For this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival, with the theme “Wings of Vision,” there are 10 full-length feature films for the main competition. Here is the first part of my Cinemalaya reviews, starting with three films: Iar Arondaing’s poetic “Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma”; Benedict Misque’s terrifying suspense-thriller “ML”; and Lui Ignacios drama-comedy “School Service.”
MUSMOS NA SUMIBOL SA GUBAT NG DIGMA
(Unless the Water is Safer than the Land)
The longest title in this year’s festival, Musmos takes us to Marawi, in the thick of a forest, to an unlikely friendship between a recently orphaned girl pretending to be a boy and a real boy.
Islamic prayer permeates and soberly narrates the events that transpire in Musmos. But mainly, we follow the young girl, Eshal (Junyka Sigrid Santarin), as she traverses the maze of mangrove trees and sun-flitered canopy of greens, caring for her baby bro Affan, while pretending to be a boy to escape her family’s enemies. When she meets a boy her age, Farhan (JM Salvado), Eshel must repress her feminine tendencies while coming to terms with her personal tragedies.
Eshel and Farhan don’t exactly feel like “friends.” They’re just two young Muslim kids forced to exist and survive alone in the woods, acutely aware of the Muslim culture of the age-old rido, or clan wars.
The photography will take your breath away. Most of the scenes are stunning for their ethereal quality; the exquisite play of light and shadow provides visceral imagery of the film’s metaphors.
But the movie, written and directed by Iar Lionel Benjamin Arondaing, is also excruciatingly boring, focusing more on visual spectacle more than anything else.
Moving at a glacial speed, Musmos is chiefly an exercise in cinematography. It is also too heavy on poetry and romanticizing nature and the human condition amongst the Islamic world that it takes away your sympathy towards the characters, and making you indifferent to their tragedies.
Most of the time, the camera is just parked, and a lot of scenes dedicated to digging through dirt, with dreamlike figures appearing, reappearing, plus gorgeous staged rituals featuring glowing flames in torches against the pitch-black sky.
The actors still speak in irritating theatrical sing-songy tone of voice, except for Salvado– his Farhan steals every scene with his expressive eyes and conversational dialogue.
A surreal work of art rather than a moving, rich examination of coming of age in the midst of rido, watch Musmos if you’re in the mood to feast your eyes and nothing more.
2 out of 5 stars
* * *
Benedict Mique’s ML is anti-Martial Law. To drive a point and settle once and for all that Martial Law can never compare to the atrocities that followed the Marcos regime, the viewers are educated through a very graphic suspense-thriller.
Tony Labrusca plays Carlo, a college student who is pro-Martial Law, which is very rare among young millennials. As he cockily defends Martial Law to his History professor, using generic, depthless arguments, you immediately predict the ending: This kid’s perception will radically change at the end of the movie.
So the professor, instead of engaging in a debate with Carlo, asks the entire class to interview someone who experienced Martial Law and report it in class after a long break.
Carlo then picks an old colonel in his village, played brilliantly by Eddie Garcia. But instead of a sit-down interview, Carlo gets tortured in the hands of a psycho with Alzheimer’s.
Mique is a master of thrill, horror and suspense. He deftly builds tension and queasy anticipation of severe pain and suffering. The colonel’s torture methods are terrifying and disturbing, that even with the very fake-looking blood and wounds, Misque expertly sets the mood for fear and nail-biting horror.
ML seems inspired by American slasher films. But while the horror of Wes Craven is chiefly for fun, ML gives an unsettling feeling. Misque’s violence is the dark, disturbing kind. Not at all for entertainment. But a very raw, defined education on torture methods, bordering on sick.
While the movie is very effective in creating trepidation and suspense, making Garcia one of the most evil and scary villains in recent local cinema, ML is definitely not the fun kind of thriller. There are humorous scenes, which admirably blends with the horror, but it’s mostly stressful and disturbing, oftentimes leaving an unpleasant aftertaste. Not recommended for the faint of heart.
3 out of 5 stars
* * *
Welcome to the world of the syndicates behind child beggars– how they operate, their modus, and how their lives unfold in a single day.
School Service, by Luisito Ignacio, takes us to the operations of a syndicate that kidnaps kids from provinces and gets them to work the streets of Manila. The syndicate, that lives inside a school service van, is run by Mama Rita (Ai-Ai delas Alas) and his brother Robert (Joel Lamangan).
The film’s technical quality is crude, with Ignacio using a distracting, amateurish zoom-in zoom-out style. However, the film is rich and immersive– a searing commentary on poverty. It portrays the stressful proliferation of child beggars and the sad state of our healthcare system.
Delas Alas is superb in her role, oftentimes hilarious. You can sense her depression, the anxiety of feeding the kidnapped kids and caring for her ailing father (a superior performance by Joe Gruta).
DeLas Alas is particularly funny when she starts begging, or conning, for money in the streets—the mask she puts on to get sympathy and the wrath and frustration that she is unable to hide as soon as she’s out of the pedestrian’s line of vision.
Lamangan delivers an equally first-rate performance as Rita’s gay brother torn between his young lover and his family.
Although the kids are convincing as street urchins, it’s the adults in this movie that shine. The family spats between Robert, Rita and their dad are realistic and filled with tension.
The central kid, Maya, is a natural, but delas Alas’ Rita is the real star of this moving drama. The emotional connection you experience with the syndicate will make you root for them despite their crimes and deceptions.
Morals and values blur in the complex and painful world of poverty illustrated in School Service.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
Cinemalaya runs from 4 to 12 Aug 2018 in CCP and in select Ayala Malls cinemas for a ticket price of P150. Senior and PWD discounts apply.