Sunday, March 13, 2011

SFIAAFF 2011: AFFLICTION (YANGGAW, 2008)—REVIEW (Francis "Oggs" Cruz)

With each edition, SFIAAFF uncovers, rediscovers and celebrates films that have "blazed the trail of independent cinema" through a fourfold Special Presentations program, which includes a film retrospective, an out-of-the-vaults screening, a filmmaker spotlight, and an on-stage conversation with a filmmaker. All but the latter receive special support from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year's retrospective "After Death: Horror Cinema From South East Asia" was a welcome tip of the hat to this populist genre, and a shout-out to its fans. The festival catalog qualifies: "While each film deals with horrifying stories about ghosts, spirits or more worldly entities, the stylistic expressions and atmospheres are as diverse as the countries of origin. The strength of these films is how they beautifully weave local folklore and superstitions into the stories."

From the Philippines comes Affliction (Yanggaw, 2008), which
Twitch teammate Andrew Mack cautioned might disappoint horror fans unfamiliar with its cultural context. That's precisely what Francis "Oggs" Cruz provides in his review at Lessons From the School of Inattention. Not only does Oggs provide interesting production detail on the film's funding by CinemaOne, but he appreciates its deft genre-blending of mythic horror with the Philippine family melodrama. With his kind permission, I replicate his write-up for Affliction's SFIAAFF audience.

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Among the three horror shorts that comprise Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5, the seventh installment in the horror franchise that started way back in the early 80's, is Richard Somes'
Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin), about a man (Mark Anthony Fernandez) and his pregnant wife (Tanya Garcia) relocating to a rural town that is populated by aswangs (which—according to Filipino folklore—are monsters that partake the form of ordinary human beings during the daytime but transform into hungry monstrosities at night that feed on the blood and internal organs of humans, preferably the very young). Somes transforms what essentially is a straightforward story of survival (in fact, the short is ridden with logical loopholes and unanswered questions, the biggest of which is why any sane couple who are expecting their firstborn would relocate to an impoverished barrio with dubious residents) into a thrilling portfolio of his directorial mettle, although influences (F. W. Murnau, Tod Browning, George Romero, and Peque Gallaga: not really a bad lot to borrow from) are evident. Given the scarcity of good genre directors in the country—there's Rico Maria Ilarde (Sa Ilalim ng Cogon / Beneath the Cogon, 2005) and Altar (2007)—I was excited as to what Somes would offer next.

Three years later after
Lihim ng San Joaquin, Somes releases Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008), whose screenplay has been gestating for a number of years before it was given the green light by CinemaOne, a local cable network that gives grants to several screenplays in their annual film festival (successful CinemaOne-funded films include Dennis Marasigan's Sa North Diversion Road (On the North Diversion Road, 2005), Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other, 2006), Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Antipuesto's Confessional (2007) and Adolfo Alix's Tambolista (Drumbeat, 2007). The term yanggaw is an Ilonggo term that refers to infection, more specifically, of an affliction that turns normal human beings into aswangs. Somes' film centers [on] Junior (Ronnie Lazaro)—a former barrio official who retires from service because of disillusionment and eventually manages to feed his family through meager means—who suddenly confronts the situation of having Amor (Aleera Montalla)—his beloved daughter who suddenly returns from another barrio with a curious illness—degenerate into a rabid and murderous aswang at night.

Yanggaw is in concept, a horror film. However, Amor's horrific predicament is treated with the least sensationalism possible (especially if compared to other aswang films like Topel Lee's Yaya (Nanny, 2006), where much of the short centers on the nanny who turns out to be an aswang out to kill her wards, or Somes' Lihim ng San Joaquin, where the meticulously conceived aswangs (complete with computer-generated tongues) dominate the picture). She stays in the background (in fact, there is not much fuss as to her appearance; she is mostly hidden in the night with only the stark crimson of her victims' blood on her face to serve as her definitive feature.

Actually, Somes does wonders with his limited budget (CinemaOne gives its grantees one million pesos, or around $20,000 to complete the film). Utilizing simple make-up (there are no hideous prosthetic make-up, a staple in
aswang movies), lighting (Somes shows remarkable adeptness, probably borrowed from Murnau, in utilizing shadows as implement for creating atmosphere; there's an impressive sequence wherein Amor appears from her room, complaining of her illness, with her body is partially illuminated while her face is completely unseen. It's a simply set sequence, but Somes effectively creates an awkward and eerie feeling throughout), sound (the ambient noise and the long stretched of deadening silence) and editing effects, Somes creates an effective set-up for the ensuing events.

The horror element (the aswang aspect of the feature) of the film is not there for cheap chills and thrills, but is there as basis for the lingering familial dilemma, very much like drug addiction or infidelity in normal family dramas. In fact, much of the picture observes the simplicities and the intricacies of the relationships (like Junior's observable disappointment with his son, who returns the favor to his father with striking indifference) among the family members. However, it is the family's struggle with Amor's affliction that becomes the heart of the film, converting Yanggaw from mere genre picture into an engrossing examination into the Filipino family's psyche, especially if confronted with such a divisive situation.

As Amor's illness worsens and her hunger for human meat escalates, Somes' audiences become witnesses to the family's encounters with moral quandaries (also escalation in gravity, from simple ones as having to choose between spending the money they don't have to bring Amor to a doctor in a faraway barrio to more delicate decisions as allowing Amor to hunt at night for her survival in exchange for the lives of the residents of their community), and eventually, to the family unit's complete deterioration. Thus, by film's end, it doesn't become surprising that the intensity of the drama heightens into near-operatic levels (the ending seems to belong more to a melodrama, with its swelling music and unneeded montage of crying faces), a slight aberration in the film's near-perfect control of mood and atmosphere. Having said that, Somes' Yanggaw, while riddled with pacing problems (there is reportedly a longer cut, which could fix the film's rushed feel) and an ending that could have been more subtly executed, is an achievement, mixing traditional elements of horror and family melodrama, creating a picture that is so bizarre, it will be stuck to your mind months after seeing it.

Cross-published on Lessons From the School of Inattention and Twitch.

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