FROM missing knives to abandoned fetuses, poignant images characterize the films featured in Cinemalaya 2008. The competition, which has always been a fertile ground for new talents in Filipino independent filmmaking, is now on its fourth year.

Out of 194, entries were whittled down to 10, all of which were shown last July 11 to 20 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. This year, none of the ten finalists dropped out of the running, a probable indication of the quality of these films. In a Philippine Daily Inquirer report, competition director Laurice Guillen said, “even if the themes are similar, the treatment is not the same.” Jay and Huling Pasada, for example, talk about the consequences of media on society, but they develop differently.

Even before the film festival’s opening, organizers had been excited about this year’s batch. In a separate interview with the same publication, Robbie Tan, chair of the production and monitoring team, echoed the anticipation. “We took risks in choosing the 10 finalists. Some of these films are difficult to mount,” he said.

The festival’s Best Film award went to Jay by first-time writer-director Francis Xavier Pasion. The jury, composed of Chairman Max Tessier, actor Cesar Montano, film critic, writer and Varsitarian adviser Joselito Zulueta, and international independent film personalities Ansgar Vogt and Kim Ji-Seok unanimously chose the film because of Jay’s “sheer originality, energetic storytelling, mastery of digital technology in order to tell a story that is a trenchant commentary on the technology itself and its very revealing take on the media and its uses and abuses of the truth.”

The film, which also won the award for Best Editing is, according to Pasion, a commentary about his own field, the media. Jay Santiago, a gay TV producer, is making a documentary about a murder. The victim, Jay Mercado, is also gay and is the victim of a hate crime. As he collects material for his show, Santiago soon finds that he is wedged right in the middle of the other Jay’s family’s grief. Lead actor Baron Geisler bagged the Best Actor trophy for his performance as Jay Santiago. The rest of the cast includes Coco Martin as Mercado’s love interest, and Flor Salanga as Mercado’s mother, Nanay Luz.

What sets Jay apart from the other films in competition is its balance of an engaging storyline and clever storytelling. Dark humor permeates Jay’s best scenes, which include Nanay Luz’ reenactment of how she found her son Jay’s dead body, and the fateful encounter between the grieving mother and her son’s killer. Up to the last minutes, Pasion surprises his audience, maintaining that the only constant element in the film is surprise. However unexpected the turn of events become, it never goes overboard. There is no room for melodrama in Jay, only the surrealism of the truth.

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Brutus by Tara Illenberger is about the confused principles that rule adults, as seen through the eyes of two Mangyan children. The two, Adag (Tim Mabalot) and Payang (Rhea Medina) must smuggle wood from the mountains to the lowlands for illegal loggers. Brutus won the awards for Best Musical Score (by Joey Ayala) and Best Cinematography, which the movie shared with Paul Sta. Ana’s Huling Pasada. The movie won the Special Jury Award “for depicting culture collisions in the context of environmental exploitation,” and Yul Servo won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the children’s doctor friend Carlito.

Brutus is headed for the 35th Brussels International Independent Film Festival in November this year as one of only two entries from the Philippines. The film has some of the most stunning sequences in terms of photography — Illenberger rendered the sights of Mindoro exquisitely, with shots sweeping entire ranges or rivers. The script is not lacking, but veers close to being politically charged. It can be argued, though, that this is because the film is essentially about the power struggles between those who want power and those who wield it.

Michael Christian Cardoz’ Ranchero is about a soon-to-be ex-convict, Ricardo, who finds his parole in jeopardy as a kitchen knife goes missing during his last day in prison. The film, which was shot in a gritty and unpolished manner, provides an insightful look at prison life in the country. It stars Archie Adamos as Ricardo and Gary Lim as Ricardo’s best friend Miyong. Ranchero also received the award for Best Sound Recording.

The movie has a very intriguing premise, but it is very safe production-wise, with Cardoz opting for traditional, linear storytelling. This may be a liability, especially in heavy storylines like Ranchero’s. All told, though, the weighty subject may leave viewers thinking of what they have just watched.

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Onnah Valera’s My Fake American Accent is the only film that employed a full cast of stage actors. In an online interview with Philippine Entertainment Portal, writer-director Valera said of the movie, “I want to capture ang buhay na walang tulugan,” and thus, American Accent revolves around six call center agents and their nocturnal lives. During its run at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the movie always had a full house, underscoring how much the call center industry has become a part of the present culture. The movie, because of its young lead cast, has a decidedly youthful atmosphere. The soundtrack and the costumes are a reflection of today’s youth fashion and music choices — loud, unapologetic and vibrant. American Accent, though, has a predictable storyline, with blip-sized surprises here and there. Nothing monumental comes out of the movie, although it is entertaining enough, and might have a good chance of being shown in regular theaters.

Audiences will surely whet their hearts and appetites at Namets!, a romantic comedy that celebrates our love for food. Set in Negros Occidental, it stars Christian Vasquez as Jacko, a stubborn chef who owns an Italian restaurant called Pucinni. Trouble comes when another chef, Cassie, (played by Angel Jacob) tries to transform Puccini into an all-Negrese restaurant, much to Jacko’s chagrin. Apart from the main story are hilarious mini-plots which highlight the role of food in the lives of Filipinos. However, despite the hilarity of the movie, audiences might find its plot lacking in originality and even reminiscent of other mainstream romantic comedies.

This year’s audience choice award went to 100, directed by Chris Martinez. Ironically, the movie starts with the end: a woman learns of her terminal illness and, realizing that she has very little time to live, decides to create a list of 100 things she wants to do and tries to cross everything off before she expires.

While some may compare the film to “The Bucket List,” the only similarity is the age-old concept of the “list-of-things-to-do-before-I-die.” Other than that, the two are very different. Martinez manages to inject tongue-in-cheek humor alongside the grim reality of death, which leaves for a strange effect – audiences will be left in stitches in their seat, literally laughing at death. Much of the film’s comic relief comes from Best Supporting Actress Eugene Domingo, the protagonist’s partner-in-crime through the ordeal, as well as Tessie Tomas, who plays the doting mother.

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Joel Ruiz’s Baby Angelo deviates from the other films due to its “whodunit?” theme. It follows the investigation of Bong, the newest tenant of Genevieve Homes, as he tries to uncover the mystery behind a fetus found inside a trashcan near their home. However, despite the premise of the plot as an exciting detective story, Baby Angelo deviates midway and focuses more on the seemingly empty lives of the tenants: a life filled with broken dreams, false hopes and dreary existence. Unfortunately, this change in storyline may leave audiences confused more than ever at the end of Baby Angelo, not out of the depth in plot but rather due to the loose ends. Plot-wise, Baby Angelo pales in comparison to Arkeofilm’s previous Cinemalaya entries, and unfortunately, it doesn’t offer anything else.

Concerto by Paul Morales shows the life of a displaced Filipino family during the close of World War II and the friendship they have formed with the Japanese forces in a nearby camp, a fresh spin from the usual brutality-of-the-enemy theme in previous war-movie depictions. Music played a pivotal role in the movie as the binding force that kept the family together and somehow along the way, love and friendship flourishes between the two supposed enemies.

Cinemalaya is also the starting point for many aspiring short-film directors, as the competition also gave recognition to the best in this line of cinematography. This year’s top winner is Milo Tolentino’s Andong, which bagged both the “Best Screenplay” and “Best Film” awards. Andong is about a poor boy’s quest to buy the one thing that would bring him happiness: a colored television set. With a mix of quirky, fast-paced and comedic story-telling, it is not surprising why Andong became a shoe-in for these awards.

Mark Reyes was Best Director for his movie God Only Knows, which tackled the dilemma of a mother giving away her child due to poverty. The “Special Jury Citation” went to Angan-Angan, directed by Sheron Dayoc, for its socially significant role of showing the life of the Yakan culture in Mindanao, while the “Special Jury Prize” went to Anna Bigornia’s My Pet, for masterfully combining the elements of Asian traditional storytelling with modern styles via the use of animation. Emil Karlo A. Dela Cruz and Marian Leana T. Dela Cruz

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