Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Manny Pacquiao Presents: Ghost Cars!: A Filipino Religio-Domestic Police Horror Tragedy in Three Acts: Yam Laranas’s The Road

I want to start by saying that the title of this piece isn’t composed (entirely) of smartassery.  Manny Pacquiao really did promote this movie in the United States, according to Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir.  This convoluted horror movie was supposed to be the Philippines’s first big international blockbuster (and as O’Hehir wryly notes, Pacquiao probably wouldn’t have been out there promoting the queer indie films of his compatriot Brillante Mendoza, whose Serbis (2008) is the only other Filipino movie I’ve seen).

So, having gotten the Pacquiao business out of the way, what is The Road? The Road is a big-budget horror movie with generous helpings of cop drama (one of the first lines spoken in the film comes from a police chief reprimanding the hero for not following protocol), crazed slasher movie, and cautionary tale about the perils of religious fanaticism.  The film is broadly divided into three sections, taking place in 2008, 1998, and 1988 respectively.  In 2008, three teenagers (a girl, Ella, her cousin, Janine, and the cousin’s boyfriend, Brian, idiots all of them) sneak out in the middle of the night to drive around in Janine’s mother’s car.  I have no idea why Janine and Brian bring Ella along, because they clearly want to fool around and Ella’s judgmental, cock-blocking presence doesn’t help.  Also, Ella clearly hates Brian, so why would she go with them?  Also, what’s the appeal? “Come on, Ella, we’re gonna go drive a car!” Is this an aspect of adolescence that I just missed? But it’s a horror movie, and if the teenagers weren’t stupid, we wouldn’t have a film.

So they go out driving, and it becomes rapidly apparent that they’re all shitty drivers, and they end up passing through a gate onto some deserted side road (the road of the title) where, to their horror, they find that (a) they can’t get out, (b) no matter how far they drive, they keep passing the same trees on the side of the road, indicating that they’re caught in a time space-time fuck-up of some sort and, (c) they’re being stalked by driverless ghost cars!

Well, not surprisingly, this ends in disaster, and the police show up to investigate, including Luis, the cop from the beginning of the film (played by Filipino television star TJ Trinidad).  And as the film proceeds along with Luis’s investigation, we see how the events of 2008 connect back to events in 1998, which in turn can be traced back to 1988 (I’d quote that Faulkner line about the past, but apparently his estate is currently suing Sony for Owen Wilson’s use of it in Midnight in Paris, so I’d like to see how that resolves itself before I expose myself to such a terrible legal risk).

In general, this movie looks really good (although I don’t know why 1998 has a sepia-tint to it.  Such coloration is usually reserved for the 1920’s, not the 1990’s).  Everyone gave decent performances, even the teenagers, and teenagers in horror movies tend to be terrible actors.  I think my problem with this movie is that it was just content to do everything competently without breaking any new ground.  For the most part, there are only a few basic plots floating around for most horror movies and if a director is going to rely on one of those plots (or several of them, as Laranas does in The Road), then he or she needs to do something special with them.  Now, perhaps Laranas’s use of several different horror plots in the same film is unique, and I think he is to be commended especially for his handling of the numerous flashbacks and flashforwards that we find in this movie.  But again, the bulk of The Road is nothing we haven’t seen before, and many times at that.

But for the Philippines, this didn’t have to be a ground-breaking film in terms of style or content.  I think its impact lies in the fact that it got made and internationally distributed.  It is hopefully a sign of the growing strength of the Filipino film industry on the international stage, and more creatively daring films will come (Yam Laranas certainly knows what he’s doing from a technical perspective; he just needs better material to work with).  Looking back from a historical perspective, The Road may come to occupy a position in the Filipino cinematic cannon comparable to that held by Shiri (1998) in the body of Korean cinema: there’s nothing particularly new or aesthetically remarkable about Shiri, but it was South Korea’s first blockbuster (and, at that time, the most expensive Korean movie ever made, with a budget of eight million dollars; compare that to the 120 million dollars that were pissed away on James L. Brooks’ unseen romantic “comedy,” How Do You Know [sic, there should be a question mark, there isn’t].)  And if Shiri wasn’t terribly impressive in the grand scheme of things, Park Chan-wook’s 2000 film JSA: Joint Security Area certainly was, as were so many of the Korean films that followed.  Shiri helped to kick-start a new golden age for Korean cinema, and hopefully Yam Laranas’s The Road will do the same thing for the Philippines.

I just saw a Romanian movie called Elevator (2008).  The film depicts two teenagers stuck in an elevator at an abandoned factory.  It takes place almost entirely within the confines of the titular elevator.  The movie had a budget of 200 euros.  Not 200 million, not 200 hundred thousand, just 200.  Think of how many movies could have been made with the money James L. Brooks squandered on the actors’ paychecks for his stupid movie.  Hell, the budget for Reese Witherspoon’s hair could have given us half a dozen Romanian movies that were significantly better than How Do You Know (which, again, apparently is just a weird statement, because where’s the fucking question mark?)  Just something to keep in mind the next time Hollywood bitches about how no one’s seeing their shitty movies.

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