It’s been amazing to see how serious the city administration of Quezon City and programmer Ed Lejano have been in elevating QCinema into the premiere film festival of the country. In just seven short years, QCinema has distinguished itself from other film festivals—of which the local scene has a dime a dozen—by plucking the buzziest titles from around the film and situating them alongside work from local up-and-comers.
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This year, QCinema aims to solidify its brand by bringing to the fore its slogan “One City. To the World”. In time for the celebration of 100 years of Philippine cinema, it unveiled an exhibit at the Gateway Tower last Sunday dedicated to National Artists for Film Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal called Brocka, Bernal and the City. While the connection to Quezon City is tenuous at best, the exhibit works as a deep immersion into behind-the-scenes anecdotes and industry insider ruminations on the influence of these two filmmaking giants. (Even Midsommar’s broiled-in-a-bear leading man Jack Reynor is an avowed Brocka fan.) If you plan to visit the exhibit, which runs until October 22, expect to devote at least an hour to reading the installations.
QCinema opened its festivities by screening Untrue, a thriller directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo which was shot in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. It’s an obvious choice as an emblem of Philippine cinema actively engaging with the rest of the world, but it still feels like an extended travelogue. The film hermetically seals its Filipino leads (in this instance, Cristine Reyes and Xian Lim as a couple locked in a twisted and twist-filled relationship) from their milieu—with its lowering winter skies and countryside dotted with ruins—with nary an effort to situate the trauma of its violent central relationship within the trauma of its atmospheric location.
Over the past few years, QCinema has staged mini-coups by bringing eventual Oscar contenders like Cold War, Shoplifters, The Square and Loveless to our shores. And while regular runs for buzz-leading titles like Parasite and Weathering With You may have stolen a bit of the thunder, QCinema has made up for it by flooding its lineup with Oscar submissions from Australia (Buoyancy), Germany (System Crasher), the Ukraine (Homeward) and Sweden (And Then We Danced). Among these, definitely do not miss Romania’s The Whistlers, a crime caper from Corneliu Porumboiu which finds a corrupt Bucharest cop (veteran actor Vlad Ivanov) having to learn silbo, a whistled version of Spanish originating from the Canary Islands, in order to game the rotting police establishment he works for and the crime syndicate he wishes to escape against each other. It’s an entertaining, often funny thriller that manages to insert clever homages to film and a surprising coda set in Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay within its multi-layered contemplation on whistling and whistleblowing. (The Whistlers’ remaining screenings: October 19, Saturday, 6:45pm at Gateway; October 20, Sunday, 6:00pm at TriNoma.)
Another potential Oscar contender is Russia’s Beanpole, the second feature from director Kantemir Balagov and so named for the tall, striking figure of its central protagonist Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), who is a World War II veteran working as a nurse in postwar Leningrad, decommissioned from fighting after an injury that leaves her prone to episodes of catatonia. Iya is a shy, nurturing figure, in stark contrast to her fellow veteran and friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who submerges her pain in fits of cruelty and selfishness. Iya and Masha are united by their shared motherhood over tiny and frail Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), and when an unthinkable tragedy befalls their common charge and leaves the two women spiraling, the meticulously crafted Beanpole widens its scope into a portrait of an entire city—an entire nation—grappling with post-traumatic stress. A hard watch, but well worth it for the challenge it presents you with trying to understand how hurt people hurt each other. (Beanpole’s remaining screenings: October 19, Saturday, 4:30pm at Gateway; October 20, Sunday, 8:30pm at TriNoma.)
QCinema also features the latest works from internationally renowned filmmakers both elderly and new. Among these, I have managed to catch Frankie by Ira Sachs, which finds one of my screen goddesses Isabelle Huppert playing a revered French actress named Francoise Crémont—a character not unlike Huppert herself—gathering her family and friends for a holiday in the enchanting mountain town of Sintra, the fabled holiday destination of Portuguese royalty. Huppert acts alongside an international cast which includes Brendan Gleeson, Jérémie Renier, Marisa Tomei, Carloto Cotta, Pascal Greggory and Greg Kinnear, but in trying to build an Eric Rohmer-esque dynamic that has his characters settling into their dysfunctional relationships by wandering along Sintra’s misty forest byways in languid conversation, the filmmaker has forgotten to pack the tension he brought to his previous relationship dramas like Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange. Rohmer specialized in the quotidian details that make up relationships, but in many ways, Sachs made Frankie too quotidian: His story unfolds over one day that strands nearly all the characters in the same places they were at the beginning. (Frankie’s remaining screenings: October 17, Thursday, 8:30pm at TriNoma; October 21, Monday, 4:30pm at Gateway.)
Much more fun to dissect is Claire Denis’ first foray into science fiction, High Life, which finds Robert Pattinson, in his methodical quest to build an intriguing filmography for himself, playing a space straggler named Monte caring for an infant all by himself in an intergalactic spacecraft that resembles a floating Lego block. Solitude is a common theme in the 73-year-old French director’s work, so it’s quite a surprise to see in flashbacks that Monte wasn’t always alone: He was part of a group of ex-convicts blasted out into the farthest reaches of the solar system with the express purpose of harnessing the energy of a nearby black hole. The true nefarious agenda of the mission soon reveals itself in Dibs, a doctor/authority figure played by Juliette Binoche, who encourages the motley crew (which includes disparate performers like Suspiria’s Mia Goth and OutKast’s Andre Benjamin) to procreate. Startling sequences of violence, both physical and sexual, both explosive and subtle, soon follow.
High Life is easily one of Denis’ plottiest movies—there is a flashback and a flashforward—which is not to say that the film is a rip-roaring actioner. It is deliberate and melancholy and at times frustratingly elliptical. But like many of Denis’ work, the point isn’t to suss out a theme but to leave the theater with a mood, a sensation, a tickle that stimulates the mind. Two days after watching it, I am still poring over High Life like a tongue poking at an absent tooth. And as philosophical science fiction movies go, I would rate it higher than Ad Astra and somewhere lower than 2001: A Space Odyssey. (High Life’s remaining screenings: October 21, Monday, 8:30pm at TriNoma; October 22, Tuesday, 6:45pm at Gateway.)