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)

Neomanila (Mikhail Red, 2017)

Neomanila posterWhat kind of future can there be on the streets of Duterte’s Philippines? For one orphaned son of Manila’s slums, the only answer he can see is none at all. “I’m going to die no matter what I do”, he tells a surrogate maternal figure whose conflicted maternity will eventually bring about ruin for them both. Mikhail Red’s Neomanila is the latest in a string of films to examine the social costs of Duterte’s “Extra Judicial Killings” of “Drug Dealers” often conducted by vigilante bounty hunters working with the tacit complicity of legitimate law enforcement. Inheriting a world of corruption where life is cheap and sensitivity breeds despair, boys like Toto (Timothy Castillo) find themselves caught in the crossfire of an increasingly heartless regime.

When we first meet Toto, he’s trying to visit his older brother, Kiko (Ross Pesigan), who has been rounded up by the police in a drug dealer trawl. Kiko is small fry – a petty gangster only peripherally connected with the drug trade, but the police are holding him in the hope of tracking down another suspect, Ringgo (Edwin Nombre). The problem is, unbeknownst to Kiko or to Toto, Ringgo is already dead – he was the dealer we just saw gunned down in the street by a hired assassin. Trying to figure out how to get the bail money together for his brother, Toto pays a visit to a local gang boss and then hangs out with his girlfriend Gina (Angeline Andoy) in between running petty errands for the gang. One particular job brings him into the orbit of Irma (Eula Valdez) – a woman running a “pest control” business who used to know his mother before she was killed in a fire in the slums some years ago. Irma offers him a job in her store, but Toto quickly becomes aware that Irma runs a lucrative sideline as a hitwoman for hire. Together with her partner (both romantic and crime) Raul (Rocky Salumbides), Irma works for mysterious police handler Sarge who gives the pair frequent assignments to take care of “suspects” and bring home the drugs as well as other kinds of “valuable” “evidence” including phones and weaponry.

Orphaned at a young age, Toto is left entirely alone on the streets of Manila. He’s not a really part of the gang and cannot rely them for familial support and with his brother out of the picture he has no one to stand for him. The quasi-maternal connection he builds with Irma is he closest thing to family he has experienced in quite some time. Irma too, apparently mother to an absent son, quickly takes on the role of Toto’s protector – she gives him her own son’s clothes, feeds him, and later takes him out on trips to the karaoke bar or shopping to buy trainers all while “training” him to become a part of her outfit even whilst believing that Toto is somehow “better” and not “like the other” kids from the slums who get mixed up in drugs and crime through having no other options to survive. Wanting to “contribute” as part of the family, Toto goes along with Irma’s morally dubious education but he is also still a child with a deeply felt sense of humanity and justice and is therefore increasingly conflicted about the duo’s heartlessness and refusal to question their various assignments.

Trapped by the world he has inherited, Toto has few options other than to conform to the harshness of its rules or risk becoming a victim of them. The vision Red paints of modern Manila is one lit by gloomy neon half-light in which gangsters go to mass and priests preach about the seventh commandment while the state itself sanctions bloody murder in the streets conducted by those with vested interests in perpetuating a world of inescapable poverty in which death has become an industry. Drenched in despair and unbelievably bleak, Neomanila is a story of a city eating itself alive in which there is no future, no possibility of salvation, and innocence is just another weakness to be burned on an altar to (im)moral austerities so that the world might feel “safer” to those who live in fear of its self-created evils.


Neomanila was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Melancholia (Lav Diaz, 2008)

melancholia“Why is there so much madness and too much sorrow in the world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man’s pain?” asks a key character towards the end of this eight hour film, but he might as well be speaking for the film itself as its director, Lav Diaz, delivers another long form state of the nation address. This is a ruined land peopled by ghosts, unable to come to terms with their grief and robbing themselves of their identities in an effort to circumvent their pain. Raw yet lyrical, Diaz’s lament seems wider than just for his damaged homeland as each of its sorrowful, disillusioned warriors attempts to reacquaint themselves with world devoid of hope.

Loosely divided into three segments, the film begins in the present as the three protagonists encounter each other in the picturesque northern town of Sagada. A prostitute, a nun, and a pimp each is later revealed to be living under a temporary assumed identity in an experimental “immersion” programme designed to help them deal with their traumatic past as former revolutionary fighters, each of whom has also lost a spouse to the struggle.

A short while later, the “pimp” Julian (Perry Dizon) and the “prostitute” Alberta (Angeli Bayani) have returned to their “real” lives as bourgeois Manila intellectuals – he a publisher and she a teacher. Julian is haunted by memories of his late wife, Patricia, whose sad song of longing echoes in the forests, while Alberta is preoccupied with her adoptive daughter, Hannah (Yanyan Taa), who has run away and embarked on a life of prostitution. Rina (Malaya), Sagada’s nun, remains a ghostly, peripheral presence – another truth neither is willing to acknowledge.

After giving us these two attempts to live with it, Diaz takes us back to the past as Alberta’s lost husband, Renato (Roeder), along with two other fighters hides in the jungle from government forces intent on routing them out. Trapped with no possibility of salvation the three men begin to go mad while Renato later breaks away and records his inner struggle in a diary which no one will ever read.

The weight of the past with all of its myriad traumas becomes too heavy to bear, fracturing the internal consistency of each of our three protagonists, crushing their sense of individual identity in a bid to destroy an entire culture. Unable to face their unresolved grief, each has absented themselves from themselves in an attempt to address their pain and confusion. This bizarre kind of therapy designed by Julian is intended to remove their sadness altogether by forcing them to live as other people but their sojourn in Sagada proves “too immersive” according to Alberta in a later sequence. Rina, the nun, is too greatly exposed by her new role, seeing everything through the eyes of innocence only further compounding her sense of loss and disillusionment with the cruelty of the world.

Alberta tries to face her trauma through endless searching for her husband’s body and through caring for the orphaned daughter of other victims of the military regime but her efforts are often frustrated by a lack of support from those around her. Julian, having tried and failed to cast off his painful identity, has emerged hollow and defined by an absence of self. Having penned a book neatly echoing the unheard lamentations of Renato in which sadness becomes the defining quality of the world, giving birth to art and music, poetry and cinema, Julian is now the god of melancholy, worshipped by tortured artists everywhere but trapped within a personal purgatory from which escape seems impossible.

Shot once again in Diaz’s trademark black and white with low grade digital cameras, Melancholia is indeed imbued with sadness and a crushing weight of the unresolved past. Alberta, left alone, continues searching in vain just as the beautifully lonely lyrics of Patricia’s song lament, trapped by hope but unable to find a resolution for all that she has so far lost. Raw and angry, there’s a kind of defeated resignation which fills Melancholia, an absence of hope that sees that nothing will change – this world is hell and the sadness cannot be cured. Julian gives in to madness and the allure of illusion but finds little comfort in it, moving away from Alberta who alone is still prepared to go on searching, yet hers seems like the unluckier fate, perpetually trapped in this hellish purgatory awaiting the friendly hands to pull her out seemingly never to arrive.


A scene which makes much more sense when you’ve seen the whole film (English subtitles)