last Shadow at First Light (Singapore) contemplate how death and loss span the gaps between worlds and otherworlds.
Yellow Cocoon is a stunningly photographed, enigmatic road film in the vein of Asian works roughly categorized as “slow films” that dreamily follows the wandering of the bereaved in search for faith from the dense pleasure dens of city alleyways to the open and breathing landscapes of remote provinces.
Last Shadow is likewise a dreamy road movie, accompanying a young woman’s journey to find her mother, from Singapore to Japan, then from bustling Tokyo to the eerily quiet places in the Tōhoku region devastated by the tsunami, and from denial to acceptance. Like Yellow Cocoon, Last Shadow embraces the apparitions from the spirit world that break through the ordinary to imbue humanity’s loneliness in the material world with transcendent meaning.
Patiparn Boontarig’s Solids by The Seashore (Thailand) and Jopy Arnaldo’s Gitling (Philippines) are about crossing cultural borders and, in the process, finding solace in the company of the stranger.
Solids tells of a Bangkokian artist spending time in a southern Thai city to research and produce art concerning the seawalls that have caused environmental havoc and who falls in love with a woman from the Muslim minority population who is already arranged to be married.
While Solids employs the metaphor of art production in critiquing culture and imagining ideal social orders, Gitling utilizes the subtitles and the processes of cultural and linguistic translation between a Japanese artist visiting a southern Philippine city to finish his film, and his translator, who speaks five languages, including an invented one, in dramatizing how human bonds are sealed. From an initial transactional relationship, the two develop an intimate friendship that provides a respite from each one’s worlds and allows them to inhabit a liminal space where they can rethink their lives.
The last two films are from East Asia. Love Is a Gun (Taiwan), the directorial debut of actor Lee Hong-chi, who also stars in and co-wrote the film, is about an ex-convict wanting a fresh start but who finds himself without opportunities, sucked back into the life of syndicate crime.
Finally, Kim Tae-yang’s deceptively simple and anti-romantic but symbolically layered and emotionally subtle Mimang (South Korea) is structured around the act and movement of walking and three chance meetings across a significant period of time. It was filmed over several years, faithfully documenting the physical changes in its lead actors’ demeanor and the capital city of Seoul. The film’s three corresponding episodes meditate on rare chances, what we do in response to them, and how our lives play out based on our choices.
THE YEAR’S NETPAC PRIZE
The NETPAC award at the QCIFF is uniquely considered the festival’s Jury Prize. Moreover, unlike in other festivals, the NETPAC jury is joined by the main jury for the Asian Next Wave in deciding the Jury Prize and vice-versa. In 2023, the jury was composed of the following: Patrick F. Campos (Philippines, NETPAC member), chairperson, Panagiotis Kotzathanasis (Greece, NETPAC member), Anita Lee (Canada), Mark Meily (Philippines), Quark Henares (Philippines)
We met on the 22nd of November and unanimously decided to award the NETPAC Jury Prize, the following night, on the 23rd of November, out of the eight entries, to Mimang “for its precisely structured screenplay and corresponding long-durational filming approach that capture the simultaneity and multiple perspectives of regret, nostalgia, yearning, and anticipation paralleling an ever-changing city.”
Written By Patrick F. Campos
PATRICK F. CAMPOS is a film scholar, programmer-curator, associate professor at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, and a leading scholar of Philippine and regional cinemas. Author of articles and books on media, art, and cinema, including The End of National Cinema and Scenes Reclaimed, he edits Pelikula: A Journal of Philippine Cinema and Moving Image, curates the annual Tingin Southeast Asian Film Festival in Manila, and co-organizes the biennial and itinerant Association for Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference. He has programmed, juried, or served on the selection committee for Singapore, Guanajuato, and QCinema International Film Festivals, Jogja Asian Film Festival, Asian Film Archive, Image Forum Tokyo, Minikino Bali, Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, SeaShorts Malaysia, and Cinema Rehiyon, among others. He is a member of both NETPAC and FIPRESCI.