FOR THE first time, a comedy won the grand prize in the the Cinemalaya Film Festival, the annual showcase of independent movies. Last Supper No. 3, a farce about what its filmmakers, Veronica Velasco and Jinky Laurel, claim is a true incident, an extended legal wrangling over a lost Last Supper print, beat more popular favorites, including Astig, a cinema-verite-style tale of Manila’s seamy underbelly which, during the awards night on July 26, had early on been winning the most awards, such as best director (Giuseppe Sampedro), best sound, and best supporting actor (Arnold Reyes). Some considered Last Supper’s triumph as an upset.

The movie tells the story of an assistant production designer, Wilson Nañawa (Joey Paras), who loses the Last Supper he has loaned for a TV commercial, and is sued by Gareth Pugeda (Jojit Lorenzo), the owner. The seemingly trivial incident results in a court case that lasts two years, during which the plaintiff has to interrupt his work and attend hearings, resulting in lost manhours and personal suffering. In short, the movie is a parable on the Philippines’ rotten justice system.

Unfortunately, the movie derives much of its humor from the fact that the chief character is gay; its slapstick scenes make fun of Nanawa’s limp-wristed and “swishy” personality. True, previous best picture winners—notably Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros in 2005 and Jay last year—have chief characters that are homosexual: but they are not comedies and despite their humorous asides that sometimes derive from their chief characters’ “gayness”, they provide a serious and reflective study on the person, morality and social reality.

Too mainstream for an indie

Astig, a gritty and perverse take on Manila as seen through the eyes of a philandering conman, a dedicated young father, a faithful son thirsting for revenge, and a country bumpkin—comes in the tradition of celebrated indie movies such as Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador and Jim Libiran’s Tribu, which won the Cinemalaya best picture in 2007. Sampedro does all of the obligatory accoutrements of an indie urban fiction—the handheld camera, the extended takes, the lingering focus on squalor and violence. All in all, it is an effective feat.

But one can’t help feeling that Astig is merely aping the tradition of indie films and is in fact, a mainstream movie, what with its cast of “bankable” actors such as Dennis Trillo, Edgar Allan Guzman, Sid Lucero, and Arnold Reyes, who’s effective in his small role as a half-Chinese from the province who fights for his inheritance against his greedy Chinese kin in the city. Some of these actors in fact are managed by television personality and talent agent Boy Abunda, who’s executive producer of the movie. Abunda’s presence should explain why the movie has commercial actors in its cast, some of whom, like Trillo, are too pretty for an indie movie about lower-depths characters.

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The runner-up best picture award, Special Jury Prize, was shared by Jon Steffan Ballesteros’ Colorum and Alvin Yapan’s Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe. In the former, Simon (Alfred Vargas) is a young cop who sidelines as a “colorum” (undocumented) FX driver. He accidentally hits a pedestrian, runs off, and takes with him the passenger and sole witness, Pedro (Lou Veloso), a 70-year-old ex-convict, in order to finish him off in Leyte and wash his hands clean of the crime. But during the road trip, they become friends and the cop learns of the ex-con’s humanity. Veloso’s honest performance earned him the best actor award.

Marital abuse turned magic realism

Panggagahasa kay Fe tells the story of Fe (Irma Adlawan), who suffers from marital abuse from her husband, Dante (Nonie Buencamino). When strange baskets of fruits start to appear in her doorstep, Fe thanks her husband who denies he’s behind the offering, and thereby suspects she has a lover. Coincidentally, Fe’ former suitor, Arturo (TJ Trinidad), has started to woo her back but she resists his advances. Gnawed by jealousy and suspicion, Dante beats Fe and rapes her.

An honest picture of domestic abuse and spousal abuse, Panggagahasa is gripping and harrowing. However, the movie’s magical-realist closing is too much of a surprise ending as to reduce the movie’s power in the end. To some extent, it’s a negation of Fe’s ordeal, and may indicate the filmmaker’s own incapacity to come to grips with reality.

Mike Sandejas, who helmed the 2006 best picture, Tulad ng Dati, a quasi-biographical rock movie, returns to rock land with the endearing Dinig Sana Kita, about a deaf dancer (Romalito Mallari) who falls in love with a rock musician (Zoe Sandejas). Focusing on the friendship and later, the romance that blossoms between two very opposite personalities whose common passion is music, the movie is notable for its musical score and well laid-out scenes. The Cinemalaya crowd gave it the Audience Prize while the National Council for Children’s Television gave it an award for its “child-friendly” qualities.

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Ana Agabin wins the audience over with visually stunning scenes of Ilocos Sur in 24k, which covers expectant father Manok (Julio Diaz) as he treks with his best friends up the mountains of Suyo in search of a Japanese treasure. But as the group gets nearer to their goal, strange things start to happen.

Agabin cooks up the story with a perfect blend of humor and suspense. Because of the movie’s landscape photography, Pao Orendain received the best cinematography award.

Sanglaan is a multi-plot movie by Milo Sogueco that breathes life to the mundane pawnshop. An interesting set of characters see their paths crossing in a pawnshop close to bankruptcy – a troubled businesswoman, a young timid girl, a security guard, a mysterious seaman, and a loan shark. The movie is noted for its lighthearted humor and restrained melodrama. As the pawnshop owner, Tessie Tomas delivers a career-defining performance and won the best supporting actress award. Meanwhile, Ina Feleo, as her timid adopted daughter who appraises pawned items, won best actress, her second in Cinemalaya after 2007’s Endo.

Crazy quilt

Vic Acedillo Jr. also has a smorgasbord of stories in Nerseri, but he fails to meld them into an integrated whole. The rather touching movie tells the story of Kokoy, a young boy given the responsibility of taking care of his older siblings who are suffering from addiction and psychological disorders. The narrative tries to approximate the psychological meanderings of its characters but leaves the audience confused and befuddled. Acedillo further oppresses his audience with the photographic technique of using blue and green in most of his shots as well as interspersing certain scenes with phallic symbols using still shots of plants. Beneath the palimpsest of images and echoes, a good movie may be found somewhere, but we left the theater quite daunted by all the fancy and stressful archeology. Perhaps because of the brashness of Acedillo’s artistic intention, his movie was given the best screenplay award.

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The biggest break

‘Confessional 2’

Jerrold Tarog, who directed Confessional, the best picture of the 2007 Cinemaone Originals, another independent film festival, joined the Cinemalaya this year with Mangatyanan. The movie is supposed to be sequel to Confessional, which has won several international awards, and is Part 2 of what Tarrog calls his “Camera Trilogy.” The movie chronicles the vanishing Labwanan tribe of Isabela and their strange ritual, the Mangatyanan, a ritual of rebirth. As in Confessional, the world is seen through the eyes of a man-behind-the-camera, in this case travel photographer Laya Marquez (Che Ramos), who wants to leave behind her incestuous past.

Tarog focuses on the dying indigenous culture of the Philippines, giving his audience a sort of “last look” at a native tribe, depicting how these people fight to maintain their cultural identity. Ramos delivers a dignified performance and the film has shades of the brash brilliance of Confessional. As in his first movie, Tarrog, who’s also a musician, provides a vital scoring to a very vital story. Also a camera man and editor, Tarog’s shots are also well-composed, in this case effectively depicting the natural beauty of Isabela province. The movie was given the best production design award (for Benjamin Padero).

Pepe Diokno’s Engkwentro tackles a controversial subject: alleged death squads that try to clean Davao City of violent street gangs, often with extreme means that match the violence of the gangs. The subject is meaty but Diokno chooses to concentrate on the fictional story of brothers Richard and Raymond (Felix Roco and Daniel Medrana), who end up as members of rival gangs and thereby are at each other’s throats. The Cain-Abel story somehow removes the focus on the death squads, which are suspected to have the blessing of the civilian, police and military authorities in Davao (suggested in the movie by the radio broadcast of the law-and-order mayor who proclaims, “’Pag kriminal ka, patay ka!”), and blunts the impact of the movie. The climax may underscore the violence of the death squads, but the depiction is black-and-white, it does not go into an honest sociology and study of why the death squads exist, and why people join them. With reports from Robin G. Padilla

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