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In Philippine folklore, the aswang is generally used to describe different types of night creatures that feed on human innards and blood. From the popular manananggal and mangkukulam to the werewolves and shapeshifters that vary according to one's regional background, the aswang is understandably a striking and enduring facet of local belief. Suffering from cultural amnesia while continuously striving to achieve Western standards of living, it could be argued that the aswangs are doing Filipinos a favor by sustaining an aspect of their folkloric heritage. Interestingly, this bloodthirsty figure of the aswang remains the most exploited character in Pinoy horror stories, from short pieces of fiction to TV serials, in every Halloween episode of magazine shows and documentaries, as well as in news reports of terror in the provinces. But where else could it be given such esteemed overuse than in cinema? Specifically the annual Metro Manila Film Festival that fosters endless Shake Rattle and Roll flicks that scare less than they frustrate.
What has long been missing in these generic efforts is depth. The aswang's grisly exploits—the number of dead increasing every day; the intestines of children and pregnant women scattered in the fields—have been overexploited. Most filmmakers have failed to give these familiar stories fresh yet unconventional dimensions and only one or two serious filmmakers have embodied these genre films with any sense of maturity. One of the few who has is Richard Somes, whose prior experience in production design has lent a great deal of credibility to his first full-length feature. Somes has subverted the genre's customary and overused narratives to reflect on the harsh realities faced by an aswang's family. He achieves this by slowly building up the tension within the family. At first, they are an ordinary family who live difficult but happy lives in a remote town. Then the daughter becomes afflicted with a poison in her blood stream that makes her crave human flesh. Somes depicts the family's transition from a peaceful to disturbed household as the monster becomes full fledged, escapes through the window, and returns with her hair in wild disarray and her fangs drenched in blood. The family struggles to maintain a sense of normalcy, until the corpses in the town start piling up, until suspicions rise and guilt darkens, until the monster has to be tied up, until the father's ambivalence sets it loose, until the monster begs for its death, until the father decides to slaughter it with a force so severe it turns him into an animal, until every memory of the aswang becomes a nightmare that only the afterlife can erase. The pacing in that critical transition transforms Yanggaw from a lowly, piteous flick into an admirable effort that resuscitates the hackneyed genre.
The acute similarity of horror stories to crime fiction—let's say Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot series—is the emphasis given to murder. Whereas detectives are responsible for bringing justice in accordance with the law by solving clues that come their way, the principal character in horror—the murderer—creates the tension, provides the clues, and wreaks havoc on the community. In thrillers, we uncover the crime bit by bit until we reach the truth; in horror, however, the crime is right there in front of us, demanding our reaction. In this regard, the horror genre assails a psychological blow. Starting from the expected nightmare of the aswang, Yanggaw explores narrative threads revealed through personal relationships, touching upon themes of social betrayal, moral righteousness, and—most importantly—spiritual obedience. Though more the tragedy of a Filipino family—specifically in a town where faith is as unquestionable as the need for food on their table—Yanggaw admirably doesn't press too much on religion. Somehow that helps what happens become more tangible.
Fellow Filipinos will have multiple memories of previous aswang movies. There is no need to cite any specific one because, as any Filipino discovers, the idea is somewhat predictable. Traditionally, the aswang is a stranger, someone in the town whom no one knows much about, and her existence—right now I wish to bring to light the fact that every aswang in every aswang film ever made is a "she"—provokes nothing extraordinary. She is just like everyone, except for her nocturnal quench for blood. She may even be a figure of purity, like Aiko Melendez as the nun in Shake Rattle and Roll IV. Melendez's characterization was a clever twist because it increased her peril as a character, diverting suspicion away to anyone but her. But the usual problem is that the only thing that the story wants to deliver is the scare, the untying of the knot, the exposition and chase scenes often done in the sloppiest way possible. These films are tired excuses that stretch the vestiges of the genre, doing nothing good in particular.
In Yanggaw, however, the aswang is among us, we see her transform, we see her chase children, we see her as she rocks the bed with chains on her arms and legs, we hear her cry and scream, we know her, she is familiar. Somes has made her so recognizable that we forget she is a monster. The aswang has been given a depth of character through her family—her father's decisions and her mother's misgivings—the subsequent terror in the community when she runs loose, even the details of her murder. The illusion becomes truth. Yanggaw prefers depth to schlock, and the longer you watch it the more you realize that it is not so much about the aswang herself but the family that adopts her new persona even as they struggle against it. Once that belief has been suspended, there is really no turning back.
Ronnie Lazaro and Joel Torre don't have to do anything to prove that they are indeed the greatest Philippine actors of our time. Yanggaw makes you feel honored just by their presence. The volleyball game between the two camps has that flinch of unsettling strangeness; it makes the remote town feel even more remote. That it is in Hiligaynon (in an unspecified place somewhere in Panay Island, particularly where aswangs are predominant) does not seem to put any pressure on its mix of professional and new actors; Tetchie Agbayani is regal and utterly convincing. Erik Matti as the violent whip healer is surprisingly effective. Gio Respall and Monet Gaston add credibility to their family's demise. And finally, Aleera Montalla is appallingly menacing, she is the vamp of our nightmares. Claravall and Sacris fashion a distinct eye for visual character, their light and darkness are moving as if they are part of the story themselves.
It is agonizing that this brave trailblazer will be neglected by most. As for my part, I tell you, Yanggaw is peerless. It has a terribly magnetic vision almost close to Masaki Kobayashi's Kwaidan, the godfather of horror films.
Cross-published on Twitch.