Out of all the Cinemalaya films this year, ANi: The Harvest was the one I was most excited to watch. Since last year’s announcement that this futuristic sci-fi film made it to the main competition section of the festival, online publicity and marketing have been nonstop. The film crew, headed by directors Kim Zuñiga and Sandro del Rosario, made sure to publicize the film as the most innovative sci-fi film that Philippine cinema has yet to offer. It boasts state-of-the-art visual effects and computer-generated imagery that would compare to Hollywood productions. While the film’s visuals are its strongest suit and definitely worthy of praise, ANi‘s weak execution and confused storytelling unfortunately overshadow its technical feats.
The film is ambitious. It attempts to fuse the country’s agricultural economy with futuristic, robot technology. In doing so, it explores the contradictions between the urban and rural settings, as well as the industrialized and feudal systems. However, the film never finds the right balance in exploring these themes and instead ends up with half-baked ideas that ultimately do not work. At the center of this mess is the underutilized protagonist Mithi (Zyren Dela Cruz), who was never given enough material to showcase his internal dilemmas and trauma. Even his friendship with the titular warbot felt too superficial and inorganic that by the film’s climax, it’s hard to feel anything for what ANi and Mithi’s relationship had become. Moreover, the film’s 2050 setting would warrant extensive world-building, but the film instead relied solely on visual effects and production design to achieve this effect. Nothing was ever fully described in detail; a solid screenplay was sacrificed in lieu of top-notch computer-generated imagery.
Despite the film’s convoluted storyline, one message seems to stand out: Filipino filmmakers can also make CGI films on par with Hollywood productions. And while the film should be lauded for showcasing the talents of Filipino animators, it forgets that there is a huge difference between the political economy of Hollywood and Philippine cinema, and to strive to be like Hollywood is to conform to American standards of good cinema. Zuñiga and Del Rosario need to understand that the Hollywood studio system, as well as the production and distribution models that come with it, are some of the primary causes for the continued subordination of Philippine cinema to foreign movies. Instead of striving to produce Hollywood-level films, we need to find the true identity and language of our cinema and cultivate them in the years to come.
Overall, ANi is a welcome but misguided attempt to elevate film production in the country. Its lack of coherent storytelling and its pandering to Hollywood standards weigh down an otherwise tender coming-of-age story.