In Diabolic Bliss in Richard Somes’ Yanggaw (2008) December 10, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi, UP Screening.
Directed by Richard Somes
Written by Richard Somes and Dwight Gaston
Cast: Ronnie Lazaro, Joel Torre, Tetchie Agbayani, Aleera Montalla
In Philippine folklore, the aswang is generally used to describe different types of night creatures that feed on human innards and blood. From the popular manananggal and mangkukulam to the werewolves and shapeshifters that vary according to one’s regional background, the aswang is understandably a striking facet of local belief that manage to endure through the years. In our continuous ascent to the standards of Western living in exchange for cultural amnesia, it must be noted that the aswangs are doing us a favor of sustaining this heritage. Interestingly, this bloodthirsty figure has that strong and timeless halo over its head that it remains the most exploited character in Pinoy horror stories, from short pieces of fiction to TV serials, in every Halloween episode of magazine shows and documentaries, as well as news reports of terror in provinces. But where else could it be given such esteemed overuse but in cinema, specifically the annual Metro Manila Film Festival that breathes life to endless Shake Rattle and Roll flicks that scare less than their ability to frustrate.
What has long been missing in these efforts is depth; what should be less explored are the aswang‘s grisly exploits, the number of dead increasing every day, children, pregnant mothers, their intestines scattered in the fields; what must be thought of is giving their stories a fresh yet unconventional dimension, a revision of an overused plot by reflecting on the harsh realities that the aswang and its family has to face, not just cardboard scenarios and poorly executed sequences taken from shallow brainstorming and weak social observation. Given it has the benefit of that unpardoning contrast, still, Yanggaw succeeds in re-defining the myth by acknowledging its psychological nuances, that by commanding the most perfect ensemble of actors in a narrative of unstoppable force, it has put forth what I proudly believe as one of the finest revelations in the fickle landscape of contemporary Philippine cinema.
The film is quick to introduce the conflict. The mystery is easily established in the first sequence. But from there it chooses to emphasize the buildup, from how an ordinary family in a remote town lives a difficult but happy life on their own to the moment when they discover that one of their members is afflicted with the disease, the poison that runs through her blood that makes her crave for human flesh. The transition from the peaceful household, mirthfully punctuated by the father offering every one a gift after winning a stake, a piercing farewell to their emotional misery, to the massive disturbia that follows after the monster has become full fledged, until it starts to escape by the room’s window, until it returns with its fangs still drenched in blood and hair in warlike disarray, until the corpses in the town start to pile up, until everyone becomes suspicious, until it begins to harbor the darkest guilt, until the monster has to be tied up, until it has to be let loose because of the father’s hinge on his principles, until the monster begs for its death, until the father decides against all laws of his abiding life to slaughter it, in a severe force that turns him into an animal, until every memory of it becomes a nightmare that only afterlife can erase.
The pacing in that critical transition transforms Yanggaw from a lowly, piteous flick into an admirable effort that resuscitates the hackneyed genre, in which there is only one or two serious filmmakers who truly embody a sense of maturity. Richard Somes, whose prior experience in production design has lent a great deal of credibility in his first full-length, is one of those very few. The acute similarity of horror stories to crime fiction, let’s say Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, is the emphasis given to murder. Whereas detectives are responsible to bring justice in accordance with the law, using several clues that come along their way, the principal character in horror, the murderer itself, creates the tension, provides the clues, and wreaks havoc to the community. It is a play between the active and passive roles of their characters in which a reversal of role is likely in the end. In thrillers, we uncover the crime bit by bit until we reach the truth; in horror, however, the crime is right there in front of us, clearly asking for our reaction, us waiting for another turn of event that will lead to the conclusion. The price of seeing the murder, of keeping the truth to ourselves, is the need to face the consequences with them. In this regard, the horror genre seems to work its assailing blow: the psychological. It starts from the nightmare and springs forth to various threads, personal relationships, social betrayal, moral uprightness, and more importantly, spiritual obedience. The good thing about Yanggaw is that while it is more of a tragedy of a Filipino family, specifically in a town where faith is as unquestionable as the need for food on their table, it doesn’t press too much on religion, so what happens becomes more tangible.
History check: this will need your memories of previous aswang movies. There is no need to cite a specific one, because, as you will find out, the idea is somewhat familiar. Before, the aswang is a stranger, someone in the town whom no one knows much about, and her existence (right now I wish to bring into light the fact that every aswang in every aswang film ever made is a she) provokes nothing extraordinary. She is just like everyone, except for her nocturnal quench for blood. She may even be a figure of purity, like Aiko Melendez as a nun in Shake Rattle and Roll IV. This is clever, for this increases her peril as a character, diverting the attention to anyone but her, she as the unusual suspect. But the problem is that the only thing that the story wants to deliver is the scare, the untying of the knot, the exposition and chase scenes done in the sloppiest way possible. It is a tiring excuse that stretches the vestiges of the genre, doing nothing good in particular. In Yanggaw, however, the aswang becomes familiar, she is among us, we see her transform, we see her chase children, we see her as she rocks the bed with chains on her arms and legs, we hear her cry and scream, we know her, she is familiar, Somes has made her so close to recognition we forget that she is a monster. The aswang has been given life, through her family, the decisions of the father, the misgivings of the mother and the sibling, the terror in the community, even the details of her murder. The illusion becomes truth. Yanggaw prefers depth to schlock, and the longer you watch it the more you realize that it is not so much about the aswang herself but the family that adopts her new persona and their lingering struggle. Once that belief has been suspended, there is really no turning back.
I am tempted to call it a gravely satisfying work but the resolve of the narrative, particularly on how it relies on editing to heighten the drama, is a bit misplaced. A longer version is said to be prepared by Somes, and this may provide the timely orgasm at the film’s end. Ronnie Lazaro and Joel Torre don’t have to do anything to prove that they are indeed the greatest actors of our time, that if we start mentioning names, every one, even Christopher de Leon, will pale in comparison.Yanggaw makes you feel honored just by their presence. The volleyball game between the two camps has that flinch of unsettling strangeness; it makes the remote town far more remote. That it is in Hiligaynon (in an unspecified place somewhere in Panay Island, particularly where aswangs are predominant) does not seem to put any pressure on its mix of professional and new actors; Tetchie Agbayani is regal and utterly convincing. Erik Matti as the violent whip healer is surprisingly effective. Gio Respall and Monet Gaston add credibility to their family’s demise. And finally, Aleera Montalla is appallingly menacing, she is the vamp of our nightmares. Claravall and Sacris fashion a distinct eye for visual character, their light and darkness are moving as if they are part of the story themselves.
As the MMFF is about to commence a few weeks from now, it is agonizing how this brave trailblazer will be neglected by the most. As for my part, I tell you, Yanggaw is peerless, it shows not the limitations but the possibilities of the genre it has raised to hell. It is a fuck you to every Shake Rattle and Roll movie made and will ever be made (incidentally Somes had a segment for the franchise three years ago), and it has a terribly magnetic vision almost close to Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, the godfather of horror films. If the pen is still mightier than the sword, then dear reader, after the aswangs have made me proud, I rest my case.