The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril, Rae Red, 2019)

“Everything is personal” according to one extremely oppressed young man in Rae Red’s neo noir voyage through the legacies of authoritarian violence, The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril). Drawing a direct line from Marcos-era oppression to Duterte’s Philippines and the war on drugs, Red’s debut solo feature is an irony-fuelled inquisition of the modern society equally ruled by fear and desperation in which many feel violence is the only recourse against their sense of despair only to discover that violence breeds only more of the same in a nihilistic spiral of hopeless impotence. 

The never named heroine (Janine Gutierrez) is a meek and mild young woman who works in a department store where women, in particular, are expected to be prim and proper. The girl, however, is forever pulled up about the ladder in her tights, seemingly her only pair and as we’ll see she cannot afford to buy a replacement nor will one be provided for her by her employers who pat down employees as they leave the store each evening to ensure they haven’t stolen anything. Despite this however she believes she works hard and is under-appreciated, her sense of disappointment palpable as she witnesses another young woman be named employee of the month. Her colleagues view her as aloof because she is always the last to leave the building and never joins them for drinks, little knowing that it’s not her shyness that keeps her away but shame in her poverty. She has a long and arduous journey home to the poor part of town where she shares a room with another young woman, unable even to make her rent because she sends most of what she earns to the mother she apparently feels unable to return to. For all these reasons, she finds herself alone with a predatory colleague (Felix Roco) who rapes her, sheepishly apologises, and then returns with more threatening violence to advise her to keep her mouth shut. 

The evening before she’d heard a gun shot, left her apartment to investigate and seen a man run away, noticing an abandoned pistol with a heart on the barrel discarded in a rubbish bin. After the rape, she picks it up, immediately pointing it directly at the abusive boyfriend of her roommate. The gun gives her a sense of empowerment that counters the trauma of her victimisation. She is already beyond caring and can now say all the things she’s ever wanted to say to the men who treat her with such utter contempt, taking a flirty customer to task for his inappropriate behaviour with his young daughter sitting right next to him, and eventually giving her boss a piece of her mind when he finally fires her over something as petty as a barely visible uniform infraction. 

The girl had not usually been the type to complain, both her sleazy landlord and priggish boss keen to tell her that there are plenty of people waiting to take her place as if she should be grateful that her awful life is still not more awful. She and her friend dream of escaping the city, going home, or at least far away to a place where they could live a better life. Jun Jun (Elijah Canlas) the teenage drug dealer from the news reports dreams of something similar, lamenting most of all that he had homework due before he became the subject of a manhunt with which he’d struggled. He wonders how he might have done. His friend gives him all his savings which he’d been collecting for his own escape, hoping to return to his mother with his younger sister in tow in order to save her from a father he at least fears is abusive. 

Tracking through the history of the gun before it found its way into the hands of the girl, Red takes us back to the authoritarian violence of the Marcos regime as a nervous policeman assassinates “activists” in place of the current “drug dealers”, his son eventually picking up his gun a “policeman” like his father but filled with resentment towards inescapability of his fate. The gun passes from hand to hand, a child sticking the little heart sticker on it, creating only more chaos wherever it goes. It gives the girl the courage she thought she lacked to seize her agency, to talk back, to be “unladylike” in insisting on her equality in the face of the countless men who ignore, cat call, and abuse her. But the gun itself is not enough, her quest for violent vengeance hollow and unfulfilling, the only real liberation coming as she decides to abandon it in a final act of catharsis that breaks the cycle of violence and oppression which had trapped each of the gun’s owners. As a boy had said, it’s all personal. You might think it’s nothing to do with you, but you can’t escape the oppressions of the world in which you live be they poverty, misogyny, or authoritarianism. 

Largely taking place at night, Red bathes her city in the tones of neo noir, a land of shadows among neon, a shining cityscape of high rise buildings the like of which neither the girl or the street kids are ever likely to enter. Making fantastic use of music from the noirish jazz to the nostalgic pop of the oppressive ‘80s she fully embraces the pulpy exploitation of the material but always maintains a sense of playful irony, never forgetting the full import of her sometimes grim satire of life on the margins of Duterte’s Philippines as her variously oppressed protagonists seek freedom in violence but find only more constraint in the depths of nihilistic despair.


The Girl and the Gun streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Edward (Thop Nazareno, 2019)

Maybe there’s no better place to learn about life and death than a hospital, but it’s a devastatingly cruel one in which to come of age in Thop Nazareno’s infinitely warm second feature Edward. A sharp condemnation of failing health policies with minor jabs to the political realities of the day, Edward finds its titular hero forced to grow up all too soon thanks to a confluence of personal tragedy, parental disappointment, and shattered dreams all of which are brought home to him as he begins to bond with his distant father while forced to care for him during his hospitalisation for an as yet undiagnosed respiratory complaint. 

Just a teenager, Edward (Louise Abuel) should probably be in school but he’s left his rural home to be with his father Mario (Dido de la Paz) at a hospital in Manila where he sleeps on the floor under his bed and is expected to provide care such as making sure he’s washed, changing sheets, and generally watching over him to be able to update the doctors on his condition. Technically speaking, Edward shouldn’t be taking on this responsibility, but his older half-brother Renato has had to leave and there are no other relatives available so the hospital has made an exception. As you might expect, he’s not as diligent as one might hope, especially as his relationship with his father is already strained, spending most of his time goofing off with another boy, Renz (Elijah Canlas), who is giving him a few life lessons of his own in drinking and weed while they help out running errands for the hospital staff. 

When we first meet the two boys they’re playing a grim game, taking bets on whether or not the emergency patients are going to make it. Nazareno opens with a long tracking shot following just one such casualty into the hospital, shifting chaotically from one bed to another while those in the crowded waiting area loudly call out for a doctor but are told only to wait their turn. Edward’s insensitivity bears out firstly how used he’s become to the liminal space of the hospital where death is never far away, but also his youth and impressionability, taken in as he is by Renz’ rather cool and cavalier approach to life. Later he bonds with a young woman, Agnes (Ella Cruz), herself an accident victim, who takes him to task for his callousness pointing out that she’s a real live human not the subject for a game, showing him it seems for the first time how inappropriate his behaviour has been. 

Though he knows very little about her aside from her name and that she seems to be around the same age, Edward enjoys spending time with the refreshingly direct young woman and comes to see it as something of a respite from being forced to care for his dad whom he is technically neglecting. We realise that Mario is perhaps not an easy man and the family network seems to have broken down, Renato declaring himself at the end of his tether and no longer prepared to care for a father who abandoned his family for another woman only to expect filial deference on becoming ill. Like Agnes, Edward is all alone but actively avoids looking forward, little realising that his father’s condition may be far more serious than they’d assumed, preferring to lose himself in the small absurdities of hospital life as if he were on a strange kind of holiday. 

Meanwhile, he discovers just how unequal and unfair the hospital system can be. During the chaotic opening we witness a congressman’s cook attempt to get bumped up the queue using his political clout while a boy bleeds out from gunshot wounds on a gurney behind reception. Mario’s original doctor leaves his position to move away, while the new one has his own private clinic and only works at the hospital on Tuesdays. Tests take three whole weeks to come back because they have to outsource and until then all they can do is guess and treat symptoms. While hanging out with Renz, Edward finds out about some decidedly dark and very untoward goings on at the hospital morgue which it perhaps doesn’t quite occur to him to feel disturbed by until much later.

For all that, Edward still hasn’t grasped that sometimes when they tell you you can go home, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Still, for the time that he’s there the hospital is a home. Mothered by overworked nurses and beginning to warm to his rather gruff father who only wants to talk to Renato (who doesn’t want to talk to him) while experiencing his first brush with romance, Edward comes of age staring death in the face. With its moody jazz score and wistful folk rock soundtrack, Thop Nazareno’s second feature doesn’t so much tug at the heart strings as play a merry tune with them, finding all the warmth there is in tragedy as Edward learns to navigate his hospital life towards its inevitable exit. 


Edward streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

LSS (Last Song Syndrome) (Jade Castro, 2019)

“This is Love!” exclaims the heroine somewhat excitedly, though her romantic declaration turns out to be a tongue in cheek reference to the PJ Harvey song rather than a heartfelt confession. LSS (Last Song Syndrome) finds its lovelorn millennials chasing their romantic dreams but seemingly stuck in a relatable loop of heartbreaks and disappointments. They meet and then part only to brush past each other sometimes knowingly sometimes not, but somehow give each other strength as they battle the sense that their dreams are not destined to come true, yet love is less a goal in its own right than the freedom it offers to be all of who you are.

Sarah (Gabbi Garcia), a struggling singer-songwriter working a host of part-time jobs to put her younger brother through college, meets Zack (Khalil Ramos), a graphic designer, on a bus after he nervously switches seats to avoid a man with an obvious cold. Unbeknownst to Zack, Sarah had already spotted him in the queue because he was singing along to a song she likes by up and coming indie band Ben&Ben. She strikes up a conversation about music and they have a good laugh that they’re called Zack and Sarah like the Ben Folds song, eventually sharing their anxieties as they bond over a shared taste in indie pop. Sarah reveals that she doesn’t really like Ben&Ben, or she does but feels conflicted because she took part in the same newcomers workshop they did and now they’re superstars and she’s struggling to get ahead, while Zack tells her that he’s on his way to see his “best friend” with whom he’s been secretly in love for the last five years and is hoping tonight might be the night. Even so, Zack is evidently smitten and a connection has been made, but they each get off the bus and head in different directions without swapping contact details, thinking it’s one of those crazy one time encounters. 

Meanwhile, we watch them both remain in sync battling twin heartbreaks as each of their dreams goes in for a series of batterings. Zack shows up at Cha’s (Iana Bernardez) apartment and discovers she’s started dating someone else, a girl, earlier that day and realises he’s missed his chance again. Sarah gets fired from her part-time job and breaks up with her annoyingly conservative boyfriend Elmer (Eian Rances) who tells her that her dreams of becoming a musician are unrealistic while planning to open some kind of “networking” business selling dodgy cosmetics. Elmer’s words get to Sarah, but because of her meeting with Zack who told her that he believed in her dream because she has great taste in music, she has the strength to tell him where to go and double down on getting into the music industry.

That means, for a time at least, coming at it from the other side. Sarah swallows her pride and asks Ben&Ben for a job as a roadie. They aren’t very supportive (perhaps oddly seeing as the band play themselves in this movie that heavily features their music and is all about how they save love), but their manager remembers her and gives her a job when she applies for an assistant’s position through the regular channels. Zack, meanwhile, is still listening to Ben&Ben and hoping to run into Sarah at a concert someday while secretly planning to meet up with his estranged father behind the back of his kind of amazing taxi driver mum (Tuesday Vargas) who keeps needling him about his lack of romantic success (in the most playful of ways). 

Zack’s first sense of heartbreak is romantic, realising that Cha just doesn’t see him that way and that isn’t going to change. His second is familial in realising he can’t change the way the people he loves feel, and that has to be OK. Sarah’s heartbreaks, meanwhile, are largely professional as she struggles to convince those around her that she has what it takes to make it while seeing others pull ahead as she languishes backstage. Castro brings the pair together at their lowest point, allows their love to let them blossom, but then sets them apart again in the most amicable of ways. “Go chase your dreams, Sarah”, Zack tells her, supporting from the sidelines as he always has. Love is not the dream, but it is a bridge to one. You might have to let it wander for a while, but it’ll come back round eventually when it’s ready, better and stronger for having figured itself out on its own. And until then, you’ll always have Ben&Ben. 


LSS (Last Song Syndrome) screened part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ben&Ben’s official website.

Music video for Ben&Ben’s Araw Araw featuring actors Gabbi Garcia and Khalil Ramos