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)

Death of Nintendo (Raya Martin, 2020)

Raya Martin made his name as a pioneer of experimental cinema in the Philippines. While his more recent films have perhaps drawn increasingly closer to the mainstream, it might still come as a surprise that his latest feature is a retro teen movie of the kind that no-one really makes anymore save as an exercise in nostalgia. As the title may imply Death of Nintendo, scripted by Valerie Castillo Martinez, is indeed a nostalgia fest set in the post-Marcos early ‘90s, in a sense the dying days of the golden age of Mario, but it’s also a subtle critique of contemporary Filipino masculinity, a uncoming-of-age drama in which boys never really grow up but continue to occupy a space of perpetual adolescence. 

In a nebulous early ‘90s Manila, 13-year-old Paolo (Noel Comia Jr.) is an introspective rich kid obsessed with playing Nintendo of which his fiercely overprotective, helicopter mother Patricia (Agot Isidro) largely approves because it keeps him home in his room where she can keep an eye on him. She’s less keen, however, on Paolo’s circle of friends which includes both fellow rich kids Gilligan (Jiggerfelip Sementilla) and his sister Mimaw (Kim Chloie Oquendo) whose father has recently run off to America with another woman, and Kachi (John Vincent Servilla) who lives in the slums with his lothario older brother Badong (Jude Matthew Servilla) and sex worker mother Shirley (Angelina Canapi). Meanwhile, the gang’s arch nemesis, the uncouth and distinctly mean Filipino-American returnee Jimbo (Cayden Williams), is intent on making all their lives a misery and Paolo is in the first flushes of adolescent romance mooning over popular kid Shiara (Elijah Alejo). The upshot is that the boys are keen to become men as quickly as possible by undergoing the Tuli ritual circumcision, travelling to the remote village witch doctor who operated on Badong and apparently turned him into the top stud he is today.  

As all of the father figures are absent, Badong is the closest paternal presence that any of them have though in real terms his example may not be much of one to follow. He currently has a steady job working at the local Jollibee, but as Kachi fails to realise is also being courted by the petty gangsters of the slums, while his mother is quick to warn him about his promiscuous ways and possibilities of getting a girl into trouble. Neverthless, what all the guys want is to instantly transform into an idealised vision of masculinity largely gained from movies and pop culture rather than the weedy boys they currently feel themselves to be. Tellingly they see something of this in Jimbo and are intimidated by him because of it, later losing their fear after realising that he has not yet undergone the ritual and is therefore still a boy himself.

Mimaw, meanwhile, who has always been a tomboy is confronted by notions of idealised femininity after she becomes friends with Shiara and her coterie of popular girls. Allowing the other young women to give her makeovers, she wonders if it’s OK that her friendship group is her brother and his friends and why it is she’s more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts than skirts and heels. When Paolo asks her to put in a good word for him with Shiara she’s conflicted, and though it’s suggested that she’s got a crush on the most sensitive of the boys, we can’t help wondering if it’s not Shiara that she may secretly be drawn to. 

In any case, as the boys spend their time on childish competitions of masculinity, it’s Mimaw who’s perhaps beginning to realise that she wants something more out of life. Eventually, the NES is replaced by a SEGA Mega Drive, the boys having completed the ritual and become “men”, wearing jeans and smart shirts with greased hair yet looking almost identical, still boys on the inside. Mimaw prepares to move on, leaving the boys behind as they again suggest video games or basketball only for Kachi to decline because he doesn’t want to muss his hair and Gilligan because he’s got a hot date to prepare for later in the evening. The boys, it seems, have only swapped their games for girls, while Mimaw has truly grown-up, something telling us this was her story all along only no was really her paying much attention. Bathed in the golden glow of an eternal, adolescent summer in which there are earthquakes and eruptions figurative and literal as the boys edge their way towards a longed for manliness, Death of Nintendo is perhaps less conventional than it first seemed while filled with the ache of nostalgia for a more innocent era.


Death of Nintendo streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (Unang aklat: Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak, Lav Diaz, 2006)

heremiasLav Diaz has never been accused of directness, but even so his 8.5hr epic, Heremias (Book 1: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (Unang aklat: Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak) is a curiously symbolic piece, casting its titular hero in the role of the prophet Jeremiah, adrift in an odyssey of faith. With long sections playing out in near real time, extreme long distance shots often static in nature, and black and white photography captured on low res digital video which makes it almost impossible to detect emotional subtlety in the performances of its cast, Heremias is a challenging prospect yet an oddly hypnotic, ultimately moving one.

Diaz begins with a long, static take of a roadway in which a convoy of pedlars is parked while the modern world passes them by in the form of speeding motor cars. Heremias (Ronnie Lazaro) is a member of this timeless nomadic community, travelling along the road selling handicrafts from a cart pulled by a cow. The other pedlars seem worried about Heremias, they describe him as seeming “unwell” and are concerned because he hasn’t been eating. Eventually Heremias makes the fateful decision to go his own way, leaving the safety of the caravan behind to tread his own path. Yet what he finds out on his own amounts to trouble and strife beginning with the theft of his cart and ending with his overhearing a gang of teenage boys outline their plan to rape and murder a local girl.

Diaz spends the first few hours of the film immersing us in the world of the caravan with its routines of singing and eating broken with children’s lullabies and games of basketball. Heremias, however, wants something more than his simple life of community and the security of the familiar. Rather than simply retread familiar routes alone, Heremias follows a solitary, untravelled path which promises little more than aloneness. His cow, in a fine supporting performance, is often less certain of the wisdom of his master’s decision and makes his displeasure known, though Heremias is unwavering. When the cow is suddenly removed from the picture, its absence is very much felt as Heremias is left entirely alone without hope or guidance.

On trying to report the crime to the authorities, Heremias finds that all of his faith in the rule of law has been misplaced. Though the police begin to investigate, it’s clear that they have little interest in solving the crime, eventually asking for a sizeable bribe to complete the job. Later, when Heremias hears the terrible plan of the drunken young men, he tries the police again but finds them unwilling to help as the young men in question are sons of important people. Finally Heremias turns to the church but the priest is unwilling to offer anything more than prayer to save the life of a vulnerable young girl. Heremias, disappointed and with his faith shaken to the core, is left with no other recourse than to strike a bargain with God. Fasting and wandering, Heremias hopes that God will save the girl whom he seems incapable of helping in any other way though Diaz offers no clue if his faith will be repaid.

The film’s title comes from the name of a town which Heremias passes through. A couple once lived there and had a beautiful daughter who was abducted and never seen again, save perhaps for a baby lizard appearing at her parents’ home. This story repeats itself in that of Helena – the young woman who will be raped and murdered according to the tale Heremias overhears whilst watching the young men waste their time on drugs and alcohol inside an abandoned home. Old stories seem to resurface in new but no less tragic ways as the lizard who can tell good men from bad gives way to a discussion of the Japanese who hid in the forests after the war, too ashamed (as the villagers describe it) to return home. Among the executed soldiers was a colonel, Oshima, but the men can’t decide if the Oshima who died was the bad Oshima or another one altogether or if the bad Oshima was really bad at all – he did, so they say, design the water sanitation system at the school to the great benefit of everyone.

Heremias wanders alone through the difficult terrain, falling ever deeper into despair. Though generally impassive, Heremias is allowed two great moments of emotion – the first as he’s overtaken by the enormity of the loss of his cart and cow, and then after his greatest test which leads him to make his fateful bargain with God. The police have failed him, the priest ignored him, and there’s nothing to say he’ll have any more luck with the invisible protector yet with this last descent into the depths of hopelessness he emerges changed, almost saintly, as he agrees to make a personal sacrifice for only the hope that the girl will be saved from her grizzly fate. Aimlessness gives way to purpose, as Heremias adopts the path of the fallen prophet.

Though the low res cinematography and extreme distance shots add to the film’s alienating approach, there are moments of rare beauty as Diaz captures the natural landscape even as it proves hazardous or threatening to man. Unusual sound design completes the effect as the boys’ loud rock music suddenly cuts out while they detail their heinous plans, or ancient folk songs float through the background, eerily echoing ongoing events. Oblique and detached, Diaz’s lengthy spiritual epic resolutely rejects connection yet the cumulative effect of its distancing approach leads to its ambiguous if ultimately moving conclusion.


Heremias loses his cow (dialogue free)