Friday, October 31, 2014

Yanggaw (Affliction, Richard Somes, 2008)

This is not a horror film

Working definition of a horror film: a narrative feature using Gothic-style storytelling to provoke fear and revulsion, or a sense of dread. Plenty the matter with that statement, but for the purposes of this article it'll do.

Richard Somes' Yanggaw (2008) starts slow but recognizably in that mode. We're introduced to Amor Villacin (Aleera Montalla) tossing in bed, deliriously sick; a friend brings an arbolaryo (an herbalist) who examines her, tells the friend that she needs to go home immediately--a nicely understated opening note of foreboding

Then family: Amor's father Junior Villacin (the always excellent Ronnie Lazaro); her mother Inday (the superb Tetchie Agbayani, too rarely seen on the big screen nowadays); her put-upon brother Toto (Gio Respall); his subdued wife Irma (Monet Gaston); their lively son Abner (Keith Cabanez). Junior chases Abner round their tiny nipa hut, scoops the child up, sniffs his armpit; Inday prepares the family meal, with Irma helping. Toto sits to eat and Junior immediately bristles--Irma gently reminds Toto that he should wear a shirt to dinner

Somes sketches a picture of domesticity--to what effect? Horror films are not known for detailed characterization, much less extended scenes of familial bliss; Somes' footage verges on home-movie pointlessness, the kind of leisurely meandering--literally evoking the sense of provincial time, of a measureless countryside existence--you'd expect from Lav Diaz.

And yet you come to know these people. You learn that Junior likes to assert his authority over Toto, that Toto has learned to knuckle under without much fuss, that Toto and Irma love each other and their son (though the prospect of another child, and the consequent expenses, has Toto upset), that Inday quietly cares for everyone in her own unostentatious yet unquestioned way. 

We learn more about Junior, and part of Somes' skill is in shading in details with minimum fuss: that Junior is something of a sore loser (he insists on an extra game when a (nicely shot and edited) community volleyball match doesn't go his way); that he ran for baranggay (barrio) captain once but was probably cheated; that he is waging some kind of pissing contest with his best friend Dulpo (the just-as-excellent Joel Torre), who did win the position of captain, but can't seem to understand Junior's tangled knot of feelings, his unspoken jealousy. 

What does any of this have to do with the aswang, the fabled vampire of Ilonggo lore, known to suck the blood of humans and feast on their innards, especially those of children? Nothing really except Somes seems to be playing the long game, patiently introducing his characters, cluing us in on how they feel, how they feel about each other, how they might respond to a crisis--in this case sickly Amor staggering up to their doorstep, to collapse in a faint.

I'll tell you this much: Somes offers nothing new in the way of horror. His aswang is from childhood memory (his own), with no revisionist powers or cunning digital upgrades; if anything the creature hearkens back to Peque Gallaga's manananggal sequence in the first Shake Rattle 'n Roll horror omnibus--not my favorite sequence (that would be Ishmael Bernal's), but gloriously retro with its cunningly angled shots, its carefully edited flying footage, its proudly low-tech flapping wings.

Somes doesn't bother with flapping wings, or with the impossibly long tongue that sucks blood (de rigeur for onscreen aswangs); substitute a young woman turned feral or a nubile serial killer and you'd have pretty much the same situation: their daughter has turned bloodthirsty (not spoiling anything, it's after all what we've bought tickets--or rented a DVD--for) and the Villacins don't know what to do. 

What Somes does offer is what Mike De Leon once did with his Gothic masterpiece Kispmata: turn a sordid tale of death and despair into a psychodrama that cracks the Filipino family open along its social and psychological faultlines. With the Villacin it's the uneasy relationship between family and general community (Junior lost the election so he must have been you can't help but sense a trace of condescension in the way Dulpo treats his loser of a best friend); it's the unremarked tension between father and son ("you think you're old enough to raise your hand against me?"); it's the mother's hardheaded practicality against the father's stubborn idealism; most of all it's the father's ponderous love for his family--all his family, even those given to nocturnal cannibalistic snacking.

To be fair Somes doesn't turn his face completely away from the genre--he makes superb use of low-level lighting and shadows, his sound effects (particularly when we listen to the snarling chained aswang) are appropriately slobbery and uh wet, and his human innards seem too cheaply rancid to be prosthetic or digital effects (guessing they're the real thing, probably from some butchered animal). At one point he pixilates Amor's movement (the way Murnau pixilated the arriving carriage in his vampire classic Nosferatu) so that she seems unnaturally awkward, unsettlingly swift, decidedly unhuman

But when all is said and done I can't quite call it a horror film, though it does fulfill the conditions of my opening definition nicely (less a sense of revulsion, really, than a sense of gathering dread), more faithfully in fact than some of Somes' fellow filmmakers (Rico Ilarde's genre-benders for example: wonderfully scary fun, not as easy to achieve as you might think). No, it's more--the drama of a man who cared for nothing in the world except his family, the film itself a demonstration of Philippine cinema's great theme (the love of a mother and struggle for survival of the family) inverted; perverted if you like.

Is the picture frightening? It has its moments. But I've stopped looking for mere scares in a horror film; it's only too easy to inspire an audience to jump using shock cuts and loud sound effects (Hollywood movies nowadays are nothing but shock cuts and sound effects). I need more from my genre films, a sense of horror that arises not from blood or gore or violence or even sadism but from a sense of unease, of souls being corrupted, of moral universes being upended, slowly. I need a genuine sense of evil nowadays--nothing less will do--and if, say, that evil was driven by a profound sense of family? A profound sense of amour?

You might say the genre elements in Yanggaw are a distraction, almost: a man whose love guarantees the destruction of what he loves, that's the source of the film's tragic power. Need I say it? Easily the best Filipino horror film--one of the best of any country, actually--this side of the new millennium. 

First published in Businessworld, 10.23.14

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