Now Playing! Filipino Family Affairs at Cinematografo

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A scene from H.P. Mendoza's 'Bitter Melon,' which tells the story of a family Christmas reunion in the Mission. (Courtesy Cinematografo International Film Festival)

The Cinematografo International Film Festival is only in its second year, but its founders picked an excellent time to launch. Despite the perennial problem of budget constraints, Filipino cinema is currently enjoying a period of remarkably robust creativity. Signal Rock, the opening-night film (Nov. 8) and the Philippines’ official submission for the Academy Award for Foreign Language Film, is an excellent entry point for Bay Area moviegoers looking to catch the buzz.

Intoy (played by Christian Bables), the underachieving protagonist of veteran director Chito S. Rono’s perceptive drama, lives in the small community of Biri with his parents and brother. The family’s main breadwinner, Intoy’s sister, lives and works in Finland. Her disembodied voice on a cell phone is best heard on the picturesque, elevated Signal Rock; when Intoy learns that she may lose custody of her daughter, he enlists the villagers in a clever scheme.

A scene from 'Signal Rock.'
A scene from 'Signal Rock.' (Courtesy Cinematografo International Film Festival)

The beautifully shot Signal Rock deftly traverses a wide range of Filipino—and universal—concerns, from economic insecurity and lack of opportunity to casual corruption and community cooperation. Rono and Bables are scheduled to attend the Cinematografo International Film Festival, which runs Nov. 8–11 at the AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francico.

Closer to home, gifted local indie filmmaker H.P. Mendoza’s third feature, Bitter Melon, unfolds at a family Christmas reunion in the Mission. The darkly comedic ensemble piece, which had its world premiere at CAAMFest in May, confronts some familiar sibling tensions—and the scars and specter of domestic violence—through a smartly constructed script and a talented cast that includes Jon Norman Schneider, L.A. Renigen, Theresa Navarro, Patrick Epino and Brian Rivera.

Mendoza is one of a small handful of Bay Area writer-directors who eschew an L.A. career path and whose work deserves a wider (read: mainstream) audience. Bitter Melon is a step forward in a career well worth watching.