Dagsin (2016): a weakened force

Dagsin has a strong premise, but technical distractions dampen its overall impact.

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Alex Diaz, Janine Gutierrez, and Benjamin Alves at a picnic scene in the 2016 film Dagsin.

Gravity, in the physical sciences, is the weakest of the fundamental forces. In contrast with electromagnetism and the nuclear forces, gravity has little influence over the form and life of our immediate environments. This irrelevance is only a matter of perspective, however, because if we take the wider view, gravity is in fact the most dominant physical force, being accountable for the shape and destinies of planets, galaxies, and the universe itself.

Dagsin (Gravity), the film, is in some ways a reflection of this contradiction.

Consider the promises it makes: from the synopsis, it teases a philosophical crisis for a man whose beloved wife has just died; in the trailer, it dangles scenes with rich American colonial-era visuals; and for the premise, it draws us in with the excitement of a “Pandora’s Box of secrets” unleashed when a character’s diary is opened. Unfortunately for viewers expecting much from these attractions, Dagsin delivers weakly, and its center of gravity is diffused by an order of magnitude.

Warning: this review presents a reading of the film, and it necessarily shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’.

Let us consider where the film falters in execution. One is the slow narrative pace, particularly in the earlier parts. It is not a deliberate crawl, but a wastefulness in dialogue. There is a scene where Mercy (Lotlot De Leon) talks to the nurse, Grace (Sue Prado), about her relationship with Justino (Tommy Abuel). It is an expository dialogue scene, exceedingly lengthy, and nothing happens visually. Mercy’s character, in fact, is forced to pointlessly, repeatedly, and distractingly turn her back on Grace before facing her again as she switches between working on the kitchen and talking to the nurse. Later, Grace takes Justino to the shore of Manila Bay, and it becomes Justino’s turn for another painstaking exposition. (The veteran actor is otherwise brilliant in Dagsin; he is simply constrained by the dialogue.) He talks about the Battle of Manila Bay, Dewey Boulevard, and other narratively insignificant trivia, before Grace finally advances the plot by disclosing the identity of her father—which does not interest Justino much, in that scene. (Grace’s character remains uninteresting throughout the film, an unconflicted and unsubstantial narrative glue, and an unwilling victim of the expository dialogue. In the scene with Mercy, we could nearly feel the actress rebelling about this by annoyingly saying her lines in the tone of a curious schoolgirl.)

Still on the topic of dialogue: it is an interesting, probably historically-accurate nuance that the characters in the flashback scenes (both pre-World War II and wartime Philippines) prefer to speak in English than Tagalog. However, it seems to constrain the actors in some emotionally-charged scenes. Janine Gutierrez as Corazon appears held back by having to speak her lines in English in a picnic scene where she expresses her frustrations at Justino. Alex Diaz as Junior is more comfortable with the language, but he still muddles his lines in a crucial moment, when his character lies badly mauled at a Japanese camp. (Audience members whispered “What is he saying?” at the Cinemalaya screening this author attended.)

On the soundtrack: Dagsin features a beautiful serenade as a powerful musical motif, but its sound design is less stellar. Annoyingly, everytime the young Justino (played by Benjamin Alves) is shown in a confrontational scene at the Japanese camp, a marching beat is played over. Subtlety is lost in an attempt to artificially escalate the tension.

Visually, although the film pretends to be part period piece, there is not much historical decoration here beyond what can be glimpsed at in the trailer—a couple of characters in colonial-era clothing, a shiny vintage top-down, antique furniture. Gutierrez is perfectly cast as the young Corazon, if only for her ‘classic’ features, and she indeed is the visual cornerstone of the flashback scenes. It is baffling though that the producers cast her real-life mother and look-alike (De Leon) in a role that, in the story, is not blood-related to that of Gutierrez’s.

The scarcity of historical sets can be construed as a function of the film’s limited funding; this is a Cinemalaya grantee, after all. Some previous films have been able to do more given similar budget constraints (Cinemalaya 2012’s Kamera Obskura by Raymond Red is a prime example), though it is possible these films had additional sponsors outside of the festival.

It is true that production values are not everything in a film, and it may be the case that Dagsin intentionally limits its historical visuals to focus on the narrative, but even that leaves unsatisfying gaps. For a story that is “richly layered…with sub-plots (World-War II and Martial Law),” according to the director himself, the extended timeline distracts more than it enhances the plot. The World War II scenes are serviceable, but the events that the characters experienced during Martial Law were never even seen on-screen. One entry in Corazon’s diary reveals her desire to start a family with Justino, and there is a romantic shot of the young couple watching a child—but this is not followed-up, nor sufficiently tied into the story of their adopted daughter Mercy. Dagsin plods in the beginning, then rushes near the end, and several critical scenes end up being told rather than shown. The promised fireworks from a Pandora’s Box fizzles.

The most thrilling moment in Dagsin comes when the prisoner Justino challenges a Japanese officer to a ‘game of destiny’ (Russian roulette). The suspense, however, comes merely from the anticipation of violence, as the audience already knows who dies in this flashback scene. It renders the sequence hollow, and the length again feels excessive (an impatient viewer in the cinema shouted “Ano ba?!,” just be done with it already!).

The gravity of a premise

Dagsin opens with a shot of a clock on Justino’s bedside table, along with books by Albert Camus and other philosophers. He takes a revolver from his drawer, loads it with only one bullet, and plays the game of destiny on his own. Later, in the university classroom where he first meets Corazon, the professor is heard talking about Kierkegaard. Time, existence, mortality—the film alludes to these high topics as it gravitates towards a philosophical persuasion. It is at its best when it dares to pose questions of morals. (Notice the ‘sin’ in Dagsin, meaningfully stylized in the official poster.)

Official poster for the film Dagsin (2016), showing a statue symbolizing justice, and the film's actors.

The film succeeds not as a groundbreaking philosophical treatise, but as an exercise in giving these profound questions a concrete, albeit fictional, context. Consider the cues of the character’s names: Justino, a judge, has a name that means upright or righteous; his wife, his raison d’être, is Corazon, meaning heart; when she passes away, he is left with Mercy, and Grace. Even the priest that visits him in his grief, Fr. Constantino, has a name that reminds of the constancy of the people surrounding Justino, even when he himself stubbornly refuses to have faith.

Dagsin confronts us with a situation that, regardless of the film’s technical shortcomings, remains a provocative idea: how do our deeply held beliefs measure, when we are faced with the loss of our reason for existence? What does philosophy, reason, and faith count for in our darkest, most concrete moments of pain?

That is gravity.

At the very end, the film redeems itself with an irony. Justino is freed from his anguish, and he becomes oblivious of suffering on earth. So it ends just as it begins—in the metaphorical fulfillment of what he muttered after the game of destiny in the first scene: “Another day in paradise.”

Notes

Dagsin is written and directed by Atom Magadia. The screenplay is credited to him and his wife, Anne Prado-Magadia. It is a finalist in the feature-length competition section of Cinemalaya 2016.

The featured image for this article, a still from the film featuring the actors Alex Diaz, Janine Gutierrez and Benjamin Alves, is taken from the official Cinemalaya website cinemalaya.org, and the author claims its publication here to be within the limits of fair use.

On a random note: it is tempting to associate this film with an earlier Cinemalaya entry that is named in a similar tradition—2014’s Dagitab, named after an obscure Filipino word for electricity, as obscure as dagsin.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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