Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976)

“It’s your father’s fault.” the heroine of Lino Brocka’s 1976 realist melodrama Insiang is told, neatly hinting at the destructive patriarchy of the Philippines under Marcos. Like the heroine of a fairytale, Insiang (Hilda Koronel) is a radiant source of light amid the darkness of a Manila slum where jobless men drown their sorrows and burden their wives while proving their masculinity by often violent sexual conquest. Soon even she is consumed by the corruption of the world all around her against which she eventually plots her revenge. 

The chief source of Insiang’s misery is her harridan of a mother, Tonya (Mona Lisa), who has become cruel and embittered in the humiliation of her husband’s abandonment. Tonya has agreed to allow some of her husband’s relatives to stay with them as the father has lost his job, but often insults them and her harsh words weigh heavily on Insiang’s cousin Edong who is old enough to work but cannot find find a job. When Edong gets drunk and gropes Insiang’s best friend Ludy (Nina Lorenzo) who runs the local store, Tonya loses her temper and throws them all out even insisting on the return of some clothes she’d bought the children sending them away not even in rags but naked. 

Isiang confesses that she has come to hate her mother and feels no maternal connection with her at all, knowing that her coldness towards her is motivated by resentment towards her estranged father who left them for another woman. Tonya’s decision to throw out the relatives was in part motivated by her desire to move in Dado (Ruel Vernal), a thuggish man much younger than herself who guts pigs at a local slaughter house. In the end, he will be stuck himself just like one of the animals he and men in general are so often likened to. Dado has a tattoo of his own name on his chest and struts his stuff like a proud alpha male, quickly questioning the masculinity of Insiang’s sometime boyfriend Bebot (Rez Cortez) who has a giant perm and wears an earring in one ear. Insiang dislikes going to the cinema with Bebot because he has a tendency to become handsy, justifying his disregard of her discomfort by insisting that he’s a man and cannot help it. Dado later says something similar after raping an unconscious Insiang, telling the incensed Tonya that it’s not his fault because no man could fail to be “seduced” with a such a beautiful woman in the house. 

At heart, the film is a painful melodrama about the frustrated love between mother and daughter which is made impossible because of male failure. When she finds Insiang sobbing and realises Dado has raped her, Tonya tries to comfort her daughter but is soon seduced again on Dado’s return. As Ludy says, Tonya too has her needs even if her relationship with a much younger man scandalises the local community, but in the end she chooses to maintain her connection to male power rather than the emotional connection to the daughter she has come to resent as a constant reminder of her failure as a woman. To escape her impossible situation, Insiang agrees to sleep with Bebot on the condition that he will rescue her in marriage. But Bebot is also a coward who has already been warned off by Dado. He takes her to a hotel but doesn’t even have the money to pay, asking Insiang to chip in the difference. When morning comes Bebot is gone. “No one can help me with my problem but myself” Insiang tells Ludy’s sympathetic younger brother Nanding (Marlon Ramirez) who tells her that he loves her anyway even if the rumours about her unusual family situation are true and is willing to help her escape the futility of the slums as he is already preparing to do through pursuing education. 

But Insiang has already been transformed, only her revenge will buy her her release. She manipulates Dado through her sexuality and motivates her mother’s jealously to engineer the tragic outcome that will free her. But having achieved her vengeance she has only regrets in the continued absence of maternal love, while Tonya too feels much the same. Insiang takes back some of her own cruelty, though what she said was not wholly untrue, but Tonya turns away from her only to regret her inability to embrace her daughter. Trapped behind bars, she can only watch silently as Insiang walks away and does not look back. The two women are forever divided by the patriarchal society. Insiang has won a temporary victory but only in self-destruction. In Brocka’s bleak depiction of Marcos’ Manila, not even maternal love is safe from the ravages of the contemporary society.  

Insiang screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

About Us But Not About Us (Jun Robles Lana, 2022)

A lunchtime conversation between two men provokes a series of confrontations in Jun Robles Lana’s pressing psychological drama About Us But Not About Us. There is indeed more going on than it seems, prompting a number of questions about who it is that’s really in control along with the subjective quality of memory and personal myth making. After all as the younger of the men later says, nothing compares to our fictional counterparts both those we create for ourselves and those born of the projections of of others. 

40-year-old professor Eric (Romnick Sarmenta) takes a look at the bags under his eyes in the mirror of his classic Beetle as he arrives at a restaurant for a lunch meeting with a student and gently applies moisturiser to his eyes before heading inside. It’s a small moment that hints at his insecurity about his age and also that he may have more interest in the student, Lance (Elijah Canlas), than he later claims. Lance is already waiting, perky and preppy in his neutral beige outfit and non-threatening haircut. The purpose of the meeting seems to be so that Lance can return the keys to Eric’s spare flat where he had being staying to escape an abusive stepfather. Lance no longer feels comfortable being there, in part because he’s afraid false rumours that there may be something inappropriate going on between them could cause problems for them both at the university, but also because he worries that his presence may have contributed to the suicide of Eric’s late partner Marcus, a leading light of English-language literature in the Philippines. 

Marcus had known about Eric’s interest in Lance but warned him about becoming too involved seeing as he is a teacher and Lance his student not to mention that he is also 20 years older and even if he’s done nothing wrong others may read his well-meaning attempts to help as “inappropriate”. But then we start to wonder, is Lance really as helpless as he claims to be? It seems strange that a 22-year-old man would need this kind of rescuing, perhaps as some have suggested he’s constructed an image of himself as vulnerable so that Eric will feel compelled to help him. Despite his seeming meekness, Lance does appear to be ambitious yet insecure smarting from an offhand comment of Marcus’ that he may in the end lack the necessary talent to be accounted a writer. 

In a theatrical conceit, Lana realises the projected images each has of the other to segue into recreations of previous meetings in which either Eric or Lance plays the role of the absent Marcus whose views are recounted only in the book he had written shortly before he died, his first in Filipino, or filtered through the memories and intentions of the other two men who of course may not be entirely honest in their recollections. Eric insists the problems that may or may not have existed between himself and Marcus were not not really “about” Lance. He claims to have been unhappy and emotionally neglected for years if also still in love, while later conceding that the book is both about and not about them in its retelling of a “trashy” love triangle as an intensely literary potboiler. 

That the book is in Filipino rather than English may hint at a further desire for “authenticity”, as may Lance’s desire to transfer from the English department to that in his native language. Yet neither man is really being “authentic”, not entirely able to reclaim themselves from the image projected onto them by others. The battle for control shifts uneasily between them, Eric assuming he has the upper hand by virtue of his age and position all while Lance may be cynically manipulating him, playing on his latent desire while fluffing his ego in appearing as a lost young man in need of help and guidance. Even so, a possibly imagined conversation with Marcus later suggests that Eric enjoys the subversion and is at heart a masochist who actively seeks to be controlled, perhaps he knows what the game is after all. Lana ends on a note of ambiguity in which it seems there is a choice to be made between sustaining a fiction and rejecting it but then again “sometimes feelings are more important than the truth.”

About Us But Not About Us screened as part of this year’s Queer East .

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Love You, Beksman (Mahal Kita, Beksman, Percival M. Intalan, 2022)

“What is the essence of being a real man?” The hero of Percival M. Intalan’s reverse coming out drama I Love You, Beksman (Mahal Kita, Beksman) finds himself questioning his own identity when confronted with the weight of social expectation and prejudice yet discovering that the question is meaningless when the key to happiness lies in self-acceptance and authenticity. Scripted by Fatrick Tabada (Chedeng and Apple), the film tears apart conventional notions of gender and sexuality in a hyper-masculine patriarchal culture while allowing its hero to gain the courage to define himself in order to chase his romantic destiny. 

Everyone just assumes flamboyant hairdresser Dali (Christian Bables) is gay. He dyes his hair red, dresses in a less masculine fashion than other men his age, and has an effeminate manner. Yet Dali has a secret he doesn’t even really realise is one in that he is actually straight as he is forced to reveal after falling for beauty queen Angel (Iana Bernardez) at a pageant. The more he tries to explain to people that he isn’t gay and is serious about romantically pursuing Angel, the less they seem to understand him. It simply doesn’t make sense that someone so “obviously” gay could be attracted to women. They ask him if he’s sure or if it might be a phase or if he’s developed some kind of internalised homophobia but never really consider that it’s a possible for a man to be both effeminate and exclusively attracted to women. 

Even Dali begins to subconsciously change himself in order to better conform to their expectations. Having lost her mother at a young age, Angel is surrounded by hyper-masculine men in her father and brothers who all rather hilariously have the same moustache and enjoy manly pursuits such as weightlifting and basketball. Dali, meanwhile, was surrounded by queerness all his life, raised in the salon by a father who now lives openly as a gay man in a platonic marriage with his mother. Despite having seemingly been very happy as a part of a big gay family who all just assumed him to be gay too, Dali begins to reject his father and his own femininity in believing that he must adopt a more stereotypical masculinity in order to convince Angel of his heterosexuality and eventually win her heart (along with those of her conservative father and brothers). 

It might be true to say that Dali’s original presentation as a flamboyant hairstylist and fashion designer is also a kind of performance and an attempt to conform to parental expectation just as his rejection of it is an attempt to conform to the demands of a hyper-masculine society, but only by embracing both extremes can he learn to define himself outside of the images others project onto him. In adopting the traits of traditional masculinity, he becomes boorish and insensitive asking his father to hide his “gayness” to avoid embarrassing him in front of Angel’s dad while later becoming jealous and violent after seeing Angel hanging out with an ex. He can’t see that his adopted persona makes it even harder to form a genuine romantic connection with Angel, not just because he’s actively erasing the sides of himself she first became attracted to in his skill in makeup and fashion but because as she eventually tells him it’s difficult to trust someone who is being dishonest with themselves. 

The realisation he comes to is that he has to be “himself” rather than being what other people expect him to be while those around him come to understand that outdated ideas of stereotypical gender presentation are harmful to everyone. A gentle tale of broadening horizons and mutual acceptance, Intalan’s ironic comedy neatly subverts the coming out trope while situating itself in a world of relative safety in which Dali is free to explore his own identity and means of self-expression encountering opposition only from those who fear he is not being true to himself. The reality may not be so kind as the classic rom-com conclusion may suggest but the film nevertheless neatly takes aim at the ridiculousness of conventional ideas of “masculinity” in a hyper-masculine and patriarchal culture in making a heartfelt advocation for the right to just be oneself.

I Love You, Beksman screens at the BFI Southbank on 18th April as the opening night gala of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Feast (Apag, Brillante Mendoza, 2022)

A young man fuelled by an internalised class conflict struggles to come to terms with his guilt after running over a man and his daughter in Brilliante Mendoza’s social drama, Feast (Apag). With a strong religious sentiment, each of the four acts is preceded by a title card with a Biblical quotation, Mendoza seems to suggest that we are all one big family and that all divisions are healed when the feast is shared equally, except that equal it is not even when brokered by mutual compassion. 

The opening scenes also have their irony. Wealthy businessman Alfredo (Lito Lapid) and his diffident son Rafael (Coco Martin) shop for expensive fresh crabs at the market, while Matias and his young daughter haggled for much less extravagant fare before making their way home by scooter and sidecar. Distracted by a phone call, Rafael ends up colliding with Matias in his 4×4. Acting quickly, Alfredo jumps in the driving seat and speeds away insisting that he will take the responsibility for the accident, whatever that might mean. After a talk with their lawyer who tells them they’ve not a leg to stand on, Rafael goes to the hospital and pays the family’s bills but Matias dies soon afterwards. Alfredo insists on taking the blame, agreeing to go prison in his stead, but Rafael can’t get over his guilt and enters a depressive spell that prevents him from getting on with the rest of his life.

As we later discover, Rafael occupies a difficult position in terms of his social class. His mother Elisa is Alfredo’s second wife, once a waitress in the family home and disliked by the children of his previous spouse. He is separated from his daughter as his wife seems to have left him for unclear reasons and gone abroad where she has met another man. He wants to unburden himself by accepting the punishment for Matias’ death but is prevented by his father’s heroic act of sacrifice and must carry the guilt alone. The family determine to make amends by “supporting” Matias’ widow Nita (Jaclyn Jose) and their children, but are in essence wielding their privilege over her in assuming they can settle all of this with money and need accept no other responsibility. 

Nita is rightly insulted when Elisa turns up to offer her money to compensate for her husband’s death, but it’s also clear that the family is already poor and now presumably without their main breadwinner. In any case what she wants is justice, and both gets it and doesn’t when Alfredo is sent to prison in place of Rafael. In the final acts of the film, the family has taken in Nita and her children but ostensibly as servants even if ones treated like friends while she is forced to feel grateful to the family that killed her husband for gifting her financial security. The feast with which the film ends was cooked by Nita, but she is not invited to partake in it only stand by and watch while the rest of the family eat. Yet the scene is presented to suggest that a divide has been healed, that inviting them to attend the feast was enough in itself even if a class distinction is still clearly felt between those who serve and those who eat. 

Though Nita seems to have some latent resentment, it is largely washed away on learning the truth allowing her to forgive and symbolically releasing Rafael from his torment. While forgiveness maybe worthy, it also lets the privileged off the hook for their oppressive behaviour in suggesting that the wealthy need only show magnanimity while the poor are expected to simply accept it in good faith. Had this not happened, there is no way they would share their feast with a woman like Nita nor will they ever do so again. If they really meant to dissolve class barriers, they could open the doors to all but they do not. In any case, through coming to terms with his responsibility for Matias’ death, Rafael appears to quell his own inner class conflict to occupy his rightful place but perhaps still fails to fully consider that Matias’ death wasn’t really just an “accident” but a natural consequence of the way in which men like himself move through the world.

Feast screened as part of the 2022 Busan International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Reroute (Lawrence Fajardo, 2022)

A young couple find themselves straying into a strange and purgatorial landscape after taking an ill-advised shortcut in Lawrence Fajardo’s eerie gothic horror, Reroute. Shot in a crisp black and white, Fajardo’s journey into darkness is one of intensely toxic masculinity born of a macho culture which manifests itself most clearly in the military and authoritarianism while the “private property” onto which the couple stray appears to be a liminal space inhabited by those who cannot live in the modern society. 

As for the couple, when we first meet them they are in the middle of a blazing row on a long distance drive mostly caused by the man, Dan’s (Sid Lucero), jealously and resentment towards the woman, Trina (Cindy Miranda), who supports them both with her down to earth job as a bank manager while he is in a band but technically unemployed. Dan’s volatility is palpable, quickly getting into a physical altercation with a local man at a rest stop much to Trina’s dismay but uncomfortably enough the fight seems to clear the air between them. Cooling off at the beach, they become warm and gentle with each other making love at the shore, but tensions rise once again when they approach their destination and discover that the road is closed because of a military exercise. The soldier on the checkpoint tells them to follow the diversion which involves going round in a huge circle adding hours onto their journey, but Dan doesn’t listen and decides, as he grew up in the area, to take a “shortcut” using the old road. To placate Trina he agrees to check directions with a local man whose house they’re passing but he tells them they’re on private property and should turn back. 

Again, Dan ignores him and the car breaks down stranding them in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal, Trina further blaming Dan for not having checked all of this out beforehand or made sure the car was in good condition. The following morning a man approaches and offers to help, but there’s no kindness in his eyes and something unsettling about the way he keeps staring at Trina. Gemo (John Arcilla) takes them back to his house and offers to radio a mechanic but otherwise spends his time responding to cryptic messages about some kind of military operation. “If I were you I’d leave now” Gemo’s wife, presumably, Lala (Nathalie Hart) advises Trina but it’s already too late. They’re miles from anywhere and this weird village seems to be completely cut off from the outside world.  

One level, the contrast between Gemo and Dan is stark. A former military man Gemo’s old-fashioned masculinity is rigid and austere while Dan is an underachieving slacker with an inferiority complex prone to fits of rage. In an ironic way, they could be father and son yet they fight over a girl, not Trina but the absent daughter of Gemo, Ariana, who passed away after getting an abortion at 16 when the boyfriend who got her pregnant abandoned her. Half-crazed, Gemo is convinced Dan is the man guy ruined his life and takes an extremely ironic form of revenge in proving his masculine dominance over the younger man while forcing Trina into the role of his 16-year-old daughter. 

Then again from what we later see perhaps Gemo is responsible for ruining his own life and those of the people around him as product of the society in which he lived, spouting religious aphorisms and talking of his military past suppressing protests by the Muslim community on Mindanao. This weird village where all the villagers seem to be on Gemo’s side and also involved in some kind of covert operation appears to be a kind of purgatorial space inhabited only by former soldiers who can not move on from the authoritarian past, yet Gemo is haunted by a different kind of ghost and commits a different kind of crime in trying to quell it. Trina is dragged into this bizarre series of events because of Dan’s wounded male pride, insisting he knew a shortcut and ignoring all the warnings, but in the end is the only one capable of ending the curse in forcing Gemo to accept the reality of his daughter’s death “so we can all be free”. Filled with an intense sense of dread and malevolence, Fajardo’s eerie drama ends in the mist-drenched forests of the remote countryside but perhaps suggests that escape is only possible through fully exorcising the past. 

Reroute screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Leonor Will Never Die (Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago, Martika Ramirez Escobar, 2022)

A grief-stricken screenwriter resolves to write her way out of self-imposed inertia while trapped in a world of her own creation in Martika Ramirez Escobar’s meta dramedy Leonor Will Never Die (Ang Pagbabalik ng Kwago). Drawing inspiration from the action exploitation films of the 1980s, the film asks some big questions about grief and agency and the role stories play in our lives while celebrating a sense of community in cinema along with the accidental immortality it may grant. 

Once a successful screenwriter of action films, Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) is now an elderly lady who has largely shut herself away following the tragic death of her eldest son, Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon). Her youngest, Rudie (Bong Cabrera), still lives with her but as she later reveals there is distance between them and a sort of repellant dependency in which each resents the other and longs for freedom while simultaneously afraid to chase it. When Leonor “forgets” to pay her electricity bill and is berated by Rudie, she is handed a newspaper by the ghost of Ronwaldo containing an ad for a screenplay competition and decides to dust off the script she broke off when he died. While taking a cigarette break, she is hit on the head by a flying TV thrown out by the man next-door fed up with his wife’s addiction to soap operas and finds herself falling into the world of the film hoping she can save the hero, also named Ronwaldo (Rocky Salumbides), from his tragic fate. 

Shifting into a grainy 4:3 with mono aural sound, Escobar perfectly recreates the world of retro action drama but subtly updates it from its Marcos-era backdrop in replacing activists with drug users, her authoritarian thugs carrying out extrajudicial killings for reasons of intimidation. The movie Ronwaldo is set on revenge against a corrupt mayor and his vigilante son who shot his brother and then placed a pistol and a small packet of drugs next to the body, resisting authoritarianism in a way it may not have actually been possible to do so directly in the movies of the past. In any case, Leonor slips into her own screenplay as an awkward omnipotent force writing as she goes but struggling with her own role and agency before picking up a hammer and venturing into danger to rescue the hero and his love interest herself.  

From the other side of the screen, Rudie asks her if she’d be OK with someone else finishing her screenplay which is in a way asking her if she’s alright with her final decisions being made for her. That might be what Leonor is trying to decide for herself by rewriting in real time, searching for the right ending for her life’s story. Rudie had resented his mother, blaming her for keeping him behind when he planned to apply for an overseas work visa to join his boyfriend abroad but she wonders if he isn’t just using her as an excuse while afraid to take the risk. She by turn insists she can manage alone, but is perhaps afraid she can’t which, along with the grief she feels over Ronwaldo’s death, leads her to push him away. 

Leonor’s coma perhaps brings them both clarity that allows them to discover what it is they really want, Rudie finally handing agency back to his mother in telling her do what she has to do in a world of her own creation while she tells both her sons to be sure they write their own lives. The doctor had told Rudie that Leonor was trapped in a world between sleeping and waking and that you can’t wake someone who is not asleep, they will have to find a way to escape by themselves something which in one way or another Leonor perhaps does coming to terms with Ronwaldo’s death and breaking free of her grief through recapturing her creative spirit if writing a poetic end for herself. Then again as an authorial voice breaks through, life is never as simple as narrative and we’re rarely given the opportunity to edit our own stories or decide the way in which they end, perhaps Leonor isn’t either but even so passes into a world of joy and song in which there are no real endings only a great expanse of cinema. Charmingly surreal and filled with good humour, Leonor Will Never Die is at once the story of an old woman rediscovering herself while letting go of her grief and a celebration of escapist pleasures as paths towards self actualisation. 

Leonor Will Never Die screens in Amsterdam on 30th October as part of this year’s Imagine Fantastic Film Festival.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Rabid (Erik Matti, 2021)

The last few years have obviously been stressful for everyone, but Erik Matti’s four-part pandemic-era horror anthology Rabid roots itself in the anxieties lurking below the simple fear of disease or strain of isolation painting a sometimes uncomfortable picture of the contemporary society. Ranging from class conflict to caring for the sick, brain drain, and economic despair, the four episodes find each of their protagonists trapped in a maddening world which no longer makes sense with little idea how they got there or how to escape. 

The first chapter, “Bad Luck is a Bitch”, for instance takes place entirely within the home of a wealthy family whose lives have not changed drastically under coronavirus restrictions because their jobs can be done from home and their livelihoods do not depend on the kind of business that requires face to face interaction. The trouble starts when mother Mayette (Cheska Diaz) takes pity on an old woman who comes begging at her door with a sign stating she is a deaf mute whose son passed away of COVID-19. Mayette invites her to stay in the family’s home as an act of kindness but also one that’s tinged with snobbery explaining to her husband they can do with more help seeing as their maid is no longer available. The old woman is later exposed as a witch using black magic to possess the family and take over the house. 

Her transformation could be red either as the family’s animosity towards the poor, the husband and daughter against taking the old woman in in case she has COVID-19, or as a manifestation of the poor’s resentment taking revenge on the rich for their lack of compassion. In any case it’s ironic that Mayette’s act of kindness has such devastating consequences for her family, the act itself corrected in the conclusion when she calls her daughter to help another beggar offering only food and sending the woman and her child on their way. Meanwhile the family’s attempt to get help from outside is frustrated by a breakdown of community trust during the pandemic when challenged by local patrols who remain suspicious of them and their health status, while the family’s modernity also undermines their safety their salvation coming only from the daughter’s boyfriend and his interest in the occult. 

Chapter two’s “Nothing Beats Meat” by contrast is melancholy black and white treatment of love and isolation seemingly set in the midst of a zombie apocalypse in which a loving husband attempts to help his zombified wife beat her meat addiction by going cold turkey underground. Filled with a sense of fatalistic romance, the segment’s ironically upbeat ending asks what point there is in being well in a world of sickness when all the love and care there is will not bring the husband’s wife back to him leading him to decide that it is better to simply join her. 

The husband’s inner conflict feeds into the themes of the third instalment “Shit Happens” which is set in a small hospital and revolves around newly qualified nurse Becky (Ayeesha Cervantes) who is seen to be not entirely committed to her new job merely waiting it out until her visa arrives so she can go abroad. Exasperated nurse Reggie (Ricci Rivero) reveals that her predecessor only lasted three days for the same reason while he himself is working a double shift because of short staffing levels. He also accuses her of neglecting her work, avoiding its least pleasant aspects in conveniently forgetting to look in on a patient who had them soiled themselves and needed cleaning up. Beckoned into an alternate reality by the ghost of an old woman, she is soon confronted by her fears covered in poo and vomit while finally abusing the patient who is it seems taking revenge for the neglect she felt at the hands of her doctors while alive. This chapter both underlines the pressures on frontline health workers who are also dealing with their own fears and anxieties along with those of the patients who have no choice other than to trust them, and perhaps also offers direct criticism of those like Becky who only want to escape their responsibilities through chasing more lucrative work abroad. 

That sort of thinking is also in play in the final story, “HM?”, which is apparently a common abbreviation used in online selling meaning “how much?” and later takes on a different nuance when the heroine stumbles on a secret Russian food additive that must only be used in small quantities, as we discover, because it is extremely addictive turning those who overindulge into rabid zombies who lose all sense of reason trampling over each other to ease their craving. Widowed single mother Princess (Donna Cariaga) was in a difficult position having lost her job when ABS-CBN lost its media broadcast licence because of the political realities of Duterte’s Philippines and struggling to find a new one in the difficult economic conditions of the pandemic. Like many she decided to start an online side hustle as a home cook despite having no previous experience or talent but finds unexpected success thanks to the Russian serum only for the situation to get out of hand leaving her unable to cope with the demand on her business not to mention the zombified hordes who soon descend on her home. 

A fly buzzes through each of the instalments as if signalling the lingering malaise from class-based paranoia to pure desperation and the temptation of a quick fix. Inspired by original stories from Michiko Yamamoto, each of the tales paint a less than flattering picture of the contemporary society not limited to the stresses and strains of life in the middle of a pandemic but only exacerbated by them as pretty much everyone finds themselves trapped in a maddening world that no longer makes sense with no clear sign towards a wholly acceptable way out. 

Rabid streams worldwide until 30th April as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Big Night! (Jun Robles Lana, 2021)

In the opening scenes of Jun Robles Lana’s darkly comic farce Big Night! a young man is shot in the head by another young man, this one wearing a motorcycle helmet with its visor down, who calmly walks away and gets back on the back of the bike he arrived on his friend then driving them both away. Of course people are shocked but then again not all that much, they barely pause despite the fact that his man, Ronron, was well known to them and no one really thought he had much to do with drugs. Beautician Dharna (Christian Bables) gossips about the killing with his friend Biba but gives it little thought before returning to his day, so normalised has death on the streets become in Duterte’s Philippines. 

Dharna may not have given much thought to extrajudicial killings, but then it’s different when it’s you who might be next in the firing line as he discovers when Biba gets an advance view of the following day’s “Watch List” from her law enforcement boyfriend. What ensues is a kafkaesque quest to clear his name though there’s no real “official” path towards getting off a watch list when you’re on one. His boyfriend Zeus who is due to perform in a “Big Night” pageant at a local gay bar that very night suggests simply fleeing to another district, but flight implies guilt and as Dharna points out he’ll lose all his customers if he has to move to another area and neither of them have the money to start all over again somewhere new. Like many of Dharna’s friends and acquaintances Zeus doesn’t seem to share his concern. “The police won’t bother you if you’re not doing anything illegal” he naively advises, sure it’s all just a random mistake that soon will blow over but otherwise so numbed to the idea of extrajudicial killing that he doesn’t really think too much of it and is mainly annoyed that Dharna has lost interest in helping finish his costume for the big show. 

Neither of them can think of a reason why Dharna, under his full legal name, would have been placed on a list as he’s not a drug user and doesn’t know anyone who is. He does, however, have some useful connections including local law enforcement official Cynthia who isn’t terribly interested or helpful but manipulates his anxiety to force him to help her out by filling in for her regular mortician, Connie, who has mysteriously not shown up for work. The morgue is currently overflowing, Cynthia making a dark joke that undertaking is a growth industry while revealing that there are so many bodies in part because families have to pay a fee to get them back and most of those involved in extrajudicial killings are from the slums so they can’t afford it. Even so, she explains to Dharna that they get more donations when families can see the body which is why he’s supposed to make them up to look as good as they can despite many of them having sustained gunshot wounds to the head or face. 

Cynthia sends him on to local community leader Roja warning him that he’s “allergic to gays” while he too makes Dharna do his bidding pointlessly walking laps around a fountain in some sort of macho display of endurance while insisting that he’s so anti-drug that even if he gets a stomach upset he just powers through it with raw masculine energy. He too is a self-interested hypocrite spouting religious nonsense while hanging out in “massage parlours”, dangling the idea of salvation but unprepared to grant it. Dharna wonders if it might have been someone from the area where he grew up who reported him but discovers that unlicensed midwife Melba (Janice De Belen) makes a point of not putting any names forward at all and is herself willing to risk breaking the law to help women in need who are denied medical treatment because of their poverty.

It’s impossible to avoid the implication that this is happening to Dharna in part because he’s poor and powerless in an authoritarian and hierarchal society but he’s eventually forced to consider that someone may have put his name in a drop box anonymously, that perhaps they gave a random name when someone asked for one to save their own, because they had something against him, or sought to profit in some way from his absence. Like the witch trials of old, the war against drugs is another tool that can be manipulated for personal gain and so inured to violence has the society become that many are prepared to use it. Dharna finds himself at the centre of a random conspiracy in which he has no other option than to accept his complicity or die, discovering that as the radio report that opened the film had suggested the same officials in charge of prosecuting the war on drugs are in fact secretly using it to secure their stranglehold over the local drugs trade. 

Dharna finds himself compromised at every turn, beginning by offering free haircuts to help his case to progressing to covering up state crime, literally, by repairing the faces of the dead and graduating to faking a seizure in an ambulance to bypass a checkpoint. At the hospital he is confronted by the face of an old lady filled with despair one hand holding that of a little girl and the other a pair of bloody sandals before she simply collapses. Dharna tries to wash the sandals clean but there’s only so much you can do when the stain runs so deep. The irony of his big night taking place on All Souls Day is not lost though there’s precious little time for honouring the dead when your survival can no longer be assured. 

Big Night screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23/27 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

History of Ha (Historya ni Ha, Lav Diaz, 2021)

“We became victims of our time but I won’t let this situation destroy me” a wandering poet finally writes in a letter to his lost love, finding again a sense of purpose though having perhaps surrendered his illusions. Shot in a crisp monochrome and set ostensibly in 1957 but bearing several small anachronisms which bring us closer to the present day, Lav Diaz’ 4-hr absurdist fable History of Ha (Historya ni Ha) finds an exile returning in the hope of a more peaceful future only to find his dreams of a simple life dashed while the land is once again in turmoil. An exploration of lingering feudalism, its links to dangerous demagoguery, and the ease with which populist leaders manipulate despair, Diaz’ timely drama sees its hero once again a self-exile but resolving at least to sow the seeds of a better future in work and education. 

Four years previously, disillusioned marxist poet Hernando (John Lloyd Cruz) was arrested with the Socialists after the failure of the Huk Rebellion and has since been touring Asia as a successful vaudeville act in the company of his ventriloquist puppet, Ha. Having saved enough money, he’s retired from showbiz and is heading home to marry his sweetheart, Rosetta, to whom he is writing while on the boat. The first sign of trouble begins, however, when Hernando is approached by a journalist who happens to be a fan and invites him to dine with a congressman. President Magsaysay, the anti-communist president backed by the US, is missing later to be declared dead in a plane crash. Though presumably no fan of Magsaysay, Hernando worries for his country recalling a song penned by a civil servant suggesting that should Magsaysay die democracy would go with him. 

The journalist is equally ambivalent, describing Magsaysay’s rise as a mix of reality and myth making, a cycle he fears will repeat itself endlessly in the history of the Philippines in which “the masses will vote for false prophets and leaders”. Hernando, meanwhile, discovers on his arrival home that not everything is as he left it. Though Rosetta had been writing to him earnestly throughout his travels, his twin sister Hernanda (Gabuco Eliezl) tells him that following the death of her mother she has become a prisoner of her father’s house and is to be married to a local nobleman in payment of a debt. Her final letter confirms this to be true, instantly shattering his belief in future possibility while raging against the lingering feudalism of the post-war nation. “I’ve accepted that as long as a powerful few possesses the vast lands of this barrio the poor will remain sinking in poverty and helplessness” , he explains heading out on an aimless journey no longer speaking directly but only through his dummy, Ha. 

Ha becomes in a sense his alter ego, voicing what he himself cannot say, but also giving rise to a sense of absurdity as those around him begin to invest in Ha’s personhood talking directly to him rather than Hernando while asking him incongruous questions even wondering if he might be hungry. Yet much of Ha’s monologuing is pure nonsense rhyme, and while the pair of them are alone he sometimes reflects Hernando’s inner cynicism suggesting he accept money from a pair of women he reluctantly agreed to help travel to a nearby fishing village from which they hope to gain passage to an island in the middle of a gold rush, one a nun intending to start a mission (Mae Paner) and the other a woman wanting to open a business (Dolly De Leon). A boy he’d met along the way, Joselito (Jonathan O. Francisco), had the same destination in mind, explaining that there was no other way to alleviate his family’s poverty. When they arrive at the village, however, they discover that the journalist’s prognosis was painfully true. The self-appointed leader of the settlement, Among Kuyang (Teroy Guzman), is a narcissistic populist harping on nationalism while mercilessly exploiting the desperation of the less fortunate in charging impossible sums for transportation. 

Ha advises the trio not to go, fearing that the island is dangerous, but fails to dissuade them, the difficulty of living under Among Kuyang’s repressive regime only increasing their desire to leave. Eventually he decides to help them by performing one of his old shows for Kuyang who turns out, uncomfortably, to be a fan, but worries he may have “saved them from the devil but delivered them to hell”. “It hurts how we let people like him rule over our country” another failed revolutionary laments, while Kuyang himself offers prophesies of Marcos and Duterte, echoing this ugly cycle of myth making and deception which just as he has weaponises desperation while doing nothing to alleviate it. Yet in his cynicism perhaps Hernando too is guilty of belittling the masses,  declaring them too ignorant to understand their oppression. “Their emptiness is not their fault, sacrifices are not enough to emancipate them.” he laments, while echoing the journalist that decades from now they’ll go on “enthroning despots and tyrants, leaders like Among Kuyang, leaders who are foolish, greedy, disrespectful, deranged”. 

Ironically enough he tries to be the “good cat” of the story Ha had told his niece and nephew, cautioning them against populist and consumerist fallacy in warning them not to walk into a golden cage and thereby lose their freedom, but to accompany the good cat to the shore and salvation. Hernando tries to save the trio from the lure of the island, sure it promises only fruitless exploitation, but fails to save them from Among Kuyang or from the true enemy which is ceaseless poverty, a sense of futility, and feudal privilege. “Gold is not the only solution to poverty” he’d told Joselito, but to him it was all that was left. Beginning and ending with a letter, Diaz’ absurdist parable follows its disillusioned hero through loneliness and tragedy but finally allows him to find the boat that grants him freedom if only in new purpose in undermining the roots of populism where they first propagate.

History of Ha made its World Premiere as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Midnight in a Perfect World (Dodo Dayao, 2020)

“It doesn’t matter what’s happening as long as nothing’s happening to me” a middle-aged woman exasperatedly exclaims, irritated by a young man’s naive curiosity. A dark exploration of the legacy of Martial Law, Dodo Dayao’s surrealist horror movie Midnight in a Perfect World asks how much of your freedom you’re prepared to sacrifice for security and if the illusion of a “perfect world” in which everything “just works” is worth the price of your complicity. 

In a near future Manila in which all of the city’s infrastructural problems have been solved, conspiracy theorist Tonichi (Dino Pastrano) is convinced that a mysterious force is disappearing people in random parts of the city after midnight, a theory which is only strengthened after his friend Deana rings him in a panic convinced she’s become a victim of his “blackouts” and insisting that someone’s stolen the moon. Tonichi’s other friends, the sensible Mimi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), reckless Jinka (Glaiza de Castro), and melancholy hospital worker Glenn (Anthony Falcon), are less convinced but caught in the street after midnight the gang have no option but to look for a “safe house” in order to escape the creeping darkness. For unexplained reasons, Tonichi is unable to enter with his friends and finds himself trapped outside in “God’s Blindspot”, as the mysterious Alma (Bing Pimentel), a middle-aged woman and safe house veteran, describes it. 

Alma might in a sense be seen as the embodiment of the Martial Law generation, holing up in her safe house minding her own business and defyingly not caring what’s going on outside determined only to make it through the night. She offers cryptic words of advice to the youngsters, but does not really try to help them outside of trying to prevent them from interfering with her own survival. The so-called safe house has a hidden upper floor apparently invisible from the outside and hiding its own secrets. When one of the gang manages to break open the door and pays a heavy price for their curiosity, Alma merely creeps forward fearfully and closes it again ensuring she is safe from its myriad horrors even in her wilful ignorance. 

Still, you have to ask yourself why if this world is now so “perfect” the youngsters seem so unhappy. Their drug use appears not to be particularly hedonistic but may offer them a degree of escape from a society which has become oppressive in its efficiency. Sensible Mimi cautions Jinka against associating with smarmy drug kingpin Kendrick (Charles Aaron Salazar) who spins bizarre stories of weird aliens while proffering a new drug which supposedly feels “like dying and going to heaven.” On her way from Kendrick’s Jinka passes a group of intense men and immediately pegs them as a hit squad, realising that Kendrick’s hideout has been exposed and she herself may now be in danger in an echo of the extra-judicial killings which have become a grim hallmark of Duterte’s Philippines. “Beta version Martial Law” is the way Jinka later describes it, drug users now taking the place of “activists” as targets not solely of legitimate authority but vigilante bounty hunters. The rumours of strange disappearances, people “erased” from their society, are yet another means of control inviting complicity with an unofficial curfew for a population ruled by fear.  

As if to ram the allegory home, Dayao ends the credit roll with the Martial Law era slogan “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan” or “For the nation’s progress, discipline is needed” followed by the English phrase “Never Again”. Yet, it is happening again, the extra-judicial killings of the Duterte era no different from the disappearances of “activists” under Marcos. Jinka refers to the old Manila as the world capital of malfunction, its transformation seemingly brought about by a mysterious force but unlike Mimi who seems otherwise prepared to accept complicity in her “everything works” conspiracy theory remains dejected and suspicious. None of these young people is happy with their new utopia or prepared to pay the price demanded to live in it yet there appears to be no real way to resist and their eventual decision to brave the darkness exposes nothing so much as their naivety. Scored with eerie sci-fi synths and often shot in total darkness, Dayao’s surreal horror show offers a bleak prognosis for the contemporary society unable to escape from the permanently haunted house of an authoritarian legacy. 

Midnight in a Perfect World screened as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF).

Original trailer (English subtitles)