Smaller and Smaller Circles (Raya Martin, 2017)

Smaller and Smaller circles poster“Time and forgetfulness are the allies of abusers” – a Catholic priest reminds his students as part of a history lesson regarding the supposedly bloodless revolution that led to the end of the Marcos regime. Festival favourite Raya Martin dials things back a little in adapting the award winning novel by F.H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles. Batacan’s novel is often described as the first real Philippine crime novel – something echoed in the ridiculous views of a lazy and self serving police officer who believes there are no serial killers in the Philippines, yet the Smaller and Smaller Circles of the title lay the blame for the heinous acts its centre not at the feet of an evil madman but at those of the society which so progressively damaged his soul as to render it irreparable.

Our hero is himself a priest. Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) is a man of faith and compassion who, despite all the failings he can see in it, still believes the Church is the best way to help those in need. He is sickened and appalled by the institution’s intransigence when it comes to bad priests and is preoccupied by one in particular – Father Ramirez, whose inappropriate conduct with children he has doggedly reported for more than a decade only for him to continually escape punishment. In addition to the priesthood, Father Gus is also a teacher of philosophy and a forensic scientist who works as an occasional consultant to the local police. It is in this capacity that he comes to discover a series of murders involving young boys whose bodies were discarded on a local rubbish dump deprived of their hearts, genitals, and faces. With the assistance of his junior priest, Father Jerome (Sid Lucero), and a reporter (Carla Humphries) who was once his student, Gus attempts to solve the mystery behind this horrific series of murders before the killer strikes again.

Martin breaks with genre norms by giving us an immediate insight into the killer’s psychology as we witness the prelude to the killings while listening to his own explanations of why they must occur. The picture he paints of his childhood quickly frames his crimes as a murder of the self as the killer indulges in a compulsion to kill the weak, targeting teenage boys and stealing from them not only the breath of life but the spirit of it too. The first of our circles is the Church – the bad priests whose abuses are sanctioned by their organisation and mitigated by the “good” they leave behind. Father Ramirez was shuffled on and now works for a children’s charity but Father Gus’ attempts to warn the charity’s director fall on deaf ears and then cost him his funding. Only when Father Ramirez’ financial improprieties are discovered is his position finally questioned.

The second ring is poverty. All of these boys were poor and many of them were not identified right away because aside from their parents (if they had them) nobody was going to miss them. The film opens with a scene of children running over a rubbish dump and as the father of the first victim explains, his son was one of many who supported their struggling families by combing over the left overs of the better off looking for anything which might still be useful. Our third ring is bureaucracy – when Fathers Gus and Jerome meet the local councillor, they are surprised to find that she is efficient and committed, keen to do whatever it takes to look after her constituents even if it means going up against the Church or the wider government. However, she knew nothing of the murders and though she is quick to grant Father Gus all the access he needs, it is partly her own efforts to provide essential services to the poor which have enabled the crimes as those who claim to want to help others are really only helping themselves and wilfully turning those same mechanisms back on the people who need them most.

As a man of faith Father Gus does his best, refusing to give up on the killer, trying to ease his burden whilst in grave physical danger. Set in the Philippines of the late 90s, Smaller and Smaller Circles is filled with those still trying to come to terms with the traumatic past but finding its unpleasantness echoing in unexpected places. As such it finds unexpected resonance in the world of 2017 in which life is once again cheap and compassion thin on the ground.


Smaller and Smaller Circles is screening as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on 19th September at 7pm, AMC River East 21, plus introduction and Q&A with director Raya Martin.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, Lino Brocka, 1975)

manila-large-900About half way through Lino Brocka’s masterpiece of Philippine cinema Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag), the hero, Julio (Bembol Roco), sits watching the window where he thinks the woman he loves may be being held prisoner as a trio of guitar players strums out The Impossible Dream, unwittingly narrating his entire story. Julio is no Don Quixote but he has his own Dulcinea and, as the song says, without question or pause he is ready to march into hell for the heavenly cause of rescuing her from clutches of this cruel city. Not quite content to love pure and chaste from afar, Julio plays Orpheus descending into the underworld, plunged into a strange odyssey through a harsh and indifferent world driven by mutual exploitation and the expectation of violence.

Orphaned fisherman Julio has been in Manila for some months in search of his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), lured away from her hometown by the false promises of the elegant Mrs. Cruz (Juling Bagabaldo) who claimed there were good factory jobs waiting for pretty girls in the city which also provide the opportunity to study. After she abruptly stopped writing home, Julio left to find her but months of searching have left him with few leads other than tracking Mrs. Cruz to a Chinese grocers where he sometimes thinks he sees a familiar silhouette in an upper window.

The first of Julio’s falls brings him into the world of the casual day labourer, reliant on the transience of ongoing construction and at the mercy of corrupt foremen. Having been mugged and deprived of all of his savings, Julio is completely broke and lucky to have found this job for which he will be paid 2.50 pesos per day, which is 0.5 pesos less than the wage he was getting on his last job. Later he finds out that his payslip says 4 pesos, but whether that extra 1.50 is imaginary or finding its way into the pockets of the foreman is anyone’s guess. In any case, the money is rarely paid in full but offered under the system of “taiwan” in which the company effectively refuses to pay the current wages but offers an advance on future ones for a small fee. Should an employee complain, he will simply be fired. Conditions are poor with no safety provisions and fatal accidents are not uncommon. When the project nears completion, workers will be unceremoniously laid off with no warning or additional pay, overtime is available but is paid at the basic rate.

Julio is a single man and is only ever thinking of his quest and so he is prepared to suffer. The labourers he meets are all good men and friendly, quick to help him find his feet in this often harsh terrain. Sleeping in the communal dorm, Julio makes friends with some of the other workers who each have their own dreams from studying at night school for a corporate job to becoming a famous singer but his closest ally becomes a kind man trying to support his paralysed father – shot in the back by police after refusing to leave the family’s ancestral farm illegally grabbed by a Spanish millionaire, and his younger sister all now living in a fetid slum.

Julio’s second fall occurs after he loses his job at the construction site and finds himself roaming around the city, ending up in a dodgy part of town apparently very popular for cruising. Picked up by a friendly local, Julio gets himself another place to stay but soon finds out the main idea is to recruit him as a rent boy for an exclusive gay club. Talked into it and persuaded by the possibility of earning ten times what he’d get in construction, Julio tries prostitution on for size but is not interested in sex with other men and finds it impossible to adapt to the kind of showmanship the role requires. His experiences do, at least, provide a kind of mirror for what he fears has befallen his lady love though the gay club is a much more open environment in which the staff is free to leave at any time, turn clients down, and generally take in the atmosphere whilst waiting around.

The city is a willing collaborator in Julio’s fate. Naivety has no place here where the only route out of oppression is to become an oppressor. Early on Julio mentions going to the police to get help for Ligaya but is cautioned against it. Impotent and hopeless, Julio’s rage only grows as he watches friends die in cruel, ridiculous and unnecessary ways to the point at which he almost kills a purse snatcher in a kind of vengeance against an unkind society. Brocka breaks the contemporary action with frequent flashbacks as Julio remembers happier times with Ligaya some lasting mere seconds and others minutes reflecting Julio’s growing madness and unresolved rage. To try to live here is to dream the impossible dream, but for Julio there can only be one way out and it lies in violence, loss and defeat. Laying bare the futility of life under a dictatorial regime with all of its fear and emptiness, Manila in The Claws of Light is quietly angry, filled with a young man’s fire as he finds the world denied him, his dreams impossible, and his hope already in ashes.


Restoration trailer (no subtitles)