Sunod (Carlo Ledesma, 2019)

A mother goes to great lengths to be with her daughter in twisty Philippine horror Sunod. In a tense tale of supernatural dread, Sunod’s heroine contends not only with mysterious curse and psychological disturbance but with social inequalities, conservative social codes, and a health crisis while trying to protect her young daughter but soon finds herself dragged into a web of black magic intrigue, her calm, rational and compassionate response to becoming the target of a demonic scam only used against her by her unscrupulous aggressors. 

Never married single-mother Olivia (Carmina Villaroel) is wearing herself to the bone with worry over her teenage daughter Annelle (Krystal Brimner), a long-term hospital patient with a dangerous congenital heart defect that apparently requires expensive medical treatments Oliver can ill afford. Reluctant to be away from her daughter, she knows she needs to find another job but draws a blank in the currently difficult employment environment. At her wits’ end, she steps into a recruitment fair intended for students in search of part-time work but manages to impress the recruiter with her top English skills and spiky attitude. Her new job sees her working nights at a call centre where she struggles to adjust to the intense office atmosphere while bonding with “professional trainee” Mimi (Kate Alejandrino) and sympathetic boss Lance (JC Santos). 

Even on her first day, however, Olivia begins to notice something strange about the building where her new job is located which apparently once housed a hospital and is kitted out in gothic style complete with statues of angels and sweeping staircases. During a power cut one day after work, Olivia is approached by a strange little girl, Nerisa (Rhed Bustamante), and unwisely takes her by the hand, guiding her out of the building. Ominous events intensify, she begins hearing things and getting strange calls while Annelle’s heart condition appears to have been miraculously healed only she’s also had a complete transplant of personality. 

Of course, much of this could be down to Olivia’s fraying nerves. We’re told she’s not slept well in months and is already on various kinds of medication while obviously under extreme stress working overtime to try and pay for her daughter’s medical care. Trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder, she also faces a degree of social stigma as an unmarried mother, as she reveals nervously confessing to Mimi that she’s raised her daughter alone and so might not be the best person to ask for dating advice. Mimi, meanwhile, is an ultra modern freeter, flitting between a series of temporary jobs uncertain whether to get married for convenience’s sake or make a go of independence by committing to a career. After listening to Olivia’s story, she decides to give things a go at the call centre and the two women generate an easy friendship despite the difference in age and experience. 

Olivia meanwhile finds herself in a difficult position, propositioned by the previously “nice” Lance who hands her a fat check to help cover Annelle’s medical bills but then tries to get his money’s worth by trying it on in the employees’ rest room. She manages to fend him off, but is conflicted in her decision to keep the money out of a sense of desperation. Plagued by strange nightmares in which she sees herself bury her daughter alive, she begins to lose her sense of reality, half convinced that Annelle has been possessed by the spirit of Nerisa who, she has discovered, may have some connection with the building’s dark history as a World War II hospital. 

“When you have a child, there’s always a constant feeling of fear because her life is in your hands” Olivia tries to explain to Mimi, illuminating a more general kind of maternal anxiety than her acute worry over her daughter’s health. A compassionate soul, she tries to help Nerisa settle her unfinished business by helping her find her mum in the hope that she can then “move on” leaving her and Annelle in peace, but finds herself entangled by dark maternity and under threat from a motherly entity that quite literally cannot let go. Driven half out of her mind by an unforgiving, patriarchal society, Olivia tries to do the best for her daughter but struggles to escape her sense of futility in being unable to protect her either from her illness or the society in which they live. Rich and gothic in atmosphere with its creepy disused hospital setting replete with empty corridors and malfunctioning lifts, Sunod’s quietly mounting sense of dread leaves its heroine at the mercy of forces beyond her control, bound by inescapable anxiety. 


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

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)