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)

Midnight in a Perfect World (Dodo Dayao, 2020)

“It doesn’t matter what’s happening as long as nothing’s happening to me” a middle-aged woman exasperatedly exclaims, irritated by a young man’s naive curiosity. A dark exploration of the legacy of Martial Law, Dodo Dayao’s surrealist horror movie Midnight in a Perfect World asks how much of your freedom you’re prepared to sacrifice for security and if the illusion of a “perfect world” in which everything “just works” is worth the price of your complicity. 

In a near future Manila in which all of the city’s infrastructural problems have been solved, conspiracy theorist Tonichi (Dino Pastrano) is convinced that a mysterious force is disappearing people in random parts of the city after midnight, a theory which is only strengthened after his friend Deana rings him in a panic convinced she’s become a victim of his “blackouts” and insisting that someone’s stolen the moon. Tonichi’s other friends, the sensible Mimi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), reckless Jinka (Glaiza de Castro), and melancholy hospital worker Glenn (Anthony Falcon), are less convinced but caught in the street after midnight the gang have no option but to look for a “safe house” in order to escape the creeping darkness. For unexplained reasons, Tonichi is unable to enter with his friends and finds himself trapped outside in “God’s Blindspot”, as the mysterious Alma (Bing Pimentel), a middle-aged woman and safe house veteran, describes it. 

Alma might in a sense be seen as the embodiment of the Martial Law generation, holing up in her safe house minding her own business and defyingly not caring what’s going on outside determined only to make it through the night. She offers cryptic words of advice to the youngsters, but does not really try to help them outside of trying to prevent them from interfering with her own survival. The so-called safe house has a hidden upper floor apparently invisible from the outside and hiding its own secrets. When one of the gang manages to break open the door and pays a heavy price for their curiosity, Alma merely creeps forward fearfully and closes it again ensuring she is safe from its myriad horrors even in her wilful ignorance. 

Still, you have to ask yourself why if this world is now so “perfect” the youngsters seem so unhappy. Their drug use appears not to be particularly hedonistic but may offer them a degree of escape from a society which has become oppressive in its efficiency. Sensible Mimi cautions Jinka against associating with smarmy drug kingpin Kendrick (Charles Aaron Salazar) who spins bizarre stories of weird aliens while proffering a new drug which supposedly feels “like dying and going to heaven.” On her way from Kendrick’s Jinka passes a group of intense men and immediately pegs them as a hit squad, realising that Kendrick’s hideout has been exposed and she herself may now be in danger in an echo of the extra-judicial killings which have become a grim hallmark of Duterte’s Philippines. “Beta version Martial Law” is the way Jinka later describes it, drug users now taking the place of “activists” as targets not solely of legitimate authority but vigilante bounty hunters. The rumours of strange disappearances, people “erased” from their society, are yet another means of control inviting complicity with an unofficial curfew for a population ruled by fear.  

As if to ram the allegory home, Dayao ends the credit roll with the Martial Law era slogan “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan” or “For the nation’s progress, discipline is needed” followed by the English phrase “Never Again”. Yet, it is happening again, the extra-judicial killings of the Duterte era no different from the disappearances of “activists” under Marcos. Jinka refers to the old Manila as the world capital of malfunction, its transformation seemingly brought about by a mysterious force but unlike Mimi who seems otherwise prepared to accept complicity in her “everything works” conspiracy theory remains dejected and suspicious. None of these young people is happy with their new utopia or prepared to pay the price demanded to live in it yet there appears to be no real way to resist and their eventual decision to brave the darkness exposes nothing so much as their naivety. Scored with eerie sci-fi synths and often shot in total darkness, Dayao’s surreal horror show offers a bleak prognosis for the contemporary society unable to escape from the permanently haunted house of an authoritarian legacy. 


Midnight in a Perfect World screened as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Melancholia (Lav Diaz, 2008)

melancholia“Why is there so much madness and too much sorrow in the world? Is happiness just a concept? Is living just a process to measure man’s pain?” asks a key character towards the end of this eight hour film, but he might as well be speaking for the film itself as its director, Lav Diaz, delivers another long form state of the nation address. This is a ruined land peopled by ghosts, unable to come to terms with their grief and robbing themselves of their identities in an effort to circumvent their pain. Raw yet lyrical, Diaz’s lament seems wider than just for his damaged homeland as each of its sorrowful, disillusioned warriors attempts to reacquaint themselves with world devoid of hope.

Loosely divided into three segments, the film begins in the present as the three protagonists encounter each other in the picturesque northern town of Sagada. A prostitute, a nun, and a pimp each is later revealed to be living under a temporary assumed identity in an experimental “immersion” programme designed to help them deal with their traumatic past as former revolutionary fighters, each of whom has also lost a spouse to the struggle.

A short while later, the “pimp” Julian (Perry Dizon) and the “prostitute” Alberta (Angeli Bayani) have returned to their “real” lives as bourgeois Manila intellectuals – he a publisher and she a teacher. Julian is haunted by memories of his late wife, Patricia, whose sad song of longing echoes in the forests, while Alberta is preoccupied with her adoptive daughter, Hannah (Yanyan Taa), who has run away and embarked on a life of prostitution. Rina (Malaya), Sagada’s nun, remains a ghostly, peripheral presence – another truth neither is willing to acknowledge.

After giving us these two attempts to live with it, Diaz takes us back to the past as Alberta’s lost husband, Renato (Roeder), along with two other fighters hides in the jungle from government forces intent on routing them out. Trapped with no possibility of salvation the three men begin to go mad while Renato later breaks away and records his inner struggle in a diary which no one will ever read.

The weight of the past with all of its myriad traumas becomes too heavy to bear, fracturing the internal consistency of each of our three protagonists, crushing their sense of individual identity in a bid to destroy an entire culture. Unable to face their unresolved grief, each has absented themselves from themselves in an attempt to address their pain and confusion. This bizarre kind of therapy designed by Julian is intended to remove their sadness altogether by forcing them to live as other people but their sojourn in Sagada proves “too immersive” according to Alberta in a later sequence. Rina, the nun, is too greatly exposed by her new role, seeing everything through the eyes of innocence only further compounding her sense of loss and disillusionment with the cruelty of the world.

Alberta tries to face her trauma through endless searching for her husband’s body and through caring for the orphaned daughter of other victims of the military regime but her efforts are often frustrated by a lack of support from those around her. Julian, having tried and failed to cast off his painful identity, has emerged hollow and defined by an absence of self. Having penned a book neatly echoing the unheard lamentations of Renato in which sadness becomes the defining quality of the world, giving birth to art and music, poetry and cinema, Julian is now the god of melancholy, worshipped by tortured artists everywhere but trapped within a personal purgatory from which escape seems impossible.

Shot once again in Diaz’s trademark black and white with low grade digital cameras, Melancholia is indeed imbued with sadness and a crushing weight of the unresolved past. Alberta, left alone, continues searching in vain just as the beautifully lonely lyrics of Patricia’s song lament, trapped by hope but unable to find a resolution for all that she has so far lost. Raw and angry, there’s a kind of defeated resignation which fills Melancholia, an absence of hope that sees that nothing will change – this world is hell and the sadness cannot be cured. Julian gives in to madness and the allure of illusion but finds little comfort in it, moving away from Alberta who alone is still prepared to go on searching, yet hers seems like the unluckier fate, perpetually trapped in this hellish purgatory awaiting the friendly hands to pull her out seemingly never to arrive.


A scene which makes much more sense when you’ve seen the whole film (English subtitles)