Pinoy films which screened recently in Davao are interesting genre exercises in action and horror: Pedring Lopez’s Maria, which was recently acquired by Netflix, and Mikhail Red’s Eerie, which premiered last year at the Singapore International Film Festival, is enjoying is third week run in some of the cinemas here.
Interestingly, the common thread that runs along these films are the specters of a violent past that come back haunting the present in equal fits of existential nightmare and wanton violence.
Maria is the third mainstream Pinoy film to elevate the female action hero in the past year. We had Anne Curtis playing as a drug enforcement operative on a mission to quell a drug syndicate in Buybust and Erich Gonzalez as a stuntwoman forced to play a brutal game of survival of the fittest in We Will Not Die Tonight. The latest addition to this canon is Cristine Reyes as an assassin with a past out to exact revenge for the murder of her family.
In Maria, the story and the motions of the screenplay can be generic and derivative like any revenge-driven action flick. We learned that Maria was once Lily a skilled assassin of one powerful crime syndicate and she left this violent past after being asked to kill a child. She lets her free and later started a family of her own. (I only learned later that it was going to be trilogy of sorts and this is a kind of first installment.) As an origin story, it lacks some weight with its only exposition of the past coming in flashbacks.
Maybe this will be addressed in the sequel but there is a sense of completeness that is called for in such an origin story that is obviously lacking to make for a more compelling character because Cristine Reyes’ physicality is captivating to look at. Her brusqueness in her fight scenes is matched by her moments of silence and resolve, most notably in her scenes with Greg (a delightful Ronnie Lazaro), an erstwhile mentor and confidante who’s also connected with the syndicate. There is a close-up shot of Reyes on the verge of tears while the echoes of her family’s murder rings violently in her ears—a painful recollection she finishes off with an abrupt request: “I need a gun.”
What it lacks in the script department though, it makes up in Lopez’s direction. The strength of the film is in its awareness of what the genre calls for. The action sequences, especially the fight scenes, are coherent and well-orchestrated, and also shot in interesting textures. These are the film’s highlights, what breathes and gives pulsating life to it. Lopez makes sure that the audience focus is on these scenes, which is complemented by expert camera work. Here, the tracking shot is not a mere aesthetic show-off—it emphasizes the life-and-death severity of the moment.
There are also interesting aesthetic choices in Mikhail Red’s Eerie, his new film following the recent nationwide release of Neomanila, another less successful theatrical venture of a festival film (it was an entry to the 2017 QCinema International Film Festival). The film is soaked with a desaturated look that gives an apocalyptic feel to the proceedings its internalized chaos, and some of the editing works wonders in few of the scenes.
The introduction of the ghost in the story is an interesting choice—we see at the onset the protagonist Patricia (Bea Alonzo) talking to the ghost of Eri (short for Erika and probably a play on the movie’s title), who killed herself in a toilet cubicle in the Catholic school run by nuns where she is the guidance counselor. The way she communicates with Eri in her room is the most exciting to watch not because of its scare factor but the method in which her relationship with the ghost unfolds. Eri might also be the key to the recent killing of another student.
The whole quiet, disciplined manner in which things operate inside the school gives off an oppressive weight—a secret or a violent past that Pat seems relentless in uncovering. At the surface, the film’s antagonist appears to be in the person of the principal, Sor Alice (Charo Santos), and her placement in the film’s narrative serves the film’s commentary on authoritarian institutions as breeding grounds for violence and repression.
But the film abandons this premise to pursue what a studio-backed horror flick requires by maximizing up the jump scare factor to generate more thrills and screams from the audience. The motions become repetitive (we see Pat and Sor Alice going back to the same toilet cubicle many times throughout the movie) and thus tedious, until the film gravitates to another theme—mental health—which is not addressed by its conclusion. The ending obviously banks on the story’s more on the emotional pull. It is similar to Red’s shocking twist in Neomanila, although a bit less unpredictable. It’s a call for action or attention—in Eerie a cry for help—that is not grounded by a sense of critical questioning.