The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril, Rae Red, 2019)

“Everything is personal” according to one extremely oppressed young man in Rae Red’s neo noir voyage through the legacies of authoritarian violence, The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril). Drawing a direct line from Marcos-era oppression to Duterte’s Philippines and the war on drugs, Red’s debut solo feature is an irony-fuelled inquisition of the modern society equally ruled by fear and desperation in which many feel violence is the only recourse against their sense of despair only to discover that violence breeds only more of the same in a nihilistic spiral of hopeless impotence. 

The never named heroine (Janine Gutierrez) is a meek and mild young woman who works in a department store where women, in particular, are expected to be prim and proper. The girl, however, is forever pulled up about the ladder in her tights, seemingly her only pair and as we’ll see she cannot afford to buy a replacement nor will one be provided for her by her employers who pat down employees as they leave the store each evening to ensure they haven’t stolen anything. Despite this however she believes she works hard and is under-appreciated, her sense of disappointment palpable as she witnesses another young woman be named employee of the month. Her colleagues view her as aloof because she is always the last to leave the building and never joins them for drinks, little knowing that it’s not her shyness that keeps her away but shame in her poverty. She has a long and arduous journey home to the poor part of town where she shares a room with another young woman, unable even to make her rent because she sends most of what she earns to the mother she apparently feels unable to return to. For all these reasons, she finds herself alone with a predatory colleague (Felix Roco) who rapes her, sheepishly apologises, and then returns with more threatening violence to advise her to keep her mouth shut. 

The evening before she’d heard a gun shot, left her apartment to investigate and seen a man run away, noticing an abandoned pistol with a heart on the barrel discarded in a rubbish bin. After the rape, she picks it up, immediately pointing it directly at the abusive boyfriend of her roommate. The gun gives her a sense of empowerment that counters the trauma of her victimisation. She is already beyond caring and can now say all the things she’s ever wanted to say to the men who treat her with such utter contempt, taking a flirty customer to task for his inappropriate behaviour with his young daughter sitting right next to him, and eventually giving her boss a piece of her mind when he finally fires her over something as petty as a barely visible uniform infraction. 

The girl had not usually been the type to complain, both her sleazy landlord and priggish boss keen to tell her that there are plenty of people waiting to take her place as if she should be grateful that her awful life is still not more awful. She and her friend dream of escaping the city, going home, or at least far away to a place where they could live a better life. Jun Jun (Elijah Canlas) the teenage drug dealer from the news reports dreams of something similar, lamenting most of all that he had homework due before he became the subject of a manhunt with which he’d struggled. He wonders how he might have done. His friend gives him all his savings which he’d been collecting for his own escape, hoping to return to his mother with his younger sister in tow in order to save her from a father he at least fears is abusive. 

Tracking through the history of the gun before it found its way into the hands of the girl, Red takes us back to the authoritarian violence of the Marcos regime as a nervous policeman assassinates “activists” in place of the current “drug dealers”, his son eventually picking up his gun a “policeman” like his father but filled with resentment towards inescapability of his fate. The gun passes from hand to hand, a child sticking the little heart sticker on it, creating only more chaos wherever it goes. It gives the girl the courage she thought she lacked to seize her agency, to talk back, to be “unladylike” in insisting on her equality in the face of the countless men who ignore, cat call, and abuse her. But the gun itself is not enough, her quest for violent vengeance hollow and unfulfilling, the only real liberation coming as she decides to abandon it in a final act of catharsis that breaks the cycle of violence and oppression which had trapped each of the gun’s owners. As a boy had said, it’s all personal. You might think it’s nothing to do with you, but you can’t escape the oppressions of the world in which you live be they poverty, misogyny, or authoritarianism. 

Largely taking place at night, Red bathes her city in the tones of neo noir, a land of shadows among neon, a shining cityscape of high rise buildings the like of which neither the girl or the street kids are ever likely to enter. Making fantastic use of music from the noirish jazz to the nostalgic pop of the oppressive ‘80s she fully embraces the pulpy exploitation of the material but always maintains a sense of playful irony, never forgetting the full import of her sometimes grim satire of life on the margins of Duterte’s Philippines as her variously oppressed protagonists seek freedom in violence but find only more constraint in the depths of nihilistic despair.


The Girl and the Gun streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sunod (Carlo Ledesma, 2019)

A mother goes to great lengths to be with her daughter in twisty Philippine horror Sunod. In a tense tale of supernatural dread, Sunod’s heroine contends not only with mysterious curse and psychological disturbance but with social inequalities, conservative social codes, and a health crisis while trying to protect her young daughter but soon finds herself dragged into a web of black magic intrigue, her calm, rational and compassionate response to becoming the target of a demonic scam only used against her by her unscrupulous aggressors. 

Never married single-mother Olivia (Carmina Villaroel) is wearing herself to the bone with worry over her teenage daughter Annelle (Krystal Brimner), a long-term hospital patient with a dangerous congenital heart defect that apparently requires expensive medical treatments Oliver can ill afford. Reluctant to be away from her daughter, she knows she needs to find another job but draws a blank in the currently difficult employment environment. At her wits’ end, she steps into a recruitment fair intended for students in search of part-time work but manages to impress the recruiter with her top English skills and spiky attitude. Her new job sees her working nights at a call centre where she struggles to adjust to the intense office atmosphere while bonding with “professional trainee” Mimi (Kate Alejandrino) and sympathetic boss Lance (JC Santos). 

Even on her first day, however, Olivia begins to notice something strange about the building where her new job is located which apparently once housed a hospital and is kitted out in gothic style complete with statues of angels and sweeping staircases. During a power cut one day after work, Olivia is approached by a strange little girl, Nerisa (Rhed Bustamante), and unwisely takes her by the hand, guiding her out of the building. Ominous events intensify, she begins hearing things and getting strange calls while Annelle’s heart condition appears to have been miraculously healed only she’s also had a complete transplant of personality. 

Of course, much of this could be down to Olivia’s fraying nerves. We’re told she’s not slept well in months and is already on various kinds of medication while obviously under extreme stress working overtime to try and pay for her daughter’s medical care. Trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder, she also faces a degree of social stigma as an unmarried mother, as she reveals nervously confessing to Mimi that she’s raised her daughter alone and so might not be the best person to ask for dating advice. Mimi, meanwhile, is an ultra modern freeter, flitting between a series of temporary jobs uncertain whether to get married for convenience’s sake or make a go of independence by committing to a career. After listening to Olivia’s story, she decides to give things a go at the call centre and the two women generate an easy friendship despite the difference in age and experience. 

Olivia meanwhile finds herself in a difficult position, propositioned by the previously “nice” Lance who hands her a fat check to help cover Annelle’s medical bills but then tries to get his money’s worth by trying it on in the employees’ rest room. She manages to fend him off, but is conflicted in her decision to keep the money out of a sense of desperation. Plagued by strange nightmares in which she sees herself bury her daughter alive, she begins to lose her sense of reality, half convinced that Annelle has been possessed by the spirit of Nerisa who, she has discovered, may have some connection with the building’s dark history as a World War II hospital. 

“When you have a child, there’s always a constant feeling of fear because her life is in your hands” Olivia tries to explain to Mimi, illuminating a more general kind of maternal anxiety than her acute worry over her daughter’s health. A compassionate soul, she tries to help Nerisa settle her unfinished business by helping her find her mum in the hope that she can then “move on” leaving her and Annelle in peace, but finds herself entangled by dark maternity and under threat from a motherly entity that quite literally cannot let go. Driven half out of her mind by an unforgiving, patriarchal society, Olivia tries to do the best for her daughter but struggles to escape her sense of futility in being unable to protect her either from her illness or the society in which they live. Rich and gothic in atmosphere with its creepy disused hospital setting replete with empty corridors and malfunctioning lifts, Sunod’s quietly mounting sense of dread leaves its heroine at the mercy of forces beyond her control, bound by inescapable anxiety. 


Sunod streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Edward (Thop Nazareno, 2019)

Maybe there’s no better place to learn about life and death than a hospital, but it’s a devastatingly cruel one in which to come of age in Thop Nazareno’s infinitely warm second feature Edward. A sharp condemnation of failing health policies with minor jabs to the political realities of the day, Edward finds its titular hero forced to grow up all too soon thanks to a confluence of personal tragedy, parental disappointment, and shattered dreams all of which are brought home to him as he begins to bond with his distant father while forced to care for him during his hospitalisation for an as yet undiagnosed respiratory complaint. 

Just a teenager, Edward (Louise Abuel) should probably be in school but he’s left his rural home to be with his father Mario (Dido de la Paz) at a hospital in Manila where he sleeps on the floor under his bed and is expected to provide care such as making sure he’s washed, changing sheets, and generally watching over him to be able to update the doctors on his condition. Technically speaking, Edward shouldn’t be taking on this responsibility, but his older half-brother Renato has had to leave and there are no other relatives available so the hospital has made an exception. As you might expect, he’s not as diligent as one might hope, especially as his relationship with his father is already strained, spending most of his time goofing off with another boy, Renz (Elijah Canlas), who is giving him a few life lessons of his own in drinking and weed while they help out running errands for the hospital staff. 

When we first meet the two boys they’re playing a grim game, taking bets on whether or not the emergency patients are going to make it. Nazareno opens with a long tracking shot following just one such casualty into the hospital, shifting chaotically from one bed to another while those in the crowded waiting area loudly call out for a doctor but are told only to wait their turn. Edward’s insensitivity bears out firstly how used he’s become to the liminal space of the hospital where death is never far away, but also his youth and impressionability, taken in as he is by Renz’ rather cool and cavalier approach to life. Later he bonds with a young woman, Agnes (Ella Cruz), herself an accident victim, who takes him to task for his callousness pointing out that she’s a real live human not the subject for a game, showing him it seems for the first time how inappropriate his behaviour has been. 

Though he knows very little about her aside from her name and that she seems to be around the same age, Edward enjoys spending time with the refreshingly direct young woman and comes to see it as something of a respite from being forced to care for his dad whom he is technically neglecting. We realise that Mario is perhaps not an easy man and the family network seems to have broken down, Renato declaring himself at the end of his tether and no longer prepared to care for a father who abandoned his family for another woman only to expect filial deference on becoming ill. Like Agnes, Edward is all alone but actively avoids looking forward, little realising that his father’s condition may be far more serious than they’d assumed, preferring to lose himself in the small absurdities of hospital life as if he were on a strange kind of holiday. 

Meanwhile, he discovers just how unequal and unfair the hospital system can be. During the chaotic opening we witness a congressman’s cook attempt to get bumped up the queue using his political clout while a boy bleeds out from gunshot wounds on a gurney behind reception. Mario’s original doctor leaves his position to move away, while the new one has his own private clinic and only works at the hospital on Tuesdays. Tests take three whole weeks to come back because they have to outsource and until then all they can do is guess and treat symptoms. While hanging out with Renz, Edward finds out about some decidedly dark and very untoward goings on at the hospital morgue which it perhaps doesn’t quite occur to him to feel disturbed by until much later.

For all that, Edward still hasn’t grasped that sometimes when they tell you you can go home, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Still, for the time that he’s there the hospital is a home. Mothered by overworked nurses and beginning to warm to his rather gruff father who only wants to talk to Renato (who doesn’t want to talk to him) while experiencing his first brush with romance, Edward comes of age staring death in the face. With its moody jazz score and wistful folk rock soundtrack, Thop Nazareno’s second feature doesn’t so much tug at the heart strings as play a merry tune with them, finding all the warmth there is in tragedy as Edward learns to navigate his hospital life towards its inevitable exit. 


Edward streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

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

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