Toto (Tim Castillo), a teenage orphan, is recruited by a notorious death squad. Irma (Eula Valdez), the group’s leader, soon becomes a maternal figure to the young boy. As the two form a familial bond, their loyalties will be put to the test when one of their targets turns out to be a familiar face.
In the wake of Birdshot’s tremendous success, young filmmaker Mikhail Red takes on a rather ambitious project. His debut feature Rekorder demonstrated his careful, patient craft as he told an intriguing underworld story, taking the distinct perspective of a movie pirate. Birdshot, the triumphant mystery-thriller, ventured into the past and out to the countryside, finding in the national eagle a symbol for social injustice. Now, with Neomanila, Red faces the challenge of entering familiar territory—the city’s criminal underworld—without as much of a fresh element as those found in his first two films. Local independent filmmakers have been scrambling to portray the drug-war-torn society of present-day Philippines, the same milieu that Neomanila tackles head-on. There have been more creative approaches; the topic has even found its place in a monster story, 2016’s Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B.
Neomanila mostly succeeds. It is a solid film. Red proves to be a truly confident and capable filmmaker, and his latest product has it all: well-written, well-acted, and well-designed. It is his most thrilling film so far, with impressive set pieces, displaying his definite talent for building tension.
Neomanila’s greatest achievement lies in the way it paints a unique world: what feels fresh about the film is not its story, but the way it looks at our city. Its Manila is anonymous, devoid of the monuments and landmarks that define the city in the popular imagination. When the camera turns to the skyline, we see buildings, but not the ones we have always seen in films before. Neomanila’s title suggests noir and neon, the very style and element that characterize its visuals. The images are grounded by darkness, but often punctuated by otherworldly highlights. The city is gritty, but not filthy: there is a seductive sheen to this particular underworld. Even the death squad whose story the film follows suits up in sleek uniforms during their runs. (Distinctive costumes are becoming a visual trademark in Red’s films; Birdshot’s characters sport striking outfits as well.)
But Neomanila fulfills a larger promise from its title beyond cuing its visual style. This film is an update on the Filipino crime thriller, blending an esoteric selection of elements from the great crime films that have come before it, updating them for what our society is like now, what Neomanila—the ‘new Manila’—is like now.
And this city is one with an infested society. Irma, the leader of the death squad, understands her kind’s place in society, and speaks of it in metaphorical terms: they are the pests of society, like rats to be rounded up and killed without second thought. As if to embody the point, Irma also runs a pest-control business: by day, she flushes out the scourge in the residences of the wealthy; by night, she guns down the scum on the fringes of society.
When Irma takes the orphaned Toto to assist in her murderous profession, they develop an uneasy maternal relationship. On off days, they loosen up and bond over karaoke, singing The Eraserheads’ Spoliarium, a choice of soundtrack that is doubly meaningful in this film: as a song about being lost and confused, and as a reference to the gory Juan Luna painting. Most of Neomanila’s story follows Irma and Toto’s precarious relationship, as they pursue aimless lives in the bloody arena of the criminal underworld.
Neomanila would have been an excellent film, if not for a serious miscalculation committed late in the story. At its climactic scene, the film takes a major gambit—and loses. It fails not only because it makes a predictable twist—any viewer who has watched a good number of crime films would see it coming—but more importantly because, despite the foreshadowing and other work done earlier in the plot to set-up this story turn, it is ultimately a contrived move. A character makes a major decision that is, given the circumstances, unnecessary, and therefore pointless. It is evidently designed to shock, but in the end it merely bewilders. It also seems to anchor the entire film, as if the entire story was crafted around it. Unfortunately, when the pillar crumbles, whatever else has been built up comes crashing down with it.
This fatal flaw means that the film’s grand ambition outshines its execution. The commendable effort to tell an engrossing, disquieting story steals the show from the story itself. In Neomanila’s violent tale, the pests of society are let loose, but they run in circles, and we realize this is not an infestation after all; this is an experiment. And the visionary, authorial design that it follows, that should have been invisible, instead glows in bright neon letters over the city.
The Write Moment
A heartbroken writer tries to get back with an ex through his romantic comedy hugot script but fails and instead finds himself magically living-out the scenes he has written. He’s forced to follow everything verbatim—or else face being stuck in an existential loop of scenes that repeat over and over again.
The Write Moment takes an increasingly popular formula, of characters stuck in a Groundhog Day-style conundrum, and focuses on its romantic potential. The film meets the qualifications, and receives the prizes, of executing this premise well: it’s funny, amusing, and cleverly consistent and committed to its absurd logic. (As a bonus, it was shot by Tey Clamor, the same cinematographer behind Sleepless and Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B; her work always results in neat and pleasant shots.) The film does not go far beyond its inspiration, but it never sets out for lofty ambitions anyway; it only wants to please, and it does. Along the way, like Groundhog Day, The Write Moment manages to essay a few insights into romantic relationships that are more philosophical than your average rom-com.
When Dave (Jerald Napoles), a wedding videographer, is left by his girlfriend Joyce (Valeen Montenegro) for no clear reason, he tries to cope by writing a script. He writes not to make sense of what has happened, but to dream of escaping his predicament. Upon completion, the script inexplicably takes over his world, and the fun begins. He realizes what’s happening while at his office, which is symbolically decorated with clocks melting à la Dalí.
The story moves quite efficiently, pausing only to collect some laughs. Dave, having no other choice, plays along, but his initial enjoyment of his control over Joyce’s actions is soon replaced by apprehension of the ending he wrote himself. He tries to inject spontaneity, to improvise on the predestined ending, to no avail; the rule of the script would not be broken. Eventually, the requisite best pal observes how unreal, and therefore how meaningless, Dave and Joyce’s situation has become, and Dave at last faces the difficult task of making the only choice he can make: of choosing which among the alternative endings he prepared should ultimately prevail.
The Write Moment presents these questions about happiness, choice, freedom and reality, for consideration. Granted, none of these are tackled in a terribly profound or novel way, but the fact that it offers them, at least, already grants the film some value beyond mere entertainment.
As for that aspect, the film’s amusement value, much of it can be credited to the performance of its lead actors, the unlikely couple of Napoles and Montenegro, who are seemingly cast in the spirit of Kita Kita’s ‘AlEmpoy’ match-up. Montenegro is a fine comedienne, never shying away from fully acting out her antics. So does Napoles, who, moreover, is one of those versatile actors capable of selling dramatic turns even in a comedy. The Write Moment is far more funny than it is romantic, but thanks to its actors’ efforts, those few sober moments do not feel out of place, and even feel just right.
Anya ‘ti Nagan Mo? (by Ice Idanan of Sakaling Hindi Makarating), like the warm colors of its cinematography, is a beautiful, sentimental short film about a child lost in the cemetery, in a province where she does not understand the local language. The story is simple, and quite predictable. Link is even more beautiful, with poetic ambiguity, but it is on the opposite end of the spectrum of difficulty; it is an opaque enigma. In this short, a writer meets a man who claims to be one of her story’s characters, and they walk down a road while playing around, in their minds, with various possibilities and intentions, but nothing is ever resolved.
In Pixel Paranoia, when a man uploads a freaky video to the dark side of the Web, strange things start happening to him. The film certainly plays with its pixels, using scrambling effects reminiscent of 2015’s Salvage and other found-footage films, but there is none of the promised paranoia. It offers some mystery, and a lot less of thrill.
Kun’ di Man and Love Bites are both humble and charming romantic shorts with senior citizens as the main characters. The latter is interesting for its well-detailed stop-motion animation and youthful sense of humor, while the former is notable, and heartwarming, for the uplifting way in which it portrays blind street musicians: as perfectly capable citizens, who use cellphones, meet-up with each other and socialize just as younger, unimpaired people do.
Si Astri Maka Si Tambulah is intriguing for portraying a character who is twice a minority: first by ethnicity (Sama Bajao), and then by gender (trans-woman). Astri’s relationship with Tambulah is unusual in their community, but the people thankfully leave them in peace. They are working hard, however, to raise funds for Astri’s marriage—to Sitti, a woman she does not really know or would like to marry, and yet she plans to do so out of her sense of duty. Her internal conflict between following tradition and following her heart is this short film’s quiet tragedy. The resolution of the looming crisis (what happens to Tambulah if and when Astri does marry Sitti?) is somewhat unsatisfactory, but perhaps, if given the space of a feature-length film, this story could flesh out the characters and their backstories, and fashion a stronger conclusion.
Gikan Sa Ngitngit Nga Kinailadman (From The Dark Depths) is by far the most cinematic in this batch of short films. It is a poignant montage of seemingly disparate scenes: of a woman dancing with a red flag at the bottom of the sea; of another woman, in grief and in tears, finding a drowned man on the shore; of protesters clashing with police on city streets, as shown through old footage; of a different police squad, patrolling the streets to announce the imminent enforcement of curfew; of divers searching the sea at night for something lost; and of communist rebels in the mountains, shown in battle formation and then at ease, chatting about the mundane discomforts of living in the jungle. The images have little connection on a literal level, but they comprise a montage that cumulatively builds a powerful, poetic effect, a deeply sensual impression of the experience of conflict, of the fight for history and the undying passion for freedom that inspires it.
Babylon also touches upon history, particularly the issue of historical revisionism, but takes a most amusing approach: it tells the story of young women who travel through time to assassinate a barangay dictator, and literally revise history. This fascinating short film’s absurd sense of humor is evident right from this premise: consider, for a moment, how peculiar it would be for a populist dictator to have absolute, unfettered political power—but over only one barangay. In one scene, a group of men hunting in the hills shoot at the camera; the next time they are seen, one of them looks at what they have killed, puzzled—they have shot a drone. (The story is set in “a time before cellphones”.) This wacky film delivers such gags in quick succession, and even if some Cebuano jokes are lost in translation, the result is still engrossingly funny. The main story is told in fragmented and bizarre threads, tied together by a dainty rendition of the song Big Beautiful Country; the threads come together at the end, still bizarre but now unified. By that point, it becomes clear that the barangay dictator embodies the stereotypical small-minded trapo, that the Barangay Babylonia he governs, alluding to the oppressive biblical city, is an allegory for a small-minded nation that has too easily surrendered its freedom to a charismatic autocrat. Babylon is indeed the sarswela it claims to be: a delightful alternative to serious political discourse, a fully entertaining piece of satire that draws from and encapsulates Filipino culture with all its faults, paradoxes, and hilarious madness.
Film stills screen-captured from the official trailers. Minor edits were made to the Babylon review on August 2018.