Sunshine Family (Kim Tai-sik, 2019)

Sometimes it’s easy to lose track of what’s really important while chasing illusionary success, but you’ll remember soon enough if you hit a crisis. So it is for the members of the “Sunshine Family”, the Mapalads currently living overseas in Seoul where dad works for a travel company. The Mapalads are finally preparing to move back to Manila with a house already paid for, but when dad has an accident in his car it throws all of their plans into disarray. Yet in needing to come together to combat adversity, the family is in a sense repaired as they each come to appreciate each other for who they are while remembering that they have a collective responsibility. 

That “accident” occurs one Christmas while dad Don (Nonie Buencamino) is driving home after a work/leaving party. He’s had a little bit too much to drink and is distracted by a phone call from his boss when a woman suddenly jumps out into the road and collides with his car. Don is obviously upset, hugging the oversize snowman plushie he was travelling with for comfort as he stops to check on the woman who he is certain is either dead or at least in a very bad way. Frightened of getting into trouble he drives off and leaves her, calling his dependable wife Sonya (Shamaine Buencamino) for support. 

Sonya, understandably unamused, berates her husband for never having cared enough for his family. If only he hadn’t spent so much time drinking with colleagues, playing golf, and singing karaoke, he might not have got himself into this kind of mess. Sonya hijacks a passing forklift truck and shifts the damaged vehicle into their home through a window, planning to dismember it to hide the evidence of Don’s transgression so they can all go home together as planned. 

As in most family dramas, it’s Sonya who has a plan and is determined to ensure the survival of the family. Unlike the 1992 Japanese comedy Hit-and-Run Family which apparently inspired the film, the Mapalads are strangers in a strange land though they’ve also become estranged from each other while Sonya feels increasingly unappreciated seeing as her kids are growing up and her husband is always working. As Don later points out, the crisis gives her a new sense of purpose as she formulates a series of ingenious plans to cover up Don’s crime. “Nothing is important if we’re not together” she tells him. Family means leave no man behind. 

Don, meanwhile, is forced to confront a potential failure of paternity. It is indeed he who has endangered the integrity of his family through his carelessness, but he’ll also have to admit that he’s been neglecting his responsibilities in a mistaken belief that bringing home the bacon is all that’s required of a “good father”. He hasn’t noticed that his wife is lonely and unhappy, or that his children each have secrets of their own. His waking up to all of those facts is a gradual, not always positive process, but eventually leads him to realise that it’s time for him to be a “real” father which obviously means recommitting to his family. 

In perhaps a change from the norm, that’s also true for the kids who need to rediscover a sense of solidarity and acceptance in the family unit. Oldest and now grownup daughter Shine (Sue Ramirez) has been secretly dating a Korean policeman (Shinwoo), which presents a dilemma now that the family is set on moving back home. She’s worried her conservative father might not accept her new love, but the situation is of course further complicated by the ongoing crisis and his proximity to law enforcement. Meanwhile, little Max (Marco Masa) has been caught wearing lipstick at school. Sonya doesn’t understand why that’s a problem but the school seem to think it’s not appropriate and might cause offence to other pupils. Always keen to support her kids, Sonya puts on her Wonder Woman outfit to tell Max that it’s OK to be different, and in any case his family will always love him no matter what, while also doing her best to react to her daughter’s romantic crisis in a broadly supportive manner. 

In fact, the family also end up adding an additional member in the form of the old grandpa from next-door (Han Tae-il) who has mild dementia and keeps wandering off because his daughter-in-law (Park Se-jin) isn’t very invested in looking after him. Eventually, everyone is wearing overalls and helping to dismantle the car, a symbol of the empty consumerism which has divided them. Don, meanwhile, is torn about the best way to serve his family – do the “right” thing and turn himself in, or continue covering up his crime so they can all go home to the Philippines together. In predictable fashion, the crisis resolves itself with the help of benevolent law enforcement, while even the nosy neighbour from next-door seems like she might have learned some lessons about familial bonding or at least be about to move past a crisis of her own. Thanks to their brush with crime, the Mapalads have rediscovered the meaning of family and can finally go “home” at last. 


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

BuyBust (Erik Matti, 2018)

BuyBust posterErik Matti follows Richard V. Somes We Will not Die Tonight with another retro exploitation action fest starring a plucky female lead which turns darker than anyone could have imagined. BuyBust is, on the surface, a gritty B-movie filled with ultra violence and relentless bloodshed, but it’s also the latest in a long line of movies to examine the ongoing legacy of the “War on Drugs” in Duterte’s increasingly hardline Philippines.

Our heroine, Manigan (played by very deglammed rom-com star Anne Cutis), is the sole survivor of an armed police squad whose comrades were all wiped out during an operation led by police Lieutenant Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez). Regarded as bad luck, she’s only recently been able to find a new squad to join but thanks to her experiences, is struggling to find team spirit when she knows out in the field it might be every man for himself. She is dismayed to realise that her first mission will once again be led by Dela Cruz who has picked up a low-level trafficker, Teban (Alex Calleja), in the hope of luring local drug lord Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). When the meet goes South, Teban is summoned to Chen’s lair deep in the Gracia ni Maria slums where all hell breaks loose once the team are spotted and targeted for eradication by Chen’s henchman Chongki (Levi Ignacio).

Though one might assume the police to be the “good guys” – after all, we came here with them, they are in a sense the invaders wading into totally unfamiliar territory where they perhaps have no right to be. The slums are a maze and deliberately so – the confusing environs are a perfect foil for outsiders and the police are indeed quickly lost with no clear idea of how to find their way out. Inhabited by the poorest of the poor, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that this land and the people within it have been largely left behind, forgotten by the surrounding city which regards this makeshift community as little more than a living graveyard. The police certainly have little sympathy for the ordinary residents whom they regard as tainted by association, thinking of the slums as a land of wilful lawlessness existing in direct opposition to their need for order.

The locals are well and truly fed up with both sides. They don’t have anything to do with drugs but are frequently caught in the crossfire. Creeping into the slums, the police pass a vigil for a little girl killed during a previous incursion in a literal murder of innocence caused by the internecine battle between law enforcement and drug traffickers. When the trouble starts the locals rise up in an act of revolution, wanting an end once and for all to the violence on their streets which has already taken from them sons, husbands, and little children. They are as angry with the police who refuse to protect them as they are with the drug dealers who endanger their lives by refusing to take their illegal trade somewhere less populated.

Manigan and her squad are law enforcement, but they are also a part of the ongoing extra judicial killings and it’s clear their tactics go well beyond self defence. Cornered, a prominent drug dealer taunts Manigan with her own side’s complicity – something of which she is painfully aware in having figured out that her previous squad were almost certainly betrayed by Dela Cruz whose relationships with his targets seem overly incestuous. Drug raids have become an industry in their own right. Not just the bounties on extra judicial killings, but the ransoms and kick backs corrupt officers accept in order to continue facilitating the drug trade. Actually arresting drug dealers would be financially disastrous for them, and so there are huge vested interests in protecting an illicit conspiracy of corrupt police even if it means sacrificing a few foot soldiers for the cause.

Matti keeps the tension high and the action furious as his hand held camera follows the extremely complex choreography through long takes across tin roofs and through narrow passages filled with seemingly endless supplies of angry aggressors. An infinitely compromised figure, Manigan wants to survive and then to expose the corruption in her own organisation but her fight will be a hard one. A gritty, old fashioned exploitation B-movie, BuyBust reserves its sympathy not for the heroine but for the ordinary men and women of the streets whose fight for survival is daily in a world which is becoming ever more hostile to their very existence.


Screened at London East Asia Festival 2018. Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

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)