‘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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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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Review: ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ (2017)

A standard Star Cinema rom-com, with a few delightful tricks.

To provide an upfront summary of this review: ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ is your standard rom-com, cast in the same old Star Cinema mold, with a few nice tricks up its tried-and-tested sleeve. That this movie is not groundbreaking should not be taken against it—and the story itself gives us a reason why.

Warning: this review includes spoilers.

Before anything else, let us mention the film’s worst moment: a minute or so is spent on product placement in the middle of the action. It is not as blatant or tacky as certain MMFF entries have been, but neither is it subtle. Jarring advertisements like this destroy storytelling flow. At least, the scene does not take too long. It cuts out before audiences can start hurling tomatoes at the screen.

Can We Still Be Friends? is made by the same core filmmaking team behind crowd-favorite indie Sleepless, and the horror-romance Ang Mananggal Sa Unit 23B (AMU23B), also an indie. Both films were entries at different editions of the QCinema Film Festival; Can We Still Be Friends?, therefore, represents this filmmaking band’s crossing into mainstream cinema. The team’s past work provides a convenient standard against which their latest work can be measured.

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‘Sa Aking Mga Kamay’ (1996): the dual faces of crime and passion

The ‘Cattleya Killer’ thriller is intriguing for Aga Muhlach’s atypical casting, and satisfying for its intelligent writing.

In my recollection of the 1990s, a decade I had the questionable fortune of experiencing as a young kid, Filipino movies were generally of two types. They were either silly comedies that invariably included song-and-dance numbers at the beach, or drama-action flicks that were almost always about crime. The Philippines in the 90s was a society obsessed with crime; it had a dual fascination and dread for the drama and tragedy of heinous violence. Kidnappings and massacres (and frequent brown-outs) filled the news, and filmmakers responded by repackaging these horrifying stories for the silver screen. (Before the decade ended, audience-voters apparently also responded by electing a swashbuckling former movie star into the presidency.)

Sa Aking Mga Kamay (literally: In My Hands), a 1996 Star Cinema picture, fits perfectly into this latter category of my simplistic classification of 1990s Filipino cinema. But what sets it apart—its unique selling proposition—is its featuring of Aga Muhlach “not doing a pretty boy thing,” as a friend put it. Now, Aga Muhlach was quite the household name back then, the actor having enjoyed the status relished these days by, say, Dingdong Dantes. (Although I make such delicate comparisons only approximately, lest some pundits get mad at me). Muhlach was the premier leading man of the time, pairing off with such ladies as Dayanara Torres and Lea Salonga, and therefore to see him play a psychopathic serial killer is a true novelty.

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‘Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit’ (1991): evocative beauty and provocative intensity

Old-fashioned both in visuals and in story, this 1991 ‘Goma-Dawn’ film can nevertheless startle even modern audiences.

Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit is a 1991 adaptation of the classic English novel, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. That novel, while without doubt an excellent work of fiction on its own, almost begs the question: does it owe some of its success, part of its much-celebrated status, to the tragedy of being its author’s first and last novel? (Brontë passed away only a year after her novel was published, and so never came to appreciate her novel’s full success.)

This is not to criticize the novel’s value in any way, because no amount of sympathy for the author’s misfortunes can save a novel if the work itself lacks substance. This is merely to suggest that Hihintayin Kita Sa Langit, in drawing from Victorian literature, also acquires much of its charm in this association with its source material. Like the idea that the appeal of Wuthering Heights, as a creative work, is enhanced by the circumstances of its creation, there is neither criticism nor praise in declaring that its Filipino film adaptation borrows heavily from the beauty of earlier works—there is only acknowledgment, that any work of art cannot escape being part of something larger than itself, of a world beyond the boundaries of the art form.

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A closer look at ‘Sakaling Hindi Makarating’: familiar journeys and unexpected discoveries

It may be distractingly beautiful, but like any good film there is more to ‘Sakaling Hindi Makarating’ than its spectacles: here is one reading of the poetry that extends beyond the postcards.

Perhaps all forms of storytelling are, in essence, also forms of travelling. Even when a story does not, literally, take us to unfamiliar places, it will always at least transport us, figuratively, to unfamiliar situations. Every story that introduces us to new characters is a visit to the home of strangers; the most profound tales are expeditions to the unlit depths of human hearts and minds.

Sakaling Hindi Makarating, then, is twice a travel film, because it pairs the figurative journey of its characters with the premise of a literal voyage. Far from being the typical touring blockbuster, which treks through various locations purely for spectacle, Sakaling Hindi Makarating distills the beauty from each of its destinations, then uses this essence to chart its characters’ arcs in consequential ways. By its end, it feels almost regretful that one regular feature film can accommodate only so many settings, while keeping the itinerary meaningful.

Warning: this discussion shares extensive details of the film’s plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’; this was written mainly for those who have seen the movie.

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