‘Katorse Shorts’: The long and short of it

This may have come a tad bit too late since the last screening of Katorse Shorts finished a few hours ago. But thank god for Ramil Gulle! Not a lot of people pay attention to shorts (no, I am not going to start ranting about it again), and for someone to write a full review on all the shorts is more than we could ask for.

I met Ramil once since he’s the brother of an old colleague (Reggie Gulle, another filmmaker/editor), but I doubt he remembers me. So we are very grateful for this very generous and honest review. I do wish I could talk to him to answer his questions/complaints on Puwang, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. Films should be able to speak for themselves.

Again, thanks to all those who supported our short films!

‘Katorse Shorts’: The long and short of it

Watching “Katorse Shorts”, an omnibus of short films produced by the Katorse Writers’ Group, “a group of young writer-filmmakers who were part of Ricky Lee’s 14th Scriptwriting Workshop”—as they describe themselves—one realizes how many films would have been better had they been shorter.

The most successful shorts in this omnibus prove that you don’t need to take so much time putting your story across–and specifically I’m thinking about Richard Legaspi’s “Ambulansya”, one of the seven short films in the omnibus.

Too bad I learned about “Katorse Shorts” only last Friday. I watched it on Saturday and by the time you read this review, you’ll only have Tuesday, June 17, to catch this compendium of independent short films before Robinson Galleria’s Indie Sine pulls it out.

Still, the effort you’ll put in catching this collection of short films on its last day, as well as the P101 that you’ll pay for a ticket, will be more than worth it.

There are seven short films by six of these “writer-filmmakers” in the collection and it’s a pity that the Indie Sine theater wasn’t as packed as, say, any of the recent Hollywood or local blockbusters.

The best thing about short films like these is that they are freed of many of the usual considerations that are necessary for more commercial fare. As a result, you get a film viewing experience that actually stimulates the more important parts of your brain.

“When Love Begins” vs “Manyika”

In the Joey Reyes opus “When Love Begins” has a scene where Anne Curtis flashes a butt-cheek from out her bikini-bottom as she runs off to the beach in Boracay. Try to guess which part of your brain was buzzing when you saw that scene, huh?

And look at the pairing between Aga Muhlach and Anne Curtis: two impossibly gorgeous people in a seaside paradise setting, with both location and plot conspiring to have them either wear a) anatomy-revealing beachwear or b) fashionable outfits for an evening dinner.

As a potent piece of fantasy and visual allure, “When Love Begins” is luscious and lusty, slick and saccharine to the max. Now what was the story about, again? Oh, yeah, two people struggling toward long-term commitment.

Well, the short film “Manyika (Doll)” in “Katorse Shorts” has characters with the same problem. However, it is set in Luneta Park. The most striking thing about the lovers in “Manyika” is how ordinary they look. These aren’t movie romantic leads, obviously.

The characters, in fact, dress, act and look every bit as ordinary as actual Luneta couples. The guy struggles with commitment and has a weird habit of giving the girl a stuffed toy at the end of every date.

She gets nearly one stuffed toy a day, several a week, and her room is filled with them. He struggles to explain to her why he does it, and fails.

She struggles to commit herself to the relationship, but can’t stand the reality that they never go anywhere except Luneta, and she keeps getting stuffed toys from him. Worse, he could never bring himself to tell her “I love you.”

One night, he gives her the biggest stuffed toy ever–she’s so fed up that she throws it away. What happens next? Watch and find out.

Directed by John Wong, “Manyika” won Best Short Film at the 2006 Cinemadali Short Film Competition and was part of the official selection for the Gawad CCP para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Bidyo.

Sacrificial dogs

The short film “Ambulansya (Ambulance)” is 15 minutes and 22 seconds long–which is surprising to learn since the narrative is so strong and so seamless, it seems to be over in one breath and one is left stunned in the end by feelings of tragedy and wonder.

Alan Paule (as Nato the ambulance driver) seems perfect for the role. The premise upon which the entire story revolves is based on a superstitious belief among Filipino ambulance drivers–or at least, among the ambulance drivers in Nato’s circle.

One of these drivers mentions to Nato during a cigarette break this curious phenomenon: whenever he (Nato’s fellow driver) accidentally runs over a dog, cat or some other animal as he rushes to drive a dying patient to the hospital, the patient makes it alive to the emergency room.

This driver then makes the conclusion that the life of the unfortunate animal had been “sacrificed” and serves to literally give its life-force to the dying patient.

The short film nowhere indicates how prevalent this belief is among Filipino ambulance drivers, but Nato–who laughs at the notion initially–eventually gets to test the theory later on. And what a test it is–to tell you more would ruin your viewing of this gem so we’ll stop here.

Stressed-out sister

In Anna Isabelle Matutina’s “Puwang” (The Space Between), a family grapples with the impending death of their ailing father.

The eldest daughter, Arlene, is married with children but has to shoulder all the expenses and responsibilities of caring for ill parent.

The youngest sibling, Anne, is pregnant and was recently abandoned by the father of her child–who is a married man. While she and Arlene are watching over their father, Anne goes into labor. This naturally places more burdens upon Arlene.

To make things worse, the father keeps calling for his favorite son, Angelo. However, he and Angleo had a falling out and the latter has not shown up for the last five years.

Just when Arlene reaches the end of her rope from all the stress and passes out on the sofa on the hospital lobby, Angelo finally appears. He proceeds to his father’s room.

We’ll avoid giving spoilers about “Puwang” but will only say that it succeeds in painting a gripping, emotional portrait of a Filipino family in difficulty–many if not most Filipino families in the Philippines will surely be able to relate to the plight of Arlene et al. That the film nearly falls into melodrama at some point is forgivable.

The hues of the film are all in gray, the lighting is consistent all throughout–a technical achievement as well as a success in terms of mood and atmosphere.

The only complaint I will make is in the choice of showing certain scatological elements: Angelo wiping his father’s excrement off the floor of the hospital room; another scene where the camera focuses on Angelo cleaning up his father on the toilet.

My reaction as a member of the audience was perhaps natural–hey, this was shit up close on camera. Still, my question is: Was it was truly necessary for the camera to close-in on the excrement? It seemed overkill to me.

On the other hand, for a film that had been understated and restrained all throughout, maybe the scatological shots represented a kind of peak point in the film–when certain repressed, unspoken, and perhaps repellent elements, metaphorically and literally–needed to be loosed upon us.

After all, the father unleashes these elements in Angelo’s presence and he is left, literally, cleaning up after the shit (literal and metaphorical) between him and his dad.

There’s a brief but terrifying moment, right before Angelo approaches his father, when the son locks the door–shutting himself in with his father. One wonders, in a panic, whether Angelo has more sinister plans for his dad.

Is Angelo going to put his father out of his misery by suffocating him with a pillow? Is Angelo out for vengeance over the still unrevealed conflict with his father? Or is he after forgiveness and reconciliation?

The film’s ending is no surprise and is actually quite deflating–but then perhaps that just adds to making one’s sense of relief and loss more acute at the conclusion of “Puwang”.

“Dead Letter”

Things got boring for me in “Dead Letter”. I found “Dead Letter” to be much too talky and static in too many parts. I loved the opening shot, though, with images of pages from letters flipping, flappin and falling, the crisp, crackling sound of paper very audible, inspiring a nostalgic mood.

I just couldn’t relate to the main character, who is a writer struggling to finish a script in time for a competition’s deadline. The introspections the writer goes through–which we are made privy to thanks to voice-overs–seem unengaging to me now at my age.

Maybe when I was in college there was a point when such thoughts seemed profound or important, but now come off as rather juvenile.

There were good scenes though. Like when a character, Felipe, from the writer’s script comes to life and confront’s the latter. Felipe is angry and even threatens the writer, “Papatayin kita! (I will kill you!)”. As the film progresses, you hope the character makes good on his promise.

There are scenes and locations that would be nostalgic to anybody who spent his youth in Manila. The shots of the Central Post Office–which processes mail for the entire country–were very compeling. We see postal workers working with thousands upon thousands of snail mail–yes, snail mail still exists, folks, despite the Initernet. We wonder what those workers would do in case an anthrax-laced letter comes in.

Of course, we zoom into the Dead Letter Section, which is where the writer’s script ends up after he mails it. We don’t know how it ends up there since the writer paid the right postage–or was he just dreaming that he paid postage? Did he even write a forwarding address?

Towards the last third of the film we feel that our hold on the film’s reality has become tenuous and anything can happen: the writer after all has been seeing people who may not really be there, and time seems to have been moving in a loop, etc.

I thought that the whole idea of a Dead Letter Section was not exploited enough. I thought it that it would be central to the film because of the film’s title. I felt a missed opportunity there and thought of several ways in which the Dead Letter Section could have been better used in the story–but then I’m not the director; I was just there to watch the film.

One of the characters, the lady smoked fish vender who hands the writer two pesos in change to allow him to pay the right postage, tells the writer, encouragingly, something like, “Okay lang kahit hindi sila maniwala sa iyo (It’s okay even if they don’t believe you)” before he mails his entry to the competition.

I don’t know if that’s useful advice to a young artist, who needs tons of belief–from himself and from others–in order to practice his art amid all the uncertainties, doubts and discouragements inevitably faced by any young artist facing poverty, ignominy and possible insanity in a society that only values TV and movie stars.

I wondered how “It’s okay even if they don’t believe you” will keep the young artist from giving up and applying for a call center job, instead.

We can’t ask the smoked-fish vender anymore because she disappeared, as in–poof!–leaving only a smoked-fish smell in the air after giving those words to the writer.

I found Felipe to be the only solid character in the film, strangely enough–but then I could be biased since the actor who plays him is Filipino-Vietnamese Roel Hoang Manipon who happens to be a poet, playwright, ficitionist and journalist as well, and who happens to be a friend from way back in college.

The film’s lead character, the Young Writer, is practically a blank slate. We see him walking across Manila’s streets and underpasses, drumming his fingers on the underpass walls–something I found icky, being familiar with the kind of grime in Manila’s underpasses, surpassed only in ickiness by the grime all over the Pasay-Libertad areas–and we wonder, is he looking for inspiration? Or do young writers simply have too much time on their hands?

Our young writer, by the way, uses a manual typewriter to write–a device that was in use when most young people today were not born yet. And yet, the final script when we see it, doesn’t look like it was typed on a manual typewriter but printed from a computer printer.

The voice-over comes back at the end of the film as the writer tries to make his way home–we learn from the voice over that he’s walking home because he wants to save money for food.

The most poetic lines in the film are uttered by the disembodied narrator in the end (it’s supposed to be an internal monologue by the writer, a device that seems to have been used to make up for the impenetrable blankness one encounters in the lead character), lines that I don’t remember exactly–but I remember having liked very much.

The lines that were uttered, in Filipino, said something about November the 16th and hunger and… I don’t know anymore. It’s not that I didn’t like “Dead Letter”–I just don’t believe it. But then maybe that’s okay.

“Lababo” (Kitchen Sink)

The first few minutes spent watching “Lababo” gave me this one-word impression: propaganda. It seemed to rehash every bile-soaked sentiment and opinion against the United States that the filmmakers could possibly throw at us.

Now, like most Filipinos, I also hate America. I hate the United States as much as every Filipino out there, who has relatives in US, who uses the Internet (a US invention); who learned and later corrupted American English; who waits for remittances from OFWs (in US dollars), who watches US TV shows on cable (legally or illegally), who pays to watch Hollywood films, who knows Joyce Kilmer (that fraud) but not the great Cirilo Bautista; and who will probably go and migrate to the US the first chance he gets.

That said, I watched “Lababo” some more and found that it wasn’t simply propaganda: it was ranting and propaganda.

That said, I will say that the University of Makati Film Society did a good job, technically, in making this film. I didn’t like how they depended on voiced-over faux radio reports to move the “story” along–there wasn’t much of a story, just a pastiche of images–but I would be the first to tell them that my views about “Lababo” should not discourage them from making more films.

Those guys know how to handle the camera, know how to compose shots, to create pacing–I just disagreed with how they chose to present their anti-American message. With a better story on their hands and the moxie and creativity to go beyond set opinions (about the US or otherwise)–watch out! These guys have potential. The Umak FilmSoc should keep on making more films–and the University should suppport them in that.

“Lababo” has participated in various film festivals and has also won awards including the Grand Prize, Viva –PBO Digitales Short Film Competition 2007.

The film was also in competiton in festivals like the 19th Gawad CCP Para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Video; the 48th Bilbao Film Festival in Spain 2006; and the 8th International Panorama of Independent Film and Video in Greece.

It was also exhibited in the Jakarta Slingshortfest 2006 and the 8th Cinemanila International Film Festival 2006.

So, as a viewer, I may have missed something that these festival organizers and jurors saw–which is okay, as my Inner Smoked Fish Vender tells me.

“Walong Linggo” (Eight Sundays)

The way it was lit and shot, “Eight Sundays” seemed like an extended coffee commercial. More coffee house than art house, this short film is perhaps one of the most charming and endearing renditions of the Filipino male phenomenon of “ka-torpehan”.

In gist, it’s about this guy who spots a pretty young woman at a coffee shop. They see each other for eight consecutive Sundays as the guy tries to muster the courage to introduce himself to the young lady, with whom he is quite smitten.

Will he succeed before the eight Sundays are up? With generous close-ups of Jaymee Joaquin’s pretty face, you enjoy the ride.

Lead actor Joey Santos does a great job as a not really bad-looking guy who has to write his opening lines on paper napkins to figure out what to say to the girl of his dreams.

Each Sunday encounter between the torpe guy and the pretty girl is preceded by short love poems that are flashed on-screen–like dialogue flashed during the silent movie era–yes, there are no speaking lines audible in this contemporary silent film.

The poets who contributed their poetry include the venerable Benilda Santos and National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera.

This short film’s a charmer and, whether you have good or traumatic memories about young love, “Walong Linggo” is sure to linger on in your memory like a pleasant morning at the coffee shop, when all your worries seem to drift away like the steam from the espresso machine.

“Ang Kapalaran ni Virgin Mario” (The Fate of the Virgin Mario)

Mario wakes up in the apartment he shares with his lover Jose. Mario screams: Oh my God, I’m pregnant, how could this happen?!

Jose is jealous–is Mario sure the child is his? Jose convinces Mario to get an abortion.

This film by Ogi Sugatan really turns reality on its head with its minimalist, Pinoy absurdist approach.

What are we to make of this situation, where a gay man appears to have had a Not-So Immaculate Concepcion, in defiance of biology, physics and theology?

But then that’s what we all like about independent films, full-length or short: you walk out of the cinema with more than just the fading vapors of escapist fantasy; you may get insights about life, feel some genuine passion pierce your “deadma” disposition, or have an epiphany flash through your shopping-addled mind, or whatever it is that art is supposed to do to you.

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