Reviews: ‘ML’, ‘The Lookout’, ‘Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma’ (Cinemalaya 2018)

An intense horror satire, a confusing thriller-drama, and a solemn coming-of-age film.


Direction/Screenplay: Benedict Mique

Carlo (Tony Labrusca), a college student, his girlfriend Pat (Lianne Valentin), and best pal Jaze (Henz Villaraiz) get more than what they have bargained for when they decide to learn about the dark days of Martial Law from an old retired soldier who may be one of its worst abusers.

Early in ML, we are introduced to its burgis millennial protagonists in a classroom, a safe space, where they are discussing Martial Law with a professor (Jojit Lorenzo). Carlo is skeptical about the criticisms of the era, but Jaze is outright incredulous; he parrots the tired old arguments celebrating the legacies of the Marcos regime, about a disciplined public and enduring public works. The professor answers him with the standard, borderline paranoid rebuttal from the anti-Marcos side, telling Jaze that if he were that outspoken during Martial Law, he would be tortured or killed, or he would simply disappear. The professor then switches to an apologetic voice of reason: he admits that his generation became too complacent after EDSA, and that they are indeed to blame for our country’s continuing predicaments. The professor is of course talking to Carlo and Jaze as much as he is to us, the audience; this dialogue is setting the ideological stage for the rest of the film. However, it would also be nearly the last appearance of nuanced discourse in ML, because the rest of the film turns out to be an intense horror-satire à la Jordan Peele’s Get Out, albeit with a heavier hand and a more candid approach.

The professor tasks his students to interview anyone who experienced the Martial Law period, and Carlo chooses to visit the eccentric veteran they only know as the Colonel, who lives in the same subdivision as his—on 21 September Street. There is a Philippine flag prominently on display outside the retired soldier’s house, and he is always seen around wearing his full dress uniform, as if every day is Araw ng Kagitingan. Carlo rings the veteran’s doorbell, but before long he finds himself in the Colonel’s basement, strapped to a chair, gagged, bloodied. Jaze and Pat join him soon, and the Colonel, while blasting classic Pinoy rock songs from a radio, looks more alive than ever while he performs an array of Martial Law-era torture procedures on his victims: water cure, electrocution, and other more unspeakable things.

Eddie Garcia is menacing as the Colonel, unsettling even (or especially) when he is staring intently at these too-inquisitive-for-their-good youths. He is helped by the filmmaker’s fondness for demonic-red lighting setups, and the edgy score featuring a terrifying guitar riff. Excellent pacing contributes to the strong sense of suspense, overcoming the film’s employment of familiar thriller tropes.

Because of the exaggerated, plot hole-riddled affairs of the story, ‘Do Carlo, Jaze and Pat get out of it alive?’, is a less interesting question than ‘Why is the Colonel doing this?’ When Carlo asks him, the Colonel replies, as bluntly as the film’s intentions: “Because it’s Martial Law.” The real, logical reason, the audience will easily figure out, but the metaphorical implication is no less profound for it. Forgetfulness is not just an affliction for individuals; the failure to remember is just as serious a sickness, or perhaps even more so, when it torments a society.

There is a moment in the middle of the film when the Colonel takes a break from the torturing business. It is a moment of clarity and the return of discourse. He begins a monologue, revealing his belief that the communist insurgency is just a ploy, an artificial uprising instigated by neocolonialists to maintain their imperialist hold on countries like the Philippines. But as a soldier, he had no choice, he had to obey orders. He says he did it for his family, and ironically, for the future generations. He believes that the end justifies the means—not unlike this film, which relives the horrors of torture to hammer into our heads the dangers of forgetting history.

Eddie Garcia as the Colonel in ‘ML’ (2018).
Eddie Garcia in ‘ML’.

The Lookout

Direction/Screenplay: Afi Africa

Love, betrayal, and revenge is depicted through the eyes of Lester Quiambao (Andres Vasquez), a gay hired killer who has a score to settle from his past.

The Lookout is a gay romance and love triangle story, that is also a family drama and a hired-killer action thriller, with crime syndicate rivalry and conspiracy elements. It is as confusing as it sounds. If it had anything profound to say about any of these subjects, it is lost swiftly, and for good, in its tangled yarn ball of a plot.

There is a fuzzy boundary between camp and unintentionally hilarious movies, but this film is almost certainly an example of the latter, given the director’s serious pronouncement that “this is a very painful movie”. However, the same interview states that the main actors are nude for most of the movie, which is definitely not the case in the final film. There is that very slim chance that The Lookout is merely messing with us, that all the filmmaking sins it commits are deliberate, that a documentary will come out some time later revealing The Lookout as a meta-performance, to mock film critics and usher in a new era of movie industry paranoia—it is billed as a ‘psycho-drama’ after all, and maybe we are the victims. However, Occam’s razor tells us that this film is, quite simply, a failure.

The Lookout has so many sloppy sequences and jarring plot gaps (gaps as opposed to holes, although there are plenty of those as well) that it feels like this should have been a three-hour movie, but  was forcibly ‘trimmed’ down into the final 105-minute cut, at the expense of any semblance of coherence. There is already an excess of storylines, and the film damages itself further by including more plot twists than it can execute. There is gratuitous nudity, and the dialogue is alternately cheesy and rigid. A boy gets shot in the shoulder and limps away as if he was shot in the foot instead. There is a stepfather with a penchant for banging his adopted family’s heads onto the nearest available surface. (Is this slapstick?) The climax is an overly long, tedious and absurd interrogation scene.

There is a crime investigation meeting where an agent starts by saying that, just as they should not judge books by their covers, so should they not judge their suspects by appearances; an exchange of escalating confusion ensues, and a few minutes later it is revealed that, no, they do not have a suspect yet—and the scene ends without at all advancing the already-convoluted plot. Real-life police meetings could very well be more exciting to watch.

The bureau boss chastises his agents at one point, expressing his impatience at the investigation going nowhere. It was one of the rare moments when The Lookout managed to communicate to us, the audience. We were indeed feeling a similar massive frustration, at a movie that wanted to go everywhere but kept tripping at every step.

Andres Vasquez as a hired killer stalking his victim at night in ‘The Lookout’ (2018).
Andres Vasquez in ‘The Lookout’.

Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma (Unless the Water is Safer than the Land)

Direction/Screenplay: Iar Lionel Benjamin Arondaing

A coming-of-age tale set against a backdrop of age-old clan wars. A Muslim girl named Eshal discovers herself as she is torn between love and violence.

Musmos shares many elements with Sheron Dayoc’s Women of the Weeping River. There is the specter of clan wars between Muslim families, and the conflicting challenges of retribution and harmony, tradition and forgiveness, obedience and reconciliation. The film title’s English translation is curiously different from a more literal ‘Child Who Bloomed in the Forest of War’; it is perhaps to draw attention to the river that sustains and guides the children in the film, a symbol of unity amidst conflict, as it is in Weeping River.

The story begins with Eshal (Junyka Sigrid Santarin) fleeing with her mother on a boat from their burning home, and being separated from her father who stays behind to fight. On the river her mother gives birth to a boy whom she names Affan, meaning forgiveness; she dies soon afterwards. Eshal is left to wander in the forest with Affan, foraging for root crops and coconuts for sustenance. She encounters Farhan (JM Salvado), another boy separated from his parents because of the clan wars. Recalling her mother’s warning about being identified by their enemies, she introduces herself to Farhan as Hamed, and they strike a tense but genuine friendship as they wait and hope for their parents’ return.

In style and technique, Musmos closely resembles Iar Arondaing’s previous feature, Sa Gabing Nanahimik ang mga Kuliglig. There is an abundance of solemnly alluring images, playing with light, smoke, water, and the textures of the mangrove forest. (The story is ostensibly set in Mindanao, but like Kuliglig this film was shot in Palawan.) Arondaing worked with a different editor and cinematographer, but his sense of pacing and aesthetics remained the same in this film—a style that recalls Lav Diaz’s, only not as protracted. There is even a prominent long take of burning nipa huts, a recurrent image in Diaz’s recent films.

Most remarkable is Arondaing’s device of framing and narrating the story using religious texts recited in voice-overs. If Kuliglig, a Christianity-themed story, had biblical allusions (and story parallels with the Stations of the Cross), Musmos has verses from the Qur’an chanted over key scenes. One such sequence has Farhan encountering a wild pig in the forest, and initially leaving it alone, but later returning to kill it because he and Eshal have run out of resources. The scene is accompanied by the following verses:

He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated to other than God. But whoever is forced by necessity, neither desiring it nor transgressing its limit, there is no sin upon him. Indeed, God is forgiving and merciful.

There are aspects of Musmos that detract from its otherwise excellent execution, like the children’s awkwardly formal way of speaking (they even use Tagalog, when a different regional language would have been more authentic for the story), and unrealistic details like the manner of Affan’s birth. Nevertheless, it is still a memorable work that leaves a haunting impression. Other excellent films like Weeping River may have already explored the same themes, but the approach and atmosphere of Musmos give them a different dimension. The children’s journey is marked less by a sense of danger than a sense of being lost, less dramatic than poetic, less tense than moody. Eshal and Farhan’s tale is also wrapped by a framing story, a technique that lends the entire film a timeless yet nostalgic feel. The end result is somber and elegant, a worthwhile and dignified contribution to our national narratives.

Junyka Sigrid Santarin as Eshal on a boat in ‘Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma’ (2018).
Junyka Sigrid Santarin in ‘Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma’.

Stills taken from the films’ trailers.


One thought on “Reviews: ‘ML’, ‘The Lookout’, ‘Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma’ (Cinemalaya 2018)”

  1. I’m sated, as usual, by your prose. Even when you pan the film, the process is kind and treats the lemon with a gentle squeeze. Those that you praise would evidently glow in their great expectations, rewarded as ut were by your accolade, apt and artful. Bravo!

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