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Movie Reviews: Ulan (2019) and Neomanila (2017)

Stephanie Mayo

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‘Ulan’ Review

Nadine Lustre and Carlo Aquino sizzle with chemistry in Irene Villamor’s fantasy-drama Ulan. Aquino, particularly, gives his most expressive performance to date and is convincingly enamored by Lustre’s character. But while love is a consistent theme in Ulan, the film is ultimately a meditation on loneliness.

Lustre plays Maya, a conservative hopeless romantic working for a low-paying publishing house as a writer of erotic stories. Never been in a relationship, Maya feels pressured to find a boyfriend, and her eternal singlehood is constantly reminded by everyone, including her sexist boss (Leo Martinez).

In order to understand Lustre’s tragic heroine, we are frequently sent back to her childhood as an orphaned young girl.

But true love seems to escape Maya. Whenever she feels a connection with a guy, the skies would rip apart and rain would fall. And it is oftentimes a foreshadowing of a heartbreak. Then one rainy — and particularly windy — day, at a time when Maya has finally given up on love (and crying), she meets Peter (Aquino). Will the heavens finally give Maya a break and bring her and Peter together?

This is the first time the Filipino audience will witness magical realism in local mainstream cinema. There’s a powerful fascination for rain and folklore here, for the whimsical and the supernatural. And all these are juxtaposed in Villamor’s trademark of sad love stories (she is known for her hits Sid & Aya and Meet Me in St. Gallen).

The film switches back and forth between Maya’s past and present. In order to understand Lustre’s tragic heroine, we are frequently sent back to her childhood as an orphaned young girl (played by Elia Ilano) raised by a superstitious grandmother (Perla Bautista) that feeds her stories of tikbalangs and true-love kisses in the rain.

As with recurring themes already seen in Hollywood, such as in I Kill Giants (2017), a troubled child who suffers pain or loss, like the young Maya, thrives in a world of fantasy in order to cope. And she brings these animistic, folkloric and magical ideas into adulthood. But the fantasy chiefly revolves around rain. Rain as a divine communicator. A punisher. A curse. And, of course, a glorious setting for melancholy tales.

Lustre is luminous in her role. Clad in feminine dresses that I wish belonged to my wardrobe, she has never been more beautiful as the lonely girl in love with the idea of love. Although Lustre is a skilled actress, Maya feels a little off. The problem lies with Villamor’s depiction of her protagonist. Maya is prim and proper in one minute, then loud and crass in the next, then sometimes confident and sassy. These don’t feel like masks, though, but could be blamed to a disjointed script, which sways between cheap comedy and fairy tale-fantasy as a conscious effort to please the crowd.

Martinez’s character as Maya’s boss is disturbing. While it is understandable that the office language is vulgar in Maya’s pornographic writing job, the boss can be accused of sexual harassment. In one very perverted scene, this authority figure comments on his employee’s body part. He says to Maya: “Magpalaki ka kasi ng boobs. Pati mga bakla ngayon may susu na (You really should get a boob job. Even homosexuals now have breasts).”

While Martinez’s character is clearly intended for humor, it may not be for everyone. And considering Maya’s character does not take offense of her boss’ inappropriate jokes, this film might give the impression to younger male audiences that such behavior is acceptable.

There are a few sequences that are crude and unbelievable as well: A car accident that could have been more realistic, a seminarian with a man bun and a laughable and unexpected scream of “Pilipinas!” — and one critical scene where Maya’s character shows a shocking lack of reaction.

Villamor, however, with the aid of cinematographer Neil Daza and a silky, evocative soundtrack, sure knows how to create mood. The film’s mise en scene is exquisite, immersing you in every sequence. Daza’s romantic lens captures the poetry of Maya’s personal journey as well as the enchanting world that Villamor created.

Overall, Villamor’s latest piece of loneliness and self-discovery will be more memorable for its visual delight and oddity. The magic realism is welcome, but the unpolished script sadly does not meet the atmospheric beauty of Ulan.

2.5 out of 5 stars

* * *

‘Neomanila’ Review

Mikhail Red of the highly acclaimed Birdshot returns with his stylized filmmaking in Neomanila, a coming-of-age and political tale in the midst of neo — or new — Manila, i.e., the era of “extrajudicial killings.” This film was originally screened in 2017’s QCinema Film Festival and is now on its commercial run.

Set in a dusky Metro Manila illuminated by red and neon lights, a young man, Toto (Timothy Castillo), has only one concern: to get his older brother out of the slammer. In the heat of gang threats, Toto finds himself recruited by Irma (Eula Valdez) and her partner Raul (Rocky Salumbides), who are hitmen for “Sarge.”

Mikhail Red sets the film in a dusky Metro Manila illuminated by red and neon lights.

As Toto follows Irma and Raul in their police-instigated killing spree, putting a bullet into drug users and pushers then covering them with a carton, the movie plays like the filmmakers’ visions of the behind-the-scenes of news items; the story behind the corpses piling in the streets of Manila. To put it bluntly, it’s Red’s anti-Duterte’s war on drugs statement in a neo-noir fashion.

Myko David’s cinematography is pretty and glossy, oftentimes stunning, like the atmospheric scene on the rooftop, after Irma and Toto’s pest-control job. The filmmaker’s trademark color, red, is everywhere, standing out in the nighttime metropolis: a fire-engine red shirt, Toto’s nosebleed and the plump woman in a seedy bar/porno hub and then there’s a character named Dugo.

Irma (Eula Valdez) and her partner Raul (Rocky Salumbides) are hitmen for a man named Sarge.

The major flaw of this movie is its very elementary and comical dialogue. With an underdeveloped script and broad, sweeping generalization on the EJK (extrajudicial killings) issue, the film does not evoke any sense of thrill, suspense or intellectual satisfaction.

Also, it’s unsettling how unnatural the lines are delivered — even by the normally competent Valdez. The actors deliver their lines with forced restraint, but fails to achieve that conversational and natural tone of voice that Red was clearly aiming for.

Similar to Birdshot, the film focuses more on style and cinematography, with Red even incorporating gratuitous sex — which is also disturbing because Toto and his girlfriend Gina look like minors.

Impatience creeps in mainly because the narrative is strained and flimsy despite the obvious attempt at making the characters feel raw and the story bold. Beneath the slick, lustrous lensing, Neomanila feels pretentious and juvenile.

1.5 out of 5 stars

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