Ma (Kenneth Lim Dagatan, 2018)

Ma poster“Lost or beguiled?” asks the strange talking tree at the centre of Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s Ma in an opening which might as well be aimed at the audience as the confused little boy about to find himself on a very dark path indeed. In this fairytale world nothing comes without a price, but how much would you pay to maintain a connection fate has seen fit to sever?

Little Samuel (Kyle Espiritu), arm in a sling, cruelly tortures a dying crow before following another into a mysterious cave where he finds a lone tree, improbable in its vibrant greenery somehow illuminated from above. He touches it and its leaves cut him, before the tree raises its voice to tell him that there is “an end to every pain” but “every blessing comes with a price”. Running from the cave in fear, Samuel trips and discovers that his broken arm is now healed, but makes a shocking discovery on his return home. His mother seems to have become ill with a nasty hacking cough which later produces blood. When she haemorrhages over the dinner table, Samuel and his younger siblings have no idea what to do. Returning to the cave he assumes that the tree requires a sacrifice, “life for life”, and offers up the family’s pregnant cat pleading that his mother be returned to him, but the tree’s desires are deeper and darker. Ma returns, but in a different form.

After this short prologue, Dagatan pulls the focus to heavily pregnant, somewhat distracted, school teacher, Cecile (Anna Luna). Unlike Samuel and his family, Cecile seems to come from a comfortable background but is apparently single and living with her domineering mother (Susan Africa) who wants her to see a different doctor against Cecile’s own wishes. Gradually we learn that there is tension between Cecile and her mother’s younger European husband (Ian Curtis), while she is still deeply grief-stricken over her husband’s suicide. The two plotstrands begin to converge when Cecile decides she’s had enough of her mother and goes to stay with an old friend in her hometown.

While Samuel, a child after all, is prepared to go to great lengths to preserve his status quo through saving his mother, Cecile is far from secure in her impending motherhood. She wonders if her pregnancy tipped her husband over the edge, bristling at her friend Gelyen’s (Kate Alejandrino) claim that it wasn’t her fault with the words “we are all to blame”. Attempting to visit Samuel’s mother Lina (Glydel Mercado) who was in fact a childhood friend, the women too come across the cave, idly wondering if the legend behind it – that the ghost of a pregnant woman raped and killed by the Japanese during the war lurks inside, has been updated for a new generation.

Gelyen lives her life surrounded by religious icons but also suggests, perhaps jokingly, that as people around here are mostly Catholics they’d believe anything. In any case, the cave seems to have a particular meaning to the women surrounding a mysterious incident connected with Gelyen’s apparently missing brother and late father. The cave, a kind of womb itself, appears to feed on familial distress and emotional discord. It can relieve your burdens, but only at a price – the choice is yours should you decide to pay.

Then again, some things are supposed to pass and artificially reviving them might not be the best solution for anyone, not least the hollow simulacrum of a deceased loved one. Did Lina die because Samuel found the cave, did he pay for worrying that crow? Likewise, did Cecile’s husband die because of her childhood adventure? Perhaps the tree guided her here, engineering her inescapable guilt to reclaim what it to needs to live and prosper. Samuel does the unthinkable and drags his little siblings into his dark game, while Gelyen’s room full of religious icons are apparently no match for the ominous power of the natural world. Families are in a sense restored to a kind of satisfaction, but only through great personal sacrifice that alleviates the sense of guilt without offering the relief born of mutual forgiveness. Filled with a macabre sense of dread and gothic fatality, Ma is an ambitious debut from Dagatan which matches its beautifully conceived images with the bloody horror of grief-stricken desperation. 


Ma screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Respeto (Alberto Monteras II, 2017)

https://www.respetomovie.com/

https://www.respetomovie.com/“Respect” is a thorny issue, is it something which is conferred from a position of inferiority, an acceptance of equality, or taken by force? Should the older generation be “entitled” to the respect of the young simply for having been born earlier, lived longer, and have less time left, and should the state also be “entitled” to the respect of its citizens even if it abuses that respect? Respeto is the debut feature from Alberto (Treb) Monteras II but like much Philippine cinema it comes with heavy baggage as its scrappy youngster attempts to come of age in the hip hop dens of the Pandacan slums where all around him the increasingly oppressive Duterte regime brings back terrible memories for a generation only once removed from his own which paid a heavy price to rid themselves of a tyranny they now see returning.

Hendrix (Abra), a scrappy teen living with his older sister and her boyfriend who prides himself for his magnanimity in supporting his lover’s annoying kid brother, says he has the “mind of a gangster” and longs to prove himself in the underground rap battling world which represents a kind of escape from the harshness of his everyday existence. Hip hop maybe the music of the oppressed, but there’s little politicking in arcane world of petty gangsters and drugged up thugs. This is a world of humiliation – the rappers rap about rapping, about how their rhymes are sweeter than their opponent’s, how their opponent is weak and they are strong. Despite an often careful honing of a craft, this rap is vacuous – a misuse of words that could serve real purpose to do little more than replace the act of physical violence with macho male posturing.

This is certainly a very male, macho world. Inducted into the rap battle scene, Hendrix is tricked into battling an old veteran, Jambalaya – a larger lady with an intimidating presence, but all he can come up with is a steady stream of misogynistic fat jokes, badly delivered, before he wets himself live on stage. Jambalaya quite rightly destroys him with an elegantly delivered takedown which subtly suggests everything he’s just said is completely beneath him and is therefore doubly insulting. Hendrix is humiliated, as the loser of the battles is intended to be, but he’s slow to realise that the game itself is already a betrayal of its own power.

Having stolen the money to participate in the rap battle from Mondo (Brian Arda), his sister’s dodgy boyfriend, Hendrix hits on an extreme solution to pay him back – robbing the secondhand bookshop run by an old man, Doc (Dido De La Paz), seemingly suffering with the early stages of dementia. The plan fails because Hendrix and his buddies aren’t exactly master criminals, but as a result they find themselves tasked with having to repair the damage while Doc, mildly outraged by the youth of the day, begins to see enough potential in the obviously bright yet stubborn young man to want to try to save him.

What occurs between them is somewhere between a war of words and a war for words. Doc, now an old man, was an activist poet during the Marcos regime who lost a wife and child to its brutality. In the end, his words were not enough but unlike those of the rap battlers of Pandacan, they were both beautiful and filled with purpose. Doc’s verses were, in a sense, intended to humiliate a regime – in this they are not so different from Hendrix’s rhymes, but they failed to take the place of violence. A man of words faced with the possibility of revenge, Doc was not strong enough to resist but bought himself only more anguish in a single act of primal rage that soon forged another link in a chain stretching out in both directions across an eternity.

Peppered throughout, radio broadcasts make frequent reference to a debate surrounding the long delayed burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos who died in exile in 1989. The older generation fought an oppressive regime and thought they’d won only for their children to betray the revolution they gave birth to – literally in Doc’s case as his son became a corrupt policeman who abuses his power to humiliate those whose should “respect” he ought to earn through continued service. Rendered powerless by their oppressive environments, both Doc and Hendrix sought to reclaim their self respect by asserting their voice, but in the end their words find only empty air. Somehow awed by ancient technology, the kids find an old record of a Marcos era protest song in Doc’s bookshop and realise they already know the words. The singer, seemingly a young person, begs to be left out the political storm, not to be dragged into a war he sees as nothing to do with him, but an escape from this unending cycle of violence seems unlikely while words remain weightless.


Available to stream online via Festival Scope until 20th February 2018 as part of its International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.

Original trailer (English subtitles)