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A word on Cleaners (and other sleepers)

BLITZ REVIEW - Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - January 20, 2021 - 12:00am

Smoke hasn’t yet cleared from Cleaners being the big winner in the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 4 (PPP4), when along comes this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), thankfully also online so there isn’t as much fanfare.          

Glenn Barit’s stylistically innovative coming-of-age film set in a Tuguegarao high school was also tops in last year’s QCinema International, such that it now qualifies as a must-watch sleeper in a time of shuttered movie houses.  

For sure, you haven’t seen anything quite like it before, the stop-and-go narrative of what appears like photocopies with the main protagonist or featured classroom cleaner highlighted with a specific color. We get the drift but it’s certainly more than a rite of passage: Soundtrack was culled from the mid-2000s when the director also went to high school in the Cagayan city, and thus captures well the zeitgeist of the period, almost to the point of coming across as a series of experimental music videos.

There might be some recognizable tropes if not archetypes among the main characters: The obsessive compulsive who poops in her pants during a nutrition week presentation, the class president (played by Best Supporting Actress Gianne Rivera) who has trouble keeping in line three natural born rebels who want to jazz up their Linggo ng Wika number, the lovestruck fellow who happens to be uncircumcised but asks a naïve girl out to the prom despite knowing she’s already made pregnant by the class rake, the son of politicians running for student council and along the way learns the corrupt ways of his folks. 

Can’t help but also remember a few faces from those bygone years, and Barit mines that well of memory with enough empathy, humor and creativity to come up with one of the most notable films during the pandemic, Cleaners prettier than “Pretty in Pink.”

PPP4 also afforded us a chance to catch up with the work of National Artist Kidlat Tahimik, whose Lakaran ni Kabunyan chronicles via road film his son’s relocation from urban conscious Baguio to the more rustic Davao, and renews ties with old friends en route, exchange of gifts and plain jam sessions, featuring a roll on, roll off ferry ride or two. Here the journey to light is not so much external as it is the interior of the artist slouching towards a form of enlightenment. We get to understand their preoccupation with wearing the bahag, not as mere performance art but to keep in touch with their roots and culture.

Nice interaction between Kidlat and a grandson, almost like a home movie due to its personal touches, but isn’t that what the artist has been trying to tell us all along? The personal is a grain of sand in the universal narrative, and boils down to love, devotion, surrender. From highlands to lowlands, and some sea in between, the best time to do some thinking is on the road, swab tests can go hang.

Might find some overlaps with the national artist’s Memories of Overdevelopment, a film 35 years in the making on the first man who circumnavigated the globe, Enrique, the Filipino slave of Magellan. The time span it took to make Memories is impressive, particularly in the use of the cut-to-cut between original now slightly blurred footage, and the more current updated one with characters from way back reprising their roles and looking none the worse for wear.

Again the filmmaker’s trademark is decipherable, as he employs another son, the painter Kawayan, as main peg in the modern-day search for Enrique, who might also be a kind of cosmic twin or soul brother traversing the centuries with leaps and bounds. We suspect that the home movie motif is a manner by which the director gets closer to the viewer, as everything has an air of informality and lightheartedness. The film is dedicated to Kidlat’s mother, Gene Oteyza de Guia, the grandma by the jukebox, who once stood as ninang to my own old folks when they eloped to Baguio before the Pacific War (full disclosure). Thanks to Kidlat Jr., her memory and the memory of Magellan in 1521 as well as Yoyoy Villame’s are still kicking.

And what pista would be complete without a Lav Diaz film? The sprawling cinematheques had the good sense to include Diaz’s Mula sa Kung ano ang Noon (From what was before) in the mix, almost six hours of lyrical rambles in the black and white countryside shortly before the onset of martial law, and how the poor rural folk already beset by varied hardships cope with the changes. Set in a seaside town up north, the film made in 2014 could be among the director’s quiet masterpieces, right up there along with Norte and Ang Babaeng Humayo which sandwiched Mula.

Perry Dizon as the holdout farmer in a barrio fast being encroached by the military could be Diaz’s alter-ego, as story is told largely from his point of view, with similarly impressive performances by Joel Saracho as Father Guido and Angelina Kanapi as the undercover agent and roving vendor of mats, mosquito nets and other odds and ends.

Besides, it’s not every day one can watch a film of epic proportions in the comfort of home and practically on demand for the three weeks that the festival ran. Even if you’ve seen it before there’s always something new to discover, some slight nuance you missed out on the first time.

Also streaming on Netflix are other sleepers worth your precious time in quarantine: Apocalypse Child set in Baler on the alleged love child of Francis Ford Coppola; Patay na si Hesus, the rip-roaring dark comedy on a family’s road trip from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend an estranged dad’s wake; and Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, whose cinematography alone is worth the ticket price and features cartoonist Roxlee pleasuring himself to the tune of Salve Regina, sure to scandalize the manangs from here to infinity.

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