Saturday, August 19, 2017

Salvage (Sherad Anthony Sanchez 2015)


Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Salvage (2015) takes its title from the common Filipino slang word for summary execution, which Pete Lacaba in his Manila Times column "Carabeef Lengua" explains: "It was during martial rule that salvaging came to acquire its present Filipino meaning. To salvage is to save things from a wreckage, but the visual similarity of the word to the Tagalog salbahe (naughty, abusive), which is itself derived from the Spanish salvaje (savage), inevitably led to the present denotation of salvaging as extrajudicial or summary execution of both criminal and subversive elements."

I remember a simpler explanation, though I can't remember where I got it nor find any documentary basis online: that the military is 'saving' or 'salvaging' the victim's soul from the evils of communism.

You can't say the military doesn't have its own perverse not to mention blasphemous sense of humor. Nowadays the shadowy folk that ride on motorbikes and do Duterte's will by shooting people almost at random in the streets of Manila wrap their victims in duct tape, pin comments to the corpses: "Pusher huwag tularan!" ((Drug) pusher don't imitate!), or draw the Batman insignia on their cardboard squares. The sophomoric comedy continues, alas, unabated.

Sanchez's conceit takes its cue from Mario O'Hara's late masterpiece Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, 2000) in conflating the threat of military execution with the threat of a mythical creature, in this case the aswang (ghoul or vampire). This time though the story is told through the lens of a handheld video camera, found-footage style.

A difficult genre to get right and Sanchez doesn't, not completely: the newsmen still look silly running desperately with camcorder on one shoulder, even sillier when one member of the crew passes the camera to another. "You're running for your life for f***'s sake!" you want to yell at them; "Drop the f***ing camera!" 

At the same time you can't completely dismiss the film for its flaws. Sanchez takes his cue from another not-quite-as-good horror movie Leo Gabriadze's Unfriended to use pixilation or distortion (as if from a damaged hard drive or faulty streaming service) in place of special effects--use the errors generated by the media itself as a means of generating disturbing imagery. 

Sanchez goes much further than Gabriadze: at one point the pixilation covers a man's back like alligator scales, beautiful and fiendishly itch-inducing (you think of the monstrously scaled men in J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World crawling to shore like primeval amphibians). At one point a man and a woman are tormented in a small arena, the townsfolk gathered around watching in their finest fiesta costumes (bright shiny pink-and-blue dresses). At one point the camera watches an anaconda wrap itself around a woman, the woman screaming in ecstasy as the film strays into Ken Russell territory (Altered States or The Devils anyone?)--by now camera and nightmare have fused into one and you forget the conventions of the whole silly genre as it is being memorably horrifically transcended. 

Not sure if Sanchez supports the present Mayor of the Philippines--a significant portion of the Filipino filmmaking industry does and one fears the worst. But intended or not (this was made in 2015 after all, before the mayor was elected) he's produced a powerful metaphor for fanatic evil--the way it twists truth, the way it manipulates pixels and sound bytes till they mean their opposite of what they are, the way it flips the world itself upside-down. We are suitably freaked out.  

Films are showing for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Fiesta of the Filipino Film) in theaters till Aug. 22

First published in Businessworld 8.18.17

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