Cinemalaya 2023: And the Winners are…

Cinemalaya 19th Edition Philippine Independent Film Festival, with the theme “ilumiNasyon,” was a success! It was held at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Pasay City from August 4 to 13, 2023, featuring 10 full-length films and 10 short films in competition. This was my third year supporting Cinemalaya as a media partner, and I was happy to share my personal recommendation of the best movies during the festival and my Cinemalaya experience this year.

by Carl Josep E. Papa ★★★★★

AWARDS: Best Film, Best Supporting Actress: Dolly de Leon, Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award

REVIEW: Ang ganda! This is an animated feature film that looks like a moving painting X amateur animation. It takes a creative take on alternate reality with an alien who befriends an abused boy by his uncle. It is another coming-of-age film of an animator set in Manila, and it is in the Filipino-Ilocano language. It deserves winning all the major awards with its innovative approach to share the story of the mixed realities of a person with a child abuse trauma.

LOGLINE:    The arrival of a familiar alien untangles a mouthless young man’s memories. 

SYNOPSIS:    Eric lives a rather normal life working as an animator in the Philippines He has a nice but dirty apartment, a good paying job, and a guy he likes. One thing glaring about Eric though is he does not have a mouth, literally. One day, he receives a call from his mother Rosalinda, asking him to check up on his seemingly lost uncle. Only to find out that his uncle has been dead for days. While still in shock, a familiar alien arrives wanting to take Eric away from Earth. Iti Mapukpukaw is Filipino-Ilocano rotoscope animated film that follows Eric’s life as it twists and turns after the arrival of the familiar alien, and the death of his uncle; both of which triggers Eric to remember his past and untangle his memories.

FILMMAKER PROFILE: A software engineer, CARL JOSEPH E. PAPA has always been passionate about filmmaking. His debut feature film The Unforgetting won the NETPAC Jury Prize in the 2014 QCinema. His first full-length animated feature film Manang Biring competed and won top prize at the Cinema One Originals Film Festival, and became the first Filipino animated film to be showcased at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival 2016. His second animated film Paglisan repeated the same feat in 2018. His film Love Bites bagged the top prizes in Animahenasyon 2018. Mang Jose, a film he wrote, was featured in BIFAN 2021. Iti Mapukpukaw is his third animated feature film to date. 

MAJOR CREDITS:  CAST: Carlo Aquino, Gio Gahol, Dolly de Leon        PRODUCTION STAFF: DIRECTOR/SCREENPLAY – Carl Joseph Papa; EDITOR – Ben Tolentino; DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY – Jehtro Jamon; MUSIC SCORER – Teresa Barrozo; SOUND DESIGN – Lamberto Casas, Jr; PRODUCTION DESIGNER – Eero Yves Francisco; EXECUTIVE PRODUCER – Geo Lomuntad, Dan Villegas, Antoinette Jadaone, Ianessa Valdellon; LINE PRODUCER – Ma. Sarah Perez

MINUTES                 Drama, Queer

by Dustin Celestino ★★★★★

AWARDS: Special Award for Best Ensemble and Special Jury Award

REVIEW: This is the type of movie that will linger on your mind, like watching a debate about politics with two solid opposing views. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell who is the villain and who is the protagonist. I enjoyed and savored each conversation and excellent dramatic scene from Agot Isidro, Dolly de Leon, and Bituin Escalante. The movie ended with the question: “Who will pull the trigger?” I asked myself that question: “Will I pull the trigger? What have I done lately to contribute to our country and the people who need justice from an oppressive government? When will the Philippines finally progress and be truly free?”

LOGLINE:    A collection of interwoven stories about life and violence in the Philippines, following a college professor, a university chancellor, a social worker, a police chief, two students, two mothers, and a lawyer.

SYNOPSIS:    Jose, a student, leaves his mother a letter to inform her that he’s leaving home to learn why people decide to join the underground movement. His decision reaches Michael, the chancellor of the university where he studies. Michael invites Jose’s professor, Victor, to his home to ask him if he had anything to do with Jose’s decision. They get into a heated argument and Victor’s principles and courage are put in question. After a few days, news reaches Victor that Jose is missing; rumored to have been executed by the renegade Police Chief, Gabriel Ventura. Victor sees this as an opportunity for him to prove his principles about nationalism and patriotism. He plots to murder Gabriel as a means to provide justice for Jose.

FILMMAKER PROFILE: DUSTIN CELESTINO is a filmmaker, playwright, and educator. His debut feature film Utopia (2019) was the Jury Prize winner of the C1 Originals 2019 Film Fest

ival, for which he was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Since 2017, he has received 3 first prize awards and a third prize award from the Carlos Palanca Awards, winning in both the English (2) and Filipino (2) divisions of the full-length play category. From 2018-2023, his one-act plays Mga Eksena sa Buhay ng Kontrabida, Doggy, and Fermata have been featured in the Virgin Labfest, the biggest theatre festival in the Philippines. He teaches screenwriting at the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde.

MAJOR CREDITS:  CAST: Dolly de Leon, Bituin Escalante, Agot Isidro, Miggy Jimenez, Jojit Lorenzo, Frances Makil-Ignacio, Paolo O’Hara, Joel Saracho, Dylan Ray Talon           PRODUCTION STAFF: DIRECTOR/SCREENPLAY – Dustin Celestino; EDITOR – Janel Gutierrez; DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY – Kara Moreno; MUSIC SCORER – Pau Protacio; SOUND DESIGN – Andrea Teresa T. Idioma, Nicole Rosacay; PRODUCTION DESIGNER – Josiah Hiponia; EXECUTIVE PRODUCER – Roscelyn Domingo, Janel Gutierrez

120 MINUTES                      Drama

by Ryan Machado ★★★★

AWARDS: Best Director: Ryan Espinosa Machado, Best Supporting Actor: Bon Andrew Lentejas

REVIEW: Huling Palabas is a beautifully shot coming-of-age film about a young boy in Romblon in the early 90s who discovers his love for movies and his queer identity. The film is visually stunning, with beautiful cinematography and the use of natural light. It also deals with the challenges of being queer in a provincial society in a heartwarming and moving way. The film also incorporates elements of Filipino mythology and folklore, which adds to its charm.

LOGLINE:    In search for his long-lost father, a young boy’s reality becomes mystified when two movie-like characters appear in his hometown. 

SYNOPSIS:    In every movie that he watches, 16-year-old Andoy creates narratives that could help him find answers to the questions that have always bothered him: Who is he and who is his father? While the truth remains elusive, his imaginings remain unrealized until two movie-like characters appear in their barrio – Ariel, a hairdresser who lures young men with his inexplicable charm, and Isidro, a mysterious, long-haired man who owns a VCD player. Andoy finds himself entranced with Ariel and Isidro and begins to spend intimate time with them. As he gets entangled with their twisted lives, his reality becomes mystified. Just like the movies, Andoy must decide whether to conclude his years-long search for his father with a bang or with a whimper.

FILMMAKER PROFILE: Although he has a love-hate relationship with his hometown in Romblon, filmmaker RYAN MACHADO is eternally enamored by its language, history and culture. He teaches at the UP Manila, where he obtained a degree in Philippine Arts. His one-act play Huling Haraya Nina Ischia at Emeteria won a Carlos Palanca award in 2022, and was part of the Virgin Labfest. His other plays were also part of the CCP’s theater festival such as Ang Mga Puyong (2017) and Isang Gabing ang Buwan ay Hila-hila ng Gula-gulanit na Ulap  (2019). He started his foray into filmmaking after attending John Torres’ workshop in 2016. His first short film Engkwento was a finalist at the Globe Independent Film Festival in 2016 and was nominated at the FAMAS Awards in 2017. He was part of Cinepanulat (2019), a screenwriting workshop by the award-winning filmmaker, Jun Lana, where his screenplay Huling Palabas earned the Best Screenplay – Jury Prize. He is currently completing his MFA in Creative Writing at the De La Salle University.

MAJOR CREDITS:  CAST: Shun Mark Gomez, Bon Andrew Lentejas, Cedrick Juan, Jay Gonzaga, Serena Magiliw, Senandra Gomez            PRODUCTION STAFF: DIRECTOR/SCREENPLAY – Ryan Machado; ASSISTANT DIRECTOR – Jerom Canlas Ventura; EDITOR – Cyril Bautista, Kurt Abrahan; DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY – Theo Lozada; MUSIC SCORER – Arvy Dimaculangan; SOUND DESIGN – Imman Varona; PRODUCTION DESIGNER – David Esguerra; EXECUTIVE PRODUCER – Sarah Brakensiek; LINE PRODUCER – Jane Danting; ACTING COACH & INTIMACY COORDINATOR – Regina De Vera; PRODUCER – Ferdy Lapuz; CREATIVE PRODUCERS – Cris Bringas, Jalz Zarate, Jerom Canlas 

90 MINUTES                        Coming-of-age

ROOKIE by Samantha Lee, Natts Jadaone

AWARDS: Best Editing, Audience Choice Award, Best Actress: Pat Tingjuy

REVIEW: I missed watching Rookie, but I’ve heard great things about it. I’m definitely going to check it out during the retrospective at next year’s Cinemalaya.

LOGLINE:    Everything changes when an awkward teenager joins the volleyball team and falls for the volleyball team captain.

SYNOPSIS:    The high school volleyball coach spots Ace on her first day at her new school and invites her to try out for the volleyball team. While initially feeling out of place in the volleyball court, everything changes when she falls for the volleyball team captain Jana who dislikes her because she sees her as a threat. Ace eventually finds friendship and freedom with her teammates but a post-game incident involving the team physical therapist changes her world forever. 

FILMMAKER PROFILE: SAMANTHA LEE uses romantic comedies as Trojan horses to advocate for a more nuanced representation of women and LGBTQ+ community in media. Her thesis film Agos received the Best Thesis, won 1st Prize (Documentary Category) at the 23rd CCP Gawad Alternatibo, and nominated for Best Documentary at Gawad Urian. After completing her Master of Communication (with distinction) in Melbourne in 2016, she wrote and directed her first film Baka Bukas, which won the Emerging Talent Award at Outfest 2017, and the Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. Her second film Billie and Emma (2018) won the Audience Award for Best Narrative at Inside Out 2019, the Jury Award Runner-Up for Best International Film in Out on Film, and Runner-Up for Audience Award for Favorite Feature at Seattle Queer Film Festival. It was listed as one of the “The Best Filipino Films of 2018” by CNN Philippines Life. Her first series Sleep With Me, starring Janine Gutierrez and Lovi Poe, premiered in Outfest Los Angeles and won the audience award for Best Episodic.

MAJOR CREDITS:  CAST: Pat Tingjuy, Aya Fernandez, Agot Isidro PRODUCTION STAFF: DIRECTOR – Samantha Lee; SCREENPLAY – Natts Jadaone; EDITOR – Ilsa Malsi; DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY – Choice Israel; MUSIC SCORER – Len Calvo; SOUND DESIGN – ______; PRODUCTION DESIGNER – Kaye Banaag; EXECUTIVE PRODUCER – Bianca Balbuena Liew, Dan Villegas; LINE PRODUCER – Ava Yap 

95 MINUTES                        Coming-of-age, Romantic, Comedy, LGBTQA+, Sports


AWARDS: Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Original Music Score

REVIEW: I intentionally skipped this movie because I wanted to forget about the pandemic. Past Cinemalaya films have overused the pandemic story, and I was tired of it — I didn’t realize how beautiful this movie is.

LOGLINE:    A disconnected desperate guy forges a deal with a group of privileged misfits to plan a secret party at the height of a global pandemic, for a chance to escape his reality.

SYNOPSIS:    Disconnected and desperate, The Guy wants to flee the country and reunite with his mother in the US to ease his loneliness. But with the global pandemic at its peak and confusing community quarantine protocols in place, he finds himself trapped in his condo against his will. One day, he finds a group of well-connected, privileged misfit condo residents who are itching to throw an illegal party with their friends as a form of release. When The Guy finds out that they have connections to the US Embassy, he offers to help them plan the event in exchange for his way out of this country. As The Guy figures out how to throw their illegal gathering, he meets the kind-hearted condominium staff Rosemarie who makes him feel seen and at home. With Rosemarie holding the key to the success of the party, The Guy takes a big risk with his new unlikely friendship.

FILMMAKER PROFILE: Filmmaker KEVIN MAYUGA’s career roots in advertising as a creative writer before shifting into production and filmmaking. With a degree in communication from Ateneo de Manila University, he worked as a copywriter at an award-winning ad agency before becoming a director at Globe Studios. He has directed and produced multiple commercials, digital content, music videos, and short films with various production outfits. He is now a full-time creative and film director at This Side Up. He was a finalist at Cinemalaya 2021 Short Film Competition. He is premiering his first full-length film When This Is All Over at the Cinemalaya 2023.

MAJOR CREDITS:  CAST: juan karlos Labajo, Jorrybell Agoto, Ana Abad Santos, Chaye Mogg, Nour Hooshmand, Jico Umali, Aaron Maniego, Renee Dominique, Lottie Bie, Zara Loayan    PRODUCTION STAFF: DIRECTOR – Kevin Mayuga; ASST. DIRECTOR – CHAD Cabigon; SCREENPLAY – Abbey Mayuga-de Guia, Benedict O. Mendoza; EDITOR – Maria Estela Paiso; DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY – Martika Ramirez-Escobar; MUSIC SCORER – Jorge Juan B. Wieneke V, Fern Tan, Luis Montales, Vince Dalida, Othello Intia, Moses Webb, Jaime San Juan, Justin Punzalan; SOUND DESIGN – Emilio Bien Sparks, Denise Simone; PRODUCTION DESIGNER – Kaye Banaag; EXECUTIVE PRODUCER – Ian Monsod, Bianca Balbuena,  Monster Jimenez, Rafa Laperal, Arthur de Guia, Vickie de Guia, Robie de Guia, Joanna de Guia, Christine de Guia, Sabrina de Guia, Fiorello Estuar; LINE PRODUCER – Tin Velasco; PRODUCER – Jan Pineda; ASSOCIATE PRODUCER – Bianca Basilio

90 MINUTES                        Youth drama

by Januar Yap ★★★

AWARDS: Best Short Film

REVIEW: I initially thought this was a boring short film that was just another one glorifying the poor using local dialect for drama. However, it was short but powerful in depicting how agricultural traders take advantage of poor farmers. The farmers often blame themselves for not getting a good price for their goods, which is disgusting. This film moved me to help projects that bring produce directly from farmers to consumers, cutting out the middle man.

LOGLINE:    On an errand run, an aging man realizes he missed doing one very important thing.  

SYNOPSIS:    Perfecto gets a call from Sir Eddie, asking him to deliver spices and vegetables, his own farm harvest, for the latter’s supposed birthday party. On the long road to his friend’s house, Piktoy cheerfully shares his excitement to people he meets. Only to realize at the end of the day that he missed doing one very important thing. 

FILMMAKERS PROFILE: JANUAR YAP is a novelist, poet, journalist and filmmaker. His literary works won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. He recently launched two books of fiction in Cebuano, titled Matag Adlaw and Arkipelago. He was one of the directors in the omnibus film Huwebes Huwebes, which was nominated for Best Picture in the 2020 Gawad Urian of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. His short documentary film Masterpiece was a finalist at the 2021 Gawad Alternatibo. He is currently pursuing his doctorate degree in media and communication studies at the RMIT University in Australia.

MAJOR CREDITS: CAST: Eddie Delima, Olimpio Tagalog           PRODUCTION STAFF:DIRECTOR/SCREENPLAY – Januar Yap; DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY – Ruel Antipuesto, Januar Yap; PRODUCTION DESIGN – Januar Yap; EDITOR – Idden delos Reyes; ORIGINAL MUSIC SCORE/SOUND – Karl Lucente; EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS – Propeller, Ruel Antipuesto, Januar Yap; LINE PRODUCER – Januar Yap; PRODUCTION ASSISTANT – Webb Villantes  

12:28 MINUTES                   Drama

by Arvin Belarmino ★★★

AWARDS: Best Screenplay, Audience Choice Award, Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) Award

REVIEW: I voted for this film for the Audience Choice Award because I loved the concept of humanizing zombies by showing that they still pray every day. However, the storyline was weak and ended abruptly with a shootout. It was still the most fun to watch among all the short films.

LOGLINE:    A zombie family gets their isolated life disturbed by a human being who attempts to steal their livestock.

SYNOPSIS:    In the secluded countryside, a zombie mother attempts to raise her son the normal way – sending him to school, suppressing his appetite for meat. Suddenly, as a human boy tries to steal their pet chicken, their peaceful life gets marred with an unexpected fit of violence.

FILMMAKER PROFILE: ARVIN BELARMINO’s first short film Kyel was part of the 2015 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival Short Film Category. In 2016, his short film Nakaw won Best Fiction Film in the 3rd Minikino Film Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was part of the 2018 Brussels Short Film Festival in Belgium and the 2017 Asiana International Short Film Festival in Seoul Korea as a competition film. In the Philippines, Nakaw won the Best Short Film in the 2017 Gawad Urian and returned as a finalist in the 2017 Cinemalaya. In 2020, his short film Tarang won Best Director at the 2021 Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino Sine Isla. It also won Best Film at the 36th Interfilm Berlin Short Film Festival. In 2022, the Cinefondation Residency in Paris, France chose Belarmino as one of the top 6 filmmakers for his feature film project Ria, which won the CNC Pitch Award. The residency is programmed by Festival de Cannes. In the same year, the filmmaker was a participant at the 10th edition of the Locarno Filmmakers Academy which formed part of the 75th Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. In 2023, Ria was selected at the La Fabrique Cinema in Cannes and also for the Sorfond Pitching Forum in Norway. He could be reached at

MAJOR CREDITS:  CAST: Shalomar Binamira, Andrew Legados Figueroa, Nicksonne Dionson, Jing Diaz, Jayne Genido, and Lord Terence Genido PRODUCTION STAFF: DIRECTOR – Arvin Belarmino; SCREENPLAY – Arvin Belarmino and Kyla Romero; CINEMATOGRAPHER/EXECUTIVE PRODUCER – Tristan Cua; PRODUCTION DESIGN – Christian Espiritu; EDITORS – Tristan Cua, Chester Villanueva, and Dennis Deleonio; ORIGINAL MUSIC SCORE – Shekinah Alegro; SOUND – MJ Tan; PRODUCERS/LINE PRODUCERS – Tristan Cua and Kristine De Leon; PROSTHETICS – Neil Russell Fuller Amon; ASSISTANT PROSTHETICS – Divine Jimenez and Jhon Joseph Bungcasan; LOCATION MANAGER – Allen Trece; PRODUCTION ASSOCIATES – Gabriel Ramos, Makeu Asuncion, and Zarrina Fernandez; SUBTITLING – Zarrina Fernandez and John Verlin Santos

12:23 MINUTES                   Drama


Overall, I enjoyed watching the films at Cinemalaya with Rache, especially the ones that made me think and inspired me to action. I wasn’t able to watch all 10 full-length films, so we had to guess which ones were good to watch during the free schedule. Also, the chairs in Cinema Rizal were uncomfortable to sit on for long periods of time, and I missed watching films in the main theater of CCP.

Here are my three insights about Cinemalaya:

1. What film can you recommend to watch? This is the most frequently asked question. Next time, I will watch all the movies during the first weekend so that I can share reviews early on specially what not to watch like Bulawang Nga Usa.

2. I fell in love with Filipino Movies again. The Gen X generation is jaded already about movies made by Filipinos because the only ones ones making money are the rom-com pakilig movies, TVJ-type of comedy, or the Viva Max softporn kind. Also, the indie scene is filled with glorifying the poor stories, using local dialect to be cool, or doing queer-movies to death. But the winning films in this year’s Cinemalaya defies all that. Ang ganda pala ng Pelikulang Pilipino.

3. The highest form of storytelling is full-featured movie. I have been blogging since 2005, and I think it is time to turn some of the stories we shared about the Philippines and Filipino culture into a movie for Cinemalaya. Do you have any suggestions?

Congrats to Cinemalaya and thank you for the inspiration!

Live an Awesome Life with Christ,

Founder & Digital Creator, Our Awesome Planet

Disclosure: Our Awesome Planet is an official media partner for Cinemalaya 2023. I wrote this article with my biases, opinions, and insights.

P.S. Super love the opening film of this year’s Cinemalaya!


by Quark Henares ★★★★★

Marupok AF (As Fuck) is a film about a transgender woman who is looking for love online. She is catfished by a director who hates transgender people. The story is a reflection of our current social media realities, and it teaches us to have more empathy towards transgender people.

I learned a lot from this film, including the challenges that transgender people face in looking for love in a binary cancel culture world. I also learned that it is important to be kind and understanding to everyone, regardless of their gender identity.

Finally, the movie is a reflection on our own weaknesses and pagiging marupok. We all have our own moments — so don’t judge.

A dark comedy, thriller film inspired by a true story on travails of online dating that went viral on Twitter opens the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival 2023 on August 4, 2023, 7pm, for the first time at the Philippine International Convention Center.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Quark Henares, Marupok AF (Where Is The Lie) focuses on a hopeless romantic Janzen Torres who finds another chance at love when she matches with the handsome and seemingly perfect Theo Balmaceda on a dating app. Unfortunately, on the day of their meet-up, Theo ghosts her, leading Janzen into an intricate web of deceit, lies, and catfishing by sociopathic mastermind Beanie Landridos. The 89-minute film stars EJ Jallorina, Royce Cabrera and Maris Racal.

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