Cinemalaya Cinco Round-up

I have seen all 10 in-competition films, and a few in exhibition. The awards have been handed out. And the 5th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival is officially closed. With great cinematic finds and promising talents, I think it was a solid year for Cinemalaya Cinco.

For my second weekend in CCP, here are my capsule reviews. These are ranked from best to worst.

Rating: 3
“Colorum” is a discovery. It’s about a promising policeman (Alfred Vargas) who sidelines as driver of a colorum (read: undocumented and illegal) FX shuttle. He embarks on an accidental road trip to Leyte with an old ex-convict (Lou Veloso) after running over an American pedestrian. They meet a milieu of characters along the way – a suicidal poet facing a tough case of writer’s block, a teenager planning an abortion, and a drunken businessman with a secret to hide. The film examines these characters’ mores. It delves on the choices they make and their consequences on their morality. It may be rough around the edges, but the story’s strength shines through.

Rating: 3
Welcome to the world of amateur treasure hunting in the Philippines. Manok and his gang (Julio Diaz, Archi Adamos, and Jojit Lorenzo) are digging for Japanese treasure buried deep in the mountains of Suyo. The treasure signs tell them that success is within grasp, but the danger multiplies as they cave in closer. “24K” is the least popular competition entry, but that doesn’t mean the film is also the worst (that title has long been owned by the despicable “Astig”). In fact, it’s unexpectedly entertaining and smooth flowing with an explosive finale to boot.

Rating: 2.5
Mai (Jacklyn Jose) goes to Bohol for two weeks. One month down the line and she hasn’t come back yet. She left her young son (Timothy Mabalot as Cocoy) to attend to the needs of his three mentally unstable siblings. Cocoy desperately tries to keep everything together as he wrestles with his own sanity. This dramedy is based on the true story of the director. The film has a distinct look – it is shot in black and white with dashes of greens, reds, and purples. The narrative style is also a bit experimental. Overall, it’s a hit or miss affair. I would have appreciated it more if the filmmaker used a more traditional narrative device.

Rating: 2.5
With its striking visuals, we are transported to the dreary and decrepit movie house. We can smell the filth and feel the dirt on our sole. It works as a social commentary, but the metaphors don’t always make sense.

Rating: 2
Inspired by the showbiz-crazed Pinoy mentality, this campy and hilarious film will entertain the kiddies as well as the baby boomers (the setting is the ‘70s). However, it has the tendency to go overboard sometimes with the jokes.

Rating: 2
Although scored and lensed like a Wong Kar Wai film, “Walang Hanggang Paalam” unveils too slowly to be affecting. Jacky Woo and Lovi Poe’s wooden acting don’t help either.

1. Dinig Sana Kita
2. Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe
3. Engkwentro
4. Last Supper No. 3
5. Colorum
6. Mangatyanan
7. 24K
8. Nerseri
9. Sanglaan
10. Astig


Best Film: Last Supper No. 3
Who I THINK should have won: Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe

Special Jury Award: Colorum and Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe
Who I THINK should have won: Engkwentro

Special Mention: Engkwentro
NETPAC Award: Baseco Bakal Boys
National Council for Children’s Television Award: Dinig Sana Kita
Audience Choice: Dinig Sana Kita (I agree!)

Best Director: GB Sampedro, Astig (prepare the barf bag)
Who I THINK should have won: Pepe Diokno, Engkwentro

Best Actress: Ina Feleo, Sanglaan (what a nice surprise)
Who I THINK should have won: Irma Adlawan, Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe or Che Ramos, Mangatyanan

Best Actor: Lou Veloso, Colorum (I’m not complaining)
Best Supporting Actress: Tessie Tomas, Sanglaan (questionable)
Best Supporting Actor: Arnold Reyes, Astig (I loather everything and everyone connected to “Astig”)

Best Screenplay: Vic Acedillo Jr., Nerseri
Who I THINK should have won: Alvin Yapan, Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe

Best Cinematography: 24K (I think they are just giving everyone an award)
Best Production Design: Mangatyanan
Best Editing: Astig
Best Musical Score: Dinig Sana Kita
Best Sound Recording: Astig

Best Short Film: Bonsai
Special Jury Award (Shorts): Blogog
Audience Choice (Shorts): Tatang (Not “Wat Floor Ma’am? Seriously?)
Best Director (Shorts): Dexter Cayanes, Musa (another no-no)
Best Screenplay (Shorts): Mark Philipp Espina, Behind Closed Doors

Review: Sanglaan (2/5) & Astig (1/5)

Films centered on an ensemble cast, instead of just one or two main characters, is hard to pull off. It demands time to develop each character and make each of them mutually relevant. Each cast member must have individual stories to tell, that when combined together form an encompassing tale. In this year’s Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, “Sanglaan” and “Astig” attempt to break the losing streak of Pinoy ensemble films.


THE GIST: People in need of money go to pawnshops to trade in their jewelry and other prized possessions, together with the memories that come along with it. They are right in thinking that sentimental value cannot feed hungry mouths, but it can be very hard to let go of things you have treasured for so long. “Sanglaan” is about letting go and the set of characters whose lives revolve around a dying pawnshop. Tessie Tomas is the owner of the outmoded establishment who faces the repercussions of the failing economy. Jess Evardone plays the security guard who has to resort to unconventional methods of raising money to pay for the hospitalization of her wife (played by Flor Salanga). And then there’s Ina Feleo, the socially awkward jewelry appraiser, who is hopelessly enamored with her high school crush (played by Joem Bascon).

THE VERDICT: We’ve first seen Ina Feleo in “Endo” where she bagged the Cinemalaya Best Actress award back in 2007. Once again, she delivers a charismatic and genuine performance as the reserved but undeniably smitten woman who falls prey to cupid’s arrow. Meanwhile, the film’s production values are undeniably better compared to its contemporaries. Scenes are strikingly lensed, albeit their simplicity. However, the film falters on pushing the right emotional buttons. The talent is there, both on-cam and behind the scenes. But with an insipid screenplay, “Sanglaan” feels remotely ordinary.


THE GIST: Divided into four interconnecting episodes, “Astig” tells the formulaic story of a myriad of characters thriving in the underbelly of Manila. Dennis Trillo plays a hustler slash con man who finally gets a whiff of karma. Edgar Allan Guzman is a young expectant father forced to ‘service’ a disgusting gay customer to afford his wife’s hospital dues. Arnold Reyes plays the Chinoy trying to sell his father’s only inheritance, a decrepit building in Escolta. And Sid Lucero as the overprotective brother of Glaiza de Castro’s character.

THE VERDICT: Even before the film festival officially opened, this G.B. Sampedro film has been hyped as the biggest independent film production to grace Cinemalaya yet. Since the movie is co-produced by Boy Abunda, he brings with him a plethora of well-known celebrities in smaller roles and cameo appearances. We have Ai-Ai de las Alas, Mariel Rodriguez, Bianca Gonzalez, Kim Atienza, Gardo Versoza, Emilio Garcia, Vhong Navarro, Keanna Reeves, and many more. However, it would disappoint viewers to find out that the star-studded cast is the only thing the film has to offer. The screenplay breathes and lives in third world clichés – movie house prostitution, suicide, gratuitous sex, and plenty of foul language. Instead of presenting a new treatment on the worn-out subject, we are left with an overused template of yet another movie about Manila’s squalor.

Review: Last Supper No. 3 (3.5/5)

PEP Review: Last Supper No. 3
by Fidel Antonio Medel

In the Philippines, the path to justice is like a long, winding staircase. It goes round and round, consuming all your time and energy. This is not only applicable to cases of homicide, rape, robbery, and other heinous crimes. Sometimes, even the pettiest offenses take that same winding road to justice.

Wilson (Joey Paras) is an assistant production designer tasked to look for a wall decoration depicting the Last Supper as a prop for a corned beef TV commercial shoot. He found three. He presented them to the director and let him pick one. After the shooting, he realized that one of the borrowed tapestries was missing. Unfortunately, the lost rug belongs to Gareth (Jojit Lorenzo), a scheming money-hungry son-of-a-gun, and Suming (Beverly Salviejo), his equally scheming mother. What started out as a petty offense turns into a legal circus that stole two and a half years away from our unlucky protagonist.

This certified audience hit at Cinemalaya Cinco proves that well-intentioned comedies can make a point. In the film, the gravity of the offense is not proportionate to what Wilson has to go through. And because of the inefficiencies of the procedures of the law, he found himself being charged with estafa and serious physical injury. Inside the justice halls, he was unwittingly pushed into a web of opportunism and bureaucracy. To make matters worse, the judicial process ran at turtleneck speed. Wilson faced tedious arraignment procedures, repetitively paid settlement charges, and met numerous delays.

Joey Paras is a discovery. With his natural gift of humor, this comic can give the likes of Chokoleit and Pooh a run for their money. Meanwhile, cameo appearances from Maricel Soriano, Ricky Davao, and Liza Lorena gave the film an added punch. The musical scoring is likewise commendable. The lively soundtrack complements the jovial spirit of the film, although it has the tendency to become overbearing in some scenes.

“Last Supper No. 3” makes fun of the legal nightmare that is the Philippine judicial system. It’s a boring premise, but because directors Roni Velasco & Jinky Laurel know very well not to take the topic too seriously, they veered away from the tendencies to preach about red tape and bureaucracy, The result? A courthouse comedy that is satirical and socially relevant.

* published in

Review: Engkwentro (3.5/5)

PEP Review: Engkwentro (Unedited)
by Fidel Antonio Medel

At only 21 years old, Pepe Diokno (a columnist for Philippine Star Supreme and an auteur in the making) is the youngest person to be given a Cinemalaya grant. The grandson of the late Senator Jose "Pepe" Diokno directs “Engkwentro”, the love-it-or-hate-it film in this year’s Cinemalaya. This will provoke discussions and even spark debates because of its dissection of juvenile crime and moral ambiguity. The unconventional filmmaking technique – the use of the shaky handycam ala “The Blair Witch Project” – will polarize viewers into haters and believers.

“Engkwentro” is the story of two teenage brothers, Richard (Felix Roco) and Raymond (Daniel Medrana), caught in the ruckus of two warring gangs. Richard is the leader of the Bagong Buwan gang. The Davao Death Squad, a band of vigilantes allegedly backed by the local government to murder suspected gangsters and criminals, is going after him. So he decided to leave town and elope with his prostitute girlfriend, Jenny-Jane (Eda Nolan).

As he tries to source funds for his escape, Raymond is being inducted to the rival gang Batang Dilim. As the night comes to a close, a square off becomes deadly when Tomas (Zyrus Desamparado), the gang leader of Batang Dilim, orders Raymond to kill his older brother. The inexorable conclusion, punctuated by searing brutality, will shock you. You won’t believe that what you just saw are events lifted from actual news headlines. It will leave you with a dreadful feeling that is difficult to shake off.

Since “Engkwentro” deals with an alarming real-life subject, Direk Pepe makes it a point that his filmmaking style would embody its raw and gritty nature. The camera walks us through the labyrinth of dingy alleys and shanty houses overpopulated by slum dwellers, in a style somewhat similar to Jeffrey Jeturian’s “Kubrador”. We pose as voyeurs as the camera individually follows the exploits of the characters in what seem like a single, continuous take. In fact, Direk Pepe did shoot it much like a stage play (as if without cuts) since he wanted viewers to have a "real-time" experience while watching this action-social commentary film.

Some of the day scenes bathe in solar glare, while some of the night scenes are intentionally too dark. It helps that Direk Pepe used high-definition cameras but the cinematography can still be dizzying especially during fight scenes and parkour chases. This callusing tale of moral corruption is not for everyone. Some will walk out of the theatre even before it is finished because of nausea. Others will complain that it is too stylized, while some will applaud this body of work as a bold and unforgettable piece of cinema.

Among the ten finalists vying for the Balanghai trophy in this year’s Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, “Engkwentro” has the highest chance of being picked up by international film festivals. It may even snatch the top plum from festival frontrunners “Mangatyanan” and “Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe” like a real dark horse. Watch it if you dare.

* published in

Cinemalaya Cinco (…so far)

3 days. 14 films. Not bad for a venue that is more than an hour away from my house. If you’re planning to head to CCP in the next few days, I hope this festival roundup of sorts will help you in picking which films are worth a look.


These in-competition films are vying for the top award, the Balanghai trophy. Former recipients of this award are “Pepot Artista” by Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., “Tulad ng Dati” by Mike Sandejas, “Tribu” by Jim Libiran, and “Jay” by Francis Xavier Pasion. Among the ten in-competition films for this year, I’ve seen seven already. Here they are, ranked from best to worst:

Rating: 4
It is not perfect or highly original, but it is my personal favorite from this year’s crop. I’m predicting it will take home the Audience Choice Award since the film greatly appeals to the predominantly younger crowd of Cinemalaya. It is also most likely to cross the mainstream with commercial success because of the story’s accessibility. Most of all, “Dinig Sana Kita” belongs to the rare breed of rom-coms slash family dramas that Filipino filmmakers don’t usually produce. You can read my full review at:

Rating: 4
With a layered story and complex characterization, this film is still the film to beat. You can read my full review at:

Rating: 3.5
It is not for everyone, so watch it at your own risk. Some will perceive it as nauseating and poorly made (some of the scenes were intentionally dark and out of focus despite being shot on high-definition), while others will see it as a work of a genius. This has the highest chance of being picked up by international film festivals for its graphic retelling of gangster brutality and juvenile corruption. “Engkwentro” may snatch the victory from “Ang Panggagahasa Kay Fe” like a real dark horse. You can read my full review at:

Rating: 3.5
Hilarious, socially relevant, and entertaining. This satire on the Philippine judicial system is a definite crowd-pleaser. You can read my full review at:

Rating: 2.5
Some are already proclaiming Jerrold Tarrog’s follow-up to “Confessional” as the best film of the festival. Although I recognize its merits, I don’t think it is as good as everyone else thinks. The fact that the ritual and the tribe portrayed are both fictional is a bit of a letdown. Anyway, why don’t you see it for yourself and find out if I’m wrong on this one?

Rating: 2
Although technically superior, the screenplay is mediocre at best. A mere rehash of soap opera elements that we have seen countless of times on the boob tube. Ina Feleo, Tessie Tomas, and Flor Salanga (the grieving mother in “Jay”) deserve a better film than this. You can read my full review at:

Rating: 1
Making noise for all the wrong reasons – the numerous cameo appearances, Dennis Trillo as lead, and Boy Abunda as producer. Clichéd, vulgar, and a total waste of time. Slum-themed dramas like this should get a rest. So far, the worst film in Cinemalaya Cinco. You can read my full review at:

I will catch the rest of the Cinemalaya Cinco main competition entries like “24K”, “Colorum”, and “Nerseri” this weekend. Meanwhile, my full reviews for the rest of the in-competition films will be posted soon.


I really don’t have any plans of watching short films. I find their running time rather bitin to establish anything. But since a friend dragged me, I was able to see five shorts that are in competition. As expected, they are so-so with one exception. Here are the five shorts from best to worst.

Rating: 3.5
Imelda gets stuck inside an elevator with the ‘bad boy’. Questions are raised. And we are made to realize that ignorance is really bliss. Pinky Marquez and Lex Marcos will tickle our funny bones. This is a must-see!

Rating: 3
An intelligent examination of one crumbling marriage. Well-acted and convincing.

Rating: 2.5
Another slumdog drama. Why are we Pinoys addicted to this theme?

Rating: 1

Rating: 1
Overly pretentious. Poetic? My ass.


Rating: 3
Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix, Jr. direct Piolo Pascual in this two-part tribute to Ishmael Bernal’s “Manila by Night” (in the “Day” segment) and Lino Brocka’s “Jaguar” (in the “Night” segment). Despite the dark themes pervading both segments, be prepared to see Manila – in all its filth and glory – in a different light. Excellent filmmaking and poetic cinematography. The all-star cast includes Rosanna Roces, Angelica Panganiban, Baron Geisler, Anita Linda, Jay Manalo, Jiro Manio, Alessandra de Rossi, Katherine Luna, William Martinez, Aleck Bovick, Marissa Delgado, John Lapus, and many more.

Rating: 2.5
Some will sleep through it, I almost did. But for a film that drags the minutes by, you can’t deny that this Adolf Alix-directed feature reflects the realities of terrorism. Rosanna Roces and Sid Lucero deliver memorable performances.

Rating: 1.5
The opening song number sets the mood nicely. But unfortunately, the screenplay recycles the same poverty plotlines that have been used and overused in the past.

I will catch “Pepot Artista”, “Walang Hanggang Paalam”, “Kadin”, and “Batad” this weekend. Any suggestions what else I need to see? I’ll blog about the rest of my Cinemalaya experience next week.

Review: Dinig Sana Kita (4/5)

In one of my most favorite films, Danish director Lars Von Trier proved that you don’t need eyes to see in the tragically poetic “Dancer in the Dark”. An overly loving mother, who is slowly going blind, still see the world through rose-tinted glasses despite the utmost cruelty of life. In a parallel representation, director Mike Sandejas (helmer of “Tulad ng Dati”, the recipient of the Balanghai trophy during the 2006 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival) shows us that you don’t need ears to hear and that “even in silence, there is music”.

“Dinig Sana Kita” is the story of two people living in opposite worlds. The girl (Zoe Sandejas plays Niña) is a band vocalist. When she’s on the microphone, she wears her heart on her sleeves with her emotive rock ballads but outside the stage, she is impenetrable. Although she appears tough on the outside, this often-misunderstood troublemaker is fragile when it comes to family matters. So when anxiety attacks, she resorts to her own version of therapy – alcohol and ear-splitting music from her headphones.

Meanwhile, the guy (Romalito Mallari, a real-life deaf-mute, plays Kiko) is a deaf-mute dancer. His disability does not stop him from leading a normal life. He learned how to dance and appreciate music by feeling the vibrations and counting his steps. But Mr. Optimistic’s life is not without his fair share of miseries. In the deafening silence of his world, he struggles to come to terms with the fact that he was orphaned since birth. So what happens when their worlds collide? What happens when the dancer meets the singer, the calm meets the storm, the parentless meets the overprotected? You guess it right, the two make beautiful music together.

“Dinig Sana Kita” can easily turn into yet another cheesy love story. Luckily for us, this is not a mainstream film wherein the lead characters can hate each other one minute and start making love the next. The script introduces us to the characters first, takes its time to immerse us into their lives, and gradually builds the romance. But instead of philosophizing about love like a dreamy high school girl, the film focuses its attention on dealing with the characters’ personal issues – the fear that greatly consumes Niña and the void that is longing to be filled in Kiko’s world. Before you think that this is a heavy drama that will squeeze your eyes dry, I’m happy to inform you that Sandejas has a humor so be prepared to wet your hankies and giggle at the same time.

Once again, this film has disproved the notion of major film studios that big moments replete of endless tears and hysterical acting are needed to engage viewers emotionally. Sometimes, the most heart-tugging scenes are those that are delivered in silence. I was mostly affected by the confrontation between Kiko and Dr. Rafael Mendoza (Robert Seña). There were no screaming, no punches, not even a single word was said. I never thought an argument through sign language could convey so much emotion.

“Dinig Sana Kita” is a family drama, an advocacy, and an inspirational tale. It empowers the handicapped as well as normal people whose disability is the unwillingness to help themselves. It reminds us that the only thing that is impossible are those we refuse to do.

Among the 10 films in competition, this is most likely to win the Audience Choice Award. I’m sure it would make a killing both critically and commercially once it cross the mainstream. So if you can only see one film in Cinemalaya this year, let this be it and I bet you won’t regret it.

* published in PEP

Review: Brutus (2/5)

Two Mangyan kids are beleaguered by illegal logging and child labor activities. In order to contribute to the finances of their impoverished families, Adag and Payang are forced to help illegal loggers transport wood from the mountains down to the capital. Since this activity is illegal, the kids need to take extra caution to avoid forest rangers who serve as vanguards against such law violators.

“Brutus” utilizes what it has in its fullest extent by employing long shots of the vast forest and sprawling stream channels. The shots are not perfect but are still captivating. The execution and theme may be too ambitious for its resources, but the filmmakers succeed in showing the hard knock life of the Mangyans to the general public.

Although Ronnie Lazaro and Yul Servo are in the film, it relies heavily on the ability of Adag and Payang to carry the movie all the way through. And to elicit response from the audience, the film resolves to shallow gimmickry using a puppy love angle between the two, which seems more exploitative than cute. Another fall back of “Brutus” is its tone, that is as self-righteous and as preachy as the sermon of friars. The film is also guilty of lazy storytelling and abuse of flashbacks.

Moreover, the inclusion of the untouchable side-story of the NPA-military conflict to the plot seems farfetched. The film subtly explores this without giving a firm resolution at the end. It could have been better if the focus is mainly on the two Mangyan kids and their struggles as transporters of the logs. The film ended, without earning its ending.

9 Films in Cinemalaya Cinco that I’ve Already Seen

With the wealth of interesting movies to be screened in Cinemalaya Cinco, picking which films are worth your time and money is rather tricky. From over 50 films in exhibition and in competition in this year’s “big, small film festival”, I saw 9 of them. Here’s my two cents.

The following films are ranked from my most to least preferred:

Written and directed by Chris Martinez, this film about a dying woman and the 100 things she wants to do before she dies is definitely not a rehash of “The Bucket List”. Every movie about death will always have some drama. But “100” never swerved to Hysteria Lane. It is not because Martinez does not take death seriously. Perhaps he feels that there will always be joy (even just a smidgen of it) in every single moment of living, no matter how miserable or hopeless our situations may be. “100” is my most favorite Filipino film of 2008.
Rating: 4

“Jay” is an interesting depiction of the way media fabricates the truth and an expose of the obsession of everyday Juan’s to 15 minutes of fame. Humorous, realistic, and razor-sharp.
Rating: 4

The “panggagahasa” mentioned in the title does not only refer to the sexual kind. It encompasses all other acts that strip a woman of her dignity, making her vulnerable to consider quick fixes no matter how implausible they may seem to be. Alvin Yapan’s debut is a tale that tackles domestic abuse and romanticizes Pinoy folklore. It is an odd combination, but gripping nevertheless.
Rating: 4

“Padyak” explores the mysteries of life and man’s interconnectedness with each other. The film is an ode to the circle of life as it burst with philosophical anecdotes and personal reflections. The compelling screenplay and peculiar narrative structure make this film a tour-de-force showcase and an engrossing mantra to life.
Rating: 3

Raya Martin brings us back to the time when independence is a noble but unattainable concept. “Independencia” is mostly a visual fare with an allusive story characterized by Philippine culture and history. It aims to imitate the cinematic style of the early years of the US colonization. Martin shot the entire film in vivid black-and-white inside a studio and reconstructed a forest setting by dressing it with potted plants, painted backdrops, simulated rain, flying sparrows, and a flowing river. The idea is to create a realistic fake forest to emphasize the artificiality of the so-called independence the characters are enjoying.
Rating: 3

Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil chronicles the road to recovery of an abused child. Although we have heard of this kind of story in a number of Bantay Bata TV reports, the humor and the beautiful violin music make it more interesting. “Boses” is a moving narrative with a voice and a heart.
Rating: 3

The focus of this Tara Illenberger film are two Mangyan kids beleaguered by illegal logging and child labor activities. “Brutus” utilizes what it has in its fullest extent by employing long shots of the vast forest and sprawling stream channels. The shots are not perfect but are still captivating. The execution and theme may be too ambitious for its resources, but the filmmakers succeed in portraying the hard knock life of the Mangyans.
Rating: 2

Frankly, there is nothing amazing about Raquela Rios, a Filipino transvestite prostitute who dreams of walking the streets of Paris with his Prince Charming in the form of an affluent, straight Westerner. Being a victim of a confused narrative, it engages in documentary-styled confessionals dwelling on the trivial, non-involving matters interspersed with Raquela’s cross-continental trip. Essentially, it is just another film about transvestites, which happens to be made by an Icelandic national with a Filipino subject.
Rating: 2

At four hours long, “Imburnal” is a painful experience. The imageries are jumbled and the vignettes being shown are at its most random order. You’ll feel as if Sherad Anthony Sanchez doesn’t have a concrete story to tell but is merely confusing us with his peculiar brand of faux visual poetry.
Rating: 1

Review: Villa Estrella (2.5/5)

PEP Review: Villa Estrella challenges mainstream cinema
by Fidel Antonio Medel

Formulaic horror films are a dime a dozen. With the wealth of choices we have today, does “Villa Estrella” stand a chance to get noticed?

Although more modest compared to earlier Star Cinema horror flicks such as “Feng Shui” and “Sukob”, “Villa Estrella” brings something new to the table – a non-generic concept that challenges mainstream cinema. It is not a perfect film by all means. But with some polishing on the storyline and a tighter script, this could be in the same league as Yam Laranas’ “Sigaw”.

Anna’s (Shaina Magdayao) inexplicable bouts with nightmares are getting worse. In her dreams, she sees a girl drowning in the murky waters. But she is clueless on what these nightmares mean until an old flame (Jake Cuenca as Alex) takes her to Villa Estrella, a dilapidated resort that his family plans to renovate. Upon seeing Anna, the resort’s kooky caretaker (Ronnie Lazaro as Mang Gusting) instantly recognizes her, but Anna says she has never been in Villa Estrella before. As Anna enters the gates of Villa Estrella, secrets are unearthed and restless souls avenge themselves.

Effective horror films start with a skin-crawling concept. For example, an innocent little girl being possessed by a malevolent spirit in “The Exorcist” or a cursed videotape that claims the life of those who see it in “The Ring”. In “Villa Estrella”, the dirty swimming pool serves as a channel of exchange that connects our world with the afterlife. So whenever the murky waters claim someone’s life, a ghost resurrects himself and takes control of the victim’s body. The clever concept together with the atmospheric direction from Rico Maria Ilarde (“Altar”, “Sa Ilalim ng Cogon”) makes this feature a spine-chilling movie experience.

The movie is also blessed with a strong cast, lead by Shaina Magdayao and Jake Cuenca, who were pretty solid in their portrayals. While supporting players like Empoy Marquez and Rubi Rubi provide some comic relief. But it is Maja Salvador and Ronnie Lazaro who deliver compelling performances reeking of both nuance and bravura. It is the kind of portrayal that requires intensity and subtlety. And on those grounds, both actors were effective.

Although above par in mainstream standards, “Villa Estrella” could definitely use some help in ironing out some storyline inconsistencies as well as breaking away from some horror filmmaking traditions like the inclusion of a clairvoyant (a staple in every horror film) and a monster that belongs to the “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” world.

It is good to know that a mainstream studio like Star Cinema is recognizing diversity and is learning to be bold with its filmmaking choices. They are now altering their worn-out formulas to adapt to the shifting tastes of moviegoers. If “Villa Estrella” marks a change in the mainstream filmmaking landscape, then I believe something good is about to come.

* published in PEP


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