When the trailer for director Jason Paul Laxamana’s Instalado premiered last June, the high-concept science fiction drama was met by mostly positive reactions online. Laxamana, an indie film circuit regular with 12 directing credits under his belt, has never been afraid of mining new genres, and Instalado is his first foray into science fiction.
There were some detractors, of course, but many praised the film's futurist elements—impressive computer graphics, a plot that would impress any Philip K. Dick scholar, and visually pleasing production design that accentuate its dystopian themes.
“Instalado is set in the near future when the technology of installation will have reached the Philippines. In the world of the movie, installation is a neurological technology that allows bodies of knowledge to be installed directly into brains,” explains Laxamana, whose new movie will be screened at the ToFarm Film Festival from July 12 to 18 in select theaters in and around Manila.
This technological breakthrough, which allows the receiver to gain vast knowledge in an instant, mesmerizes the public, prodding the masses to get an installation rather than enrolling in schools. “[But] due to the economic inequality in the country, a lot cannot afford installation, including the protagonist, Victor (played by McCoy De Leon), a farmer’s son.”
The film follows Victor’s struggles to raise money for an installation. And as the audience dives deeper into the rabbit hole with him, the flaws of this fictional trend are exposed.
If this sounds like a storyline you’ve never encountered locally, that’s probably because it is. Science fiction is a branch of speculative fiction that, despite the continued evolution of Philippine cinema, is a genre we have yet to seriously tap into.
What accounts for sci-fi in our mainstream film industry—which has been producing an abundance of horror and fantasy in recent years—are tepid superhero films (Resiklo, anyone?) and blockbusters that refuse to meditate on relevant social issues.
“There were occasions when big film producers in the Philippines would ask me what kind of films I really would be passionate to make,” Laxamana recalls. “And when I answered science fiction, I could sense them, despite their wide smiles and respectful nods, frowning at the idea.”
According to Laxamana, budget constraints could be one of the pertinent reasons sci-fi has never flourished here. This makes creation of a decent sci-fi film reliant on glossy visuals, special effects, and expensive-looking set pieces such a high-risk business proposition.
But what of both horror and fantasy film fest favorites? If studios are willing to shell out shitloads of cash for another Shake, Rattle, and Roll or some other Encantadia-like epic, why aren’t they investing in possibly visionary sci-fi narratives when there’s no shortage of other genre films being produced?
'If studios are willing to shell out shitloads of cash for another Shake, Rattle, and Roll or some other Encantadia-like epic, why aren’t they investing in possibly visionary sci-fi narratives when there’s no shortage of other genre films being produced?'
Take Erik Matti and Dondon Monteverde’s Reality Entertainment, for example. The forward-thinking production house has so far produced a diverse number of genre films since its inception—critically acclaimed and commercially appealing hits that didn’t kowtow to mainstream studios and the demands they have set.
Instead, they have delivered films with a strong point of view and a distinct voice. Matti, arguably one of the country’s most versatile filmmakers, has dabbled in crime (On the Job and Honor Thy Father), horror (Seklusyon), grindhouse (Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles), and even psychosexual thrillers (Rigodon).
Obviously, the problem isn’t financial, but rather, commercial. In a culture steeply rooted in the folkloric and the religious, the idea of locally produced sci-fi entertainment is quickly lost on both producers and moviegoers. As a people, we can't seem to comprehend placing our third world country in a science fiction setting, when in fact, our political, social, and cultural climate would be the perfect catalysts for these narratives.
South African-Canadian director Neil Blomkamp's District 9, a tale of aliens landing their ship and taking residence in Johannesburg, is a classic example of exploiting relevant third world themes for sci-fi purposes.
'In a culture steeply rooted in the folkloric and the religious, the idea of science as entertainment is quickly lost on both producers and moviegoers'
Before Instalado, the 2011 Cinemalaya short film Immanuel, starring Ping Medina and Meryll Soriano, successfully elucidated on dystopian sci-fi themes. Directed by Gio Puyat, it takes place in a Philippines where the supply of fresh air is running short, rendering oxygen a commodity accessible only to those who can pay for it.
Observing the former and the latter, it’s easy to see some of the common qualities they share: both are entries for independent film festivals, both attack issues of class, and both stray far from the conventions of typical Pinoy speculative fiction films. It seems that when it comes to local science fiction (or, for that matter, any genre outside of what people are already used to), we’ve become so dependent on products that come out of the West, especially those from America.
Despite the obvious roadblocks, filmmakers like Laxamana and Puyat continue to explore ingenious ways to bring their science fiction fantasies to life, employing storytelling techniques and finding interested audiences in niche markets.
“The sci-fi aspect of the film is mostly unseen,” Laxamana says. “We introduce the high-tech concept of installation at the beginning of the film, and then expect the audience to use their imagination for the rest of the story. We also used the limited point-of-view of outcasts who don’t get to live the high-tech aspects of the world we’ve built.”
He admits his own film is not heavy on the science, which sci-fi purists would deem soft SF, characterized by its liberal exploration of social sciences and human affairs. “It’s merely conceptual. I was more interested in the societal and cultural effects of the technology of installation than in the scientific theories and details.”
Since getting projects of this ilk funded has proven to be a challenge, seeking out backers and film festivals who are unafraid to champion experimental scripts is one possible solution to our current science fiction shortage.
Back to the future
Instalado should be commended for the mere fact that it aims for originality in a cinema zeitgeist muddled with matinee idol love-teams, hugot-porn, and franchises anchored on the cult of celebrity.
“These kinds of stories are usually attractive to the younger audience by virtue of concept alone,” Laxamana muses, hinting at the fact that the younger, more technologically connected set are the ones who crave fresh ideas in film.
“Usually, the sci-fi genre is just a colorful, fancy shell used to attract people to listen," Laxamana adds. "Encapsulated within the shell are stories that mirror the real world and its issues—social inequality, deterioration of humanity, and even environmental problems. If one tells a story that hard-sells these issues, people might find it too preachy or imposing. But if you sugarcoat it with genre, then the issues become more palatable to them.”
All you need to do is visit the Instalado Facebook page to witness the clamoring for cinematic innovations. One need not even look too far into the future to realize it.
Last year’s historical Metro Manila Film Festival pivot was a step in the right direction, where tragicomic character studies, animated features, and even documentaries were lauded for the dynamic shift they contributed to film as both art and entertainment as a whole. So, why not sci-fi?
Sadly, it looks like this year is seeing a return to tired, old ways.
Instalado premieres at the ToFarm Film Festival, which runs in selected theaters from July 12 to 18, 2017.