NYAFF 2017 Short Reviews: Southeast Asian Films

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Matangtubig - Town in a Lake - Jet Leyco 2015Town in a Lake (Matangtubig)
Director: Jet Leyco
Cast: Amante Pulido, Dylan Talon, Miles Kanapi
North American premiere: July 6, 2017

We meet Matangtubig in the darkness, shadows swallowing up what little light peeks through the windows of a moving car. Inside the car, two schoolgirls cower beside each other, bookended by two imposing men in dark clothes. We know this story will not have a happy ending.

Whether or not it has an ending at all is up for debate, even as the credits roll.

Jet Leyco’s cinematography experience serves him incredibly well in his fourth film, set in the woodlands of Batangas. Known for its beaches, Batangas is not as tourist-friendly in Town in a Lake. Its residents live their lives to the beat of provincial expectations—the yearly fiesta is about to begin, and the mayor has no time for complications that could bring negative press to her small domain. And yet, that’s precisely what unfolds: a murder, a second missing schoolgirl, and a community fascinated and repulsed by what might lie in their midst.

There are many paths and people that Town could follow as it explores Matangtubig, among them the silent fisherman who witnesses a crime, the beleaguered mayor, the grieving mother, the brother of the missing girl. The film chooses to follow several of them, but never to a satisfactory conclusion. As we get closer to possible clues around the murder, Leyco instead chooses to infuse his film with off-balance threads of science fiction that never really connect to Matangtubig, its people, and the horrors they can so easily inflict on one another. The supernatural/otherworldly touches feel shoehorned in, trying to hint at deeper evils, but only succeeding in sideswiping at the viewer to no understandable end.

Bad Genius - Nattawut Poonpiriya 2017Bad Genius
Director: Nattawut Poonpiriya
Cast: Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying, Eisaya Hosuwan, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Chanon Santinatornkul
North American Premiere: June 30, 2017

I admit: I loved taking standardized tests when I was in school, but I know I’m more of an exception than the rule there. Tests, and the gateways they represent for students, can often be the stuff of literal nightmares, but in Bad Genius, they become the object of a highly stylized heist film.

There’s a delicious invitation at the core of Bad Genius, one that draws audiences in with a wink and a dare. Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying’s Lynn is both the good genius student and the teen desperate to fit in. She switches between both identities flawlessly, letting them drip into one another with every quirk of her eyebrows. We want her to succeed—at acing that test, that scholarship exam, that international heist with an American university education at stake.

Director Nattawut Poonpiriya doesn’t bother to pick sides, nor does he make this film with a “lesson” in mind. In his hands, the simple act of test-taking turns into a heart-pounding operation, with clever sleight-of-hand, intense stares, and moments that literally had me holding my breath in dread and anticipation. His actors command the screen with ease; I was especially drawn to the quiet gravity in Chanon Santinatornkul’s performance as Bank, and Eisaya Hosuwan’s simpering, confident Grace.

It’s Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) who raises the stakes, pushing this unlikely group together in ever more complicated ways, and his greed is a challenge that Lynn and Bank must decide to take up, either together or not at all. Their decisions may surprise some viewers, but maybe not. After all, sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of until we have no other choice but to find out.

Birdshot - Mikhail Red 2016Birdshot
Director: Mikhail Red
Cast: Mary Joy Apostol, Ku Aquino, John Arcilla
North American Premiere: July 6, 2017

It’s a bird, it’s a farmer, it’s a series of crimes against humanity that all too quickly go unanswered. Perhaps that’s not as catchy as the original phrase, but it is a pretty good summary of Birdshot, a haunting gutpunch of a film from Mikhail Red.

Two hours unfold with growing horror, as young Maya tries to establish her independence, but finds that maybe it would have been better not to enter that strange new chapter of her life. In a moment of recklessness and determination, she shoots down a Philippine Eagle, a critically endangered animal. This is not a crime that would ever be taken lightly in the country: anyone who kills a Philippine Eagle or haribon could find themselves in jail for 12 years at least. Mary Joy Apostol gives a superb performance as Maya, the tension apparent in every movement she makes.

Birdshot isn’t simply preoccupied with the violent coming-of-age that Maya undergoes—it holds up an accompanying mirror to the violence against farmers in rural areas around the Philippines, and the value assigned to lives that go unseen by so many. Do we know the faces and names of the people whose crops we eat? Do we care? They are just some of the questions that will follow viewers out of the theatre.

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About Author

Angel Cruz is a writer and boy band scholar. You can also find her at Book Riot for endless discussion and flailing over all things literature. Ice cream, Broadway musicals, and Arashi are her lifeblood.

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