Friday, December 04, 2020

Midnight in a Perfect World (Dodo Dayao, 2020)

History made at night

I thought Violator-- Dodo Dayao's debut feature-- to be one of the most intriguing of recent horrors; think Kurosawa Kiyoshi doing a punk remake of Rio Bravo, with Hawks' sticks of dynamite swapped out for the apocalypse. Midnight in a Perfect World sees Dayao stepping up his game, this time proposing a semi-utopian society afflicted with both drug use and police fascism. 

It's the Philippines in some undisclosed future and as one of the lead characters puts it "everything works." Trains run on time, floods are a thing of the past, pollution in the Pasig River has been cleaned up; only issue is people in this New Society reboot don't seem that much happier, Dayao apparently believing that if humans solve every problem in their lives they'd be forced to invent new ones to complain about (I happen to agree, so you won't find me complaining).

The humans in this film do have a problem: localized power failures occur throughout the city and people disappear in the recurring darkness. We see the aftermath of one such 'blackout'-- Tonichi (Dino Pastrano) wakes up bloodied in the middle of the road, staggers to his girlfriend Deana's apartment, pounds on the door: no answer. She's joined the ranks of the desaparecidos, the Argentinian term for the thirty thousand kidnapped and killed sometimes vanished without a trace between 1973 and 1990, an echo of and deliberate allusion to present Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte's murderous drug war (27,000 and counting). There are differences of course: Duterte's minions left bodies with carton signs attached, displaying crudely scribbled warnings ("I AM A DRUG PUSHER DON'T IMITATE") or a Batman logo; the disappeared in this film don't even leave a presence on social media, their existence lingering only in the memories of those who cared. This is the future, where deletions are done cleanly, digitally.

You wonder: why utopia as opposed to dystopia-- is this Dayao's figleaf attempt to conform to the title of the DJ Shadow song he's adopted? I've had that question asked of Philip K. Dick's alternate-history classic The Man in the High Castle, where the Axis Powers win World War 2: why set the story in the relatively enlightened Japanese-managed West Coast instead of the Nazi-dominated East Coast? My belated longconsidered reply: Dick then (and Dayao now) isn't going for the easy drama; he wanted a dystopia that wasn't completely bleak, that works relatively well but with subtle deeply ingrained flaws-- a dysfunctional utopia if you like, a society with genuine appeal that after all is said and done is still basically wrong. 

Dick isn't the only influence-- there's David Lynch, whose Red Room is the likely inspiration for Dayao's safehouse complete with nightmare wallpaper and no-exit ambiance; there's Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Pulse whose main thesis is that loneliness is a worse fate than death; there's Shane Carruth's dense looping narratives (and before that Chris Marker's La Jetee); and there's Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin which I'm not a big fan of but does have a suitably eerie creature. 

But I'd call Dick a major energy source, and I don't mean just invoking his name out loud, or plunking a toad with a bellyful of wires on the ground straight out of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick's favorite narrative strategy was the multiple POV, leaping from one character's storyline to another, sometimes along different moments in a character's timestream. Dayao here visits each character in turn, visits each character out of turn, sometimes loops back in flashbacks; at one point he has a character hearing snatches of dialogue from both recent past and near future, his ear like a radio dial skittering through time and space looking for a clear signal. At one point we hear one side of a cellphone conversation later the other side of the same conversation-- only the words don't quite match; is the other side of the conversation an alternate universe a la High Castle

The film is a difficult watch, to be candid. Horror is an essentially conservative genre with ruthless demands: you must have a simple setup, you must make clear where the danger's coming from and how ('why' is optional, the answer more often given than denied with usually disappointing results), you must ratchet up the tension in clearly defined often predictable doses. Dayao proceeds to break these rules as often as he can, as thoroughly as he can: the threat is vague-- mainly learned in secondhand snatches, through hearsay-- the tension often forsaken for a pervasive sense of dread, the horror more glimpsed than clearly seen. 

Helps to have talented collaborators: shadowy camerawork by Albert Banzon (Fuccbois, Balangiga, Ordinary People, Violator, Todo Todo Teros, basically more great Filipino productions than I can track) and the relatively new Gym Lumbera (Violator); deep dank colors by Biba Abiera (Apocalypse Child); eccentric editing by Lawrence S. Ang (Respeto, Salvage); eclectic score by Erwin Romulo, Malek Lopez, Juan Miguel Sobrepena; peculiarly subterranean sound design by Corinne De San Jose (Season of the Devil); claustrophobic production design by Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tabije. Dayao in effect has strapped you to a motorized chair programmed for unknown locations-- but at least the chair is comfortably cushioned and superbly upholstered, with badass psychedelic colors.

Helps that Dayao devotes the first half of the film to sketching a quartet of vivid characters: the aforementioned Tonichi; sad sensible Mimi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith); cool Glenn (Anthony Falcon (Agent X-44!); adventure junkie Jinka (Glaiza de Castro). Tonichi's dating Jinka while Mimi has a drink with Glenn but they all talk to each other like old friends; Tonichi cares for his mother Ella (Dolly De Leon), Mimi for her father Fabian (Soliman Cruz), the kids have been shipping their respective parents since forever, but more as idle dream than serious plan. Dayao doesn't dwell too long on these connections-- he has plenty other fish to fry-- but the sketches do help his characters linger in the mind so you care if they survive, or die violently, or (most unsettling of all) are abstracted into oblivion.  

And the film's true source of horror? "Everything works"-- Mimi's conspiracy theory turns out to be correct. Somehow the government or aliens or aliens working their influence on government have helped Filipinos finally pull their shit together and form as perfect a world as possible: as a result our fellow Filipinos live in relative good health peace prosperity. All the better then, that when the blackouts begin, only two or three of us disappear at a time, not enough to be badly missed; all the better then, to sample the new and improved-- healthier, meatier, faster on their feet (the better to hunt you down my dear)-- versions of ourselves, meanwhile adding Damon Knight to the  number of influences on the film.

Does Dayao succeed? I say he stumbles as well as soars. But there's a crazed integrity to his stubborn need to avoid the welltrod path; he's taken off into the ether, into the deep dark, and you follow at your peril. One of the best of the year, easily. 

First published in Businessworld 12.4.20

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