Navigating the truths of Philippine identity

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By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

THE FILIPINO short films in QCinema this year explore our country’s historical burdens with a strong sense of milieu. All are set in spaces that inform and shape culture, whether it be a lush provincial jungle, an urban jungle, or a recreation of a bygone era.

In these spaces, it’s suggested that Philippine identity is an elusive concept. None of the characters reach a solid conclusion — not the caveman with back problems looking for his passport, nor the recluse seeking solace in sexual escapades with online strangers, nor the young girl itching to learn the mysteries of her grandmother’s homeland.

Beyond celebrating what it means to be Filipino, these six films ask us to question it, to take a hard look at the complexity behind what makes us who we are.

LUZONENSIS OSTEOPOROSISThe shorts competition opens with a film directed by Glenn Barit (Cleaners, Aliens Ata) where the main character, played by Nicco Manalo in archaic caveman prosthetics yet dressed in contemporary garb, realizes he doesn’t have his passport. He and his father must retrace his steps prior to arriving at the airport to find it.

Drawing from the fossils of homo luzonensis discovered in Cagayan in 2007, Barit places the hunchback character as a symbol of the backbreaking struggles of the Filipino. Images and sounds of foreign influence and difficult yet fulfilling work abroad resonate with him and his father, a stark contrast to the horrors of staying home.

Hence, houses fly to the sky, like the birds and bats in the Tuguegarao landscape where the story is set. We follow our caveman and his steady quest towards flying off as well.

It’s a deeply emotional and creative look at the burden of departure, success, and escape from an incomprehensible political climate. Back pains persist as we struggle to evolve and also stay true to being Filipino (if such a thing is not yet extinct, that is).

Taking on a heavy load when your spine is in poor shape is never good, but Luzonensis Osteoporosis carries the weight of the world and succeeds.

NGATTA NADDAKI Y NUANG? (WHY DID THE CARABAO CROSS THE CARAYAN?)Similarly, Austin Tan’s film tackles migration and is also set in Tuguegarao, but this time it’s centered on the search for the carabao, which has not been seen for a long time.

Oyo, played by Bee Jay Furugannan, tries to look for a carabao through the lens of his old camera before he goes overseas. Instead, he only captures images of industrialized lands, old people forgotten in the exodus of new jobs, and flood-causing dams.

The latter ties with his personal history with the animal: it reminds him of his brother who had drowned in one of the floods. This adds to the story’s threads of memory and loss.

Though the film’s cohesiveness and impact can be improved, the visual depiction of Oyo’s rural town stands out, with large buildings and bridges rendering it unfamiliar.

In Ngatta Naddaki y Nuang?, we realize that there are many reasons the carabao has gone, and Tan offers us a glimpse into what more has been lost.

ANG PAGLILIGTAS SA DALAGANG BUKID (SAVING THE COUNTRY MAIDEN)Yet another earnest attempt to mourn what has been lost, Jaime Morados’ short Ang Pagliligtas sa Dalagang Bukid is the most straightforward of the film entries. It overflows with love and respect for Philippine cinema, much like its lead character Joaquin.

Played by Carlos Dala, Joaquin falls in love with a film he watches in the theater with his lover. When its existence is threatened by the movie theater falling victim to fire, he jumps in to save what is widely considered the first Filipino feature film Dalagang Bukid. (Dalagang Bukid is a lost film from 1919 directed by José Nepomuceno.)

Morados uses silent film elements in the visuals, production design, and minimal sound. Angelita, played by Therese Malvar, brings modern oomph to the period piece.

Though the film as a whole falls short in its ambitious goal and could do with more polishing, this homage to Nepomuceno’s work remains a clearly heartfelt “what if.”

BOLD EAGLEThose familiar with the work of Whammy Alcazaren (Never Tear Us Apart, Islands) will be excited (or not) to find that he’s made another intimate, provoking, and scandalous film. Even better is that it’s more coherent and focused due to the short film format.

Best film winner Bold Eagle is daring and uncomfortable, exposing the alienation behind impersonal online sex work. It centers on a nameless character that is insecure and uncertain about the world around him, thus finding comfort in his own little world.

This type of sensuality can only exist in the age of digital technology, where alters are the new porn stars. Here, concepts of political, familial, and sexual power intertwine.

It’s far from perfect, but an interesting psychosexual exercise: the search for happiness and release through sex is interspersed with images of fatherly, macho men and of the tropical paradise of Hawaii, set to the Marcos hymn “Bagong Lipunan” with altered lyrics. What else is there to say?

THE RIVER THAT NEVER ENDSOn the other end of the film language spectrum is JT Trinidad’s reflective meditation on life in a city where much is swept away and forgotten as bigger things arise. The two revelations in this film are the Pasig River, appearing magical yet melancholy, and Emerald Romero, who plays the transwoman lead Baby with powerful intimacy.

Set along a river threatened by the construction of an expressway, we follow Baby who balances taking care of her aging father and her job as a companion-for-hire. The film depicts her daily routine with a dreary, dreamy haze, akin to the contemplative works of Jia Zhangke, Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and locally, Dwein Baltazar.

Baby’s time with her clients in the shadow of a changing world plays out so well but leaves you wanting more, with Romero’s sincere performance paired well with the almost-fragile scenery of an unchanging river. The spaces her character frequents feel both empty yet full of life in a way that’s achingly true to Metro Manila.

the river that never ends is a tease, giving tasty morsels, not enough for a full meal, but it’s reverent of what it shows, even the daunting concrete that slowly encroaches.

MGA TIGRE NG INFANTAClosing out the lineup is Rocky Morilla’s folk horror film centered on Katrina, played by CJ Lubangco, who comes home to Infanta, Quezon, for her grandmother’s wake.

Set in a place where the construction of the Kaliwa Dam is set to displace indigenous peoples and disrupt the environment, the story starts off with political undertones. It then takes a magical realist turn when the grandmother’s body mysteriously goes missing.

A flaw with Mga Tigre ng Infanta is that it doesn’t flesh out the main character and her connection with the mysticism and lore tied to titular tigers in Infanta. But one can derive meaning from the motif, an animal which no longer exists in the Philippines.

Beautiful cinematography and an entrancing score pull the viewer in with Katrina as she navigates the strange nightly occurrences that parallel the ravaging of Infanta. A tense atmosphere allows for good build-up until the end finally leaves the audience stunned.

Like the other directors of this set of short films, Morilla doesn’t provide answers, but paints a vivid picture of what it is to face the truths of our local culture.

QCShorts 2022 is screening on VivaMax until Nov. 26.

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