Now on its 45th edition, the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) begins screening in cinemas across the country on Wednesday.
For a brief two-week window — from Dec. 25 to Jan. 7 — foreign films will be blocked from local cinemas, which will be dedicated exclusively to a selection of Pinoy titles. However, while promoting the Philippines’ domestic film industry is an admirable goal, past line-ups have been less-than-inspiring in terms of quality (so much so that a prominent critic last year took a pass on the whole thing, calling his decision an “admission of defeat” in the face of a torrent of cinematic drivel).
All the same, our fingers are crossed that this year’s outing has a few novel narratives up its sleeve — but realistically speaking, it looks like it’s got a few formulaic groaners, too (tell us we’re wrong).
This year’s eight-film roster includes a couple of unexpected entries — for instance, one film about a leper colony set during the American occupation, and another that weaves fantastical elements into a war-torn family drama — but also some very much expected “family friendly” slapstick comedies featuring hammy TV celebs (what’s Christmas without a little ham, after all).
There’s also horror, action, and a would-be tearjerker based on a Korean film (which may qualify as a kind of a horror story too, depending on your stance on adorable, lesson-spouting moppets and far-fetched plotting).
So, with all that in mind, here’s a rundown of the titles you’ll be queuing for (or avoiding) at the box office come Christmas Day.
Culion by Alvin Yapan
Cast: Iza Calzado, Jasmine-Curtis-Smith, Meryll Soriano.
One of the titles we’re cautiously optimistic about (“cautiously” being the operative word), Culion tells the story of an island leper colony during the American occupation of Palawan — better known today as a tourist hotspot and UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its pristine beaches and caves. The film was written by award-winning screenplay writer Ricky Lee, and its leads are played by indie darlings Iza Calzado and Meryll Soriano, among others. (A cameo by actor John Lloyd Cruz, whose break from the biz has gotten, uhh, weird, has also been teased.) The film appears to be positioning as having a lot on its mind, with a narrator in the trailer intoning, “I’m surrounded by dead men walking. Am I still a whole person if parts of my body are missing?” (Deep!)
Let’s see how this one plays out.
Mindanao by Brillante Mendoza
Cast: Judy Ann Santos, Allen Dizon.
Mindanao — another welcome departure from the standard assembly-line MMFF fare — follows a Muslim mother (Santos) in the Southern Island region as she cares for her cancer-stricken daughter while waiting for her combat medic husband (Dizon) to return from deployment. Meanwhile, a folklore-steeped side-plot woven into the narrative features Rajah Sulayman and Rajah Indara Patra fighting a mythical dragon devastating Lanao in a different time and, it would seem, universe. Cannes Film Fest-winning director Brillante Mendoza premiered the film in October at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea, where it was said to be well received. Now Pinoy audiences will get a chance to decide for themselves.
Write About Love by Crisanto Aquino
Cast: Miles Ocampo, Rocco Nacino.
Meanwhile, over in the rom-com department, Write About Love is the story of an up-and-coming female screenwriter, who’s struggling to get her movie greenlit by a major studio. She enlists the help of a seasoned — and, wouldn’t ya know it, male — writer whose last film was a box office hit, and together the two work their way through the ins and outs of romance writing (hence the title, get it?). The leads are played by Yeng Constantino and Joem Bascon, and the film is Crisanto Aquino’s directorial debut.
The Mall the Merrier by Barry Gonzales
Cast: Vice Ganda, Anne Curtis.
Remember what we said about slapstick comedies featuring TV’s top celebs? Well, if the title didn’t already tip you off, this is one of them.
What’s surprising, however, is in addition to just being a slapstick comedy, The Mall the Merrier is also a musical comedy (which means either twice the fun, or twice the cringing, depending on your personal taste). All you need to know for now is that two (singing!) siblings (Ganda and Curtis) are feuding over a mall they’ve inherited. So gird your eardrums, this comedy promises to belt out the high notes.
Miracle in Cell No. 7 by Nuel Naval
Cast: Aga Muhlach, Xia Vigor, John Arcilla.
Miracle in Cell no. 7 is a South Korean import whose trailer went viral on Twitter when it was released in November. This remake features perpetually baby-faced actor Aga Muhlach as a dad who goes to jail and falls in with a rag-tag group of gruff-but-gentle cellmates who work together to protect the newly arrived prisoner — and his adorable moppet of a daughter, who somehow sneaked into prison because she couldn’t bear to part with her lovable schlub of a dad. (Apparently we’ve run out of semi-plausible movies to remake.)
But if you can’t suspend your sense of disbelief (or, in this case, pummel it into submission) long enough to watch a sappy tearjerker at Christmas, then when else could you?
Sunod by Carlo Ledesma
Cast: Carmina Villaroel, Mylene Dizon, Susan Africa.
Sunod barely slipped into this year’s MMFF, replacing Kris Aquino’s horror film comeback Kampon after it was disqualified over re-castings and deadline overruns. Carlos Ledesma’s Sunod, the only horror film to make the list this year, follows the story of Olivia (Villaroel), a single mom who struggles to pay her sick daughter’s medical bills by working long nights at a mysterious telemarketing firm. The firm is so mysterious, in fact, that she soon finds herself dealing with ghostly encounters (and apparently some evil yarn). Ledesma also has Cannes credentials (he won Best Short Film in 2007), so let’s hope this one transcends its cookie-cutter ghost story trappings.
3pol Trobol: Huli ka Balbon by Rodel Nacianceno
Cast: Coco Martin, Jennylyn Mercado, Ai-Ai De las Alas
Next up is a comedy that appears to exist solely as an excuse to put indie-prince-turned-primetime-TV-star Coco Martin in drag, because, hey, that’s showbiz! 3pol Trobol: Huli Ka Balbon! follows a cop out to prove his innocence after being framed for the murder of his boss. MMFF queen of gags Ai-Ai De las Alas and blockbuster actress Jennylyn Mercado join the film’s lead, and even former-actor-turned-Manila-Mayor Isko Moreno shows up for a cameo.
Surprising bit of trivia: Martin (billed under his real name, Rodel Nacianceno) directed this hodgepodge of a film. Another bit of trivia: The plot was actually rejected by the people behind the Lethal Weapon franchise for being too over-the-top. (OK, we made that up, but this thing is so ludicrous it makes Lethal Weapon II look like a Ken Burns documentary.)
Mission Unstapabol: The Don Identity by Mike Tuviera
Cast: Vic Sotto, Maine Mendoza, Jake Cuenca.
Rounding out the glut of comedies no one asked for is Mission Unstapabol: The Don Identity, a vehicle for perennial MMFF fixture Vic Sotto. The movie, which appears to be a jumbled-up parody of Mission: Impossible, Unstoppable, and The Bourne Identity, follows the exploits of Don Robert Fortun (Sotto) who gets together a crew to retrieve and return “the Pearl of the Orient” — which, in this case, is a literal pearl Don Robert was accused of stealing, but was actually pilfered by his brother.