Mortician of Manila: Brutal and Brilliant

Leah Borromeo’s Award-winning short film on a 24-hour funeral parlor in Manila and its clientele is not for the weak of heart (or stomach). But every frame is worth it.
This short film, initially created for the Al-Jazeera Witness documentary series, is yet another lesson in the almost trite slogan of ACAB but this is on an entirely different and global level.

Mortician is a detailed and heartbreaking examination of Orly, the elderly (yes) mortician whose job it is to take care of some of the most savaged and battered dead bodies of the city. As this documentary unfolds, Borromeo shows Orly’s complex ethics and personal life with great skill, making Mortician of Manila one of the most incredible documentaries I’ve seen in years. Orly is a challenging and complicated character to follow but there’s truly no one like him. Charming and maddening at the same time, this Mortician has to be seen to be believed.

With a sign on the wall reading “Autopsy is Free of Charge,” Orly believes he is doing a service to the painfully poor community that he serves. But this community (and the entirety of the Philippines) has been ruptured and is continually terrorized by current President Rodrigo Duterte and his anti-drug policies. These policies (the Philippine Drug War) actively target the poor, authorize public citizens to kill drug addicts (the government does not see them as human), established death squads, and encouraged police to murder young Filipinos and plant evidence on them to establish “guilt.”

Let’s be clear: this is a very graphic short doc and totally qualifies as a horror movie. But it will leave your heart shattered by the end. The terror of these families who would rather see their children stay in prison for a safer environment is a real thing. Young men in their 20s are shot like animals and left to die in an alley, families just accept this as life and move forward trying to make the next step…if they can afford it. Which they usually cannot. Funerals are a luxury. Orly does what he can but…it’s tough out there. Bodies keep coming and the money isn’t there for anyone.

This is a must-see if you can handle hard-watches. Leah Borromeo is an excellent documentarian. Using Orly’s story as a through-line, heartbreaking social issues, political commentary and graphic imagery are handled with sensitivity and incisiveness. An incredible film.

This film is part of the Juke In The Box package for the LAAPFF, only available to viewers in the United States from September 24, 2020 at 12pm PT to September 30, 2020 at 11:59PT. From October 1, 2020 at 12pm PT to October 31, 2020 at 11:59 pm PT, this film is only available to viewers in Southern California (excluding San Diego County).

I’m a Fan of BIFAN: Part 1

Yep. The title is about as Dad Joke and pun-tastic as you can get. But to be honest, it describes my feelings towards the film festival I recently spent a week at perfectly. While it has been a few years since I have devoted any time to serious fan culture studies (it has changed significantly since I was focusing my attention in that area of study) I will stand behind the basic definition of being a fan being an “ardent admirer or enthusiast” of a given subject/topic/area of the world. Especially since I am highly allergic to the newer term the kids are saying “I Stan xxxx thing.” That refers to a toxic state of fandom which…is not my jam. And my experience at BIFAN? Totally a fan experience and not at all a Stan experience.

It’s hard to say what I love most about going to film festivals. I’ve been going for so long and they’ve become such a part of me that it’s difficult to pick out just one aspect.

I have been blessed to have spent many years enjoying films at TCMFF (Turner Classic Movie Film Festival), AFI Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, OUTFEST, LA Asian Pacific Film Fest, Beyond Fest and more. These became as much part of my life as holidays or family events. In some instances, perhaps even more solid and reliable.


So now I’m sitting here in the north of South Korea, recovering from my very first film festival in my new adopted home. And wow. I’m just going to say it straight up: the 24th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) 부전국제판타스틱영화제 was ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS. It was a film festival that felt like it was made for me. Every single film I watched felt like it was designed with me as audience. That was such a new and joyful experience!

Getting to the Festival…

There were some obstacles of course. The most obvious one is that BIFAN is the first festival I have ever had to travel for. Having been born and raised in Hollywood, California, every film festival I attended previous to this had come to me. So I got used to sleeping in my own bed, knowing the weather, being comfortable in the environment, etc. That was not the case here.

So off I went to Bucheon and my lovely friend Tyler agreed to watch my temperamental cat.
Arriving in Bucheon, I had a few surprises because I’m still really getting to know Korea.
The hotel that I thought was close? It was 20 minutes away and it was…not exactly a hotel. It was more of a motel. As in a love motel. But they were awfully nice at the front desk and it was basically clean even though it was the most uncomfortable bed. But hey…no one goes there for the beds. And I wasn’t there that much. I was mostly at the CGV seeing movies and then eating great food! So it was not a big deal at all.
Honestly, I laughed and think it’s pretty funny. Also? Who doesn’t love a good adventure while traveling?

OK, fair. Most people don’t. But I’m flexible. I mean, weird shit happens all the time here and if you can’t roll with it, you’re going to be really unhappy.
Even though a lot of things that I could never have imagined in my most creative imagination have happened since I moved here in November, 2019 (I mean, pandemic?!?!) I never want to live anywhere else.

So, I found my hotel, got situated and got prepared for what I knew was going to be a different kind of week and festival.

Festivaling in the Time of Pandemic

I got one of these packets for EVERY single screening I attended- an alcohol swab and some hand sanitizer. They were handed to me by volunteers as I walked into the theaters.

First off, yes. So let’s talk about That Thing. That Pandemic Thing: COVID-19.
Being in South Korea I absolutely know how lucky I am. Every day I acknowledge my privilege and my heart aches for my friends, family and colleagues in the US. I feel guilty a lot. But there’s not much I can do.
So that’s where my dumb broken brain is at.

As for BIFAN, the presence of a global pandemic (even as well-managed as it is in South Korea) changed everything about the festival:
The people who ran and figured out BIFAN this year took immense care and consideration with the strict medical precautions. I felt completely safe and comfortable there. People in white jumpsuits went into the theaters in between screenings to sterilize the theaters before audiences could enter, temperatures for each audience member were actively taken and observed for every film, people were spaced out in seats so well for social distancing! Everyone stayed masked while watching the films and volunteers reminded those who dipped their masks for a brief moment or two to please remember to keep their masks on.
By the end of the festival I was a total pro at figuring out how to drink a soda or a cold coffee drink with my mask on.

A lot goes into a film festival (especially an international film festival) to make it happen. So how the hell are you supposed to make it go when the world is on fire?!?!? Up until BIFAN, most big events and festivals have just been cancelling here in South Korea. It just didn’t seem manageable or like a controllable process.

Like Sundance, Telluride and the rest of the festival circuit, BIFAN usually hosts big parties, international guests for juries and Q&As…the event is an EVENT. But the BIFAN staff knew this was impossible this year. Even if Korea could host some dinners, it was impossible for filmmakers and guests from other countries to join simply due to quarantines and the economic burden that this would have put them under. The savvy part of a very well planned festival was the recognition that, while this year would have a loss of the crazy in-person celebrations, there was still the possibility to make the festival HAPPEN. THAT part WAS possible.

But how?

BIFAN put an extreme amount of work into their festival that platforms extreme works. They made it a hybrid festival- partially online, partially in-person. They still had the industry meetings, the filmmaker school support forums, and all the other the non-exhibition events that I generally don’t participate in that they have every year. I WAS ABSOLUTELY BLOWN AWAY.
These are never events that I attend. I don’t want to make films, I just want to watch and write about them. However, as a film archivist and preservationist I believe strongly in matters of access and the kinds of access that the BIFAN team made happen for film professionals at BIFAN was UNPARALLELED. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was groundbreaking in a way that it can be used in the future for other situations and BIFAN is on the cutting edge in this way.

The hard work that BIFAN put into making sure there was going to be zero infections at the festival was obvious and something that I felt very confident in. As a researcher, I had put a lot of time looking into the lengths the staff were going to in order to make the 24th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) 부전국제판타스틱영화제 safe and not only was I not disappointed but I was impressed!

Here in South Korea we haven’t had any COVID infections stemming from movie theaters audiences. People have continued to go to the movies and that is not where sicknesses seem to come from. While audience attendance has gone down and some theaters have closed temporarily and/or limited the number of daily screenings, the infection clusters that have popped up recently have generally been traced to external influence, people acting irresponsibly (no masks, large/excessive gatherings of people ) or strict medical precautions not being taken to ensure safety.

I was prepared for BIFAN to be a different kind of festival due to the COVID issues but I was not ready for it to maintain fun and fabulourom the first film to the last film, everything went smoothly. Usually at film festivals I’m used to a few bumps on that first day (and there may have been one or two) but with the added stressors of COVID-19, BIFAN and the staff and volunteers really went above and beyond in a way that I’ve never seen before. When they write about people in South Korea coming together around this pandemic…they’re not kidding. But it was also BIFAN and the BIFAN community that made it happen. Incredible work.

These are the bracelets that we were given for each movie. Each film was marked 1-4 (depending what number it was) and our temperatures were taken and we were double checked by volunteers that we had the correct wristbands and had been through the whole process before we could enter the theaters. So thorough and good!
They way that they cordoned off the seats for social distancing. It worked so well!
Ready for my first film of the day, on that Friday morning!

Let’s Watch Some Movies!

Day One: Friday July 10, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
A Girl Missing (Koji Fukada, 2019) – Japan
Dancing Mary ダンシング (Hiroyuki Tanaka/ SABU, 2019) – Japan
Gundala (Joko Anwar, 2019) – Indonesia
The Sunshine Family (Kim Tai-sik, 2019) – Korea/Phillipines

Friday I watched 4 movies and one Q&A. It was pure joy to be back in the theaters again, with other people, shuffling into the seats, putting bags and belongings down, getting settled in to enjoy. I have to say that it was a little rough for me to have chosen a slow burn thriller as my first choice of the day, but WOW!!!! I was NOT SORRY.
As a woman and a media scholar this film truly knocked me off my feet and I did not see any of it coming.

Please excuse the last vestiges of my nail polish 😥

A Girl Missing よこがお (Koji Fukada, 2019) was not the movie I thought it was going to be and I am so grateful.
It was better and more complex on a multitude of levels. A quietly important film, A Girl Missing is extremely relevant to current perspectives of women and deftly handles societal notions of guilt/blame, and the omnipresent media’s exploitative trend of “anything for a story.” If I go into too much detail, it will ruin it. In fact, I feel like I’ve already given too much away.
Yes, it moves slowly at first. But once it gets going, it’s an internally screaming rampage that cannot be stopped, a train that is off the tracks and all you can do is watch in agony as the narrative just builds to its conclusion. Really an exquisite film.

The next film I went into was Dancing Mary ダンシング (Hiroyuki Tanaka/ SABU, 2019). I was a little underwhelmed by the title of the film but you can’t always tell a book by its cover, right? And I was in heaven! This film was DEFINITELY my jam. Here is the trailer but it doesn’t even begin to cover 1/10th of 1/10th of what is in the film.

What I enjoyed so much was the social commentary and the character building and the genuine humor. I love Japanese dark comedies that are smart and well-made and this one is in that realm. Playing around in the Yakuza, ghost-story, punk rock and road-trip genres, it’s really an original work that only come from Japan. Every review has called it a cult film but I just want to call it a movie that filled me with pleasure and hit all my sweet spots.

So BIFAN was a game changer for me. I had some idea that it would be, but not like this. My next film was Gundala by a filmmaker, Joko Anwar. I’m going to leave the trailer here and let it speak for itself. What I do want to say for Gundala though is that it is extremely strong in its casting and social commentary and the action scenes are KILLER. The villain absolutely RULES and the tension is just *chef’s kiss*! Definitely watch it!

My final film of the day was a Filipino-Korean co-production called The Sunshine Family (Kim Tai-sik, 2019) based off of a Japanese film from 1992 called The Hit-and-Run Family. While I have not seen the original source material (I will- the story is too good to not see where it was born), this transnational interpretation was hilarious, heart-breaking and ultimately uniquely tender and satisfying.
Sure it’s a comedy, but Sunshine Family still manages to platform deep discussions about marital relationships, queerness, mental health and healthy parenting in between scenes of shutting out nosy neighbors trying to keep a…terrible secret.

As I watched, I kept thinking about my dear friend Ferrin. I think he would have really loved it and I really did miss sitting next to someone I love watching a movie that I was falling in love with. It is one of the great tragedies of COVID that this is not a possibility at the moment. When I fall in love with a film (as I do, time and time again) I always enjoy having a “partner in crime” to experience it with me. But at least I knew that there were other people in the theater with me enjoying the film and I could hear them loving the same things I did. That is such a critical part of the film experience. Sunshine Family was also the first Q&A that I went to and while I didn’t understand very much of it (my Korean is not very good), I stayed for the whole thing and I did understand a lot of it and it was so lovely to see these actors in person, in masks, in person.

Day Two: Saturday July 11, 2020
The films that I watched this day were:
Guilt By Design (Lai Siu Kwan, Sze Pak Lam and Yongtai Liu, 2019)- Hong Kong
Signal 100 (Lisa Takeba, 2020) – Japan

I was really taken by Guilt By Design. It’s a very Hitchcockian courtroom thriller with a great deal of action and nifty turns and twists that you may/may not see coming. While I live/eat/ sleep/breathe true crime stories, mysteries, and anything with a tense narrative involving a puzzle to be solved, I am generally the one person who can never see “it” coming. It’s not that I’m stupid, but I’m usually so wrapped up in the story and so tied to the characters (I’m 100% the ideal reader/watcher/audience of any media) and story that I can’t take that step back that my friends can. I really try- and I tried so hard to figure things out in this film! But I was still surprised at the end and so excited (like a little kid at a theme park) when the finale hit. It always pleases me when I don’t get it and the film just goes crazy. I had so much fun watching this!

Signal 100. Holy fucking shit. This went far beyond what I thought it was going to be. There’s almost no words that I can use to describe it. It’s definitely in the Battle Royale-Japanese kids/violence against each other in high school-genre, but it’s like…take that to 11. I loved the polarity of images that occurred between the pre-recorded intro to the film by the woman-director from Japan and then the film itself. While I didn’t understand what she said, she was young, beautiful, pregnant and smiling and Signal 100 was probably the most violent and gory films I saw at BIFAN. Did I like it? OH HELL YES. That movie was fucking great. Here’s a teensy trailer taste…

And with that, I end part 1 of the “I’m a Fan of BIFAN Chronicles.” Please return to this same place for details on Sunday through Thursday!