Wednesday, November 23, 2016

2016 Cinema One Originals Film Festival

I saw nine films in this year's Cinema One Originals Film Festival, which ended yesterday. Seven of them are from the world cinema selection, which for me was the most exciting part of the fest.

The first one was this year's recipient of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, "Fire at Sea" by Gianfranco Rosi. It's a documentary on the European migrant crisis, focusing on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which has attracted refugees for its proximity to the African mainland. 

I'm not a particularly huge fan of documentaries, nor am I well-versed in their craft and language, the qualities and sensibilities that should make one good or bad. In "Fire at Sea," there's very little dialogue, and you wouldn't initially peg it for a docu from the way it was shot.

It follows two threads: one focusing on the refugees and another focusing on the lives of the islanders. The film attempts to weave the two stories together--the serene island life vis-à-vis the quiet horrors the refugees endure on a daily basis. I'm not quite certain the end product succeeds in reconciling the two, but I'm also pretty sure it would be less powerful if it did. To equate one with the other would be to simplify unutterable terror, and that would be nothing if not a disservice to those lives lost or ruined. 

The Palme d'Or winner in this year's Cannes Film Festival, "I, Daniel Blake" by Ken Loach, is a powerful and affecting portrait of the First World screwing its working class. It is also very timely in this age of Brexit, Duterte and Trump. 

From a Filipino perspective, of course, these characters don't really have much to complain about. They have the government providing them with unemployment benefits, housing, food stubs, etc. And really, none of this brouhaha, I think, would have happened if the protagonist had only kept his cool during his initial interview with the guys from the government.  

Still, you look at it from the point of view of those who have sweated and toiled their whole lives in a world that's supposed to be the land of promise and possibility, and you understand their anger and frustration. You realize that any point in this globe is the same dog-eat-dog world, and you stand a slim chance if those who are supposed to protect and uphold your rights are the ones out to covertly kill you.

I'm one of those who liked "Journey to the Shore" when it was shown in last year's festival, so I was surprisingly disappointed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa's latest film "Creepy." 

Let's put it this way: the first half builds up the creepiness, then the second half ruins it. It begins as a typical detective story. A family disappeared and a pseudo-retired officer is on the case. Enter the creepy neighbor. Soon, the anomalies pop up one by one, culminating in the neighbor's daughter's proclamation: "That man is not my father. He's a complete stranger." What a fun concept, right?

Well I don't understand what makes the second act creepy. There are a multitude of corpses, and then the characters start behaving erratically, even histrionically, and I don't really see where their respective behaviors are coming from. I suppose that's the creepy element in it, but I just don't buy it, meaning the whole thing didn't really work for me. 

Also, I think part of the creepiness relied on the gruesome killings, and that doesn't really work if you're used to seeing dead bodies on a daily basis. That's just me, of course. 

François Ozon's "Frantz" is a game of subverting expectations. There are heavy homosexual undertones in the beginning, until the story tells you, "Look, that's not it, this is what it's about, you've been fooled." It is a gorgeous (and gorgeously shot) film, relying on understatement to carry its emotions through, and stars a divine Paula Beer (who won the breakthrough performance award in Venice this year).

Something like this could work, I think, in a Philippine setting. In place of post-war French-German tensions, we can have Marcos loyalists and apologists. 

By now, any film by Asghar Farhadi should be an event, and "The Salesman" is no exception. Personally, I still think "A Separation" is his best work, but his latest is quite the experience as well. 

It's about an Iranian couple, both theater actors, whose house gets broken in, the repercussions of which echoes throughout the film. Once again, Farhadi grounds his story on seemingly small concepts of morality and plays with cultural norms. From there, he inflates his story, letting his scenes breathe and expand, until everything and everyone, including the viewer, is entangled in the conflict. 

There's never room for unshakable right or wrong in Farhadi's films. And the title? The couple is performing in a production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"--a plot point that may seem initially irrelevant but actually makes so much sense by the end.

I didn't like Xavier Dolan's "It's Only the End of the World," the Grand Prix winner in Cannes this year. It's based on a play, but the theatricality doesn't translate well onscreen. We get a lot of closeups (does Dolan think he is the next Tom Hooper?), as well as color saturation. The whole thing works like an alienating fever dream: You don't empathize with the characters, but feel annoyed by them. The whole film is irritating, actually, like it's desperately trying to stuff all conceivable emotions down the viewer's throat. At least I finished this one; I didn't last 15 minutes during "Laurence Anyways."

"Graduation" by Cristian Mungiu was the perfect film to watch after the Dolan. It is sober, tells its story in a straightforward manner, and doesn't rely on gimmickry to get its point across. It is a very powerful film in the sense that it completely draws you into its make-believe world: a small Romanian town that still bears the remains of communism, where everybody knows everybody and where success largely depends on whom, and not what, you know.  

I feel obliged to disclose that I have a soft spot for small-town stories, as I grew up in one, but I don't think that has any bearing on the capacity of this film to affect you. Its bigger point seems to be: Parents always want the best for their children, that much is clear, but what of their means to attain that "best"? Raising a child is no child's play, after all.

The ticket queue at Cinematheque Manila a good two hours before its last screening of "2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten."

I only saw two of the main competition films. "Lily" by Keith Deligero is about a woman who's purported to be an "aswang." It's not really her story, but that of the father of her child. Exiting the cinema, I got the impression that this was made by someone who was high. No kidding: The story, while pretty straightforward in itself (the revenge of the wronged woman, or something like that), is literally filmed with twists and turns. The plot doesn't care for a linear timeline, nor does the editing care for simplistic clarity. There are cuts, jarring edits, interspersed dialogue, and juxtaposed and repeated scenes. It's a maddening experience, and I guess that's what's beautiful--and refreshing--about it.

I do think Petersen Vargas' "2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten" is a deserving Best Picture winner (I don't have the same sentiment for last year's). The first thing that came to mind was actually "The Perks of Being a Wallflower": a loner befriended by two curious figures--in this case, Khalil Ramos (who deserved the Best Actor trophy way more than "Lily's" Rocky Salumbides) and the Snyder Brothers. 

Despite its flaws, the film works on so many levels. It draws on the power of nostalgia, on sadness and isolation, on that all-too-Filipino hope to go somewhere where the grass is greener. It tells a millennial story and really knows its way around that narrative. Then, what could have been just a coming-of-age/friendship-brotherhood story takes a turn toward darkness, and though you may not find it a convincing turn, you will be drawn into it all the same. The film sucks you in, and with its immense capacity to make you remember, you end up understanding--and not necessarily feeling for--these characters. 

A shoutout to the theater people in this movie: Peewee O'Hara as the English police, Joel Saracho as the sly gay teacher, Meann Espinosa as the slutty teacher.

There were also four other films in the world cinema section that I had already seen.

"Goodnight Mommy" by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is another case of misleading the audience. Once you get what it's really about, though, the party begins. 

"Ang Babaeng Humayo" by Lav Diaz might just be the saddest film this year (though I do prefer "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" over it). This has to be Diaz's most approachable work to date, but if you're worried this film scrimped on his genius, don't you fret.   

"Swiss Army Man" by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan is so absurd and builds up to a make-or-break sequence that you either buy or don't. 

Finally, "Elle" by Paul Verhoeven stars Isabelle Huppert--and this should be reason enough to make you want to see it. But Huppert is magnificent in this movie; she wins you over and makes you root for her all the way to the end. 

**Screenshots taken from various sites through Google Images.

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