Tough luck: Review of June’s Filipino Filmfest at Cinematheque Davao

Jul. 14, 2014

The Cinematheque Davao concluded June with a weeklong screening of Erik Matti’s On The Job, one of the best Filipino films to come out last year. The film also bookend the special screenings of 2013 Filipino films for the month, which kicked off with Jeffrey Jeturian’s Ekstra (The Bit Player), followed by John Paul Laxamana’s Babagwa (The Spider’s Lair) and Eduardo Roy’s Quick Change. The latter three films also competed in last year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival with only Roy’s film not getting a theatrical release outside Manila.

I came to see On The Job for the third time (saw it twice during its local release here) at the Cinematheque during its last day of screening, because, well, cinephilia demands so. More than noticing continuity errors, watching films more than once allows the viewer to gain a new insight, to look at it in a fresh or different perspective. (But given that our movie-going experience now is usually what constitutes a recreational activity, a workday break or plain family pastime, and dependent on the price of a ticket, including the movie’s popularity in terms of aggregated Rotten Tomatoes score, repeated viewings have become a luxury.)

What struck me the third time seeing OTJ is not that I didn’t notice Gerald Anderson’s web tattoo on his neck the first time, but how fittingly the four other films and the stories of its protagonists echo resonant themes and issues that transcend from the personal to societal.

The individuals in these contemporary stories portray the roles of victims and perpetrators, willing and unwilling, caught and trapped in an endless web of make-believe and deception, materialism and quick fixes, easy money and corruption, dashed hopes and dreams.

In Ekstra, Loida Malabanan, a certified dreamer, makes a living as television extra in Filipino telenovelas. Portrayed by Vilma Santos, the bit player may take the limelight in terms of story focus but it’s a very dimmed one. The first half of the film engages the uninitiated to the backstage world of the shoot where directors spew expletives as often as they command “action!” or “cut!” and relay orders down the TV production chain. Loida is positive but also probably naïve as she advices a young hopeful to be proud of the bit player’s marginal existence, “balang araw sisikat din tayo! (Someday we’ll land on major roles!), an empty musing that only serves to highlight the sad reality of one-in-a-million chances in a world that has evolved into one that favors the superficial and banal.

Loida finally inches closer to her own limelight when offered to replace a supporting role, which requires her to deliver lines beside her own “idol” played by Pilar Pilapil. But awed by this sudden turn of events and overwhelmed by her nerves, Loida botches her dialogue and receives the most hurtful tirade uttered during the entire film. With measly pay (from 1,000 to 3,000 pesos) and no benefits (even least prioritized during meals), Loida and his fellow “professional” bit players are pitted against the unforgiving mechanics of commercial TV networks, a system that sways to the push and pull of the ratings game. As I wrote in a previous review on the film, the bit players in Ekstra are within and among us, in the low rungs of the ladder toward fame, success and dreams that are shattered in an instant.

In Babagwa, easy money is maneuvered with greater risk via Facebook scamming. The modern-day con artists are Marny (Joey Paras) and Greg (Alex Medina) who swindle money from unsuspecting preys. From the start, the film establishes that Marny is the mastermind, with Greg as his “protégé”, the one who engages the prey in his lair, and a third person who appears briefly as the bank account holder where the hapless victims deposit their money. Laxamana playfully stages the scheme by bringing to life Greg’s online identity in the person of Bam Bonifacio (Kikko Matos), which blurs the line between reality and fiction.

The film struggles to justify the choice of “livelihood” of Marny and Greg – how few choices they have that they prefer to go the easy route – and it maybe the film’s weakest aspect.  Despite the probable eventuality of its conceit, the film interestingly places relationship politics in the realm of a technologically wired world – Marshal MacLuhan’s theory of a global village illustrated in a downward spiral of compromised morals. Through this imagined cyber-identity, the films points to our obsession towards appearances and suggests how our susceptibility towards instant gratification almost always guarantees our comeuppance.

In Quick Change, Dorina (Davao-born Mimi Juareza), a transgender, cruise through the nooks of urban Manila in this sordid version of temporarily fulfilled fantasies-turned-horror tales. In the film, instant rewards come in the form of cheap cosmetic procedures that Dorina performs illegally on her mostly transgender clients who frequent in gay beauty pageants (one guy client asked for penis enlargement). The film doesn’t make any grand moral judgments and there is an inherent humanity in Dorina’s character that is easily empathized with. She takes care of her nephew, who she brings to these “surgeries”, and struggles to keep her boyfriend Uno (Junjun Quintana) from ending up with another transgender (Dorina may also be saving up for a sex-change operation as the film suggests Uno to prefer this).

One wonders what lures the victims to this painful, risky business. Is it the promise of instant beauty, which remains little to be seen, or the illusion that sustains this promise? When one client hints on the psychological, it being a kind of addiction, the film almost gives away its aces. There is a certain kind of energy captured by the cinematography that is refreshing despite the unapologetic display of the squalid and freakish, faces and buttocks mercilessly punctured by syringes containing the wonder remedy, or faces in the early stages of deformation and unrecognizability. But as instant as the remedy that she provides, Dorina eventually falls into the dangerous nature of her job, as easy as the façades of beauty fade into decadence.

In the review I wrote on OTJ last year, I wished that more films like this would be made that hopefully would signal a kind of resurgence of diversity in mainstream films. There were still naysayers, even to those I recommended the film to, but more responded positively. It’s not an easy film to watch. Violence is a currency in the film, and those who may have overdosed on Star Cinema romcoms and “mistress dramas” may find it too much. But even though gunshots and blood is aplenty, the dominant rule of OTJ’s game is deception. The film’s plot unravels like a giant chessboard; it’s kings elaborately spinning a web of deceit where novice pawns are easy collaterals. The rules and politics are simple but the consequences are lethal and morally complex.

For new dogs in an old game, the characters of Piolo Pascual, a rising NBI operative, and Gerald Anderson, a novice gun-for-hire prisoner under the tutelage of Tatang (Joel Torre in a tour-de-force performance), the lessons of playing good and bad came in too late. Despite its many subplots, one also involving a downbeat policeman (Joey Marquez in a surprisingly comedic turn that’s also a highlight of the film), the filmmaking is clear-cut and unpretentious. Erik Matti does not solely rely on gunfire exchanges on building up the momentum. The effectiveness of its gimmickry is earned through a compelling story, sumptuous cinematography, editing and sound design fitting into coherent whole; one that honors and respect the action movie as a genre. (

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