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)

Son of the Macho Dancer (Anak ng macho dancer, Joel Lamangan, 2021)

“How many have you buried? Why?!” asks the hero of Joel Lamangan’s Son of the Macho Dancer (Anak ng macho dancer), a quasi sequel to the 1988 Lino Brocka classic. Set during the early days of the pandemic, Lamangan’s salty drama hints at the radiating effects of an authoritarian culture for those living on the margins of the contemporary society but does so with a dose of trashy telenovela camp in its eventually redemptive tale of frustrated futures, sexual exploitation, drugs and murder in a time of increasing sickness. 

19-year-old Inno (Sean De Guzman) is in a casual relationship with a woman whose tendency to refer to herself as his girlfriend clearly irritates him, especially as their sex life seems to be frustrated by her fear of his apparently giant penis. When his father Pol (Allan Paule) who has become addicted to drugs after a car accident is arrested by the police and he needs money to bail him out, Inno’s mother (Rosanna Roces) seizes on his oversize appendage as a means of saving the family by dragging him straight to a local gay club to become a go-go dancer. While reluctant at first, Inno soon takes to his new life and decides to milk it for all its worth, latching on to VIP procurer Bambi (Jaclyn Jose) and her sidekick Roldan (Emilio Garcia) in the hope of being invited to one of their elite parties all of which later drags him into the orbit of sadistic gay drug dealer Jun (Jay Manalo). 

All the while, we see Duterte on TV giving updates in the corona virus crisis and the various measures to mitigate it which threaten the survival of gay bar Mankind as well as the illicit business enterprises operated by Jun, Bambi, and Roldan. A police officer reconfirms his warning to drug dealers that they shouldn’t expect an easy ride during the pandemic because they will “destroy all of you”. The police force is shown to be resolutely corrupt, firstly in its refusal to investigate the causes of the car crash which caused Pol’s descent into addiction because, he believes, the driver was a judge and the cops have been paid off, and lastly in its complicity with criminal activity as evidenced in their cooperation with Roldan to cover up his crimes. 

Obsessed with social media clout, Inno constantly documents and uploads his existence online marvelling at his new circumstances as a kept man of Jun only latterly reflecting on the ironies of his life in discovering that his father was once also a “macho dancer” while his mother was forced to turn to sex work to feed the family after Pol’s accident. Seduced by the lifestyle of the rich and powerful that Jun can give him he doesn’t stop to consider its wider implications even when warned by predecessor Kyle (Ricky Gumera) of the dangerously oppressive regime within the house. It’s not until he finds himself burying the body of a friend murdered by Jun after unwittingly failing to play along with his voyeuristic sexual fantasies that he begins to ask why, not only why he’s living this life but why Bambi has been living it all this time enabling Jun’s predatory violence in burying the bodies of unlucky young men who fell foul of his sadistic desires. 

For Kyle at least the answer may be a lifetime of violent abuse which which has left him too traumatised to believe escape is possible. Inno vacillates between resentment towards his father for his irresponsible drug use and mistreatment of his long-suffering mother, and the filial desire to protect him which led him to become a macho dancer in the first place. Bambi and Pol, meanwhile, the heroes of Brocka’s film have been consistently brutalised by an oppressive society apparently only awakened to the possibility of changing course by Inno’s corrective questioning. 

In any case, there’s a minor irony even in the wilful subversion of positioning the young hero as a sex object valued only for the size of his penis while the frequent full frontal male nudity often feels gratuitous and the final swing towards heteronormativity can’t help but align homosexuality with the psychopathic cruelty of Jun as something dark and perverse even while ending on a joyous if tempered moment of resilience in returning to Mankind with the house full of masked clubbers continuing to shove their notes into the dancers’ briefs. Though the final resolution may in a sense be too neat, a family restoring or remaking itself in the wake of trauma, Lamangan allows the sense of unease to continue in the callback to societal corruption as the ongoing pandemic seems to stand in for other kinds of increasing sickness. 


Son of the Macho Dancer streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fan Girl (Antoinette Jadaone, 2020)

Never meet your heroes is the conventional wisdom, and for good reason in that nobody’s perfect and when you place someone on a pedestal they can’t help but disappoint you when they step down. For the heroine of Antoinette Jadaone’s Fan Girl, however, the clash between her youthful escapist delusions and the ugly truth that lies behind them is more than just a cautionary tale about the commodification of the human image exposing the unpleasant duplicities of a fiercely patriarchal, misogynistic society that those escapist images both mask and reinforce. 

16-year-old Jane (Charlie Dizon) is completely obsessed with rom-com star Paulo Avelino (playing a heavily fictionalised version of himself), bunking off school to attend a publicity event at a local mall at which he and his co-star Bea Alonzo (also playing “herself”) with whom he is apparently in a real relationship are set to appear to promote their latest movie. In the ensuing crush, Jane manages to slip away from the crowd and stowaway on a pickup truck that improbably enough belongs to Paulo who will be driving himself away from the event. Excited in her illicit adventure, Jane snaps candid picks of her crush peeing on the roadside scandalised by the realisation that she’s glimpsed his intimate area, zooming in on her pic while messaging her friend to share the news that Paulo is “a biggie”. Soon after, however, she falls asleep and when she wakes up it’s already dark. The truck has arrived at a creepy gothic mansion out in the country. She thinks she sees Paulo beckon her inside and jumps the gate, only the figure she spots on the upstairs balcony doesn’t match the idea of the romantic prince in her mind nor is he very excited to see her. 

To begin with, perhaps our sympathies are all with Paulo unwittingly stalked by this obsessive teenage fan who’s already invaded his privacy and feels herself entitled to his attention solely because of her devotion towards him. Yet we also fear for her, in the beginning at least Paulo is careful to rebuff her youthful romantic feelings and shows no signs of taking advantage of a naive teenager in the way some other stars might. In this situation of mutual threat, we can’t be sure who is most in danger, the vulnerable star struck fan or famous actor pursued by crazed stalker. 

Nevertheless, Paulo is quickly stripped of his star appeal, his gentlemanliness undercut by his constant insistence that “this can’t get out” eventually knocking Jane’s phone out of her hand as she takes a selfie next to his sleeping face lest she post it online and cause a scandal. As soon as he climbs inside his pickup truck he begins to shed his star persona, wiping the makeup from his face complaining they’ve made him look “like a faggot”, pausing only when stopped by police who immediately let him off after getting him to sign one of the many posters he has on hand for their lovestruck teenage daughter at home. Sitting in the back Jane can perhaps hear his constant swearing, but it doesn’t seem to penetrate. When she calls out his name in the villa she finds him shirtless, slightly pudgy with a lewd tattoo of a cobra woman on his back, his long hair greasy as he snorts cocaine from his curled fist. 

Paulo appears to live in the mansion but its gates remain permanently locked as if he doesn’t carry the key while the place is almost devoid of furniture, creepy its dusty emptiness. Perhaps it in a sense reflects his sense of self, somewhat hollow and ill-defined. Unravelling throughout his night with Jane he hints at a sense of impotence and despair, that he’s a slave to his image and in a sense no longer exists. The image Jane has of “Paulo Avelino” is entirely created by the marketing department, as is his apparently fictitious relationship with Bea, while he inhabits this shabby castle like a moody vampire apparently in love with a local woman who bore his child but is married to someone else. His lover later complains he treats her “like a whore”, stopping by only when he feels lonely or unfulfilled but apparently unready or unwilling to take real responsibility. 

Nevertheless, the scales do not fall from Jane’s eyes for quite some time. We gradually realise that her warm romantic fantasies are a displacement activity masking her fear and her sorrow over all the men who have already betrayed her. We might ask if her mother isn’t wondering where she is, but she later calls only to complain about her abusive boyfriend who hasn’t returned home fearing he is with another woman. Jane recalls seeing her estranged father who abandoned her with his new family, perhaps reflecting on Paulo’s complicated familial situation while clinging fiercely to the image of “Paulo Avelino” from the movies, a sensitive, romantic man who’s not afraid to cry. But underneath it all the real Paulo is just as much a product of toxic masculinity as any other man, a closet misogynist who thinks all women are “whores” and reacts with violence when his authority is challenged.  

Jane keeps insisting that she isn’t a kid anymore, consciously acting older drinking and smoking to perform the role of a mature woman, but finally comes of age only when all her illusions are shattered realising that Paulo is just another violent, abusive, man child resentful of his own insecurities. Returning home she surveys her pinups of him with a sense of regret, now denied even this small refuge of fantasy from the realities of her existence. Yet now she truly is no longer a child, angry but also realising that she doesn’t have to simply accept it in the way her mother has done resolving to seize her own agency though it remains unclear what kind of consequences if any her act of resistance may eventually provoke. A dark exploration of the interplay between fan and idol, the duplicities of image, and the persistent harm of an authoritarian patriarchy as evoked by the ubiquitous Duterte posters, Antoinette Jadaone’s nuanced drama paints a bleak portrait of the contemporary society but ends perhaps on a brief note of hope if also of tragedy as Jane smokes her cigarettes, not a kid anymore. 


Fan Girl streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Here and There (Dito at Doon, JP Habac, 2021)

Love in the time of corona? Romantic fantasy can be a helpful diversion but it’s difficult enough to get to know someone fully at the best of times, when your interactions are mediated through the connective barrier of technology it may be impossible. A true corona movie, JP Habac’s zeitgeisty rom-com Here and There (Dito at Doon) finds two lonely people falling in love, perhaps, over FaceTime but discovering that their lockdown connection may not survive its liberation.

30-ish Len (Janine Gutierrez) is a graduate student whose financial and environmental circumstances have not changed very much despite the imposition of a lockdown. Happy, to an extent, with staying home alone she takes to “facenook” to voice her exasperation with those already fed up, reminding them it’s only been eight days and being asked to stay at home is not exactly difficult. Only she gets an equally exasperated, prickly reply tagged #youreboredwerehungry from a stranger flagging up her privilege and pointing out that it’s all very well for her, but what about people who are struggling with having lost their livelihoods? She agrees with him, but also thinks it’s a separate point from the one she was making and isn’t sure why he’s picking a fight with someone he doesn’t know, settling for a rather pithy reply. That would have been that, but after Zooming her two besties Len gets a bit of shock, irresponsible Mark (Victor Anastacio) has flouted the lockdown rules and got a friend over, Caloy (JC Santos), who turns out to be none other than her FN troll. Still, over Zoom, the pair kind of hit it off and Caloy even sends a grovelling apology. Len isn’t sure what’s going on here, but decides to go with it because after all what else is there to do? 

A perfect capture of a moment in time, Here and There is filled with early pandemic nostalgia from a fascination with Dalgona coffee and learning to cook to the ubiquity of masks and hand sanitiser as Len and her friends attempt to ease their anxiety through frequent Zoom sessions and online drinking parties. In a poignant staging device, Habac brings his cast together as if they were really all in the same room yet they are still divided, socially distanced and unable to touch either each other or common objects located as they are somewhere else. When there’s a “here” there must be a “there”, but the internet has the uncanny ability to imperfectly merge the two, closing the gap but perhaps painfully. One step on from an old-fashioned penpal romance, Len and Caloy bond over facenook messenger and occasional phone calls but the screens which connect them also divide, she’s still “here” and he’s still “there” in emotional as well as physical dimensions. 

As her friends testify and that first meet cute bear out, Len is stubborn and opinionated, a self-centered only child, while despite the reversal of their first meeting Caloy seems to be sensitive and caring yet also perhaps increasingly depressed and anxious worrying about his family back in rural Cebu which according to the news is turning into a coronavirus hot spot. Working as a frontline delivery driver, Caloy had accused Len of belittling the fears of those who have no choice but to go out when she is free to stay safe at home, but she does know about the plight of frontline workers because her mum (Lotlot de Leon, Gutierrez’ real life mother) is a nurse who insists on social distancing inside the house as well as the use of masks and copious disinfectant. At 55 she’s in an at risk group and Len is forever trying to convince her to retire or at least stop taking additional shifts but her mother feels she has a responsibility, leaving Len often entirely alone with only her plants to talk to. Perhaps for these reasons, he going out, she staying in, Len rarely thinks to ask how things are for Caloy until it’s perhaps too late, angrily snapping at him on the phone while he tries to cheer her up only realising that he might be hurting too after her own problems have been sorted. 

She can’t see it, but he always seems to be surrounded by cooling blues as in his lonely bedroom while her spacious multilevel home is a warming mix of golds and browns lit by comforting lamplight. Nevertheless, they slowly bond sharing their traumatic pasts and hopes for the future, hers Korean barbecue his to see her so he says, yet there are also ways in which they do not quite connect never quite understanding each other as they remain “here” and “there” respectively. “Everything has to end sometime” Len adds encouragingly, though in the “real” world we’re still waiting a year in, but she’s more right than she knows over optimistically contemplating her happy ever after while getting used to the new normal. A charming, witty romance boasting fantastically sophisticated dialogue, innovative production design, and witty composition, Here and There is the first great corona movie capturing the everyday of these strange times with touching levity even as its unexpected ending reminds us that they too will sometime end.


Here and There screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival. Production company TBA Studios has also just launched its own streaming service TBAPlay available in the US and Europe (Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland) featuring last year’s Write About Love as one of its launch titles. Readers in the Philippines can also stream Here and There via Cinema 76@Home.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Watch List (Ben Rekhi, 2019)

“I just want peace” sighs a world-weary mother after becoming another secondary victim of President Duterte’s war on drugs, finding herself falling ever deeper into the amoral abyss a metaphor for the gradual dehumanisation of her society. Another in the recent series of films candidly addressing the extrajudicial killings, Ben Rekhi’s Watch List is among the more nihilistic as its conflicted heroine contemplates the costs of becoming an oppressor in order to avoid oppression while her children struggle to see a future for themselves in a society which seems actively hostile to their existence. 

Arturo (Jess Mendoza) and Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) were once drug users but have since moved on and are attempting to live ordinary lives raising their three children in a small home hidden in the back ways of a Manila slum. Their hopes are derailed one day when a bunch of policemen knock on their door and ask for Arturo who is apparently on their “Watch List” having been denounced as a suspected drug dealer. Attempting to defend him, Maria finds her own name appended by the gleefully officious police officer who reminds Arturo that he’s been inside before so he better do as they say. The pair eventually “surrender”, agreeing to participate in the “rehabilitation” programme even though they are no longer using and have no connection with drugs. In any case, surrender appears to be worthless. Arturo’s body is soon discovered in the street next to a cardboard sign reading “I’m a pusher, don’t be like me”. 

Widowed with three children, Maria finds herself in a difficult position unable to support the family financially and eventually forced out of her home more it seems because of the social stigma of being associated with drugs than her inability to pay the rent. While many of her friends rally round including those who’ve also lost husbands, sons, or brothers to the killings, others reject her outright as do potential employers on realising she’s that woman from the news whose husband was a drug dealer while her son Mark (Micko Laurente) is also ostracised by his friends. Certain that Arturo was not a drug dealer, Maria looks for justice but finds herself misused by a corrupt police chief who recruits her as an informant but ultimately has a darker purpose in mind. 

Drawn into the dark web of extra judicial killings, Maria uncovers the sinister conspiracies at their centre from police collusion with vigilante task forces to the enormous amount of money flowing through the infinitely corrupt system. On their enrolment onto the rehabilitation programme, Maria and her husband are forced to recite a mantra that they are surrendering “voluntarily” out of love for their families and country because they want to change their lives even though they had been more or less coerced to comply solely because someone had given their names and they were on a list. Learning that the Watch List is basically a kill list of potential targets, Maria wants off it but discovers there is no off and attempts to keep herself and children safe by making herself useful to the police. 

Forced into complicity she begins to lose her sense of humanity, left with no way out while terrified for the safety of her children. Mark finds himself drawing closer to his cousin Joel (Timothy Mabalot) who has already become involved with drugs following the murder of his father by vigilantes. “No point studying for jobs that don’t exist anyway” he explains justifying his decision to skip school and hang out with a pair of similarly disadvantaged children, firmly ruling out the notion of education as a possible route out of poverty. Like others in the slums who openly remark that the killings reflect the government’s lack of responsibility in that if they addressed the economic problems in the country no one would be forced into crime (not that the victims were even necessarily involved with crime in the first place), Joel has identified the war on drugs as a war on the poor and means to defend himself by any means possible. Shooting mainly handheld Rekhi attempts to capture the realities of life on the margins of Filipino society trapped in a constant sense of anxiety in which death hides round every corner and is often arbitrary. A chilling condemnation of Duterte’s Philippines, Watch List’s near nihilistic conclusion offers only a small ray of hope in an unexpected act of compassion but somehow seems all the crueller for its unending sense of impossibility. 


Watch List streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Joyful Mystery (Misteryo sa Tuwa, Abbo Q. Dela Cruz, 1984)

If you “found” a fancy bag full of cash and the guy who was carrying it obviously won’t be needing it anymore, what would you do, hand it in, or take it and keep quiet? Many would have little problem with option two, though as someone later points out sometimes big money can be a big problem. Rarely seen on its release during the martial law era, Abbo Q. Dela Cruz’s Joyful Mystery (Misteryo sa Tuwa) is both a tale of human greed and selfishness and of the thinly veiled feudalistic corruptions of an era. 

Clearly dated to the 19th August, 1950, the film opens with a raucous celebration for the baptism of the village chief’s youngest son Tiko (Kenneith Hutalla) which is all too soon disrupted by the harbingers of doom in the form of an aircraft trailing black smoke that duly crashes right into the forest in which we saw the villagers living and working throughout the social realist title sequence. The villagers rush to the scene, but once there they quickly start looting the wreckage largely ignoring the handful of bodies thrown out of the bisected plane despite the theoretical possibility that at least some of them may still be alive. The trouble starts when three men pick up a fancy briefcase belonging to “an American” and are spotted by a fourth man, a soldier, Castro (Lito Anzures), who claims to have found the briefcase first and laid claim to it. Soon after, the local mayor (Mario Taguiwalo) arrives with two Chinese businessmen who’ve come looking for their colleague who, they claim, was carrying a large amount of money intended to fund their business project. 

Despite the happy scene of the opening party at which it is assured there is food enough for everyone, it’s clear that the lure of the loot has exerted a corrupting force over the previously close village as each family attempts to hide whatever it was they took from the crash site for themselves so they won’t have to share. The three men, village chief Ponsoy (Tony Santos Sr.), problematic libertine Mesiong (Johnny Delgado), and earnest young man Jamin (Ronnie Lazaro), agree to share out the contents of the bag equally, all harbouring different dreams from a comfortable life in the city to owning a horse and the ability to get married, but are nervous about Castro, making a pact they won’t give up the money no matter what happens. 

That turns out to cause more of a problem once the authorities start looking for the bag. Captain Salgado (Robert Antonio), perhaps for obvious reasons the only incorruptible figure to be found, suspects that someone may have found the money already and decided to keep it, while the mayor admits he might have done the same, eventually entering into a pact with Castro to steal the bag from the villagers and split the contents between them. Living comfortably in the city, the mayor cares little for his co-conspirators, planning to blame the Huk rebels living in the forest for any negative fallout and otherwise making a patsy out of Castro to ensure he won’t have to part with too much of the money. 

At a loss for what to do, the villagers’ wives automatically suspect the mayor is involved, innately distrustful of authority figures, even doubting the captain whom they otherwise believe to be good and just. We’re repeatedly told that villagers are greedy mercenaries, they don’t agree to help the army with the bodies from the crash until offered money (nor do they seem worried about the fires) despite the fact that they will obviously encourage the encroachment of wild animals such as rats which are later seen to be enough of a problem that the mayor again offers a bounty on their heads in an effort to get the villagers involved in culling them. Yet we can also see that they’re trapped by a series of changing though outdated social codes in which the feudal relationships between peasants and landowners have crumbled but the farmers have been hung out to dry at the mercy of corrupt political figures such as the venal mayor and distrustful of the revolutionary Huk whose opposition to the feudal legacy they fail to understand. You can’t blame them for taking the money because they’re in desperate need and there are no other mechanisms by which they might improve their circumstances. It’s desperation rather than greed which begins to turn them against each other as they jealously guard the opportunity hidden in the money which points towards a better life for themselves and their families. 

Perhaps ironically, the film begins with a baptism and ends with a wedding which is to say that it travels anti-clockwise to come full circle as the villagers once again dance and celebrate, perhaps uncomfortably vindicated in their moral failing even as they “win” in overcoming the systemic corruption which otherwise oppresses them. Their victory however is only to a point, the social realism of the title sequence is repeated in the credits, the farmers returning to the forests just as they always have and perhaps always will no matter what illusionary dreams they might have had of escape fuelled only by the promise of misbegotten riches. 


Joyful Mystery streamed in its recent 4K restoration as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Diaz, 2020)

“Your concern is human rights. Mine is human lives” President Rodrigo Duterte disingenuously intones as part of his State of the Nation address, as if in the end they weren’t the same thing. Ramona S. Diaz’ clearheaded yet incendiary documentary A Thousand Cuts follows unfazable journalist Maria Ressa, head of online news site Rappler as she finds herself firmly within the president’s sights for her determination to challenge his “fake news” only to be accused of the same herself. Yet Ressa refuses to back down, holding the line even in the face of extreme threat to her person ranging from spurious prosecution to attempts to intimidate serious enough to have her wearing a flack jacket while travelling only by official car. 

As Ressa points out, the danger is not unique to the Philippines though through her investigations we see her map out the networks of bots and bad actors that allowed populism to prosper through social media, the most online nation apparently a guineapig for geopolitical manipulation. Remarkably even-handed in her presentation, Diaz introduces us to Ressa’s opposite number in Mocha Uson, a former pop idol turned rightwing blogger ensconced in the Duterte camp but scoffing at the idea her job is to spread pro-Duterte propaganda. Like fellow candidate Bato, a former police chief turned head of corrections, she likes to put on a show, a series of K-pop-style dance routines praising the president gracing her social media feeds. Cheerful scenes of dancing and celebration are directly contrasted with the disgruntled face of a female opposition candidate appearing directly below them as if in disapproval of their frivolous merrymaking.

Then again, the problem is the president is often overly “honest”, casually implying that he has personally killed and has no qualms doing so again as Ressa attempts to question him as if he were an ordinary politician. He is crass and sexist, constantly boasting of his sexual prowess at the podium while emphasising his virility,  literally playing the macho strongman, yet even as he says directly that he will kill people keep supporting him presumably believing that he means he’s going to kill other people but not them. One older woman even gets up to a mic at an event where Ressa is speaking to point out that the extra judicial killings may be awful but her pension’s gone up and she personally feels quite safe as someone unconnected to drugs so she struggles to see what the problem is. Meanwhile, the reporters recount the personal toll covering the killings can take on them as they witness the bodies lining the streets, discovered by wailing relatives protesting that their sons, husbands, and brothers were good people who didn’t deserve to die this way, not that anybody does. Not so much a war on drugs as a war on the poor, but populist politicians don’t hang on to their power by making things better, only by making them worse and then blaming someone else.  

Simply by reporting on the injustice of the killings, Ressa becomes a figurehead for the hate directed against Rappler and other news organisations prepared to challenge the president’s narrative. We see him humiliate a young reporter, answering her questions with an accusation of a lack of patriotism, before having her excluded from government briefings. The reporter later breaks down, revealing the strain placed on her by constant paranoia not just of becoming a direct target for government action but that she may someday make a mistake that would be used heavily against her. Yet she too is buoyed by the relentlessly positive presence of Ressa who refuses to be cowed, insisting that it’s not too late and that hope will win in the end. Don’t be afraid, she insists in the face of Duterte’s mantra that there must be fear, violence is his strength. Yet as the film’s title implies, the death of democracy comes in a thousand tiny cuts rather than a single blow, the cornerstones of accountability quietly chipped away while our attention is pulled in a thousand different directions. The parallels are obvious, populism on the march all over the globe, but there are at least those like Ressa willing to speak truth to power no matter what power might do to stop us listening. 


A Thousand Cuts streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death of Nintendo (Raya Martin, 2020)

Raya Martin made his name as a pioneer of experimental cinema in the Philippines. While his more recent films have perhaps drawn increasingly closer to the mainstream, it might still come as a surprise that his latest feature is a retro teen movie of the kind that no-one really makes anymore save as an exercise in nostalgia. As the title may imply Death of Nintendo, scripted by Valerie Castillo Martinez, is indeed a nostalgia fest set in the post-Marcos early ‘90s, in a sense the dying days of the golden age of Mario, but it’s also a subtle critique of contemporary Filipino masculinity, a uncoming-of-age drama in which boys never really grow up but continue to occupy a space of perpetual adolescence. 

In a nebulous early ‘90s Manila, 13-year-old Paolo (Noel Comia Jr.) is an introspective rich kid obsessed with playing Nintendo of which his fiercely overprotective, helicopter mother Patricia (Agot Isidro) largely approves because it keeps him home in his room where she can keep an eye on him. She’s less keen, however, on Paolo’s circle of friends which includes both fellow rich kids Gilligan (Jiggerfelip Sementilla) and his sister Mimaw (Kim Chloie Oquendo) whose father has recently run off to America with another woman, and Kachi (John Vincent Servilla) who lives in the slums with his lothario older brother Badong (Jude Matthew Servilla) and sex worker mother Shirley (Angelina Canapi). Meanwhile, the gang’s arch nemesis, the uncouth and distinctly mean Filipino-American returnee Jimbo (Cayden Williams), is intent on making all their lives a misery and Paolo is in the first flushes of adolescent romance mooning over popular kid Shiara (Elijah Alejo). The upshot is that the boys are keen to become men as quickly as possible by undergoing the Tuli ritual circumcision, travelling to the remote village witch doctor who operated on Badong and apparently turned him into the top stud he is today.  

As all of the father figures are absent, Badong is the closest paternal presence that any of them have though in real terms his example may not be much of one to follow. He currently has a steady job working at the local Jollibee, but as Kachi fails to realise is also being courted by the petty gangsters of the slums, while his mother is quick to warn him about his promiscuous ways and possibilities of getting a girl into trouble. Neverthless, what all the guys want is to instantly transform into an idealised vision of masculinity largely gained from movies and pop culture rather than the weedy boys they currently feel themselves to be. Tellingly they see something of this in Jimbo and are intimidated by him because of it, later losing their fear after realising that he has not yet undergone the ritual and is therefore still a boy himself.

Mimaw, meanwhile, who has always been a tomboy is confronted by notions of idealised femininity after she becomes friends with Shiara and her coterie of popular girls. Allowing the other young women to give her makeovers, she wonders if it’s OK that her friendship group is her brother and his friends and why it is she’s more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts than skirts and heels. When Paolo asks her to put in a good word for him with Shiara she’s conflicted, and though it’s suggested that she’s got a crush on the most sensitive of the boys, we can’t help wondering if it’s not Shiara that she may secretly be drawn to. 

In any case, as the boys spend their time on childish competitions of masculinity, it’s Mimaw who’s perhaps beginning to realise that she wants something more out of life. Eventually, the NES is replaced by a SEGA Mega Drive, the boys having completed the ritual and become “men”, wearing jeans and smart shirts with greased hair yet looking almost identical, still boys on the inside. Mimaw prepares to move on, leaving the boys behind as they again suggest video games or basketball only for Kachi to decline because he doesn’t want to muss his hair and Gilligan because he’s got a hot date to prepare for later in the evening. The boys, it seems, have only swapped their games for girls, while Mimaw has truly grown-up, something telling us this was her story all along only no was really her paying much attention. Bathed in the golden glow of an eternal, adolescent summer in which there are earthquakes and eruptions figurative and literal as the boys edge their way towards a longed for manliness, Death of Nintendo is perhaps less conventional than it first seemed while filled with the ache of nostalgia for a more innocent era.


Death of Nintendo streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop, Lav Diaz, 2020)

“Use your mind not your emotions” the hotheaded youngster of Lav Diaz’ Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop) is repeatedly told, perhaps ironically by an earnest man of faith. Diaz’ shortest work in quite some time at a comparatively trim 156 minutes, Genus Pan is also among his most accessible in its seeming directness but carries with it hidden depths in its questioning of the “unevolved” human psyche, no better than an ape unable to overcome its baser instincts or cure the curse of human selfishness in which the only way to escape oppression is by becoming an oppressor. 

This is what Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) fears has happened to his sometime friend, Baldo (Nanding Josef). As the film opens, the men are collecting their pay but as is customary the money is depleted before it even enters their hands with so many charges and deductions symptomatic of a world of normalised exploitation. Baldo found jobs at the goldmine for the young Andres and his old friend Paulo (Bart Guingona) but expects a cut of their pay as a brokerage fee, money Andres is loathe to give him both on principle and because he needs it to pay for medical treatment for his ailing sister. Baldo, however, is unsympathetic accusing the young man of ingratitude and disrespect. The three men are to travel back to their home village together on a boat Baldo has paid for, instructing the boatman to drop them at the far end of the island in order to avoid having to pay any more “fees” to the various authorities they may otherwise encounter in town, after which they will journey on foot through the forest. 

The forest itself is a primal place in which man is most aware he is also an animal. This fact is perhaps brought home to the men thanks to a broadcast received on Paulo’s radio in which a psychologist expounds on the idea that the human brain is largely underdeveloped, the marking of a developed mind a predisposition towards altruism. There is not so much difference, he argues, in the mind of an average human with that of an ape, “Genus Pan”, ruled by its basest instincts of selfishness and violence. Left alone in the forest and forced into mutual dependency, the differences between the three men each in their own way archetypes begin to strain their relationship. Paulo, a deeply religious man who spends most of his time reading the bible, is the peace maker but is also hiding a dark secret which perhaps informs his unexpectedly cynical advice to the earnest Andres who declares himself sick of his world of constant corruption, unwilling to be “a witness to this kind of dirt all my life”. Andres resents Baldo not only for the practical impact of his attempts to extort him, but that he has given in to the world’s venality and become another oppressor just like everyone else. Paulo advises him to use his head not his heart which would doubtless tell him that resistance is futile, but even in his nobility Andres cannot escape his rage at this infinitely feudal world in which a powerful few carry untold authority. He alone raises concerns about conditions at the goldmine where being buried alive is not an uncommon occurrence, not to mention the other mysterious deaths and disappearances, and longs for answers as to the murder of his brother he suspects for refusing to pay bribes to the local authorities, along with the spurious imprisonment of a local woman, the rape of a pair of sisters, and abuses against an indigenous mountain community.  

At the forest’s edge, Paulo reveals to him what it might have cost to escape his oppression as a member of a circus ruled by a cruel and sadistic tyrant, lamenting that in truth they were never able to escape Hugaw Island the ironic name of which apparently means “dirt”, given to it under the Japanese occupation in which it housed a comfort women station where women kidnapped from surrounding islands were forced into sexual slavery. The action shifting to another three men, the oppressors the Captain (Popo Diaz), Sergeant (Noel Sto. Domingo), and the least “developed” mind of all the calculating thug Inggo (Joel Saracho), further history of the island is revealed in its past as a smuggling hub unfairly defamed by foreign powers who spread rumours of its dangers to keep the curious away. Inggo longs to get his hands on the “jar of truth”, a burden later entrusted to Baldo’s daughter Mariposa (Hazel Orencio) who can move only very slowly yet is often carrying tremendous weight. 

Shooting in his familiar style, monochromatic static camera and long takes, Diaz’ shocking shift to handheld to dramatise false testimony as Inggo conspires against Andres to quell his rebellion hints at the irrational instability of “truth” and its potential for misuse at the hands of men like Inggo. A lone holdout against post-colonial feudal oppression, Andres’ refusal to capitulate cannot stand. As Paulo had warned him, he is a threat to the social order. The “smart” ones play along, and then like Baldo they join in while the Inggos of the world continue to prosper in their smug and heartless cruelty. “The island people are mute” a bereaved mother laments, “fear has taken over”. Ending on a note of intense anxiety, Genus Pan suggests that the civility we believe separates man from beast is at best paper thin while resistance is met only with futility when those in power are free to act with absolute impunity. 


Genus Pan streams in the UK 11th October, 5.30pm to 14th October, 5.30pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)