Sunshine Family (Kim Tai-sik, 2019)

Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of what’s really important while chasing illusionary success, but you’ll remember soon enough if you hit a crisis. So it is for the members of the “Sunshine Family”, the Mapalads currently living overseas in Seoul where dad works for a travel company. The Mapalads are finally preparing to move back to Manila with a house already paid for, but when dad has an accident in his car it throws all of their plans into disarray. Yet in needing to come together to combat adversity, the family is in a sense repaired as they each come to appreciate each other for who they are while remembering that they have a collective responsibility. 

That “accident” occurs one Christmas while dad Don (Nonie Buencamino) is driving home after a work/leaving party. He’s had a little bit too much to drink and is distracted by a phone call from his boss when a woman suddenly jumps out into the road and collides with his car. Don is obviously upset, hugging the oversize snowman plushie he was travelling with for comfort as he stops to check on the woman who he is certain is either dead or at least in a very bad way. Frightened of getting into trouble he drives off and leaves her, calling his dependable wife Sonya (Shamaine Buencamino) for support. 

Sonya, understandably unamused, berates her husband for never having cared enough for his family. If only he hadn’t spent so much time drinking with colleagues, playing golf, and singing karaoke, he might not have got himself into this kind of mess. Sonya hijacks a passing forklift truck and shifts the damaged vehicle into their home through a window, planning to dismember it to hide the evidence of Don’s transgression so they can all go home together as planned. 

As in most family dramas, it’s Sonya who has a plan and is determined to ensure the survival of the family. Unlike the 1992 Japanese comedy Hit-and-Run Family which apparently inspired the film, the Mapalads are strangers in a strange land though they’ve also become estranged from each other while Sonya feels increasingly unappreciated seeing as her kids are growing up and her husband is always working. As Don later points out, the crisis gives her a new sense of purpose as she formulates a series of ingenious plans to cover up Don’s crime. “Nothing is important if we’re not together” she tells him. Family means leave no man behind. 

Don, meanwhile, is forced to confront a potential failure of paternity. It is indeed he who has endangered the integrity of his family through his carelessness, but he’ll also have to admit that he’s been neglecting his responsibilities in a mistaken belief that bringing home the bacon is all that’s required of a “good father”. He hasn’t noticed that his wife is lonely and unhappy, or that his children each have secrets of their own. His waking up to all of those facts is a gradual, not always positive process, but eventually leads him to realise that it’s time for him to be a “real” father which obviously means recommitting to his family. 

In perhaps a change from the norm, that’s also true for the kids who need to rediscover a sense of solidarity and acceptance in the family unit. Oldest and now grownup daughter Shine (Sue Ramirez) has been secretly dating a Korean policeman (Shinwoo), which presents a dilemma now that the family is set on moving back home. She’s worried her conservative father might not accept her new love, but the situation is of course further complicated by the ongoing crisis and his proximity to law enforcement. Meanwhile, little Max (Marco Masa) has been caught wearing lipstick at school. Sonya doesn’t understand why that’s a problem but the school seem to think it’s not appropriate and might cause offence to other pupils. Always keen to support her kids, Sonya puts on her Wonder Woman outfit to tell Max that it’s OK to be different, and in any case his family will always love him no matter what, while also doing her best to react to her daughter’s romantic crisis in a broadly supportive manner. 

In fact, the family also end up adding an additional member in the form of the old grandpa from next-door (Han Tae-il) who has mild dementia and keeps wandering off because his daughter-in-law (Park Se-jin) isn’t very invested in looking after him. Eventually, everyone is wearing overalls and helping to dismantle the car, a symbol of the empty consumerism which has divided them. Don, meanwhile, is torn about the best way to serve his family – do the “right” thing and turn himself in, or continue covering up his crime so they can all go home to the Philippines together. In predictable fashion, the crisis resolves itself with the help of benevolent law enforcement, while even the nosy neighbour from next-door seems like she might have learned some lessons about familial bonding or at least be about to move past a crisis of her own. Thanks to their brush with crime, the Mapalads have rediscovered the meaning of family and can finally go “home” at last. 


Sunshine Family was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Metamorphosis (Jose Enrique Tiglao, 2019)

“Everyone has a secret, but not all secrets are bad” according to Angel (Iana Bernardez), a sex worker and 24-year-old returnee to high school who befriends the lonely Adam (Gold Azeron) as he contends with an adolescence more challenging than most. Exploring the often underrepresented theme of intersexuality, Jose Enrique Tiglao’s Metamorphosis follows its conflicted hero as he struggles to come to an acceptance of who he is and wants to be while faced with the sometimes old fashioned, conservative attitudes of those around him. 

14-year-old Adam is already something of an outcast at school, often getting into fights with one particular boy who who keeps making a point of throwing homophobic slurs at him during class which go completely unchallenged either by the teacher or fellow pupils. Adam gives as good as he gets, but remains very much on the margins, until that is a beautiful young woman transfers into his class and ends up working with him on a class project because as usual no one else wanted to work with him. Somewhat strangely, Angel is 24 years old but in a regular high school class with a bunch of 14 year olds, which is a definite incongruity, but quickly becomes friends with Adam who offers to show her some of the local sites including a picturesque swimming hole. It’s during their outing that Adam discovers a change in his physique – he has begun to menstruate.

Adam and his family have always known that he was intersex though he has been raised as a boy which, for the moment, is what he most closely identifies as. The fact that he has started to menstruate forces him to engage on a deeper level with a sense of identity, struggling to accept the intrusion of this new and definitely female element of his physical body while also embracing his nascent sexuality. It’s Angel, making a somewhat age inappropriate attempt at seduction, who becomes Adam’s first ally, affirming that there isn’t anything wrong with him and suggesting that he reframe his perspective and think of himself as someone who is both rather than neither. 

That’s easier said than done, however, seeing as Adam comes from a conservative home with a father who is a pastor giving sermons about how God created male and female in his own image. Obviously concerned for their son’s health, Adam’s parents consult their family doctor who directs them to a specialist in Manila. Dr. Abraham (Ivan Padilla) is sympathetic, but also perhaps too definitive in immediately trying to offer reassurance with “we can fix this” as if Adam is in someway broken and in need of repair. That idea continues to present a problem when it is discovered that he has a functioning womb and vagina, leading the doctor and Adam’s father to conclude that he is more female than male and should therefore have his maleness removed. Nobody really tries to talk to Adam about this. Dr. Abraham tells him that he needs to be “ready” and also that he has to want this himself, but doesn’t make much of an effort to listen to him, telling him only that “the things that are not needed we will remove”. 

Adam’s father immediately starts referring to him as his daughter and makes arrangements for the surgery without explaining to Adam what exactly will be happening to him. He also suggests selling their mango farm and moving to another town where no one will know them as if Adam is some kind of dirty secret. Meanwhile Adam has begun to explore his sexuality, attracted both to the handsome Dr. Abraham, and the supportive Angel, uncertain if he should be feeling any contradiction between the two. People seem to be telling him that he needs to conform to being only one thing, negating both his own ability to choose and the right not to. Only the family doctor points out that many families in other countries have regretted forcing premature confirmation surgeries on children who later came to resent them, and that whatever happens should be up to Adam to decide, forcing a reconsideration on the part of Adam’s mother who realises her husband has been keeping valuable information from her regarding her son’s health. 

Ultimately, however, Metamorphosis offers a strong message of acceptance as Adam begins to embrace himself as he is rather than conform to a false binary gender identity.  “I only want one thing” he tells Dr. Abraham, “to be happy”. Adam gains the courage to be completely himself, emphasising that intersex identities are not broken or corrupted but beautiful in themselves, while making it plain that if others cannot learn to step outside of socially conservative norms of gender and sexuality then it is they who need to change.


Metamorphosis was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Write About Love (Crisanto Aquino, 2019)

Write what you know, the old adage goes, but can you really write about love if you’ve never been in it? The debut feature from Crisanto Aquino, Write About Love concerns itself not only with romance but with love in a wider sense as mediated through the act of creativity. Two writers are forced into an awkward collaboration working in some senses at cross purposes but eventually find common ground as their shared endeavour pushes them towards acts of self interrogation as they attempt to write a sincere romance with an ending that satisfies all. 

Credited only as “female writer” (Miles Ocampo), a young woman obsessed with rom-coms successfully pitches one of her own titled “Just Us” to a major studio. Though they like her ideas, the suits call her back in a few days later and express concern that her scenario is too similar to an upcoming movie from a rival studio. Rather than a traditional meet-cute rom-com, they want her to focus on what came next, not the story of how they got together but a serious relationship drama about all the boring bits of being in love. To help her out, they’ve decided to team her up with an experienced “indie” screenwriter (Rocco Nacino), and have given the pair one month to thrash out a first draft. 

Of course, things get off to a bumpy start. She’s very “mainstream”, He’s quite cynical, which might make for an interesting dynamic if they weren’t constantly clashing on a personal level. He pushes his experience, She pushes her earnestness. Still, they begin to become closer writing the story of Joyce (Yeng Constantino) and Marco (Joem Bascon), an aspiring musician and a company man who meet and fall in love but find that life gets in the way of their grand romance. The pair decide to structure their drama around various anniversaries – 100 days, 200 days, a year etc, during which Joyce and Marco grow apart, discover that they have different priorities, and eventually break up after an intense argument that lays bare Marco’s insecurity and ongoing abandonment issues which lead him to put his foot down over Joyce’s career ambitions in Korea. 

Meanwhile, the real lives of the writers begin to influence the drama as they hover on the sidelines observing their fictional romantics and plotting out where they might go next. Despite their intention not to write a “mainstream” romance, they are perfectly happy to play with standard melodrama plot devices like job offers from overseas and terminal illnesses as they try to tell the story of Joyce and Marco, but, it seems, those “plot devices” also come from their lives. He had a longterm relationship end because his lover went abroad and met someone else, while she is romantically naive and still hung up on the failure of her parents’ relationship. In fact, her parents’ meet cute inspired the one in Just Us though she hoped to rewrite their story with a happier ending where her dad didn’t eventually leave them to go back to an old girlfriend. 

He asks her if she’s never been in love because she’s afraid of getting hurt, She tells him she’s just not interested, but is eventually forced to deal with her sense of insecurity through accepting the fact that her family is never getting back together. He actually doesn’t tell her much of anything, but is later forced to accept that love is a choice he may have failed to make. We expect that the writers will eventually fall in love while writing the saga of Joyce and Marco, but first they have to discover a few things about themselves, about love, and about suffering. Questioning her mother, She finds out that love is great motivator, prompting you to make decisions good and bad, while He realises that just as in real life you can’t manipulate your characters to force them to do what you want because feelings must be earned to be sincere. Love and pain are inextricable, but love is also an energy which cannot be created or destroyed and endures even after death, according to Her, coming to the conclusion that you need two for a love story and creation is a collaborative effort. Maybe you can’t write yourself out of heartbreak, or give yourself a better ending than life saw fit to give you, but if you’re going to write about love you have to be honest and honest is never easy. 


 Write About Love was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

LSS (Last Song Syndrome) (Jade Castro, 2019)

“This is Love!” exclaims the heroine somewhat excitedly, though her romantic declaration turns out to be a tongue in cheek reference to the PJ Harvey song rather than a heartfelt confession. LSS (Last Song Syndrome) finds its lovelorn millennials chasing their romantic dreams but seemingly stuck in a relatable loop of heartbreaks and disappointments. They meet and then part only to brush past each other sometimes knowingly sometimes not, but somehow give each other strength as they battle the sense that their dreams are not destined to come true, yet love is less a goal in its own right than the freedom it offers to be all of who you are.

Sarah (Gabbi Garcia), a struggling singer-songwriter working a host of part-time jobs to put her younger brother through college, meets Zack (Khalil Ramos), a graphic designer, on a bus after he nervously switches seats to avoid a man with an obvious cold. Unbeknownst to Zack, Sarah had already spotted him in the queue because he was singing along to a song she likes by up and coming indie band Ben&Ben. She strikes up a conversation about music and they have a good laugh that they’re called Zack and Sarah like the Ben Folds song, eventually sharing their anxieties as they bond over a shared taste in indie pop. Sarah reveals that she doesn’t really like Ben&Ben, or she does but feels conflicted because she took part in the same newcomers workshop they did and now they’re superstars and she’s struggling to get ahead, while Zack tells her that he’s on his way to see his “best friend” with whom he’s been secretly in love for the last five years and is hoping tonight might be the night. Even so, Zack is evidently smitten and a connection has been made, but they each get off the bus and head in different directions without swapping contact details, thinking it’s one of those crazy one time encounters. 

Meanwhile, we watch them both remain in sync battling twin heartbreaks as each of their dreams goes in for a series of batterings. Zack shows up at Cha’s (Iana Bernardez) apartment and discovers she’s started dating someone else, a girl, earlier that day and realises he’s missed his chance again. Sarah gets fired from her part-time job and breaks up with her annoyingly conservative boyfriend Elmer (Eian Rances) who tells her that her dreams of becoming a musician are unrealistic while planning to open some kind of “networking” business selling dodgy cosmetics. Elmer’s words get to Sarah, but because of her meeting with Zack who told her that he believed in her dream because she has great taste in music, she has the strength to tell him where to go and double down on getting into the music industry.

That means, for a time at least, coming at it from the other side. Sarah swallows her pride and asks Ben&Ben for a job as a roadie. They aren’t very supportive (perhaps oddly seeing as the band play themselves in this movie that heavily features their music and is all about how they save love), but their manager remembers her and gives her a job when she applies for an assistant’s position through the regular channels. Zack, meanwhile, is still listening to Ben&Ben and hoping to run into Sarah at a concert someday while secretly planning to meet up with his estranged father behind the back of his kind of amazing taxi driver mum (Tuesday Vargas) who keeps needling him about his lack of romantic success (in the most playful of ways). 

Zack’s first sense of heartbreak is romantic, realising that Cha just doesn’t see him that way and that isn’t going to change. His second is familial in realising he can’t change the way the people he loves feel, and that has to be OK. Sarah’s heartbreaks, meanwhile, are largely professional as she struggles to convince those around her that she has what it takes to make it while seeing others pull ahead as she languishes backstage. Castro brings the pair together at their lowest point, allows their love to let them blossom, but then sets them apart again in the most amicable of ways. “Go chase your dreams, Sarah”, Zack tells her, supporting from the sidelines as he always has. Love is not the dream, but it is a bridge to one. You might have to let it wander for a while, but it’ll come back round eventually when it’s ready, better and stronger for having figured itself out on its own. And until then, you’ll always have Ben&Ben. 


LSS (Last Song Syndrome) screened part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ben&Ben’s official website.

Music video for Ben&Ben’s Araw Araw featuring actors Gabbi Garcia and Khalil Ramos

John Denver Trending (Arden Rod Condez, 2019)

We like to think that we live in a more enlightened age in which we’re able to react with compassion and understanding, striving to see both sides of every story rather than rushing to judgement. The truth is, however, that we’re often just as malicious and mean-spirited as we ever were. Social media has turned us all into thoughtless curtain twitchers, hungry for the next scandal and willing to take any hint of salacious gossip at face value. The online world has no place for fairness, and when everyone agrees on a collective “truth” facts are no defence in the court of public opinion. 

14-year-old John Denver Cabungcal (Jansen Magpusa) is the oldest son of a poor family. His father was in the military and has apparently passed away, while his mother, Marites (Meryll Soriano), now makes ends meet weaving bags and baskets while the family lives in a traditional village way out of town. A slight, angry boy John Denver is classically unlucky, mercilessly bullied just for being poor and getting punished when he dares to fight back. So it is when he’s humiliated during a dance rehearsal by having his trousers pulled down by another boy live on Facebook, after which they all laugh at him because his boxers are full of holes. When the rehearsal is over, one of the other boys accuses him of stealing his iPad, a situation compounded by the fact John Denver has apparently stolen before. The boy, Makoy (Vince Philip Alegre), snatches John Denver’s bag and demands to look inside. John Denver is innocent, but resents being forced to prove it and so refuses to let them see. He chases Makoy to the roof and wrestles the bag away from him, viciously beating him as he does so while another boy, Carlos, smirks from the sidelines as he records everything on his phone. Smug in the extreme, Carlos uploads the video to his Facebook with a hateful caption claiming to expose the “real” John Denver for the thieving little thug he is. 

The first of John Denver’s many problems is that he doesn’t have access to data on his phone and only limited connection to wi-fi while passing through his aunt’s place to pick up his siblings, so it’s hours before he knows anything’s wrong and then there’s nothing much he can do about it. He tries to ring Carlos, but he doesn’t answer. We don’t know who took the iPad, or even if it was stolen at all. Perhaps Makoy lost or broke it himself and needed someone to blame, or this is all an elaborate setup for cyberbullying, but events soon spiral out of control. John Denver tries to explain, he didn’t take the iPad and he was only defending himself after Makoy picked a fight, but the grownups don’t believe him. Everyone already seems to think John Denver is a bad boy, and nothing he says is going to change that. 

Trapped in this kafka-esque cycle of repeatedly stating his innocence, John Denver becomes the subject of a witch-hunt, a cursed figure despised by all. The village in which he lives is a hotbed of gossip and superstition where people still turn to the Village Chief for arbitration and the Shaman for advice. Even John Denver himself mutters a curse under his breath as he’s passed by a strange old woman (Estela Patino), herself the subject of local gossip for supposedly being a witch and having murdered a young man. Social media has, perhaps, merely turned us all into the gossiping old biddies in the square but amplified their nonsense tenfold and given it more weight through the authenticity of print. 

Soon enough, more witnesses start turning up to blacken John Denver’s name – a boy he hit with a stone during a fight, a girl he apparently stole food from. He denies neither of these crimes, but they now have new colour and intensity as the storm around him quickens. Meanwhile, a wealthier neighbour who seems to have a beef with his mother has been extorting money from them for supposedly causing the death of his water buffalo. He creates two versions of an online video. In the first he tells the truth with a mean-spirited spin, explaining that he’d seen John Denver looking for odd jobs in the market to make extra money to pay him compensation, once again using his poverty and “bad character” against him, while in the second he lies and says he saw him sell the iPad.

There is not, and perhaps has never been, any clear way to discern truth from fiction, supposition from malicious gossip. Everyone decides John Denver is guilty because John Denver is not liked. Makoy’s mother ropes in her neighbour, a policeman, who too insists John Denver is to blame and is being stubborn and unreasonable in refusing to conform to the majority view. The policeman takes his gun from his holster and hovers his hand over it on the desk, not quite pointing it but the effect is much the same. John Denver must accept his guilt, the mob must be appeased, the authorities have to be seen to act. The “truth” no longer matters, the semblance of it is all that counts. John Denver resists, he refuses to own a crime that is not his, but finds that innocence is an under appreciated quality when society itself refuses to admit its hate-fuelled hypocrisy. 


John Denver Trending screens in Amsterdam on March 5/6 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Signal Rock (Chito S. Roño, 2018)

kinopoisk.ru“Family is family, I can’t just say no” a young woman tells her boyfriend in response to his angry outburst on discovering that, like all the young women round these parts, she’s being dispatched to another part of the country to work in a bar. Inspired by true events in the ‘90s, Chito S. Roño’s Signal Rock situates itself in an idyllic fishing community left behind by the modern world like a lonely rock pool after the tide has pulled out. A microcosm of the nation itself, the island has become used to its transitory status as a conduit between two worlds, dependent on those who leave for its survival while the young men rendered incongruously obsolete have little more to do than battle their feelings of resentment and powerlessness.

Our hero, Intoy (Christian Bables), is the youngest son of the Abakan family, charged like so many young men with responsibility over technical things – in this case, maintaining the mobile phone which is the only point of contact that they have with oldest daughter Vicky who is supporting them all while working overseas in Finland. Remote as it is, the only place you can get a signal on the island is by climbing to the top of a rocky outcrop so communication has to be carefully planned in advance. This becomes a particular problem when Intoy discovers that the reason the money from Vicky hasn’t been coming through is that her relationship with a Finnish man with whom she has a small daughter is falling apart because he is both abusive and adulterous. As her daughter Sofia was born in Finland, Vicky fears that her boyfriend will try to seize custody and prevent her returning home to her family. Intoy, a fiercely protective brother, is not about to let that happen and sets about mobilising the community to hatch a plan to ensure Vicky and Sofia come home safely.

Despite Intoy’s protective instincts, the rest of the family’s relationship with Vicky is ambivalent. Oldest son Joaquin (Arnold Reyes), one of many resentful middle-aged men left on the island with not much to do, endlessly complains about the lack of ready money from his sister which he claims he needs to buy a motorbike in order to work. Joaquin also resents the shame of Vicky’s out of wedlock pregnancy, while the parents are still a little put out about the financial sacrifices they had to make in order for Vicky to achieve her “dream” of going abroad.

In order to sell the fantasy that Vicky comes from a wealthy family in the Philippines which is perfectly well equipped to support herself and her daughter, the Abakans are forced to confront their longstanding family issues. Intoy’s parents have been estranged for some time with his father technically living in a shed outside the main house, apparently loathed by his wife who claims the youngest two children are a result of marital rape. Another product of the patriarchal society, Intoy’s parents apparently eloped at a young age so that his mother could escape a marriage arranged by her father, only for the relationship to sour when Intoy’s dad lost his job at an American-run factory causing his wife to become disillusioned with his ordinariness.

Little seems to have changed in the last 30 years in that the lives of women are still largely dictated by the whims of their fathers. Vicky may have made a free choice to go abroad, but seeing as work is easier to come by for women, it is the norm for girls of the island to be sent away while the boys remain home alone. While dealing with his sister’s plight, Intoy is also facing the inevitable heartbreak of losing his girlfriend Rachel whose father has arranged for her to work in a bar in the city. As Intoy points out, from the parents’ point of view bar work is a pathway to finding a rich foreign husband – like Gina, another young woman from the village, who is returning home to celebrate her marriage to an elderly German (official now that his divorce has come through). Hardly pausing at the dockside, Gina introduces her former lover as a “cousin” before whispering in his ear that her feelings haven’t changed and she hopes to bring him to Germany for a better life after the old man snuffs it.

Intoy makes a kind of living on the island running errands for older people and acting as an MC during village celebrations, but as there is no real work round here and all the girls are gone, the young men largely spend their time playing basketball and getting into fights. They resent being forced to live off their sisters and seeing the women they love promised to other men, but have no other option than to make uneasy peace with their lack of possibilities. Intoy battles against his baser emotions, remaining kind and cheerful as he convinces his friends and neighbours to help him forge documents that imply his sister owns property while cosying up to the local mayor who hopes to hang on to power at the next election by convincing his wife to stand as a candidate.

Intoy alone is desperate to preserve the integrity of his family, even when spread across continents, standing out on Signal Rock as a kind of beacon left behind solely to convey information from one point to another. Having helped his sister, however, he discovers the depths of her resentment in her embarrassment at the idea of returning home after receiving the help of so many people. He loses his temper, unable to understand his sister’s rejection of everything he has worked so to protect at great cost to himself. Even so, Intoy manages to maintain his cheerfulness and desire to help others, sinking back into island life with his customary stoicism even if mildly troubled by a bargain he may have committed to without fully comprehending its implications. An ambivalent depiction of idyllic island life built on the back of female exploitation and entrenched patriarchy, Signal Rock nevertheless finds finds hope in community spirit and in its hero’s essential goodness.


Signal Rock screens in Chicago on Oct. 3 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actor Christian Bables will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mystery of the Night (Misterio de la Noche, Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Mystery of the Night poster“There is nothing mysterious about the forest”, a traumatised traveller tries to tell himself, “only darkness”. Darkness is indeed a major theme of Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr’s adaptation of the Aswang origin stage play Ang Unang Aswang, only this is darkness born of “civilisation” rather than its absence. The forest is mysterious, but largely because it is home to essential truths few now wish to see and are perhaps afraid to face. The evils of colonialism retold as folktale, Mystery of the Night (Misterio de la Noche) spins a less than ancient genesis for the iconic Philippine monster but hints at its origins in the darkness of the human heart.

In the early 1900s the Philippines was still firmly in the grip of Spanish colonial rule in which the Catholic Church and entrenched aristocracy remained all powerful. The tale begins when a young woman raped by a priest is condemned to the forest as the barer of a “Devil’s Child”. Though she rails and curses all around her, Mayor Alselmo (Allan Paule) consents to drag her into the wilderness as part of his own rite of passage, during which one of his men is killed. The woman, abandoned to her fate, gives birth alone but the effort costs her her life. The baby, meanwhile, is adopted by the forest dwellers of whom the civilised city folk are all so afraid. She grows up and meets a handsome young man, Domingo (Benjamin Alves) – Alselmo’s son, himself intent on exploring the forest’s mysteries. Nature takes its course, but Domingo is a young aristocrat with a wife and future in the city. Like many men, he takes his pleasures lightly and coldly rebuffs his forest bride when she comes calling on him in the austerity of civilisation.

Alix begins with a cold open flashing forward to the film’s conclusion before pulling back to introduce us to the world of the forest spirits, now pushed to the margins by the encroachment of the Spanish. To the Spanish, the spirits of the forest are frightening, demonic apparitions which threaten the primacy of their religion, dangerously undermining their hopes for peaceful, integrated governance. The forest spirits, however, may see themselves as “protecting” something, less the forest than a kind of ancestral essence slowly being eroded by outside influence.

“Nothing hidden remains unrevealed, no secrets are kept forever” Anselmo mutters to himself as he contemplates what the forest has taught him. He has been complicit in his own downfall, covering up the clergy’s crimes by abandoning a “crazy” woman to the forest in an effort to avoid dealing with her accusations or their evidence. The forest will give up its secrets, or at least take its revenge, on those who thoughtlessly pollute its darkness with the light of civilisation. The spirits maybe may be primitive, but they are not cruel – the baby’s life is saved only through their kindness and grows to maturity thought their careful nurturing.

Then again, according to the conflicted Domingo, the forest has its own logic and a belief different from the civilised. He wants to keep the forest’s secrets and protect the essence of existence in the belief that the mystery will complete us. When confronted by that mystery on his own terrain, however, he coldly rejects it in service of his civility. He brings back only atavistic violence and internalised shame along with his longing for something more innocent than the sophistication of his aristocratic position.

Scorned, “Maria” (Solenn Heussaff) as Domingo has named her, transforms into something else. A creature of rage and fear she screams into the night in grief for all she’s suffered at the hands of a fiercely patriarchal society which so cruelly killed her mother, broke her heart, and destroyed the safety of her world. The easy freedom of the forest has been corrupted by perverse civilisation which wields “morality” like a weapon and insists on authority that gives it the right to oppress. A grim parable of the destructive effects of entrenched colonialism, Mystery of the Night finds true horror in the most primitive of places – human weakness, greed, and hurt turned in on itself as a self-defeating act of protest against systemic cruelty. Beautifully dark, Alix’s shadow play spins a sad story of nature red in tooth and claw vs muted humanity, hauntingly ethereal and infinitely strange.


Mystery of the Night was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English captions)

Ode to Nothing (Oda Sa Wala, Dwein Ruedas Baltazar, 2018) [Fantasia 2019]

Ode to Nothing poster 3“Maybe it would be better if I just disappeared rather than physically be here but feel invisible all the time” the lonely heroine of Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s Ode to Nothing (Oda sa wala) sadly laments to her only source of comfort, a semi-embalmed corpse. A melancholy meditation on the living death that is existential loneliness, Ode to Nothing takes its alienated heroine on a journey of hope and disappointment as she rediscovers a sense of joy in living only through befriending death. 

43-year-old Sonya (Marietta Subong, AKA Pokwang) lives alone with her elderly father (Joonee Gamboa) to whom she barely speaks in a large Spanish-style house which doubles as a moribund funeral home. Short on custom, Sonya’s only frequent visitor is sinister loanshark Theodore (Dido de la Paz) who currently holds the deeds to the house while she struggles to make the interest payments. Meanwhile, she spends her days gazing out of open windows, waiting for the handsome young taho seller to arrive, and listening to an ancient cassette tape of Chinese folksong Mo Li Hua.

The stillness of her life is ruptured late one night when a couple of men arrive with the fresh corpse of an old woman, seemingly having run her over and not wanting the bother of taking her to a hospital seeing as she is already dead. Sonya is dubious. She doesn’t want any trouble either, but needs the money and the custom and so she agrees to take the woman in and see if anyone claims her. No one does, and soon enough the corpse has become a new presence in Sonya’s life and home. She begins to confide in it, dresses it in her mother’s old clothes, and sits it at the dinner table where her father too indulges the illusion, finally talking to her once again as if the family had really been restored.

In an odd way, the corpse guides Sonya back to life. No longer so sullen, her funeral parlour finally attracts some customers while she begins to dress more cheerfully, even dancing and skipping along to Mo Li Hua with girlish enthusiasm. “As you get older, you have more reason to do the things you were too afraid to do when you were younger” she explains to the corpse, outlining a brief overture she just made to Elmer (Anthony Falcon), the taho vendor, whose grandfather she also saw off around three years ago after which Elmer took over the taho vending business.

Taho is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Sonya’s newfound hopes, wholesome sweetness and easy comfort. The blandness of off-white silken tofu mixed with the gentle colouring of the amibal syrup and sago pearls, like the Jasmine flower of the folksong, seem to symbolise the brief moments of possible happiness in an otherwise dull existence but even within her increasing sense of positivity she perhaps knows her rekindled desire for Elmer and for life is likely go answered. In any case, she falls into the corpse’s lap as if it really were her mother, attributing to it a supernatural power that keeps the corpses flowing and beckons both life and death to her lonely home.

As in any good fairy tale, however, you have to be careful what you wish for. Sonya gets what she wanted, but not at all in the way she wanted it. The corpse betrays her, leaving her bereft once again and entombed inside her own funeral home with the feeling that there is only one way out. Baltazar shoots in 4:3 with the rounded corners of nostalgic 16mm, but the frame cannot help but recall the small window on the surface of a coffin, as if we were peeking in on her still life from some other plane. Sonya is, in many ways, already dead, trapped in a moribund and hopeless world where even the fragmentary past is being slowly taken away from her – the broken cassette tape, the rapidly depleting furniture, Elmer’s crushing absence. She confesses that she’s afraid of the dark and of being alone, tired enough of her resignation to abandonment to embrace a corpse which can, of course, never leave you. It can, however, disappoint as all false idols will. A melancholy exploration of loneliness, defeat, and despair, Baltazar’s whimsical drama is a haunting ode to emptiness but one that clings sadly to life and hope even as the night draws in.


Ode to Nothing was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mo Li Hua

Ma (Kenneth Lim Dagatan, 2018)

Ma poster“Lost or beguiled?” asks the strange talking tree at the centre of Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s Ma in an opening which might as well be aimed at the audience as the confused little boy about to find himself on a very dark path indeed. In this fairytale world nothing comes without a price, but how much would you pay to maintain a connection fate has seen fit to sever?

Little Samuel (Kyle Espiritu), arm in a sling, cruelly tortures a dying crow before following another into a mysterious cave where he finds a lone tree, improbable in its vibrant greenery somehow illuminated from above. He touches it and its leaves cut him, before the tree raises its voice to tell him that there is “an end to every pain” but “every blessing comes with a price”. Running from the cave in fear, Samuel trips and discovers that his broken arm is now healed, but makes a shocking discovery on his return home. His mother seems to have become ill with a nasty hacking cough which later produces blood. When she haemorrhages over the dinner table, Samuel and his younger siblings have no idea what to do. Returning to the cave he assumes that the tree requires a sacrifice, “life for life”, and offers up the family’s pregnant cat pleading that his mother be returned to him, but the tree’s desires are deeper and darker. Ma returns, but in a different form.

After this short prologue, Dagatan pulls the focus to heavily pregnant, somewhat distracted, school teacher, Cecile (Anna Luna). Unlike Samuel and his family, Cecile seems to come from a comfortable background but is apparently single and living with her domineering mother (Susan Africa) who wants her to see a different doctor against Cecile’s own wishes. Gradually we learn that there is tension between Cecile and her mother’s younger European husband (Ian Curtis), while she is still deeply grief-stricken over her husband’s suicide. The two plotstrands begin to converge when Cecile decides she’s had enough of her mother and goes to stay with an old friend in her hometown.

While Samuel, a child after all, is prepared to go to great lengths to preserve his status quo through saving his mother, Cecile is far from secure in her impending motherhood. She wonders if her pregnancy tipped her husband over the edge, bristling at her friend Gelyen’s (Kate Alejandrino) claim that it wasn’t her fault with the words “we are all to blame”. Attempting to visit Samuel’s mother Lina (Glydel Mercado) who was in fact a childhood friend, the women too come across the cave, idly wondering if the legend behind it – that the ghost of a pregnant woman raped and killed by the Japanese during the war lurks inside, has been updated for a new generation.

Gelyen lives her life surrounded by religious icons but also suggests, perhaps jokingly, that as people around here are mostly Catholics they’d believe anything. In any case, the cave seems to have a particular meaning to the women surrounding a mysterious incident connected with Gelyen’s apparently missing brother and late father. The cave, a kind of womb itself, appears to feed on familial distress and emotional discord. It can relieve your burdens, but only at a price – the choice is yours should you decide to pay.

Then again, some things are supposed to pass and artificially reviving them might not be the best solution for anyone, not least the hollow simulacrum of a deceased loved one. Did Lina die because Samuel found the cave, did he pay for worrying that crow? Likewise, did Cecile’s husband die because of her childhood adventure? Perhaps the tree guided her here, engineering her inescapable guilt to reclaim what it to needs to live and prosper. Samuel does the unthinkable and drags his little siblings into his dark game, while Gelyen’s room full of religious icons are apparently no match for the ominous power of the natural world. Families are in a sense restored to a kind of satisfaction, but only through great personal sacrifice that alleviates the sense of guilt without offering the relief born of mutual forgiveness. Filled with a macabre sense of dread and gothic fatality, Ma is an ambitious debut from Dagatan which matches its beautifully conceived images with the bloody horror of grief-stricken desperation. 


Ma screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nervous Translation (Shireen Seno, 2017)

Nervous Translation poster 1If you knew of a device which would give you “a beautiful human life”, wouldn’t you want to get hold of it? The heroine of Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation longs to do just that, tantalised by its promise of the ability to write simply and convey one’s thoughts to others with ease. Living in anxious times, Yael is an anxious little girl who knows little of the chaos going on outside her ordinary home but continues to find herself uncertain even here.

Yael (Jana Agoncillo), often home alone, is a shy little girl left largely to her own devices until her harried mother, Val (Angge Santos), gets back from her job in a shoe a factory. Taking some advice from her absent husband a little too literally, she “retires” from being a mother for the first 30 minutes after arriving home, insisting on total silence and shutting herself away in her room as if her daughter did not exist. Meanwhile, Yael pines for the father she only really knows from the voice recordings he sends home on cassette tape and which she is not, technically, allowed to listen to despite their being addressed both to her and her mother. On the tapes, her father seems to be employing some kind of code so the messages will be suitable for a little girl’s ears (her mother is not quite so careful in her replies), but talks of how much he misses his family and regrets missing out on so much of his young daughter’s life.

Painfully shy, Yael’s only other real contact is a friend from school, Wappy, whom she calls up on the telephone for a “mad minute” of maths. It’s also to Wappy that she turns when she realises she’s accidentally taped over quite a sensitive moment in one of father’s messages, hoping her male friend could help by putting on a deep voice to re-record the words she’s already memorised only for him to remind her that he’ll still be eight years old and probably no help even if they wait ’til later.

Yael’s innocent attempts to repair the broken tape hint at both her childish worldview and her ongoing desire to “translate” herself through the medium of mimicry. She is captivated by a very bubble-era Japanese ad on television for the “Ningen Pen” (human pen) which promises that it is easy to write with and makes expressing yourself to others simple. One could, of course, say this is true for almost any kind of pen but Yael, still a child, is more interested in the promise of the shiny magic gadget than actively keyed into the power of writing as a path out of her shyness.

We never learn the reason for Yael’s bandages or the skin complaint which seems to affect only her arms and possibly keeps her wary of other children, at least if her cousin’s “are you some kind of mummy?” question is anything to go by. We do know, however, that her father was shy, like her, and also had a physical “deformity” as someone later puts it in that one side of his body was much shorter than the other. His twin brother (Sid Lucero), by contrast, is a handsome rockstar now living the highlife in Japan where his wife complains about their expat existence and her inability to make friends with the “picky” Japanese. Possibly down to the soap operas which too closely reflect her own life, Yael seems to pick up on an awkward tension between her mother and uncle but in the end he is the one who tries to “restore” the family by fixing the broken boom box and saving Yael’s bacon by swapping out the damaged tape for another one at just the right moment.

Given the external chaos, however, the family cannot yet be fully repaired. The adults are just as lost and confused as Yael, struggling to parse the sudden changes in society and in their own lives. Val resents her husband’s absence and the economic instability which provoked it while also resenting her labour intensive job in the shoe factory (perhaps a slightly ironic touch given the former first lady’s mania for footwear). She has no time for her daughter, and perhaps resents also the loss of her youth in service of the traditional family life of which she has now been robbed, longing for the intimacy of her long absent husband. Yael “translates” all of her anxieties into a rich fantasy life, reordering her experience in miniature as she cooks tiny meals on a candlelight stove, determined to get the money together to buy “a beautiful human life” in the form of a shiny Japanese pen. Charmingly whimsical but with irresolvable anxiety at its core, Nervous Translation is a beautifully fraught picture of difficult childhood set against the backdrop of political upheaval which manages to find the sweetness in its heroine’s self-sufficiency even while casting her adrift in uncertain times.


Nervous Translation was streamed online by Mubi and screened as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival courtesy of Day for Night.

Festival trailer (dialogue free)