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

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

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.

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Sophisticated men, and men’s magazines

A sort-of defense of the decent kind of men’s magazines.

I recently had to spend a night out in the city, waiting for the sunrise. It was already past midnight, and on a whim I boarded a bus to Makati. Nowadays, these buses with brightly-lit cabins ply the city’s highways all night. Other souls were shuffling on and off the bus, going around the metropolis for leisure or for labor; it was hard to tell which, here in the offshore-outsourcing capital of the world. They all looked impatient, in any case.

Up until a year ago, I worked graveyard hours in Makati myself, and I’ve memorized the night-time pulse of its wealthy streets. The place always feels safe, even in the most ungodly hour. On a weekend, it is even serene, but not dead. Every turn of the district is illuminated by lights spilling out of innumerable convenience stores; every intersection, by the blinking of traffic lights.

I planned to kill the time by reading in some 24/7 restaurant, picturing myself like Mari Asai in Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, digesting a hardbound at a Denny’s in Tokyo. I didn’t have a book with me then, however, so I dropped by a Ministop and grabbed the current issue of Esquire from the magazine rack. I had to stand and wait a few moments in front of the cashier before the sleepy clerk, who was catching up on some shut-eye, sensed my presence.

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Taken by Cars’ ‘Plagues’: like diamonds from ashes

An understanding of the indie electro-rock outfit’s mellow third record, tracing through themes from ‘Dualist’.

The music of Taken by Cars has always been distant in its emotions, esoteric in its approach. The track that launched them into relative fame, ‘A Weeknight Memoir’, featured new wave inflections and Sarah Marco’s trademark androgynous vocals—an introduction that captured for them a loyal following, but probably alienated many casual listeners who would prefer instantly-delectable pop.

While the themes of their songs are certainly universal, the words are often enigmatic. ‘Quarter to Three’, a magnificent, driven piece from their 2011 sophomore album Dualist, contains these elegant albeit puzzling lines:

And if our machinations prove to be the blame
Let the freedom give me back and call your name
Obey your elders

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Sleepless (2015): a pleasant non-romance about urban insomnia

Sleepless only pretends to be a romantic film; in truth, it is a story about brokenness and healing, set against the charm of the city at night.

The call center industry, well-known for employing its workers in graveyard shifts, and which is ironically called one of the nation’s sunrise industries, lends Philippine cities a unique claim to the title of the city that never sleeps. While contenders for the nickname in other continents are havens of endless leisure and nightlife and luxury, Manila (or Cebu or Bacolod) are inhabited by night dwellers who forgo sleep not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Many of them, that is, but not all. Sleepless, an entry to the 2015 QCinema (Quezon City) Film Festival, is ambivalent about the call center industry. It is tempting for a film with such a premise to be an echo chamber of critical sociopolitical sentiments: that this outsourcing industry disadvantages our nation in a neo-imperialist world order, that it enslaves its workers under alienating working conditions, et cetera, et cetera. But for Sleepless, the graveyard shift, the darkness of ungodly hours, is just a backdrop to its story, the circumstances that its characters happen to inhabit.

Note: this essay is an in-depth commentary on the film, and includes spoilers by necessity. It is meant for those who have seen the film.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

The cult of vampire films get a horrifyingly beautiful addition with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

The centerpiece of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is the titular character, a “lonesome vampire” (from the film’s official descriptions) who stalks a sparse Iranian town called Bad City.

This particular vampire is neither the stiff, bloodshot-eyed Dracula type, nor the pale yet sparklingly beautiful undead of Twilight: for one, she wears a chador, an encompassing piece of clothing traditionally worn by Muslim women, although she wears it loosely, as if it was a cape, and underneath she sports modern Western garments.

This Girl also prefers to prowl the streets at night on a skateboard. In her basement dwelling, a comfortably hip room full of art, she listens to Lionel Richie and house electronic music.

Actress Sheila Vand as a chador-wearing vampire on the streets at night.
Sheila Vand as “The Girl” in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. (Image from vice.com)

“Weird,” was one of my friends’ summary comments on the film, as we came out of the film’s screening in the recently-concluded 2015 Quezon City International Film Festival. I partly agree to this descriptor, though some synonyms describe the film better: eerie, bizarre, unsettling.

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