Kaiju Shakedown: Filipino Crime
As a proud Southerner (Go, South Carolina!), I feel fully qualified to say that the Philippines are basically the South of Asia. Like the South, they are full of guns, full of Jesus, and full of great crimes. Where else would a wedding guest touching the bride’s bottom result in that guest being murdered and then served at the reception? Or how about the three sons who were concerned that their mother was possessed by demons so they tortured her to death during a three-day exorcism and then ate her body? Or what about the abduction and murder of Marijoy Chiong and her sister Jacqueline? Marijoy’s body was found, Jacqueline is still missing, and the great-grandson of a former president wound up on death row for it, despite insisiting he was in cooking school at the time.
So where are the great crime movies from the Philippines? For starters, they don’t have much of a literary tradition of crime fiction. While crimes have appeared in books there before, the Western-style detective story was relatively unknown until the 2000s when a tiny handful of titles flopped out of their body bags like The Trail of the Chop-Chop Lady of Makati and Smaller and Smaller Circles about two Jesuit priests going after a serial killer. Smaller and Smaller Circles won the National Book Award in the Philippines and inspired several other books like Blue Angel, White Shadow about the murder of a lounge singer, which also won the National Book Award.
But, as one literary critic said: “Our country’s history is full of unsolved crimes, so it’s not easy for us to believe stories where crimes are solved.”
That goes for movies, too. Check out a list of the top-grossing Filipino films of all time and you’ll find nothing but romances and comedies along with the occasional romantic comedy. And while action movies thrived in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties they were generally shot fast and cheap, known as “seven-seven” (shot in seven days) or “pit-pit” films. During the Marcos years, they tended to have a moral about the New Society tagged on the end to reassure audiences that all those dead guys in denim jackets were there for your education, not your entertainment.
One bright (dim?) light in the Filipino true crime heaves was Magno “Carlo” J. Caparas, the director of numerous true crime films in the early Nineties. He was proclaimed a National Artist of the Philippines in 2009, causing an outraged public to ask why the man responsible for movies like The Untold Story: Vizconde Massacre 2 – God Have Mercy on Us, Lipa Arandia Massacre: Lord Deliver Us From Evil, and The Marita Gonzaga Rape-Slay: In God We Trust was receiving this honor. Caparas’s response to his detractors was an invitation for them to suck it.
The early-Nineties true crime trend was big enough to include biopics about gang bosses like The Grepor Butch Belgica Story, about the youngest gang leader in the Philippines, who wound up going to prison and becoming a born-again Christian; and The Lilian Velez Story, about the real-life 1948 murder of a famous actress by one of her leading men in front of her young daughter. But these movies were cheap and sleazy and they didn’t have a huge hold on the box office. More and more action stars of the Seventies were growing pot bellies and going into politics, and comedies and romances were a better bet anyways. Then, sometime in the early 2000s, the crime movie corpse started to twitch again, thanks to independent productions which emphasized quality performances and scripts over blood splatter and cars blowing up.
In 2000 Deathrow arrived with the story of a kid who goes to the slammer for murder, winning a “Best Actor” award for national film icon Eddie Garcia’s portrayal of a 77-year-old death-row inmate. In 2005, two Filipino-Americans co-wrote and co-directed Cavite, an early digital-video flick about a Filipino-American who returns home for his father’s funeral only to find his mom and sister kidnapped. The movie mostly consisted of him racing around Manila with his cell-phone clamped to his ear, and it made very clear that no Filipino crime movie was going to be made without lots of long, handheld shots following people winding their way through labyrinthine back alleys in slum neighborhoods. (Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador is basically nothing but long shots of people walking through twisty back alleys).
The most famous twisty back alleys of all are found in Tondo whose street gangs roared onto screens with a vengeance in 2007 in the indie flick Tribu. With its hip-hop-slinging, pistol-packing kids, running wild in twisty back alleys, Tribu was a huge success, winning nine awards in the Philippines. Shot on the fly, using a cast crammed with actual gang members, it has a chest-tightening immediacy that feels less like a movie and more like found footage of open-air youth murder orgies. Tondo got fetishized again in the far classier Manlia Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story, a hagiography of real-life Tondo godfather Asiong Salonga, who died in 1951. Though Salonga was known as “The Hitler of Tondo,” the focus of this critical hit stayed on his other nickname, “The Robin Hood of Tondo,” portraying him as a tough guy who stuck up for the underdog, rather than what he was: a beady-eyed garbageman who put the squeeze on his fellow slum-dwellers for protection money until he got his brains blown out during an all-day drinking session.
Beautifully shot in black and white, Manila Kingpin won pretty much every single film award in the Philippines. That’s a surprise since movies sporting this kind of boneheaded violence don’t often get too much critical praise. This is, after all, a movie where Asiong’s funeral is interrupted by a massive machine-gun battle, right after we’re treated to a scene of a guy getting strung up in a cemetery, shot, beaten, and then set on fire. The action is not very good, but it’s served in deliriously deranged proportions, including a gunfight between men in horse-drawn buggies that looks like outtakes from an Amish action movie, and what must be the Woo-iest gunfight ever put on film. In fact, this scene has been tested in a lab and shown to contain not a single original shot. It’s only trumped by the lovemaking scene that features a woman in a white slip and some hard-honking “You Belong to the City” saxophone action.
The most fun thing about it, however, is that Asiong, who died when he was 27 years old, is played by ER Ejercito, a 48-year-old politician who was Governor of Laguna at the time the movie was made (he’s since been unseated for financial irregularities, despite ardent claims to being governor “now and forever”). Asiong’s brother, in his 30s when the film was made, is played by an actor who was 58 at the time of shooting. It’s kind of like watching a bunch of divorced middle-aged dads put on denim jackets and flip up the collars, sucking in their guts in a desperate attempt to appear like hard men.
One year later, things got classy again with Graceland, yet another kidnapping flick about a guy who runs all over Manila with a cell-phone clamped to his ear. It’s actually pretty good, despite being yet another riff on Kurosawa’s High & Low (and it’s available on Netflix Instant). But then, doubling down on the “long shots of people running through twisty back alleys” theme, Erik Matti’s On the Job wound up playing Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.
Manila Kingpin shed plot-points like a long-haired cat, and one of them was the idea that prisoners were being secretly released from prison to perform political assassinations. Matti, whose first hit was the ghetto superhero comedy Gagamboy, took this idea and exercised the patience Manila Kingpin lacked, turning it into the focus of On the Job. The movie features longtime screen favorite Joel Torre, who had appeared in the 1995 Caparas true-crime film Victim No. 1: Delia Maga (Jesus Pray for Us!) as a grizzled con who is let out of prison from time to time to serve as a hired gun, along with his young backup boy. You know this movie means business when in the first five minutes a guy is shot in the street and Torre’s second bullet sheers off the top half of his face into the camera lens. Torre’s paunchy killer is tracked by a young cop with whitened teeth and an Eighties blow-dried hairdo. Their two stories—corrupt criminal trying to be good, good cop getting sucked into a mire of corruption—run parallel to each other and occasionally cross over in intricate action setpieces.
On the Job
Like an Italian poliziotteschi, this gritty, roughhewn movie is shot on the streets and has more on its mind than just cops and robbers. OTJ posits the Philippines as an enormous prison with cops and politicians as the guards—keeping the population in check, letting them out when they’re useful, constantly requiring bribes and enormous extra-legal latitude because, after all, they’re the ones who provide the common folks with jobs. Powered by a soul-funk soundtrack full of wailing organs and flailing sitars, OTJ works itself into a nihilistic corner and then just sits there, drunk on pruno, punching anyone who gets too close right in the face.
Joel Torre won Best Actor at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival for his performance, but you really see him unleashed in Kabisera, another crime film that’s been stupidly compared to Breaking Bad. Nope. Torre plays an ex-con turned fisherman who finds a couple of bundles of meth bobbing in the water along with his catch of the day. Realizing that he suddenly has the financial wherewithal to make all the dreams he has for his family come true, he soon gathers that no one else in his family shares those dreams but him. Of course, getting the money means he needs to suck it up and deal some drugs, which requires him to do horrible things to people. But that’s okay—he’s a crime tourist, it’s not like he’s going to be in the underworld long… Getting drunk and sloppy, prissily rearranging drug labs, and bullying his family on the phone, Torre is the tragic heart of Kabisera, which winds up being more Macbeth than AMC original series. Shot in the hick sticks, there isn’t a single shot of anyone running down a twisty alley, but the film still winds up being plenty horrifying, reaching a point where the only way it can have an ending that doesn’t make the audience want to kill themselves is to retreat into total fantasy. No matter—you want to kill yourself anyway.
Most of the movies listed above are independent productions, and access to digital technology has made the Philippines a place where genre is being reinvented on a shoestring. By far the best director making the most interesting movies these days is Brillante Mendoza, despite being a Cannes darling and the art-house auteur of the moment. His Kinatay was a brutally dispassionate movie about the abduction and murder of a woman, and Possession (Sapi) proves to be his best flick yet. All about the rivalry between two television stations battling over hot footage of a possessed schoolteacher, the film puts plot second and focuses on mood, building a Manila full of ominous storms, gloomy signs and portents, exorcisms, weird doubles, and unexpected snake intrusions, and turning the Philippines into a haunted house the size of a country. By the time the movie is over, one of the most intense crotch shots in the history of cinema has been achieved, and the film has made its case that living in Manila is like living at the end of the world. It’s Satanic noir, an omen of what kind of evil Filipino filmmakers can get up to when they really put their minds to it.