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)

Metamorphosis (Jose Enrique Tiglao, 2019)

“Everyone has a secret, but not all secrets are bad” according to Angel (Iana Bernardez), a sex worker and 24-year-old returnee to high school who befriends the lonely Adam (Gold Azeron) as he contends with an adolescence more challenging than most. Exploring the often underrepresented theme of intersexuality, Jose Enrique Tiglao’s Metamorphosis follows its conflicted hero as he struggles to come to an acceptance of who he is and wants to be while faced with the sometimes old fashioned, conservative attitudes of those around him. 

14-year-old Adam is already something of an outcast at school, often getting into fights with one particular boy who who keeps making a point of throwing homophobic slurs at him during class which go completely unchallenged either by the teacher or fellow pupils. Adam gives as good as he gets, but remains very much on the margins, until that is a beautiful young woman transfers into his class and ends up working with him on a class project because as usual no one else wanted to work with him. Somewhat strangely, Angel is 24 years old but in a regular high school class with a bunch of 14 year olds, which is a definite incongruity, but quickly becomes friends with Adam who offers to show her some of the local sites including a picturesque swimming hole. It’s during their outing that Adam discovers a change in his physique – he has begun to menstruate.

Adam and his family have always known that he was intersex though he has been raised as a boy which, for the moment, is what he most closely identifies as. The fact that he has started to menstruate forces him to engage on a deeper level with a sense of identity, struggling to accept the intrusion of this new and definitely female element of his physical body while also embracing his nascent sexuality. It’s Angel, making a somewhat age inappropriate attempt at seduction, who becomes Adam’s first ally, affirming that there isn’t anything wrong with him and suggesting that he reframe his perspective and think of himself as someone who is both rather than neither. 

That’s easier said than done, however, seeing as Adam comes from a conservative home with a father who is a pastor giving sermons about how God created male and female in his own image. Obviously concerned for their son’s health, Adam’s parents consult their family doctor who directs them to a specialist in Manila. Dr. Abraham (Ivan Padilla) is sympathetic, but also perhaps too definitive in immediately trying to offer reassurance with “we can fix this” as if Adam is in someway broken and in need of repair. That idea continues to present a problem when it is discovered that he has a functioning womb and vagina, leading the doctor and Adam’s father to conclude that he is more female than male and should therefore have his maleness removed. Nobody really tries to talk to Adam about this. Dr. Abraham tells him that he needs to be “ready” and also that he has to want this himself, but doesn’t make much of an effort to listen to him, telling him only that “the things that are not needed we will remove”. 

Adam’s father immediately starts referring to him as his daughter and makes arrangements for the surgery without explaining to Adam what exactly will be happening to him. He also suggests selling their mango farm and moving to another town where no one will know them as if Adam is some kind of dirty secret. Meanwhile Adam has begun to explore his sexuality, attracted both to the handsome Dr. Abraham, and the supportive Angel, uncertain if he should be feeling any contradiction between the two. People seem to be telling him that he needs to conform to being only one thing, negating both his own ability to choose and the right not to. Only the family doctor points out that many families in other countries have regretted forcing premature confirmation surgeries on children who later came to resent them, and that whatever happens should be up to Adam to decide, forcing a reconsideration on the part of Adam’s mother who realises her husband has been keeping valuable information from her regarding her son’s health. 

Ultimately, however, Metamorphosis offers a strong message of acceptance as Adam begins to embrace himself as he is rather than conform to a false binary gender identity.  “I only want one thing” he tells Dr. Abraham, “to be happy”. Adam gains the courage to be completely himself, emphasising that intersex identities are not broken or corrupted but beautiful in themselves, while making it plain that if others cannot learn to step outside of socially conservative norms of gender and sexuality then it is they who need to change.


Metamorphosis was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original 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

Ode to Nothing (Oda Sa Wala, Dwein Ruedas Baltazar, 2018) [Fantasia 2019]

Ode to Nothing poster 3“Maybe it would be better if I just disappeared rather than physically be here but feel invisible all the time” the lonely heroine of Dwein Ruedas Baltazar’s Ode to Nothing (Oda sa wala) sadly laments to her only source of comfort, a semi-embalmed corpse. A melancholy meditation on the living death that is existential loneliness, Ode to Nothing takes its alienated heroine on a journey of hope and disappointment as she rediscovers a sense of joy in living only through befriending death. 

43-year-old Sonya (Marietta Subong, AKA Pokwang) lives alone with her elderly father (Joonee Gamboa) to whom she barely speaks in a large Spanish-style house which doubles as a moribund funeral home. Short on custom, Sonya’s only frequent visitor is sinister loanshark Theodore (Dido de la Paz) who currently holds the deeds to the house while she struggles to make the interest payments. Meanwhile, she spends her days gazing out of open windows, waiting for the handsome young taho seller to arrive, and listening to an ancient cassette tape of Chinese folksong Mo Li Hua.

The stillness of her life is ruptured late one night when a couple of men arrive with the fresh corpse of an old woman, seemingly having run her over and not wanting the bother of taking her to a hospital seeing as she is already dead. Sonya is dubious. She doesn’t want any trouble either, but needs the money and the custom and so she agrees to take the woman in and see if anyone claims her. No one does, and soon enough the corpse has become a new presence in Sonya’s life and home. She begins to confide in it, dresses it in her mother’s old clothes, and sits it at the dinner table where her father too indulges the illusion, finally talking to her once again as if the family had really been restored.

In an odd way, the corpse guides Sonya back to life. No longer so sullen, her funeral parlour finally attracts some customers while she begins to dress more cheerfully, even dancing and skipping along to Mo Li Hua with girlish enthusiasm. “As you get older, you have more reason to do the things you were too afraid to do when you were younger” she explains to the corpse, outlining a brief overture she just made to Elmer (Anthony Falcon), the taho vendor, whose grandfather she also saw off around three years ago after which Elmer took over the taho vending business.

Taho is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Sonya’s newfound hopes, wholesome sweetness and easy comfort. The blandness of off-white silken tofu mixed with the gentle colouring of the amibal syrup and sago pearls, like the Jasmine flower of the folksong, seem to symbolise the brief moments of possible happiness in an otherwise dull existence but even within her increasing sense of positivity she perhaps knows her rekindled desire for Elmer and for life is likely go answered. In any case, she falls into the corpse’s lap as if it really were her mother, attributing to it a supernatural power that keeps the corpses flowing and beckons both life and death to her lonely home.

As in any good fairy tale, however, you have to be careful what you wish for. Sonya gets what she wanted, but not at all in the way she wanted it. The corpse betrays her, leaving her bereft once again and entombed inside her own funeral home with the feeling that there is only one way out. Baltazar shoots in 4:3 with the rounded corners of nostalgic 16mm, but the frame cannot help but recall the small window on the surface of a coffin, as if we were peeking in on her still life from some other plane. Sonya is, in many ways, already dead, trapped in a moribund and hopeless world where even the fragmentary past is being slowly taken away from her – the broken cassette tape, the rapidly depleting furniture, Elmer’s crushing absence. She confesses that she’s afraid of the dark and of being alone, tired enough of her resignation to abandonment to embrace a corpse which can, of course, never leave you. It can, however, disappoint as all false idols will. A melancholy exploration of loneliness, defeat, and despair, Baltazar’s whimsical drama is a haunting ode to emptiness but one that clings sadly to life and hope even as the night draws in.


Ode to Nothing was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mo Li Hua