Thursday, May 31, 2012


I'm reminded of Malaysian filmmaker-turned-publisher Amir Muhammad whenever I hear the word "amok", as he was the one who first informed me of its Malay origins. Wikipedia indicates that "amok" stems "from the Malay word mengamuk, which roughly defined means 'to make a furious and desperate charge.' "

The term has since taken on contemporary and cross-cultural inflections, including "running amok", which refers "to the behavior of someone who, in the grip of strong emotion, obtains a weapon and begins attacking people indiscriminately, often with multiple fatalities. The slang term 'going postal' is similar in scope. Police describe such an event as a 'killing spree'. If the individual is seeking death, an alternate method is often 'suicide by cop'. Amok is often described as a culture-bound (or culture-specific) syndrome, which is a psychological condition whose manifestation is strongly shaped by cultural factors." In some instances, those cultural factors have associations with male honor (amok by women is virtually unknown). ...Running amok would thus be both a way of escaping the world (since perpetrators were normally killed) and re-establishing one's reputation as a man to be feared and respected. Some observers have related this explanation to Islam's ban on suicide, which, it is suggested, drove Malay men to create circumstances in which others would kill them." [Footnotes omitted. Emphasis added.]

In the Philippines, "amok" likewise means "unreasoning murderous rage by an individual. In 1876, the Spanish governor-general of the Philippines José Malcampo coined the term juramentado for the behavior (from juramentar—'to take an oath'), surviving into modern Filipino languages as huramentado." As if to confirm the above Islamic reference, it's intriguingly suggestive that amok "has historically been linked with the Muslim Moro people of Mindanao, particularly in the island of Jolo." Others, however, draw a distinction between juramentado and "amok" as the difference between "religious preparation and state of mind." [Footnotes omitted.]

Such etymological indulgences are merely to suggest that in his film Amok (2011), Lawrence Fajardo is playing with the word's ongoing connotations, while updating them to modern-day Manila. Without question, the "man with a gun" (as identified in Amok's closing credits) is suffering from social conditions in the Philippines that have left him jobless and unable to provide for his pregnant wife. That he is an ex-cop only adds an ironic twist to the theory of "suicide by cop."

Fajardo uses the urban congestion of the Edsa-Pasay Rotonda, one of the busiest and most rugged intersections in Manila, as both his narrative setting and his framework (or as Dodo Dayao puts it at Piling Piling Pelikua "both milieu and metaphor"). As Joel Shepard describes in his program note: "It is a place of absolute chaos: people, cars, buses, motorcycles, jeepneys and trains all compet[ing] for space as they try to navigate the crumbling, complex geography of the city in the sweltering tropical heat. It is here that the disparate lives of the characters in Amok converge, their fates united by the violence that sweeps through the streets." At Variety, Richard Kuipers claims Edsa-Pasay Rotonda is "instantly fascinating" and "a kind of tentacled creature playing host to shifting masses of humanity."

Fajardo's Amok is a truly urban narrative where the warp and woof of the anthill weave consists of overheated congestion and co-existent anonymity. Fajardo purposefully samples the variety of people that might be found on any given day at the Edsa-Pasay Rotonda to assemble his cast of characters and further suggests that they all negotiate various levels of internalized rage regarding how life has placed them down at heel. Whether it's delinquent kids (almost innocently) rapping about the dangers of push come to shove on Manila's crowded streets, a mother at a food cart who suspects her customers are cheating her, an aging stunt-man who discovers the woman he's been fucking isn't quite the woman he hired, an uncle at odds with his nephew, a brother at odds with his sister, or a homophobic taxi driver who threatens his gay clientele with a metal pipe, disillusionment and discontent crank up the heat on an already sweltering day.

That "the man with the gun" is the one who unhinges and goes on a shooting spree is as random as the justice and/or punishment dispensed by his stray bullets, and blind as the man who crawls to safety during the film's havoc. In this regard, Amok is nothing new by way of narrative; but, remains vigorous in its editorial attention and precision, excelling more as texture than text. Its visual elements emphasize tactility. You can almost feel the sweat trickling down your neck and dampening your armpits. Indeed, Amok won awards for Best Editing and Sound at the 2011 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival and Variety concedes that "production values and technical work are impressive on a lean budget."

If Amok is more concerned with surface detail and editorial tempo than psychological depth, it also knowingly emphasizes apparent incongruencies between laws posted on traffic signs and the lawlessness that contests them. Its final winking joke is that of "the man with a knife" standing anxiously in front of the word "AMOK" scrawled in graffiti on the wall behind him. Is the film saying that he will be the next to go amok? When he moves out of the frame, however, it's revealed that the graffiti is actually stating a tenuous optimism in the face of the city's relentless barrage of violence: "I AM OK." It's about as subtle as the speechmaking at film's end that, according to Kuipers at Variety, lessens the impact of what until then has been "a vivid snapshot of Manila street life", especially by way of "some poorly staged TV news footage in which characters' reactions sound more like press releases about social injustice than the voices of those deeply hurt."

My three Philippine colleagues have also weighed in on Amok. At Lessons From the School of Inattention, Oggs Cruz considers Amok "without a doubt, chaos in astounding consummate order." He writes: "The film is directed with meticulousness and discipline, moving from one character to another with commendable restraint in not telling too much and not showing too much, effectively teasing the audience of the predictable but still surprising havoc that is quietly being orchestrated by the elements at play in that time-bomb of a place. Fajardo peppers the film with delectable details, a bit of visual wit here and there, a nuanced shot, and those gems of subtle humor in the dialogue. Louie Quirino's precise cinematography communicates the sweltering heat that seems to demonize humanity in the anarchic setting. The film uses the city's noise as soundtrack, creating an uneasy atmosphere of spontaneity that complements the film's story and theme."

At Piling Piling Pelikula, Dodo Dayao describes Amok as "a well-oiled tumult" and a technical feat "of logistics and guerilla tactics and cutting. It's rigorous, precise." He finesses the obvious comparison to the "multistrand criss-crosser" (Kuipers) associated with Alejandro González Iñárritu, specifically Babel (2006).

At Lilok Pelikula / Sculpting Cinema, Chard Bolisay praises Amok's pulsating direction: "The rhythm builds up and is carried through the climax, not an explosion of some sort, but a gala of predictable outcomes and unpredictable victims." He uses Amok to stage the tension between content and form: "If you ask me what aspect of local independent cinema I dislike, I'd say it's the unabashed preference for content and dismissal of form. A good film strikes a balance between the two, but usually, movies that tackle social issues, no matter how sloppily made they are, are more appreciated than those that boast of technical excellence, as if choosing a pressing subject exempts a work from scrutiny and showing off technique is a display of arrogance. Whereas content is mostly a writer and director's piece of cake, determined prior to execution, form is mathematics: everyone in the production contributes to it, consciously or not, including luck and the lack of it." To prove his point, Chard continues: "Amok succeeds because Lawrence Fajardo, who serves as the film's director, production designer, and editor, has managed to put together a fantastic group of people—from writer John Bedia and cinematographer Louie Quirino to the movie's trailblazing ensemble of actors—whose slight misstep can actually ruin the unmistakable rawness of the film."

Amok will have its U.S. premiere as part of YBCA's "New Filipino Cinema" on Sunday, June 10, 2012 at 7:00PM. Ticket info can be found here.