Thursday, December 05, 2019

Eskapo (Escape, Chito Rono, 1995)

Escape Films

Eskapo begins with video footage of the days just before Martial Law: eerie, washed-out images of marching demonstrators and riot police. I've always thought that in this cybernetic age our memories would appear as if shot by videocam and with the first few minutes of his film, director Chito Rono seems to suggest this--the First Quarter Storm as a collective nightmare, witnessed through the unblinking eye of television. It's a terrific beginning that sets an ominous tone for everything that follows.

What follows is a '70s party in full swing. Rono glides his camera into the middle of the action, and the result, intentional or not, is a sort of visual comedy a la Pedro Almadovar. If intentional, it's brilliant: Rono rubs our noses into the decadence of the period, reminding us pitilessly of how embarrassing we looked. Those clashing colors! Those teased wigs! Those floor-sweeping pants!

Primed for some sharp social comedy, we are instead given straight drama. Serge Osmena (Richard Gomez) and Geny Lopez (Christopher de Leon) are portrayed as loving family men and sober, if idle, scions of Philippine society. It would have helped the early part of the film if the two men were more sharply particularized: a sense of humor (some Marcos jokes?), a human flaw or two.

The movie regains its bearings when the military arrests Serge and Geny. The step-by-step procedure by which they descend into the maws of Martial Law, from invitation to interrogation to incarceration, are clearly and harrowingly set out. Locking Serge in a dentist's office is a nicely chilling touch; we still haven't forgotten Marathon Man. Same with having Geny lie down on an X-ray table; the silent machinery, the calibration marks on the table that measure Geny's splayed-out body, nicely underline his vulnerability.

Under the pressure of arrest and later imprisonment, we come to know the two men. As written, Serge Osmena is strictly one-note; soon as he is captured, all he does is think of escape. Richard Gomez can do little with Serge; his main contribution to the character is refusing to imitate the real Serge's pomaded hairstyle, opting for his trademark blowdried look. Gomez does have one good scene, when he is introduced into a room full of blindfolded men. All those still, standing figures, with black cloth across their eyes make for an arresting image; you can understand their terrified silence. But after a while, Serge sees through the idiocy of putting prisoners all in one room and simply ordering them not to talk--his taking off his blindfold and urging the rest to do the same is a triumph of common sense.

Serge is so single-minded and determined that it's a wonder that it took him five years to escape. You wish he got out earlier because his presence quickly gets tiresome. Which is not the case for Christopher De Leon's Geny Lopez; he is such a still, held-in presence that he implodes onscreen. You watch the pressure pile up on Geny as he realizes, year after year, that he's not getting out. In the penultimate confrontation with Serge, who accuses him of faint-heartedness, he replies that Serge only has to think of himself: his family is safe in the US. Geny has fears and concerns outside of his own predicament, and they paralyze him against taking any form of action; the film's high point happens when he is finally forced to face the fact that the only way out is escape. De Leon brings us so deep inside his character that the simple act of praying the rosary becomes a touching sign of endurance.

Mention must be made of Joel Torre, who puts in a brief but vivid sketch of a political prisoner who shows Geny and Serge the way out. Even shorter, and even more memorable is Teresa Loyzaga as a marvelously mad Imelda Marcos. In the scene where Geny attends his father's funeral, she floats in and mouths incredibly tactless words of comfort into Geny's ears; then for a truly insane climax, Rono achieves a godlike aerial shot that looks down on her as she scatters rose petals on the coffin. Some have criticized this scene as inaccurate; in actuality, she threw petals at the gravesite. But even if it isn't true, it's such a great scene that it ought to be true; it would be just like her to do something like that.

The escape itself is all the more thrilling because Serge and Geny do not use the action-flick standard-issue automatic rifles with M-203 grenade launchers to blast their way out: they know that an escape takes planning, patience, and not a bit of luck. And when something goes wrong, as it does more than once, it also takes the brass balls to go ahead anyway and to hell with the consequences. They do get shot at by pursuing military, but the scene is a brief lapse into conventionality on Rono's part. Especially striking is his use of crane shots to follow the duo's progress through the cogon: from the elevated view, Geny and Serge look like mice running the maze of the Marcos dictatorship.

People have questioned more than just the funeral scene; it's been said, for one, that Marcos simply let the two go. Others have questioned the making of the film itself: why this story, among so many, and far more dramatic, others? Why now, with the coming elections?

Why not? Election bid or self-serving propaganda, Eskapo is so entertainingly well made that it leaps clear out of the usual pack of dogs that call themselves Filipino films. In terms of intelligence, visual style, and acting, it deserves to escape with the title "Filipino Film of the Year."

First appeared in The Manila Chronicle, 1/31/95

Published in Critic After Dark: A Review of Philippine Cinema

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