In this era where anything is almost possible in filmmaking, imagination is the limitation. While some fancy movies with heavy CGI and SFX, call me old-fashioned, but I find those unappealing. What excites me more are the minimalists, raw narrative style, and unique visual storytelling. I decided to write a review on a film which suited well to my preference and I considered one of the best recent releases from my country. Cleaners is a one-hour and 18 minutes regional film first released at QCinema International Film Festival where it won Best Picture – Asian Next Wave Competition and Best Screenplay. It had won multiple awards at local film festivals and was also screened at numerous international film festivals including Busan IFF and Torino FF. Cleaners is an independent film written and directed by Glenn Barit. Just a week ago, Letterboxd released the Top 25 Highest Rated Movies for the First Half of 2021 with Cleaners on the top spot. Please read on to know more about the film.
Story, Frames & Score
Cleaners is a comedy/coming-of-age anthology divided into four chapters with a prologue and an epilogue that converges the stories together. The story centers on 8 high school students in their senior years from a Catholic School in Tuguegarao, Cagayan, Philippines. They are the designated cleaners of their section. In the public schools in the Philippines, groups of students are tasked to clean the room after class dismissal thus the title of the movie denotes. Each student deal with different pressures of being clean and pure while also discovering that the world is dirty and superficial, to begin with.
Cleaners is a unique stop-motion feature. What makes it stands out more than anything is the visual palette of monochromatic photocopy texture with distinct and captivating neon-highlighter colors. It’s worth mentioning how the movie was created. The first time filmmakers and producers shot the whole movie and print 8 frames per second to come up with 34, 560 frames. Then they photocopied them in black and white and painstakingly highlight certain sections of each frame manually which lasted for several months. Afterward, they scanned those images to produce the final cut and scanned them back to create the movie.
Glenn Barit who also do the scoring for the film shows an excellent choice of music. The songs from popular Original Pilipino Music (OPM) bands do not only make the film poignant but transcendental. Another noticeable addition to the soundtracks are songs from famous artists from Tuguegarao. Those tracks elevate authenticity and give out a unique regional tone.
Characters & Performances
The whole story revolves around the story of 8 main characters. Stephanie (Ianna Taguinod), a germaphobia who escapes doing the school gardening and auditions for the school’s dance troupe which ends on an embarrassing performance she will never ever forget.
Angeli (Gianne Rivera), a responsible and a conservative class president who tries her best to persuade the Emo boys (Leomar Baloran, Julian Narag, and Carlo Mejia) to join her in a cultural dance for Buwan ng Wika. Francis (Allan Gannaban) is obsessed with wooing Britney (Charisse Mabonnag) to choose him as her prom date. Lastly, Junjun (Andrie Marquez), son of influential political persons in town is running for Youth Council President. The movie shows the experiences they had during the last academic year. Along the way, the teenagers somehow find out that life isn’t easy as they were confronted with various challenges and hardships.
All the actors in the film are non-professional actors and casting them is definitely a marvelous idea. Those non-actor teenagers portray their characters with authentic emotions, raw energy, and compelling dialogue delivery. The youthful energy brings the nostalgic vibe of the film that every viewer would relate to the story and root for the characters.
Screenplay & Direction
The movie uses powerful visual storytelling. The vibrant neon-highlighted colors against a greyscale background provide a dynamic layer of storytelling. Each protagonist is colored distinctly making it stands out from the rest of the frame. Though each character is presented in such limited time, Glenn Barit pens a detailed character profile and makes their lives dazzling and vibrating. Character arcs are solid making you root for them as they venture to real life after high school.
The story is entertaining throughout with an equal blend of melancholic and comical scenes. The story does not only brings forth nostalgia through the high school life of the protagonists, instead, it is also an allegory of socio-political issues in the Philippines. It tackles social commentary like gender discrimination, teenage pregnancy, bullying, identity crisis, racism, misogyny, economic gap, corruption, and dirty politics.
The physical narration use by Glenn Barit signifies his utmost dedication to producing a piece of cinema mirroring the regional culture as well as confronting the fault-finding society through the protagonists’ defiance, rebellion, self-discovery, and self-actualization.
As it continuously screens to different international festival, Cleaners become a dauntless introduction of Philippine regional cinema to the world. Though the subtext is adapted from Filipino culture, it’s message is universal. Cleaners is a beautiful and powerful coming-of-age film depicting the typical Filipino high school students. More than that, the film showcases the protagonists fighting their own battle of self-identity against a society that imposes uniformity and compels youth’s conformity with the existing norms. This stop-motion feature dispenses lucid teenage angst about life’s unfairness, and uncertainty and concluded with a catharsis scream as they start their journey to life.
Disclaimer: The above review solely illustrates the views of the writer.