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Thoughts from the Tokyo Film Fest

Tu Pug Imatuy follows a Lumad couple Obunay and Dawin who are uprooted from their traditional way of life after a military encounter.  

I was walking along the busy alleyways of Shibuya while trying to locate the relatively cheap conveyor belt sushi restaurant I visited the last time I was in Tokyo when I heard a familiar voice calling my name.

Shibuya isn’t exactly the easiest place to find an acquaintance from home. The fashionable Tokyo district, with its famously busy street crossing, invites at least 2,500 locals and tourists to scramble towards the opposite side each day. It is a galaxy of strangers whose only similarity with each other is the fact that they’re there at the same time. There is always a certain whiff of serendipity when you suddenly meet a friend amid all the chaos. I glance towards the voice that was calling me and there stood director Arbi Barbarona, a proud son of Mindanao, waving at me with the same expression of surprise I was wearing. We shook hands, exchanged a few words, and joined the crowd of tourists taking selfies.

While the chance encounter was remarkable, it wasn’t all that strange considering that Barbarona has a film screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

 

 

 

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His Tu Pug Imatuy (Right to Kill) is about lumads who find themselves trapped in the middle of an armed conflict between the military and armed separatists. The film, which won Best Picture at this year’s edition of the Brillante Mendoza-headed Sinag Maynila Film Festival, has a premise that is so specifically grounded in localized affairs that an appreciation of the sordid history of the several resistances in Mindanao seems to be required to fully comprehend the emotional heft of the picture. Interestingly, or at least according to Barbarona, the viewers, who were mostly Japanese, were drawn into the drama and asked all the right questions about what he was intending to do with his work. In a way, cinema, even if it is deeply rooted in the unique perspectives of its maker, has an ability to connect humanity in the sense that concern, or at the very least curiosity, becomes a magnet for a truly absorbed gaze. Barbarona’s film has sparked conversations within an arena that is far removed from the issues and dilemmas that provoked the creation of his art.

HF Yambao’s Kristo and Daniel R. Palacio’s Pailalim (Underground) both depict poverty in varying degrees. Poverty, even if depicted within the realm of frank and painful truthfulness, is always a spectacle. There will always be something about the suffering of other people and the extent of what they will do for sheer survival that makes for compelling cinema. The biggest problem about this kind of cinema, especially when seen as a mere exposé of a state of life without any palpable personal perspective, is that it borrows the aim of reportage journalism with very little of the responsibility because the fealty is to twisting the truth for the benefit of either storytelling or other film-bound artifices. In a festival setting where the interest is linked to the exoticized setting and conceit, the burden of the filmmaker to distinguish reality and creative vision becomes even more profound.

Closeness to reality is hardly a problem for Loy Arcenas in Ang Larawan (The Portrait). The film, a musical adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of a Filipino As An Artist, has its characters belting out dialogue about catching rats for a living. The film, however, enunciates a very relatable fear of obsolescence. Set during the period just before the Pacific War, the film centers on two sisters who preoccupy themselves with fantasies of the glorious and illustrious past they once lived. Arcenas’ treatment itself bears an equal lavishness, a notable difference from the proudly tattered aesthetics of Yambao, Palacio and even Barbarona. If the film has any fault, it is a fault that cannot be avoided. Ang Larawan drowns in its reverence to the source material, which leads to several sequences that I imagine would be pleasurable when experienced live but are otherwise lopsided in the silver screen. In comparison, Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Will Your Heart Beat Faster?), which is also a musical and whose restoration is part of the festival’s showcase, is still entertaining in its unabashed mania and unbound discourse.

I finally found my way to the sushi restaurant, with the trusty conveyor belt doing its work by trying to entice me with plates of various raw seafood over balls of rice. I picked up a few pieces of tuna, some salmon and a piece of sea urchin, while ignoring the other fish that I’ve never tried but were grabbed excitedly by the old man sitting beside me. That old man and I obviously have different preferences in fish. I wonder if we also have different preferences in film.

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