'Manang Biring' is a story-telling symphony

Manang Biring
'Manang Biring' wins Best Film. And for good reason!

Manang Biring deserves all the praises and then some!

Director Carl Joseph Papa’s Manang Biring nabbed the Best Film award at this year’s Cinema One Originals Festival. If this film fest was all about imagination and beyond the box story-telling, then it was a well-deserved win; Manang Biring is innovation incarnate.

Get your tissues ready.

Manang Biring (Erlinda Villalobos) was diagnosed with terminal cancer. With a reunion with her estranged daughter right around the corner, she does absolutely everything in her power to stay alive. With the help of her loyal friend Eva (Mailes Kanapi) and a thief who becomes like a son to her, Terrence (Alchris Galura), they concoct these insane plans (that get increasingly crazier and funnier) to pay for Biring’s medical bills and one last happy Christmas celebration with her daughter.

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Manang Biring, Terrence and Eva.

It’s a simple premise; one that I honestly thought was going to be a run of the mill sapfest. I didn’t want to watch something too heavy/voluntarily add gloom in my life, so before this movie won the Best Pic award, it was the last movie I thought of seeing. The odd, black and white, stencil-like visuals didn’t help sell the movie to me either. It felt like a gimmick to look artsy and initially struck be as being a tad pretentious.

But when I found out it had won and decided to give it a shot, oh dear god was I wrong! (Yet another example of a movie that I TOTALLY and unfairly misjudged! I am so sorry movie world!)

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A unique visual style I've never seen in Philippine movies before.

The first thing you notice about Manang Biring is (obviously) its unique visual approach. It’s a black and white, hybrid of live-action footage and animation. The characters are seen through a filter that makes them look like moving sketches and they’re superimposed on a manufactured and malleable environment. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. Philippine animation certainly deserves more credit.

This pseudo-animated style was a central element in Manang Biring’s story-telling. The film has a whimsical quality about it. At times, it would shift from a regular scenario (e.g. clinic visit, household dining, etc.) to a trippy dreamlike state and Direk Carl’s visuals made the transitions seamless and gave the film a natural flow.

The visuals also intensified the emotional content. I thought the art style’s inherent lack of detail would bother me, or be disadvantageous to the drama, but no. In fact, it made the experience better! The animation never compromised the actors’ performances and you could also say that the visual style made watching economical. You don’t get distracted with the noise. There’s an unprecedented focus on the sharp expressions on their faces, the expressive body language, or the eerie dream sequence art, etc.

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Manang Biring's lovable characters and relationships.

Something you don’t appreciate from the trailer is the crisp sound editing. It was incredibly efficient. It knows when to insert a specific sound bit or when to fall dead silent. Along with the visuals, the audio component helped deeply accentuate the film’s emotional beats. (And I almost never even notice the audio. But in Manang Biring, it’s an element that really stands out!) 

There was a scene there where characters go to a night club. On screen you see how the characters are dressed, their posture and movement, and a few lines to represent a hallway. Eventually there are figures dancing in the background, and a few spotlights meandering in the frame. You also hear soft club music. I just loved that sequence. It wasn’t as jarring as a normal club scene and yet the scene’s intention and the sensation were crystal clear. This was pretty much the movie’s overall state – clear-cut and poignant.

But even with all that technical brilliance, Manang Biring never loses sight of what filmmaking is at its core – telling good stories. And the film’s plot was powerful but simple. It again lends to the film’s compact nature. This is a movie about an old dying lady trying to make it to Christmas Day – no more, no less. When you see the ending, (something I won’t spoil for you) you realize that it really WAS just about the desperation, the will, the clawing and gnawing to December. It was about a doomed but defiantly hopeful FIGHT to survive.

Not a story about death, but the will and struggle to LIVE.

It wasn’t a spectacle heavy film, but the talented cast kept things interesting and made the drama resonate. Erlinda Villalobos, a relatively unknown actress, has an every(wo)man appeal and inherent warmth that made Biring immediately sympathetic. She has a moment in her bathroom that was bold and gripping. But her feistiness and strength kept the film from getting too dark and dreary. In fact, all three leads gave the film a delightful light-heartedness despite its glum theme. Mailes Kanapi (Eva) and Alchris Galura (Terrence) were both strong support for Biring. I loved their genuine sisterly and maternal relationships respectively. It was a joy to watch them all interact on screen.

Get ready for your heart-strings to be pulled and played with by these three amazing actors.

Manang Biring encompassed everything you’d want to see in a great indie film: a powerful story, a memorable treatment, and unfamiliar but amazing on-screen talent. And to think this is only Diretor Joseph Papa’s second film. With a mind as rich as his, I can’t wait to see his future projects. Hopefully they still involve some animation; something that’s severely lacking in Philippine cinema.

Director Joseph Papa’s Manang Biring truly deserved its win. I wish everyone could still see it. Hopefully it gets another limited release or it gets some screen time on next year’s Cinema One Originals Film Fest. Manang Biring was a great concept executed ever so elegantly. The animation, the scoring, the story, script and delivery seemed to all come together with a single-minded goal to drive a story home. Like an orchestra playing a wonderful symphony. And in its relatively simple plot lies a profound sadness that reverberates. Manang Biring is a beautiful film – there’s no more appropriate way to describe it.



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