Big Night! (Jun Robles Lana, 2021)

In the opening scenes of Jun Robles Lana’s darkly comic farce Big Night! a young man is shot in the head by another young man, this one wearing a motorcycle helmet with its visor down, who calmly walks away and gets back on the back of the bike he arrived on his friend then driving them both away. Of course people are shocked but then again not all that much, they barely pause despite the fact that his man, Ronron, was well known to them and no one really thought he had much to do with drugs. Beautician Dharna (Christian Bables) gossips about the killing with his friend Biba but gives it little thought before returning to his day, so normalised has death on the streets become in Duterte’s Philippines. 

Dharna may not have given much thought to extrajudicial killings, but then it’s different when it’s you who might be next in the firing line as he discovers when Biba gets an advance view of the following day’s “Watch List” from her law enforcement boyfriend. What ensues is a kafkaesque quest to clear his name though there’s no real “official” path towards getting off a watch list when you’re on one. His boyfriend Zeus who is due to perform in a “Big Night” pageant at a local gay bar that very night suggests simply fleeing to another district, but flight implies guilt and as Dharna points out he’ll lose all his customers if he has to move to another area and neither of them have the money to start all over again somewhere new. Like many of Dharna’s friends and acquaintances Zeus doesn’t seem to share his concern. “The police won’t bother you if you’re not doing anything illegal” he naively advises, sure it’s all just a random mistake that soon will blow over but otherwise so numbed to the idea of extrajudicial killing that he doesn’t really think too much of it and is mainly annoyed that Dharna has lost interest in helping finish his costume for the big show. 

Neither of them can think of a reason why Dharna, under his full legal name, would have been placed on a list as he’s not a drug user and doesn’t know anyone who is. He does, however, have some useful connections including local law enforcement official Cynthia who isn’t terribly interested or helpful but manipulates his anxiety to force him to help her out by filling in for her regular mortician, Connie, who has mysteriously not shown up for work. The morgue is currently overflowing, Cynthia making a dark joke that undertaking is a growth industry while revealing that there are so many bodies in part because families have to pay a fee to get them back and most of those involved in extrajudicial killings are from the slums so they can’t afford it. Even so, she explains to Dharna that they get more donations when families can see the body which is why he’s supposed to make them up to look as good as they can despite many of them having sustained gunshot wounds to the head or face. 

Cynthia sends him on to local community leader Roja warning him that he’s “allergic to gays” while he too makes Dharna do his bidding pointlessly walking laps around a fountain in some sort of macho display of endurance while insisting that he’s so anti-drug that even if he gets a stomach upset he just powers through it with raw masculine energy. He too is a self-interested hypocrite spouting religious nonsense while hanging out in “massage parlours”, dangling the idea of salvation but unprepared to grant it. Dharna wonders if it might have been someone from the area where he grew up who reported him but discovers that unlicensed midwife Melba (Janice De Belen) makes a point of not putting any names forward at all and is herself willing to risk breaking the law to help women in need who are denied medical treatment because of their poverty.

It’s impossible to avoid the implication that this is happening to Dharna in part because he’s poor and powerless in an authoritarian and hierarchal society but he’s eventually forced to consider that someone may have put his name in a drop box anonymously, that perhaps they gave a random name when someone asked for one to save their own, because they had something against him, or sought to profit in some way from his absence. Like the witch trials of old, the war against drugs is another tool that can be manipulated for personal gain and so inured to violence has the society become that many are prepared to use it. Dharna finds himself at the centre of a random conspiracy in which he has no other option than to accept his complicity or die, discovering that as the radio report that opened the film had suggested the same officials in charge of prosecuting the war on drugs are in fact secretly using it to secure their stranglehold over the local drugs trade. 

Dharna finds himself compromised at every turn, beginning by offering free haircuts to help his case to progressing to covering up state crime, literally, by repairing the faces of the dead and graduating to faking a seizure in an ambulance to bypass a checkpoint. At the hospital he is confronted by the face of an old lady filled with despair one hand holding that of a little girl and the other a pair of bloody sandals before she simply collapses. Dharna tries to wash the sandals clean but there’s only so much you can do when the stain runs so deep. The irony of his big night taking place on All Souls Day is not lost though there’s precious little time for honouring the dead when your survival can no longer be assured. 


Big Night screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23/27 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Metamorphosis (Jose Enrique Tiglao, 2019)

“Everyone has a secret, but not all secrets are bad” according to Angel (Iana Bernardez), a sex worker and 24-year-old returnee to high school who befriends the lonely Adam (Gold Azeron) as he contends with an adolescence more challenging than most. Exploring the often underrepresented theme of intersexuality, Jose Enrique Tiglao’s Metamorphosis follows its conflicted hero as he struggles to come to an acceptance of who he is and wants to be while faced with the sometimes old fashioned, conservative attitudes of those around him. 

14-year-old Adam is already something of an outcast at school, often getting into fights with one particular boy who who keeps making a point of throwing homophobic slurs at him during class which go completely unchallenged either by the teacher or fellow pupils. Adam gives as good as he gets, but remains very much on the margins, until that is a beautiful young woman transfers into his class and ends up working with him on a class project because as usual no one else wanted to work with him. Somewhat strangely, Angel is 24 years old but in a regular high school class with a bunch of 14 year olds, which is a definite incongruity, but quickly becomes friends with Adam who offers to show her some of the local sites including a picturesque swimming hole. It’s during their outing that Adam discovers a change in his physique – he has begun to menstruate.

Adam and his family have always known that he was intersex though he has been raised as a boy which, for the moment, is what he most closely identifies as. The fact that he has started to menstruate forces him to engage on a deeper level with a sense of identity, struggling to accept the intrusion of this new and definitely female element of his physical body while also embracing his nascent sexuality. It’s Angel, making a somewhat age inappropriate attempt at seduction, who becomes Adam’s first ally, affirming that there isn’t anything wrong with him and suggesting that he reframe his perspective and think of himself as someone who is both rather than neither. 

That’s easier said than done, however, seeing as Adam comes from a conservative home with a father who is a pastor giving sermons about how God created male and female in his own image. Obviously concerned for their son’s health, Adam’s parents consult their family doctor who directs them to a specialist in Manila. Dr. Abraham (Ivan Padilla) is sympathetic, but also perhaps too definitive in immediately trying to offer reassurance with “we can fix this” as if Adam is in someway broken and in need of repair. That idea continues to present a problem when it is discovered that he has a functioning womb and vagina, leading the doctor and Adam’s father to conclude that he is more female than male and should therefore have his maleness removed. Nobody really tries to talk to Adam about this. Dr. Abraham tells him that he needs to be “ready” and also that he has to want this himself, but doesn’t make much of an effort to listen to him, telling him only that “the things that are not needed we will remove”. 

Adam’s father immediately starts referring to him as his daughter and makes arrangements for the surgery without explaining to Adam what exactly will be happening to him. He also suggests selling their mango farm and moving to another town where no one will know them as if Adam is some kind of dirty secret. Meanwhile Adam has begun to explore his sexuality, attracted both to the handsome Dr. Abraham, and the supportive Angel, uncertain if he should be feeling any contradiction between the two. People seem to be telling him that he needs to conform to being only one thing, negating both his own ability to choose and the right not to. Only the family doctor points out that many families in other countries have regretted forcing premature confirmation surgeries on children who later came to resent them, and that whatever happens should be up to Adam to decide, forcing a reconsideration on the part of Adam’s mother who realises her husband has been keeping valuable information from her regarding her son’s health. 

Ultimately, however, Metamorphosis offers a strong message of acceptance as Adam begins to embrace himself as he is rather than conform to a false binary gender identity.  “I only want one thing” he tells Dr. Abraham, “to be happy”. Adam gains the courage to be completely himself, emphasising that intersex identities are not broken or corrupted but beautiful in themselves, while making it plain that if others cannot learn to step outside of socially conservative norms of gender and sexuality then it is they who need to change.


Metamorphosis was screened as part of this year’s Osaka 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)