‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’: dark romance, visceral thrills

Striking visuals, genuine thrills and a few subtleties more than offset the story’s shortcomings.

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Martin del Rosario as Nico on a neon-lit, noir-looking street in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is a horror-romance film that seduces with millennial sensibilities: balancing its brooding atmosphere with injections of humor, delivering eye-catching cinematography and Instagram-worthy production design, featuring a hip and esoteric indie soundtrack, and setting up its scenes with meme-friendly situations. It is a movie that can be enjoyed by the most casual moviegoer—anyone seeking bloody thrills, feverish titillations, and affecting romances—yet it is a film with something to say beyond this enthralling shell of plain entertainments.

Consider, for instance, the intriguing title. For city dwellers, the manananggal is merely an ominous mythological terror, a vague threat lingering out there—but the film’s title locates the creature, makes it present with shocking particularity: she lives in an apartment just like yours, in Unit 23B. This specificity reflects how the film presents the manananggal not as a creature of pure malice, but as a person like the rest of us—only, that she is also afflicted with a monstrous other side, that terrifies her just as much as it does her victims.

The eponymous Unit 23B is not a mere quirk; the apartment points to the film’s central theme. Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B, like director Prime Cruz’s previous film Sleepless, is a story of alienation. Its protagonists, Jewel (Ryza Cenon) and Nico (Martin del Rosario), like Sleepless’s Gem and Barry, are lonely neighbors. Romance springs from this proximity: love conquers the irony of apartments, that as people come to live closer together in cities, they lose the solidarity of neighborhoods; people live together but apart, shuffling and hurrying around in urban anonymity.

Apartment buildings in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

Manananggal indeed shares so much with Sleepless that it could be thought of as a spiritual remake: they wear the same themes, characterizations, and settings, like the same costume on different bodies of a premise. And this costume has the designs of the city, because both films are fascinated by the bittersweet beauty of night, by the comfortable solitude of apartments and rooftops, seeing in them the embodiment of alienation in our present times.

What brings the two films apart is Manananggal’s lack of the kind of restraint that made Sleepless achingly beautiful. Manananggal is alternatingly serene and rousing, in the service of its story, but this emotional intensity overpowers attempts at striking a subtler, contemplative tone. The tradeoff feels unnecessary, but such a balance between intensity and subtlety is admittedly very difficult to achieve.

The film also suffers from a dragging, unfocused third act. Violent acts throughout the story raise many questions about consequences, but the narrative closes without addressing them. The ending itself is predictable, and while it is a rousing final note that satisfies emotionally, the cliffhanger also feels like an easy way out, an ending that avoids the hard work of dealing with necessary consequences.

Warning: the rest of the review includes spoilers.

The name of the titular manananggal, Jewel, again draws a parallel with Sleepless: the latter film’s protagonist, Gem, is also named like a precious stone. Their names signify their innate dignity and beauty, despite society’s discrimination against their identities and occupations. They have similar jobs: Gem is a call-center agent, while Jewel is an online English tutor; their work separates them from other people, another embodiment of the theme of separation. But while Gem’s persistence in her job, in spite of its lowly reputation, is driven by her apparent preference for solitude, Jewel’s isolation is necessary for safety.

Every night, Jewel watches romantic dramas on her TV, alone, with pining eyes. She only wants to love and be loved, but her condition condemns her to loneliness. When she is not possessed by the monster within, she is simply the romantic hermit of Unit 23B. (Credit goes to Prime Cruz’s constant collaborators, cinematographer Tey Clamor and production designer Nestor Abrogena, for conjuring gorgeous, effective noir visuals in this film. The apartments are particularly memorable: like Gem’s unit in Sleepless, Jewel’s room has personality; Unit 23B is a brooding, neon-colored nest, an unsettling place fit for its otherworldly occupant.)

Jewel’s Unit 23B, in dramatic lighting, in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

Romance does come to Jewel in the person of Nico. Jewel’s secret alter ego becomes fodder for irony, and comedy. Puns abound when the pair attends a Halloween party (where Jewel arrives, tongue-in-cheek, costumed as a manananggal), or when they bond over sinister balut and heartwarming beef mami. Jewel after all desires human hearts in both its literal and figurative senses—as food to satiate her supernatural hunger, and as a soul to soothe her longing for connection. Nico happens to be a heartbroken man; his sweetheart had just left him, saying he couldn’t fight for her anyway (“hindi kayang panindigan”). This is ironic, because Nico earns a living as a martial arts trainer, and he does fight, for money in desperate times.

Jewel and Nico talk about her turtle in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

The film’s most engaging piece of dialogue accompanies the scene when Jewel shows Nico her pet turtle. She tells him how lonely her pet is, how desperate it must be to find a mate—but of course she is externalizing; she is asking Nico to read between the lines, to listen to her feelings. But while Jewel and Nico have always taken interest in each other, it takes a while for them to bond. They first run into each other in the most mundane of venues: if Sleepless has its convenience stores, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B has its laundromats, a most unromantic place that serves to humanize the pair’s relationship and anchor it on concrete, realistic experiences. It is unfortunate that no amount of washing could exorcise the foul monster from within Jewel.

Jewel and Nico at a laundromat in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

The turning point comes when Nico, drunk, confronts his ex-girlfriend but ends up being mauled badly by her new boyfriend’s gang. Bloodied, barely conscious, and at his most vulnerable, Jewel finds him and takes him home; the monster who on many previous nights has stalked men, now brings a defenseless man to her lair not to devour him but to nurse him back to strength.

There is a symbolic visual in this scene, when Jewel carries Nico into Unit 23B—we know it is symbolic because the camera lingers carefully when it catches the closing door. The visual motif of Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B plays on the essence of the manananggal as a creature that divides itself: so we see the words in the title design slashed and drifting apart; and so we watch the camera gaze at a closing doorway, the line of light extinguished, Jewel’s darkness unspoken. The doorway seals just as a connection kindles between Jewel and Nico. Every time Jewel kills a man, she loses part of her humanity—but now, with Nico, she heals, helping her be whole again. The manananggal sunders but then unites; she inflicts death but now nourishes life.

‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’ title design.

Shot of a closing door in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

The final catalyst is Nico’s grandmother (played by Vangie Labalan). At first, she only serves as the story’s source of comic relief; she befriends Jewel, sharing her love of nail polish, saying that her favorite color is red—like the scarlet blood on Jewel’s hands when she eats her victims’ hearts. But Nico’s grandma soon becomes the bridge, the necessary family tie, that binds Jewel and Nico together. When she dies, Nico is left with nothing to lose—save Jewel.

And so when their passions trigger Jewel’s inevitable transformation, when she is forced to emerge from the apartment in manananggal form to avoid harming Nico, and leads the police to Unit 23B—then they take a leap of faith. The hunter becomes the hunted, and the fighter flees. It leaves us, the audience, hanging, never knowing what happens to them, whether they indeed would have escaped, and how they would cope with Jewel’s affliction. But the same uncertainties haunt Jewel and Nico too. That he chose to escape with her is a rash choice, an act that could even kill him someday, but that is why it is deeply romantic; folly made for love is called courage, and Nico, the fighter, at the end possessed it.

Nico at the fighting gym in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

Formulated in these words, the story’s ending might now sound ridiculously romantic. Thankfully, the film executes it with prowess. Prime Cruz won the best director prize at QCinema for Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B, a citation that he could have achieved with just a few scenes in the film: the wordless ones, when the director is at his most powerful. One is the sequence that first depicts Jewel stalking and hunting a victim: scenes of luscious slow-motion seduction, interspersed with shots of a later tryst, set to a thumping soundtrack, and ending with the monster’s killing strike that falls off-camera. The sequence hides the gore in the shadows, drawing its strength instead from sheer suspense, and a visceral visual allure. It is a feast for the monster as much as for the audience’s senses.

Jewel seducing a victim at the club in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

Manananggal’s other sensational sequence is the finale. The rousing beats of Taken by Cars’ December 2 Chapter VII roar over the suspense of police storming into Unit 23B, while Jewel and Nico flees, before pausing to face each other, to gaze into the other’s eyes; searching for affirmation and affection and courage for the difficult path they are about to take, and finding answers, without speaking, while lyrics echo in the background: I throw your words around like child’s play—only the most cynical heart will fail to swell with excitement at this sight and song.

Martin del Rosario and Ryza Cenon as Nico and Jewel in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is not a groundbreaking piece of cinematic art, and it will not win critical minds over. But it deserves praise for accomplishing these stunts, for delivering genuine excitement.

Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B premiered in October 2016, a few months after the installation of a new government administration in the country. The social setting is one troubled by a State that had just begun a bloody, merciless war against crime and drugs. The film uses and responds to this milieu: the manananggal covers her victims with signs saying “Pusher ako, ‘wag tularan.” Nico himself, in desperation, takes a stab at selling drugs.

A body’s victim with a “Pusher ako, 'wag tularan” sign, in ‘Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B’.

This is not merely a passing token of social relevance; like the war on drugs’ human rights casualties, the film paints Jewel as a victim of discrimination, condemned by a society that would rather punish those whom it finds difficult to discipline, or cure.

Jewel’s crimes as a monster are unquestionably terrible, and there are moral questions that the film could have asked, such as: knowing that she has no control over her wicked side, is not it that she willingly continues to live, at the expense of others’ lives? Has she ever considered ending her own existence, to save others? It is forgiveable that Manananggal does not take this path, because it has a different focus.

The film’s most important line comes when Nico finally sees Jewel as the monster. All that Jewel says is, “May sakit ako.” (This line, unfortunately, has caused unintentional hilarity; it is one moment when the film’s tone fails.) Being the manananggal is an affliction for Jewel, an unwanted aspect of her identity. But more significantly, Jewel’s transformation into the monster seems to be brought about by sexual arousal. This is the film’s brilliant twist on the manananggal that we know: it is no longer the creature that hunts pregnant women, sucking fetuses from wombs for sustenance; it is now a beautiful, romantic woman whose heinous side kills to quench sexual desires. And Jewel, to reduce her guilt, tries to choose her victims carefully—often men who are themselves starving for sexual gratification.

This is how Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B finds humanity in that which is monstrous. Sexuality and addiction are inescapable for all of us. By symbolizing these as a monster within, now we can see the injustice of discrimination, when society fails to realize that deep in the sufferers’ hearts, they may be struggling too, and that they have every right to keep on living as the rest of us do.

Disclosures and footnotes:

  • The idea behind the line “May sakit ako” is from a tweet by one @kacecabali on Twitter.
  • The author is partial to the music of Taken by Cars; they are among my favorite musicians. The reader might want to see the music video for December 2 Chapter VII directed by Pancho Esguerra, which is an interesting short film on its own.
  • Prime Cruz went on to direct a 10-episode web series entitled The Complex, which shares even more elements with Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B than Sleepless.
  • The film stills reproduced in this review were taken from the trailers.

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