Two films which are products of Manila-based festivals get their nationwide release this week (in Davao both are shown in a “slide” schedule in only one cinema): Mikhail Red’s Neomanila, Audience Choice winner at the 2017 QCinema International Film Festival, and garnering a Best Artistic Achievement for its cinematography, and the second, James Mayo’s Kuya Wes, an entry to the 2018 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival (the commercial release is supposedly a slightly different cut from the one which premiered at Cinemalaya). The two films are entirely opposite in terms of mood, the former is a dark, slow-burn crime thriller while the latter is a light-hearted romantic comedy that also functions as “delayed” coming-of-age story.
But despite operating in vastly different genres, both films are character studies of individuals living at the margins of entrenched violence and globalized capitalism. Beneath the veneer of neon and bright yellows that inundate the worlds of the characters in Neomanila and Kuya Wes are the silent tragedies of people caught in the cogs of labor-dependent machineries of commerce and power.
At the heart of Neomanila is Irma (Eula Valdez), a hired killer among the unnamed and unknown paid vigilantes plying the dank and dark Manila streets to dispense the heightened drug war which kicked off President Duterte’s regime. Irma is depicted as strong and merciless, a woman on top of her game. Not only does she exterminate her targets with efficiency (the film opens with her first kill that sets that narrative in motion), she also dominates sex, straddling her co-killer and occassional lover Raul (Rocky Salumbides) in bed with the helmet on.
The story also is about Toto, an orphaned kid who’s struggling to save up for the bail of his pusher brother, who turns out to be a substitute until the next, more prized replacement is caught. Not quite an adult he is hardened by the street, his silent gawking bottling inner desires and rage. Toto is taken by Irma after an unlikely turn of event and ends up becoming her accomplice. She even allows him to join her day job as building pest exterminators, even coming to his rescue when he comes across the thug Dugo (Jess Mendoza), who is also threatened that Toto might rat him out to the police.
Red manages to shed light on the intricate machinations that undergird the insidiousness of the drug war with an economical storytelling, focusing instead on the development of the characters and peppering the narrative with metaphors that underline the irony and tragedy of their marginal lives. What makes the film memorable and probably most talked-about during its festival run is the shocking twist that comes in the last act. It’s a punishing twist, not only because of the developing mother-son dynamic between mentor-protégé, but that it is seemingly guided by this sense of inescapable nihilism.
Red, whose previous film Birdshot is also a cunning display of narrative diversion, updates Brocka’s classic Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag, blending social realism and a moody slow-burn crime thriller by basking it in neon aesthetic that rubs the grime and sleaze in. It’s a compelling film, no doubt, when decisions and motivations make way for the tragic comeuppance of our main characters. But the film is overwhelmed with this cynical world view that gives us the burden of sympathy and a bleaker future via that final shot. An attempt at redemption that does not lay the ground for the culpability of the larger monsters that enabled the violence that keeps on claiming the lives of the innocent.
There is no amount of blood in Kuya Wes, which stars Ogie Alcasid, but beneath its wide-eyed joyous atmosphere is a life at the margins. Wes, is short for Western Remittance, where Alcasid works as a teller dispensing money remittances from OFWs to their kin at home. Despite his sprightly demeanor and optimism, it is clear that the customers interact with him at a functional level. Worse, when he comes home to a dimly-lit house where he occupies a small corner, he is treated like a servant by his brother (Alex Medina) and wife even though he shares the electricity bills and house rental. Even the kids don’t pay him any attention, his daily candy giveaways only get stacked and thrown away.
His only cheerleader is his co-worker played by the delightful Moi Bien. But then, a reprieve from his humdrum life might come in the person of Erika (Ina Raymundo), a forlorn housewife with two daughters who comes every 16th of the month to collect the remittance from his OFW husband, until the money stops coming. Wes develops a crush on Erika that blossoms into love, a blind love that has him giving the monthly allowance that never arrives. When Wes’ heart is eventually broken, we see his bottled rage explode at his brother and in one heartbreaking tracking shot, we see the danger of a self-inflicted violence.
Mayo fashions the narrative like a “delayed” coming-of-age tale but never discounts the tragedy of Wes’ life and sees his potentiality to escape from a boxed-up life or from a disadvantaged situation. The final scene, where he mentions his real name to Erika, followed by a reversal of position – Wes now outside and Erika sees him from inside – is that little step in a struggle towards deliverance.