Astig (Mga Batang Kalye)

Astig (Mga Batang Kalye) came out of Cinemalaya as this year’s top-grossing film, owing much to the major studio stars that populate its cast. Backed up by producer Boy Abunda, the movie was poised to become the intersection of independent filmmaking and mainstream appeal. But it didn’t really go too well. Astig picks up the worst habits of both independent and mainstream filmmaking, producing a film that manages to be both vapid and exploitative. Astig yet again proves that money and big stars aren’t enough to make a good film.

The movie tells the story of four young men making their living on the streets of Manila. Ariel (Dennis Trillo) is a small-time hustler who grows a conscience after getting involved in a relationship with an innocent young girl. Boy (Edgar Allen Guzman) is an expectant father doing everything he can to get the money to support his future family. Ronald (Arnold Reyes) is the illegitimate son of a Chinese patriarch. He’s come to Manila to sell off his inheritance, a derelict building in Escolta, but is finding it difficult. And Baste (Sid Lucero) is supposed to be studying to graduate from college, but taking care of his family is taking up most of his time.

For years, the mainstream and its supporters in the government defended the limpness of the local film industry by downplaying independent productions, lumping them all together under the pejorative label “poverty porn.” But here we are; the mainstream and its money and stars are finally given a chance to change the direction of independent cinema, and it produces poverty porn. The screenplay is a distillation of every tired cliché from every terrible independent film, running a gamut of “shocking” scenes that supposedly paint a truer picture of our metropolis than we usually see. Subject matter aside, the narrative just doesn’t work very well, circling its plot points with nothing to say or nothing new to show audiences. Its tacked-on Altmanesque stylings only serve to break up an already confused plot. To its credit, the production is pretty slick. Excellent editing holds this fractured, piecemeal story together like duct tape on a shattered window. The cinematography pulls together a couple of really interesting frames while keeping the energy high. Its technical slickness is a double-edged sword, however. The film ends up feeling markedly artless, devoid of any sort of grace as it vulgarly marches out its parade of “gritty” scenes and celebrity cameos.

The big buzz that this film amassed was mostly due to the involvement of its stars. Aside from the four young men who played the main characters, Astig features cameos from twenty or so stars of varied luminescence; among them Ai Ai de las Alas, Vhong Navarro and Boy Abunda himself. The presence of these stars doesn’t really do much for the film, their sudden appearance more of a distraction than anything else. The movie eventually degenerates into a cinematic version of Where’s Waldo, taking the film down to new lows of vapidity.

Take the mainstream’s insipid focus on stars and the independent scene’s tendency to fall back on a set of tired clichés, and you have something approximating the experience that is Astig. It’s the perfect storm of everything that people tend to complain about regarding local productions. Despite some decent filmmaking, it’s a completely frustrating film. And as it moves into cinemas, drawing new audiences with its stable of bankable stars, it is more likely to turn off independent films altogether. And that’s the real tragedy here.