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)

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)

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)

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)

We Will Not Die Tonight (Richard V. Somes, 2018)

We Will not Die Tonight poster“Your moves are so old”, complains the director of a filmset towards the beginning of Richard V. Somes’ We Will Not Die Tonight, “it’s like the ‘80s”. An homage to The Warriors among other punk infused action classics of the 70s and beyond, We Will Not Die Tonight is as gritty and as grimy as they come following a pack of cornered desperados who unexpectedly find themselves to be the good guys when confronted by an evil unthinkable even on the streets of Duterte’s Philippines. Each in need of fast dough, a desperate gang of martial artists determines on the job to end all jobs, but it’s no surprise that they get a lot more than they bargained for just trying to survive in an unforgiving world.

Our heroine, Kray (Erich Gonzales), is a principled young woman who prides herself on her sense of justice, her good heart, and her ability to survive. Each of these qualities will stand her in good stead in the chaos that’s about to engulf her but for the moment they’re all that sustains her in her frustrating life as a stunt double for low budget movies. Berated by a director (Lehner Mendoza) who seems like he just wants to shout at someone while the “real” actress (Dani Baretto) blithely insists the stunt woman is an unnecessary waste of money, Kray can do little more than grin and bear it, unable even to make much of a fuss when she realises she’s only getting half pay on account of the director’s bad mood. She needs the money because her father (Baldo Marro) is ill and needs medical treatment, though he urges her to give up the stunt work which is dangerous and leaves her feeling humiliated to take a low paid but steady job working for a friend’s catering company.

Kray isn’t suspicious when a couple of her old friends turn up out of the blue, but quickly catches on when her ex, Ramil (Alex Medina), fetches up too. He wants to get the gang back together for one last hurrah. Having let them all down before, Ramil’s suggestion is not universally popular but as everyone is so desperate for money they eventually agree. Unfortunately, Ramil’s plan is once again a bust as it turns out the contacts he’s made are not into drug trafficking (itself a dangerous prospect given the current regime) but something far darker – snatching kids off the street for illegal organ trafficking. Now, our guys aren’t saints but they didn’t sign up for murdering children and even the slimy Ramil manages to suddenly develop enough of a backbone to firmly refuse and walk away. You can’t walk away from this sort of thing, however, and all hell breaks loose as they find themselves on the run with a little girl they save from the bad guys while they try to get to relative safety.

Unlike many similar genre examples, Kray and her friends aren’t hardened street gangsters or young punks, they’re way out of their depth in the murky Philippine underworld where drugs have become too much hassle while disappearing street children might even be viewed as a public service by the current regime. A bunch of martial arts experts with broken dreams and ruined hearts, all they want is to survive. Kray wants to help her dad, Cheche (Max Eigenmann) wants to move back to the country and open a shop, Jonesky (Thou Reyes) is just sick of being poor, and Reneboy (Nico Dans) is looking for a family seeing as his own has moved to Germany without him. Ramil, the slick pretty boy leader just wants to lead with a mild ulterior motive of using his friends to get rich and perhaps winning back the respect of old flame Kray. This world, however, is not going to let them have any of that – they are going to have to fight not only for their lives but also for what’s right if they want to survive.

Somes backgrounds an authoritarian regime as the enabler of such a dark and amoral world as it thinks nothing of gunning down “drug dealers” in the streets while turning a blind eye to other kinds of violence and horror which, in a strange way, perhaps play into its continuous propaganda machine. Yet as much as our heroes are essentially trying to fight their way out of inescapable poverty, Somes’ grime fuelled action picture is pure B-movie, filled with gritty street violence enacted with makeshift weapons and fierce ingenuity. The fighting is ugly, and real (not to mention bloody), but our heroes are fighting for more than just their lives, they’re fighting for the soul of the society in which they live. Desperate to survive, they would rather die fighting than give in to the darkness but the night is long and the battle only just beginning.


We Will Not Die Tonight was screened at the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)