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)