Tales from Davao’s Crypt: A Festival Report on Davao Ngilngig Film Festival

 

Kenneth Dagatan’s Sanctissima horrifying effect is magnified by the production’s attention to detail.

Blood is the currency that runs aplenty in Kenneth Dagatan’s short film Sanctissima (which won the Audience Choice at this year’s Cinemalaya). I am still mesmerized by it; its attention to detail and the mood established all throughout its short duration. It brought me back to the Multo episode of Shake Rattle and Roll 2. I saw it as a kid in a dark theatre (among the now rundown independent theaters across Davao’s Claveria street) and even though I didn’t know what abortion was at that time, I sort of understood what it entailed. While the abortion scene in Sanctissima doesn’t quite match the knee-weakening realism in Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and recently, Myroslav Slaboshpytsky’s “silent film” The Tribe (and it isn’t really trying to anyway), the production is still quite impressive and accomplished. I like the balance — how it knows how to hold back and tease and then go all-out gore. Another short, Earl Usi’s Turog, is also worth mentioning, which reminds us that nightmares are like scars that never really leave us.

Sanctissima and Turog, part of Films from Other Region section, embody the “ngilngig” as envisioned by the Davao Ngilngig Film Festival, an exhibition of horror short films, which screened during the Halloween weekend at Cinematheque Davao. Ngilngig, or its derivative “ngiga” (from ngilngiga) has been more commonly used (especially among Cebuanos) to refer to something that is “kuyaw” (awesome). But the word originally refers to something that elicits horror or ghastliness, something that alludes to the macabre. In a Cebuano online dictionary, the first English translation of the word is “shockingly repellent,” followed by “gross”, “gruesome”, and “grim”. The word in itself is an interesting concoction – you can say it with the least mouth movement, but the NG that rules the word curls up in your tongue as if instantaneously feeling the jitters associated to it.

Using “ngilngig” to label a horror film festival seems like an appropriate idea, but with the word’s cultural affinity and identity to the bisaya, it morphs into something interesting, something that should be fittingly fun and exciting. Awesome horror! Horror is awesome! More films this year were screened compared to the 2013 edition with the addition of films from other regions and workshop films. But despite the number and more filmmakers, I’m missing the creep factor and storytelling brought about by last edition’s shorts likeLeo George Bautista’s Goodnight, Bryan Jimenez and Arbi Barbarona’s Anino, Miguel Santos’s Alyssa’s Typing and the omnibus film Ngilngig Stories.

As Filipinos, the Shake Rattle and Roll (SRR) franchise is easily the most recalled pop cultural reference when we speak of horror films. Since it started in 1981, SRR has had 15 installments, each consisting three episodes and offering varying shades of horror. While mainstream Filipino horror follows the same formula as with its Asian neighbors, there are some bright spots that take advantage of our rich, folkloric culture, infused with more innovative storytelling. I’d easily pick Richard Somes’s Yanggaw, a powerfully-acted, modern take on the Aswang tale, one of the best Filipino horror films to come out of the last decade. And while it is essentially a crime story, I always think of Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay as a horror tale. Filipino horror short films are much more rare. Erik Matti’s Vesuvius, part of the Silent Terror collection from Asian filmmakers, would be on top of my head.

Horror films are hit and miss; either you’re scared by it or not. Or it’s inventive enough to be thought-provoking and disturbing, maybe not in the form of nightmares but in a sense of unease not usually caused by familiar horror tropes. The effectiveness of horror films is usually gauged by how much of the dark unknown is kept hidden from the audience. The short films this year do not match the standard studio fare as with the SRR franchise – since most of the entries are from first-time filmmakers with limited to no-budget production – but the works aspire to the same formula of mainstream horror: plenty of attempts at jump scares and populated by vengeful and hungry ghosts.

Just like in the Davao short films Indignation and Kapag Nag-iisa (When Alone), both by Chris Herald Duco, Janine Villa’s SIM 2, Ferdinand Mesias’s The Dark, Xana Patal’s Pakbet, Jamir Mallari’s Yamyam, and Klasmeyt (from Iligan’s Aike Migrino and Dan Ivan Guadalupe), protagonists are chased by ghosts with unfinished businesses or unknown motives. Ghost stories are staple horror fare – and nothing wrong with it – but obviously, the filmmakers are overwhelmed with the duty to impress and scare that their first impulse is to amplify the musical score and brandish the camera like a sword as if to find something grotesque in the form of a pale-faced ghost. The effects are laughable at best, though I guess none of it was intentional, making the stories forgettable. Take Indignation: just when I was already willing to give in to its Temptation Island-campiness (it features 4 English-speaking girls and 1 gay character), it quickly descends into an uncalled-for seriousness – the fun is ruined and the scare has vanished long before its ghost attempts to scare everyone. Also interesting is Joe Bacus’s Happy Fiesta (from Cagayan de Oro) offers an interesting approach to the narrative as it unfolds ala-Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. While the reversal of footage gives off an intoxicating and intriguing vibe at first, its literalness somehow diminishes the potency of its final twist, and thus its horror.

The director of Indignation, Chris Duco, is somehow absolved with OT (a collaboration with workshopper Melard Sumi-og), a postmodern tale where a layout artist finds himself in a zombie-like dimension after rendering too much overtime work. While it could use some tighter editing and better staging of some scenes, I certainly had the most fun watching it. Like OT, Madonna (directed by Earl Autida, Brylle Andrei Taclindo and Ian Dominic Bugayong), a psychological horror tale about a mother, is another workshop film that had a lot of potential with its faint trace of The Babadook. Both films are outputs of the first Davao Ngilngig Film Camp, spearheaded by Davaoeno filmmaker Bagane Fiola, who is also the director of the non-competitive film festival. Fiola, whose Sonata Maria gained acclaim from the Young Critics Circle this year, also contributed to the Davao film roster with Achup Boulevard, probably the only film to hint at a local urban legend (quite ironically since the festival aims to showcase “local horror legends and stories”). Fiola establishes the right mood in its first half, but it ended too quickly just when I was getting the Sion Sono vibe. It would be interesting where Fiola could take the short film with a more developed narrative, perhaps a playful twist of the film’s title, which has become one of Davao’s famous phrases.

The horror genre’s place in film history is often relegated to escapist entertainment – a hidden chest pulled out for Halloween movie marathons – but its importance and contribution to film culture has not really been given that much attention. But over the years, horror has spawned various sub-genres and filmmakers have experimented on narrative and form (last year’s Violator by Dodo Dayao is a prime example). How we look at horror films and the degree to which we are fascinated by it is reflective in the works of most of the filmmakers featured in this year’s Davao Ngilngig festival. While some are novices, the filmmakers’ approach obviously show only popular influences and a limited grasp on the concept of horror itself. But this is only the festival’s sophomore run and here is to hoping that it could bring out more inventiveness and diversity – a found footage film perhaps, or more Davao urban legends – exuding its own unique identity, even if wearing the same horror mask.

– Jay Rosas

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