Movie reviews: 2019 Cinemalaya films, part 1

Here are spoiler-free reviews of 'Edward,' 'Pandanggo sa Hukay,' 'John Denver Trending,' 'Tabon,' and 'Belle Douleur'

Oggs Cruz

Published: 12:37 PM August 12, 2019

Updated: 12:37 PM August 12, 2019

Edward review: Triumph in restraint

It isn’t its purview of society that is small. It is the vantage point it takes that keeps both its appreciation and reaction limited.

Thop Nazareno’s Edward is loyal to the limitations of being decidedly limited to see how its titular character sees the world, turning the crowded wards and the dingy hallways of a government-funded hospital into the venue of his bittersweet coming-of-age. The sparse but resounding glimpses of the ills and inequities of the world are all the film needs to prove that it exists within an alarming reality, knowing fully well that had it pushed a more blatant agenda, it would be to the detriment of the heartbreakingly tender tale of a boy in love with a girl in the unlikeliest of places.

The film knows that it doesn’t need to scream about the prevalence of injustice as reflected by the inadequacies of the country’s public health system. It only needs to tell the most human of stories existing alongside the wrongs and corruption.

Edward is a triumph in restraint, which is best depicted by the exquisitely subdued performance of Louise Abuel. He understands the value of levity in a film like Edward, that monotonous melancholy will only dampen its emotional heft, most especially in its very poignant final moments. In granting his character instances of joy and innocence amidst a surrounding that is defined by pain and creeping hopelessness, Abuel contributes to the enunciation of his character’s inevitable heartbreak, in bolstering the valor of the low-rent heist he and his friend commits to all for the sake of bestowing dignity to a loved one.

Simple as it seems and despite being garbed in the grime, aches and sicknesses, the film trumps the virtue of innocence, in finding indelible flashes of decency and respect even in confines made dank and destitute by a society that has forgotten to care.

Pandanggo sa Hukay review: Dirty dancing

Sheryl Rose Andes’ Pandanggo sa Hukay opens with a midwife (Iza Calzado) practicing for an upcoming interview for a job abroad. She takes a bath and proceeds to check the refrigerator for last night’s leftovers. She discovers that she has ran out of gas to heat her meal. She goes back to the bathroom and takes the hair blower so she can use it to heat her food. Absolutely nothing is going to stop her routine. She calls her kid, then takes a trike to work, where she spends the rest of the day assisting pregnant women giving birth or dilly-dallying with her co-employees. Everything is moving as planned until one night, she is snatched from the clinic by violent thugs who are in need of her skills.

Pandanggo sa Hukay graduates from banality to barbarity without warning, astounding its audience with a sudden change in tone without ever losing its grasp of deadpan and absurdist humor. 

In pushing for the narrative of her film, Andes reduces her characters as tools for an agenda, with her heroine shaping up to be a confused and confusing representative of female resilience or a singular objective to escape a country that has gone to the dogs. In fact, the thugs, despite displaying distinctly human needs and traits as depicted by their ultimate motivation for kidnapping the midwife, have become bereft of redemption, turning out to be recklessly simplified foils for a national problem rectified by the current administration without regard to human dignity.

Andes’ film forwards the same defeatist world view that has sparked the most drastic and unsavory of solutions. Pandanggo sa Hukay is just problematic, it is also dangerous.

John Denver Trending review: Meme streets

Arden Rod Condez’s John Denver Trending will most likely be beloved not just for its currency but also for its unsubtle messaging. In a world that has been drastically made smaller by social media, a film that puts at the center of its concerns the glaring dangers of the conveniences of virtual connections is not just pertinent, but also important.

Condez does not rely on relevance, as John Denver Trending is a profoundly layered film. It situates its story of the school boy amazingly played by Jansen Magpusao in the remotest of communities to pit physical disconnect with the haphazard judgments made from quick accusations, conjectures, alarming photos and sensational videos that are all uploaded online. The film works hard for verisimilitude.

It creates a living and breathing ecosystem where past and present collide, and tradition and technology merge, all in the service of not just exposing a society’s hypocrisy but also for tying such dangerous presumptuousness with all other vices that have existed long before the advent of the internet.

John Denver Trending is so successful in embracing a growing universe of problems that when it decided to end as a morality play that pins blame, its enormous efforts suddenly shrink. Sure, there is undeniable and immediate emotional heft in an ending that pits life with something as petty as an unsubstantiated theft. However, with an ending that is underwhelming, John Denver Trending loses its real luster – which is not its currency, but its willingness to explore with comprehensive and exacting detail the full picture of fragile innocence under the most unreasonable of doubts. 

Tabon review: Shallow but adventurous

Xian Lim’s Tabon centers on a family man (Christopher Roxas) who needs to go back to his home town after he is told that his father has been murdered. Accompanied by his wife (Ynna Asistio) and young daughter, he arrives in a town that he would rather forget. He is now being forced to discover things about his father that will affect both him and his family. It definitely isn’t a good film.

Its first half suffers from being needlessly morose, with Roxas and the rest of Lim’s cast mouthing their gaudily written lines without a tinge of life and energy. Lim opts for mood and atmosphere but the sluggish pacing only makes the scenes needlessly agonizing. Lim overdoes the mystery. He exaggerates the confusion. The result is a film that seems like it doesn’t know where it wants to go.

Thankfully, Tabon picks up by sheer outrageousness. Sure, it still doesn’t make sense by virtue of Lim’s inability to tie together a coherent narrative. However, Lim reveals himself to be a director that is admirably unfettered by expectations of good taste and deference to rules. What Tabon really lacks is a point to its madness. Its brash and often discordant aesthetics needs an agenda that is more than just twist endings and feckless violence. If all its chaos stood for something, then Tabon could have been the disruptor a festival like Cinemalaya that has been consistently churning out the same kind of movies for 15 years needs. Sadly, Lim’s film is shallow, although adventurous. 

Belle Douleur review: Failure to climax

Liz (Mylene Dizon) has just lost her mother and is now stuck in a house full of antiques her friends are forcing her to sell. She budges, which leads her to meet Josh (Kit Thompson), the owner of an antiques shop. Despite being several years younger than her, he becomes her boyfriend. Clearly, the charms of Joji Alonzo’s Belle Douleur center on its perky depiction of a romantic relationship that becomes the unlikely impetus for a woman’s path to happiness. Alonzo is careful to tell the story from a woman’s perspective, peppering the tale with hesitations, apprehensions, and insecurities that stem specifically from the female experience. 

The biggest problem of the film, however, is that it is far too clean, too attached to elegance that it forgets to depict pain, resulting in a failure to climax. Belle Douleur needs grit. It feels like a story that exists in isolation of everything else. At the very least, unrestrained lust to complete its portrait of a woman’s journey towards self-actualization. Sure, there is sex and an abundance of skin in display, but Alonzo tempers the depictions of Liz’s sexuality with gloss and glamour.

The film is far too tasteful, too busy with ornaments, design, and graceful melodies to allow its conflicts to truly matter. When the dilemmas do arise, they arise far too late. This is truly unfortunate because the film’s ending should have been more powerful and more affecting if Liz’s freedom is attached to a more realized ache and a more palpable heft of what she is to leave behind.  — Rappler.com

Francis Joseph Cruz litigates for a living and writes about cinema for fun. The first Filipino movie he saw in the theaters was Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass.

Since then, he's been on a mission to find better memories with Philippine cinema.